By Menzies Campbell, leader of the Liberal Democrats (THE GUARDIAN, 24/04/06):
As Mohamed ElBaradei of the International Atomic Energy Agency submits his report to the UN security council on Iran this week, it is time to consider how to end the impasse over Iran’s nuclear activities. There is no easy way to deal with a country that refuses to cooperate with IAEA inspectors and it is suspicion over Iran’s intentions that has brought the issue before the security council.But the west has not dealt with the matter in a sensitive way. The American government has been full of bluster for several months, discussing plans for military action and pointedly keeping “all options on the table”. The British government has not helped to reduce tension. Last week the prime minister refused to rule out the use of force or even the use of nuclear weapons against Iran.
The foreign secretary, Jack Straw, on the other hand, has said that military action would be “inconceivable” and described as “nuts” the suggestion that nuclear weapons might be used. It is easy to see why he holds these views. Any strike without UN authority would be illegal – and any strike would struggle to find legitimate targets since no one knows where the nuclear installations are. A strike would be the quickest way to strengthen Iran’s determination to acquire a nuclear weapon, and it would foment instability across the region, particularly in Iraq and in Israel-Palestine. It could also trigger hostile measures in the straits of Hormuz, the bottleneck of the Gulf’s oil supply.
I doubt that any democratically elected leader would be brave enough to wage an illegal war on Iran. But by failing to take steps to reduce tension, the British and American governments have made a diplomatic outcome less likely. In Tehran, the threat to Iran’s security is seen as its encirclement.
There are three essential elements to a diplomatic solution. The first is security guarantees from the US. The second is for Iran to end enrichment and reprocessing activities and to accept full IAEA inspections. And the third is a regional dimension.
Dr ElBaradei and the former UN weapons inspector Hans Blix have supported the idea of applying the North Korean model to Iran. North Korea withdrew from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in 2003 amid disputes over IAEA inspections. For months the US resisted talks but in the end climbed down. Security guarantees and energy aid were offered to North Korea in return for an end to enrichment and tough inspections. This is an eminently sensible suggestion.
Iran’s neighbours are equally concerned about a nuclear Iran and are loth to see a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran would provoke other countries to acquire nuclear weapons and put an end once and for all to the UN goal of a nuclear free Middle East.
Meanwhile, double standards over nuclear weapons are commonplace. Why have Israel, India and Pakistan received no censure, while Iran is the target of a global campaign? The best, although for the moment least realistic, of solutions would be a regional conference involving recognition for the state of Israel, security guarantees and a process of managed disarmament. Such an agreement should remain a goal, but is not essential for ending the current impasse.
Iran is not a rogue state. It cares about international opinion: it has signed the NPT, while India, Pakistan and Israel have not. The talks with the EU troika made progress towards the shape of a final agreement. The best way to keep Iran nuclear-free is to do whatever is diplomatically necessary to keep the IAEA inspectors in there, not blustering about military action and giving Iran excuses to press ahead unsupervised.