By Timothy Garton Ash (THE GUARDIAN, 12/01/06):
Now we face the next big test of the west: after Iraq, Iran. As the Islamic revolutionary regime breaks the international seals on its nuclear facilities, and prepares to hone its skills in the uranium enrichment that could, in a matter of years, enable it to produce nuclear weapons, we in Europe and the United States have to respond. But how? If we mishandle this, it could lead not only to the edge of another military confrontation but also to another crisis of the west.
The European policy of negotiated containment, mistrustfully backed by America and ambiguously accompanied by Russia, has failed. It was worth trying, but it was not enough. The Europeans did not carry sufficiently credible sticks and the Americans did not wave large enough carrots to sway the theocrats in Tehran. Neither half of the old transatlantic west could induce oil-hungry China and energy-rich Russia to play the diplomatic game sufficiently clearly our way.
The seemingly half-crazed new Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would probably regard a cost-benefit analysis as an invention of the Great Satan and a prime example of western secular decadence. Allah, he would say, is not an accountant. Yet if cooler heads in the regime behind him are making a cost-benefit analysis, they could still conclude that this is a risk worth taking. The mullahs are floating high on an ocean of oil revenue: an estimated $36bn last year. This money can be used to buy off material discontent at home.
They know that the US is deeply mired in neighbouring Iraq, where the Iranians wield growing influence in the Shia south. As President George Bush might privately put it, Tehran has Washington by the cojones. The mullahs also know that China (which has a large energy-supply deal with Iran) and Russia have very different interests from Europe and the US; and they know that countries like Germany and Italy will be deeply reluctant to let sanctions restrict their lucrative trade with Iran. That’s a strong hand.
Everyone seems to agree that the next major step is for the matter to be referred to the UN security council. Even the Bush administration, so contemptuous of the UN during the Iraq crisis, now regards that as Plan B. What then? The security council raps Tehran over the knuckles. President Ahmadinejad says go to hell. The security council comes back with sanctions, which would be limited by the geopolitical and energy interests of China and Russia, and the economic interests of Germany, Italy and France.
Iran continues (overtly or covertly) with uranium enrichment, while those sanctions produce a growing siege mentality in the country. The regime will tell its people that they are being unjustly and hypocritically punished by the west, merely for developing nuclear energy for peaceful use, as Iran is entitled to do under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Compare and contrast Washington’s treatment of nuclear India! Many will believe that propaganda – which, like all the best propaganda, contains a grain of truth. External pressure, in this form, could thus consolidate rather than weaken the regime.
What then? What’s our Plan C? For the hawks in Washington and Tel Aviv, Plan C would be to bomb selected Iranian nuclear facilities, in order to slow down Iran’s progress towards the bomb. Despite all the famous pinpoint precision of state-of-the-art US bombing, one can be quietly confident that this would take the lives of innocent civilians – or, at least, of people whom Iranian television could credibly claim were innocent civilians. A recent trip to Iran convinced me of two things: first, that there is a large reservoir of anti-regime and mildly pro-western feeling in Iran; and, second, that this reservoir could be drained overnight if we bombed. Instead, you would almost certainly have a wave of national solidarity with the regime. At the moment, the extremist Ahmadinejad is playing into the hands of the neoconservative extremists in the west; but at that point, the extremists in the west would have played into the hands of Ahmadinejad.
So what should Europeans and Americans do on the edge of this Persian precipice? Here are a few things for starters. First, Europeans should take the threat of an unpredictable, fragmented Islamic revolutionary regime obtaining nuclear weapons very seriously indeed. Europeans led the movement against nuclear arms escalation by the superpowers in the 1980s; today’s threat of nuclear proliferation is probably more dangerous. Americans, for their part, should not confuse European warnings about the need to proceed cautiously with cowardice, euroweeniness, and all those other failings of “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” attributed to us by red-blooded American anti-Europeans.
Second, we should share all the information, knowledge and intelligence that we have. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has observed that Iran is unique among the countries of the world in that the US has so little direct contact with it. The US has had no diplomats there since the end of the embassy hostage crisis a quarter-century ago. It has very few businesspeople or journalists there. And, if James Risen’s State of War, is to be believed, the CIA managed to shop its whole network of agents in Iran to the Tehran authorities by inadvertently sending a list of them to a double-agent. So they don’t even have any spooks there. The Europeans, by contrast, have diplomats, businesspeople, journalists and possibly also spooks aplenty in Iran, and so should be better informed.
We need to share all this information and reach a common analysis. And before we take any step in the diplomatic dance, we need to ask ourselves two questions: how will this affect the Iranian regime, and how will it affect Iranian society? The regime is complex. Ahmadinejad is the president, but not the ultimate boss. The boss of this theocratic regime is the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini. Without his say-so, the nuclear seals would not have been broken. But he is constrained by strong interest groups, such as the Revolutionary Guards, and by other ayatollahs, such as the president’s fudamentalist guru, Ayatollah Mohammad Taghi Mesbah-Yazdi.
As important is the dynamic within Iranian society. I feel deeply uncomfortable when I hear the American neoconservative Frank Gaffney calling for a revolution in Iran. It’s so brave of him to risk other people’s lives. Iranians would do well to remember what happened to their fellow Shias in the south of Iraq when the last President Bush encouraged them to rise up at the end of the Gulf war. But it is the case that Iranian society is potentially our greatest ally – indeed, probably the most pro-western society in the Middle East outside Israel.