By Tim Hames (THE TIMES, 04/09/06):
PERSIAN PROVERBS have a particularly poetic quality to them. Among my personal favourites are: “The wise man sits on the hole in his carpet”; “You can’t pick up two melons with one hand”; and “When fortune turns against you, even jelly breaks your teeth.” Profound.
Another local maxim appears to capture the outside world’s response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It is akin to an ancient remark: “A gentle hand may lead an elephant by a hair.” For that is clearly the approach that Kofi Annan, on behalf of the United Nations, and Javier Solana, for the European Union, are adopting. Mr Annan was in Tehran this weekend to meet with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the firebrand Iranian President, and ask him politely if he would mind suspending the enrichment of uranium as the UN Security Council has demanded. Señor Solana is due to see Ali Larijana, nominally Iran’s chief negotiator on these issues, this week to explore once again whether formal negotiations can start on a new package of “economic and other incentives” that might allow Iran to do what UN Resolution 1696 has sought under the threat of sanctions.
Not that this measure was especially intimidating. The most that the permanent members of the Security Council were poised to agree on at this stage was a travel ban on senior Iranian leaders and a partial freeze on selected assets held abroad. Unless Mr Ahmadinejad ached to visit Disneyland Paris, he was hardly likely to be troubled by this possibility.
And, in truth, he has no reason to fear that such a trip may be cancelled.
For after a brief period of relative solidarity, international policy towards Iran has returned to a shambles. Erkki Tuomioja, Foreign Minister of Finland, reacted to Iran’s latest nuclear defiance on behalf of the EU by insisting that it was way “too early” to consider anything other than diplomatic activity. The Russians are more interested in selling Iran nuclear technology and arms than in preventing it acquiring such resources.
The Chinese, whose enormous oil needs are serviced by Iran, are mumbling in the corner. Britain and France, which once took a comparatively tough line, have begun retreating. When President Bush speaks of the need for something to be done, he is portrayed as the reincarnation of Dr Strangelove. Our collective stance today is all holes and no carpet.
Whether a nation possesses nuclear weapons is not always a political catastrophe. That Israel has such an arsenal has surely rendered another regional war similar to those of 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973 unviable. That both India and Pakistan have the bomb is better than only one of them being in that position, and conflict was more likely when each enjoyed only conventional military muscle. The thought of the crackpot regime in North Korea being a member of the atomic club does not lift the heart, but it dare not dream of deploying such weapons without the blessing of Beijing, which would not be forthcoming. There is an extent to which nuclear missiles are little more than a national virility symbol, the military version of counterfeit Viagra.
Yet Iran is different, which is why a collapse in resolve towards Tehran really matters.
Iran is a special case because, first, it is already an established menace. It has spent the past two decades consistently seeking to sabotage any prospect of a permanent peace settlement between Israel and its neighbours and it remains dedicated to that mission. It continues to sponsor extremist fanatics in the Palestinian Authority and Lebanon. It is behind much of the trouble that has tortured Iraq and it does not intend to stop pulling these strings once US and British troops have left. If it becomes a nuclear nation, it is likely to be emboldened in these deeds.
Iran is also distinct because this project is not merely about national symbolism, but also religious aspirations. It would not be an “Islamic” bomb but a “Shia Islamic” bomb, the most potent physical representation so far of a drive to seize command over a faith that was briefly, if tenuously, held and then lost in the 7th century. It would be in the hands of people whose interpretation of theology places a weight and value on the concept of martyrdom that the rest of us properly find alien, bizarre and chilling.
Sunni nations, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, would, rightly, be aghast at, and uncomfortable with, the notion that they have to rely on Israel as their de facto nuclear deterrent. The incentives for them, too, to pursue nuclear status would be overwhelming. Indeed, to put it bluntly, if Tehran obtains nuclear standing, then tacitly encouraging Cairo and Riyadh to travel down the same path may be the least bad outcome for outsiders to fall back on.
An Iranian nuclear capacity would, finally, make a mockery of the United Nations. It would be seen as confirmation that the phrase “Security Council ultimatum” is close to a contradiction in terms. I am not a huge fan of this organisation, but it undoubtedly has its merits. It will be seen as having huffed and puffed on Iran and blown nothing down. Other rogue states will observe these events and reach their own, rational, conclusions. What passes for international order will be deeply undermined by this imminent debacle.
The awkward reality is that Iran will only reconsider its plans if it decides that there is a plausible chance of a military strike against it.
The equally inconvenient situation is that it has absolutely no reason at the moment to assume this. Señor Solana declared that a willingness to talk did not mean that Tehran had “infinite time” at its disposal. But Iran does not need infinite time, merely long enough to obtain nuclear weapons and thus close this debate in a manner of its choosing. It is time that it is being awarded.
One last Persian proverb is appropriate. It runs: “A blind person who sees is better than a seeing person who is blind.” On Iran, the world is, alas, led by the seeing blind.