The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2011 Volume 32 Issue 4
This article first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record on Nov. 24 2011.
The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran’s nuclear program has increased the already inflammatory rhetoric against the Islamic Republic. The West is calling for tougher sanctions while reiterating that all options—including military force—are on the table.
Certainly, Iran’s lack of transparency regarding its nuclear program creates legitimate international security concerns. But western policymakers seem to overlook the simple fact that the current standoff is in part the result of an unsustainable nuclear weapons regime that perpetuates a double standard between states that have nuclear weapons and those that do not.
As the Canadian government announced a new set of sanctions against Iran on November 21, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird (DFAIT 2011) said that “the regime in Tehran poses the most significant threat to global peace and security today.” Not so. In reality, the gravest threat to international security lies in the very existence of nuclear weapons and the stubborn reluctance by their possessors to give them up.
A blatant disregard for a 40-year commitment to disarm under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) creates strong proliferation pressures that can only be counteracted by the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. What is needed is a global legal ban on the possession, deployment, and use of these instruments of mass destruction. No exceptions, no exemptions.
A central conclusion reached by the authoritative International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (2009, p. xvii), co-chaired by former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans, is that “so long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them.” This underscores the untenable nature of an inherently unjust international security architecture, in which the countries that possess nuclear weapons are also the arbiters who decide that others cannot have them.
As pundits and policymakers gradually increase the incendiary nature of their fear mongering, some important facts get lost. Half-truths, fallacious reasoning, and hasty speculations not only perpetuate preconceived notions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, but also divert attention from the more urgent problem of nuclear weapons possession.
So let us be clear: while Iran has unquestionably been less than forthcoming about its nuclear program, there is no evidence to suggest that the country has a nuclear weapon. The argument that through its nuclear energy program Iran is inching closer to a weapons capability is certainly true. But it is also true that any country with a civilian nuclear program is on a path that could possibly lead to the development of nuclear weapons.
As nuclear disarmament experts Ramesh Thakur, Jane Boulden, and Thomas G. Weiss (2008, p. 15) have put it, “nuclear energy for peaceful purposes can be pursued legitimately to the point of being perhaps a screwdriver turn away from a weapons capability.” From this perspective, the need for strict IAEA inspections of Iranian nuclear facilities is undeniable, and any resistance by the Iranian government to such international oversight is reprehensible.
Yet it is hard to ignore the stark contrast between the rigorous attention given to Iran’s nuclear energy program, which could, potentially, one day result in a nuclear weapon, and the remarkable lack of scrutiny of Israel’s advanced nuclear weapons program.
Israel is the only country in the volatile Mideast actually in possession of nuclear weapons, and is not a member of the nearly universal non-proliferation treaty, thus keeping it immune from the sort of non-proliferation and disarmament obligations expected of other countries.
But the West seems content to accept Israel’s policy of deliberate ambiguity about its nuclear arsenal with few reservations. Such issues are ripe for discussion at a conference to be held in 2012 on a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction.
Domestic political considerations in Iran must be thoughtfully acknowledged. One need not walk a mile in President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s shoes to realize that his country is flanked by thousands of American troops, and is within reach of Israeli nuclear weapons. By aggressively claiming its right to a nuclear energy program—as allowed by the NPT—and by portraying the West as hostile and unfair, Iran’s government earns the support of a domestic constituency.
Ominous warnings about Iran’s threshold nuclear-weapons capability have been made since the early 1990s. Some have come with precise timelines that indicated that Iran was X years away from a nuclear weapon. But so far, there is no smoking gun.
Nuclear technology has important implications for international peace and security. Thus, it is crucial that Iran respond to unanswered questions about the peaceful nature of its nuclear program and fully embrace strict international oversight of its nuclear facilities. But the most urgent concern about nuclear weapons is broader than Iran. The root of nuclear insecurity is in the continued possession of nuclear arsenals by a few states, despite overwhelming evidence that such weapons lack any political, military, or moral justification.
Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada (DFAIT). 2011. Modification—Minister Baird expands sanctions on Iran. News release, November 21.
International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. 2009. Eliminating Nuclear Threats: A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers.
Thakur, Ramesh, Jane Boulden & Thomas G. Weiss. 2008. Can the NPT Regime be fixed or should it be abandoned? Dialogue on Globalization No. 40.