February 21, 2012

Resolving the Iran crisis


Author: PR Kumaraswamy

Everybody is seeking a ‘peaceful’ solution to the looming conflict over Iran. But nobody has bothered to define what ‘peaceful’ means in this context.
Apeaceful solution to the Iran issue — it sounds nice, fair and most desirable. Indeed, of late it has become a fashion statement among scholars, pundits and even those with faint acquaintance with international politics. But what does ‘peaceful’ mean? Does it imply a peaceful end result or means to achieve that? Both are not the same. If the end result is to be peaceful, then it would mean either of the two possibilities. First, the world peacefully accepts Iran as a nuclear power. If this is the ‘peaceful’ solution then let them spell it out. There are many nuclear powers and can’t we have one more? More the merrier, let them say. It is even valid to argue that if Israel can have nuclear weapons, why not Iran? But Israel is seen as a nuclear power at least since the early-1970s; four decades is a long slumber even by the standards of Kumbhakarna.
Despite this, if nuclear Iran is the ‘peaceful’ solution then there is no need for moral posturing. If nuclear weapons are bad, it is bad everywhere — from Washington, DC to Beijing. There is no scope for selective justification or moral duplicity. And if they are legitimate, why can’t Iran also have them? One could even draw a parallel with the US-Soviet ‘peace’ during the Cold War and argue that nuclear Iran can be ‘peaceful’ too. But one has to be explicit without moving the goalposts constantly or indulging in selective rationalisation. If India can have the Bomb, why not Iran?
However, before endorsing such a ‘peaceful’ solution, one has to look at the possible consequences of Iran a acquiring a nuclear arsenal. Nuclear weapons are not a fashion accessory but have come to symbolise national power and international standing. If a nuclear Iran is the ‘peaceful’ solution, then let’s all prepare for the day after. Will it set off a dangerous arms race in the region? Will the Arab neighbours of Iran, especially countries like Saudi Arabia, accept the hegemony of a nuclear Iran? Will a nuclear Iran turn out to be a regional bully? Therefore, before advocating ‘peaceful’ means, one has to define what is the end goal. What is ‘peaceful’: a nuclear Iran or a non-nuclear Iran?
If a ‘peaceful’ resolution means a non-nuclear Iran, then how do we go about securing that goal? Resting on statements of intention is valid only for individuals and for inter-personal relations — your motive is as honourable as mine and vice versa. The sanctimonious lot will always be lonely and miserable. But nation-states are different. They have only interests of the people they represent. Principles and morals are valid so long as they serve the interests of the country and its people. Unlike individuals, nation-states do not have the luxury of committing hara-kiri for high moral principles. Hence, the decisions of a nation-state are cold-blooded, non-emotional, interest-driven and more rational. So let’s not look for consistency in nation-state behaviours. Indeed, individuals practice more double-standards than nation-states. The key question to ask is not whether a particular decision is moral, principled or consistent, but does it serve that nation’s interest?
Hence, nation-states do not have intentions but only capabilities. The question is not whether Iran has nuclear intentions, but does it have the capabilities? Contrary to what Tehran and its few friends argue, the international community strongly thinks it has nuclear intentions. Between September 2005 and December 2011, the UN Security Council and the IAEA have passed 11 resolutions on Iran; China and Russia, Iran’s closest friends in the UN, have supported all but one of them.
Each report of the IAEA is more damming than the previous one and next report is due in early-March. The prevailing view is not about the direction of Iran’s nuclear programme but how long it will take to produce a nuclear bomb. That assessment keeps changing periodically. Combine this with Iran’s missile capabilities — some of them can reach southern Europe. The world is yet to see a missile that only travels in one direction. If and when Iran’s intentions change, those missiles can also reach India’s western coast.
So, if a non-nuclear Iran is the ‘peaceful’ solution, how do we go about achieving it? Negotiations are the ideal means but they have been on the table since 2002 when Iran’s clandestine nuclear facilities came to the world’s attention. Like the Oslo process, dialogue has become an end in itself. Iran is not ready to walk the talk or feels that there are not enough incentives to abandon its nuclear journey.
Perhaps Iran needs recognition as a regional power. Nice students might get good grades but nice states never become great powers. This is true for Iran, India or any other country. Whether one has the wisdom to recognise it or not, the world began to take note of India only after the 1998 Pokhran nuclear tests. Power respects power and it pities the weak. So respect or sympathy, make your pick.
If a non-nuclear Iran is the ‘peaceful’ solution, then this leaves us with two options: Imposing economic sanctions or launching a military strike. It is possible to argue that sanctions are applied in some cases and not in others. This is the nature of power politics. Don’t we have soft corners for our friends who commit the same mistakes which we accuse others of? Yet, nobody can deny that sanctions are peaceful and preferable to a military strike. If they work and result in a non-nuclear Iran, then fine. But if they don’t, then a military strike becomes inevitable, whether one likes it or not.
If a military strike is to be avoided at all costs, then one has to go back to the original argument: A nuclear Iran is better than a military strike to de-nuclearise Iran. It is possible to argue this point, but opposition to a military strike should not become a fig leaf for promoting the idea of a nuclear Iran.
The problem here is not about wanting a ‘peaceful’ resolution but avoiding the real issues. Does a ‘peaceful’ solution mean the end result or means to achieving it? Co-existence between a goat and a lion can also be peaceful. For the goat it would mean survival; for the lion, it would mean the goat peacefully getting into its stomach without a violent struggle.
The writer teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University and is currently in Jerusalem on a sabbatical.

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