Peter Jenkins, Britain’s permanent representative to the IAEA, 2001–06, argues that the West has dangerously over-reached by insisting that Iran abandon nuclear enrichment instead of merely insisting that it complies with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which permits enrichment.
For years, the Western assessment has been that Iran seeks the capability to build nuclear weapons, but has not taken a decision to produce them.
Imposing sanctions or even going to war could be a proportionate – and therefore a just – reaction to any Iranian decision to break the NPT and acquire nuclear weapons. But these measures are a disproportionate response to a state acting on its right to enrich uranium. The correct way to handle enrichment is the NPT way, namely that the process can go ahead, but only under the strictest safeguards. This embodies a principle dear to President Reagan in his later years: “trust but verify”. If ever Iran goes for nuclear weapons, the world will be united in condemning such a betrayal of trust. The West could be confident the Security Council would approve whatever steps were necessary to counter a violation of one of the most valuable global treaties.
At the moment, however, we are locked into a process of imposing ever tighter sanctions on Iran. This economic warfare has many drawbacks. It requires an exaggeration of the Iranian “threat” that fuels the scare-mongering of those who want this pressure to be a mere step on the way to war. It risks provoking retaliation, while hurting ordinary Iranians. And it risks higher oil prices that the West can ill afford. Moreover, even if Iran were unexpectedly to give way, coercion rarely delivers durable solutions. Its effect on motives is unpredictable. It can breed resentment, while restrictions can be circumvented in time.
It may be asking a lot of our leaders that they swallow their words, lower their sights and focus on a realistic target. They could do it, though, and the talks due to take place shortly in Turkey could be the setting for a change of course. What is much more likely, unhappily, is that we will continue to see a variant on the devil having the best tunes. Far too many American politicians see advantage in whipping up fear of Iran. I can almost hear them sneering that the NPT is for wimps. The odds must be that they will continue to propel the West toward yet another Gulf war. Still, nothing is inevitable.