Thinking the Unthinkable on Iran
    • "In a report that leads with the 'good news' of impending U.S. oil supremacy, to calmly suggest that the world is headed for that 3.6 degree C mark is like placing a thermonuclear bomb in a gaudily-wrapped Christmas present." - Michael Klare

Thus, far from providing a solution to a proliferation problem, war with Iran would almost certainly precipitate an immediate proliferation catastrophe. President Obama has articulated his nightmare that a nuclear-armed Iran would touch off a chaotic nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Yet a military strike would likely trigger an Iranian crash program to build the bomb (just as Israel's 1981 strike goaded Saddam Hussein to do likewise, as the world discovered after the US invasion of 1991). Why would other countries in the Middle East wait for Iran to succeed? In other words, disarmament war, in Iran or elsewhere, is likely to bring on the very result it is meant to prevent.

Given these realities, the only serious military policy would be the overthrow of the Iranian government and long-term occupation of the country, which alone could produce a more lasting result. Regime change is the necessary corollary to any disarmament war worthy of the name. But merely to mention such a harebrained, reckless, destructive and self-destructive idea as an American occupation of Iran, especially in the aftermath of the Iraq fiasco, is immediately to reject it. What is even more certain is that folly of this kind, unworkable even in a single case, can never provide the basis for the kind of global nonproliferation policy that the world so badly needs. (Obama, let it be said, hinted at awareness of the futility of his newly militarized policy when he remarked to Goldberg in the Atlantic interview, "Our argument is going to be that it is important for us to see if we can solve this thing permanently, as opposed to temporarily. And the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table.")

Fortunately, an alternative nonproliferation policy is ready to hand. It is to return to, extend, deepen and carry to its logical destination the previous strategy of nonproliferation and arms control by diplomatic and other political means. The logical conclusion is one that Obama, not incidentally, embraced, though only as a long-term vision, in a speech in Prague in April 2009: a world free of nuclear weapons.

The policy should proceed at three levels: local, regional and global.

The most salient local application is, of course, the Iran crisis. The makings of an imperfect but thoroughly acceptable deal are apparent: permit Iran's enrichment of nuclear fuel to nuclear power–grade in return for Iran's full disclosure of its nuclear programs and their history, along with acceptance of strict inspections and controls to prevent the country from enriching uranium to nuclear weapons–grade. The deal is imperfect, because it overlooks Iran's many deceptions of the IAEA and accepts Iran's uranium enrichment, which, whatever else the country may do, does carry it a good part of the distance toward being able to make nuclear weapons. It is acceptable because it achieves the goal of keeping Iran nuclear weapons–free.

At the regional level, the goal should be a nuclear weapons–free zone in the Middle East, as called for in the NPT Review Conference of 2010. If we are lucky, a deal with Iran will solve the current crisis, but in the longer run Israel's nuclear weapons monopoly in the region is unsustainable. At some point one country or another will challenge it, and all the hopeless choices — the shrunken array of options that lead to disaster — will return, and the next time no deal may be possible.

At the global level, the goal can only be a world free of nuclear weapons. From the first days of the nuclear age, when President Truman proposed nuclear abolition at the UN in the form of the Baruch plan, that objective has been a moral imperative in its own right, but now it has become a necessity for a new set of reasons — reasons that have always been latent in the nuclear dilemma but that are now coming to maturity, as the scientists of the Manhattan Project knew they must, in the form of the proliferation dangers in the Middle East and East Asia.

At present, the international community is divided against itself. The United States and Western Europe propose sanctions and other measures against Iran, but China and Russia drag their feet. Everyone knows that what's called "arms control" — that is, reduction in Russian and US arsenals — is essential for nonproliferation efforts, but the diplomacy of the former occurs in a separate universe from the diplomacy of the latter. Each is needed for the success of the other, but instead they are conducted along parallel lines that never meet. The benefits of Obama's commitment to the abolition of nuclear arms, if he means them, would be immense for nonproliferation, but they are thrown away. The United States wants to stop uranium enrichment in Iran, but the 115 countries in the nonaligned movement, noticing that the nuclear powers hold on to their arsenals, and wishing to preserve their own rights to enrich, cordially disagree. These hobbled, divided efforts defeat one another, and conduct the world down the dead-end path of war.

Nothing would be more effectual in healing the division than a believable commitment — not a vision but a plan — by the nuclear powers to surrender their own arsenals. The double standard, a leftover from the bipolar disguise that the nuclear dilemma wore during the cold war, is an anachronism. It ill suits a world in which every nation knows that, whether it wants nuclear weapons or not, it is capable of building them or soon will be. Only the single standard of a nuclear weapons–free world fits the realities of the new era.

Such a policy would turn away from military force to achieve its aims, yet it would not be without the backing of a kind of "force" of its own — the force of the united will of the people of the world, aligned with their governments, to live free of the shadow of nuclear danger, whether posed by those who possess nuclear weapons or those who want to possess them.

President Obama has said that all options are on the table in dealing with Iran in particular and nuclear proliferation in general. Are these options still on the table?

Tags: iran, jonathan schell, nuclear, nuclear energy

    • Jonathan Schell
    • Jonathan Schell is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Fate of The Earth, The Real War, The Time of Illusion, The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People, and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger.  He is the Doris M. Scha...

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