Six nations have been most frequently mentioned in discussions of nuclear non-proliferation in recent years. Four are known to have nuclear weapons and do not allow U.N. inspections of active nuclear weapon sites. Israel's nuclear stockpile is an open secret. India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons; they conducted highly publicized nuclear tests in 1998, creating a very tense moment between the rivals. This month, North Korea tested a nuclear device.
Another frequently mentioned country, Iran, does not now have nuclear weapons. It actually signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT), the international legal foundation of nonproliferation. Iran allows U.N. inspections of its nuclear facilities, which it claims will be used solely for civilian power plants – legal under the NPT – and never to create a weapon. No proof has ever been offered that Iran is taking steps to produce a nuclear weapon.
The sixth country, Iraq, was invaded on the pretext of having a serious program to produce nuclear weapons, as well as other weapons of mass destruction, which are now known not to have existed since soon after U.N. inspections began there in 1991.
Yet, leaving out occupied Iraq, the only one of these countries the U.S. is threatening to attack is Iran -- despite the lack of proof that Iran is even seeking a nuclear weapon. In fact, of those five countries, Iran is the only one currently playing by the rules.
The use of nuclear nonproliferation as justification for threats to attack Iran looks like a sham, just as it was shown to be a sham in Iraq.
This impression gets even stronger when we compare the behavior of the Bush administration toward the real proliferators of this group (excluding for the moment the biggest proliferators, declared nuclear powers including the United States who are obligated under the NPT to work toward disarmament).
Israel is one of the closest allies to the United States and the biggest recipient of U.S. military aid. Its nuclear program has not noticeably slowed that aid.
Last year, President Bush went to India and effectively endorsed their nuclear weapons program. He even signed a deal to provide them nuclear fuel and technology, once Congressional approval is secured. India is not a signatory to the NPT, so their nuclear arsenal sits outside international law.
Pakistan is considered a close ally of the United States despite its nuclear program and weapons.
North Korea is not an ally, in fact they are part of the so-called "axis of evil," but the Bush administration is not credibly threatening to attack them militarily (barring a disastrous change in policy). This is largely because the administration recognizes that there is no military solution with North Korea, which is heavily armed. The Pentagon reportedly estimates that a war with North Korea would kill 300,000 to 500,000 American and South Korean soldiers as well as hundreds of thousands of South Korean civilians within the first 90 days. That is not to mention the North Korean and possibly Chinese deaths.
On the other hand, diplomacy has been shown to work with North Korea. From 1994 to 2002, North Korea actually shut down its nuclear weapons program under an agreement with the United States. However, the United States failed to meet its side of the agreement – shipments of fuel oil to replace nuclear energy until completion of construction of two light-water reactors that could not produce material for a weapon. Yet the North Koreans kept their program shut down until early 2003. They kicked out U.N. inspectors, withdrew from the NPT and began enriching plutonium again. Diplomacy is the only way to defuse the current crisis.
Diplomacy has also been shown to be capable of dissuading Iran from pursuing even peaceful nuclear technology. In July 2004, Iran announced the suspension of uranium enrichment as a sign of good faith in negotiations with the European Union. Those negotiations failed to deliver for Iran, and they resumed uranium enrichment early this year. Even so, Iran has offered ideas for resolving the stand-off, including having a French company conduct the enriching process for Iran. There is every reason to think that there are diplomatic solutions to this situation.
On the other hand, an attack on Iran could have catastrophic consequences, just like an attack on North Korea. Recent experience in Iraq shows us that; a meticulously conducted study from Johns Hopkins finds that over 600,000 Iraqis have died who would still be alive had the U.S. not invaded. An expansion of the war to the broader region could be extremely bloody.
As in North Korea, there is no military option for preventing nuclear proliferation in Iran. In fact, there is no military solution to preventing nuclear proliferation in general. The threat of a U.S. attack – especially when that attack can come without real justification, as the world rightly perceived in Iraq – actually creates an incentive for governments around the world to obtain nuclear weapons as a deterrent. Diplomacy, serious moves toward disarming ourselves and the creation of a world where countries feel secure from attack is the only rational way to pursue non-proliferation.
As in Iraq, it seems that our government has ulterior motives for threatening Iran, most likely based on its strategic position and its role as a regional rival in the Middle East. The nuclear justification once again does not hold up. Even if a threat from Iran were proved, the rational response would be diplomacy, not war.
Still, our government's threats against Iran are real and credible. Time Magazine has reported the movement of large naval fleets toward Iran. Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardner has said that military operations are already being conducted there in secret. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Seymour Hersh reports that the administration is making detailed and serious plans for an attack.
Even as we question the asserted but unproved nuclear threat from Iran and the claimed motivations of our government, we need to build our strength and organization against another war (for a first step, sign the petition (http://www.justforeignpolicy.org/involved/iranpetition.html) being circulated by Just Foreign Policy and Peace Action).
Though the justification for war is weak, we know from experience in Iraq that this administration does not need a good reason to start a war. Domestic political pressure is our most potent tool. It may soon force an end to the occupation of Iraq and we have reason to hope it can prevent a new and needless war with Iran.
Patrick McElwee works with Just Foreign Policy (www.justforeignpolicy.org). He can be reached at patrick [at] justforeignpolicy.org.
© 2006 The Progressive