When it comes to Iran's nuclear capabilities, whose word would you rather take: that of a Nobel prize-winning head of an international agency specializing in nuclear issues who was proved triumphantly right about Iraq, or that of a bunch of belligerent neocons who make no secret of their desire to whack Iran at the earliest opportunity and who made such a pigs ear of Iraq?
That is the stark choice facing the sane people of the world, given the smearing of IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei for not joining the hysterical lynch mob building up against Iran. Criticised by Condoleezza Rice and others in the Bush administration, it is uncannily reminiscent of the slurs against him and UN weapons inspector Hans Blix in the run up to the invasion of Iraq - and we should remember that the US vindictively tried to unseat him afterwards for not joining in the lying game.
ElBaradei is hardly acting as cheerleader for the Iranians. He says that his inspectors have not seen "any concrete evidence that there is a parallel military program," though he could not yet swear to its absence. But he does believe that our issues with Iran can be resolved through negotiations - in which it would help if the US were not implicitly threatening war. But it looks as though we have reached a similar stage to when Saddam let in the inspectors. When they found no WMDs Washington cried foul, ordered the UN inspectors out and sent the troops in. The US and its allies will not accept anything short of regime change in Teheran - no matter what ordinary Iranians might want and what the IAEA says.
The only difference from last time is that France has defected, and France's opposition to the war in Iraq was as much because of Saddam's oil contracts with Total and Elf-Aquitaine as any deep attachment to international law. Teheran should sign a contract immediately!
There are, of course, several separate issues here. One is whether Iran has the right to enrich uranium. The second is whether it is abusing the putative right to build nuclear weapons. A third is whether the nuclear issue is not just some sort of White House feint, since we all know that if the shooting starts, it will really be about fighting terrorism, liberating gays and women, restoring democracy and taking down a major rival in the region to both Saudi Arabia and Israel - or any permutation of the above.
On the first question, stupid though it is, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty does not ban countries from reprocessing and purifying uranium. It should have done, and it should have allowed more intrusive inspections, but it doesn't, and one reason for that is that the US, under the influence of the people who now want to cite non-proliferation against Iran, fought against attempts to strengthen the treaty. These are the same people, in fact, who have successfully fought against the senate ratifying the comprehensive test ban treaty.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's maladroit diplomacy led to Iran being outmanoeuvred. His comments on Israel and the Holocaust, no matter whether interpreted correctly or not, have made it difficult for many countries to support him. The US got a resolution against Iran through the IAEA council calling on Iran to stop its uranium reprocessing, largely by promising council member India a free pass for developing nuclear weapons outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and with the enthusiastic support of Israel, the only definite nuclear state in the Middle East.
The US then took that IAEA council resolution to the UN security council, whose word, whether Iran likes it or not, is law under the UN charter, even though it is manifestly a political rather than a judicial body. (The law is not always just, and that goes for international law as well). It does not help Iran as much as it should that Washington, a major scofflaw in the international field, is once again talking piously about the need to enforce UN resolutions, with its own interpretation and its own timetable - just as was the case with Iraq.
Iran is playing a dangerous game. Most countries have deep reservations about what the US, France and, to a lesser extent, the UK are up to, but few of them are prepared to go to the wall, diplomatically, let alone militarily, for the ayatollahs.
Iran should accept the additional and more intrusive inspections that it did before, and throw open its program to the IAEA inspectors, but the war talk in Washington and Jerusalem gives it a plausible excuse not to, since it would be tantamount to offering them a list of targets.
Of course it is difficult to support someone like Ahmadinejad, even when he does for once have a point in the nuclear stand-off. But we can support ElBaradei and the IAEA, as the only sane voices around. With enemies such as ElBaradei has marshalling against him, he must be right.
Ian Williams has written for newspapers and magazines around the world, ranging from the Australian, to The Independent, from the New York Observer and the Village Voice to the Nation and the New Statesman and Newsday, to the Financial Times and the Guardian. He is the author of several books and is currently writing a book on the Americans who blame the UN for all the US's ills.
© 2007 The Guardian