Adrian Hamilton: It doesn't help to obsess over Iran

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The Independent Online

For those who remember the days of Nikita Kruschev and Fidel Castro, there was something wonderfully retro about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty summit in New York this week. There was Iran's President Ahmadinejad, all smiles and stubble, haranguing the West in general and the US and Israel in particular for their sins. And there were the British, US and French delegations, walking out, all clenched buttocks and po faces, as he gathered momentum.

Ahmadinejad loved it, course. There is nothing a would-be voice of the developing world hungers for more than tweaking the tails of western powers in an international meeting. And it was actually – if one dares say it and if one could get through the religious top dressing – a rather effective speech that he made. The policy of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons wasn't working, he argued bluntly. It was developed to protect the monopoly of the Big Five in the Security Council, had failed to stop the spread of weapons not least because members had actually helped countries such as Israel and India to become nuclear powers outside the NPT, and had come to be seen as simply a means of the nuclear haves lording it over the nuclear have-nots.

This was just what Washington didn't want to hear, of course. In the eyes of the White House, and especially to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who studiously avoided attending until after Ahmadinejad had spoken, although he stayed for her speech), Iran's presence is a spoiler to what should be a steady progression of President Obama's policy of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. After the agreement with Russia to reduce stockpiles, the White House was desperate to reassert its moral authority through the world via the month-long, five-year NPT.

But it's not Ahmadinjead who is the spoiler, it is America's erection of Tehran as the primary threat to world peace. Put aside for a moment the question of whether Iran is really hell-bent on going the way of North Korea, the fact is that demonising it has become a useful tactic for the nuclear haves.

The US uses Iran's nuclear programme to justify its continuing support for Israel. Israel uses Ahmadinejad's more bellicose statements to demand support from Washington, with the veiled threat that it will take unilateral military action against the facilities if the US doesn't act.

The British see Iran as a cause in which they can display their usefulness to the Americans, and justify their own continued nuclear programme and the Tory and Labour determination to keep upgrading it. The French, for their part, couldn't be happier with having an issue that takes attention away from their own stockpile.

Whether Iran is, as most of Washington seems to believe, actually a nuclear threat or not is a moot point. They say not, not least on grounds of religion which shouldn't be dismissed too lightly. The Pentagon, and the old foreign relations establishment, say they don't believe a word of it. The International Atomic Energy Agency declares that it has worries but no positive evidence of Tehran's ill intent. Realpolitik would suggest that, given the pressure and threats that Iran has faced since the Islamic Revolution, it would hardly be surprising if it wanted to develop the technical know-how to build a bomb even if it didn't intend to do it.

But the point is Iran is a signatory of the NPT, it has accepted inspections, albeit with restrictions, and – despite statements by Mrs Clinton to the contrary – the IAEA has not found it in breach of its covenants. On any reasonable reading of the present scene – and where Iran is concerned, the US, for reasons peculiar to its history, just isn't reasonable – the West and the UN should be using the NPT to engage Iran in talks and to get it onside for a real push towards much tighter controls on the trade of nuclear materials and expertise.

Instead we are doing the opposite, trying to corner and beat the country into submission through sanctions which will only reinforce the position of the government. The problem Iran poses is an internal not an external one.

On that score its President is right. The NPT isn't working. It's too lop-sided, too riddled with hypocrisy and exception. As for the Middle East, the US and Britain are in the peculiar position of arguing that peace can only be maintained by preserving the nuclear hegemony of a country, Israel, which has deliberately not signed up to the NPT and beating up on a country, Iran, which has.

If Obama really wants to make a new start, he should start with a fresh approach.

BP (Basic Politics)

Should one feel sympathy for BP as it battles with its off-shore spill in the Gulf of Mexico? The simple answer is, no. Sympathy and the big oil companies don't and can't go together. It's not that they're too big to fail, it's just that they're too powerful to control. The well blow-out is partly down to lax regulation introduced by a committee headed by (you've guessed it) Dick Cheney. But even so, and even if the rig was operated by a contractor, BP should have insisted on higher standards after all its experience in the North Sea.

But it's the tone of the criticisms of the company coming out of the White House that worries me. Everything is about BP's duty to pay for the clean-up (which the company has accepted) and not on its duty to prevent the spill spreading and continuing. It's politics, of course. Just as with the banks, leaders even as high-minded as President Obama are obsessed with the taxpayers' dollars and costs and not with regulation. The result is that off the coasts of America, now being released for oil exploration, we have an ecological disaster that shouldn't have happened.

For further reading

President Ahmadinejad's address to the NPT, translation at under 'Analysis'; 'An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters, and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas', by Diane Wilson (2006)