Last week, St Patrick’s Day was marked all over the planet. At the same time, a much less well-known Irish contribution to the world moved closer to unravelling as protracted talks on Iran’s nuclear programme moved into their final days.
Ireland’s biggest ever contribution to global security was the role it played in the drawing up of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. For decades, that treaty greatly limited the spread of the most destructive weapons ever invented beyond the five permanent members of the UN security council. Had the pact not been as successful as it was in the 1970s and 80s, the Cold War might well have ended in the hottest war in human history.
But it increasingly appears as if the effectiveness of the treaty will not last much beyond the 50th anniversary, in 2018, of its first signatory putting pen to paper.
After Israel acquired the bomb in the 1970s, India and Pakistan did so more openly in the 1990s. The transfer to North Korea of technology and know-how by the leading Pakistani nuclear scientist, AQ Khan, was instrumental in that North-East Asian state going nuclear a decade ago. That episode proved how the probability of proliferation rises as the number of countries wielding nukes grows. The risks become greater still when the countries are politically unstable, as both Pakistan and Iran are.
Since early in this century, those same five permanent members of the security council, along with Germany, (known as the P5+1) have been trying to persuade Iran not to use its nuclear programme to make a bomb. Because Iran has strung out the talks and repeatedly broken commitments, it has had heavy sanctions imposed on it. These sanctions have done real damage to an economy that has never been strong. Despite this, Iran has continued to pour resources into a programme it claims is designed purely for its civilian energy needs.
This claim has long been viewed with great suspicion, if not plain disbelief by most countries. One reason is that Iran is among the most energy-rich nations on earth, thanks to its vast oil reserves. As it has far more than it can consume, it is the second-largest exporter of crude oil in the world. Despite this, it imports petrol because its refining capacity is so limited (this would be akin to Ireland exporting live cattle for slaughter and importing processed meat because it can’t or won’t build enough abattoirs).
That the Islamic state does not invest in its refining capacity to make better use of its existing resources, rather than embark on the complicated and costly process of building a nuclear programme from scratch, is just one of the reasons why so much suspicion exists about its intentions.
Another reason to believe that the real intention behind Iran’s programme is military, not civilian, is its sense of insecurity. As a theocratic, non-Arab, Shia Muslim state, it has no natural allies in the region, bar the weak and failing state of Iraq. All of the other major regional powers – Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Egypt and the US – are rivals or enemies. Two are nuclear powers themselves.
Iran knows that if it had the bomb, it would become less vulnerable to pressure of any kind from those (more powerful) enemies and rivals. This is compelling logic to seek the ultimate weapon.
This logic is not only understood in some quarters in Ireland and the western world more widely there is a curious sympathy for it, usually among those who lean to the left. Sympathisers say that because other countries have the bomb, including Israel in particular, there is no reason why Iran shouldn’t acquire it.
It is curious that leftists are sympathetic to this argument because they tend to give precedence to the collective good (in this case global security) over the rights of individuals or countries.
Rightists, by contrast, tend to lean in the other direction – anti-gun control lobbyists in the US use exactly the same argument against restricting the right of Americans to bear arms, even though the price paid is the highest murder rate in the developed world.
Along with a minority who sympathise with Iran, a majority in western countries believe that going to war with Iran in order to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear-weapons capability would be disproportionate. That is, by and large, also the position among the P5+1, with China and Russia most opposed to resorting to war, and France taking the hardest line with the Iran.
The US has not ruled an attack out (Washington’s official position is that all options remain on the table), but there are huge doubts as to whether even a protracted attack could destroy the entire nuclear programme given the amount of time Tehran has had to conceal and protect it.
In addition, there is no appetite in the Obama administration to enter into another large and hazardous military operation in the Middle East.
Among other things, this further underscores how serious an error was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Among the best reasons to oppose that war was because it distracted from the much greater threat to global security of Iran’s nuclear programme, and the implications for proliferation in the region and beyond.
The effect of the invasion, among other things, was much greater regional instability. This not only made it impossible for those countries opposing a nuclear-armed Iran to maximise pressure on the Islamic Republic, but has greatly strengthened Iran’s relative power in the region.
Over more than a decade, that has allowed Iran to advance its nuclear programme to the point that even if the deal due for finalisation within the next few days is agreed, it will likely only delay by a few years the day when Tehran acquires the bomb. It is for this reason that its regional rivals – Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel – have been so critical of the ongoing talks process.
It is taken as a given in the Middle East that the closer Iran comes to acquiring a nuclear capacity, the more likely its large regional rivals will move to acquire their own bomb, abandoning the non-proliferation treaty in the process .
That the Saudis have hinted in recent days that it is moving in that direction already is proof of how seriously they take the threat. It is also worth noting that the Gulf Arab states are infinitely more threatened by their co-religionists in Iran having the bomb than they are by Israeli nukes, with which they have lived for four decades.
For a region as unstable and prone to violence as the Middle East to become the hotbed of global nuclear proliferation would be a disaster for the region and for the security of the world. It would hugely increase the risk of nuclear war breaking out.
A nuclearised Middle East would also bring closer the day when a terrorist organisation gets its hands on a bomb and a mushroom cloud appears over a city somewhere in the world.
There are no longer any good outcomes in relation to Iran’s nuclear programme. A deal over the coming days appears the least bad option for global security, as it offers some prospect of slowing the Persian theocracy’s move to nuclear powerdom. But sooner or later that now seems inevitable.
The contribution of foreign minister Frank Aiken and his diplomats to limiting the spread of these weapons was of global significance for five decades. It very much looks as if that contribution will run its course over the next decade.