Thursday, December 09, 2004

# Posted 5:09 PM by Patrick Belton  

IRAN AND NORTH KOREA NOT JUST FIGMENTS OF BUSH'S IMAGINATION: A producer for a television newsmagazine was kind enough to ask my opinion about a common British perception that Iran and North Korea present no threat to the west or the world, and are only figments of a feverish Texas imagination. (I'd hate to see what they'd think about the Twins.) I drew together a few thoughts, and since we haven't written that much lately about either country here, I thought I might share a redacted version here.
A point I frequently find myself having to make to friends in this country is that, occasionally, some things are true even if Bush believes them. There are threats emanating from both North Korea and Iran at the moment, even if it isn't as clear what ought to be done in response to those threats. You mention the demographic of twenty and thirty year olds; in my experience, young members of the Foreign Office and other national security services have roughly the same appraisal of threat in those two cases as their American generational and occupational counterparts. I think in both nations, there is a segment of liberals with the most noble of political beliefs who impute the same to the leaders of Pyongyang and Tehran, and who overestimate dangerously the rationality, morality, and bona fides of foreign dictators. The Chamberlain tradition is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic, but there are also political liberals in both nations with more sophisticated understandings of the world, who do not expect negotiation and international law to resolve all political difficulties involving illiberal leaders as in the best of worlds. Traditions of pacificism and Quakerism are admirable as signpoints toward a better world, but the reins of state in our imperfect times have never been entrusted to their adherents. So I think the journalistic tradition of transatlantic division is generally overstated, as is reflected by the public opinion research; New Yorkers are not far removed from Londoners and Oxbridge students, and religious, nationalist West Country Tories have more than a thing or two in common with Middle Americans, though the thought might discomfit some here.

Iran has acceded (in 2003) to the non-proliferation treaty - unlike India and Pakistan, which when they exploded nuclear weapons in May 1998 were under no treaty commitment not to acquire a nuclear capacity. (North Korea pledged in 1994 not to pursue nuclear weapons, in an Agreed Framework agreement which it promptly violated; it was also an NPT signatory from 1985 until 2003, when it withdrew.) Compared with Libya's cooperation with the IAEA about its undeclared nuclear programme since December 2003, Iranian officials have not been especially forthcoming about the extent or activities of their nuclear programme. Inspections have revealed its failure to report importation of uranium from China in 1991, as well as the existence of undeclared uranium and the existence of more sophisticated centrifuge designs and a laser enrichment programme. Two centrifuge enrichment plants at Natanz are partially underground, making them less transparent to observers and inspectors. The IAEA has stated that Iran has not met all of its NPT obligations, but it has not yet declared Iran in violation of the NPT; this is sure to happen shortly, raising the question of what the western response will be.

These will almost certainly take the form of an enhanced, more intrusive, and inevitably imperfect inspections regime, ideally implemented with a strong degree of political commitment from Europeans and Americans as well as other involved nations. Predominant thinking in the foreign policy community in Washington is that the principal downsides to any military intervention in Iran aimed at preventing Iran from arriving at a nuclear capability are that Iran has to this point not done as much as it could to foment Shi'a opposition to U.S. and Iraqi forces in Iraq; it would be difficult to strike all proliferation sites, many of which being closely held secrets we have not penetrated; and Iran's ability to retaliate, with its massive intelligence apparatus worldwide and depending on the state of its technological attainment, may well extend to include a dirty bomb placed in the San Francisco Bay or New York's East River. Further, the populace of Iran, though the Iranian government has becoming increasingly authoritarian and repressive toward its dissidents, is fairly pro-American, pro-democratic, and anti-regime. While it is difficult to foresee a peaceful transition of power to a democratic form of government, an eventual democratic government in Iran may likely prove a stabilising force and significant regional ally for the United States and Britain. Though North Korea harbours less rosy long-term prospects, though it is unable to sustain a long-fought war with its military's chronic fuel shortages, its ability to exact reprisals for a preemptive strike is also persuasive: North Korea has for the last several years been building up specific elements of its military forces to present as much of an artillery and rocket threat to Seoul as possible; Seoul is only 25 miles from the DMZ; Pyongyang may also attempt to launch one of its ballistic missiles under development, such as the Ro-dong medium-range missile or an improved Taepo-Dong 2, a three-stage experimental intercontinental missile capable of striking North America with a nuclear warhead. In addition, North Korean agents frequently and easily infiltrate their southern neighbour across the de-militarised zone, and saboteurs are widely expected to be stationed in places to wreak havok upon South Korean civilian life and infrastructure in the event of a war; a scenario discussed by western intelligence agencies has it attempting to secretly emplace an experimental nuclear bomb within Seoul, with its population of 10.3 million. In the recent six-party discussions, North Korea has been eccentric, pulling back from initially agreed agreements brokered by a helpful Beijing; its past record of compliance with nuclear agreements is unblemished: it has broken each one, generally in bids to blackmail western payments, but often more quietly by engaging in proliferation purchases from Pakistan and other purveying nations.

We may have no other option in the end than to reconcile ourselves to a nuclear Iran and North Korea. There is the touching notion that both countries will adopt the Indian model, and become duly responsible nuclear and regional powers. Unlike India, though, neither country is liberal, democratic, or within the international system; both have ties to international criminal and terrorist networks seeking different parts of the nuclear puzzle (such as the uranium enrichment centrifuges sold by Pakistan to Iran, and other enrichment technologies which it sold to North Korea and Libya). There is the danger, then, that either country or both might not follow the Indian model; and what would we do then?

Either country selling plutonium to terrorists would lead predictably to the daily elevated danger of dirty bombs in European and American cities, possibly rendering Mayfair or Upper Manhattan uninhabitable for generations; nuclear blasts by any terrorist organisation which obtains nuclear technology would kill civilians on a scale making the horrific bombing of the Second World War seem quaint by comparison; nuclear blackmail will neutralise America's controversial military might and give regional adventurers such as future Saddams or Slobodan Milosevics a free hand in pursuing whatever territorial aggressions or genocides toward their own people or others they may wish to attempt. The picture is not a pleasant one.

There is furthermore a rather dangerous supposition, often voiced by officers within the State Department's Near East Bureau, that the current Iranian government represents a workable Middle Eastern democracy, and left to its own devices, will blossom into an exemplary Islamic democracy. In fact, rather the opposite is true: human rights violations within Iran equal any of the world's most authoritarian regimes, and the trends at the moment are not toward greater democracy but toward greater marginalisation of reformers, who have lost their only seat of power in the assembly, and may have even more to lose in the future than that. (q.v.: peaceful Tehran University student protesters from 1999 remain in prison; secret squads operating under the authority of the Iranian judiciary have tortured internet journalists and civil society activists to write incriminatory 'confession letters'; see Human Rights Watch reports from Nov. 8 and Dec. 6). It is also a regime which, together with Syria, heavily finances terrorist and military activities by the Hezbollah organisation, which contrary to a frequent misconception, is not a fuzzy charity and has kidnapped western civilians (including British journalist John McCarthy, the Archbishop of Canterbury's special envoy Terry Waite, American journalist Terry Anderson, and Irish citizen Brian Keenan), and attacked civilians in the Western Hemisphere (bombing the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992, killing 29, and an Argentine Jewish community centre in 1994, killing 95). If one is to be truly for liberal government and social democracy, then you must be for these things abroad as well as at home. The tradition of 19th century liberalism did not limit itself to parliamentary or Corn Law reform in Britain or constitutionalism on the Continent, but believed quite strongly that the right to live under enlightened, liberal government extended to all people. We could do worse than to live up to this tradition.

I'm eager to be of help however else I can - please do just let know. with all best wishes,
I'd be grateful for any thoughts on either side of this debate, or links to posts or other online resources on the subject, and will share ones that seem particularly useful. I haven't been thinking that much about either country lately, and am eager to. (Although, in the 'coming attractions for early next year' category, I have been thinking a bit about French Muslims and Indian foreign policy....) (Those are separate pieces.)

Not that this is as scintillating a conversation, of course, as whether David or I will lose our virginianity first. But they can't all be.
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