Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 23 January 2006

Standoff over Iran nuclear plan

A decision by Iran to further its nuclear research has led to a brewing crisis with Western powers suspicious of the country’s nuclear ambitions.  But those countries that possess nuclear weapons are themselves not willing to phase them out.


A new global crisis could erupt that in the next few months from present stand-off between Iran and mainly the Western countries over what the latter see as the threat of Iran attempting to develop nuclear weapons capability.   

Last week, Iran completed the removal of seals, placed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), that block the use of equipment and material related to uranium enrichment.

This signified that Iran was intending to resume research on nuclear fuel, including small-scale enrichment, after freezing such research for over two years. Enriched uranium can be used for peaceful purposes such as generating energy or for making nuclear weapons

The United States and  several European countries claim that this is a sign that Iran will pursue research that can lead to developing nuclear weapons.

The Director General of IAEA Mohamed ElBaradei, expressed his "serious concern about Iran's decision to unravel the suspension of enrichment-related activities before the Agency has clarified the nature of Iran's nuclear programme."

However, the Iranian government denies it is seeking nuclear weapons, insists that its programme is solely for civilian energy production, and says it is its right to do so.

Responding to Iran's decision to end its suspension of uranium enrichment activities, the Western countries are planning to have the UN Security Council discuss the matter, with a view to impose sanctions on Iran.

There are also fears that a military strike may be planned against the Iranian nuclear facilities, either by some Western powers or Israel or both. 

According to a news report last week, Israel's army chief has ruled out a pre-emptive attack against Iranian nuclear sites.  But Israel has been holding talks with US and European officials about possible international sanctions to be applied to Iran.

The proposals included an oil embargo in Iran, barring Iran's soccer team from the World Cup, denying visas to top Iranian officials and preventing Iranian aircraft from landing abroad, according to the report.

The US administration is also favouring harsh penalties against Iran through the Security Council. A US senator, John McCain, calling for sanctions, said Iran posed a greater danger to the US than Iraq and must be contained.

However, another report said Britain and its European allies have backed away from threatening economic sanctions against Iran.  A foreign affairs official said Britain favoured a gradual, sustained build-up to force Tehran to comply with its international obligations.  "We do not see this leading straight into sanctions," the official said.

The softer European position is said to be aimed at winning over Russia and China, which have strong commercial links with Iran and are opposed to sanctions.

The Iran nuclear issue shows up some clear elements of hypocrisy and double standards.

On one hand, there is a general agreement that strenuous efforts must be made to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons including to countries that do not previously have them.  From this viewpoint, it is important that countries including Iran or North Korea should not develop nuclear arms.

On the other hand, those countries that have nuclear weapons must take clear steps to eliminate their stocks.

The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NNPT) is supposed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to new states, but also to get the nuclear weapons states to disarm.

However, a review conference last May of the NNPT ended in failure with no agreement on strengthening collective security against nuclear threats.  And at the World Summit at United Nations headquarters last September, there was again a failure to agree on wording committing to non proliferation and disarmament.

“This is a real disgrace,” said UN Secretary General Kofi Annan at the time, referring to the failures at both the review conference and the UN World Conference to tackle nuclear non proliferation and disarmament.  He said this failure was weakening the system of legal norms and pose a threat to world peace and multilateralism.

Instead of phasing out their large stocks of nuclear weapons, there are signs that some of the nuclear states are planning to increase their capability and weapons.

Then there are the states that have not proclaimed that they possess nuclear weapons, but in fact do. It is strange that the Western powers that are targeting Iran because they fear that its research could enable it to develop weapons capability are keeping both eyes shut when it comes to Israel.   It is an open secret that Israel already has nuclear weapons. 

Major countries that have nuclear weapons are not willing to phase them out, but are adamant in preventing certain countries they do not like from developing nuclear capability, while keeping their eyes shut that certain other countries that are their allies are developing or already secretly have nuclear weapons.

On top of that, some nuclear states boldly state their intention to make use of their nuclear weapons.  Last week, the BBC reported that  French President Jacques Chirac has said France would be ready to use nuclear weapons against any state which launched a terrorist attack against it.  He said France's nuclear forces had been configured for such an event.

Meanwhile there could be other effects from the Iran-Western standoff.   Last Friday, AP news agency reported that Iran has begun pulling its foreign currency accounts out of European banks to protect its assets from possible U.N. sanctions.   Iran has US$50 billion in foreign reserves.

The standoff may also contribute to a further rise in oil prices.  Crude oil prices rose above US $67 last Friday, partly due to concern over the Iranian nuclear dispute.  It is feared that oil prices could rise beyond $100 a barrel if the Security Council imposes trade sanctions on Iran, which is a major oil exporter.