Mutually Assured Madness

British Ambassador Peter Jenkins on the alternatives to bombing Iran.

George Kenney

Iran must find the United States "a very, very bizarre" country, says Peter Jenkins (Photo by Joseph Miller)

In terms of nuclear non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, the West’s clash with Iran over its nuclear pro­gram appears to make sense. But once one peels back the lay­ers of rhetoric sur­round­ing the West’s demands, our real pri­or­i­ty seems to be régime change. Those opposed to an unnec­es­sary war with Iran are thus faced with two com­pli­cat­ed chal­lenges: First, to debunk

War is not a satisfactory answer. There is no guarantee that we would succeed in eliminating all the facilities that might be relevant to Iran producing a nuclear weapon.

the man­u­fac­tured hys­te­ria over Iran­ian nuclear activ­i­ties, and sec­ond, to make explic­it the unex­am­ined assump­tions behind the use of régime change as a default reac­tion. The past 150 years should have taught us that despite the West’s abil­i­ty to remove Mid­dle East­ern or Asian gov­ern­ments, it’s not so easy – or even pos­si­ble – to replace them. By alter­ing the nat­ur­al course of his­to­ry we’re as liable to make things worse as to make them better.

Ambas­sador Peter Jenk­ins address­es our first chal­lenge as thor­ough­ly as any­one might wish. Hav­ing worked for 33 years in the British diplo­mat­ic ser­vice, with his last post­ing as Britain’s Per­ma­nent Rep­re­sen­ta­tive to the Inter­na­tion­al Atom­ic Ener­gy Agency (IAEA) from 2001 – 2006, he knows Iran’s nuclear pro­grams inti­mate­ly. When Jenk­ins says that there is a rea­son­able nuclear deal to be had with Iran he must be tak­en seriously.

On the sec­ond front, we must now con­nect the dots to see how régime change, unchecked, threat­ens a new Cold War, bring­ing the nuclear conun­drum full circle.

Do you recall a moment when you real­ized that there was a bet­ter way of inter­act­ing with Iran?

It was a grad­ual thing. It prob­a­bly crys­tal­lized when the Amer­i­can intel­li­gence com­mu­ni­ty pro­duced their Nation­al Intel­li­gence Esti­mate, in Novem­ber 2007, that said there were grounds for con­fi­dence that Iran had not decid­ed to devel­op nuclear weapons. Since then I no longer feel that it’s absolute­ly essen­tial to deprive Iran of an enrich­ment capa­bil­i­ty – enrich­ment capa­bil­i­ties are very rel­e­vant to pro­duc­ing nuclear weapons. It’s bet­ter to focus on pos­si­ble Iran­ian motives and to try, through diplo­ma­cy, to min­i­mize the risk that they will use that capa­bil­i­ty to make weapons. 

In any case, war is not a sat­is­fac­to­ry answer. There is no guar­an­tee that we would suc­ceed in elim­i­nat­ing all the facil­i­ties that might be rel­e­vant to Iran one day pro­duc­ing a nuclear weapon. And even if we did suc­ceed in destroy­ing all those facil­i­ties, there would remain a lot of tech­ni­cal infor­ma­tion and know-how in the minds of Iran­ian sci­en­tists. Unless we were going to line them up against a wall and shoot them all – which I think the West, even in its cur­rent slight­ly degen­er­ate state, would hes­i­tate to do – then the time would come when Iran would be able to recon­sti­tute its enrich­ment program. 

Could going to war against Iran actu­al­ly encour­age proliferation?

Lead­ers who have been con­tent up until now to have a latent capa­bil­i­ty might sud­den­ly think, Well, we’d bet­ter turn this latent capa­bil­i­ty into actu­al weapons because if we have the weapons then the West won’t attack us.”

There is a fas­ci­nat­ing doc­u­ment in the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Archives at George Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. It’s a declas­si­fied memo, writ­ten in June 1968, from the direc­tor of the Pol­i­cy Plan­ning Coun­cil in the State Depart­ment to Sec­re­tary of State Dean Rusk. It points out that under the Nuclear Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion Treaty (NPT), states would be able, legal­ly, to reach a state of what the author calls nuclear preg­nan­cy,” i.e., this latent capac­i­ty that I’ve been talk­ing about. I stress that the word legal­ly” appears in that section. 

My read­ing of the NPT is entire­ly con­sis­tent with that. Pro­vid­ed a state does not cross the thresh­old and start man­u­fac­tur­ing or oth­er­wise acquir­ing nuclear explo­sive devices, then it is stay­ing with­in the let­ter of the NPT. To con­duct the kind of basic research into how to put togeth­er a weapon may not be entire­ly con­sis­tent with the spir­it of the NPT, but it is not against the let­ter – and by the way, Iran is not the only NPT non-nuclear-weapon state that has con­duct­ed such research. 

Would it be worth­while, through var­i­ous U.N. venues, to have dis­cus­sions on a nuclear weapons-free zone?

Absolute­ly. In fact, dis­cus­sions are going on because at the last NPT review con­fer­ence in 2010, the Amer­i­cans were per­suad­ed by Egypt in par­tic­u­lar that if they want­ed a pos­i­tive out­come to that review con­fer­ence they’d have to stop block­ing any dis­cus­sion of a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Mid­dle East. How­ev­er, since 2010 Israel has made clear that it is unen­thu­si­as­tic about a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Mid­dle East.

That’s why I’ve been try­ing to put into cir­cu­la­tion the idea of a sub-region­al nuclear weapons-free zone span­ning the coun­tries on either side of the Gulf. A zone of that sort could be a valu­able con­fi­dence build­ing mea­sure, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Sau­di Ara­bia, which is ner­vous about what’s been going on in Iran.

The media tends to latch on to reports, like the Novem­ber 2011 IAEA report that alleges that Iran is doing all kinds of hor­ri­ble things. What does the report on Iran mean?

I sus­pect that the IAEA Direc­tor Gen­er­al and his advi­sors were rather sur­prised at the way in which the report was spun in the West­ern media. 

These are hon­est peo­ple, with great integri­ty, and they chose their words very care­ful­ly in writ­ing that report. There was cer­tain­ly noth­ing in what they said that sub­stan­ti­at­ed the claim that Iran is deter­mined to devel­op and pos­sess nuclear weapons. All the report said was that, in the past and maybe to a lim­it­ed extent since 2003, Iran has con­duct­ed cer­tain research work that would be rel­e­vant to putting togeth­er a bomb. That is not the same thing as say­ing Coun­try X is deter­mined to have the bomb.

We seem to be locked into a sit­u­a­tion where pol­i­cy is dri­ven not by ratio­nal assess­ments but by emotion.

I large­ly agree. Those emo­tions are under­stand­able because it must have been very upset­ting to have Amer­i­can diplo­mats held hostage. It must have been very upset­ting to have U.S. Marines blown up by Hezbol­lah in Lebanon and to know that Hezbol­lah was get­ting sup­port from the Iran­ian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards. Iran has done some quite unfor­giv­able things to the Unit­ed States, but Amer­i­cans tend to for­get the equal­ly unfor­give­able things that they’ve done to Iran. 

They sup­port­ed Sad­dam Hus­sein dur­ing that eight-year war, includ­ing sell­ing pre­cur­sors for chem­i­cal weapons and pro­vid­ing intel­li­gence. And in 1988 the USS Vin­cennes shot down an Iran Air pas­sen­ger air­craft with 290 peo­ple on board. Then if you fast-for­ward to 2001, when Iran’s lead­ers were I think gen­uine­ly sym­pa­thet­ic fol­low­ing the 911 attack and coop­er­at­ed with the Unit­ed States in the offen­sive launched that autumn against the Tal­iban in Afghanistan – how did they get thanked for that by Pres­i­dent George W. Bush? At the end of Jan­u­ary 2002 they’re brack­et­ed as part of the Axis of Evil. They must find the Unit­ed States a very, very bizarre and dif­fi­cult and con­fus­ing coun­try with which to have to coexist. 

Is this a sub­ject that diplo­mats talk about amongst them­selves in Europe?

The British For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Office and the British Diplo­mat­ic Ser­vice have become very sub­servient to the Unit­ed States, and peo­ple are reluc­tant to voice any opin­ion that could be con­strued as a crit­i­cism. This is part­ly the fault of our polit­i­cal lead­ers who, at least since the time of Tony Blair, have been over-awed by the Unit­ed States and reluc­tant to say or do any­thing that might pos­si­bly put at risk what they like to refer to as the spe­cial rela­tion­ship.” Things were dif­fer­ent when I served in Wash­ing­ton in the 1980s.

So where is advice to the Unit­ed States going to come from?

I would like to hope that one day Europe may com­bine to agree to a more inde­pen­dent line in rela­tion to Iran, and might then be ready to speak its mind to Wash­ing­ton. Speak­ing truth to pow­er can be pos­i­tive, helpful.

In Britain, our pol­i­cy toward Iran rarely gets a good air­ing in Par­lia­ment or among the pub­lic. Part­ly it’s because there hasn’t been much demand for a debate. Maybe that, in turn, is because the issue appears daunt­ing­ly com­plex, tech­ni­cal­ly, legal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly, to those on the outside.

Anoth­er one of those cas­es where there’s a very seri­ous pos­si­bil­i­ty of acci­dent­ly hav­ing a war that nobody seri­ous­ly talks about before­hand.


George Ken­ney, a for­mer career U.S. for­eign ser­vice offi­cer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. pol­i­cy toward the Yugoslav con­flict. He is now a writer in Wash­ing­ton, and host and pro­duc­er of the pod­cast Elec­tric Pol­i­tics.
Limited Time: