Mutually Assured Madness

British Ambassador Peter Jenkins on the alternatives to bombing Iran.

George Kenney

Jonathan Landay and an Afghan soldier at the Afghan National Army base in the Jalez Valley in Wardak Province.

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 regime 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 regime 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 regime 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 9/11 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.


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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.
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