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The misplaced fixation on Iran as nuclear threat

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Is the world actually bolstering the legitimacy of the egregious government of Iran?

According to Payam Akhavan of McGill and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, two highly reputable voices writing in the Globe this week, the best way to buttress its legitimacy is "the nuclear controversy and threats of war with Israel and the United States." They argue that in reality the "biggest threat to the regime" is not Iran's foreign enemies at all but the Iranian people themselves. "Bombs cannot bring democracy but a popular uprising can."

By this reckoning, many of the strategies and most of the belligerent rhetoric aimed at stopping Iran's potential nuclear weapons program, not to say dislodging its rulers, is dangerously counter-reproductive.

It's useful to contextualize the central issue of Iran's nuclear capacity. Last week, to the resounding silence of most media, the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) published its 2012 Yearbook, which includes an assessment of the world's arsenal of nuclear weapons.

"At the start of 2012, eight states possessed approximately 4400 operational nuclear weapons. ... If all nuclear warheads are counted -- operational warheads, spares, those in both active and inactive storage, and intact warheads scheduled for dismantlement -- the USA, Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan and Israel together possess a total of approximately 19,000 nuclear weapons."

SIPRI acknowledges that much of the information on the subject is notoriously unreliable, especially related to the nuclear arsenals of the three states that have never been party to the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): India, Pakistan and Israel. But based on all the evidence it can accumulate, it believes the following data to be as good as we can get:

These numbers seem to me absolutely terrifying, not least since they are largely treated with such eerie indifference. But more chilling still are two other of the report's key findings. First, all five "legally recognized nuclear weapon states", as defined by the NPT -- China, France, Russia, Britain and the United Sates -- appear determined to remain nuclear powers for the indefinite future. Second, they are all undertaking major modernization programs of their nuclear capability.

It's true that Russia and the United States, which possess by far the two largest nuclear-weapon arsenals, are reducing their nuclear forces, consistent with the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Yet at the same time, and ominously, both also have major modernization programs under way for nuclear delivery systems, warheads and production facilities. And though the nuclear arsenals of China, France and Britain are much smaller, all are also developing new weapons or have plans to do so. All five want more bang for the buck. But then, who doesn't?

"India and Pakistan are increasing the size and sophistication of their nuclear arsenals," while "Israel continues to maintain its long-standing policy of nuclear opacity, neither officially confirming nor denying that it possesses nuclear weapons. However, it is widely believed to have produced plutonium for a nuclear weapon arsenal. Israel may have produced non-strategic nuclear weapons, including artillery shells and atomic demolition munitions, but this has never been confirmed."

As for the ever-creepy North Korea, SIPRI notes that though it has "demonstrated a military nuclear capability, there is no public information to verify that it possesses operational nuclear weapons."

Now let's step into an Iranian's shoes for a moment. Not necessarily those of a religious fanatic or even a noisy politician, but just an ordinary Iranian. Like one of the millions the Globe's Paul Koring recently found in an unexpectedly "boisterous and booming" Teheran, "capital of a nation defiantly proud of its history, culture and heritage and intent on reasserting itself as the region's most powerful player." How might you feel that just about every Tom, Vlad and Asif have nuclear weapons while you're even begrudged nuclear energy? Is every one of those countries more trustworthy than yours?

How do you like being denounced by the very nations who are modernizing their own nuclear warfare capacity? What do you think when those assigned to "negotiate" with your country -- the P5+1 group, i.e. the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany -- are (except for Germany) at the top of the SIPRI list of the world's nuclear forces, and all five are among the world's leading arms merchants to boot?

We may know little about Iran's geography, but most Iranians do. Take a look for yourself. How would you feel if a nearby nation that refuses to reveal a thing about its own nuclear arsenal threatened to attack you over nuclear weapons you don't have? What do you think about four of the world's known nuclear powers -- Pakistan, Israel, India and Russia -- all being in your neck of the woods?

How might you feel knowing that in the United States, the nuclear power furthest away from you, the most heavily armed nation in the history of the world, the same neocons that gave us the invasion of Iraq are slavering for an attack on your country? How do you react when you hear that other neighbours -- Turkey, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, among others, some of them your bitter enemies -- all are interested in gaining their own nuclear capacity?

So if we really expect the proud Iranian people to mobilize for peace, at minimum they need to know they are not being singled out for punishment and humiliation among all the nations of the world. They have the right to demand the present nuclear powers, which must seem to Iranians nothing more than shameless hypocrites, must reduce their nuclear arsenals on the way to eliminating them, just as South Africa, Brazil and Argentina have done.

Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations, ardently pushes the cause of nuclear disarmament. But reflecting life's sad realities, the Permanent Five, those who really control the UN, simply dismiss him out of hand. If they, plus their three nuclear sidekicks, flatly refuse to renounce their weapons, why should the world expect more from Iran?

Yet banning nuclear weapons for all nations remains among the great forgotten causes of our time. In January, based mostly on inadequate progress in nuclear weapons reduction, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its once-dreaded "Doomsday Clock" from six to five minutes before midnight. How is it possible that the world seems fixated only on Iran and not on the actual nuclear powers that are hurling us towards midnight?

This article was first published in The Globe and Mail.

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