Nonproliferation–the global campaign to prevent the further spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons–must be applied in a nondiscriminatory fashion to be effective. But the Bush Administration has been using nonproliferation policy to demonize foreign governments it doesn’t like and to manipulate US public opinion. The most egregious example was the totally discredited claim that Saddam Hussein was on the verge of manufacturing nuclear weapons–a claim used to manufacture support for the US invasion of Iraq.
Another example is the charge, made in 2002 by John Bolton, Under Secretary of State for nonproliferation, that Cuba had an offensive biological-warfare program. Many analysts viewed this claim as a thinly veiled effort to attract support among anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in the pivotal state of Florida. On September 17 the White House circulated a new intelligence estimate indicating that Cuba possesses a limited capacity to manufacture biological warfare munitions but is not known to be currently doing so.
It is against this backdrop of highly politicized nonproliferation policies that we must judge recent US moves regarding Iran, India and the two Koreas.
The crisis over Iran’s nuclear activities has been gaining steam since last fall, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Iran had undertaken a previously undisclosed effort to “enrich” natural uranium–that is, increase the proportion of the fissionable U-235 isotope in its total content. The Iranians insisted that these efforts were intended to manufacture fuel for civilian power reactors, but US officials, led by Bolton, claimed they were part of a covert Iranian bomb project. Washington immediately sought to punish Iran by bringing the matter before the United Nations Security Council, which is empowered under the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to impose sanctions on signatory states (Iran signed in 1968) that violate its provisions. But the major European powers, led by France, Britain and Germany, prevailed on the IAEA’s board of governors to engage in negotiations with Tehran aimed at averting a crisis. In October 2003 Iran agreed to suspend its enrichment activities in return for a European pledge to provide advanced technology for its civilian nuclear-power program.
Since then, Iran has shown itself more amenable to IAEA requests for intrusive inspections but continued to prepare the groundwork for a stepped-up enrichment program by manufacturing high-speed centrifuges and announcing plans to convert uranium ore into a gas suitable for use in such devices. This, in turn, has allowed Washington to reiterate its claims of a covert Iranian bomb project and to call for tougher action by the IAEA. On September 18, under enormous US pressure, the IAEA delivered an ultimatum to Tehran: Halt all suspect nuclear activities by November 25–the date of its next board meeting–or face the prospect of UN-imposed economic sanctions. Iran responded that if the IAEA proceeded down this path it would lift its self-imposed moratorium on nuclear enrichment activities and consider withdrawing from the NPT. On September 21, Iran announced it would indeed recommence its enrichment program.
If Iran goes further and carries out its threat to withdraw from the NPT, the global nonproliferation effort will be substantially undermined and the tempo of illicit weapons activities in the Middle East will surely accelerate. If George W. Bush wins in November, he is certain to step up Washington’s drive for “regime change” in Tehran, possibly conducting pre-emptive raids on Iranian nuclear facilities, or giving Israel a green light to do so (a move hinted at by senior Administration officials), or unleashing antigovernment Iranian militias based in Iraq to conduct armed attacks inside Iran, a course neocons favor. Such actions would strengthen the hand of reactionary clerics in Iran and provoke stepped-up Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq. These actions would also undermine any effort to adopt a nuclear-weapons ban in the Middle East that would include Israel–the only sure way to foster nonproliferation in the region.