LONDON — The preemptive strike doctrine — that is, hitting the other party quickly when it looks as though it is going to hit you — is as old as mankind itself. History is strewed with accounts of daring raids to catch the threatening enemy unprepared, from the wars of Greek mythology to modern times.
But success does require the initiator to choose the right enemy and strike at the right time.
After the 9/11 horror the Western Alliance, lead by the United States, all agreed that the first target must be the Taliban in Afghanistan, a regime which had actually harbored and nurtured violent terrorists. Then it was suddenly decided in Washington that there must be another target as well — Iraq.
The proponents of this second strike would have done well to pause and look at the bigger picture and the possible consequences of their plans. Had they done so they might have noticed that it was oil-rich and aggressive Iran that would be the chief beneficiary of their strategy.
Iran previously had two main enemies — the Taliban to the East and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to the West. They had suffered regular attacks from both sides — including all-out war from Hussein back in the ’80s.
Now along came foreign armies to remove their enemies and do their dirty work for them. How the mullahs in Tehran must have marveled at their good fortune and these gifts from Allah. Suddenly the way was open for a gigantic expansion of their Shiite Muslim empire, from Kabul in the East to Basra and Mesopotamia (the land between the two rivers) to the West. Not since the times of the ancient Persian kings, like Xerxes, had the lands to the east and the west looked so inviting and accessible.
Further bounty flowed into the hands of the Iranian mullahs after 2003 as oil prices doubled, enabling external adventures and incursions to be amply financed and equipped with weaponry (of which the Hezbollah in Lebanon is only the most recent example).
So the American policy for building “a New Middle East” has certainly done just that, but not in the way intended. The new regional feature is an immensely powerful Iran determined to enlarge its influence still further, both by defying the West and extending its sway into non-Shiite (i.e., Sunni) regions of Islam, notably the Gulf States.
The symbol of this determination has become Iran’s nuclear-power program. Attempts by the rest of the world to block it head-on will certainly fail. With Iraq on its hands the U.S. has made an invasion of Iran impossible and the fall-back of further sanctions, now being endlessly debated at the U.N., will have little effect.
This means that the whole regime for preventing the unsupervised proliferation of nuclear facilities, as embodied in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, is now at severe risk, being flouted by both Iran and North Korea.
The essential feature of the NPT regime was control by constant inspection and monitoring, to which every responsible country which had signed the Treaty, whether it was one of the existing and recognized five nuclear powers or a nonnuclear one, would be subject. Both Iran and North Korea were signatories.
Now it is clear that this approach, while it may have worked well in the past, is at the end of its useful life. Perhaps the time has come to accept the inevitable and think of an entirely different angle.
What might this be? One interesting idea is that there should be set up a truly international and independent nuclear-fuel bank, in which all countries would deposit, or bank, their holdings of enriched uranium for nuclear power and which could also be the bank deposit for spent plutonium fuel — the most dangerous pathway to nuclear weapons. Those nations with surpluses might also wish to trade these through the bank.
Countries wishing to develop civil nuclear power — of which there is bound to be a big expansion in the coming decades — would be able to borrow fuel, under careful supervision, from the nuclear bank. The aim would be not to block all nuclear activity but to facilitate it, under global and trusted control.
A genuinely independent, worldwide, nuclear-fuel bank, with easy access, might look and more attractive in Tehran than recent offers to assist by Russia or the EU big three (Germany, France and Britain). It would certainly be more worth trying than the other alternatives of making incredible threats about the use of force against Iran (which would bring down the entire world’s energy and financial systems) or deploying ineffective sanctions, or even trying to foment internal revolution, which is said to be the latest American bright idea.
The one pressure that might make Iran more amenable to schemes such as the international nuclear-fuel bank would be a drop in the price of oil. The Iranian economy is in deep trouble and the government has only been bailed out by huge oil revenues. If these dried up Tehran would be compelled to take a more cooperative line with the international community.
A falling oil price would also solve a number of problems round the world, not just in Iran, such as in states like Venezuela or Nigeria or Sudan, where sky-high oil revenues have helped fuel anti-Western regimes. A clever American and Western strategy would be to go all-out for reducing oil imports radically, seeing the price slide and then coming forward with conciliatory offers to Iran, such as the proposed nuclear-fuel bank.
That would form the core of an alternative strategy for controlling the nuclear spread and neutralizing the destabilizing, “rogue” regimes round the world that might actually work. But will it be tried? Possibly, but not quite yet. Its time will come only when all other avenues are seen to have failed and proved unworkable.
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