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Friday, May 13, 2005

Return of the axis of evil

The Economist:

An embarrassment for George Bush, and a test for his critics

YOU do not hear George Bush talk much about the “axis of evil” these days. That is no surprise. Rather a lot has gone wrong in the three years since America's president told Congress that it would be catastrophic to allow Iraq, Iran or North Korea to acquire weapons of mass destruction. From the beginning, the melodramatic phrase never travelled well. And after the intelligence fiasco in Iraq, which was discovered after being invaded not to have any especially sinister weapons after all, Mr Bush cannot be eager to cry wolf again.

But despite the phrase, despite Iraq and despite the understandable desire of Mr Bush to change the subject, the fact remains that the wolves are indeed at the door. In the coming days or weeks, the world may face a double nuclear challenge from the axis's surviving members. From North Korea, which quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, have come reports that the regime is preparing its first nuclear test. And Iran has just informed Britain, France and Germany that after six months during which it had suspended these activities, it will shortly resume converting yellowcake into the uranium-hexafluoride gas that can be enriched for a nuclear bomb (see article). It would still be several years from making such a weapon, but it would be back on the way.

If you want a multipolar world, do something

Should either or both of these events come to pass, note please that it is the world and not just America that will have to rise to the challenge. A lot of Mr Bush's critics will not see it that way. They will take satisfaction in his failure to achieve an aim he put at the forefront of his foreign policy in 2002—and they will argue that the example America made of Saddam Hussein turns out to have fed rather than curbed the nuclear appetite of Iran and North Korea. But that argument is magnificently beside the point. The point now is that both Iran and North Korea are unpredictable regimes whose possession of nuclear weapons would be dangerous in its own right and might also persuade other countries in their neighbourhoods to go nuclear as well. Whatever can reasonably be done to stop this proliferation nightmare should be done. And this, for all the talk of a unipolar world with one superpower, is not a job that America should have to do, or probably is able to do, alone.

After the war in Iraq, the British, French and Germans started to talk to Iran about a history of nuclear cheating under the NPT that stretches back 20 years and has cast deep suspicion over the regime's claim that it is interested only in peaceful nuclear energy. One European motive was to see whether there was a better way than American pre-emption to discourage rogue regimes from acquiring nuclear weapons. If the Iranians ignore last-minute pleas and resume converting yellowcake or enriching uranium, the European three will not necessarily have “failed” (though, again, some American critics of Euro-wimpery will say gleefully that they have): the Europeans can justly claim that it was a success of sorts to have talked Iran into stopping for a period. But it would be a failure to leave it at that. To be taken even half seriously in future, the Europeans must do just what they have promised to do in such circumstances, which is to refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council, with an eye to imposing sanctions.

During Mr Bush's first term, the Americans expressed private exasperation with the Europeans. They were impatient for action in the Security Council. Now that America may at last get its way, it will rediscover that the UN is no panacea. The Iranians, after all, have a case to make. They admit to having bent the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which supervises the NPT, but say that they have come clean and have every right to enrich uranium for peaceful ends. Iran's story of innocence is pretty tall, but it is one that powerful members of the Security Council may pretend to believe. Russia wants to sell Iran its reactors, China and Japan to buy its oil and gas. With oil at $50 a barrel, this is not the ideal moment to cut off one of the world's biggest suppliers. If the UN imposes sanctions at all, they are likely at first to be modest.

What, though, is the alternative? The Americans and Europeans have a bad habit of trying to scare the Iranians by threatening them with the Israelis: Congress, as it happens, has just approved the sale of bunker-busting bombs to Israel's highly capable air force. But although the Israelis do not rule out pre-emption as a last resort, they say they would prefer other countries to solve the problem politically. A military strike against Iran's dispersed, buried and concealed nuclear facilities might not succeed, and even if it did could provoke retaliation—with missiles against Israel or by other means against the American project in Iraq. As for North Korea, which is capable of flattening South Korea's capital even without using the nuclear bombs it may already possess, there is no military means of disarming it that does not look prohibitively dangerous.

In theory, the absence of promising military options should be welcome news to Russia, China and the countries of Europe that took such exception to Mr Bush when he seemed to claim a general right of American military pre-emption. But it also obliges them to find another way. China has helped to organise a desultory series of six-country talks with North Korea, and the European three squeezed that six-month freeze out of Iran. What the Europeans and Chinese have yet to do is show that they take the proliferation threat seriously enough to take any risks or make any sacrifices to avert it.

Now is their chance

In the end, there may be no way to persuade countries that are sufficiently paranoid to forgo nuclear weapons. But Iran needs access to world markets—not least in Europe—to provide jobs for a fast-growing population that has fallen out of love with the Islamic revolution, and a pauperised North Korea depends on China for almost all its energy. If these regimes faced credible economic threats at the same time as being offered the right sort of security assurances by the United States, the nuclear genie might yet be pushed back into the bottle. But this will take unity, co-ordination and statecraft of a kind the world has not seen for many years. And time is running out.


Blogger Gustav said...

Take the ride at Redneck's Revenge.

It seems to me the US take Jaques Chirac's word for Europe's, when it shouldn't. Europe is not FOR a nuclear Iran, and nobody agrees with letting them have nukes. That may be immaterial,as Iran may already have them, and war may be the thing to bring the Iranians to use them. Europe sees this as an opportunity to gain momentum for global de-nuclarization; first nipping these nascent programs in the bud, and then reducing nukes on a global scale. Americans I think will have to understand how their country's belligerence looks like trying to maintain their nuclear dominance.

I can understand the European's general reluctance to go to war. It tore their continent apart for several centuries. This is not whimpiness, this is experience talking.

A nuclear North Korea and Iran is intolerable. But it's too late. Now we have to deal with these nuclear threats -- and I'm no where near convinced that war is the answer -- especially with the US military spread as thinly as it is, and the seeds of reform already sown in Iran. That youthful population will be pushing for democracy, though perhaps more slowly than we'd like.

Are we willing to wait? Do we have the patience?

That's the critical question, and I hope the answer is yes. Europeans simply don't see the immediate threat the Americans do -- and I tend to agree.

Undoubtedly, that's a much too whimpy an answer for the right, and I'll be denounced as an appeaser, a relativist, and worst of all, being unpatriotic.

Fine. It's the same every time. The arguments will be made and the American people will have to decide:

Are they too scared to listen to their brains?

Whether or not we end up in nuclear war depends on the answer.

5/17/2005 01:22:00 AM  

Blogger Redneck Texan said...

where did my comment go?

5/17/2005 08:37:00 PM  

Blogger Gustav said...

I dunno. I saw your comment pertaining to this article on RR, but I never saw a comment of yours on this thread.

5/18/2005 09:28:00 AM  

Blogger Redneck Texan said...

I left a long one here. I seen that it posted, then when I came back in a few hours it was gone.

I dont remember exactly what all it was about, but I am sure it explained how the NK and Iranian problem was all your fault. ;-)

5/18/2005 02:56:00 PM  

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