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A World Made Safe for Nuclear Violence, Again


There was optimism that the end of the Cold War also meant the end of the threat of nuclear war. The doctrine of ‘deterrence’ as a reason for maintaining nuclear weapons argued that peace was maintained in the world through a balance of power. That balance was stabilized by the threat of mutual annihilation; of course not a balance of power, but rather a balance of terror. It was this terror that we thought had become a thing of the past as the Soviet Union imploded and then fragmented.

Our optimism was brief. The furore around the development of uranium enriching technology by Iran is a case in point. It is indeed a troubling development when there is the potential to use this programme in order to develop nuclear weapons. Mohamed El Baradei in following the guidelines of the Non-proliferation Treaty is quite right to be concerned about the goings on there. However, making sense of this development, whether it is of a sinister nature as George Bush claims, or benign, as the Iranian government claims, must be placed in a wider context, which is not simply about the honesty of the leadership of Iran, but which is both a product and a reflection of practices that have unfolded in the world over the last few years quite independent of Iran, with consequences inside of it.

There are those who are quite rightly skeptical about the reasons for the ‘international’ concern with Iran’s uranium enriching programme. Surely, if possessing nuclear weapons in and of themselves are so problematic, then why are we not going to the security council in order to reprimand the USA, France, India, Pakistan and Israel? These skeptics note that if the rule applies, then surely it must apply equally to everyone. Seen from this perspective, the focus on Iran is seen as just the latest volley fired against Islam by the ‘West’. However, rather than being illuminating or explanatory, this view is symptomatic of the moment we live in. That this view is symptomatic of the moment we inhabit is more apparent when you follow that argument to its logical conclusion: “if they can have so can we, and if they have it, so should we”.

A turning point occurred in the run up to the war on Iraq and one of the many appalling consequences of that turning point is what we are dealing with now. Up until then the idea of pre-emptive military action was an agreed-upon taboo in the international community. Let us not forget that following the failure to secure UN-backing for an attack on Iraq, the United States opted for a new reason to oust Saddam Hussein- self defence.

Let’s be clear, the right to self-defence is enshrined in the UN-charter, in article 51, which explicitly states that “nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”

And herein was the problem for the US administration. The charter presumes that an attack had to have occurred. In the face of no direct or convincing evidence linking the 9/11 attack to Iraq, George Bush declared that it was now acceptable to use pre-emptive force: “If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long”.

And so a war was launched on the basis of a now baseless assumption that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Why? ‘Because he tried to kill my daddy’ was one of the tear-jerkers we were offered at the time, amongst others in that ghastly drumroll in the desert. This was a turning point since it has created the conditions for ‘deterrence’ to sneak its way back into policy doctrines of national security. The only thing, some countries who feel unpopular with the US will rationalize, that stands between us and an invasion is that we have something that will act as a possible deterrent to uncle Sam’s army. And the lesson of the Cold War was that nothing works better than a nuclear weapon.

What is at stake here is sovereignty. And, rightly or wrongly, some in Iran might feel that they could be a target of the United States, and that the only convincing deterrent is remains a nuclear weapon. Yes, we must argue unconditionally against nuclear proliferation, but we also keep in mind the actions that have set off this latest controversy. And those actions do not lie in Tehran, they lie in Washington. So, its not only that the rules apply equally, but that responsibility must apply equally too, if we are to resolve this crisis constructively.

SUREN PILLAY is a senior lecturer in the Dept. of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa.


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