Thursday, August 27, 2009

An Umbrella for Peaceful Nuclear Installations

Iran’s proposal to ban attacks on peaceful nuclear installations, whatever its merits in avoiding fallout or minimizing global tensions, is certainly a fascinating chess move. It makes perfect sense; only a warmonger wanting to keep his options open could reject it. Given what nuclear installations contain, how could anyone want to blow one up, releasing those contents into the air? (Well, some folks do.)

Note, however, that Israel’s Dimona, which most certainly is not for peaceful purposes, would not be covered.

Perhaps all this is just a smooth Iranian attempt to confuse global debate over the West’s latest sanctions threat. Whatever the purpose, Iran’s proposal raises numerous serious questions:

  1. If only peaceful nuclear installations are to be protected by this ban, how are they to be defined as “peaceful?” The obvious answer is via IAEA inspections! So, to get your local reactor protected, you have to accept IAEA inspections.
  2. Can we get the concept of legal vs illegal nuclear installations accepted as part of international law? At this point, Arak and Dimona, not to mention certain Indian and Pakistani sites, would clearly be “illegal.” Here’s a chance to develop a process for declaring them legal…and a reason why countries would want their sites declared legal.
  3. Is there a useful distinction to be made between legal and illegal military nuclear installations?
  4. The only country that actual has attacked nuclear facilities is Israel. If Israel were forced to comply, what would the effect be? Should we assume this would amount to licensing every state to develop nuclear technology with impunity or would the distinction between legal peaceful installations and illegal ones (i.e., subject to attack) be workable in practice? Might the clear legal option of, for example, getting Arak certified as immune to attack suffice to persuade Iran to permit unconstrained inspections? Might the knowledge that Iran could go that route persuade Israel to shift from “security through force” to “security through compromise?”
  5. Pushing Question 3 a bit further, is there a useful distinction to be made among three categories: for peaceful purposes (i.e., protected from attack), questionable (e.g., Arak), and for military purposes (e.g., Dimona; i.e., open to attack)? This would encourage those with questionable installations to get them verified. It would also answer those who claim that nuclear arms is the path to security: maybe not, if military installations only are open to attack.

Washington should say, “Absolutely. We would love to cooperate with Iran to institute this policy. We propose the following strict inspection process for licensing a nuclear site as “peaceful.” Whether you are a member of the NPT or not, you may name a site, request protection for it, and submit to the inspections (which will be intense, permanent, without notice). If Iran chose not to offer Arak, that would tell the world something. Such an international control regime would also send a message to New Delhi and Islamabad and Pyongyang.

For the West automatically to oppose a good idea just because it came from Iran and might have been suggested for nefarious purposes will simply confirm the impression many already have that “Washington only understands the language of force.” That is the ultimate rationale for weak countries to develop a military nuclear capability; it is exactly the opposite of what Washington wants.

It would behoove the West to behave more professionally, stop the endless threats, and try to figure out a rational global non-proliferation policy.

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