Doing our bit to stop nukes post-APEC

Colin Rubenstein

Herald Sun, September 13, 2007
During APEC, Australia hosted a number of highly important guests, including US President George W. Bush, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese Premier Hu Jintao.
It is to be hoped that the Australian Government took the opportunity to encourage all three to make progress on an agreement to help halt the dangerous crisis surrounding Iran’s nuclear program.
Russia and China are the key to a new UN Security Council resolution to pressure Iran to stop its illegal enrichment of uranium.
Because of our recent deal to sell uranium to those countries, Australia was in a particularly strong position to ask them to play a more positive role than they have so far.
Such a resolution is urgently needed.
Meanwhile, US President Bush created headlines with what was interpreted by many as a hard-line speech about Iran.
In fact, the speech merely reflected reality.
Bush suggested, correctly, that Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons “threaten the security of nations everywhere”.
“And that is why the United States is rallying friends and allies around the world to isolate the regime, to impose economic sanctions.”
The reason this was criticised as “hard line” is because it did not jibe with the lesson many critics of Bush have drawn from the difficulties in Iraq.
They argue that to reduce the risk of confrontation with Iran, the focus should be solely on encouraging direct negotiations.
They envision a grand deal whereby Iran will give up its nuclear weapons program and support for terrorist groups. This deal would also help stabilise Iraq in exchange for recognition, aid, trade access, and security guarantees.
Thus, they argue, we can solve the nuclear issue and receive Iranian help to allow coalition troops to withdraw from Iraq.
But this whole proposal misunderstands recent history and the goals of the Iranian regime.
The international community has for years tried to use diplomacy to stop Iran’s march to nuclear weapons.
With US encouragement, the EU negotiated with Iran over its nuclear program for six fruitless years.
In that time, Iran stalled, signed agreements, broke agreements and generally failed to keep any of its obligations under international law.
Moreover, the US has repeatedly explored, through back channels, the possibilities of a direct diplomatic deal with Iran and been rebuffed repeatedly.
The reason is simple. The goal of the clerics who run Iran is not security, welfare, aid and regional stability, as Westerners often assume.
The theocratic regime believes it has a destiny and, indeed, a religious responsibility to spread its Islamic revolution and gain predominance in the region.
The West is viewed as the main enemy to be overcome in establishing a worldwide Islamic revolution.
Nuclear weapons and terrorist allies are seen as essential tools for achieving these ends.
It is often argued that Iran has an interest in stability in Iraq.
Perhaps, but only on its own terms.
Tehran wants Iraq to be an Iranian dominated, anti-Western state. It certainly doesn’t want democracy there.
That would increase pressure for reform within Iran.
Iran’s most important interest in Iraq is to see the US and the West pushed out of the region and humiliated as much as possible because this will vastly increase Iran’s own regional power.
Why then would they help the US stabilise Iraq to facilitate an orderly pullout?
Diplomacy alone cannot change Iranian behaviour. However, as Bush indicated, the West has considerable potential leverage using economic sanctions.
These can threaten the very existence of the unpopular theocratic regime, forcing pragmatic elements within Iran to rethink their policies in the name of self-preservation.
Polls show that the majority of Iranians not only want democracy instead of theocracy, but closer ties with the West.
The key to capitalising on this public sentiment is to marry meaningful economic sanctions against Iran’s energy industry (which provides some 70 per cent of government revenue) with the promise of benefits should Iran change its illegal behaviour.
The largely token sanctions already passed by the UN Security Council did cause important figures in Tehran to sit up and take notice, if not change course.
More significant sanctions might do much more.
First, Iran imports almost half its petrol because of a lack of refining capacity.
A recent move to ration petrol led to rioters burning hundreds of petrol stations.
Limiting refined petroleum imports would clearly worry the regime.
Even more importantly, Iran badly needs outside investment in its oil infrastructure.
Without this, oil production and the revenue the regime needs to survive will decline sharply.
Seriously pressuring these areas should cause Tehran to reconsider its course.
Optimally, China and Russia should help achieve this end. It is certainly in their interests, as well as Australia’s.
Hopefully, we’ve expressed this view to them forcefully and persuasively when we had the chance.
Dr Colin Rubenstein is executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council