Sunday, February 11, 2007

Nuclear Poker

Byline by MJ Akbar: Nuclear Poker

The alter ego of a boom, I suppose, is doom. Failure does not have too much to worry about, but success has a great deal to lose. You can’t lose, can you, if you have nothing to lose?

There have been few contemporary success stories quite as dramatic as Dubai. Five decades ago it was not even on the urban map of the world, not much more than an antique port with a blind eye, the only address on a beachhead that survived because of international indifference. It did not even have a pot of oil. It still does not.

Today, its skyscrapers shimmer like an Arabian Nights miracle. If traffic jams are a modern metaphor for urban growth, then Dubai can put in a bid for a place in Guinness. From seven in the morning till past ten at night, a curve of tail to tail or head to head snake of blinking cars snakes along the hidden tarmac. In a remarkable display of imagination the rulers of this small principality have converted a strip of sand along an uncertain ocean into a business-cum-shopping-cum holiday haven.

Suddenly an unspoken uneasiness hovers over this dream. What happens if America and Israel, alone or in tandem, launch a military assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities this summer?

The reactor at Bushehr is literally just across the gulf. The fallout, once again literally, would be immediate as well as long term for the whole region. No one expects Iran to successfully defend itself against an American aerial missile and bomber invasion. Seymour Hersh, who broke the story of American preparations for just such an attack many months ago in New Yorker, reported that among the weaponry on the war games table was a controlled-impact nuclear bomb. No one has any real idea of what the radioactive fallout would be for Iran and its surrounding region. Central Asian nations do not have a clue of the collateral damage their children might suffer, and for how long. Gulf states have further concerns. The Americans do not have the infantry for a follow-up regime change even if the assault was perfectly successful. So the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would remain in power, at the heart of a polity created by the late Imam Ruhollah Khomeini. It does not need much imagination to foresee that Iran would target western business interests in retaliation, which are strewn within reach from Dubai to Doha.

It has taken a remarkable generation to create Dubai. More than glass and concrete, Dubai is a rare symbol of confidence in what was once dismissed as the Third World. What happens to the interests of Bush’s friends in oil and industry if Dubai’s durability and stability is corroded? What happens to oil and energy in the region if it is affected by radioactivity? Planners in Pentagon, the White House and Tel Aviv might believe that they have done their studies and the consequences are under control, or that the damage will be within acceptable limits, whatever that means. These are largely the same people who wrote fantasy scripts about flower-strewn streets in Baghdad lined by cheering crowds as George Bush was honoured by a ticker tape parade along the Tigris. The track record, to put it mildly, is not encouraging.
Nuclear poke requires nerves of uranium and no one is certain about the strength of any player’s cards. Everyone knows that Iran does not have nuclear weapons yet, but that is not the question. Has the facility at Natanz already crossed the point where its destruction would trigger damage in excess of Chernobyl at the very least? If not, will that point be crossed by October? Ergo, if there is to be a military solution then it must be before the end of this summer.

There is some comfort in the fact that Iran has moved away from unambiguous belligerence towards more nuanced diplomacy. At Davos in January former President Muhammad Khatami discussed a scheme with American and European delegates to this economic lovefest in which Iran would suspend enrichment of uranium for six months. This period would be used by a group consisting of members of the Security Council plus Germany and India to inspect and assess Iran’s nuclear programme and report back to the United Nations. In a related gesture, Iran did not vote against a UN General Assembly resolution condemning denial of the Holocaust that Hitler perpetrated during the Second World War. In Iran, senior clerics have condemned, publicly, uninhibited adventurism in policy, referring clearly to Ahmadinejad.

Is this good-cop-bad-cop strategy? Is Iran merely buying time, and if so, how much time? Another Security Council resolution is due in March. America will obviously seek to phrase this resolution in terms that make it a virtual authorisation for war if Washington chooses to go to war. Does Iran want to thwart it or dilute it without giving much in return? Is Iran waiting for winter, when the American presidential campaign season will make Bush hostage to domestic politics?

Everyone has the same list of questions. I suspect you might not find firm answers even in Tehran. It might be more relevant to apply a general principle while the players sit at the nuclear poker table, their cards clutched against their breast, their teeth clenched.

Nations might, in certain conditions, be martial or hegemonic, but they are rarely suicidal. Grievous mistakes, exacting a colossal price, are made, but not out of intent. If Germany in 1914 had known the impossible cost of war, and the certainty of defeat, would she have commenced hostilities in the First World War? If Bush had known what he knows now about the consequences of invading Iraq, would he have dared launch his "shock and awe" campaign? The answer in both cases is a clear no. The only thing certain about nuclear poker is that if there is a confrontation, there are no winners.

It was surely this thought that prompted Jacques Chirac to muse before reporters in Paris recently that it did not much matter whether Iran had a nuclear weapon or two, for if it ever dared use them it would be obliterated. (There was a meaningless retraction of this statement later.)

Vladimir Putin added his variable to the debate on Saturday at Munich when he argued that American violations of the rule of law and the policy of invasion had turned nations towards the weapon of last resort, nuclear power, in an effort to protect their sovereignty.

Pranab Mukherjee has just returned to Delhi from Tehran. He cannot be much wiser than before he left, because the answers to the difficult questions fluctuate with every changing shadow on any player’s face. What Mr Mukherjee did, with the confidence of a veteran, was to underscore the maturity of India’s presence at the table. India is a legitimate nuclear and economic power, and possibly a role model for Iran even if India may have no wish for such an honour. But India has a stake in the outcome of the game, and it is in its immediate interest that tensions be calibrated downwards. Apart from other consequences, a military confrontation would implode the world economy just when one section of India is rising from the economic atmosphere into the stratosphere.

After all, just one alphabet makes the difference between boom and doom.

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