This interview was originally published on Al-Jazeera
There is renewed effort to engage Iran on its nuclear programme. Washington has expressed willingness to hold direct talks with Tehran, which marks a dramatic shift between the policy of Barack Obama, the US president, and his predecessor George Bush.
The emphasis on dialogue comes as North Korea signals that it is restarting a nuclear plant that produces arms-grade plutonium, and Arab nations are importing nuclear technology and assistance at an unprecedented pace.
Al Jazeera spoke to Richard Falk, the chair of the board at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, about Iran’s nuclear programme, its effect on regional Arab ambitions for nuclear power, and whether the Middle East will enter a nuclear arms race.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Al Jazeera: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, recently announced the opening of a nuclear fuel plant, and stressed Iran’s ability and right to enrich uranium. However, he also welcomed constructive dialogue with the US and other powers. What motives are behind his statements? f
Falk: I think it is difficult to assess the motives behind this kind of Iranian public initiative. It may be connected with domestic politics – the eflection campaign there – where Ahmadinejad is trying to present himself as a leader who has restored Iran’s stature and that this stature is associated symbolically with a robust nuclear programme.
It may also be a signal that though Iran seems receptive to resuming some kind of negotiations about their nuclear programme … this shouldn’t be made too easily.
It could be that this is part of a bargaining strategy by indicating that they already have enrichment capabilities and if they were to curtail them they would have to be given quite a bit in exchange.
Are Arab states pursuing nuclear programmes due to growing energy demands or does the perceived threat from Iran’s apparent capability to develop nuclear weapons play a role?
Often in these kinds of decisions the true motives are disguised and the public explanations are presented in the most acceptable, least provocative form.
I think that is the case here. Most of the rationale for these expanded nuclear energy programmes are almost always related to domestic factors, increasing electricity demand and the expense of importing energy.
It is hard not to believe, given the geopolitical climate in the region – not only Iran, but the Iraq war and other factors like Israel’s nuclear capabilities – that the geo-strategic factors have not entered into the motives of all these countries going in that direction.
Of course, they are also imitating one another. There is a sense that if you don’t move in this direction you are acknowledging you are subordinate or marginalised in the region.
There is also a prestige element at work. It is extremely hard to read the hierarchy of motives. In the background it is probably the way in which India and Pakistan evolved their nuclear programmes.
They developed over time and as a result, India began to be taken seriously as a world power when it crossed the nuclear threshhold.
Will the Middle East witness a race for nuclear technologies?
The background of all of this is the abandonment by the Arab countries of their earlier mission of seeking a nuclear-free region that are directed at weapons and combining it with regional security.
Perhaps it is an interpretation that Israel is never going to go along with the idea of a nuclear-free Middle East.
And now that Iran is at least a latent nuclear weapons state, it doesn’t make any sense to proceed in that direction anymore, rather to the extent that strategic considerations are at work.
It seems that the leading Arab countries think that they need to have their own long-term security. It should be a contingency option for them.
Arab leaders have implied that Israel does not want to see Arab countries acquire nuclear technology and has thwarted their efforts to advance their programmes.
As you suggested, the evidence over the years is that Israel becomes very nervous when any of the Arab countries move in directions that could challenge its regional military superiority.
Though that is sort of a remote prospect, the manner in which Israel views its relationship with its neighbours is such that it has consistently opposed arms sales of any kind or of enhancement of their potential capabilities.
Maybe Israel would prefer to see the Arab countries energy-dependent rather than energy-independent. I think it is consistent with the kind of regional hegemonic ambition that Israel both defensively and offensively assert.
Thirty years ago you called for a total renunciation of nuclear power in exchange for other pollution-free energy sources. Obama has also pledged to create a nuclear-free world. But is it too late?
I think it is already too late. A number of elements make it too late.
The first of which is this sense that alternative energy is indispensable for dealing with the limitations on oil supply and in the face of increasing demand for oil and gas, combined with considerations for climate change and combined with the fact that there is a sufficient commitment on the part of a sufficient number of important states that it is just implausible to think that this kind of total de-nuclearisation can occur.
The only thing that might give it a renewed possibility is another Chernobyl-type accident. Or several Chernobyls which would highlight the other aspect of developing nuclear energy – what you do with the waste and a variety of related things.
Jordan wants to maintain their right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). But the UAE has unilaterally given up theirs to prove their peaceful intentions to advance their programme. Should Arab countries be allowed to enrich uranium?
The US geopolitical discipline in relation to nuclear energy and weapons has faced a two-tier view of international legitimacy. Some countries are allowed to have the weapons and other countries are not.
Of the ones that are, most say that the others are not allowed to come close to the threshhold. At the same time, from the perspective of the international law regime embodied by the NPT, it was supposed to be consistent with having the complete benefits of peaceful uses, including the option to develop the nuclear fuel cycle.
You have a much stricter regime geopolitically than you do legally. The UAE is trying to conform to the geopolitical discipline or reality by assuring the world its nuclear energy programme is accepting international inspection and forgoing the option to reprocess nuclear fuel or have the enrichment capability.
I suppose the UAE is trying to make itself look like the optimal actor of how to ensure the energy security transition beyond the petroleum age. They also have the resources to pull off the kind of programme there.
Is it fair for ‘nuclear weapons states’ to tell others they cannot produce weapons without stripping down their own nuclear arsenals?
The fascinating fact is that they have been able to successfully for 45 years convince most of the actors in the world that they are better off going along with nonproliferation charades, rather than repudiating them.
It is based on this whole pervasive double standard that is embedded in the whole idea of nuclear nonproliferation and what I call the mind game that has been successfully played by the nuclear weapons states that makes us believe that the danger comes more from those who don’t have the weapons, rather than those who have the weapons.
Nuclear weapons states have not fulfilled the Article Six pledge of nuclear disarmament. It was unanimously affirmed in the advisory opinion of the world court of the legality of nuclear weapons.
It was divided on the issues of use, but unanimous on obligation to seek in good faith and I think they have not acted in good faith and fulfilled the real bargain. Therefore non-nuclear states, from a legal point of view, would be quite entitled to say they are no longer bound either.
Is it in the interest of these states, particularly Israel and the US, to work toward military de-nuclearisation?
I would think it is in Israel’s long term interest. It is particularly pertinent to the region because there are several dimensions of unresolved conflict, one important adversary posses a rather formidable nuclear weapons capability, others, particularly Iran have clearly latent potential.
So if one is thinking from the perspective of conflict avoidance or war prevention, it could seem that one is at a point where it would make a lot of sense to exert that kind of political pressure.
Israel talks a lot about attacking Iran, but that is filled with uncertainty and probably would generate a very strong backlash in the region and possibly even in the US and Europe. They stand to gain a lot by a reliable process of regional regulation, security, system of mutual non-aggression.
In that sense it exposes the unwillingness of the US to press Israel in the way it would press other countries, which is illustrative of another aspect of these double standard in nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.