Thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be easier if the US and Israel kept their side of the bargain, writes Richard Butler.

In recent months the US President, George Bush, and senior members of his Administration have asserted that Iran is involved in the clandestine development of nuclear weapons.

Last week Bush turned up the temperature during his visit to Europe, when he declared, on one public occasion punching the air with his fist, Iran “must not be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon”.

A month earlier The New Yorker published a disturbing report by Seymour Hersch that US forces had already entered Iran from Iraq to scope out prospective targets related to Iran’s nuclear activities.

The Pentagon expressed anger at Hersch’s report and attacked him personally, but did not directly deny its substance. Last week Bush chose to comment publicly on this matter saying that reports the US was planning to attack Iran were wrong, but all options were on the table.

There is good reason for concern about the directions of Iran’s nuclear program. In a manner similar to Bush’s remarks on his future intentions, Iran has also given contradictory signals, claiming that it was not making a nuclear weapon but had a right to do so if it chose to.

As a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty Iran is obliged to accept inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency to verify that it is pursuing no activities leading to the acquisition of nuclear explosive capability. Last week, the agency’s director-general, Mohamed ElBaradei, appealed to Iran to improve its work with the inspectors.

But Bush’s strident insistence on Iran’s treaty obligation glaringly omits the other side of the bargain made in the treaty, that the nuclear weapons states must progressively eliminate their armaments. Bush repeatedly and blatantly misrepresents the treaty, which is a two-way – not one-way – street. It provides that states which do not have nuclear weapons must never acquire them and that those which do have them must progressively get rid of them.

The treaty is reviewed every five years. At the last review conference, in 2000, the five acknowledged nuclear weapons states responded to the grave concern that they were not fulfilling their part of the bargain. They made a new promise that they would increase the tempo of their action to eliminate their nuclear weapons.

The Bush Administration has not only refused to adhere to its obligations under the treaty and the additional promise of 2000, but has now embarked on what is anathema under the treaty – the production of a new generation of nuclear weapons. These are the new, more compact, nukes the Administration says it needs for the so-called war on terrorism.

It beggars belief that the Administration appears to believe it can succeed in restraining Iran while it proceeds to violate its obligations. The New York Times recently editorialised to this effect, saying that in the contemporary world, nuclear weapons had become virtually useless. The main danger they now posed was of them falling into the hands of terrorist groups.

The US is not alone in seeking to maintain a world of nuclear “haves” and “have nots”. Three weeks ago Israel’s Defence Minister said it would be unconscionable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. This was more than a modicum of chutzpah from a country which, for more than 25 years, has had a clandestine nuclear weapons program producing about 200 devices.

The existence of the Israeli nuclear weapons capability has been a major stimulus to attempts first by Saddam Hussein (whose reactor the Israelis bombed in 1983) and then others in the region, including Iran, to acquire the same capacity.

There is, in fact, an axiom of proliferation. It states that as long as any state holds nuclear weapons, others will seek to acquire them. Those others now include terrorist groups and nation states. In making this latter point I would not want to give any assent to the sleight of hand used so successfully to justify the invasion of Iraq, namely that it was made necessary by September 11, 2001. Nonsense: the Republicans had planned the invasion of Iraq as early as 1998 and it has now been thoroughly demonstrated that Saddam had nothing to do with September 11 and that the largest intelligence “error” was the assertion about his nuclear weapons program.

The axiom of proliferation contains far more truth than the “axis of evil”. It rests on a gut human instinct – fairness. Simply, states are unprepared to believe that their security is less important than that of others. This was put to me repeatedly in more than 25 years of involvement in the treaty.

It is not acceptable to others for the US, for example, to claim that its security is so important that it is justified in holding nuclear weapons but this is not the case for other states, such as India and now Iran.

The axiom also means that the basic compact of the treaty is sound and that the only way ahead, whether in the context of Iran or any other potential proliferator, is for the treaty to be implemented. Those who hold nuclear weapons, including countries outside the treaty – India, Pakistan and Israel – should urgently devise safe means for their elimination and for collective action to prevent any future proliferation of new nuclear weapons states.

Richard Butler was Australia’s ambassador for disarmament 1983-88, ambassador to the UN 1992-97 and head of the UN Special Commission to Disarm Iraq 1997-99.

Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald