IN UKRAINE the West has relearned the power of the nuclear veto – mutual assured destruction – and it will be a decisive factor in what it does if, or rather when, China attacks Taiwan.
Russia’s huge nuclear arsenal has crippled the West’s ability to defend Ukraine despite its claim that the future of the liberal world order is at stake. It will be similarly constrained in South-East Asia. Our ability to enforce a rules-based world is being visibly eroded by foes of democracy more resolute than us.
It is significant that the UN, the supposed arbiter of international conflicts, is a spectator in Ukraine and probably will be in Taiwan if it comes to war. Russia and China, as permanent members of the Security Council, have the means to keep the UN’s nose out of their business.
The permanent ideological tensions between the West and two other superpowers were in place long before Iran began its path toward becoming a nuclear power which it now is, to all intents and purposes.
At least we understand Russia and China, which means that mechanisms for dealing with them exist and are used to keep channels open. Washington and Moscow talk constantly during the war in Ukraine and there are free political, commercial and scientific exchanges between the US (which funded the Wuhan Institute) and China. There is some level of pragmatic trust between the sides.
No one can say this about Iran. It has been an aggressive, Islamist state since the fall of the Shah 40 years ago. Once it has a full array of nuclear-warheaded missiles in place, it will be a potentially rogue nuclear state pursuing ruthless anti-Western ends, including the destruction of Israel.
The West will not be able to count on the mullahs, who hold us in contempt, to abide by the nuclear veto. The fruitless years we have spent alternately placating Iran and failing to destroy it economically with sanctions have convinced the mullahs that they can exploit or ignore us according to the needs of the moment.
At present, they are doing both over President Biden’s attempt to revive the nuclear deal President Obama reached with Iran – from which President Trump withdrew – holding out the prospect of a chimerical signature while sabotaging it with last-minute demands. While the mullahs play this game, their scientists are putting the finishing touches to the bomb.
The US and its allies, stuck with the flaws of their vaunted ‘smart power’ – economic measures in preference to guns – are fending off threats to the liberal world order in Europe, Asia and the Middle East and to all appearances not succeeding anywhere. Smart power is a concept dreamed up by the EU to disguise its military weakness which migrated to the US under Obama.
Soviet era communists used to say: ‘What is ours is ours, what is yours is negotiable’, which pretty well sums up the unappeasable Iranians.
The Israelis have pleaded unsuccessfully with the United States for years to be allowed to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations, as they did Syria’s, something they could not accomplish on their own without having at least American logistical support.
Obama decided instead to reach a deal in 2015 which provided Iran with a legal path to operational nuclear status by 2030 in return for the lifting of sanctions and hundreds of millions of dollars delivered secretly to Tehran in cash. There were no guarantees the mullahs would not cheat, which they did – which is why Trump walked away.
The irony here is that Obama was committed to nuclear non-proliferation but himself pulled the rug from under any chance of achieving it. It can scarcely be believed he ever genuinely thought Iran would be a trustworthy custodian of nuclear capability or seduced into his vision of a Middle East alliance with the country it calls ‘the Great Satan’.
Biden’s effort to revive the long-obsolete terms of the 2015 agreement began in March 2021 with talks in Vienna and other meetings at which the Iranians refused to negotiate face-to-face with the Americans, leaving the actual talking to the EU and the Russians who have been allies of Iran all along. They are also supported by China, which buys their US-sanctioned oil with impunity.
On Monday, chief EU negotiator Josep Borrell tabled a ‘final text’ – the contents were not disclosed – for Iran to sign and which the US said it would accept, although Iran made no similar commitment.
The English language Tehran Times, which speaks for the government, said Borrell’s statement ‘raised eyebrows in Tehran and elsewhere’. It added: ‘This is while Iran has told its negotiating partners that it needs to study the text thoroughly. In other words Iran does not believe what has been presented by the EU is a final text.’
It is doubtful if the Iranians, who have settled into the rigours of a subsistence economy, even care about a deal whose terms they do not dictate. They negotiate to demonstrate their inflexibility but the goal is going nuclear to make themselves an indisputable world power on Islam’s behalf.
The apparent sticking point has been that the US refuses to delist the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. The Iranians want a guarantee that America’s next president – who may be Trump – will stick to any deal even if the terms are disadvantageous to the West. This is a promise Biden has no power to make.
In principle, the Americans reserve the right to unleash Israel to destroy the installations or do it themselves if need be, but the key work is being carried out in underground bunkers which Iran believes are proof against any bomb the West possesses.
The state of play seems to be that the West is on the defensive, unable to defeat Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, fearful of China’s timetable against Taiwan and helpless in the face of Iran’s intransigence. Israel is already a nuclear power and Saudi Arabia and Egypt will surely develop nuclear defences for themselves against a nuclear Iran. Anti-proliferation is as far away as ever.