Richard Reeves

The Gathering Storm in Iran

NEW YORK -- I have no doubt that the lying zealots running Iran these days are trying to produce nuclear weapons. And they are capable of using them.

These are bad people -- not the people of Iran, but the people running the country. During their long war with Iraq in the 1980s, the mullahs gave their own children little slips of paper they called "tickets to paradise" and then sent the kids running into minefields, blowing themselves up so that regular troops could advance into battle.

"Iran is not Iraq," said the Iranian envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Cyrus Nasseri, last week. "And the United States is not the self-appointed policeman of the world."

There is a great deal to think about in the declaration. Iran is much bigger, potentially richer, and more dangerous than Iraq. Iran is not bluffing about weapons of mass destruction, as Saddam Hussein was when he led Iraq toward its own destruction. Iran has been working secretly on nuclear projects for at least 20 years. The Iranians say that all they are interested in is peaceful production of power, but if that were true, there would be no reason for two decades of secrecy. And Nasseri is right about the United States. We can't deal with this alone, and if we try, sooner or later, we will have to seek a military solution -- trying to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities with air strikes.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which created the IAEA as part of the United Nations, has been generally successful since it went into effect in 1970. Forty-three countries, including Iran, signed on back then, inviting sanctions if they violated the treaty. In effect, they ratified the status quo of the day, when there were five nuclear powers, the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China. Over the years, 145 more countries signed.

There were four principal hold-outs, India, Israel, Pakistan and South Africa. With reason. Those four were working on developing nuclear capacity or were determined to beg, borrow or steal it. South Africa gave up its program and signed the treaty in 1991. North Korea, which had signed in 1985 but had a secret nuclear program, announced in 2003 that it was withdrawing from the treaty.

Despite those failures, the treaty, and U.N. inspection and enforcement of it, has to be considered a triumph for U.S. and U.N. diplomacy. The fact is that "the bomb" has not been used since the end of World War II. (Americans seem to forget that we are the only country that has dropped the bomb, but everyone else remembers.) Most countries signed because they wanted verifiable certainty that their neighbors were not developing nuclear capacity. Poorer countries welcomed the agreement because developing such weapons would break their economies. The non-proliferation treaty solved a lot of problems for countries great and small.

India developed nuclear weapons because it aspired to be a regional superpower and wanted protection against Chinese bombs. Pakistan, with the United States looking away, wanted protection against India. Israel, with the United States looking away, wanted protection against its neighbors. North Korea, with help from Pakistan, was buying protection against South Korea and the United States. Iraq tried to develop nuclear weapons through the 1970s, but their single facility was destroyed by Israeli bombers in 1981, a raid the United States and the United Nations publicly condemned but privately applauded.

Now Iran. Its reasons are understandable. Having nuclear weapons is a badge of adulthood in this world. It is also a protection against the power of "the West." Nuclear countries are treated differently; nukes get respect. North Korea, an outlaw nation, is trying to blackmail the world right now. Without the assumption that they have nuclear-tipped missiles, the North Koreans' bombast would be laughable.

The crisis of the day is real. The irony is, too. The Iranian situation, complicated by the fact that it is an oil-producing country feeding the dependency of countries that would otherwise be its adversaries, starkly illustrates the inherent weakness of American unilateralism. Superpower is not enough. The United States, the West and the world have to try to persuade or bribe Iran to play by world rules. The alternative is preventive war on some level, and we are seeing the results of that policy just across the border in Iraq.

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