I have recently reflected that my youthful passion for disarmament originated from a black and white sense of justice, and that I have retained it through the insight that acts of logical self-interest often lead to immense risk and could ultimately lead to the destruction of civilisation. While climate change and other environmental threats arise from our corporate materialistic lifestyles, the threat of nuclear proliferation and Armageddon comes from fear, competition and the quest for power amongst elites. The injustice feels more carnal, the universal threat more outrageous. And living in a nuclear weapon state, my personal anger at the situation has in the past been directed at my own government, complicit as it has been in driving others’ desire for the status and security we believe nuclear weapons have given us.
I believe I am not alone. CND, the leading public anti-nuclear campaign, has for example condemned the hypocrisy of the nuclear weapon states and defended Iran’s right to enrich uranium, neglecting the dangers associated with the spread of dual-use nuclear technologies. Justice is a powerful motivator, even when you’re running a campaign directed against nuclear technologies.
This week Iranians mark the 29th anniversary of the popular mass uprising against the oppressive and unpopular Shah in 1979 that became known as the Islamic Revolution. I have an uneasy and confused relationship with that beautiful and misunderstood country. I host a weekly peak-time political chat show on its main domestic News channel. Opinion expressed by some of my guests, and by myself at times, is sometimes hostile to the Islamic government.
Now, I bet that doesn’t accord with your prejudice about the nature of the state-controlled media in Iran. It certainly didn’t with mine when I started over a year ago. I promised myself I would not compromise on my liberal (largely) humanist outlook on the world, seeing this as an opportunity to broadcast contrasting perspectives on crucial international issues affecting the lives of Iranians. Because ultimately it is our lack of understanding of what the complex world looks like from differing perspectives that lands us in the mess we are in.
In many ways I am about as far from the ideals of the Islamic Revolution as one can be, but I see it as my responsibility as a global citizen to understand it. I have all but abandoned those early certainties that propelled me into the peace movement and the belief in Truth, preferring instead to try to understand what it is that drives people, and getting to grips with the complexities that confound rational thought. You might call it maturity; I wouldn’t be so presumptuous.
But if we are to respond to effectively the acute challenge Iran is making to the nuclear status quo today, as I believe we must, we have to understand the Iranian perspective. If we think our current strategy is going to physically prevent Iran from acquiring the technology, change their ‘rational’ or political calculations sufficiently to get them to abandon their enrichment programme, or persuade the Iranian people to rise up again and change their regime, I think we are sorely deluding ourselves. On the current trajectory, we will soon face the choice of a nuclear-capable Iran or military action.
Instead, we have to reframe the debate – and that means making a sacrifice to our traditional western ‘rational’ outlook. We in the UK often find comfort in cynical ways of approaching the world, confident that we are ready for unpleasant surprises. But strategies that we think reduce risk in a world of frightening possibility – having a British Trident submarine out on patrol at all times ready to unleash 350 Hiroshimas, applying sanctions or threatening worse against states that dare to challenge the status quo in the international system – help create by example, and by undermining disarmament negotiations, the very nightmare we prepare to deter.
If there is one possible good that can be salvaged from the diplomatic crisis that has been Iran’s nuclear file it is the lesson that the current system based upon nuclear apartheid is unsustainable in the longer run. Arch-realists such as Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, backed by Arnie Schwarzenegger, have come to realise this and are calling for serious moves towards a nuclear weapon free world, before it’s too late. And the British government, in the person of the Prime Minister in New Delhi last month, and the Defence Secretary in Geneva on Tuesday, have joined the chorus. Des Browne hit the nail on the head:
Our chances of eliminating nuclear weapons will be enhanced immeasurably if the Non-Nuclear Weapon States can see forward planning, commitment and action toward multilateral nuclear disarmament by Nuclear Weapon States. Without this, we risk generating the perception that the Nuclear Weapon States are failing to fulfil their disarmament obligations and this will be used by some states as an excuse for their nuclear intransigence.
Super Tuesday may not have produced a definitive result for the Democratic nomination, but it has emphatically underlined the hunger within the United States for change in the way America relates to the world. It can now surely be only a matter of time before this growing transatlantic consensus reaches the White House.