Resorting to force is simply not realistic

By Michel Rocard

Haaretz

Adar 14, 5767

North Korea's agreement to give up its military nuclear program was a huge success for the international community. Admittedly, the country's dire economic condition and its urgent need for energy made the agreement venal in a way. But North Korea's decision nonetheless demonstrated the virtues and efficacy of diplomacy, which brings us once again to the case of Iran.

French President Jacques Chirac recently implied that we should not overestimate the seriousness of Iran's possessing nuclear weapons. I disagree. It is true that possessing such weapons does not mean using them, that for 15 years the world has had eight nuclear powers and that nuclear force has not been used since 1945. But it is also true that Iran's emergence as the ninth nuclear power would provoke a regional and global upheaval, dangerously aggravate fears and suspicions and confront the international community with a profound crisis of vision and policy.

So, what can we do? First, resorting to force is simply not realistic. A nuclear strike would have incalculable consequences, and the Muslim world would in this case stand together. Nor is a conventional attack possible, as Israel has no common border with Iran and most of the American army is tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is therefore absolutely necessary to explore diplomatic avenues. Their success would be guaranteed if the international community, especially the United States, clearly understands and admits their necessity, and supports them firmly and completely. For example, economic sanctions, to which Iran is very sensitive, could be tightened, with a commitment not to resort to military force, thus facilitating Russian and Chinese approval.

The only possible framework for negotiations is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), concluded in 1968. Iran was one of the first countries to sign and it cooperated with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for more than 30 years - a relationship that deteriorated only in the last three years. But the current climate of mutual wariness between Iran and the self-proclaimed triad of Germany, Great Britain and France (with sporadic U.S. support) is not propitious to effective negotiations.

The West's aim, announced by the U.S. and adhered to by the triad, is to force Iran to give up uranium enrichment. Yet the NPT is clear: Any signatory that gives up nuclear weapons and accepts the IAEA's absolute and unconditional control is entitled to produce electric energy from civil nuclear sources, and to receive technical and financial support from the international community, if necessary. Iran's oil resources are not infinite and it wants to have complete control over the civil nuclear field - a basic right as an NPT signatory.

I cannot see how a negotiation aimed at getting Iran to unilaterally renounce a right recognized for all NPT signatories simply in order to build confidence in the West could be successful. Uranium enrichment is certainly the first condition for making bombs, but the level of enrichment must reach about 95 percent, compared to the 3.5 percent needed for energy production.

Are the international scientific community and the IAEA really incapable of providing indicators and criteria that would allow the international community to differentiate between two types of industrial operations? For example, forty years ago, when fear of nuclear proliferation was new, my teacher and friend Vassili Leontief, who invented the macroeconomic table of inter-industrial flows, argued that the best indicator of an illegal arms program is massive electricity consumption.

The Iranian government has never publicly expressed a will to possess nuclear weapons. In fact, it has offered several times to accept IAEA monitoring and has suggested that its civil nuclear program would be carried out with international cooperation.

So far, the West has rejected everything, on the pretext that any uranium enrichment would indicate a military program. Although this stance is technically wrong, it is strategically rational, given the West's wariness regarding Iran's true intentions.

I recently met in Paris with Iran's ambassador to France and I began our encounter brusquely: "So, you really want this bomb, Ambassador?" His answer deserves consideration. "Of course not," he replied. "You know very well that the actual ambition of my country is to achieve regional leadership. If we had the bomb, the relationships with all our neighbors would immediately deteriorate."

As everybody knows, ambassadors are paid to lie. The West's wariness is well-founded and we have no reason to renounce our mistrust. But that should not prevent us from exploring all scenarios.

If we interpret the NPT correctly, we can launch negotiations with Iran that would quickly reveal the sincerity of its official stance.

Michel Rocard, former prime minister of France and leader of the Socialist Party, is a member of the European Parliament.