The only viable approach to Iran's nuclear intent

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 August, 2006, 12:00am

If the world's powers want Iran to stop heading down the path of North Korea in making nuclear weapons, they have to ensure a united approach rather than the disjointed one presently being adopted. For inspiration, they - and Tehran - need only look to Libya, which has gone from pariah nation status to that of equal partner in less than three years.

The best opportunity comes on Thursday, when the UN Security Council's deadline demanding Iran suspend uranium enrichment or face economic and political sanctions expires. Details of Iran's response are not known, but already the US has expressed typical scepticism - and kept up warnings that hint of an Iraq-style military reaction should there be obstinacy.

Tehran's leaders gave no suggestion at the weekend that they would give in, speaking of their determination to enrich uranium, the fuel the US and European nations fear is being produced to make nuclear bombs. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, inaugurating a heavy- water nuclear plant, maintained the programme was for peaceful purposes.

There is no reason to believe Iran's leaders, given their anti-Israel rhetoric and financial and military backing of extremists like Hezbollah. They see in Israel justification for whatever their objectives - a nation that developed a nuclear energy programme and atomic weapons while not being a party to international safeguards and without intervention.

The blinkered international pressure on Iran while ignoring Israel sends the wrong signal. If the security council truly wants to lay proliferation concerns to rest, it must correct such anomalies and strive for the objective that the world's five major atomic powers - its permanent members - have promised for more than three decades, but shunned: full disarmament.

That those same nations, plus Germany, are now heading negotiations with Iran is, at best, hypocritical. Alliances - the US with Israel, China and Russia with Iran - would seem to ensure that whatever the response, it will be imperfect.

Best to look to what drove Libya to give up its weapons of mass destruction programmes on December 19, 2003, and make amends for terrorism and support of anti-western extremists. While no two situations are alike and therefore cannot be easily replicated, the foundations, built on containment and sanctions, but most importantly, diplomacy, can be.

In Libya's case, that involved a unified American and European policy driven by the US markedly softening hostility. Such a forthcoming approach towards Iran would similarly signal that it, too, can garner the benefits of engagement.

The process will not be quick, nor without concessions by all sides. But it is the only viable approach and one that the US and its partners must adopt to set an example to other nations that may have an eye on weapons proliferation.