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Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God (Matthew 5:9)

The Nuclear Iran saga has so far developed quite predictably. Both sides have dug their heels in on their red lines – the United States (and Israel) will not accept a nuclear Iran, while the Islamic Republic will not surrender its right to enrich uranium. The West, with no diplomatic options left, passed sanctions against Tehran in the hope that unrest among the people would destabilise the regime and initiate a rethink on the country’s nuclear policy (let’s not pretend that generic economic sanctions do anything more than hurt the population). Simultaneously, the United States and Israel seem to be playing good cop, bad cop – Washington seems to be the only restraint on a Benjamin Netanyahu raring to have a go at Iran’s nuclear facilities. It is interesting to note that ex-servicemen are advocating more patience while those active in Israel’s intelligence and armed services are pushing for a strike “before it is too late.”

Iran analysts are generally agreed, Matthew Kroenig being the notable exception, that military action against the intractable ayatollahs would be inconceivable. Many are also opposed to the economic sanctions against Iran, arguing that its effect on the Iranian people will be disproportionately greater than on the nuclear conclave and the clerics. Yet while abhorring military action and rejecting sanctions, the peacemakers have not articulated any new solutions. Diplomacy, they say. But the United States (and Israel) will accept nothing short of an immediate cessation of uranium enrichment by Iran, preferably followed by negotiations wherein Iran would renounce its rights to enrichment and reprocessing (ENR), and Iran is not about to give up what it sees as the only insurance against uninhibited US interference in its internal and regional affairs. The kind of far-reaching diplomacy that is being pushed is simply not possible in this climate; beyond the need to save face, Washington has spurned such offers in the past. Now, for either side to even consider the the other side’s proposal, there has to be an element of trust involved, a commodity in very short supply in the Middle East.

One also gets the sense that perhaps some peacemakers are questioning why Iran cannot legitimately pursue a nuclear power and/or propulsion programme. Such projects would certainly require enrichment technology, and it is unlikely that Iran would consent to importing enriched uranium in perpetuity due to the strategic dependency it would create. Yet if Iran acquired such technology or improved on it, it would put them within easy grasp of making nuclear weapons on short notice, known as breakout capability in the lingo. To truly institute a system whereby Iran (or any other country) can develop, posses, and enhance ENR would be a body blow to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as it stands today; to make such an exception for Iran would result in similar damage. While George W Bush could argue in India’s case that India did not have ties to terrorist networks and did not engage in nuclear commerce outside of IAEA stipulations, any leader would be hard-pressed indeed to make the same case for Tehran.

If changing the NPT is indeed the veiled implication of the peacemakers, then they deserve much praise – scrapping or significantly modifying the NPT is a gargantuan and utterly thankless task, not to mention deeply unpopular among large sections of government, academia, and the policy bubble. Yet the NPT’s drawbacks are neither few nor insignificant, and the trouble the US is having in concluding “gold standard” nuclear cooperation agreements (123) with other states is indicative of more troubles still to come. The non-proliferation lobby, however, has been strenuously pushing for even stricter standards in nuclear commerce and were implacable in their opposition to the Indian exception (2008).

The idea of a more pragmatic NPT was indeed floated during Bush 43’s presidency. There was a small clique of senior officials who felt that the NPT was a relic of the Cold War and had outlived its usefulness. While disagreeing with Kenneth Waltz’s 15 ≤ n ≤ 20 (where n is the number of nuclear weapons states) idea, the sentiment was, nonetheless, that there was room within the spirit of the NPT to renegotiate the terms into a more inclusive framework that enhanced commerce but remained firm on non-proliferation goals. Amending the NPT, however, was ultimately seen as too big a task, a bridge too far.

As a thought exercise, one must ask what a world without the NPT would be like. If the NPT were scrapped today and the nuclear trade infrastructure was composed only of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) guidelines and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) protocols, the reduced framework would essentially be an end-user certificate. This is, in many ways, returning to the pre-NPT world of bilateral and multilateral agreements but with the added force of a community of nuclear materials suppliers. Such a system facilitates nuclear commerce and also maintains a check on nuclear facilities worldwide. Furthermore, it avoids the hypocrisy of nuclear apartheid that has been enshrined in the NPT (which, by the way, has done little to prevent Sino-Pakistani nuclear collusion). Most importantly, it recognises that as security concerns change, states become more or less willing to acquire nuclear weapons (Pakistan, South Africa). It would not be, as some like to portray, the end times, with every state a nuclear weapons state. States that do go down the weaponisation route will present diplomatic challenges (as they do now under the NPT regime) and will have to negotiated with on a case-by-case basis. However, such negotiations will not be under an odious and unequal law which allows some states to possess nuclear weapons and forbids others; it would not be a system that serves to reiterate that military strength is the ultimate gold standard.

Understandably, Iran is the case study du jour for the peacemakers. Yet if they do harbour some reservations about the NPT, they should not hesitate to voice them – at the very least, it will get more pragmatic minds thinking on the puzzle. So far, they have opposed bombing and economic sanctions, but they (or anyone else) have not noticed that there is no carrot in the diplomatic approach. Full-spectrum negotiations cannot be held in a hostile atmosphere, but if serious sweat was invested in a new treaty, an NPT 2.0, so to speak, it might signal that change was coming. Of course, if the peacemakers do not imply any of these and are simply relying upon hope that the crisis will defuse itself, they would do well to heed Thucydides’ lesson: You are convinced by experience that very few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought.