Iran’s president showing real magnanimity in extending a hand to Obama

Opinion: There is no evidence of any breach of international agreements by Tehran

President Rouhani addressing the UN in New York this week. Photograph: AP

There has been little recognition of the magnanimity of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's speech to the United Nations on Tuesday in which he agreed to negotiations on the country's nuclear programme despite the fact that there is no evidence that Iran is manufacturing or has an intention to manufacture nuclear weapons and is not in breach of any international agreement.

The absence of evidence of a breach has not prevented the United States and its allies claiming, insistently, that Iran is determined to become a nuclear weapons power and has programmes in place to make this happen. Nor has it led to the mainstream media questioning the rationale for the sanctions which have devastated the Iranian economy.

Meanwhile, the western powers ignore clear breaches of the Non Proliferation Treaty by Israel and India. Indeed, the US conspires to ignore Israel's nuclear arsenal and has assisted both countries in developing weapons of mass destruction.

Britain's foreign secretary William Hague, after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Mohammed Javad Zarif, in New York, said that Iran "must match its new talk of improving relations with the international community with actions".


Israeli brazenness

The Israeli government has indicated that an Iranian bomb "could be months away" and expressed "concern" that a meeting between Rouhani and US president Barak Obama would encourage Iran to press ahead with production of nuclear weapons. The brazenness is breathtaking.

Rouhani said nothing at the UN which has not been the position of his country all along – including of Rouhani's predecessor, the eccentric Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. More significantly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, at a summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in August last year, repudiated possession of nuclear weapons: "The elimination of catastrophic weapons . . . is an urgent necessity . . . I stress that the Islamic Republic has never been after nuclear weapons."

The fact that the ayatollah has ultimate authority over foreign policy is frequently cited as evidence of a flawed democracy in Iran. But if the ayatollah has such authority, his words must carry great weight. His declaration, however, is scarcely ever acknowledged in assessments of the Iranian position.

In their recently published but generally ignored book, A Dangerous Delusion, Peter Oborne and David Morrison set out the provisions of the treaty in detail. It decrees that states which possess nuclear weapons are allowed to keep them but are not obliged to accept monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Authority, whereas countries which do not possess nuclear weapons are forbidden to acquire them and are obliged to accept the watchdog's inspections. This hardly seems fair. But the relevant point is that Iran has complied with the treaty.

Even US intelligence agencies accept this. America’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) reported in November 2007: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons programme.” Whether Iran had a weapons programme prior to 2003 is a separate question.

President George W Bush, in his memoir, Decision Points, recalls that the report made him "angry . . . The NIE didn't just undermine diplomacy. It also tied my hands on the military side . . . After the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons programme?"

There has been no change in the assessment of the NIE since.

The reason the US opposes Iran’s legitimate development of nuclear energy has little to do with fear of an “Islamic bomb” and a lot to do with the hostility (until now anyway) of the Tehran government to US policy in the region.

In 1974, then US president Gerald Ford “endorsed Iranian plans to build a massive nuclear energy industry” and offered to supply the repressive Tehran regime of the western-aligned Shah with “a US-built reprocessing facility for extracting plutonium from nuclear reactor fuel”.

Both countries were well within their rights. The NPT not only permits non-nuclear states to acquire a nuclear energy capacity for peaceful purposes but lays it as a duty on countries possessing nuclear weapons to assist them.

Impact of sanctions

Countries taking advantage of this provision, as Iran has desired to do, include Brazil and the Netherlands.

What has happened in New York this week is that Iran has bowed to the pressure of sanctions and, in effect, agreed to discuss dismantling its nuclear energy programme despite not being required under international law to do so.

Much has been made of the supposed new conciliatory stance of the US towards Iran. But the wonder is that Rouhani has been willing to swallow Iran’s reasonable anger at US bullying and extend a hand of friendship to the Obama administration.