Comment: Clock ticking on a nuclear Iran

Representatives of Iran, the US, China, Russia, Britain, France , Germany and the EU are attending the EU 5+1 Talks with Iran at the UN headquaters in Vienna. (AAP)

Nuclear talks between Iran and world powers have moved to the next level as negotiators begin work on transforming an interim deal into an ambitious lasting accord.

This week, talks commence in the Vienna round of the P5+1 discussions between Iran and Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the US  to try to resolve the international community’s concerns regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

The Iranian leadership continue to say that they are not wishing to produce a bomb. While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said nuclear weapons are forbidden under Shiite teachings, we must remember hypocrisy is the forte of the tyrannical.

Hope, as they say, is not a strategy. The stakes are immense; the debate must be had. The Iranians insist they are only trying to develop a civilian nuclear program for power and not to product weapons, but why should a repressive regime be trusted? Furthermore, given the increased likelihood that Saudi Arabia will begin their own nuclear program in light of perceived weaknesses in the Iran deal to date, the conversation needs to be mirrored to all unfortunate people who are trapped in dictatorships.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are intertwined with a wider set of geopolitical problems, with the US, Russia, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all conflicting factors in a strange amalgam of alliances and strategic interests.

Ethnically unique in the region, and a fiercely proud people, Iranians have paid a high price for the nuclear ambitions of their rulers. Internally, Iran is conflicted, with a complex political and military system with loyalties divided between the branches of government.

While it is certainly not wrong for Israel and other neighbours to be worried about existential threats from a nuclear-armed Iran, the West remains inherently self-absorbed. It’s unfortunate the diplomatic and media discussions of the talks focus almost exclusively on external considerations, generally ignoring the plight of 76 million Iranian people. We hear of the sanctions – which crippled the economy to get the Iranians to the negotiating table – but it is absurd that one is more likely to see a mainstream media article about the potential effect of the talks on President Obama’s legacy than to see one about the potential consequences to the Iranian people of a nuclear Iran. In particular, two key issues are rarely explored: the great difficulty for a nuclear-armed regime to be overthrown by its own people, and the risks posed by Iran by it lying on a cobweb of earthquake fault lines.

As is so often the case, George Orwell was well out in front in thinking about the consequences of the nuclear-armed state. Shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, he wrote a considered essay titled You and the Atomic Bomb, mooting the difficulty for insurrection:

The atomic bomb may complete the process by robbing the exploited classes and peoples of all power to revolt, and at the same time putting the possessors of the bomb on a basis of military equality. Unable to conquer one another, they are likely to continue ruling the world between them, and it is difficult to see how the balance can be upset except by slow and unpredictable demographic changes.

We ought to be prudential and accept the collapse of the Soviet Union as the anomaly rather than the rule, and also note the uncertainty regarding missing nuclear material following the chaos of the downfall of the USSR.

Watch: A time lapse of every nuclear explosion since 1945, by Japanese artist Isao Hashimoto

Dictatorial regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more in common as they do apart, namely maintaining their power. The potential for a nuclear Iran is also worrying for the people of Lebanon and Syria, who are essentially subjects of the Iranian regime due to their funding of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.

We cannot be equivocal: Iran is a brutal, repressive regime. Like all dictatorships, it is a front for kleptocracy: 60% of the wealth in the country is estimated to be controlled by just 300 people, led by Ayatollah Khamenei.

The capacity for disaster must also not be underestimated, with over 90% of Iran lying on major fault lines of both frequent and intense activity. In the wake of the the Fukushima nuclear disaster, seismic volatility should now also be viewed as a key consideration for nuclear deterrence – even for what the Iranian government describes as their “civilian nuclear program.”

Golnaz Esfandiari, Iran correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, says there has been little debate on the prevalence of earthquakes: “there are concerns, I've heard some expressing worry, especially after what happened in Japan but again, because of censorship and because the nuclear issue is a red line, you don't read much about it in the Iranian press.”

Ominously, Esfandiari reminds us: “let's not forget that people don't have a say in this.” She believes censorship is a key factor in the poverty of the internal debate. “The problem is that these issues are not being debated openly and freely in Iran so most people hear what the government has to say about it, they don't hear opposite views that often. There have been calls for a debate, but they've been ignored by Iranian officials.”

But what of the external debate? It’s difficult to say how to alter the tone given hostile American public opinion to a nuclear Iran, and the natural disposition of politicians and diplomats to the strategic. Major human rights groups have been silent on the potential internal consequences beyond the sanctions.

Orwell notes in his essay:looking at the world as a whole, the drift for many decades has been not towards anarchy but towards the reimposition of slavery. We may be heading not for general breakdown but for an epoch as horribly stable as the slave empires of antiquity.”

The 20th century unanimously showed us liberal democracy is the only acceptable form, but the post-Iraq aversion to neoconservative ideals of exportation of democracy are leaving our overseas friends exposed to ongoing tyranny, and the increasing possibility of its permanence.     

Elle Hardy is a freelance writer.

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