CHIEF FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT
If you were in Baghdad for the shock and awe of March-April 2003, any image of the inferno on the banks of the Tigris has the power to stop you in your tracks.
There was another this week, illustrating a cautionary tale on how the West is repeating the same mistakes that led to a disastrous war in Iraq, as it now flexes more muscle than imagination over what's going down in Tehran.
That the piece, in Foreign Affairs, is co-authored by Rolf Ekeus should stop us all in our tracks. After his years in the squeeze between Washington and Baghdad, the silver-haired former Swedish diplomat's ''been there, done that'' savvy is instructive as, almost a decade after the invasion of Iraq, he detects an eerie similarity in the policy web in which Tehran is mired.
A director of the international program to disarm Iraq after the 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Ekeus sees the same strategy unfolding – sanctions and isolation, espionage and low-level violence to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, but with a longer-term objective of regime change.
''In Iraq, and seemingly now in Iran, diplomacy and inspections became a means to an end: building up a casus belli,'' he writes. ''The strategy failed miserably in Iraq … It probably will fail in Iran too.''
He does not dispute that Iran poses a threat. But in trying to corral Tehran with threats of war, Ekeus sees no clearly defined steps being laid down for Tehran to follow and, so, no incentive for it to change course.
The upshot is likely to be that Tehran junks the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its requirement for regular international inspections – ''the world [then] could miss the emergence of an Iranian breakout capability, or else blunder into another unjustified war''.
Ekeus argues that by early 1997 Saddam Hussein had completed the disarmament phase of the 1991 ceasefire agreement and the UN had developed a system to detect any violations, but then Washington imposed a new condition that ended any reason for Saddam to co-operate – economic sanctions would not be lifted unless Saddam was removed from power.
The rest, as they say, is history. UN inspectors were kicked out of Iraq; in the absence of the data they provided, dodgy intelligence was allowed to fill the vacuum and ultimately was used as the basis for a brutal and costly war about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist.
Ekeus urges Washington and its allies to rethink their strategy. That Iran's enrichment capacity is more diversified and robust requires them to strike a deal with Tehran because the alternatives are worse – ''military strikes will effectively remove the domestic [Iranian] constraints on the effort to develop nuclear weapons [and] Iran's weapons program will go from dormant to overdrive''.
Going back to the 1991 UN ceasefire resolution on Kuwait, he unpacks the essentials as they existed before the Clinton administration's regime-change add-on – sanctions linked to an initial inspections regime, which was to be followed by continuing monitoring in parallel with an assured lifting of the sanctions.
Listing the element on the negotiating table, Ekeus calls for cool heads and sound diplomacy – a Brazilian-Turkish fuel-swap deal under which Iran would have nuclear power without stockpiling the makings of a bomb; a Russian proposal to restrict Iranian enrichment combined with intrusive inspections; Iranian proposals to cap enrichment in return for recognition of its right to have enrichment technology and to see a gradual lifting of sanctions.
But he closes on the absence of incentives for Tehran. ''Any sanctions regime must contain clear and reasonable steps towards the lifting of the sanctions.''
The editors at Foreign Affairs have cannily twinned the piece, co-authored with Norwegian academic Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer, with a provocative, yet logical call for Israel to give up its considerable but undeclared nuclear arsenal.
It's worth noting here that a sleight of hand in the Iran debate is the constant refrain that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would be the start of a regional nuclear arms race – but that race commenced decades ago when Israel went nuclear.
Israeli security scholar Uri Bar-Joseph's argument is quite simple – Israel is the region's monopoly nuclear power; but at the same time, its conventional weapons superiority renders its nukes non-essential to its national security – unless Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
So, instead of boycotting an upcoming conference on making the Middle East nuclear-free, Israel should attend and volunteer to give up its nuclear weapons. All regional actors, including Iran, would be joined in a similar sacrifice.
''Such a bold move could set in motion a long-term process that might end the bitter stalemate over [Iran],'' he writes. ''Tehran would have no choice but to support the initiative and … Israel would be safer in a WMD-free region.
''It would maintain its conventional superiority and its ability to deter conventional challengers – all the while eliminating the prospect of non-conventional threats, such as an Iranian nuclear bomb or Syrian chemical weapons.''
Not expecting a leap by the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to embrace his argument any time soon, Bar-Joseph makes the point that just an indication that Israel was willing to go this route would increase the pressure for Iran to abandon its weapons program.
Declaring Israel's 40-plus years of regional monopoly on nuclear power to be increasingly untenable, he argues that any Israeli resort to military action against Iran's nuclear facilities would create pressure on Israel to abandon its policy of nuclear opacity.
''After all, the logic of using force to secure a nuclear monopoly flies in the face of international norms,'' he writes. Outlandish and all as it might seem to those in the Israeli bunkers, he concludes that moving towards a nuclear-free Middle East may be the price that the Jewish state will be asked to pay ''for the efforts taken by the international community to bail Israel out of a threatening situation''.
Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/world/iran-is-being-set-up-to-fail-just-like-iraq-20121027-28c80.html#ixzz2AX78U7ze