While American news media and University Presidents were trying to decide whether Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be best characterized as the devil incarnate, a petty dictator, or just plain mad, he managed to deliver himself of at least one truth during his New York visit - "the nuclear bomb is of no use," he said. Whether Iran will honor that truth is of course another matter.
When Ahmadinejad was asked on 60 minutes for a firm answer to the question of Iran's pursuit of a nuclear bomb, his first response was to equivocate: "Well, you have to appreciate we don't need a nuclear bomb What needs do we have for a bomb?" Then when pressed for a firm answer, he said: "It is a firm 'No.' I'm going to be much firmer now, in political relations right now, the nuclear bomb is of no use; if it was useful it would have prevented the downfall of the Soviet Union; if it was useful it would resolved the problem the Americans have in Iraq. The time of the bomb is passed."[i]
Nuclear diehards, in places like Washington, Beijing, and Delhi, among others, may beg to differ, but world opinion and witnesses from Henry Kissinger[ii] to the Dalai Lama know that Ahmadinejad is right on that particular score - indeed, Ronald Reagan made the same point, describing nuclear weapons as "totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, possibly destructive of life on earth and civilization."[iii]
Ahmadinejad may have something else in common with Reagan - that is, a public disavowal of nuclear weapons is not necessarily what guides his country's action. By now a reasonable interpretation of Iran's nuclear programs is that it is intent on using the pursuit of civilian nuclear power to acquire a nuclear weapons capability or option, as distinct from an actual weapon. And there is little doubt that Iran will eventually attain that capability. But there is a genuine difference between "capability" and "possession" - Japan being the best example of a country with the capability together with a firm policy not to convert that capability into a weapon. It is at this line of distinction that the international community and the non-proliferation regime do and must make their stand.
One can understand the desire to prevent any regime linked to the kind of world view offered by Ahmadinejad in New York, even if the tone was somewhat muted, from getting near any kind of advanced nuclear technology. But non-proliferation is a rules based endeavor and it is to our collective benefit if Iran develops its nuclear fuel cycle technologies[iv] within the non-proliferation regime and under the watchful eye of IAEA safeguards (essentially the current situation, once the IAEA's outstanding issues are all dealt with) rather than have it withdraw from the NPT and resume its clandestine activities.
The Bush Administration has been trying to draw the line before capability, and that would be a far superior approach were it not pursued as an Iran-specific strategy - or an enemies-only approach. Nuclear non-proliferation would be genuinely aided by universal restrictions on uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, but that will be possible only if the rules apply equally to all and reactor fuel production is brought under multilateral control that guarantees all states in good standing within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) equal access.
Furthermore, limiting Iran's pursuit of nuclear fuel cycle technology, and the implicit weapons capability that goes along with it, will by definition have to be regional. Indeed, that has been the focus of multilateral nonproliferation efforts, especially since 1995 when NPT states defined the collective objective of establishing the Middle East as a nuclear weapon free zone in the context of a zone free of all weapons of mass destruction.
A nuclear armed Iran can and must be averted, but it will require the even-handed application of multilaterally agreed non-proliferation principles and won't be achieved through narrowly-targeted, Iran-specific prohibitions.
[i]"Ahmadinejad: Iran Not Walking Toward War; Iranian Leader Tells Scott Pelley His Country Does Not Need Nuclear Weapons," 60 Minutes, CBS News, September 23, 2007 (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2007/09/20/60minutes/main3282230.shtml).
[iii] Quoted by Kissinger, et al above.
[iv] Technologies with immediate civilian but also potential weapons applications.