Review: Under a Mushroom cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb

Cogent strategy needed to confront Iran


By Emanuele Ottolenghi
Profile, £9.99

Emanuele Ottolenghi’s book is a curious mixture of plea and polemic, both supported with healthy doses of speculation. The plea — to European policy makers to prevent Iran building a nuclear arsenal — should be taken seriously, but so embedded is it within the polemic that it is in danger of being lost.

Ottolenghi’s basic point is that Iran’s nuclear programme represents a challenge to the international community and the viability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is of particular concern to the state of Israel, especially in the light of the anti-Israeli rhetoric regularly issuing from Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and sections of the broader leadership.

Europe is likewise concerned but, while it has taken the lead in seeking a diplomatic solution, the EU’s lack of cohesion and purpose has enabled Iran’s hardliners to pursue their nuclear agenda. Ottolenghi argues that it is vital for Europe to practise a more consistent and rigorous diplomacy towards the Iranians.

A more coherent EU strategy would certainly be welcome and Ottolenghi may be surprised to find that there is some sympathy for this view among Iranians themselves, baffled by the EU’s array of inconsistent ideas.

Iranians argue that Europe’s leverage could have been greater if it had distanced itself from the neo-conservative ideology espoused by the Bush presidency. And indeed it was difficult during those years to lecture the Iranians on international law and human rights in the shadow of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Ottolenghi’s view that Iran, as an exceptional case, merits exceptional treatment, is perhaps unrealistically rigid. His argument is not helped by the absence from his text of source references by which the reader could cross-check the many, selective quotes he adduces in support of it.

This lack of context --- so necessary in any examination of such serious issues --- undermines Ottolenghi’s credibility. He quotes, for example, one Arab analyst stating a preference for military action over determent with no reference at all to the background, conditions or context to what seems a very controversial viewpoint. Similarly, Ottolenghi clumsily juxtaposes a declaration of Ahmadinejad’s that Iran’s nuclear programme is “peaceful”, with the well-known dictum by Sun Tzu that “all war is deception”.

A chapter entitled “Iran’s deceptive practices” berates the country for failing to adhere to licensing agreements relating to engineering products bought in the West, without any suggestion that Iran may be doing this to circumvent longstanding sanctions, or how the Iran-Iraq war may have shaped opinions in Iran. Moreover, Iran (sanctions or otherwise) is hardly the only country guilty of this.

In a chapter on human rights, Ottolenghi quotes the American NGO Freedom House to show that Iran is on a par with, among others, Azerbaijan, Brunei, Egypt, the UAE, Oman, Pakistan and Qatar — and better than Saudi Arabia. It is clear from this list that, having a poor human-rights record has little bearing on your relations with the “free world” (and, in the case of the UAE, on securing a contract for the construction of a nuclear power plant).

Numerous unsubstantiated assertions do not help the cause. These range from that of the possible activation of “sleeper cells” to the remarkable claim that the Rushdie fatwa applies to everyone who has apparently insulted Islam. In the conclusion, there is a somewhat awkward assessment of Russo-Iranian relations which seems to suggest that Russia’s attack on Georgia last summer was driven by an anxiety over Iran’s quest for regional hegemony.

The more Iran is seen as a challenge rather than a threat, the more will be achievable in the long term. The less it is defined in exceptional terms, the better the chances of formulating a realistic strategy. Using fear as a basis for policy is to succumb to the very irrationality of which we accuse others.

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