I spent the weekend reading a most interesting article by Mohamed El-Khawas on the Iranian nuclear controversy that has compelled me to critically reflect on the South African position on this issue and its foreign policy more generally.
While the Iranian regime stresses that their nuclear programme is for civilian purposes, as Mohamed El-Khawas notes the problem is that much of the technology used for civilian power generation could also be used for nuclear weapons as well. However the problem goes beyond mere dual use technology in that the Iranian government did conceal its nuclear program for eighteen years. It should be noted here that their failure to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is a clear breach of Iran's nuclear obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran also failed to disclose to the IAEA all of its uranium enrichment facilities. Other worrying indicators that Tehran may not be interested in nuclear energy for purely civilian purposes is the fact that IAEA inspectors discovered traces of highly enriched uranium far above the levels needed for civilian use. Moreover, El-Khawas also notes that Iran is building the infrastructure for nuclear weapons production, like the heavy-water reactor at Arak that can produce plutonium. Coupled with its advances in missile technology, these are ominous developments indeed.
There are still other reasons to hold a sceptical stance towards the Iranian regime's protestations of innocent civilian nuclear energy. These relate to Iran spurning various diplomatic initiatives to break the impasse. The EU-3 comprising the United Kingdom, France and Germany offered a proposal that would grant Iran far-reaching economic incentives, including access to and assistance with peaceful reactors. The US offered its own incentives, offering to reconsider licensing the sale of spare parts for Iran's aging civilian airliners and dropping its objection to Iran's bid to join the World Trade Organization. Russia attempted to break the deadlock by offering to enrich and reprocess uranium for Iran on Russian soil thereby meeting the energy needs of Iran. However, the Iranians chose to ignore these initiatives as was seen when Iran rejected the EU-3 proposal, unilaterally breaking off negotiations with the Europeans, and resuming its uranium conversion in violation of the Paris Agreement. The scene was then set for further confrontation.
Such confrontation was intensified with the inauguration of new Iranian President Ahmadinejad in August 2005 and the bellicose foreign policy he has embarked upon whose objective is the hegemonic domination of a volatile region. Far from attempting to defuse international tension, his regime has sought to escalate it. During the recent controversy around the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed, for instance, statements emanating from Tehran served to escalate tensions. The position of Iran was radically different from other Muslim countries like Malaysia that sought to actively defuse tensions.
This is a president who also suggested that Israel be wiped off the map. This is a president who also believes that an aura of light surrounded him whilst he addressed the UN. These developments clearly do not inspire confidence in the Iranian regime or the mental stability of its President. In the final instance, the international community cannot allow President Ahmadinejad's bellicose regime to possess nuclear weapons.
I find it incredible that despite the foregoing South Africa, at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board meeting last month, decided to abstain in the vote calling for Iran to be referred to the UNSC. South Africa found itself in a distinct minority given the fact that 27 of the 35 members voted to report Iran to the Security Council. One would have expected that as the only country to give up its nuclear weapons, Pretoria could have made use of its moral high ground to support the motion. This was not to be. So what accounts for the South African position? According to Abdul Minty, South Africa's governor on the board, Iran has demonstrated "a positive and continuing trend of co-operation". However Tehran has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with the IAEA for some time.
In November 2004, for instance, Tehran agreed in Paris to freeze its entire uranium enrichment programme until a long-term agreement was reached. Three weeks later, however, when UN inspectors tried to confirm Iran's compliance with the suspension, they were not permitted to put UN seals on some enrichment equipment at Natanz. Another possible reason for the South African abstention relates to the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM) position, which was cited by Minty. However other non-aligned heavy-weights like Brazil, Egypt and India voted for the motion.
Pretoria's cosy relations with the dictatorship of President Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, our "quiet diplomacy" with regards to Zimbabwe and our inaction at the worsening situation in Swaziland also mirror the South African position with regards to Iran. This, in turn, raises further questions about South African foreign policy. Where is the principled foreign policy of the Mandela years? Has South African foreign policy lost its moral compass?
The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Centre for International Political Studies (CIPS).
Professor Hussein Solomon is Director of the Centre for International Political Studies and lectures in the Department of Political Sciences, University of Pretoria.
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