ht an­swer to the sum of all fears

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

out of grad­u­ate school to be­come a full-time writer. His first book was about Shake­speare. His bold at­tempt to reckon with the stark is­sue of nu­clear weapons is not that of an in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions or strate­gic af­fairs spe­cial­ist. It is that of an in­tel­li­gent, ar­tic­u­late and Jewish cit­i­zen of the West try­ing to grap­ple with a des­per­ately alarm­ing sub­ject to which far too many of us con­tinue to be rather anaes­thetised.

ElBa­radei served as di­rec­tor gen­eral of the In­ter­na­tional Atomic En­ergy Agency from 1997 un­til 2009. The Age of De­cep­tion is his ac­count of this ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­pe­ri­ence. It cov­ers the dra­matic sub­jects of Iraq, North Korea and Iran, and is an eye-open­ing ac­count of how the IAEA works. ElBa­radei and the IAEA were jointly awarded the No­bel Prize for Peace in 2005. Af­ter com­plet­ing his work at the agency, he re­turned to Cairo and played a lead­er­ship role in the Egyp­tian op­po­si­tion move­ment which, ear­lier this year, over­threw Hosni Mubarak. His re­frain through­out the book is that diplo­macy and di­a­logue, not pre­emp­tive use of mil­i­tary force, are the ways to deal with the nu­clear weapons prob­lem.

The New York Jew is far edgier than the Egyp­tian No­bel lau­re­ate. He fol­lows in the foot­steps of Jonathan Schell, au­thor of The Fate of the Earth (1982), The Gift of Time: The Case for Abol­ish­ing Nu­clear Weapons Now (1998) and The Un­fin­ished Twen­ti­eth Cen­tury: The Cri­sis of Weapons of Mass De­struc­tion (2001), in ar­gu­ing that we must abol­ish nu­clear weapons, re­vers­ing the fate­ful steps taken from the Man­hat­tan Pro­ject through the Cold War nu­clear arms race.

Rosen­baum in­tro­duces us to the Rus­sian coun­ter­parts of those in the US who have long seen the per­ilous fragility of the nu­clear com­mand and con­trol sys­tem. He thinks through the moral logic of nu­clear re­tal­i­a­tion by Is­rael in the event it should suf­fer nu­clear as­sault by Iran. He pon­ders the call for abo­li­tion of nu­clear weapons, in The Wall Street Jour­nal in 2007, by Henry Kissinger, Ge­orge Schultz, Wil­liam Perry and Sam Nunn, and con­cludes that the idea is right but that it seems dis­mally im­prob­a­ble it can be ac­com­plished.

He does these things lu­cidly. His out­look is not shrill but som­bre. It is in­formed by a sense that the mat­ter was al­ways more dan­ger­ous and com­mand and con­trol sys­tems al­ways less re­li­able even dur­ing the Cold War than we have been as­sured (when we have been told any­thing at all); that the nu­clear bal­ance is fast be­com­ing even more frag­ile and dan­ger­ous than it was dur­ing the Cold War; and that we de­lude our­selves if we think any state is mak­ing ra­tio­nal de­ci­sions about these mat­ters.

As Peter Ber­gen has ex­pressed it, Rosen­baum fears that Ar­maged­don may come sim­ply be­cause of ‘‘ the en­demic in­com­pe­tence of the hu­man species’’. That in­com­pe­tence cov­ers the tech­ni­cal, po­lit­i­cal, cog­ni­tive and moral do­mains.

Rosen­baum’s dark view of the nu­clear prospect is nowhere more ev­i­dent than in the two chap­ters he de­votes to the pro­found concern in Is­rael about the pos­si­bil­ity of nu­clear weapons in Ira­nian hands: The Ashes are Still Warm: The Sec­ond Holo­caust, Is­rael and the Moral­ity of Nu­clear Re­tal­i­a­tion and Iran: The ‘‘ Enig­matic Box’’ and the NIE. These alone make the book worth read­ing. ElBa­radei de­votes four chap­ters to Iran.

The alarm­ing thing is that their two ac­counts barely over­lap at all. It seems ex­tra­or­di­nary that this could be the case.

ElBa­radei makes the as­tound­ing claim that there is ‘‘ not a whiff of ev­i­dence’’ that Iran is in­tent on de­vel­op­ing nu­clear weapons. He ar­gues it has de­vel­oped its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties in se­cret only for fear the West would seek to pre­vent it from de­vel­op­ing nu­clear en­ergy at all; and that the dic­ta­to­rial lead­ers of Iran, Ay­a­tol­lah Khamenei and Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad, are em­i­nently rea­son­able and pleas­ant gentle­men, much mis­un­der­stood by the West and slan­dered by Is­rael.

He records that at one point he pri­vately ad­mon­ished them that their re­marks about there not hav­ing been a Holo­caust and about wip­ing Is­rael off the map were not help­ing their cause. As­ton­ish­ingly, he nowhere states that he re­gards such re­marks as de­plorable in them­selves.

That a di­rec­tor gen­eral of the IAEA should have held the views that ElBa­radei ex­presses about Iran seems to me deeply trou­bling. The gen­eral tone of his book comes across as that of a ded­i­cated, dis­pas­sion­ate in­ter­na­tional civil ser­vant, re­sis­tant to West­ern pres­sure and de­ter­mined, to the best of his abil­ity, to ful­fil his man­date un­der the NPT. This and his fre­quent broad­sides at the US and Is­rael (not least over the bomb­ing of Iraq’s Osirak nu­clear re­ac­tor in 1981 and Syria’s Dair Al­zour nu­clear plant in 2007) will ap­peal to many read­ers while alien­at­ing oth­ers. But his ar­gu­ment in re­gard to Iran is so sys­tem­at­i­cally at odds with that of main­stream strate­gic opin­ion that one won­ders how he feels able to sus­tain it. If only he were right. Read him. Un­der­stand his point of view. Then read Rosen­baum.

Paul Monk is founder of Aus­think Con­sult­ing.

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