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Strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be illegal and ill-advised
Editor's note: John Polanyi has long been involved in international debate on nuclear issues. He is a professor of chemistry and Nobel Laureate at the University of Toronto.
Prominent among my teachers were those who had been in the desert of Alamogordo at the first nuclear test, the day the nuclear age was born. They drew two lessons. Both lessons seem in danger of being forgotten in the debate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The first was that nuclear weapons will have succeeded in their purpose if they are never used. The second lesson followed from the first; our future, if we are to have one, must be subject to restraint — this being a plea for international law. The hope for peace, for the present, lies in deterrence based on the fact that nuclear war would leave no victors. Deterrence has been put to the test for three-quarters of a century. Its central premise has been recognized by such dysfunctional states as the former Soviet Union and the present North Korea. It must serve, till we reclaim our dignity by embodying restraint in law. If proof is needed of faith in deterrence, it is to be found in the behaviour of the world’s nine nuclear weapons states (U.S., Russia, U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan and, undeclared, Israel and North Korea) which continue to spend on weapons modernization in their appetite for deterrence. Those who lived through the depressing parade in which these nuclear powers made their appearance, will recall that none was welcomed. The international community raised every impediment — political, legal, technical and economic (this last through sanctions) — that they could. Then they accepted what they could not alter. The second, more hopeful, message of the atomic age is the need for international law. In two world wars almost 100 million perished. This led, at long last, to a commitment through the United Nations to a world subject to measures of agreed law. This is relevant to the present predicament in respect of Iran. The UN Charter permits us to oppose the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran in every possible way — except one. The exception is the resort to war. But confused rhetoric is bringing war ever nearer. A recent full-page open letter to President Barack Obama in the Washington Post by a respected group of retired U.S. generals (March 5, 2012; ‘Mr. President: Say no to war of choice with Iran’) gives evidence of that confusion. “Unless we or an ally is attacked, war should be an option of last resort,” the generals say. They are attempting to stem the tide toward war with Iran, but in referring to war as “an option of last resort” they could fail in their purpose. Their premise — “Unless we or an ally are attacked” — makes their “option of last resort,” the pre-emptive bombing of Iran, no option at all. We must look elsewhere in the generals’ letter for its true message. “The U.S. military,” they say, “is the most formidable military force on earth. But not every challenge has a military solution.” Iran is a case in point. Article 51 of the UN Charter permits a state to act in “self-defence if armed attack occurs.” Authorities hold this to mean (following Britain’s former attorney general, Lord Goldsmith) that this “permits the use of force in self-defence against an imminent attack, but does not authorize the use of force to mount a pre-emptive strike.” Since law stands or falls by precedent, an attack on Iran that failed to meet these criteria would undermine the rule of law. There is more to consider. It is widely agreed that an attack with penetrating bombs on Iran’s nuclear installations might set the country’s nuclear weapons program (if such exists) back by one to three years. Following that, a decision would have to be made whether to acquiesce in Iran’s nuclear ambitions — by then real and unalterable — or launch a second attack in a Middle East enraged by the first. The precedent we would be helping establish by further bombing is that of pre-emption at will. Regrettably, Obama has been persuaded to say that the a policy of containment of a nuclear Iran is “no longer on the table.” That being the case, a new word for containment must be found. That word is deterrence.