White House needs new approach to nuclear Middle East

25 August 2008
As America's longest presidential race enters its final lap, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama appear ready to admit that US policy towards Iran has delivered the worst of all worlds.

By talking war, the present administration repelled European nations which are as concerned about nuclear Iran as Washington - but wanted no more Gulf adventures. It also undermined Iranian moderates who might have had greater influence on the rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad.

UN sanctions are, consequently, too little and too late to make a difference to Iran's atomic plans. In August, it invited companies to help locate sites for up to six nuclear power stations.

Iran has probably reached the point at which it has become impossible to stop further nuclear progress. Thoughtful people in the US believe that even a unilateral attack will make no real difference. Iranian nuclear policy, once potentially malleable, has had time to settle. Its supporters span the political spectrum and include anti-regime exiles who loathe Ahmadinejad.


Iran will soon go nuclear. And no nation that has acquired critical nuclear technology has ever given it up.

A new approach is needed. McCain, who will be confirmed at the Republicans' convention in the first week of September, seems to acknowledge this on his campaign website.

Apart from calling Iran a rogue state and an outlaw, he has nothing specific to say about the Islamic republic. This might be because the real McCain plan is to escalate confrontation, but he does not want to frighten American voters just yet. It is more likely that he does not have one.

UAE plant

While Iran's plans edge forward, a second Gulf nuclear initiative is about to reach an important milestone. The Emirates Nuclear Energy Corporation (ENEC) is to receive bids on 7 September for the programme management contract of a possible civil nuclear project.

There is speculation it could have generating capacity of 5,000 MW, but it is far too early for firm conclusions. Even their most enthusiastic advocates admit that there are powerful economic arguments against nuclear power stations. By eliminating fossil fuel combustion, they have environmental advantages, but no one wants one in their backyard or upwind.

Developing the best policy framework for nuclear power is precisely the kind of complex issue with which America can help the UAE and the GCC. Conserving hydrocarbons and increasing efficiency should be priorities for anyone running for high office in the US, the world's largest and most wasteful energy user. But there is little of substance in what either McCain or Obama have said so far about the issue.

Unfinished business

The fact is that policymakers are invariably influenced by the past. One reason for White House enthusiasm about the 2003 invasion of Iraq was the desire to tie up business that vice president Dick Cheney, defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld and deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz felt had been left unfinished from the Kuwait war.

Similarly, John McCain's advisors this year include some people frustrated by America's errors in Iraq and by President Bush's failure to deal with Iran in a way pleasing to them. In places, the McCain website reads as though America is about to invade Iraq all over again.

Obama looks freer from past mistakes. But Joe Biden's longevity in congress means he will come to the White House with attitudes shaped by events most of us have forgotten.


Biden, Obama's choice as vice president, was among the majority of Democrat senators who opposed using force to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The trauma of getting it wrong may explain his inconsistent decision to back war in 2003. And his error about that might explain his brainless support for the partition of Iraq.

Hopefully, Biden will be kept well away from direct involvement in Middle East policy if Obama becomes president.

I hope the America's November election will be about global issues and the future. But if McCain's choice as vice president is also someone closer to the end of their political career than the beginning, the chances are that the debate will focus on Washington preoccupations and facts long beyond any possible change.

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