Vintage Books, 2012, 389 pages, $34.95 (pb)
Review by Phil Shannon
“Just how much blood is on the hands that could soon grasp nuclear weapons”, asks human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson, of Iran’s rulers. Quite a bit, he shows in Mullahs Without Mercy, with the logical inference that “it is surely obvious that a state which mass-murders its own people is more likely to misuse a weapon that can mass-murder its enemies”.
Robertson documents three episodes of human rights abuses by the Islamic state which usurped power in Iran following the 1979 popular revolution against a brutal, US-supported dictatorship. The first mass liquidation of regime opponents came in 1988 when seven thousand jailed members of an Islamic-Marxist party were executed, followed by thousands of their more godless socialist peers whose atheistic thought-crimes and refusal to adopt the religious rituals of the theocratic state condemned them to whipping, torture and murder.
Second, the terror regime spread its global wings between 1989 and 1996 with an assassination campaign of Iranian dissenters in foreign countries (160 killed), plus the ‘chain murders’ of Iran’s domestic intelligentsia (80 killed), all victims of a regime that “could not tolerate the intellectual, the scholar or the poet”.
Third, ‘Green Movement’ protests over the rigged 2009 elections which returned President Ahmadinejad were met with four thousand arrests involving rape, beatings, torture, show trials and murder.
Many of the regime authors of these atrocities remain in power in Iran, men in the “Ayatollah’s inner circle, ministers and diplomats who knew what was happening, judges who betrayed their calling by zealously sentencing prisoners to death and torture without trial, prison governors and intelligence officers who ushered victims into the gallows’ queues”. These same men want nuclear weapons - for nationalist political fervour, for Shia supremacy against Iran’s Sunni neighbours and for deterrence against Israel’s strike-ready nuclear arsenal.
Iran’s bomb aspirations began with the Shah who established a covert nuclear weapons program, ironically scuppered by the post-revolutionary Islamic leaders who regarded the nuclear bomb as ‘Western-inspired’ and therefore ‘un-Islamic’, a religious dogma which was to be overcome by a draining eight year war with Iraq.
Iran’s history about its nuclear ambitions has, says Robertson, involved some honesty larded with lying, evasion, deception, secretiveness and diplomatic time-buying. From the 2011 and 2012 reports of the UN’s nuclear monitoring body, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Robertson concludes that Iran is “on course” for producing a bomb by around 2015.
Can Iran’s rulers, such flagrant human rights criminals, be trusted on nuclear weapons?, asks Robertson. Clearly not, he says, arguing, as he would in court, that past illegal form matters to any consideration of current or future illegality.
As a lawyer, however, Robertson might have been expected to produce better evidence on Iran’s nuclear bomb acquisition than that contained in IEAE reports, although, to be fair, he notes that the IEAE often relies on “the CIA and other state intelligence services prepared to inform, not always accurately, on their enemies” and that the current IEAE head, Yikia Amano, has declared (secretly, until Wikileaks got hold of it) that he is ‘solidly in the US court’. Robertson argues, however, that IEAE “suspicions” of an Iranian bomb-making program are not allayed by Tehran’s refusal to allow inspections of its underground military base site.
Should the necessary “clear proof” of an Iranian bomb be produced, Robertson argues, then bombing of Iran, targeting its four nuclear sites, may be required as a “last resort” but he is aghast at the prospect because it would result in tens of thousands of deaths with hundreds of thousands exposed to radiation fallout.
Such an unappetising Hobson’s Choice, says Robertson, is a result of weak international law. The only global nuclear weapons legal agreement, the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), was designed to keep the bomb in the hands of the big five initial nuclear-armed powers (America, Britain, Russia, China and France) by promising, at some unspecified time, to reduce their stockpile to zero in return for assisting other countries with civilian nuclear energy.
The NPT failed to ban the bomb because the big five have not disarmed (although down from Cold War heights of 70,000, some 19,000 nuclear weapons still bristle) whilst forty countries have been encouraged to develop a nuclear fuel cycle which inevitably includes a nuclear weapons potential.
The nuclear fuel cycle enriches the concentration of ‘fissile’ uranium (U-235, capable of nuclear chain-reaction) from 0.7% of naturally-occurring uranium (the rest is non-fissile U-238) to 3.5% (suitable for nuclear power). It is only a few months and a few spins of the gas centrifuges to enrich to 90% (suitable for nuclear weapons). Iran is reported to have reached the 29% mark.
Given the jealous guarding of their nuclear weapons’ monopoly by the big five, since joined by the nuclear-armed NPT non-signatories (India, Pakistan and Israel) and the NPT-withdrawalist (North Korea), “the non-proliferation system now serves the interests of proliferators” desirous of joining the bomb club for domestic and international politico-military reasons.
Robertson’s preferred, legalistic, solution is for a revamped international human rights law, one which recognises that the nuclear bomb is the ultimate human rights issue (vaporised humans are not around to have human rights). For “untrustworthy” nations (Robertson puts Iran at the head of a queue of bomb-seeking countries whose “rulers lack all decency”), this law would put the bomb-making “politicians and prelates, scientists and generals, in prison”. The law would also compel existing nuclear powers to decommission all their nuclear weapons.
Robertson’s solution, however, raises an obvious question – how are governments to be assessed as sufficiently vile to be candidates for sanctions and military intervention? They must be, says Robertson, “headed by international criminals” but will we see NATO countries invading themselves to enforce disarmament, for, after all, their track record for illegal mass-murder and torture of foreigners gives Iran’s scorecard some competition. Robertson’s proposed legal solution to nuclear weapons is likely to be just a law of the powerful, as Robertson himself concedes, noting that forcible nuclear disarmament “will be used opportunistically and mainly by the US against its enemies”.
Robertson does, however, approach the political nub of the issue when he argues that any “global legal architecture” for disarmament merely “supports but does not bring about” a nuclear-free world and that “public awareness” is needed to force governments to act. Robertson’s most cogent argument in his book is that nuclear energy, even if it was ‘clean’ energy, is inseparable from the nuclear bomb. Nuclear disarmament begins at home, at whatever stage of any country’s nuclear fuel cycle, from finished bomb product to raw material input, including Australia’s uranium which, at 40% of the world supply, is nearly half of the world’s nuclear problem right here.