The long-running controversy over Iran’s nuclear program flared up again this week after French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner warned that Europe had to “prepare for the worst”, namely war with Iran. Kouchner now says he was misinterpreted, and that “Everything should be done to avoid war”, but the damage was done.

Superficially, it looks as if there’s no reason for conflict on the issue. Europe and the United States both confine their objections to the threat of nuclear weapons, while Iran insists, as it has all along, that it only wants nuclear enrichment for power generation. If they’re both telling the truth, resort to war should never appear on the agenda.

The problem is that each side has good reasons for distrusting the other. In the case of Iran’s intentions, that’s fairly obvious; President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his Holocaust denial and his talk of wiping Israel from the map, is not a figure to inspire confidence. But it’s also not unreasonable for Iran to suspect that the West is targeting the entire program, aiming to deny it the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

Consider John Bolton, the Bush administration’s former ambassador to the UN, who told Lateline last night that “a nuclear-capable Iran” and its “control over the nuclear fuel cycle” – terms that are ambiguous enough to suggest an agenda beyond just weapons production. Not surprisingly, he strongly endorsed Kouchner’s reference to military action, and indeed seemed keen for it to begin as soon as possible.

Of course Bolton is entitled to his opinion, although one might wonder at the ABC so uncritically giving him a platform. But the problem is that these things have a tendency to get out of hand, as the world discovered with the Iraq war.

War talk is newsworthy; peace talk is not. While threats may have a role to play in diplomacy, they can become self-fulfilling, and governments find that the momentum they have created forces them to make good on their threats or lose credibility – something that a more restrained approach in the first place might have avoided.

Bolton and his allies seem to have learned nothing from the Iraq experience. The repeated assertion that Iran has a nuclear weapons program parallels the equally widespread assertion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. The latter turned out to be false; at the very least we should require some hard evidence before accepting that the former is true.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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