Iran, space and nuclear technology

In 2008, on Monday February 4th, the Islamic Republic of Iran launched a rocket, clearly as a test run of technology ostensibly intended to put a research satellite into orbit in 2009. Iran also has a programme of nuclear research and is developing the technology to make nuclear power stations.

Various developed nations, principally the USA, are treating all of this as preparations for becoming a nuclear power – that is, being able to make nuclear weapons and use them in attacks on distant nations. This is all of a piece with their similar alarm over North Korea's nuclear programme. I find a certain wry irony in this. There really are legitimate grounds for concern, but the accusers' past behaviour compromises their ability to argue those grounds convincingly to international audiences not blinded by the partial news reporting their domestic audiences have been fed.

The hypocrisy of the objections

Various nations in the developed world, since the 1940s, have developed nuclear technology; and the nuclear energy industry takes pains to insist that it has nothing to do with the military applications of nuclear energy. I can, indeed, vouch that those working in the peaceful nuclear industry are, generally, honestly and sincerely committed to keeping it peaceful. Yet, in practice, mastering the peaceful use of a technology makes it easier to master its use in warfare: this has been true of pretty much every technology we've ever had, back to the first metal-working. So the nuclear powers have made loud protestations of innocence about their own peaceful nuclear programs (while forging ahead with military nuclear technology) but in truth their enthusiasm for developing peaceful uses has not been completely independent of their eagerness to have nuclear weapons: one could have doubted that previously, but their response to the nuclear programmes of nations they don't like exposes the fact that they do, in fact, consider peaceful nuclear technology to be inextricably linked to its warlike application.

Similar may be said of the space programme: various developed nations' governments have, since the 1940s, pursued active programmes of developing space technology, always proclaiming motives that are all about the noble pursuit of scientific knowledge and opening up a new frontier for humanity. Very fine it has all sounded too – and, thanks to international treaties keeping weapons out of space, the military have been limited to putting spy satellites into orbit; which can even justly be argued (to some degree) as having helped keep the peace – but, again, mastering the peaceful use of the technology has facilitated mastering the warlike use of it. In this case, that war-like use is the delivery system for weapons of mass destruction: the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). It would, frankly, be naïve to accept at face value the superpowers' proclaimed motives for getting into space: a major factor in why their governments were so eager to have better rocketry was so that they could bomb one another into oblivion all the more thoroughly. To be fair, it would also be wrong to forget that the noble goals they proclaimed also played a genuine part in both sides' eagerness to be in space – if only because space programmes were implemented by engineers, many of whom actually sincerely intend those noble goals. None the less, any doubt about their governments' military aims also being on the agenda is, again, dispelled by the USA's clear alarm at someone else following only the peaceful part of the dual route it followed.

The Iranian and North Korean governments are, at least overtly, pursuing the peaceful aspects of extraordinary technology programmes that mighier nations pursued – in tandem with military aspects – half a century ago; like those mightier nations, these newcomers to the game declare that their reasons for doing so are peaceful. Thus they could well score an excellent rhetorical point off the USA by accusing it of projection – the psychological game in which someone who isn't acknowledging a defect in themselves finds it everywhere in others. Because you (despite loud and frequent protestations to the contrary) developed this technology for its warlike uses, you're now accusing us of your own vices, of which we are innocent. The point would, in truth, be fairly made – where the mighty powers were overtly also developing warlike uses in parallel with the peaceful ones, the newcomers are not, and Iran is even taking pains to enable everyone else to know it's not – although, to be blunt, I trust the innocence of their motives no more than I trust that of any other govenment. It is, after all, easy to see how impartial observers could find hints of a threat in this little snippet (source):

This achievement will … strengthen Iran's position in the region and the world, said Reza Talainik, a member of parliament's Foreign Affairs and National Security committee.

The same source has an analyst noting that The Israelis will claim there is no reason why they [Iran] can't launch a weapon system in the same way or why they can't make a long-range ballistic missile, which would again smack of projection: Israel overtly has a peaceful nuclear program and is reasonably suspected of also having nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them to, for example, Iran. Those accusing Iran of ill intent have no more substantial basis for their accusation than they're now capable of developing the means to hurt us; yet the loudest accusers actually do have the means to nuke Iran – not just the means to (in principle, before long) develop these – and it may fairly be said, given their recent sabre-rattling, that Israel and the USA appear to be itching for an excuse to attack Iran, where Iran has overtly been endeavouring to keep the conflict diplomatic. Furthermore, fearing a nuclear attack by Iran smacks of paranoia – for, certainly, Iran is well aware that it would face utter destruction if it were to launch such an attack; and the Iranian government does not appear so insane as to invite that fate.

Indeed, in the USA, it is widely accepted that one's neighbour may carry guns in public, which is construed as his legitimate means of being prepared to defend himself; that he is thus equipped to harm you is no cause to quarrel with him. It seems just to allow the same general principle to nations: they have the right to be prepared to defend themselves. Yet, in this case, those who are armed with weapons of mass destruction, and the means to deliver them, are contesting another's right to even develop peaceful technology. Arguing that they might use that peaceful technology in a way that their accusers presume for themselves as a right is unlikely to ring sincere in the ears of other nations that feel threatened by western hegemony. Arguing that they should be stopped now because of how they might abuse what they might develop out of what they are doing now has a particularly irony when the argument comes from the single nation which has used nuclear weapons, and apparently did so not for the reason normally given – to hasten the end of a gruesome war of attrition – but to ensure that the USSR knew they were able and willing to use nuclear weapons.

Where it comes to space technology, furthermore, I must confess Iran is on firmer ground: the USA is well aware that an independent space program is – for peaceful purposes as much as warlike ones – a great strategic asset. I am quite sure many other national leaders would echo Ahmadinejad's public justification for Iran's space program (source):

We need to have an active and influential presence in space … Building and launching a satellite is a very important achievement.

The myth of the rogue state

Underlying the media's framing of the story is a premise that it's OK for us to have weapons of mass destruction, because we're the good guys, but these other states aren't, so they shouldn't be allowed parity with us. The rules don't have to be fair, as long as the unfairness is in favour of the good guys. In particular, we are told to view Iran and North Korea as rogue states and that's excuse enough for insisting they be more tighly constrained than we are. The rogue-ness is supposedly about aiding and abetting terrorists, possibly even supplying them with weapons of mass destruction.

Now, this claim can only make any credible sense if the allegedly rogue states are demonstrably more implicated in aiding and abetting terrorists than their accusers. Yet, in fact, the accused may fairly turn this around and point it back at the accuser: successive governments of the USA have, through the CIA, aided and abetted terrorists all over the world (the Nicaraguan contra, al Qaida and the Taliban are concrete examples where the evidence is all a matter of public record; if one includes governments that have used terror against their own people, the list rapidly gets a lot longer). It would be absurd to accuse Iran or North Korea of having done more than a tiny fraction, in comparison; and even such accusations as have been brought against them are mostly insinuation, backed up only by evidence the accusers are shy of showing us, ostensibly because it would compromise their intelligence operatives – which is eminently plausible; but evidence you are unwilling to present cannot fairly be used to convict !

A state is, once stripped of the propaganda used to make them seem nicer, ultimately just a body of people working together to exert control over the people of a geographic region. The geographic region controlled by a state is known as a country; the people of a country are known as a nation. Sometimes the balance of power within a nation is such as to limit the control the state can impose, especially where the traditions and customs of the people are such that the state dare not wrest some kinds of control from established systems, with which the state is compelled to co-operate (although history teaches that states are wont to subvert such independent authority, over time, unless the people are eternally vigilant); or where similar long practice insists on the state being divided against itself in parts whose interests tend to conflict unless they are in harmony with the interests of the people. Yet, ultimately, the state is always the concentration, in the hands of relatively few, of the power that comes from the joint action of many. While the few may declare the noble intent to serve the interests of the many – and, sometimes, some of them are sincere and honest in such declaration – some elementary game theory says that those who attend to gaining and keeping power, at times at the expense of the interests of the many, are apt to be disproportionately represented among the few, as compared to their proportion among the many. The function of a robust constitution is not so much to keep these folk out of power – that is the electorate's job – as to ensure that their most effective means of getting or keeping power is, in fact, to serve the many. Where a nation's culture equips folk to know when to stand together against oppression so as to prevent the state from taking more control, and even to wrest control from the state, freedom flourishes. Where the state knows how to keep the nation confused and divided, it can get away with taking more control; oppression's blight is apt to crush freedom.

Now, states interact and the dynamics are complex; and, at times, conflicts arise. In order to be prepared for conflicts, states endeavour to foster relations with people in positions to let them know what potential opponents may be doing or planning; and states endeavour to foster bonds of affinity with those able to influence potential allies. Since other states do this, each state tells its nation that it needs to do the same, to protect itself from being out-manoeuvred by other states exploiting the advantage such covert activity gains; thus do states justify secretive organizations to those they govern. Their covert nature makes oversight of such parts of the state dificult to manage (and easy to subvert); which enables them to do things the state might not be prepared to admit to the nation (and parts of the state might not be willing to admit to the rest). The covert branches of states have a long and ugly history of getting up to no good, usually (but by no means always) outside their own countries. Thus, in practice, rogue is the normal case among states, even if few are so gauche as to not try to hide it. I, like many who love liberty, am disappointed to see governments, chosen by nations of generally decent folk who love liberty, engaging in frankly disgraceful covert actions: yet, sadly, I cannot claim to be surprised.

Now, in practice, the covert parts of states have evolved certain patterns of how they go about playing their vicious game; these formalise such injustices as: that the mightier states will not brook being treated in ways they routinely inflict on the less mighty; but the rule within these rules is that you should play by the rules (which, among other things, limit the extent to which players can admit this game is being played). My general impression is that the real crime, for which various states have lately been labelled rogue is that they have declined to play by these rules – stacked, as the are, in favour of the mighty. This might mean that the playing-field is changing shape in ways that shall lead to the hidden rules mutating; but I suspect it is more a matter of these being relatively new states, whose leaders (overt and covert) have yet to learn the subtler strategies by which the less mighty can best advance their positions within the corrupt and unjust status quo.

Oppressive government

So-called rogue states are also, and more justly, accused of being oppressive and despotic; and of imposing harsh laws driven by dogma at the expense of justice. In this, however, one must distinguish Iran from North Korea: the sharia law system in Iran is, indeed, harsh and cruel by western standards; yet it indisputably is the legal system that has traditionally been embraced by the culture on which it is imposed. Now, I am a supporter of individual freedom, so its cultural precedent in no way changes the fact that I consider it an unjust oppression on each and every individual who doesn't buy into that cultural tradition, or who seeks to evolve it towards some more humane tradition. All the same, where the North Korean government imposes laws inspired by imported dogmas on a nation to whom these are alien, the Iranian government's laws are oppressive by our standards rather than those of the indigenous culture – reactionary, sexist and antiquated though those laws are. Similarly reactionary, sexist and antiquated laws are among the pet objectives the presently ruling faction in the USA hankers for, although – to the nation's founders' credit – the constitution has thus far held them back; I wonder how far the USA's religious right's hatred of the Islamic Republic of Iran is fueled by jealousy that the latter can get away with what the former cannot. But the real problem with the developed nations who are accusing these rogue states of bad government comes when we look at dogmatic laws and policies of enforcement, which are the worse aspect of oppressive givernment.

For the sad fact is that the the west has its own oppressive laws driven by dogma. The war on drugs is predicated on the twin falacies that addicts are victims of unscrupulous dealers and that prohibition is the solution to the problem. This dogma drives policies which lead to the systematic oppression of those who chose to use recreational drugs; furthermore, the oppression is strongly correlated with ethnicity. Vast numbers of coloured citizens of the USA are imprisoned because they do not accept the dogmatic prohibition. While hemp use among the white middle classes is practically ubiquitous and largely ignored by the authorities, their poor black fellow citizens are routinely subjected to intrusive policing and harshly punished if they are found to have violated laws their richer whiter fellow-citizens get away with routinely. The situation is not hugely different in other western nations; the ethnic aspects may be less pronounced, but I suspect this is more because the USA is uniquely diverse, rather than because of any less ethnic bias in other western nations. Justice is sacrificed to dogma and partial (in the sense opposite to impartial) enforcement adds ethnic oppression to the resulting injustice.

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