When Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon visited President George Bush at the White House on 11-12 April, the news coming out of the meetings should have been dominated by the president’s displeasure with Sharon permitting the expansion of settlements in the West Bank.
Instead, the New York Times headline on 13 April was Sharon Asks US to Pressure Iran on Nuclear Arms.
In other words, the best defense is a good offense. Sharon, of course, knew his decision to permit expansion of a West Bank settlement near Jerusalem by 3500 units would be seen in Washington as a contravention of the road map in the peace process.
Washington diplomats were stunned, seeing it as a move practically calculated to undermine the authority of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is trying as hard as he can to believe that Sharon is acting in good faith.
That issue will remain alive as Washington waits to see if Sharon goes ahead with the expansion despite expressions of disapproval from Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Meanwhile, the artful Sharon succeeded in changing the subject by spreading out aerial photographs purported to show secret Iranian installations, where he alleges nuclear weapons are being developed.
In briefing the press, the White House made it clear there was "nothing startling or new" in the aerial photos.
It could have been pointed out, though, that Tehran not only has agreed with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it will permit inspections of sites suspected of housing weapons programs, but also that the sites shown in Sharon’s photos have already been visited by IAEA inspectors, with nothing found.
Israel waves aside the repeated findings of Iranian compliance with the terms of the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty by Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA’s director.
Sharon’s assertion is that, as long as Iran is permitted to enrich uranium for the nuclear power plants it is building and plans to build in the future, it can acquire the capability of producing highly enriched uranium (HEU).
This was the same rationale Israel used in 1981 when it bombed the almost-complete Osiraq nuclear power plant outside Baghdad.
Israeli officials acknowledged at the time that IAEA inspectors would have control of the fissile material at Osiraq and that there was no evidence Iraq had a weapons program in violation of the NPT. But it insisted, as Sharon does now regarding Iran, that it could not be permitted to develop the technical ability to do so.
What now worries observers is not that Israel will conduct preemptive bombing attacks against the sites in the aerial photographs and the Bushehr power plant that has been under construction for decades and is now being completed by Russian contractors.
The Israeli Air Force does not have the capability of delivering bombs big enough to destroy the installations because they are limited in how far they can fly.
The pressure on the United States by Sharon is not to persuade President Bush to bomb Iran for Israel’s security, as he knows this would never happen.
The plan of the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who work closely with Sharon, instead, aim at changing the terms of the NPT when the countries that are party to the treaty will gather in New York City in May for the 1970 treaty’s Seventh Review Conference.
The members, practically every nation on earth, meet every five years to assess how things are going.
Actually, things have been going very well, as evidenced by the fact that the IAEA has been proven correct in its assessment that Saddam Hussein had no nuclear program and would be incapable of building one. Its assessment was made before the president decided we had to go to war anyway, just to make sure.
The neocons, who essentially control Vice President Dick Cheney and his office, have already made great strides in persuading the president that the NPT is outmoded and must be modernized. His statements in support of the NPT say that he likes it so much he wishes it to be strengthened.
How? By removing from its provisions the "inalienable" right of signatory nations to enrich uranium to the 4% potency required for power plants, but not the 90% required for nuclear weapons. To accomplish this, the president has named John Bolton to be UN ambassador.
In his position at the State Department in the first Bush term, Bolton has been open in his disdain for the IAEA’s ElBaradei and has done everything he can to have him removed.
The reason the treaty is outmoded, Bolton and his underlings insist, is because it has become too easy for NPT members to violate the terms of the treaty and get away with it.
An American expert in nuclear weapons, Gordon Prather, says Bolton has deliberately confused "failure to fully comply with an IAEA Safeguards Agreement" with "violations" of the NPT.
So far as the IAEA has been able to determine, no country subject to the NPT-IAEA-safeguards regime (except Iraq of course) has "violated" the NPT.
"It is outrageous that Bolton deliberately obfuscates the difference between ‘failure to fully comply with an IAEA Agreement’ with ‘violations of the NPT’ or of the even more deliberate obfuscation ‘failure to comply with its NPT obligations.’"
What Prather is saying is that many countries, including the US, have not fully complied with the safeguards regime, which actually preceded the NPT and which simply means that they were found to have done something that they were obliged to report to the IAEA and failed to do so, for example moving material from Building A to Building B.
Most recently, both Egypt and South Korea were found to have "not fully complied" with safeguard, but there is no evidence that they or Iran or North Korea ever violated the terms of the NPT.
Iraq did, but what Bolton hates to point out is that the NPT was strengthened when that clandestine effort was discovered after the Gulf War.
The new protocols, to which Iran has agreed, permit intrusive, perpetual inspections, not by IAEA snoops coming in now and then, but with on-site cameras and sensing devices that would permit ElBaradei’s team in Vienna to monitor Iran’s program day and night.
The great danger in this neocon game plan is that when the members refuse to alter the NPT at its meeting in New York in May as they surely will the argument will be made that the US can no longer support the NPT and will abandon it as a mechanism for preventing non-proliferation.
It is conceivable to experts like Prather, who was the US army’s chief scientist during the Ronald Reagan administration, that further argument will be made that action against Tehran must be taken to force it to abandon any effort to enrich uranium.
What happens then would, of course, increase tensions, not only between Washington and Tehran, but also between Washington and the rest of the world, most especially China and Russia.
At the very least, it would be a perfect time for Sharon to announce that Israel will permit the expansion of the settlement in question, probably "in order to strengthen" the road map to peace.
Originally run on al-Jazeera, reprinted with the author’s permission.