Hitting the Hay Festival

Mark Fitzpatrick at the Hay Festival

Portrait of the artist as a non-proliferation wonk: Mark Fitzpatrick at the Hay Festival

By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

My kids will find it amusing that their wonky father was categorised as an ‘artist’ this past weekend. The occasion was the Hay Festival in Wales, which sprinkles in some policy discussions among the talks on literature and the arts.

I was invited to lead off on a panel on the Iran nuclear issue because I had written a feature article for Prospect in April entitled ‘Iran can be stopped’. At first glance, the headline might have been mistaken for a war drumbeat. To the contrary, my argument in the piece is that Iran can be deterred from crossing the line to manufacturing nuclear weapons; Tehran will be content to have the capability.

The problem is that the capability is getting increasingly worrisome: Iran produces 30% more enriched uranium each month than when I wrote the Prospect piece and has expanded work at the deeply buried facility at Fordow, producing higher enriched uranium that is on the cusp of being weapons usable.

The good citizens at the Hay Festival didn’t want to hear much about that, though – at least not the vocal ones who came to the Iran panel. They were more interested in Israel, and why we weren’t talking about that country’s nuclear arsenal. As chair, BBC World News anchor Nik Gowing tried to keep the discussion on topic, but he had to bow to popular demand.

I get the Israeli double-standard question a lot when I talk at British campuses, but never so vociferously as at Hay-on-Wye. Maybe the festivalgoers were tired of being festive. It had been raining for days beforehand and the grounds were still muddy. Moreover, audience members had paid good money – £8.25 – to come to the Iran session instead of the alternate stages featuring former chancellor Alistair Darling, WWII historian Antony Beevor, actor Tony Robinson or the other literary figures featured.

Fellow panellist Thomas Friedman gave a good answer to why we weren’t more concerned about Israel: It’s Iran that has threatened to wipe Israel off the map, not vice versa. That answer failed to bring applause, however. Nor did my answer to the question of why Iran was being singled out: that it was one of 180 some countries that have pledged to forgo nuclear weapons and was only being held to that promise. No, people wanted to know why Israel wasn’t being asked to undertake a similar commitment.

I agreed with another questioner on the ideal of a WMD-free zone in the Middle East, something I wrote about last month. But the timeline for that ideal state is far too distant to be a useful means of addressing the very near and real danger posed by Iran’s nuclear programme. And we will never see that goal if states do not uphold the non-proliferation commitments and transparency arrangements to which they have already agreed.

It is certainly important to understand Iran’s security motivations, as suggested by some in the crowd. That motivation, however, had little or nothing to do with Israel. Iran restarted its nuclear weapons ambitions in about 1985, when it was the victim of a chemical weapons attack by Iraq and sought a WMD option of its own.

Why even worry about a nuclear-armed Iran, another questioner asked. I wasn’t allowed time to give a full answer, so here it is: Yes, I doubt that Iran would purposely launch a nuclear attack against Israel, or provide nukes to terrorists or other states. But I am not sure that it couldn’t happen by mistake or miscalculation, or that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander wouldn’t on their own share nuclear weapons technology with other states. After all, China, shortly after it first acquired nuclear weapons, shared fissile material and weapons designs with Pakistan, one of whose citizens then shared weapons technology with at least three other states. Plus, if Iran goes nuclear, it won’t just be an Iran vs Israel stand-off. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that it, too, will want a nuclear option. Egypt and others may also see a need.

I hope to be invited back to the Hay Festival sometime. I didn’t have time to explore the bookshops. Plus, I need to give the rest of my answer to the Israel question.


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