Iran looks on as the West wrestles with contradictions over Libya intervention

The West may have thought it had no choice but to intervene in Libya, and may have been right. But the wider consequences, especially for Iran, need to be understood

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I thought we'd made a deal?
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Emanuele Ottolenghi
On 5 April 2011 06:26

Sometime in the next few months, Col. Moammar Gaddafi was meant to turn over the remaining mustard gas he still has in stock. He had agreed to relinquish his weapons of mass destruction to the West in 2004, after seeing Saddam Hussein’s regime perish under the crushing weight of American steel.

Gaddafi is a ruthless dictator – with a combination of cruelty and eccentricity rare even by the standards of the Arab world. But his politics earned him more enemies than friends over the years.

By 2004, his meddling in everyone else’s affairs, his bizarre ideology, and his penchant for murder at home and abroad meant that Libya, despite its oil riches, languished in fragile isolation. Watching Saddam dragged out of his hiding hole on television Gaddafi must have concluded that a better destiny awaited him if only he could mend fences with the West. And so he did.

The “realists” who opposed the War in Iraq should have liked the way the nuclear threat posed by Gaddafi was dealt with. Without a single shot fired or a Western soldier’s life sacrificed, Gaddafi gave up an advanced, clandestine nuclear weapons’ programme and began the decommissioning of his other WMD. He renounced support for international terrorism and agreed to pay reparations for the Lockerbie bombing – including turning over the man he promised was responsible for it.

From his point of view, of course, there was much to be welcomed in this deal. A tyrant was left free to enrich himself while terrorising his people, and his past crimes were whitewashed on the altar of the national interest. The real culprits in the Lockerbie bombing were not asked to face justice, and the lone convict was returned to Libya in a shameful act of appeasement by Britain in 2009.

Overall, though, the decision to reach some form of accommodation with Gaddafi was the right one. With nuclear weapons, he would have posed a serious strategic threat to Europe and the region. Western strategy on Libya was showcased as evidence that peaceful non-proliferation was achievable, even with mad and unpredictable dictators like Gaddafi.

Before the launch of Operation Odyssey Dawn over the Libyan skies, Gaddafi had an incentive to fulfill his commitments to return the last batch of WMD. Now, he knows that renouncing his arsenal might have been a critical mistake. He will not rush to uphold his pledge when the international community has rewarded him with war. What he will do with those weapons is a question that should have influenced the policy debate that led to the operation’s launch. It should worry the international community, and should spur the Coalition to ensure his prompt and decisive defeat.

Yet, this does not appear to be the goal of the mission. The political and operational limits that currently constrain the military operation could leave Coalition forces flying above a military stalemate between Gaddafi's regime and rebel forces for a very long time. Using WMD against the rebels might be the one thing that triggers a ground invasion, and the WMD storage location is being constantly monitored by satellite. Both factors could mitigate the risk of Gaddafi using mustard gas against the rebels in the end. But we do not know.

This seemingly small detail in the drama unfolding both on and above ground in Libya has regional ramifications for other dictators watching apprehensively and trying to divine whether Libya represents a precedent or an exception in Western foreign policy. And among all of those watching, Iran must surely be the one to conclude that a deal with the West over its nuclear programme will ultimately be only a fickle and temporary guarantee against military intervention from the outside.

History is always messy, and the dramatic events that have engulfed Libya in the last two months demanded a Western response. Had allied forces not launched strikes on the night of March 17, with Gaddafi’s forces at the gates of Benghazi ready to wreak havoc on a city of 700,000 civilians, a terrible massacre would have occurred. Gaddafi no doubt deserves to go – realpolitik notwithstanding.

But there is much to criticize in the Libya operation – and too many unknowns about the day after Gaddafi, if it ever comes to pass, to feel entirely calm about the wisdom of Western intervention.

In short, there will be a price to pay for this episode. When the Libyan distraction dissipates and Western diplomacy notices that Iran’s nuclear programme has continued to throttle along, the job of striking a compromise with Tehran will have been made all the more arduous than it already was.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Iran: the Looming Crisis (Profile Books: 2010)

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