Iran, US hegemony, and the bomb

By Sam Hawke

The crisis between Iran, the US, and Israel has been long boiling. With the impending Presidential elections of the world’s lone superpower – one whose involvement in the Middle East has been longstanding and massive – we may wonder where we’re currently headed. The final round of Presidential debates demonstrated, once more, the US’s naked bellicosity: as a vote-winning strategy, it’s a stance to which each candidate seeks to outdo the other. Predictably a major topic in Monday’s debate, Iran was presented by both candidates as a ‘major threat’ to US interests in the region. Neither questioned their own country’s right to reshape the region to further those interests, and to do whatever is necessary to stop a nuclear Iran.

Hopefully, we approach the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis with a deeper and renewed sense of the need for two things: the end of nuclear proliferation, and a cautious, considered, diplomatic strategy to achieve that goal. In reality, we have neither. Instead, we have a variety of nuclear-armed states keen to maintain their dominance by military and economic aggression. This is an appalling, hypocritical approach to ensuring the world’s safety from nuclear threat, and one that will anyway fail to achieve its goals.

Despite the lurid claims of much of the mainstream coverage over the last decade, there’s no real evidence that Iran is building a bomb, or indeed is anywhere near having the capability to do so. Recent Israeli intelligence, alongside the most recent International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report, concluded that Iran’s uranium continues to be used for perfectly peaceful, medical purposes. Of course, we have some contrary indications, but they are slim. Fissile materials that could be used for military purposes may have been strategically stockpiled in a deliberately opaque manner. At worst, we have a November 2011 IAEA report that voiced considerable concern over Iran’s apparent possession of a document detailing plans for the development of nuclear weapons. (Never mind that countries such as Germany and Japan retain precisely the same plans and capabilities without being subject to relentless IAEA scrutiny, and that the agency is not in fact legally authorised to investigate anything not directly related to fissile materials, such as plans for the development of nuclear weapons. Further evidence of the IAEA’s partisanship came when Wikileaks revealed its Director’s commitment to US interests in the region.)

The last solid conclusion available is that Iran is still yet to take any real steps towards nuclear weapons-capability. This confirms what was already known in 2007 by the CIA, namely, that Iran had got no further in reaching nuclear weapons-capability than it had in 2003 when it shelved its plans for achieving nuclear weapons-capability. (This wasn’t very far at all.)

Nonetheless, these facts bear almost no relationship to what is happening on the international stage, and for obvious reason. Resolution after resolution has called for Iran to give up its nuclear enrichment program, activity to which it is entitled by Article 4 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Sanctions, and their grisly effects, are intensifying. The country has suffered brutal, Israeli-led terrorist attacks against its nuclear scientists (details here and here), alongside dangerous electronic attacks against its nuclear facilities (details here and here). (These are, of course, attacks which would be decried as ‘cyberterrorism’ by the shameless Hillary Clinton if conducted against the US.) In another combative move, the US has recently removed from its list of terrorist groups the Peoples Mujahedeen of Iran (MEK), a group implicated in the terrorist attacks against Iranian scientists and which may well have been trained in the US and publicly supported by ultra-nationalist John Bolton and Alan Dershowitz.

Iran may have breached the Safeguards Agreement of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in building a new centrifuge facility in Qom in 2009 without informing the IAEA. But it’s worth remembering that this highly technical alleged violation remains the subject of reasonable disagreement (some details here and here). It’s also not clear what the IAEA actually said: the relevant report doesn’t actually use the word ‘violate’ or any of its cognates. Of course, there remains a further dispute as to whether the IAEA is being permitted inspection of all of Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the hypocrisy here is particularly noteworthy. Three major US allies – Israel, India, and Pakistan – are all nuclear powers but refuse to sign up to the NPT. Iran has been opaque and obstructive, certainly, but this is hardly comparable to Israel’s possession of (most likely) over one hundred nuclear missiles and its complete refusal to do its part to establish a nuclear weapons-free Middle East by disarming.

Of course, Iran has been implicated in recent terrorist attacks against Israeli citizens (details here, and two attempted attacks here and here), and its support for groups such as Hizbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad who carry out military and terrorist attacks in the region is longstanding and sizeable. But, given the breaches and crimes committed by both sides (the US and Israel’s bloody and terroristic history in the region is a matter of public record), what justification could there be for the belligerence which Iran has faced? We are commonly told of the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose, and it is this threat that is taken to justify – or demand – that we do whatever we can to stop this from happening. The argument is a bad one, for various reasons.

Most importantly, a nuclear-armed Iran is nowhere near as terrifying a prospect as it’s often claimed to be. Most importantly, the traditional logic of mutually-assured destruction prevails. As Kenneth Waltz writes, “[d]espite a widespread belief to the contrary, Iranian policy is made not by ‘mad mullahs’ but by perfectly sane ayatollahs who want to survive just like any other leaders.” As long as the US and Israel have their own nuclear weapons pointed at Tehran, the Iranian government won’t be doing anything to invite nuclear war: whatever else they are, they’re not insane. As a result, A nuclear-armed Iran will have little more in the short-term with which to threaten its chief adversaries, the US and Israel, than the threat its oil supplies and non-state military proxies already present.

There may remain a serious worry that, whilst Iran may appreciate the inevitabilities of nuclear deterrence, its ‘proxies’ such as Hizbollah will not, and an Iranian bomb may end up in their hands one way or another. But the idea that Iran would willingly provide Hizbollah with nukes is as implausible as Iran seeking a nuclear weapon for any real aggressive purpose. They’re weapons of massive destructive power that take much effort to obtain; they won’t just be handed out like a crate of AK-47s, even to close friends. To the extent that Hizbollah takes instruction from Iran (as many claim), Iran would, for the reasons noted above, seek to prohibit Hizbollah from threatening the US or Israel in any way that would result in nuclear backlash against itself (which any Hizbollah attack would no doubt provoke). To the extent that it’s plausible to think that the instability of Iranian nuclear security (a problem to which the US and Israel are no doubt contributing) may result in accidental handover of nuclear weapons to non-state groups, there’s nothing to suggest that the Hizbollah leadership seeks its own collective destruction by way of the nuking of Southern Lebanon.

Of course, it may be that a nuclear-armed Iran will feel a greater confidence to assert itself in military ventures short of war. Some plausibly suggest that a nuclear-armed Iran would fortify its links with military groups in the region and exploit them further in actions against the US and Israel. Certainly, it will feel emboldened to act in ways that were previously prohibited by the threat of Israeli or US military strikes. But as Kenneth Waltz has responded to this point, we simply have to make a judgment as to the overall least-bad option of many bad options. Which is worse: war between Iran and the US (and/or Israel), or some intensification of low-level military and terrorist attack? As the death count of the Iraq war shows (between several hundred thousand and a million dead), the answer, I think, is clear.

Therefore, as Paul Pillar concludes, “we can live with a nuclear Iran”. We may have to, anyway. Even if Iran is taking (small and slow) steps towards nuclear weapons-capability, it may well be irrational for it not do so. As Noam Chomsky has said, “Washington has gone out of its way to instruct Iran on the need for a powerful deterrent, not only by invading Iraq, but also by strengthening the offensive forces of its Israeli client, which already has hundreds of nuclear weapons as well as air and armoured forces larger and more advanced than any NATO power other than the United States.”

And whatever we think of the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, the US has had plenty of opportunity to do something about it in the only sensible manner available. In 2003, the last Iranian government – that of the (reasonably) reformist Mohammed Khatami – attempted to present to the Bush administration a roadmap for shelving its early nuclear weapons program, normalising its relations with Israel (which included the acceptance of a two-state solution), and ending its support to military groups such as Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad, in return for a handover of wanted MEK members and commitment to ending the extant sanctions against the country. (A copy of the faxed document detailing the agreement can be found here.) Despite Iran presenting what Trita Parsi has described as “an American wish list of everything that needed to be changed about Iran”, the US government arrogantly rebuffed these efforts. It exaggerated its own long-term strengths and Iran’s long-term weaknesses, and compromise and concession to Iran was not something the ultra-nationalist neoconservatives could under any circumstances accept.

This rejectionism was then imposed on burgeoning EU talks with Iran: as the then French ambassador to Iran said at the time, “[f]or the U.S., the enrichment in Iran is a red line which the EU cannot cross.” This was after the US publicly berated the Swiss diplomatic delegation that had delivered Iran’s proposals. A massive opportunity for diplomatic engagement was missed. We reap the sorry harvest of that belligerence today.

But the belligerence continues. Both Presidential candidates maintain their red line of ‘no Iranian nuclear bomb’. This is whilst both Romney and elements of the US Senate have previously sought to go further, arguing for even greater control of Iranian nuclear policy in their refusal to permit any nuclear-weapons capability (which a number of other states across the world currently maintain).

Regional fear runs high. The threat posed by a freshly aggrieved Iran and its regional proxies is effectively an assumption of those who argue for the infliction of that fresh grievance. The warmongers are therefore skewered on their own absurdities: as Paul Pillar writes, they’re left claiming that “the same regime that cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon because it is recklessly aggressive and prone to cause regional havoc would suddenly become, once attacked, a model of calm and caution, easily deterred by the threat of further attacks.”

This is all supported a US military study and another by an assortment of former US military and diplomatic officials. A conclusion of the latter report is that any ground invasion of Iran (the only sure way of disabling Iran’s nuclear-weapons capability) is unthinkable in the short- or medium-term, if not entirely, requiring “a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined”. (This week, the largest joint US-Israeli war game in history is being undertaken in the region, named Austere Challenge 12, thought to test further US-Israeli military capabilities in the event of engagement with Iran.)

Whether or not this would actually occur is in one respect moot. For it is becoming an emerging consensus that an attack would be entirely counterproductive, whether or not it risks regional conflagration. As occurred with the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear facilities in the early 1980s, any such attack would in fact cause a race towards Iranian nuclear weapons-capability, rather than prevent it. Worse, it would generate a significant ‘rally-around-the-flag’ effect: large sectors of the Iranian population, even those ordinarily opposed to the regime, would rush to the support of the current government in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, (rightly) seeing any such attack as an assault on them too. As Paul Pillar notes, an attack “would become an even more prominent and lasting grievance than the U.S.-engineered overthrow of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh in 1953 or the accidental shooting down of an Iranian airliner over the Persian Gulf in 1988.”

Even a superficially more plausible ‘surgical’ strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, therefore, is beginning to recede from consideration. With the now-deafening protest of it’s security establishment against an early attack, even the Israeli government appears to be rowing back from the threats of the last few years.The imposition of economic sanctions, by contrast, is seen by many as an alternative to the suggested military strikes and terrorist attacks that have been recommended. But this is an illusion. As Daniel Joyner writes, far from being what pushed Iran into talks with the West after years of rejection, “the West’s sanctions program [over the last decade] is the reason that Iran pulled back from the negotiating table in the first place.” As Karl and John Mueller wrote in 1999, economic sanctions “may have contributed to more deaths during the post-Cold War era than all weapons of mass destruction throughout history…in a matter of months or years whole economies can be devastated, as happened in Haiti in 1991 and Serbia in 1992.” They are massively destructive blunt instruments who chief victims are innocent civilians.

Some estimates of the numbers of Iraqi citizens who died during the sanctions program of the 1990s runs between 670,000 and 880,000. A majority of the dead were children. Moreover, they are widely acknowledged to have had a thoroughly pernicious effect on the chances of democratic opposition in Iraq, in presenting an economic assault on Iraqi society that the majority of its citizens rallied together to oppose, regardless of Saddam’s brutal dictatorship.

The same conditions for mass destruction are building in Iran. As in Iraq, Iran’s mismanaged economy is supported largely on the oil revenues it now no longer receives as a result of the sanctions. Ban-Ki Moon has warned that the sanctions regime is placing at risk millions of Iranian lives, as medicines for the treatment of illnesses are running out as the restrictions on financial and trade activity across the country severely halt supply. The sanctions have also caused the rapid depreciation of Iran’s currency (and by 40% earlier this month), whose effects worsen with each passing month. As food prices continue to rise and medicine becomes increasingly unavailable, Iranian civilians face the threat of mass hunger and disease.

Moreover, the same galvanising effect that sanctions had for the former Iraqi regime may well be beginning in Iran, as The Guardian reported in August this year. As is reasonable, many Iranians feel the sanctions as direct assaults on their own lives. Rather than targeting their anger at the regime and fomenting uprising, the sanctions sap whatever power the opposition had and further weaken any hope for internal democratic revolution.

Of course, there’s a chance that Iran will decide that their only option is to come to the negotiating table before the sanctions choke the country to death. But it’s worth remembering that this will have been won by nothing but thuggery and brutality. As  Stephen Walt wrote earlier this year, this all fits in to basically the same pattern: “instead of ‘arms control’ being the product of mutual negotiation, as it was in the Cold War, it now consists of the United States making demands and ramping up pressure to get weak states to comply. Instead of being primarily a diplomatic process aimed at eliciting mutually beneficial cooperation (which might also help ameliorate mutual suspicions with current adversaries), arms control has become a coercive process designed to produce capitulation.” The potential overtures to negotiations made by Iranian officials this month therefore need to be understood for what they are: an abject capitulation in the face of overwhelming, and illegitimate, military and economic pressure.

It’s difficult to find any justification for the current threats posed to Iran and Iranian society. Indeed, it’s difficult not to conclude that the major ‘threat’ posed by a nuclear Iran, as Matthew Kroenig lamented earlier this year, is simply that it “would immediately limit US freedom of action in the Middle East.” And with its history of installing and supporting murderous tyrants, providing unconditional support to Israel no matter what atrocities it commits, and carrying out massive atrocities of its own (the Iraq war being the most obvious example), this result should be welcomed, not feared.

Of course, a nuclear-armed Iran is a scary prospect for other reasons. Domestic instability and the possibilities of internal democratic revolution take on a very different character with the risk of accidental mishandling of a nuclear arsenal. But it’s difficult to argue that this risk justifies unilateral US/Israeli control over Iranian domestic nuclear policy and yet more consolidation of their power. A non-partisan, fair-minded IAEA, an EU not in thrall to US power, and a Non-Aligned Movement permitted to have some control over international affairs are all preconditions for lasting and equitable moves towards nuclear non-proliferation in the region. Brazil’s attempts at building precisely this kind of order over the last decade should therefore be praised. Anything else constitutes the maintenance of US hegemony to no one’s benefit but themselves.

There’s no doubt that as a matter of domestic policy Iran’s religious leaders and successive governments have wreaked a terrible toll on its population. (A hearing at The Hague is now being undertaken into the massacre of around 20,000 political prisoners by the regime between 1981 and 1989.) But there’s little to support the claim that Iran is bent on the defeat of any ‘infidel West’ over and above its (legitimate) attempt to become a regional competitor to Israel and counter US hegemony. It has yet to launch any aggressive wars across the world (unlike the US or Israel), and any fair-minded observer of the region since 1979 would conclude that Iran’s commission or support for terrorist atrocities is certainly no worse (and may in fact be better) than the record of its chief enemies.

The US Presidential debates told us nothing we didn’t already know about the candidates’ views on Iran. Whilst Romney has extracted political mileage from supposed differences between him and the incumbent on matters of foreign policy, they were certainly not sizeable or obvious on Monday night. Whilst the neoconservatism of the last Bush regime has thankfully ended, Obama remains within the limits of the US’s ‘bipartisan consensus’ on foreign policy. This demands the maintenance of US power in the Middle East at whatever cost, and his pursuit of sanctions, over any short-term military strike, fits this entirely. Nonetheless, Romney threatens to take the US further. He has taken the foreign policy advice of hard-line ultra-nationalists William Kristol and John Bolton, key architects of the neoconservative project that planned for US military invasion of much of the Middle East, including Iran. Bolton, in particular, was part of the government who refused even to engage with the Iranian government of 2003, itself far less instantly objectionable to the US than it appears now. Also, with newspaper-owning billionaire Sheldon Adelson as a key backer, Romney has attempted to outflank Obama through the courting of Israel’s hard-right. A Romney Presidency, therefore, threatens to repeat the massive error of that year, at the very least. This isn’t to say that a second term for Obama won’t do the same. As sanctions destroy the economy and Iran feels even more threatened, hardline rhetoric may begin to garner more support and Iranian willingness to engage will dwindle. Anyway, unless Obama’s efforts at ‘diplomacy’ seriously attempt to engage with legitimate Iranian concerns about its regional security and economic stability, then even a more reform-minded Iran will have difficulty agreeing to a potentially embarrassing nuclear climbdown.

The maintenance of US control over the Middle East, whether the through use or threat of military and economic force, remains the ultimate goal. The extremism of the Bush administration may have rescinded, but the commitment to US hegemony remains the same. During the Cold War, the existence of a seriously threatening military competitor, the Soviet Union, forced the US to the negotiating table, at least some of the time. The apocalypse that threatened to be the result of the Cuban missile crisis was averted by compromise and concession. In a world where its hegemony remains largely unchallenged, the US appears to see little reason for non-coercive, concessionary diplomacy. This behaviour is not only enormously counterproductive, but seriously immoral.


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