Iran and the USA circle each other warily
As predictable as autumn rains, the November 2011 report on Iran’s nuclear program by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has set fingers to wag and alarms of war to sound once more. From Israel come warnings of pre-emptive military strikes; from the United States, Congressional demands for action, economic sanctions, and news reports alleging Iranian involvement in a half-baked assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Yet, in the nearly decades-long orchestrated atomic scare that permeates American relations with Iran, there is still no evidence of a single bomb. Iran still submits to IAEA inspections, and despite the hubbub over its supposed nuclear “breakout” capabilities, the IAEA acknowledges that all of its enriched uranium remains accounted for.
Shortly after the 1979 revolution that swept the Shah from power, President Jimmy Carter somberly declared that any threat to the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf would justify the resort to armed force to protect a vital national interest. Along with other Western nations, the US quietly sided with Saadam Hussein’s Iraq during the costly Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and turned a blind eye when Iraq employed poison gas on Iranian soldiers and Iraqi villages. Late in the war, and invoking the “Carter doctrine,” the US intervened to destroy Iranian warships and oil rigs. An economic boycott dating from 1980 has frozen relations between the U.S and Iran into a prolonged cold war, not even interrupted when the US waged two wars against its neighbor, Iraq, in 1991 and 2003.
Most sensible bystanders would caution against further American intervention in the region, particularly directed to a country of far greater population and military strength than either Iraq or Afghanistan. Just as important—as described by Iranian human rights activist and former political prisoner Reza Fani-Yazdi—is that any military action against Iran would call forth yet more repression of the regime’s democratic opponents, much as in the 1980s. Yet the US and Iran circle each other warily, like matador and bull, with each ever the quicker to match slight for slight. American threats (“everything is on the table”) induce more Iranian military maneuvers and ostentatious missile tests.
Israel is also a key player in this cold war. It is an “undeclared” nuclear power—the first and only indigenous to the Middle East—whose official policy is to refuse to acknowledge its possession of at least 60 to 80 plutonium weapons, and possibly as many as four hundred.3 Unlike Iran, Israel never signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is not subject to any IAEA verification. The United States, under its special relationship with Israel, is prepared to accept the Israeli nuclear status quo, regardless of its corrosive effect in the area.
Unlike Israel, Iran’s status as an imminent nuclear weapons state depends not upon cold facts, but rather subjective perceptions and assumptions. Despite nearly a decade of active inspections, no concrete evidence exists that Iran has either an atomic explosive device or an active program to manufacture one. Instead, there are only older documents of uncertain origin, a “laptop of death” of unknown origins, and a history of shadowy contacts with the notorious Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan in the 1990s. Notwithstanding the intensity to which Iran’s enrichment program has been scrutinized, it has long been an article of faith among most American politicians and mainstream arms control organizations that Iran is well under way to producing one or more atomic weapons, if it has not already done so. By dint of repetition, the conviction has become alchemically transmuted into fact, much like Iraq’s alleged WMDs before the 2003 war.
It is true that Iran is defying three U.N. Security Council resolutions directing it to cease uranium enrichment. Contrary to popular misconception, nothing in the NPT or IAEA safeguards agreement prohibit such activities. Instead, the Security Council, at the urging of the US and its allies, impose cessation of enrichment as a sanction to punish Iran for its perceived lack of past cooperation with the IAEA, and its penchant for secretiveness, whatever the actual character of the secrets themselves may be.
Four years have passed since American intelligence agencies signed off on the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that concluded there was no active Iranian nuclear weapons program. The investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, in the June 6, 2011 New Yorker, quoted former IAEA director general Mohammad ElBaradei as saying he didn’t see “a shred of evidence” in 12 years in charge to suggest Iran was building a nuclear bomb using its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. During his tenure, ElBaradei had resisted enormous pressure from the United States to find evidence of a weapons program. In 2010, he turned over the directorship to the more pro-West Yukiya Amano. Under Amano, the IAEA has since dangerously veered away from its official role as a verifier of safeguards compliance (accounting for nuclear materials), and instead is being recast as an ad hoc intelligence agency.
The change in IAEA leadership coincided with Iran’s announcement that it had initiated production of 20% enriched uranium to feed into a small research reactor dating from the Shah-era Atoms for Peace program. The purpose of the research reactor is to produce scientific and medical isotopes, which did little to quell the buzz among foreign arms control experts.2 The diplomatic environment deteriorated further when, later in 2010, the Obama administration answered a brokered nuclear material swap agreement between Brazil, Turkey and Iran with yet further sanctions. The November 2011 IAEA report on Iran only elaborated upon pre-existing circumstantial evidence, principally furnished by the US, that the agency has had for several years. It also departed from earlier reports by discussing at length purely military activities such as ballistic missiles. Yet in the same document, the IAEA confirmed (once again) that no nuclear material is missing.
Whatever the facts may be concerning Iran’s nuclear program, the US is pursuing further punitive measures toward Iran’s economy, and which may force Iran’s elites to confront the unpalatable choice of either ending enrichment (a blow to national sovereignty), or worse, become a nuclear weapons state in actuality. Experts agree that “going nuclear” would not be an overnight phenomenon: Iran must first evict the IAEA inspectors, the necessary prelude to reintroducing low enriched uranium into the centrifuges to produce the 90-plus percent U-235, highly-enriched uranium required for military use. Somewhere along this timeline, Israel, perhaps aided by France or the US, may decide to take matters into its hands and launch a pre-emptive strike, an event that could easily escalate into history’s second one-sided atomic war, with catastrophic consequences to already-depressed world economies.
In the midst of imposing more sanctions against Iran, it it important to observe that the established nuclear weapons states hardly can claim leadership by example. Nuclear weapons have long been considered the platinum credit card of state power, influence, and nationalistic pride, and the means to divert and centralize technical and military resources for well-situated elites. As the United States and USSR witnessed in the 1950s, nuclear weapon programs transform political culture, and foster the growth of the “national security state.” These programs acquire organic permanence even when the historic rationales for their creation no longer exist. But then, nuclear weapons are not just another spear in the arsenal, or simply a means to deter attacks from one’s adversaries. As Daniel Ellsberg has often observed, nuclear deterrence is both an offensive and defensive concept, so that the US has been enabled to advance its interests by threatening nuclear attack on numerous occasions. Indeed, as recognized in recent Nuclear Posture Reviews, the US reserves to itself the option to preemptively use nuclear weapons under the rubric of counter-proliferation. Naturally, Iran is a prime focus of such speculative war planning.
Iranian-American author Dr. Maziar Behrooz recently remarked that elites in both Iran and the US benefit from the perpetuation of international tensions. Inside the US, finger-pointing by determined interest groups such as AIPAC gain greater traction and legitimacy. Conservatives in Iran can excuse internal repression and security measures as efforts to combat a visible hostile external threat. And, not the least, global energy companies benefit from war-scare gyrations by fearful oil futures markets to increase their speculative profit margins.
By magnifying the Iranian threat, the US avoids the needed conversation regarding how, for the last quarter century, it has worked to make permanent the pre-eminent status of nuclear weapon states and their nuclear institutions, capable of sustaining its own interests even in the absence of an external threat that would make relevant an expensive stockpile of thousands of nuclear warheads. The success of these nuclear institutions allows them to survive ostensibly liberal and conservative governments in equal measure. The nuclear weapons establishments garner sustained or increased funding even in recessionary periods. Numerous US security documents attest to the role of nuclear weapons in the “foreseeable future” in both an offensive and defensive mode. This is the face of US nuclear institutionalization that appears to the world. The US is further prepared to accept India, Pakistan and Israel-none of whom have signed the NPT or accepted IAEA safeguards agreements (unlike Iran)-because they are prepared to live within the rules of the established order in which the US remains the world’s leading nuclear croupier.
Iran is cited often in US reports as a principal justification for developing new dual-use weapon systems to pre-empt “emerging threats.” But as of 2009, eight nations possessed nearly 8400 operational nuclear weapons. Iran was not one of them. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) concluded that each of the five declared nuclear states appear determined to keep and modernize its weapons.3 Of the total nuclear stockpile in the world, Russia and the US account for 90%.4
A vital need exists within the West to counter the prevailing consensus among political and media elites that Iran constitutes a nuclear “existential” threat that would justify a pre-emptive response, perhaps a nuclear one. Despite the hard lesson learned from the build-up to the Iraq war, the sustained campaign of disinformation directed to the subject of Iran’s nuclear program closely resembles American media attitudes toward Iraq in late 2002.
Ending the cold war itself between the West and Iran is a particularly challenging task, as the diplomatic conflict threatens to get hotter. On November 11, 2011 a massive explosion—yet unexplained—crippled an Iranian missile assembly facility at Bid Kaneh. The explosion brought to mind the destructive Stuxnet virus that riddled Iran’s government computers in 2009. Most recently, on November 29, 2011, in response to more British economic sanctions, students stormed the British Embassy in Tehran, and briefly detained staff.
As detailed in numerous histories, the relationship between Iran and the US has been punctuated by intervention and hostility since the 1950s, when the US actively aided the overthrow of Mossadegh, the country’s elected prime minister, and sponsored a repressive monarchist regime for the next quarter-century. Central to the mutual hostility lies the cycle of American-sponsored sanctions, which, instead of enhancing the goal of non-proliferation, erode it. Many opponents of the conservative regime in Iran, for good reason, also oppose the sanctions: they impact working and middle class Iranians, and provide unneeded excuses for that government to suspend rights and repress dissent.
As a final point, the IAEA process is in dire need of being depoliticized. When subjective intent overpowers objective facts, signatory countries working in good faith to ascertain precise “rules of the road” on regulated nuclear activities will undoubtedly suspect that political interests will supersede technical guidance. The IAEA’s verification of declared nuclear material has become subverted to vague observations that Iran is “less cooperative” or provided “inadequate responses” to legacy issues. In sum, the IAEA should be technically neutral, not a military intelligence service.
Michael Veiluva is general counsel to the Western States Legal Foundation. This article builds upon his book, Burdens of Proof: Iran, the United States and Nuclear Weapons (2009), and his contribution to Beyond Arms Control (2010), published by the Reaching Critical Will Project of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. The author was assisted by Jacqueline Cabasso, Andrew Lichterman, and Dr. John Burroughs.
1 Summarized in Toukan and Cordesman, “Study of a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear development facilities,” Center for International and Strategic Studies, March 19, 2009.
2 Albright and Shire, “Iran’s recent statements about production of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,” Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), 6 Feb. 2010, http://isis-online.org/isis-reports/detail/irans-recent-statements-about production-of-fuel-for-the-techran-research-re/
3 SIPRI, 2009 Yearbook, 345.
4 Ibid. 378.