Iran, the U.S., and Nukes in the Middle East


he Bush administration’s rapid escalation
of anti-Iran rhetoric in the last few months should not be dismissed
as posturing. Some of the attacks, especially Vice-President Cheney’s
and UN Ambassador John Bolton’s speeches to the American-Israel
Public Affairs Committee convention, were clearly aimed at least
partly at that specific audience. But this Administration has a
history of carrying out actions widely viewed, even among U.S. elites,
as reckless and dangerous. The Bush administration’s new campaign
of claiming Iran is responsible for the improvised explosive devices
(IEDs or roadside bombs) that are proving so deadly, represents
a further escalation of the threat by linking Iran to the rise in
U.S. casualties in Iraq. 

The extremist language of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad
also has played a role in heating up the rhetorical battle. His
outrageous claims denying the Holocaust appear to be playing to
what he perceives as the views of his domestic audience. But Ahmedinejad’s
refusal to recognize the obligations of national presidents in the
world spotlight—especially the president of a nation in Washington’s
crosshairs—has created a situation in which both sides may
become boxed into political corners. 

The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is based on the idea that countries
with and without nuclear weapons all give up something and both
have rights and obligations under the Treaty. Countries without
nuclear weapons—almost all countries in the world have signed
the Treaty—agree not to buy or build nuclear weapons. In return,
the NPT allows them to create and use nuclear power and even urges
the nuclear weapons countries to provide them with nuclear technology
for their peaceful use, including the technology to enrich uranium.
(This encouragement of the spread of nuclear technology and nuclear
power is a huge weakness of the NPT, but it remains the operative
legal framework.) On the other side, the five recognized nuclear
weapons countries—the U.S., Russia, France, the UK, and China—
are obligated under Article VI of the NPT to move towards full and
complete nuclear disarmament. 

The three known nuclear weapons states beyond the five official
nuclear powers are Israel, India, and Pakistan. Unlike Iran, none
of them have signed the NPT. (North Korea, widely viewed as having
the ability to build, or perhaps even having an existing nuclear
weapon, was a signatory to the NPT, but withdrew before moving towards
full nuclear weapons capacity.) 

Iran, however, is a signatory to the NPT and as such has been under
voluntary international scrutiny for many years. Like all non-nuclear
weapons signatories, Iran maintains the right to have access to
nuclear technology, to build nuclear power plants, and to enrich
uranium for peaceful purposes. Iran has not violated the NPT’s
restrictions for non-nuclear weapons countries. Even the U.S. does
not claim Iran is violating the NPT. The Bush administration claims,
rather, that it “does not trust” Iran and therefore Iran
should be denied the rights granted to it under the treaty. 

Iran has no capacity to produce nuclear weapons at this time. If
it chooses to move towards nuclear weapons production, estimates
are that it would take five to ten years before it would be possible.
Tehran has made clear its desire for a security guarantee with the
U.S. During the year-long European-led negotiations over Iran’s
nuclear program, Washington’s refusal to offer such a guarantee
fueled public support in Iran for the nuclear program. 

The escalating danger of a new U.S. military strike or a nuclear
arms race in the Middle East must take into account the provocative
nature of Israel’s unacknowledged, but widely known nuclear
arsenal of 200-400 high-density nuclear bombs produced at its Dimona
nuclear center in the Negev desert. The Israeli nuke was first tested
jointly with apartheid South Africa in 1979 and made public by nuclear
whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu in 1986. Since then Israel, with
U.S. support, has maintained a nuclear policy of “strategic
ambiguity,” neither confirming nor denying the existence of
its nuclear weapons. As long as Israel, while continuing to violate
international law in its occupation of Palestinian and Syrian territory,
remains the Middle East’s sole nuclear power, other countries
in the region will continue seeking nuclear parity for deterrence.
(Alternatively, they may seek chemical or biological weapons, often
termed the “poor countries’ nuclear weapons.”) 

U.S. officials are not yet openly calling for military action against
Iran; their rhetoric so far states that “all options are on
the table,” with Cheney, Rice, Bush, and others making explicit
threats about what Iran “must” do. When details do come
out, U.S. and Israeli military and political officials claim to
be looking only at “surgical” air strikes against known
Iranian nuclear facilities. What is not being publicly answered
is what the U.S. plans to do should Iran retaliate militarily to
such an attack. If such retaliation is an attack on U.S. troops
in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, a move to stall shipping in
the strategic Strait of Hormuz, or an attack against Israel, would
the U.S. then consider an invasion of Iran in response? In this
context it makes less difference whether an initial military strike
against Iran is carried out by the U.S. directly or by Israel—since
Iran might respond militarily against either one regardless of which
air force actually dropped the bombs.

Governments around the world, including powerful European governments,
remain skeptical of Washington’s intentions and are especially
dubious regarding U.S. intelligence claims following the lies of
the Iraq war. But most governments, including those who defied U.S.
pressure on Iraq, remain eager to get back into Washington’s
good graces. Since they know Iran, unlike Iraq before the invasion,
does have a functioning nuclear energy program, many are prepared
to put aside Iran’s legal position under the NPT and embrace
Washington’s campaign to treat Iran as a global danger.  

The UN’s nuclear watchdog (IAEA) continues to call for de-escalation
of the rhetoric and reliance on negotiations, and has reported that
there is no evidence of nuclear weapons production. But the IAEA
has been unwilling to challenge Washington’s campaign directly,
emphasizing instead its unhappiness with Iran’s allegedly insufficient
transparency. IAEA Director Mohamed el Baradei even stated that
“diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases,
by force.” The result is that overall international skepticism
regarding the Bush administration’s claims may not be sufficient
for winning governmental opposition to rising U.S. threats against

The IAEA board has now reported the Iran issue to the UN Security
Council where closed, nonpublic debate is underway, initially involving
only the five permanent members. At the moment it appears unlikely
Russia and China would accept a resolution imposing fullscale economic
sanctions against Iran. Both are strong trade partners with Iran—China
depends on Iran for more than 10 percent of its growing oil needs
and Russia’s nuclear industry remains tied to Iran’s nuclear
power production. 

Instead, it is likely that any call for Security Council sanctions
will be in the form of so-called “smart sanctions,” largely
limited to freezing assets and denying travel rights to specific
members of the Iranian regime and specific Iranian companies. A
greater danger may be the language of the resolution. If the U.S.
agrees to call only for “smart” sanctions, the quid pro
quo from Russia and China may be language that the Security Council
decision is taken under Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The significance
is that Chapter VII includes the Council’s right to use the
military to enforce UN decisions. Even if only the Council may legally
make such a determination, the very presence of the words “Chapter
VII” in the text may be used by the Bush administration to
claim that any future unilateral attack on Iran is somehow “enforcing
UN resolutions.” 

international shift whose consequences remain uncertain has to do
with Iran’s planned opening of a new international oil trading
center, with a euro-based, rather than dollar-based, exchange. Such
a move would potentially threaten the dominance of the petro-dollar
in the global oil markets and thus pose new risks for U.S. currency
dominance. Saddam Hussein had shifted from dollars to euros for
oil trading two years before the U.S. invasion; it was almost certainly
one of several reasons for the overthrow of the Iraqi regime. The
opening of such a new euro-based oil exchange in Iran would likely
benefit Europe, with the possibility of a shift away from the current
European passivity towards Washington’s military threats.  The
following sums up my current talking points on the U.S. and Iran:

  • Escalating rhetoric, continued losses in Iraq,
    Bush’s political problems, and an ideologically-driven pursuit
    of power make the possibility of a U.S. military attack on Iran—however
    reckless and dangerous its consequences—a frighteningly real

  • Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and
    has not violated the Treaty. While there appear to be unresolved
    issues regarding full transparency, its nuclear program, including
    enriching uranium, is perfectly legal under NPT requirements for
    non-nuclear weapons states. 

  • Iran does not have nuclear weapons; even if it is trying to build
    a nuclear weapons program, it could not produce weapons for five
    to ten years or more. 

  • There is a dangerous, unmonitored, and provocative nuclear arsenal
    in the Middle East; it belongs to Israel, not Iran. U.S. hypocrisy
    and double standards in nuclear policy—accepting Israel’s
    unacknowledged nuclear arsenal and rewarding India’s nuclear
    weapons status while threatening war against Iran and denying
    its own obligations under the NPT—has undermined Washington’s
    claimed commitment to non-proliferation. 

  • U.S. officials claim they are not considering an invasion of Iran,
    but “only” surgical air strikes against known nuclear
    facilities; they have not explained what their military response
    will be if Iran retaliates, whether against U.S. troops in Iraq
    or elsewhere, against U.S. oil tankers in near-by shipping lanes,
    or against Israel. 

  • Global suspicions remain regarding U.S. claims because of Washington’s
    lies leading to the invasion of Iraq, but international conditions
    regarding Iran are significantly different; many governments appear
    more willing to consider Iran a “threat.” 

  • The only solution to the crisis is to move towards a nuclear weapons-free,
    even weapons of mass destruction-free, zone across the entire
    Middle East. 

In the U.S.-drafted UN Security Council Resolution 687, that ended
the 1991 Gulf War and imposed sanctions on Iraq, Article 14 calls
for “establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons
of mass destruction and all missiles for their delivery.” It
is time Washington was held accountable to that commitment.


Bennis’s new book is

Challenging Empire: How People,
Governments, and the UN Defy U.S. Power