The public discussion in the West addressing Iran’s nuclear program has mainly relied on threat diplomacy, articulated most clearly by Israeli officials, but enjoying the strong direct and indirect backing of Washington and leading Gulf states. Israel has also engaged in covert warfare against Iran in recent years, somewhat supported by the United States, that has inflicted violent deaths on civilians in Iran. Many members of the UN Security Council support escalating sanctions against Iran, and have not blinked when Tel Aviv and Washington talk menacingly about leaving all options on the table, which is ‘diplospeak’ for their readiness to launch a military attack. At last, some signs of sanity are beginning to emerge to slow the march over the cliff. For instance, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, commented harshly on this militarist approach: “I have no doubt that it would pour fuel on a fire which is already smoldering, the hidden smoldering fire of Sunni-Shia confrontation, and beyond that [it would cause] a chain reaction. I don’t know where it would stop.” And a few days ago even the normally hawkish Israeli Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, evidently fearful of international panic and a preemptive response by Tehran, declared that any decision to launch a military attack by Israel is ‘very far off,’ words that can be read in a variety of ways, mostly not genuinely reassuring.
It is not only an American insistence, despite pretending from time to time an interest in a diplomatic solution, that only threats and force are relevant to resolve this long incubating political dispute with Iran, but more tellingly, it is the stubborn refusal by Washington to normalize relations with Iran, openly repudiate the Israeli war drums, and finally accept the verdict of history in Iran adverse to its strategic ambitions. The United States has shown no willingness despite the passage of more than 30 years to accept the outcome of Iran’s popular revolution of 1978-79 that nonviolently overthrew the oppressive regime of the Shah. We need also to remember that the Shah had been returned to power in 1953 thanks to the CIA in a coup against the constitutional and democratically elected government of Mohamed Mossadegh, whose main crime was to nationalize the Iranian oil industry. This prolonged unwillingness of Washington to have normal diplomatic contact with Iran has been a sure recipe for international tension and misunderstanding, especially taking into account this historical background of American intervention in Iran, as well as the thinly disguised interest in recovering access to Iran’s high quality oil fields confirmed by its willingness to go along with Israel’s militarist tactics and diplomacy.
This conflict-oriented mentality is so strong in relation to Iran than when others try their best to smooth diplomatic waters, as Brazil and Turkey did in the May 2010, the United States angrily responds that such countries should mind their own business, which is an arrogant reprimand, considering that Turkey is Iran’s next door neighbor, and has the most to lose if a war results from the unresolved dispute involving Iran’s contested nuclear program. It should be recalled that in 2010 Iran formally agreed with leaders from Brazil and Turkey to store half or more of its then stockpile of low enriched uranium in Turkey, materials that would be needed for further enrichment if Iran was truly determined to possess a nuclear bomb as soon as possible. Instead of welcoming this constructive step back from the precipice Washington castigated the agreement as diversionary, contending that it interfered with the mobilization of support in the Security Council for ratcheting up sanctions intended to coerce Iran into giving up its right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle. Such criticism of Turkey and Brazil for its engagement with peace diplomacy contrasts with its tacit endorsement of Israeli recourse to terrorist tactics in its efforts to destabilize Iran, or possibly to provoke Iran to the point that it retaliates, giving Tel Aviv the pretext it seems to seek to begin open warfare.
Iran is being accused of moving toward a ‘breakout’ capability in relation to nuclear weapons, that is, possessing a combination of knowhow and enough properly enriched uranium to produce nuclear bombs within a matter of weeks, or at most months. Tehran has repeatedly denied any intention to become a nuclear weapons state, but has insisted all along that it has the same legal rights under the Nonproliferation Treaty as such other non-nuclear states as Germany and Japan, and this includes the right to have a complete nuclear fuel cycle, which entails enrichment capabilities and does imply a breakout capability. In the background, it should be realized that even the 1968 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons contains a provision that allows a party to withdraw from the obligations under the treaty if it gives three months notice and ‘decides that extraordinary events..have jeopardized its supreme national interests.’(Article X) Such a provision, in effect, acknowledges the legal right of a country to determine its own security requirements in relation to nuclear weapons, a right that both the United States and Israel in different ways have implicitly exercised for decades with stunning irresponsibility that includes secrecy, a failure to pursue nuclear disarmament that is an obligation of the treaty, and a denial of all forms of international accountability. The real ‘threat’ posed by a hypothetical Iran bomb is to Israel’s regional monopoly over nuclear weapons. As three former Mossad chiefs have stated, even if Iran were to acquire a few nuclear bombs, Israel would still face no significant additional threat to its security or existence, as any attack would be manifestly suicidal, and Iran has shown no such disposition toward recklessness in its foreign policy.
To be objective commentators we must ask ourselves whether Iran’s posture toward its nuclear program is unreasonable under these circumstances. Is not Iran a sovereign state with the same right as other states to uphold its security and political independence when facing threats from its enemies armed with nuclear weapons? When was the last time Iran resorted to force against a hostile neighbor? The surprising answer is over 200 years ago! Can either of Iran’s antagonists claim a comparable record of living within its borders? Why does Iran not have the same right as other states to take full advantage of nuclear technology? And given Israeli hostility, terrorist assaults, and military capabilities that includes sophisticated nuclear warheads, delivery style, and a record of preemptive war making, would it not be reasonable for Iran to seek, and even obtain, a nuclear deterrent? True, the regime in Iran has been oppressive toward its domestic opposition and its president has expressed anti-Israeli views in inflammatory language (although exaggerated in the West), however unlike Israel, without ever threatening or resorting to military action. It should also be appreciated that Iran has consistently denied an intention to develop nuclear weaponry, and claims only an interest in using enriched uranium for medical research and nuclear energy. Even if there are grounds to be somewhat skeptical about such reassurances, given the grounds for suspicion that have been ambiguously and controversially validated by reports from International Atomic Energy Agency, this still does not justify sanctions, much less threats backed up by deployments, war games, projected attack scenarios, and a campaign of terrorist violence.
So far no prominent advocates of confrontation with Iran have been willing to acknowledge the obvious relevance of Israel’s nuclear weapons arsenal. Is not the actuality of nuclear weaponry, not only an Iranian breakout potential but a substantial arsenal of Israeli weaponry secretly acquired (200-300 warheads), continuously upgraded, and coupled with the latest long distance delivery capabilities, the most troublesome threat to regional stability and peace? At minimum, are not Israel’s nuclear weapons stockpile highly relevant both to bring stability and for an appraisal of Iran’s behavior? The United States and Israel behave in the Middle East as if the golden rule of international politics is totally inapplicable, that you can do unto others, what you are unwilling to have them do unto you!
We need, as well, to remember the lessons of recent history bearing on the counter-proliferation tactics relied upon in recent years by the United States. Iraq was attacked in 2003 partly because it did not have any nuclear weapons, while North Korea has been spared such a comparably horrific fate because it possesses a retaliatory capability that would likely be used if attacked, and has the capability to inflict severe harm on neighboring countries. If this experience relating to nuclear weapons is reasonably interpreted it could incline governments that have hostile relations to the West to opt for a nuclear weapons option as necessary step to discourage attacks and interventions. Surely putting such reasoning into practice would not be good for the region, possibly igniting a devastating war, and almost certainly leading to the spread of nuclear weapons to other Middle Eastern countries. Instead of moving to coerce, punish, and frighten Iran in ways that are almost certain to increase the incentives of Iran and others to possess nuclear weaponry, it would seem prudent and in the mutual interest of all to foster a diplomacy of de-escalation, a path that Iran has always signaled its willingness to pursue. And diplomatic alternatives to confrontation and war exist, but require the sort of political imagination that seems totally absent in the capitals of hard power geopolitics.
It should be obvious to all but the most dogmatic warmongers that the path to peace and greater stability in the region depends on taking two steps long overdue, and if not taken, at least widely debated in public: first, establishing a nuclear free Middle East by a negotiated and monitored agreement that includes all states in the region, including Israel and Iran; secondly, an initiative promoted by the United Nations and backed by a consensus of its leading members to outline a just solution for the Israel/Palestine conflict that is consistent with Palestinian rights under international law, including the Palestinian right of self-determination, which if not accepted by Israel (and endorsed by the Palestinian people) within twelve months would result in the imposition of severe sanctions. Not only would such initiatives promote peace and prosperity for the Middle East, but this turn to diplomacy and law would serve the cause of justice both by putting an end to the warmongering of recent years and to the intolerable denial of rights to the Palestinian people that goes back to at least 1947, and was later intensified by the oppressive occupation of East Jerusalem, West Bank, and Gaza that resulted from the outcome of the 1967 War.
These manifestly beneficial alternatives to sanctions and war is neither selected, nor even considered in the most influential corridors of opinion-making. It is simple to explain why: world order continues to be largely shaped by the rule of power rather than the rule of law, or by recourse to the realm of rights, and nowhere more so than in the Middle East where the majority of the world’s oil reserves are located, and where an expansionist Israel refuses to make real peace with its neighbors while subjugating the Palestinian people to an unendurable ordeal. Unfortunately, a geopolitical logic prevails in world politics, which means that inequality, hierarchy, and hard power control the thought and action of powerful governments whenever toward strategic interests are at stake. Perhaps, a glance at recent history offers the most convincing demonstration of the validity of this assessment: Western military interventions in Iraq and Libya, as well as the intimidating threats of attacks on Iran, three states in the region with oil and regimes unfriendly to the West. Egypt and Tunisia, the first-born children of the Arab Spring, were undoubtedly politically advantaged by not being major oil producing states, although Egypt is not as lucky as Tunisia because Israel and the United States worry that a more democratic Egyptian government might abandon the 1978 Peace Treaty and show greater solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, and are doing what they can to prevent Cairo from moving in such directions.
Fortunately, there is a growing, although still marginal, recognition that despite all the macho diplomacy of recent years, a military option is not really viable. It would not achieve its objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear capabilities, and it would in all likelihood confirm the opinions among Iranian hawkish factions that only the possession of nuclear weapons will keep their country from facing the catastrophe brought on by a military attack. Beyond this, attacking Iran would almost certainly unleash retaliatory responses, possibly blocking the Straits of Hormuz, which carry 20% of the world’s traded oil, and possibly leading to direct missile strikes directed at Israel and some of the Gulf countries. Given this prospect, there is beginning to be some indication that the West is at last beginning to consider alternatives to hot war in responding to Iran.
But so far this realization is leading not to the peaceful initiatives mentioned earlier, but to a reliance on ‘war’ by other means. The long confrontation with Iran has developed its own momentum that makes any fundamental adjustment seem politically unacceptable to the United States and Israel, a sign of weakness and geopolitical defeat. And so as the prospect of a military attack is temporarily deferred for reasons of prudence, as Barak confirmed, but in its place is put this intensified and escalating campaign of violent disruption, economic coercion, and outright terrorism. Such an ongoing effort to challenge Iran has produced a series of ugly and dangerous incidents that might at some point in the near future provoke a hostile Iranian reaction, generating a sequence of action and reaction that could plunge the region into a disastrous war and bring on a worldwide economic collapse.
The main features of this disturbing pattern of covert warfare are becoming clear, and are even being endorsed in liberal circles because such a course of action is seen as less harmful to Western interests than an overt military attack, proceeding on the assumptions that are no better alternatives than confrontation in some form. Israel, with apparent American collaboration, assassinates Iranian nuclear scientists, infects Iranian nuclear centrifuges used to enrich uranium with a disabling Stuxnet virus, and recruits Iranians to join Jundallah, an anti-regime terrorist organization in Iran, to commit acts of violence against civilian targets, such as the 2009 attack on the mosque in Zahedan that killed 25 worshippers and wounded many others. The New York Times in an editorial (January 13, 2012) describes these tactics dispassionately without ever taking note of their objectionable moral or legal character: “An accelerating covert campaign of assassinations, bombings, cyber attacks and defections—carried out mainly by Israel, according to The Times—is slowing..[Iran’s nuclear] program, but whether that is enough is unclear.” The editorial observes that “a military strike would be a disaster,” yet this respected, supposedly moderate, editorial voice only questions whether such a pattern of covert warfare will get the necessary job done of preventing Iran from possessing a nuclear option sometime in the future.
It should be obvious that if it was Iran that was engaging in similar tactics to disrupt Israeli military planning or to sabotage Israel’s nuclear establishment liberal opinion makers in the West would be screaming their denunciations of Iran’s barbaric lawlessness. Such violations of Israel sovereignty and international law would be certainly regarded by the West as unacceptable forms of provocation that would fully justify a major Israeli military response, and make the outbreak of war seem inevitable and unavoidable.
And when Iran did recently react to the prospect of new international sanctions making its sale of oil far more difficult by threatening to block passage through the Straits of Hormuz, the United States reacted by sending additional naval vessels to the area and warning Tehran that any interference with international shipping would be ‘a red line’ leading to U.S. military action. It should be incredible to appreciate that assassinating nuclear scientists in Iran is okay with the arbiters of international behavior while interfering with the global oil market crosses a war-provoking red line. These self-serving distinctions illustrate the dirty work of geopolitics in the early 21st century.
There are some lonely voices calling for a nuclear free Middle East and a just settlement of the Israeli/Palestine conflict, but even with credentials like long service in the CIA or U.S. State Department, these calls are almost totally absent in the mainstream discourse that controls debate in the United States and Israel. When some peaceful alternatives are entertained at all it is always within the framework of preventing Iran doing what it seems entitled to do from the perspectives of law and prudence. I am afraid that only when and if a yet non-existent Global Occupy Movement turns its attention to geopolitics will the peoples of the Middle East have some reason to hope for a peaceful and promising future for their region.