Playing politics with nukes
September 30, 2004
On July 20, 2004, Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced the
Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004, a legislation promoting the
transformation of the Islamic Republic of Iran to a democratic
form of government.
In justifying his cosponsorship, with Senator
John Cornyn (R-TX), of the Act, Senator Santorum lambasted the
Iranian government for its "aggressive actions to support
terrorist organizations," its "ballistic missile program," "violence
against Americans in Iraq," "hiding information about
its nuclear activities," and a host of other charges that
make the Islamic Republic a threat to the national security of
the United States of America.
"This legislation," Santorum
concludes, "expresses the sense of the Congress that it should
be the policy of the United States to support regime change in
The reckless brandishing of regime change, which has become the
cliché of the neo-con politics, does not ease tensions over
the Iranian nuclear technology. The policy of regime change negates
constructive engagement -- the two cannot coexist. A
negotiated settlement with the Iranian government over its nuclear
technology cannot emerge from undermining the sovereignty of the
Islamic Republic. Without advocating a scenario of Armageddon,
we need to recognize that the absence of détente in the
political lexicon of the Bush Administration is spiraling the Middle
East into an irreversible nuclear arms race.
At stake is the Iranian government's two nuclear plants,
built largely by the Russian contractors. The government in Tehran
insists that their nuclear program pursues a peaceful purpose,
and as President Khatami reiterated recently, Iran has no interest
in developing nuclear weapons. Of course one cannot accept the
assurances of an embattled president whose two terms in office
was mired with internal conflicts. Khatami's office was powerless
to challenge the Supreme Leader and the judiciary's .
positions expressed by Iranian officials do not guarantee that
Iran would utilize its nuclear technology solely for generating
electricity and not for bomb-grade enriched uranium. With American
forces knocking on its doors from all sides of its borders, a nuclear
Pakistan in the south east, and a nuclear Israel making daily threats
of striking its enrichment facilities, it would be naïve to
think that at least some factions in the Iranian government do
not fancy nuclear weapons.
Iran is a signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The
current crisis surfaced when Iran failed to report the construction
of a new nuclear plant near the city of Natanz to the International
Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To correct the breach of contract,
the IAEA asked Iran to agree to an additional protocol that gave
it unrestricted access to all Iranian nuclear facilities, as well
as the right to unannounced spot inspection. The Iranian parliament
approved the additional protocol and asked for assurances that
in exchange for unrestricted access and spot inspection the "Big-Three" Europeans
(UK, France, and Germany) would share nuclear technology with Iran.
While after months of inspection the IAEA found no evidence of
a weapons program, and stated that Iran is in no violation of the
NPT, the United States and EU remain unsatisfied with the level
of transparency of the Iranian nuclear program. The Bush Administration
asserts, a view echoed by Senator John Kerry, that the only solution
for this stand off is that Iran has to "prove they are not
Putting the negative burden of proof that
they are not building weapons on Iranians' shoulder should
be familiar to us all. Like Saddam Hossein in the months preceding
the war, the accused bears the burden of proving his innocence.
But regardless of the exchanges between the IAEA and the Iranian
government, similar to its attitude toward the UN inspection team
in Iraq, the Bush Administration appropriated the IAEA position
as a smokescreen for its ambitions in the region. In its last meeting
in Vienna, Director General Muhammad al-Baradei expressed satisfaction
with the progress of IAEA work in Iran, while emphasizing that
there remained much work to be done. He asked Iran to halt their
enrichment activities voluntarily, since, as an NPT signatory,
Iran enjoys the right to enrich uranium without breaching the treaty.
After the Vienna meeting, John Bolton, the under secretary of
state for arms control and international security, boasted that
conduct did not "bode well for the success of a negotiated
approach to dealing with this issue." Mr. Bolton left nothing
opaque about the meaning of a non-negotiated approach when he compared
the situation in Iran with that of South Africa and Ukraine, both
of which abandoned their military nuclear programs after the fall
of the ancien régime.
If the administration's point-man
for negotiating a settlement does not believe in negotiation
and advocates the change of the regime with which he is supposed
engage, it is easy to see why the Islamic Republic remains skeptical
of American intentions. Why should it negotiate with a state
that openly advocates its overthrow?
The US position on the Iranian nuclear technology has also generated
confusion in the media. We know that this Administration is not
a reliable source of information. It regards intelligence as politics
by other means. Recent articles in the New York Times and reports
on NPR on the Iranian nuclear activities repeat the same kind of
unconfirmed allegations that turned authoritative journalists into
drumbeaters for war with Iraq.
For example the title of Steven
Weisman's diplomatic memo in the New York Times read "Bush
Aides Divided on Confronting Iran Over A-Bomb." I wonder
whether Mr. Weisman has information about an A-bomb in Iran, of
which the international community is unaware. In the text, Weisman
asserted that "Like Iraq in its final years under Saddam
Hussein, Iran is believed by experts to be on the verge of developing
a nuclear bomb. In Iraq, that proved to be untrue, though this
time the consensus is much stronger among Western experts."
I always ask my students to write their sentences in active tense,
passive tenses invite ambiguity and uncertainty and leads your
readers to be more skeptical of your assertions. Weisman is no
student of mine, but I wonder how his claim stands up to the test
of the active reformulation of a sentence. "Iran is believed
by experts... " Who are these experts? What were the bases
of their conclusions that Iran is on the verge of developing a
nuclear bomb? Who are the sources of their intelligence? (Not another
Chalabi, I hope!)
If these "Western experts" were wrong
the first time around, what guarantees the validity of their conjectures
this time? Weisman adds to the currency of his scenario by offering
another piece of intelligence -- "Israel also warns
that Iran's nuclear program will reach a ‘point of
no return' next year, after which it will be able to make
a bomb without any outside assistance."
Israel's warning appeared in another news piece in the
Times "Iran Advances Move to Nuclear Fuel, Defying U.N." by
Craig Smith. Although Mr. Smith wrote that "Iran has offered
to accept any safeguards imposed by the United Nations agency to
ensure its enrichment activities," he qualified his report
by reminding the reader, "But some American analysts warn
that the international community has only a year or so left to
stop the Iranian program from achieving self-sufficiency. After
that, they warn, the country will have the means to create a nuclear
arsenal without outside help, forever altering the Middle East
balance of power."
So, in Smith's report the same piece
of intelligence that was provided by "Israel" in Weisman's
memo reappears as the warning of "some American analysts." This
is at best sloppy journalism and at worst journalism with an agenda.
The world community should be concerned about the Iranian government's
nuclear technology. But on this issue, like in other matters, unilateralism,
arrogance, and disengagement will inevitably lead to disaster.
It is true that the Iranian government pursues a policy of "altering
the balance of power in the Middle East." But after all,
this is the same policy that the United States promotes and executes.
If the Iranians are discontent with the balance of power in the
Middle East, such as the open secret of the Israeli's nuclear
weapons, the world community needs to prove that it deals with
the question of non-proliferation impartially.
If the United State is wary of the intentions of the Islamic
Republic, it should follow a policy that renders any hostile policies
in Iran irrelevant. It cannot promote regime change and offer financial
support to overthrow a sovereign government and expect cooperation
at the same time. One cannot invite secrecy and ask for transparency.
This policy failed in Iraq, and it will fail in Iran.
It will fail
in Iran, not only in the context of Iran-US relations, but also
in regard to the domestic politics of reform within Iran. American
policy, deliberately or unintentionally, promotes a war-time governance
in Iran in which every voice of dissent is silenced and every attempt
for democratization crushed. The reformists in Iran are the biggest
losers of a policy the seeds of which were planted by the President
when he uttered the words "Axis of Evil."
The nuclear threat is as real as it ever was. Neither selling
bunker-buster missiles to Israel, nor threatening the Islamic Republic
with a proxy war will deter certain factions in the Iranian government
from aspiring to a mature weapons program. Paradoxically, current
U.S. policy lends more legitimacy to the Iranian hawks and their
ambitions for a nuclear Iran. If the logic of deterrence justified
more than fifty years of the nuclear arms race, on what geopolitical
grounds could one legitimately ask the Iranian government not to
brandish nuclear weapons to deter its regional competitors?
So, what is the solution? Nuclear power plants generate a hazardous
amount of radioactive waste, the containment and stabilization
of which remains a contentious social and technological problem.
Furthermore, these nuclear power plants present to the United States
and Israel tempting targets for preventive strikes.
government has already begun its perilous journey to join the
nuclear club. It cannot be persuaded to abandon its nuclear power
and adopt renewable energy technologies. From their point of
view, green technologies are neither economically sustainable in
short term, nor politically prestigious.
1. As a signatory of the NPT, Iran can legally develop nuclear
technology for peaceful purposes. The Iranian government will not
voluntarily suspend its legal enrichment program indefinitely.
The best solution would be a protocol for technology transfer from
the EU to Iran in exchange for additional international inspection.
2. The Iranian government must demonstrate good will towards
the IAEA and the "Big-Three." If it fails to reach a
verifiable agreement with the international community, its intransigence
will increase the likelihood of Bush's reelection.
3. The U.S. must abandon its ambition for regime change in Iran,
no matter who wins the presidential election. America must decouple
its nuclear policy from its other concerns regarding Iran's human
rights abuses and support of terrorism. Changes in the human rights
situation in Iran, and its position on Israel should not be regarded
as preconditions for nuclear cooperation. Coupling all three presupposes
regime change and thereby forces Iran to abandon the NPT.
4. Non-proliferation cannot be selective. The exemption of Israel
from international nuclear treaties undermines the authority of
the IAEA. The greatest spur to a regional arms race is Israel's
nuclear capabilities. Since nuclear disarmament is not negotiable
for Israel, the world community should pressure Israel to fully
disclose its weapons program.
The United State's pressure to refer Iran's case
to the Security Council is premature and misguided. It will only
strengthen the position of those on the Iranian side who do not
believe in a negotiated settlement. The Iranian daily Aftab reported
today that the conservative representative of Isfahan in the Parliament
announced that he was gathering signatures to introduce a "triple
urgent" legislation asking the government to abandon the
Ghamari, Professor, Department of Sociology, Georgia State