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New War Dangers: Iran, the U.S. and Nukes in the Middle East
UFPJ Talking Points #39
By Phyllis Bennis
Institute for Policy Studies
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 however dangerous its consequences - a frighteningly real possibility.
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 when Iran retaliates, whether against U.S. troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region, 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, or even weapons of mass destruction-free zone across the entire Middle East.
The 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 against Iraqi civilians and U.S. troops in Iraq, 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 own 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 from which they cannot escape.
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 an existing nuclear weapon, was a signatory to the NPT, but withdrew from the treaty 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. Whether 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 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. So since they know Iran, unlike Iraq before the invasion, does in fact 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 itself 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 Iran.
The IAEA board has now reported the Iran issue to the UN Security Council where closed, non-public debate is underway, initially involving only the five permanent members. At the moment it appears unlikely Russia and China would accept a resolution imposing full-scale economic sanctions against Iran. Both are strong trade partners with Iran, China depends on Iran for more than 10% of its growing oil needs, and Russia's own 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 military force to enforce UN decisions. Even if only the Council itself 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 make the claim that any future unilateral attack on Iran is somehow "enforcing UN resolutions."
Another international shift whose consequences remain uncertain has to do with Iran's planned opening (perhaps as early as this month) of a new international oil trading center, with a euro- 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 the 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 the 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.
There is no military "solution" to the Iran nuclear issue. The only answer is the creation of a nuclear weapons-free zone across the Middle East. In fact, the U.S. is already legally bound to the even broader commitment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the region. In the U.S.-drafted UN Security Council Resolution 687, that ended the 1991 Gulf War and imposed sanctions on Iraq, Article 14 states 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.