In readjusting U.S. policy on when to launch a nuclear strike, President Barack Obama has repudiated the use of nukes against non-nuclear states with the exception of Iran, which he termed an "outlier" along with North Korea.
However, since North Korea already possesses at least a limited nuclear arsenal, Obama's exception singles out Iran as the only non-nuclear-weapons state that faces a threatened nuclear attack from the United States.
"The Nuclear Posture Review states very clearly, if you are a non-nuclear weapons state that is compliant with the NPT [Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty], you have a negative assurance we will not be using nuclear weapons against you," Obama told the New York Times on Monday, outlining his changes in American policy toward the use of nuclear weapons.
Iran is a signatory to the NPT and has vowed to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes only, but has not complied with some punitive resolutions that the United States has pushed through the United Nations Security Council. Iran also is in apparent technical violation of some requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
For instance, Iran has been criticized for failing to disclose a planned enrichment site near Qum before construction began. Iran revealed the site last September, arguing that the disclosure was adequate since the plant was not operational, but the delay appeared to fall short of the IAEA rules.
Thus, In Obama's view, Iran is not "compliant" and can still be targeted for nuclear annihilation by the United States.
What is perhaps even more extraordinary about Obama's comments and the nonchalant response from the U.S. news media is that the President appears to be exploiting technical disputes to overturn a broader principle that nuclear states should not threaten non-nuclear states with nuclear destruction.
One of the reasons for that principle -- beyond simple human decency -- is to reduce the incentive of non-nuclear countries to secretly develop nuclear weapons as a deterrent against such threats.
Yet, apparently wanting to look tough on Iran, Obama created this loophole by inserting the "compliant" language in the Nuclear Posture Review. All that would be required for the United States to threaten to nuke a non-nuclear state would be to catch it in some alleged technical violation of the NPT.
And such trickery is not hard to imagine. President George W. Bush exploited claims about Iraq's non-existent WMDs to justify invading in 2003.
The mainstream U.S. press corps also can be counted on to exaggerate some ambiguous situation whether aluminum tubes going to Iraq or Iran's delay in telling the IAEA about construction of an enrichment facility as a casus belli.
Arguably, Obama's comments to the New York Times and the language in the Nuclear Posture Review could even be viewed as ratcheting up the threats against Iran by making clear that past vague language from the Bush administration, saying "all options are on the table," did include a possible nuclear strike.
Before Obama's interview, that was an implicit understanding, now it is explicit.
Building a Case for Nukes
The 72-page Nuclear Posture Review, which was unveiled by the Pentagon on Tuesday, states that the "negative assurance" from the United States refraining from launching nuclear strikes against non-nuclear-weapons states only applies to countries acting in compliance with the NPT. But the document does seek to soften the threatening implications slightly by adding:
"That does not mean that our willingness to use nuclear weapons against countries not covered by the new assurance has in any way increased. Indeed, the United States wishes to stress that it would only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its allies and partners."
Yet what is perhaps most remarkable about the nuclear warning to Iran is that Iran is on the opposite side of the world, has a relatively weak military, and has made no direct threats against the United States.