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The Framework for Debate on Iran: Existing US policy and its peaceful alternative

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There is a very narrow and rigidly defined framework within which discussion of U.S. policy towards Iran is confined in political discourse and mainstream media. This framework effectively precludes the possibility that there could be a change of foreign policy which would produce more positive results than the present status quo, policies which at best are counterproductive and at worst could have disastrous consequences both for the U.S. and Iran, with repercussions that could extend throughout the Middle East. An alternative framework is possible, but it requires the dispensation of certain attitudes and myths and a reevaluation of the facts concerning U.S. policy towards Iran.

An article from the July 21 issue of The Economist provides a useful example for analysis in that it contains all the basic elements of the existing framework. The gist of it is by now a familiar story; Iran is ruled by unreasonable madmen intent upon constructing nuclear weapons to use against Israel and the only option, as discomforting and undesirable as it may be, is the use of military force to compel Iran to obey the rules set by the West.[1] The present framework is conducive towards that end while effectively precluding alternative courses of action.

Entitled “The riddle of Iran”, the byline reads, “Iran’s leaders think a nuclear weapon could rejuvenate their tired revolution. How can they be stopped?” No evidence is provided in the article to support the implication that Iran’s leaders are intent upon acquiring a nuclear weapon or that they have voiced such a belief. This is merely assumed, or even attributable to “Iran’s leaders” themselves, as though they had publicly declared their intention to acquire the bomb when in fact Iran’s government has repeatedly reiterated that its nuclear program is intended only to produce energy.

The article opens with a quote from former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu describing the Iranian government and then comments that “If he is right the world is teetering on the edge of a terrifying crisis.” It’s assumed his characterization of Iran as “basically a messianic apocalyptic cult” could be accurate, though Netanyahu’s precise meaning is not expounded upon. This characterization of Iran’s leaders as being essentially a bunch of crazies sets the tone for the article, and is another common element of framework. One corollary is that not only is Iran working on the bomb, but they would actually be irrational enough to use it.

The article next cites “Israel and some American experts” as predicting “that Iran may have a bomb by the end of 2009″ and paraphrases Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as saying “that if Iran really wants a bomb it could now build one within three to eight years.” This is told as though it were the most likely outcome with little to no indication that only a worst-case scenario is being offered. A 2005 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) put Iran at 2015 before being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon; it also regarded claims that Iran is working to do so as merely being credible while noting the lack of specific evidencing to support the assertion.[2] The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released a report shortly after which stated that Iran could produce enough material to produce a single weapon by the end of the decade only if we assume its leaders desired a weapon “as quickly as possible without regard for international reaction”—in other words, only if an unrestrained Iran were to defiantly and recklessly push forward at the increased risk of their program being detected).[3] Moreover, Mohammed ElBaradei has noted repeatedly that there is no evidence Iran has diverted nuclear material for weapons. As for the estimate given, this is apparently deduced from the fact that ElBaradei said a couple years ago that Iran was five to ten years from being able to make a bomb. [4] Assuming his projection of Iran’s progress was correct, we may therefore attribute to ElBaradei the statement that Iran is now three to five years away. The only trouble is that a more recent 2007 estimate from ElBaradei still puts Iran “at least five to ten years away” from being able to develop a nuclear weapon—in other words, they haven’t progressed at all towards that end since his previous worst-case estimate a few years ago.[5]

Another element of the framework is epitomized by The Economist’s description of “What Iran is doing at Natanz”—enriching uranium in centrifuges—as being “entirely illegal” because its pronouncements that “its nuclear aims are peaceful” are “disbelieved” and the United Nations has thus ordered the enrichment to stop. A detailed analysis of the relevant UN and IAEA documents is instructive as to deciding the accuracy of this statement.

UN resolutions 1747 and 1737 both basically reiterate 1696, which begins by reaffirming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and recalling the right of parties to that treaty “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” The NPT states that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty”, which state essentially that no party to the treaty shall proliferate nuclear weapons. 1696 was enacted under Article 40 of Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, which stipulates that the Security Council may “call upon the parties concerned to comply with such provisional measures as it deems necessary or desirable”, but “without prejudice to the rights, claims, or position of the parties concerned.”

1696’s provisional measures are to call upon Iran to “take the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution GOV/2006/14, which are essential to build confidence” about Iran’s intentions. In that document, the IAEA “Underlines that outstanding questions can best be resolved and confidence built in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s programme by Iran responding positively to the calls for confidence building measures which the Board has made on Iran and in this context deems it necessary for Iran to…re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities including research and development….”[6]

This is a reference to Iran’s previous suspension of nuclear-related activities under the Paris Agreement. It is commonly implied that Iran has a legal obligation to suspend nuclear activities under this agreement, such as former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s statement that “The Paris agreement…sets out very clearly that the suspension of conversion and uranium enrichment processing continues until there is a long term agreement under the Paris agreement.”[7] In fact, the Paris Agreement “recognize[s] that this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation.”[8]

In short, the UN resolutions which are pointed to as evidence that Iran’s continuation of nuclear-related activities is “illegal” are self-contradicting; acting under color of law they demand that Iran continue its voluntary suspension and that Iran surrender its right to continue with research and development while IAEA inspections are ongoing, while at the same time reaffirming that it is Iran’s “inalienable right” under the NPT treaty to do so without prejudice. Therefore, the Security Council itself is technically in violation of its own resolutions, as well as the terms of the NPT Treaty and the UN Charter. Iran has not neglected to point this out.

Returning to the framework, it typically includes, as a corollary to all of the above, that there are only a very few possibilities. As The Economist puts it, “In one, Iran ends up with nuclear weapons, bringing new instability and a hair-trigger face-off with nuclear Israel into one of the world’s least safe neighborhoods. In another, America or Israel take pre-emptive military action and manage to stop it, even though such an attack would almost certainly have very dangerous consequences of its own. In the third ending, Iran is attacked, and enraged, and retaliates—and still ends up with a bomb anyway.”

Of course, we can’t do nothing. Therefore, our choice is clear. The existing framework thus leads logically only to one conclusion: even though it won’t prevent Iran from developing a bomb we must bomb Iran despite the predicted consequence that this would likely expedite this presumed eventuality by pissing them off. In contrast to Iran’s leaders, who are irrational enough to attempt to acquire a bomb under international scrutiny and the threat of violence and who would be just crazy enough to use the bomb and thus bring utter destruction upon itself, leaders in the US and Israel are wise enough to consider attacking Iran. Since this is the only logical course of action, “they are not mad.” Iran’s use of violence would be insane and evil while our use of violence would be rational and good (another truism of the existing framework).

The article points out further ostensible differences. Unlike Iraq, “there is no question of false intelligence: the world’s fears are based on capabilities that Iran itself boasts about openly.” So while the U.S. also accused Iraq of having weapons programs, despite not having any credible evidence to support the claim, and invaded upon that false pretense, the case of Iran is different because we know Iran is trying to build a bomb—and we may forget that we, of course, also said the same thing in the case of Iraq and therefore pretend that this is a difference, rather than a similarity, between the two cases.

So an attack on Iran is possible and logical despite being “a huge gamble” because it would further deteriorate “relations with the Muslim world” and because “Iran’s leaders would almost certainly hit back” by striking at Israel or American forces in the region or by cutting off tanker traffic in the Gulf, “the world’s oil windpipe.” Given the likely consequences, it might seem crazy to attack Iran, but we must remember our leaders “are not mad”. This forces us to ask the question, “How could any Western leader in his right mind risk initiating such a sequence of events?” Simple. Although “attacking Iran would be bad, an Iran with nuclear weapons would be worse.” Once again, we see that, despite potential horrible consequences—including the likelihood that Iran “still ends up with the bomb anyway” (and without even any consideration for the human consequences, such as the death toll that would result)—since we can’t very well just sit by and do nothing, bombing Iran is a perfectly reasonable option, and one considered by “most of America’s presidential candidates”. Actions which would otherwise easily fall under the definition of insane are thusly justified, simply by accepting as axioms that, one, any action is better than no action and, two, our only options are to either take no action or to bomb Iran.

Of course, no discussion of Iran would be complete, in the accepted framework, without mentioning that Iran’s President, “the Holocaust-questioning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is widely reported to have threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’.” The Economist here strays from the conventional framework and actually acknowledges, albeit disingenuously, that “in fact he may never have uttered those precise words”. There is some “ambiguity” about what he said, and he was “vague about whether he means that Iran should destroy Israel or just that he hopes for Israel’s disappearance.” The standard context applied when Ahmadinejad is quoted as having said those words is that Iran is intent upon building a nuclear bomb, crazy enough to use it, and has openly vowed to “wipe Israel of the map”, taken as a virtual call for genocide. This is a radical alteration from the actual context from which the alleged quote was taken, which is neither vague nor ambiguous, as the writers and editors for The Economist must surely know, just as The New York Times defends its frequent use of the phrase while acknowledging that Ahmadinejad never said “Israel”, but “occupying regime of Jerusalem”, and that he actually used a metaphorical expression with an approximate meaning of “pages of time or history” and not literally “map”.[9] The Middle East Media Research Institute translates him as saying, “This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.”[10] As to his intended meaning, the context of his actual speech makes it clear. He was discussing oppressive regimes and the need for the world to rid itself of them. He cited two other examples along with the illegal Israeli occupation: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Shah’s Iran. His message is perfectly unambiguous: oppressive regimes such as these have got to go. There is nothing in the context of his speech to support the popular claim that his intended meaning was to threaten violence against Israel. This is, simply stated, a fabrication.

The possibility of an alternative to doing nothing or bombing Iran isn’t completely dismissed. Occassionally within the framework there is room for questions like, “Is there a way to avoid all of the unhappy endings by finding a peaceful way to stop Iran going nuclear?” But the answer to such questions is invariably, “no”. After all, explains The Economist, “The Europeans hoped they had stumbled on such a solution last year, when they at least talked Russia and China into imposing sanctions and George Bush into dangling the prospect of normal relations with Iran once enrichment stopped.” However, “the mild sanctions imposed so far are not working” and “a third sanctions resolution, with sharper teeth, needs to be enacted without delay.”

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Jeremy R. Hammond is the owner, editor, and principle writer for Foreign Policy Journal, a website dedicated to providing news, critical analysis, and commentary on U.S. foreign policy, particularly with regard to the "war on terrorism" and events (more...)
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