Diplomacy In The Centrifuge: Paranoia Over A Nuclear Iran

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to address Congress tomorrow to deliver a warning: Iran is on the verge of making a nuclear bomb! Forget resolving this conflict non-violently. In the Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg warned that Tehran is “an empire-building, Assad-sponsoring, Yemen-conquering, Israel-loathing, theocratic terror regime” that cannot be trusted to verifiably hold fast to “[a]ny nuclear agreement that allows” it “to maintain a native uranium-enrichment capability.”

Image c. Deutsche Welle.

In other words, those devious Persians do not have the right to enrich nuclear fuel, regardless of the stubborn fact that as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty the Iranians have the right to pursue nuclear energy. Goldberg claims that this is “a ‘right’ that doesn’t actually exist in international law,” and fears that Iran will start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East — a frightening prospect even without any mention of the Dimona reactor, much less the established fact of 200 to 400 nuclear bombs there, and insists that we cannot trust the damned Iranians because they will likely cheat on any deal struck with the US and the European powers.

Meanwhile, David Brooks expressed concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, counseling “Western diplomats” to stop “assum[ing] that our enemies are driven by the same sort of national interest calculations that motivate most regimes.” The contested nuclear program in Iran is abstracted away from the realities of crushing economic sanctions, leading to a severe devaluation of the rial and the near-isolation of Iranian businesses from global financial markets, the near-constant drumbeat of US and Israeli officials threatening to attack Iran (for years), the American national interest in taking the use of force off the table — at least publically — and allying with Tehran against barbarian zealots like Da’esh, and Iran’s national interest.

Brooks argues that, inconveniently for “the West,” their leadership does not play by the rules, unlike us: “It could be that Iranian leaders are as apocalyptically motivated, paranoid and dogmatically anti-American as their pronouncements suggest they are.” People like that should not have their finger on The Button. He is hardly a Supreme Leader, but by most accounts Netanyahu is dogmatic and seems to be apocalyptically-motivated. He has the command of an entire nuclear arsenal. And that’s totally fine.

Aside from the liberal media, the Wall Street Journal averred in a recent editorial that Iran is “continuing to stonewall the U.N. nuclear watchdog [the International Atomic Energy Agency] about the ‘possible military dimensions’ of its nuclear program,” dimensions such as ballistic missile development, which is not “even part of the negotiations, though there is no reason to build such missiles other than to deliver a bomb.” The editorial cites a report from the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) which is said to show that “Iran was testing advanced centrifuge models in violation” of “the 2013 interim nuclear agreement.”

Further, they claim that the Obama administration “originally insisted that Iran should not be able to enrich uranium at all.” The fact that the administration moved beyond that line is not a concession to Iranian power but to political reality: no sovereign country on Earth is going to accept the demand of another not to do what they believe is their national right to do, particularly under an international accord. Across the spectrum, it seems safe to assume that a nuclear-armed Ayatollah would use it to blackmail the entire region if not also annihilate Israel — knowing that doing so would doom Iran to be “completely obliterated,” in the words of Hillary Clinton.

As the ISIS report concedes, “Iran has pledged to cooperate on addressing the past and present issues related to the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.” Not worth mentioning; cognitive dissonance hurts the party line. The only site in question is the one at Parchin, whose purpose is disputed but is widely believed to be more like Los Alamos than Indian Point. There remains no solid proof, however, that Iran is developing a nuclear bomb.

As many have asked, with all of its oil and gas, why does Tehran need nuclear energy in the first place? The current foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, defended what is, in his view, the raison d’être of his country’s nuclear program in 2007, when he was Iran’s UN ambassador: “From a geopolitical perspective — unlike few other countries in the region that have felt suffocated and have historically espoused expansionist tendencies — Iran has been content with its geography and human and natural resources,” Zarif wrote, “and thus has not had to invade any other country in the past 250 years.” Brooks and other commentators insist we take the Iranians at their word. Zarif continued,

Based on Islamic jurisprudence, the development and use of weapons with indiscriminate impact on the population and the environment are prohibited. The leader of the Islamic Republic has issued a religious decree against WMDs and specifically against the development, production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons. … From a strategic point of view, Iranian leaders realize that nuclear weapons do not provide domestic stability or external security. … Iran’s policy makers believe that development or possession of nuclear weapons undermine Iranian security. Even the perception that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons negatively impacts Iran’s power by decreasing its regional influence and increasing its global vulnerabilities.

It is not rational that any country would proceed with a policy that they know to be undermining their own security interests, “decreasing” their “influence,” and “increasing” their “vulnerabilities” — unless, of course, Iran is irrational. Another alternative is that Iran embraced “diversification” of energy sources, “including the development of nuclear energy,” which the United States helped to get off the ground in the late 1950s. Iran’s need for various energy sources is genuine, according to a report released at the time Zarif’s article appeared, in the National Academy of Sciences and titled The Iranian Petroleum Crisis and United States National Security. The author of the study, Roger Stern, comments that Tehran’s “dependence on export revenue suggests that it could need nuclear power as badly as it claims.”

When the Shah, an important US ally, ruled Iran, there was no “nuclear ambitions” issue. Henry Kissinger, as secretary of state to President Ford, believed nuclearizing “will both provide for the growing needs of Iran’s economy and free remaining oil reserves for export or conversion to petrochemicals.” This macroeconomic imperative may be no less true given the fact that the leaders are theocrats. Ayatollah Khamenei has not called off the talks, the sanctions are still in place, and the opportunity for a peaceful resolution remains in sight. Michael Adler, a Wilson Center scholar, denied in a 2013 briefing that Iran intended to race toward a bomb. Adler wrote:

Zarif, in his 2007 article for the Journal of International Affairs, stated that “Iran’s current plans to produce 20,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity by 2020 may save Iran 190 million barrels of crude oil every year or nearly $14 billion annually.” On top of that, he insisted that “Iran does not need nuclear weapons to protect its regional interests in the immediate neighborhood.” There is no need to take his word for it. Multiple intelligence reports, from the US National Intelligence Estimate to the Mossad, indicate that Iran is not building an atomic weapon. Netanyahu plans on revealing heretofore secret information on the true nature of the Iranian nuclear program. What he is really planning on is to try to whip up hysteria and sabotage the negotiations; it does not take the judgement of the entire pundit class to figure that out.


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