Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 10, 2015

Iran: Threatening and Threatened

By David K. Shipler

            Why would hardliners in Iran want to forego the prospect of becoming a nuclear power, especially when faced with hardliners in the United States and Israel, both in possession of nuclear weapons? The question is raised again by the condescending little lecture on the American constitutional system, delivered by 47 Republican Senators in the form of an open letter. Without Congress or the next president’s approval, they told Iranian leaders, no agreement by President Obama would by honored by Washington.
            Undermining the full faith and credit of the United States has now been extended from financial matters to foreign policy. Republicans, who lament our supposedly weak president, work relentlessly to weaken him. (Don’t think Vladimir Putin fails to take notice.) And while I admit to knowing no more about Iran than any informed citizen—never having been there and having read too little about that complicated country—I really wonder why policymakers there would want to take the huge gamble of abandoning their weapons program when their apparent enemy the United States cannot be counted on to uphold its side of a bargain.
            Yes, Iran would like to get out from under the crippling sanctions, which have grown internationally and strengthened during Obama’s tenure. They deny Iran markets for its oil and access to international financial institutions. Yes, Iran’s theocracy is tempered by cross-currents of moderation among those partial to opening the country to Europe, the United States, and the rest of the industrialized world. And yes, Iran has refrained from actually going nuclear, notes Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia, despite its reported ability to do so for the last decade. “The entire U.S. intelligence community and most of our allies—apparently including Israel—have concluded with high confidence that Iran has not made a decision to build a bomb,” Sick writes.
            Why not?
It could be that Iran thinks it can string us along—us being not just the U.S. but the other partners in these negotiations, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany—while hiding its nuclear work. International inspectors are dissatisfied with Iran’s failure to give access to scientists, documents, and a critical military site and to provide adequate information about its past development efforts, particularly on detonators for triggering bombs. “Iran not only defies inspectors,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress last week, “it also plays a pretty good game of hide-and-cheat with them.”
            He should know, because Israel did just that with American officials as it secretly built its own nuclear bomb-making facilities in the 1960s, Walter Pincus notes in The Washington Post. “Iran is following Israel’s path to a nuclear weapons capability,” he writes provocatively. Therefore, it doesn’t take a leap of logic to conclude that Iran would like to retain the nuclear option, even if it’s deferred, and progress suspended, to get sanctions eliminated.
It would be reassuring to think that moderates in Teheran—President Hassan Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and others—recognize the terrible nuclear arms race that could be set off in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and oil-rich Gulf states joining in, and nukes possibly falling into dangerous hands. To the certifiably insane nihilists who have risen out of the rubble of Middle East wars and coups, as Tom Friedman noted, “‘mutually assured destruction’ is an invitation to a party—not a system of mutual deterrence.” The Economist assesses the current threat of nuclear war or mishap at a high.
Does the doomsday scenario scare Iranian leaders more than their lack of nuclear capability? Do they think that a nuclear arsenal will protect them sufficiently from the rampages of nation-state collapse and tribal disorder? The bomb would surely make them unassailable by responsible countries that operate rationally, if those were the only actors. North Korea is effectively immune from attack. India and Pakistan balance each other in a tense accommodation. Some Ukrainians wish they hadn’t given up the Soviet nukes on their territory in exchange for Moscow’s empty promise to leave Ukraine alone. And despite Putin’s posturing, we can still bet that both Russia’s expansionism and NATO’s response are limited by the nuclear threat. That’s the deterrent factor. The weapons are also useless in the burgeoning world of non-state movements such as the Islamic State. Iran, as a sponsor of such movements elsewhere—Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Gaza—must know this very well.
Yet it’s clear from the rough sketch of the emerging agreement that the U.S. and its partners have given up on trying to induce Iran to obliterate all of its accumulated nuclear technology and know-how. Unfortunately, that would seem to be a bridge too far. It’s why Netanyahu denounced both Iran and the Obama administration to Congress last week, and why Republicans kept jumping to their feet and roaring like drunken college kids at a football game.        If the display was supposed to cow Teheran into capitulation, it might have done the opposite. It can’t help but give credence to hardliners asking why anyone in his right mind would not want the ultimate defense against such an angry, impulsive adversary that seems to be ruled by a mob in suits. Obama managed a sardonic smile in reaction to the Republicans’ open letter, as he remarked ruefully on the irony of their “wanting to make common cause with the hardliners in Iran. It’s an unusual coalition.”

He’s right that these negotiations are, for the moment, all that stand in the way of Iran’s speeding toward a bomb. We’ve seen this before, Gary Sick observes. After the Bush administration rejected Iran’s proposal in 2003-5 to limit itself to 3,000 centrifuges (too many, Washington believed), “we all know what happened. With sanctions increasing almost by the day, and with increasing threats of a unilateral attack by Israel (which would probably draw in the U.S. and others), Iran steadily increased its nuclear program.” By the next negotiations that began in 2013, “Iran had about 20,000 centrifuges installed in two major sites—one of them deep underground—and a substantial stockpile of enriched uranium.”  

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