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Playing Politics with Nukes

Is the US on a Collision Course with Iran?

by BEHROOZ GHAMARI

On July 20, 2004, Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA) introduced the Iran Freedom and Support Act of 2004, a legislation promoting the transformation of the Islamic Republic of Iran to a democratic form of government. In justifying his cosponsorship, with Senator John Cornyn (R-TX), of the Act, Senator Santorum lambasted the Iranian government for its "aggressive actions to support terrorist organizations," its "ballistic missile program," "violence against Americans in Iraq," "hiding information about its nuclear activities," and a host of other charges that make the Islamic Republic a threat to the national security of the United States of America. "This legislation," Santorum concludes, "expresses the sense of the Congress that it should be the policy of the United States to support regime change in Iran."

The reckless brandishing of regime change, which has become the cliché of the neo-con politics, does not ease tensions over the Iranian nuclear technology. The policy of regime change negates constructive engagement­­the two cannot coexist. A negotiated settlement with the Iranian government over its nuclear technology cannot emerge from undermining the sovereignty of the Islamic Republic. Without advocating a scenario of Armageddon, we need to recognize that the absence of détente in the political lexicon of the Bush Administration is spiraling the Middle East into an irreversible nuclear arms race.

At stake is the Iranian government’s two nuclear plants, built largely by the Russian contractors. The government in Tehran insists that their nuclear program pursues a peaceful purpose, and as President Khatami reiterated recently, Iran has no interest in developing nuclear weapons. Of course one cannot accept the assurances of an embattled president whose two terms in office was mired with internal conflicts. Khatami’s office was powerless to challenge the Supreme Leader and the judiciary’s . The positions expressed by Iranian officials do not guarantee that Iran would utilize its nuclear technology solely for generating electricity and not for bomb-grade enriched uranium. With American forces knocking on its doors from all sides of its borders, a nuclear Pakistan in the south east, and a nuclear Israel making daily threats of striking its enrichment facilities, it would be naïve to think that at least some factions in the Iranian government do not fancy nuclear weapons.

Iran is a signatory of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The current crisis surfaced when Iran failed to report the construction of a new nuclear plant near the city of Natanz to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). To correct the breach of contract, the IAEA asked Iran to agree to an additional protocol that gave it unrestricted access to all Iranian nuclear facilities, as well as the right to unannounced spot inspection. The Iranian parliament approved the additional protocol and asked for assurances that in exchange for unrestricted access and spot inspection the "Big-Three" Europeans (UK, France, and Germany) would share nuclear technology with Iran.

While after months of inspection the IAEA found no evidence of a weapons program, and stated that Iran is in no violation of the NPT, the United States and EU remain unsatisfied with the level of transparency of the Iranian nuclear program. The Bush Administration asserts, a view echoed by Senator John Kerry, that the only solution for this stand off is that Iran has to "prove they are not building weapons." Putting the negative burden of proof that they are not building weapons on Iranians’ shoulder should be familiar to us all. Like Saddam Hossein in the months preceding the war, the accused bears the burden of proving his innocence.

But regardless of the exchanges between the IAEA and the Iranian government, similar to its attitude toward the UN inspection team in Iraq, the Bush Administration appropriated the IAEA position as a smokescreen for its ambitions in the region. In its last meeting in Vienna, Director General Muhammad al-Baradei expressed satisfaction with the progress of IAEA work in Iran, while emphasizing that there remained much work to be done. He asked Iran to halt their enrichment activities voluntarily, since, as an NPT signatory, Iran enjoys the right to enrich uranium without breaching the treaty. After the Vienna meeting, John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security, boasted that Iran’s conduct did not "bode well for the success of a negotiated approach to dealing with this issue." Mr. Bolton left nothing opaque about the meaning of a non-negotiated approach when he compared the situation in Iran with that of South Africa and Ukraine, both of which abandoned their military nuclear programs after the fall of the ancien régime. If the administration’s point-man for negotiating a settlement does not believe in negotiation and advocates the change of the regime with which he is supposed to engage, it is easy to see why the Islamic Republic remains skeptical of American intentions. Why should it negotiate with a state that openly advocates its overthrow?

The US position on the Iranian nuclear technology has also generated confusion in the media. We know that this Administration is not a reliable source of information. It regards intelligence as politics by other means. Recent articles in the New York Times and reports on NPR on the Iranian nuclear activities repeat the same kind of unconfirmed allegations that turned authoritative journalists into drumbeaters for war with Iraq. For example the title of Steven Weisman’s diplomatic memo in the New York Times read "Bush Aides Divided on Confronting Iran Over A-Bomb." I wonder whether Mr. Weisman has information about an A-bomb in Iran, of which the international community is unaware. In the text, Weisman asserted that "Like Iraq in its final years under Saddam Hussein, Iran is believed by experts to be on the verge of developing a nuclear bomb. In Iraq, that proved to be untrue, though this time the consensus is much stronger among Western experts."

I always ask my students to write their sentences in active tense, passive tenses invite ambiguity and uncertainty and leads your readers to be more skeptical of your assertions. Weisman is no student of mine, but I wonder how his claim stands up to the test of the active reformulation of a sentence. "Iran is believed by experts" Who are these experts? What were the bases of their conclusions that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear bomb? Who are the sources of their intelligence? (Not another Chalabi, I hope!) If these "Western experts" were wrong the first time around, what guarantees the validity of their conjectures this time? Weisman adds to the currency of his scenario by offering another piece of intelligence­­"Israel also warns that Iran’s nuclear program will reach a ‘point of no return’ next year, after which it will be able to make a bomb without any outside assistance."

Israel’s warning appeared in another news piece in the Times "Iran Advances Move to Nuclear Fuel, Defying U.N." by Craig Smith. Although Mr. Smith wrote that "Iran has offered to accept any safeguards imposed by the United Nations agency to ensure its enrichment activities," he qualified his report by reminding the reader, "But some American analysts warn that the international community has only a year or so left to stop the Iranian program from achieving self-sufficiency. After that, they warn, the country will have the means to create a nuclear arsenal without outside help, forever altering the Middle East balance of power." So, in Smith’s report the same piece of intelligence that was provided by "Israel" in Weisman’s memo reappears as the warning of "some American analysts." This is at best sloppy journalism and at worst journalism with an agenda.

The world community should be concerned about the Iranian government’s nuclear technology. But on this issue, like in other matters, unilateralism, arrogance, and disengagement will inevitably lead to disaster. It is true that the Iranian government pursues a policy of "altering the balance of power in the Middle East." But after all, this is the same policy that the United States promotes and executes. If the Iranians are discontent with the balance of power in the Middle East, such as the open secret of the Israeli’s nuclear weapons, the world community needs to prove that it deals with the question of non-proliferation impartially.

If the United State is wary of the intentions of the Islamic Republic, it should follow a policy that renders any hostile policies in Iran irrelevant. It cannot promote regime change and offer financial support to overthrow a sovereign government and expect cooperation at the same time. One cannot invite secrecy and ask for transparency. This policy failed in Iraq, and it will fail in Iran. It will fail in Iran, not only in the context of Iran-US relations, but also in regard to the domestic politics of reform within Iran. American policy, deliberately or unintentionally, promotes a war-time governance in Iran in which every voice of dissent is silenced and every attempt for democratization crushed. The reformists in Iran are the biggest losers of a policy the seeds of which were planted by the President when he uttered the words "Axis of Evil."

The nuclear threat is as real as it ever was. Neither selling bunker-buster missiles to Israel, nor threatening the Islamic Republic with a proxy war will deter certain factions in the Iranian government from aspiring to a mature weapons program. Paradoxically, current U.S. policy lends more legitimacy to the Iranian hawks and their ambitions for a nuclear Iran. If the logic of deterrence justified more than fifty years of the nuclear arms race, on what geopolitical grounds could one legitimately ask the Iranian government not to brandish nuclear weapons to deter its regional competitors?

So, what is the solution? Nuclear power plants generate a hazardous amount of radioactive waste, the containment and stabilization of which remains a contentious social and technological problem. Furthermore, these nuclear power plants present to the United States and Israel tempting targets for preventive strikes. The Iranian government has already begun its perilous journey to join the nuclear club. It cannot be persuaded to abandon its nuclear power program and adopt renewable energy technologies. From their point of view, green technologies are neither economically sustainable in the short term, nor politically prestigious.

1. As a signatory of the NPT, Iran can legally develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. The Iranian government will not voluntarily suspend its legal enrichment program indefinitely. The best solution would be a protocol for technology transfer from the EU to Iran in exchange for additional international inspection.

2. The Iranian government must demonstrate good will towards the IAEA and the "Big-Three." If it fails to reach a verifiable agreement with the international community, its intransigence will increase the likelihood of Bush’s reelection.

3. The U.S. must abandon its ambition for regime change in Iran, no matter who wins the presidential election. America must decouple its nuclear policy from its other concerns regarding Iran’s human rights abuses and support of terrorism. Changes in the human rights situation in Iran, and its position on Israel should not be regarded as preconditions for nuclear cooperation. Coupling all three presupposes regime change and thereby forces Iran to abandon the NPT.

4. Non-proliferation cannot be selective. The exemption of Israel from international nuclear treaties undermines the authority of the IAEA. The greatest spur to a regional arms race is Israel’s nuclear capabilities. Since nuclear disarmament is not negotiable for Israel, the world community should pressure Israel to fully disclose its weapons program.

The United State’s pressure to refer Iran’s case to the Security Council is premature and misguided. It will only strengthen the position of those on the Iranian side who do not believe in a negotiated settlement. The Iranian daily Aftab reported today that the conservative representative of Isfahan in the Parliament announced that he was gathering signatures to introduce a "triple urgent" legislation asking the government to abandon the NPT.

Dr. BEHROOZ GHAMARI is a professor of sociology at Georgia State University. He can be reached at: bghamari@gsu.edu