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The "Existential" Threat

The U.S., Iran and Nuclear Terror

by ANTHONY DiMAGGIO

Iran’s admission that it is enriching uranium at a second nuclear site was greeted with alarm in the halls of Washington and in American newsrooms on Friday.  Obama has long warned about the "existential threat" that Iran poses to the U.S. and its allies.  Concern over a nuclear Iran is understandable for those who are committed to the abolition of nuclear weapons, and for those who worry about the danger that nuclear proliferation poses for human survival.  It should be noted, however, that the Obama administration does not share those concerns.  U.S. officials have always been preoccupied with how to prohibit enemy states from developing these weapons, while ensuring maximum U.S. and allied maneuverability in keeping such weapons, and even in using them when deemed necessary.

I consistently stress that U.S. national intelligence and international intelligence provide no evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.  While I stand by this conclusion, it is worth noting that Iran’s declaration this week that it was quietly developing nuclear fuel (fuel that it had not reported to the International Atomic Energy Agency) is troubling for those committed to transparency in the development and use of nuclear fuel.  Indeed, it would not be surprising if the Iranian regime decided at some point – perhaps in the near future – that it needed to develop nuclear weapons to protect itself from the belligerent rhetoric and threats of the U.S. and Israel.  It is also at least theoretically possible that Iran already decided to proceed with a weapons program, although the uranium disclosed at Iran’s two nuclear plants is clearly unfit to be used in developing such weapons.  All of the uranium currently used in Iran – at least the uranium that has been reported to or found by the IAEA – is not of a weapons grade quality.  The BBC reports that legally, Iran "does not need to inform the IAEA of any new [nuclear] site until 180 days before any nuclear material is placed in the facility."  For the record, the second plant reported in the news this week is not yet operational.  Hence it is not evidence – contrary to the claims of Obama – of an Iranian violation of the inspection process or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.  The major point that needs to be understood is that, as of today, there is still no hard evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

There is certainly good reason, however, for Iranians to be concerned with U.S. aggression.  Although the Obama administration indicates that it would sit down and negotiate with Iran without preconditions, it also refuses to take the military option off the table.  The threat of a U.S. attack (or an attack itself) threatens to throw an already volatile region into complete chaos.  A review of the U.S. foreign policy record is also a cause for concern when evaluating U.S. threats against Iran.  The review below is illuminating:

The number of major U.S. invasions since World War II: 13

By conservative estimates, the U.S. led over a dozen invasions of sovereign countries in the last 65 years – including attacks on North Korea (1950 and 1951), Cuba (1961), South Vietnam (1962), The Dominican Republic (1965), Cambodia (1970), Lebanon (1982-1983), Grenada (1983), Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Haiti (1994), Afghanistan (2001), and Iraq again (2003).  U.S. covert operations designed to overthrow foreign governments are about three times more common than invasions.  As William Blum explains in his classic book Rogue State, "From 1945 to the end of the century, the U.S. attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments, and to crush more than 30 populist-nationalist movements struggling against intolerable regimes."  To that list of attempted overthrows in the post-2000 period one could add Venezuela, Iraq, Haiti, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Iran – just to name the cases we know about.

The number of nuclear weapons that the U.S. and allies possess, in violation of the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: 22,965

While Iran is a non-nuclear state, the number of nuclear weapons possessed by powers that either support sanctions or an attack on Iran is staggering (this list includes Russia, the U.S., U.K., Israel, the U.K., and France).  The U.S. is the only country to have used nuclear weapons against civilians, despite its claims that bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a responsible act intended to reduce American lives lost and force an early end to the war. 

The number of times the IAEA has successfully inspected the U.S. and its allies’ nuclear arsenals in order to force them to disarm: 0

This point remains absolutely vital.  Nuclear states retain their "right" to keep nuclear weapons indefinitely, while forcing other countries into inspections with the threat of sanctions and war.  In the case of Iran and Iraq, both countries were forced into inspections by the U.N. Security Council – a body the U.S. has long used as a weapon against weaker non-nuclear states.  Furthermore, the U.S. does not even pretend to secretly reconstitute its nuclear weapons stockpile.  U.S. leaders contemptuously flaunt their disregard of the NPT’s disarmament requirement by publicly announcing their intent to redevelop nuclear weapons.  The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program is a case in point, which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates supported as a means of "modernizing" the U.S. nuclear stockpile.  The program’s funding was eventually cut off by Congress in 2008, although that has not stopped the U.S. from developing and using other radioactive weapons such as Depleted Uranium shells in the battlefield.  While Depleted Uranium is clearly not the same as a nuclear weapon, we would do well to remember that the danger of radioactive weapons is cited as a major reason for detaining alleged terrorists such as Jose Padilla – the infamous Chicago "dirty bomber."

The number of times Iran has threatened another country with nuclear annihilation: 0

Much has been made of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s alleged claim that he will "wipe Israel off the map."  Scholarly analysis of this incident reveals that this is likely an inaccurate reading of Ahmadinejad’s statement.  As Middle East expert Juan Cole explains, the statement was originally drawn from a speech from Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which promised that the "[Israeli] regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time."  As those familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict understand, there is a great difference between demanding that an illegal occupation come to an end and a threat to wipe the state of Israel off the face of the earth.  Ahmadinejad is rightly condemned throughout the world as an anti-Semite, but denying the Holocaust is not the equivalent of supporting the nuclear annihilation of Israel.  Even if Ahmadinejad does believe that Israel should be destroyed, U.S. pundits and officials are hard pressed to explain how he would accomplish this task without the possession of nuclear weapons, and in light of the fact that Ahmadinejad does not hold the power to make decisions regarding Iranian foreign policy.  As the supreme leader in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has final say over foreign policy.  Furthermore, the Iranian leadership indicated as recently as 2003 that it was willing to negotiate an easing of tensions with the U.S., in exchange for recognizing Israel within the pre-1967 Israeli-Palestinian borders.  This fact rarely makes it into journalistic and political screeds framing Iran as an "existential threat" to Israel. 

The number of countries the U.S. has explicitly threatened with nuclear annihilation: 8

I am aware of at least eight instances in which the U.S. threatened countries with nuclear weapons.  As the Los Angeles Times reported in 2002, the Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review included within it "contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries, namely not only Russia and the "axis of evil" – Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – but also China, Libya, and Syria.  In addition, the U.S. Defense Department has been told to prepare for the possibility that nuclear weapons may be required in some future Arab-Israeli crisis.  And it is to develop plans for using nuclear weapons to retaliate against chemical or biological attacks, as well as ‘surprising military developments’ of an unspecified nature."  The Bush administration’s National Security Presidential Directive 17 reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to using nuclear weapons against any country that might use weapons of mass destruction against the U.S. and its allies.  Some might discount these two documents as merely defensive posturing or as simple contingency plans that are not likely to be implemented by the U.S.  It is worth reflecting for a moment, however, on how U.S. leaders would react to similar documents threatening nuclear war against the U.S. if they were issued by Iraq (under Saddam Hussein), Iran, or any other national enemy. 

U.S. plans for nuking other countries go beyond vague hypotheticals.  The Nixon administration famously popularized the "madman theory," whereby the U.S. might nuke countries that oppose capitalist interests.  As Nixon explained to his Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman, "I call it the madman theory.  I want the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the [Vietnam] war.  We’ll just slip the word to them that, ‘for God’s sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism.  We can’t restrain him when he’s angry – and he has his hand on the nuclear button’ – and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace."

Nixon’s contemplation of nuclear blackmail was not an isolated incident.  In 1995, the Strategic Command under the Clinton administration released a study speculating over the use of nuclear weapons for strategic purposes.  Titled "Essentials of Post-Cold War Deterrence," the document concluded that the goal of U.S. foreign policy should center on creating fear in the heart of adversaries:  "Because of the value that comes from the ambiguity of what the U.S. may do to an adversary if the acts we seek to deter are carried out.  It hurts to portray ourselves as too fully rational or cool-headed.  The fact that some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control’ can be beneficial to creating and reinforcing fears and doubts in the minds of an adversary’s decision makers.  This essential sense of fear is the working force of deterrence.  That the U.S. may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be part of the national persona we project to all adversaries…nuclear weapons always cast a shadow over any crisis in which the U.S. is engaged.  Thus, deterrence through the threat of nuclear weapons will continue to be our top military strategy."  While some might again point out that the document states that the U.S. is "not likely to use [nuclear weapons] in less than matters of the greatest national importance," one can imagine how U.S. leaders would react if they read a document from Iraqi or Iranian officials making similar claims about their "responsible" possession and use of nuclear weapons.

American political elites and journalists will predictably cast stones at Iran for the alleged danger the regime poses to world order.  Those with a critical knowledge of U.S. history and policy will be more hesitant to accept this hypocritical "defensive" posturing.  We should not discount the danger that the spread of nuclear weapons poses to human survival; but at the same time, we should never exaggerate threats when there is little to no evidence of an immediate danger.  Anti-proliferation efforts need to be driven by a sincere, even-handed effort to disarm all nuclear and potentially nuclear powers, whether they are big or small, and regardless of whether they’re powerful or weak.

ANTHONY DiMAGGIO teaches American and Global Politics at Illinois State University.  He is the author of Mass Media, Mass Propaganda (2008) and the forthcoming When Media Goes to War (2010).  He can be reached at adimagg@ilstu.edu