Nuclear Diplomacy: the Great Charade

Could the November interim agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, orchestrated by the Obama administration and backed by four other nuclear powers, produce the diplomatic breakthrough eagerly anticipated by large sectors of world opinion?  Could something of an “historic compromise” between Iran and the West be in sight, reversing the long trajectory toward possible U.S. and/or Israeli military attack?   While President Obama concedes that prospects for a durable outcome are “probably less than 50-50”, reasons for stronger pessimism exist:  demand for nothing less than total Iranian capitulation on the part of Israel and its U.S. lobby, Congressional readiness to “ratchet-up” already crippling economic sanctions, the extreme one-sided character of negotiations, and, most crucially, the very bankruptcy of international nuclear diplomacy.

With the six-month negotiating initiative set in motion, made possible by a softening of Iranian bargaining points, the Senate – under pressure from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and allied groups – was considering even harsher sanctions legislation, SB1881, supported to date by 59 Senators, including 16 Democrats.  Introduced by Senators Mark Kirk (R-Ill) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the bill would effectively scuttle an already-fragile diplomatic process, revisiting prospects for military action.   For the boldest anti-Iranian groups, that seems to be precisely the hope: if tightened sanctions fail to provoke system collapse and possibly regime change, or at least complete jettisoning of nuclear activity, then the military option returns full-force.  For such warmongering hopefuls, the existence of an Iranian nuclear program as such could be nothing more than an essentially manufactured threat, a pretext for war.

The problem with nuclear diplomacy today is that it amounts to little more than an outright political instrument of the global atomic powers, led by the U.S., exerting leverage through the United Nations Security Council and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).  In the months leading up to the interim deal Iran had been processing uranium at several locations, consistent with energy requisites (below 20 percent enrichment) and fully within its rights as longstanding member of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  That level was reduced by the November accords to five percent.  After much hard-line U.S. negotiating – and maneuvering — Iran was able to gain sanctions relief equivalent to just seven billion dollars in domestic product over six months, leaving it an object of international economic isolation, its energy, banking, and trade sectors gutted by byzantine restrictions and obstacles, its civilian economy in shambles, its population hit hard by extreme shortages and inflation.

Despite generous concessions from Tehran, moreover, the U.S. still refuses to accept Iranian entitlement to peaceful atomic development, although at least 40 other countries (among the 190 NPT signatories) are known to possess nuclear programs at various stages of refinement without having to face crushing sanctions.  In Secretary of State John Kerry’s words: “There is no [Iranian] right to enrich uranium within the four corners of the NPT.  And this document [interim accords] does not do that.”  Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, denouncing the agreement as a treacherous “deal that keeps Iran’s nuclear train on track”, reiterated that nothing short of full Iranian abandonment of its nuclear program is thinkable – this from the militaristic leader of a nation with an arsenal of between 200 and 400 atomic warheads.  As in the past, Netanyahu wasted little opportunity in attacking the NPT, which Israel refuses to join, as “worthless”.

Joining forces with Israel and the lobby, Washington politicians in shamefully large numbers were still urging complete Iranian submission – on the feeble assumption that, as Senator Charles Schumer’s (D.-N.Y.) words, “Iran continues to be in hot pursuit of nuclear weapons.”   Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, insists the Iranian economy (that is, general population) must suffer material and social chaos so long as even the faintest signs of uranium enrichment remain.  While the Iranians have accepted further opening of enrichment facilities to International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) inspection, it is this very concession that Israeli leaders have long considered an outrageous violation of (their own) national sovereignty.  Sadly, global nuclear diplomacy is riddled with such deceit and hypocrisy, with all compromise favoring (and expected to favor) the existing nuclear states against weaker, targeted “offenders”.  For Iran, sanctions are reinforced by implicit (often explicit) military threats in the case intensified economic warfare fails.   Iranian and other regional efforts to force the IAEA to apply identical nuclear rules and standards to Israel have been repeatedly blocked, thanks to overriding U.S. and European power, while unimpeded access to Iranian research and military sites as become a taken-for-granted norm.

Behind the familiar outpourings of nonproliferation rhetoric, meanwhile, Washington has stepped up “modernization” of its own world-class arsenals, a favorite project of the weapons oligarchy.  Obama’s oft-praised Berlin speech of June 2013 called for a “world without nuclear weapons”, beginning with cuts in deployed strategic warheads below Cold War levels – in the tracks of the toothless bilateral START treaty with Russia, stipulating that the U.S. reduce its battlefield warhead total from over 5000 to 1550
over the new few years.  Obama’s real-life military expansion, however, turns such projections into mockery while further subverting what is left of NPT credibility.  It is worth emphasizing that Article VI of the NPT requires all member states (especially nuclear-weapons states) to pursue negotiations toward ending the nuclear arms race and, eventually, full nuclear disarmament.

As U.S. politicians and media carry on about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, the warfare state is just as busy as ever with sophisticated new uranium-enrichment projects at sites in New Mexico, California, Tennessee, Missouri, Nevada, and South Carolina.   Touchstone of the weapons elites is “modernization”.  Streamlined warheads are being designed and redesigned at state-of-the-art Y-12 nuclear locations in New Mexico and Tennessee, consistent with priorities contained in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.  Largely unknown to the public, these expensive programs are insulated from fiscal pressures, political inquiry, and treaty obligations.  Modernization includes a fresh cycle of “replacement bombs” like the B61-12 warheads, which cost taxpayers roughly $25 million per bomb.  At Y-12 and related facilities a cycle of “life-extension” nukes is being researched and produced, upgraded from earlier designs.  Enhancements of this sort allow the U.S. to make inflated claims about reducing warhead totals while the actual deployments lose very little, if anything, in overall firepower.

While Iran has no proven nuclear-weapons capability or delivery systems, the U.S. (with Russia) possesses about 90 percent of warheads on the planet, while the U.S. – along with Israel — presently targets dozens of warheads on Iran.  Further, advanced uranium-processing facilities (UPFs) flourish not only in the U.S. but across the globe, with the nine nuclear-armed nations – including five in support of the anti-Iran sanctions – devoting more than $100 billion to upgrade and expand their arsenals.  Delivery systems (planes, ships, submarines, artillery, missiles) are being steadily improved, their apparent need legitimated by those WMD “threats” from inscrutable rogue nations like Iran.

According to a December 2013 Congressional Budget Office report, the U.S. is on line to spend $350 billion over the next ten years for ongoing nuclear refinements – better research centers, labs, weapons, delivery systems, command-and-control operations.  In the midst of supposed fiscal austerity and clamoring for “small government”, this largesse already exceeds by $150 billion the amount initially earmarked.  Air Force General Robert Kohler, head of the U.S. Strategic Command, has called for a “multi-decade effort to recapitalize our nuclear deterrent force and its supporting infrastructure.”  (Note that the world’s leading military power appears to need “deterrence”, but the country placed under economic, political, and military siege can perfectly well do without it!)

Within the U.S. Congress, bipartisan consensus holds sway around the goal of modernizing “strategic nuclear offensive forces” that Republicans (and some Democrats) want to fund through cuts in Medicare, Social Security, and other social programs.  Such political agreement is rooted in a deeply-entrenched nuclear establishment going back to World War II, the Manhattan Project, atomic bombings of Japan, and first rumblings of the Cold War.   Nuclear agendas have thus been an easy sell to politicians, academia, scientists, the media, and of course the military, whatever the costs; fears of nonproliferation and loyalty  to the NPT become distractions once insatiable demands of the warfare state and corporate profiteers like Raytheon, Northrop-Grumman, and Lockheed-Martin enter the picture.

The promise of a “world without nukes”, though uttered in Berlin, has gotten obscured in Europe: today, dictated by U.S. and NATO military interests, the continent hosts among the biggest concentrations of nuclear weaponry on earth.  Hundreds of warheads are dispersed, operational within the NATO doctrine of preemptive nuclear strike, meaning first-launch option.  Beyond sizable “official” French and British arsenals, Washington has deployed nearly 500 B61 nuclear bombs (tactical warheads) in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Italy, and Turkey.  Many of these “smaller” nukes (still 13 times more powerful than the Hiroshima blast) are fixed on Russia and Iran.   Incirlik, Turkey alone is site of an estimated 90 such warheads.  Any military attack on Iran would surely involve some or all of these host nations.  While the IAEA is preoccupied with other matters, large-scale joint U.S.-European nuclear projects continue unimpeded, with the aforementioned B61-12 warheads (improved “precision” bunker-busters), slated for European deployment over the coming years, ready to counter the great Iranian military danger.

The B61-12 warheads amount to what the Federation of American Scientists calls “all-in-one nuclear bombs on steroids” – atomic weapons simultaneously more usable and more explosive.  Germany, not technically a nuclear state, is scheduled for dozens of these weapons, its super-fighters equipped to deliver massive atomic payloads.  In fact Germany today, despite its well-known anti-reactor stance, is among the most nuclearized of countries, with three atomic-friendly bases central to NATO strike options, maintained through illegal U.S.-German nuclear collaboration.

In fact the U.S. has for decades found ways to advance proliferation where it benefits geostrategic agendas – the NATO deployments being one example.  American technical and/or diplomatic assistance has lent outlaw nuclear programs – including those of India and Israel – combinations of material aid and political support. The U.S. even facilitated the Shah’s drive for Iranian nuclear power (and no doubt weapons) during the 1970s.   A watershed U.S.-India nuclear agreement in 2008 allowed New Delhi, long outside the NPT, to refine and expand its already highly-developed weapons program.  Since India was positioned as strategic counterweight to Chinese power in Asia, awkward questions about proliferation and NPT violations never surfaced.

As for Israel, it has long been an elite nuclear state, first given life by French technical assistance and later sustained by U.S. and European diplomatic cover.  The U.S. has worked tirelessly to shield its client from continuous U.N. demands that it join the NPT and open its clandestine atomic sites to international monitoring – most recently in September 2013, at a European meeting of IAEA delegates.   Both the U.S. and Israel fiercely resist for themselves the very openness, monitoring, and accountability they ritually demand of Iran under threat of sanctions and war.

As Iran is weakened by a cruel sanctions regime, Israel defiantly retains its status as lone non-NPT state in the Middle East, while President Hassan Rouhani’s perfectly reasonable call for Israel to join the treaty evokes only contempt.  While Israel hides behind the façade of “nuclear ambiguity”, Rouhani has been somewhat more forthcoming, insisting that “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions.”   While statements from ruling elites cannot generally be trusted, it is worth noting that no such affirmation has come from any Israeli leader.  Quite the opposite: the idea of “ratcheting up” sanctions pervades the ethos of Israeli politics, the domestic lobby, and Congress as SB1881 gains increasing resonance.  This is consistent with the pursuit of regime change, long harbored by the Israelis and sectors of the American right.

Here some might want to turn to the argument that Western fears have more to do with the dangers of nuclear power as such, especially in view of the Fukushima disaster.  While the risks of atomic energy should be obvious, this concern relative to Iran seems highly improbable.  Aside from Germany, nations behind the interim deal have robust nuclear energy facilities and rather ambitious plans of their own.   Moreover, as NPT signatories, countries throughout the world are freely exercising their atomic prerogatives, from Argentina to Brazil, the Czech Republic, Finland, Hungary, Mexico, Sweden, and South Korea – more than 40 all told.  None of these nations has faced economic sanctions, or even serious political opposition.  In fact nuclear energy is prized by Obama and most leaders around the world as a future “clean” alternative to fossil fuels, a strategy to fight global warming.  New reactors are planned for the U.S. – for example, at the Tennessee Valley Authority under the slogan “more nuclear, less coal”.   Abundant public resources are being thrown into nuclear energy on a global scale, eliciting little criticism from the IAEA or elsewhere — indeed scarcely a word from the high-minded monitors of international peace and safety.

A recent Foreign Affairs article (by Ernest Moniz) captures the mainstream Western obsession with the nuclear enterprise, under the heading “Why We Still Need Nuclear Power”.  The predictably clear-cut answer: to fight the perils of climate change.  This same message was focus of a 2013 CNN documentary, Pandora’s Promise, in which critics of nuclear power like Helen Caldicott and Ralph Nader are depicted as marginal, out-of-touch crazies.  Paradoxically, some proponents of nuclear energy argue that Iran should abandon its (irrational) nuclear hopes and generate more electricity from its massive reserves of fossil fuels.   The Iranians, for their part, proclaim an understandable desire for more diversified sources of electricity in a society that has seen energy consumption grow six times over the past two decades.

When it comes to Fukushima, Obama and other elites – falling in line with the extremely profitable (and highly-subsidized) nuclear industry – have been mostly silent about the catastrophe and its repercussions for future atomic-energy projects.  While nuclear reactors currently provide less than ten percent of electricity worldwide, the realistic industry hope is for a doubling or even tripling of that level within the next decade.  To date only one country – Germany – has moved to decommission its aging and dangerous reactors, owing to influence of the Greens and events in Japan.   The U.S. now possesses 104 such energy facilities, with more on the horizon.  Outrage over prospective Iran nuclear-power reactors seems very unlikely, not to mention hypocritical.

A deep, perhaps fatal contradiction of the interim deal lies in its flagrant political bias: coerced into a global cul-de-sac by the destructive impact of sanctions, the new Iranian leadership agreed to  nuclear-enrichment limits and more open inspections without getting much respite from the economic warfare being waged against it.  Responding to questions about the agreement, one Washington official was quick to insist that “sanctions relief” must be regarded as temporary and easily reversible, adding: “Iran is not open for business.”  Meanwhile, as noted, Iran’s NPT rights are being vigorously contested by the nuclear powers, meaning there will be no genuine sanctions lifting until Tehran fully relinquishes those rights – an improbable scenario.  Conflict becomes all the more intractable to the degree SB 1881, or similar punitive legislation, gains further political leverage in Washington.   It is worth asking whether nuclear diplomacy as presently conducted can have efficacy beyond an imperial paradigm in which the nuclear powers can with impunity target selected weaker states, ostensibly to enforce the NPT but in reality to secure geopolitical advantage.  The late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was quoted as saying: “It cannot be that some countries that have developed nuclear energy can prohibit those of the Third World from developing their own sources.  We are not the ones developing atomic bombs; it’s the others, the nuclear powers, who do that.”

As the interim accords go into effect, Iran remains within the crosshairs of both the U.S. and Israeili militaries – armed with hundreds of nuclear warheads — the target having become thoroughly encircled while also debilitated by sanctions.   Dozens of sites across Iran have been identified for possible U.S. and/or Israeli air strikes, commando raids, and surveillance activity – the last of these now carried out daily by Pentagon or CIA drones and National Security Agency (NSA) monitors.

Any thawing of Iranian-West relations will probably depend on more or less full Iranian submission to Western demands — that is, willingness to suspend all uranium enrichment programs.  Of course this would be a function of sanctions-imposed coercion rather than the creative fruits of global diplomatic negotiations.  Unfortunately, the entire Iranian “crisis” represents a giant step backward in the struggle for nuclear nonproliferation – not to mention disarmament.  What the current state of “diplomacy” mostly reveals is blind refusal of the nuclear states to deal seriously with the general threat of continuing arms buildups engineered by leaders of those very states.  Efforts to isolate and target “rogue states” under U.N. cover have actually done great harm when it comes to addressing the overriding problem of nuclear stockpiles and deployments worldwide.

While Iran remains a Western idée fixe, pressing issues of arsenal expansion, modernization, assistance to non-NPT states, illegal deployments, and need for security guarantees have been entirely sidestepped.  Leading nuclear powers, the U.S. at the forefront, have resisted every move toward global nonproliferation, including serious reduction of their own arsenals, ignoring the original NPT injunction to setup binding conferences toward this end.  Hans Blix, former IAEA chief, pointed out in his Why Nuclear Disarmament Matters that “the NPT is under strain today because non-nuclear weapons states have over the years become increasingly dissatisfied that the nuclear-weapons state parties are not moving serious toward disarmament.  Moreover, the ambition to induce India, Pakistan, and Israel to adhere [to the NPT] has been abandoned.”

For non-nuclear states like Iran, constant military threats from abroad surely constitute a major incentive to acquire potent weapons.  Blix writes that “convincing states they do not need weapons of mass destruction would be significantly easier if all U.N. members practiced genuine respect for the existing restraints on the threat and use of force.”  Not only is Washington the biggest purveyor of military force in the world, it has waged lengthy wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries bordering Iran.   The interim agreement, meanwhile, says nothing about U.S. (or Israeili) security assurances for Iran.

Blix notes that Western intent to strip Iran of its NPT rights, humiliating enough in itself, demands the kind of concession no state can be justifiably expected to allow – although this does not stop the supposed guardians of nuclear sanity from pretending outrage at Iranian “intransigence” and “outlawry”.  Blix adds that the NPT is not, and has never been, “a treaty that appoints the nuclear-weapons states individually or jointly to police non-nuclear-weapons states and to threaten them with punishment.”   The salience of this point is accentuated when those enlightened nuclear interests do nothing to curtail illegal outrageous atomic proliferation among the three non-NPT (i.e.,outlaw) nuclear weapons states — India, Pakistan, and Israel.  Here as elsewhere what passes for nuclear diplomacy today has become so narrow, one-sided, and hypocritical – ultimately a mechanism for Western, especially U.S., geopolitical domination that logically works against most everything promoted by the NPT and IAEA.

CARL BOGGS is author of The Crimes of Empire (Pluto) and Ecology and Revolution (Macmillan), among his most recent books.

CARL BOGGS is the author of several recent books, including Fascism Old and New (2018), Origins of the Warfare State (2016), and Drugs, Power, and Politics (2015).  He can be reached at