Why is President Obama’s deal to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon—a plan also supported by all the other major world powers—arousing such opposition in the United States and Israel? The reasons given by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and by the war hawks in the U.S. Senate are bogus, rejected even by U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies. This latest “great debate” is only nominally about nukes; it is really another chapter in the longstanding effort of the United States (and junior partner Israel) to establish dominance in the Middle East. This episode focuses on finding an effective strategy for removing or domesticating the Islamist regime in Iran, and on which of the countries in the region will be the on-site agent of U.S. hegemony.
Western media coverage uncritically reports the controversy as a reflection of honest differences of opinion (among countries, politicians, and diplomats) about how best to stop Iran’s purported march toward nuclear weapons, and therefore prevent the purportedly inevitable aggression that would follow. To justify this portrait, the corporate media misinterpret the rhetoric of Iranian officials as evidence of their belligerent nuclear intentions. At the same time, they also misinterpret the overtly belligerent rhetoric of U.S. and Israeli officials as confirmation of Iranian bellicosity and of the earnest U.S.-Israeli wish to achieve regional peace.
But Iran is not militarily belligerent. Though the Islamic Republic has sought—like all its neighbors —to influence events in the region, it has never initiated military action anywhere (in stark contrast to both the United States and Israel). All of Iran’s military activity has been defensive, and it is not planning to launch an unprovoked attack on Israel or any other country. This reality has been consistently confirmed by Western intelligence and military authorities. A January 2014 U.S. Department of Defense analysis, for example, observed: “Iran’s military doctrine is defensive. It is designed to deter an attack, survive an initial strike, retaliate against an aggressor, and force a diplomatic solution to hostilities.” In February 2015, Lt. General Vincent Stewart, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, repeated this conclusion, saying that Iranian military policy is meant “to deter an attack, survive an initial attack if deterrence fails, and retaliate against an aggressor to force a diplomatic resolution.” Prior assessments made the same argument.
But haven’t numerous Iranian leaders openly threatened to attack U.S. regional allies, especially Israel? Virtually the only evidence for this claim is a single sentence attributed to former Iranian premier Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, that Israel “must be wiped off the map”—a comment that Ahmadinejad never actually made. After seven years of misquoting him, even the Israeli Minister of Intelligence conceded that Ahmadinejad had said nothing about Iran attacking or destroying Israel, only that Israel was “on the verge of collapse.”
When Iran has issued military threats, they have always been retaliatory. As a 2012 Defense Department report noted, Iran’s government has “threatened to launch missiles against U.S. interests and our allies in the region in response to an attack.” Israeli military and intelligence agencies have supported this assessment.
Both Obama and Netanyahu, by contrast, have repeatedly threatened a first-strike military attack on Iran (using that incessant “all-options-are-on-the-table” refrain, an open violation of the UN Charter’s prohibition of the “threat or use of force”). In the Western media these threats are portrayed as necessary to prevent a first strike by Iran. By in uncritically reporting U.S.-Israeli threats, the media ignores the consensus of U.S.-Israeli intelligence and endorses the violation of international and U.S. law.
Beyond this false portrait of Iranian belligerence is the fact that, by most accounts from U.S. and Israeli intelligence agencies, the Iranian government is not seeking a nuclear weapon. Even President Obama has tacitly admitted as much, acknowledging that Iran’s nuclear program is designed for energy generation and medical uses, as permitted under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Obama (and the Israeli government) declare that this perfectly legal activity is nevertheless a threat because Iran would in the process develop nuclear expertise and facilities that could produce a bomb “fairly quickly.” (Neither Obama nor his critics mention that 31 countries have the same capability that Iran seeks.)
But let’s assume that Obama and Netanyahu are not just making these claims about Iran’s nuclear threat to justify the longstanding U.S.-Israeli policy of regime change in Iran. Even if they mistakenly believed their own propaganda about Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, they would still have no need to stop Iran’s nuclear program, because a nuclear Iran would not be a threat to Israel or any other U.S. ally. Israel has at least 80 nuclear warheads and the capability of delivering them with devastating effect, while the U.S. has thousands with even greater delivery capability.
Iranian leaders certainly repress their own population, some of their rhetoric is genuinely offensive, and they actively seek to help their allies in the region. But they, like every country in the world (including even the United States), appreciate the logic of the nuclear deterrent: that threatening or using the bomb against any nuclear-protected country would invite national annihilation. Even Israel’s intelligence chief Tamir Pardo (a Netanyahu appointee) has acknowledged that a “nuclear Iran [would be] no threat” to Israel. Or, as Yehezkel Dror, a former adviser to several Israeli prime and defense ministers, expressed it to the Times of Israel, “‘With a nuclear Iran, I would sleep quite well’…based on the strength of Israeli deterrence and the doctrine known as MAD—mutually assured destruction.”
But it is this same logic of nuclear deterrence that explains why the United States and Israel have been so determined to prevent Iran from obtaining the capability to build a bomb. Stated simply: while a nuclear weapon is not a useful offensive weapon, it is a formidable defensive weapon. Given the long history of threats—and covert attacks and assassinations—from the United States and Israel, MAD might be the only effective deterrent against a full-on invasion. CIA veteran Bruce Riedel expressed this logic with sarcasm in 2012: “If I was an Iranian national security planner, I would want nuclear weapons….Those who don’t [often] get invaded by the United States of America.”
And so we arrive at the real reason why U.S. and Israeli governments are so desperate to prevent Iran from getting anywhere near a nuclear weapon: A nuclear Iran would make a foreign invasion of Iran all but impossible.
Maintaining the U.S.-Israeli regional monopoly on nuclear weapons has been a central policy goal at least since the 1979 Islamic revolution turned Iran from a compliant ally of both the U.S. and Israel into a center of independent power in the Middle East. This monopoly has served to preserve the option of military reversal of the revolution, as well as the two countries’ ability to intervene militarily throughout the region. To this end the United States has blocked all attempts to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East—an arrangement that would be rational from the perspective of advancing regional peace but irrational from the perspective of ensuring U.S. domination. Israel’s motivations are similar. As former Israeli deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich explained to the Times of Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran “would become a major constraint on Israel’s room to maneuver” (that is, to launch offensive military operations with impunity) in Gaza, Lebanon, and other areas, including Iran itself.
How, then, do the recent negotiations—and the newly visible conflict between the U.S. and Israel—fit into this logic of imperial design against Iran? On the U.S. side, the policies pursued by Obama and his predecessors have been proven failures: neither the sustained military campaigns in the region, the constant threats, nor the ever-harsher economic sanctions have shaken the Islamist regime. Instead, Iran has worked around this virtual blockade to develop potentially enduring economic (and perhaps military) ties with Russia and China, the West’s two major political-economic (and perhaps military) adversaries in the rapidly developing great-power competition. And, despite the impact of the economic war, Iran has nevertheless sustained and enhanced its posture as an independent force in the Middle East, ready to become a hub of regional politics, trade, and investment in a world that no longer accepts the U.S. as the single hegemon. And finally—and perhaps most urgent—Iran has proven that it is capable of continuing its nuclear program, with Obama’s intelligence officials recently admitting that Iran “faces no insurmountable technical barriers to producing a nuclear weapon, making Iran’s political will the central issue.”
Even the Obama administration, often prone to “go with the flow” of inherited foreign policy, realizes that the Iran policy needs adjustment. Without an adjustment, Russia, China, and Turkey might increasingly exploit the economic opportunities in Iran that Western corporations are anxious to access, reducing the pressure created by the economic sanctions, while Iran is given more incentive to develop the nuclear deterrent that would end the threat of invasion.
The Obama administration might have seized on this moment to abandon the policy of regime change and begin normalizing relations with Iran. This option had been available for at least a decade. In 2003, just after the fall of the Hussein regime in Iraq, the Bush administration summarily dismissed an Iranian offer to severely limit its nuclear capacity (and instead import key nuclear products needed for energy and medical uses), in exchange for a guarantee that the U.S. and Israel would not undertake further military or economic warfare. In 2010, the Obama administration dismissed a similar deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil; opting instead for the dramatically amplified sanctions currently in place.
These offers continued to be available when the P5+1 (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, and France plus Germany) negotiations began in early 2013. But Obama opted for a half-measure: while insisting that Iran abandon any nuclear development that would bring it closer to a weapon, he refused to offer any guarantee against military attack. Instead, he offered a relaxation of the economic war. This arrangement would allow the U.S. to continue to utilize the (undeterred) threat of military attack to pressure Iran to accept or even cooperate with U.S. policies in the Middle East. Politically, it could open a path for Iranian influence in the region to be harnessed to American policies: for example, building the de facto alliance against ISIS in Iraq into joint pressure in Syria, Yemen, and other hotspots. Economically, it might allow Western corporations to reverse the growing Chinese and Russian presence, opening up the Iranian oil, auto, and other sectors to Western companies or bringing Iranian natural gas (as yet undeveloped) to Europe as a replacement for Russian natural gas. The connection between these political and economic logics was expressed by former National Security Council official Gary Sick: “If the sanctions are lifted, foreign companies come back in, the natural entrepreneurialism of Iranians is unleashed…If you want regime change in Iran, meaning changing the way the regime operates, this kind of agreement is the best way to achieve that goal.”
For the Obama administration, such a deal thus represents a chance to explore a détente while preserving a credible threat of a U.S. invasion if the Islamic regime continues to oppose U.S. ambitions in the region. And the economic war can be renewed if things go awry.
Why has Iran accepted such a deal without a guarantee against an invasion? Because, for Iran, this is also a half-measure. They get (if the U.S. keeps its side of the deal) a relaxation of the brutal economic warfare, at a time when the U.S. is in no position to undertake large-scale military action. During this hiatus, Iran can expect to further develop domestic industries, expand economic ties with Russia and China, and/or initiate important trade and investment relations with Europe and the United States. One particularly salient opportunity is for Iran to develop its huge natural gas resources to become a major supplier to energy-starved European Union (EU) countries as well as its immediate neighbors in the Middle East. Beyond allowing Iran to advance its goal of being a central figure in the Middle East economy, these developments would help insulate it from further U.S. economic or military attack.
The fragile consonance of interests behind the willingness of the Obama administration and the Iranian leadership to approach an agreement could still unravel, but both sides have much to gain from a meaningful détente. And it is exactly this possibility of political-economic détente that explains the unremitting hostility to any agreement by both the Netanyahu administration and a large bipartisan segment in the Beltway, along with the less intense opposition coming from Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors.
These opponents understand that the pending agreement preserves the option of a military attack on Iran, despite their public pronouncements that it will allow Iran to acquire a nuclear deterrent. Their primary fear is not the nuclear threat, but rather the possibility of even a modest rapprochement between Iran and the United States.
To understand the ferocity of this opposition we must understand the (at least potential) impact of such a rapprochement on Israeli’s intended role in the Middle East. It would, for the short term at least, constitute a shift of strategy away from overt confrontation of the Islamic regime to one of attempting to modulate its policies into conformity with U.S. regional ambitions. Perhaps most immediately, it would allow for a deepening of the current indirect collaboration with Iran in fighting ISIS in Iraq. More broadly, as a key European Union diplomat told the New York Times, the agreement would “clear the way” for Iran to “play a major but positive role…in the region.” This cooperative vision extends not only to nearby Syria, but also to other hotspots where Iran exercises considerable influence, such as Yemen, Lebanon, and Palestine, and even to the frayed U.S. relations with Turkey, which is a major trading partner with Iran.
For Israel, such an agreement would undercut its position in the Middle East. Currently, Israel is America’s only viable proxy in the region. Thus, the U.S. supplies the weapons and equipment for attacks on Palestinians and Bedouins, as well as for incursions and invasions in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq (Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in the world, though its per-capita GDP is larger than that of many EU members). While this aggression often comports with U.S. efforts to control the Middle East, it has also produced strong resistance on the part of its Arab neighbors to economic and political cooperation with Israel. Israel’s actions—and unremitting U.S. support—has frustrated the fundamental ambition of Israeli expansionism: to establish the type of economic and political domination that usually characterizes the relationships between advanced capitalist societies and their less-developed neighbors. With the noteworthy exception of the recently developed ties to Saudi Arabia (based on mutual antagonism to Iran), Israel’s attempts at trade and investment relationships with its near and distant neighbors continue to be undermined by its aggressive policies. Because of the high profile of U.S. diplomatic and military support, Israel’s outcast status has also undermined U.S. initiatives, especially—in the last few years—with countries economically tied to or influenced by Iran. As a matter of realpolitik, this is a huge and growing problem.
Now, after several decades of a military-based strategy aimed at removing the regimes of Israel’s neighbors or coercing them into opening their economies to Israeli and U.S. trade and investment, the campaign has become focused on Iran, both because of its growing influence in the region and because Iran constitutes, as one analyst recently noted, the “hottest emerging market in waiting, combining the consumer market and human capital potential of Turkey with the oil riches of Saudi Arabia, natural gas reserves of Russia, and mineral resources of Australia.”
This regional economic competition with Iran became magnitudes hotter in 2010 when Israel laid claim to the vast newly discovered natural gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel hopes to monopolize and exploit these reserves to resolve its own energy crisis, gain huge new revenues, and use the gas as a wedge for opening up the (energy-starved) economies of its near neighbors and positioning Israel as a major supplier to the EU. But if the economic war against the Islamic Republic abates, Iran will be able to out-compete Israel, delivering the gas in the region and in Europe for a far lower price. For Israel, this key to their own economic development depends on the continued economic isolation of Iran—thus Netanyahu’s explicit statement that he objects to the nuclear deal in part because it would “bolster Iran’s economy.”
It is little wonder therefore that the Israeli government—and the major economic interests in that country—detest any proposed agreement that relaxes the economic isolation of Iran. As long as the blockade remains intact, Israeli capitalists don’t have to worry about competing with an oil-rich and technologically-advanced rival in the region. And if the U.S. cannot find common ground with Iran, Israel gets to remain the key regional U.S. client, even if its belligerent policies may also be harming U.S. efforts to sustain regional influence.
Similar fears are evident among Saudi Arabia and the smaller Sunni-led Gulf states, which have also criticized the deal, albeit less visibly and vehemently than Netanyahu. The Saudi government realizes that Iran would “have the ability to improve its economic standing” under the deal, notes Saudi researcher Mansour al-Marzouki. Geopolitically, Saudi Arabia’s brutal regime and the other Gulf dictatorships have long counted on support from Washington, if not to the same extent as Israel. A U.S.-Iran détente might weaken that relationship and impede Saudi freedom of intervention in Yemen and elsewhere. Thus the budding Saudi-Israeli alliance.
The consummation of the P5+1 deal with Iran could be an “economic game-changer,” with the U.S. choosing economic and political cooperation with Iran and (perhaps) abandoning its uncritical support for Israeli expansionism. Those in the U.S. and Israel who seek to defeat the nuclear agreement do so mainly to prevent the changes in U.S. policy toward Israel that a rapprochement with Iran would allow. The Gulf states are motivated by similar economic and political concerns. The coming months will determine not only if Iran can escape sanctions, but also if the U.S. will continue to join with Israel and the Gulf monarchies in initiating and escalating military campaigns—and thus generating the consequent humanitarian crises—throughout the Middle East.
Richard Lachmann is professor of sociology at the University at Albany, State University of New York. He is the author of Capitalists In Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe (Oxford, 2000) and States and Power (Polity 2010). He currently is writing a book entitled First Class Passengers on a Sinking Ship: Elite Privilege and the Decline of Great Powers, 1492-2010 which examines the decline of dominant economic and military powers in early modern Europe and the contemporary United States. He also is researching media coverage of war deaths in the United States and Israel from the 1960s to the present.
Michael Schwartz, an Emeritus Distinguished Teaching Professor of Sociology at Stony Brook State University, is the author of six books and scores of articles and political commentaries, including award winning books on popular protest and insurgency (Radical Protest and Social Structure), and on American business and government dynamics (The Power Structure of American Business, with Beth Mintz),. His most recent book, War Without End, analyzes how the militarized geopolitics of oil led the U.S. to dismantle the Iraqi state and economy while fueling sectarian civil war inside Iraq. His recent work on the Middle East can be found at Tom Dispatch and Academia.edu. His email address is Michael.Schwartz@stonybrook.edu.
Kevin Young will be starting as an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in the fall. His writing is available at https://sbsuny.academia.edu/KevinYoung and http://kyoung1984.wordpress.com.