The Framework for Debate on Iran

by Aug 5, 2007Foreign Policy0 comments

There is a very narrow and rigidly defined framework within which discussion of U.S. policy towards Iran is confined in political discourse and mainstream media. This framework effectively precludes the possibility that there could be a change of foreign policy which would produce more positive results than the present status quo, policies which at best […]

There is a very narrow and rigidly defined framework within which discussion of U.S. policy towards Iran is confined in political discourse and mainstream media. This framework effectively precludes the possibility that there could be a change of foreign policy which would produce more positive results than the present status quo, policies which at best are counterproductive and at worst could have disastrous consequences both for the U.S. and Iran, with repercussions that could extend throughout the Middle East. An alternative framework is possible, but it requires the dispensation of certain attitudes and myths and a reevaluation of the facts concerning U.S. policy towards Iran.

An article from the July 21 issue of The Economist provides a useful example for analysis in that it contains all the basic elements of the existing framework. The gist of it is by now a familiar story; Iran is ruled by unreasonable madmen intent upon constructing nuclear weapons to use against Israel and the only option, as discomforting and undesirable as it may be, is the use of military force to compel Iran to obey the rules set by the West.[1] The present framework is conducive towards that end while effectively precluding alternative courses of action.

Entitled “The riddle of Iran”, the byline reads, “Iran’s leaders think a nuclear weapon could rejuvenate their tired revolution. How can they be stopped?” No evidence is provided in the article to support the implication that Iran’s leaders are intent upon acquiring a nuclear weapon or that they have voiced such a belief. This is merely assumed, or even attributable to “Iran’s leaders” themselves, as though they had publicly declared their intention to acquire the bomb when in fact Iran’s government has repeatedly reiterated that its nuclear program is intended only to produce energy.

The article opens with a quote from former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu describing the Iranian government and then comments that “If he is right the world is teetering on the edge of a terrifying crisis.” It’s assumed his characterization of Iran as “basically a messianic apocalyptic cult” could be accurate, though Netanyahu’s precise meaning is not expounded upon. This characterization of Iran’s leaders as being essentially a bunch of crazies sets the tone for the article, and is another common element of framework. One corollary is that not only is Iran working on the bomb, but they would actually be irrational enough to use it.

The article next cites “Israel and some American experts” as predicting “that Iran may have a bomb by the end of 2009” and paraphrases Mohammed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as saying “that if Iran really wants a bomb it could now build one within three to eight years.” This is told as though it were the most likely outcome with little to no indication that only a worst-case scenario is being offered. A 2005 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) put Iran at 2015 before being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon; it also regarded claims that Iran is working to do so as merely being credible while noting the lack of specific evidencing to support the assertion.[2] The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) released a report shortly after which stated that Iran could produce enough material to produce a single weapon by the end of the decade only if we assume its leaders desired a weapon “as quickly as possible without regard for international reaction”—in other words, only if an unrestrained Iran were to defiantly and recklessly push forward at the increased risk of their program being detected).[3] Moreover, Mohammed ElBaradei has noted repeatedly that there is no evidence Iran has diverted nuclear material for weapons. As for the estimate given, this is apparently deduced from the fact that ElBaradei said a couple years ago that Iran was five to ten years from being able to make a bomb. [4] Assuming his projection of Iran’s progress was correct, we may therefore attribute to ElBaradei the statement that Iran is now three to five years away. The only trouble is that a more recent 2007 estimate from ElBaradei still puts Iran “at least five to ten years away” from being able to develop a nuclear weapon—in other words, they haven’t progressed at all towards that end since his previous worst-case estimate a few years ago.[5]

Another element of the framework is epitomized by The Economist’s description of “What Iran is doing at Natanz”—enriching uranium in centrifuges—as being “entirely illegal” because its pronouncements that “its nuclear aims are peaceful” are “disbelieved” and the United Nations has thus ordered the enrichment to stop. A detailed analysis of the relevant UN and IAEA documents is instructive as to deciding the accuracy of this statement.

UN resolutions 1747 and 1737 both basically reiterate 1696, which begins by reaffirming the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and recalling the right of parties to that treaty “to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.” The NPT states that “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty”, which state essentially that no party to the treaty shall proliferate nuclear weapons. 1696 was enacted under Article 40 of Chapter VII of the Charter of the United Nations, which stipulates that the Security Council may “call upon the parties concerned to comply with such provisional measures as it deems necessary or desirable”, but “without prejudice to the rights, claims, or position of the parties concerned.”

1696’s provisional measures are to call upon Iran to “take the steps required by the IAEA Board of Governors in its resolution GOV/2006/14, which are essential to build confidence” about Iran’s intentions. In that document, the IAEA “Underlines that outstanding questions can best be resolved and confidence built in the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s programme by Iran responding positively to the calls for confidence building measures which the Board has made on Iran and in this context deems it necessary for Iran to…re-establish full and sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities including research and development….”[6]

This is a reference to Iran’s previous suspension of nuclear-related activities under the Paris Agreement. It is commonly implied that Iran has a legal obligation to suspend nuclear activities under this agreement, such as former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw’s statement that “The Paris agreement…sets out very clearly that the suspension of conversion and uranium enrichment processing continues until there is a long term agreement under the Paris agreement.”[7] In fact, the Paris Agreement “recognize[s] that this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation.”[8]

In short, the UN resolutions which are pointed to as evidence that Iran’s continuation of nuclear-related activities is “illegal” are self-contradicting; acting under color of law they demand that Iran continue its voluntary suspension and that Iran surrender its right to continue with research and development while IAEA inspections are ongoing, while at the same time reaffirming that it is Iran’s “inalienable right” under the NPT treaty to do so without prejudice. Therefore, the Security Council itself is technically in violation of its own resolutions, as well as the terms of the NPT Treaty and the UN Charter. Iran has not neglected to point this out.

Returning to the framework, it typically includes, as a corollary to all of the above, that there are only a very few possibilities. As The Economist puts it, “In one, Iran ends up with nuclear weapons, bringing new instability and a hair-trigger face-off with nuclear Israel into one of the world’s least safe neighbourhoods. In another, America or Israel take pre-emptive military action and manage to stop it, even though such an attack would almost certainly have very dangerous consequences of its own. In the third ending, Iran is attacked, and enraged, and retaliates—and still ends up with a bomb anyway.”

Of course, we can’t do nothing. Therefore, our choice is clear. The existing framework thus leads logically only to one conclusion: even though it won’t prevent Iran from developing a bomb we must bomb Iran despite the predicted consequence that this would likely expedite this presumed eventuality by pissing them off. In contrast to Iran’s leaders, who are irrational enough to attempt to acquire a bomb under international scrutiny and the threat of violence and who would be just crazy enough to use the bomb and thus bring utter destruction upon itself, leaders in the US and Israel are wise enough to consider attacking Iran. Since this is the only logical course of action, “they are not mad.” Iran’s use of violence would be insane and evil while our use of violence would be rational and good (another truism of the existing framework).

The article points out further ostensible differences. Unlike Iraq, “there is no question of false intelligence: the world’s fears are based on capabilities that Iran itself boasts about openly.” So while the U.S. also accused Iraq of having weapons programs, despite not having any credible evidence to support the claim, and invaded upon that false pretense, the case of Iran is different because we know Iran is trying to build a bomb—and we may forget that we, of course, also said the same thing in the case of Iraq and therefore pretend that this is a difference, rather than a similarity, between the two cases.

So an attack on Iran is possible and logical despite being “a huge gamble” because it would further deteriorate “relations with the Muslim world” and because “Iran’s leaders would almost certainly hit back” by striking at Israel or American forces in the region or by cutting off tanker traffic in the Gulf, “the world’s oil windpipe.” Given the likely consequences, it might seem crazy to attack Iran, but we must remember our leaders “are not mad”. This forces us to ask the question, “How could any Western leader in his right mind risk initiating such a sequence of events?” Simple. Although “attacking Iran would be bad, an Iran with nuclear weapons would be worse.” Once again, we see that, despite potential horrible consequences—including the likelihood that Iran “still ends up with the bomb anyway” (and without even any consideration for the human consequences, such as the death toll that would result)—since we can’t very well just sit by and do nothing, bombing Iran is a perfectly reasonable option, and one considered by “most of America’s presidential candidates”. Actions which would otherwise easily fall under the definition of insane are thusly justified, simply by accepting as axioms that, one, any action is better than no action and, two, our only options are to either take no action or to bomb Iran.

Of course, no discussion of Iran would be complete, in the accepted framework, without mentioning that Iran’s President, “the Holocaust-questioning Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is widely reported to have threatened to ‘wipe Israel off the map’.” The Economist here strays from the conventional framework and actually acknowledges, albeit disingenuously, that “in fact he may never have uttered those precise words”. There is some “ambiguity” about what he said, and he was “vague about whether he means that Iran should destroy Israel or just that he hopes for Israel’s disappearance.” The standard context applied when Ahmadinejad is quoted as having said those words is that Iran is intent upon building a nuclear bomb, crazy enough to use it, and has openly vowed to “wipe Israel of the map”, taken as a virtual call for genocide. This is a radical alteration from the actual context from which the alleged quote was taken, which is neither vague nor ambiguous, as the writers and editors for The Economist must surely know, just as The New York Times defends its frequent use of the phrase while acknowledging that Ahmadinejad never said “Israel”, but “occupying regime of Jerusalem”, and that he actually used a metaphorical expression with an approximate meaning of “pages of time or history” and not literally “map”.[9] The Middle East Media Research Institute translates him as saying, “This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.”[10] As to his intended meaning, the context of his actual speech makes it clear. He was discussing oppressive regimes and the need for the world to rid itself of them. He cited two other examples along with the illegal Israeli occupation: Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and the Shah’s Iran. His message is perfectly unambiguous: oppressive regimes such as these have got to go. There is nothing in the context of his speech to support the popular claim that his intended meaning was to threaten violence against Israel. This is, simply stated, a fabrication.

The possibility of an alternative to doing nothing or bombing Iran isn’t completely dismissed. Occassionally within the framework there is room for questions like, “Is there a way to avoid all of the unhappy endings by finding a peaceful way to stop Iran going nuclear?” But the answer to such questions is invariably, “no”. After all, explains The Economist, “The Europeans hoped they had stumbled on such a solution last year, when they at least talked Russia and China into imposing sanctions and George Bush into dangling the prospect of normal relations with Iran once enrichment stopped.” However, “the mild sanctions imposed so far are not working” and “a third sanctions resolution, with sharper teeth, needs to be enacted without delay.”

The formula isn’t dissimilar to that used before the invasion of Iraq, when war was deemed not to be inevitable; all that had to occur for a peaceful alternative to be realized was for Iraq to admit weapons inspectors and surrender all its WMD for destruction. Iraq indeed admitted weapons inspectors, but its failure to surrender WMD it didn’t have in the first place was judged to be a rational basis for committing a war of aggression, defined at Nuremberg as “the supreme international crime”. Similarly, all that need occur for there to be an alternative to bombing Iran is for Iran to acquiesce to demands from the U.S. and other Western countries to renounce its rights under the NPT treaty to pursue research and development of its nuclear program while monitoring and verification of its application for peaceful purposes only is ongoing. Iran, however, has made clear that it will not be bullied and will not bow to threats of violence. Hence, when war becomes necessary, the only remaining course of action, it will be Iran’s decision. Via this propaganda device, Iran will have to accept ultimate responsibility for having made the decision to have the U.S. and/or Israel to bomb Iran; the bombers are vindicated of all responsibility for their own actions and Iran bears total blame.

The corollary should be obvious. If the existing framework continues to dominate debate about Iran, there can only be one possible outcome. It’s acknowledged that this outcome will be undesirable and counterproductive, but deemed necessary nonetheless because of the lack of alternatives. Alternatives are, however, possible, if we are willing to recognize certain truths, set aside certain assumptions, and dispense with certain falsehoods and misconceptions contained within the accepted framework.

We could, for instance, begin with the alternative assumptions that Iran’s leaders are no more or less capable of rational thought than Western leaders, that there should be a burden of proof upon those seeking to justify a resort to violence, that violence and aggression by the U.S. would be just as wrong as violence and aggression by Iran, that the U.S. and other Western countries should, as they demand of Iran, meet their obligations under existing treaties to which they are party, and that there are alternatives to doing nothing or bombing Iran which would be in the best interests of everyone involved.

Present U.S. policy towards Iran, as was the policy towards Iraq, is designed to be self-fulfilling; the U.S. declares that Iran is a threat because it intends to build and perhaps to use nuclear weapons, so it then acts in ways predicted to increase the chances that this will occur. This is a common theme of U.S. foreign policy, just as it was the judgment of the intelligence community that Iraq would not likely use WMD against the U.S. (assuming it had WMD) unless it was attacked. In that case, as here, the U.S. acted not to mitigate the possibility of the very scenario used to justify violence but rather to choose the course which would result in the highest probability that the dreaded scenario will actually occur. The only logical explanation is that the policies do not exist for the claimed purpose of preventing violence but rather as a means to that very end.

The more threatened Iran feels by the U.S. and Israel, the more likely it will be that Iran’s leaders truly to begin to feel that they require a nuclear deterrent to outside aggression. Iran is bordered by a nuclear-armed neighbor, Pakistan, which is likewise bordered by a nuclear India. Nuclear-armed U.S. and Israel have openly threatened violence against Iran. The more the U.S. and other Western nations continue to teach Iran the lesson that it’s in their best interests to withdraw from the NPT treaty, the more likely it will be that Iran does so. Neither Israel nor Pakistan is party to the NPT treaty, yet the Bush administration lifted sanctions on Pakistan, offered “aid”, and made it an ostensible “ally” in the so-called “war on terrorism”. While threatening sanctions and even violence against Iran for not being able to prove that its nuclear program is not intended for military purposes, Israel, which has long had a nuclear arsenal and which has long been in defiance of numerous Security Council resolutions, is rewarded with significant financial and military support. The lesson is that Iran is being punished for being a member of the NPT treaty, so the only natural and logical course of action for Iran will be to withdraw from the treaty, which would in turn mean the end of oversight and scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program. This end result of present policies would then be used to ex post facto justify the execution of those same policies to begin with, just as occurred in the case of Iraq.

As with Iraq, the issue is not about weapons of mass destruction or failed obligations under existing treaties, but about ensuring U.S. credibility in its pursuit of global hegemony. There is one rule, which is that the U.S. makes the rules, which the U.S. will enforce under threat of violence. As was the case with Iraq, adherence to international law is not a purpose the present policy towards Iran is intended to ensure, but rather an obstacle to be overcome in its implementation. And as the invasion of Iraq has proved, as predicted, to be catastrophic not only in terms of the human consequences, but in strategic terms as well, so will any violence against Iran have considerable and well recognized catastrophic consequences. The tragic consequences of our present course of action are predictable. They are also avoidable, but only if we discard the existing framework for discussion and adopt a framework more conducive to reason and to achieving the stated policy objective of ensuring peace and stability in the world.


[1] “The riddle of Iran”, The Economist, July 21-27, 2007

[2] Dafna Linzer, “Iran Is Judged 10 Years From Nuclear Bomb”, The Washington Post, August 2, 2005; A01

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/08/01/AR2005080101453_pf.html

[3] Dr. John Chipman, “Iran’s Strategic Weapons Programmes”, International Institute for Strategic Studies (Press Statement), September 6, 2005

http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-dossiers/irans-strategic-weapons-programmes

Sarah Buckley and Paul Rincon, “Iran’ years from nuclear bomb'”, BBC, January 12, 2006

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4606356.stm

[4] “No Evidence Iran Diverted Nuclear Materials: IAEA”, UN Radio, November 15, 2004

http://www.un.org/radio/story.asp?NewsID=888

John Diamond, “U.S. intelligence agencies say Iran is years away from building nukes”, USA Today, April 13, 2006

http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-04-14-iran-nukes_x.htm

“Iran bomb is 10 years away, says ElBaradei”, Agence France Presse, February 21, 2007

http://www.smh.com.au/news/world/iran-bomb-is-10-years-away-says-elbaradei/2007/02/20/1171733763563.html

[5] Daniel Dombey, “FT interview: Mohamed El Baradei”, February 19, 2007

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/d229a13c-c056-11db-995a-000b5df10621.html

[6] UN Resolution 1696, July 31, 2006

UN Resolution 1737, December 23, 2006

http://www.un.org/Docs/sc/unsc_resolutions06.htm

UN Resolution 1747, March 24, 2007

http://www.un.org/Docs/sc/unsc_resolutions07.htm

Charter of the United Nations

http://www.un.org/aboutun/charter/index.html

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

http://www.un.org/events/npt2005/npttreaty.html

IAEA Res GOV/2006/13, “Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in the Islamic Republic of Iran”, February 4, 2006

http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2006/gov2006-14.pdf

[7] “Iran in new nuclear arms pledge”, BBC, May 25, 2005

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/4577877.stm

[8] “Paris Agreement” between the Islamic Republic of Iran and France, Germany and the United Kingdom, with the support of the High Representative of the European Union

http://www.armscontrol.org/country/iran/ParisAgreement.asp

[9] Ehtan Bronner, “Just How Far Did They Go, Those Words Against Israel?”, The New York Times, June 11, 2006

http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/weekinreview/11bronner.html?ex=1307678400&en=efa2bd266224e880&ei=5088&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss

[10] This is the translation provided by The Middle East Media Research Institute

http://memri.org/bin/articles.cgi?Page=archives&Area=sd&ID=SP101305

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

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