Kourosh Ziabari: The past decade has been witness to unending and unremitting clash between Iran and the West over Tehran’s nuclear program. The West has constantly accused Iran of trying to build nuclear bombs while Tehran has persistently denied the allegation. What do you think about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program? Why has it become so controversial and contentious? We already know that there are four nations in the world, who are not signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but nobody in the international community pressures them to halt their nuclear program and nobody investigates their nuclear arsenals. Why Iran is being singled out?
Jeremy R. Hammond: What I think about the nature of Iran’s nuclear program is that it is a peaceful program, the right to which is guaranteed under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty [NPT], of which Iran is a signatory. I don’t know as an absolute fact that Iran doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program, but that’s what the evidence — the lack thereof, rather — tells us. The legal standard that the West has applied to Iran is that it must prove itself innocent of attempting to produce a nuclear weapon. Like Iraq, Iran is being punished for failing to prove that it isn’t guilty of the charges the U.S. and its western partners accuse it of, like Iraq, without evidence. This policy persists despite the fact that the U.S.’s own intelligence community assessed in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran had no active nuclear weapons program, and as Seymour Hersh just very recently reported in the New Yorker, an updated 2011 NIE reiterates that judgment.
The reason Iran’s nuclear program has become so controversial, therefore, has nothing to do with nuclear nonproliferation, any more than the war on Iraq had anything to do with weapons of mass destruction or terrorism. The problem with Iran is the same as that posed by Iraq, which is that it is too independent, too willing to defy orders from Washington, D. C. The U.S. used to support Iran’s nuclear program, when the country was under the Shah’s regime. The U.S. installed the Shah in 1953 after the CIA coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, for standing up to the West and saying that Iran’s oil belonged to the Iranian people.
Iran is singled out because it defies Washington. Israel is the only country in the region that actually possesses nuclear weapons. Unlike Iran, it is not a member of the NPT. The Western media constantly repeats that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is a threat to the region, and that its nuclear program risks sparking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Israel’s nuclear weapons, for some inexplicable reason, do not threaten to spark a nuclear arms race.
For example, the fact that Saddam Hussein’s decision to pursue a nuclear weapon was a direct consequence of Israel’s decision to destroy Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, which had been under the monitoring and supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog that enforces the NPT, is just completely irrelevant. It can be forgotten, tossed down the Memory Hole. Never mind that the U.N. Security Council condemned the attack in a resolution that noted that Iraq’s nuclear program had been legal and that Israel’s attack threatened the very framework of the international non-proliferation regime. Never mind that U.S. intelligence assessed that Israel’s attack, along with its own possession of nuclear weapons, could spark an arms race and intensify efforts by Saddam Hussein and other Arab leaders to seek a nuclear deterrent to Israeli aggression.
You can on very rare occasions actually read about Israel’s attack on Osirak in U.S. political commentary. If it’s mentioned, it’s cited as an example of how effective the use of force is in deterring Israel’s neighbors in the region from obtaining nuclear weapons. I mean, it’s just an Orwellian fiction that turns reality completely on its head. So if it’s mentioned, it’s in that context. Otherwise, you can just forget it. Nothing to see there, no lessons to learn; down the Memory Hole.
Relevant facts just have no place in any discussion of Iran’s nuclear program, just as the fact that the IAEA had declared Iraq’s nuclear program totally dismantled had no place in the discussion in the mainstream media in the run-up to the war on Iraq, because the issue has nothing to do with non-proliferation. As with Iraq, that’s just the pretext under which the U.S. government justifies its policy, which is really a policy of regime change. This also explains why the U.S. government and media engaged in a propaganda disinformation campaign in an attempt to characterize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in Iran’s 2009 presidential election as having been fraudulent, not only without evidence, but contrary to all evidence indicating that Ahmadinejad legitimately won.
KZ: Over the past years, the United Nations Security Council, under the pressure of the United States and its European allies, imposed four rounds of crippling economic sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. These sanctions targeted Iran’s oil and gas sector, aviation industry, health and medicine sector, consular affairs and in a nutshell, every aspect of the daily life of the Iranian citizens who had been trying to rise from the ashes of the devastating war with Iraq in 1980s. What do you think about these sanctions and their impact on the life of the Iranian citizens? Don’t these sanctions resemble some kind of human rights violation? Iranian people are deprived of having access to the most essential commodities of their daily life as a result of these sanctions. What’s your take on that?
JRH: The sanctions are a violation of the U.N. Charter and Iran’s rights under the NPT. The NPT obliges member nations to accept the safeguards regime of the IAEA, which the treaty explicitly states shall implement its duties without hampering Iran’s economic or technological development. Article IV of the NPT states explicitly that nothing within it may prejudice Iran’s right to develop, research, and use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, including uranium enrichment.
The U.N. sanctions originate from U.N. Security Council Resolution 1996 of 2006, which expressed concern that Iran had not taken certain steps requested of it by the IAEA and called on Iran to suspend enrichment activities. Iran had previously suspended its uranium enrichment on a voluntary basis, as a show of good faith to the West, and to go out of their way to create an atmosphere conducive to negotiations with the European Union. Part of that agreement was that the E.U. would offer Iran security guarantees. Yet the E.U. failed to fulfill its obligation and the U.S. and Israel continued to threaten Iran with military force. The West also stalled on negotiations, with the Bush administration refusing to engage Iran diplomatically and instead issuing the ultimatum that Iran must end enrichment as a precondition to talks—which would, of course, defeat the whole point of negotiating for Iran.
As result, Iran ended its voluntary cessation of enrichment activities and resumed research.
The IAEA then called upon Iran to once again implement a voluntary cessation. That IAEA resolution in fact did not find Iran to be in violation of any of its obligations under the NPT, and in fact explicitly recognized Iran’s inalienable right under the NPT to develop, research, and produce nuclear energy, without prejudice. It merely expressed concern that Iran had been disinclined to acquiesce to the agency’s requests that it once again voluntarily suspend enrichment. It’s important to emphasize again that this was not a legal obligation under the NPT, but a voluntary unilateral action demonstrating good faith on Iran’s part. That IAEA resolution is the legal foundation for U.N. Resolution 1696 and subsequent resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran. In other words, the U.N. sanctions against Iran have no legal basis whatsoever. On the contrary, they are themselves a violation of the U.N. Charter and the NPT.
This is further illustrated by the fact that Resolution 1696 was passed under Article 40 of Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter. It states that the Security Council may call upon parties to comply with provisional measures as it deems necessary, but only under two conditions. The first is in cases where the Council has determined that a threat to the peace exists, which the U.N. has not done in the case of Iran. The second condition is that if a threat to the peace is determined to exist, any measures the U.N. takes shall be without prejudice to the rights, claims, or position of Iran. That includes Iran’s “inalienable right” under the NPT to enrich uranium.
KZ: With their sophisticated intelligence apparatus, the United States and its European allies should have come to the conclusion that Iran does not have the intention of building nuclear bombs nor does it have the capability to build one. Iran has repeatedly stated that it will publicly announce once it decides to build an atomic bomb because it is afraid of nobody. Is the pressure on Iran over its nuclear program part of an agenda to derail Iran’s status as a regional superpower and isolate it internationally, or is it really a matter of ignorance and unawareness on the side of the West?
JRH: In fact, U.S. intelligence has judged that Iran has no active nuclear weapons program, in both its 2007 and 2011 NIEs, as I mentioned before. But facts like that just don’t matter, as far as U.S. policy is concerned, because the policy has nothing to do with non-proliferation. It’s partly a matter of ignorance, but it’s willful ignorance. Take, for example, the claim that has long been virtually obligatory for any U.S. mainstream commentary on Iran’s nuclear program, that Ahmadinejad has threatened Israel with a nuclear holocaust. This claim stems in part from the claim that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, and also from the claim that Ahmadinejad threatened to “wipe Israel off the map”. But that claim is false.
First, it’s a dubious translation of a comment Ahmadinejad made in a speech in October 2005. Professor Juan Cole and journalist Jonathan Steele, among others, pointed out at the time that what he actually said would be better translated as “the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the pages of time”, or something more akin to that. Second, Ahmadinejad was quoting Ayatollah Khomeini. Third, the context of the quote is not irrelevant. He was talking about the need for oppressive regimes to come to an end. He cited three examples. The first was the Shah’s regime in Iran. The second was Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. The third was the Zionist regime in Israel, which had been occupying Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, for four decades.
It’s perfectly well understood among knowledgeable Western commentators that the “nuclear holocaust” claim is pure fiction, nothing more than a fabrication for Western propaganda purposes, misquoted and taken completely out of context. So you have the BBC acknowledging that there’s no direct translation for the English expression “to wipe” something “off the map”, but insisting on using that translation anyhow. And so you have the New York Times acknowledging that Juan Cole’s and Jonathan Steele’s translations are actually more accurate, that he said “regime occupying Jerusalem”, not “Israel”, and that he said “pages of time or history”, and not “map”, but insisting that it was nevertheless right and proper to say he threatened “to wipe Israel off the map”, which is, needless to say, the way the New York Times and the rest of the U.S. mainstream media have reported it ever since, often in the same sentence as the claim that Iran is attempting to build a nuclear bomb. This is virtually obligatory in the U.S. media. So, yes, there is ignorance, but it’s willful ignorance.
No doubt many commentators actually believe their own propaganda, but it’s the same way many government officials and analysts believed that Iraq had WMD, which was a conclusion that could only be arrived at by dismissing all the relevant facts and willfully choosing not to make any effort whatsoever to actually seriously examine the claims made. I mean, anyone who knows how to use an internet search engine can find this stuff out for themselves. Anyone can Google it. But facts are just irrelevant.
Again, the situation is comparable to that of Iraq prior to the invasion, such as the claim that Iraq had sought aluminum tubes to manufacture centrifuges to enrich uranium for a nuclear bomb. The IAEA said they couldn’t be used for such a purpose, but were rather intended for a conventional rocket program. The U.S.’s top experts at the Department of Energy said they couldn’t be used for centrifuges, but were intended for an existing rocket program that just so happened to use tubes of the exact same dimensions. The State Department’s intelligence bureau agreed with the assessment of the DOE. Yet you had government officials like National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice or President George W. Bush publicly declaring that the tubes were intended for centrifuges, that they couldn’t possibly have any other purpose, and that we couldn’t wait for the “smoking gun” that Iraq was pursuing the bomb to come “in the form of a mushroom cloud”. There is ignorance, yes, but it’s willful ignorance. The facts just don’t matter, no matter how uncontroversial they may actually be. The truth gests too much in the way of the policy.
KZ: Israel is said to be the sole possessor of nuclear weapons in the Middle East. With a declared policy of deliberate ambiguity, it has prevented the international community from investigating its arsenals, and the global organizations such as the UNSC in turn have shown little interest in focusing on Israel’s dossier. Why can Israel enjoy immunity from international law and be exempted from being held accountable before the public opinion?
JRH: I’ve already briefly touched on that, but to reiterate, it’s the same reason Israel can enjoy immunity from international law in regard to its ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories and illegal settlement activity. Or the same reason Israel can enjoy immunity from international law in regard to its continued violence against the Palestinians, such as its 22-day full-scale military assault on Gaza from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009.
The narrative in the U.S. basically stated that Hamas committed a coup against the Palestinian government, had incessantly fired rockets at Israeli towns, and had violated a ceasefire with Israel. Thus, Israel responded to defend itself against the Hamas terrorist attacks. The truth is that the U.S. and Israel conspired to overthrow the democratically elected Hamas government by financing and arming Fatah, the party of P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas’s takeover of the Gaza Strip was a consequence of the fact that the U.S. illegally financed Fatah’s election campaign, pressured Abbas to illegally dismiss the Hamas government, and armed Fatah to use force to overthrow Hamas and expel them from government. So that was what was called the “Hamas coup” in the Western media. All of this is completely uncontroversial.
On June 19, 2008, Israel and Hamas began a 6-month ceasefire, under which Israel was supposed to lift its siege on Gaza, which it implemented to collectively punish the Palestinians for having Hamas as their leadership. Israel perpetually violated the ceasefire. It refused to lift the siege. Israeli soldiers shot across the border at Palestinian farmers attempting to reach their own land.
Two elderly men were injured in such attacks in June, and an unarmed 18-year old was killed in July. Israel stepped up operations against Hamas and other militant groups in the West Bank, provoking limited rocket fire from groups in Gaza, which Hamas actively pressured to abide by the ceasefire, including by making arrests.
On November 4, Israel launched an airstrike and ground incursion against Gaza, killing half a dozen members of Hamas. Up until that time, Hamas had fired not a single rocket at Israel, but had strictly observed the ceasefire. Israel’s violation effectively ended the ceasefire. Its official end came on December 19, the expiration of the six-month period. Hamas offered to extend the truce if Israel would lift the siege, but Israel refused the offer and instead proceeded to launch a full-scale military operation it had been planning since before the truce had gone into effect.
Again, all totally uncontroversial. So it just isn’t mentioned. The New York Times, for example, reported the November 4 Israeli violation at the time, but in subsequent accounts employed euphemisms like just saying that the ceasefire “broke down” in early November, without any further discussion as to why it “broke down”, which was because Israel violated it. As a simple thought experiment, had Hamas been the one to violate the ceasefire, the Times would never have reported that it just “broke down”. It would have been absolutely obligatory to note that Hamas had violated it. But the opposite truth is just too inconvenient, so it just isn’t mentioned.
That was “Operation Cast Lead”, which targeted the civilian population of Gaza. Israel targeted homes, mosques, schools, hospitals, and U.N. facilities. It used white phosphorus munitions over civilian areas. It leveled entire areas of Gaza and killed about 1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians, including around 300 children. The devastation was wrought by U.S.-provided F-16s, Apache helicopters, Hellfire missiles, and white phosphorus munitions. It was bought and paid for by the U.S. taxpayers through over $3 billion in annual military grants to Israel, which is in addition to billions in loan guarantees the U.S. provides, which basically means that if Israel were to ever default on a loan, the U.S. taxpayers would be liable to cover the debt.
The condemnation of Israel’s actions was universal. The Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and numerous U.N. reports stated the prima facie case that Israel’s conduct had been in violation of international law. The U.N. launched an investigation headed up by Richard Goldstone, which found both Israel and Hamas guilty of war crimes and made recommendations on how to obtain justice for the victims. The U.S. stood alone in condemning not Israel, but the U.N. report, and proceeded to act to block its findings and recommendations from being adopted by the Security Council.
So this is just one illustration of why Israel can enjoy immunity. It’s because the U.S. unconditionally supports Israeli crimes, financially, militarily, and diplomatically. This is why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict persists. This is why the international consensus on a two-state solution is not implemented, because the U.S. and Israel stand against the entire rest of the world in rejecting and blocking it.
KZ: During the recent years, Israel has been incessantly threatening Iran against a nuclear strike and a preemptive war. The United States also has chanted the same slogans with a different frequency. Don’t these threats exemplify violation of the U.N. Charter and Geneva Convention? Do you take seriously these threats? Overall, do you think that either of these two stalwart allies will finally attack Iran?
JRH: The U.N. Charter is explicit in forbidding member nations, which includes both the U.S. and Israel, from not only the use of force, but threatening the use of force in international relations. There are only two circumstances under which a resort to the use of force is considered legitimate under international law. The first is the use of armed force in self-defense against an armed attack. The second is if there is explicit authorization for the use of force under an explicit mandate from the U.N. Security Council. So every time a U.S. or Israeli government official threatens Iran with a military attack against its nuclear program, that is in fact a violation of international law, of the U.N. Charter.
The threats should be taken very seriously. It’s a serious threat, not to be taken lightly. It may just be posturing by the U.S. and Israel, but both nations have repeatedly shown a willingness to reject diplomacy and use military force to pursue their respective policies. The illegality and the question of morality aside, there are plenty of reasons for the U.S. and/or Israel not to attack Iran, and such considerations are certainly a factor in policymakers’ decision making. I don’t think either country will attack Iran in the near future, but it’s an ongoing threat. The threat is real, and it is serious.
KZ: Some critics of the foreign policy of President Ahmadinejad administration believe that he isolated Iran in the international stage with his radical policies toward the West. They also say that he failed to direct Iran’s nuclear program in the right path and thus lost many opportunities including a cordial and amiable relation with the United States and Europe. Do you agree with them?
JRH: No, I don’t agree with them, because that entire narrative is based on fiction, as I’ve already discussed, such as the false claims about Ahmadinejad’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map”, and so on. It’s not uncommon for U.S. media commentators to state that Ahmadinejad has openly declared his intention to obtain the bomb. Ahmadinejad has in fact constantly reiterated that it is Iran’s policy not to seek a nuclear weapon. He has repeatedly urged the U.S. and the rest of the Western community to cooperate on the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, for another example. But that would mean Israel would need to be disarmed and join the NPT regime. So you can forget it. It’s off the table, and Iran must be punished for its insolence for making such outrageous proposals.
KZ: What do you think of the prospect of Iran’s nuclear standoff? Will the upcoming U.S. Presidential elections have a serious impact on the course of events related to Iran’s nuclear program? Some critics of Iran’s foreign policy believe that Iran was lucky that Barack Obama won the 2008 elections because every other candidate would certainly attack Iran if won the elections. What’s your viewpoint?
JRH: The upcoming election could have a serious impact if Ron Paul were to be voted into office, but short of that, I don’t foresee any change in the U.S. policy towards Iran. Obama talked a lot different than Bush, but rhetoric aside, his actual policy towards Iran is exactly the same as his predecessor’s. Obama’s main opponent, John McCain, was certainly even more radical in his position on Iran. On one occasion, he thought it was funny to sing “Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran” to the tune of the Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, and his tune was pretty much the same when he was being perfectly serious. So there may be some truth to the argument that if Obama hadn’t won, the U.S. would have bombed Iran by now.
But it has to be emphasized that Obama’s policy is not meaningfully different than Bush’s. The difference is semantic. So Bush refused to have negotiations with Iran unless they stopped enriching uranium as a precondition. Obama’s stated position early in his term in office was that the U.S. would talk to Iran, but Iran would have to accept that the end result would be its cessation of uranium enrichment. Okay, so that’s the difference between Bush’s policy and Obama’s policy. In other words, the two policies are virtually indistinguishable, apart from the meaningless rhetoric. Aside from Ron Paul, I don’t know of any candidates who have rejected that ongoing policy and offered a more reasonable alternative, like actually sitting down with Iranians and having a serious and mutually respectful and non-prejudicial discussion about the concerns of the international community over Iran’s nuclear program, with the purpose of also listening to and trying to meet Iran’s needs and legitimate aspirations.