BY RICHARD TAYLOR
“Omission,” George Orwell once noted, “is the greatest form of lie,” an observation relevant to the U.S. conflict with Iran over its alleged nuclear weapons program. The omissions provide ironic support to Obama’s statement,” I wouldn’t say [chances of success of the interim agreement] are more than 50-50.” Obama’s cause for pessimism, largely echoed in the mainstream media, derives from the belief that Iran is unlikely to meet U.S. conditions and still harbors the intention of building nuclear weapons.
If we fill in the omissions, the grounds for pessimism reside more aptly in the long-established U.S. policy of hegemony in the Middle East, born of the goal of controlling the vast oil resources of the region, resources described by the State Department during World War II as “a stupendous source of strategic power and the greatest material prize in history.” Who could pass up a chance like that!
The omissions start with the actual terms of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), ratified by the U.S. in 1970. According to most mainstream news accounts, Iran, a signatory to the treaty, set off the conflict by allegedly pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Although no definitive proof exists of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, the treaty does stipulate that non-nuclear states that sign the treaty may develop peaceful uses of nuclear power, but only if they renounce building nuclear weapons. If proof emerges of a weapons program, Iran would clearly be violating the treaty.
However, we seldom read about Article 6 of the NPT, which states: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” This reveals that the NPT has a far more ambitious goal than stopping countries from acquiring nuclear weapons: It requires the nuclear weapons-have states to not only refrain from further accumulation of weapons but to eliminate them altogether, leading to a world without nuclear weapons. Note that the NPT requires that this process be done under “strict and effective international control.”
U.S. policy makers have never even considered conforming to the requirements of Article 6, an outlook that has severely weakened the treaty’s effectiveness. First, non-nuclear states are more reluctant to sign the treaty if it amounts to the nuclear states attaining a monopoly over weapons, thus hoarding to themselves the advantages they believe such weapons confer. That’s why Article 6 is integral and not an afterthought.
Moreover, the failure of the five nuclear states that had nukes in 1968 (U.S., Soviet Union, France, the UK and China) to get rid of their weapons is a primary reason for proliferation, because proliferation follows a domino-like process. The Cold War led the USSR to match the U.S. in weapons capability; British and French acquisition also derived from the Cold War, as did North Korea’s later acquisition; the Sino-Soviet split led to China’s weapons; India’s defeat in the border war of 1962 with China led India to develop weapons; fearing India’s program and its much larger conventional forces, Pakistan rushed to build the bomb. Having become a strategic asset for the U.S. in the Middle East, Israel has attained a formidable nuclear force—an incentive for its rivals in the Middle East, including Iran, to get nukes.
Irrespective of the treaty, Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld offered another U.S.-induced incentive for countries to acquire nuclear weapons—acts of aggression by the U.S. Creveld argued that since the U.S. invaded Iraq without U.N. approval and for apparently no reason at all, Iran would be “crazy” not to pursue nukes in order to deter the U.S. Another glaring omission is that the Pentagon agrees with Creveld. The Pentagon soberly notes that Iran’s military budget is modest and lower than budgets of other regional players such as Israel and Saudi Arabia. Even if Iran acquired a handful of nukes, its total would be dwarfed by the thousands available to the U.S. and Israel. Hence, if Iran used nukes offensively, it would be pulverized by a counterstrike, meaning that these weapons have value for Iran only as a deterrent, as the Pentagon frankly states. Amplifying the value of deterrence for Iran is its virtual encirclement by states brandishing nuclear weapons.
The next omission is the curious history of the U.S. position on Iran’s nuclear program. During the period when Iran under Shah Reza Pavlevi allied itself with the U.S. (1953-79), Secretary of State Henry Kissinger concluded that a nuclear capable Iran was a good idea, because it would allow Iran to sell more oil abroad and develop its petro-chemical industry. Asked why he changed his mind, Kissinger frankly answered that lran was no longer a reliable client state of the U.S.
A related omission is that history shows that a reliable client state can earn a U.S. pass when it develops nuclear weapons. Take the case of Pakistan; it was ruled in the 1980s by one of Ronald Reagan’s favorite dictators, Mohammed Zia al-Huq. Even though Zia was an Islamic fundamentalist and an architect of the madrassa system that cultivates an extremist form of Islamism, the Reaganites turned a blind eye, because Pakistan was supporting the U.S.-backed mujahideen fighting to evict the USSR from neighboring Afghanistan. And the U.S. pretended not to know that Zia was successfully building a nuclear arsenal that extended to the notorious A.Q. Khan network of shopping weapons technology abroad. Given the unresolved tensions with India over Kashmir and the volatile nature of the Pakistani state, rationality leads us to think that the Pakistani nuclear program would have been a major concern of the U.S.; it wasn’t, it was subordinated to the goal of ousting the Soviets. No doubt jihadis are now racking their brains as to how they can get their hands on Pakistani nukes.
Our last major omission brings us up to the current moment. A major effort to abet the NPT is to establish nuclear weapons-free zones (NWFZ) throughout the world. For example, the African Union voted to make Africa such a union. Unfortunately, this has been impaired because the island of Diego Garcia is considered part of Africa, and the U.S. insists on its right to store all kinds of weapons there.
The mainstream media also omits to tell us that most countries in the world support a NWFZ in the Middle East. Supporters of the NPT tend to be supporters of NWFZ because the latter limit the geographical scope of nuclear weapons and broach no exceptions: Whatever region it may be, no country will fully renounce nuclear weapons unless all do.
Included among the countries supporting a NWFZ in the Middle East is Iran. At the 2010 NPT review conference, 189 member countries of the NPT agreed to develop a plan for a meeting to be held in Helsinki, Finland, in December 2012 that would lay the foundations for a NWFZ in the Middle East. In the run-up to the Helsinki meeting, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told reporters: “Iran is determined to participate actively in the Helsinki conference. We are of the strong belief that all countries should be mobilizing themselves to make sure that this noble goal of a Middle East free from all the weapons of mass destruction will be realized.” All Middle East countries signed on to the meeting except one—Israel.
The meeting never came off. Overwhelming international support for the meeting meant nothing to the U.S. “Hyperpower,” as the French put it, and Obama canceled the meeting in late November 2012, on the grounds that “present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.” Translating from Orwellian Newspeak, this means the U.S. didn’t want attention drawn to Israeli’s nuclear weapons. Nor did the U.S. want to give Iran a stage to broadcast its willingness to forsake nuclear weapons.
What do all the omissions reveal? Noam Chomsky put it concisely when he asked, “Hegemony or survival?” The U.S. has long labored to be the dominant power in many places in the world, but especially in the Middle East. The elites of both the Democratic and Republican parties have long held to the views of Harold Brown, secretary of defense in the Carter administration. He endorsed nukes because “our other [conventional] forces become meaningful instruments of military and political power.” He might have added the corollary that the holding of nukes by adversarial states is forbidden because such weapons inhibit U.S. efforts at domination. Until the American people mobilize to elect a government truly committed to peace and willing to implement all the articles of the NPT, proliferation is likely to proceed, increasing the chances of an ultimate nuclear catastrophe.