Rogue states and nuclear dangers

Mixed Messages. Jayel Aheram/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The first prime-time Republican primary
debate of 2015 was an eye-opener of sorts when it came to the Middle East.
After forcefully advocating for the termination of the pending nuclear deal
with Iran, for example, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker unleashed an almost
indecipherable torrent of words. “This is not just bad with Iran,” he insisted,
“this is bad with ISIS. It is tied together, and, once and for all, we need a
leader who’s gonna stand up and do something about it.” That prescription, as
vague as it was incoherent, was par for the course. 

When asked how he would respond to reports
that Iranian Qods Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani had recently
traveled to Russia in violation of a UN Security Council resolution, GOP
billionaire frontrunner Donald Trump responded, “I would be so different from
what you have right now. Like, the polar opposite.” He then meandered into a
screed about trading Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for “five of the big, great killers
leaders” of Afghanistan’s Taliban, but never offered the slightest hint that he
had a clue who General Soleimani was or what he would actually do that would be
“so different.” Questioned about the legacy of American soldiers killed in his
brother’s war in Iraq, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush replied in a similarly
incoherent fashion: “To honour the people that died, we need to – we need to
stop the Iran agreement,” and then pledged to annihilate ISIS as well. Senator
Ted Cruz seemed to believe that merely intoning the phrase “radical Islamic
terrorism” opened a surefire path to rapidly defeating ISIS – that, and his
proposed Expatriate Terrorist Act that would stop Americans who join ISIS from
using their “passport to come back and wage jihad on Americans.” Game, set,
match, ISIS.

Republican debate format 2015. Peter Stevens/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Of the 10 candidates on that stage, only
Senator Rand Paul departed from faith-based reality by observing that “ISIS
rides around in a billion dollars’ worth of US Humvees.” He continued, “It’s
a disgrace. We’ve got to stop – we shouldn’t fund our enemies, for goodness
sakes.” On a stage filled by Republicans in a lather about nonexistent weaponry
in the Middle East – namely, an Iranian A-bomb – only Paul drew attention to
weaponry that does exist, much of it American. Though no viewer would know it
from that night’s debate, all across the region – from Yemen to Syria to Iraq – US arms are fueling conflicts and turning the living into the dead. Military spending in the Middle East reached
almost $200 billion in 2014, according to the Stockholm International Peace
Research Institute, which tracks arms sales. That represents a jump of 57 percent since 2005. Some of the largest
increases have been among US allies buying big-ticket items from American
weapons makers. That includes Iraq and Saudi Arabia ($90 billion in US weapons deals from October 2010 to October 2014), which, by the way, haven’t
fared so well against smaller, less well-armed opponents. Those countries have
seen increases in their arms purchases of 286 percent and 112 percent, respectively, since
2005.

With the United States feeding the fires of
war and many in its political class frothing about nonexistent nukes, leave it
to the indomitable Noam Chomsky, a TomDispatch regular and institute professor
emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to cut to the quick when
it comes to Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, the regional
balance of power, and arms (real or imagined). He wades through the spin and
speechifying to offer a frank assessment of threats in the Middle East that
you’re unlikely to hear about in any US presidential debate between now and
the end of time. Nick Turse

"The Iranian threat": who is the gravest danger to world peace?

By Noam Chomsky

Iran deal reached in Vienna in June/July 2015. EEAS/Flickr. Some rights reserved.Throughout the
world there is great relief and optimism about the nuclear deal reached in
Vienna between Iran and the P5+1 nations, the five veto-holding members of the UN Security Council and Germany. Most of the world apparently shares the
assessment of the US Arms Control Association that “the Joint Comprehensive
Plan of Action establishes a strong and effective formula for blocking all of
the pathways by which Iran could acquire material for nuclear weapons for more
than a generation and a verification system to promptly detect and deter
possible efforts by Iran to covertly pursue nuclear weapons that will last
indefinitely.”

There are,
however, striking exceptions to the general enthusiasm: the United States and
its closest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia. One consequence of this
is that US corporations, much to their chagrin, are prevented from flocking
to Tehran along with their European counterparts. Prominent sectors of US power and opinion share the stand of the two regional allies and so are in a
state of virtual hysteria over “the Iranian threat.” Sober commentary in the
United States, pretty much across the spectrum, declares that country to be “the
gravest threat to world peace.” Even supporters of the agreement here are wary,
given the exceptional gravity of that threat. After all, how can we trust
the Iranians with their terrible record of aggression, violence, disruption,
and deceit?

Opposition
within the political class is so strong that public opinion has shifted quickly
from significant support for the deal to an even split. Republicans are almost unanimously opposed to the
agreement. The current Republican primaries illustrate the proclaimed reasons.
Senator Ted Cruz, considered one of the intellectuals among the crowded field
of presidential candidates, warns that Iran may still be able to produce nuclear
weapons and could someday use one to set off an Electro Magnetic Pulse that
“would take down the electrical grid of the entire eastern seaboard” of the
United States, killing “tens of millions of Americans.”

Senator Ted Cruz in 2013. Gage Skidmore/Flickr. Some rights reserved.The two most likely winners, former Florida Governor Jeb
Bush and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, are battling over whether to bomb
Iran immediately after being
elected or after the first Cabinet meeting. The one candidate with some foreign
policy experience, Lindsey Graham, describes the deal as “a death sentence for the state of
Israel,” which will certainly come as a surprise to
Israeli intelligence and
strategic analysts – and which Graham knows to be utter nonsense, raising
immediate questions about actual motives.

Keep in mind
that the Republicans long ago abandoned the pretense of functioning as a normal
congressional party. They have, as respected conservative political
commentator Norman Ornstein of the right-wing American Enterprise Institute observed, become a “radical insurgency” that scarcely seeks to
participate in normal congressional politics. 

Since the days
of President Ronald Reagan, the party leadership has plunged so far into the
pockets of the very rich and the corporate sector that they can attract votes
only by mobilizing parts of the population that have not previously been an
organized political force. Among them are extremist evangelical
Christians, now probably a majority of Republican voters; remnants of the
former slave-holding states; nativists who are terrified that “they” are taking
our white Christian Anglo-Saxon country away from us; and others who turn the
Republican primaries into spectacles remote from the mainstream of modern
society – though not from the mainstream of the most powerful country in world
history.

The departure
from global standards, however, goes far beyond the bounds of the Republican
radical insurgency. Across the spectrum, there is, for instance, general
agreement with the “pragmatic” conclusion of
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the Vienna
deal does not “prevent the United States from striking Iranian facilities if
officials decide that it is cheating on the agreement,” even though a
unilateral military strike is “far less likely” if Iran behaves. 

Former Clinton
and Obama Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross typically recommends that “Iran
must have no doubts that if we see it moving towards a weapon, that would
trigger the use of force” even after the termination of the deal, when Iran is
theoretically free to do what it wants. In fact, the existence of a
termination point 15 years hence is, he adds, "the greatest single problem
with the agreement." He also suggests that the US provide Israel with specially outfitted B-52 bombers and bunker-busting bombs to protect
itself before that terrifying date arrives.

"The greatest threat"

Iranians celebrate the nuclear agreement between their nation and the world powers. Meysam Mim/Demotix. All rights reservedOpponents of
the nuclear deal charge that it does not go far enough. Some supporters agree, holding that “if
the Vienna deal is to mean anything, the whole of the Middle East must rid
itself of weapons of mass destruction.” The author of those words, Iran’s
Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, added that “Iran, in its national
capacity and as current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement [the governments
of the large majority of the world’s population], is prepared to work with the
international community to achieve these goals, knowing full well that, along
the way, it will probably run into many hurdles raised by the skeptics of peace
and diplomacy.” Iran has signed “a historic nuclear deal,” he continues, and
now it is the turn of Israel, “the holdout.”

Israel, of
course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan,
whose weapons programs have been abetted by the United States and that refuse
to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

Zarif was
referring to the regular five-year NPT review conference, which ended in
failure in April when the US (joined by Canada and Great Britain) once again
blocked efforts to move toward a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the
Middle East. Such efforts have been led by Egypt and other Arab states for 20
years. As Jayantha Dhanapala and Sergio Duarte, leading figures in the
promotion of such efforts at the NPT and other UN agencies, observe in “Is
There a Future for the NPT?,” an article in the journal of the Arms Control
Association: “The successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the
establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle
East was the main element of a package that permitted the indefinite extension
of the NPT.” The NPT, in turn, is the most important arms control treaty
of all. If it were adhered to, it could end the scourge of nuclear weapons.

A 'No nukes for Iran' sign held at a rally in opposition to a deal proposed with Iran. Andy Katz/Demotix. All rights reserved.Repeatedly,
implementation of the resolution has been blocked by the US, most recently by
President Obama in 2010 and again in 2015, as Dhanapala and Duarte point out,
“on behalf of a state that is not a party to the NPT and is widely believed to
be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons” – a polite and
understated reference to Israel. This failure, they hope, “will not be the coup
de grâce to the two longstanding NPT objectives of accelerated progress on
nuclear disarmament and establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.”

A nuclear-weapons-free Middle East would be a straightforward way to
address whatever threat Iran allegedly poses, but a great deal more is at stake
in Washington’s continuing sabotage of the effort in order to protect its
Israeli client. After all, this is not the only case in which
opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by
Washington, raising further questions about just what is actually at stake.

In considering
this matter, it is instructive to examine both the unspoken assumptions in the
situation and the questions that are rarely asked. Let us consider a few
of these assumptions, beginning with the most serious: that Iran is the gravest
threat to world peace.

In the US, it
is a virtual cliché among high officials and commentators that Iran wins that
grim prize. There is also a world outside the US and although its views
are not reported in the mainstream here, perhaps they are of some
interest. According to the leading western polling agencies (WIN/Gallup
International), the prize for “greatest threat” is won by the
United States. The rest of the world regards it as the gravest threat to
world peace by a large margin. In second place, far below, is Pakistan,
its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked below
those two, along with China, Israel, North Korea, and Afghanistan.

"The world’s leading supporter of terrorism"

Neturei Karta members protest zionism during a rally in opposition to the Iran deal. Andy Katz. All rights reserved.Turning to the
next obvious question, what in fact is the Iranian threat? Why, for
example, are Israel and Saudi Arabia trembling in fear over that country? Whatever the threat is, it can hardly be military. Years ago, US intelligence informed Congress that Iran has very low military expenditures by
the standards of the region and that its strategic doctrines are defensive – designed, that is, to deter aggression. The US intelligence community has
also reported that it
has no evidence Iran is pursuing an actual nuclear weapons program and that
“Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of
developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”

The
authoritative SIPRI review of
global armaments ranks the US, as usual, way in the lead in
military expenditures. China comes in second with about one-third of US expenditures. Far below are Russia and Saudi Arabia, which are
nonetheless well above any western European state. Iran is scarcely mentioned. Full details are provided in an April report from
the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), which finds “a
conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have… an overwhelming advantage of
Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.”

Iran’s military
spending, for instance, is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s and far below even the
spending of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Altogether, the Gulf
Cooperation Council states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – outspend Iran on
arms by a factor of eight, an imbalance that goes back decades. The CSIS
report adds: “The Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the
most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has essentially
been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered
at the time of the Shah.” In other words, they are virtually
obsolete. When it comes to Israel, of course, the imbalance is even
greater. Possessing the most advanced US weaponry and a virtual
offshore military base for the global superpower, it also has a huge stock of
nuclear weapons. 

To be sure,
Israel faces the “existential threat” of Iranian pronouncements: Supreme Leader
Khamenei and former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad famously threatened it with
destruction. Except that they didn’t – and if they had, it would be of little moment. Ahmadinejad, for instance,
predicted that “under God’s grace [the Zionist regime] will be wiped off the
map.” In other words, he hoped that regime change would someday take
place. Even that falls far short of the direct calls in both Washington
and Tel Aviv for regime change in Iran, not to speak of the actions taken to
implement regime change. These, of course, go back to the actual “regime
change” of 1953, when the US and Britain organized a military coup to
overthrow Iran’s parliamentary government and install the dictatorship of the
Shah, who proceeded to amass one of the worst human rights records on the
planet.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Hanif Shoaei/Demotix. All rights reserved.These crimes
were certainly known to readers of the reports of Amnesty International and
other human rights organizations, but not to readers of the US press, which
has devoted plenty of space to Iranian human rights violations – but only
since 1979 when the Shah’s regime was overthrown. (To check the facts on
this, read The US Press and Iran, a carefully documented study by
Mansour Farhang and William Dorman.)

None of this is
a departure from the norm. The United States, as is well known, holds the
world championship title in regime change and Israel is no laggard
either. The most destructive of its invasions of Lebanon in 1982 was
explicitly aimed at regime change, as well as at securing its hold on the
occupied territories. The pretexts offered were thin indeed and collapsed
at once. That, too, is not unusual and pretty much independent of the
nature of the society – from the laments in the Declaration of Independence
about the “merciless Indian savages” to Hitler’s defense of Germany from the
“wild terror” of the Poles.

No serious
analyst believes that Iran would ever use, or even threaten to use, a nuclear
weapon if it had one, and so face instant destruction. There is, however,
real concern that a nuclear weapon might fall into jihadi hands – not thanks
to Iran, but via US ally Pakistan. In the journal of the Royal
Institute of International Affairs, two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists,
Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, write that
increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and
unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to]… the creation of a dedicated force
of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities. There is no reason to
assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated
with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently
suffered attacks with “insider help.” In brief, the problem is real, just
displaced to Iran thanks to fantasies concocted for other reasons.

Other concerns
about the Iranian threat include its role as “the world’s leading supporter of
terrorism,” which primarily refers to its support for Hezbollah and
Hamas. Both of those movements emerged in resistance to US-backed
Israeli violence and aggression, which vastly exceeds anything attributed to
these villains, let alone the normal practice of the hegemonic power whose global drone assassination campaign alone dominates (and helps to foster)
international terrorism. 

Those two
villainous Iranian clients also share the crime of winning the popular vote in
the only free elections in the Arab world. Hezbollah is guilty of the
even more heinous crime of compelling Israel to withdraw from its occupation of
southern Lebanon, which took place in violation of UN Security Council orders
dating back decades and involved an illegal regime of terror and sometimes
extreme violence. Whatever one thinks of Hezbollah, Hamas, or other
beneficiaries of Iranian support, Iran hardly ranks high in support of terror
worldwide.

"Fueling instability"

Aftermath of Israeli attacks on Hezbollah, supported by the US. Passer/Demotix. All rights reserved.Another
concern, voiced at the
UN by US Ambassador Samantha Power, is the “instability that Iran fuels
beyond its nuclear program.” The US will continue to scrutinize this
misbehavior, she declared. In that, she echoed the assurance Defense
Secretary Ashton Carter offered while
standing on Israel’s northern border that “we will continue to help Israel
counter Iran’s malign influence” in supporting Hezbollah, and that the US reserves the right to use military force against Iran as it deems
appropriate. 

The way Iran
“fuels instability” can be seen particularly dramatically in Iraq where, among
other crimes, it alone at once came to the aid of Kurds defending themselves
from the invasion of Islamic State militants, even as it is building a $2.5 billion power plant in
the southern port city of Basra to try to bring electrical power back to the
level reached before the 2003 invasion. Ambassador Power’s usage is,
however, standard: thanks to that invasion, hundreds of thousands were killed
and millions of refugees generated, barbarous acts of torture were committed – Iraqis have compared the destruction to the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth
century – leaving Iraq the unhappiest country in the world according to
WIN/Gallup polls. Meanwhile, sectarian conflict was ignited, tearing the
region to shreds and laying the basis for the creation of the monstrosity that
is ISIS. And all of that is called “stabilization.”

Only Iran’s
shameful actions, however, “fuel instability.” The standard usage sometimes
reaches levels that are almost surreal, as when liberal commentator James
Chace, former editor of Foreign
Affairs
, explained that
the US sought to “destabilize a freely elected Marxist government in Chile”
because “we were determined to seek stability” under the Pinochet dictatorship.

Others are
outraged that Washington should negotiate at all with a “contemptible” regime
like Iran’s with its horrifying human rights record and urge instead that we
pursue “an American-sponsored alliance between Israel and the Sunni
states.” So writes Leon
Wieseltier, contributing editor to the venerable liberal journal the Atlantic, who can
barely conceal his visceral hatred for all things Iranian. With a
straight face, this respected liberal intellectual recommends that Saudi
Arabia, which makes Iran look like a virtual paradise, and Israel, with its
vicious crimes in Gaza and elsewhere, should ally to teach that country good
behavior. Perhaps the recommendation is not entirely unreasonable when we
consider the human rights records of the regimes the US has imposed and
supported throughout the world.

Though the
Iranian government is no doubt a threat to its own people, it regrettably
breaks no records in this regard, not descending to the level of favored US allies. That, however, cannot be the concern of Washington, and surely
not Tel Aviv or Riyadh.

It might also
be useful to recall – surely Iranians do – that not a day has passed since
1953 in which the US was not harming Iranians. After all, as soon as they
overthrew the hated US-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979, Washington put its
support behind Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who would, in 1980, launch a
murderous assault on their country. President Reagan went so far as to
deny Saddam’s major crime, his chemical warfare assault on Iraq’s Kurdish
population, which he blamed on Iran instead. When Saddam was tried for
crimes under US auspices, that horrendous crime, as well as others in which
the US was complicit, was carefully excluded from the charges, which were
restricted to one of his minor crimes, the murder of 148 Shi’ites in 1982, a
footnote to his gruesome record.

Saddam was such
a valued friend of Washington that he was even granted a privilege otherwise
accorded only to Israel. In 1987, his forces were allowed to attack a
US naval vessel, the USS Stark,
with impunity, killing 37 crewmen. (Israel had acted similarly in its
1967 attack on the USS Liberty.) Iran pretty much conceded defeat shortly after, when the US launched
Operation Praying Mantis against Iranian ships and oil platforms in Iranian
territorial waters. That operation culminated when the USS Vincennes, under no credible
threat, shot down an Iranian civilian airliner in Iranian airspace, with 290
killed – and the subsequent granting of a Legion of Merit award to
the commander of the Vincennes for “exceptionally meritorious
conduct” and for maintaining a “calm and professional atmosphere” during the
period when the attack on the airliner took place. Comments philosopher
Thill Raghu, “We can only stand in awe of such display of American
exceptionalism!”

After the war
ended, the US continued to support Saddam Hussein, Iran’s primary
enemy. President George H.W. Bush even invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to
the US for advanced training in weapons production, an extremely serious
threat to Iran. Sanctions against that country were intensified,
including against foreign firms dealing with it, and actions were initiated to
bar it from the international financial system.

In recent years
the hostility has extended to sabotage, the murder of nuclear scientists
(presumably by Israel), and cyberwar, openly proclaimed with pride. The Pentagon
regards cyberwar as an act of war, justifying a military response, as does
NATO, which affirmed in September 2014 that cyber attacks may trigger the
collective defense obligations of the NATO powers – when we are the target
that is, not the perpetrators.

"The
prime rogue state"

IRRS mission members visited Iran’s first nuclear power plant, in preparation for operation. IAEA/Flickr. Some rights reserved.It is only fair
to add that there have been breaks in this pattern. President George W. Bush,
for example, offered several significant gifts to Iran by destroying its major
enemies, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. He even placed Iran’s Iraqi
enemy under its influence after the US defeat, which was so severe that
Washington had to abandon its officially declared goals of establishing
permanent military bases (“enduring camps”) and ensuring that
US corporations would have privileged access to Iraq’s vast oil resources.

Do Iranian
leaders intend to develop nuclear weapons today? We can decide for
ourselves how credible their denials are, but that they had such intentions in
the past is beyond question. After all, it was asserted openly on the
highest authority and foreign journalists were informed that Iran would develop
nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks.” The father of Iran’s
nuclear energy program and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was
confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb.” The CIA
also reported that it had “no doubt” Iran would develop nuclear weapons if
neighboring countries did (as they have). 

All of this
was, of course, under the Shah, the “highest authority” just quoted and at a
time when top US officials – Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Henry
Kissinger, among others – were urging him to proceed with his nuclear programmes
and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. Under such
pressures, my own university, MIT, made a deal with the Shah to admit Iranian
students to the nuclear engineering program in return for grants he offered and
over the strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong
faculty support (in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well).

Asked later why
he supported such programmes under the Shah but opposed them more recently,
Kissinger responded honestly that Iran was an ally then.

Putting aside
absurdities, what is the real threat of Iran that inspires such fear and fury?
A natural place to turn for an answer is, again, US intelligence. Recall its analysis that Iran poses no military threat, that its strategic
doctrines are defensive, and that its nuclear programmes (with no effort to
produce bombs, as far as can be determined) are “a central part of its
deterrent strategy.”

Who, then,
would be concerned by an Iranian deterrent? The answer is plain: the
rogue states that rampage in the region and do not want to tolerate any
impediment to their reliance on aggression and violence. In the lead in
this regard are the US and Israel, with Saudi Arabia trying its best to join
the club with its invasion of Bahrain (to support the crushing of a reform
movement there) and now its murderous assault on Yemen, accelerating a growing humanitarian
catastrophe in that country. 

For the United
States, the characterization is familiar. Fifteen years ago, the
prominent political analyst Samuel Huntington, professor of the science of
government at Harvard, warned in the establishment journal Foreign Affairs that for much
of the world the US was “becoming the rogue superpower… the single greatest
external threat to their societies.” Shortly after, his words were echoed by Robert
Jervis, the president of the American Political Science Association: “In the
eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United
States.” As we have seen, global opinion supports this judgment by a
substantial margin.

Furthermore,
the mantle is worn with pride. That is the clear meaning of the
insistence of the political class that the US reserves the right to resort to
force if it unilaterally determines that Iran is violating some
commitment. This policy is of long standing, especially for liberal
Democrats, and by no means restricted to Iran. The Clinton Doctrine, for
instance, confirmed that the US was entitled to resort to the “unilateral use
of military power” even to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy
supplies, and strategic resources,” let alone alleged “security” or
“humanitarian” concerns. Adherence to various versions of this doctrine
has been well confirmed in practice, as need hardly be discussed among people
willing to look at the facts of current history.

These are among
the critical matters that should be the focus of attention in analyzing the
nuclear deal at Vienna, whether it stands or is sabotaged by Congress, as it
may well be.

This piece, including Tom Engelhardt's intro, is reposted from TomDispatch.com with that site's permission.

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