The Israeli government and the major U.S. news media are escalating their rhetoric in support of a new “preemptive” war, this time against Iran. Yet, as with the Iraq invasion, little attention is focusing on the rules of international law and which side is in the wrong, as Nat Parry describes.
By Nat Parry
As saber-rattling against Iran intensifies, the question of which side in this confrontation really violates international obligations has largely been avoided.
Instead the widespread assumption in the West is that Iran is at fault. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of former U.S. politicians, generals and officials saidthe United States should deploy ships, increase covert activities and use more bellicose rhetoric to make more “credible” the threat of a U.S. military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
In last week’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama accused the Islamic Republic of shirking its international obligations and repeated a now familiar threat to Iran, which implicitly includes the possibility of a nuclear strike against Tehran or suspected nuclear sites in the country
“Let there be no doubt,” Obama said, “America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal. But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.”
Viewed in conjunction with the Obama administration’s new defense strategy, published just prior to the State of the Union, this ambiguous warning to Iran that “no options are off the table” becomes more clear and more ominous.
In the official White House playbook, entitled “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” the U.S. nuclear posture is described in a section called “Maintain a Safe, Secure, and Effective Nuclear Deterrent.” It says: “As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal.”
Further, “We will field nuclear forces that can under any circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.“
There is no mention in the defense strategy of pursuing nuclear disarmament, an explicit obligation of the United States as a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and as the world’s leading possessor of nuclear weapons.
As the 2010 NPT Review Conference reminded states parties to the treaty: “The Conference recalls that the overwhelming majority of States entered into legally binding commitments not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in the context, inter alia, of the corresponding legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty.”
The Conference further regretted that nuclear-armed countries such as the United States have failed to live up to their end of the NPT bargain: “The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.”
When it comes to disputes over compliance with the treaty, however, for example Western suspicions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons or Iranian complaints that the U.S. is failing to disarm, the Review Conference reiterated the obligation that only diplomatic means should be pursued, and that “attacks or threats of attacks” must be avoided:
“The Conference emphasizes that responses to concerns over compliance with any obligation under the Treaty by any State party should be pursued by diplomatic means, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations.
“The Conference considers that attacks or threats of attack on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes jeopardize nuclear safety, have dangerous political, economic and environmental implications and raise serious concerns regarding the application of international law on the use of force in such cases, which could warrant appropriate action in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. The Conference notes that a majority of States parties have suggested a legally binding instrument be considered in this regard.”
It should be noted that despite the unequivocal claims from Washington and in the U.S. media that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, there is actually considerable ambiguity over this claim. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern recently wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com, reminding readers of a formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from November 2007.
The NIE was issued unanimously by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and included the following conclusion: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.”
This 2007 joint assessment of the U.S. intelligence community was essentially restated by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month, who stated frankly on national television that Iran is not currently attempting to develop nuclear weapons.
“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us,” Panetta told “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer. “And our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”
For its part, Iran has consistently said its nuclear program is peaceful, for electricity and medical purposes. If the Iranian government decides it is in its security interests to attain nuclear weapons, however, it has the legal right under Article 10 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to withdraw:
“Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.”
But Iran has not chosen to withdraw, and in accordance with its obligations under the NPT, is continuing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has the sole authority under the treaty to ascertain states parties’ commitments on non-acquisition of nuclear weapons.
A high-level IAEA delegation just completed a visit to Iran on Wednesday, and officials intend to travel to Iran again “in the very near future,” said the delegation’s leader. The three-day trip was aimed at resolving points of dispute over the country’s past atomic activities.
“We had three days of intensive discussions about all our priorities, and we are committed to resolve all the outstanding issues,” IAEA safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts said after the team arrived in Vienna, Austria, according to the Associated Press. “And the Iranians said they are committed, too.”
“We had a good trip,” Nackaerts added. Global Security Newswire noted that “The official’s remarks suggested the trip had yielded substantive results.”
“The Agency is committed to intensifying dialog. It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in a statement on the return of the agency’s delegation.
“The IAEA explained its concerns and identified its priorities, which focus on the clarification of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear program,” Amano was quoted as saying. During the talks, the IAEA also discussed with Iran the topics and initial steps to be taken, as well as associated modalities, he added.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency had reported on Tuesday that the spirit of the talks between Iranian officials and the IAEA team was “positive and constructive.”
Yet, despite these promising diplomatic developments, the U.S. and its allies continue pursuing a war-footing posture in confronting Tehran.
Washington has lobbed accusations that Iran is not only developing nuclear weapons, but is also threatening to strike within the United States. According to the Washington Post: “An assessment by U.S. spy agencies concludes that Iran is prepared to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States, highlighting new risks as the Obama administration escalates pressure on Tehran to halt its alleged pursuit of an atomic bomb.”
The story added, “In congressional testimony Tuesday, U.S. intelligence officials indicated that Iran has crossed a threshold in its adversarial relationship with the United States.”
Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. testified to Congress that the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington last October “shows that some Iranian officials, probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”
There are also new claims being floated that the Iranian regime has links with al-Qaeda, allegations not unlike the spurious accusations Bush administration officials made about Saddam Hussein in preparing the American public for war with Iraq ten years ago. As the Wall Street Journal reports Friday under the headline “US fears Iran’s links to Al Qaeda as officials believe country may have provided aid to terror group”:
“U.S. officials say they believe Iran recently gave new freedoms to as many as five top Al Qaeda operatives who have been under house arrest, including the option to leave the country, and may have provided some material aid to the terrorist group.
“The men, who were detained in Iran in 2003, make up Al Qaeda’s so-called management council, a group that includes members of the inner circle that advised Usama bin Laden and an explosives expert widely considered a candidate for a top post in the organization.”
Defense Secretary Panetta is now publicly voicing concerns that U.S. ally Israel is preparing to attack Iran in the near future, which would almost certainly bring the United States into a direct conflict. As David Ignatius wrote Thursday in the Washington Post:
“Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June, before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb. Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon, and only the United States could then stop them militarily.”
But as the saber-rattling intensifies, so does the grassroots response to this threat of a new U.S. war in the Middle East. Dozens of demonstrations are planned across the United States for Saturday to oppose a potential war against Iran as well as ongoing U.S. sanctions.
A statement by the veterans’ antiwar group March Forward, which is participating in the protests, offers a reminder of the disastrous consequences of the past decade of U.S.-led wars in the Middle East and Central Asia:
“We’ve just endured 10 years of Washington’s wars for “national security,” which only seem to benefit those who are making a profit, while on the other hand causing massive bloodshed overseas and severe lack of money for people’s needs here at home.
“Like with Iraq, the U.S. government’s sanctions, assassinations, and threats of war towards Iran have nothing to do with self-defense or human rights, but what is best for big business in one of the most profitable regions in the world.”
The call to action lists some basic realities regarding nuclear proliferation, international law and U.S. hypocrisy in the Middle East, reading in part:
Fact: Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon.
Fact: Iran has the right, according to international law, to develop nuclear energy for civilian use.
Fact: Iran’s nuclear energy program is regularly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Fact: Iran has never started a war (in its modern history).
Fact: The United States possesses 10,600 nuclear warheads in its stockpile, 7,982 of which are deployed and 2,700 of which are in a contingency stockpile. The total number of nuclear warheads that have been built from 1951 to present is 67,500.
Fact: The United States is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons. It did so when it incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese people living in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Neither city had any military significance.
Fact: The United States has spent $7 trillion on nuclear weapons. The U.S. military budget for 2012 alone is about equal to Iran’s entire Gross National Product.
Fact: Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (about $3 billion in 2011), unlike Iran, possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons.
Fact: Israel, unlike Iran, refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Israel to monitor its nuclear program.
Nat Parry is co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush.