Taking an Iran Option Off the Table
President Obama’s repetitious warning to Iran that “all options are on the table” carries with it the implicit threat of a nuclear strike against a non-nuclear state, a violation of previously declared principles and a provocation that encourages Iran to build an atomic bomb, as Tad Daley explains.
By Tad Daley
March 15, the Ides of March on the Roman calendar, was the anniversary of the assassination of Julius Caesar. On that date 2,057 years later Western media outlets reported that President Barack Obama had flourished a dagger of his own.
In an interview broadcast on Channel Two in Israel, on the eve of his first presidential visit to the country, Obama said that regarding his efforts to dissuade Iran from crossing the nuclear Rubicon, “I continue to keep all options on the table. The United States obviously has significant capabilities.” Those words, “all options,” are the same ones used repeatedly by both Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush.
Of course, the most fearsome of those American capabilities remains the nuclear option. Nobody’s been talking about that much recently (assuming that Obama and Bush were referring to America’s still-terrifying “conventional” arsenal of weapons). But if you think that an American nuclear first strike on Iran is not one of those “options on the table,” then you haven’t been listening very closely.
Nearly a half century ago, when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was under negotiation, the non-nuclear states made a simple request. In return for their promise to remain non-nuclear, they asked that the nuclear states promise not only to pursue universal nuclear disarmament, but also to promise never to threaten them or to attack them with nuclear weapons.
This, said the late Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Graham, Jr., “could be the most reasonable request in the history of international relations.” But the nuclear states refused, insisting that such a promise would intolerably constrain their “military flexibility.”
The issue arose again 25 years later, shortly before the 1995 NPT Review Conference. Under intense pressure from several non-nuclear states that were seriously threatening to withdraw from the treaty, France, Russia, Britain and the United States issued “harmonized security assurances,” declaring that they would neither use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. (They included one caveat regarding nuclear retaliation against non-nuclear states aiding and abetting any kind of attack by a nuclear state.)
On April 11, 1995, they incorporated this promise into U.N. Security Council Resolution 984. And in the final document adopted by the Review Conference a few weeks later, the signatories noted their hope that someday it might “take the form of an internationally legally binding instrument.”
That tortuous process was certainly not as good as if such an unambiguous promise had made it into the original text of the NPT itself (or been added later as an amendment). Nevertheless, most international legal experts now agree that the promise neither to threaten nor to launch a nuclear attack against non-nuclear states has become an integral part of the NPT bargain.
Flash forward a single decade. George W. Bush’s administration, completely disregarding the 1995 agreements, issued formal nuclear policy documents that explicitly envisioned attacking non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons. These materials even named seven particular non-nuclear states as possible targets of an American nuclear attack.
Moreover, both The Washington Post and Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker revealed in 2006 that the administration was at that moment considering an American nuclear first strike upon Iran. When President Bush was asked directly by a reporter, in a televised White House press conference, whether this was in fact true, he replied, “All options are on the table.”
Just a few months after he took office, in Prague on April 5, 2009, President Obama captured the imagination of many when he declared to an adoring crowd, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”
Even though some of that enthusiasm diminished when he added that the abolitionist objective “will not be reached quickly perhaps not in my lifetime,” it was nevertheless by all accounts a significant component in the Norwegian committee’s decision to award the President the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.
But flash forward again, this time only a single year. During a press conference at the Pentagon on April 6, 2010, announcing the Obama administration’s new “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR), Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the document pledged that now the United States unlike under the Bush administration would not launch nuclear attacks against non-nuclear states.
So far so good. But then, Gates indicated that states “not in compliance with the NPT” had been placed in an entirely different category, and were not exempt from American nuclear attack. It was an entirely new principle, never before contemplated in any way as part of the NPT bargain.
Then, for good measure, he specifically named two states — North Korea and Iran. For these countries, said Secretary Gates, “there is a message if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you. But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.”
What Iranians Hear
The “options on the table” phrase has been uttered so often by Western leaders that it has become commonplace for the Western media to pay no attention to it at all. Not so Iranian leaders. Shortly after the 2010 Pentagon press conference, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told his senior military commanders that these direct threats to unleash nuclear arms against Iran “are very strange and the world should not ignore them. The head of a country has threatened a nuclear attack. In recent years the Americans made many efforts to show that the Islamic Republic of Iran is unreliable in the nuclear issue. It is now clear that the governments that possess atomic bombs and shamelessly threaten to bomb others are the unreliable ones.”
The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, emphasized that any kind of nuclear threat against Iran directly violated the agreements of the NPT. And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weighed in as well, declaring, “I hope these published comments are not true. … He has threatened with nuclear and chemical weapons those nations which do not submit to the greed of the United States. Even Bush did not say what Obama is saying.”
Similarly, after President Obama’s statement on Israeli television, Revolutionary Guard Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri declared, “Mr. Obama, do not make a mistake: we too have all our options on the table.” Which doesn’t seem to indicate that using the phrase is doing anything to defuse the situation.
It’s difficult to imagine, since President Obama’s most recent pronouncement on the subject used the exact same phrase, that it does not in fact mean the exact same thing. It’s also difficult to escape the towering irony even if only a hypothetical possibility that one country might employ nuclear weapons to demonstrate that it’s unacceptable for another country even to possess nuclear weapons.
And it’s difficult finally to suppose that a nuclear hypocrisy of such towering proportions could lead to anything other than a relentless determination, on the part of Iran and the many other nuclear have-not nations, for decades to come, to join the nuclear club.
Imagine the positive outcomes that might emerge on multiple fronts if the President were to make an alternative pronouncement, which said instead something like this:
“I am announcing today that the time has come to take one option off the table. The nuclear option. There are no circumstances under which the United States will attack a non-nuclear armed Iran with nuclear weapons.
“Indeed, I can imagine no situation where it would be appropriate for any nuclear-armed nation to launch a nuclear attack on any state which does not possess nuclear weapons. The promise not to do so has become a fundamental part of the NPT bargain. So just as we expect Iran to fulfill its NPT commitments, we declare today that we will fulfill this NPT commitment of our own.
“Both the United States and Israel are fully capable of protecting our national security with our conventional forces alone. The only conceivable purpose for possessing nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others. And as I indicated in Prague four long years ago, someday we hope to eliminate that purpose, by eliminating every last nuclear weapon from the face of the Earth thereby fulfilling another of the commitments we made under the NPT several long decades ago.
“Iran must know that until it rejects the false seductions of nuclear security, for us, all options but one must remain on the table. But Iranians should also be assured that we do not expect them to endure a nuclear double standard forever until the end of time. We invite them to join us, now, on the road to abolition.”
Such a statement could transform the nuclear policy debate overnight. It would, in a stroke, delegitimize the “employment doctrines” manifested by each of the nine nuclear-armed nations. It would express as a bedrock American principle that the nuclear weapons deployed by us remain only to prevent nuclear weapons from being used against us and would put enormous pressure on the other nuclear states to declare likewise.
It could go a long, long way to persuading Iran, North Korea, and perhaps others to abjure the nuclear course. And it might even give a substantial kick start to the long-stalled abolitionist project, and move the international community to begin discerning and negotiating a universal, verifiable, and enforceable Nuclear Weapons Elimination Convention. And bringing us a nuclear weapon-free world.
Who knows? Perhaps, even, within Barack Obama’s lifetime.
Tad Daley, author of APOCALYSPE NEVER: Forging the Path to a Nuclear-Weapon Free World from Rutgers University Press, directs the Project on Abolishing War at the Center for War/Peace Studies in New York. [See: www.apocalypsenever.org, www.abolishingwar.org.]