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International Politics

Peace with Iran … for now

On Friday, negotiators in Geneva reached an agreement to limit and improve the monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program in return for the continuation of that program for peaceful purposes and the lifting of economic sanctions[1]. What exactly was agreed? The Washington Post provides an excellent summary of the agreement:

summary of deal

This is not a perfect agreement, but it is a good deal. It is, in fact, a better deal than many expected. It significantly restricts Iran’s ability to make the final sprint to an operational warhead through the restrictions in the total amount and degree of refinement of the fissile uranium Iran has stockpiled. The Iranians have also agreed to give inspectors a very wide authority to inspect not only the identified nuclear facilities, but any facilities deemed suspicious. Together with the monitoring and control of stored equipment, materials and transactions related to a nuclear program, and the covert surveillance that will undoubtedly continue, the Iranians will find it very difficult to circumvent the terms of the agreement without being detected.

There are two possibilities that would contradict the above analysis:

  1. The Iranians may already have assembled sufficient fissile material for one or more nuclear devices and so are willing to “give up” their refinement program since they have achieved their purpose; or,
  2. Iran may have made an agreement with a third party (like North Korea) to continue their development away from their territory.

Both of these propositions are highly speculative and in any case present serious problems of their own for the Iranians. In the first case, have enough nuclear material to build bombs doesn’t guarantee that these will in fact detonate. Without a series of successful tests, the Iranians will not have enhanced their security an iota; actually miniaturizing a deployable warhead on something like a ballistic missile or deliverable bomb is even more difficult. All of these activities are detectable; would constitute violations of the sanctions regime; and would consume the now limited and irreplaceable amount of highly refined uranium.

The second scenario is not much more believable than the first. North Korea seems to be the only state that is a serious candidate for consideration in this case; no other nuclear state would appear to have an interest in circumventing the terms of the new agreement[2]. A deal between Tehran and Pyongyang might involve oil for technology; free oil would be a great boon for the North Korean regime. But it is hard to see how such a deal would work in practice: for Iran to benefit, it would either need to receive the equipment or the know-how and both would be detectable. There are not that many Persian nuclear physicists and their presence at Yongbyon[3] would do much more than raise eyebrows.

Israel and most Republicans in Congress have already come out against the agreement in uncompromising terms. That is hardly surprising; Israel – or at least Netanyahu – certainly feels that the risk of any Iranian program is simply too great to bear. That reason is not applicable to the GOP, however. The US is not under any direct or existential threat from a Persian nuclear bomb, no more than it is from a Pakistani, Indian, North Korean or Israeli bomb. Republican opposition responds purely to domestic politics: there opposition to anything support by Obama even the assertion that 2+2=4; and also their desire to be on the side of Netanyahu in an effort to pull the American Jewish vote away from the Democrats. That is why the Republicans accuse the Administration of everything to imbecile gullibility to willful malignancy.

But this is not just a bilateral deal between the US and the Iranians; it involves all of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, Russia, the UK and France) as well as Germany. It also involves the International Atomic Energy Agency, the organization that will be tasked with conducting the physical, onsite inspections that will verify Iran’s compliance with the new agreement. Republicans are, of course, perfectly happy to ignore the rest of the world (except Israel); but the fact remains that this agreement has been scrutinized by many nations. If the Iranians have hoodwinked Obama’s team, they’ve also managed to fool the most competent men and women of our principle allies. This is too much for even the GOP to assert, which is why they insist on treating this matter as a purely US-Iranian deal.

This willful obtuseness on the part of the GOP merely serves to undermine their own threats; when 47 Republican Senators sent an open letter to Iran[4] warning that any agreement with the current Administration could be reversed by the next President, assuming it were a Republican, they were falling into grievous error: the sanctions regime cannot be unilaterally replaced by the next Administration. If the Security Council deems that Iran remains in compliance, the sanctions will stay lifted. The most the US could do would be to impose unilateral sanctions which would have no effect on the Iranians whatsoever, since there is almost no trade between our two nations. We might succeed in increasing the price of pistachios a few cents. The next US President might attack Iran; but good luck getting anyone else but Israel to support us in that. There would not even be a “Coalition of the Willing” as the barest international cover for our unilateral aggression.

More significant is the resistance of hardliners in Iran. Like their US Republican counterparts, these elements are responding fundamentally to two factors: ideology and self-interest. There are conservative clerics and officials who define themselves and their revolution in anti-American terms; and they have done so for so long that they can no longer imagine an Iran that is at peace with the United States. The more religious among them might even believe that it is a grave sin against God to make peace with the Great Satan, very much like some of our more fundamentalist GOP adherents. Then there are also a group of (perhaps) less devout but more self-interested generals in the Republican Guard who benefit from their control of the nuclear program through the rich patronage and corruption opportunities such an enormously expensive and covert a program always affords. They are the Iranian equivalent of America’s military-industrial complex, the defense hawks inside the Beltway that are eternally seeking an enemy to bomb or arm against.

Between these hostile elements, there is still a good chance that the deal will come off the rails. Yet it remains the best of the available options.

The problem with critics of the deal is that they offer no realistic alternative. Prime Minister Netanyahu says Iran can’t be trusted, but that is not a reason not to talk to them. No less an authority than the conservative saint Ronald Reagan said of the Soviets “Trust, but verify” and that is no different than the inspection regime being constructed between Iran and the West. Some American conservatives have said that Iran is our enemy; yet it is precisely with your enemies that you negotiate with, there is no need to negotiate these matters with your friends. Neo-con John Bolton has said with what should be criminal levity “to preserve peace, we must bomb Iran.[5]” This from one of the principal architects of the Iraq fiasco, who ought to be in jail rather than free to spout his stupidities.

It is a gross stupidity and criminal for Mr. Bolton and other conservatives to try sell the American people on the idea that an air campaign against Iran will be quick, easy and effective. It would not be any of the three. The Iranians have learned well from the examples of Osirak and Deir ez-Zor[6]:

  • The Iranians have dispersed their nuclear facilities across at least three sites, all of which would have to be destroyed in order to seriously impact uranium refinement and weaponization;
  • The Iranians have accumulated significant stocks of material and equipment in excess of what they actually require precisely to have a replacement capability in the event of damage arising from airstrikes or other causes[7];
  • The Iranians have hardened some of their key facilities to protect them from aerial attack. The enrichment facility at Fordow is buried underground, for example, making not only attack from the air very problematic, but also any subsequent evaluation of the actual damage by satellite or high-altitude reconnaissance a matter of guesswork.
  • All the sites are heavily defended by modern anti-aircraft systems that the Russians have sold to the Iranians. Because multiple sites would have to be struck, perhaps multiple times, the US could not count on the element of surprise, like the Israelis did. Therefore, these defenses would have to be suppressed: increasing proportionately the total number of missions required.

nuclearlocations

Because of these difficulties, candid voices in the US government and military state[8] that ground troops would be required to ensure the complete destruction of the facilities. Given that many of the most crucial installations are outside of key population centers like Isfahan and Tehran, resistance and casualties could be expected to be heavy, including civilians. The Iranians would, of course, respond both militarily within their country as well as asymmetrically, attacking US facilities and personnel across the world. Their ability to undermine stability across the Middle East, but especially in an already unstable Iraq should not be underestimated.

Even if all of this could be achieved at a reasonable cost, this would be a set-back, not a permanent solution. There is no question that a successful attack would destroy any moderate influence in Iran and ensure that hardliners dominated a post-attack government. A new program would be initiated, almost certainly with even greater and more open support from hostile powers like Russia, North Korea and China, reducing the amount of time needed to make good the loss. Having just suffered a US-Israeli attack, there can be no question of Iran abandoning its nuclear program; and the US would be increasingly isolated in a world that would not support our unilateral action against Iran.

The only way to ensure the permanent destruction of the Iranian nuclear program – other than through negotiation – would be through regime change. And this is what the hardliners really want: to take us by slow, “easy” steps to this step. When we see that airpower is not enough; when we realize the ground troops cannot accomplish the objective; then we will find ourselves so deeply enmeshed that the occupation of Iran and the overthrow of the government will be the only alternative. Thus we return 12-years later to the neo-cons’ fascist little dream of regime change across the region.

They will not explain how we are supposed to occupy a country four times larger than Iraq with more than twice the population; a country far more mountainous and rugged, more similar to Afghanistan than the open desert of southern and central Iraq. They will not explain how we are supposed to subdue 80 million people with land links to Russia and Afghanistan, who will be baying for American blood; or how long an American puppet regime will last without a huge U.S. garrison to support it. They will not explain what exactly the Russians might be doing in Ukraine or the Chinese in Taiwan, while the entire U.S. Army and much of the Air Force are engaged in a permanent occupation of Iran. No, like the famous Creedence Clearwater Revival song:

“And when we ask them how much we should give,

They only answer: More, more, more…”

Investment in an Iranian bomb only resumed in earnest in 2003, after President Bush made his monumentally idiotic “Axis of Evil” speech, perhaps the worst and most damaging speech ever made by an American President. Having been targeted by the US and with every evidence – like the invasion of Iraq – that the Bush Administration meant to carry out their elimination of all of the Axis of Evil states, from the “A” list on down, the Iranians did the only logical thing they could and prepared the strongest deterrent possible.

The current agreement is not perfect and there is the potential for it to be subverted. But in giving the Iranians guarantees against attack by the United States or Israel, it achieves the primary goal of the nuclear program, which has always been to deter such an attack. It is in Israel’s best interests, regardless of what Mr. Netanyahu may say – and it is very certainly in America’s best interest. Only through good faith negotiation and a normalization of relations can we hope to stop the spread of atomic weapons across the Middle East and to other regions. The more bombs there are, the more likely they are to be used; and the best way to achieve this goal is to enhance the prospects for peace.

rouhani_netanyahu


 

Sources and Notes

[1] Brian Murphy, “Iran nuclear pact stirs hope — and fear — of new political order in Mideast,” The Washington Post, 03 April 2015

[2] Russia and China are signatories, if they wanted to circumvent the agreement, it would have been easier to simply sabotage the negotiations. Pakistan is a Sunni state more closely aligned to Saudi Arabia than to Iran; India has no interest in yet another Muslim state with nuclear weapons; the Israelis certainly aren’t going to help. That leaves only North Korea with a proven bomb-building capability.

[3] Yongbyon is the nuclear research and development facility 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang.

[4] Josh Rogin, “Republicans Warn Iran — and Obama — That Deal Won’t Last,” Bloomberg View, 08 March 2015

[5] John R. Bolton, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” The New York Times, 26 March 2015

[6] These were the sites of the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities respectively, which were bombed by the Israeli Air Force in 1981 and 2007.

[7] The Stuxnet virus was a joint US-Israeli cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear centrifuges that may have destroyed up to one-fifth of them.

[8] “Ex military commanders warn against Iran attack,” Reuters, 03 February 2007

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