Digging Your Own Grave

When it comes to nuclear policy, both Washington and Tehran appear to be digging their own graves.

Now that the Western nuclear powers have taken the small but commendable step toward nuclear transparency of revealing how many nuclear warheads [All Headline News 5/27/10] they possess, the spotlight shines all the brighter on the nuclear rogue states–North Korea, Israel, Pakistan, and India—and on the suspiciously non-transparent Iran. Declaration of a global nuclear transparency standard with privileges for qualifying countries and penalties for all that fail to qualify would now be timely. Unfortunately, nothing remotely resembling a standard exists. North Korea is more-or-less ignored. Washington is rewarding India with nuclear aid and rewarding Israel with a fire hose of offensive weapons. China is about to reward Pakistan with nuclear aid. And Iran, which is only being accused, so far without any evidence, of intending to join the “nuclear rogue club” is the victim of economic warfare and under the threat of nuclear attack. Given the world’s treatment of Israel, India, and Pakistan, acquisition of nuclear arms would indeed appear to be a rational policy for Iran if its goal is increased prestige and access to Western nuclear technology!
Iran today is being treated far worse for its policy of nuclear ambiguity than any of the actual nuclear rogue states is being treated. That being the case, one can be excused for wondering why Iran insists on pursuing such a policy. In particular given its recent agreement with Ankara and Brazilia to exchange its electricity-grade uranium for medical-grade uranium, granting its new friends the courtesy of underscoring its eagerness to be transparent by going the extra mile to reassure the IAEA of its sincerity would seem the better part of valor. Tehran has demonstrated that it has the courage to stand up to Western threats; now, does it have the courage to work with global moderates to lower tensions?
That question of course ignores at least two other possibilities. The first possibility is that Tehran has no interest in actually obtaining nuclear arms but that it is absolutely committed to keeping tensions high in order to justify its harsh treatment of domestic dissidents, cement the regime’s hold on power, and find an excuse for its deplorable economic performance. The second possibility is that Tehran is actually trying to develop a hidden breakout capability, though one wonders who in Tehran can be so naïve as to think that the possession of a handful of primitive nuclear bombs would in fact increase its security. Has not Israel yet made it sufficiently plain that it stands always ready to find war the answer to its problems? Tehran seems to be getting the worst of all possible bargains – severe threats to its national security, denial of nuclear assistance, economic warfare against it that is indeed responsible for trashing its economy, and the consolidation of extreme right wing control in—at the very least–Tel Aviv.
Tehran is also risking its new-found ties with Ankara and Brazilia by its reluctance to be more forthcoming. Those moderate states may, for the moment, be pretending that they have solved the nuclear issue with last week’s agreement, but they are surely aware that their agreement, in the absence of an Iranian guarantee to halt refinement to the 20% level backed up by full transparency, does little more than crack open the door to a solution. Both Erdogan and Lula are bending over backward to give Khamenei the benefit of the doubt, but Tehran’s behavior is crassly taking advantage of their desperation for an accord; it should realize they will not stand forever alone on the dance floor while Tehran flaunts its solo routine.
If the logic of Tehran’s nuclear policy can be questioned, so can that of Washington. In a world where nuclear arms are seen as the road to global prestige and national security, Washington’s policy of proliferation to those who kneel down contains a built-in contradiction making it a dangerously short-sighted policy. Tel Aviv’s implicit, if not explicit, threat to launch a nuclear attack on Iran behind Washington’s back, even if not implemented, still greatly complicates Obama’s life. Had the old apartheid South Africa accepted Israel’s insane offer of nuclear bombs, who knows what problems that might have caused? The near miss of an India-Pakistan nuclear war around 2002 further shows the propensity of nuclear-armed subordinates to “declare independence.” Why Washington does not see the rationality of offering Tehran the deal it has made with Tokyo and Brazilia is a question all too often ignored in the U.S. One wonders if Washington intends to start opposing Brazilian uranium refinement now that Brazilia is showing some foreign policy independence…
Whatever the intent of Washington’s policy, the result is to provoke Tehran to rush forward toward a breakout capacity, to trash the Iranian economy, to empower Tehran radical nationalists, and to alienate rising moderates concerned about their own future independence.
Indeed, it seems that one could say to both Washington and Tehran, “When you find yourself digging the ground out from under your own feet, get a bigger shovel!”

Uranium Enrichment: Test of Foreign Policy Independence?

Washington should be careful not to turn domestic uranium enrichment into the test, in the eyes of emerging world powers, of independence. That would be a defeat for the security of the world far more dangerous than Iranian acquisition of the bomb.
The lack of flexibility on Washington’s part regarding its dispute with Iran about nuclear behavior is raising the likelihood that Tehran will succeed in shifting the focus of the international debate over its nuclear program from the question of militarization to the question of rights to uranium enrichment for civilian purposes. Since NPT members already have that legal right, if Iran can make that issue the focus, its position will become far stronger.
Ominously for Washington, Brazilian Foreign Minister Amorim said [America.gov 3/3/10]:

I acted as ambassador to Turkey before critical decisions were made on Iraq. And that’s very much what I heard back in 1998, 1999. I mean, smoke and mirrors – were playing smoke and mirrors.

And what we saw, in fact, was the major charge against Iraq never did materialize. I mean, I’m not saying that in the past, they did not have any programs on weapons of mass destruction; they did have. However, the fact is that the destruction caused and the losses that the war had incurred were huge.

Turkish Foreign Minister Davutoglu has made the same point [Today’s Zaman 5/16/10]:

We know how we suffered because of sanctions against Iraq at the time. After going through such an experience, it is obvious that a sanction package regarding Iran or any of our neighbors will not be in compliance with our foreign policy.
Brazil, following closely the Iranian nuclear policy, opened its own uranium enrichment plant 2006. Like Iran, Brazil claims its enrichment is intended for civilian purposes, and like Iran, Brazil’s enrichment program is steadily expanding [World Nuclear News 1/14/10]. According to a study by Belkis Cabrera-Palmer and Geoffrey Rothwell, Brazil’s Resende enrichment plant is unlikely to be economically competitive with international sources of refined uranium, suggesting that ensuring a secure source of fuel is the real reason for domestic enrichment, a reason that Iranian leaders would surely find understandable.

The U.S., weakened not just by its lack of creativity and obvious bias but also by the bitter memory throughout the world of the Iraq escapade that many fear is the model for Washington’s current Iran policy, risks creating a situation in which Iran not only succeeds in constructing a solid enrichment industry but does so in defiance of Washington and as the leader of a new global bloc of middle-ranking powers observing the letter of the NPT law but in practice implementing a highly unstable and therefore dangerous policy of nuclear ambiguity.

One might, following Khamenei in a meeting with Lula, call this a “global anti-totalitarian front,” {создания “единого всемирного антитоталитарного фронта”} [MIGNews 3/16/10] exactly the outcome Washington is presumably trying to avoid.

Khamenei baldly laid out Tehran’s ambitious goal of a foreign policy not just independent of but directly challenging Washington’s global leadership:

Единственный способ изменить существующий ныне репрессивный мировой порядок – это формирование более близких связей между независимыми государствами. Сверхдержавы построили вертикальный миропорядок, и водрузили себя наверх этой пирамиды. Подобного рода отношения могут быть изменены и мы их изменим

Lula’s mere presence was message enough, but he responded with a phrase that is easy to read as clear endorsement of Khomenei’s ambition to establish foreign policy independence:

Бразилия верит в то, что у Ирана есть все права на защиту независимости и технологический прогресс.

It is not hard to understand why “Brasilia believes that Iran is entirely within its rights to defend its independence and technical progress.”

In a wonderful little book on the U.S. relationship with Latin American, En el Patio de Atras [In the Backyard – my trans.], Latin American social scientist Amira Armenta has much to say about the Latin view of the world that is directly relevant to Lula’s decision to put his personal prestige on the line in the Washington-Tehran nuclear dispute:

Despues de la formulacion de la Doctrina Monroe no ha habido una stola decada en la historia del continente que no haya estado marcada por un hecho de intervencion de fuerza de EEUU en alguno do los paises [in Latin America]. A la vez que EEUU fue tomando cada vez mas posicion como poder economico y politico decisor en la region….[p.12]

Lo que hoy dia se explica como un clash of civilizations, no seria otra cosa que una manifestacion de la asimetria del desarrollo de las sociedades, que ahora se nota mas, dada la globalizacion, la velocidad de las comunicaciones, la facilidad con que la poblacion se desplaza por el mundo. [.13]

Washington has not been able to isolate Iran because Iran has a message of defiance for the whole “global South,” a message that links basic legal rights regarding high technology and, unfortunately, specifically to exercising the legal right to uranium enrichment, to independence.

If Washington creates a situation in which nuclear ambiguity is equated throughout the world with foreign policy independence (precisely Iran’s current position and not so far from the positions of Ankara, Brasilia, and Tokyo), this will be a huge step backwards for global good governance.

How to Resolve the Palestinian-Israeli Dispute

A current school of thought on how the U.S. should deal with the recalcitrant Netanyahu is that it should tighten the screws. The argument, persuasive at a certain level, goes like this: Netanyahu has spent the past year making it crystal clear that he will never agree to a viable Palestinian state, so continuing polite discussions is mere charade. This is certainly true, but it does not necessarily follow that “turning the screws” will work: there is a severe political constraint on what Washington’s timid politicians will ever have the courage to do. Therefore, while pressuring Israel may be deserved and emotionally satisfying, an alternative and quite obvious approach holds more promise of achieving a breakthrough in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

The more promising approach is straightforward and logical: talk to people willing to cooperate rather than wasting time with those intent upon cheating. This can proceed on three levels. First, Israelis disenchanted with their government’s intransigence and concerned about Israel’s long-term security are speaking out loudly; listen to them. Second, Turkey, Brazil, and Japan have all made it clear that they are willing to assist in any genuine effort to achieve a Mideast compromise. Third is the Palestinian level. After all, the issue does concern the Palestinians, so why not talk to them? Extend an invitation to all concerned Palestinian parties to meet with U.S. and allied representatives, making clear that Washington will favor not individuals or groups but all those willing to join together in a Palestinian united front dedicated to establishing an independent, democratic state.

If the Netanyahu regime chooses to exclude itself from this dialogue, then simply leave it be. Let history pass it by.