The framework nuclear accord with Iran is a big deal. All the analysts and commentaries agree on that. A defining moment, a pivotal event, a turning-point in Middle East politics, Apocalypse at bay, Obama's Nobel Prize validated, a new chapter, a shaft of light -- choose your metaphor. Given all the hype, the drama and the passion, emotionally charged reactions are understandable. Especially for Americans whose visceral memories of the trauma associated with the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran for 444 days are still raw. Our sense of proportion and perspective have yet to recover from that experience.
So some reflection is in order.
Proposition: the meaning and importance of the Iranian Revolution in December 1979 has been distorted and exaggerated insofar as its effect on the United States' security is concerned. The Shah's regime which was toppled had been an ally of the United States, albeit a somewhat wayward one. An ally against whom? The Soviet Union - defunct this past quarter of a century. In the height of the Cold War, Iran was an anchor point of the great wall that we had constructed to block the advance of the Soviets. Communists in Iran itself were a minor, marginal force. What we worried about was the spread of Soviet influence elsewhere in the region which a strong Iran supposedly could counter.
Therefore, Washington turned a blind eye to the Shah's more dubious doings. It was he who first devised plans for enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium - however preliminary. It conformed to his vision of a glorious Persian revival. The existence of the plans was confirmed publicly after the Islamic Revolution when the concealed research program was disbanded by Ayatollah Khomeini who considered nuclear weapons as haram (sinful) and forbidden as unethical and immoral in Muslim jurisprudence. To pay for it, and other grandiose schemes, the Shah relied on oil revenues. That moved him to be the ultra-hawk in pushing oil prices ever higher during the turbulent 1973-74 crisis. The Shah's fall, when it came, was linked in Americans' strategic vision to the Soviet move into Afghanistan, separated by only months. Iranian Revolution: autumn, 1979; Soviet occupation of Afghanistan: December 1979
The American reaction to the mullahs' revolution was prompted more by a loss of control than an actual strategic loss. After all, the Islamic Republic was as phobic toward Soviet godless materialism as it was to American dominance. Indeed, it represented a more profound philosophical opposition to Communism than did the Shah's brittle regime. That was demonstrated in the aid it gave elements of the anti-Communist and anti-Soviet resistance to Moscow's occupation of Afghanistan. It also assisted the United States in toppling the Taliban whom it also had opposed from the outset in tangible ways. The hostility between Tehran and Washington, though, quickly took on a life of its own - independent of geostrategic considerations - that strongly influences policy thinking to this day.
There was a reinforcing element: the American identification with Israel and its hyper-anxieties. Jerusalem had cordial relations with the secular minded Shah. Suddenly, all were faced with a fire-breathing Islamist movement which declared its implacable hostility toward Israel and its Zionist backers. This is the basis for what popularly is known as the "existential" threat - by which is meant that the mullahs' regime is by its very nature and existence a threat to Israel. The mullahs made the cardinal error of mixing anti-Israel motifs with anti-Jewish motifs. Error in the sense that Khomeini himself publicly stated that "of course we do not mean our Jews," i.e. the Jews who had lived under Persian/Iranian rule for 2,600 years since the Babylonian captivity, the Jews who had been liberated by King Cyrus, the Jews who achieved their first great humanist flowering in Persia, the Jews who were far better off through the ages there than anywhere in Christendom until the 19th century.
History, and the more mundane realities of a revolution that long since had run its course notwithstanding, the IRI became stigmatized as a mortal threat to the Jewish state - and, therefore, in and of itself an enemy of the United States. The intense animosity directed at the United States in the Islamic Revolution's early years had much to do with Washington's role in overthrowing the popular Mosaddeq government in 1953 and its reinstallation of the Shah. Enmity was mutual. Those early years were punctuated by the 1982 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut instigated by Tehran in collaboration with Hizbullah. Washington reciprocated with its own impassioned denunciations. It also provided material assistance to Saddam Hussein in his war of aggression against Iran that bled the country white for six years. That was then; what of the past 25 years? Why the crescendo of crisis over those 14 years?
Iran's activities in the nuclear field are the reason - or, more accurately, Iran's alleged purposes in the nuclear field are the nominal reason. The distinction is important. For the nuclear question has assumed mythic proportions. A number of the key assumptions and beliefs, almost universally held, are simply wrong. Yet these strands have been woven into a fabric that withstands any test of empirical knowledge and logic. Let's look at them.
The myth's foundation stone, to mix metaphors, is the assertion that Iran has had a dedicated nuclear weapons program for many years. That is simply false. Iran's culpability under terms of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty was to build the experimental Nataz nuclear fuel plant (not yet activated) without declaring it to the IAEA monitoring body. It was a formal finding by the IAEA in 2003 that set off the train of events that culminated last week. Whatever research activities that were associated with a prospective weapons program, they were ended in that same year. That has been confirmed by the United States Office of National Intelligence Estimates in its report of 2007 and reiterated periodically since. As George W. Bush has admitted in his memoir, this revelation upset him greatly because it denied him the excuse to bomb Iran as he was thinking of doing.
Had the Iranian leadership considered the value of seeking acquisition of a nuclear capability? Of course; given their vulnerable security position, it would have been wholly irrational for them not to have done that. The United States had broadcast its desire to see the Islamic Republic unseated. It had denounced Iran as a member of the "axis of evil." It twice had mobilized a vast army to invade and occupy another stated member of the 'axis', Iraq, which was right next door. It was manifestly open to influence by the Israeli authorities who were dedicated to eliminating the IRI. Iran had nuclear armed neighbors to the West (Israel), the North (Russia) and to the East (Pakistan) in addition to the United States.
Yet, when Ayatollah Khamenei came to power, he decided not to pursue the nuclear option. So all the hullabaloo in Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh has been about what the Iranians might do in the future. In that regard, the salient facts are that with one exception, which became the cause celebre of the whole nuclear drama, all of Iran's nuclear facilities were safeguarded by IAEA inspections in accordance with the provisions of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to which Iran has been a signatory. (It also has committed itself to an Additional Protocol that imposes further, extraordinary IAEA safeguards). It is very much like Al Capone being prosecuted for tax evasion and having the book thrown at him for what were other alleged but unprosecuted offenses.
In the light of these realities, the danger of the Iranian leadership changing its mind and going after a bomb clandestinely are remote - to say the least. Getting away with it, risking being caught at a great price, all for marginal gain - that makes little sense or cause for worry. Conclusion: the enormous amount of attention and angst in regard to the "breakout" scenario is unjustified. The very idea of a "breakout" in 3 months, or the one year now supposedly implicit in the terms of the preliminary agreement, has dubious validity. Talk to anyone truly knowledgeable about nuclear matters, and who has maintained a measure of detachment, and you quickly learn that it is not that simple. There are critical engineering and precision manufacturing tasks that have to be accomplished before anyone is near having a workable bomb; it is not just a matter of accumulating the requisite amount of high enriched uranium. Yet to hear the pundits discuss it, one would think that it's as easy as throwing X kilograms of Uranium 235 into a skillet, mix in some explosive triggering material, season to taste and then bake in a convection oven for 45 minutes at 40,000 degrees F. Serves 3 to 5. This is pure nonsense - near universally accepted, though, as the Gospel Truth by commentators. Conceivably Japan could accomplish such a feat; Iran - never. For Iran, 3 - 5 years is more realistic.
The truth is that the Iranian nuclear problem always has been a political question at its heart. Political in terms of what conceivable effect even rumors of an Iranian capability (however latent) might have on the balance of status and influence between Iran, on the one hand, and Israel and/or Saudi Arabia and/or the US on the other. Political insofar as the United States' aim has been to eliminate Iran as a player in the Middle East game entirely - or, if not able to do so, to denature it. Political insofar as the Iranians want to have their interests respected and to have an influence commensurate with their size and presence. Political insofar as American leaders have made their foreign policy hostage to the objectives of the Israeli hawks, and increasingly hostage to the anxiety ridden Saudis. Political insofar as both the American and Iranian leaders are boxed in by domestic opposition to a modus vivendi thanks mainly to their own overheated rhetoric and failure to take a cool-headed realistic approach to the situation which they might impress on those domestic constituencies. The Framework agreement last week should be assessed in this context. To put it bluntly, the great achievement was avoiding a confrontation which could only end in war - a confrontation largely of our own making.
Of all the issues that bedevil American engagement in the Middle East, Iran's nuclear potential is in reality secondary. If we set American national interests as the reference point, as properly the decision-makers in Washington should do, there is far more reason to worry about ISIL (a concern shared by Tehran), the Saudis (and, to a lesser extent, the Turks) continued backing of radical Salafist forces across the region, and the foreboding Sunni-Shia civil war within Islam. The White House has chosen to make Iran the evil in that latter unfolding drama. We blame them for everything and anything - as in Yemen. Yet, a detached observer would reach the judgment that primary responsibility rests with the Saudis and their unrelenting promotion of Wahhabism. For the United States to side with the Saudis, as they progressively have been doing, serves no American interests. Instead, it heaps fuel on the smoldering flames whose sparks endanger our interests. None of this changes were Iran to spin 19,000 or 5,000 centrifuges.
Why Barack Obama has headed down the path of stigmatizing Shi'ite as the main cause of what ails the region is something of a mystery. Has he absorbed the Israeli-Saudi worldview? Does he feel it expedient to mollify them? Or does he actually believe his narrative based on deliberation? The President, in his long discourse last Saturday, firmly and repeatedly rejected the idea that the accord with Iran might offer a way out of this impending region-wide sectarian conflict. Tehran's constructive participation is crucial to attempts at peaceful resolution, or at least attenuation of the hostility. Above all, there is a compelling case to push for a Gulf regional security system that would serve everyone's interests. None of this was on Obama's mind. As far as he is concerned, the nuclear accord is free-standing. It sees no favorable spillover for other problems. The Iranians remain stigmatized as evil-doers who sow discord and terror everywhere. They are inherently flawed.
States do not take enormous risks in building nuclear weapons unless they have good reason to do so. What might Iran's motivation be? To attack the United States? It doesn't have the means to do so and would be annihilated were it to try. To attack Israel? Well, Israel has the deterrent of its far larger nuclear arsenal? To attack Saudi Arabia which would trigger an overwhelming American response? And what would be the strategic goal of any such harebrained ideas? None exists.
But, some assert, these are rational arguments and the mullahs are not rational. They are crazed fanatics prepared to immolate themselves in a great cataclysm knowing that they will be rewarded in their Islamic paradise. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support these fantastic ideas. Iran's leaders have acted with circumspection and sobriety throughout the long, tense years of diplomatic confrontation with the United States. Deep religious conviction does not make you either crazy or suicidal. If it did, several members of the United States Congress as well as Governors should be barred from any association with American security matters. After all, it was John McCain who last week encouraged the Israelis to launch an aggressive bombing campaign against Iran. It was Tom Cotton who urged the United States to do the same. It is Presidential candidate Ted Cruz who vociferously argues for military action while conjuring visions of Armageddon. It is the Israeli leadership who periodically kill a thousand or so Palestinian civilians in operations they casually describe as "mowing the grass." It was Prime Minister Netanyahu who recounted to a cheering Congressional audience how he harbors bitter resentment because of how the Hebrews were abused by the "Persians" 2,600 years ago - even though the abusers were Babylonians and not their eventual Persian liberators. (What the hell - they're all Muslim now anyway) It is members of his cabinet who evoke Deuteronomy to legitimize the killing of Palestinians the way Yahweh instructed Joshua to murder all the residents of Jericho. This insanity is witness to how far off the rails discourse about Iran has gone. We have left the realm of reason to wallow in primitive atavistic passion. From that can come only tragedy.
The upshot: Barack Obama, the President of the strongest power that the world has ever seen, makes repeated abject apologies to Bibi Netanyahu because he is not in a position to satisfy the Israelis' 'understandable' desire to reduce Iran to rubble. He makes a similar apology to King Salman. CNN and FOX become more and more mouthpieces for the Israeli government; the editors of The New York Times feature a polemical call by the disgraced John Bolton to bomb Iran; the Washington Post does the equivalent for a less notorious Dr. Strangelove; the Times follows up with its designated "deep thinker," David Brooks, instructing us that it all turns on whether Khamenei, Rouhani et al turn out to be Lenin or Gorbachev - thereby displaying that his deep ignorance of Iran matches his deep ignorance of the Soviet Union. And even Henry Kissinger & George Shultz have joined the fray with dark forebodings about how a diabolical Iran will do a Houdini-like escape from the web of safeguards to add nuclear arms to its arsenal as it plots to subjugate all of its peace-loving neighbors. Their threat assessment runs counter to everything they have said, written and done on nuclear matters for the past 55 years.
The Iranian nuclear psycho-drama is nearly over - barring a fatal Congressional mutiny. A great feat of escaping from a perilous situation we concocted ourselves. Meanwhile, the Middle East is ablaze. The White House's reaction is to coddle two arsonists and to spurn cooperation where it might be available. Nobel Prize, indeed.