A History Lesson for Iran Hawks

Calls for military strikes against Iran are based on the assumption that Israel’s bombing of a nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981 ‘worked’ to end Iraq’s nuclear program. Here is the actual story.

Soon after Israel bombed the Osirak reactor the Baghdad government accelerated its nuclear production program. Saddam Hussein intensified Iraq’s efforts to manufacture weapons-grade uranium and to build the means for assembling and delivering nuclear weapons. His government invested billions of dollars to develop a secret, self-sufficient nuclear program out of the sight of International Atomic Energy Agency  (IAEA) inspectors.

After Iraq’s forces were driven out of Kuwait in early 1991 IAEA inspectors arrived in the country and were shocked to discover a highly developed program that by some estimates was only a year or so from successfully achieving nuclear weapons capability. Over the following years UN inspectors systematically identified and dismantled all elements of the Iraqi nuclear weapons program. No nuclear weapons capability was found when the US invaded in 2003.

In 2006 the eminent security scholar Richard K. Betts wrote “The Osirak Fallacy” in The National Interest. It’s an important article that should be required reading in Washington. Among its conclusions:

  •  The attack on Osirak increased Saddam Hussein’s determination to build nuclear weapons. There is no evidence that the destruction of the reactor even delayed Iraq’s nuclear program.
  • The destruction of the Osirak facility was unnecessary because there were no reprocessing facilities at the site.
  • The Israeli attack on Osirak did not preempt a near-term nuclear threat. According to most estimates, at the time Iraq was a decade away from producing a nuclear weapon.

The lesson: Attacking Iran’s nuclear program could worsen the danger we seek to avoid.

End the War, Start the Peace

The madness of a futile military mission is reflected in the madness of a deranged soldier slaughtering innocent civilians near Kandahar. In the wake of this incident and the recent burning of the Qur’an at Bagram air base, any hope of winning hearts and minds is gone.

Pressure is building for a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. This is necessary and appropriate, but greater attention must be paid to the peace process. President Obama said we need to withdraw responsibly. Precisely, but what does that mean?

Here are some options:

  • Suspend combat operations and urge insurgents to join in a general ceasefire, as a necessary confidence building measure to facilitate negotiations.
  • Announce a timetable for U.S. military withdrawal linked to progress in political negotiations.
  • Prioritize support for negotiations to achieve a political settlement and power-sharing agreement within Afghanistan.
  • Turn over authority for managing the political transition to the United Nations and support a third party peacebuilding mission and peacekeeping force.
  • Encourage dialogue and peacebuilding efforts within Afghan civil society, and ensure that women have a seat at the table in political discussions about the country’s future.
  • Sustain funding for social development programs that have expanded educational opportunity, access to health care and community economic development for the Afghan people, especially women and children.

SANE is Back

I was delighted in early February to see that Representative Ed Markey has introduced a new bill in Congress, the SANE (Smarter Approach to Nuclear Expenditures) Act. Markey’s bill calls for significant reductions in nuclear weapons, for a savings of about $100 billion over the next 10 years. Markey remains, as he has been for more than 30 years, the most significant leader and articulate voice in Congress for nuclear arms reduction. I’m glad to see he is still at it.

As the former executive director of SANE, I was thrilled to see renewed reference to the venerable SANE brand. When I was with SANE in the 1980s we worked closely with Markey. I continued to cooperate with him on disarmament initiatives after that—including the Urgent Call, a nuclear abolition appeal launched in 2002 with Jonathan Schell and Randy Forsberg.

When I contacted Markey’s office recently to congratulate him for introducing the SANE Act and making reference to our organization, his staff said the SANE acronym was intentional, to recall the halcyon days of the 1980s when the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign was sweeping across the country like a populist prairie fire and SANE was growing rapidly into a formidable mass membership organization.

In 1982 Markey was the original sponsor of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Resolution in Congress. Later that year he spoke before a million people in New York’s Central Park for the June 12 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race, the largest peace and disarmament rally ever held in the United States. SANE was actively involved in helping to organize that rally.

In the late 1980s SANE merged with the Freeze Campaign to form a united organization that still exists today as Peace Action. At that time some board members of SANE were reluctant to see the name go. They didn’t want to lose the legacy and history of SANE dating from the late 1950s, reflected in the involvement of such luminaries as Norman Cousins, Steve Allen, Ben Spock, and Coretta Scott King.

Many assumed over the years that SANE was an acronym but that was not the case. We were officially the Committee for a SANE Nuclear Policy. The name came from Cousins and other early founders and was inspired by Erich Fromm’s influential book of the time, The Sane Society. In 1980s some of us toyed with possible acronyms, like Stop All Nuclear Explosions, or Society Against Nuclear Extermination, but officially the name remained the same, SANE, a single word that powerfully conveyed the broad public outcry against the insanity of the nuclear arms race.

Now there is an official SANE acronym, thanks to Ed Markey. Let’s hope the brand and the ideas behind it gain new traction and support, and that the United States can make real progress toward reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons.