Pre-authorizing War with Iran

This has been a week of war-mongering against Iran, all of it carefully orchestrated to coincide with the annual Washington convention of AIPAC, the American Israeli Political Action Committee.

In his speech to AIPAC U.S. Vice President Joe Biden pointedly said “all options, including military force, are on the table.” The United States is not bluffing and the window for diplomacy is closing, he warned. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu used identical language about the window for diplomacy closing in his video comments to the conference. He reiterated the spurious claim from his UN speech in the fall that Iran will soon cross a ‘red line’ of uranium enrichment capability.

Not to be outdone, hawks in the U.S. Senate introduced a new resolution, S. Res. 65, declaring “if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence.” The resolution was introduced by Senators Lindsay Graham (R-SC) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ). AIPAC lobbyists are urging support for the measure in their visits to Capitol Hill this week.

The resolution implies that the government of Israel will have de facto authority over U.S. policy.  It could set the stage for the United States being dragged into a future Israeli attack on Iran, with disastrous consequences for U.S. security and the region.  Peace Action and other antiwar groups have called the resolution a backdoor to war with Iran.

Even if that dreaded scenario never occurs, the very act of proposing such a resolution—and the veiled threats from Biden and Netanyahu—are provocative and counterproductive. Issuing threats will never convince Iran to cooperate. The government of Tehran will not yield to sanctions and coercive pressure.

We should have learned that by now. Decades of U.S. sanctions and military deployments against Iran have not had the slightest effect in moderating the regime’s policies. Nor have these pressures slowed the country’s steady progress toward acquiring nuclear capability. Sanctions and military threats have made Iran less cooperative.

Instead of issuing new threats and imposing more sanctions, the United States should offer to refrain from military action, withdraw some of our forces from the region, and suspend economic sanctions, in exchange for Iran guaranteeing the peaceful character of its nuclear program and permitting more rigorous international monitoring.

The chances of such a position being adopted now in the poisoned political atmosphere of Washington are nil, but it is important nonetheless to raise our voices against the current war-mongering. You can register your opposition to the Senate resolution by sending a message through the Peace Action West website here.

Necessary Negotiations with Iran

The fatwa from the Ayatollah last week blew away any near-term chance of a diplomatic opening with Iran. Vice President Biden’s earlier affirmation of a willingness to talk and Foreign Minister Salehi’s positive reply the next day briefly raised hopes, but the Leader’s dismissal abruptly ended any optimism.

The underlying need for a negotiated solution remains, however, and will grow more urgent if as expected talk of possible military action resurfaces in coming months. The core of a successful U.S. bargaining position and the outline of an eventual agreement with Iran have been identified by independent experts for many years. The political will for pursuing such a settlement does not exist right now in Washington, but it is important nonetheless to state the truth, even if decision makers refuse to listen.

Imposing more pressure on Iran will not work. This approach has been tried repeatedly for years but has not halted the advance of Iran’s nuclear program. Sanctions have caused serious harm to the Iranian economy but have not changed the regime’s political character. On the contrary, the octogenarian rulers in Iran seem to have grown even more reactionary and unyielding.

To break through the Leader’s reluctance will take a significant initiative from the United States. We know what we want from Tehran: binding limits on its nuclear program, assurances that it is not building a bomb, and more rigorous international monitoring. What are we prepared to offer in return?

If Tehran permits more intrusive inspections and guarantees the peaceful character of its nuclear program, the United States should accept Iranian enrichment and begin to lift sanctions. With each step toward greater Iranian transparency we should further ease sanctions, aiming toward the normalization of economic and political relations.

Reaching these goals will require a long journey, given the historical animosity between Washington and Tehran and the divisiveness of these issues.  A negotiated solution is indispensable, though, and is the only way to prevent proliferation and avoid war.

Iran’s Nuclear Program: Less than Meets the Eye

The White House claims that the ‘clock is ticking’ toward a possible showdown with Iran over its nuclear program. No one wants a nuclear-armed Iran, but U.S. intelligence agencies report that Iran is not currently building nuclear weapons and does not pose an immediate nuclear threat.  Instead of focusing on diplomacy however, international officials are wasting time wrangling over minor technical matters of questionable validity.

The latest ‘dispute’ is over claims that Iran conducted nuclear-related tests at its large Parchin military production complex near Tehran. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is demanding access to a small area at the military site. Evidence of a connection between Iran’s nuclear program and its military forces would be very worrisome and a matter of immediate concern, but that is not the issue here. The concerns about Parchin are based on undisclosed ‘information from a member state’ and are focused on a single building at one site rather than the larger nuclear program.

A recent analysis of the dispute from the highly respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) indicates that “less has been going on … than meets the eye” and that the case for visiting the site “is not as clear-cut or compelling as some experts and officials portray it.” The SIPRI analysis received scant attention in the press and was ignored by policymakers, but it deserves to be weighed carefully.

Here are a few of its observations:

  • The claims about an alleged explosive testing chamber in a building at the site is not based on physical evidence but on a computer-assisted drawing that was published in a news story using information provided by an undisclosed eyewitness. (Remember the false claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the drawings of alleged Iraqi mobile weapons labs that turned out not to exist?)
  • If the alleged chamber exists it is a “white elephant,” according to the analysis, and would not be appropriate for explosives testing. Underground tunnels located nearby would be much cheaper and easier for that purpose. (Why isn’t the IAEA expressing concern about those tunnels?)
  • Reports about Iran scrubbing the site and demolishing the building of concern are incorrect. Google Earth satellite images reproduced in the analysis clearly show that the building remains standing.

The Parchin issue has become increasingly divisive and is clouding the larger debate about how to contain Iran’s nuclear program and prevent a military confrontation. Western officials complain that Iran is delaying the negotiation process to buy time for its nuclear buildup, but Western officials are unnecessarily complicating the process by wrangling over dubious technical claims.   Diplomats should clear the air and focus on what matters – political negotiations to resolve the standoff.

7 Points on the Iranian Nuclear Standoff

Once again an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report of Iranian progress in developing its nuclear industry has set off alarm bells in Washington and Tel Aviv, sparking renewed discussion of possible Israeli military strikes.  The following points should be kept in mind as the debate about Iran’s nuclear program continues:


1. There is no evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapon or that it is taking steps toward actually building a bomb. Iran continues to permit IAEA inspectors to monitor its known nuclear facilities.

2.  Although the UN Security Council has demanded in multiple resolutions that Iran halt uranium enrichment, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty entitles all countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. The Treaty refers to this as an “inalienable right,” language that Iranian authorities constantly cite.

3.  Iran is steadily developing its capacity to enrich uranium. It has now produced more than enough uranium enriched to 20 per cent purity to maintain the production of medical isotopes at its Tehran Research Reactor. Iran does not have enough more highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear warhead. Some of its 20 per cent uranium is in a form that is extremely difficult to enrich to the higher levels (90 per cent purity) that would be needed for a bomb.

4.  Iran has added another 1,000 centrifuges at its underground enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom. These are older, less reliable centrifuge models, and only about a third of the installed centrifuges are operating.  This may be an indication that international sanctions against Iran’s nuclear program are having some impact.

5.  Military strikes are not a solution to the Iranian nuclear dilemma. Israel does not have the military capacity to destroy Iran’s widely dispersed, well defended, and increasingly hardened and deeply buried nuclear facilities. Bombing strikes would cause only a limited and temporary setback to Iran’s nuclear program.

6.  Israeli military strikes would have extremely negative security implications in the region. Iran would almost certainly retaliate militarily, and its political leaders might respond to external military aggression by accelerating nuclear development and proceeding to actual weapons production.

7.  Diplomacy is the only way to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran. Sanctions are useful to diplomacy but they should be combined with incentives, including an end to military threats against Iran and an offer to remove sanctions if Iran is fully transparent and allows more rigorous international monitoring of its nuclear program.

An Anniversary for Peace

This week marked the 30th anniversary of the historic June 12, 1982 rally to freeze and reverse the arms race. One million people gathered that day in New York’s Central Park for the largest demonstration for peace in U.S. history. I was part of the June 12 rally committee with my friend and colleague Cora Weiss.  Cora and I reminisced about the rally this past week in preparation for a speech she gave at a New York event commemorating the occasion.

The rally had an electrifying effect on public opinion, catalyzing the growing public opposition to the Reagan nuclear buildup and powerfully expressing the political demand for an end to nuclear insanity. Members of Congress I interviewed afterwards said that the specter of a million people in Central Park sent a strong message to Washington that the public wanted action to reduce the nuclear threat.

The rally coincided with the Second Special Session on Disarmament at the UN General Assembly. It was a rare but important example of synergy between civil society and the UN. The rally was an expression of public support for the Special Session and gave legitimacy to UN disarmament efforts.

The rally was a success because of the political climate of the time. Public fear of nuclear war was rising, and the nuclear freeze movement was spreading like a proverbial prairie fire. We knew the rally was going to be a success in the weeks before June 12 when local FM rock deejays began talking about it and vendors appeared on the streets selling buttons and t-shirts.

We received a huge boost from the support of James Taylor and other rock stars. They volunteered their talents for two big fundraising concerts in Nassau Coliseum a few days before the rally and then at the rally itself. Among the musicians participating with Taylor were Bruce Springsteen (at the rally), Billy Joel (at the Coliseum concerts), Linda Ronstadt and Rita Marley. Lots of stars gathered backstage, including Yoko Ono and Orson Wells.

The anniversary of the June 12 rally reminds us of the massive scale of the nuclear freeze movement during the 1980s. The Reagan and first Bush administrations tried to discredit the movement and denied its impact, but historian Larry Wittner has documented the movement’s significant influence. Public mobilization pressured the Reagan administration to negotiate with Moscow, helped to constrain the nuclear weapons buildup, and led Congress to cut off funding for nuclear testing. As I wrote in Peace Works, public opinion in the United States and Europe played a significant role in ending the Cold War. All good reasons to commemorate the Central Park rally.

Nuclear Sanity, and Insanity

Two nuclear-related events were in the news last week.

Global Zero, the international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons, issued a report that calls for reducing U.S. nuclear warheads from the current number of around 5,000 to just 900. This would be a very significant step toward reducing reliance on nuclear deterrence.  More important than the report was the person who released it, retired four-star Marine Corps General James Cartwright, the former Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and former Commander of U.S. strategic forces.

Cartwright appealed for an “urgent and transformational change in U.S. nuclear force structure, strategy and posture.” He called existing stockpiles “baggage of the cold war” and asserted that our nuclear arsenal “does not address the threats of the 21st century.” These are important words from the man who used to be in charge of nuclear weapons.  Hats off to Global Zero for producing the report and scoring this important announcement. Let’s hope President Obama pays attention.

Global Zero and General Cartwright won’t get any sympathy in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has been controlled since 2010 by political Neanderthals who in the name of budget cutting slash social spending while shoveling extra billions to the Pentagon for unnecessary weapons. Late last week the House approved a Defense Authorization bill that provides $4 billion more than the Pentagon requested. It includes additional funding for a nuclear weapons production facility in New Mexico and requires the U.S. government to begin preparations for establishing a missile defense site on the East Coast.

Yes, you read that right. The House of Representatives wants to build more capacity for producing nuclear weapons. It also wants to create a missile defense system that does not work, against a ballistic missile threat that does not exist. Insanity of the first order!

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.

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.

What to do with Iran

Iran announced a nuclear ‘achievement’ on Wednesday. President Ahmadinejad was present at the Tehran Research Reactor for the loading of uranium fuel enriched to 20 per cent purity. Ahmadinejad also claimed that Iran has 3,000 new centrifuges for enriching uranium. Reactions in the United States ranged from hysterical warnings of imminent nuclear doom to suspicions that the whole event was staged for propaganda. The reactor in question is used to produce medical isotopes. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency were on hand to observe the loading of the nuclear fuel.

The new nuclear developments in Iran have significant implications for U.S. nonproliferation policy.

They confirm what has been evident from the very beginning of the nuclear standoff: Iran will not abandon its right to enrich uranium. Western demands for Iran to halt uranium enrichment have only hardened the determination of President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei to proceed with nuclear development. The insistence on stopping enrichment is an absolute non-starter and a formula for permanent confrontation. It is helping the regime’s rulers by giving them an easy issue around which to rally patriotic sentiment and popular support. It is no coincidence that this latest announcement of nuclear progress comes just two weeks before Iran’s parliamentary elections.

Some American and Israeli leaders believe that regime change is the only solution to the nuclear standoff and are supporting efforts to destabilize the regime in the hopes that a more democratic, Western oriented regime will arise. All of us would like to see a better, more representative government in Tehran, but fans of regime change are fooling themselves if they think a new regime will abandon the nuclear program and capitulate to Western demands. Many of the political moderates who have challenged the present regime support the nuclear program and Iran’s right to enrichment.

The latest development proves again that sanctions are not capable of preventing Iran from developing nuclear production capacity. Sanctions have imposed costs on Iran’s economy and may have slowed the nuclear program, but they have not stopped Tehran from steadily enhancing its nuclear capabilities. U.S. sanctions have been in place against Iran for more than thirty years, but they have not forced the government to yield to U.S. pressures.  As I argued recently in Foreign Policy in Focus, sanctions work best in combination with incentives as part of a diplomatic bargaining process designed to achieve a negotiated settlement. The record of nonproliferation policy in other countries shows that countries give up nuclear programs not because of sanctions pressure but in response to changed political conditions, economic development opportunities and security assurances.

No negotiated agreement will be possible until the United States and its allies yield on the question of enrichment. Other countries enrich uranium, and Iran argues correctly that there is no prohibition in international law against enrichment. On the other hand, states with nuclear programs have an obligation to be more transparent, and to provide assurances of peaceful intent. Iran has not yet measured up to these standards. This is where international diplomacy should be focused, on gaining Iranian agreement to more intrusive international monitoring, not on abandoning enrichment.

Sanctioning Iran

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that tougher sanctions are necessary to prevent Iran from building the bomb. My view is the opposite. The imposition of punitive sanctions has failed to change Iranian policy in the past, and there is little prospect that more of the same will succeed now.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree with the aim of preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. A nuclear armed-Iran would be a grave security threat to the region and globally. A settlement of the nuclear standoff would be enormously beneficial to international security and to the cause of global disarmament.

Sanctions can help to achieve this result, but not if they are used solely for punishment. To be effective sanctions must be combined with incentives and security guarantees as part of a negotiated diplomatic agreement.

Read my recent analysis of Iran sanctions in Foreign Policy in Focus.