There Is No Iranian Nuclear Threat

On April 21, Iran and six world powers resumed the final phase of nuclear talks after a preliminary framework deal reached earlier this month. Iran and the P5+1 countries — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — are expected to reach a final accord by the end of June.

Yet hawks in Washington and Israel argue that Iran cannot be allowed to obtain a nuclear weapon, or even remain within “sprinting” distance of acquiring one. They argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to Israel, would be increasingly belligerent on the international stage, likely provoking an arms-race in the Middle East. In worst-case scenarios, a nuclear-armed Iran may even precipitate WWIII and cast the world into nuclear winter. Given these dire projected risks, hawks generally oppose any nuclear agreement with Iran which allows the country to continue enriching uranium—which is tantamount to saying they oppose negotiations altogether.

For the sake of argument (and simply for the sake of argument), let’s assume these fears are well-founded, and not only does Iran want a nuclear weapon, but they actually succeed in obtaining one. Moreover, let’s assume that the Islamic Republic may even be willing to use weapons of mass destruction against their adversaries. The brute fact remains that Iran would not actually be able to carry out a successful nuclear strike against Israel or the U.S.; even the threat of a so-called “dirty bomb” is negligible.

 

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Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions

Iran’s nuclear program was founded in 1957 as part of U.S. President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative. As part of this deal, the United States helped provide the training, technology and infrastructure allowing Iran to become a nuclear power. It was America that built Iran’s first nuclear reactor in 1967, subsequently providing them with the highly-enriched uranium to power it.

Soon thereafter, Iran began researching how to weaponize the technology. Ironic from today’s vantage point, Israel played a pivotal role in helping Tehran develop this capacity–much to the chagrin of the United States at the time. Washington would soon see further “Atoms for Peace” investments in India, Pakistan and Israel translated into weapons programs—with these latter three refusing to sign onto the U.S.-sponsored Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and eventually obtaining the bomb. In a further irony, all three have emerged as critical U.S. allies in the region despite these maneuvers.

For his part, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi did sign onto the treaty in 1968, although this did not end his ambition for weaponized nuclear capacity, which was ultimately brought to a halt by the 1979 Islamic Revolution which drove him from power.

Iran’s new religious leadership not only reaffirmed the NPT signed by the deposed dictator, but Ayatollah Khomeini disparaged nuclear weapons as haram under Islamic law–a binding fatwa reiterated and expanded in 2005 by Khomeini’s successor and current Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. Continue reading “Understanding Iran’s Nuclear Intentions”

Netanyahu’s Politics of Fear Have Proven Highly-Effective

As the Israeli election results continue to be finalized, it appears that Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party has again emerged victorious—likely holding onto 30 of their current 31 seats in the government. The Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s primary opposition, garnered only 24 seats, with the Joint List of Arab candidates rounding out third place with a likely 14 seats. It was a decisive win for Likud and Netanyahu—one which could extend their mandate into 2019 and put Netanyahu on the path to being the longest-serving Prime Minister in Israel’s history.

In the international media, much has been made of PM Netanyahu’s brazen last-minute maneuvers to energize his right-wing base: His controversial speech before a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Iran’s supposed nuclear threat was intended largely as domestic propaganda—a successful attempt to circumvent Israeli campaign laws. In the days before the polls, he also grew more transparent in his position on the Palestine, insisting that there will be no Palestinian State so long as he remains Prime Minister. In the final hours he resorted to race-baiting pleas that Israeli Jews go to the polls to prevent “Arabs” from having a meaningful sway in the elections.

None of these maneuvers should have been surprising. Benjamin Netanyahu has built his entire political career out of portraying Iran and Palestine as existential threats to the Jewish people:

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How Hardliners in the U.S. and Israel Empower Hardliners in Iran

For many, Hassan Rouhani’s administration seems like a breath of fresh air, an unprecedented moment of opportunity for reform in Iran. Many have pointed out that Rouhani’s progressive aspirations are in many ways restrained or undermined by Iran’s hardliners–but ironically, U.S. hardliners played a pivotal role in creating this dynamic.

Following the re-election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami, the Islamic Republic reached out to the White House calling for a dialogue–indicating a willingness to increase transparency of its nuclear program, to recognize Israel and even cut ties with Hamas.

But the Bush Administration rebuffed this offer, and even tanked Iran’s negotiations with Europe (also led by Hassan Rouhani and Javad Zarif) to limit Iran’s nuclear capacity to a mere 3,000 centrifuges. The White House at the time adopted Netanyahu’s position that any nuclear capacity for Iran was too much, and that the ideal was not just limiting Iran’s nuclear program but outright regime change. President Bush even went on to parrot Netanyahu’s line verbatim comparing the Islamic Republic to Germany’s Nazi regime in the lead-up to World War II–and analogizing those who want to negotiate as appeasers.

The failure of these bold efforts at diplomacy rendered Khatami unable to fulfill many of his campaign pledges–in turn, leading to massive gains by Iran’s conservative parties in the 2004 Parliamentary Elections, and the landslide victory of the much-more confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2005 Presidential Elections. We should expect a similar dynamic to play out in Iran if the current attempts at rapprochement fail.

President Obama was right in noting how hardliners in the U.S. seem to have a common cause with those in Iran–but its hardly the first time. And if these zealots have their way, it won’t be the last.

Normalize Relations with Iran Now, Not Later

In an administration which has become known for largely continuing the disastrous policies of the previous White House and doubling-down on its own proven failures—President Obama stunned the world with his surprise announcement that the United States would be normalizing relations with Cuba.

The President pointed out that the extraordinary sanctions regime, which has been in place for more than 50 years, has failed at its stated goal of achieving regime change in Cuba. Instead, it has senselessly immiserated the Cuban people for decades. Deeper engagement, he offered, would be the best path forward in bolstering an exchange of ideas between the two countries and promoting mutual well-being. The logic which motivated the Administration to revise its policy on Cuba would seem to apply equally to Iran. Continue reading “Normalize Relations with Iran Now, Not Later”

Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran

Initially, Bashar al-Asad had developed his chemical weapons programs as a deterrent against Israeli and Western aggression—lately, he has discovered that these arms are more of a liability than an asset, nearly provoking the very invasion they were intended to ward off.

For its part, Iran has been unyielding in their condemnation of the use and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction—and for good reason: they were the victims of a heinous series of attacks at the hands of Saddam Hussein, with the tacit approval of his Western patrons. Few understand as profoundly as Iran how truly abominable these armaments are—the same impetus which drives the Europeans to abolish these weapons also motivates the Islamic Republic.

And yet, in his recent speech at the U.N. General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed a number of dire warnings related to Iran’s nuclear energy program. As part of this tirade, he recalled how North Korea made a similar bid to have sanctions reduced in exchange for deconstructing their nuclear program. He correctly reminds us that once these embargoes had been sufficiently lifted, the regime “sprinted” towards finishing and testing a nuclear weapon, now menacing the region, and indeed, the world. He warned about a similar outcome should sanctions be lifted “prematurely” on Iran.

Of course, the obvious flaw in Netanyahu’s “logic” is that Iran has no desire to be another North Korea pariah state— instead, to transform into the economic and geopolitical superpower they are destined to become once international sanctions are lifted. And they hardly need nuclear weapons to achieve this end. Continue reading “Ignorance, Xenophobia & Toxic Alliances Inform Nuclear Standoff with Iran”

The Semantics of Revolution

Many in media and academic circles seem to pride themselves on having advanced beyond the “Clash of Civilizations” rhetoric that defined the aftermath of  September 11th (2001).  However, upon analysis is clear that the primary development has been the transformation of these frameworks into euphemistic forms:  consider, for instance, the supposed conflict between the liberals and the Islamists; this dichotomy is ill-formed on several levels:

First, the categories are not mutually exclusive: one can simultaneously be an Islamist and a liberal. And while there are certainly conflicts vis a vis liberalism across the Middle East and North Africa, the tension is not between liberalism and  Islam—instead, it is a tension internal to liberalism itself, in simultaneously promoting free markets, secularism, pluralism, and democracy—ideologies which are neither intrinsically compatible nor inevitable. Insofar as these values are unpopular in the MENA region, it is often because they conflict with socio-cultural norms which transcend any particular religion (or religion altogether). Of course, left out of this discussion is any suggestion that liberalism may not be the ideal social model, or that the people of the MENA region have a right, perhaps a duty,  to derive alternative models from their own history, culture, values, and frames of reference.

In a similar manner, the supposed dichotomy of “moderates v. extremists” is ill-formed. Typically when this distinction is deployed it is unclear what “moderate” means. The most natural definition of a moderate would be someone who rejects extreme methodologies (such as violence) in order to advance their ideological views. But by that standard, many hardcore salafi groups would be moderates, as would the Muslim Brotherhood—while the (ever-elusive) liberal-secular components of the Free Syrian Army would be extremists, as they are attempting to instantiate their political ideal through force. However, as many news reports convey a desire to arm the  “moderate” factions of the rebels, it seems as though a rejection of extreme methods cannot be what is meant by the term.

Instead, a “moderate” is typically one who espouses  pro-West or liberal sentiments—regardless of how extreme they may be in terms of methodologies or ideological fervor relative to their adversaries. Conversely, anyone who resists Western values, interests, or modes of governance is de facto an “extremist.”

The dichotomy between “Islam” and “the West” is ill-formed first because it presupposes that the two are separate–when in fact, their history is intimately intertwined. And secondarily, because it presents Islam as a monolith. Insofar as commentators now acknowledge diversity within Islam, the talk primarily circles around the supposed clash between Sunnis and Shiites. However, this portrayal is also problematic. For one, it assumes that Sunnis and Shiites are a homogenous forces, rather than extremely diverse populations with a number of conflicting ideologies, interests, and alliances. Moreover, this framing obscures Islamic sects who do not neatly fall into the “Sunni/ Shia” divide, such as Sufis and the Druze. Finally, this caricature overlooks the significant (if dwindling) populations of other MENA religions, such as Christians, Assyrians, and Zoroastrians.  And then there is the large (and growing) Jewish population, most of whom reside in Israel—a significant source of tension with both Sunnis and Shiites (and also between them). However, in the Jewish case, as with others (such as the Kurds), ethnic alliances are actually more significant than religious or other identities. Perhaps most significantly, these narratives presume Sunnism and Shiism to be incompatible, when in fact the two have a long history of interplay and periods of syncretization. The current climate of sectarianism is largely the result of U.S. policies in Iraq, rather than reflecting an ancient and unyielding feud.

While terms like “Islamist,” “Moderate,” “Sharia Law,” “Muslim,” etc. are frequently bandied about in popular discourse, their referents are typically opaque (at best), rendering the conversations which rely upon these terms more-or-less vacuous. Not only do reductive binaries (e.g. “liberals v. islamists,” “moderates v. extremists,” “West v. Islam,” “Sunnis v. Shiites”) fail to address the critical dynamics at work in the region—they actually obscure said dynamics even as they polarize discussants. While these conceptions are convenient insofar as they reinforce ethnocentric narratives and can be easily fit into the small segments of news-themed entertainment between advertisements—greater nuance is required should one wish to understand the real underway across the Middle East and North Africa, and the revolution which may be at hand:

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Barack Hussein Obama, Moderate Neoconservative

In early 2003, Saddam Hussein’s regional and international allies were all warning him that an American invasion was imminent. Hussein’s reply was basically, “I know Washington’s tone is getting aggressive, but they aren’t going to try to remove me. I’m the only one in the region who is really taking the fight to the terrorists and fundamentalists. I’m the only one in the region putting real pressure on Iran. Despite our differences, they aren’t crazy! There is no way the United States is going to invade Iraq.”

Saddam was gravely overestimating America’s sanity. Forty-five months later, he was hanging from the gallows, his Baath regime dismantled, his country in shambles. The carnage and chaos that followed the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq horrified the world.

With the 2008 election of Barack Obama, there was widespread hope that we would see a new chapter in U.S. foreign policy:  troops would leave Afghanistan and Iraq, detainees would leave Guantanamo. No more gunboat liberalism. No more wars fought on false pretenses, driven by delusional ideologues, and contrary to American interests. The death of the nebulous global “war on terror” was nigh.

This “hope” proved ill-founded – the promised “change,” ephemeral.

Since Obama took office, the war on terror has dramatically expanded. Nomenclature notwithstanding, it remains global, vague, and unending – increasing its dimensions from the Middle East to West Africa, and the real world into cyberspace with digital pre-emptive strikes. It is a war which continues to be waged at the expense of civil liberties. America continues to drive more people towards extremism than it removes from the field through many of its counterterrorism tactics such as the drone program.

As far as Palestine or Iran are concerned, Ehud Barak said it best: “I can hardly remember a better period of American support and backing, and Israeli cooperation and similar strategic understanding of events around us than what we have right now.”

The astonishing continuity between the Bush II and Obama administrations is nowhere clearer than America’s disastrous foreign policies related to the Arab Spring – policies which were driven by ideology and misinformation, no less under Obama than his predecessor (in fact, many of the same people from the Bush Administration inform policies for Obama).

The Arab Uprisings brought regime change to Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and likely Syria; the United States played a decisive role in all of these “revolutions.”  And that role was usually to make things worse and more complicated.

 

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