What President George W. Bush, Fox News, and the Washington Times were saying about Iraq three years ago they are now saying about Iran. After Saturday’s vote by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to report Iran’s suspicious nuclear activities to the UN Security Council, the president wasted no time in warning, "The world will not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons."
The next IAEA milestone will be reached on March 6, when its director, Mohamed ElBaradei, makes a formal report to the Security Council regarding what steps Iran needs to take to allay growing suspicions. The Bush administration, however, has already mounted a full-court press to indict and convict the Iranian leaders, and the key question is why.
Iran signed the Nonproliferation Treaty and insists (correctly) that the treaty assures signatories the right to pursue nuclear programs for peaceful use. And when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims, as she did last month, "There is simply no peaceful rationale for the Iranian regime to resume uranium enrichment," she is being, well, disingenuous again.
If Dr. Rice has done her homework, she is aware that in 1975 President Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, Dick Cheney, and his defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, bought Iran’s argument that it needed a nuclear program to meet future energy requirements. This is what Iranian officials are saying today, and they are supported by energy experts who point out that oil extraction in Iran is already at or near peak and that the country will need alternatives to oil in coming decades.
Ironically, Cheney and Rumsfeld were among those persuading the reluctant Ford in 1976 to approve offering Iran a deal for nuclear reprocessing facilities that would have brought at least $6.4 billion for U.S. corporations like Westinghouse and General Electric. The project fell through when the Shah was ousted three years later.
It is altogether reasonable to expect that Iran’s leaders want to have a nuclear weapons capability as well, and that they plan to use their nuclear program to acquire one. From their perspective, they would be fools not to. Iran is one of three countries earning the "axis of evil" sobriquet from President Bush and has watched what happened to Iraq, which had no nuclear weapons, as well as what did not happen to North Korea, which does have them. And Iran’s rival Israel, which has not signed the Nonproliferation Treaty but somehow escapes widespread opprobrium, has a formidable nuclear arsenal cum delivery systems.
Israeli threats to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities simply provide additional incentive to Tehran to bury and harden them against the kind of Israeli air attack that destroyed the Iraqi nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981. Although the U.S. (together with every other UN Security Council member) condemned that attack, Dick Cheney and other senior officials do not disguise their view that it was just what the doctor ordered at the time, and that the same prescription might take care of Iran.
Who Is Threatened by Iranian Nukes?
The same country that felt threatened by putative nuclear weapons in the hands of Iraq. With at least 200 nuclear weapons and various modes of delivery at their disposal, the Israelis have a powerful deterrent. They appear determined to put that deterrent into play early to preempt any nuclear weapons capability in Iran, rather than have to deal with one after it has been put in place. Israeli leaders seem allergic to the thought that other countries in the region might be able to break their nuclear monopoly, and they react neuralgically to proposals for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Bending over backwards to such sensitivities, the U.S. delegation to the IAEA delayed the proceedings for a day in a futile attempt to delete from Sunday’s report language calling for such a zone. The final report called for a "Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction." This is the first time a link has been made, however implicitly, between the Iranian and Israeli nuclear programs.
The argument that the U.S. is also threatened directly by nuclear weapons in Iranian hands is as far-fetched as was the case before the war in Iraq, when co-opted intelligence analysts were strongly encouraged to stretch their imaginations to include, for example, the specter that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction could be delivered by unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) launched from ships off the U.S. coast. No, I’m not kidding. They even included this in the infamous National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of Oct. 1, 2002.
That canard was held up to ridicule by the U.S. Air Force, which was permitted to take a footnote in the NIE. The scare story nonetheless provided grist for the president’s key speech in Cincinnati on Oct. 7, 2002 three days before Congress voted to authorize war. That was also the speech in which he also warned, "Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof the smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud."
While Congress was voting for war on Oct. 10, more candid observations came in highly unusual remarks from a source with excellent access to high-level thinking at the White House. Philip Zelikow, at the time a member of the prestigious President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and confidant of then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (and later executive director of the 9/11 commission), said this to a crowd at the University of Virginia:
"Why would Iraq attack America or use nuclear weapons against us? I’ll tell you what I think the real threat is and actually has been since 1990 it’s the threat against Israel. And this is the threat that dare not speak its name the American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell."
More recently, in the case of Iran, President Bush has been unabashed in naming Israel as the most probable target of any Iranian nuclear weapons. He has also created a rhetorical lash-up of the U.S. and Israel, referring three times in the past two weeks to Israel as an "ally" of the U.S., as if to condition Americans to the notion that the U.S. is required to join Israel in any confrontation with Iran. For example, on Feb. 1 the president told the press, "Israel is a solid ally of the United States; we will rise to Israel’s defense if need be." Asked if he meant the U.S. would rise to Israel’s defense militarily, Bush replied with a startlingly open-ended commitment, "You bet, we’ll defend Israel."
In repeatedly labeling Israel our "ally," Bush is following his own corollary to the dictum of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels that if you repeat something often enough, most people will believe it. In an unusual moment of candor in a discussion of domestic affairs last May, Bush noted:
"That’s the third time I’ve said that. I’ll probably say it three more times. See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda."
Why No Treaty?
The trouble is that, strictly speaking, allies are not picked by presidential whim or by smart staffers like the top Bush aide who bragged that he and his colleagues are "history’s actors creating new realities." Bush’s speech writers are acting as though the "new realities" they create can include defense treaties. But unless they’ve changed the Constitution, in our system nations become allies via treaty; and treaties have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.
There is no treaty of alliance with Israel.
But why? Earlier, I had had the impression that it must be because of U.S. reluctance despite widespread sympathy for Israel to get entangled in the complexities of the Middle East and gratuitously antagonize Arab countries. Comparing notes with Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity (VIPS) colleagues with more experience in the Middle East, however, I learned that the Israelis themselves have shown strong resistance to a U.S.-Israel defense treaty for reasons quite sound from their perspective, and quite instructive from ours.
The possibility of a bilateral treaty was broached after the 1973 Yom Kippur war as a way to reduce chances of armed conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors. But before the U.S. could commit to defending Israel, its boundaries would have had to be defined, and the Israelis wanted no part of that. Moreover, the Israelis feared that a defense pact would curb their freedom of action as would signing the Nonproliferation Treaty. They were aware that in a crisis situation, the U.S. would almost certainly discourage them from resorting to their familiar policy of massive often disproportionate retaliation against the Arabs. It became quite clear that the Israelis did not want the U.S. to have any say over when they would use force, against whom, and what (U.S. or non-U.S.) equipment might be employed.
Aside from all that, the Israelis were, and are, confident that their influence in Washington is such as to ensure U.S. support, no matter what. And, as President Bush’s rhetoric demonstrates, they are correct in thinking they can, in effect, have their cake and eat it too a commitment equivalent to a defense treaty, with no binding undertakings on Israel’s part.
That is a very volatile admixture. Congress would do well to wake up to its constitutional prerogatives and responsibilities in this key area particularly now that the juggernaut to war has begun to roll.
Preparing the Public
One major task is to convince the public and, as far as possible, our allies that the Iran-nuclear problem is critical. This would be an uphill task, were it not for the success of our domesticated media in suppressing the considered judgment of the U.S. intelligence community that Iran is nowhere near a nuclear weapon.
Washington Post reporter Dafna Linzer, to her credit, drew on several inside sources to report on Aug. 2, 2005, that the latest NIE concludes Iran will not be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon until "early to mid-next decade," with general consensus among intelligence analysts that 2015 would actually be the earliest. That important information was ignored in other media and quickly dropped off the radar screen.
In the Washington of today, there is no need to bother with unwelcome intelligence that does not support the case you wish to make. Polls show that hyped-up public statements on the threat from Iran are having some effect, and indiscriminately hawkish pronouncements by usual suspects like Senators Joseph Lieberman and John McCain are icing on the cake. Ahmed Chalabi-type Iranian "dissidents" have surfaced to tell us of secret tunnels for nuclear weapons research, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld keeps reminding the world that Iran is the "world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism." Administration spokespeople keep warning of Iranian interference on the Iraqi side of their long mutual border themes readily replayed by Fox News and the Washington Times. Monday morning’s Chicago Tribune editorial put it this way:
"There will likely be an economic confrontation with Iran, or a military confrontation, or both. Though diplomatic efforts have succeeded in convincing most of the world that this matter is grave, diplomatic efforts are highly unlikely to sway Iran."
On Saturday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist insisted that Congress has the political will to use military force against Iran, if necessary, repeating the mantra "We cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear nation." Even Richard Perle has come out of the woodwork to add a convoluted new wrinkle regarding the lessons of the attack on Iraq. Since one cannot depend on good intelligence, says Perle, it is a matter of "take action now or lose the option of taking action." One of the most influential intellectual authors of the war on Iraq, Perle and his "neoconservative" colleagues see themselves as men of biblical stature. Just before the attack on Iraq, Perle prophesied:
"If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war our children will sing great songs about us years from now."
Those songs have turned out to be funeral dirges for over 2,250 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
This article first appeared on Truthout.com.