Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bomb, Bomb Iran: Lessons From Iraq Unlearned

Note: Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas wrote a 1500 word op-ed for the New York Times on December 24 calling for the United States to bomb Iran. This astonishing essay has been widely attacked, but the following long essay by Jeremy Hammond is the best response that I have seen so far. I myself have made all of the points included in this essay in the past, but the skillful presentation here makes it extremely important reading.

William O. Beeman



Sunday, December 27, 2009

Bomb, Bomb Iran: Lessons From Iraq Unlearned
December 26, 2009
by Jeremy R. Hammond

In a New York Times op-ed this week that advocates bombing Iran, the author, Alan J. Kuperman, director of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Program at the University of Texas at Austin, begins by suggesting that President Barack Obama should “sigh in relief that Iran has rejected his nuclear deal”.

In fact, Iran has said it is still open to discussion with the U.S. about its nuclear program, but that if meaningful dialogue is to continue, the threats of sanctions and military aggression must first cease.

The U.S., however, continues to threaten yet further sanctions, while also insisting that the threat of force must remain “on the table” — a threat of aggression that itself violates the U.N. Charter, which forbids member nations from threatening the use of force as a tool for leverage in international relations.

Kuperman’s reason for why Obama should be happy is that the deal, under which Iran would export uranium to Russia, which would enrich it to 20 percent (not the 90 percent required for weapons-grade uranium) and return it as fuel rods for use in Tehran’s research reactor, “was ill conceived from the start” since Iran would “thus be rewarded with much-coveted reactor fuel despite violating international law.”

His reference is to U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Iran halt its uranium enrichment activities. The problem with these resolutions, as Iran is not hesitant to point out, is that they themselves directly violate the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), which clearly states that parties to the treaty have an “inalienable” right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and that the international community may take no action prejudicial towards that right.

The U.N. resolutions, needless to say, prejudice that “inalienable” right, particularly given the fact that there is no credible evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons program – as both the U.S. intelligence community and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have pointed out.

In other words, under U.S. influence, the Security Council in this case has acted as a rogue body itself in violation of relevant treaties constituting international law and the very Charter under which it ostensibly operates.

Iran, on the other hand, remains in compliance with the terms of the NPT and is meeting its obligations in allowing the IAEA to monitor and inspect its nuclear program, despite much talk to the contrary.

Take the most recent example, the charge that Iran’s uranium enrichment facility near Qom, still under construction, was a violation of its obligation to declare any such facility prior to the beginning of construction. We’re told that Iran agreed to an updated version of its safeguards agreement with the IAEA containing a clause specifying that obligation.

What we’re not told is that at that time, Iran had agreed to implement the terms of the Additional Protocol and revised safeguards agreement on a strictly voluntary basis. The voluntary nature of Iran’s implementation of these measures was explicitly, and in writing (see the so-called Paris Agreement), recognized by the IAEA. Iran was under no legal obligation to do so and had done so simply as a “confidence-building measure”.

In return, Iran got nothing but further threats of sanctions and bombing. So it ended its voluntary observance of measures above and beyond that which was legally required of it.

The fact is that Iran has never ratified the revised safeguards agreement, as would be required for the revisions to be legally binding upon Iran. Under the safeguards agreement Iran has formally and legally obligated itself to, it need only declare such facilities six months prior to the introduction of nuclear material (i.e., introduction of uranium into enrichment centrifuges), which is exactly what Iran did in declaring the site several months ago.

In response to meeting its obligations under its safeguards agreement, the West responded by declaring that the “secret” site (an adjective irreconcilable with the fact Iran voluntarily declared it to the IAEA, but obligatorily used in the media anyways) was evidence of Iran’s intentions to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Summarily dismissed was Iran’s quite credible explanation for the site it voluntarily disclosed, which was that it was attempting to diversify its uranium enrichment capabilities under the threat of certain countries to bomb their nuclear facilities.

The demonization and punishment of Iran for its compliance with its obligations under international law is not entirely unlike the charges against Iraq that it was in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding it disarm because it had not disarmed, when in fact it had disarmed, and when in fact there was no credible evidence that it still possessed stockpiles or was still in production of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The IAEA, for its part, has continuously and consistently reported that it has verified Iran has diverted no nuclear materials towards a weapons program. Former Director General of the IAEA Mohammed ElBaradei, whose term ended just last month, has repeatedly said that there is no evidence Iran has a nuclear weapons program. His successor, Yukiya Amano, has made the same observation.

Then, of course, there is the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from the U.S. intelligence community that stated Iran today has no nuclear weapons program, which according to Newsweek, is an assessment analysts still stand by. The NIE did claim that Iran once had such a program in the past, but that it ended it in 2003. The IAEA, on the other hand, recently issued a statement saying there is no evidence Iran ever had a weapons program.

Kuperman continues by suggesting that the goal of the international community should be to “compel” Iran “to halt its enrichment program”, which, he claims, the proposal to send its uranium abroad would not have done. It’s worth noting the fact that this is an explicit rejection of the NPT.

He adds, “In addition, the vast surplus of higher-enriched fuel Iran was to get under the deal would have permitted some to be diverted to its bomb program”, claiming that taking uranium from the fuel rods for further enrichment to weapons-grade “is a straightforward engineering task requiring at most a few weeks.”

The truth of the latter assertion aside, which is contrary to most reports on the subject and contrary to the whole supposed point of the deal, what’s notable here is the assumption that Iran has a “bomb program”, despite, as was the case with Iraq, the total lack of credible evidence to support the claim.

It’s enough in the mainstream corporate media simply to take Iran’s “bomb program” as a matter of faith. Evidence is simply not required, and it’s considered perfectly acceptable by the editors of the New York Times and other mainstream sources to print assumptions expressed as statements of fact.

Again, for those who don’t suffer from selective amnesia and aren’t prone to intentional ignorance, the kind of reporting we saw from the Times, et al, prior to the invasion of Iraq might perhaps serve as a lesson about the nature of the role U.S. corporate media play in “manufacturing consent” from the American public for U.S. foreign policies.

Kuperman next begs the question, “if the deal would have aided Iran’s bomb program, why did the United States propose it, and Iran reject it?” Oblivious to the fallacies underlying the question, his own answer is that “The main explanation on both sides is domestic politics.”

Obama simply wanted to “blunt Republican criticism that his multilateral approach was failing” and was seeking a short-term gain.

Iran, for its part, “rejected” the deal that, by Kuperman’s own account, would have helped it towards the presumed goal of achieving the bomb because “such a headlong sprint” towards that goal “is the one step most likely to provoke an international military response that could cripple the bomb program before it reaches fruition.”

In other words, while Israel regularly threatens that it won’t wait much longer for the U.S. to come to some agreement with Iran before it launches an attack against Iran’s nuclear sites that Iran’s possession of the bomb would surely deter, Iran is willing pass up an offer that would constitute “a headlong sprint” towards such a deterrent because doing so could actually jeopardize the possibility of it obtaining the bomb, since if Iran accepted the deal ostensibly designed to prevent it from being able to enrich uranium to weapons-grade, Israel would be even more likely to bomb their nuclear sites even sooner than if it Iran just rejects the proposal.

Truly, Kuperman has a dizzying intellect.

“In sum,” writes Kuperman, “the proposal would not have averted proliferation in the short run, because that risk always was low, but instead would have fostered it in the long run – a classic example of domestic politics undermining national security.”

In sum, Iran is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t.

Thus, the bombing of Iran is a foreseeable and unavoidable consequence of the present U.S. policy towards Iran. This consequence, admittedly, might very well be disastrous, but the obvious solution – to alter U.S. policy – is simply inconceivable. A change of policy is off the table. The resort to violence is not.

It’s worth noting that Kuperman acknowledges that the “risk” of Iran obtaining the bomb anytime soon (assuming it actually is seeking it) “always was low”. This is an interesting admission given the tendency of Western media to portray Iran as being practically right on the verge of being able to manufacture a nuclear weapon.

Returning to Iran’s “rejection of the deal”, Kuperman suggests the so-called “rejection” was “likewise propelled by domestic politics – including last June’s fraudulent elections and longstanding fears of Western manipulation.”

The “fears of Western manipulation” is a valid enough observation, the fears warranted enough. But again, as with the presumption of an Iranian bomb program, it’s enough in U.S. mainstream media to assert the claim of “fraudulent elections” as fact, despite the spurious nature of the evidence for fraud and many strong indications that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad legitimately won, including polls conducted by Western organizations both prior to the vote and since showing strong support for his presidency.

Like the “rejection” of the deal, Kuperman goes on to repeat what has become another unquestioned part of the official narrative. Suggesting that President Ahmadinejad “initially embraced the deal because he realized it aided Iran’s bomb program”, he adds, “But his domestic political opponents, whom he has tried to label as foreign agents, turned the tables by accusing him of surrendering Iran’s patrimony to the West.”

The possibility that Iran has not accepted the deal because it consists of an implicit rejection of their right to enrich uranium for themselves is, like the thought of changing U.S. policy, simply inconceivable.

The claim that Ahmadinejad “initially embraced the deal”, only to “renege”, has become standard. But the claim, though widely reported, cannot stand up to scrutiny based on the actual facts that have been reported about the talks. Every indication is that Ahmadinejad himself was open to the proposal, which he continues to be, on the condition that the West cease its threatening and aggressive posture towards Iran, and that the Iranian negotiators during the talks agreed with the proposal on principle, in anticipation of further talks, without formally accepting the deal – something, Iran has pointed out, the negotiators were given no authority to do.

This is part of a larger narrative in Western media in which the Iranian leadership is fractured and the regime in a state of crisis due to the enormity of the opposition to Ahmadinejad’s rule (part of the “fraudulent elections” narrative). While there are elements of truth to this story line, it’s chiefly a product of wishful thinking and the willingness of commentators to succumb to their own propaganda.

Take, for example, reporting on the massive gathering of people honoring the influential Grand Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri upon his death just last week. The opposition, we were told, of whom Montazeri was a leader, effectively took over the rally and was able to turn it into a massive anti-regime protest. Evidence for this was given in the form of amateur videos apparently from cell phones posted to opposition websites showing close-up shots of protesters shouting anti-regime slogans and holding up anti-regime banners.

Wider video shots of the actual funeral march, however, showed only an enormous crowd solemnly and respectfully marching along with the casket, holding up only photos of the cleric, not anti-regime banners. (The London Times, a leading outlet for anti-Iran propaganda, acknowledges that, with no journalists in the country due to restrictions on foreign media operations, much of its reporting comes from anti-regime elements, but insists that its sources are trustworthy, essentially a “just trust us” assertion that depends upon the questionable trustworthiness of the Times itself as a source for news on Iran.)

“Under such domestic pressure, Mr. Ahmadinejad reneged”, claims Kuperman, and then “threatened to enrich uranium domestically to the 20 percent level.” Notice how remarks from Iranian leaders that Iran would do what it has an “inalienable” right to do as a party to the NPT is characterized by the verb “threatened”.

The underlying and familiar assumption is that the rules are set by Washington, not by treaties comprising the body of international law. A dubious enough assumption, but unquestionable in the mainstream.

Iran’s “rejection” of the proposal shows that it “cannot make even temporary concessions on its bomb program”, and therefore, “Since peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work,” – (more the stick than the carrot) – “and an invasion would be foolhardy, the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.”

There are numerous and obvious other options: to assume that evidence should be required of an Iranian nuclear program rather than establishing confrontational and aggressive policies based on the assumption that this is so; to cease from violating international law with threats of military aggression; to cease from deliberately isolating and provoking Iran and instead meaningfully engaging the country in a dialogue that actually recognizes Iran’s rights under the NPT; to live up to the additional obligation under the NPT for the U.S. and other nuclear-armed countries to provide member nations with nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, etc.

But it is simply inconceivable that mainstream sources like the Times would actually find “fit to print” such elementary alternatives.

Without reading further, the conclusion Kuperman would like his readers to draw (and here the headline, “There’s Only One Way to Stop Iran”, is relevant) is clear: obviously, we cannot acquiesce to Iran acquiring nuclear weapons; therefore the only logical choice is to bomb Iran.

To underscore the unacceptability of Iran obtaining the bomb, Kuperman employs a theme that should not be unfamiliar to Americans: “If Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal,” he writes, “the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon”.

He draws just short of saying that if we don’t bomb Iran, the consequences could come “in the form of a mushroom cloud”, the familiar official refrain prior to the invasion of Iraq – which had no nuclear program at all, much less a weaponized one (Kuperman states further in the article that this fact “eluded American intelligence until after the 2003 invasion”. U.S. intelligence analysts, we are apparently supposed to believe, never bothered themselves to read IAEA reports noting that the agency had completely dismantled Iraq’s nuclear program by the mid-90s).

And so we must bomb Iran. Now, “admittedly, aerial bombing might not work.” It could “backfire” by “undermining Iran’s political opposition, accelerating the bomb program or provoking retaliation against American forces and allies in the region.”

All three are credible consequences widely predicted among analysts. Iran may not have a nuclear weapons program now, but if it is bombed, the likelihood that it would withdraw from the NPT, move its nuclear weapons program underground, and begin work towards obtaining a nuclear deterrent to further such attacks would be increased in no inconsiderable measure.

Again, Iraq provides a useful lesson. It was a direct consequence of Israel’s bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, according to the U.S.’s own intelligence assessments, that prompted Saddam Hussein to begin pursuing his nuclear program clandestinely and also to begin his pursuit to obtain nuclear weapons.

Kuperman actually mentions the Israeli attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor to support his assertion that bombing Iran – the very thing he advocates – might actually result in Iran “accelerating” efforts to acquire a nuclear weapon, but he obscures the obvious lesson to be had from it by suggesting an opposite and much more dubious conclusion: that the bombing slowed down, rather than accelerated, Saddam’s efforts to obtain the bomb.

In other words, bombing Iran might predictably and admittedly result in the very thing the bombing would ostensibly be aimed at preventing. The obvious corollary is that the bombing would not really be carried out in order to prevent that end.

Again, further lessons from Iraq are instructive. Consider that the war ostensibly fought to make the world safer from WMD and to fight terrorism resulted in the single most probable situation, had Iraq actually had WMD, under which Saddam Hussein would have provided them to terrorists. Again, that was the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community prior to the invasion.

Fortunately, Iraq didn’t have WMD and so this never occurred. But among the direct consequences of the war that did occur was a considerable increase in the threat of terrorism, again according to the U.S.’s own intelligence assessments. Whereas prior to the invasion, terrorist attacks within Iraq were virtually unknown, since the war began, the Iraq people continue to be plagued by terrorism as a direct consequence of the war.

The war, analysts have observed, served as a virtual billboard for terrorist organizations to recruit individuals willing to commit acts of violence in response to U.S. foreign policy – just as U.S. support for Israeli crimes against the Palestinians was a principle causal factor for the 9/11 attacks, if we are to believe the stated grievances of the originally accused mastermind of those attacks himself.

Again, the corollary is obvious: the official reasons for committing such acts of aggression against foreign nations, if we presume leading policymakers are sane and rational, cannot possibly be the actual rationale for them. That is perfectly elementary, albeit a virtual heresy to actually point out in respectable circles.

The war against Iraq had nothing to do with WMD or terrorism. Equally elementary is the observation that U.S. policy towards Iran has nothing to do with preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons.

A further example is NATO’s bombing campaign in 1999 against Yugoslavia, which was ostensibly carried out to end atrocities on the ground, but which instead resulted in a sharp escalation of the violence – a consequence of the bombing predicted by the NATO leadership.

Kuperman also happens to mention that campaign, but, again, as with his mention of Osirak, arrives at other conclusions. Here, ignoring perhaps the most obvious lessons from his own argument and examples, his conclusion is that “Iran’s atomic sites might need to be bombed more than once to persuade Tehran to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons.”

Bombing once won’t work, so Iran must be bombed repeatedly. This logic is akin to arguing that since poking a snake with a stick once might cause it to strike, it must be poked continually in order to prevent it from being able to do so.

Similarly, Kuperman draws other lessons from Iraq. “If nothing else,” he writes, “the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to.”

Indeed. But if we set aside intentional ignorance, other relevant lessons just might perhaps be drawn. Kuperman, rather like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy and friends to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, goes to extraordinary efforts to deflect attention away from these, though.

Casting aside some of the most obvious lessons from Iraq, Kuperman, having acknowledged the, shall we say, “drawbacks” of his proposed solution, concludes simply that air strikes “are worth a try.”

One might note the rather cavalier attitude towards the use of violence against civilian targets for political ends (the very definition of “terrorism”), an incitement to violence that might raise questions about the nature of American intellectual culture, and the moral values (or lack thereof) of the intelligentsia, if we bother to ponder on the subject.

Kuperman, needless to say, doesn’t. Instead, he has just one “final question”: “who should launch the air strikes?”

The obvious answer is Israel, which “has shown an eagerness” to bomb Iran, the option “some hawks in Washington favor” in order “to avoid fueling anti-Americanism in the Islamic world” – a rationale of astounding ignorance; the Islamic world surely would recognize that were Israel to bomb Iran, it would be with a “green light” from Washington, a wink and a nod. But never mind that.

Kuperman continues, however, with “three compelling reasons that the United States itself should carry out the bombings”, the obvious fueling of anti-Americanism and other predicted and potentially disastrous consequences aside. The U.S. has better equipment to do the job, could more credibly threaten “to expand the bombing campaign” (that is, to repeatedly bomb the country), and it would be an opportunity to send “a strong warning” to other countries.

This latter rationale for the U.S. bombing of Iran provides a more credible explanation for what the actual purpose of such a bombing would be.

Kuperman, in line with the official rationale for keeping the military “option” “on the table” – an explicit rejection of principle that force should be used only as a last resort, as well as a direct violation of international law – suggests the “strong warning” would be for “other would-be proliferators”.

Proliferation being obviously of little to no consideration to U.S. policymakers – an elementary observation drawn even from the arguments provided here – “proliferators” clearly isn’t the right word here. “Nations seeking to act independently from and in opposition to Washington” might be more accurate.

“The sooner the United States takes action” – that is, the sooner it bombs Iran – “the better”, concludes Kuperman.

At stake is U.S. “credibility”, in the Mafioso sense of the word. Washington simply can’t have a country defying its orders. That’s the bottom line. That’s the underlying foundation of the policy of the Obama administration, carried over from the policy of his predecessor.

But, of course, just as the war in Iraq couldn’t be sold to the American public on the basis of its actual rationale, expanding U.S. global hegemony, neither can the true reasons for Washington’s policies towards Iran be mentioned. It just wouldn’t do.

Better, as with Iraq, to construct nonsensical arguments dependent upon an extraordinary level of intentional ignorance and consisting at the most fundamental level of claims for which there is little, if any, evidence to support.

Whether the American public has learned the more obvious and crucial lessons from Iraq and has the moral integrity to act on them remains to be seen. But what is for certain is that without massive public pressure on Washington to alter its Iran policy, the U.S. will maintain a course the consequences of which might very well prove, as with Iraq, to be disastrous.
Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent journalist and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, an online source for news, critical analysis, and opinion commentary on U.S. foreign policy. He was among the recipients of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for outstanding investigative journalism, and is the author of "The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination", available from

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