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A Nuclear Iran: A Tale of Two Standards

Updated on March 24, 2015

A Nuclear Iran: A Tale of Two Standards

"Nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the UN General Assembly on September 24, 2013, "have no place in Iran's security and defense doctrine, and contradict our fundamental religious and ethical convictions”. A month earlier President Rouhani wrote in a Washington Post op-ed piece, "My approach to foreign policy seeks to resolve ... issues by addressing their underlying causes," he said. "We must work together to end the unhealthy rivalries and interferences that fuel violence and drive us apart". One year later, on November 20, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Vienna to join with other members of the United Nations Security Council (France, the Russia, China, U.K., plus Germany) for negotiations with Iran regarding Iran’s nuclear program and future plans. The negotiators seek assurances that Iran’s real goals are peaceful energy production and are not intended to develop nuclear weapons. Iran has made numerous statements affirming their peaceful intentions with regards to nuclear development and has agreed to some measure of inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). What Iran seeks in exchange is a relaxing of the international sanctions that have been imposed. So what is the problem? According to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Rouhani is lying – pure and simple. Netanyahu went so far as to call Rouhani a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Rouhani is conducting, according to Netanyahu, a “charm offensive” and is stalling in order move their weapons programs ahead. Their ultimate aim, according to Netanyahu, is to “wipe the Jews off the face of the map”. Israel, Iran’s most vocal critic, doesn’t believe the rhetoric. And Israel is not alone. Many Western powers are also suspicious of Iran’s true motives. It is true that Iran has not been fully cooperative with IAEA’s efforts to monitor. Significant animosity exists between Israel and Iran. Iranian leaders, as recently as former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have endorsed the elimination of Israel and even denied the existence of the Holocaust. But Rouhani and other prominent party leaders, including Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, publicly acknowledge the historical facts of the Holocaust. But Iran, Netanyahu and others insist, cannot be trusted. And, because they cannot be trusted, they must be controlled. One way to maintain that control is to ensure their military inferiority by ensuring Iran never achieves nuclear weapons. One way to accomplish this is to constantly sow distrust and fear.

In spite of the complicated nature of the United States relationship with Iran, especially given the U.S.’s close ties with Israel, the issues seem to distill down to three basic questions: 1) Does Iran, as a sovereign nation, have the right to utilize nuclear power for domestic purposes, 2) Does Iran, as a sovereign nation, have the right to possess nuclear weapons for national defense, and 3) does the U.S. (or any other nation) have the right to intervene militarily in Iran based on the suspicion that Iran is producing nuclear weapons?

The general consensus is that the answer to the first question is “maybe”, the second question is “no”, and the third question is “absolutely”. But what standard is being employed? The U.S. strongly opposed North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons but did not take any direct action to prevent that from happening. And yet Iran faces the constant threat of military intervention and currently suffers significant economic sanctions. So something else must ¬be taking place here. And, what is taking place is a tale of two standards.

As was evidenced by the UN sanctioned nuclear inspections in Iraq, inspections do not always (perhaps seldom) produce transparency. History has demonstrated that there are numerous strategies for tricking inspectors and avoiding detection. In one instance inspectors were tightly controlled. They were not allowed to bring their own technical instruments. They were not allowed to take measurements. They were not even allowed to see the actual control room, but were only shown a mock up. They “went so far as to wall-up elevator banks down to the underground reprocessing facility in order to evade discovery”. These deceptive (and highly suspicious) actions were intentionally designed to mislead the inspectors and international community. But this was not Iraq. This did not happen in Iran. These tactics were employed by Israel to hide what was actually happening at Israel’s Dimona nuclear facility in the early 1960’s; to hide what many, including intelligence agencies in the United State, knew – that Israel was rapidly developing (and expanding) its nuclear weapons. No sanctions. No invasion.

These same actions by Iraq or Iran could be (and were) justifications for war. But not for Israel. Even to this day Israel has refused to sign a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty or to support a more recent Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (MEWMDFZ) proposed by Egyptian President Mubarak in the mid 1990’s. Israel began with a policy of “nuclear ambiguity”, where others could only wonder if Israel had nuclear weapons, to a posture of “nuclear opacity”, which shifted from “if” to “how many”. When Saddam Hussein tried the same strategy in Iraq he was invaded and deposed. Iran fears the same aggression.

Iran claims its nuclear program is only for peaceful, not military purposes. Many are skeptical. Perhaps Iran is sincere. If so, should they not have the same right as Israel to use nuclear power for peaceful purposes? If, on the other hand, they desire nuclear capabilities, as many charge, do they not have the same right, as a regional power, to secure their own defense? Does Iran not have the same rights as India, Pakistan, or even North Korea, to level the playing field with its regional adversary Israel? Is it right that Iran must exist under the threat of invasion while Israel continues to extend its nuclear capabilities? (According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Israel is reported to have purchased five Dolphin-class submarines from Germany that can be equipped with atomic warheads to create a sea-based, second strike capability.)

There may be compelling reasons to mistrust Iran’s intentions. And a nuclear Iran may present serious threats to U.S. and Israeli interests in the region. It could, as some argue, launch a nuclear proliferation race in the region (though the inevitability of that seems unlikely). It would definitely undermine Israel’s military superiority, especially the perceived threat of nuclear retaliation. But, if history is any indication, Iran will become a nuclear power in the future and it might be in everyone’s best interest to begin structuring relationships, policies and attitudes that reflect that eventuality. Even Meir Dagan, the former leader of Mossad, has argued that attacking Iran would be “stupid” as it would merely delay Iran developing a nuclear weapon and retaliatory attacks could lead to all-out regional war. It’s time to begin to develop an intelligent plan for regional stability, one that acknowledges the reality that Iran has become, thanks in large part to America’s actions in Iraq, the regional power. Perhaps, as was the case in the Cold War, the mere threat of mutually assured destruction could prove to be a stabilizing factor.


ABC News, This Week, video, September 2013

Botelho, Greg , “Iran's president calls for 'constructive' dialogue, end to 'unhealthy' rivalries” CNN September 20, 2013

Frontline, “Showdown With Iran”, PBS

Judis, John, “Netanyahu’s Shockingly Bad Iran Speech”, New Republic, October 1, 2013, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Israel”

Norman, Laurence, “John Kerry Joins Iran Nuclear Talks in Vienna: Deal Between Iran and Six World Powers Could Prove Elusive,” Wall Street Journal, web November 20, 2014


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