Implications of the Threat to Bomb Iran

The drums for war on Iran have been banging louder than ever lately, with a spate of articles by political commentators either directly encouraging the bombing of the Islamic Republic or otherwise offering a narrative in which this is effectively portrayed as the only option to prevent Iran from waging a nuclear holocaust against Israel. A prominent example of the latter is Jeffrey Goldberg’s article last month in the Atlantic magazine, “The Point of No Return”.[1] Goldberg’s lengthy piece essentially boils down to this: Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons poses an existential threat to Israel’s existence comparable to the Nazi Holocaust, and although the U.S. recognizes this threat, the Obama administration is weak, so Israel will have no choice but to act alone in bombing Iran to ensure its own survival.

Israel has threatened to bomb IranIt’s impossible to challenge the evidence Goldberg offers to support the foundational premise of his article, for one simple reason: he doesn’t present any. That Iran has a nuclear weapons program is simply an article of faith. As was the case with regard to false claims of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it’s enough to presume this to be true without – or contrary to – any evidence.

The assumption in this case is contrary to a 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that assessed that Iran had halted its alleged nuclear weapons program in 2003, an assessment the intelligence community has stood by.[2] But the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, which is actively monitoring Iran’s program, disputes the U.S. claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the past. In September 2009, the IAEA issued the statement: “the IAEA reiterates that it has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran.”[3] The former Secretary General of the IAEA, Mohammed ElBaradei, repeatedly said there was no evidence Iran has a weapons program, and when his replacement, Yukiya Amano, was asked “whether he believed Tehran was seeking nuclear weapons capability”, he replied, “I don’t see any evidence in IAEA documents about this”.[4] And there is broad agreement among analysts that if Iran wanted to produce a nuclear weapon, assuming it actually had the technological capacity to do so, it would first have to kick out the IAEA inspectors.[5] Moreover, that Iran has the capability is a fairly dubious assumption. As Goldberg himself writes, “Gary Samore, the National Security Council official who oversees the [Obama] administration’s counterproliferation agenda, told me that the Israelis agree with American assessments that Iran’s uranium-enrichment program is plagued with problems. ‘The most essential measure of nuclear-weapons capability is how quickly they can build weapons-grade material, and from that standpoint we can measure, based on the IAEA reports, that the Iranians are not doing well,’ Samore said.” Goldberg confirmed with a senior Israeli official that they “agree with this American assessment”.

Perhaps one reason Goldberg feels no obligation to present any evidence to support the premise that Iran is seeking the bomb is because he feels that claims that Iran has openly declared its intention to threaten Israel with a nuclear attack are sufficient to demonstrate the point. It’s virtually obligatory for government officials and the media, when broaching the subject, to suggest that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapon in the same breath as they claim that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has “threatened” to “wipe Israel off the map”. To cite just a few examples, then Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns said, “Given the radical nature of Iran under Ahmadinejad and its stated wish to wipe Israel off the map of the world, it is entirely unconvincing that we could or should live with a nuclear Iran.”[6] President George W. Bush took it further and drew the connection more explicitly, falsely claiming that the Iranian government had “declared they want to have a nuclear weapon to destroy people”.[7]

Goldberg doesn’t stray from the formula. He fits in the claim by quoting French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who said that “proposals for dialogue” with Iran have brought nothing but “More uranium enrichment and declarations by the leaders of Iran to wipe a UN member state off the map”. He also includes a lengthy discussion about how Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldview was shaped by his father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, who cites “threats” by Israel’s enemies “depicting its upcoming destruction”. From statements of Iranian leaders, “One is supposed to conclude from this that the Jews of the Land of Israel will be annihilated”, said the senior Netanyahu. His son, writes Goldberg, “frames the crisis in nearly the same world-historical terms as his father. ‘Iran has threatened to annihilate a state,’ Netanyahu told me.'”

The “wipe Israel off the map” quote ostensibly comes from a speech Ahmadinejad gave on October 26, 2005, the relevant context of which is obligatorily removed from the reference when reported in the Western media. Notably, it was a speech about the need for oppressive regimes to come to an end. Ahmadinejad noted that “An environment of terror existed” in Iran under the U.S.-supported regime of the Shah, and that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Iranian revolution, “said that the regime must be removed”. Ahmadinejad also quoted Khomeini saying that “The rule of the East [USSR] and the West [U.S.] should be ended”, and added “Nobody believed that we would one day witness the collapse of the Eastern Imperialism”, but that “in our short lifetime we have witnessed how this regime collapsed”. Khomeini also had “said Saddam [Hussein] must go”, Ahmadinejad noted, and, referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “that the occupying regime must be wiped off the map.”[8]

At least, that is how the New York Times translated the sentence. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Ahmadinejad stated, “Imam [Khomeini] said: ‘This regime that is occupying Qods [Jerusalem] must be eliminated from the pages of history.'”[9] Juan Cole, a professor of history at the University of Michigan and Middle East expert, agreed. He wrote that “The phrase he then used as I read it is ‘The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shaved).’ [sic] Ahmadinejad was not making a threat, he was quoting a saying of Khomeini and urging that pro-Palestinian activists in Iran not give up hope – that the occupation of Jerusalem was no more a continued inevitability than had been the hegemony of the Shah’s government. Whatever this quotation from a decades-old speech of Khomeini may have meant, Ahmadinejad did not say that ‘Israel must be wiped off the map’ with the implication that phrase has of Nazi-style extermination of a people.”[10] Jonathan Steele similarly observed in the Guardian that the “wiped off the map” words “are wrong, pure and simple. Ahmadinejad never said them. Farsi speakers have pointed out that he was mistranslated. The Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran’s first Islamic leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that ‘this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time’ just as the Shah’s regime in Iran had vanished. He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future…. There was no implication that either Khomeini, when he first made the statement, or Ahmadinejad, in repeating it, felt it was imminent, or that Iran would be involved in bringing it about. But the propaganda damage was done, and western hawks bracket the Iranian president with Hitler as though he wants to exterminate Jews.”[11]

The response from media organizations that clung to the out-of-context “wiped off the map” mistranslation was instructive. The BBC acknowledged that “there is no direct translation into English of the Farsi phrase used by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad” while insisting on the appropriateness of using “wiped off the map” anyway.[12] The New York Times quoted Juan Cole pointing out that “Ahmadinejad did not say he was going to wipe Israel off the map because no such idiom exists in Persian”, and also cited Jonathan Steele’s Guardian column. The Times acknowledged that Ahmadinejad said “‘occupying regime of Jerusalem’ rather than ‘Israel'”, that “‘Safheh roozgar,’ means pages of time or history”, and that “it is true that he [Ahmadinejad] has never specifically threatened war against Israel.” The Times then remarkably concluded by insisting that its use of “wiped off the map” is accurate and suggesting that Ahmadinejad’s words were quite possibly “a call for war”.[13]

The message from the Western media was clear: Yes, we know Ahmadinejad didn’t really threaten to “wipe Israel off the map”, but we’re going to continue to report that he did, anyway. The crucial – but omitted – context makes it clear that, even if these exact words had actually been used, this was not a military threat. The USSR was not wiped off the map because it was militarily overthrown, but collapsed from within. The Shah’s regime collapsed due to an internal revolution. And nobody interprets Ahmadinejad’s similar words with regard to Saddam Hussein’s regime as meaning that he wished that Iraq had been nuked in order to wipe that oppressive regime off the face of the Earth.

Goldberg does not rely on the myth of Ahmadinejad’s “threat” to Israel alone. He also writes that “The Iranian leadership’s own view of nuclear dangers is perhaps best exemplified by a comment made in 2001 by the former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who entertained the idea that Israel’s demise could be brought about in a relatively pain-free manner for the Muslim world. ‘The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages,’ Rafsanjani said.”

We are thus supposed to believe this constituted an Iranian threat of nuclear attack against Israel. Again, the actual context of Rafsanjani’s remarks is not irrelevant. The words come from a speech in which he criticized Zionist crimes against the Palestinians, and U.S. support for those crimes. He emphasized that the struggle was not against the Jewish people, but the ideology of Zionism: “There are many Jews who don’t believe in Zionism. There are many Jewish scholars in America who have been active against these events.” He also observed that many Zionists are not Jewish. Discussing how Israel came into being, he said that the West supported the Zionist project to further its own colonialist and imperialist goals. “They have supplied vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction and unconventional weapons to Israel”, he said, including nuclear weapons. He then suggested that the Islamic nations might themselves seek nuclear weapons as a deterrent to Western imperialism and Zionist aggression: “If one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.” Suggesting he was referring to nations other than Iran when referring to “the Islamic world”, he added, “Now, even if that does not happen, they can still inflict greater costs on the imperialists” (emphasis added). He referred to the then recent terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and explained: “We cannot encourage that sort of thing either” (emphasis added). In other words, he was not encouraging terrorism against the West or nuclear proliferation: “I am only talking about the natural course of developments. The natural course of developments is such that such things may happen.” Additionally, Rafsanjani noted the U.S. role in supporting Israeli violence against Palestinians, and said that the 9/11 attacks “can be a lesson for the Americans, particularly today, when, due to their aggressive moves and their mistakes, they have paved the way and made it possible for some groups to be armed with non-conventional weapons”. He added, “I would like to admonish the Westerners not allow to matters to go this far” [sic], that “They should not allow a situation of confrontation and antagonism”.[14]

Thus, Rafsanjani was explicitly arguing against a situation wherein “the Islamic world” also possessed a nuclear weapon; he was merely making the point that if the West persists in its complicity in the oppression of the Palestinian people that this could very well come to be. It would be unfortunate if it came to that, in Rafsanjani’s view. But this does not stop Goldberg from quoting Rafsanjani out of context in order to imply, falsely, that he was making an explicit threat of nuclear attack against Israel.

The premise of an Iranian threat of nuclear attack on Israel having been established by such means, Goldberg proceeds to attempt to bolster the further premise that bombing Iran, although sure to have a number of negative consequences, would nevertheless achieve its stated aim. To do so, Goldberg cites a precedent: “In 1981, Israeli warplanes bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak, halting—forever, as it turned out—Saddam Hussein’s nuclear ambitions”.

Goldberg is correct on one point here: Israel did indeed bomb Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. The rest is a historical fabrication. The truth is that the IAEA had been monitoring Iraq’s program and that there was no evidence at that time of any weapons program. The attack upon Iraq by the only nation in the Middle East that actually possessed nuclear weapons (a situation that remains today) was condemned by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 487, which noted that “Iraq has been a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [NPT] since it came into force in 1970, that in accordance with that Treaty Iraq has accepted IAEA safeguards on all its nuclear activities, and that the Agency has testified that these safeguards have been satisfactorily applied to date”. Far from making the world  safer from the threat of nuclear weapons proliferation, the international community, in strongly condemning Israel’s attack as a “clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct”, found that Israel’s attack constituted “a serious threat to the entire IAEA safeguards regime which is the foundation of the non-proliferation Treaty”.[15]

While there’s no evidence Israel’s attack prevented Iraq from acquiring a nuclear weapon, according to U.S. intelligence, it was likely an important factor that played into Saddam Hussein’s subsequent decision to move his nuclear program underground and seek to develop an Iraqi nuclear deterrent to further Israeli aggression. An interagency intelligence assessment on the consequences of Israel’s attack stated that it “could be a watershed event in the Middle East” by adding “new strains” to “US-Arab relations” and sparking an “arms race” in which “Arab leaders will intensify their search for alternative ways to boost their security and protect their interests” (much the same observation that Rafsanjani made in 2001). Israel’s own possession of nuclear weapons made its actions all the more destabilizing. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan had “dispelled the ambiguity that surrounded Israel’s nuclear program by acknowledging Israel’s capability to produce nuclear weapons, and the raid on Iraq has laid Tel Aviv’s challenge before the Arab world in clear terms.” Saddam Hussein responded “by suggesting that world governments provide the Arabs with a nuclear deterrent to Israel’s formidable nuclear capabilities. His message to other Arabs is that they can have no security as long as Israel alone commands the nuclear threat.” In line with the view of the international community as reflected in the U.N. resolution, the assessment stated that Israel’s attack seriously damaged international efforts to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. “A related consequence of the raid is damage to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and to the IAEA safeguards system”, which would “probably have a detrimental impact”. Contrary to Israeli assertions “that the IAEA safeguards system is a sham”, the assessment made a similar observation as the U.N. resolution that “The Iraqis have had the support of most IAEA members because of general acceptance that international and bilateral safeguards over Iraq’s program were sufficient to guard against the diversion of fissile material for a nuclear device.”[16]

Far from “halting—forever” Saddam Hussein’s aspirations to acquire the bomb, Iraq’s subsequent pursuit of a nuclear weapon (which ended with the Gulf War and subsequent IAEA dismantling of Iraq’s nuclear program) was in no small part a direct consequence of Israel’s attack. Any number of obvious corollaries may be drawn, with the precedent having enormous implications for the potential consequences of any attack on Iran, such as the possibility it might cause Iran to withdraw from the NPT in order to actually begin pursuing a nuclear weapons capability (if it isn’t now, which may very well be the case, given the lack of evidence to the contrary) as a deterrent to Israeli aggression. But Goldberg rewrites history in order to lead his readers to an opposite an erroneous conclusion that were Israel to bomb Iran, it would further the stated goal of preventing nuclear proliferation. Goldberg himself hints at his own fallacy by writing that “Benjamin Netanyahu feels … an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, successful or not, may cause Iran to redouble its efforts—this time with a measure of international sympathy—to create a nuclear arsenal. And it could cause chaos for America in the Middle East.” That may be a lesson Netanyahu learned from the Osirak bombing. But the view of the Israeli Prime Minister that an Israeli attack could actually produce the opposite result of its stated aim is mentioned only in passing, and quickly lost among the comparisons of Iran to Nazi Germany, assumptions of an Iranian intent to produce a nuclear weapon and destroy Israel, and arguments about the necessity to bomb Iran to prevent this from happening (e.g., Goldberg’s own assertion that “It is fair to say” that the only reason “that the Iranian nuclear program is not the equivalent of Auschwitz” is because Israel itself possesses nuclear weapons and has a powerful air force).

Goldberg also argues that “An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race.”  The assertion that an Iranian bomb could spark a nuclear arms race is accompanied with accolades for the Israeli bomb, replete with references to the Holocaust: “[T] most crucial component of Israeli national-security doctrine, a tenet that dates back to the 1960s, when Israel developed its own nuclear capability as a response to the Jewish experience during the Holocaust, is that no regional adversary should be allowed to achieve nuclear parity with the reborn and still-besieged Jewish state….  Israel’s nuclear arsenal symbolizes national rebirth, and something else as well: that Jews emerged from World War II having learned at least one lesson, about the price of powerlessness…. In his new book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb, Avner Cohen … argues that the umbrella created by Israel’s nuclear monopoly has allowed the Jewish state to recover from the wounds of the Holocaust.”

The inherent assumption is that Israel’s acquisition of the bomb was not destabilizing and doesn’t threaten to spark a nuclear arms race – only Iran’s acquisition of the bomb would be. As the case of Iraq clearly demonstrates, this is a fallacy. And if Iran actually did make a decision to try to manufacture a nuclear weapon, any argument that Israel’s possession of nukes would not be a factor in the equation would strain credulity. The real threat that would come from Iran if it acquired a nuclear weapon would not be that of a second Holocaust, but that of providing an effective deterrent against Israeli military action. This was the determination of former Israeli generals and diplomats who participated in a wargame in which it was assumed that Iran was nuclear-armed. In such a case, “Iran would blunt Israel’s military autonomy”. Eitan Ben-Eliahu, a retired air force commander who played the role of the Israeli defense minister in the wargame, said that “Iranian deterrence proved dizzyingly effective”. The threat from Iran wasn’t one of nuclear annihilation. Participants determined that a nuclear-armed Iran “emboldened Hezbollah”, and the possibility was raised that Iran could provide Hezbollah with a “dirty bomb”. But some of the participants “predicted Tehran would also exercise restraint” and reporting on the wargame offered no indication participants found that Hezbollah would, under such circumstances, actually use it against Israel, or that its possession of such a weapon would be anything other than a deterrent to Israeli aggression against Lebanon (Israel bombed and invaded Lebanon in 1982, waging utter destruction upon the country, and again in 2006). On the contrary, “Those playing Iran and Hezbollah went as far as to question the very premise that Tehran would let the Lebanese guerillas goad Israel into a potentially catastrophic fight, or give the nuclear know-how that would worry even sympathizers like Syria. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, a retired Israeli intelligence chief acting as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, insisted Iran would regard its bomb as a means of ‘self-defense and strategic balance’ – an allusion to Israel’s own, assumed atomic arsenal.”[17]

As Trita Parsi wrote in Salon, in response to Goldberg’s article, “Even an Iran that doesn’t have nuclear weapons but that can build them would damage Israel’s ability to deter militant Palestinian and Lebanese organizations. It would damage the image of Israel as the sole nuclear-armed state in the region and undercut the myth of its invincibility. Gone would be the days when Israel’s military supremacy would enable it to dictate the parameters of peace and pursue unilateral peace plans. This could force Israel to accept territorial compromises with its neighbors in order to deprive Iran of points of hostility that it could use against the Jewish state. Israel simply would not be able to afford a nuclear rivalry with Iran and continued territorial disputes with the Arabs at the same time.” In other words, if Iran had the bomb, Israel would be forced to comply with international law and numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions and end its occupation of the Palestinian territories.[18]

Contrary to Goldberg’s claim that Iran does not want peace or stability in the Middle East, “Iran offered in 2003 to accept peace with Israel and cut off material assistance to Palestinian armed groups and to pressure them to halt terrorist attacks within Israel’s 1967 borders, according to the secret Iranian proposal to the United States”, investigative journalist and historian Gareth Porter has noted. The proposal recognized the stated U.S. aim of preventing the proliferation of WMD, among others, and suggested a dialogue based on mutual respect and recognition of the other’s goals. To further the mutual goal of non-proliferation, Iran proposed the establishment of a working group on disarmament to create a “road map, which combines the mutual aims of, on the one side, full transparency by international commitments and guarantees to abstain from WMD with, on the other side, full access to western technology” – basic tenets of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Iran proposed a second working group to further mutual aims, including the U.S. goal for a “stop of any material support to Palestinian opposition groups (Hamas, [Islamic] Jihad etc.) from Iranian territory, [and] pressure on these organizations to stop violent action against civilians within borders of 1967”, “action on Hizbollah to become a more political organization within Lebanon”, and “acceptance of the Arab League Beirut declaration ([the] Saudi initiative, [calling for a] two-states-approach [to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict])”.[19]

Iran has repeatedly called for the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, a goal it reiterated at the NPT Nuclear Review Conference earlier this year. The obstacle to this goal, President Ahmadinejad said, is that “While the Zionist regime has stockpiled hundreds of nuclear warheads … it enjoys the unconditional support of the United States government and its allies and receives, as well, the necessary assistance to develop its nuclear weapons program”. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to Iran’s calls to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone by asserting that “the conditions for such a zone do not exist”, with the ostensible reason being that there has been no progress in peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.[20] Undersecretary of State Ellen Tauscher excused the U.S. from pursuing its obligations on the basis that it would be hard to imagine negotiating “any kind of free zone in the absence of a comprehensive peace plan that is running on a parallel track.”[21]

The obvious non-sequitur aside, there is a reason that no progress has been made on the Israel-Palestine issue. The U.S. has a long and clear record, rhetoric aside, of blocking any implementation of a two-state solution by financially, militarily, and diplomatically supporting Israeli policies contrary to that goal. This situation has continued under the Obama administration, despite pretenses to the contrary. Much was said last year in the media about the administration “readying for a possible confrontation” with Israel because of Netanyahu’s “refusal to support the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.” Obama intended to ask Netanyahu to fulfill his commitments, including by “accepting the principle of a Palestinian state” and “freezing settlement activity” (Haaretz).[22] “The Obama Administration has signaled a tougher approach towards Israel ahead of fresh talks on the Middle East peace process by insisting it must endorse the creation of an independent Palestinian state” (London Times).[23] Israel responded by announcing that it would not agree to any U.S. demands to freeze all settlement activity.[24] The U.S. then re-approved billions in loan guarantees to Israel, despite a provision that the amount may be reduced if the President determines Israel’s activities “are inconsistent with the objectives and understandings reached between the United States and State of Israel regarding implementation of the loan guarantee program.”[25] The White House responded to suggestions that it might exert economic pressure on Israel to end its illegal settlement activities by stating explicitly that it would not consider scaling back U.S. financial support.[26] The Obama administration also refused to endorse the findings and recommendations of the report of the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict – often referred to as the “Goldstone Report” after the mission’s head, Justice Richard Goldstone. The U.N. mission found that both Israel and Hamas had committed war crimes during Israel’s assault on Gaza, dubbed “Operation Cast Lead”, which lasted from December 27, 2008 until January 18, 2009. The U.S. refusal to support the report’s recommendations effectively quashed any effort to bring the report to the Security Council or International Court of Justice. As Human Rights Watch observed, “The failure of the United States and European Union governments to endorse the report of the Gaza fact-finding mission sends a message that serious laws-of-war violations will be treated with kid gloves when committed by an ally”.[27] The overall message from the Obama administration was understood perfectly well by the Netanyahu government, which carried on as usual, while the U.S. continued to refrain from pressuring Israel in any meaningful way to cease its illegal settlement activities.[28]

The U.S. refusal to do anything to further the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East comes despite the fact that it is formally committed to that goal, as well as to the goal of preventing any attack on Iran’s nuclear program. Echoing the prohibition on the use of force in the U.N. Charter, the final declaration issued by the Nuclear Review Conference stated that “attacks or threats of attack on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes jeopardize nuclear safety, have dangerous political, economic and environmental implications and raise serious concerns regarding the application of international law on the use of force in such cases” and “underscores the importance of the establishment of nuclear-weapons-free zones where they do not exist, especially in the Middle East.”[29]

In fact, as the formal U.S. commitment to establishing a nuke-free zone in the region goes back to at least 1991. U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 recalled “the objective of the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region of the Middle East” and noted “the threat that all weapons of mass destruction pose to peace and security in the area and of the need to work towards the establishment in the Middle East of a zone free of such weapons”. It called upon Iraq to destroy all its WMD and stated that this represented “steps towards the goal of establishing in the Middle East a zone free from weapons of mass destruction”.[30]

A New York Times headline from May 2 declared “U.S. Is Pushing to Deter a Mideast Nuclear Race” – by seeking sanctions against Iran, which does not have nuclear weapons, while refusing to live up to its formal commitment to establish a nuclear-weapons-free zone, which would require the U.S. to pressure the only nation in the region that actually possesses nuclear weapons to join the NPT and come clean on its nuclear program.[31]

As the Washington Post observed in a headline the same week, “Israel’s stance on nuclear arms complicates efforts against Iran”. Post reporter Walter Pincus explained that a working paper being circulated at the conference contained a pledge by member states not to offer Israel any nuclear assistance so long as it refuses to sign the NPT or put its nuclear program under the safeguards of the IAEA. The working paper also called “for signatory countries, including the United States, ‘to disclose all information available to them on the nature and scope of Israeli nuclear capabilities, including information pertaining to previous nuclear transfers to Israel.'” This is problematic for the U.S. because “France and the United States have been identified as key suppliers to Israel’s secret nuclear weapons development program in the 1950s and 1960s.” A senior U.S. official responded by saying that any refusal by the U.S. to offer nuclear assistance to Israel unless it joins the NPT regime and U.S. disclosure of information about Israel’s program “will never happen, never”. It was in 1974, Pincus noted further, that Egypt and Iran first proposed the establishment of a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East, which gained the approval of the U.N. General Assembly, and the U.S. formally committed itself to that goal in a resolution passed at the 1995 NPT Review Conference.[32]

The Washington Times hinted at a more plausible explanation for the U.S. refusal to live up to its obligation at the time of the NPT Review Conference, reporting that “President Obama’s efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny, former and current U.S. and Israeli officials and nuclear specialists say.”[33]

Given the actual facts and circumstances, which Goldberg does his best to obfuscate, an elementary corollary is that the best options available to the U.S. to prevent any further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East would be to pressure Israel to join the NPT safeguards regime and end its illegal occupation and land grabbing. Yet the U.S. rejects the former option (despite its formal obligation) and works against the latter (despite its empty rhetoric to the contrary). Any attack on Iran would have dire consequences and enormously destabilize the region, including by exponentially increasing the risk that Iranian leaders might make the decision to seek a nuclear deterrent to prevent any similar attacks in the future. It would undermine the NPT regime and IAEA safeguards system and shatter the already dim hope for meaningful progress towards implementation of the international consensus on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a further corollary, that the predictable consequences would be precisely the opposite of the stated intent serves to demonstrate, if we presume policy makers are competent, that Middle East peace and non-proliferation of nuclear weapons are not high priorities in U.S. policy decisions.


[1] Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Point of No Return”, The Atlantic, September 2010 <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2010/09/the-point-of-no-return/8186/>.

[2] “Iran: Nuclear Intentions and Capabilities”, National Intelligence Council, November 2007 <http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/20071203_release.pdf>. Mark Hosenball, “Intelligence Agencies Say No New Nukes in Iran”, Newsweek, September 16, 2009 <http://www.newsweek.com/2009/09/15/intelligence-agencies-say-no-new-nukes-in-iran.html>.

[3] “Recent Media Report on Iran”, IAEA Press Statement, September 17, 2009 <http://www.iaea.org/NewsCenter/MediaAdvisory/2009/MA200919.html>.

[4] Sylvia Westall, “No sign Iran seeks nuclear arms: new IAEA head”, Reuters, July 3, 2009. <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL312024420090703>. Jeremy R. Hammond, “The New York Times’ ‘fit to print’ version of the IAEA in Iran”, Foreign Policy Journal, August 31, 2009. <https://www.foreignpolicyjournal.com/2009/08/31/the-new-york-times-fit-to-print-version-of-the-iaea-in-iran/>.

[5] See, for example: William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “Iran Said to Have Nuclear Fuel for One Weapon”, New York Times, November 19, 2008 < http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/20/world/middleeast/20nuke.html>.Reuters, July 3, 2009. Vivienne Walt, “Is Iran Running Out of Uranium?” TIME, April 27, 2010

<http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1984657,00.html>. Joseph Cirincione and Elise Connor, “How Iran Can Build a Bomb”, Foreign Policy, July 1, 2010 <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/07/01/how_iran_can_build_a_bomb>.

[6] Ethan Bronner, “Just How Far Did They Go, Those Words Against Israel?”, New York Times, June 11, 2006 <http://www.nytimes.com/2006/06/11/weekinreview/11bronner.html?_r=1>.

[7] “Bush Vows to Prevent Iran From Acquiring Nuclear Arms”, Washington Post, March 20, 2008 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/03/21/AR2008032101833.html>.

[8] “Text of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Speech”, New York Times, October 30, 2005 <http://www.nytimes.com/2005/10/30/weekinreview/30iran.html>.

“Iranian President at Tehran Conference: ‘Very Soon This Stain of Disgrace [i.e. Israel] Will Be Purged From the Center of the Islamic World – and This is Attainable'”, Middle East Media Research Institute, October 28, 2005 <http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/1510.htm>.

[9] MEMRI, October 28, 2005.

[10] Juan Cole, “Hitchens the Hacker; And, Hitchens the Orientalist And, ‘We don’t Want Your Stinking War!'”, JuanCole.com, May 3, 2006 <http://www.juancole.com/2006/05/hitchens-hacker-and-hitchens.html>.

[11] Jonathan Steele, “If Iran is ready to talk, the US must do so unconditionally”, The Guardian, June 2, 2006 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/02/comment.usa>.

[12] Peter Rippon, “Wiped off the map?”, BBC, March 6, 2007 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/theeditors/2007/03/wiped_off_the_map.html>.

[13] New York Times, June 11, 2006.

[14] Speech by Chairman of the Expediency Council Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran), December 14, 2001; translation by BBC Worldwide Monitoring. “Qods Day Speech (Jerusalem Day)”, GlobalSecurity.org, December 14, 2001 <http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/iran/2001/011214-text.html>.

[15] United Nations Security Council Resolution 487, June 19, 1981 <http://www.un.org/Docs/scres/1981/scres81.htm>, <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/un/un487.htm>.

[16] “Implications of Israeli Attack on Iraq”, Interagency Intelligence Assessment, July 1, 1981 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB80/wmd01.pdf>.

[17] Dan Williams, “Israel plays wargame assuming Iran has nuclear bomb”, Reuters, May 17, 2010 <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE64G66820100517>.

[18] Trita Parsi, “A campaign for war with Iran begins”, Salon, August 13, 2010 <http://www.salon.com/news/politics/war_room/2010/08/13/trita_parsi_jeffrey_goldberg>.

[19] Gareth Porter, “Iran Proposal to U.S. Offered Peace with Israel”, IPS, May 24, 2006 <http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=33348>, <http://ipsnews.net/iranletterfacsimile.pdf>.

[20] Elise Labott, “Clinton faces off with Iran’s leader at UN nuclear conference”, CNN, May 4, 2010 <http://edition.cnn.com/2010/POLITICS/05/03/un.ahmadinejad/index.html>. Walter Pincus, “Israel’s stance on nuclear arms complicates efforts against Iran”, Washington Post, May 4, 2010 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/05/03/AR2010050304341.html>. William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “U.S. Is Pushing to Deter a Mideast Nuclear Race”, New York Times, May 2, 2010 <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/03/world/03nuke.html>. Louis Charbonneau, “US, other big powers back Mideast nuclear arms ban”, Reuters, May 5, 2010 <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0519181920100505>. Louis Charbonneau, “Conference on Mideast WMD ban gets go ahead”, Reuters, May 28, 2010 <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE64R4RL20100528>. “189 Nations Agree to Nuke Disarmament Plan”, Associated Press, May 28, 2010 <http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/05/28/world/main6528140.shtml>.

[21] Dan Williams, “Israel won’t move on U.N. call for nuclear-free zone”, Reuters, May 7, 2010 <http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6463DS20100507>.

[22] Aluf Benn, “U.S. officials tell lawmakers clash likely over PM’s refusal to support two-state solution”, Haaretz, April 8, 2009 <http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/obama-team-readying-for-confrontation-with-netanyahu-1.273770>.

[23] Tom Baldwin, “Barack Obama hints at tougher line on Israel”, The Times, May 5, 2009 <http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/middle_east/article6229180.ece>.

[24] “Israel ‘will not bow’ to US settlement freeze call”, Sydney Morning Herald, May 31, 2009 <http://news.smh.com.au/breaking-news-world/israel-will-not-bow-to-us-settlement-freeze-call-20090531-brhn.html>.

[25] “U.S. re-approves Israel loan guarantees program”, Reuters, June 30, 2009 <http://www.haaretz.com/news/u-s-re-approves-israel-loan-guarantees-program-1.279123>.

[26] Natasha Mozgovaya, “U.S.: We won’t exert economic pressure on Israel”, Haaretz, July 24, 2009 <http://www.haaretz.com/news/u-s-we-won-t-exert-economic-pressure-on-israel-1.280684>. Nina Donaghy, “State Department Walks Back Suggestion U.S. Will Exert Financial Pressure on Israel”, FOX News, July 23, 2009 <http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2009/07/23/state-department-walks-suggestion-exert-financial-pressure-israel/>.

[27] “UN: US, EU Undermine Justice for Gaza Conflict”, Human Rights Watch, September 30, 2009 <http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2009/09/30/un-us-eu-undermine-justice-gaza-conflict>.

[28] Adrian Blomfield, “US drops demand for Israeli settlement freeze”, Telegraph, November 1, 2009 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/6480482/US-drops-demand-for-Israeli-settlement-freeze.html>.

[29] Final Document, Volume I, 2010 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT/CONF.2010/50[Vol. I]) <http://www.un.org/en/conf/npt/2010/docs.shtml>,  <www.reachingcriticalwill.org/legal/npt/revcon2010/FinalDocument.pdf>.

[30] United Nations Security Council Resolution 687, April 3, 1991 <http://www.un.org/Docs/scres/1991/scres91.htm>, <http://www.fas.org/news/un/iraq/sres/sres0687.htm>.

[31] New York Times, May 2, 2010.

[32] Washington Post, May 4, 2010.

[33] Eli Lake, “Secret U.S.-Israeli nuclear accord in jeopardy”, Washington Times, May 6, 2009 <http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/may/6/us-weighs-forcing-israel-to-disclose-nukes/print/>.