COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 25 Jan 2009
The incoming Obama Administration is making some promising noises on both nuclear weapons and relations with Iran. It’s a notable breach with previous US political discourse that a world free of nuclear weapons is back on the agenda at all, even as a distant dream.
During the Democratic and Republican conventions, which anointed Obama and McCain the respective party nominees for the presidency, the campaign group, the Global Security Institute, wanted to pay for advertisements on billboards near the convention centres, to remind delegates of the issue. They had the money and the bookings were available, but the owner, Clear Channel Communications, blocked them on the grounds that they preferred to avoid political ‘controversy’.
The missing element in media representations of America’s relations with Iran is, in many cases, the framework of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. It’s due for renewal next year, and it prohibits signatory states from developing nuclear weapons – so far, so familiar. What’s altogether less familiar, from countless news stories about ‘concerns’ over ‘Iran’s nuclear ambitions’, is the reciprocal obligation on nuclear-armed powers that signed the Treaty, namely to enter into substantive negotiations to reduce and remove them.
For a while, that bore dividends in the shape of the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) between the superpowers, in 1972, and subsequent rounds of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), beginning in 1979. Lately, the picture has been more clouded (no pun intended). Under the Bush Administration, the US was increasingly criticised for reversing this progress, both through the development of new nuclear weapons – as a ‘fortuitous’ consequence of care and maintenance programs – and for changes in its nuclear doctrine to allow a first strike against non-nuclear armed states, even when not in alliance with any nuclear-armed state.
Already, siren voices are seeking to bind the new Administration to the same course. Obama’s decision to retain Robert Gates in his position as Defense Secretary offers an opening for nuclear hawks. Gates received a report recently from a task force he appointed, headed by one of his predecessors at the Pentagon, according to which the US nuclear deterrent is in danger of losing credibility.
It warned that countries in Europe and Asia, content, hitherto, with sheltering under the US nuclear ‘umbrella’, might start building their own, unless the US developed a new generation of weapons. And General Kevin Chilton, head of US Strategic Command, used an article in the Wall Street Journal to argue that “time is not on our side” because China and Russia were already upgrading their warheads. “The path of inaction is a path leading toward nuclear disarmament … The time to act is now”, he said.
It’s a form of paranoia well-worn in Washington infighting over armaments budgets at least since the mid-1970s – the period of détente, which yielded those landmark arms agreements, and also the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam. CIA appraisals of the receding Soviet threat were brushed aside by a team convened on the orders of President Gerald Ford – keen to prove, perhaps, that he really could walk and chew gum at the same time – to pore over the same field reports and raw data, and second-guess the assessments drawn up by the Agency’s top analysts.
Team B, as it was known, reached some startling conclusions. No evidence could be found to support the long-held fear that the Soviets had developed an acoustic system for detecting US nuclear submarines… so they must have developed an undetectable, non-acoustic one instead. Soviet air defences were in tip-top condition, the team decided; based on the unimpeachable evidence of boasts in an official Russian training manual.
The episode is presented, with contemporary footage and original interviews with senior insiders, in the BBC documentary, The Power of Nightmares – recommended viewing if you haven’t seen it. The program also recalls attempts to ‘prove’ the links between groups all over the world using political violence, from the Red Brigades in Italy to the Irish Republicans and the New People’s Army in the Philippines. These were being secretly armed and funded from Moscow, the story went, and wielded by the Soviets in a concerted campaign against western interests.
There was even a book, The Terror Network, which went on general sale, presenting evidence to back this theory. William Casey, Ford’s Director of Central Intelligence, ordered his officers to investigate its claims. They found them familiar, one tells the program, because they themselves had invented much of the evidence, to spread among local journalists in the hope of discrediting the groups concerned.
There’s an echo of this, too, in Washington’s attitude to Hamas, manifest in its encouragement of Israel’s attack on Gaza (see previous columns). Hamas cannot possibly have arisen of its own accord, on this view – it must be the result of interference from what is represented, in this same context, as an ‘Iran-Syria axis’, contesting American influence in the strategic Middle East.
Which brings us to one of the notable omissions from Obama’s statements, and briefings from the new White House team. A couple of years ago, confidential papers from the Nixon Administration of the late 1960s were declassified, revealing the extent of American concern over a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. A memorandum from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger complained that Israel’s new nuclear arsenal – developed from materials originally supplied by the French – was an issue on which “the Israelis have persistently deceived us”.
The NPT, ratified by Nixon in 1970, represented a grand diplomatic bargain between the nuclear haves and have-nots. It enshrined the right, for the latter, to access civil nuclear technology and formed a context in which they were content to forswear any ambitions of developing a nuclear arsenal. Israel was an exception, and is now one of only four UN member states never to have signed the treaty – the others being India, Pakistan and North Korea.
Obama has kept off this topic so far, but it must surely surface eventually. UN Security Council Resolution 687, which formalized the ceasefire deal at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, provides for a Middle East free of all weapons of mass destruction. If America is to find the “new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect” with “the Muslim world”, foreshadowed in Obama’s Inaugural Address, then the same standards must be applied to Israel as to Iran. Bargains, if they are fair, often work, as the NPT itself has broadly done for forty years – one-sided diktats do not.
In 1998, the US sold Israel a variant of the F15 combat aircraft, and then, in 2001, an F16 variant, both of which have the range to fly a bombing mission as far as Iran and return to base without refuelling, giving it this capability for the first time and handing the Islamic Republic a readymade incentive to step up its own armed capabilities. If that really does include secretly developing a nuclear weapon, it will represent a form of blowback from Washington’s previous policies.
Of course, the 1979 revolution, which brought the Islamists to power in Tehran, could be similarly described. The hated regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi was installed in 1953 following a CIA-backed coup which brought down the elected government of Mohammed Mossadegh. Obama could do worse than start his new relationship with the Iranians by apologising for that.
The Americans were called in by their friends the British following a row with Mossadegh over the sharing of oil revenues by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. Legend has it that when this aspect of the relationship between the UK and Iran was referred to, in briefings by officials to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it was met with a blank look – he’d never heard of it. The same Blair straight-facedly assured legislators that renewing the Trident nuclear missile system would guard the country against terrorism – an argument compared memorably by former weapons inspector Hans Blix, in the Michael Douglas-narrated film, Soldiers of Peace, to a claim that you can use a cannon to swat flies.
Obama has said nothing about the so-called ‘reliable replacement warhead program’ of the US energy department, but this, along with Britain’s new Trident, represents the clearest potential breach of the NPT by signatory states. What about Iran? The assessment in the US National Intelligence Estimate, released last year, was that Iran’s ambitions in this direction, such as they were, had been put on hold.
These issues are too seldom ventilated. The instinctive reaction of the advertising bosses at Clear Channel – which also owns hundreds of radio stations across the US – that to poke around in the politics of nuclear weapons is to invite ‘controversy’, is hard-wired into too many journalistic brains. “With old friends and former foes”, Obama pronounced, “we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat”. It could be taken as a signal that nuclear disarmament is losing its Cold War stigma – one of “the stale political arguments” that the new President said had “consumed us for too long” and which “no longer apply”. And that signal could, in turn, be the cue for a clear, honest and properly contextualised debate about how we build a safer world.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Jan 2009.
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