Oft repeated but false assertions about Iran's nuclear program—and the recent deal to tamp it down—may end up being more dangerous than the program itself. These wrong statements reinforce each other, get amplified in the media, and are fueling a march to military action.
Such use of force would further inflame the Middle East and could push Iran to start a full-scale nuclear weapons project. US national security would further erode as a result—just like it has with the Iraq debacle. The 'aluminum tubes', 'mobile biological-weapons labs', and 'yellow cake from Niger' memes fueled the march to that war. Let's examine some of the current false Iran nuclear memes before we’re led down the yellow-cake road again:
Meme 1: “If the world powers fail to reach a deal with Tehran the alternative is bombing.”
An incarnation of this shopworn meme appears in Matthew Kroenig's recent piece in Foreign Affairs. He states “A truly comprehensive diplomatic settlement between Iran and the West is still the best possible outcome, but there is little reason to believe that one can be achieved. And that means the United States may still have to choose between bombing Iran and allowing it to acquire a nuclear bomb.” Er, no. That's a false choice. Iran is not acquiring a nuclear bomb—the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) has a “high level of confidence” that no decision to weaponize has yet been taken in Tehran. This conclusion of the DNI is not based on an absence of evidence but on actual information that whatever weaponization research Iran may have been doing up to about 2003 has been wrapped up a decade ago.
The P5+1 nations—the five permanent members of the Security Council: the US, UK, France, Russia and China, plus Germany—are not negotiating with Iran to stop it from making a nuclear bomb. They are negotiating with Iran on how to continue to keep its nuclear program peaceful. The discussion is about the methods used to verify that Iran continues its peaceful nuclear program. Even if the nuclear talks fall apart the IAEA inspectors would still continue to inspect Iranian nuclear facilities.
If we—or our allies—bomb Iran the IAEA inspectors would most certainly be expelled, Iran would likely leave the NPT, and Tehran would likely kick off a full-blown nuclear weapons development project. Iraq's nuclear weapons project also started in earnest after Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981.
To sum up: The negotiations with Iran are about the methods to use to continue to make sure Iran's nuclear program is peaceful. Not reaching a deal is not the end of the world. And if we do bomb Iran, it is likely to bring about the very thing the bombs were trying to prevent: a full-blown nuclear weapons program.
That said, a deal is still the best outcome: it would give even more reassurance about Iran's nuclear program, and it would end the sanctions which are punishing the weakest of the Iranian civilians while enriching the Revolutionary Guards who profit from busting sanctions.
Meme 2: “Sanctions forced Iran to the table and extracted concessions from Iran.”
This meme has been expressed, for example, by Senator Robert Menendez, among many others. He has stated that “Current sanctions brought Iran to the negotiating table and a credible threat of future sanctions will require Iran to cooperate and act in good faith at the negotiating table.” However cliché, the statement is untrue. Iran was at the negotiating table almost ten years ago and offered the same concessions back then. The sanctions are not what resulted in the recent breakthrough interim agreement between the world powers and Iran. The main thing that changed is the improved atmospherics, which “allowed” the P5+1 to sign a deal with Iran. The election of Iranian president Rouhani, a moderate and erudite leader, permitted the world powers to sign a deal with Iran—a “reward” the US was unwilling to bestow upon the loudmouthed and provocative Ahmedinejad, mostly for domestic reasons.
It is important to underline that Iran has offered nothing more in terms of concessions now than what it offered in 2005. The sanctions did not bring Iran to the negotiating table—Tehran was always there—and the sanctions definitely did not wring out extra concessions from Iran. Basically, were it not for western intransigence and the bad atmospherics, the interim deal signed in late 2013 could have been signed in 2005.
This brings us to next false meme:
Meme 3: “Iran has dragged out negotiations unnecessarily—the West sees the nuclear issue as an urgent matter and desperately wants to resolve it but is frustrated by Tehran's foot-dragging”
As mentioned above, the world powers could have gotten the same concessions out of Iran back in 2005 but have only now decided to seriously engage with Iran. As the New York Times has reported, “Mr. Obama’s aides seem content with stalemate.” The main thing this foot-dragging by the west indicates is that it does not see the Iranian nuclear issue as particularly important. This is unsurprising because the US Intelligence community is aware—with a “high level of confidence”—that there is no nuclear weapons program in Iran right now.
Even now, after the interim agreement with Iran has been signed, elite US analysts and commentators are yawning at the prospect of an Iranian bomb and actually urging a lackadaisical approach to negotiations with Iran. For example, Mitchell Reiss and Ray Takeyh argue that "to succeed in nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Western powers should be mindful...[that] Iran needs an agreement more than the United States does...There is no reason for Washington to seem more eager than Tehran to reach an agreement..." Yes, if one chooses to dismiss the issue of an alleged nuclear weapons capability in Iran, then indeed the advice of such commentators may be worth heeding. But one needs to decide: is the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons capability a serious issue or not? If not, then why place such draconian sanctions on Iranian civilians to begin with? The sanctions are causing tremendous harm to the weakest civilians in Iranian society while enriching the Revolutionary Guards who profit from sanctions-busting. If, as these commentators suggest, the West does not need a deal urgently they cannot simultaneously pretend that the issue is important enough to launch military action.
If stopping an alleged Iranian nuclear weapons capability is worth going to war, it's certainly worth taking the issue seriously and undertaking serious sanctions relief.
Meme 4: “ The P5+1 is extra-tough on Iran because Iran signed the NPT, whereas other nations like Pakistan, India, and Israel did not, and so it's okay to tolerate nuclear weapons in the latter states and even help them with nuclear know-how and technology.”
If the P5+1 nations want to invoke the NPT to try to limit nuclear know-how in signatory states like Iran they need to at least first show a firmer hand with the nuclear-armed NPT non-signatories. For instance, because Iran is being sanctioned for its past violations of its nuclear safeguards agreements—which were somewhat gratuitously interpreted as a “threat to the peace” by the UN Security Council (UNSC)—then certainly Pakistan, India and Israel should be similarly sanctioned.
After all, the sanctions are applied to Iran only because the “trigger” of the IAEA nuclear safeguards violations raised the issue to the level of the UNSC. The only reason such triggers have not gone off for India, Pakistan and Israel is that, since they are outside the framework of the NPT, their safeguards agreements are watered-down and similar triggers simply don't exist. But since these nations already have nuclear weapons and are outside the NPT they are objectively a bigger “threat to the peace” than Iran, which is an NPT signatory and has been determined by the US DNI has having no current nuclear weapons program with a “high level of confidence”. [The UNSC sanctions are applied under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, Article 39, in which the Security Council can determine a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and may recommend, or decide what measures to take...to maintain or restore international peace and security.”]
Under no circumstances should nations who have signed the NPT—whether or not they are currently seen to be in good standing—be sanctioned and treated more severely than those that haven't signed on to the NPT and have nuclear weapons. Such heavy-handedness with signatory nations will undercut the desire of many nations to sign on to new arms control initiatives, like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In fact, the actions of some of the P5+1 nations, namely China and US, go against the spirit and intentions of the NPT. US and China are helping the nuclear-armed NPT non-signatory states India and Pakistan, respectively, with their civilian nuclear programs. (And before it signed the NPT in 1992, France helped Israel with its nuclear program.) But the 'firewall' between civilian and military nuclear sectors in Pakistan, India and Israel is somewhere between porous to non-existent. And, at the least, civilian nuclear assistance frees up nuclear resources—scientists and materiel much of which are dual-use—which can be applied to the military nuclear programs in these non-NPT nations. Thus the nuclear assistance given by China and the US to Pakistan and India can legitimately be seen as a violation of the NPT.