As the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing
of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaches, the world continues to face a litany of
nuclear concerns. There is the failure to safeguard all the nuclear material
lying loose around the globe. And proponents of nuclear power have gained ground
as a result of the current energy crisis.
But the radioactive rhetoric printed on newspaper opinion pages and proclaimed
from would-be presidential podiums puts Iran at the top of the nuclear list.
"Bomb, Bomb Iran," sang
John McCain – the man running for President of the United States on a record
of foreign policy experience, military know-how, and gravitas – to the tune
of The Beach Boys hit "Barbara Ann." More recently, Benny Morris,
an Israeli historian writing in The New York Times, opined
that "Israel's own nuclear arsenal" could be "the only means
available that will actually destroy the Iranian nuclear project," laying
out a new argument for the central fallacy of the Cold War – winnable nuclear
war – long thought to be in the ash bin of history.
This is industrial strength saber-rattling, and it could not come at a worse
Testing, Testing: One, Two, Three
In early July, Iran test-fired long-range missiles.
The response from Israel and the United States was swift and strong, even as
Tehran maintained that its nuclear program was for civilian purposes. A spokesman
for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said, "The Iranian nuclear program
and the Iranian ballistic missile program must be of grave concern to the entire
international community." Gordon D. Johndroe, the deputy White House press
secretary, urged Iran's leaders to renounce further missile tests and "stop
the development of ballistic missiles which could be used as a delivery vehicle
for a potential nuclear weapon immediately."
How soon a "potential nuclear weapon" could be delivered is anyone's
guess. But some experts opted to look beyond the dramatic pictures and strong
words to assess what Iran actually did and why. Charles Vick, an expert at GlobalSecurity.org,
reviewed test footage, noting that most of the nine missiles fired were old
and no longer in production. He concluded that the Iranians – while surely
interested in a show of force – were also clearing
out old inventory.
The White House seemed to take Iranian claims that they had extended the range
of their missiles to 2,000 kilometers at face value, perhaps because it strengthened
arguments for a key pillar of President Bush's legacy – ballistic missile defense.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the Czech Republic signing agreements
to base U.S. missile interceptors in Europe at the time of the test, said "The
tests are more evidence that the world needs the U.S. missile defense system."
Scientists and Iran experts equally doubt Tehran's claims about the missiles
range, carrying capacity, and accuracy. David Wright, a physicist and co-director
of UCS's Global Security Program, who reviewed the test carefully, notes
that "Iran frequently exaggerates the capability of its missiles, and it
appears it is continuing that tradition with this week's tests."
Careful investigation reveals more than mere exaggeration. Early images released
by Iranian news services were doctored
to make the tests look more successful. Agence France-Presse and many other
news outlets published front-page pictures showing four missiles. AFP later
retracted its four-missile version, saying that the image was "apparently
digitally altered" by Iranian state media. The fourth missile "has
apparently been added in digital retouch to cover a grounded missile that may
have failed during the test." News of the doctored photos, which received
broad coverage in the West, is unlikely to have reached the Iranian people.
For all of these reasons, Dana Priest, the Washington Post investigative
that the tests were aimed at their own population "perhaps as a way to
show they are strong before entering into talks with the evil one – the
U.S. (which might signal weakness to the more hard-line crowd)."
Talking, Taking: Is Anyone Listening?
Despite the tests, the United States sent William
Burns, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs, to meetings with Iran
and France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Russia, and China. These meetings were
trumpeted as the highest-level sessions between Washington and Tehran since
before President George W. Bush was inaugurated in 2001. But Undersecretary
Burns' presence did not signal that these talks were permanently higher on the
U.S. agenda, because his participation was described as a "one time deal."
Negotiations focused on a "freeze-for-freeze" deal. Iran would "freeze"
by not adding to its nuclear program and the six parties to the negotiations
would "freeze" by not seeking a new round of international sanctions
for six weeks, a move which would pave the way for formal negotiations. Iran
demurred, continuing to maintain that its highly enriched uranium program is
for nuclear energy and not nuclear weapons. Iranian negotiators did not answer
yes or no, and now the talks are postponed for another two weeks. The "freeze
for freeze" was not new. It was first put on the table last year. What
was new at these talks was the presence of Burns and the recent test.
Meanwhile, Iran is not the only country with the intent or capability to pursue
nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency asserts that 20-30 countries
have the wherewithal. We can't offer freeze-for-freeze deals to all of them,
so there must be some other tools in the tool box.
Meanwhile on the campaign trail, candidates are
rehashing their long-held positions. Democratic contender Barack Obama has repeatedly
said he would engage in "tough, direct presidential diplomacy with
Iran without preconditions." But, at the same time he told
supporters that Iran's nuclear ambitions represent a "serious threat
to the United States, to our ally Israel and to international security."
When not adapting popular song lyrics, Republican hopeful John McCain calls
an Iran with nuclear weapons an "unacceptable risk" to regional and
global stability, and has repeatedly asserted that there is "only one thing
worse than military action, and that is a nuclear armed Iran."
Neither candidate has addressed the dangerous game of brinksmanship now being
played by leaders in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. There is a course toward
security for all three nations and the region. Bold alternatives to brinksmanship
begin with the recognition that Washington's policy of quietly green-lighting
Israel's clandestine nuclear weapons program on the one hand while thwarting
Iran's still-unrealized nuclear ambitions on the other has undermined its ability
to offer acceptable carrots or sticks. A series of interlocking confidence-building
measures that support steady and careful negotiations marked by mutual compromise
does not grab headlines the way fear-mongering and hyperbole do. But, before
we head into a mess of nuclear proportions, it is well worth an honest try.