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September 29, 2005

The Meaning of the IAEA Iran Vote

Where have we seen this before?

by Jorge Hirsch

What could possibly be the purpose of the "gentle slap" (according to the L.A. Times headline, 9/25) delivered to Iran via the IAEA vote that found it in noncompliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and requires that it be reported to the UN at an unspecified date? One might argue that the threat of sanctions from the Security Council (SC) would put pressure on Iran to further satisfy demands of Europe and the U.S. regarding its nuclear program. However, because Russia and China abstained from the IAEA vote, oppose sanctions on Iran, and have veto power in the SC, there is no possibility that sanctions on Iran will be imposed by the Security Council. Hence no additional pressure on Iran will result from this IAEA vote. Why then did the U.S. push for it so adamantly?

A logical reason emerges by reviewing the process that led to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. First, the pressure on Iraq to submit to intrusive inspections was ratcheted up. While the stated purpose was to get Iraq to "come clean" about its alleged WMD programs, the real purpose as revealed by the Downing Street memos was to induce Iraq to refuse inspections, thus providing an excuse for invasion. That didn't work. Plan B was then that the Security Council resolution 1441 of November 2002 provided at least a tenuous excuse for the United States to argue that its invasion of Iraq was justified (see President Bush's speech of March 17, 2003) , as the SC had found Iraq "in breach of its obligations" regarding nonexistent WMD. All along the process leading to the March 2003 military invasion of Iraq, the stated purpose of U.S. diplomatic activity was very different from its real intentions.

Similarly, there is only one logical reason to explain the current diplomatic push by the U.S. to haul Iran before the SC even without any consensus within the IAEA. Because when Iran's case comes before the SC and no sanctions are passed due to Russia's and China's vetoes, the U.S. will be left with no diplomatic options – not a desirable position to be in, unless the purpose all along was to resort to a military option.

Ideally for U.S. hawks, Iran will react to the threat of sanctions by rejecting the IAEA additional protocol, or even better, by expelling inspectors and withdrawing from the NPT. Then the hawks can argue that there is no way to know how many nuclear bombs Iran is building and how far along it is, and that it is better to do something sooner rather than later. Even if that does not happen, the U.S. can argue based on the resolution just passed by IAEA that Iran is in noncompliance with the NPT. None of the European coalition partners is likely to be "willing" this time, but that will not deter the U.S. from "preemptive" military action.

Since a ground invasion of Iran is impractical, the only possible military action is an aerial attack on Iran's nuclear installations, as Israel did to Iraq in 1981 (when Iraq was by all estimates several years away from the ability to build a nuclear bomb). However, unlike Iraq's Osirak reactor, Iranian nuclear facilities are underground and will require nuclear bombs to be destroyed. Despite Vice President Cheney's suggestion in January 2005 that Israel "might do it without being asked," Israel is not likely to want to confirm that it possesses nuclear bombs by using them in such a situation.

Is the U.S. willing to use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear adversary that is an NPT signatory, thus risking universal condemnation? Several statements and documents from the Defense Department suggest that it is indeed fully prepared to do so. In 1996, Defense Secretary William Perry stated that all weapons would be considered to stop construction of underground WMD installations in enemy countries, and his assistant Harold Smith explicitly mentioned the option of using the B61-11 nuclear bunker-buster against an underground Libyan chemical weapons plant (Libya was an NPT signatory already at that time). The push for the development of nuclear bunker-busters has only accelerated since then. The Pentagon's Nuclear Posture Review of December 2001 explicitly states, "U.S. nuclear forces will now be used to dissuade adversaries from undertaking military programs or operations that could threaten U.S. interests or those of allies and friends," and "Nuclear weapons could be employed against targets able to withstand non-nuclear attack." The Pentagon draft document "Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations" dated March 15, 2005, envisions the use of nuclear devices against non-nuclear adversaries "to ensure success of U.S. and multinational operations," "to demonstrate U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear weapons to deter adversary use of WMD," and "against an adversary intending to use WMD against U.S., multinational, or alliance forces."

This action would achieve two important short-term U.S. goals: the elimination of any nuclear capability the second member of the "axis of evil" might possess, and the probable total capitulation of the third, North Korea, who would be left with no doubt that the U.S. means business. However, it would also lead to the demise of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, to widespread nuclear proliferation and heightened instability, and ultimately to the likelihood that a regional conflict could explode into all-out nuclear war. This does not seem to be of much concern to current U.S. policymakers, but it should concern the rest of the world.


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Jorge Hirsch is a professor of physics at the University of California San Diego.

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