Sunday, April 04, 2010

Mystery: Why did Barack Obama stop lying about the US position on Iran's nuclear program?

When I look at Barack Obama's basketball court interview last week, I'm again struck by how clearly Obama spells out the US position that Iran must not have the capability of building a nuclear weapon.
"All the evidence indicates that the Iranians are trying to develop the capacity to develop nuclear weapons. They might decide that, once they have that capacity that they'd hold off right at the edge -- in order not to incur -- more sanctions. But, if they've got nuclear weapons-building capacity -- and they are flouting international resolutions, that creates huge destabilizing effects in the region and will trigger an arms race in the Middle East that is bad for U.S. national security but is also bad for the entire world."
The US official position until now, despite occasional slips and consistent deliberately deceptive language, has been that the US is attempting to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon. The US has not, at least officially, staked a position that Iran even having a nuclear capability is not acceptable. Instead US officials and members of the Western nuclear policy community have tended to use "nuclear weapon" and "nuclear capability" interchangeably before reaffirming the need to prevent Iran from getting a "weapon" which they meant to include, only in Iran's case, also the capability to build a weapon.

There was a reason for the US to mislead audiences about its policy. The NPT clearly agrees that states have a sovereign right to technology "without discrimination". The US policy that Iran must not have a technological capability that Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Romania and dozens of other countries have is clearly discrimination. It is not supportable on its merits and until now the US has avoided that problem by lying about its position.

Until now.

My best guess, and this is a guess, is that Obama believes in a linkage between Iran and the Zionism/Palestinian dispute that flows in the opposite of the conventionally believed direction. Obama may have been convinced by Netanyahu and pro-Israel voices in his administration that if he can get an agreement to give up nuclear capability, Israel will then be willing to make concessions to the Palestinians that would enable an agreement.

Valerie Jarrett's bluster aside, Iran is not going to "back down" given the types of sanctions available to the US or even given sanctions as strict as have ever been applied, but it does not seem that the Obama administration understands that. If the Obama administration believes that an Iranian capitulation is possible, then it would be willing to accept conditions from Netanyahu presented as necessary before Israel gives the US the cooperation the US asks for in creating officially endorsed bantustans for the Palestinians.

The problem with the old US position is that it left room, if only theoretically, for an agreement with Iran that accepted an Iranian capability but that would prevent Iran from actually building a weapon. In other words, the old US position left room for an Iranian victory because Iran has for years been willing to accept nearly any terms presented that would prevent Iran from building a weapon if they would not prevent Iran from having the capability, if Iran felt the need to leave the NPT according to the NPT's terms, to build a weapon.

It was clear to close observers of the dispute over Iran's nuclear issue that the US was deliberately mixing up capability and actual weapons, and intended to do so as long as it was able, but that had not been the US position. Officially the Bush position on Iran's nuclear program left room for Iran to become nuclear capable because the "without discrimination" clause of the NPT combined with the long list of NPT non-weapons states that do have weapons capability made it untenable to argue that Iran must not have such a capability.

Obama's current position no longer leaves that room. Obama's current, now official, position is far more restrictive than Bush's official position. This change must have been the result of a new pressure on the administration that led the administration to openly embrace a position that John Kerry in June 2009 described as "ridiculous" when unofficially held by the Bush administration.

1 comment:

Lysander said...

That's a very good point. I suspect the US has changed its position because major world powers such as Russia, China, India and Brazil, not to mention the IAEA, do not seem to believe that Iran has a weapons program. If the US was simply demanding Iran not build weapons, well, problem solved. They aren't. But as you have said before, and it seems Obama agrees with you, that isn't enough. Even capability must be prevented.

As a practical point, I'm not sure it makes much difference. What the US demands is not supported by international law, but neither was the invasion of Iraq. The US has enough hangers on in Europe and enough clout to drag others with it.

The argument that Israel will make concessions once it feels "safe" couldn't be more hollow. I can't imagine anyone being convinced by it but clearly some are. Israel will make concessions if and only if the balance of power compels it to do so. In other words, they will be more reasonable if Iran seems unstoppable and not if Iran were actually stopped.

But besides all this, we seem to forget that Iran may have very strong, purely economic reasons to develop a nuclear industry. Oil doesn't last forever and having a large technically skilled scientific workforce is a huge benefit. Iran might continue developing nuclear technology even if a very generous one state solution were offered.