Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s address to Congress last week added nothing to the discourse on Iran. Despite the coverage it received, and the controversy surrounding it, it did nothing to assist efforts to achieve the stated international objective of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Under the guise of facing down Iran and preventing it from crossing the proverbial redline to enrichment and having a bomb, Netanyahu delivered a rallying call to the American Jewish lobby to demand that the US cavalry rides in to save the world again. Netanyahu is aware that when the US rode into Iraq in the same way Saddam retaliated by attacking Israel, as it happened during a TV interview he was giving, very conveniently for him. What he hopes to get out of provoking Iran, though, is somewhat different.
Everything but Britt Ekland
Even CNN, the official mouthpiece of US policy, which is considered by many in the doublespeak American media to be on the level of Russia Today, RT, took exception to the intent of the speech, complaining of its “stark tones” and likening Netanyahu’s vision of the world to the one contained in Stanley Kubrick‘s 1964 Cold War-era black comedy Dr. Strangelove.
“It was a very dark Strangelovian speech painting the picture of a dystopian world, raising the spectre of a genocidal nation, a genocidal regime spraying nuclear weapons to annihilate the whole world and the whole region. Now, obviously many people are very concerned about Iran and there is a deep lack of trust, but surely the same was said of the Soviet Union all those years ago.”
Few in positions of power, in the US or Europe, were convinced by the rhetoric of the speech, as they have heard it all before. Indeed, they are probably glad that Netanyahu made them appear moderate and reasonable by using such language. If they can present themselves as having ostensibly different viewpoints, as the voices of reason, and then draw the same conclusions about Iran they will simply add more force to their arguments, provided any action is taken under their leadership.
But with elections coming up in both the US and Israel, both self-professed “hawks” and “doves” have a common agenda. If the US and its military-industrial complex get further engaged in the region they will do what they have done in every place they have wandered into lately: earn themselves plenty of money through arms sales and make bad situations even worse.
By default, further destabilisation of the Middle East will shore up the dominant positions of Saudi Arabia and Israel. It will also remind Iran that, despite the rhetoric, the US is really keeping it on a leash. It suits Uncle Sam to have an enemy it can use to justify anything it wants to do. If the Islamic Republic presented any genuine threat, nuclear or not, it wouldn’t be there the next morning, and it knows it.
On message but off beam
Iran knows that it is not positioned, either militarily or politically, to move to the next stage of enriching nuclear materials, and so does everyone else. It has however become ever-more important in regional affairs despite the sanctions imposed as a result of its nuclear programme, and if it continues to do so it will have so many soft power leverages that debate about what its nuclear programme is for will be irrelevant.
The international community is therefore obliged to take real action if it genuinely wants to stop the Iranian nuclear programme. That means boots on the ground, sent on the justification that if things get any worse it will be too late. However, it is still wary of committing itself to yet more military adventures and has yet to find a sufficient excuse to spark such action.
It has also not gone unnoticed that in many of the countries which support the sanctions on Iran nuclear power programmes are making a comeback, after being condemned as life-threatening for three decades. These are based on technology including plutonium isotopes which allegedly remain active and dangerous for 300,000 years. The danger posed by these, as has often been pointed out, is greater than that of a limited range bomb.
Furthermore, we should recall that Hussein Ardebili, the most famous of the “sanctions busters” who has served a prison term, was jailed for selling phase shifters, which are freely available for domestic use all over the world. They do not give Iran the means to enrich uranium. There are materials which would, but when you see who manufactures those, and how much money they contribute to which election campaigns, it is clear that no one will stop them being sold to Iran or anywhere else.
All this demonstrates that the agenda towards Iran is not about its nuclear potential but the ability this gives it to project power. The US wants its convenient enemies to be strong enough to call a threat but not so strong that it can actually make any threats. Of course, destruction of some other country far away by a nuclear bomb doesn’t threaten the US. But Iran exposing where nuclear material actually comes from is another matter.
Playing the percentages
When nuclear material is transported it is given a manifest, like other goods. For over 40 years the nuclear industry has operated on the basis of a 98% delivery. In other words, 2% of all nuclear material is expected to be lost in transit. Stand in 2% of the Black Sea and see how long it takes you to drown.
As these transports have manifests there is a paper trail connecting sources and destinations. In theory, if you follow this paper trail you can see who has sold what to whom, and therefore who the nuclear powers are.
Israel has consistently refused to say whether it does, or does not, possess nuclear weapons of its own. Official sources used by the eight known nuclear states say that it does have them. Maybe the paper trail would tell a different story, if we were allowed to see it, and that would make Israel more vulnerable to attack. Or maybe it has them but can’t account for their presence, the more likely scenario.
If you put your speakers on 98% it’s very hard to notice the 2% that isn’t there. If Netanyahu shouts loud enough, maybe no one will notice the 2% of all the transported nuclear material floating around somewhere, and ask how much of that “lost” material can be found in Israel.
Of course finding anything takes time. That is why everyone is going on about the deadlines for the Iranian nuclear negotiations. It is unrealistic to believe that any agreement will be reached before the set deadline of March 24, but that short timeframe will focus attention. When the negotiations fail, the terms of the debate will change, and the issue of where Netanyahu’s country got its nuclear capacity from, and how, will not be as pressing an issue as it can become now.
There is another reason attention needed to be focused of the Iranian nuclear programme. It is politically impracticable for the US to conduct sanctions against Iran alone. Its allies have to support them to give them the status of a “civilized response”. But the US and its allies are growing apart by the day, over various issues, not only uranium enrichment but the right to conduct a civilian nuclear programme, sanctions relief, the recent debacle in Ukraine and ISIL.
The one thing they all agree on is that they don’t want Iran to have nuclear weapons. Netanyahu’s speech equated Iran with nuclear war, and that alone.
If you are fighting a war against foreign occupation you don’t have time to discuss what may be very important details of what the future will be like, such as how women and minorities should be represented in parliament. Current issues of disagreement will cease being discussed, and the allies will stay together, if the one issue they all agree on becomes all-consuming, whether or not there is any substance to it.
Indeed, the US is well aware that reaching an agreement with Iran over its nuclear programme would actually serve some of its broader policy objectives. For example, if it really wants to defeat ISIS before the extent of US support for that force becomes too embarrassing it can use the nuclear negotiations as a mechanism to ask the Iranians to buy into the fight against a common foe. The current overproduction of oil by various OPEC countries, a move aimed at reducing the oil earnings of Russia and Iran, would end overnight in such a scenario.
But its own mishandling of the Iran issue has painted the US into a corner. If its nuclear programme is such a threat, every day which passes without that threat being removed makes the US appear weak. If there is no threat, or at least no immediate one, the US has no one in the region to blame for its problems. Only bellicose rhetoric will square these circles, not least because the actual destruction of Iran would cause a global economic collapse which would affect the developed nations more than anyone, and thus radically change power vectors overnight.
CNN is right to portray Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress as something out of Dr. Strangelove. The lead actor of that film, Peter Sellers, famously ended up doing nothing but act out a variety of different characters every day of his life, because he didn’t know who he himself was any more. Netanyahu was ultimately trying to keep us trapped in a world where all those we elect to run it does the same.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.