AS we were preparing this article, officials in the Vienna talks were reported to be looking forward to the United States and Iran returning to the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan (JCAP), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, with “cautious optimism.” A new agreement may possibly be realized by the end of this week.
During the last election campaign in the US, then presidential candidate Joe Biden called ex-President Trump’s withdrawal from the JCAP a mistake. It may be recalled that as vice president, Biden presented the JCAP to the US Congress as a landmark accomplishment of the Obama administration, which indeed it was. It reined in Iran’s ambition to be a nuclear weapon state. The warming up of relations between the US and Iran signaled the reduction of conflict and tension in the Middle East. The foreign ministers of the two countries were in a huddle for weeks, negotiating the arrangement along with those of the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany. In the course of the negotiations, President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani had a meeting, the first between leaders of the two countries since the hostage crisis in the wake of the Iranian Revolution that drove a seemingly permanent wedge in their relations.
President Biden could have described Trump’s withdrawal as a colossal mistake, which was what it was from a global perspective. It was a blow to international efforts to establish a template for preventing countries diverting nuclear materials to the production of nuclear weapons. It could have seen a landmark event happening in the history of the cooperation of the major powers in realizing the key objectives of the UN Charter: the promotion of peace and the renunciation of the use of force or the threat of force in international relations.
The JCAP could be the first step in the nuclear weapon states accomplishing in full the objectives of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The treaty title does not completely capture those objectives and makes people overlook the really great importance of this treaty. It does not only seek nonproliferation by nonnuclear-weapon states but obliges nuclear-weapon states to reduce and eliminate their nuclear arsenals, including the means of delivering them, and to lead a general disarmament of the planet. A third equally important objective is to promote international cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. Clearly, much remains to be done in the realization of global denuclearization and disarmament. If President Biden makes himself a champion of this treaty, he would be truly deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize and his name will be etched in history as one of the greatest presidents of the United States, nay, of the leaders mankind has produced.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coaching of Trump to withdraw from the JCAP might be due to the former’s ignorance or dismissal of the NPT. Israel is the only one of four countries that are not parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. It let itself be suspected of possessing nuclear weapons by using the standard answer of US officials when asked if there are nuclear weapons in their military facilities abroad. They neither confirm nor deny possession. It has also issued such tell-tale statements of policy as never making the first strike and that it’s their right to take preemptive action against would-be keepers or developers of nuclear weapons in the region. Being suspected of having nuclear weapons seems to be a deliberate tactic to deter powers in the region from attacking Israel, but it also inspires rivals to be nuclear-weapon states themselves. It should be a reasonable goal of US policy in its relations with Israel to convince the latter to join the NPT or be subject to similar sanctions that have been imposed on countries not joining or withdrawing from the NPT and producing nuclear weapons. (As of this writing Netanyahu has failed to form a government and may be out of power or in jail. But there are politicians and constituents remaining who are of his bent and thinking.)
Israel has been paranoid about other countries in the region having nuclear reactors and developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. It attacked the nuclear reactors that Iraq and Syria ordered from France in the belief that having a nuclear reactor and materials is just a few, ineluctable steps from developing a nuclear bomb aimed at annihilating the nation of Israel. The truth is the NPT calls on the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to draw and enforce strict rules and safeguards to prevent the diversion of nuclear materials to the production of nuclear weapons. Just after punctuating his remarks with a statement that he, Netanyahu, reserves his right to take preemptive action to prevent an adversary from committing genocide against the Jewish people, the Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz was the subject of a cyberattack, blamed by Iran on local allies of Israel within Iran. Who else could Iran blame as the ultimate source of the attack?
Perhaps to show the irreversibility of the progress of Iranian nuclear technology, Iran raised its uranium enrichment to 60 percent, a considerable increase from the level fixed by the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) but far away from the level of 90 percent needed to produce a nuclear weapon. To some quarters, this move showed that the Iranians were not sincere in subscribing to the JPOA, but the representatives of the P4 + Germany have continued talks on the return of the US to the JPOA and of Iran to full compliance with its terms. What matters is that Iran and the US have representatives in Vietion led by President Rouhani. The fate of this faction in the forthcoming election in Iran may well depend on the realization of the JPOA, particularly the lifting of sanctions that have dragged down the Iranian economy and brought untold hardships to the Iranian people.
Iran’s every departure from the JPOA, apparently made as a negotiating tactic, was duly reported to the IAEA. Iranian leaders have claimed that their country’s nuclear activities are in pursuance of the right of every country under the NPT to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes. Contrary to claims in the media that the regime under the ayatollahs was bringing the country back to the Middle Ages, the regime is actually notable for its promotion of modern science and technology. It makes no secret but is actually proud of its progress in nanotechnology. It has invited specialists from the Philippines and other countries to observe its nanotechnological laboratories.
Netanyahu and his ilk’s thinking about nuclear reactors and materials being instruments of evil per se is not only irrational considering the objectives and operation of the NPT and its enforcing institution, the IAEA. It is also irrational in view of the public’s growing realization of the nuclear reactor’s importance in the planetary struggle against climate change. It is considered a more effective member of the mix of alternatives to fossil fuels. It delivers more clean energy at considerably less required space than solar panels or windmills. It is also safe if constructed according to the guidelines of the IAEA. Accidents involving nuclear reactors are quite few relative to the great number of nuclear reactors existing around the world, and the cost of these accidents in lives, health and the livelihoods of affected populations have been negligible. The worst of them, Chernobyl, had 46 casualties, not the hundreds, even thousands feared or rumored. That disaster was due to its construction not following the guidelines of the IAEA but the dictates of an authoritarian government.
Soon nuclear reactors might be sprouting like mushrooms in the Middle East. Unlike Trump’s America, the oil-producing countries of the Middle East have never been known as deniers of climate science. Even now, from their daily experience, the people of the Middle East are fearful of global warming making daytime temperatures in the region rise to insufferable levels. They know, moreover, that their reserves of fossil fuels are finite and should be subject to discriminate consumption. They might in the future produce oil or natural gas solely for export and cover their domestic energy needs by the use of renewables and nuclear reactors. Solar panels are, by the way, eminently suited to the Middle East where there is intense sunlight at longer hours 360 days of the year. They can even be potential exporters of solar energy, technology willing, to tropical countries like the Philippines which now enjoy less and less sunlit hours and days because of the frequency of typhoons and bad weather due to climate change.
That Iran is trying to produce a nuclear bomb because it is bent on wiping out the Jewish people is another lie Israel is foisting on the public. In the first place, one cannot bomb Israel without harming the many non-Jews living there and in the vicinity: the Palestinians, Arabs, Christians, etc. There is, too, Jerusalem, as sacred to Jews and Christians as to Arabs and Iranians. When Iranian officials speak of the destruction of Israel, they mean not the people, but the state structure. Their apparent preference is that of one state in Palestine whose citizens, be they Jews, Muslims, Christians and whatever, have equal rights, each person has one vote. This harks back to the position of Asian states that opposed the UN General Assembly resolution in 1947 partitioning Palestine. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has assured the public that Iran will of course accept whatever the Israelis and the Palestinians agree upon, including the two-state solution.
Eternal hostility between Iran and Israel cannot be taken as a foregone conclusion, as knowledgeable authors Dalina Dassa Kaye, et al., point out in Israel and Iran: A Dangerous Rivalry (a Rand publication). “They are not natural rivals; they do not border each other and do not compete for resources. Iran’s natural security interests are focused on the Persian Gulf region rather than on the Levant. Its main regional rivals have consisted of Baathist Iraq and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, rather than Israel. Indeed it is not too far-fetched to assume that Iran and Israel can one day become allies rather than direct rivals.” They were allies when Iran was under the Shah.
The creation of the Islamic Republic ended the Iranian-Israeli alliance but not all cooperation. During the Iran-Iraq war, for instance, Israel supplied arms to Iran. Who knows what the US lifting of sanctions against Iran might lead to?