An interim agreement on Iran’s nuclear policies that will provide a six-month period for substantive negotiations was announced on Nov. 24.
Michael Gordon, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote, “It was the first time in nearly a decade, American officials said, that an international agreement had been reached to halt much of Iran’s nuclear program and roll some elements of it back.”
The United States moved at once to impose severe penalties on a Swiss firm that had violated U.S.-imposed sanctions. “The timing of the announcement seemed to be partly intended to send a signal that the Obama administration still considers Iran subject to economic isolation,” Rick Gladstone explained in The Times.
The “landmark accord” indeed includes significant Iranian concessions – though nothing comparable from the United States, which merely agreed to temporarily limit its punishment of Iran.
It’s easy to imagine possible U.S. concessions. To mention just one: The United States is the only country directly violating the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (and more severely, the United Nations Charter) by maintaining its threat of force against Iran. The United States could also insist that its Israeli client refrain from this severe violation of international law – which is just one of many.
In mainstream discourse, it is considered natural that Iran alone should make concessions. After all, the United States is the White Knight, leading the international community in its efforts to contain Iran – which is held to be the gravest threat to world peace – and to compel it to refrain from its aggression, terror and other crimes.
There is a different perspective, little heard, though it might be worth at least a mention. It begins by rejecting the American assertion that the accord breaks 10 years of unwillingness on Iran’s part to address this alleged nuclear threat.
Ten years ago Iran offered to resolve its differences with the United States over nuclear programs, along with all other issues. The Bush administration rejected the offer angrily and reprimanded the Swiss diplomat who conveyed it.
The European Union and Iran then sought an arrangement under which Iran would suspend uranium enrichment while the EU would provide assurances that the U.S. would not attack. As Selig Harrison reported in the Financial Times, “the EU, held back by the U.S. … refused to discuss security issues,” and the effort died.
In 2010, Iran accepted a proposal by Turkey and Brazil to ship its enriched uranium to Turkey for storage. In return, the West would provide isotopes for Iran’s medical research reactors. President Obama furiously denounced Brazil and Turkey for breaking ranks, and quickly imposed harsher sanctions. Irritated, Brazil released a letter from Obama in which he had proposed this arrangement, presumably assuming that Iran would reject it. The incident quickly disappeared from view.
Also in 2010, the NPT members called for an international conference to carry forward a long-standing Arab initiative to establish a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the region, to be held in Helsinki in December 2012. Israel refused to attend. Iran agreed to do so, unconditionally.
The U.S. then announced that the conference was canceled, reiterating Israel’s objections. The Arab states, the European Parliament and Russia called for a rapid reconvening of the conference, while the U.N. General Assembly voted 174-6 to call on Israel to join the NPT and open its facilities to inspection. Voting “no” were the United States, Israel, Canada, Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau – a result that suggests another possible U.S. concession today.
Such isolation of the United States in the international arena is quite normal, on a wide range of issues.
In contrast, the non-aligned movement (most of the world), at its meeting last year in Tehran, once again vigorously supported Iran’s right, as a signer of the NPT, to enrich uranium. The U.S. rejects that argument, claiming that the right is conditional on a clean bill of health from inspectors, but there is no such wording in the treaty.
A large majority of Arabs support Iran’s right to pursue its nuclear program. Arabs are hostile to Iran, but overwhelmingly regard the United States and Israel as the primary threats they face, as Shibley Telhami reported again in his recent comprehensive review of Arab opinion.
“Western officials appear flummoxed” by Iran’s refusal to abandon the right to enrich uranium, Frank Rose observes in The New York Times, offering a psychological explanation. Others come to mind if we step slightly out of the box.
The United States can be held to lead the international community only if that community is defined as the U.S. and whoever happens to go along with it, often through intimidation, as is sometimes tacitly conceded.
Critics of the new accord, as David E. Sanger and Jodi Rudoren report in The New York Times, warn that “wily middlemen, Chinese eager for energy sources and Europeans looking for a way back to the old days, when Iran was a major source of trade, will see their chance to leap the barriers.” In short, they currently accept American orders only because of fear. And in fact China, India and many others have sought their own ways to evade U.S. sanctions on Iran.
The alternative perspective challenges the rest of the standard U.S. version. It does not overlook the fact that for 60 years, without a break, the United States has been torturing Iranians. That punishment began in 1953 with the CIA-run coup that overthrew Iran’s parliamentary government and installed the Shah, a tyrant who regularly compiled one of the worst human rights records in the world as an American ally.
When the Shah was himself overthrown in 1979, the U.S. turned at once to supporting Saddam Hussein’s murderous invasion of Iran, finally joining directly by reflagging Iraq ally Kuwait’s ships so that they could break an Iranian blockade. In 1988 a U.S. naval vessel also shot down an Iranian airliner in commercial airspace, killing 290 people, then received presidential honors upon returning home.
After Iran was forced to capitulate, the United States renewed its support for its friend Saddam, even inviting Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in weapons production. The Clinton administration then imposed sanctions on Iran, which have become much harsher in recent years.
There are in fact two rogue states operating in the region, resorting to aggression and terror and violating international law at will: the United States and its Israeli client. Iran has indeed carried out an act of aggression: conquering three Arab islands under the U.S.-backed Shah. But any terror credibly attributed to Iran pales in comparison with that of the rogue states.
It is understandable that those rogue states should strenuously object to a deterrent in the region, and should lead a campaign to free themselves from any such constraints.
Just how far will the lesser rogue state go to eliminate the feared deterrent on the pretext of an “existential threat”? Some fear that it will go very far. Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations warns in Foreign Policy that Israel might resort to nuclear war. Foreign policy analyst Zbigniew Brzezinski urges Washington to make it clear to Israel that the U.S. Air Force will stop them if they try to bomb.
Which of these conflicting perspectives is closer to reality? To answer the question is more than just a useful exercise. Significant global consequences turn on the answer.
© 2012 Noam Chomsky Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate
Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics and philosophy at MIT.