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Iran Breakthrough a Triumph for Pragmatists and a Defeat for the Warmongers

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Posted on Jan 22, 2014

By Juan Cole

  Iranian President Hasan Rouhani. (AP Photo/Presidency Office, Rouzbeh Jadidoleslam)

The implementation of the Iran accord Monday signaled a modest but still important sea change in that country’s relationship with the world. As with all good diplomacy, the deal is a win-win for Iran and the United Nations Security Council’s permanent members. The breakthrough is seen as a setback for Saudi Arabia and Israel, and also for the Israel lobbies on Capitol Hill, which fear it announces an end to attempts to contain Iran as a revolutionary force in the region. But in most world capitals, the agreement is being celebrated as a vindication of pragmatism and transparency, and European companies are lining up to get back into the Iranian market. Two pragmatists are at the center of the negotiations: Hasan Rouhani and Barack Obama.

Iran negotiated the deal with the UNSC permanent members plus Germany (called the P5 + 1). It provides for frequent and transparent inspections of the Natanz and Fordo enrichment facilities. In addition, Iran has ceased enriching uranium to 19.25 percent for its medical reactor, which produces isotopes for treating cancer. It can, however, continue to enrich to 5 percent for its nuclear reactors, which produce electricity. The measures are confidence-building steps, intended to reassure the West that Iran has no intention of producing a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear weapons first came to the Middle East when Israel began conspiring with supporters in France and Britain in the 1950s to import the technology. Despite attempts by President John F. Kennedy to forestall this development, by the late 1960s Israel had the bomb. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan even allegedly wanted to use it in the 1973 war against Egypt. Israel now has a secret stockpile of several hundred warheads, perhaps as many as France or Britain. At the same time, Indian scientists began working on nuclear technology, with an eye on China, which achieved nuclear weapons in 1964. The Indian bomb in turn determined Pakistan to construct its own, with Islamabad detonating its first device in 1998. The Israeli and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs encouraged Iraq to seek a bomb, though its program was never very successful and was dismantled by United Nations inspectors after the Gulf War of 1990-91. The lesson in the Middle East seemed clear. Actually having an atomic bomb equals deterrence from being attacked. Trying to get a bomb and taking too long opens your country to foreign aggression.

By the late 1990s, Iran was in a very dangerous neighborhood. Iraq had used chemical weapons, with U.S. backing, against Iranian troops at the front during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988; the U.S. categorizes these as “weapons of mass destruction.” Iranian intelligence knew that Saddam Hussein wanted a nuclear weapon, and U.S. and Israeli politicians maintained that there was still an active weapons program in Baghdad (this allegation was untrue). Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia and China—all neighbors or near neighbors—had the bomb.

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The ayatollahs in charge of Iran for the most part have had a horror of nuclear weapons. Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Iran’s religious ruler in 1979, called nuclear weapons “un-Islamic” and initially forbade even reactors for electricity generation. His successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly condemned atomic bombs in a written fatwa and many oral statements that have the force of law. (Fatwas, or considered opinions on Islamic law, are often given in oral form by prominent Muslim jurists, just as “responsa” or legal opinions are given orally by rabbis in Judaism.) Khamenei says that making, stockpiling and using nuclear weapons are all forbidden in Islamic law, because they cannot be used without killing hundreds of thousands of innocent noncombatants.


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