Thursday, August 6, 2015

On the Anniversary of Hiroshima, a New Nuclear Crossroads

Today marks a somber anniversary, the 70th anniversary since the United States dropped the first of two nuclear weapons on Japan. Seven decades ago today, the US, ostensibly to end WWII in the Pacific, dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, followed three days later by a nuclear attack on Nagasaki. In the aftermath, hundreds of thousands of people died in the two cities, and over one hundred thousand were killed in the initial blasts alone. The nuclear weapons used in the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were comparatively small compared to the destructive power of nuclear weapons today, and they still devastated two large cities. Japan marked the occasion with speeches by the few remaining survivors, a national moment of silence, and the tolling of a bell.

Pres. Obama speaks on the nuclear deal at American University
The anniversary comes at a moment when the United States faces yet another nuclear crossroads: whether or not to enact a nuclear deal reached with Iranian negotiators on July 14. On one side stands the Obama administration, which negotiated the deal and hopes to pass it through a Congressional vote, despite significant, somewhat bipartisan opposition. On the other stand politicians from both sides of the aisle, although largely Republican, who say the deal will not stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and argue that the US should continue the current sanctions regime in the hopes of obtaining a better deal. If such a deal never materializes, then armed intervention in Iran becomes an option.

Pres. Obama faces large hurdles of domestic opposition to ratify the deal. His current speaking tour, which includes domestic audiences as well as meetings with Israeli groups, is aimed at explaining the deal’s merits to those who would oppose it, largely on the grounds that it doesn’t go far enough to ensure that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. At American University yesterday, the President argued that “The choice we face is ultimately between diplomacy and some sort of war — maybe not tomorrow, maybe not three months from now, but soon…How can we in good conscience justify war before we’ve tested a diplomatic agreement that achieves our objectives?”

Iranian Pres. Hassan Rouhani also faces substantial domestic opposition, largely from the conservative hardliners in his own government and their constituents. To generalize, this group includes much of the powerful clerical establishment and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, many of whom profit from the black market created in the wake of international sanctions, and thus want the regime to continue. This same group was able to sweep Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power after a period of greater progressivism in the early 2000s, after Pres. Mohammed Khatami’s attempts to make overtures to the Bush administration, especially after 9/11, fell flat. If Pres. Rouhani doesn’t deliver on his promise that the deal will allow Iran to end its economic stagnation and create opportunities for its growing population of (mostly educated) young people, he runs the same risk as Khatami: namely, a return to a conservative stranglehold over Iranian politics.

Concerns over the Iranian nuclear deal today are not without precedent. Both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan negotiated nuclear arms deals with the Soviet Union, despite that country’s direct and imminent threat to America, and they faced significant – and similar – domestic opposition to the deals they struck. Many detractors of the Iranian deal are primarily concerned with the threat Iran poses to Israel, a country with which it has had existential conflicts since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. In defense of one of the US’s closest allies, it is only natural that Israeli citizens feel the same concern that American citizens did on the eve of the US-Soviet arms agreements: nuclear treaties – any treaty – are inherently uncertain, largely constructed around verification systems that could possibly fail. But Israelis and US citizens alike should look to history to see that these arms deals worked, despite the larger threat the Soviet Union posed to America and its allies by virtue of its existing nuclear stockpile. The deals not only made Americans safer, but they also made the entire world safer, to the tune of nearly 70,000 nuclear weapons. At the Cold War’s height in 1986, there were an estimated 86,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled worldwide; today, there are only 17,000, 90 percent of which are owned by the US and Russia.

"The Road to Zero" nuclear weapons since their invention,
courtesy Global Zero
Did arms deals mean that America and the Soviet Union became buddies, or even close allies? Absolutely not, and it’s not likely that Iran and Israel will enjoy a friendly relationship in the near future. Yet, in the long-term, an Iran that is more closely tied to, and thus more dependent upon, the international community is an Iran that is constrained in its options to antagonize or attack Israel. An isolated Iran is a more dangerous Iran, and without a nuclear weapons deal, it will continue on its path to the bomb regardless, with far fewer mechanisms in place to stop it before it is able to build a nuclear weapon. Many nuclear experts have lauded the terms of the deals, while others have expressed concerns over the verification mechanisms of the deal. While verification methods are certainly not foolproof, even less certain is the future of the Iranian nuclear program absent such a deal, and absent any verification mechanisms at all.

Of course, security fears are only one part of the opposition puzzle. As I have written previously, US allies in Riyadh and Tel Aviv are also making economic calculations, while using security as a pretext to oppose the deal publicly. In reality, many policymakers in these two countries are more fearful of the implications of an economically integrated Iran than the (now lowered) risk that Iran obtains a bomb despite the deal, understanding that it will emerge from sanctions as one of the best-educated and largest populations in the region. A bigger slice of the economic pie for Iran does not necessarily need to mean less for everyone else, but it does mean that Saudi Arabia and Israel will be more constrained in their choices, both economically and politically. But what such fears ignore is that it also could mean a stronger regional economy as a whole, and one where two oft-opposing powers find common ground and, perhaps, a greater sense of cooperation.

If the domestic debate surrounding the nuclear deal with Iran could be boiled down to simple opposing choices (and it can’t, but it’s a useful exercise nonetheless), it will be the choice between two visions of American foreign policy: for supporters of the deal, the way forward is one not of belligerence and unilateralism, but of diplomacy; sanctions and international cooperation have achieved their stated goals of bringing Iran to the negotiating table, and the way forward now can only be achieved through similar cooperation and negotiation.

For the deal’s detractors, especially among conservative US politicians, America’s foreign policy should continue forward on the path set out by George Bush in 2003: rather than rely on the international community to verify Saddam Hussein’s alleged nuclear stockpile, America acted unilaterally in a failed quest to find weapons of mass destruction to justify invasion after the fact, which resulted in the ongoing war in Iraq that has destabilized the entire region.

The cost of US policy in Iraq? The lives of nearly 5,000 American soldiers, more than half a million Iraqis, and the rise of ISIS. A war with Iran, whose government is more stable, military is better armed, and whose nuclear program is far more advanced than it would be under the terms of the deal, would be even more catastrophic for not only the United States, but also its allies in Israel and Saudi Arabia. The choice before the US Congress in September will be whether or not we, the American people, would be willing to bear that cost, or if we should at least try diplomacy, before resorting to war.

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