Iran, Egypt, and America’s Continuing Nuclear Hypocrisy

This piece appeared the week of November 9th, 2007 on,, and was reprinted in the November 12, 2007, Op-Ed page of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

America’s standard for saying which countries can go nuclear is simple: Countries we like can. Countries we dislike can’t.


Some call it “America’s nuclear hypocrisy.” Others call it the “nuclear double standard,” others still our “nuclear narcissism.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, echoing the phrase used by Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh at the time of his own country’s nuclear tests in 1998, often calls it “nuclear apartheid.” But it has rarely been expressed as baldly as it was during the last days of October 2007.

It started with two passings. Paul Tibbets, commander of the U.S. Army Air Forces B-29, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, that killed at least 80,000 people, and Randall Forsberg, the genius behind the 1982 Central Park nuclear freeze rally, which the New York Times , in her obituary, called the largest political demonstration in American history, both died — with exquisite irony — within just a few days of each other.

As if that didn’t illustrate enough the tensions of the nuclear age, two separate Bush administration officials — U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey — made simultaneous remarks the day before Tibbets died that illuminated the nuclear double standard more starkly than ever.

This time it was not, as it usually is, the divergence between the rules of the game for countries like Iran (nuclear weapons permitted: zero) and for countries like ourselves (nuclear weapons presently possessed: 10,000-plus … with concrete plans already unrolling to design, develop and deploy new and improved nuclear weapon models fully a third of a century down the road).

No, this time it was the double standard between our expectations for countries we like and those for countries we don’t like.

First, on Oct. 29, Khalilzad repeated the formulation about Iran that has been expressed many times by many Bush administration voices. “Given the record of this regime, the rhetoric of this regime, the policies of this regime, the connections of this regime, it cannot be acceptable for it to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons.” It was a wearyingly familiar argument. Our assessment of the character of the Iranian regime determines whether we will permit them to pursue a nuclear “capability.”

But on the same day that Khalilzad made his statement, America’s good friend Egypt announced that it intended to build several new nuclear power plants over the next several decades. Washington was quick to indicate that it did not disapprove. ” Any country that fulfills its obligations under the NPT and follows proper IAEA safeguards will have a program that is perfectly acceptable to us,” said Casey (emphasis added). “They’re fully within their rights to go that way.”

The two remarks are well worth parsing. It is true that Iran, illegally, kept many nuclear activities secret from the IAEA for many years. It is a matter of some debate whether Tehran is fully cooperating with the IAEA now.

But the Bush administration’s standard for Iran has never been simply that it must fully cooperate with the IAEA. It demands, instead, that Tehran cease all uranium enrichment — the crucial element for the development of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. The essential administration position, in fact, which (military action or not) it will unlikely abandon before the end of its term, is that it will not even negotiate directly with Iran until Iran first concedes the central issue of any negotiation.

Had Khalilzad said “develop nuclear weapons” instead of “develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons,” he would perhaps not have found himself standing on such very thin ice. But the NPT forbids non-nuclear signatories like Iran and Egypt from acquiring nuclear weapons, not from acquiring the enrichment capabilities that can be used for both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. On the contrary, Article IV explicitly acknowledges that all parties possess an “inalienable right” to pursue nuclear energy “without discrimination.”

It is becoming more and more apparent that Article IV was a fundamental flaw in the original terms of the NPT itself. But that flaw is hardly Iran’s fault or Iran’s problem.

(The NPT also, in Article VI, requires its nuclear signatories to negotiate the complete elimination of their own nuclear arsenals, a requirement our own government formally reacknowledged at the NPT Review Conferences in 1995 and 2000, and a requirement that the International Court of Justice said in 1996 legally obliged us “to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects.” A broad coalition of nongovernmental organizations and experts, in fact, has already hammered out, in draft form, a universal, verifiable and enforceable nuclear weapons elimination treaty known as the ” Model Nuclear Weapons Convention,” which would require the phased dismantling and destruction by a time certain of every nuclear weapon on Planet Earth, impose strict worldwide controls with rigorous inspection provisions over all things nuclear and prohibit nuclear weapons from ever being constructed again. But that is another argument for another time.)

It may well be that Tehran does ultimately aspire to produce not just nuclear electricity, but a small nuclear arsenal — to deter the aggression that certain other states keep threatening to launch. But no one claims that they are doing so now. Indeed, just the day before Khalilzad and Casey made their remarks, IAEA head Mohammed ElBaradei told Wolf Blitzer on CNN: “Have we seen Iran having the nuclear material that can readily be used into a weapon? No. Have we seen an active weaponization program? No.”

So contrary to Mr. Casey’s declaration, the U.S. government is hardly conceding that “any country” meeting his stated criteria is acting in a manner “perfectly acceptable to us.” Because what Egypt announced at the end of October was that it intended to start doing exactly the same thing that Iran has already begun to do — nothing more and nothing less. The Bush administration, instead, subjectively and unilaterally, is assessing the “record, rhetoric, policies and connections” of both Egypt and Iran, and pronouncing, in our wisdom, that the one may proceed down the nuclear road while the other may not.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, one of the great peace activists of the 20th century, who died last year, liked to quote Mahatma Gandhi, who said “a fat man cannot speak persuasively to a skinny man about the virtues of not overeating.” To much of the rest of the world, our double standards appear sanctimonious, self-righteous, and based on a notion that some are inherently responsible enough to be “trusted” with these weapons of the apocalypse, while others are not.

President Bush himself, perhaps unwittingly, often manages to let slip this conceit of cultural superiority. “We owe it to our children,” he said in August of 2002, “to free the world from weapons of mass destruction in the hands of those who hate freedom.”

Here, surely, we have the most candid, unvarnished answer to the $64,000 nuclear question. Some are rational, sober, righteous … and can be trusted with the nuclear prize. Others are simply too volatile, too dangerous, too unpredictable to be permitted to venture down the same road — or perhaps not quite as freedom loving as a great Jeffersonian democrat like Hosni Mubarak.

And who will decide? Who will render ad hoc, case-by-case verdicts on whether certain leaders or peoples can be trusted with nuclear weapons? Who will serve as prosecutor, judge, jury and enforcer?

Why the Freedom Lovers, of course, in whose hands nuclear weapons already reside.

No other possible conclusion can be drawn, since Iran, in pursuing, so far at least, merely a nuclear “capability,” is in fact in accord with its obligations under the NPT.

They’re fully within their rights to go that way.


Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons