For Iran, It’s Time to Take One Option Off the Table: The Nuclear Option

This version of the essay appeared on Huffington Post.


“All options are on the table,” said American Secretary of State John Kerry regarding Iran last week, in Jerusalem, after participating in the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. “Iran cannot have and will not have a nuclear weapon,” he said the next day. “President Obama doesn’t bluff.”

Indeed, three weeks earlier, on the eve of his own visit to the same country, the president said almost exactly the same thing. In an interview broadcast on Channel Two in Israel, Mr. Obama said that regarding American efforts to dissuade Iran from crossing the nuclear Rubicon, “I continue to keep all options on the table … The United States obviously has significant capabilities.”

The most fearsome of those American capabilities, of course, remains the nuclear option. Nobody’s been talking about that much recently. But if you don’t think that an American nuclear first strike on Iran is not one of those “options on the table” — Mr. Kerry evoking atomic holocaust at an event recalling history’s greatest holocaust — then you haven’t been listening very closely.

Nearly a half century ago, when the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was under negotiation, the non-nuclear states made a simple request. In return for their promise to remain non-nuclear, they asked that the nuclear states promise not only to pursue universal nuclear disarmament, but also to promise never to threaten them or attack them with nuclear weapons. This, said the late Robert McNamara and Thomas Graham, Jr., “could be the most reasonable request in the history of international relations.” But the nuclear states refused, insisting that such a promise would intolerably constrain their “military flexibility.”

The issue arose again 25 years later, shortly before the 1995 NPT Review Conference. Under intense pressure from several non-nuclear states that were seriously threatening to withdraw from the NPT altogether, France, Russia, Britain and the United States issued “harmonized security assurances,” declaring that they would neither use nor threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. (They included one caveat, retaining for themselves the option of nuclear retaliation against non-nuclear states that might aid and abet an attack – conventional or nuclear — by a nuclear state.) On April 11th, 1995, the four incorporated this promise into U.N. Security Council Resolution 984. And in the final document adopted by the Review Conference a few weeks later, the signatories noted their hope that it might eventually “take the form of an internationally legally binding instrument.”

That tortuous process was certainly not as good as if such an unambiguous promise had made it into the original text of the NPT itself (or been added later as an amendment). Nevertheless, most international legal experts now agree that the promise neither to threaten nor to launch nuclear attacks against non-nuclear states has become an integral part of the NPT bargain.

Flash forward a single decade. Without any real prior public debate, the Bush administration, completely disregarding (indeed, not even mentioning) the 1995 agreements, issued formal nuclear policy documents that explicitly envisioned attacking non-nuclear states with nuclear weapons. These materials even named seven particular non-nuclear states as possible targets of an American nuclear attack. Moreover, both The Washington Post and Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker revealed in 2006 that the administration was, at that very moment, considering an American nuclear first strike upon Iran. When President Bush was asked directly by a reporter, in a televised White House press conference, whether these reports were in fact true, he replied, “All options are on the table.”

Just a few months after he took office, in Prague on April 5th, 2009, President Obama captured the imagination of many when he declared to an adoring crowd, “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Even though some of that enthusiasm diminished when he added that the abolitionist objective “will not be reached quickly — perhaps not in my lifetime,” it was nevertheless by all accounts a significant component in the Norwegian committee’s decision to award the president the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

But flash forward again, this time only a single year. During a press conference at the Pentagon on April 6th, 2010, announcing the Obama Administration’s “Nuclear Posture Review” (NPR), Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the new document now pledged that the United States would not launch nuclear attacks against non-nuclear states. Terrific! Except, then, he indicated that states “not in compliance with the NPT” had been placed in an entirely different category — and were not exempt from American nuclear attack. Then, to clear up any ambiguity whatsoever, he specifically named two and only two states as falling within this new class: North Korea and Iran. For these two countries, said Secretary Gates, “there is a message … if you’re going to play by the rules, if you’re going to join the international community, then we will undertake certain obligations to you … But if you’re not going to play by the rules, if you’re going to be a proliferator, then all options are on the table in terms of how we deal with you.”

None of the declarations made in 1995 made any reference to conditioning the non-attack pledge on compliance with the NPT. It was an entirely new principle, never before contemplated as in any way part of the NPT bargain. Nowhere does either the text or the spirit of the treaty itself contemplate that compliance with its terms might be enforced through the employment of nuclear arms. The administration of Barack Obama – a former law professor – essentially fabricated a new interpretation of the NPT, and a new principle of international law, entirely out of thin air.

The “all options on the table” phrase has now been uttered so often by Western leaders that it has become commonplace for the Western media to ignore it. The statements by Mr. Kerry and Mr. Obama during the past month received virtually no attention at all. But that’s not the case in Iran. Shortly after the 2010 Pentagon press conference, Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told his senior military commanders that direct threats to unleash nuclear arms against Iran “are very strange and the world should not ignore them … the head of a country has threatened a nuclear attack … In recent years the Americans made many efforts to show that the Islamic Republic of Iran is unreliable in the nuclear issue…it is now clear that the governments that possess atomic bombs and shamelessly threaten to bomb others are the unreliable ones.” The speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Larijani, emphasized that any kind of nuclear threat against Iran directly violated the agreements of the NPT. And President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad weighed in as well, declaring, “I hope these published comments are not true … he has threatened with nuclear weapons those nations which do not submit to the greed of the United States … Even Bush did not say what Obama is saying.”

Similarly, after President Obama’s statement on Israeli television, Revolutionary Guard Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri declared, “Mr. Obama, do not make a mistake: we too have all our options on the table.” Which doesn’t seem to indicate that the use of the phrase is doing much to defuse the situation.

It’s difficult to escape the towering irony – even if only a hypothetical possibility – that one country might employ nuclear weapons to prevent another country from even possessing nuclear weapons. And it’s difficult to suppose that a nuclear hypocrisy of such towering proportions could lead to anything other than a relentless determination, on the part of Iran and many other nuclear have-not nations for decades to come, to stick with it as long as it takes, and eventually to force the doors open, to march into the room, and to announce to those already inside that they too have become full members of the nuclear club.

So why not try a different approach? Why not try a precise refinement of the military threat which both America and Israel seem committed to continuing to brandish? Imagine the positive outcomes that might emerge on multiple fronts if the president were to make an alternative pronouncement about “the “options,” which said instead something like this:

I am announcing today that the time has come to take one option off the table with regard to our ongoing confrontation with Iran. That option is the nuclear option. There are no circumstances, absolutely none, under which the United States will attack a non-nuclear armed Iran with nuclear weapons. Indeed, I can imagine no situation where it would be appropriate for any nuclear-armed nation to launch any nuclear attack on any state which does not possess nuclear weapons. The promise not to do so has become a fundamental part of the NPT bargain. Just as we expect Iran to fulfill its NPT commitments, we declare today that we will fulfill this NPT commitment of our own.

Both the United States and Israel are fully capable of protecting our national security with our conventional forces alone. The only conceivable purpose for retaining nuclear weapons is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others. As I indicated in Prague four long years ago, someday we hope to eliminate that purpose as well, by eliminating every last nuclear weapon from the face of the Earth – thereby fulfilling another of the commitments we made under the NPT several long decades ago.

Iran must know that until it rejects the false seductions of nuclear security, for us, all options but one must remain on the table. But Iranians should also be assured that we do not expect them to endure a nuclear double standard forever until the end of time. Forego nuclear weapons, and you will forever be safe from America’s nuclear weapons. Join us, on the road to reducing nuclear weapons, diminishing nuclear dangers, and eventually, abolishing nuclear weapons.

Such a statement could transform the nuclear policy debate overnight. It would, in a stroke, delegitimize the “employment doctrines” manifested by the nine nuclear-armed nations. It would express as a bedrock American principle that the nuclear weapons deployed by us remain only to prevent nuclear weapons from being used against us – and would put enormous pressure on the other nuclear states to declare likewise. It could go a long way to persuading Iran, North Korea, and perhaps others to abjure the nuclear course. And it might even give a substantial kick start to the long-stalled abolitionist project, and move the international community to begin discerning and negotiating a universal, verifiable, and enforceable Nuclear Weapons Elimination Convention. And bringing the human race, at long last, after 2/3 of a century now and counting, to the long-sought destination of a nuclear weapon-free world.

Who knows? Perhaps, even, within Barack Obama’s lifetime.

Posted in Abolishing Nuclear Weapons