Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf... Of Nuclear Iran

Dr. Nicholas Partyka I Geopolitics I Analysis I April 22nd, 2015

In December of 2014, US President Barack Obama announced a new diplomatic opening with long-time US foreign policy foe, Cuba. The President was lauded by some, excoriated by others. To some it was a long overdue break from a policy that was, and had been for some time, an abject failure. To others, mostly those with conservative or right-wing tendencies, this was a betrayal, of American principles, of the Cubans' hopes for democracy, or a disgraceful concession to a tyrannical regime. Sound familiar? It should. This is the same basic script that played out in 2013 when President Obama announced his first grand foreign policy initiate, re-opening the P5+1 talks about a potential nuclear deal with Iran.[1] Those talks have been on-going since then, and after reaching a framework agreement earlier this month, are now in the final phase of negotiations. For those not initiated, a "framework agreement" can often amount to little more than an agreement on how further talks, about the real issues, will proceed.

As the deadline for a final agreement approaches, the right-wing media in the US continues to saber rattle at Iran, and decry the President for engaging with them at all. This is despite the fact that few to no details about the substance of the talks have been released, intentionally so, and for good reason. Hawks on both sides would only use such details as fodder for their domestic political battles. With so much hyperbole, invective, fear-mongering, Islamophobia, speculation, and propaganda being thrown around on this topic it is important to gain perspective on Iran, and the current nuclear negotiations. With thirty plus years of tension, and mis-trust between the US and Iran this can be difficult. But we need to take a more sober-minded view of Iran if we're to chart a new diplomatic course with a nation that US politicians routinely describe as an enemy. Why is Iran thought an enemy? Is that really the case?

As is so often the case in the dominant political discourse in the US on foreign policy issues, many of the charges leveled against Iran that "prove" what a bad international actor they are, when subjected to rigorous and even-handed analysis, reflect as poorly on the US as on Iran. What we'll find if we examine the context of the nuclear negotiations with Iran is that they are characteristic of the way world powers treat those less powerful. What we'll find is that Iran is not the enemy, that Iran is not the big bad wolf of international politics. One will find that, at bottom, what Iran desires is to be treated as an equal, as a sovereign and independent nation with all the rights and prerogatives thereof. The deal announced last week largely respects that, again within the larger context of imperialist global hegemony, while also securing the goals of the powers. Iran will keep its nuclear program, which is now very much a symbol inside Iran, but will not get a nuclear weapon. Iran will get sanctions relief, the west gets assurance, via inspections, that Iran will not produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran & the Bomb

Does Iran want a nuclear weapon? That is the big question lurking in all discussion of Iran these days. Many are convinced, just as they were with Saddam, that Iran wants a nuclear weapon and is actively pursuing the development of such a weapon. Others, the Iranians among them, claim that they are not pursuing any such weapon. Much ink has been split already by both sides of this debate already.

What one can say quite reasonably is that given what powerful nations like the US have done time and time again to less powerful nations like Iran, wanting a nuclear weapon is not irrational. Perhaps the only reason that western imperialist powers have not enacted regime change in DPRK is that regimes' possession of nuclear weapons; also their being sponsored by China, but these two are clearly connected. Look at what those same western powers did to Saddam in Iraq, to the Taliban in Afghanistan, and now to Bashar al Assad (reprehensible as any of these regimes may be) in Syria. Many in the region see the US on one side or another of the coup or anti-coup factions in Egypt. Chemical weapons alone, nor a strong army and air force, will be enough to guarantee national sovereignty and self-determination. Unless one wants to be subjected to imperialist interventions one seems to need nuclear weapons. Only this appears to be able to keep imperialists' noses where they're not wanted.

One common argument given against a nuclear armed Iran is that they are not responsible enough to handle it, that they are too dangerous to be allowed to have such powerful weapons. Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, and no one considers that an especially stable regime, yet the western powers are not pressing for nuclear disarmament by Pakistan. Pakistan is as full of "Islamic radicals" as Iran, and full of hatred for India, yet no furor over their nuclear weapons. Russia is engaging in a secret, yet not so secret, aggressive war in Ukraine, yet no outcry about Putin and his nukes. Let us remember that the US remains the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons against human beings. The question of who is, and who is not responsible enough to have nuclear weapons does not have as clear an answer as hawks in both the major US political parties would have one believe.

One can also say that nuclear non-proliferation seems disingenuous to many observers in the region when it is an open secret that Israel possess nuclear weapons. This creates such an imbalance of power in the region that it is difficult to blame any nation there to desire nuclear weapons. To on the one hand allow, or indeed have provided, nuclear weapons in Israel, and then on the other hand to work actively to prevent others in the region from acquiring such weapons, seems to openly demonstrate US and western support of Israel against the Arab nations and Persia. This kind of stance reeks of the condescending and arrogant imperialism of old. Western powers deem themselves rational, and responsible enough to safely posses nuclear weapons -and the military advantages they provide- but vigorously restrict other nations' pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Whether one is for or against nuclear weapons is an entirely separate issue. I am not in favor of more nuclear weapons on Earth. However, I don't think it is the place of some nations who already have nukes to tell other nations that they can't have them. Not when those nations seeking nuclear non-proliferation are in no hurry at all to engage in meaningful arms limitation, let alone further de-nuclearization; contrary to international Treaty obligations. And especially not when these same nations engage in active espionage operations aimed at undermining the government in Iran. Again, think what one wants of theocracy as form of government, it is up to Iranians what form of government to have. The US does not posses the moral high-ground from which to judge others.

Who is most afraid of a nuclear armed Iran? It is my contention that a nuclear armed Iran is not the enemy of working-class people, especially those in the US. Those seemingly most afraid of a nuclear Iran are the Israelis, who stand to lose the decisive edge nukes give them in the regional balance of power. Of course, anything which the Israelis are afraid of, their allies in the US are afraid of. The Saudis also fear a nuclear Iran, because they are vying with Iran for regional supremacy. Beyond a just a Shia-Sunni religious conflict, the regional struggle between Iran and Saudi Arabia is geo-strategic, and the stakes are millions and millions in oil-based revenues.

Iran is Anti-Western

One oft repeated criticism made of Iran is that they have an anti-western philosophy. Given the history between the western powers and Iran, Why wouldn't they have such views? The US, via its clandestine intelligence services helped restore to Shah to power, and then later carry out a coup against a nationalist hero, Prime Minister Mossadegh. The Shah's regime, by all accounts, was murderous and thuggish. The Shah's secret police, the SAVAK, using US money, weapons, and training used brutality to stifle dissent, any hint of a threat to the oil interests, which were the well-spring of the Shah's power. One could very easily compare the US's support for Iran in this way to that it gave the Batista government in Cuba. I think appropriate reply to this line of criticism is, Why should Iran, or others, have a pro-Western philosophy?

This latter does not even mention the fact that, now as well as then, it seems anyone who doesn't go along with what Washington's decrees is labeled a "bad actor", a "rouge state". What Iran repeatedly has said it wants is to freely exercise its legal rights under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The third pillar of this treaty contains language stating that it is the sovereign right of all nations to the peaceful use of nuclear technology. This includes the main civilian applications, namely electricity generation, medical treatments, and scientific research. What the Iranians have also repeatedly said, is that they do not think any nation has the right to restrict the exercise of these treaty rights, and see any steps in that directions by foreign powers as an affront to their national sovereignty. Any nation which perceives the exercise of its legitimate rights to be unduly impeded by foreign interlopers would feel the same way.

Along these same lines the Iranians are routinely criticized for sponsoring terrorism. Coming from the US in particular, this is a highly disingenuous criticism. One could, and vey likely should, see the US as the world's number one sponsor of terror. There are many who would see the War of Terror as itself little more than a government sponsored world-wide campaign of terror, intimidation, extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, and torture. It is a campaign fought not with suicide vests, car bombs, or IEDs, but with remote piloted drones aircraft and naval assets firing a variety of high tech missiles and rockets, as well as secretive and unaccountable elite special operations units. Then there are the decades of actual terrorism carried out the by, or for the US. Prominent examples of this kind of activity are not hard to find if one attempts to look. One can point to the very explicit terrorist campaign against Cuba, to the funding and arming of the Contras in Nicaragua, or to US sponsorship of right-wing death squads and other paramilitary groups throughout the Americas for very stark examples of US terrorism.

Iran is also heavily criticized for being anti-Israel. This is of course a cardinal sin in the US, where unflinching support for Israel is a reflex for politicians. This criticism is, of course, connected to the preceding one in that much of the terrorism Iran is alleged to sponsor is directed at Israel. This is the case because of the way Israel treats the Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank, not to mention Palestinians who compose about a fifth of Israeli citizens. Many would argue that the Israeli state is also a perpetrator of terror, and the US unstinting financial and military support for Israel makes the US complicit.

It is one thing to dislike, even detest, the policies of governments around the world. This is entirely unavoidable. The real question is, especially for the wealthy and powerful countries, how to get those one disagrees with to reform their ways. With Iran, as with so many other countries, the US and other powers have chosen to use force, fraud, deceit, debt, and much else to get other countries to go along with their designs. Time and again we've seen the results of this type of tactic. And Iran serves as a prime example in this connection. Decades of financial, military, and political support for brutal dictators, who maintained brutal labour policies, secret coup plots, assassinations, and torture all to maintain access to oil supplies is what characterized the interactions of the US and Europe, via the proxies of their oil companies, with the Iranian people. This lead to a revolution, and decades of enmity.

Oil Politics

The most salient feature of Daniel Yergin's analysis of the oil market, and the impact of middle eastern oil on it in his magisterial history of the global oil market, The Prize, is that there is in fact too much of it.[2] There turned out to be so much oil in the region, at one point there was thought to be none at all, that it proved -in conjunction with the inventive structure of the oil producing nations vis-à-vis the global market- to be destabilizing, both economically in price per barrel terms, but also in terms of regional politics. This supreme abundance has necessitated that various oil fields in the region be taken off-line for one reason or another, so that supply, demand, and prices could be manipulated to the advantage of the firms which control the productions, refining, and distribution of petroleum and petroleum products. It is in this light that one should perceive the Iran-Iraq war, both US Gulf wars, as well as the sanctions regime imposed on Iran in the mid-1990s.

In order for the Seven Sisters Cartel to effectively maintain prices per barrel that afforded them a handsome profit, they had to manage the flow of oil out of the middle east. Attempting to manage this flow, as well maintain desirable (from the point of view of US elites) diplomatic relations, with Iran for example lead to the creation of the US strategic reserve. Producers need to sell to earn revenue, and when foreign demand goes down, so does national revenues. Rulers in the region have incentive to take as large a share of the regions total exports as possible. This oil revenue allows these nations compete with each other for regional hegemony. While the US-backed Shah was in power he pressured the US to continue to purchase large volumes of Iranian oil to support his lavish lifestyle, and large military; the latter of which very importantly served to secure US and European oil interests in the country and region. With markets saturated, and demand not increasing at necessary rates, the decision was made to create a stockpile. Ostensibly for emergencies, it allowed oil to continue to flow out of Iran, and hence money in, thus funding the Shah, who was at the time the US's main ally, and recognized peace-keeper in the region.

Part of why so many US politicians, on both sides of the isle, are hawkish on Iran and sanctions is that they are funded by the oil companies, who want Iranian oil production offline for now, so that they can mange prices on global markets. One can see the problem quite clearly in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal. If sanctions are lifted, and Iran's oil flows into the global market, the increase in supply will drive down prices. This is the last thing many producing countries want. Especially Saudi Arabia, who, although participating in the US's scheme to lower oil prices to bring the likes of Russia (and Venezuela as well) to heel, need their oil revenue now as much as ever. The Saudi's are getting more involved in the conflict in Yemen, propping up the regime in Bahrain, confronting Iran in Iraq and Syria, and supporting the Sisi government in Egypt. None of these are cheap.

The (Potential) Deal & the Framework Agreement

Despite the meddling of GOP politicians, like Senator Tom Cotton, and two extensions of the deadline for the talks, a potential deal is still in the offing. Few details have emerged about this detail, and by design. All parties involved have been tight-lipped throughout, not wanting to fuel the fires of hard-liners on both sides. The main terms of the deal would likely involve a tradeoff between restrictions on Iran's technical capacity to enrich uranium to the level required for the fuel for a nuclear weapon, for the lifting of economic, banking, and especially oil sanctions by the international powers. Involved would likely be Iran's heavy water reactors, which enable it to make plutonium, as well as Iran's existing stock of highly enriched uranium and. Indeed, the terms of the 2013 deal included sanctions relief in exchange for limiting Iran's enrichment to 5%. Part of a final deal would likely include a reduction in this stockpile, by transferring some of it to a third country, Russia has been a reported destination. The terms of a deal would also likely include reductions in the number of centrifuges Iran employs. At present, Iran has around 18,000 such devices, about 10,000 of which are operating. The final deal would likely reduce this further. The logic being that with fewer centrifuges in operation, it would take longer for Iran to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon.

After going into overtime, so to speak, once again, the framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1 that emerged Thursday, April 2nd is indeed potentially historic. However, these framework agreements are often no more than agreements about the general points of agreements, not binding commitments. Framework agreements most often set the terms for future negotiations over the final terms of the deal. Even after this announcement there are still another three months of tough negotiations ahead over the final technical specifications and language of the deal. And indeed there are still some large issues to be addressed during these months. From the Iranian side, they want all the sanctions lifted all at once. The international powers are reluctant to do this, because the legal apparatus of the current sanctions regime would be very difficult to re-impose. Thus, they prefer a more gradual step down of the sanctions regime, this way they maintain leverage on Iran.

Basically, under the terms of the agreement announced on Thursday Iran agreed to limit its nuclear program, mainly its enrichment of high grade, read weapons grade, uranium for a period of ten years. Iran also agreed not to produce plutonium, to restrict its nuclear activity to only one of its facilities- but not the contentious Fordow facility-, and not to build any new facilities. This effectively limits Iran to using only about 6,000 of it centrifuges, and blocks them from attaining a nuclear weapon by limiting their capacity to enrich uranium. Part of the deal, at the insistence of the powers, is a rigorous verification regime. Of course, the carrot for Iran here is sanctions relief, but in return for this the powers want to be able to be sure Iran keeps to its commitments. The carrot for the powers is Iran's compliance, and to get it they have to provide meaningful sanctions relief, and quickly. Iran also wants verification that the powers will follow through on their commitments.

Neither of these fears is entirely irrational. There are hardliner in Iran who do indeed want a nuclear weapon, who see their possession as crucial to national security. Such factions exist within many countries that do not have nuclear weapons, and live near countries that do, who might be a regional enemy. There are many hardliners in Washington, Tel Aviv, London, Berlin, Paris, who see a nuclear Iran as an almost existential threat to "world order". There are thus many, on both sides, who would still want, for one reason or another, to scuttle a potential final deal. Indeed, the Israelis made vigorous protests after the announcement of the framework agreement. Thus, both sides want to verify that their other side delivers what it promises. Especially in the case of the international powers, who have to go through various legal and diplomatic procedures before the sanctions can be lifted. There are many potential blockage points along this path where obstreperous interlopers could attempt to derail the process, and thus undermine to the negotiated final agreement. If the powers cannot deliver what they promise in terms of actions relief, the Iran has no incentive to comply with the desired limitations to its nuclear program.


Thursdays' deal represents a significant step towards Iran's reintegration into the world economy, and toward peace and stability. Reducing the tension, and enmity between the western powers and Iran certainly contributes toward this latter. Moreover, it also opens up the possibility of greater Iranian assistance in regional geo-political matters, where its influence can be helpful, e.g. Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Excluding Iran has only made the regions' historical conflicts, as well as its current troubles, more difficult for even well-intentioned interventionists to address.

While the deal struck between the international powers and Iran is a good thing overall, it nonetheless belies, at bottom, an imperialistic attitude on the part of the western powers. To think that they get to decide what kind, and or how extensive, a nuclear program other nations are allowed to have betrays the basically domineering and condescending attitude the powers take towards their perceived inferiors. I think one must see a large dose of irony in the fact that the only nation to ever use nuclear weapons is pushing so hard to prevent Iran from having such weapons, and because the Iranians are thought too irresponsible to safely possess nuclear weapons. This is despite the fact that the Iranians did not use chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war, despite Saddam using such weapons against Iran.

Very importantly, the deal can be a first step toward repairing the US's heavily strained relationship with Iran. Any path towards a better, more constructive relationship with Iran will have to involve settling the nuclear issue, and the lifting of sanctions. Only with these sources of rancor diffused can the foundations of a new bi-lateral relationship be laid. This said, the Iranians in no way desire to see the return of the suzerainty of foreign oil companies. Above all else the Iranians desire to remain a free and independent nation. If a new and better relationship with Iran is to be achieved, it will have to be based on mutual respect, and not on haughty imperialist attitudes.

Time and time again the Iranians have insisted that their animosity is toward the US government, and not the people of the US. Iran, nuclear or not, is not the enemy of working-class persons in the US. Elites here at home threaten working-class Americans much much more than Iran, even with a nuclear bomb. Instead of being distracted by a foreign boogeyman, the image of which only really helps the oil companies, working-class Americans should be focused squarely on combating neo-liberalism, rising inequality, diminishing social mobility, wage stagnation, racial discrimination, unemployment & under-employment, student debt, and more in their own country. These latter will do much more damage to American society, and to the lives of working-class people, than any potential Iranian nuclear bombs.


[1] For those who do not know the "P5+1" is the five permanent member of the UN Security Council, plus Germany.

[2] Yergin, Daniel. He Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money, & Power. 1991. Free Press; 2008.