MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXVIII No. 1
September / October 2015
MIT's Role in the Iran Nuclear Negotiations
Iran and the P5+1 Pact
Pluto in View! O! The Joy!
The Year Ahead
An Open Letter to President Reif and the Executive Committee on Divesting from Fossil Fuel Companies
MIT Construction Plans Continue
to Undervalue Graduate Student Needs
A Frog in Water
Part I: The Forces That Move Us
Why MIT Is Implementing Duo
Two-Factor Authentication
Professor John W. Belcher Receives Prestigious Oersted Medal
Enhanced Mental Health Initiatives
and MindHandHeart Announced
Nominate a Colleague as a
MacVicar Faculty Fellow
Teaching this fall? You should know . . .
Status of World Nuclear Forces 2015
Printable Version

Iran and the P5+1 Pact

Noam Chomsky

Throughout the world there is relief and optimism about the nuclear deal reached in Vienna between Iran and P5+1. There are, however, striking exceptions: the United States and its closest regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia – where fear of the “Iranian threat” sometimes reaches virtual hysteria – a stand shared by prominent sectors of American opinion. Even sober commentary in the United States, pretty much across the spectrum, declares Iran to be “the gravest threat to world peace.” U.S. supporters of the agreement are wary, given the exceptional gravity of the Iranian threat and concerns about the terrible Iranian record of violence and deceit.

It is perhaps of some interest that the world sees the matter rather differently: it is the United States that is regarded as the gravest threat to world peace (WIN/Gallup). Far below in second place is Pakistan, its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked well below, along with Israel, North Korea, and Afghanistan.

Opponents of the nuclear deal charge that it did not go far enough. With quite different concerns, some supporters agree, holding that “If the Vienna deal is to mean anything, the whole of the Middle East must rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.” The author of these words, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, adds that “Iran, in its national capacity and as current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement, is prepared to work with the international community to achieve these goals.” Iran has signed “a historic nuclear deal,” he continues, and now it is the turn of Israel, “the holdout.”

Israel, of course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons programs have been abetted by the United States and that refuse to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty.

Minister Zarif was referring to the regular five-year NPT review conference, which ended in failure in April when the U.S. once again blocked the efforts to move towards a WMD-free zone in the Middle East (joined this time by Canada and Britain). These efforts have been led by Egypt and other Arab states for 20 years. Two of the leading figures promoting them at the NPT and other UN agencies, and at the Pugwash conferences, Jayantha Dhanapala and Sergio Duarte, observe that “The successful adoption in 1995 of the resolution on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East was the main element of a package that permitted the indefinite extension of the NPT.” Repeatedly, implementation of the resolution has been blocked by the U.S., most recently by Obama in 2010 and again in 2015. Dhanapala and Duarte comment that the effort was again blocked “on behalf of a state that is not a party to the NPT and is widely believed to be the only one in the region possessing nuclear weapons,” a polite and understated reference to Israel. They “hope that this failure will not be the coup de grâce to the two longstanding NPT objectives of accelerated progress on nuclear disarmament and on establishing a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone.”

A nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East is a straightforward way to address whatever threat Iran’s nuclear programs allegedly poses. And as these comments make clear, a great deal more is at stake in Washington’s continuing sabotage of the effort – protecting its Israeli client. This is not the only case when opportunities to end the alleged Iranian threat have been undermined by Washington, raising further questions about just what is actually at stake.

What in fact is the Iranian threat? It can hardly be military. U.S. intelligence years ago informed Congress that Iran has low military expenditures by the standards of the region and that its strategic doctrines are defensive, designed to deter aggression. It also concludes that “Iran’s nuclear program and its willingness to keep open the possibility of developing nuclear weapons is a central part of its deterrent strategy.”

Details are provided in an April study of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, which finds “a conclusive case that the Arab Gulf states have . . . an overwhelming advantage [over] Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.” Iran’s military spending is a fraction of Saudi Arabia’s, and is far below even the spending of the United Arab Emirates. Altogether, the Gulf Cooperation Council states – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – outspend Iran on arms by a factor of eight, an imbalance that goes back decades. The CSIS observes further that “The Arab Gulf states have acquired and are acquiring some of the most advanced and effective weapons in the world [while] Iran has essentially been forced to live in the past, often relying on systems originally delivered at the time of the Shah,” which are virtually obsolete. The imbalance is of course even greater with Israel, which, along with the most advanced U.S. weaponry and its role as a virtual offshore military base of the global superpower, has a huge stock of nuclear weapons.

No serious analyst believes that Iran would ever use a nuclear weapon if it had one, thus suffering instant destruction. There is, however, real concern that a nuclear weapon might fall into jihadi hands – not from Iran, where the threat is minuscule, but from U.S. ally Pakistan, where it is very real.

Two leading Pakistani nuclear scientists, Pervez Hoodbhoy and Zia Mian, write in International Affairs that increasing fears of “militants seizing nuclear weapons or materials and unleashing nuclear terrorism [have led to] the creation of a dedicated force of over 20,000 troops to guard nuclear facilities.” They warn that “There is no reason to assume, however, that this force would be immune to the problems associated with the units guarding regular military facilities,” which have frequently suffered attacks with “insider help.” In brief, the problem is real, and largely ignored, displaced by fevered fantasies concocted for other reasons.

It might also be useful to recall – surely Iranians do – that not a day has passed since 1953 when the U.S. was not severely harming Iranians. As soon as Iranians overthrew the hated U.S.-imposed regime of the Shah in 1979, Washington at once turned to supporting Saddam Hussein’s murderous attack on Iran. In recent years the hostility has extended to sabotage, murder of nuclear scientists (presumably by Israel), and cyberwar, openly proclaimed with pride. The Pentagon regards cyberwar as an act of war, justifying a military response, with the accord of NATO, which affirmed in September 2014 that cyber attacks may trigger the collective defense obligations of the NATO powers.

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Do Iranian leaders intend to develop nuclear weapons? We can decide how credible their denials are, but that they had such intentions in the past is clear. It was asserted openly on the highest authority, which informed foreign journalists that Iran would develop nuclear weapons “certainly, and sooner than one thinks.” The father of Iran’s nuclear energy program and former head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization was confident that the leadership’s plan “was to build a nuclear bomb.” A CIA report also had “no doubt” that Iran would develop nuclear weapons if neighboring countries did (as they have).

All of this was under the Shah, the highest authority just quoted. That is, during the period when high U.S. officials – Cheney, Rumsfeld, Kissinger, and others – were urging the Shah to proceed with nuclear programs, and pressuring universities to accommodate these efforts. As part of these efforts, MIT made a deal to admit Iranian students to the nuclear engineering program in return for grants from the Shah, over the very strong objections of the student body, but with comparably strong faculty support, in a meeting that older faculty will doubtless remember well.

What then is the real threat of Iran that inspires such fear and fury? Recall the analysis of U.S. intelligence that Iran’s nuclear programs (with no effort to produce bombs, as far as intelligence can determine) are “a central part of its deterrent strategy.”

Who would be concerned by an Iranian deterrent? The answer is plain: the rogue states that rampage in the region. Far in the lead in this regard are the U.S. and Israel, with Saudi Arabia joining the club with its invasion of Bahrain to support the crushing of the reform movement and now its murderous assault on Yemen, sharply accelerating the humanitarian catastrophe there.

For the United States, the characterization is familiar. Fifteen years ago, Samuel Huntington warned in Foreign Affairs that for much of the world the U.S. is “becoming the rogue superpower,” considered “the single greatest external threat to their societies.” His words were echoed shortly after by the president of the American Political Science Association, Robert Jervis, who observed that “In the eyes of much of the world, in fact, the prime rogue state today is the United States.” As we have seen, global opinion supports this judgment today by a substantial margin.

Furthermore, the mantle is worn with pride. That is the clear meaning of the insistence of the leadership and the political class, in media and commentary, that the U.S. reserves the right to resort to force if it determines, unilaterally, that Iran is violating some commitment. It is also a long-standing official stand of liberal Democrats, for example the Clinton Doctrine that the U.S. is entitled to resort to “unilateral use of military power” even for such purposes as to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” let alone alleged “security” or “humanitarian” concerns. And adherence to the Doctrine is well confirmed in practice, as need hardly be discussed.

These are among the critical matters that should be the focus of attention in analyzing the nuclear deal at Vienna, whether it stands or is sabotaged by Congress, as it may well be.

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