Barbara Slavin / Al Jazeera America – 2013-10-17 01:19:09
(October 15, 2013) — As Iran and international powers returned to the nuclear negotiating table in Geneva Tuesday, opponents of compromise with the Islamic Republic are once again likening it to the “appeasement” of Nazi Germany by Britain’s Conservative government in the 1930s. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., went so far as to warn British Prime Minister David Cameron that he faces a choice between “two Conservative legacies — that of Winston Churchill, or that of Neville Chamberlain” — the leader who signed a deal with Adolf Hitler in Munich in 1938.
That analogy — also a favorite of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — doesn’t stand up to the test of historical scrutiny. It also misses the strategic logic behind Iran’s nuclear activity.
When Chamberlain flew to Munich in 1938, desperate to avoid a war, Nazi Germany had rearmed and possessed the world’s most powerful military. It had reoccupied the Rhineland, was about to swallow part of Czechoslovakia and as much of Europe as it could seize.
Iran, in contrast, has a comparatively weak conventional military and spends only $12 billion to $14 billion a year on defense — less than the United Arab Emirates and no more than one third of Saudi military spending, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
And while Iran has been invaded and occupied repeatedly since the collapse of the Persian Empire, the only territory it has taken in modern times has been three small islands in the Persian Gulf — the Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa — in 1971, when Iran was still ruled by the U.S.-backed Shah.
Iran’s nuclear program also dates to the regime of the Shah. The Eisenhower administration signed the first U.S. nuclear agreement with Iran in 1957 and the Johnson administration gave Iran its first reactor a decade later — a 5-megawatt facility that Iran still uses to produce medical isotopes. The Shah allegedly wanted nuclear power to generate electricity, but the program would eventually have given him a weapons option had he not been overthrown in 1979.
Since its initial forays into nuclear technology, Iran has made fitful progress even as the nuclear weapons club grew to include China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. Iran stopped the program after 1979 and restarted it in the mid-late 1980s because Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, and Iran feared Iraq was building nuclear weapons as well.
With the demise of Saddam, Iran’s motivation to acquire nuclear weapons diminished. Sanctions have also been a factor in Iran’s decision not to build nuclear weapons, but so — according to Iranian officials — is their own strategic calculation that Iran would be worse off now with such arms than with a threshold capability.
Countries with a threshold or “breakout” capacity have assembled the civilian nuclear infrastructure that would allow them to relatively quickly build a bomb should they quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and expel inspectors.
Japan is often cited as an example of a threshold power, being the proverbial “screwdriver’s turn” away from having nuclear weapons. It is not clear if Iran feels it needs to go this far, and a deal could keep Iran several years away from this capacity even if it chose to quit the NPT and expel inspectors.
Beyond religious edicts against the production and use of nuclear weapons, President Hassan Rouhani reiterated at the recent U.N. General Assembly summit that “nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction have no place in Iran’s security and defense doctrine.”
Iranian officials know that developing a nuclear arsenal would trigger an arms race with wealthier neighbors such as Saudi Arabia that Iran would lose, and that quasi-allies such as Russia and China would likely join Western nations in imposing even harsher sanctions should the Islamic Republic choose to actually build weapons.
Sanctions already imposed — in part because of pressure exerted by leaders such as Netanyahu and Kirk — have exacted a heavy toll on the Iranian economy. Its GDP growth last year was negative — minus 5.4 percent — and this year, at best, will be flat according to Iranian officials. Tehran’s only hope for reviving the economy is through sanctions relief, which can only come if it puts significant and verifiable curbs on its nuclear program.
Under the outlines of the proposal Iran presented Tuesday in Geneva, Iran would retain a uranium enrichment program but under strict limits and tighter international scrutiny. Easing nuclear concerns would also create conditions for improved relations between Iran and the US.
A rapprochement in which the US and other Western powers find a modus vivendi with Iran as a regional power would not be welcomed by Netanyahu, the Saudis and other Iranian foes. For the Israeli leader, it would remove the issue that dominates his international speeches, obliging him to focus more on the conflict with the Palestinians and domestic problems.
While Western leaders are mindful of the need to keep in place major sanctions until Iran implements verifiable curbs on its nuclear activities, they’re being urged by Netanyahu to actually escalate sanctions even as they negotiate — an option that would make Tehran more likely to walk away from the table, and could unravel the international consensus on Iran and weaken existing sanctions.
The Islamic Republic is evolving, as Rouhani’s election victory this summer — and the endorsement of his diplomatic outreach by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have made clear. Even if they achieve a nuclear deal, the US and its allies will face the challenge of pressuring Iran on human rights and regional security.
But judging by the conversation that resumed in Geneva Tuesday, those invoking alarmist historical analogies may risk becoming isolated from the thinking of the major powers. Iran is not Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union or North Korea. It is unique, and Western powers are dealing with it as such.
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