Ira Chernus  



U.S. and European diplomats are quarreling about a nuclear weapons program that may or may not exist in Iran. The immediate question is how to word a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But the stakes are much higher. If the U.S. forces the IAEA to report that Iran is trying to make nukes, and must stop by day X, we could end up in another Iraq-style crisis. We know where that road leads.

But the real battle is not between a get-tough U.S. approach and a softer European view. The crucial battle is between hard-liners and moderates inside the Bush administration. If the hawks win out, U.S. forces may some day wage battle inside Iran.

I recently heard the hawks’ hard line laid out by Stephen Rademaker, Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control. It boiled down to this: For years, the Iranians lied about their intention and ability to make nuclear weapons. Now they say they’ll tell the truth and stop trying to get nukes. Why should we believe them, after all those lies? Let’s get tough.

Rademaker was echoing the views of his boss, John Bolton, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control. When IAEA director Mohamed ElBaradei said there is no evidence that Iran is now pursuing a nuclear weapons program, Bolton called his report "simply too impossible to believe."

Bolton has dismissed the European effort, which produced a promise from Iran to cease nuclear efforts and allow full inspection, as an unacceptable carrot-and-stick approach. "I don't do carrots," says the man who is charged with controlling the spread of weapons of mass destruction around the world. Apparently, the only method he knows for controlling arms is with sticks, and stones, and bombs. (He once called it "a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law.") Putting the neo-conservative Bolton in charge of arms control is like putting a fox in charge of hen control.

But there are more reasonable people in the Bush administration, even in Bolton’s own office at State. One of them, who works under Bolton, told me that the White House position on Iran is more moderate than Bolton’s, more willing to accept Iran’s promises of future openness and restraint.

I thought the State Department is the home of the doves in this administration, I replied. It usually is, the State official agreed. And Secretary of State Colin Powell’s own words reflect it. Last week he said that Iran "seems to be moving in the right direction." But Powell was letting Bolton make State Department policy, the State official told me.

Now Powell and those allied with him may be trying to take charge. Some reports from the IAEA say that U.S. negotiators have backed off a bit from their hard-line demands. Powell’s deputy, Richard Armitage, said publicly that the U.S. is looking for a compromise. But other reports say the U.S. is demanding the toughest wording. It seems that the battle is still raging inside the administration.

The neo-cons in this administration never quit fighting. The moderates can’t resist them on every issue. The moderates may be saving their political capital to head off a more likely war against Syria. They may think that the neo-cons would never seriously think of making war against huge, mountainous Iran.

That could be overly optimistic. Bolton told journalist John Pilger that, if ten thousand Iraqi civilians died in the war, that was "quite low…the absolute minimum that is possible in modern warfare." If ten thousand is an absolute minimum, why be afraid of killing tens of thousands in much larger Iran?

Soon after the attack on Iraq, Bolton told an Arabic radio station that Iraq should be an "important lesson to other countries in the region, particularly Syria, Libya, and Iran." He made the same point in Israel last February, as I reported in He promised that once Iraq was defeated, "it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea afterwards." I also described a plan co-authored by Bolton’s special advisor, David Wurmser, for Israel to gain political control of the entire Middle East.

Now the Israelis want to see the promise fulfilled. According to Israel army radio, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is personally heading a full-scale effort to bring the strongest possible pressure against Iran. After meeting with top administration officials last week, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told a press conference: "Concentrated efforts are needed to delay, to stop or to prevent the Iranian nuclear program." Der Spiegel reports that the Israelis have plans to destroy six Iranian nuclear reactors, just as they destroyed an Iraqi reactor in 1981.

Bolton and the neo-cons are not tools of Israel. But they usually work hand-in-hand with Sharon’s government; each side helps the other advance their shared right-wing agenda. Now, the neo-cons may be arguing that it is safer for the U.S. to do the job than to let the Israelis attack Iran.

If the administration hawks get their way, the U.S. will insist that the Iranians have WMD. It will be Iraq all over again. The hawks will have to be prepared to take us to war. Otherwise, the president they serve will look like a chicken. In an election year, that can hardly be allowed, no matter how many antiwar protesters are out in the streets.

Sadly, U.S. news media are not giving this vital issue the attention it deserves. A Washington Post editorial today gave a boost to the hawks, but other media have been largely silent. A decision like this is far too important to be made by a handful of officials behind closed doors. Democracy demands a wide open debate.

Later on, it may be too late to stop the next war. That is why the forces of peace should be heard loudly, right now, supporting ElBaradai, the IAEA, and the voices of reason within the Bush administration.