Disarmament& Iran& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Middle East02 Aug 2010 07:37 pm

Andrew Lichterman

The recently released film Countdown to Zero has sparked controversy amongst disarmament advocates. Local disarmament groups were encouraged by national arms control groups and funders to turn people out for the film, but some who have seen it believe that at best it is unhelpful, and at worst that it might do more to build support for the next round of U.S. armed counterproliferation abroad than to advance disarmament. (see Darwin BondGraham, “Co-opting the Anti-Nuclear Movement,” United for Peace and Justice has made available a leaflet, Countdown to Zero? Or fight for a nuclear free future! designed to fill in some of the key information about nuclear weapons and disarmament that the film leaves out.

Countdown to Zero is intended to be part of a broader campaign, with its main foundation funder, the Ploughshares Fund, encouraging its grantees to turn people out for the film and offering further grants “for activities that will take advantage of Countdown to Zero and help catalyze public support for a world without nuclear weapons.” I haven’t seen the film yet, but some things I have seen so far of the surrounding campaign raise troubling questions about its intentions and its likely effect.

On July 29, ex-CIA officer Valerie Plame, one of the experts featured in the film, appeared on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews. The segment promoted the film, consisting of excerpts interspersed with back and forth from Plame and Matthews with a Countdown to Zero logo running in the corner of the screen throughout. The segment began by focusing on the alleged danger that Osama Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda might get nuclear weapons, with another expert featured in the film, Graham Allison, stating several times that Bin-Laden had expressed the desire to kill four million Americans. The accompanying images were of Bin Laden and AK47-wielding Al-Qaeda members. Most of the rest of the segment was devoted to Plame and other experts, both in film excerpts and in her back and forth with Matthews, hammering on the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. Plame asserted in an excerpt from the film that that Iran “without question” is seeking nuclear weapons, and went on at length about how good Iran is at concealing and protecting its nuclear efforts.

In the four minute and forty second clip, only about twenty seconds can be characterized as even mentioning disarmament–and then only as a far distant goal, albeit ultimately the only definitive solution to the much-emphasized ‘nuclear terrorist’ and ‘rogue state’ threats of today. The rest of the segment was devoted to the dangers posed by the possibility that bad people who are Muslims of one kind or another might get or use The Bomb.

In fact, if this segment was the first thing you had ever seen about nuclear weapons, you would have no idea that anyone on earth already has a nuclear arsenal aside from Russia and Pakistan. Russia comes into the picture only as somewhere that terrorists might buy or steal nuclear weapons or materials to make them. And in the closing seconds of the segment, when asked by Matthews what posed the greatest nuclear threat–Pakistan, Iran, or terrorists (apparently the only nuclear dangers on the mainstream media menu) Plame didn’t take issue with the framing of the question. She chose Pakistan, because it is in “such a volatile region” and “we cannot have a lot of confidence in their command and control.” Pakistan lies in close proximity to unmentioned nuclear powers China and India, shares a contiguous land mass with unmentioned nuclear powers Israel and France and barely-mentioned nuclear former superpower Russia, and is fighting a covert and overt war as client (and perhaps partial adversary) of the unmentioned nuclear-armed sole superpower, the United States, and unmentioned nuclear power and former regional colonial overlord England. A “volatile region” indeed. (more…)

Iran31 Mar 2007 02:43 pm

Michael Spies

It should be no surprise that the media coverage in the west on this has limited itself to a superficial recap of the narrow propaganda points put out by the US and UK governments- basically parroting outrage at Iran’s parading of the soldiers in front of the media and emphasizing that Iran is interfering with a UN-authorized operation. Given that most of the diplomacy is happening outside the view of the public, it is even more difficult than usual to discern what Iran’s intention’s might have been and what the significance or consequences of this might be, but it is possible to connect up the dots to come up with some plausible theories.

Thought 1: The first thing we can exclude is the knee-jerk comparison to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. From my perspective the current situation represents more a sign of an impending conflict, rather than an incident that will lead to conflict. While this move certainly heightens existing tensions, the Iranian conduct here has been very measured and deliberate. Unlike the nuclear situation, where it’s been very obvious there are multiple factions vying to push their own agendas, here the regime has largely been able to speak with one voice, and that voice generally has not been coming from Ahmadinejad, though his often-incendiary comments tend to attract the lion’s share of the coverage. Other items that point in this direction are the facts that Iran’s video releases of the soldiers have been broadcast in Arabic - so not for a domestic audience - and their extensive efforts to manipulate perception of the crisis through the media: the (botched) attempt to provide alternative coordinates for the capture; the steady progression of letter releases and video confessions; etc.

So what’s going on?

As this crisis has been unfolding, the AP has reported on a purportedly confidential letter from Iran to the IAEA, where Iran cites the threat of a U.S. attack as rationale for its curtailing of cooperation with the Agency. Iran’s perception of a threat from the U.S. is not a new development and in the context of the nuclear crisis can be traced back to May 2003 when Iran first offered it’s “grand bargain” to the U.S. through diplomatic channels. Here, chief among Iran’s goals was to obtain security assurances from the U.S., something that has been conspicuously absent from all proposals made by the E3 and P6 to Iran, and also something the Bush administration has explicitly ruled out regardless of Iran’s response to the nuclear question.


Iran& War and law14 Mar 2007 12:39 pm

Michael Spies

This week, two fights are going on, one in Washington and the other in New York, the outcomes for which might largely affect the likelihood for armed conflict with Iran. In Washington, backsliding below the zero point to a new low from their campaign promises to end the current war, the House democratic leadership has decided to pull language from their Supplemental Appropriations bill (funding the Bush administration’s escalation in Iraq), which would have required the President to seek explicit congressional approval prior to any military operations in Iran.

The Friends Committee on National Legislation has set up a phone number that can connect constituents to their congress people in order to tell them to reinsert the Iran provision: see for more information. The National Iranian-American Council has also set up an online page where you can send a similar (customizable) electronic message to your congress person.

Meanwhile in New York, Russia and China are sparring with the Western members of the Security Council over the severity of sanctions on Iran that would be imposed over its failure to suspend its uranium enrichment program as required by resolution 1737. There is a tendency to see the actions of the Security Council as legitimizing the actions of the United States, but as I detail in this piece here on Iran and the evolving role of the Security Council, the Council’s actions on crucial matters affecting the peace have increasingly represented little more than the raw exercise of the power, not the triumph of the rule of law. The United States has increasingly used the Council as an instrument to create hegemonic international law whenever it suits its own interests as its most powerful member.

It is said that law is a tool of the powerful, but it can also be its master. Most of those who work toward strengthening international law tend to emphasize how the UN and law constrains the United States. But, since the end of the cold war arrow has been moving almost entirely in the opposite direction. In this period the Council has drastically extended both its activities and its authority. Exemplified by the progression of the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, the Council continues to innovatively adapt the rules to assert the will of the United States in the name of the international community, even when these acts require rewriting, reinterpreting, or violating existing law.

Iran& Iraq war& Social movements and protest13 Feb 2007 08:29 pm


Andrew Lichterman

On January 27, what was by any estimation an enormous number of people gathered at the U.S. Capitol to protest the continuing U.S. war and occupation in Iraq. Despite the diverse geographic origins and political persuasions represented in the huge crowd, the demand for a speedy end to the war and withdrawal of U.S. forces was clear. If nothing else, this enormous, unambiguous outpouring of anti-war opinion highlighted the distance between an increasingly angry and concerned populace and a professional political class largely in business-as-usual mode, with most still maneuvering to extract every possible advantage from the vicious bloodletting taking place on the other side of the world.

As I have written previously, I believe that too great a share of resources go into large, mediagenic events and to conventional efforts to pressure centers of government directly, at the expense of the sustained local and regional organizing and institution building essential to the kind of social change we will need to reign in the U.S. empire and the runaway global corporate capitalism that it sustains and dominates (see, e.g. Scale, Locale, and Demonstrations. Further reflections on this point and others regarding the state of the anti-war/peace movement follow in the latter part of this piece). But there are times when it is essential to muster as much “people power” as possible to just say NO, and this was one. It was such a moment not only because of the ongoing horror in Iraq, but because of the threat that the American juggernaut may roll on to Iran, unleashing consequences that only those utterly ignorant of history could claim to predict.

As the coming months unfold, we will see whether the Congressional opposition to the Iraq war amounts to anything more than the careful positioning of otherwise status quo politicians for gains in the next elections. We will also see whether there is real opposition among political elites to another war of aggression against Iran — or whether the “centrist” elements of the narrow U.S. official political spectrum are simply waiting to see whether the administration can generate a propaganda campaign sufficient to provide political cover for another Congressional mandate for war. In all of this, we will learn something about who truly rules this country. The idea that over half a decade of war-making, repression and torture on a global scale could happen by mistake or be sustained by a small “cabal” of ideologues is a myth. And if we attack Iran, it will not be because ideology somehow has run wild, with broad-based, complex social currents pushing the politicians unwillingly to the brink. The U.S. population today is largely an amalgam of quiescence and frustrated discontent, with only a distinct minority still blindly willing to follow the martial banner. In a nation where concentrated wealth translates quite directly into political power, we will attack Iran only if a dominant fraction of the most powerful interests desire it. (more…)

Iran30 Oct 2006 10:05 am

Michael Spies

Barely two weeks after the UN Security Council enacted sanctions to contain North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs, the permanent members of the Council are debating similar measures against Iran. This week the EU circulated a draft resolution on Iran, which takes a similar approach to the resolution on North Korea. While the U.S. was quick to signal its full backing of the draft, Russia has expressed unspecified skepticism and concern. Due to various political circumstances, the draft resolution is not expected to be circulated to the full Council until the first full week of November.

Quick overview: The draft resolution states the Security Council in acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, thus citing its authority to impose sanctions on Iran’s nuclear energy and ballistic missile programs. The resolution cites Article 41 of the Charter specifically, which is intended to preclude the use of force (Article 41 addresses “measures not involving the use of armed force”). The resolution would also compel Iran to implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol, suspend all enrichment and reprocessing related activities, and suspend all projects related to heavy water. The draft contains an exception for activities related to Russia’s construction of the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, but the measures otherwise apply to the full range of Iran’s civilian nuclear program.

There are many notable features in the current draft. Overall, it represents a departure from the Security Council’s traditional approach in dealing with ostensible threats to international peace and in how it makes decisions pursuant to its mandate under the UN Charter. Specifically, the draft strays from the traditional form set forth in the UN Charter, by which the Security Council makes decisions that are binding on member states. This evolution in Council decision-making started with the approach taken in response to the North Korean missile tests in July, and was also the approach taken in resolution 1696 on Iran.

The Security Council’s authority to make resolutions binding on member states is not absolute. Traditionally, following from the legal mandate of the Council set forth in the UN Charter, there are three elements a resolution must contain in order to be binding: 1) the Security Council must make a finding or determination that a given situation represents a threat to international peace and security (Article 39); 2) the Security Council must state it is acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter; 3) the Security Council must use language in the operative portion of the resolution that confers a legal obligation (the Security Council decides rather than the Security Council calls upon or urges). Resolution 1696, in which the Council demands that Iran suspend enrichment and reprocessing activities, contained none of these elements (thus one could raise the question of whether it contained any binding obligations, though the passage of the current draft would make this issue moot).


Disarmament& Iran& Nuclear weapons--U.S.28 Sep 2006 11:47 am

Michael Spies

Hans Blix was the primary witness at a September 26 congressional hearing titled, “Weapons of Mass Destruction: Current Nuclear Proliferation Challenges,” held by the House Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats and International Relations, chaired by Christopher Shays (R-CT). The hearing also featured two additional panels, one comprised of governmental officials and the other comprised of non-governmental representatives.

Beyond the narrow-minded conception of non-proliferation prevalent in Washington, Blix, focusing on the findings made in the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission’s report, Weapons of Terror, took the opportunity to inform Congress:

A large number–if not all–of the non-nuclear weapon states parties to the NPT consider that the nuclear weapon states parties are seriously failing in compliance with their commitments under the treaty to move to nuclear disarmament.

However, in his prepared testimony Blix declined to highlight the inextricable connection between non-proliferation and disarmament as forcibly as was done by the WMD Commission, which forcefully noted:

So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, there is a risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. And any such use would be catastrophic.

However, Blix did note that, in the view of the Commission, “nuclear weapons may be particularly dangerous in some hands but constitutes a danger in anybody’s hands.” Thus he reasserted Commission’s pointed rejection of the “suggestion that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in the hands of others they place the world in mortal jeopardy.”

Two other notable non-governmental panelists, Ambassador Thomas Graham, chairman of the Bipartisan Security Group, and Jonathan Granoff, president of the Global Security Institute, also focused primarily on disarmament issues in their testimonies.

Iran and the Nuclear Fuel Cycle

Blix also highlighted the connection between threats to state security and proliferation, saying specifically in the context of Iran that:

Just as security considerations are important behind some states’ non- adherence [India, Israel, Pakistan] such considerations may also figure among the factors which have led some states’ failure to comply. Iran’s enrichment program appears to go back to the 1980s. If there were intentions to acquire nuclear weapons or getting closer to the option, these might well have been based in suspicions that Saddam Hussein in Iraq was working to develop nuclear weapons and that Iran’s security required a response. The suspicion would have been right.


Iran& War and law15 Jun 2006 03:03 pm

Michael Spies

The New York Times recently reopened the issue of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s notorious appeal to “wipe Israel off the map”. The Times piece focuses exclusively on the translation — or possible mistranslation — of the statement in order to determine if it constituted a threat against Israel and a call for war. The original phrase in Farsi, borrowed from rhetoric used by Ayatollah Khomeini, lacks a direct literal equivalent in English. The closest expression is to remove from the “pages of time of history”. Despite this, the Times noted that Ahmadinejad’s personal translators chose the wording “wipe off the map” in the posting on the President’s web site. The Times concludes that it remains an open question of whether Ahmadinejad called for war against Israel.

In a recent Washington Post Op-Ed, David Rifkin argued that this statement alone constituted an illegal threat to Israeli territorial integrity, and political independence, in contravention of Article 2.4 of the UN Charter. He reasoned that the utterance alone is sufficient grounds for Israel to exercise its right to self defense, preserved in Article 51 of the Charter. Moreover, he argued that Ahmadinejad’s statement, taken with his prediction of a coming “nuclear conflagration”, equates to a threat to commit genocide, in violation of the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Rifkin reiterated this argument Monday night at the New York Bar Association at an event examining the legality of the use of force by the United States against Iran. The event was inspired by Seymour Hersh’s article, “The Iran Plans“. The other panelists included Gary Solis, a professor of law who formerly taught at West Point, and Charles Moxley, a professor of law at the Fordham Law School. After their presentations John Burroughs, (Executive Director of Lawyers’ Committee on Nuclear Policy and a contributor to this blog) asked the panel a straightforward, but challenging, legal question: what constitutes a threat under international law?

There is little guidance in the body of international law on the question of what constitutes a threat. Article 2.4 of the UN Charter stipulates that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Yet there is no definition of threat provided in the Charter or other international instruments.

John Burroughs has suggested (see Legal Framework, p. 30), from an orthodox point of view, that core elements of a threat are a demand that another state do or refrain from doing something coupled with the statement that military action will be taken if the demand is not complied with. Taking off from that basic point as well as international relations theory, I would identify several criteria for determining what is a threat in the context of Article 2.4. States employ many available foreign policy tools to achieve a desired policy outcome, including the use of force. To constitute a threat, a state must show intent, through either its actions or statements, to use force to achieve its policy. Intent to use force could come through a demand or ultimatum to another state, stipulating explicit consequences for a failure to comply. Intent can also be revealed through a pattern of behavior, appropriate for achieving the policy goal, such as building up armed forces or engaging in arms races, or otherwise preparing for the use of force. Other factors can mitigate or aggravate the perception of threat, such as previous foreign policy practice, more precise articulations of the policy in question, or doctrines governing the threat or use of force. Credibility is key to intent and to the question of threat. If the state making the threat lacks the capability to achieve its policy through the use of force, any threat it makes lacks credibility and constitutes nothing more than belligerent, hard-line rhetoric.


Iran& Nuclear weapons--global& Nuclear weapons--U.S.& Iraq war& Social movements and protest20 May 2006 10:18 pm


Jackie Cabasso

The April 29 March for Peace, Justice and Democracy was a huge success! Initiated by United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), and with 8 major co-endorsing organizations forming an unprecedented coalition*, the organizers estimate that 350,000 people participated. Equally important was the tone of the day - spirited yet serious, and focused simultaneously on many issues of concern to the peace and justice movement.The morning started out rather dramatically for the Nuclear Disarmament tent at the Peace and Justice Festival site. Our set-up crew arrived at Foley Square, loaded down with boxes of literature and displays, to find - to our dismay - that tent assembly was running way behind schedule, and that only about half of the tents had been set up. Ours was not one of them. We also discovered that our location, in front of the Federal Courthouse, was located in a wind tunnel and shaded from the sun by the surrounding buildings.

As we huddled together in the cold, we watched our huge tent (something like 20 x 40 feet) being assembled. We were given the go ahead to start moving tables and chairs into the space when a sudden gust of wind literally blew the frame apart and the upended the tent on the courthouse steps! Fortunately no one was hurt, but the tent landed with such an impact that it literally ripped a street sign out of the concrete sidewalk. We couldn’t resist darkly joking among ourselves that the upside down shredded tent looked like the aftermath of a nuclear blast. The Police immediately told us we couldn’t have a tent in that location.


Iran18 May 2006 08:18 am

Michael Spies

By now the initial bewilderment caused by Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s infamous letter to President Bush has receded back into the stream of the never-ending news cycle. For those who haven’t taken the time to read it, the synopsis in the media was more or less accurate. On the whole the letter was a meandering theological and philosophical tract, appealing to Bush’s oft-professed monotheistic values, and in essence inviting Bush to see the light and to practice what he preaches. It also contained lengthy diatribes against U.S. foreign policy.

Most commentators in the U.S. were quick to dismiss the letter. While the letter does stray pretty far from the norms of polite, diplomatic correspondence, quick dismissal reveals an unwillingness to understand or to even acknowledge the presence in the world of alternative modes of philosophical, cultural, and political discourse. Coming from most other corners of the world such casual disregard reflects little more than cultural bigotry. Coming from the U.S., in light of its global military and political preeminence, it can reflect a certain imperial hubris.

On the subject of imperialism, I recently heard historian Ervand Abrahamian’s take on the Iran nuclear dispute, framed within the context of Iran’s historical struggles against imperial powers. A professor at the City University of New York, Abrahamian spoke at an over-packed teach-in on April 26 at Judson Church in Manhattan, “Stopping the War Before It Starts: What We Need to Know to Resist A War Against Iran.” The event was sponsored by Action Wednesdays against War. In 2005 Abrahamian wrote a prescient short commentary, “Iran: The Next Target?.” He is currently working on two books for Cambridge University Press, The CIA Coup in Iran and A History of Modern Iran. According to Abrahamian, the heroes in Iranian historiography are those who refused imperialist ultimatums, and therefore it is hard for any Iranian government to submit to such ultimatums.


Iran& Iraq war& War and law07 May 2006 09:02 am

John Burroughs

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and 32 co-sponsors have introduced a resolution (H. Con. Res. 391) in the House of Representatives declaring that the House, with the Senate concurring, “strongly and unequivocally believes that seeking congressional authority prior to taking military action against Iran is not discretionary, but is a legal and constitutional requirement.” DeFazio and 61 members of the House also wrote to President Bush expressing the same view.

The resolution and letter provide a history lesson, for example quoting President Washington that “no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after [Congress] have deliberated upon the subject, and authorized such a measure.”

In the case of the Iraq war, Congress basically rolled over, adopting a resolution that turned over the decision of whether or not to attack Iraq to Bush. His subsequent decision to invade was wrong, unwise, and contrary to the UN Charter. What has been lost in the chatter since then is that Congress abdicated its constitutional role. As the Washington Post reported at the time, it was not for lack of alternatives:

“A [resolution] sponsored by Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D-S.C.) and Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.), would have authorized U.S military action only if it were sanctioned by the Security Council or by a second congressional vote later this year. It lost 270 to 55.

A similar resolution, proposed by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), was defeated 75 to 24 in the Senate.”

Let’s hope that Congress has learned something and as Rep. DeFazio urges will assert its constitutional role with respect to any military action against Iran, whether it’s considered weeks, months, or years from now. It’s also way past time to start bringing the UN Charter and other international law into the deliberations.

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