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‘Rogue country’: International community reacts to U.S. election, frets over Trump presidency

trump-effect

The international community was prepared to criticize the United States last week – regardless of who prevailed in the election – for its arcane, highly decentralized and deeply flawed electoral system. Now, with Donald J. Trump poised to become the 45th president, there are myriad other reasons to criticize the U.S. as well.

Two international organizations deployed election observation missions to the United States to monitor the vote, and while their final reports varied considerably, both the Organization of American States and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe highlighted numerous deficiencies in the way the United States chooses its leaders.

Although generally positive in its tone, the OAS final report identified the following issues as representing key areas for improvement in the U.S. electoral system:

  • Taking measures to avoid the excessive concentration of voters and long lines in the voting centers.
  • Broaden the cooperation between states to compare information and avoid possible duplications in voter registries.
  • Expand the practice of designing electoral districts through independent, non-partisan commissions.
  • Analyze the impact of the decision of the Supreme Court to eliminate parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
  • Establish better and stricter rules to govern PACs and super PACs.
  • Leave behind the polarizing and divisive campaign rhetoric and promote a civil dialogue between opposing visions.

The OAS also noted the unusual practice in the United States of simultaneously requiring voter identification while not providing this required identification.

“Practically all countries in the region provide at least one free form of national identification to their citizens, which is used for electoral purposes,” said the OAS, which represents 35 independent countries of the Western hemisphere. “In the U.S., 32 states currently have laws in force that require voters to show some form of prescribed identification to verify their identity before casting a vote.”

However, these states do not make this identification readily available to citizens, contrary to good practice.

This is also a weakness that the OSCE pointed out in its report, noting:

Voter identification rules are politically divisive and vary across the states, with 32 states requiring photo identification. A high volume of litigation regarding voter identification continued up to election day, generating confusion among voters and election officials regarding the application of rules. Efforts to ensure the integrity of the vote are important, but should not lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

As the OSCE also pointed out: “Recent legal changes and decisions on technical aspects of the electoral process were often motivated by partisan interests, adding undue obstacles for voters. Suffrage rights are not guaranteed for all citizens, leaving sections of the population without the right to vote.”

The 57-member state organization also noted the undue obstacles faced by minor parties and independents trying to compete in U.S. elections.

“The number of signatures required and the signature submission deadlines vary from state to state, which made it cumbersome for third party or independent candidates to register across all states for presidential elections,” the OSCE pointed out. “Both the Green Party and Libertarian Party challenged ballot access requirements in several states, with success in a few instances.”

Campaign financing’s lack of transparency and ineffective enforcement of campaign finance laws was also noted:

The Federal Election Commission (FEC) oversees a campaign finance regime that imposes few actual limits on donations and does not limit expenditure. All financial reports are published expeditiously, but transparency is diminished by the absence of disclosure for some types of non-profit organizations that play an important role in the campaign. Partisan decision making has limited the FEC’s ability to reach decisions on key campaign finance issues.

The election-rigging process known as gerrymandering was also highlighted as a problem, with the OSCE pointing to “longstanding concerns that redistricting is a largely partisan process, which has led to a number of uncompetitive contests.” The election watchdog noted that 28 candidates for the House ran unopposed in these elections.

The undemocratic nature of the U.S.’s indirect elections – enabled by the controversial Electoral College system – was also alluded to, with the OSCE noting that “the system allows for a candidate to win the popular vote nationwide while falling short of the majority of Electoral College votes.”

This is precisely what appears to have taken place in Election 2016, with Donald Trump assuming the presidency despite his opponent Hillary Clinton receiving some 800,000 more votes nationwide than Trump. It is the second time this century that the popular vote loser has prevailed in the Electoral College and will move into the White House despite a plurality of voters preferring someone else.

Beyond the electoral system itself, international leaders are now raising concerns about the specter of a Trump presidency and what it will mean for the global system of alliances, international agreements, trade regimes, and international law. In particular, with Trump having repeatedly threatened to pull the U.S. out of the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, global figures such as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stressed the importance of continued U.S. engagement in multilateral diplomacy.

The day after the election, the UN chief noted that today’s global challenges demand concerted global action and joint solutions.

“As a founding member of the United Nations and permanent member of the Security Council, the United States is an essential actor across the international agenda,” Ban said. “The United Nations will count on the new Administration to strengthen the bonds of international cooperation as we strive together to uphold shared ideals, combat climate change, advance human rights, promote mutual understanding and implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve lives of peace, prosperity and dignity for all.”

Mary Robinson, a former Irish president and UN human rights chief, warned that the United States would become “a kind of rogue country” if it pulls out of the Paris Agreement, leaving the world more vulnerable to droughts, hurricanes, rising sea levels, high temperatures and other climate extremes.

“It would be a tragedy for the United States and the people of the United States if the U.S. becomes a kind of rogue country, the only country in the world that is somehow not going to go ahead with the Paris Agreement,” Robinson said.

Trump has promised to pull the United States out of that global climate accord, which was agreed last year by 193 countries and which went into effect earlier this month. If he follows through on this campaign pledge, European leaders may  call for a carbon tax on American imports.

“Donald Trump has said – we’ll see if he keeps this promise – that he won’t respect the conclusions of the Paris climate agreement,” said French presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy on November 13.

“Well, I will demand that Europe put in place a carbon tax at its border, a tax of 1-3%, for all products coming from the United States, if the United States doesn’t apply environmental rules that we are imposing on our companies,” he added.

Another area of concern to U.S. allies is what Trump’s victory means for the NATO military alliance. In an interview with the New York Times last July, Trump indicated that he would make U.S. military commitments to the NATO alliance – predicated on principles of collective defense – conditional upon other countries’ financial contributions to the alliance.

European Union leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels Sunday night, dealing in part with this question and also exploring issues such as possible U.S. policy changes towards Russia and Iran.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after Sunday’s dinner that “values, principles, interests” will continue to form the basis of the alliance with the United States, and said that Europe is “looking forward to a very strong partnership with the next administration.”

“We would like to know what intentions he has regarding the [NATO] alliance. We must know what climate policies he intends to pursue. This must be cleared up in the next few months,” said European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Others are raising concerns that Trump will follow through on campaign promises to reinstate the Bush administration’s torture regime, an illegal policy that was halted – but not punished – by the Obama administration.

Despite Obama’s touted “reaffirmation” of the ban on torture, “Trump easily could rescind Obama’s orders and direct the CIA to capture and humanely interrogate terror suspects in secret overseas, something many Republicans have urged,” noted Ken Dilanian at NBC News. “Trump also has some wiggle room via executive order on what constitutes torture, despite the change in the law.”

As Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, pointed out in a blog post on Monday,

Trump has said that not only does he “like” waterboarding, he doesn’t think it goes far enough.

Apparently, it bears repeating: Waterboarding is torture. And it is therefore a gross violation of human rights law. Waterboarding was banned by the military in the 2006 Army Field Manual. President Obama extended the ban to the CIA with an executive order in 2009.

Torture of any kind does not make anyone safer as information gathered under such circumstances is highly suspect. It undermines the standing of any country that seeks to influence others when it comes to human rights.

The United States’ history of using torture against prisoners is deeply shameful. It must remain in the past.

Other possible Trump policies that she highlighted as problematic from a human rights perspective include: closing the door on refugees, banning Muslims from entering the US, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, restrictions on reproductive freedom, and allowing more guns on U.S. streets.

Others have raised concerns that the permissive body of “secret law” that has purportedly guided the U.S. drone assassination policy under President Obama will be carried over into the Trump administration. This is especially worrisome because Trump has already made clear his intentions to target not just suspected terrorists but also their families in what would be a clear-cut war crime against non-combatants.

As Jameel Jaffer, deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union, writes today in the Guardian:

Now the lethal bureaucracy whose growth Obama personally oversaw will be turned over to a new administration. The powers Obama claimed will be wielded by another president. Perhaps as significant is the jarring fact that the practice of targeted killing – assassination, as it would once have been called, without a second thought – no longer seems remarkable, and the fact that the United States now boasts a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure to sustain this practice. Eight years ago the targeted-killing campaign required a legal and bureaucratic infrastructure, but now that infrastructure will demand a targeted-killing campaign. The question the next president will ask is not whether the powers Obama claimed should be exploited, but where, and against whom.

Those who oppose these policies – whether on the grassroots level, within the U.S. government, or in the international community – should act now to ensure that Trump feels the pressure from day one before he launches an international crisis with brash and ill-conceived initiatives such as pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, reinstating torture or expanding Obama’s illegal assassination program.

A good place to start would be protesting the planned inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2017. A number of groups are already organizing to do just that. See these websites for more information:

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The world’s worst weapons and the obligation to disarm

Obama as Dr. Strangelove

Obama as Dr. Strangelove

The United States continues to demonstrate double, triple and quadruple standards in its policies toward nuclear proliferation and disarmament. On the one hand, it flouts its own obligations to disarm — as spelled out in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — it tolerates its ally Israel defying this treaty by maintaining an undeclared nuclear arsenal, and it even adopts a policy of containment toward rogue state North Korea which is openly threatening war against U.S. ally South Korea and has recently threatened to use nukes against the U.S. mainland.

Meanwhile, when it comes to Iran, which insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and is continuing to engage in diplomatic negotiations — recently concluding what a Western official described as “useful” talks in the Kazakh city of Almaty — it is nothing but sanctions, threats of force and acts of war.

Speaking in Jerusalem last week, President Obama reiterated that U.S. policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, what Obama called “the world’s worst weapons,” at virtually any cost. Israel and the United States, he said,

agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to the region, a threat to the world, and potentially an existential threat to Israel. And we agree on our goal. We do not have a policy of containment when it comes to a nuclear Iran. Our policy is to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there’s still time to do so. Iran’s leaders must understand, however, that they have to meet their international obligations. And, meanwhile, the international community will continue to increase the pressure on the Iranian government. The United States will continue to consult closely with Israel on next steps. And I will repeat: All options are on the table. We will do what is necessary to prevent Iran from getting the world’s worst weapons.

On one hand it could be considered reassuring that the president is stating that the U.S. “prefers to resolve this diplomatically,” rather than militarily, but the flip side of that, of course, is the stated insistence that “all options are on the table,” including the military option.

Also implied is that the U.S. – as the inventor, leading stockpiler and only country to ever use nuclear weapons – could actually launch a nuclear assault in order to prevent Iran from obtaining these weapons. After all, if no option is off the table, supposedly that means that the nuclear option is also available.

While that might be considered too extreme even for the anything-goes standards of the United States, the implicit threat is indeed clear: if Iran continues to flout the will of the U.S. government, the U.S. retains the right to wipe that country off the map.

What is perhaps more interesting about Obama’s statement however is his explicit reference to nukes being “the world’s worst weapons.” The unstated implication is that these weapons are in a wholly different league than any other weapon on earth. While nuclear weapons may be considered too dangerous to be used, Obama hinted, nearly any other weapon ever devised is considered fair game.

It is noteworthy that as Obama was singling out nuclear weapons as uniquely horrific, new information was coming to light about the U.S.’s use of depleted uranium in its war against Iraq last decade. Significantly, in Fallujah – which was targeted mercilessly by U.S. forces in 2004 – the use of depleted uranium has led to birth defects in infants 14 times higher than in the Japanese cities targeted by U.S. atomic bombs at close of World War II, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

As the Huffington Post reported last week, “ten years after the start of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, doctors in some of the Middle Eastern nation’s cities are witnessing an abnormally high number of cases of cancer and birth defects.”

Scientists blame  the use of depleted uranium and white phosphorus in the U.S. military assaults.

The babies and small children suffering horribly from the U.S. military’s reckless use of chemical weapons might take issue with Obama’s characterization of nukes as the world’s worst weapons. To these little victims, depleted uranium and white phosphorus might rightfully take that title.

Nevertheless, Obama is of course correct that nuclear weapons are indeed horrific and their effects too ghastly to truly comprehend, and due to their unique ability to deliver prompt and utter destruction might indeed qualify as the world’s worst. His implication though that they are nevertheless safe in certain hands, namely the world’s already existing nuclear powers such as the U.S. and Israel, is dubious.

Although Iran has not attacked another country in hundreds of years, the U.S. has launched dozens of covert actions and wars of aggression since rising to superpower status following World War II. Likewise, Israel has frequently attacked its neighbors, including Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, not to mention the regular assaults it commits against Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

If there are countries that truly can’t be trusted with the world’s worst weapons, some might say that it is the countries that actually launch aggressive wars on a regular basis.

Further, while nukes certainly have a unique capability of delivering devastation unlike any other weapon in the world, they have also long been considered a stabilizing force by nuclear security strategists. In short, because they are so uniquely destructive, they can provide a powerful deterrent to would-be aggressors. This, of course, is the primary reason why countries may seek to obtain nuclear weapons — and the main reason why only full disarmament can ever truly eliminate the threat of proliferation.

North Korea has made this perfectly clear in its ongoing bluster issued against the United States. Earlier this month, North Korea’s foreign ministry said the country will exercise its right to “pre-emptive nuclear strikes on the headquarters of the aggressors” because Washington is pushing to start a nuclear war against it.

While this threat was roundly – and rightly – condemned by the international community, in substance it is not drastically different than official U.S. policy, which indicates that the United States retains the right to a first nuclear strike.

The Obama administration’s own defense strategy published last year clearly states that the U.S. will maintain its nuclear arsenal as long as these weapons exist, and if necessary, will use them.

“As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence,” it says, “we will field nuclear forces that can under  any  circumstances confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.”

Although North Korea boasts of nuclear bombs and pre-emptive strikes, it is not thought to have mastered the ability to produce a warhead small enough to put on a missile capable of reaching the United States.

It is nevertheless striking how different the U.S. treats this semi-nuclear power in comparison to countries that don’t have the ability to inflict damage against the United States, such as Iran.

When it comes to Iran, Obama insists that “they have to meet their international obligations,” and if they don’t, the U.S. just might launch a military assault. Left unsaid, of course, is that the U.S., as a nuclear power, also has international obligations, namely to move towards complete nuclear disarmament.

As the most recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference reminded states parties to the treaty in 2010:

The Conference recalls that the overwhelming majority of States entered into legally binding commitments not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in the context, inter alia, of the corresponding legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty.

The Conference further regretted that nuclear-armed countries such as the United States have failed to live up to their end of the NPT bargain:

The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.

When it comes to disputes over compliance with the treaty, however, for example Western suspicions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons or Iranian complaints that the U.S. is failing to disarm, the Review Conference reiterated the obligation that only diplomatic means should be pursued, and that “attacks or threats of attacks” must be avoided:

The Conference emphasizes that responses to concerns over compliance with any obligation under the Treaty by any State party should be pursued by diplomatic means, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations. …

The Conference considers that attacks or threats of attack on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes jeopardize nuclear safety, have dangerous political, economic and environmental implications and raise serious concerns regarding the application of international law on the use of force in such cases, which could warrant appropriate action in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. The Conference notes that a majority of States parties have suggested a legally binding instrument be considered in this regard.

While the United States continues to flout its NPT obligations to disarm, other nations of the world continue to press for the nuclear powers to live up to their promises. As the Inter Press Service reported on March 7,

For the first time, ‘humanitarian diplomacy’ is being deployed to drive home the need for banning nukes – though under the self-imposed exclusion of the P5, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, who own a crushing majority of the 19,000 nuclear weapons capable of destroying the world many times over.

A first step toward humanitarian diplomacy was taken in Oslo at a Mar. 4-5 conference convened by the government of Norway. Mexico will host a follow-up meeting “in due course” and “after necessary preparations,” Juan José Gómez Camacho, the country’s ambassador to the UN announced.

Participants in the conference included representatives of 127 states, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and civil society, with the International Campaign for Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in the forefront.

While this is indeed a hopeful step, it’s difficult to say how successful it can be without the United States and the other nuclear powers. The P5, not Iran, should be the primary targets of nuclear non-proliferation efforts, as there are no other countries on earth that have flouted the NPT as routinely since the treaty was signed.

Pressure needs to be brought to bear particularly on the United States, as the inventor of nuclear weapons, the country with the least scruples about using military force (including the use of horrific weapons such as depleted uranium, white phosphorus and cluster bombs), and the world’s leading exporter of conventional weapons.

Iran or the USA: Who really violates international obligations?

As saber-rattling against Iran intensifies – with a bipartisan group of former U.S. politicians, generals and officials saying on Wednesday that the United States should deploy ships, increase covert activities and use more bellicose rhetoric to make more “credible” the threat of a U.S. military strike to stop Iran’s nuclear program – the question of which side in this confrontation really violates international obligations has largely been avoided.

In last week’s State of the Union address, President Obama accused the Islamic Republic of shirking its international obligations and repeated a now familiar threat to Iran, which implicitly includes the possibility of a nuclear strike against Tehran or suspected nuclear sites in the country.

“Let there be no doubt,” Obama said,

America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.

But a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better, and if Iran changes course and meets its obligations, it can rejoin the community of nations.

Viewed in conjunction with the Obama administration’s new defense strategy, published just prior to the State of the Union, this ambiguous warning to Iran that “no options are off the table” becomes more clear. In the official White House playbook, entitled “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” the U.S. nuclear posture is described in a section called “Maintain a Safe, Secure, and Effective Nuclear Deterrent.”

“As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence,” it says, “the United States will maintain a safe, secure, and effective arsenal.”

Further, “We will field nuclear forces that can under  any  circumstances  confront an adversary with the prospect of unacceptable damage, both to deter potential adversaries and to assure U.S. allies and other security partners that they can count on America’s security commitments.“

There is no mention in the defense strategy of pursuing nuclear disarmament, an explicit obligation of the United States as a state party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and as the world’s leading possessor of nuclear weapons.

As the 2010 NPT Review Conference reminded states parties to the treaty:

The Conference recalls that the overwhelming majority of States entered into legally binding commitments not to receive, manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in the context, inter alia, of the corresponding legally binding commitments by the nuclear-weapon States to nuclear disarmament in accordance with the Treaty.

The Conference further regretted that nuclear-armed countries such as the United States have failed to live up to their end of the NPT bargain:

The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons.

When it comes to disputes over compliance with the treaty, however, for example Western suspicions that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons or Iranian complaints that the U.S. is failing to disarm, the Review Conference reiterated the obligation that only diplomatic means should be pursued, and that “attacks or threats of attacks” must be avoided:

The Conference emphasizes that responses to concerns over compliance with any obligation under the Treaty by any State party should be pursued by diplomatic means, in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty and the Charter of the United Nations. …

The Conference considers that attacks or threats of attack on nuclear facilities devoted to peaceful purposes jeopardize nuclear safety, have dangerous political, economic and environmental implications and raise serious concerns regarding the application of international law on the use of force in such cases, which could warrant appropriate action in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations. The Conference notes that a majority of States parties have suggested a legally binding instrument be considered in this regard.

It should be noted that despite the unequivocal claims from Washington and in the U.S. media that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, there is actually considerable ambiguity over this claim. Former CIA analyst Ray McGovern recently wrote an article for Consortiumnews.com, reminding readers of a formal National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) from November 2007.

The NIE was issued unanimously by all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies and included the following conclusion: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program; … Tehran’s decision to halt its nuclear weapons program suggests it is less determined to develop nuclear weapons than we have been judging since 2005.”

This 2007 joint assessment of the U.S. intelligence community was essentially restated by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last month, who stated frankly on national television that Iran is not currently attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us,” Panetta told “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer. “And our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”

For its part, Iran has consistently said its nuclear program is peaceful, for electricity and medical purposes. If the Iranian government decides it is in its security interests to attain nuclear weapons, however, it has the legal right under Article 10 of the Non-Proliferation Treaty to withdraw:

Each Party shall in exercising its national sovereignty have the right to withdraw from the Treaty if it decides that extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country. It shall give notice of such withdrawal to all other Parties to the Treaty and to the United Nations Security Council three months in advance. Such notice shall include a statement of the extraordinary events it regards as having jeopardized its supreme interests.

But Iran has not chosen to withdraw, and in accordance with its obligations under the NPT, is continuing to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which has the sole authority under the treaty to ascertain states parties’ commitments on non-acquisition of nuclear weapons.

A high-level IAEA delegation just completed a visit to Iran on Wednesday, and officials intend to travel to Iran again “in the very near future,” said the delegation’s leader. The three-day trip this week was aimed at resolving points of dispute over the country’s past atomic activities.

“We had three days of intensive discussions about all our priorities, and we are committed to resolve all the outstanding issues,” the Associated Press quoted IAEA safeguards chief Herman Nackaerts as saying after the team arrived in Vienna, Austria. “And the Iranians said they are committed, too.”

“We had a good trip,” Nackaerts added. Global Security Newswire noted that “The official’s remarks suggested the trip had yielded substantive results.”

“The Agency is committed to intensifying dialog. It remains essential to make progress on substantive issues,” IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano said in a statement on the return of the agency’s delegation.

“The IAEA explained its concerns and identified its priorities, which focus on the clarification of possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme,” Amano was quoted as saying. During the talks, the IAEA also discussed with Iran the topics and initial steps to be taken, as well as associated modalities, he added.

Iran’s official IRNA news agency had reported on Tuesday that the spirit of the talks between Iranian officials and the IAEA team was “positive and constructive.”

Yet, despite these promising diplomatic developments, the U.S. and its allies continue pursuing a war-footing posture in confronting Tehran.

Washington has lobbed accusations that Iran is not only developing nuclear weapons, but is also threatening to strike within the United States. According to the Washington Post:

An assessment by U.S. spy agencies concludes that Iran is prepared to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States, highlighting new risks as the Obama administration escalates pressure on Tehran to halt its alleged pursuit of an atomic bomb.

In congressional testimony Tuesday, U.S. intelligence officials indicated that Iran has crossed a threshold in its adversarial relationship with the United States. …

Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. testified to Congress that the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington last October “shows that some Iranian officials — probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei — have changed their calculus and are now more willing to conduct an attack in the United States in response to real or perceived U.S. actions that threaten the regime.”

There are also new claims being floated that the Iranian regime has links with al-Qaeda, allegations not unlike the spurious accusations Bush administration officials made about Saddam Hussein in preparing the American public for war with Iraq ten years ago. As the Wall Street Journal reports today under the headline “US fears Iran’s links to Al Qaeda as officials believe country may have provided aid to terror group”,

U.S. officials say they believe Iran recently gave new freedoms to as many as five top Al Qaeda operatives who have been under house arrest, including the option to leave the country, and may have provided some material aid to the terrorist group.

The men, who were detained in Iran in 2003, make up Al Qaeda’s so-called management council, a group that includes members of the inner circle that advised Usama bin Laden and an explosives expert widely considered a candidate for a top post in the organization.

Defense Secretary Panetta is now publicly voicing concerns that U.S. ally Israel is preparing to attack Iran in the near future, which would almost certainly bring the United States into a direct conflict. As David Ignatius wrote yesterday at the Washington Post:

Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June — before Iran enters what Israelis described as a “zone of immunity” to commence building a nuclear bomb. Very soon, the Israelis fear, the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and only the United States could then stop them militarily.

But as the saber-rattling intensifies, so does the grassroots response to this threat of a new U.S. war in the Middle East. Dozens of demonstrations are planned across the United States for Saturday, Feb. 4, to oppose a potential war against Iran as well as ongoing U.S. sanctions.

A statement by the veterans’ antiwar group March Forward, which is participating in the protests, offers a reminder of the disastrous consequences of the past decade of U.S.-led wars in the Middle East and Central Asia:

We’ve just endured 10 years of Washington’s wars for “national security,” which only seem to benefit those who are making a profit, while on the other hand causing massive bloodshed overseas and severe lack of money for people’s needs here at home.

Like with Iraq, the U.S. government’s sanctions, assassinations, and threats of war towards Iran have nothing to do with self-defense or human rights, but what is best for big business in one of the most profitable regions in the world.

The call to action lists some basic realities regarding nuclear proliferation, international law and U.S. hypocrisy in the Middle East, reading in part:

Fact: Iran does not possess a nuclear weapon.

Fact: Iran has the right, according to international law, to develop nuclear energy for civilian use.

Fact: Iran’s nuclear energy program is regularly monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Fact: Iran has never started a war.

Fact: The United States possesses 10,600 nuclear warheads in its stockpile, 7,982 of which are deployed and 2,700 of which are in a contingency stockpile. The total number of nuclear warheads that have been built from 1951 to present is 67,500.

Fact: The United States is the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons. It did so when it incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese people living in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Neither city had any military significance.

Fact: The United States has spent $7 trillion on nuclear weapons. The U.S. military budget for 2012 alone is about equal to Iran’s entire Gross National Product.

Fact: Israel, the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid (about $3 billion in 2011), unlike Iran, possesses hundreds of nuclear weapons.

Fact: Israel, unlike Iran, refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) into Israel to monitor its nuclear program.

To find an antiwar rally near you, click here.

Terrorism or not, assassination of Iranian scientist another flagrant violation of international law

Outraged Iranians protest the assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan (Photo by AFP/Getty Images)

With the perpetrator of last week’s assassination of a top Iranian nuclear scientist still unidentified, a debate is raging as to whether the brazen daylight car-bombing should legally qualify as an act of terrorism. Jason Pontin, Editor in Chief of Technology Review, has asserted that the bombing was not intended to incite fear in the population, and should therefore be considered assassination, not terrorism.

International law professor Kevin Jon Heller weighed in on the question in a blog post today at Opinio Juris, arguing that under the International Convention for the Suppression of Terrorist Bombings, last week’s assassination of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan would qualify. Although the international community has yet to agree on a general definition of terrorism, he points out that Article 2 of the Terrorist Bombing Convention defines an act of terrorism as follows:

1. Any person commits an offence within the meaning of this Convention if that person unlawfully and intentionally delivers, places, discharges or detonates an explosive or other lethal device in, into or against a place of public use, a State or government facility, a public transportation system or an infrastructure facility:

(a) With the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury; or

(b) With the intent to cause extensive destruction of such a place, facility or system, where such destruction results in or is likely to result in major economic loss.

While under this definition, the bombing last week in Tehran would seem to qualify as “terrorism,” the whole debate is arguably a bit academic and beside the point. Even under the U.S. government’s definition in the Patriot Act, the bombing that killed Ahmadi-Roshan would certainly qualify as terrorism.

Section 802 of the Patriot Act define acts of terrorism as “activities that (A) involve acts dangerous to human life … that (B) appear to be intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.”

But of course, this is the U.S. government’s definition terrorism within the United States. When the question is whether an act of violence in a foreign country is an act of terrorism, different rules apply and can be altered as needed.

There are in fact myriad definitions of terrorism that can shift and change depending on the political whims of the day. One of the clearest examples of this was when the U.S. government removed the Kosovo Liberation Army from its list of “Foreign Terrorist Organizations” in 1998.

The State Department de-listed the KLA that year as the U.S. was attempting to increase pressure on Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and the Clinton administration was lobbying France to do the same. From then on, the United States maintained diplomatic relations with the KLA’s leaders and spoke of them not as terrorists, but as freedom fighters justly resisting oppression.

As this instance makes clear, “terrorism” is a loaded term that has more to do with political realities than any objective realities.

This is why the question of whether last week’s killing of Ahmadi-Roshan should qualify as terrorism is a bit of a red herring. Whether “terrorism” or not, the bombing was obviously an assassination, and as the Harvard Law Review pointed out in 2006 in an article about the new usage of the preferred euphemism “targeted killing”:

Black’s Law Dictionary defines assassination as ‘the act of deliberately killing someone especially a public figure, usually for hire or for political reasons.’ If termed ‘assassination,’ then attacks on leaders have been construed as prohibited by Article 23b of the Hague Convention of 1899, which outlaws ‘treacherous’ attacks on adversaries, and by the Protocol Addition to the Geneva Convention of 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict (Protocol I), which prohibits attacks that rely on ‘perfidy.’

Even the U.S. government has acknowledged that these types of assassinations would be illegal under international conventions.

Back in October, when the United States accused the Iranian government of being involved in a plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Attorney General Eric Holder said that the alleged assassination attempt “constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law.”

Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC, “Every nation in the world, when they learn the facts of this, will be outraged that (Iran) would violate such an international norm, in addition to obviously being a crime to assassinate anybody, and in the process probably have killed scores of Americans.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Oct. 12, “This kind of reckless act undermines international norms and the international system. Iran must be held accountable for its actions.”

U.S. Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security, called the alleged Iranian plot an “act of war.”

The response to the assassination of Ahmadi-Roshan has been a bit more muted.

“I want to categorically deny any United States involvement in any kind of act of violence inside Iran,” Clinton told reporters last week when asked about the attack.

Victoria Nuland, Clinton’s spokeswoman, said the State Department condemned “any assassination or attack on an innocent person and we express our sympathies to the family.”

Some prominent politicians, however, praised the assassination, with Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum saying that killing Iranian scientists is “wonderful,” as it sends a message to those who work on Iran’s nuclear program that they “are not safe.”

Santorum’s comments came just days after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stated frankly that Iran is not currently attempting to develop nuclear weapons.

“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us,” Panetta told “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer. “And our red line to Iran is to not develop a nuclear weapon. That’s a red line for us.”

In the same segment, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked whether the U.S. “should take out their nuclear capabilities.”

Dempsey replied that “I certainly want them to believe that that’s the case.”

So, within a one-minute segment on a nationally broadcast television program, the Secretary of Defense concedes that Iran is not trying to develop a nuclear weapon, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff issues an ambiguous threat to bomb the country nonetheless.

This veiled threat could be seen as violating the UN Charter, which states:

All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.

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.

It should also be noted that Iran is within its rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, as it claims to be doing and as Leon Panetta recently acknowledged. Entering into force in 1970, the NPT recognizes the right of five countries — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States — to possess nuclear weapons, conditional upon eventual disarmament, and the right of other signatories to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, conditional upon their non-acquisition of nuclear weapons.

The treaty is essentially a mutual promise between nuclear-armed countries to rid themselves of these weapons and non-nuclear states to abstain from attaining them:

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

The U.S., the only country to have ever used nuclear weapons in war, continues to lead the world in stockpiling them. It has also detonated the lion’s share of nuclear tests, as this YouTube video illustrates:

In its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. essentially admitted that it has no intention of ever ridding itself of nuclear weapons. “As long as nuclear weapons exist,” the Review states, the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces.”

It therefore would seem that the United States is shirking its end of the bargain in the NPT to work towards full nuclear disarmament.

For its part, Iran says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and has the support of a good portion of the international community. Last November, the the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), an international grouping of 120 member states, reiterated its support for Tehran’s nuclear rights.

In a statement to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Board of Directors, NAM called for creating a nuclear-arms free zone in the Middle East, urging that an agreement must be signed by world nations under which any attack on nuclear facilities is banned.

Iran now claims to have evidence the U.S. was behind the killing of Mostafa Ahmadi-Roshan in Tehran last week, and is seeking the support of NAM in responding to the incident.

Iran’s state TV reported that the Iranian foreign ministry had, in a letter handed to the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, said: “We have reliable documents and evidence that this terrorist act was planned, guided and supported by the CIA.”

In a letter last week to Khaled Abdelrahman Shamaa, the representative of the NAM chairman to the UN office in Vienna, Iran called on the 120-member international body to take proper measures to prevent the assassination of nuclear scientists.

The letter outlined the need for the implementation of proper strategies to prevent the assassination of scientists anywhere, but particularly in developing countries.

With Iran allegations, U.S. demonstrates schizophrenia on assassinations and international law

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday accused the Iranian government of being involved in an alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States, saying that “the conspiracy was conceived, sponsored and directed from Iran.” He added that the alleged assassination plot “constitutes a flagrant violation of U.S. and international law, including a convention that explicitly protects diplomats from being harmed.”

Holder was apparently referring to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which the U.S. itself has recently come under criticism for flouting, namely by running a clandestine intelligence-gathering operation targeting UN officials.

As the Guardian reported last year based on secret U.S. embassy cables made public by WikiLeaks,

Washington is running a secret intelligence campaign targeted at the leadership of the United Nations, including the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon and the permanent security council representatives from China, Russia, France and the UK.

A classified directive which appears to blur the line between diplomacy and spying was issued to US diplomats under Hillary Clinton’s name in July 2009, demanding forensic technical details about the communications systems used by top UN officials, including passwords and personal encryption keys used in private and commercial networks for official communications.

It called for detailed biometric information “on key UN officials, to include undersecretaries, heads of specialised agencies and their chief advisers, top SYG [secretary general] aides, heads of peace operations and political field missions, including force commanders” …

The operation targeted at the UN appears to have involved all of Washington’s main intelligence agencies.

The Guardian pointed out that the U.S. spying campaign is likely a violation of the same Vienna Convention that Eric Holder is now citing, which provides that “the official correspondence of the mission shall be inviolable” and “the person of a diplomatic agent shall be inviolable.”

Although she was directly implicated in this earlier breach of international norms, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weighed in on the alleged Iranian plot today, calling it “a flagrant violation of international and U.S. law and a dangerous escalation of the Iranian government’s longstanding use of political violence and sponsorship of terrorism.”

Vice President Joe Biden said on NBC, “Every nation in the world, when they learn the facts of this, will be outraged that (Iran) would violate such an international norm, in addition to obviously being a crime to assassinate anybody, and in the process probably have killed scores of Americans.”

Biden’s assertion that it is “a crime to assassinate anybody” comes two weeks after the U.S. government’s extrajudicial assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki and just a week after Reuters revealed a secret U.S. government “kill list” that designates perceived threats – including American citizens – as legitimate targets for assassination.

As Reuters reported on Oct. 5,

American militants like Anwar al-Awlaki are placed on a kill or capture list by a secretive panel of senior government officials, which then informs the president of its decisions, according to officials.

There is no public record of the operations or decisions of the panel, which is a subset of the White House’s National Security Council, several current and former officials said. Neither is there any law establishing its existence or setting out the rules by which it is supposed to operate.

The panel was behind the decision to add Awlaki, a U.S.-born militant preacher with alleged al Qaeda connections, to the target list. He was killed by a CIA drone strike in Yemen late last month.

The White House would not comment specifically on the Reuters story, but National Security Staff spokesman Tommy Vietor issued the following statement to ABC News:

I cannot provide details about our cooperation with the Yemeni government on counterterrorism operations. As a general matter, however, it would be entirely lawful for the United States to target the high-level leaders of enemy forces who are plotting to kill Americans both under the authority provided by Congress for the use of military force in the armed conflict with al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces as well as under established international law that recognizes our right of self-defense.

The legal analysis would be slightly different with respect to U.S. citizens, as we would have to take into account any constitutional protections that might apply to a U.S. citizen who is leading enemy forces in their efforts to kill innocent Americans. Any time we use force, I want to assure you that we do so with extraordinary care and in full accordance with U.S. law and the international law of armed conflict.

So, when the U.S. carries out assassinations in its “war on terror,” it is “in full accordance with U.S. law and the international law of armed conflict,” but when it is Iran alleged to be involved in an assassination plot, the U.S. vice president unequivocally asserts that it is “obviously a crime to assassinate anybody.”

Iran itself has been the target of an ongoing assassination campaign of its nuclear scientists. On July 23, Darioush Rezaei became the latest victim in a series of attacks over the past two years in which the Islamic republic’s elite physicists have been picked off one by one. The U.S. and Israel are widely suspected to be responsible for the assassinations.

For its part, Iran categorically denies any role in the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador.

Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi called the plot “an amateurish scenario,” pointing out that there have been similar allegations over the past few decades.

“The Islamic Republic never seeks to get involved in this kind of behavior and, despite 32 years of pressure brought to bear on Iran, the country has always acted and reacted ethically,” he said.

Independent observers have also raised doubts about the veracity of the U.S. claims. Middle East specialist Prof. Juan Cole, a vocal critic of the Iranian regime, wrote today on his blog Informed Comment,

As many observers have pointed out, the story given us by Attorney General Eric Holder about the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington, D.C., makes no sense. Veteran CIA operative Bob Baer, now retired, notes that Iranian intelligence is highly professional and works independently or through trusted proxies, and this sloppy operation simply is not their modus operandi.

The US is alleging that Gholam Shakuri, a known member of the Quds Brigade, the special operations force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, was involved and that he was running an Iranian-American agent, Manssor Arbabsiar, a used car dealer with a conviction on check fraud. Arbabsiar wired $100,000 to a bank account he thought belonged to a member of the Zeta Mexican drug cartel, as a down payment on the $1.5 million demanded by the cartel member for carrying out the assassination.

As Cole points out, if Arbabsiar really had been an Iranian intelligence asset, he would have known that the U.S. closely monitors money transfers of more than $10,000. “The only safe way to undertake this transaction would have been cash, and no one in the Quds Brigade is so stupid as not to know this simple reality,” writes Cole.

Also, why would the Iranians use a Mexican drug cartel to carry out an assassination, if – as we have been told for years – the Iranian regime controls unknown numbers of Hezbollah sleeper cells within the United States? In June 2008, U.S. intelligence officials warned that Hezbollah sleeper cells were being activated in North, Central and South America, but now they claim that the Iranian regime is contracting a Mexican drug cartel to do its dirty work. The story simply makes no sense.

Perhaps this is why the Iranian foreign ministry summoned the Swiss ambassador to personally convey its outrage over the American charges and warn “against the repetition of such politically motivated allegations.” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi alleged that the United States is fabricating the incident to divert attention from its “economic troubles.”

The semi-official Fars news agency published an article with the headline: “U.S. Accusations Against Iran Aim to Divert World Attention from Wall Street Uprising,” a reference to the ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests. The article quoted a senior member of Iran’s Parliament, Alaoddin Boroujerdi, as saying he had “no doubt this is a new American-Zionist plot to divert the public opinion from the crisis Obama is grappling with.”

Foreign Minister Salehi warned against the dangers of confrontation.

“We do not seek confrontation,” he said. “If they [the U.S.] want to confront us and impose their will on us, then that would be their end. If they are capable of hitting us with their fist, we are capable of slapping them. If we slap them it would be so hard that they can no longer hold their heads up. We emphasize that we do not want confrontation, that we want interaction. If they decide to create a confrontation and impose it on the Iranian nation, the consequences for them will be dire.”

Despite these warnings from Iran, it appears that the U.S. is exploiting the case to increase the level of confrontation.

As Clinton said today, “This kind of reckless act undermines international norms and the international system. Iran must be held accountable for its actions.” She noted that the United States had already imposed targeted sanctions on “individuals within the Iranian government who are associated with this plot and Iran’s support for terrorism.”

U.S. Representative Peter King, Chairman of the House Homeland Security, called the alleged plot an “act of war” Tuesday.

“This would have been an act of war…this goes beyond anything that I’m aware of that’s happened before,” Rep. King continued, “it’s certainly raised relationship between the U.S. and Iran to a very precipitous level.”

King suggested that the U.S. take some type of military action against Iran, despite the fact that as U.S. intelligence officials concede, there is no evidence that the Iranian leadership had any knowledge of the alleged plot.

As Reuters reported today, U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was “more than likely” that Iran’s supreme leader and the head of its Quds force knew of the alleged plot to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington, but acknowledged the claim was based on analysis rather than hard evidence.

The officials also acknowledged that the plan to hire a hit man from a Mexican drug cartel, was far “outside the pattern” of the Quds force’s past activity.

Despite these doubts, it appears that no options are being taken off the table, including a possible military response by the United States. If such an attack occurs, the U.S. would be breaching international law as a response to an alleged breach of international law by Iran.

But with the schizophrenia already on display over the alleged assassination plot and Iran’s “flagrant violations of international norms,” this would be par for the course.

Citing Iran’s nuclear non-compliance, U.S. sidesteps its own obligations

Last week, the United States and three other Western powers formally accused Tehran of breaching a UN Security Council resolution related to Iran’s nuclear program.

U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice expressed concern about reports that Iran is preparing for the spinning of centrifuges at the Qom facility, which she called “a flagrant and blatant violation of existing sanctions.”

Security Council members Germany, France and Britain joined the U.S. in charging that Iran was failing to abide by United Nations prohibitions on the weaponization of its nuclear program, specifically stating that the Persian Gulf state appears to be pursuing ballistic missile technology which could serve as a delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons.

Iran had allegedly breached the rule in June by deploying its Rasad 1 satellite, “which is dependent on ballistic missile technology,” British Ambassador to the United Nations Mark Lyall Grant said. On Aug. 23, Iran unveiled a new domestically manufactured cruise missile, adding to the nation’s growing arsenal and fueling concerns of the international community.

The International Atomic Energy Agency’s top official on Sept. 12 joined the Western leaders in expressing alarm over Iran’s potential to prepare a nuclear-capable missile. IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said he wanted to “set out in greater detail the basis for the agency’s concerns so that all member states are fully informed.”

“Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable the agency to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities,” the IAEA chief said.

Tehran has denied allegations that its atomic activities are geared toward weapons development. Iran’s development of ballistic missile technology is intended as deterrence against enemies who may be considering an invasion, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said.

Iranian state television reported that a new missile dubbed “Ghader,” showcased at a ceremony in Tehran on Aug. 23, is designed for sea-based targets, with a range of 124 miles and is capable of destroying a warship.

“The best deterrence is that the enemy does not dare to invade,” Ahmadinejad said during the ceremony. “The enemy should be crippled on its own ground and not over the skies of Tehran.”

Despite Iran’s claims that its weapons programs are intended for self-defense, the U.S. and its allies are insisting that the ballistic missile technology places Iran in breach of Security Council Resolution 1929.

“We were among those that reported to the committee our view that the ballistic missile launches that we have seen of late is a violation of paragraph nine” of the resolution, Amb. Rice said. The paragraph prohibits Iran from “undertak[ing] any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”

But even as the U.S. Ambassador accuses Iran of violating Resolution 1929, the U.S. seems to be violating it as well. Specifically, the second paragraph of the resolution’s preamble states,

Reaffirming its commitment to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the need for all States Party to that Treaty to comply fully with all their obligations, and recalling the right of States Party, in conformity with Articles I and II of that Treaty, to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes the right of five countries — China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States — to possess nuclear weapons, conditional upon eventual disarmament, and the right of other signatories to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, conditional upon their non-acquisition of nuclear weapons. Entering into force in 1970, the NPT explicitly requires that

Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.

Forty years later, there has been only incremental progress in this regard, although moves in recent years have provided some hope for realizing the promise of eventual disarmament. Coming on the heels of the adoption of the U.S.-Russia New START Treaty as well as Barack Obama’s 2009 speech embracing a nuclear weapons-free world, last year’s NPT Review Conference was hailed as a success by observers such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

In the disarmament section, for the first time, a world free of nuclear weapons is articulated as the goal of nuclear disarmament. Acknowledged nuclear weapon states also committed themselves to continuing to work together to accelerate concrete progress on disarmament. Efforts to include a timeline for a negotiated nuclear weapons convention failed, but the disarmament action plan does includes a timeline whereby the nuclear weapon states should report on their disarmament activities at the 2014 NPT Preparatory Committee meeting. They are also encouraged to develop a standard reporting form as a confidence building measure.

But while celebrating the progress made in recent years, it is clear that the nuclear weapons states continue to balk at disarmament. In 2000, the five nuclear powers committed themselves to an “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals.” But for now, the five continue to retain the bulk of their nuclear forces.

The U.S., the first country to attain nuclear weapons and the only one to have ever used them, continues to lead the world in stockpiling them.

While China has about 240 total warheads, France fewer than 300 operational warheads and the United Kingdom with a total stockpile of up to 225, the United States has 5,113 active and inactive nuclear warheads and approximately 3,500 warheads retired and awaiting dismantlement. Russia has approximately 2,400 operational strategic warheads, approximately 2,000 operational tactical warheads, and approximately 7,000 stockpiled strategic and tactical warheads.

In its 2010 Nuclear Posture Review, the U.S. essentially admitted that it has no intention of ever ridding itself of nuclear weapons, but instead is attempting to demonstrate that it is making symbolic progress toward its NPT obligations:

“As long as nuclear weapons exist,” the Review states,

the United States will sustain safe, secure, and effective nuclear forces. …But fundamental changes in the international security environment in recent years – including the growth of unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities, major improvements in missile defenses, and the easing of Cold War rivalries – enable us to fulfill those objectives at significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons. Therefore, without jeopardizing our traditional deterrence and reassurance goals, we are now able to shape our nuclear weapons policies and force structure in ways that will better enable us to meet our most pressing security challenges.

By reducing the role and numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons – meeting our NPT Article VI obligation to make progress toward nuclear  disarmament – we can put ourselves in a much stronger position to persuade our NPT  partners to join with us in adopting the measures needed to reinvigorate the non-proliferation regime and secure nuclear materials worldwide.

It is clear then that moves by the United States to eliminate some nuclear weapons are not good faith efforts at disarmament – as mandated by the Non-Proliferation Treaty – but rather minimalistic efforts intended to portray an image of compliance with the Treaty, in order to advance geostrategic goals. Indeed, as the Arms Control Association points out, under the New START Treaty with Russia,

The United States will retain up to 420 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), 60 nuclear-capable bombers, and 240 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) … This new force structure was provided to the Senate as part of the materials transmitted with New START for ratification. In addition, as part of the administration’s effort to show progress on disarmament at the May review conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), the Department of State announced April 27 that the United States had 1,968 “operationally deployed” warheads at the end of 2009, and the Pentagon announced May 3 that as of last Sept. 30, the U.S. nuclear stockpile stood at 5,113 warheads.

While the Obama administration may deserve credit for pushing new arms control initiatives with Russia, from the perspective of non-nuclear states that have been waiting 40 years for the nuclear powers to fulfill their promise of disarmament, the efforts surely appear more symbolic than real, with the U.S. and Russia still capable of ending all life on earth many times over.

This is especially the case for a country like Iran, which is completely surrounded by U.S. military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and the Navy’s Fifth Fleet stationed off the coast of Bahrain. While the U.S. has expressed alarm over Iran seeking nuclear weapons, the Obama administration has failed to repudiate the Bush Doctrine of preemptive war which arguably has forced Tehran to adopt a strategy of deterrence.

Obama’s widely heralded 2010 Nuclear Posture Review may have renounced the development of new nuclear weapons such as the “bunker-busters” proposed by the Bush administration and ruled out a nuclear attack against non-nuclear-weapon states who are in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but this rule pointedly excluded Iran.

Indeed, the Review even singled out Iran as a particularly hard case, calling its behavior “provocative.”

From the perspective of Tehran though, the actions of the United States may be considered provocative. In the last decade, the U.S. has invaded two of its neighbors, and continues to intervene militarily in countries such as Libya without even invoking the casus belli of self-defense or “preemption.”

If the U.S. is serious about non-proliferation in the region and around the world, a fundamentally new approach is needed – one that includes U.S. compliance with its disarmament obligations, as well as the renunciation of nuclear first strikes and preemptive war in general. Symbolic half-measures are obviously not doing the job.

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