Monthly Archives: November 2013

Missing the Point

I missed this, but Ryan Goodman posted what may well be a response to a piece I had written earlier, arguing that he had misunderstood the nature of the U.S. claim regarding Iran’s ‘right to enrich’. Based on what is here, I think he has compounded the error.

He argued in his first post on the subject that the view that Iran has a categorical right to enrich by the terms of the NPT is in err, as it is not difficult to construct contrary arguments. He pointed out, for instance, that the string of UNSC resolutions regarding Iran’s nuclear program trump whatever Iran’s claimed rights are under the NPT (by virtue of UN Charter Article 103), and since the resolutions demand Iran suspend all enrichment, Iran’s right to enrich is hardly sacrosanct. As I noted, that is all well and fine (though I hardly think it is the last word on the subject – there are, at least, three responses: (1) that the IAEA’s referral to the UNSC was procedurally invalid; (2) the UNSC acted ultra vires by failing to identify the basis under which it triggered its Chapter VII powers; and (3) the nature of Iran’s nuclear rights are such that UN Charter Article 103 does not, in fact, apply to this case), but it ignores what is the U.S.’s (and the UK’s, apparently) actual argument.

That argument is that neither Iran nor any other NPT signatory has a ‘right to enrich’ by the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Secretary of State John Kerry did not say that Iran’s claimed right to enrich was suspended upon passage of UNSC Res. 1696 (and all subsequent resolutions), but rather that no such right to enrich exists ‘by the four corners’ of the NPT. That, I argued, reeks of a bad-faith legal interpretation of the relevant provision of the NPT, which states that all signatories have an ‘inalienable right…to develop…production…of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes…’  If the right to produce nuclear energy does not admit of a right to enrich, then I’m not sure what else it does.

So far as I’ve seen, Iran does not argue that, should the UNSC resolutions be legally applicable, it still maintains the right to enrich. Rather, it argues that, at the end of this process, Iran will retain its nuclear rights under the NPT, which includes the ‘right to enrich’. That is what the U.S. and Iran are, in fact, fighting over during negotiations, especially as Iran has already encountered the U.S.’s resolve to deny Iran such nuclear rights when it negotiated with the E3 back in 2003-2005. Iran wants to make sure that, in a final deal, the U.S. and the Europeans will recognize Iran’s right to enrich on its own soil – even if limits are placed on the extent of Iran’s enrichment program. Whether the NPT admits of such right, then, is the actual question – not whether the UNSC resolutions suspended Iran’s right (which is, indeed, a debatable point).

However, in his response, Goodman points to the views of a series of nuclear experts, who all argue, in near uniformity, that Iran’s claimed right to enrich has been suspended by UNSC Res. 1696. Ok fine, but how does that answer the real question being argued in the world today?

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Shultz and the Shadow of Power

Yesterday, in an interview with BBC, former Secretary of State George Shultz employed racist tropes of Iranians to suggest how fraught negotiations are:

“The Iranians are known as great rug merchants, not for nothing. They’re good at this business of smiling, encouraging you on, and then cutting your throat.”

Jeez. These are choice words, no doubt. Not least from someone who played a tremendous role in shaping U.S. support for the Iraqi war effort during the Iran-Iraq War.

But it’s not that quote I care about so much from Shultz as it is this one, which he made while Secretary of State in 1986 and which should serve as background for his Wall Street Journal Op-Ed today:

“Negotiations are a euphemism for capitulation if the shadow of power is not cast across the table.”

Shultz was talking about the Sandinistas in Nicaragua at the time, which he called during the same speech a ‘cancer on our landmass’ that needed to be ‘cut out.’ (Obviously, he has been a real sweet guy for some time now.) But his remarks do go a good deal of the way to telling us not just Shultz’s own thoughts on the U.S.-Iran talks, which he discusses in that Op-Ed piece this morning, but also about the spectrum of debate in Washington concerning the negotiations.

To be frank, I hardly think there is anybody who gets a hearing at the White House or in Congress who, as a matter of opinion, disagrees with Shultz’s sentiment. After all, the robust sanctions regime targeting Iran — which even that most benevolent of hearts, Samantha Power, proudly proclaimed yesterday as ‘so biting and crippling’ – was not put in place for shits and giggles. Instead, it was put in place to make sure, as Shultz notes, that the next time Iran came to the table to negotiate, the ‘shadow of power’ would tower over them. (Whether this, in fact, happened or not is a separate question.)

That is, after all, how it should be, according to Shultz. Respecting Iran’s legal rights to nuclear energy, its political independence and territorial sovereignty, etc. – all these are silly rules that ignore what is and should be the central fact: ‘the power element of the equation’. Why the U.S. should play by the rules, honor the commitments it made in international treaties, respect Iran’s rights, put an end to what amounts to economic warfare, etc., so long as the power equation is as it is, is lost both on Shultz and the rest of the political elite in Washington.

Hopefully, though, it’s not lost on us.

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Arguing Translations

Here’s as simple a graph as it gets:

                                                Khamenei’s Speech

                    Translation A                                       Translation B

Let’s pretend Khamenei gave a speech (we’ll call it Khamenei’s speech). Let’s pretend his speech was translated in two different ways (we’ll call those Translation A and Translation B).

There is just one way to figure out which translation is the correct one: we go to Khamenei’s speech. The only people who can help us in this are those who speak the same language as that used in the speech. In this case, that language is Persian. Thus, only Persian speakers can figure out for us which translation is the more accurate rendition of Khamenei’s speech.

Let’s pretend there’s a group of non-Persian speakers. Let’s pretend that this group heard Translation A first and now believes Translation A is the correct one. The only way they can do so is on the basis of a translation and authority of the translator. They cannot turn to Khamenei’s speech to determine the accuracy of Translation A as against Translation B. They do not speak or read Persian.

Let’s pretend there’s also Persian speakers who believe Translation A is incorrect (a ‘mistranslation’) and that Translation B is the more accurate version of Khamenei’s speech. Now the group of non-Persian speakers is upset. They ardently believe that Translation A is the more accurate rendition.

So the question is, on what basis? How could the group of non-Persian speakers determine whether Translation A or Translation B is more accurate without consulting Khamenei’s speech? Or, at least, without consulting a Persian speaker?

They can’t. They are stuck arguing Translation A and Translation B as if they weren’t translations at all, which brings us to the point: since the group of non-Persian speakers cannot consult Khamenei’s speech, they are left picking from Translation A and Translation B the translation they want. Making sure the translation is correct is beside the point for them, much more important is scoring points by showing just how awful and terrible the Islamic Republic is. In this way, they persist in arguing that Translation A is the correct one, and that those who advocate Translation B, even if they are Persian speakers, are just arrogant apologists for the regime in Iran.

It’s remarkable, really. Here we have a group of non-Persian speakers telling a group of Persian speakers, who can and have consulted Khamenei’s speech, what the correct translation is. On what basis, again – I haven’t a clue. But I’d suggest, before calling Persian speakers ‘arrogant’, they next time consider just what authority they have to be arguing at all.

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Saban and the Beirut Bombing

Here’s the Research Director of the Saban Center at Brookings today, writing on the bombing of Iran’s embassy in Beirut:

‘It is tempting to enjoy Iran getting a taste of its own medicine, but the growing violence risks further destabilizing the Middle East and harming U.S. interests there.’

In other words, if not for the fact that anti-Iran terror like the Beirut bombing poses risks to the region and U.S. interests, then we could all just sit back and enjoy the fact that Iran’s embassy in Beirut was car-bombed and some of its staff – including its cultural attaché – were killed. Hip hip hooray!

I wonder what the reaction would be if someone suggested the same thing of terror attacks directed at the U.S. – i.e., that the U.S. was merely ‘getting a taste of its own medicine’ and good for that.

Wait, there’s Ward Churchill and he no longer has a job because of it.

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Mad Dogs

For all the controversy being stirred over Ayatollah Khamenei’s remarks regarding Israel this morning, few have noted that being seen as a ‘rabid dog’ is, in fact, part of Israel’s security doctrine. In fact, Iran’s Leader — whether he knew it or not – offered an almost verbatim quote of Moshe Dayan, the former Israel Defense Minister.

Here is Khamenei this morning, before a large audience of Basij:

‘Is the Islamic system after a war with others? This is the sentence that comes out of the unclean rabid dog of the region — the Zionist regime – that Iran is a threat to the world.’

And then there is Moshe Dayan, as quoted by Israeli military historian, Martin Van Creveld:

‘Israel must be like a mad dog, too dangerous to bother.’

Well, shucks.

Updated: Thanks to the catch from Danial Omidvar on Twitter, it looks as if most were mistranslating Khamenei’s actual remarks. Looking at both video and the released transcript, Khamenei was not referring to Israel itself as the ‘rabid dog of the region’, but rather just Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In the world of translation, Iran’s leaders have been notably ill-served over the years, so this one deserves correction. Once I think enough time has passed for people to see this update, I will remove the post.

Of course, the Dayan quote remains unquestioned.


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Response to Just Security

Over at Just Security, NYU Law Professor Ryan Goodman argues that the media’s insistence on referring to Iran’s right to enrich as a ‘right’ is not unwarranted – since (1) it is the subject of a dispute between the two parties – the U.S. and Iran, and (2) good-faith legal argument can be made over whether Iran, in fact, does have such a right under international law.

Prof. Goodman is wrong on both points.

First, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the nature of the dispute matters. Is it a legal dispute, or a political one? I have reviewed tons of literature on the subject and think clearly the arguments being put forth to deny Iran a right to enrich are entirely political in nature. That is, most analysts disregard the legal question entirely and make a policy-based assessment of Iran’s nuclear rights. And, as I’ve noted, the policy-based arguments are entirely sensible (though unsupported by the relevant law).

If this is the case, and the dispute is a political – not legal – one, then I think the media are right to be called out on their use of quotation marks when discussing Iran’s right to enrich.

Second, Prof. Goodman is confused about what the U.S. legal argument actually is. As Secretary of State Kerry noted last week, the U.S. position is that nobody has a right under the NPT to enrich – not Iran, not others. That is much different than arguing, as Prof. Goodman does, that the Security Council resolutions regarding Iran have suspended Iran’s nuclear rights (to Prof. Goodman’s credit, he does not say that this is a particularly good argument – but just an argument).

If this is the U.S. position – i.e., that neither the NPT nor other principles of international law provide a right to enrich – then that is a hopelessly weak legal position, and it would behoove the U.S. media to point out that few, if any, accept that. There is no reason that the media have to couch Iran’s right as ‘alleged’ just because the U.S. is putting forth a very bad legal argument against such right. Instead, the media should be interrogating the U.S.’s position (as well as Iran’s) and disclosing the relevant law, the thrust of international opinion, etc.

Until that is done, I think the sharp critique that Salon published on the media’s handling of the Iran nuclear dispute is one that is wholly warranted.

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Israel’s Impossible Deal

On one thing, at least, the U.S. and Israelis are agreed – ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ with Iran. That has become a persistent refrain not just of the Israeli Prime Minister, but also of Secretary of State John Kerry, who seems to have taken it up mainly to assure his Israeli counterparts.

But in a New York Times piece this morning, there is identified one further kind of deal beyond that of a ‘good deal’, ‘bad deal’, and ‘no deal’, and that is a ‘reasonable deal’.

Quoting Giora Eiland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, the Times notes:

‘Netanyahu speaks only about a good deal. The Americans are speaking about a reasonable deal, which is better than having no deal at all.’

If we do the equation right, the U.S. prefers a ‘good deal’, will take a ‘reasonable deal’, but believes ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’ On the other hand, the Israelis will take only a ‘good deal’ and see anything short of that as being worse than ‘no deal’ at all.

There’s a lot of silliness in all this, but nevertheless I think it is instructive, especially when we consider what constitutes a ‘good deal’ for the Israelis. As a senior administration strategist in the White House told the Times:

‘[Netanyahu] will be satisfied with nothing less than the dismantlement of every scrap of the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. We’d love that, too – but there’s no way that’s going to happen…’

In other words, a ‘good deal’ for the Israelis is what everyone else recognizes as an impossible deal (i.e., it is one in which Iran capitulates to U.S. demands, which Iran will not do now or in the future). Unless the impossible deal is put forward, Israel will prove itself a rejectionist party.

I don’t think that is unintended, either. I don’t think Israel wants a deal – at least not when it means the U.S. and the Iranians are talking to each other at the negotiating table. It has been a fundamental tenet of Israel’s security policy for the past two decades, after all, that Iran remain isolated from the U.S.

The matter was put most succinctly by former Israeli Deputy Defense Minister, Ephraim Sneh, who said in regards to U.S.-Iranian overtures during the Clinton Administration:

‘We were against it [U.S.-Iran dialogue]…because the interest of the U.S. did not coincide with ours.’ (cited in Trita Parsi’s ‘Treacherous Alliance’)

The same, I would argue, is playing out right here today. Israel is, no doubt, concerned about the proliferation potential of Iran’s nuclear program, but even more so, Israel worries about the possibilities, however far removed as of now, of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement.

For two decades, Israel has lined up an impressive array of barriers to U.S.-Iran dialogue, not least of which are the robust U.S. and multilateral sanctions against the Islamic Republic. The fact that these are now being negotiated away with Iran is a troubling issue for the Israelis, and understanding this is crucial to understanding why a ‘reasonable deal’ for the White House is such a ‘bad deal’ to the Israelis.

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