Guardian (UK) - June 19, 2006
A negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear crisis is within reach
The US must take three basic steps to defuse this confrontation. The consequences of not doing so could
By Noam Chomsky
The urgency of halting the proliferation of nuclear
weapons, and moving toward their elimination, could
hardly be greater. Failure to do so is almost certain
to lead to grim consequences, even the end of biology's
only experiment with higher intelligence. As
threatening as the crisis is, the means exist to defuse
A near-meltdown seems to be imminent over Iran and its
nuclear programmes. Before 1979, when the Shah was in
power, Washington strongly supported these programmes.
Today the standard claim is that Iran has no need for
nuclear power, and therefore must be pursuing a secret
weapons programme. "For a major oil producer such as
Iran, nuclear energy is a wasteful use of resources,"
Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post last year.
Thirty years ago, however, when Kissinger was secretary
of state for President Gerald Ford, he held that
"introduction of nuclear power will both provide for
the growing needs of Iran's economy and free remaining
oil reserves for export or conversion to
Last year Dafna Linzer of the Washington Post asked
Kissinger about his reversal of opinion. Kissinger
responded with his usual engaging frankness: "They were
an allied country."
In 1976 the Ford administration "endorsed Iranian plans
to build a massive nuclear energy industry, but also
worked hard to complete a multibillion-dollar deal that
would have given Tehran control of large quantities of
plutonium and enriched uranium - the two pathways to a
nuclear bomb", Linzer wrote. The top planners of the
Bush administration, who are now denouncing these
programmes, were then in key national security posts:
Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.
Iranians are surely not as willing as the west to
discard history to the rubbish heap. They know that the
United States, along with its allies, has been
tormenting Iranians for more than 50 years, ever since
a US-UK military coup overthrew the parliamentary
government and installed the Shah, who ruled with an
iron hand until a popular uprising expelled him in
The Reagan administration then supported Saddam
Hussein's invasion of Iran, providing him with military
and other aid that helped him slaughter hundreds of
thousands of Iranians (along with Iraqi Kurds). Then
came President Clinton's harsh sanctions, followed by
Bush's threats to attack Iran - themselves a serious
breach of the UN charter.
Last month the Bush administration conditionally agreed
to join its European allies in direct talks with Iran,
but refused to withdraw the threat of attack, rendering
virtually meaningless any negotiations offer that
comes, in effect, at gunpoint. Recent history provides
further reason for scepticism about Washington's
In May 2003, according to Flynt Leverett, then a senior
official in Bush's National Security Council, the
reformist government of Mohammad Khatami proposed "an
agenda for a diplomatic process that was intended to
resolve on a comprehensive basis all of the bilateral
differences between the United States and Iran".
Included were "weapons of mass destruction, a two-state
solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the
future of Lebanon's Hizbullah organisation and
cooperation with the UN nuclear safeguards agency", the
Financial Times reported last month. The Bush
administration refused, and reprimanded the Swiss
diplomat who conveyed the offer.
A year later the European Union and Iran struck a
bargain: Iran would temporarily suspend uranium
enrichment, and in return Europe would provide
assurances that the United States and Israel would not
attack Iran. Under US pressure, Europe backed off, and
Iran renewed its enrichment processes.
Iran's nuclear programmes, as far as is known, fall
within its rights under article four of the non-
proliferation treaty (NPT), which grants non-nuclear
states the right to produce fuel for nuclear energy.
The Bush administration argues that article four should
be strengthened, and I think that makes sense.
When the NPT came into force in 1970 there was a
considerable gap between producing fuel for energy and
for nuclear weapons. But advances in technology have
narrowed the gap. However, any such revision of article
four would have to ensure unimpeded access for non-
military use, in accord with the initial NPT bargain
between declared nuclear powers and the non-nuclear
In 2003 a reasonable proposal to this end was put
forward by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International
Atomic Energy Agency: that all production and
processing of weapon-usable material be under
international control, with "assurance that legitimate
would-be users could get their supplies". That should
be the first step, he proposed, toward fully
implementing the 1993 UN resolution for a fissile
material cutoff treaty (or Fissban).
ElBaradei's proposal has to date been accepted by only
one state, to my knowledge: Iran, in February, in an
interview with Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear
negotiator. The Bush administration rejects a
verifiable Fissban - and stands nearly alone. In
November 2004 the UN committee on disarmament voted in
favour of a verifiable Fissban. The vote was 147 to one
(United States), with two abstentions: Israel and
Britain. Last year a vote in the full general assembly
was 179 to two, Israel and Britain again abstaining.
The United States was joined by Palau.
There are ways to mitigate and probably end these
crises. The first is to call off the very credible US
and Israeli threats that virtually urge Iran to develop
nuclear weapons as a deterrent.
A second step would be to join the rest of the world in
accepting a verifiable Fissban treaty, as well as
ElBaradei's proposal, or something similar.
A third step would be to live up to article six of the
NPT, which obligates the nuclear states to take "good-
faith" efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, a binding
legal obligation, as the world court determined. None
of the nuclear states has lived up to that obligation,
but the United States is far in the lead in violating
Even steps in these directions would mitigate the
upcoming crisis with Iran. Above all, it is important
to heed the words of Mohamed ElBaradei: "There is no
military solution to this situation. It is
inconceivable. The only durable solution is a
negotiated solution." And it is within reach.
· Noam Chomsky's new book is Failed States: The Abuse
of Power and the Assault on Democracy; he is professor
of linguistics and philosophy at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.