The controversy surrounding Iran’s nuclear program over the past 12 years has been an integral part of the global media’s daily coverage of Middle East politics, and a headline which you could find on the front-page of major newspapers and magazines every other day. There are literally millions of news stories, articles and commentaries about this contentious issue on the internet. However, Iran’s dossier – which is now resolved thanks to the comprehensive agreement between Iran and the six world powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – not only generated a heated debate on nuclear non-proliferation, it stirred public discussion on the U.S. foreign policy in dealing with a country which had been its staunch ally some four decades ago, and now an arch-adversary.
Many people argued that it was the U.S. President General Dwight D. Eisenhower who initiated Iran’s nuclear activities in 1950s through the Atoms for Peace program after he delivered a speech to the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1953 – the same year that Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was removed from power during a coup d’etat codenamed by CIA as Operation Ajax, and it sounded rather insincere that the U.S. government now asks Iran to abandon the same program, simply on the grounds that it’s not an ally anymore. Iran’s nuclear “ambitions” had extensive political ramifications, and paved the way for robust and challenging academic debate on the politics of nuclear energy, the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the role the United States can play in global nuclear non-proliferation, and eventually disarmament.
On the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I called Prof. M. A. Muqtedar Khan, a renowned Muslim intellectual and university professor to discuss with him such issues as the U.S. deployment of atomic bombs against the two Japanese cities, the concept of nuclear deterrence and its importance to the American policy-makers, the White House’s approach towards Iran’s nuclear program and its posture on Israel, Pakistan and India’s atomic weapons scheme, the U.S. Middle East policy and some other relevant issues.
M. A. Muqtedar Khan is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. A non-resident Fellow of the Brookings Institution from 2003 to 2008, he is the author of four books, including a 2007 book entitled “Debating Moderate Islam: The Geopolitics of Islam and the West” published by the University of Utah Press. A frequent guest on BBC, CNN, NPR and Fox News, Muqtedar Khan has served as the President, Vice President and General Secretary of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists. He is the recipient of several awards and fellowships, and his commentaries on the Middle East and Muslim world issues frequently appear on mainstream and alternative newspapers and websites.
Muqtedar Khan believes that the majority of people in Iran are pro-American, even those who criticize its policies. He says it’s true that the Americans were the ones who invented nuclear bombs and used them for the first time, but they also invented the United Nations and the World Bank – the indispensable assets of international politics and economy.
“If the deal with Iran comes through, many smart Iranians and artists will be in the US. The brain drain from Iran to the US will begin within months,” he said. “Even those Iranians who want to write and say negative things about America and its culture would like to do it while living here.”
Prof. Muqtedar Khan responded to my questions on a range of nuclear and non-nuclear issues pertaining to the U.S. foreign policy in the following interview conducted in early August.
Q: The United States has been criticized by some scholars and academicians for what’s being considered to be its nuclear double standards. It has pressured Iran for over 12 years through harsh economic sanctions over its nuclear program, and at the same time, condoned Israel’s possession of some 200 atomic bombs and even Saudi Arabia’s acquiring of nuclear technology from Pakistan or India’s launching of missiles carrying atomic warheads. What could be the reasons for this kind of dealing with the concern of nuclear non-proliferation?
A: While in principle the US has acted in ways that shows double standards on nuclear proliferation, there are finer points that need to be looked at to understand the so-called double standards. Unlike Iran, which is part of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) since 1968, India, Pakistan and Israel never signed the treaty and therefore they are not subject to the same legal requirements that Iran is. Additionally Iran has had a troubling relationship with International atomic energy commission that has undermined Iran’s international credibility. In addition to that unlike Iran’s former President Ahmadinejad, none of the heads of states from India, Pakistan or Israel has threatened to wipe any nation off the earth. Iranian rhetoric has generated fears in Israel and its enmity with Israel – over support for Hamas and Hezbollah – coupled with Israel’s enormous influence on US policy, Iran has been the subject of special treatment. Iran’s ratification of NPT makes its aspiration for nuclear energy legitimate but it also means it must be open to IAEA inspections, especially if there is fear that it may be violating some of those agreements.
Iran’s plight is a product of its hostile relations with Israel and the US and also because of its empty rhetoric, which often helps Israel paint it as a theocracy run by crazy Mullahs. Israel uses Iran to change the topic from the Palestinian issue.
Q: As we’re talking now, the Japanese people have just commemorated the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which despite its enormous human cost, has served as a lesson for the community of nations that the use of nuclear weapons leads to widespread destruction and loss of life. There are three key issues here: the moral grounds of utilizing atomic bombs, the legal basis of using them and the necessity of deploying atomic bombs. Was the nuclear bombing of the two Japanese cities morally defensible, legally justifiable and necessary?
A: It is tough to discuss the legal implication of the use of nuclear weapons since there was very little legal literature about them when they were used. But chemical and biological weapons were widely used by many nations in World War I and II. I think that use of nuclear weapons should be immoral as do most international law and ethics scholars, and they have not been used since 1945.
The Japanese case is too complex to be discussed as an aside. Remember Japan attacked the US massively and brought it into the war. Japan was planning not to surrender and fight on perhaps for months more. The conventional bombing of Japan was just as devastating and some argue that the nukes helped end the war soon. What would you want the US to do, lose the war rather than use their best weapons?
The tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have inspired the world to abandon them, but we have failed. The horrors of war are well documented but we still fight wars.
Q: The US government considers its large nuclear arsenal an instrument of deterrence against those who might harbor ill wishes against its security and sovereignty. Why should the United States, which spends on its military and defense projects more than the seven next biggest world countries combined, be fearful about its security and respond to this anxiety by possessing nuclear weapons?
A: Well America invented nukes and also invented the United Nations and the World Bank. The US manages global security, global diplomacy and the global economy. It may not be the best of managers, but who would you trust other than the US, Russia, China, England? When Muslim nations had power they too conquered the world and managed it. The US inherited the mantle of global power after winning World War II and defended it successfully from the Soviet Union, which does not exist anymore.
US defense budget also drives US and global economy. For example, walkman, computers, microwave ovens, the Internet, GPS, are all scientific developments from US defense budget? What did Iran’s defense budget give humanity?
Q: That’s an interesting argument! So, on the US foreign policy, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan and retired United States Army Lieutenant General Karl W. Eikenberry argued in a speech that the US foreign policy, over the course of past few decades, has become excessively militarized and dependent on hard power. This is specifically evident in the decisions made by the US administration under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama following the beginning of the project of the War on Terror. What could be the reasons for the expansion of the military dimension of the US foreign policy?
A: The war in Iraq has exposed the limits of both US military and diplomatic – hard and soft – power. There are serious limits to what the US can do. The Bush administration was dominated by neo-cons whose ideology failed in his first term and so even Bush abandoned them by the second term. The military response was triggered by 9/11; your question fails to incorporate that reality which has shaped US security thinking.
Since Obama came to power, the US has withdrawn from Iraq, and Afghanistan, made peace with Cuba and a deal is done with Iran. Obama did not start a single war. The civil wars in post Arab-Spring nations keep pulling the US but it has been reluctant to engage fully.
Q: You’ve talked and written extensively about the significance of the nuclear deal between Iran and the six world powers, emphasizing that it will reassure the international community that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful. The Iranian people will also benefit from reintegration into the global economy, as you noted. How should the two sides preserve this important political achievement?
A: Well the first task is to see it approved by the Congress and have the sanctions fully lifted. Iran will have to earn the confidence of Americans, Europeans and Arabs in its neighborhood so if Israel alone is complaining about Iran it is Israel that will find itself isolated. Israel enjoys a lot of sympathy in the West and as long as the West is dominant and Muslim nations full of empty rhetoric, not to mention disunited, Israel will get away with all kinds of crimes against humanity.
Q: And my concluding question. As the first nation to have produced and the only nation to have used nuclear weapons in warfare, what should the United States do in order to improve its public image and standing in the eyes of global public and those who consider its nuclear policies dishonest?
A: Everybody loves America including Iranians. With globalization the world is adopting American culture, music, food, universities, education and lifestyle. Half of Rouhani’s cabinet is educated in the US. Most global public opinion surveys show that favorability ratings of the US are ok. Even the Japanese love Uncle Sam.
If the deal with Iran comes through, many smart Iranians and artists will be in the US. The brain drain from Iran to the US will begin within months. Even those Iranians who want to write and say negative things about America and its culture would like to do it while living here.