“Diamonds for Peanuts” and the Double Standard

by Marsha B. Cohen

The New York Times’ op-ed page headlined “Hopes for Iran”, which offers half a dozen cautious-to-negative views on Iran’s president-elect Hassan Rouhani, unexpectedly links to a “Related Story” published last year: Should Israel Accept a Nuclear Ban? Linking the online discussion — intentionally or not — to a debate over Israel’s own nuclear program and policies may be more remarkable than any of the op-ed’s arguments.

One of the most overlooked and under-discussed aspects of the Iranian nuclear program, at least from an Iranian point of view, is the double standard that’s applied to it: while Israel has an estimated 100-200 nuclear weapons that it has concealed for decades, Iran is treated like the nuclear threat — and Iran doesn’t possess a single nuclear weapon. Adding insult to injury, Israel is usually the first, loudest and shrillest voice condemning Iran and demanding “crippling sanctions” while deflecting attention away from its own record.

“Iran has consistently used the West’s willingness to engage as a delaying tactic, a smoke screen behind which Iran’s nuclear program has continued undeterred and, in many cases, undetected,” complained former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, Dore Gold (also president of the hawkish Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs) in a 2009 LA Times op-ed entitled “Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations Threaten the World“:

Back in 2005, Hassan Rowhani, the former chief nuclear negotiator of Iran during the reformist presidency of Mohammad Khatami, made a stunning confession in an internal briefing in Tehran, just as he was leaving his post. He explained that in the period during which he sat across from European negotiators discussing Iran’s uranium enrichment ambitions, Tehran quietly managed to complete the critical second stage of uranium fuel production: its uranium conversion plant in Isfahan. He boasted that the day Iran started its negotiations in 2003 “there was no such thing as the Isfahan project.” Now, he said, it was complete.

Yet half a century ago, Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense, Shimon Peres — the political architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons program — looked President John F. Kennedy in the eye and solemnly intoned what would become Israel’s “catechism”, according to Avner Cohen: “I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.” Fifty years and at least 100 nuclear weapons later, Peres is awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom, with no mention of his misrepresentation of Israel’s nuclear progress.

According to declassified documents, Yitzhak Rabin, another future Israeli prime minister (who would be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994) also invoked the nuclear catechism to nuclear negotiator Paul Warnke in 1968, arguing that no product could be considered a deployable nuclear weapons-system unless it had been tested (Israel, of course, had not tested a nuclear weapon). Warnke was unswayed by Rabin’s talmudic logic but came away convinced that pressuring Israel would be futile since it was already a nuclear weapons state.

In a BBC Radio June 14 debate between Gold and former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw about the prospects for improving relations with Iran after Rouhani’s election, Straw pointed out that Israel has a “very extensive nuclear weapons program, and along with India and Pakistan are the three countries in the world, plus North Korea more recently, which have refused any kind of international supervision…”:

JOHN HUMPHRYS (Host): Well let me put that to Dr Gold; you can’t argue with that, Dr Gold?

DORE GOLD: Well, we can have a whole debate on Israel in a separate program.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well, it’s entirely relevant isn’t it? The fact is you’re saying they want nuclear weapons; the fact is you have nuclear weapons.

DORE GOLD: Look, Israel has made statements in the past. Israeli ambassadors to the UN like myself have said that Israel won’t be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.

JACK STRAW: You’ve got nuclear weapons.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: You’ve got them.

JACK STRAW: You’ve got them. Everyone knows that.

DORE GOLD: We have a very clear stand, but we’re not the issue.

JACK STRAW: No, no, come on, you have nuclear weapons, let’s be clear about this.

National security expert Bruce Riedel is among those who have observed Washington’s “double standard when it comes to Israel’s bomb: the NPT applies to all but Israel. Indeed, every Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion has deliberately taken an evasive posture on the issue because they do not want to admit what everyone knows.” Three years ago, Riedel suggested that the era of Israeli ambiguity about its nuclear program “may be coming to an end, raising fundamental questions about Israel’s strategic situation in the region.” Thus far that hasn’t happened. Instead, Israeli leaders and the pro-Israel lobby use every opportunity (including Peres’ Medal of Freedom acceptance speech) to deflect attention from Israel’s defiant prevarication about its own nuclear status and directing it toward Iran.

This past April, Anthony Cordesman authored a paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) arguing that Israel posed more of an existential threat to Iran than the other way around. “It seems likely that Israel can already deliver an ‘existential’ nuclear strike on Iran, and will have far more capability to damage Iran than Iran is likely to have against Israel for the next decade,” Cordesman wrote. (The paper has since been removed from the CSIS website, but references to it persist in numerous articles.)

This double standard, and refusal to recognize Iranian security concerns, is not news to Iranians. Ali Larijani, Speaker of the Iranian Majlis (Parliament), assured the Financial Times last September that talks between the U.S. and Iran “can be successful and help create more security in the region. But if they try to dissuade Iran from its rights to have peaceful nuclear technology, then they will not go anywhere — before or after the US elections.” Larijani, who was Iran’s nuclear negotiator between 2005-2007, proposed that declarations by U.S. political leaders that Iran has a right to “peaceful nuclear technology” be committed to in writing.

“Many times the US president or secretary of state have said they recognise Iran’s right to nuclear energy,” Larjani said. “So, if [they] accept this, write it down and then we use it as a basis to push forward the talks…What they say during the talks is different from what they say outside the talks. This is a problem.” Larijani also denied that Iranian leaders were discussing withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) even though the benefits of Iran remaining a signatory — in the face of mounting international pressure campaigned for by Israel while Israel itself faced little to no criticism — seemed unclear. “The Israelis did not join the NPT and they do not recognize the IAEA,” he said. “They are doing what they want — producing nuclear bombs, and no one questions it.”

This past weekend, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour bluntly suggested that up until now, the U.S. has offered Iran few incentives to comply with the international community’s demands regarding Iran’s nuclear program: “Let’s just call a spade a spade. I’ve spoken to Iranian officials, former negotiators, actually people who worked for Dr. Rouhani earlier, and they said that so far the American incentives to Iran in these nuclear negotiations amounts to demanding diamonds for peanuts.”

Ben Caspit, writing in al-Monitor last week week, notes that as soon as the Russians hinted Iran would be willing to suspend uranium enrichment and keep it at the 20% level, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blew off the suggestion as merely cosmetic. The Israeli demand will continue to be  uncompromising, Caspit says, insistent that “…nothing short of complete cessation of uranium enrichment, removal of all enriched uranium out of Iran; termination of nuclear facility activities and welcoming the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would provide sufficient guarantee of Iran’s willingness to abandon the nuclear program. Needless to say this will never happen.”

As Jim Lobe pointed out the other day, Rouhani outlined an 8-point blueprint for resolving the nuclear standoff between the U.S. and Iran in a letter to TIME in 2006. Rouhani stated:

In my personal judgment, a negotiated solution can be found in the context of the following steps, if and when creatively intertwined and negotiated in good faith by concerned officials…Iran is prepared to work with the IAEA and all states concerned about promoting confidence in its fuel cycle program. But Iran cannot be expected to give in to United States’ bullying and non-proliferation double standards.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.