Playing the Terror Card against Iran Enriching Uranium

The 6 August issue of the Wall Street Journal contained a disturbing article on Iran by Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren. It was disturbing not because Oren presented reasoned evidence that Iran’s leaders have decided to use their uranium enrichment capacity to produce nuclear weapons (he did no such thing) – but because the article amounted to an unreasoned appeal to the post-9/11 sensitivities of American readers to justify a pre-emptive attack on Iran that would contravene Israel’s international obligations.

Let me try to explain.

The theme of the article is: Iran is the world’s leading terror sponsor without nuclear weapons.With them, it can commit incalculable atrocities.

Is Iran the world’s leading sponsor of terror? Without access to reams of intelligence this is hard to judge. Iran is undoubtedly a sponsor of terror, but bestowing on it the number one spot probably requires making assumptions about Hezbollah and about what constitutes “sponsorship” that are contentious.

Oren alleges that Iran has “supplied 70,000 rockets to terrorist organisations deployed on Israel’s border”. But Israel is one of only six United Nations members (out of 192), the US being another, that classify Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah’s paramilitary wing is seen as a resistance movement in most Muslim countries. Hezbollah was born in response to the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which prompted the UN Security Council to express grave concern at the violation of the territorial integrity, independence, and sovereignty of Lebanon.

Oren affirms that “Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists” killed five Israeli tourists in Bulgaria in July, echoing a claim made by Israel’s Prime Minister within half an hour of this outrage occurring. But to date neither the Bulgarian authorities nor, reportedly, the CIA, share Israeli certainty that Iran can reasonably be accused of this barbarous act.

The most dangerous terrorist network of the last decade is generally held to have been Al Qaeda. Iranian support for an Al Qaeda operation in Saudi Arabia has been alleged but not proved. No authoritative source has ever linked Iran to the 9/11 tragedy. Al Qaeda’s leaders are Sunni extremists, Iran’s are Shiite Muslims; the twain meet reluctantly.

So what sounds like a statement of fact – “Iran is the world’s leading sponsor of terror” – is in reality a subjective evaluation. Now what of the claim that with nuclear weapons Iran “can commit incalculable atrocities anywhere in the world”?

The first thing to notice is the auxiliary verb: “can”. There are many states (including Israel) that have the capacity to do the most terrible things to other states. Mankind has survived until now, however, because capacity is only half the story: the will to use that capacity for offensive purposes also needs to exist.

Oren tries to cope with that fact by reminding readers of the “genocidal rhetoric” to which Iran’s leaders are prone. What he fails to mention is that this rhetoric may not be a reliable guide to Iranian intentions and that for thirteen years (1979-1992) Israel’s leaders were happy to assume it wasn’t.

In truth, leading Iranians have been threatening Israel for more than 30 years, but have yet to act. Hezbollah’s 1985 manifesto talks of the “final obliteration” of Israel; but Hezbollah has shown no sign of wanting to use its “70,000 rockets” not in self defence but to bring about that obliteration. At any point in the last 30 years Iran could have supplied Hezbollah with radioactive material for use in “dirty bombs” or with infectious pathogens for dispersal among the Israeli population. Yet, there is no indication that Iran has tried to do so.

Let us suppose, however, that Iran somehow contrives to produce a score of nuclear weapons without the UN Security Council acting to avert such a gross violation of Iran’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) obligations. Would that enable Iran to “commit incalculable atrocities anywhere in the world”?

Of course not. Iran does not possess an intercontinental ballistic missile capability. Iran’s leaders, who are “rational actors” in the view of US intelligence and defence experts, know that an Iranian first use of nuclear weapons would invite the annihilation of their goods and chattels in a nuclear counter-strike. Possession of nuclear weapons does not secure immunity from punishment for outrages committed by terrorist proxies. Nuclear forensic science provides a persuasive deterrent against making nuclear weapons available to terrorist proxies.

So the highly emotive claim that the possession of nuclear weapons would enable Iran to commit atrocities wherever it chooses turns out to be without a solid foundation in reason.

Oren’s article is also remarkable for a number of distortions of the truth, to put it politely. Since 1992, Iran’s leaders have not “systematically lied about their nuclear operations”. They have not “blocked International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors from visiting Iran’s nuclear sites”. They have not “rejected all confidence-building measures”. Iran’s centrifuges are not “spinning even faster” today than in the past. And “with each passing day”, the lives of eight million Israelis are not “growing increasingly imperilled”.

Last, Oren suggests that the President of the United States can bestow on Israel a right of self-defence “against any threat” at a time of its choosing. This is not so. Israel’s right of self-defence flows from and is circumscribed by Article 51 of the UN Charter, since Israel is a party to that Charter.

Article 51 recognises a right of self-defence “if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations”. Since the Charter was agreed, UN members have come to accept that the clear imminence of an armed attack might also justify acts of self-defence. But it is unlikely that the UN membership, or the Security Council where responsibility for maintaining and restoring peace and security rests, would regard the acquisition of a uranium enrichment capacity by a neighbouring state, even one suspected of having conducted research into the design of nuclear weapons, as amounting to an imminent armed attack.

However, these observations are incidental to my main points: the claim that Iran is “the world’s leading terror sponsor” is subjective and possibly an exaggeration; and, it is highly questionable whether possession of nuclear weapons would lead Iran to commit “incalculable atrocities”. Iran has been responsible for acts of terror since shortly after the founding of the Islamic Republic, but that is not the reason why most members of the international community object to Iran’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons, or why they welcome the continuing absence of evidence proving nuclear weapons production.

I leave readers to form their own conclusions as to why Israel’s ambassador to the United States seeks to appeal to the emotions and not the reason of the American public, and why he finds it necessary to give an inaccurate account of certain facts.

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Peter Jenkins

Peter Jenkins was a British career diplomat for 33 years, following studies at the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard. He served in Vienna (twice), Washington, Paris, Brasilia and Geneva. He specialized in global economic and security issues. His last assignment (2001-06) was that of UK Ambassador to the IAEA and UN (Vienna). Since 2006 he has represented the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, advised the Director of IIASA and set up a partnership, The Ambassador Partnership llp, with former diplomatic colleagues, to offer the corporate sector dispute resolution and solutions to cross-border problems. He was an associate fellow of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy from 2010 to 2012. He writes and speaks on nuclear and trade policy issues.



  1. My bemusement is at the lack of outrage. Don’t Americans recognize what this man wants to do? He wants to prod the United States into fighting a war Israel cannot fight. He wants Americans to die for Israel. Only a few Israelis will suffer in this war, so says Barak- well, a lot more Americans stand to get offed if these people have their way. It’s not the Israeli navy that’s going to have to keep the straits of Hormuz open; it’s not the Israeli Air Force that’s going to have to run patrols over the gulf for the next ten years; it’s not the Israeli army that’s going to have to land on the north shore to clear any possible anti-ship missile-launching sites. It’s not an Israeli fleet that has to sail into harm’s way to keep the oil flowing. No, all of that’s going to fall to the Americans once Israel risks it’s hundred or so pilots, once, once only, and then scurries home like the scheming little weasels they are, and turns to big brother America to clean up the stupendous mess they have made.

    Why are Americans not tarring and feathering this man and running him out of the country? He wants your sons and daughters to die for Israel. You are going to stand for that?

  2. Anyone who’s read Oren’s book on the 6-day war doesn’t believe a word he says, anyway–which isn’t to say I don’t appreciate this completely rational and thorough assessment of his hysterical and manipulative op-ed.

  3. Terrorism of any kind is to be condemned. But it should be universal. For example, the settler terrorism in West Bank is rampant but scantly gets attention. (This is not confined to the West Bank anymore. See Haaretz for lynching incident in Jerusalem yesterday.) Also to be condemned are some statements from leaders of Iran which have overt or covert antisemitic overtones.

    But the reality is that Iran’s nuclear capability has very limited protective shield for Iran. At the same time, it is a considerable deterrence to the current absolute free hand Israel and America have in military adventurism. Apart from Saddam’s foray into Kuwait and Iran, the only two countires who have attacked the countries in the region are Israel and US. Limiting their capability to cause destruction and mayhem should be a welcome development.

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