Apr 23rd 2015

The Case for Peace With Iran

by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also a Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

NEW YORK – The nuclear framework agreement between Iran and the five permanent UN Security Council members (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia) plus Germany is an important achievement in global diplomacy. The deal announced earlier this month represents the triumph of rational hope over irrational fear, and it deserves to be implemented. But now the race is on against hardliners in the US, Iran, Israel, and elsewhere, who want to kill the deal before the deadline for a final agreement in June.

The framework agreement benefits all parties. Iran scales back its nuclear activities, especially the enrichment of uranium fuel, in exchange for an end to economic sanctions. Its government is kept further away from developing a nuclear bomb – which it denies pursuing – and gains room for economic recovery and normalization of relations with the major powers.

It is a smart, pragmatic, and balanced approach, subject to monitoring and verification. It does not require that the US and Iranian governments suddenly trust each other; but it does offer an opportunity to build confidence, even as it allows for specific steps that are in each side’s interests. Crucially, it is part of international law, within the framework of the UN Security Council.

By propounding the idea that the other side can never be trusted, the hardliners are advancing a self-fulfilling theory of politics and human nature that makes war far more likely. These purveyors of fear deserve to be kept on the sidelines. It is time to make peace.

The great divide between the West and Iran today, it should be noted, is largely the result of malign Western behavior toward Iran (Persia until 1935) in the past. From the start of the twentieth century, the British Empire manipulated Persia in order to control its vast oil reserves. After World War II, that job fell increasingly to the US.

Indeed, from coup to dictatorship to war to sanctions, the US has racked up more than 60 continuous years of trying to impose its will on Iran. The CIA and Britain’s MI6 jointly toppled Mohammad Mossadegh’s democratically elected government in 1953, in order to block Mossadegh’s attempts to nationalize Iran’s oil reserves. The US then installed the brutal dictatorship of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, which ruled the country until the Islamic Revolution of 1979.

Following the revolution, the US helped to arm Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, in which an estimated one million Iranians died. Since 1987, the US has imposed economic sanctions against Iran on a variety of premises, including claims of Iranian terrorism and the alleged nuclear threat. And the US has worked hard to internationalize these sanctions, leading the push for UN measures, which have been in place since 2006.

The US hardliners have their own long list of grievances, starting with the 1979 seizure of America’s embassy in Tehran, in which 66 US diplomats and citizens were held for 444 days. Then there is Iran’s involvement in Islamist insurgencies, and its support for anti-Israel political movements and groups deemed to be terrorist.

Still, the British and American abuses vis-à-vis Persia and Iran started earlier, lasted longer, and imposed far higher costs than Iran’s actions vis-à-vis the US and UK. Moreover, much of what the US categories as Iranian “terror” is a product of the region’s sectarian struggles between Shia, backed by Iran, and Sunnis, backed by Saudi Arabia. “Terror” is a term that obscures rather than clarifies these long-standing clashes and rivalries. That is why Iran, called a “terrorist state” by US hardliners, is now America’s de facto ally in the fight against Sunni jihadists in Iraq and Syria.

Iran’s confrontation with the UK and the US is part of the much broader saga of the West’s use of its military and economic dominance to project its power and political will over much of the world during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today’s low- and middle-income countries are only now entering a period of true sovereignty.

The proposed agreement with Iran will not overcome a century of distrust and manipulation, but it can begin to create a new path toward peace and mutual respect. Mutual benefit will be achieved by honest appraisals of mutual interests, and step-by-step progress backed by verification, not by hardliners on both sides claiming that the other side is pure evil and insisting on complete triumph.

The success of US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in reaching the 1963 Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, at the height of the Cold War, provides an instructive lesson. At the time, hardliners on both sides denounced the LTBT as a weakening of national defense in the face of an implacable enemy. In fact, both sides fully honored the treaty, and it led to the landmark 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

JFK’s words a half-century ago apply to the Iran agreement today. The LTBT, said Kennedy in 1963, “is not a victory for one side – it is a victory for mankind.” This treaty, he said, “will not resolve all conflicts, or cause the Communists to forgo their ambitions, or eliminate the dangers of war. It will not reduce our need for arms or allies or programs of assistance to others. But it is an important first step – a step towards peace – a step towards reason – a step away from war.”


Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. He is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.
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