A Murder in Iran

None of what I am about to say about Israel’s apparent assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scientist will be nearly as smart as what Trita Parsi would say. Trita, the executive vice-president of the Quincy Institute, was born in Iran, has written three books about the US-Iranian-Israeli relationship, and knows most of the key policy makers in all three countries. Here he is being interviewed about the assassination on MSNBC.

Luckily for you, Trita will be my guest this coming Friday, December 4, on our weekly Zoom call. (Just for this week, we’ll be starting at 11:30 AM EST, not Noon). All you have to do to join is become a paid subscriber.

For everyone else, you have to settle for me.

Let’s start with Grover, from Sesame Street. (Trita is looking better and better.)

An adorable 2016 video has been making the rounds of Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, talking with the fuzzy blue icon about how kids can welcome refugees. It’s one of the least Trumpy things in the universe.

It captures some of how Americans like to see ourselves: Benign, well-meaning, adorable. Of course, wonks like Blinken don’t use words like adorable. They say: upholders of an “open, rules-based” international order. But they mean something similar: We’re the good guys.

Israeli Jews have their own language of moral superiority. Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” Or, as Ehud Barak once put it (with a dash of orientalism), a “villa in the middle of the jungle.”

But imagine how Grover—or another fair-minded, peace-loving, creature, devoid of nationalist chauvinism—might view this weekend’s assassination. Let’s start with some hidden-in-clear-sight, clotheless-emporer stuff: The United States is the only country in the world to have used nuclear weapons. Its most recent defense budget devotes tens of billions of dollars to building new nuclear weapons. In so doing, it is likely violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which—in addition to barring new countries from getting the bomb—requires existing nuclear weapon states to move toward disarmament. The US is one of only eight (I think) countries that haven’t signed the comprehensive test ban treaty, which bans nuclear tests. And Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to nuke America’s adversaries. Grover would likely disapprove.

For its part, Israel reportedly possesses about 80 nuclear weapons, and the means to deliver them. When a former Israeli nuclear scientist living in Britain, Mordechai Vanunu, revealed details of its nuclear program, the Mossad sent a female operative on a seduction mission—which is kosher!—drugged and abducted him and locked him in solitary confinement for 11 years. (The female operative is now a real estate agent in Florida. Can’t make this stuff up). Unlike the US, Israel isn’t violating its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—because it never joined in the first place. (To be fair, India and Pakistan—which have nukes—haven’t signed the NPT either).

None of the aforementioned facts are secret, or even really contested. But they are rarely mentioned in US media reports about Iran’s nuclear program. Which is too bad because they complicate the white hats-black hats narrative that portrays Tehran as a nuclear outlaw.

Here’s what Iran has actually done. In the late 1990s, it appears that Tehran began a secret program to build a nuclear weapon, which violated its obligations under the NPT. In 2003—after an Iranian opposition group revealed the secret program—Iran halted it, according to US intelligence assessments. But Iran still kept enriching uranium, which brought it closer to having the capacity to build a bomb if it so chose. To limit that enrichment (and other methods of bomb-making), the Obama administration signed the Iran nuclear deal in 2015.

As part of the deal, Iran opened itself up to unusually intrusive nuclear inspections. (Israel allows none). Even the Trump administration’s own intelligence chiefs said Iran was complying with the deal. Nonetheless, Benjamin Netanyahu urged Trump to leave the agreement, which two years ago he did. After withdrawing, the US imposed sanctions so harsh that many Iranians now can’t get insulin. And now Israel appears has assassinated the man allegedly in charge of Iran’s nuclear weapons program earlier this century. It’s unclear whether the US (and, perhaps, Saudi Arabia) had prior knowledge of the murder, but the three country’s representatives met secretly just a few days prior. And the US hasn’t criticized the murder.

So WWGS? (What Would Grover Say?) Perhaps he’d ask how Americans and Israelis would feel if Iran began murdering our nuclear scientists. (Especially if we didn’t even have nuclear weapons, and had been abiding by our promise not to build them, and were suffering under brutal sanctions). Perhaps he’d ask what makes Iran so uniquely malevolent—and the US and Israel so uniquely angelic—that we expect Iran to comply with treaties like the NPT that we don’t honor ourselves. Yes, Tehran’s government hideously mistreats its people. Yes, it supports awful governments and rebel groups. But the same can be said for America’s friends and partners in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Egypt. For its part, Israel presides over a blockade that, according to the UN, has made the Gaza Strip “unlivable.” According to Brown University’s Watson Institute, America’s post-9/11 wars have created 37 million refugees. The US military also helped Saudi Arabia create one of the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophes, in Yemen.

It would be a great subject for our furry friend to discuss with Antony Blinken. Unfortunately, Blinken—and the rest of the incoming Biden foreign policy team—have said nothing publicly about the Israeli assassination, even though it appears designed to foil their effort to save the Iran nuclear deal. They’ve also repeatedly said they won’t condition US aid to Israel, no matter what Netanyahu does. Which gives him little reason to reconsider his current behavior, which some suspect is aimed at provoking Iran into retaliating—and giving Israel and the US an excuse for an all-out attack. (Something Trump has expressed interest in).

It’s disturbing, frightening stuff. To learn more, join Trita and me on Friday.

A few more things:

Matt Yglesias—one of the most thoughtful and creative writers on American politics and domestic policy—has launched a newsletter. Definitely worth checking out.

I wrote a short Jewish Currents essay about how Barack Obama’s memoir confirms the (in)famous Walt-Mearsheimer thesis about AIPAC’s influence over US policy toward Israel-Palestine. I also did a short squib for the Currents newsletter (yes, you should subscribe to that too) about Mike Pompeo’s Middle East trip and the invisibility of anti-Palestinian bigotry.

Avril Haines, Biden’s pick for Director of National Intelligence, may or may not be a great spy chief. But her life story is just amazing.

Saudi Arabia reportedly wants Pakistan to become the next Muslim country to recognize Israel, and the pressure is making Pakistani politics even nuttier than usual.

Politicians hurl pig-intestines in Taiwan’s parliament and the bad puns fly.

Holocaust survivors protest Israel’s racist choice to lead Yad Vashem.

A haunting column about a disappeared Uighur poet by his former student.

See you Friday,

Peter