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Obama’s Speech on the Iran Nuclear Treaty

By Alan Gilbert.

President Obama Addresses Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention

Last Wednesday, Obama gave the most important and well-argued foreign policy speech of his Presidency, a speech which follows two years of long and hard diplomacy, and put together a diplomatic agreement to bar Iran from seeking a nuclear weapon. This agreement blocks the danger of an even larger war in the Middle East, provoked by yet another American aggression. Obama was rightly critical of the first Gulf War, but he did not quite say – no American President could speak English about this – that Bush and Cheney lied to launch an unprovoked attack on a people which had not attacked the United States (see Article 2, section 4 of the UN Charter which bars aggression and recognizes self-defense against it; Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, chs. 1-6).

It is worth taking in the stakes here, and mounting an all-out effort to support this Treaty. This means specifically talking to Congressional representatives, but also demonstrating (there was one against Charles Schumer in New York yesterday) or if need be, forging a much more active, nonviolent, anti-war mass movement. Because Obama’s speech was so important, I showed it in my graduate seminar on Ethics and International Affairs last Thursday night. I asked the class how many had actually listened to the speech. Of 14 people there, only 1, Michael Akume, a student from Nigeria who follows American politics perhaps more carefully than I do, had. This is not
surprising nor is it the students’ fault nor the fault of the American people who have yet, for the most part, even to hear Obama’s arguments. Americans are not anxious, as we saw in the protests over Obama’s threatening to fire missiles at Syria, to go to yet another, unpredictably wider, longer. losing war in the Middle East. They are supportive of this agreement – and Jewish-Americans are more supportive than others. But a section of the elite – Sheldon Adelson at least, perhaps the Koch brothers judging from Scott Walker’s haste to announce he would bomb Iran the first day of his Presidency, and AIPAC – wants war/regime-change and Netanyahu has ardently campaigned for it so the corporate press is “confused” and in supposed news coverage, often against the President.(Still that a major speech by an American President on so compelling an issue, one so carefully, logically constructed, is so weakly covered in the corporate press is shocking.)

As President Obama makes starkly clear, the alternative to this agreement is war (that is, American aggression against Iran). And he said, given his embrace of Israel’s needs, to keep Iran
from getting a nuclear weapon, he himself would carry it out (I will return to this aspect of the speech). Though Obama acts creatively and under great criticism for peace, no American President, head of a large Empire, can mainly fight for peace (as Obama said, he has sent troops to fight in 7 cases; except for taking out Bin Laden, none are justified…). Nonetheless more intelligently than any existing scholarly or journalistic comment (this is often a unique feature of Obama’s speeches, compared to any other figure in mainstream American political life), Obama underlined the point that not only the European powers, Russia and China have come in on this agreement through hard negotiations – “I know; I was there” he said pointedly – and sometimes at the cost to their countries of billions in trade, but every government that has spoken about it, except Israel, has supported it. Nuclear experts and over 100 former American ambassadors have endorsed it. This Treaty has major international standing as a peace agreement through multilateral diplomacy.

Therefore, if the Congress sabotages this, as Obama underlined, it will not only cause a larger and more dangerous war in the Middle East; it will fatally undermine America’s standing or credibility in the world as a political leader for diplomacy – a decent one, at least sometimes – as opposed to“with us or against us” naked aggression. And against Congress’s expressed wishes, it would enhance Iran’s standing and if the Iranian leadership so desired (it is not clear that they do), enable them to pursue a nuclear weapon quickly and with relief of most of the sanctions.

In contrast to this Treaty, the notion of “with us or against us” was Netanyahu’s first and
longstanding strategy, proposed by Richard Perle and others now at the center of American neoconservatism, for redefining the Middle East by war and conquest. This bizarre approach is often pawned off on the United States, as executed in Iraq, by Bush and Cheney and incited today by William Kristol, McCain, Graham, the Republican Presidential candidates – even Rand Paul who should know better, but wants so badly to be President… – and of course the Republican caucus backed by many Democrats.

In a deeper perspective, however, Obama likened his own role to that of John F. Kennedy in the first negotiations with the Soviet Union preventing war – he spoke at American University because that is where Kennedy spoke on the importance of negotiating with an “enemy” more than 50 years ago – and he also underlined the connections with Ronald Reagan negotiating previous treaties. The great tradition of American diplomacy contrasted with arrogance (hubris), trying to get everyone to knuckle under to force, the “with us or against us” taunting of critics, including domestic ones, as enemies or “weak” of Bush-Cheney. With 12 years in in Iraq and 13 in Afghanistan, as well as the rise of ISIL, it is clear enough that American policy – even a successful imperialist policy – needs a level-headed attention to facts. Obama underlined his own
criticisms of the Iraq war – what he once named a dumb war though it is also and more importantly an unjust war, an American aggression – but said that his goal has been to change America’s mindset. Instead of unilateralism and bullying, Obama sought to exercise American leadership through multilateral diplomacy and to avoid war wherever possible. This, he said, is an admirable tradition in American foreign policy, and the alternative has created a great crisis in the Middle East, once again down to ISIL today.

Obama was right about the horrors of the Iraq aggression and Mr. Cheney. This is the worst, most destructive and dangerous thing initiated by American leaders – it includes official torture, extraordinary rendition and trashing international law which American had previously fought for – in the post-World War II era. But this speech, by an American President aiming rightly to defeat a belligerent self-destructive hegemonic argument, also erred on or left many deep issues in shadow. As my student Habib Zahori (an Afghani, who has reported for the Times) pointed out, Obama, shockingly, omitted, for example, American genocide in Vietnam (some two million Vietnamese died because of the American invasion ).

“Block out the noise,” Obama said to the Congress, the empty clamor for aggression. He is right.
Now some of the critics (this includes Democrats like Schumer on the take from Netanyahu and AIPAC
and, in fact, willing to endanger Israelis by pursuing Netanyahu’s “conquest of the realm”) demand some other, supposedly “better agreement.” But Obama underlined that diplomacy worked here only because all the powers were concerned with Iran getting a nuclear weapon and altering the status quo in the Middle East. That status quo includes a nuclear armed Israel, and as Obama emphasized, a far more formidable power in conventional military terms than Iran, one to be aided further by Obama as the most supportive President, in terms of arms, in modern times. The multilateral sanctions regime which exerted such pressure on Iran that they agreed to this deal was focused solely on eliminating Iran’s search (if it exists) for a nuclear weapon.

Hence sanctions by other powers also end with this agreement. For that is why they originally stepped up, at Obama’s urging, the sanctions. One cannot have a Treaty which achieves the goal explicitly sought by all the allies and then keep the partners agreeing to punish Iran forever to achieve the American/Israeli Right’s goal of regime change or war.Further if the American Congress sabotages this Treaty, Iran will appear to others to be in the right., the power willing to pursue, at some sacrifice, peace and America governed by an irrational Congress/Israeli government influence, hopelessly belligerent, a pawn of Netanyahu (or Adelson, his funder).

Obama speaks of his career-long defense of Israel and, rightly, of the need of an American President to act on his best judgment – in this case a very well-argued and decent judgment –
of America’s interests, not the Israeli leader’s judgment. That this even has to be said – even while America arms the illegitimate and immoral Israeli Occupation of Palestine – is sad… Netanyahu’s policy of trying to defeat Obama is ugly and is dangerous for most Israelis (and is likely to produce widespread revulsion in the United States if the Congress succeeds in rejecting the Treaty, a long and losing war ensues…).

Now, other countries like Germany will gain in trade by immediately opening to Iran. Thus, instead of a dramatic agreement which bars Iran from seeking a weapon forever and imposes inspections for 15 years – and if there is evidence that Iran is doing so, Obama underlined, the US can act swiftly, militarily even, to do something about it – Iran can instead move quickly to produce such a weapon and with large international sanctions relief as well as widespread sympathy (again, there is not clear evidence, according to Western and Israeli intelligence that Iran is now doing or would do so…). Now Ahmedinijad (though not the Supreme Leader), was, as Obama
emphasizes, a Holocaust denier (he held a conference with various reactionary fantasists); he said something about being present for Zionism’s burial (not the same as a statement that he would make war to do it – that cliche flows probably from a partisan or interested mistranslation of what he said), Further, Iran has not aggressed against any one.

Iran gives some aid to the Houthis and Hezbollah, Obama notes. But talk about the Pot and the Kettle: what violent movements for change usually from the Right has the US not aided in the world? Take the Contras in Nicaragua or the putsches against the democracies in Honduras or the Ukraine (the latter both under Obama).And Hamas was initially created and funded by Israel to defeat the PLO… Netanyahu had 5 Iranian physicists murdered going to work (until the US stopped him) while Israel has locked up for 20 years the courageous Mordechai Bnunu who worked on and told the truth about the Israeli nuclear arsenal…

What would the United States government do to a government that murdered 5 of our physicists? Further, Netanyahu didn’t go on about Iran until after the supposed great enemy Iraq was invaded by the United States. So why is Netanyahu personally – and the Israeli government – so willing to
undermine its three billion dollar a year in arms giving-ally, Barack Obama, so all out for war? The answer unfortunately is that the war and the threat of war is a diversion, as big a fraud as the Iraq war. What the government of Israel wants – a racist government moving over to the even farther right than the Prime Minister, not a single partner for peace among them (Netanyahu claims this of the Palestinians but Abbas would happily negotiate; what Netanyahu does is psychologically projection, as Jung might have named it). Israel is enforcing steadily a “second transfer” that is ethnic cleansing by force and phony law (Israel declares all longstanding residents of the
Occupied Territories “temporary,” revokes their passports, takes their homes upon dying or declares them open for settlement and steadily moves them out). Netanyahu would also like a remodeling of the neighborhood a la Perle without additional Israeli effort.

But the Israeli government, as Netanyahu showed openly with his last racist appeal in the recent election to his supporters –“ Arabs are swarming to the polls” – pursues a policy of enforced apartheid (as many have noted) and transfer/ethnic cleansing. No international organization will sanction it (this policy of forced transfer, war and conquest in the Middle East). Except for the US, Israel often has no votes in the UN because its policy toward the imprisoned Palestinians (behind a wall) displays a contempt for decency. Anyone who has been to the Occupied Territories or sees film of the soldiers abusing the people on the news will not sympathize with the Israeli government. Hence, Palestinians are behind a wall not only in Israel but in the bad coverage of the commercial media in the United States, led by the New York Times. As Chris Hedges’ powerful, recent argument for it indicates, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement grows


What Obama said in the speech about Hamas firing in missiles from Israel’s border – the “dangerous neighborhood” – is not quite true since “greater Israel” engulfs, step by step, illegally and immorally conquered Palestine, including repeated slaughters (to test weapons) in Gaza; it is Israel that refuses, as the most armed power in the Middle East, to negotiate with the Palestinians. What Hamas does is awful but where it attacks the Israeli Occupiers and not civilians, self-defense (killing civilians is murder; Israel killed some 460 children in Gaza last winter, Hamas 1 in Israel…; mass nonviolent resistance by Palestinians, however, would be both much more effective and decent). Israel’s expansion – the 300 settlements and 500,000 settlers planted in Occupied Palestinian Territory – makes the neighborhood “dangerous” for the Occupiers. In contrast, seeking an agreement would lessen the danger. The position of Netanyahu, the Republicans and now Schumer is, thus, as Obama underlines, stupid for the Israeli people. It is not designed to limit Iran’s capacity to produce a nuclear weapon. It tries instead to force the American President to back out on a multilateral, international agreement America negotiated, makes Iran’s search for a weapon (if they are doing that) swifter and abolishes all the multilateral inspections. If Iran were strengthening its capacity to produce a weapon (some in Iran would like to, though the Supreme Leader has barred making or using these weapons as he barred using chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war), the US would then bomb Iran, and instigate a wider war in the Middle East.

To sabotage the agreement is thus to facilitate more rapid Iranian proceeding – without inspections, not barring weapons and restricting research even for peaceful nuclear energy for 10
years – toward a nuclear weapon. That is why Obama underlined the ironic agreement between Iranian belligerents who chant “death to America” and Republicans about the Treaty. If getting rid of a supposed Iranian nuclear weapon were, in fact, the aim – it isn’t – then opposing the agreement would, as Obama said, produce the opposite of what opponents claim they want. Now as the Federalist Papers suggest (numbers 4 and 51, for instance), the American Congress could take special steps to oppose arbitraryPresidential wars, wasting the lives and treasure of citizens and many, many others:

“It is too true, however disgraceful it be to human nature, that nations in general will make
war whenever they have a prospect of getting anything by it; nay, absolute monarchs will often make war when their nations are to get nothing by it, but for the purposes and objects merely personal, such as thirst for military glory, revenge for personal affronts, ambition, or private compacts to aggrandize or support their particular families or partisans. These and a variety of other motives, which affect only the mind of the sovereign, often lead him to engage in wars not sanctified by justice or the voice and interests of his people.” (John Jay, Federalist, number

Congress sometimes does so, because of popular resistance from below in the case of Obama firing missiles at Syria. It is thus particularly sad and creepy that the one time in the modern era – not about Vietnam, not about the aggression or torture in Iraq, not about Kissinger-Nixon aiding torturers and backing every murderous dictatorship in Latin and Central America (Chile, Argentina, Salvador, Honduras – the list goes on and on) – the Congress uniquely demands final say on, to oversee/override an intelligent, peace-enhancing agreement. This Treaty also weakens the ties of, the thrall over American policy of Israel and monarchical Saudi Arabia, one which gives more maneuverability to seek peace or advance American purposes in the Middle East short of war, and makes America less widely disliked/hated.

Thus in all the bizarre, often criminal history of modern American foreign policy, that the
Congress claims, at the bidding of Israel and given America’s extraordinary warmongering militarism, in this case and in this case only, a right to review a Presidential decision is really awe-inspiringly awful.

In the Federalist, the balance of powers was supposed to prevent quasi-monarchical wars. Yet
what the Congress is doing is being even more dangerously and murderously warmaking than Obama’s version of the Imperial Presidency (Obama uses drones to murder people, usually civilians, in countries the US is not at war with, allows the NSA to spy on all Americans without warrants,
protects torturers/murderers from prosecution against Treaties signed or initiated by the United States and mercilessly prosecutes whisteblowers/American heros like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning).

Yet as Obama tries wisely to reinstate serious diplomacy in this case and work toward balancing of powers in the Middle East, the Congress is channeling Dick Cheney’s ghost (he can be seen flickering, with his cracked smile still, on Fox…) and neocon belligerence. The current Congress – some Democrats as well as all Republicans reject the agreement without any decent argument or often, without argument except authority (“Netanyahu says…) – endangers most Israelis – wider war will definitely do this – and furthers pursuit of a nuclear weapon now, if that is Iran’s aim.Moreover, this treaty reveals American imperial might. As Obama underlines, it is extraordinarily intrusive on Iran – in fact, uniquely so in the history of arms agreements. It bars nuclear weapons forever. It restricts even peaceful research on atomic power – something that Iran has a right to do and which the US encouraged under the Shah – for ten years. Inspectors can oversee activities at any currently identified nuclear site immediately, and gain access, in 24 hours, or if there is Iranian objection, a maximum of 24 days, to any site which the US finds suspicious.


To have a nuclear weapon, Obama underlines, Iran would have to have secret weapons chain from sites at which uranium was mined or traded for to the reactors to enrich uranium (the existing plutonium reactors are now to be sealed). No country (including the US or the USSR) has ever been able to do this in the face of a modestly serious inspections regime. Now the original SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) Treaty Kennedy negotiated was for 5 years. The Reagan treaty – START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) – was for 15 years. This Treaty, in those traditions, is for 15 years and has, as Obama underlined, far more intrusive aspects. For Iran is a much weaker power than the Soviet Union; it has no nuclear weapons pointed at American cities as the United States (and Russia) still do. Further, Iran is now suffering from major sanctions and its
domestic product has fallen 20% because of it. Ordinary Iranians are hurting. Thus, Iranians elected the Rouhani government which negotiated this agreement (Iran is probably more of a democracy than what the US supports in the Middle East, including Israel which holds a large, subjugated population captive…). There is great pressure emanating from below in Iran for better standard of living – that is, relief from the boycott – as well as for moving toward Western democratic practices (recall the Green Revolution of 2011) and in addition, toward open trading with the West.

In addition, Obama pointed out, the Treaty does not require any reduction in US military power. Answering these critics, he underlined that Iran spends $15 billion on the military, an eighth of even what US allies in the Middle East – the reactionary regimes of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and other bizarre monarchy/dictatorships spend on American weaponry.But Obama also underlined that the US official military budget – supposedly 600 billion dollars per year – is 40 times Iran’s. And this does not include nuclear research done in the department of energy, the entire “intelligence” budget – some hundreds of billions which includes the drone shootings, the budget for the Joint Special Operations Command which is off the Pentagon books, a secret force of some 66,000 soldiers sent by the President on 12 missions in some 70 countries each night, money in the State Department budget spent on lobbying other countries to buy American weapons (some 6,500 “diplomats” are employed in this – it is a central activity in every American embassy – though the total diplomatic budget, about 60 billion, 1/10th that of the official Pentagon budget – includes these costs as a small fraction…) and the like. To put Obama’s point even more clearly and less flatteringly to the US government, the US perhaps spends over a trillion dollars a year on war and has some 1180 military bases abroad (no other country has more than 5).

In contrast, the Iranian government spends 15 billion dollars per year…maybe one-seventieth of what the US spends…Iran has no bases abroad.Short of a nuclear weapon Obama says, Israel, with US help, can easily withstand Iran. But the same is even true with such a weapon (Israel has at least 200 nuclear warheads – and would destroy Iran even without US support; deterrence worked with the Soviet Union and would with Iran; the Israeli leadership’s panic about Iran is a diversion from their illegal transfer of the Palestinians. The US has troops in – as a result of
invasions over 10 years ago – the two countries immediately surrounding Iran (the equivalent: if Iranian troops had occupied Mexico and Canada…). Iran has not invaded any other power in modern times. That is another fact Obama –as the President of the largest Empire in the world, trying to convince warmongers on the extreme Right dedicated to Netanyahu not to launch another war – glosses over.

In response point by point to the claims raised by critics of the nuclear agreement, however, Obama showed, that these are empty…He is right to refer to logic here. This is the most careful argument advanced by an American President for a foreign policy decision.Now The New York Times had a serious editorial defending the agreement. But with the Republican
“debate” – once again, note how warmongering, led by Lindsay Graham who suggested as a criterion for nomination that only a candidate who wants larger war, more troops to Iraq and Syria – should be a Republican presidential nominee, and the “Christian” warmonger Huckabee – the commercial press barely covered the speech. Nor does it run down – even in summary form – Obama’s striking answers to every argument so far advanced by the critics.Senator Schumer of New York announced
his opposition to the agreement Friday morning. He and others do not feel that they will pay a penalty for sabotaging a major peace agreement, undermining American diplomatic leadership in so far as (pretty rarely unfortunately) it plays a decent role, and mandating – in the name of Netanyahu and a bizarre and self-destructive faction in Israel – war by the United States of America.The Treaty is a new and courageous departure for American policy. But the corporate media – once again, influenced by a large Israel, AIPAC funded campaign, some $40 million – have not covered this agreement honestly. For instance, before Obama’s speech, they had not noticed that all the advocates of this war were advocates of the mad and also self-destructive aggression against Iraq in 2003. In order to defend this Treaty, however, Obama reached out to canvas arguments to many groups and took in Peter Beinart’s fine column from the Atlantic on how the advocates of war in Iran and those who brought America to war in Iraq. As Obama said archly and rightly, these warmongers have been in the wrong about war repeatedly

And thus, suddenly, last Tuesday, Beinart’s point made the New York Times in its initial account of Obama’s position and then in the editorial.Now the warmongers include not just the pathetic McCain and Lindsay Graham (and of course the craziness/war advocacy/”the Bible says so” of the “Christian Zionists” including Huckabee – see here for another fine Beinart dissection of the strange claim that Iran, which has had little harassment of Jews internally, is plotting genocide against Israel – and of Straussian neocons like William Kristol – stuck like a squeaky broken
record on “appeasement,” “appeasement” as if all the world were a repeat of “Munich…” (consider the figures on Hitler’s arms, overwhelming, compared to disarmed England or even the Soviet Union and the United States in 1939…) and prayers for “Greater Israel” – and behind them, Netanyahu (bankrolled by the Las Vegas casino magnateSheldon Adelson).

Against the haze in the corporate press, Beinart – himself, like Andrew Sullivan, a former supporter of the Iraq war who saw clearly its devastating effects on the Middle East and America and how he had been misled – names every one of these advocates of yet another war as a repeated aggressor. As Beinart says, if this point becomes widely recognized, support for sabotaging this agreement is likely to evaporate.Responding carefully to each argument, Obama said, rightly, that the exaggerations/panic of Huckabee, Graham, Kristol et al is a sign of vacuity of argument. Obama asked for new specific proposals or even arguments beyond “get a better agreement”; there are none.Now if the US attacks Iran, Iran has lots of troops to send to fight; there will be a larger and more unstable war in the area, and Israel, which has nuclear weapons may well be threatened in 5 or 10 years and could easily come to use nuclear weapons. And radiation travels.

This Treaty – this creative turn in American policy – is thus no small matter for the fate of the world.Critics on the left – those who rightly note that Obama is the President of an Empire, not mainly a representative of you and me – are mistakenly blind to this point. Glenn Greenwald, however, rightly, criticizing Obama’s claim that the US is waging wars in 7 countries under hisleadership, does recognize the value of the Treaty. Now my student Salvador Armendariz pointed out to the class that there was a contradiction between calling for international agreement and threatening unilateral sanctions/force if it fails:

“President Obama initially stated that unilateral US sanctions alone had failed to curb Iran’s
nuclear policy which the US considers a threat. However, when addressing arguments against his administration’s nuclear deal, he stated that if Iran were to break the terms of the nuclear agreement the US could unilaterally impose sanctions on Iran (I think he said even without the
consensus of the US Security Council) to address that problem. I think the problem with his contradiction is that it would be misleading to indicate that the US could act unilaterally (in terms of imposing economic sanctions) if necessary to curb Iran’s nuclear programs. If Iran were to break the terms of the deal, and the US would want to continue to use a diplomatic option to address that problem, it would need to orchestrate multilateral intervention once again as it has done now.”

Salvador is right, but as Salvador noted, this is a comparatively small intellectual weakness in what is, vis-a-vis the Right, a very careful argument. (I might also note: the Right agitates for precisely another ineffectual, unilateral war, not that a multilateral invasion would be
more effective or decent.) As Michael Akume also pointed out, Obama made this error to reassure the Right that America’s war-making power remains in tact. Krista Vendetti gave a good talk on Amartya Sen on democracy. After the seminar, she told me she had gone with Move On to meet with Congressman Ed Perlmutter. An older man attending the meeting warned bitterly that Iran must not be allowed a nuclear weapon. He did not know that the new agreement prevents precisely this result. One of Perlmutter’s aides was very huffy with the group of defenders of the Treaty. Nonetheless, Krista waited to speak one on one with Perlmutter; interestingly, Ed was sufficiently impressed to offer her an internship. Hopefully, he also has the good sense to support the Treaty. But only the greatest active pressure from below, as Obama rightly requested, can now uphold this agreement, Majority sentiment on this, as on many issues, does not sway Congress, an organization controlled – in Jimmy Carter’s recent words on the Thom Hartmann show – by oligarchy; whether democracy is more than in name usually, often only depends on action from below.

The Move On group made a difference. You can, too. I urge everyone to act in support of the agreement.

Alan Gilbert is John Evans professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and author of Marx’s Politics:Communists and Citizens (Rutgers, 1980), Democratic Individuality (Cambridge, 1990), Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy (1999) and Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence (Chicago March, 2012). His blog Democratic Individuality is a rich mine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, August 15th, 2015.