Given my own deep prejudice toward religious zealotry, it has not been difficult for me to accept the conventional American view that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme theocratic ruler of Iran, is a dangerous madman never to be trusted with a nuclear weapon. How then to explain his recent seemingly logical and humane religious proclamations on the immorality of nuclear weapons? His statement challenges the acceptance of nuclear war-fighting as an option by every U.S. president since Harry Truman, who, in 1945, ordered the deaths of 185,000 mostly innocent civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We do not see any glory, pride or power in the nuclear weapons—quite the opposite,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said Tuesday in summarizing the ayatollah’s views. Salehi added, “The production, possession, use or threat of use of nuclear weapons are illegitimate, futile, harmful, dangerous and prohibited as a great sin.”
Of course, the ayatollah’s position will be largely interpreted by the media and politicians in the United States as a devious trick to lull critics, but words of such clarity will not be so easily dismissed by his devout followers. They are words that one wishes our own government would embrace to add moral consistency to our condemnation of other countries we claim might be joining us in holding nuclear arms.
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As awkward as it may be to recall, it was the United States that gifted the world with these sinful weapons. And even more to the point of assessing sin, ours is the only nation that has ever used such weapons toward their intended purpose of killing large numbers of the innocent. That fact alone should provoke some measure of humility in responding to Salehi’s offer this week at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva to negotiate a treaty banning nuclear weapons.
Unfortunately, his remarks were all too predictably met with swift condemnation by the United States. Laura E. Kennedy, the American ambassador to the conference, said that Iran’s claim to be opposed to such weapons “stands in sharp contrast” to that nation’s failure to comply with international obligations. But the fact is that the administration she represents has stated that there is as yet no evidence that Iran is committed to building a nuclear bomb.
She is right that Iran’s resistance to inspection “is hardly illustrative of a commitment to nuclear disarmament,” but such a remark is grotesquely hypocritical coming from the representative of a nation that has produced more than half of the world’s nuclear arsenal under the most severe conditions of secrecy. It is also true that U.S. acceptance of nuclear weapons in Israel and Pakistan, both of which have been recipients of American military aid despite breaking international nonproliferation codes to which U.S. presidents have long subscribed, is hardly a sign of consistency on this issue.
It is obvious, in a week when the U.S. welcomed North Korea’s renewed commitment to inspections, that even the most recalcitrant of nations can be induced to reason. The treatment of Iran is complicated by this being a U.S. election season, during which the Republican candidates, with the exception of Ron Paul, have been beating the war drums over what they claim is Iran’s nuclear threat. In no way has the GOP’s zeal for military confrontation been chastened by the fact that a similar crusade in 2003 by Republican hawks led to the invasion of Iraq over patently false claims that it was developing a nuclear arsenal. The result was a pro-Iranian government in Baghdad.
Neither Iraq nor Iran had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks that launched our nation on a never-ending and essentially irrational “war on terror.” Irrational, because the terrorist enemy has come to be defined through political convenience rather than through an objective threat assessment. Iran’s Shiite leaders were sworn enemies of Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida, which was inspired and financed by the Wahhabi Sunnis of Saudi Arabia. Yet when the Obama administration recently concluded a huge, 10-year arms deal with the Saudi kingdom, the top Republican candidates were in full approval.
Of course the world’s people should be alarmed by the prospect of Iran, or any other nation, joining the nuclear weapons club. But demonizing Iran and attempting to further isolate that nation’s leadership hardly advances the cause of nonproliferation. If Washington can find a basis of reasonable accommodation with a bizarrely erratic and paranoid North Korea, serious negotiations with Iran should be eminently possible. A place to begin would be with the acceptance that the justifiably reviled ayatollah might for once be demonstrating moral leadership when he denounces all nuclear weapons, including those in our own massive arsenal, as sinful.