It was inevitable that when brown-skinned Afghan refugees fleeing war were turned away from European borders over the past few years, the callous actions of these governments would come back to haunt them. A whopping 1 million people have fled Ukraine from Russia’s violent invasion in the span of only a week. They are being welcomed—as refugees should be—into neighboring nations, inviting accusations of racist double standards.
Poland offers the most egregious example of national racism. Its government, whose nation borders Ukraine, has warmly welcomed traumatized Ukrainians, just months after turning away Afghans. If these optics weren’t bad enough, Polish nationalists have sought out people of color who are among the refugees fleeing Ukraine and violently attacked them. According to the Guardian, “three Indians were beaten up by a group of five men, leaving one of them hospitalized.” African nationals studying in Ukraine joined the exodus after Russia’s invasion, and have been stopped at the Polish border. Poland might as well erect a giant sign on its border declaring, “whites only.”
In elevating such disparate skin-tone-dependent attitudes toward refugees, Europe is giving its colonialist heritage a new lease on life. We see echoes today of the dehumanization that enabled European colonization of the Global South and the enslavement of generations.
It’s not just Poland. The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association has denounced the overtly racist language of many Western journalists, including American ones like Charlie D’Agata of CBS who said of Ukraine that “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.” (In fact, Ukraine has seen plenty of conflict in the past years.)
D’Agata’s insertion of “with all due respect” was perhaps his belated realization that he was veering into dangerous territory by contrasting Ukrainian civilization against the presupposed barbarity of the darker nations. But then, he continued, saying, “this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
Again, D’Agata likely realized as the words were escaping his mouth just how racist he was sounding. He needed to choose his words carefully in order to avoid the appearance of bias. He clearly failed. His later apology was not very convincing.
D’Agata exposed his personal allegiance with the Global North when he expressed “hope” against war breaking out in a nation whose people look like he does. The implied flip side is that he harbors no such hope when the conflict-ridden nations of the Global South are embroiled in violence.
Serena Parekh, professor of philosophy at Northeastern University in Boston, told me in a recent interview, “it is very human to feel connections to people that you perceive to be like you and to feel more remote from people you perceive as being not like you.” At the very least, this is a good reason why newsrooms across the United States need to diversify their staff.
Parekh, who has written two books, including No Refuge: Ethics and the Global Refugee Crisis and Refugees and the Ethics of Forced Displacement, says that one “assumption” she has heard justifying favorable treatment of the latest wave of refugees in Europe is that “Ukrainians are not terrorists and they are not criminals, and so we can let them in safely, without having to worry about screening them.” She calls such views “racialized assumptions… largely unsustainable by any evidence.”
Such assumptions are infectious. Social media platforms abound with images sporting the now-ubiquitous blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as a larger-than-life hero to the morally outraged. So invested are people in believing Zelenskyy’s heroism that many have shared a photo (including several of my own Facebook friends) of him in military fatigues as evidence of his courage in standing up to Russian militarism, when in fact the image was captured well before Russia’s invasion.
Similar expressions of solidarity with brown-skinned resisters of Western militarism or victims of Western wars have been far less common.
Pointing out the double standards of governments and the press at a time when Ukrainians are watching their nation getting utterly destroyed will inevitably spark accusations of insensitivity and of engaging irresponsibly in “whataboutism” to make a point.
But now is the time to clearly call out what human rights groups and independent journalists have for years been saying: that the U.S. and NATO-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere are racist, and that the callous dismissals of the resulting humanitarian catastrophes are equally barbaric.
There’s another reason why brown-skinned refugees are seen as undesirable. Welcoming those people fleeing wars that the West has fomented would be an admission of Western culpability. Not only do Ukrainian refugees offer palatable infusions of whiteness into European nations, but they also enable governments to express self-righteous outrage at Russia’s imperialist ambitions and violent militarism. If Ukrainian refugees are evidence of Russian brutality, then Afghan and Iraqi refugees are evidence of the same kind of brutality on the part of the U.S. and NATO.
While Europe’s double standard toward refugees is on full display in Russia’s war on Ukraine, the United States is certainly not innocent either. Former President Donald Trump effectively slammed shut the door on refugees during his tenure and bolstered his anti-refugee policies with racist language.
President Joe Biden, who campaigned on reversing Trump’s anti-refugee rules, initially faltered on keeping his promise when he took office. But, even after the limits on allowing refugees into the U.S. were eventually lifted, few have been admitted into the country. Last year, when U.S. troops left Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban, Afghans were, naturally, desperate to flee. While the Biden administration laudably fast-tracked U.S. resettlement for Afghans, problems remain, with one refugee advocate calling the process, “kind of abysmal.”
Parekh says that decisions by Poland and other nations to admit fleeing Ukrainians with open arms, “[show] that the European Union can take in large numbers of asylum seekers and can do so in a relatively efficient way.”
In light of the sudden wellspring of compassion toward Ukrainian refugees emerging from Western nations, media, and the public, a simple thought experiment could protect governments, journalists, and us from further accusations of racist double standards: we could treat all refugees as though they were white-skinned Ukrainians, as though they were human.
By Sonali Kolhatkar is the founder, host and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute.
Independent Media Institute
In Russian Invasion of Ukraine, Cold War Echoes Reverberate
A rivalry with Russia. A proxy battleground. Nuclear brinksmanship. For many generations of Americans, it’s just like old times.
The invasion of Ukraine has rapidly returned echoes of a Cold War mentality to the United States, with a familiar foe in Russia. Bars have poured out their Russian vodka. McDonald’s, a symbol of the end of the Soviet Union when it first opened in Moscow, has shuttered its Russian locations. Once again, a U.S. president sees a pitched ideological battle. “We will save democracy,” President Joe Biden said in his State of the Union address.
For an America where Russia never quite went out of style as an evergreen villain in film and television, revived tensions with the Kremlin have drawn from a well-worn geopolitical script. A familiar, chilly East-West wind is blowing again.
“It’s very much a Cold War echo,” says James Hershberg, professor of history and international affairs at Georgetown University and former director of the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Hershberg sees much that’s different about today’s inflamed tensions with Russia. Vladimir Putin’s aggressions, he says, don’t seem driven by ideology the way communism was for the Soviet Union. A transformed media landscape, too, has helped turn Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy into a global protagonist.
But in a crisis that pits two nuclear superpowers on opposing sides, history is repeating in other ways. A Russian strategic overreach, Hershberg says, is again sparking a potentially perilous moment in international order.
“We are in a second Cuban Missile Crisis in many ways in terms of the danger of escalation,” says Hershberg, whose books include “Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam.” “Putin is acting so irrationally he makes Nikita Khrushchev appear like a rational actor in comparison.”
The largest land conflict in Europe since World War II, Russia’s two-plus weeks of war in Ukraine has rallied Western alliances like few events before it. In repudiating Putin’s invasion, the U.S. and its European allies have enacted crippling economic sanctions on Russia — which Biden on Tuesday extended to Russian crude oil — while still drawing the line on military engagement with Russia.
“If we’re talking about a capitalized Cold War, I don’t think I could call this Cold War II,” says Fredrik Logevall, professor of history and international affairs at Harvard and Pulitzer-Prize winning author most recently of “JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956.”
“But,” Logevall says, “if we’re talking more generally about a cold war, if we mean a titanic struggle that involves all aspects of national power waged between two incompatible systems but short of outright military conflict — then yeah, I guess this is a cold war.”
The Cold War is innately connected to the crisis in Ukraine partly because it so much informs Putin’s world view. A former KGB agent, he once called the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. The invasion of Ukraine is intended to deter Western influence and NATO infringement from Russia’s sphere of influence, and potentially to restore a Texas-sized part of the former Soviet Union.
Barely two weeks in, the Cold War has often been invoked. The U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said “the threat to global security now is more complex and probably higher” than during the Cold War, partly because there aren’t the same back channels of communication. A Russian Foreign Ministry official, Alexander Darchiyev, according to an Interfax report, recently suggested that “perhaps it would be worth recalling the well-forgotten principle that worked during the Cold War — peaceful coexistence.”
Even before war began in Ukraine, Americans had a historically dim view of Russia. According to Gallup poll conducted in February, 85% of Americans viewed Russia unfavorably, easily the country’s worst rating in more than three decades — a slide accelerated by Russia’s meddling in U.S. elections, its annexation of Crimea and the nerve agent attack on Putin’s leading opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who’s currently imprisoned.
And while former president Donald Trump has maintained his esteem for Putin, anti-Russian opinion has uncommon bipartisan support. Gallup found that 88% of both Republicans and Democrats have an unfavorable view of Russia. Nothing unites like a common enemy.
Nina Khrushcheva, a Moscow-born professor of international affairs at the New School in New York and the great-granddaughter of Nikita Khrushchev, maintains that the Cold War never really went away — that the West’s view of Russia remained stuck in the broad portrayals of villains Boris and Natasha in “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons. To her, Putin’s invasion was devastating because it confirmed the worst about her native country. Now, she begins her classes by apologizing.
“Putin is the global villain he deserves to be, and Russia is finished for decades to come,” says Khrushcheva, whose great-grandfather was premier of the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when John F. Kennedy was president of the United States. “My country just killed itself,” she says, and the U.S. “got their enemy back.”
“They got their enemy that has always been, always deserves to be and is always at the forefront of the American mind,” says Khrushcheva. “Russia has no excuse. But for America, it’s a field day. America is back and it’s on a white horse saving a white country in the middle of Europe against the horrible Russian Bear.”
Logevall, who co-authored the book “America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity,” doesn’t expect a Cold War rerun. The world isn’t as bipolar as it was decades ago. China, which signed a pact with Russia shortly before the invasion of Ukraine, looms much larger. And the interconnectedness of the global economy — where waves of corporations have severed ties with Russia — makes isolated coexistence harder to tolerate.
The conflict in Ukraine seems sure to be at least a coda to the Cold War, if not a new beginning.
“Putin feels great resentment about how the Cold War ended. The West declaring victory. Russia losing power and influence. I think he resents a certain Western triumphalism,” Logevall says. “In a way, I think history is what drives him.”
Russia Asks China for Military And Economic Aid to Help in Ukraine
What to watch: American officials said there were indications that Russia’s military was running out of weaponry and one added that the U.S. was “preparing to warn its allies” due to signs that Beijing may be prepared to help Moscow, according to the Financial Times, which first reported the news.
- It was not immediately clear what types of arms Russian officials had requested, or whether U.S. officials they knew of how China’s government has responded, per the Washington Post.
Meanwhile, National security adviser Jake Sullivan is due to travel to Rome on Monday for a meeting with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi to discuss Russia’s invasion.
What they’re saying: Sullivan told CNN earlier on Sunday that U.S. officials were “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them.”
- He added that the U.S. “will not allow that to go forward and allow there to be a lifeline to Russia from these economic sanctions from any country anywhere in the world.”
- Liu Pengyu, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in D.C., said he hadn’t heard of any request from Russia officials, per the New York Times.
- “The current situation in Ukraine is indeed disconcerting,” he said, stressing Beijing wants to see a peaceful resolution. “The high priority now is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even getting out of control.”
The big picture: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir have forged closer ties, including military cooperation, Axios’ Zachary Basu notes.
Flashback: As Russia’s military was building the capacity to invade Ukraine last month, Putin and Xi issued a joint statement ahead of their meeting at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics that voiced opposition to the further enlargement of NATO.
- The Kremlin had repeatedly made comments previously over negotiations on NATO’s expansion, using the threat of military action to demand a legal guarantee that Ukraine would never join the alliance, Basu notes.
- Representatives for the Biden administration did not immediately return Axios’ request for comment.
Don’t Forget the Refugee Crisis After the Fighting Stops
In the time following Russia’s indefensible invasion of Ukraine, over two million people have fled the country according to the United Nations. The lines of refugees at the Ukraine-Poland border stretch for miles. Children cry in the freezing cold as wait times reach 60 hours. Refugees discuss the relatives they had been forced to leave behind—sometimes without knowing whether their loved ones are alive or dead. And the United Nations predicts that these refugees could be followed by millions more—potentially resulting in “the biggest refugee crisis this century.”
As Ukrainians seek safe harbor, they fortunately have received an extraordinary outpouring of support from the international community. The UN Refugee Agency, the International Rescue Committee, and other organizations have sent emergency teams and resources. People around the world, including in Russia, are taking to the streets to condemn the invasion—and donating to organizations offering direct aid to the Ukrainian people.
Though these efforts are vital, they also draw attention to our country’s cruelly inadequate infrastructure for aiding refugees from Ukraine and beyond. Instead of welcoming refugees with open arms, current efforts hold them at arm’s length.
While the United States has offered aid to help other countries welcome Ukrainian refugees, our own annual refugee cap remains at just 125,000. Worse, the United States resettled only about 4,400 refugees in January — a pace well below even the Trump-era annual cap of 15,000.
And the U.S. approach to other recent refugee crises has been abysmal. In Haiti, over the course of just a few months, tens of thousands fled a calamitous earthquake, a deadly tropical storm and an explosive political climate following their president’s assassination. Instead of welcoming these migrants, the United States hounded them, literally chasing refugees at the border on horseback and deporting thousands back to unsafe conditions.
In Nigeria, the Boko Haram conflict has displaced nearly 3 million people over the past 12 years — leaving many malnourished, homeless and sick. The United States has had no trouble offering military and counterterrorism support in the fight against Boko Haram, yet never even offered temporary protected status to the people the terror group has imperiled.
In Syria, the ongoing civil war created the largest refugee crisis of the 21st century so far. After a brief spike in admissions late in the Obama administration, the United States has once again slashed the number of Syrian refugees accepted to the hundreds.
And in Afghanistan, the refugee crisis is in large part a consequence of the United States’ own actions. After waging war on their soil for 20 years, our leaders have allocated $13.3 billion to resettle Afghan refugees — a dismal 0.6 percent of the $2.3 trillion we spent on the war as a whole.
The fact is, too many U.S. institutions are structured to wage war, not foster peace. Our leaders waste trillions to impose America’s will on the world and, as an afterthought, quibble over what tiny fraction of that number should be spent to help those caught in the fallout.
All the while, the United Nations estimates there are 84 million forcibly displaced people around the world, including 26.6 million refugees. And the escalating crisis of climate change is set to cause a wave of refugees unlike anything the world has ever seen. One report from the World Bank estimates as many as 200 million people could be displaced over the next three decades.
Yet as David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, reminds us, the refugee crisis is “manageable, not unsolvable.” We know what to do. Take people in. Help them get jobs. Help refugee children — more than half of whom do not go to school — get an education. Support families to get a new start in a new place.
Some claim that this basic decency poses security threats, or costs too much. But while the improper vetting of refugees could indeed pose dangers, refusing to provide aid — and thus leaving masses of desperate people with nothing to lose, some of whom will be enraged at those who contributed to their ruination — creates its own risks.
As for the price: With U.S. military spending at historic peacetime highs — more than 12 times what Russia spends on its military — why is it that the United States can always seem to find the money to intervene in world affairs, but never to help clean up the resulting messes? We would do well to start accounting for the human cost of our interventions before we make them. One way or another, the consequences of our actions will inevitably reach our shores.
If we are to effectively defend against the kind of violence and aggression on display in Ukraine right now, we must also demonstrate what we are for: the right of all people to live in peace. As Miliband says of the refugee crisis, “This is not just a crisis, it’s a test. … It’s a test of our humanity. It’s a test of us in the Western world — of who we are and what we stand for.”
By Katrina Vanden Heuvel is the editorial director and publisher of the Nation and is president of the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord (ACURA). She writes a weekly column at the Washington Post and is a frequent commentator on U.S. and international politics for Democracy Now, PBS, ABC, MSNBC and CNN. Find her on Twitter @KatrinaNation. This article is distributed by Globetrotter in partnership with The Nation.
Independent Media Institute
Turkish, Russian Defense Ministers Discuss Urgency of Ukraine Cease-fire
The need for an urgent cease-fire in Russia’s war against Ukraine was discussed, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Wednesday regarding his phone call with his Russian counterpart.
On Tuesday, Akar held a phone call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in which he expressed Turkey’s expectation of support for the safe arrival of commercial ships waiting at Russian ports due to the current situation in Ukraine.
“We had positive and constructive talks with Mr. Shoigu,” Akar told reporters at the Turkish Parliament in the capital Ankara, saying that the cease-fire, the establishment of peace and the security of Turkish planes in Ukraine were discussed.
Akar expressed his expectation of support for the safe arrival of commercial ships waiting at Russian ports due to the current situation.
Maintaining its neutral and balanced stance, Turkey continues its diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the Ukraine conflict, urging all sides to exercise restraint. While Ankara has opposed international sanctions designed to isolate Moscow, it also closed the Bosporus and Dardanelles under a 1936 pact, preventing some Russian vessels from crossing the Turkish Straits.
NATO ally Turkey borders Ukraine and Russia in the Black Sea and has good ties with both. Since the beginning of the conflict, Ankara has offered to mediate between the two sides and host peace talks, underlining its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Having recently called Russia’s invasion an unacceptable violation of international law, Turkey has carefully formulated its rhetoric not to offend Moscow, with which it has close energy, defense and tourism ties.
Ukraine War Challenges Israel’s Relationship With Jews Worldwide
As Ukraine remains consumed by fierce fighting, fresh geopolitical calculations are taking shape worldwide. Jolted into action, European nations led by Germany have promised to increase their military budgets and impose harsh sanctions on Russia. Few countries have remained neutral about this conflict.
Given its “special friendship” with the United States, Israel’s tepid response to the crisis has surprised some analysts. While the Israeli foreign minister has condemned Russian aggression towards Ukraine, the official line from Tel Aviv has been remarkably muted. This ambiguity is all the more shocking considering Ukraine’s sizable Jewish population because it pits Israel’s understanding of the national interests of the Jewish people against the narrow interests of the Israeli state. The Ukrainian crisis demonstrates the limited extent to which Israel will place the interests of Jewish people above that of statecraft.
Since its founding, Israel has used the threat of global anti-Semitism as its raison d’etat. After the horrors of the genocide against Jews in Europe, the Jewish people cannot exist without a state and army of their own. This line of argument has proven to be remarkably useful for the Israeli government in defending its own aggression against Palestinians and other nations in the Middle East. Israel regularly invokes the interests of the Jewish people to explain its actions such as the occupation of East Jerusalem and the settlement of the biblical lands of the West Bank.
For millions of Jews living outside of Israel, their support for the country stems from a deep-seated feeling that Israel is their only refuge. If an outbreak of anti-Semitism forced them to flee, Israel would be there to protect them. Powerful pro-Israel advocacy groups such as the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) play on these emotions in order to drum up support for Israel’s political objectives and silence critics of Tel Aviv’s aggressive treatment of the Palestinians.
The Ukrainian crisis presents a fascinating challenge to this core tenet of Israeli propaganda because Ukraine is home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Eastern Europe. There are an estimated 50,000 practicing Jews in the country and Jewish life is visible from places of worship to cultural centers. The number of Ukrainians with Jewish ancestry (and eligibility to immigrate to Israel) is estimated at between 200,000 and 400,000. Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, and some of his key ministers are also Jewish. Outside of Israel, Zelensky is one of the world’s only Jewish heads of state.
Given the sheer scale and visibility of Jewish life in Ukraine, one would think that Israel would be on the front lines of finding a solution to the conflict and aiding the Jewish community there. That hasn’t been the case.
As the conflict drags on, Israel’s approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain. A Russian attack on Kyiv’s main TV tower on Tuesday damaged the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site nearby and killed five people. The site marks one of the biggest single massacres of Jews during World War II. Zelensky said Russia’s attack showed history was repeating itself. Israel denounced the strike but did not single out Russia as the perpetrators.
It’s easy for Israel’s leaders to express concern about the well-being of Jews around the world but when push comes to shove, Israel is a country like any other with its own geopolitical concerns. In this case, Tel Aviv doesn’t want to disturb its relationship with Russia. Not only does Russia play an important role in regional politics (most notably in Syria) but it is a vital trading partner for Israel. “It is so important for us that Russia turns a blind eye to what we have been doing in Syria, acting against the transfer of weapons, the entrenchment of the Iranians,” Orna Mizrahi, a former deputy national-security adviser for Israel, told the New Yorker.
In the early days of the conflict in Ukraine, Israel rejected a request from the US to co-sponsor a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s assault. Tel Aviv walked this position back, saying that it would join a resolution but wouldn’t support sanctions against Russia. It would seem that Realpolitik trumps Israel’s hollow rhetoric about protecting the Jewish people around the world.
For its part, Israel has reiterated its support for any Ukrainian Jew wishing to immigrate to Israel but it has stopped short of offering support to Jewish Ukrainians who wish to remain at home and fend off Russian aggression. What’s remarkable about this position is that it doesn’t make any attempt to protect Jews where they are. As a Jew living in Ukraine, Israel seems to be saying, you are basically on your own.
Let’s be clear, Israel has no binding duty to protect Jewish people (or any people) outside of its borders. Many Jewish people actually have a moral problem with Israel claiming to represent them since they have made a conscious decision not to immigrate to the country. Israel will continue to speak in the name of the Jewish people when it finds it convenient. That’s what this crisis is revealing in obvious detail. Because it isn’t in Israel’s interest to challenge Russia, the Jews of Ukraine have been left to essentially fend for themselves. The next time Israel invokes worldwide Jewry in explaining its own actions, it will be instructive to remember the battle for Ukraine’s sovereignty.
By Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in the UAE exploring change in emerging markets.
Can Iran and the U.S. Breathe Life Back Into Nuclear Deal?
The possibility of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—or the Iran nuclear deal—being revived, though difficult, seems to have brightened in February 2022. The U.S. may now also believe that the potential loss of Russian natural gas and oil due to the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war needs to be offset by Iran returning to the global oil market. The nuclear deal could have been accomplished much earlier if not for the Biden administration’s unwillingness to commit to the “way forward” offered by Iran to stay in the deal for the remainder of Biden’s term as president, according to Responsible Statecraft. Former United States President Donald Trump had pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May 2018 on the premise that he could get a better deal than the one negotiated by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, faced with the current reality relating to the situation on the ground, which shows that Iran is unlikely to give up its missile capabilities or pull back from regional allies, Biden seems to have come around to the original deal.
Iran is unlikely to remove the more advanced centrifuges it now possesses and uses after the Trump administration unilaterally pulled out of the deal. Neither is Iran likely to get an assurance that Trump or a future U.S. president who follows his lead on foreign policy will not abandon the deal again after the 2024 presidential election in the United States. The rest of the world is thus forced to live in an era in which the United States, the strongest military and economic power, is no longer capable of committing to treaties, whether on global warming or the nuclear deal with Iran.
Washington was not alone in its foolishness of pulling out of an agreement like the Iran nuclear deal that sought to impose the most stringent restrictions any country had accepted on its nuclear programs. It was egged on, if not instigated, by Israel, which wanted the United States to do what it could not: remove the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons and defang its missile capabilities. As most technologies required for nuclear weapons or missiles are dual-use, these restrictions would have converted Iran to a second-class industrial power.
A set of Israeli military experts have now come out saying that asking the United States to pull out of the Iran deal was a huge blunder, and the best course for Israel now would be to work to reinstate the nuclear deal. A report published in January 2022 by Ben Armbruster in Responsible Statecraft, a leading United States website on international affairs, says, “The head of Israel’s military intelligence agency, Maj. Gen. Aharon Haliva, has said that the revival of the Iran nuclear agreement would be better for Israel than if it were to be allowed to collapse entirely.”
If Iran had succumbed to the United States and Israel’s demands, it would have given the Western powers complete military control over West Asia, including its oil. This would have been in line with former United States President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 declaration—the Carter Doctrine—that the Persian Gulf region was of vital interest to the United States, and the U.S. would brook no interference of any outside power in this region. The Carter Doctrine was similar to the neocolonial Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which declared that no foreign power could have any military presence in the Americas, the United States’ backyard.
Trump’s reimposition of more than 1,000 sanctions on Iran after walking out of the nuclear deal was a heavy economic blow for Iran. It was complemented by covert attacks on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, which included the sabotage of nuclear facilities and assassinations of nuclear scientists in Iran. Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, was assassinated along with Iraq’s militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in a United States drone strike in Baghdad in 2020. Iran’s response to these sanctions and attacks has been equally forceful: the country struck the United States bases in the region in January 2020 using missiles, continued supporting the Lebanese political-militant group Hezbollah and the Syrian government forces, and continued to exert its influence over Iraq. After a prior warning to avoid casualties, Iran’s strikes on United States bases showed America’s so-called anti-missile batteries are toothless against Iran’s latest missiles. Iran was careful not to cause deaths, nor did it hit United States Navy ships in order not to start a war. But its asymmetric war capabilities showed that U.S. and Israeli strategic assets in the region were now within Iran’s missile range, and anti-missile batteries could not protect these assets.
I have previously written about Iran developing asymmetrical warfare capabilities and the ability to use missiles, drones, and smaller naval boats to strike opponents. Supplying Hezbollah and other groups in West Asia such as Ansarullah or the Houthis in Yemen, with these kinds of technology has helped Iran vis-a-vis Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have shown they may suffer heavy losses against the militarily superior Saudi and the Emirati (UAE) forces, but they have missile capabilities to strike back. With Yemen, the argument of Houthi attacks hitting civilians rings hollow, as the Saudis and Emiratis have inflicted the most savage attacks on civilians that the world has seen in a very long time. Yemen’s infrastructure has been destroyed; the country has dealt with a cholera epidemic and faced a water crisis with no access to safe drinking water, and its schools, colleges, and health care facilities have been destroyed by sustained Saudi and Emirati bombings. Yemen’s only recourse has been to hit back at Saudi and UAE facilities—refineries and airports—hoping to force them into peace talks and settle the war.
Trump and the Israeli leadership had assumed that the economic reverses of the sanctions would drive Iran to surrender its independent strategic nuclear role. Iran initially refrained from breaching the JCPOA agreement and asked the other signatories, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and China, to continue trading with it. Apart from China and Russia, the European countries who were part of the agreement gave “lip service” to continuing with the JCPOA and reduced their trade with Iran to a trickle. With the dollar functioning as the international currency, no other European country was willing to buck the United States sanctions in any serious way.
This is where Iran started to ratchet up its nuclear enrichment, both in quantity and quality: how much uranium-235 it would enrich and to what degree of purity. The Iran nuclear deal had the following key features:
- Iran’s active centrifuges would have to come down to about 5,000 from the more than 19,000 centrifuges it had.
- Uranium enrichment was capped at 300 kg at 3.67 percent purity.
- No advanced centrifuges would be used beyond IR-1 and Iran would have to dismantle/mothball more advanced centrifuges.
- Iran would have to modify the Arak heavy reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium and convert it so that it could be used for peaceful purposes.
At the time of the agreement, Iran had stockpiled about 200 kgs of 20 percent enriched uranium gas (200 kg of uranium gas would be 133 kg of solid uranium), which was shipped out to Russia.
In terms of nuclear weapons development, converting uranium to 20 percent purity is nine-tenths of the work required to reach weapons-grade uranium of 90 percent purity. The bulk of the work involved in building these weapons is therefore in achieving 20 percent purity, and the rest is relatively easy. In centrifuges, uranium gas is spun to separate U-238, the heavier isotope of uranium, from U-235, which is lighter and the fissile isotope used in the development of nuclear weapons. The separation is done by using a cascade of centrifuges and repeating the process continuously. This process is time- and energy-consuming and requires a high degree of automation. In Natanz, in Iran, the Stuxnet malware and a cyberweapon developed by the United States and Israel were used to destroy more than 10 percent of Iran’s centrifuges by attacking its Siemens controllers. This attack was the first use of a cyberweapon in the world.
In November 2021, Iran’s atomic agency, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said that its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium had reached more than 210 kg, and 60 percent enriched uranium had reached 25 kg. The country also has put in a new generation of more advanced centrifuges and efficient IR-2m, IR-4, and IR-6 centrifuges. This capability is why there are arguments that Iran has reached breakout capacity as it has enough fissile material for a bomb and is more advanced in its bomb-making ability than it was during the original JCPOA as a consequence of Trump’s folly.
The problem that the United States and its allies face now is how to put the nuclear genie they unleashed by walking away from the JCPOA back inside the bottle. Iran is willing to accept most terms of the old deal but is unlikely to mothball its advanced centrifuges again, as it did earlier. It also knows the United States may be just a presidential election away from reneging on the deal, so the U.S.’s stakes in the nuclear deal are temporary. So, how much is Iran willing to sacrifice for sanction relief—though halting and piecemeal, as Obama showed—to get back to the negotiating table on the nuclear deal? For the sake of the world, everyone hopes that Iran will, and that Biden will live up to the United States’ side of the bargain, at least for the few years he has left in office before the next presidential elections.
By Prabir Purkaystha is the founding editor of Newsclick.in, a digital media platform. He is an activist for science and the free software movement.
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