—Michael Zantowsky, writing about Vaclav Havel
Something genuinely bothers me about the U.S. negotiations with Iran, whether they are ultimately successful or not.
There is a huge distance between what can be realistically accomplished politically and some rarely acknowledged truths that might allow the U.S. to go much further toward creating a safer world. I admire the way President Obama acknowledged candidly that Iran has had legitimate issues with the U.S., like the U.S. meddling in Iran’s elections in 1953 and the American support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war even as Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran. It’s a step toward truth, and not a mere giving in to facile moral relativism, to acknowledge that there are multiple frames of reference that are useful to take into account in international relations.
In no way should Iran be let off the hook for its virulent anti-Semitism and its own destructive meddling by proxy. But, as Obama rightly points out, Nixon negotiated successfully with China, just as Reagan did with Soviet Russia, the erstwhile evil empire.
The true and almost entirely unspoken context for negotiation between two or more sides in the nuclear age who each see the other as untrustworthy, flawed, or devious is epitomized by the sentence Albert Einstein wrote in a telegram to world leaders way back in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”
It is a huge assertion to say that everything has changed. Is it true?
Even taking into account U.S.-Russian arms reductions, there are still 17,500 nuclear weapons extant on this small planet, distributed among nine nations. What Einstein prophesied has come to pass in spades: the nuclear powers maintain an elaborate fiction that their security interests are furthered by possessing a robust nuclear arsenal and that deterrence will protect us all forever into the future. This is the “Big Lie” that undergirds America’s anxious search for security.
The truth—the new mode of thinking that Einstein implied is desperately needed—is that the existence of nuclear weapons, no matter who has them, is a common, shared, transnational challenge that, far from making anyone safer, moves everyone day by day toward the abyss. Ordinary people seem to have a clearer grasp of this than “experts” and politicians determined to maintain the status quo. A status quo which is actually a gradual drift, as Einstein stated, toward catastrophe.
The assumption that America is so technically advanced that our nuclear weapons are fail-safe must be set against accounts in the news of the bored servicemen in the missile silos of the Midwest cheating on readiness tests. Should a fatal error occur and a nuclear war begin by accident, it would be an ultimate evil that far transcends the putative good or evil of any existing national regime—including the United States, which refuses to see itself as anything but an exceptional force for good in the world.
A further danger of this illusion of exceptionalism is our propensity to define ourselves by who our enemies are (Iran tortures routinely; we do not—wait—oops!) without examining our own government's role in the mix. Politicians who wish to distract their constituency from domestic difficulties can find the notion of a fearsome “other,” whether African at home or Persian abroad, all too convenient—setting aside that it keeps the weapons industry humming. The truth is, there is no “other.” We’re all in this together.
So perhaps what bothers this ordinary citizen about the frenetic negotiations with Iran and the equally frenetic opposition to them on the part of hard-liners in both countries is the elephant in the room of a grossly hypocritical double standard. Our thousands of nukes, Israel’s hundreds, Pakistan’s hundred or so are OK. Iran coming anywhere near building even one—not OK.
Einstein would see this double standard, almost 70 years beyond his pronunciation of naked truth, as deeply illusory—a kind of planetary psychosis rooted in a now obsolete mode of thinking, which pits nation against nation as if we were back in the time before the world wars, when the most destructive weapon was a cannonball.