Mitt Romney’s anti-nuclear imperialism

Ignore Romney’s gaffes – when it comes to using anti-nuclear sentiment to shore up American power over ‘Them’, he is totally on-message.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech USA

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Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had clearly not been impressed by the ‘gaffe-strewn’ performance of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during the UK leg of his current world tour: ‘To go overseas, stand in the country of our strongest ally – and the Olympics that they’ve been preparing years for – and question whether or not they’re ready, does make you wonder whether or not he’s ready to be commander-in-chief.’ Well, wonder no more, Mr Gibbs. If Romney’s weekend invocation of the America’s ‘moral’ duty to stop Iran developing its very own nuclear weapons is any indication, Romney is absolutely ready to be commander-in-chief.

After all, Romney is adopting the same hypocritical posture over Iran’s putative nuclear aspirations as his Democratic rival and current US president, Barack Obama. That is, the US itself may have hundreds of nukes, it may even be the only nation to have actually used an atomic bomb against another country as it did with Japan in 1945, but that should not stop it from lecturing and threatening specific nations, especially Iran, into curtailing their nuclear programmes.

Remember, for instance, Obama’s statement made upon his election as president in 2008: ‘Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon, I believe, is unacceptable. We have to mount an international effort to prevent that from happening.’ To give Obama his due, this was no empty promise; round upon round of stringent international sanctions, especially on Iranian oil exports, have been implemented, accompanied by surreptitiously bellicose statements. ‘There should be no doubt’, announced Obama in July 2010, following a new round of sanctions, ‘the United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons’.

So when Romney turned up in Israel this week and started spouting off about ‘standing by Israel’ against Iran, complete with nods to the Holocaust and provocative anti-Palestinian statements, this was not the latest episode in Romney’s ‘flub-filled’ tour of the globe. Rather, this was Romney, would-be next president, calling upon that strange, paradox-ridden source of moral authority that countless presidential predecessors have also called upon: a commitment to guaranteeing the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

This is why Romney’s position was not presented as merely a case of pragmatic international realpolitik. Instead, denying Iran’s leaders the possibility of developing nuclear weapons was a ‘solemn duty’, a ‘moral imperative’. ‘The ayatollahs in Tehran are testing our moral defences’, Romney said. ‘They want to know who will object and who will look the other way. My message to the people of Israel and the leaders of Iran is one and the same: I will not look away, and neither will my country.’ Opposing Iran’s nuclear aspirations, then, has become an opportunity for a Western leader to demonstrate moral mettle, to exhibit authority.

Of course, for the US, for the EU and for all those nations involved in performing the ‘solemn duty’ of controlling and monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme, the justification comes in the shape of managing a threat. It is presented as a conflict between the responsible possessors of nuclear weapons and the mad, malicious aspirant possessors of nuclear weapons over in Iran. Or, in short, Iran almost poses a clear and present danger. Yet, what’s odd about the Western hyperbole surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme is that no one even seems certain that Iran is actively trying to build a nuclear weapon.

Towards the end of last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) did publish a report which claimed to show that Iran ‘has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device’. It was a suitably unclear charge from a very inconclusive document. As a writer in the New Yorker noted at the time, the IAEA report drew on almost no post-2003 intelligence, aside from a stolen laptop of dubious, possibly Israeli provenance. Unsurprisingly, at a Senate hearing in February this year, the director of US national intelligence, James R Clapper, admitted that even he was not convinced that Iran was trying to build a nuclear weapon. ‘There are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time’, he said, in an allusion to the specific steps necessary to prepare a nuclear device.

So it is not even as if there is evidence that Iran poses a threat. Yes, it has been in the process of developing an ostensibly civilian nuclear sector for a number of years now. And, yes, if it does so, especially if it starts producing high-grade enriched uranium, Iran will certainly have ‘nuclear capability’. But so what? Argentina and Brazil are also in the process of developing their nuclear sectors and will also have a ‘nuclear capability’ soon, yet there is neither fearmongering surrounding their respective efforts, nor outrage at their refusal, like Iran, to allow full IAEA inspections.

But then again, the reality of what President Ahmadinejad’s Iranian government is actually doing is not the driving force behind the posturing, sanctions and threats coming its way. The impetus comes, rather, from the West. That is, the ownership of nuclear weapons has effectively become a way of dividing up the globe, demarcating the responsible, right-thinking states from the irresponsible, unstable and wrong-thinking ones. A divide that might once have been framed in racial terms during colonialism proper has been reframed in moral terms for the post-colonial age. It seems that some states – and by default, some peoples – simply can’t be trusted to have what many Western states already have; they need monitoring by the IAEA, they need watching by the West. Under the guise of a commitment to non-proliferation, a commitment – as Obama put it in 2009 – to ‘a world without nuclear weapons’, the moral superiority of the nuclear-owning West over the largely non-nuclear rest is quietly but ruthlessly reasserted.

The upshot of this, of course, is that Iran’s dictatorial regime can use the US pronouncements against it to shore up its own waning authority. So just as Iran has become the mad, malicious other against which the West can affirm itself, so the US and its allies provide the external aggressor against which Ahmadinejad can play the anti-Western tough guy. As he announced earlier this month in response to the latest round of nuke-prompted sanctions: ‘The government will not retreat one iota from their rights, values and principles against weakening materialistic powers.’

And so back to Romney: all the focus on his so-called gaffes, his off-message moments, misses the extent to which he conforms. When it comes to the moral rearmament of imperialism, Romney is thoroughly on-message.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Science & Tech USA


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