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From Ukraine to Iran: Non-proliferation and ‘Never Again!’ at risk

The US incompetence that left the Ukrainians with no nuclear option for their defense may also let Iran carry out its repeated threat to nuke Israel to smithereens
Left: Then-US President-elect Joe Biden on January 14, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware (AP Photo/Matt Slocum); Right: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, December 9, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
Left: Then-US President-elect Joe Biden on January 14, 2021, in Wilmington, Delaware (AP Photo/Matt Slocum); Right: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran, December 9, 2020. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

The horrors of World War II spawned in their aftermath two of humanity’s most important and noble campaigns for preventing mass atrocities: nuclear non-proliferation; and genocide prevention. The latter is enshrined in the sobering admonition, “Never again!”

In the 75 years since World War II, non-proliferation has experienced some genuine successes; genocide prevention, not so much. But both campaigns continue to be widely acknowledged as having central importance in a world of ever more powerful, concealable, and accessible weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, the prospect for future success in those efforts has now been greatly diminished by a series of avoidable errors on the part of the United States and the European Union. Those unforced errors have been accumulating over nearly 30 years and can be summed up in two words: Ukraine; Iran.

Consider first, the West’s failed dealings regarding Ukraine. The story begins with the post-Cold War breakup of the Soviet Union, which left the newly independent state of Ukraine possessing 1,900 nuclear weapons, the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal. Under intense pressure from the Clinton administration, Ukraine agreed in 1994 to adopt the “Budapest Memorandum,” by which it surrendered those weapons back to Russia in exchange for security guarantees from Russia, the United States, and Britain.

This involved a huge leap of faith for Ukraine, where there remain strong memories of the Soviet-imposed collectivization of agriculture and the resulting genocidal famine of 1932-33, in which over five million Ukrainian farmers and their families starved to death. Nearly 20 percent of Ukraine’s population was murdered by the brutally enforced policies of Russian apparatchiks.

Even amid the peaks of post-Cold War euphoria, some critics foresaw that Ukraine would later pay a steep price for sub-contracting its security to Russia and America. Professor John Mearsheimer warned in 1993 that “Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.”

Those neglected warnings proved true in 2014, when Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded and seized Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, with its strategically important Sevastopol Navy base. Faced with this blatant violation of the Budapest Memorandum, what did the Obama administration do? Per the late Charles Krauthammer, Obama’s Pentagon issued a “pathetic response,” refusing the Ukrainian Prime Minister’s request for military assistance, and instead offering “military ration kits.”

Days later Obama unleashed his full diplomatic artillery: he revoked the visas and froze the assets of seven little-known Russians. As Krauthammer put it: “No Putin. No Dmitry Medvedev. No oligarchs. Nor any of Putin’s inner circle of ex-KGBers. No targeting of the energy sector or banks, Russia’s industrial and financial lifeblood.” And Europe? An even weaker response.

But Secretary of State John Kerry piled on the pressure with a vigorous verbal scolding: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped up pretext.” But alas, dictators will often do just that. Putin immediately demonstrated his contempt for America’s feeble response by signing a “treaty” that formalized Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Ironically, it was the allegedly Russia-colluding Donald Trump who from 2017 through 2019 increased the pressure on Russia, reversing Obama’s arms embargo by arming Ukraine with advanced sniper rifles and anti-tank Javelin missiles, and enacting several rounds of broader sanctions against Russia.

Then in 2021 Joe Biden took the presidential reins, promptly stumbling from one foreign policy blunder after another. First was the catastrophic Afghanistan withdrawal, leaving the Taliban to launch their reign of horrors, empowered with billions worth of abandoned US weaponry: 600,000 assault rifles, 2,000 armored vehicles, and dozens of advanced aircraft.

Then came the humiliating Iran nuclear negotiations in Vienna, where Biden has unilaterally lifted sanctions, while Iran still refuses even to meet US negotiators, forcing America to bargain through a third-country group that includes Russia and China. And the more Biden offers concessions, the more Iran raises its demands.

With Biden so manifestly telegraphing US weakness and incompetence, Putin now brazenly launches an all-out war to swallow up Ukraine and place it back under the Russian boot. And what of the Budapest Memorandum and American security promises? The whole world now sees their utter worthlessness. What country watching this history would ever trade away nuclear weapons in exchange for Western security guarantees?

Now consider the West’s failed dealings regarding Iran. While the Ukraine history shows how the West sabotaged its non-proliferation efforts, the Iran negotiations now demonstrate the West’s abject surrender of any such commitment.

The original deal negotiated by President Obama in 2015 – the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA – was deeply flawed. It did nothing to limit Iran’s export of terror across the Middle East, nor to restrain its long-range missile development. Its “sunset” provisions explicitly permitted Iran to build nuclear bombs as of ten years from now. The deal had no effective compliance mechanism, as it banned “no-notice” inspections. And it freed up billions for Iran, which then ramped up its reign of terror across the Middle East.

The Trump administration’s withdrawal from the deal and imposition of draconian sanctions from 2017-2020 reversed course and helped rein Iran in, by decimating its balance of trade, shrinking its hard currency reserves, and forcing it to make deep cuts in its military spending.

But from early in his Presidency, Joe Biden has progressively scaled back the several US sanctions on Iran – not in response to concessions, but merely in hopes of obtaining them. Predictably, such hopes have not materialized – on the contrary, as the Wall Street Journal recently noted, “[p]re-emptive concessions [just] invite more demands.”

Recent reports now confirm that the prospective Biden deal is even worse than the JCPOA, despite Iran’s continued support for Middle East terrorism, its recent attacks on US troops in the region, and its long-running pledges to annihilate Israel by any means possible.

Former National Security Council member Richard Goldberg notes that the proposed new deal will stymie “the International Atomic Energy Agency’s investigation into [Iran]s] undeclared nuclear sites . . . discovered over the last three years.” The new JCPOA also will “suspend terrorism and missile sanctions on Iran, not just nuclear sanctions – providing an economic bailout to Tehran while flooding the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps with cash.”

And the deal’s various sunset provisions – on the global arms embargo on Iran, the missile embargo, and the nuclear enrichment prohibitions – will no longer be conditional on Iran’s verified compliance with agreement. In other words, Iran can cheat to its heart’s content, and still get all the benefits of the deal.

Hence as things now stand, the United States is about to bestow on the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism — a regime explicitly committed to the nuclear annihilation of Israel — the funds to rescue that tottering regime, the freedom to expand its pernicious export of terror, and the capacity to complete the construction of the arsenal needed to fulfill its endlessly repeated promise to nuke Israel to smithereens.

And with Iran placed on track to finally build out its nuclear arsenal, what will its Middle Eastern neighbors do? Place their hopes in diplomacy and American security guarantees – like Ukraine did? Of course not. Many expect that if Iran reaches nuclear weapons capacity, then Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt will all follow suit.

Here is the real end game of the Obama-Biden nuclear surrender to Iran: The end of non-proliferation, and the launch of a Middle East nuclear arms race. And on down the proliferation rabbit hole, with a plethora of unstable, Islamist regimes bristling with nuclear weapons.

Here we come to a further end game. Iran already has made clear – time and time again – that among its chief national priorities is annihilating Israel. The nuclearization of the Middle East – and with other regions ever more likely to follow – means the end of any effective global commitment to “Never again!”

Perhaps, if the West wakes up in time, its commitments to non-proliferation and to making “Never again!” a reality could be saved. But the clock is ticking, and midnight is not far away.

About the Author
Henry Kopel is a former U.S. federal prosecutor and the author of the book “War on Hate: How to Stop Genocide, Fight Terrorism, and Defend Freedom.” Kopel is a graduate of Brandeis University, Oxford University, and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and is an annual guest lecturer on prosecuting hate crimes at the University of Connecticut Law School. He serves on the global advisory board for the Abraham Global Peace Initiative.
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