By Jeffrey Sachs
The accord struck in Vienna to rein in Iran’s nuclear activities has warmongers fulminating. Citizens worldwide should support US President Barack Obama’s brave effort to outmaneuver them, taking heart from the fact that the signatories include not just the United States, but all five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany.
Many of the warmongers are to be found in Obama’s own government agencies. Most Americans struggle to recognize or understand their country’s permanent security state, in which elected politicians seem to run the show, but the CIA and the Pentagon often take the lead – a state that inherently gravitates toward military, rather than diplomatic, solutions to foreign-policy challenges.
Since 1947, when the CIA was established, the US has had a continuous semi-covert, semi-overt policy of overthrowing foreign governments. In fact, the CIA was designed to avoid genuine democratic oversight and provide presidents with “plausible deniability.” It has gone on to topple dozens of governments, in all regions of the world, with no accountability there or at home.
I recently examined one period of CIA activity in my book To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace. Soon after Kennedy assumed the presidency in 1961, he was “informed” by the CIA of its plot to overthrow Fidel Castro. Kennedy felt stuck: Should he sanction the planned CIA invasion of Cuba or veto it? New to the gruesome game, Kennedy tried to have it both ways, by letting it proceed, but without US air cover.
The CIA-led invasion, executed by a motley group of Cuban exiles at the Bay of Pigs, was a military failure and a foreign-policy disaster, one that led to the Cuban Missile Crisis the following year. During the missile crisis, most senior security officials advising the president wanted to launch military action against Soviet forces, a course that could well have ended in nuclear annihilation. Kennedy overruled the warmongers, and prevailed in the crisis through diplomacy.
By 1963, Kennedy no longer trusted the advice of the military and the CIA. Indeed, he regarded many of his putative advisers as a threat to world peace. That year, he used diplomacy relentlessly and skillfully to achieve a breakthrough nuclear agreement with the Soviet Union, the Limited Test Ban Treaty.
The American people strongly – and rightly – supported Kennedy over the warmongers. But three months after the treaty was signed, JFK was assassinated.
Viewed through the lens of history, the main job of US presidents is to be mature and wise enough to stand up to the permanent war machine. Kennedy tried; his successor, Lyndon Johnson, did not, and the debacle of Vietnam ensued. Jimmy Carter tried; Reagan did not (his CIA helped to unleash death and mayhem in Central America throughout the 1980s). Clinton mostly tried (except in the Balkans); George W. Bush did not, and generated new wars and turmoil.
On the whole, Obama has tried to restrain the warmongers, yet he has given in to them frequently – not only by relying on weaponized drones, but also by waging covert wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and elsewhere. Nor did he truly end the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; he replaced troops on the ground with US drones, air strikes, and “private” contractors.
If there is a threat from Islam, it’s from Saudi-backed Sunnis, not Iranian-backed Shiites.
Iran is surely his finest moment, a historic milestone that demands full-throated approval. The political difficulty of making peace with Iran is similar to that of JFK’s peacemaking with the Soviet Union in 1963. Americans have been suspicious of Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis, in which Iranian students held 52 Americans at the US embassy for 444 days. But their suspicion also reflects jingoistic manipulation and a lack of perspective on US-Iran relations.
Few Americans know that the CIA overthrew a democratic Iranian government in 1953. Iranians had had the temerity to elect a progressive, secular prime minister who believed that the country’s oil belonged to its people, not to the United Kingdom or the US. And few Americans recall that after the coup, the CIA installed a brutal police state under the Shah.
Likewise, following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the US armed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to go to war with Iran, resulting in hundreds of thousands of Iranian deaths in the 1980s. And US-led international sanctions, imposed from the 1990s onward, have aimed to impoverish, destabilize, and ultimately topple the Islamist regime.
Today, the warmongers are trying to scuttle the Vienna accord. Saudi Arabia is in a violent struggle with Iran for regional supremacy, with geopolitical competition converging with the Sunni-Shia rivalry. Israel, the Middle East’s only nuclear power, wants to retain its strategic monopoly. The US warmongers seem to view any Islamist state as ripe for toppling.
Obama is correct that America’s true interests, and those of the world, are with peace, not continued conflict, with Iran. The US is not a partisan in the Shia-Sunni struggle; if anything, the US confronts mainly Sunni terrorism, funded from Saudi Arabia, not Shia terrorism backed by Iran. Obama is also right that, despite Israel’s arguments, the agreement will reduce the possibility of Iran ever becoming a nuclear state.
The best way to ensure that outcome is to normalize relations with it, help its economy recover, and support its integration into the international community. Iran is a great and ancient culture. Its opening to the world as a place of business, tourism, the arts, and sports would be a boon to global stability and prosperity.
The new treaty will verifiably prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for at least a decade – and keep it bound to nuclear non-proliferation thereafter. This is the time to begin a broader US-Iran rapprochement and build a new security regime in the Middle East and the world that leads toward full global nuclear disarmament. To get there requires, above all, replacing war (including the CIA’s secret wars) with commerce and other forms of peaceful exchange.
Jeffrey D. Sachs, Professor of Sustainable Development, Professor of Health Policy and Management, and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, is also Special Adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals. His books include “The End of Poverty,” “Common Wealth,” and, most recently, “The Age of Sustainable Development.” © Project Syndicate.