Re-framing the nuclear dispute

The logical near-impossibility of disproving a
negative requires the Iranian government to
re-frame the nuclear enrichment controversy

Cyrus Safdari

Iran Affairs
September 24, 2008

Bloomberg reports that the Iranians have said that it was a mistake to provide excess cooperation with the IAEA in a vain effort to refute the allegations of "alleged studies" - in other words, to try to disprove a negative.

I could have told them that a while ago, when I wrote about the problem of trying disprove a negative:

During the course of reasoned argument, it is usually the case that the person who makes an accusation has the obligation to provide the necessary proof to support it. The fallacy of shifting the burden of proof occurs when the accused is required to disprove the accusation against him, a practical impossibility…. The accused is faced with two equally bad choices: either he can simply refuse to attempt to disprove the accusation, or he can try to do so fruitlessly. Whichever option the accused chooses, he will simply make himself appear to be guilty.

And in case that was too much reading, I even drew a picture of why Iran's attempts to cooperate with the IAEA over the "Laptop of Death" allegations were doomed to fail: meet Nukie.

You see, it is practically impossible to disprove a negative -- that Iran does not have secret nuclear weapons intentions. Rather, the burden should be on those who accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons to prove their claims -- which thus far they have plainly failed to do. But through a constant drumbeat of hype and propaganda, innuendo and speculation, Iran's accusers have shifted the burden of proof and now demand that Iran somehow refute these ill-founded allegations.

This is no accident -- they tried the same trick with Iraq too: they created massive hysteria about WMDs in Iraq and then demanded that Iraq prove that it no longer had any WMDs. When the Iraqis attempted to meet this burden of proof by filing a highly-detailed, 12200-page report about the destruction of their WMDs program, the US simply villainized the Iraqis for filing such a large document and accused them of attempting to hide something. A lonely article in the NY Times explained why Iraq's efforts to disprove the WMD allegations were doomed to fail:

Suppose you assert that there are no black swans...You'd have to produce all the swans in the world to show there are no black ones -- an impossible undertaking.  

So, how do you get out of the no-win situation such as this, when you're made to look guilty regardless of whether you try to refute an allegation, or whether you do not? I'll leave to answer to that up the Iranians and the PR professionals that the Iranians SHOULD HAVE HIRED long ago to deal with this sort of thing, though there are many books on the topic of argumentation that may interest readers. 

However, I'll repeat what I just said during a PressTV interview: it is not enough for Iran to merely deny the allegations made by the US. The US has framed the issue as "suspicious Iran has to prove that it is not making nukes" -- and when the Iranians deny they're making nukes, not only are they incapable of being convincing (since it is logically impossible for them to prove they're not making nukes with certainty) but the very act of denial by Iran simply strengthens and propagates this frame. In other words, by denying the accusation, they're buying into and promoting the US's framing of the issue and getting buried deeper. 

No amount of denials, no matter how vehemently asserted, will solve this conundrum, and no amount of cooperation with the IAEA will help either because:

1.      the inspections can be dragged out indefinitely to every closet and cupboard in Iran, and even then more suspicions and allegations can be manufactured by the US in the shape of yet more "Laptops of Death," and

2.      even the IAEA cannot verify that Iran won't potentially make bombs in the future anyway (notice that the US accuses Iran of seeking a "breakout capability" -- no amount of IAEA inspections can prove that Iran -- or any other country -- won't one day decide to break out of the NPT and make nukes.)

So, something fundamentally different has to happen. Iran has to fundamentally break out of this frame constructed by the US in which the US makes accusations and Iran is required to disprove them.

This is what I suggest: that Iran re-frame this issue as a conflict between the developing and developed nations of the world. By doing so, the Iranians can put the US government on the defensive, and require the US government to disprove that it isn't seeking to deny Iran's nuclear rights in order to monopolize nuclear fuel technology for its own benefit. There is good support for this view already. After all, it is pretty obvious that the US allegations against Iran have nothing to do with nuclear weapons, as claimed, but are really intended to deny Iran its sovereign right to possess and operate enrichment plants. That's why the US has consistently ignored Iran’s compromise offers that would address any real concern about nuclear weapons proliferation, such as the Iranians' offer to open their nuclear program to multinational joint ventures (even though this was endorsed by US and international experts).

And, the developing countries have already long resented efforts by the US to place restrictions on the sharing of nuclear technology with them, as required under the NPT. Both the Non-Aligned Nations and the OIC have already expressed their support for Iran. The developing countries have consistently made it clear that non-proliferation efforts should not be used as an excuse to deprive countries of their right to possess and operate nuclear enrichment facilities either.  

Such an approach would be fruitful on the international stage, and would benefit Iran's position with respect to those developing countries.  However, another appeal has to be shaped to communicate Iran's position when it comes to the audiences inside the US and EU states, since the populations of the US and EU probably don't share the same resentment of developing states.