Unforced error: President Trump tears up the Iran Nuclear Deal

The one surefire way to strengthen the worst, most reactionary elements in the country is to create a situation where most of its people feel the need to rally around the flag.

Image Credit: Leah Millis/REUTERS

On May 8th, the current American President stood in the White House’s Diplomatic Room and pulled his country out of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), one of this young century’s greatest achievements of multilateral diplomacy. That the United States, France, the UK, Germany, Russia and China (collectively called the P5+1) tirelessly negotiated the 159 pages of what is usually referred to as the Iran nuclear deal and got the Islamic Republic to sign on to it, felt to many observers like a minor miracle.

Last minute attempts to stop the pull out by French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, who visited the U.S. President in quick succession before he made his announcement, ended in embarrassing failure.

The President, a self proclaimed ‘great negotiator’, has long insisted that the JCPOA is, “the worst deal ever”. Besides his obvious lack of experience in terms of international diplomacy, Donald Trump has never explained, even in the broadest of strokes, what’s wrong with the agreement, except to complain about ballistic missiles that weren’t part of the complicated negotiations and the claim that Iran should open up all of its military facilities for inspection, something no country would do and that was also not part of the deal.

In terms of the Iranian ballistic missile program, the very moment that all of the countries who routinely threaten the country give up theirs, I promise I will begin wagging my finger in the direction of the Islamic Republic in regards to this issue. Unfortunately, most commentators, here in Canada almost as much as in the United States, even ones who are supposedly sympathetic to the JCPOA, hold Iran to a different standard of behavior than just about every other country on earth.

The one individual who increasingly seems like the last voice of reason in the Trump Administration, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, the U.S, Secretary of Defense, has said that after reading through the agreement three times, including what he called a “classified protocol” unavailable to the general public, he believed that it to be strict, effective and verifiable.

“I will say it is written almost with an assumption that Iran would try to cheat,” the respected former Marine General told the press, “So the verification, what is in there, is actually pretty robust as far as our intrusive ability to get in.”

Lying on the JCPOA

The U.S. President’s speech announcing the withdrawal offered some dubious talking points presented as facts, showing either the influence of the growing number of hawks in his Administration like his new National Security Advisor, John Bolton, or that his lack of curiosity combined with how little basic knowledge he seems to have of the wider world had once again gotten the better of him, probably a combination of the two.

His claim that Iran, long a mortal enemy of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, was supporting these groups (the former had killed eleven of its diplomats in 1998, almost sparking a war between the country and Afghanistan), is a minor neoconservative talking point that we are just supposed to take their word for, accepting unsubstantiated rumors by so-called public intellectuals with axes to grind, as facts. And this was just paragraph 2.

Later in the speech, the U.S. President once again made the false claim that the United States gave the Iranian government, “many billions of dollars, some of it in actual cash – a great embarrassment to me as a citizen and to all citizens of the United States.”

Someone needs to explain to the President that it’s on the public record that this money, between $32 and $50 billion depending on the source, belonged to Iran and was frozen due to the sanctions; it was not a ‘gift’. It’s no insult to the American people to return money withheld in this way, including funds paid by Iran’s former ruler, the Shah, who had remitted $400 million in the late 1970s for U.S. military equipment that was never delivered due to the country’s revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy.

The President also pointed to a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, April 30th, in which the latter claimed he had proof of an ongoing Iranian nuclear weapons program. Rather than presenting new evidence of Persian perfidy, the presentation felt more like a publicity stunt designed for an audience of one.

The somewhat ridiculous display by the embattled Israeli Prime Minister, who, it should be remembered, is accused by authorities in his own country of giving political favors for cigars, champagne and favorable media coverage, showed a then nascent program the world already knew about and which Iran had abandoned in 2003. As reported by the BBC, Netanyahu insisted that the Islamic Republic is still working on a nuclear bomb but, like most JCPOA detractors, he made the claim without supplying any proof.

Contrary to Netanyahu‘s claims, Zamir Akram of the Pakistani Tribune explained how unlikely it is that the Islamic Republic could be working on, or even easily restart, a nuclear weapons program, “In 2012, Iran had an estimated 11,500 centrifuges for nuclear fuel enrichment and nearly seven tons of low enriched uranium. These, the U.S. had estimated, could have risen to nearly 20,000 centrifuges and eight tons of uranium. But as a result of the deal, Iran agreed to dismantle two-thirds of its uranium centrifuges, its entire plutonium facility and relinquished about 97% of its uranium stockpile.”

After explaining how difficult he would be making the lives of ordinary Iranians with newly revived sanctions, on top of those still in effect for other reasons, likely including materials for medical use, Trump ended his speech by telling them, “The people of America stand with you.”

Trump against the world?

While many argue that Israel is one of the main beneficiaries of this slap in the face to what too many in that country’s political class have come to see as a mortal regional enemy rather than a rival with its own interests, most of the country’s security establishment has come out strongly against Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. It’s mainly Netanyahu and others even further to the right of him who believe they can benefit politically from the move, assuming, like their newly minted Gulf State allies seem to have banked on, that the United States will do most of the bleeding in any future confrontation with Iran.

How important the President’s decision will be outside of the United States, where politicians from both parties greeted it mainly with tacit approval or shrugged shoulders with the notable exception of Bernie Sanders, who took the pages of The UK Guardian to criticize it, might be decided by the response of the European signatories, who have promised to continue to abide by it.

While there’s a chance that this could happen, it would be a major rupture in the transatlantic alliance that mainstream politicians in these countries may not be willing to risk. Huge conglomerates like Airbus and French energy giant Total may also decide on their own that doing business with Iran isn’t worth the trouble if it creates friction with the world’s most powerful country.

The ability of the United States to do damage to European economies and the relative inability of Iran to do the same should not be dismissed out of hand this early on, despite the promises being made by some European politicians.

In the case of the U.K., Brexit has made a good trade deal for Britain with the U.S. a necessity that the Conservative Party currently in power are almost certain to cling to. A rift could develop among the three European signatories to the deal (and possibly other members of the wider European community) if, barring the political will in the U.S. Congress to oppose tough new sanctions and adhere to the terms of the deal without officially remaining in it, they are made to choose between good relations with the Trump Administration or Iran.

For European allies, the somewhat aggressive statements of Sigal Mandelker of the U.S. Treasury Department just after Trump announced his decision must be a cause of concern, most notably when he told the press that, “We will hold those doing prohibited business in Iran to account. Countries and companies around the world need to be on full alert to the surreptitious means the Iranian regime uses to exploit the international financial system to fund its malign activities and terrorist proxies.”

While withdrawal from the JCPOA will increase tensions in the Middle East and has the potential to spark a war, barring the latter scenario, it may be that it is less important over the longer term than the earlier decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Accord (although long suffering Iranians would surely dispute this). Both decisions benefit powerful interests and tarnish the legacy of former President Obama; it is open to debate which of these things is more important to the U.S. President.

It isn’t just China (who relies on Iran as its second largest oil supplier), Russia and the Europeans who say that the agreement is working. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IEAA) is on the same page as the major U.S. intelligence agencies who, like most of their Israeli counterparts, have said that the Islamic Republic is in compliance with the JCPOA.

While some have argued that ‘sunset provisions’ within the agreement are unacceptable, the Islamic Republic is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and will remain subject to inspections after the first of these provisions comes into effect in 2030. If Trump and his more hawkish subordinates really believe that Iran intends to pursue nuclear weapons, it seems odd that they would want to speed up the process.

As an aside, it appears that in counting his North Korean chickens before they’re hatched, Trump’s rejection of the JCPOA added to the risk that Pyongyang would rethink the recent, tentative, moves towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Kim Jong Un, who appears quite savvy, is probably betting on the fact that his American counterpart is now desperate enough for a deal that would show up his predecessor that he will be willing to do just about anything to keep the diplomatic track moving.

Just as it is both necessary and possible to be critical of, say, the Chinese government and its record on human rights without denying its interests and place in the community of nations, so it is with Iran. Like most of its neighbors, the country is also in the midst of an immense demographic shift with an increasingly youthful population that is sure to have an effect on whether the country can carve out a more progressive path for itself in the years ahead.

Trump and his advisors may feel that they can easily handle the Islamic Republic, whether by bullying or more forceful means, indeed, NSC Bolton has been saying so for years. While there is no question that Iran is a theocratic republic with the former more important to its politics than the latter, Persian nationalism is a missing part of the bigger equation. Iranians take as much pride in their ancient civilization as Americans do in their more recent one. The one surefire way to strengthen the worst, most reactionary elements in the country is to create a situation where most of its people feel the need to rally around the flag.


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