Iran’s nuclear deal reconsidered

Business delegations are flying in daily, making the most of this opportunity to establish themselves in Iran when Republican opposition to the deal is compromising US prospects at this critical early stage.

Bob Rigg
3 August 2015
1953, when Eisenhower and Nixon supported Iran's first nuclear reactor.

1953, when Eisenhower and Nixon supported Iran's first nuclear reactor. Wikicommons/Abbie Rowe. Some rights reserved.US President Eisenhower was carried away by the prospect of the widespread international use of peaceful nuclear energy and, in December 1953, proclaimed an international programme called Atoms for Peace with two major declared objectives: encouraging as many countries as possible to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, and cornering as much as possible of the lucrative international market in nuclear technology for the US. The major undeclared objective was, in the context of considerable international concern about Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the nuclear arms race, to legitimise the development of a market for peaceful nuclear energy on a large scale. Interestingly enough, the first three reactors built under this programme, by a US company with expertise in the manufacture of bowling equipment, were in Israel, Iran, and Pakistan. When the US exported highly enriched uranium to as many as 30 countries, the Soviet Union followed its example elsewhere. 

Only then did it dawn on the US and the Soviet Union that, because the nuclear fuel cycle requires uranium enrichment, the enriched uranium resulting from this process can be put to both peaceful and military use. The greater the number of governments with access to nuclear technology, the greater was the risk of the dilution of their monopoly on nuclear weapons, or proliferation, as they preferred to call it. Because they wanted nuclear weapons for themselves, but wanted to prevent their proliferation to other states, they drafted the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which would be successful only if it had near universal membership. 

Unfortunately, the US and others knew even before the NPT entered into force in 1970 that Israel had developed nuclear weapons of its own, and failed to stop this. This was the beginning of the nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

False NPT promise of 'inalienable right' to develop and use nuclear energy

The nuclear weapon states had to persuade the international community to renounce nuclear weapons for themselves. If only a small number of states had ratified the NPT it would have sunk like a stone, politically speaking. Nuclear proliferation would have been powerfully stimulated by the antagonism and distrust of the Cold War. States not possessing nuclear weapons accordingly had to be offered a powerful incentive to renounce them. 

A confidence trick was devised. The US and the Soviet Union baited the hook by assuring all governments that, if the international community commited to the NPT, the nuclear weapon states would provide active assistance in developing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. This was set out in Article IV: “Nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination and in conformity with Articles I and II of this Treaty” (author’s emphasis). 

Developing states in particular, convinced that nuclear energy would be a key to their much‑needed economic development, took the bait and flocked to join the treaty, thus guaranteeing its political success.  

US imposes unilateral embargo on Iran: blackmail enforces compliance

Iran developed its first five megawatt research reactor, provided by the US government, under Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace programme. As soon as the Shah had been overthrown, depriving the US of its oil-rich military and intelligence powerbase in the Middle East, the US cut off all support for Iran’s nuclear reactor, imposing a drastic unilateral and illegal trade embargo on Iran from 1979 onwards. At the same time the US was covertly helping Israel to develop its nuclear weapons programme.

Iran was forced to creatively circumnavigate the embargo, which was initially not legally supported by either the international community or the United Nations. While Iran carefully complied with its safeguards obligations to the International Atomic Energy Agency, it had to resort to all kinds of dodges to escape the dodgy US embargo on everything from lawnmowers to materials for its US‑built reactor. This was the origin of the storyline regarding Iran’s untrustworthiness. 

However, by resorting to international blackmail on a large scale, the US was able to force international companies to stop trading with Iran by threatening to block their trade with the US, the world’s largest marketplace. Only in 2006 did the UN Security Council, under massive pressure from the US, finally impose trade sanctions on Iran because it refused to suspend its uranium enrichment programme. In the eyes of Iran and many developing countries, the UN resolution was in direct violation of Article IV of the NPT as quoted above. 

Secret negotiations to end the embargo 

Since 2003 Iran has on many occasions sought to do away with the embargo through diplomatic negotiations, with most activity under governments led by Presidents Rafsanjani, Khatami and now Rouhani. We now know that, almost as soon as the new President Obama was inaugurated in 2009, feelers were put out to Iran. However, as Iran’s newly elected hard-line President Ahmadinejad was not particularly interested in opening up lines of communication with the west, this did not come to anything.  Previously the Bush administration had stonewalled all Iranian proposals. Negotiations kept breaking down over Bush’s insistence that Iran should formally abandon nuclear enrichment, in violation of Article IV of the NPT. 

Secret diplomatic initiatives were undertaken as early as 2011 by Iran’s then Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, apparently with the backing of the Supreme Leader, during the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Thanks to the good offices of Sultan Qaboos of Oman, the initial discussions could be conducted beneath a cloak of absolute secrecy. Once it was clearly agreed that the US would no longer insist on the abandonment of enrichment activities as part of Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme, the talks could proceed.  

The US was represented by its Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and by Jake Sullivan, Obama’s foreign policy adviser. Iran’s negotiators also insisted on mutual respect as a cornerstone of the negotiations, by which they meant the suspension of US threats to invoke a military option if Iran did not find an accommodation acceptable to the US.  It was noticeable that, as the negotiations proceeded, the US conceded to the Iranians on this point. A basis of limited trust had been established enabling both sides to commit to an ongoing negotiation process, with an uncertain outcome at that early stage.

Diplomatic coup 

The negotiations eventually became publicly known in 2013, after President Ahmadinejad was replaced by President Rouhani. An astonished world was suddenly told that, after years of mounting tension and threats of war, Iran and the US were jointly committed to peacefully negotiating a deal to settle their differences about Iran's nuclear programme, with the involvement of the remaining members of the P5, plus Germany.  Netanyahu was enraged. It was a diplomatic coup.

Since then the negotiations have progressed in fits and starts, ultimately successfully. Both teams of negotiators and both presidents have had to contend with fierce resistance. Domestic resistance in Iran was ultimately restrained, as all Iranians could see that the Supreme Leader firmly supported the process and its outcome, notwithstanding the many verbal concessions he had to make to domestic opponents of a deal.

President Obama has not merely had to resist blind opposition from the Republican leadership, which has vociferously argued that a deal would bring Sodom and Gomorrah down on Israel, the Middle East, the United States and the world. With the Republicans now immersed in a raucous presidential selection process, all but one of their 16 candidates have vociferously attacked the nuclear deal in multiple TV ads and endless media broadsides. Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador, has been assiduously lobbying Congress, focusing on wavering Democrats, in an attempt to generate a two-thirds supermajority to override the US President’s veto in the House of Representatives and the Senate. The Republicans can rely absolutely on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), although many younger US Jews support neither AIPAC nor Israel. A recent poll showed that 53% of Jewish voters support a deal. It should also not be forgotten that evangelical churches – who believe that Christ will come again in the Holy Land – have long been the bedrock of US support for Israel. 

It has long been an open secret that AIPAC is an extended arm of the Israeli government in the US, with one or two of its staff having even been convicted of spying for Israel. More than half of all members of Congress routinely attend its AGMs. Members of Congress who transgress seriously against AIPAC policy can find themselves targeted in the next congressional elections, and can lose their seats. Under normal circumstances AIPAC’s influence in the US has been very considerable. But this stepped up dramatically recently, when Israel’s Netanyahu intervened directly and forcefully in political campaigning throughout the US.  

Netanyahu doctrine violates the principle of national sovereignty

In the US Netanyahu has established the principle that Israel’s government may legitimately intervene in the democratic processes of other countries, including by addressing political decision-making bodies without the prior knowledge and consent of their governments. Israel may legitimately campaign against the elected governments of other countries in those countries, and may even openly associate itself with major campaigns by parties, groups and media opposing policies of elected governments. This novel and dangerous doctrine legitimising far-reaching interference in the domestic affairs of other sovereign states has so far not been challenged by any government, least of all by that of the US.  

Since the nuclear deal was adopted by the UN Security Council, between $20 and $40 million dollars have been set aside by Citizens for a Nuclear-Free Iran in a special fund that will be used to campaign against the acceptance of the nuclear deal by Congress. The campaign is being closely coordinated with the Republican Party and AIPAC. 

A gaggle of other well-funded organisations opposing the deal has emerged from the woodwork: United Against Nuclear Iran, the American Security Initiative, Secure America Now, and the Israel Project. Donations to these organisations are apparently tax-deductible. 

An Israeli website has openly advocated what it describes as a “Doomsday Weapon” – the funding of primary challengers and general election opponents of any Democratic senators defying AIPAC on this issue. 

Orchestrated misrepresentation of the nuclear deal

The combined efforts of Binjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli government, AIPAC, various other organisations and funds, the Republican Party, and Fox News have recently exposed Americans to a tsunami of mostly ill-informed and sometimes vicious commentary slamming the nuclear deal. Fox News talking heads reel off wild and inaccurate generalisations as facts, portraying Iranians as devious, menacing and dishonest, in a manner reminiscent of anti-Semitic campaigns. President Obama, who prefers not to comment on a campaign to succeed him as President, was recently moved to state: “We've had a sitting senator who also happens to be running for president suggest that I'm the leading state sponsor of terrorism. These are leaders of the Republican Party."

In US political life any misrepresentation or half-truth that can improve the prospects of a campaign or a candidate is seemingly acceptable. The relationship between truth and politics is tenuous at best. Political campaigning follows the laws of marketing: anything, irrespective of its truth value, that will boost your product while discrediting another is acceptable. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most recent polls show that US public opinion is currently being turned against the nuclear deal. 

Obama comes out fighting for the deal

Obama’s campaign presently lacks the considerable public exposure that is enabling Republicans to win numbers in the battle for public approval. He is focusing on Congress to an extent unprecedented for a President notorious for his past reluctance to engage with Congress, even on key issues such as Obamacare. 

As soon as the nuclear deal was approved in Vienna and adopted by the UN Security Council, the Democratic Party machine swung into action, with Nancy Pelosi, the Minority Leader in the House, and Obama himself spearheading an intensive and well-coordinated rolling wave of campaigning reaching out to each and every Democrat in the House and the Senate, with active support from John Kerry, Ernest Moniz and many others. Obama has been meeting personally with ever more Democrats, something which they are noting with pleased surprise. This is a pitched battle which Obama is absolutely determined to win. 

US political parties normally lack anything resembling party discipline in a European sense. Nancy Pelosi and Obama are going out of their way to ensure that all Democrats are intimately familiar with the issues, and have every opportunity to discuss them. If Democrats fail their own party and their own President on this critically important issue, they know that this will undoubtedly damage their standing within the party, while also compromising the President and the US on the international stage. 

At this early stage it looks as though Obama’s strategy is working, with even Republican‑friendly commentators such as Fox News’s Hannity publicly admitting that Congress may well be unable to override a presidential veto. 

But a lot can happen in the few weeks yet to elapse before the deal comes to a vote in Congress on 17 September. 

It is noteworthy that, despite impassioned Republican opposition to the nuclear deal, the Republican Party is also the party of US big business. If the deal goes through, the large and relatively advanced Iranian market supporting a population of about 75 million will be up for grabs. At a time of international recession and economic uncertainty, Iran offers market opportunities unprecedented in the last 30 years. 

Although no one wants to publicly admit this, Iran’s domestic stability in a highly volatile and destabilised region makes it doubly attractive to US and other investors. France and Germany have already sent senior ministers to Iran to capitalise on their involvement in the P5+1 negotiating process while the US is distracted by other things.  French Foreign Minister Fabius has already stolen a march on his P5+1 allies by inviting President Rouhani to make a state visit to France. Business delegations are flying in daily to explore openings. They are making the most of this opportunity to establish themselves in Iran when Republican opposition to the deal is compromising US prospects of penetrating the Iranian market at this critical early stage.

Is Iran a military threat to the region, or is the region a military threat to Iran?

Since 1979, western governments and media have bought into a narrative implying and sometimes stating that Iran is a military threat to the Middle East region. Even a cursory examination of the facts suffices to show that the opposite is the case.  

Iran has a well-trained and fairly well-equipped conventional army, although because of the embargo it does not have access to sophisticated equipment readily available to Israel and the Arab states.  Most importantly, Iran’s airforce has to rely on outdated US fighters from the period before 1979, and would be hopelessly outclassed and outnumbered by the airforces of Israel and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), all of which can make use of the most advanced aerial technology. 

Israel and GCC states have advanced US air defence systems, while western pressure has until now prevented Russia from delivering to Iran its feared S‑300 surface-to-air missile system, which could inflict high losses on any country wanting to attack Iran from the air. The anti S-300 campaign has continued for so long that the S-300 has recently been superseded by the even more effective S-400.  

A detailed recent study by Anthony Cordesman on “Military Spending and Arms Sales in the Gulf” shows that the gap between Iran and the Arab Gulf states widened sharply between 2009 and 2014, when Saudi Arabia’s arms imports were more than 18 times larger than Iran’s. Imports to the United Arab Emirates were 16 times larger. 

Israel is armed to the teeth with the very best that US armaments industries can provide.

Iran could defend itself effectively if attacked, with the active backing of its civilian population, but is simply not in a position to launch an attack on its regional neighbours, let alone on the formidable US forces in the region.

Though the US, Arab and Israeli forces are a threat to Iran, Iran is not in a position to initiate a war against anyone.  

Are all military options still on the table?

Perhaps the main reason why the US embarked on the nuclear deal with Iran was Binjamin Netanyahu, who, on at least one occasion, secretly instructed his generals to prepare for a conventional attack on Iran, only to find himself opposed by the military leadership backed by almost all living former heads of Israeli intelligence. The US certainly knew all about this. 

If Israel had attacked, and if Iran, as would have been certain, had retaliated, the US could have been dragged into a war not of its own making. The opening of the nuclear negotiations ruled out the military option for Israel. 

If Israel attacks Iran even before Congress takes a decision on the nuclear deal, it would become a pariah in the international community of nations. If, as is likely, the deal is approved by Congress, this would be even more true. 

Irrespective of whether Congress confirms or rejects the nuclear deal, it would be politically impossible for Israel to attack Iran, in violation of the UN Charter, and in the absence of any international backing. A united UN Security Council might condemn an unsanctioned Israeli war against Iran, possibly even subjecting Israel to UN sanctions. 

The Middle East would be in turmoil. Hezbollah would attack Israel, which would retaliate by setting Lebanon alight. Shia uprisings could threaten the stability of regional governments in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular. The Gaza Strip and the West Bank could erupt. ISIS would seize any such strategic opportunity to strengthen its position in the region, amongst other things by targeting Israel. 

The new US Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, made waves immediately after the adoption of the nuclear deal when he said that, if Iran violated the terms of the deal, all options were on the table: “One of the reasons this deal is a good one is that it does nothing to prevent the military option . . . which we are preserving and continually improving.” Because, as noted above, the US had studiously avoided such threatening language throughout the negotiations, Carter’s statement landed like a bombshell. Iran’s normally urbane Foreign Minister Javad Zarif reacted angrily, as did President Rouhani, who retorted: “The table they are talking about has broken legs.”

Although the White House was quick to distance itself from recent testimony by Marine General Joseph Dunford, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, defining Russia as an 'existential threat' to the US, John Kerry has more than once unhesitatingly repeated Ash Carter’s affirmation of 'all options'. Are these unsettling statements simply a sop to Israeli and Republican opinion, or do they reveal that, once the nuclear deal is set in concrete, the Obama administration may revert to its default position by once again confronting Iran internationally?

If the deal is voted down in Congress, what then? 

The US would be seriously discredited internationally. It would cease to be a credible conversation partner on the international stage if its President could not follow through on a major international agreement arising out of two years of hard‑fought negotiations involving five partners which was then unanimously adopted by the UN Security Council and welcomed by the international community.

Whatever happens, Iran will be recognised as a major player in the Middle East and on the international stage. The skill, restraint and honesty with which it has negotiated its way through a very difficult process, under acutely challenging circumstances, has earned it respect on the international stage. Iran is no longer on the periphery of international relations.  

Israel would be seen as having played the key role in scuppering an arduously negotiated agreement favoured by almost the entire international community. It would then be far more isolated internationally and regionally than ever before. The international community would be less willing to defend and support Israel at the UN Security Council and in other international forums. Trade boycotts directed at Israel would gather momentum.  

For as long as Israel continues to re‑elect Netanyahu as Prime Minister, it would be an international pariah. The international community would recognise that, given the current political constellation in Israel, peace with the Palestinians is a mirage. Instead attention could be redirected to the occupied territories, which do not legally form part of the state of Israel, and to legal ways and means of improving the lives of Palestinian citizens of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and of banishing Israeli settlers and most of the Israeli army from non-Israeli territories.  Israel could be legally required to hand the settlements over to the Palestinians intact. 

Russia and China would almost certainly break with UN sanctions on Iran, and would develop trade with Iran in currencies other than the US dollar, ultimately cementing a powerful new trading cabale independent of the UN and the IMF. 

The European Union, already suffering economically from the consequences of its own trade embargo against Russia, has hastened to abandon some of its sanctions on Iran, amongst other things to gain a foothold in the promising new Iranian market, and to weaken US political domination of the Middle East region.


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