This week can be a turning point in the troubled history of relations between the United States and Iran. It is greatly to be hoped that President Obama will take the chance of meeting President Rouhani when they both attend the UN General Assembly in New York this week and that this will set the scene for a diplomatic breakthrough between the US and Iran.
Significantly, President Rouhani was the head of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team in 2003-5 at a time when Iran was actively engaged in negotiations with Britain, France and Germany (aka EU3) about a range of issues including its nuclear programme.
Then Rouhani made a series of proposals that could, and should have led to a settlement – were a deal not blocked by George W Bush.
We know this because, as Britain’s Foreign Minister at the time, Jack Straw took part in these negotiations. Here’s what he said on the Today programme on 3 August 2013, the day that Hassan Rouhani was inaugurated as president:
“I’m absolutely convinced that we can do business with Dr Rouhani, because we did do business with Dr Rouhani, and had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush, we could have actually settled the whole Iran nuclear dossier back in 2005, and we probably wouldn’t have had President Ahmadinejad as a consequence of the failure as well.”
So, according to Jack Straw, these talks could have been successful “had it not been for major problems within the US administration under President Bush”. In other words, the intransigence which stood in the way of a settlement in 2005 lay in Washington and not in Tehran.
This isn’t news to anybody with a passing familiarity with these negotiations – the blunt truth is that they foundered because the US insisted that Iran must not have uranium enrichment facilities on its own soil in any circumstances, and the EU3 bowed to this diktat from Washington.
What is news is that the leading British player in these negotiations, Jack Straw, has now acknowledged publicly that the intransigence that caused the negotiations to founder lay in Washington and not in Tehran. The message we have continually heard from the US and its allies, including Britain, is that Iran was intransigent then on the nuclear issue and continues to be intransigent today – and that is what is standing in the way of a settlement. What Jack Straw is saying is that this message pumped out from Washington and London for the past decade is not the whole truth.
This is a staggering assertion coming from the leading British player in these negotiations. The failure to take advantage of Iran’s flexibility in 2005 and reach a settlement on the nuclear issue (and perhaps a great deal more besides) has had enormous consequences. The conflict between the US and its allies and Iran, ostensibly over Iran’s nuclear activities, has cast a dark shadow over the world for the past decade, with persistent threats of military action against Iran by Israel and the US. This has ended up with ferocious economic sanctions being imposed on Iran by the US and the EU and Iranians dying for want of lifesaving drugs. All this despite the fact that it is universally acknowledged that Iran doesn’t possess any nuclear weapons and, according to US intelligence, hasn’t got an active nuclear weapons programme.
The central message of our new book, A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran  is that this was totally unnecessary, that a reasonable settlement could have been reached with Iran in 2005. Jack Straw’s remarks on Today confirm this.
Unprecedented reassurance measures
Ostensibly, the US and its allies are opposed to Iran having enrichment facilities on their own soil because of concern that Iran would use these facilities to produce high enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Almost unknown today because of the woeful reporting of these matters by the mainstream media is that Iran’s nuclear facilities, including its enrichment facilities, operate under IAEA supervision in accordance with Iran’s safeguards agreement with the IAEA, as required by the NPT of which Iran is a signatory.
This makes it virtually impossible for these enrichment facilities to be used to produce weapons grade uranium for even one bomb without the IAEA becoming aware of Iran attempting to do so. That is the current view of US intelligence – the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on 18 April 2013: “… we assess Iran could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of WGU before this activity is discovered”.
Also unknown today is that in 2005 Iran offered to put in place unprecedented measures, in addition to the requirements in its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, to reassure the outside world that its nuclear activities were exclusively for peaceful purposes.
These measures were contained in a comprehensive set of proposals presented to EU3 representatives in the Quai D’Orsay in Paris on 23 March 2005  by Javad Zarif, (whom President Rouhani has recently appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs). The proposals envisaged the continuation of Iran’s enrichment programme, but under arrangements that would have greatly reduced the possibility that Iran could produce either high enriched uranium or plutonium, the fissile material for nuclear weapons. In particular:
- Immediate conversion of all low enriched uranium to fuel rods for power reactors, to make further enrichment to high enriched uranium more difficult;
- - No reprocessing of spent fuel rods, thereby precluding the production of plutonium;
The proposals also provided for continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors at Iran’s conversion and enrichment facilities.
There is no doubt that in 2005 Iran went out of its way to address international concerns that its enrichment facilities might be used for weapons purposes. Nevertheless, the EU3 negotiators refused to accept the plan even as a basis for negotiation – because it involved Iran continuing to enrich uranium on its own soil.
Javad Zarif, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Flickr/Max Talbot-Minkin. Some rights reserved.
When the EU3 eventually made proposals in August 2005 , they required Iran to cease enrichment and related activities permanently and to make arrangements for the supply of reactor fuel from abroad, which could be cut off at any time.
Voluntary suspension of nuclear activities
Under the Paris Agreement of November 2004, which established the framework for the 2005 negotiations, Iran had consented to suspend its nuclear activities “while negotiations proceed on a mutually acceptable agreement on long-term arrangements”. This was a voluntary act – Iran was under no legal obligation under the NPT or any other international agreement to do so. Significantly, the EU3 themselves recognised this in the Paris Agreement saying that “this suspension is a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation”.
Iran had agreed to this suspension with great reluctance fearing that the real objective of the US and its allies, who were pushing for suspension, was to have most or all of Iran’s nuclear activities halted permanently. That turned out to be the case.
What happened next was inevitable: over the following six months or so Iran gradually restarted its nuclear activities. The resumption began just before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took over from Mohammed Khatami as Iranian president on 3 August 2005.
Iran referred to the Security Council
Iran came under fierce criticism for resuming its nuclear activities, even though the suspension had been a voluntary confidence building measure and not a legal obligation, recognised as such by the EU3. And France and Britain took the lead in persuading the IAEA Board to pass a resolution in September 2005 , which for the first time mentioned the word “non-compliance” in connection with Iran’s nuclear activities.
The word is important because Article XII.C of the IAEA statute requires any “non-compliance” to be reported to the Security Council – and Iran was referred to the Security Council in March 2006.
To be precise, the resolution said:
“Iran’s many failures and breaches of its obligations to comply with its NPT Safeguards Agreement, as detailed in GOV/2003/75, constitute non-compliance in the context of Article XII.C of the Agency’s Statute”.
GOV/2003/75 is a report by IAEA Director General, Mohamed El Baradei, to the IAEA Board in November 2003  (that is, nearly two years earlier). In other words, the resolution stated that Iran had been in “non-compliance” in November 2003. However, it also stated that, “the Director General in his report to the Board on 2 September 2005 noted that good progress has been made in Iran’s correction of the breaches and in the Agency’s ability to confirm certain aspects of Iran’s current declarations”.
So, Iran was referred to the Security Council, not because of current “non-compliance” that needed to be corrected, but because of past “non-compliance”, which had largely been corrected.
In fact, as Mohammed El Baradei wrote in his book, The Age of Deception, it was referred in order to get the Security Council to stop Iran’s perfectly legitimate uranium enrichment programme:
“What made Iran’s eventual referral a cause for cynicism was that there was nothing new in its ‘non-compliance’, which had essentially been known about for two years. Recent developments had been positive: the agency had made substantial progress in verifying Iran’s nuclear program. The eventual referral, when it came, was primarily an attempt to induce the Security Council to stop Iran’s enrichment program, using Chapter VII of the UN Charter to characterise Iran’s enrichment – legal under the NPT – as “a threat to international peace and security”. (p146-7)
Chapter VII Security Council resolutions
Beginning on 31 July 2006, the Security Council passed six Chapter VII resolutions on Iran’s nuclear programme, demanding, inter alia, that Iran suspend its uranium enrichment.
In theory, before passing a Chapter VII resolution, the Security Council has to decide that a “threat to the peace” exists (or that a “breach of the peace, or act of aggression” has taken place) and that action is required by the Council to “maintain or restore international peace and security” (UN Charter, Article 39). The action may be to impose economic sanctions on a malefactor under Article 41 of the Charter.
But what possible basis can there be for saying that Iran’s nuclear activity constituted even a “threat to the peace” in 2006? Iran had no nuclear weapons and its nuclear facilities were under IAEA safeguards. And the IAEA hadn’t uncovered any attempt to divert nuclear material for military use or any evidence of a nuclear weapons programme.
Furthermore, a couple of months earlier, in May 2006, speaking about Iran’s nuclear activities at the Monterey Institute for International Studies , Mohamed El Baradei said: “Our assessment is that there is no imminent threat”.
Can there be any doubt that the Security Council has acted outside UN Charter in passing Chapter VII resolutions imposing economic sanctions on Iran?
War in Lebanon ignored
Ironically, when the first Chapter VII resolution was passed on 31 July 2006, Israel’s military assault on Lebanon had been going on for almost three weeks. Hundreds of Lebanese civilians had been killed and Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure had suffered billions of dollars worth of damage. The previous day a large number of civilians, many of them children, had been killed by Israeli bombing in Qana.
From 12 July 2006, when the Israeli assault began, the US and the UK blocked the Security Council even calling for an immediate ceasefire. They did so because they wanted the hostilities to continue - because they supported the Israeli action, hoping that it would seriously damage Hezbollah.
But, on 31 July 2006, having remained silent for three weeks about Israel’s ongoing assault on Lebanon as the death toll rose, the Security Council declared Iran, not Israel, a threat to the peace – because of its nuclear activities.
(A final point: if Iran is a “threat to the peace” even though it has no nuclear weapons and no hard evidence of a nuclear weapons programme, surely Israel with perhaps as many as 400 nuclear warheads must be a “threat to the peace” and deserve to be sanctioned?)
Four of these six resolutions included tranches of economic sanctions. These UN-approved sanctions were rather limited, because Russia and China would have blocked harsher ones. They were directed primarily at individuals and entities allegedly involved in the Iranian nuclear and missile programmes. They didn’t have much impact on the Iranian economy as a whole and therefore didn’t hurt ordinary Iranians.
The US used to make a virtue of this – in January 2010, Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said:
"Our goal is to pressure the Iranian government, particularly the Revolutionary Guard elements, without contributing to the suffering of the ordinary [people], who deserve better than what they currently are receiving.” 
Times have changed. Sanctions imposed by the US beginning in July 2012 have done, and continue to do, real damage to the Iranian economy. President Obama boasted of this success during his re-election campaign: in a debate with Mitt Romney on 22 October 2012, he said:
“We … organized the strongest coalition and the strongest sanctions against Iran in history, and it is crippling their economy. Their currency has dropped 80 percent. Their oil production has plunged to the lowest level since they were fighting a war with Iraq 20 years ago. So their economy is in a shambles.” 
No worries there about contributing to the suffering of ordinary Iranians.
These are not UN sanctions – they were not prescribed by the Security Council in a resolution under Article 41 of the UN Charter.
They owe their existence to legislation passed by the US Congress in December 2011 at the behest of the Israeli lobby in the US. The legislation was accepted by President Obama, who was loath to offend the lobby in the upcoming election year.
The legislation requires the US administration to bully other states around the world to stop (or at least reduce) purchases of Iranian oil, by threatening to cut off foreign financial institutions from the US financial system, if they conduct transactions with the Central Bank of Iran or other Iranian financial institutions. Additional sanctions have been imposed since. None of this affects US trade with Iran since it has been negligible since the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
As usual, the EU (including Britain) didn’t need to be bullied – they imposed a total ban on oil imports from Iran beginning in July 2012.
At the time of writing, ordinary Iranians are suffering considerable hardship as a result of these sanctions. It is now difficult for Iran to make payments for imports of any kind, because it is cut off from the international banking system. As a result, although pharmaceuticals are not included in the sanctions regime, some life-saving drugs are unobtainable and patients are dying.
See, for example, Iran unable to get life-saving drugs due to international sanctions by Julian Borger and Saeed Kamali Dehghan (Guardian, 13 January 2013, ), which says:
“Hundreds of thousands of Iranians with serious illnesses have been put at imminent risk by the unintended consequences of international sanctions, which have led to dire shortages of life-saving medicines such as chemotherapy drugs for cancer and bloodclotting agents for haemophiliacs.”
Iran doesn’t deserve to be the subject of economic sanctions – it hasn’t attacked another country in the past two hundred years, it isn’t occupying territory not its own, it hasn’t got any nuclear weapons and by no stretch of the imagination can it be regarded as a “threat to the peace” and deserving of economic sanctions.
Britain shares in the responsibility for this appalling state of affairs whereby patients are dying in Iran because of the unavailability of life-saving drugs. To cause the deaths of innocent civilians in a country that has engaged in aggression, and deserves to be sanctioned, is difficult to justify. To cause the deaths of innocent civilians in Iran today is impossible to justify.
All of this could have been avoided. A deal could have been reached in 2005, which would have provided unprecedented measures to reassure the outside world that Iran’s nuclear activities were for exclusively peaceful purposes – if the US and its allies had been prepared to concede that Iran had a right to enrichment.
So, what are the prospects of a deal now? Seyed Hossein Mousavian was the spokesman for the Iranian negotiating team while Rouhani headed it. In his book The Iranian Nuclear Crisis, he reports that at a meeting in Geneva on 25 May 2005, Rouhani warned the EU3 negotiators three times that “any proposal that excluded enrichment would be rejected in advance” (p171).
That was the deal breaker in 2005, when the reformist Khatami was President. It continued to be the deal breaker under his successor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It remains the deal breaker today under President Rouhani.