The decision by US President Donald Trump to prolong the lifting of some sanctions against Iran for a further 120 days has reopened the four-year old “what to do about Iran” debate.
While some have condemned Trump for renewing sanctions relief for the mullahs, others have castigated him for his call to re-negotiate the “nuclear deal” connoted by his predecessor Barack Obama.
Conducting the “what to do about Iran” debate in a calm and constructive way isn’t easy for two reasons.
The first is that the Iran issue has become linked with the United States and, worse still, more recently with Trump.
As we all know whatever issue involving the US, even remotely, is instantly upgraded for better or for worse.
No one cared when a million people were massacred in Rwanda or that an entire community is driven out of Burma through ethnic cleansing.
The US wasn’t and isn’t involved.
The European Union foreign policy point-woman Federica Mogherini travels all the way to Rangoon not to plead on behalf of the Rohingya but to criticize the US for “threatening the nuclear deal with Iran.” The Vatican calls for “respect for the nuclear deal” but takes care not to mention the word Rohingya.
See what the US does, and say the opposite
In almost every country there is an active anti-American constituency that judges every event with reference to its relation to the United States.
For that constituency the trick is to see what the US does and say the opposite.
For example, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the British Labour Party, was briefly contemplating a mild gesture of sympathy towards the young and poor Iranians who were challenging the mullahs’ regime in Tehran a week or so ago. In the end, however, Corbyn refused to criticize the mullahs because the US had expressed sympathy for the protesters.
As soon as the Iran issue is raised it is transformed into a club with which to beat the “Great Satan” or, in Corbyn’s lexicon, “imperialist bully”.
The second reason why the Iran debate is so fraught is that it has become linked to the bitter partisan divide in US politics.
For one side of the divide, the “Iran deal” must be buried solely because it was Obama’s baby. To the other side, the “deal” must be untouched as if it were sacred writ simply because Trump has promised to jettison it.
So, let us see if we can reflect on the “nuke deal” issue” with a minimum of clinical coldness.
To begin with let us do a bit of America-bashing and Trump-trampling to reassure the anti-American and anti-Trump constituencies.
Here it goes: America is the “earth-devouring Imperialist monster” that wants to swallow such nations as North Korea, Cuba and, of course, Iran under the Khomeinists.
Next, Donald Trump is an ignoramus predator challenging such choir boys as the Castro clan in Havana, the Kim tribe in Pyongyang, and the “Supreme Guide” clique in Tehran.
Having hopefully satisfied anti-Americans and Trump-haters, let us see what is going on with the “deal”.
To start with the “deal” isn’t legally binding because it was negotiated by the P5+1, an informal group with no legal existence, no mission statement and answerable to no one. They produced a press release, titled “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) in 176 pages, in three different versions, which was neither signed by anyone nor approved by any legislative authority in any of the countries concerned.
In that press release Iran promised to do a number of things to make sure its nuclear project would not have a military dimension.
Iran has fulfilled some of those promises but quietly ignored others.
The result is that Iran’s nuclear program continues to have a potential military dimension. Iran continues to enrich and stockpile uranium that, because it is of a lower grade of just over 5 per cent, is useless for medical and industrial purposes. It is also unfit as fuel because Iran doesn’t have nuclear power stations. (Its one such station gets its fuel from Russia which built the plant.
The Iranian enriched uranium is of a different code from the fuel the Russian-built station needs).
The second reason is that Iran is developing two generations of medium and long-range missiles that, because they are fitted with small warheads, can only make military sense if they carry nuclear payloads.
The danger of Iran developing a nuclear arsenal remains. (That, of course, is Iran’s right if it so wishes. But the JCPOA assumes that Iran doesn’t want to become a nuclear power).
In exchange the P5+1, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, were supposed to do a number of things to ease sanctions imposed on Iran because of its violation of The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). They, too, have fulfilled part of those promises but not enough to make a significant difference as far as Iran is concerned.
Just as Iran cheated on JCPOA, the 5+1 cheated On Iran.
No sanction has been cancelled and Iran is allowed to spend only a fraction of its own frozen money with the permission of the P5+1. Because of the snap-back mechanism under which even temporarily lifted sanctions are instantly re-imposed, few people would want to invest in Iran.
The issue is not whether” the deal” is good or bad. It is that the Obama fudge hasn’t worked and is unlikely to work.
No point in turning the knife in the wound: The “deal” is bad for Iran, bad for the P5+1 and bad for the world.
The Iran nuclear problem needs to be addressed in an honest, serious, and generous, manner that would meet the legitimate demands of all sides.
That means it needs to be re-negotiated on a broader canvas. And this is what Trump, “the hateful-figure who attacks the mainstream media and uses foul language”, is proposing.
Even professional Trump-haters would find it hard to dismiss his suggestion that the “deal” is flawed and needs to be revisited.
But they must first learn to temper their hate.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.
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