By Amir Taheri
The decision by US President Donald Trump to waive 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 delaying the imposition of harsh sanctions against the mullahs, others have castigated him for his call to re-negotiate the nuclear deal pushed by his predecessor Barack Obama. Conducting the debate on Iran in a calm and constructive way has proven difficult for the international community for two reasons. The first is that the Iran issue has become linked with the US and now, worse still, with Trump. As we all know, any issue involving the US, even remotely, is instantly given greater weight – for better or for worse. No one cared when a million people were massacred in Rwanda or when an entire community of Rohingya Muslims were driven out of Burma in what amounts to ethnic cleansing. The US was not and is not involved. EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini traveled 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 does not even mention the word Rohingya. In almost every country there is an active anti-American constituency that judges every event in relation to the US.
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 toward young, 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, the “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 nuclear deal must be buried solely because it was Obama’s baby. For the other side, the deal must remain 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 issue with at least 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 nations including North Korea, Cuba and, of course, Iran. And Donald Trump is an ignoramus predator challenging such choirboys 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 current deal is not legally binding because it was negotiated by the P5+1 – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany – an informal group with no legal existence, no mission statement and answerable to no one. They produced three different versions of a 176-page press release, titled “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA), 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. It 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 percent, is useless for medical and industrial purposes. It is also unfit as fuel because Iran has just one nuclear power station, built by Russia, from where it gets the fuel for that plant. Iran’s own enriched uranium is of a different code from the fuel the Russian-built station needs. Besides that, Iran is developing two generations of medium- and long-range missiles that, because they are fitted with small warheads, only make military sense if they are intended to 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 does not want to become a nuclear power.
In exchange, the P5+1 were supposed to do a number of things to ease the sanctions imposed on Iran because of its violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). They, too, have fulfilled some of those promises, but not enough to make a significant difference as far as Iran is concerned. Just as Iran cheated on the JCPOA, so did the P5+1. No sanctions have been canceled 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. But the real issue is not whether the deal is good or bad. It is that the Obama fudge has not worked. Nor is it likely to.
No point in twisting the knife in the wound: The current 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 meets the legitimate demands of all sides. That means it needs to be re-negotiated on a broader canvas. And this is what Trump 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.
(The author Amir Taheri is former executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books. – Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat. Twitter: @AmirTaheri4)
By Amir Taheri