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Punishing Defiance

Tom Stevenson

Talk of Iran and nuclear weapons has long since taken on the structure of an old joke: Iran has supposedly been weeks away from terrible advances for the last thirty years. The joke gets told nonetheless. When Joe Biden visited Jerusalem in June, he spoke of his commitment to stopping Iran from getting the bomb, even though the US government’s own assessment two months earlier was that Iran ‘is not currently undertaking the key nuclear weapons-development activities’.

On 4 August, American, Iranian and European diplomats travelled to Vienna for another round of talks on reviving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the international agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme signed in 2015 which the US unilaterally withdrew from three years later. Biden pledged to resuscitate the deal, but despite endless rounds of talks that hasn’t happened.

Negotiations in Qatar in June yielded no progress. On the contrary, the lead US negotiator, Robert Malley, and the national security adviser for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, began to speak as though the chances of any return to the JCPOA were finished. European diplomats criticised Iran for making ‘maximalist’ demands, which for the most part meant asking for assurances that the US wouldn’t just tank the agreement again in a couple of years.

It was the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who called for a return to negotiations. The effects of sanctions on Russia and reductions in Russian gas supplies are felt much more keenly in Europe than the US. The long-term prospect of Iranian gas supplies has started to look more appetising to Europeans. Restoring the nuclear deal now looks like an EU interest, to which the US is not particularly committed.

At the core of the matter is America’s financial stranglehold on Iran. The US imposed general trade sanctions on Iran in response to its nuclear programme in 1995. In 2006, it brought the full power of its financial sanctions weaponry to bear on the Iranian economy. Since 2011, Iran’s oil exports, ports, petrochemicals industry and central bank have been sanctioned and its banks cut off from SWIFT. None of this produced a change in the Iranian government. But the sanctions have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy. The country has suffered a particularly deadly Covid pandemic. Supplies, including WHO testing kits, were delayed by US sanctions.

The JCPOA was principally a US instrument designed to limit Iranian nuclear research in exchange for the removal of its torturous sanctions. The problem is rarely framed this way because its framers are usually either American foreign policy analysts or expatriate Iranians hoping for yet more ineffective cudgelling of a government they despise. Part of the problem is that the US insists on designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is in effect part of the Iranian state, as a terrorist organisation. We are no longer in the era of ‘maximum pressure’, when the US assassinated Qassem Soleimani and Iran carried out missile strikes on US military bases in Iraq. But a settlement remains very difficult.

Iran’s negotiating position is that the US withdrawal from the 2015 deal was unreasonable and unlawful. It argues that it has given the US plenty of chances to return to the deal, and is ready to do so whenever they show seriousness. It also thinks Biden’s days may be numbered and the American political system is fundamentally untrustworthy.

At first pass, US policy towards Iran looks deeply irrational. The multi-decade American campaign to isolate the Islamic Republic has little to show for it. It has been clear for decades that external pressure was not going to bring down the Iranian government. And the US could satisfy its general aim of dominating the Gulf by continuing to maintain its monarchical protectorates while accommodating Iran. The JCPOA went a short way in that direction and met with strong resistance, not only from eccentric right-wing congressmen but also from within the security establishment. Why has a change of tack proved so difficult?

There is no doubt that Iran enforces a high, sometimes spectacular, level of domestic repression. But the US doesn’t really care about that; its allies in the region are at least as bad. The support that Iran gives Shia groups in neighbouring Arab states isn’t really a problem for the US either: American planners know it’s much more limited than they publicly imply. Some people may claim that US policy-making is beholden to the Israel lobby (both Israel and Saudi Arabia would like to see the deal killed), but this mistakes the power balance between imperium and client. The best argument is that the Iranian revolution represents an unacceptable symbol of defiance in a critical region. US policy has been about punishing defiance.

US intelligence agencies may not believe Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, but the country now has larger stockpiles of enriched uranium than it did under the JCPOA. The US should end its pointless and destructive blockade on the Iranian economy and revive the Iran deal because the sanctions are illegitimate. But reviving the deal would also be wise. Biden was willing to suffer some personal embarrassment in his meeting with the Saudi crown prince, Mohamed Bin Salman, in the interests of managing the US position in the Gulf. He has shown no such flexibility towards Iran.

Instead the US has announced new sanctions on Iran’s oil and petrochemical industry. In July, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East, Dana Stroul, travelled to Qatar to discuss ‘leveraging the US presence at al-Udeid Air Base’. The head of US Central Command went to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to inspect US air defence systems. On 2 August, the US approved a $3 billion missile deal with Saudi Arabia and a $2.2 billion deal to supply THAAD anti-ballistic missiles to the UAE. The US approach to the Middle East is still founded on militarised confrontation.


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  • 9 August 2022 at 4:59pm
    Rory Allen says:
    How many years ago is it since Benjamin Netanyahu stood up in the UN with a cartoon of a bomb and said 'if it quacks, it's a duck', claiming that Iran had nuclear weapons? Ten years? And of course the joke was that the only country in the region with nuclear weapons was Israel. Incidentally Israel must be the only democratic country in the world where you can be punished with 20 years imprisonment for wanting to discuss your country's strategic capability, as in the case of Mordechai Vanunu.