Iran breaks its nuclear word – what follows?

A Palestinian burns an American flag during protests in Gaza (photo credit: MOHAMMED SALEM/ REUTERS)
A Palestinian burns an American flag during protests in Gaza
One of the less attractive aspects of political argument these days is to remove responsibility from those who commit crimes and transfer it to the victims.
In the recent flare-up in the Gulf of Hormuz, this is the approach deployed by the European Union. Although it is virtually certain from the evidence that Iran used limpet mines on a Japanese oil tanker, and then destroyed a US unmanned drone flying over international waters, the inherently anti-American European Union firmly assigned blame to the Trump administration. Its line was that all the blame for the increase in tension is due to Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal.
But who among the Iranian leadership could have been in any doubt that incoming President Donald Trump viewed the whole deal as flawed, or greatly surprised when he withdrew the US from it? Trump had made his position perfectly clear throughout his presidential campaign, and stuck to it once he was in office. In withdrawing, he made clear that what he wanted was to renegotiate a deal more likely to ensure the desired result – a permanently non-nuclear-weaponized Iran. Indeed, that remains Washington’s position, the only obstacle to resolving the dispute being Tehran’s absolute refusal to return to the negotiating table.
In the latest game of chicken being played by the Iranian leadership by its step-by-step infringement of the limits of uranium enrichment levels, EU reaction has been confined to a milk-and-water message urging Iran to stick to its nuclear commitments. The EU has not threatened to reimpose the sanctions that were lifted as part of the 2015 deal. In fact French President Emmanuel Macron went so far as to say that new sanctions were not on the table – a direct riposte to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s demand.
The furthest the EU would go was to say that it was discussing a possible emergency meeting over how to respond to Iran’s moves, including a possible joint commission.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, like his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, has never concealed his total opposition to the Western democratic way of life, to the United States as leader of the Western world, and to Israel’s existence, all of which it is his aim to eliminate. Allied to this is the ultimate objective of the Iranian Islamic Revolution – to displace Saudi Arabia’s Sunni hegemony over the Muslim world and replace it with their own Shi’ite interpretation of Islam.
FORMER US president Barack Obama chose deliberately to ignore these basic building blocks of Iran’s regime. The deal to limit Iran’s nuclear capabilities in exchange for a lifting of sanctions − a high-water mark of Obama’s legacy − was pursued on the grounds that it would encourage Iran to adopt a more reasonable approach to its dealings with the West, and might even end decades of hostility. In the event, the opposite was the case. Obama’s placatory approach resulted in no softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan.” “Even after this deal,” proclaimed Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “our policy toward the arrogant US will not change.” And indeed Iran’s Revolutionary Guard spent the billions of dollars they acquired as a result of the deal in expanding their malign influence throughout the Middle East. Iraq, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon and Israel have all been on the receiving end of unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression since the deal was signed.
By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. This is why Obama’s US lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist. It has taken Trump and his administration’s tough approach to Iran and its pretensions to restore America’s standing in the moderate Arab world.
The Iranian nuclear deal was regarded by the EU and like-minded nations as a guarantee against Iran developing nuclear weapons. This sidesteps the basic flaw in the deal – that it expires after 15 years, at which time there is nothing to prevent Iran from continuing with its full-scale nuclear program.
Meanwhile, it persists in its disruptive activities throughout the Middle East and beyond. It is Iran that is providing arms to groups like the Houthis in Yemen, who are firing Iranian-made missiles directly into Saudi Arabia, and to the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq that recently launched a rocket attack on the US Embassy in Baghdad, and to the Revolutionary Guard Corps on active duty in Syria, propping up the president, Bashar Assad.
Yet, the EU’s foreign policy establishment is so determined to portray the Americans as the villains, that they remain committed to upholding the nuclear deal, no matter how provocative Iran’s actions might be. In pursuit of this ill-considered policy, the EU is still striving to establish its own trading mechanism – the so-called special purpose vehicle – to bypass US sanctions and enable European businesses to continue trading with Iran. This is a policy they may have to reconsider in the light of Iran’s deliberate reneging on its nuclear commitments.
Trump’s economic pressure has caused Iran’s leadership major domestic difficulties. Rallies and street protests, centered on the worsening economic situation and the ever-rising food and commodity prices, keep bursting out spontaneously across the country. Some morph into opposition to the government. A major cause for complaint are the foreign adventures indulged in by the regime, including direct involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, and costly military and logistical support for Hezbollah in Syria, for the Houthis in Yemen and for Hamas in Gaza. The vast sums expended in these foreign adventures are seen as being at the direct expense of the Iranian population.
But as for the danger of outright war, both Washington and Tehran, in the middle of the blood-curdling threats they utter against each other, have indicated that they have absolutely no desire for military conflict.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at: