Time is running out
Yassamine Mather weighs up the state of play regarding attempts to revive the nuclear deal
As predicted, preparations for negotiations that could lead to a revival of the Iran nuclear deal have been moving at a slow pace, with both the Biden administration and Iran’s Islamic Republic making threats and accusations - all part of the familiar pre-negotiation dance. Having said that, however, in the last week or so we have witnessed new military threats against Iran and this could herald one of two alternatives: either the preparations are reaching a crucial stage or the new administration in Washington, encouraged by both Riyadh and Tel Aviv, is taking a more aggressive stance against Iran.
First came the release of the state department’s intelligence report on the October 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi. It identified crown prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia as responsible for approving the assassination of the Washington Post journalist; the team that carried out the killing reported directly to him.1 Yet the Biden administration took no action against the crown prince or the Saudi kingdom.
Of course, there is no doubt that other countries in the region, including Iran, have killed, tortured and imprisoned journalists, writers, columnists, but what makes this particularly blatant is not just the brutal manner of the killing and dismemberment of Khashoggi, but the fact that the very country claiming to champion ‘human rights’ in the Middle East chooses to turn a blind eye to the main culprit - and, of course, its allies have followed suit. All of this makes a mockery of their claims to defend basic rights, let alone democracy.
This was followed by the US administration’s passive response to direct threats made by the Israeli defence minster, Binyamin Gantz, against Iran. On March 4, Gantz said: “Israel’s military is updating its operational plans for a potential future strike on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear site.”2 Repeating the threat in an interview with Fox News, he was adamant: “If the world stops them before, it’s very much good. But if not, we must stand independently and we must defend ourselves by ourselves.”3 According to Gantz, Israel has identified a number of targets and is ready to destroy them in order to prevent Iran ‘developing nuclear weapons’. Of course, such an operation could not be undertaken without the approval of the United States and, even under Trump, the US has shown no appetite for backing what could become an all-out war in the Middle East.
The question is, why has Israel so far stopped short of such an attack? After all, it did bomb an Iraqi nuclear reactor near Baghdad in 1981. An undisclosed number of F-15 and F-16 fighter bombers managed to destroy the reactor in what was dubbed Operation Opera (‘Osirak’). Since then Israeli air power has been considerably enhanced and there is no shortage of intelligence information about Iran’s nuclear facilities (although there is no evidence that it is capable of producing nuclear weaponry). What has so far deterred the Israelis is fear of retaliation by Iran’s allies in the Lebanese Hezbollah and whatever is left of its forces in Syria.
Contrary to what rightwing Iranian opposition forces and the ‘left’ supporters of ‘regime change’ say, this has little to do with the Islamic Republic’s religious ambitions (spreading Shia Islam in the region) and everything to do with trying to take out insurance against Israeli air raids. Just because a state is reactionary, we should not assume it is necessarily doing more than trying to ensure its survival. The Islamic Republic’s relations with Shia political parties, including Hezbollah, were initially about spreading Shia Islam, but nowadays there are more pragmatic factors determining its foreign policy. Otherwise how could we explain Iran’s historic support for Christian Armenia against Muslim Azerbaijan?
There is also renewed tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia around Yemen. Last weekend the Saudi kingdom launched air raids against Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, while Houthi forces backed by Iran are believed to be behind missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil installations.
All this does not mean that secret negotiations between Iran and the US are not going ahead. This week the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, met Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran, in what was assumed to be part of efforts to revive the nuclear deal. French president Emmanuel Macron has also volunteered to act as a go-between, although it is not clear that he has played any role so far.
This has led to increased lobbying in the US capital. On March 8, the prominent Republican senator, Bill Hagerty, who is on the Senate foreign policy committee, blamed Biden’s “lax policy towards Tehran” for Houthi drone attacks on Saudi oilfields. A day earlier he had tweeted:
Yet another missile strike against Saudi Arabia today, with all the hallmarks of an Iranian-backed attack. It seems @POTUS Biden’s desire to give Tehran sanctions relief is emboldening the mullahs to escalate their aggression against us and our allies.4
On March 9 we had a letter signed by 70 Republican and 70 Democratic House members, addressed to secretary of state Antony Blinken. This bipartisan initiative does call for an agreement to reinstate limits on Iran’s nuclear programme, but it also adds new demands: Iran should not only curtail its ballistic missile programme, but also address its “malign behaviour throughout the Middle East”.
While I am certainly an opponent of Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes and its policies in the Middle East, the ignorance (or sheer hypocrisy) in the above statement makes you wonder what the letter is actually telling us about the foreign policy of the world’s hegemon power.
For all its reactionary measures, including the severe repression of the Iranian people and the continued pursuance of neoliberal economic policies, it was not Iran, but the US administration, which unilaterally walked out of the Iran nuclear deal - not because it was a “bad deal”, as Trump kept saying, but because it was Barack Obama’s deal. Any attempt at re-negotiation cannot ignore this basic fact.
Iran’s ballistic missile programme is deplorable, mainly because a country that is facing a severe economic crisis, worsened by Covid-19 and US-imposed sanctions, should not be taking such a course. However, the missile programme is a form of insurance. When a regime is threatened with attack, it will take measures which will enable it to counter-attack.
Then we come to Iran’s regional policies. Now let us be very clear about who created a situation where Iran became at least nominally a powerful country in the Middle East. It was the United States, with its unfinished wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran gained unprecedented advantage, as two of its regional enemies - the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq - were removed, thanks to US military action. Inevitably this made Iran comparatively more powerful in the region - which raised alarm bells in Riyadh and Tel Aviv and increased Saudi and Israeli determination to bring on conflict with Tehran. The potential for war was exacerbated by arms sales by the US, the UK and their Nato allies. Did they expect the Islamic Republic to do nothing?
In summary, additional demands are unlikely to be acceptable to Iran and anyone serious about reviving the JCPOA - the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreement - knows this. However, all this might be just part of the bargaining before any resumption of formal talks. But, as I have said before, unless there is a last-minute change of heart by the supreme leader, Iran could see a presidential election with a rightwing military candidate supported by the Revolutionary Guards standing against a conservative cleric. The Biden administration would find it very difficult to bring the resulting government to the negotiating table. Time is running out.