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Why Trump dropped the bomb deal

President Donald Trump answers questions on the Iran nuclear deal. Photo: Oliver Contreras / SIPA USA

President Donald Trump answers questions on the Iran nuclear deal. Photo: Oliver Contreras / SIPA USA

May 9, 2018   6 mins

We’ve all seen those satirical ‘adaptations’ of the bunker scenes in Downfall doing the rounds on the internet – the words of Gordon Brown or some failing football manager captioned beneath a raving Hitler.

A couple of years ago, I was sent another example of the genre by an opponent of the 2015 nuclear deal. In this video, a man who appears to be an Iranian nuclear negotiator, albeit a toothless one,  is seen laughing himself to tears as he explains to Iranian TV viewers: “I’ve had tougher negotiations over a falafel sandwich.”

In fact, the man is a Spanish comedian Juan Joya Borja, known as El Risitas (‘The Giggler’). And in the footage Borja is telling an extended Spanish joke in about what happened when he went to the beach. It has been variously captioned to parody Brexit negotiations and Mexican wall building, as well as iPhone malfunctions.


Doubtless, many of the Americans who watched the ‘Iranian’ version couldn’t tell Juan Joya Borja wasn’t speaking Farsi and that he does not look Iranian. People who would be outraged by jokes about haggling Jews found this one hilarious, despite it involving nasty ethnic stereotypes about Persian carpet-traders.

The nuclear deal is a subject ripe for this sort of treatment, though. A decade and more of serious ingenuity has been devoted to either preventing or wrecking it. It barely seems to matter that since it was signed in October 2015, International Atomic Energy Agency monitors have reported ten times that Iran is complying with its conditions. Separately, German regional authorities noted a marked decline (30 compared with 141 in 2016) in Iranian front companies attempting to acquire dual use technologies since the deal was signed – one of the matters Chancellor Merkel doubtless brought to Trump’s attention on her brief visit to the States.

Knowing he was dealing with a President with the attention span of a fruit fly, Netanyahu opted for another ludicrous conjuring act

Regardless of this progress, there has been massive anti-Iranian lobbying activity in Washington DC by PR firms hired by the Emiratis and Saudis for tens of millions of dollars, with virtually no Iranian pushback, as well as the unedifying spectacle of the US administration hiring a private Israeli intelligence company to allegedly smear the wives of two of the Obama officials who helped negotiate the deal. The same company had been hired to attack Harvey Weinstein’s accusers.

But, then, President Obama’s attempt to break with four decades of mistrust between the US and Iran was always going to be controversial. It was part of a wider strategic rebalancing, away from the Middle East and towards Asia-Pacific, which Trump has continued, even though he has rechristened the region ‘Indo-Pacific’ to make the containment of China more explicit than Obama did.

Obama’s deal averted the danger of a war between Iran and Israel, which does not want any other power in the region to acquire nuclear weapons, a fact which has been widely acknowledged, not least by former chiefs of the IDF and heads of Mossad and Shin Bet, the two Israeli intelligence services. Last week, 26 of these men, for whom Israel’s safety is their life’s vocation, signed a letter saying that ripping up the Iran deal would be the biggest threat to Israel’s security.

Iran is a big country with 80 million people. It has both a venerable culture and a modern scientific base. Its political system combines elements of democracy, theocracy and revolutionary fervor, though it also acts in line with pragmatic national self-interest. Iran spends considerably less on defence than its regional rivals, $12.7 billion compared with Saudi Arabia’s $63.7 billion in 2016. If it seems more powerful than it was, then that is largely a product of the catastrophic 2003 US intervention in Iraq, which is well on the way nowadays (along with the Kurds) to being an Iranian client.

And it arouses morbid terrors in other countries. It has even led the Israelis to rediscover the maxim ‘my enemy’s enemies are my friends’, including countries – notably Saudi Arabia – that they have vociferously accused of global state sponsorship of anti-Semitism.

Two of the neighbouring Gulf autocracies, Saudi Arabia and the UAE (though not Kuwait, Oman or Qatar) are as convinced as some in Israel that Iran is seeking to establish ‘Persian’ regional hegemony, using fellow members of the Shia minority sect in Islam as the chosen vehicle.

Iran is better at mobilising support in depth among its coreligionists than its strategic opponents

The tactic is said to involve transforming armed Shia militias into professional armies, which will eventually subsume the target country’s regular forces. That has happened in Lebanon – where Hizbollah (which is both a political party and a heavily armed force) is allied with the Maronite Christians – and it is well underway in Iraq and Yemen, through Shia popular mobilisation militias and the insurgent Houthi. In reality, however, all this signifies is that Iran is better at mobilising support in depth among its coreligionists than its strategic opponents, despite their pallet loads of cash.

Although both Hizbollah and Shia militias are active as light infantry in Syria, under the general direction of Iranian Revolutionary Guard external operations commander Qassem Soleimani, President Bashar al-Assad has his own autonomous power base and is neither a puppet of Iran or Russia.

Syria, like neighbouring Lebanon, is ‘existential’ to Iran as it affords a way of retaliating against Israel which has gone from making warlike noises against the Islamic Republic to bombing its personnel in Syria where the IRGC are engaged in a game of grandmothers footsteps on Israel’s borders. Whether Hizbollah wants to jeopardise its stunning weekend electoral victory in Lebanon with a shooting war with Israel seems doubtful though.

But none of this allegedly unique regional adventurism, nor its ballistic missile programme, was included in the nuclear negotiations. Doubtless because the Iranians would never have agreed to such talks, just as – one suspects – Mr Trump will not be upbraiding Kim Jong-un for his father’s habit of kidnapping Japanese and South Korean citizens off their own streets, or the North Korean artillery and missile batteries deployed to obliterate Seoul.

So enter Israel’s self-styled saviour, for whom it’s always 1938 with another Holocaust imminent. Having repeatedly cried wolf about what Iran was doing, Bibi Netanyahu Israel’s beleaguered prime minister, has recently resorted to one of his coups de théâtre to convince the US that Iran cannot be trusted.

Netanyahu knows how US intelligence agencies shape their daily presentations to suit individual presidents, with Reagan keen on video clips and Obama preferring pages of detailed analysis which assumed much prior knowledge.

Knowing he was dealing with a President with the attention span of a fruit fly, Netanyahu opted for another ludicrous conjuring act. On live TV, he drew back a black curtain to reveal not a giant rabbit, but shelves of Iranian nuclear files that Mossad had borrowed for a night to copy. Netanyahu had an audience of one in mind, lest Trump had been given pause for thought by Macron, Merkel and, from afar, the British Prime Minister.

It did not matter that the Iranian files concerned a military nuclear programme which, according to 15 US intelligence agencies reporting collectively in 2012, the Iranians had abandoned nine years earlier, for there’s one clause in the JCPOA that requires Iran to ‘come clean’ on its historic activities. So this makes it technically in breach of the agreement.  Except that the IAEA investigated that very subject in a report delivered in December 2015, and then decided to move onto the weightier matter of present compliance. The Americans themselves are in breach of the agreement, since they have not abrogated all the sanctions on Iran, imposed by a plethora of agencies, which prevent the reintegration of Iran into the international economy.

Many EU countries are softer on Iran than any of the three EU signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

So what happens now Trump has pulled the plug? There is no prospect of negotiating a “better” deal, and many EU countries are softer on Iran than any of the three EU signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The EU could counter US extraterritorial sanctions, as it did with Cuba from 1996 onwards. which would add a further wedge issue between the US and its European allies. They find themselves on the same side as China and Russia versus an Israeli, Saudi and US alliance.

Should Netanyahu manage to get the US into a shooting war with Iran, which has been his aim all along – because Israel’s air force lacks aerial refueling capacity for multiple long-range strikes – then some ‘America Firsters’ might object about foreign dictation of US foreign policy.

And of course, as in Iraq after 2003, one can safely bet that no one in Washington has any plan for what happens after US military might has dispatched the mullahs, for airy talk about regime change is in the air too, though apparently John Bolton fancies a weird totalitarian sect which most Iranians abominate for supporting Iraq in the eight years war.

So, remembering the lies told about Saddam’s WMD, we are back to 2003 again, with the same protagonists more than a decade older but none the wiser. Plenty to weep about there, for it is no laughing matter.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.


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