Iran versus US: Iran Wins

The lifting of sanctions is an unequivocal victory for Iran, sealing its regional position, and leaving its nuclear capability intact

Mon, Jan 18, 2016 | 4,800 Comments

Confirmation that international sanctions on Iran have at last been lifted is unequivocally a victory for Iran.

The sanctions should never have been imposed in the first place.

As I said in April last year in an article I wrote for Sputnik, the evidence suggests Iran did indeed once have a nuclear weapons programme.  

That programme was not however intended as a threat to the US or Israel or - needless to say - the EU.  

The Iranian leadership is fully aware that a nuclear weapons programme targeting those countries is far more likely to provoke an attack on Iran than to deter one, and that Iran might not survive such an attack.

Rather Iran’s nuclear programme was intended to deter a nuclear attack from Iran’s main regional rival - Saddam Hussein’s Iraq - which is known to have had a nuclear weapons programme in the decade preceding the 1991 Gulf War.

Having fought a bitter war against Saddam Hussein between 1980 and 1988, Iran could not afford to let him acquire nuclear weapons whilst being itself disarmed. It is entirely understandable therefore that the Iranian leadership sought to counter Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons programme with a nuclear weapons programme of their own.

All the evidence however points to the Iranian nuclear weapons programme being significantly downgraded in the decade following Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 1991, and then having been abandoned completely following his overthrow in 2003.

Not only is that the conclusion all the evidence points to, but it is also the opinion of the US intelligence community, which in 2007 publicly confirmed that Iran was no longer pursuing a nuclear weapons programme.

Even the US government does not dispute this. Here is what US Secretary of State Kerry had to say about the Iranian nuclear programme in an interview with Reuters in August 2015:

“Our judgment is that clearly there was a period where Iran was chasing a nuclear weapon. We have no doubt about that. In 2003, we found them red-handed with facilities they shouldn’t have had and material they shouldn’t have had………..They have not pursued a weapon – to our best judgment and to the judgment of all of our allies, they haven’t pursued a weapon per se since that period of time.”

It is therefore nothing short of bizarre that US demands Iran discontinue its nuclear weapons programme took off precisely after Iran had - as the US knew - abandoned its nuclear weapons programme.

Not only did Iran face a succession of ever more threatening demands to abandon a nuclear programme the US knew it had already abandoned, but these demands were combined with ever harsher sanctions, culminating in the most comprehensive package of sanctions of all, imposed on Iran as recently as 2012.

These demands and these sanctions were accompanied by a constant drumbeat of propaganda against Iran. 

Its leaders were called religious fanatics and sponsors of terrorism. They were accused of genocidal and megalomaniac plans there is no evidence they ever had. 

Iran was accused of plotting aggression against neighbouring countries, though there is no evidence of this, and though the single greatest act of aggression carried out in the recent history of the Middle East was Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran - which the Western powers and the Arab states supported.

Meanwhile the country itself was represented as a repressive and reactionary medieval theocracy, which - for all its problems - no one who knows anything of the country believes it is.

All this happened alongside continuous threats of military action, which - according to some reports  - on more than one occasion came dangerously close to happening, and which the same reports say only failed to happen because of the strong opposition of the US military.

Why this relentless pressure and threats against a country for supposedly having a nuclear weapons programme which in reality - as everyone knew - it had stopped having?

The short answer is that the US and its regional allies - Israel and Saudi Arabia - became alarmed at the influence Iran achieved in the region following the US’s overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Whatever the US’s intentions when it overthrew Saddam Hussein, a regionally dominant position for a politically independent and (relatively) democratic Iran was definitely not one of them. 

That however was precisely what Saddam Hussein’s overthrow brought about.

The defeat of Israel by Iran’s ally Hezbollah in 2006 was for Washington - and Riyadh and Jerusalem - the final straw.

The result was the relentless campaign launched against Iran in connection with a nuclear weapons programme everyone knew no longer existed.

Inevitably, in order to give some coherence to this campaign, it escalated into a demand that Iran abandon any attempt to develop an independent nuclear capability at all - whether it be for military or civilian use.

That in essence was what the demand had become over the last few years.

Not surprisingly Iran rejected this demand - which would have required it to stop doing what it had every legal right to do - as would any other country that was faced with such a demand but which valued its political independence.

In the meantime, as the pressure on Iran grew, governments and people in the Middle East who were seen as either actually or potentially allied to Iran - including the Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad, the democracy movements in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the Houthi movement in Yemen, also came under attack.

The result is a Middle East racked by instability and war.

The lifting of sanctions against Iran represents the failure of this policy.

It has not happened because Iran has made concessions over the state of its nuclear programme.  

Those concessions Iran did make do not compromise Iran’s ability to develop an independent nuclear capability - which is all Iran has been doing for many years now, and which was the red line it was not prepared to cross. If the US had wanted an agreement along these lines, it could have had it long ago. 

It has happened for two other reasons

The first reason is that Iran did not buckle under the pressure.

Far from giving up its nuclear programme, it responded by escalating it to the point where it had mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle - thereby showing to the US that there was nothing the US could do to stop it.

The second reason was that in 2014 the great Eurasian powers - Russia and China - finally called a stop to the sanctions policy.

The key event was rumours that began to spread in the autumn of 2014 that Russia and Iran were close to finalising an “oil for goods” swap deal, and that Russia was reconsidering its previous decision not to supply S300 missiles to Iran.

This together with fears that China was looking for ways to provide financing to Iran through the new financial institutions it was setting up, caused alarm in Washington that the entire sanctions regime was about to collapse.

Of particular concern for Washington was the fear that following the Russian and Chinese moves it would be impossible for the US to keep its European allies in line by persuading them to continue with a sanctions policy they could no longer see the point in.

The result was that when Iran offered the US a face-saving way out in the form of the present agreement, the US had no option but to agree.

Here is what Secretary of State Kerry had to say about all this in the same interview with Reuters I quoted from above:

“But if everybody thinks, “Oh, no, we’re just tough; the United States of America, we have our secondary sanctions; we can force people to do what we want.” I actually heard that argument on television this morning. I’ve heard it from a number of the organisations that are working that are opposed to this agreement. They’re spreading the word, “America is strong enough, our banks are tough enough; we can just bring the hammer down and force our friends to do what we want them to.”

Well, look – a lot of business people in this room. Are you kidding me? The United States is going to start sanctioning our allies and their banks and their businesses because we walked away from a deal and we’re going to force them to do what we want them to do even though they agreed to the deal we came to? Are you kidding?

That is a recipe quickly, my friends, for them to walk away from Ukraine, where they are already very dicey and ready to say, “Well, we’ve done our bit.” They were ready in many cases to say, “Well, we’re the ones paying the price for your sanctions.” We – it was Obama who went out and actually put together a sanctions regime that had an impact. By – I went to China. We persuaded China, “Don’t buy more oil.” We persuaded India and other countries to step back.

Can you imagine trying to sanction them after persuading them to put in phased sanctions to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and when they have not only come to the table but they made a deal, we turn around and nix the deal and then tell them you’re going to have to obey our rules on the sanctions anyway? 

That is a recipe very quickly, my friends, businesspeople here, for the American dollar to cease to be the reserve currency of the world – which is already bubbling out there…..”

What Kerry is saying here is that the US had no choice. If it had not agreed to the deal Iran offered, the sanctions regime would have collapsed, dealing a humiliating defeat to the US.

Rather than face that disaster the US had no alternative but to agree to what Iran offered.  

What that amounts to is an agreement to lift the sanctions in return for limits on a nuclear programme Kerry admits was never intended to result in a nuclear weapon in the first place.

The deal however still leaves Iran in possession of the technology it has developed. Indeed, according to some experts, the deal leaves Iran with the material and technology to develop a nuclear weapon in about a year, should it ever choose to do so.

This interview of Kerry’s has not been widely reported despite - or perhaps because - it casts a fascinating light on the private thoughts of the US government.

First of all it shows that for all its outward show of confidence the US government is acutely worried about the long-term position of the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and is nervous of doing anything - such as threatening to enforce sanctions on its European allies - that might undermine it  

Those like the US economist Paul Krugman who say the US dollar's reserve currency status doesn’t matter should know the US government doesn’t agree with them.

Kerry’s interview also shows that for all the outward show of unity, behind the scenes the US’s sanctions policy against Russia is coming in for a great deal of criticism, with European governments clearly unenthusiastic about it - just as they were unenthusiastic about the sanctions the US persuaded them to impose on Iran.

Lastly, it also shows that for all the tough talk and bluster, the US’s actual ability to force its will on its European allies is limited, and that the US knows it.  

If the major European governments unite to oppose a policy, the US has no option but to back down and abandon it.

Ultimately however the single most important thing that comes out from Kerry’s interview is the smell of defeat.

Though Kerry makes the best case for the Iran deal he can, he cannot in the end hide the fact that it was the imminent collapse of the sanctions regime that forced the US’s hand, and which forced it to agree a deal with Iran that it would not have agreed to otherwise.

There is an important lesson here for Russia.

Iran is a much smaller, much poorer and much weaker country than Russia. Though by no means an undeveloped country, it lacks the vast scientific, technological and industrial resources that Russia has.

Nor does Iran have the global influence or the advantage of permanent membership of the UN Security Council that Russia has.

The sanctions the US imposed on Iran hurt Iran far more than the sanctions the US has imposed on Russia have hurt Russia.

Like Russia Iran also has a small but very vocal minority that hankers for rapprochement with the US at literally any price. In 2009 this minority tried unsuccessfully to stage a colour revolution in Tehran - just as Russia's similar minority tried - and failed - to stage a colour revolution in Moscow in 2011. 

In the end, by standing firm on all the essentials whilst acting at all times with maximum flexibility, Iran has seen the challenge off.

The result is Iran has emerged the unequivocal victor from this affair, with its position today stronger than it was a decade ago - before the attack on it began.

If Iran can win this sort of duel against the US, then so can Russia.  

Russia is in a much better position to do it than Iran was. 

There is no reason in fact why Russia should not do it, and there is no reason to doubt it will.

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