If North Korea were willing to sign much the same kind of nuclear agreement as Iran did in 2015, President Donald Trump would exult in the ultimate deal and there would be international relief far and wide. Yet now there is talk that he wants to ‘decertify’ the arrangement and thus risk giving Iran the excuse to revert to its nuclear ambitions just like Kim Jung-un.
Why is it that Iran continues to rattle Washington so much despite having signed a nuclear deal and abiding by it? Apart from Iranian-sponsored terrorism in the past, could it be to appease America’s biggest arms customer, Saudi Arabia, the main Islamic rival to Iran? Or because Iran is in a duel with Saudi Arabia over Yemen? Or because Iran supports the Syrian regime? Or to appease the US’s greatest ally in the region, Israel, which for years has seen Iran as a threat? Or because Iran supports Hezbollah, which the U.N. has declared a terrorist organisation? Or might it just be because Washington has still not forgiven Iranian revolutionaries for taking over its embassy in Tehran and seizing diplomatic staff as hostages?
But that was 38 years ago, a long time to hold an international grudge. But it still applies if an article in the New Yorker is to be believed. It said Rex Tillerson, the US Secretary of State, and the Iranian Foreign Minister. at a meeting last month exchanged a fusillade of accusations – in Tillerson’s case going back to the embassy takeover. Iran’s behaviour was just as bad since the sanctions-breaking agreement was signed, he said. Iran’s Javad Zarif said in reaching the deal the US and Iran had agreed to set aside other points of contention.
Perversely, if North Korea had been willing to sign much the same kind of nuclear agreement as Iran did in 2015, President Donald Trump would exult in the ultimate deal and there would be international relief far and wide. Yet now there is talk that he wants to ‘decertify’ the arrangement and thus risk giving Iran the excuse to revert to its nuclear ambitions just like Kim Jung-un. Why should this be?
Unlike Kim, Iran is not threatening the US with missiles. Even Washington admits Iran is complying with the nuclear agreement. Iran and Hezbollah are active in Syria in trying to crush Islamic State, the main reason why America (and Australia) are involved as well. Now that most sanctions have been lifted, Iran is busy doing billion dollar deals with European and Asian countries regarding oil, gas, car-manufacturing and aircraft orders. Washington gave Boeing the green light to join them in the post-sanctions business bonanza. Even Australia, normally an obedient supporter of US policy, wasted no time in reminding Tehran that we are open for business when Julie Bishop went there last year.
Earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani of Iran was reelected in a landslide. He immediately held out an olive branch. ‘You have pulled out the history of our country away from inertia and doubt’, he told supporters. ‘Iran’s nation chose the path of interaction with the world, away from violence and extremism’. This fell on deaf Washington ears because Trump at the same time was in Riyadh luxuriating in the biggest arms sale in US history.
One of Trump’s many cavalier campaign promises was to tear up the nuclear agreement, though he never articulated why other than saying it was not in America’s interests. It was an embarrassment and a disgrace, he said. Fresh from threatening to totally destroy North Korea in a speech at the UN of all places last month, he then denounced Iran as a rogue state, ‘a murderous regime’. He blamed it for the instability and terrorism in the region. But he made no mention that the biggest bankrollers of terrorist groups are to be found in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which just so happen to have US military bases.
Yet his Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and top military commander, Gen. Joseph F Dunford Jr, only last week expressed qualified support for the nuclear agreement. Now Trump himself appears to be having second thoughts. His latest thinking is that there needs to be a few changes which, it so happens, might satisfy Israel and probably the Saudis as well as saving his own face. However, Rouhani has ruled out any tampering with the agreement. So have most of the other powers which were also party to it.
As the old saying goes, if it works don’t fiddle with it. If Washington were to abandon it, why would North Korea bother to meet US officials which Trump insists must take place to discuss their differences? Why would any country enter into such agreements if they are to be subject to the whims of the US leader? The world would condemn America, said Rouhani. Little wonder that global confidence in US leadership is shrinking as well as Trump’s approval rating at home (now down to a record low of 32%, according to the latest AP poll).
If Trump does insist on changing it, the matter will have to go to Congress for approval. In an understatement, the US UN ambassador, Nikki Haley, said ‘I get that Congress doesn’t want this. It is not an easy situation for Congress’. The Republican Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, winced at the prospect of another contentious bill in what has been a hopelessly ineffectual legislative year for Trump.
The British Middle East scholar and commentator, John R. Bradley, wonders why the US does not focus on consolidating a relationship with Iran rather than Saudi Arabia for the long-term future. Writing in the Spectator, he notes that Iran is not invading any country like the Saudis are in Yemen. Iran is not exporting extremist ideology like the Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism. Iran’s constitution protects the rights of Jews and Christians whereas non-Moslems in Saudi Arabia are forbidden from practising their religion in public. Iran has a democracy of sorts and a vibrant press which puts to shame anything found in Saudi Arabia.
But don’t hold your breath. As Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister, noted: ‘Trump clearly faces a steep learning curve when it comes to the Middle East – a region that won’t wait for him to master it. There is no reason to be optimistic’.
Even Tillerson agrees. The New Yorker article quoted him as saying ‘Maybe we don’t have it in our capacity to change this relationship because we are bound by it – maybe we leave it to the next generation to try’. He then added: ‘I don’t know. I’m not a diplomat’.
FOOTNOTE. Perhaps the ayatollahs have reason for a grudge of their own. They have not forgotten that the CIA (and Israel’s Mossad) helped set up SAVAK, the feared secret police unit set up under the despotic Shah which tortured and executed opponents of the regime and established the infamous Evin prison in Tehran for this very purpose. Little wonder the Islamic revolutionaries described the US as ‘the Great Satan’, a sobriquet which still applies at times today, though with less vehemence than before. Washington should take note of this and that the Western-educated Rouhani is a frontrunner to succeed the ultimate arbiter of Iranian policy, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, whose health has been subject to rumours.
John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.