RAMESH THAKUR. Gorbachev: A voice of sanity from a past that has become a foreign country

Ramesh Thakur would welcome the shock and awe of PM Turnbull and Foreign Minister Bishop backing Gorbachev’s plea for a summit to restore US–Russia relations to normalcy and lining up with Iran, the Europeans, China and Russia in recommitting to the Iran nuclear deal as a rare triumph of diplomacy over warmongering.

The two world leaders who deserve the most credit for the unexpected but deeply welcome end of the Cold War were Ronald Reagan of the United States and Mikhail Gorbachev of the then-Soviet Union. Even more unexpected and welcome was the deep cuts in the two military superpowers’ nuclear arsenals instituted by the two visionary leaders. Their gains now are at serious risk of significant reverses. Reagan is no more but Gorbachev is still at work trying to preserve their joint legacy.

In an article in The Washington Post on 11 October, Gorbachev issued a poignant plea to the presidents of Russia and the United States. He began by noting that December 2017 will mark thirty years since the signing of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. This initiated the process of additional unilateral actions and bilateral agreements on nuclear arms control that resulted in an 80 per cent cut to the two countries’ nuclear stockpiles from the Cold War peak.

Now the INF is in danger of being scrapped as Moscow and Washington accuse each other of violations of the letter and spirit of the treaty. Sensibly, Gorbachev notes that although outsiders lack access to the facts to evaluate the competing claims, what is indisputable is that the technical issues in contention reflect the deterioration in the larger political relations.

‘Relations between the two nations are in a severe crisis. A way out must be sought, and there is one well-tested means available for accomplishing this: a dialogue based on mutual respect’.

Gorbachev suggests that Russia and the US should hold a summit to strengthen strategic stability.

The timing of Gorbachev’s well-reasoned and reasonable plea turned out to be deeply ironic. For just two days later, in an angry and vituperative speech, President Donald Trump balked at the third call to recertify the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal has long attracted his scorn and ire as the worst deal ever, although he has said the same of other agreements like the deal to swap refugees with Australia, the Trans-Pacific Partnership ITPP), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Paris climate pact.

We do not know if in calling several agreements the worst deal ever, Trump is demonstrating attention span, numeracy or syntax deficits. We do know that on nuclear issues, he is strategically challenged. Apparently it was in the context of Trump’s failure to grasp the elementary elements of nuclear policy and strategy that on 20 July Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called him a ‘f…ing moron’.

Trump denounced the JCPOA by cataloguing all Iran’s alleged crimes over the decades as seen through US eyes (fomenting instability in the Middle East, sponsoring terrorism, threatening to destroy Israel, etc). He demanded that Congress and US allies toughen the conditions and make the restrictions imposed on Iran permanent. If not, he said, ‘the agreement will be terminated’. As the notion of renegotiating better terms for Israel and the US exists only in the realm of fantasy inhabited by the US president, the probability has soared of one of the few good news on the nuclear front in recent years being reversed. Congress will now have 60 days in which to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran. Should it do so, which is by no means certain, at  that point Tehran will walk away from the deal and it will collapse.

David Gardner of The Financial Times has correctly characterised this as ‘an act of geopolitical arson’. Responding to Trump’s speech, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Iran was implementing the deal and was subject to ‘the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime’. The main criticism of the JCPOA by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his neocon enablers in Washington is that it leaves Iran free to resume the weapons path one decade from now. With the JCPOA wrecked by US unilateralism, Iran would be free to begin weaponization immediately and could ‘produce its first nuclear weapon in just months’.

The 60-day grace period will be used by Europeans to lobby Congress fiercely not to shred North Atlantic unity along with the JCPOA and not to restart another nuclear crisis while trying to address the challenging North Korean crisis. In a joint statement, the leaders of France, Germany and the UK reiterated that the deal ‘is in our shared national security interest’ and they ‘stand committed’ to it. The European Union Foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reaffirmed the deal is ‘robust’ and there had been ‘no violations’ by Iran.

In a televised address, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said the US stands ‘more isolated than ever’. The above set of reactions amply validate Rouhani’s claim. It is worth reflecting on this for a moment. Quite remarkably in relation to Iran’s nuclear program, Trump has managed to turn the United States into the international pariah.

The Elders, a group of senior statesmen and stateswomen chaired by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, went so far as to deplore decertification as a threat to peace. The US is already engaged in seven wars in ‘autopilot’ mode. Senator Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warns that Trump could put the US ‘on the path to World War Three’.

Meanwhile the ‘pattern of comments… indicate a preference for a military response to North Korea’. And as usual our leaders refuse to allow daylight between Washington’s and Canberra’s pronouncements. I could do with the shock and awe of our prime minister and foreign minister backing Gorbachev’s plea for a summit to restore US–Russia relations to normalcy and lining up with Iran, the Europeans, China and Russia in recommitting to the JCPOA as a rare triumph of diplomacy over warmongering.

Professor Ramesh Thakur, Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University 

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Ramesh Thakur is a professor emeritus at the Crawford School of Public Policy, the Australian National University.

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