May 28, 2018

It was the hope of all observers around the world wanting peace in the Middle East that President Donald Trump would revalidate the nuclear deal with Iran on 12 May. Not only did he not do so, but later that month his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched an inflammatory and inaccurate attack on Iran and its leaders, impugning them with the worst possible motives. Hopes for a nuclear-free Middle East have faded as a result. So has the United States’ erratic record for honouring its international undertakings. This has, in turn, reduced hopes for a successful outcome to a summit between Trump and North Korean President Kim Jong-un, even if the two leaders decide to reconvene it following Trump’s cancellation on 25 May. 

Mike Pompeo’s address on 21 May 2018 to the Heritage Foundation in Washington understated nothing. He said the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), has ‘failed to guarantee the safety of the American people from the risk created by the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran’ (as if Iran was about to attack America).

Pompeo declared that Iran wants nuclear weapons and has lied for years about this ambition, (as if Israel, India and Pakistan haven’t). The JCPOA is deeply flawed, he asserted, because it won’t stop Iran’s ‘quick sprint’ to nuclear acquisition as soon as its main conditions end in 15 years; meanwhile, it does not inhibit the continuation of Iran’s missile development program, (just as the US isn’t impeding its own). And, said Pompeo, it does nothing to stop Iran’s aggressive ‘march of terror’ across the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria towards Israel. 

Well, a resounding No to these assertions.

Iran has permanently closed 13,000 of its 19,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges, removed its entire stockpile of highly enriched uranium, and kept insufficient uranium to make even one uranium bomb. It has permanently shut down its plutonium-producing reactor and agreed not to reprocess spent fuel, so as not to make even one plutonium bomb. All spent fuel from its sole power reactor at Bushehr has to go to Russia for re-processing. All Iran’s heavy water has to be sent out of the country. Iran has agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors unprecedented access to all its military and civil facilities at any time – a more highly intrusive inspection regime than those applying to any other country since the beginning of international IAEA inspections. 

Trump complained that the JCPOA does not cover missiles, or Iran’s support for military proxies outside the country (as if the United States doesn’t wage proxy wars of its own). But to include missiles and proxy wars in the agenda would have made it next to impossible to get all parties to agree in what was already a complicated and unwieldy negotiating framework, and it would have multiplied concessional trade-offs demanded by Iran, weakening the nuclear provisions. The driving motivation of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China was to get Iran to stop its nuclear program first. Other issues could then be negotiated in a spirit of comparative calm. 

If Britain, France and Germany cave into US secondary boycotts and leave the JCPOA, Iran is likely to resume its nuclear program, but this time underground, free from intrusive IAEA inspections. The Iranian leadership has always claimed its ambitions are not to develop weapons, but to build up Iran’s nuclear power assets, just as the Shah planned in the 1970s. Facing unbridled US scepticism about its intentions, why should Iran not now go all out and develop a nuclear deterrent? It is surrounded by six nuclear states – Pakistan, India, Israel, Russia, China and the US Sixth Fleet in the Gulf. Both Israel and the US have threatened nuclear attacks. Given US bellicosity, it could, like North Korea, feel entirely justified in opting for the path to nuclear weapons. Since Trump walked out of the JCPOA, moderates like President Rouhani have lost political ground to extremists in the Revolutionary Guard and the Guardian Council. And the spiritual leader and head of the armed forces, Ayatollah Khamenei, previously a reluctant supporter of the JCPOA, may switch to support for nuclear weapons. 

Such a change of course in Iran would have all too predictable regional proliferation results – in Saudi Arabia certainly, Egypt and Turkey probably – making regional nuclear non-proliferation an impossible hope. 

With his intemperate and bellicose language, Pompeo has made things worse. He accused Iranian ‘kleptocrats’ of stealing JCPOA funds to fuel proxy wars across the Middle East and line the pockets of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards, Hamas and the Houthis; and arm Hezbollah with its sights set on Israel. ‘The Revolutionary Guard’, fumed Pompeo, ‘has continued to pump thousands of fighters into Syria to prop up the murderous Assad regime and help make that country 71,000 square miles of kill zone’ (just as the US has selectively done for Assad’s enemies). 

What is so dangerous are Pompeo’s unprincipled double standards. Iran, like the United States (and Australia), has been fighting to defeat ISIS terrorists. If it supports other ‘terrorists’, so, in spades, does Saudi Arabia with US backing. Iran’s growing influence among Shia in Iraq and Syria has come, not as the direct result of calculated manoeuvrings in Tehran, but through George W. Bush’s reckless invasion of 2003 which let the sectarian genie out of the bottle. 

The fact is that both Saudi Arabia and Israel feel threatened by Iran’s growing regional influence, and are doing all they can to encourage the United States to launch an invasion of Iran. This would be a disaster – for Iran, for the region and not least for the United States. By virtue of its size, population (82 million), resources, strategic location and deep historical roots, Iran is the dominant regional power. No regional conflict can be resolved without its participation. If President Trump and his advisers had any sense, they would support Iran’s slow evolutionary growth into a more secular country. There are ample signs that Iranians are becoming sick and tired of revolutionary adventurism, and want a peaceful and more prosperous life. Trump and Pompeo, Pence and Bolton, nurturing their vengeful mistrust of Iran, tragically don’t get it. 

Richard Broinowski, a senior Australian diplomat, served as a First Secretary in Tehran in 1972-3 during the Shah’s era. He went back on a fact-finding tour in April 2018. 

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