Those with short memories forget what a gem of non-proliferation the Iran Framework Agreement of July 2015 is. Trump wants to trash it. If he succeeds it will create regional uncertainty and the likelihood of nuclear proliferation that the Framework currently postpones. Along with his posture towards North Korea, Trump’s contempt for Iran makes him the most dangerous of American presidents.
Distracted by the heat and irrationality of Trump’s tweets about Iran, we tend to forget what his predecessor helped the other permanent members of the Security Council and Germany fashion.
In the 1970s, informed opinion was that the paranoid Shah of Iran wanted nuclear weapons to deter a Soviet advance to the Persian Gulf. He camouflaged his ambitions with a nuclear power program involving construction of power reactors along the Gulf.
After the Shah’s ignominious deposition in 1979, the Ayatollahs gradually reconstructed the nuclear shambles he had left them. Underground halls were constructed at Natanz and elsewhere for fleets of gas centrifuges to enrich uranium in the isotope U235. A heavy water facility was built at Arak to produce deuterium. Iran stockpiled low and medium-enriched uranium, ostensibly to use as nuclear fuel in its power reactors, but capable of rapid transformation to highly enriched uranium for weapons. Israel swore that President Ahmadinejad (2005-2013) would nuke Israel as soon as he had the bomb, (indeed, the silly man threatened to do so in as many words), and began planning to take out his nuclear facilities before he had reached that stage.
Spurred on by the possibility of such a body blow to regional stability, the United States and the other members of the Security Council plus Germany worked in concert over five long years to persuade Iran away from its suspected nuclear trajectory. The stick was ever more draconian economic sanctions, the carrot their abolition. Throughout the process Iran swore it was only interested in nuclear power, not weapons, but such protestations did not allay the West’s suspicions.
The result, a Comprehensive Plan of Action, became operational in July 2015. Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its low-enriched uranium stockpile by 98 percent, reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by two-thirds for 13 years, restrict itself for ten years to one enrichment facility using only first generation centrifuges, and enrich uranium in the isotope 235 to a limit of 3.67 per cent. It would convert other facilities to avoid proliferation risk and build no more heavy water facilities. International Atomic Energy Agency officials would make frequent inspections of all Iran’s nuclear facilities. In return, Iran would receive relief from US and EU nuclear-related sanctions. These measures would effectively delay any plans Iran secretly harboured to manufacture nuclear weapons by many years.
Despite the IAEA and a plethora of intelligence agencies, including American ones, finding that Iran was adhering to the agreement, President Trump called it a rotten deal, one that he would disavow when coming to office. Today he continues to assert he will do so. Why? In Pearls and Irritations on 11 October, John Tulloh listed a number of credible reasons (at least, credible to Trump): to empower Saudi Arabia, America’s biggest arms customer, against Iran; to appease Israel; to punish Iran for supporting the Syrian regime and Hezbollah which the UN continues to characterise as a terrorist organisation; or for Trump (and Washington) to seek vengeance against Iranian revolutionaries who took over the US embassy in Tehran and seized diplomatic hostages in 1979.
There may be another reason lying in Trump’s toxic reptilian mid-brain, and it goes back to the ambitions of President George W. Bush’s 2001 war cabinet, which comprised Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Armitage. Bush’s aim, like Trump’s, was to ‘make America great again’, a strength and direction lost, as they saw it, in the fiasco of the Vietnam War. As James Mann recorded in Rise of the Vulcans, (Viking 2004), the Bush cabinet’s key philosophical beliefs were in the centrality and efficacy of American military power; America’s force for good around the globe; an extraordinarily optimistic belief in American capabilities; a reluctance to enter into agreements or accommodations with other countries, especially those they had little regard for; and finally, the need to build-up American power to such an extent that it would be fruitless and financially crippling for any other country to hope to compete with it.
These are the same beliefs that drive Trump to make America great again. His inner demons are not so much a loss of military credibility as a perceived plague of political correctness, a bureaucratic swamp in Washington, unfair trade practices that deprive middle Americans of their jobs, and the con trick of global warming that has all but closed down American coal mines – pretty much the same sad collection of populist motives that drive our very own Tony Abbott.
But can Trump succeed in scuppering the Iran deal? Unlikely, since Russia, China, France and Germany, even possibly Britain, won’t stand for it. If he continues to tilt at reason and common sense, Trump will isolate the United States even further from constructive international dialogue than it is at present. He won’t be trusted to honour any agreement entered into by the United States that he does not like the look of. About his only loyal mate will remain Australia and its purblind government.
Richard Broinowski, a senior Australian diplomat, was a First Secretary in the Australian Embassy, Tehran in the early 1970s.