RICHARD BUTLER. US Ultimatum to Iran: A Classic or a Fake?

May 25, 2018

Secretary of State Pompeo’s speech to roll out the US Plan B on Iran’s nuclear programme was an ultimatum and, a plan for regime change in Iran. The ultimatum will be rejected but without the classic follow up; in this case, an attack on Iran. It will be proven to be an undeliverable fake.  

Following its unilateral withdrawal from the multilateral nuclear agreement with Iran, (the JCPOA), there was a clamor, particularly from the other five signatories to the Agreement, for the US to make clear what its “Plan B” would be. The US did not resist this call, indeed, it said it did have an alternative plan.

There is a need for precision here. The clamor was for clarity about how the US reckoned, were the JCPOA to collapse, Iran would continue to be restrained from acquiring a nuclear weapon capability, nothing else. That is, it was not an ambit request for a new policy towards Iran, as such, across the board.

There were many good reasons for this concern: JCPOA had been laboriously negotiated; it had been endorsed by the UN Security Council; the IAEA, as verification Agency, had declared that it was being adhered to by Iran; there was anxiety that action to seek to amend, let alone tear it down, would see Iran resume a possible nuclear weapons programme and, that this would lead others, certainly Saudi Arabia, to begin such a programme.

Three days ago, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chose The Heritage Foundation, Washington’s preeminent Republican ThinkTank /cheerleader, to make his first major speech as Secretary. In it, he rolled out Plan B. It is an ambit policy.

As Trump did when he announced the US’ departure from JCPOA, Pompeo misrepresented the Agreement. This seems to be a standard methodology in the Trump camp, not simply to lie about matters of fact, but to especially do so when dealing with achievements by Obama.

And there is the factor of the US’ defense of Israel’s interests. In asides, Pompeo seemed to channel Netanyahu’s TV performance, immediately before Trump announced his withdrawal decision, claiming that the US knew of Iranian violations of JCPOA, but didn’t specify them beyond saying, for example, they haven’t stopped enriching uranium; something which they are permitted to do, within agreed limits, under JCPOA. He gave no source of or evidence for his claims.

An important aspect of his trashing of JCPOA was his claim that the IAEA’s inspection and verification work was inadequate. The Director General of IAEA has confirmed his confidence in that work, pointing out that it is the most extensive and intrusive the Agency has ever established. The Board of Governors of IAEA, of which the US is a member has accepted this position and endorsed the Director General’s conclusion, to date, that Iran has been in compliance with JCPOA.

In the face of this, Pompeo’s 3rd demand that Iran should: “Provide the IAEA with unqualified access to all sites throughout the entire country”, is as excessive as it is unspecific. These sites are not even specified as being related to nuclear activity. Hospitals utilize nuclear materials and they need to be produced continually. Would they and sites producing radio isotopes, be included in “all sites”?

No member State of the UN or party to the non-proliferation Treaty has been asked and nor would accept such a demand, in any context, unless it had decide to basically give up on its sovereignty.

The, “they can’t fool us”, aspect of Pompeo’s, remarks, taking the Heritage crowd into his confidence, was faintly ludicrous. But, the real point, the centre- piece of his speech, was his offer of a Treaty with Iran, provided it first agreed to twelve US demands, only three of which had to do, specifically, with a potential Iranian nuclear weapons capability. ( Ramesh Thakur has given a complete account of the key JCPOA aspects of Pompeo’s proposal: Pearls and Irritations 23rd May ).

The US’ twelve demands constitute an extraordinary intervention in Iran’s sovereign conduct of its own domestic affairs and international relations. As Pompeo’s speech also outlined the severe consequences Iran will face if it does not comply, his proposal for a Treaty was, in fact, an ultimatum.

The point about ultimatums, at least classically, is that the party delivering it calculates that it doesn’t really matter what the answer is, because either way they win. If the target of it capitulates, then that’s a victory and, if it doesn’t capitulate, then license has been given to go to war with it, which of course, the demandeur probably wanted anyway and, calculates that it will win.

Having listened carefully to Pompeo’s speech and, then read it, I believe the Iranians will see it as giving expression to a US determination to bring about regime change in Iran; and, they will be right.

This is a clarion instance of US policy making today: seek to wreck a crucial agreement which is working but, has the mortal flaw of having been achieved by Trump’s predecessor but opposition to which is graced by the imprimatur of Benyamin Netanyahu; lie about the effects of the agreement; claim to have other deep knowledge of how it is being abused; and, rather than seek to address, in consultation with others, the operation of the agreement and, the several serious concerns held about Iranian conduct in non nuclear fields, deliver an ultimatum which could only be fulfilled following significant conflict within Iran, hopefully leading to regime change.

The US obsession with Iran is extreme and dangerous. That they are supported in this by Israel and Saudi Arabia, widens the danger.

Then there’s the unalloyed arrogance of their sanctions policy. Not only do they promise to place heavier sanctions upon Iran, indeed Pompeo threatened the wrecking of Iran’s economy, but to extend sanctions to all others who do not support US policy; and, that presumably includes Australia.

We were mentioned in his speech as an important ally. But so are the major EU/NATO countries and they have already indicated that they heard the threat of extended sanctions as applying to them.

Predictions are, of course, mainly best avoided, but in this instance irresistible.

As with so many things issued from Trump, this ultimatum will prove to be fake. Iran will reject it, as it must, if it is to retain a shred of self- respect and control over its own sovereign polity.

What, for instance is it to make of Pompeo’s 12th condition: “ End its threatening behavior against its neighbors, many of whom are US allies”.

There’s so much that could be said of this, but suffice to point out that: this demand has nothing to do with the central nuclear issue; it would be a laborious task to seek to discipline States and groups in the Middle East who threaten their neighbors; and, being deemed an ally of the US in the Middle east has been a mixed blessing. Saddam Hussein was one of them, once upon a time.

So, the new draconian US sanctions will be imposed on Iran and potentially on others, but in rejection of US hubris, overreach, they will surely be routinely busted. And, the remaining parties to JCPOA will work with all possible skill and determination to keep it alive. It will be in Iran’s interest to do the same; which, in turn will strengthen its relations with a range of key countries. Now that would be ironic. The EU is already considering conducting its future dealings with Iran in Euros, replacing US dollars.

In these circumstances the only way the US could obtain its neurotically desired regime change in Iran would be by attacking it.

It did bring about a regime change in Iran in 1953 and that has a great deal to do with today’s circumstances. The costs of seeking to repeat that today, at least overtly, would be prohibitive and, if attempted, would  lead to a major conflict, in which Russia, for example, would have an interest.

Rationally considered, Pompeo’s ultimatum is a fake, or at least we should hope so, but then that’s mere rationality, a quality in apparently short supply in Trump’s Washington.

US National Security Advisor, John Bolton, is on record as believing that war with China is inevitable, that regime change should be sought militarily in DPRK and Iran and, continues to insist that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was justified. He has also actually stated his belief in the notion of illegitimate regimes, which in his view, don’t have the right to exist.

How much of Bolton was in Mike Pompeo’s night out at the Heritage Foundation is not known but, it can be wondered whether Pompeo’s speech might come to be seen as a turning point in the calculation by many states, including traditional friends and allies of the US, of how they manage their relations with the US.

Presumably we will remain joined at the hip. Pompeo seemed to think so.

Richard Butler AC formerly Ambassador to the United Nations, New York, Executive Chairman of UNSCOM, the UN Special Commission to disarm Iraq.  



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