View from abroad: A diversionary war against Iran?

HERE we go again. When Benjamin Netan­yahu, the Israeli prime minister, gave a PowerPoint presentation on Iran’s attempt to deceive the world with its nuclear programme recently, he resembled a car salesman trying to pass off an ancient clunker as a brand new model. The immediate reaction from experts, as well as those involved in the lengthy negotiations with Iran that ended with the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), was one big yawn.

This agreement to freeze plans to refine uranium to weapons grade between Iran and the US, the EU, the UK, France, China and Russia plus Germany, and approved by the UN Security Council, was perhaps Barack Obama’s finest achievement. But Donald Trump seems determined to undo everything his predecessor succeeded at, and is now out to wreck this historic deal.

On May 12, he has to certify to Congress that Iran is in full compliance of the terms of the JCPOA, and the omens are not good. Most observers, from the French president downwards, think that Trump will withhold certification, thus effectively pulling the United States out of the agreement.

By putting on his tawdry show, Netanyahu has given Trump ammunition to shoot the JCPOA down, even though everybody knows the documents Israel has stolen from Tehran relate to the period 1999-2003. Back then, Iran was indeed engaged in a clandestine weapons programme, but which was then abandoned in 2005.

The very fact that it was so easy for Mossad to obtain half a ton of documents from a Tehran archive would appear to indicate that the Iranian government did not regard them as very secret or important, and had provided minimal security to the storage facility.

And yet, given Donald Trump’s ignorance, and his famously short attention span, a cartoon presentation is what will stick in his mind, Thus, when Netanyahu says: “Iran lied”, and “The deal was built on lies”, Trump will probably seize on these sound bites as reasons for walking away from the JCPOA.

In short, the canny Israeli leader was addressing his presentation to an audience of one: Donald Trump.

To be fair, the US president has consistently opposed the agreement, railing against it during his presidential campaign, characterising it as “the worst deal ever”.

He objected to the unfreezing of several billion dollars of Iranian cash seized by American authorities in the early days of the revolution when the US embassy hostage crisis triggered sanctions against Iran.

But Donald Trump failed to grasp that this was Iranian money being returned to its rightful owner, and not American largesse.

More importantly, Trump wants an agreement that will include a host of elements other than Iran’s nuclear ambitions ranging from its support of Hezbollah, its presence in Syria, its missile programme and its power projection in the region.

Clearly, the diplomats negotiating the nuclear agreement were not given such a wide-ranging remit for the simple reason that Tehran would never have agreed to such sweeping restrictions on its freedom of action.

The priority was to obtain an agreement that would block Tehran’s path to atomic weapons for a finite period, thereby preventing a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

At the time, Tel Aviv had been making all kinds of bellicose threats, declaring that it would be Tehran’s target, and therefore had the right to take pre-emptive action. The risk was (and still is) that the United States would get involved in a full-scale regional war.

Iran rightly complains that despite being in full compliance of the agreement, it has yet to see the benefits it had been promised by the lifting of sanctions.

The reason is that major international banks fear US fines and reprisals if they do business with Tehran. Thus, many transactions are circuitously conducted through second-tier banks.

Loans are difficult to secure, and US travel restrictions are still in place. As Saeed Kamali Dehghan, the Guardian’s Iran correspondent, wrote recently:

“… Let’s be clear: Netanyahu’s files did not show that Iran has violated the agreement. The IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] has verified 10 times… that Tehran has fully complied with its terms.

“Arguably, if anyone has the right to complain, it is Iran. It has unplugged two-thirds of its centrifuges, and shipped out 98 percent of its enriched uranium, but has not seen the economic benefits it was promised. Nearly three years on, not a single first-tier bank is prepared to do business with Iran…”

If the deal were to collapse, the political ramifications within Iran would be huge. Despite reservations, Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, gave his blessings to the deal. Hardliners including nationalists, clerics and elements of the powerful Revolutionary Guards opposed it tooth and nail. But Hasan Rouhani, the moderate Iranian president, argued that this was the only way to have sanctions lifted, and resume oil sales to improve a stagnant economy.

Ultimately, his arguments prevailed, but now, his political future is on the line. Should the deal collapse, he will face severe criticism, and will be a lame duck president for the rest of his tenure. The hardliners will seize the political high ground, and Iran’s bid to rejoin the international community after decades of sanctions will come to an ignominious end.

But Iran’s options are limited: should it resume uranium enrichment, it risks a military attack from Israel and the US. If it does nothing, it will be seen as caving in to American bullying. Iranians are a proud people, and guard their sovereignty jealously.

One beneficiary of the US-Israeli nexus will be Saudi Arabia, whose bellicose Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has been urging Washington to walk away from the agreement and attack Iranian nuclear facilities. But he should be careful what he wishes for as a regional conflagration could claim many victims, including Saudi Arabia.

And what would Trump and his friend Netanyahu gain from such a messy conflict? Both are mired in domestic political scandals, and there’s nothing like a war to divert public opinion from their troubles.

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