Q&A on the US nuclear deal with Iran



Q: Why has the US made a U-turn with regard to Iran's nuclear programme at this time?


A: Settling with Iran on the nuclear issue, and perhaps more generally, has been open to the US for the last decade and more.


Remember that in May 2003 a message to the US from Iran via the Swiss ambassador offered to negotiate a comprehensive settlement with all US concerns in the Middle East open for discussion.


Remember too that Iran had been of considerable assistance to the US after 9/11, specifically in its invasion of Afghanistan, and that as a Shia power it was potentially a natural ally of the US against Al Qaeda.  But, instead of trying to normalise relations with Iran in 2001/2, President Bush rewarded it for its assistance by placing it alongside Iraq and North Korea in the “axis of evil” in his State of the Union address to Congress in January 2002.


In terms of combating its perceived main enemy, Al Qaeda, it has made sense for a long time that the US settle with Iran.  However, it seems that the US couldn’t bring itself to recognise the Islamic Republic as a legitimate power in the Middle East, fearful presumably that as it grew in strength it would resist and undermine US power and influence in the region.  So, the US continued to entertain hopes that by applying pressure of one kind or another (economic sanctions, cyber warfare, support for dissident minorities, threat of force, etc) the Islamic regime could be overthrown and replaced by one more prepared to take orders from Washington.  But, that hasn’t happened.


The nuclear issue has never been an impediment to an accommodation – because the US knew that Iran wasn’t developing nuclear weapons.  Unfounded claims that Iran was developing nuclear weapons, or would develop nuclear weapons if it was allowed to continue enriching uranium, were used by the US to whip up and maintain a campaign to persuade the international community to support US-inspired pressure on Iran.


There was never any hard evidence that Iran was developing nuclear weapons and in November 2007 US intelligence made a formal assessment in a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran hadn’t got a nuclear weapons programme, an assessment that has been repeated annually since 2007.  According to his memoir, Decision Points, President George Bush was “angry” when he learnt of this assessment by his intelligence services – he was angry because:


“The NIE didn’t just undermine diplomacy.  It also tied my hands on the military side…. after the NIE, how could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?”


In other words, President Bush was not worried that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.  He was worried that the evidence from his own intelligence services that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons would undermine the US-led campaign to keep pressure on Iran.


So, when it came to doing a deal, the US knew that Iran’s nuclear weapons programme wasn’t a problem.


And it knew that Iran was willing to do a deal and that, as long as it was allowed to continue enrichment on its own soil, it was prepared to provide extraordinary transparency measures to reassure the outside world that its nuclear facilities would not be used for weapons purposes.


The US knew this because Iran offered a deal along these lines in negotiations with the EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) in 2005, a deal that was blocked by the US because, at that time, the US refused to countenance Iran having enrichment on its own soil.  So, the US knew a nuclear deal could be made but it also knew that, to make the deal, it would have to do a U-turn on Iran’s continuation of enrichment.


But, to attempt to answer your question (at last), why did the US decide to make the U-turn now, and accept that the Islamic Republic is here to stay and the US would have to live with it?  Perhaps, because it was increasingly evident that the political system in Iran was stable and enjoyed popular support and the political leadership showed no sign of bending, let alone breaking, under US-inspired economic pressure – and the time was approaching when the US would have to choose between military action against Iran in the foolish hope that regime change could be effected and settling with it.  Happily it has chosen to settle.



Q: You forecast in your book, A Dangerous Delusion, that Iran would happily strike a deal. Did you expect the US to strike a deal, when you wrote the book?


When Peter Oborne and I wrote the book, I certainly didn’t expect the US to strike a deal.  On the contrary, I feared that the US would take military action against Iran, not to invade but to destroy its nuclear facilities and its capability to respond militarily to such an attack.  The rhetoric from Washington, egged on from Tel Aviv, still pointed in that direction, as it had done during the Bush years.



Q: You talk about falsehood and myth that were used to tarnish the image of Iran overseas. Who was behind this effort and what were their goals?


A: In order to keep international pressure on Iran, the US and its allies had to paint an almost completely false picture of Iran as an aggressive state hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons and destroying Israel.  Unfortunately, generally speaking, the mainstream media in the West transmitted this picture uncritically, so much so that the key message that US intelligence believed that Iran hadn’t got a nuclear weapons programme never reached the ears of the public in the West.  Peter Oborne and I wrote the book in an attempt to counter some of this false propaganda.



Q: Why did the US start negotiating a deal with Iran when Ahmadinejad was still president?


A: It’s not clear why the US began the process of negotiation in March 2013 while Ahmadinejad was still in power.  Of course, the US knew that Iranian nuclear policy under Ahmadinejad was no different from that under Khatami in 2005 – the bottom line always was that Iran must have uranium enrichment on its own soil.  The US knew that Ahmadinejad was going to be replaced in a few months, with the possibility that his replacement would be less abrasive towards the US and would make it easier for a deal to be sold in the US.  But the US administration could not have known that Ahmadinejad’s replacement (who emerged at a late stage in the electoral process) would have been so effective towards that end – without changing Iranian nuclear policy one iota !



Q: Do you expect any trouble in the implementation of this agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme?


A: The interim agreement is essentially on Iran’s terms, since it states clearly that the final agreement will allow it to continue uranium enrichment to fuel power reactors and that all sanctions against Iran will be lifted.  In view of this, it is certain that Iran will implement the interim agreement meticulously and it is therefore unlikely that the US will have any excuse to re-impose the small scale sanctions it has agreed to lift.


However, it is possible (though I think unlikely) that during the interim deal, driven on by the Israeli lobby, the US Congress will pass legislation imposing additional sanctions on Iran, thereby potentially breaking a US commitment in the agreement.


Legislation before the US Senate currently, promoted by the Israeli lobby in the US, does not impose additional sanctions immediately, but only if Iran fails to implement the interim agreement or to negotiate a final agreement.  It is not clear that this will be voted on, let alone passed, by the Senate, in which the Democrats have a majority.  The Obama administration is lobbying fiercely against the legislation and, although the legislation has a measure of Democratic support, 10 senior Democrats who chair Senate committees have backed the administration on this.  If the legislation is passed by the Senate and by the House of Representatives, it is certain to be vetoed by the President, though this can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in each House.


It is not clear if the passing of such legislation through Congress over a presidential veto would constitute a breach of the letter of the agreement, which says:


“The US Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”


It’s not clear for two reasons:

(1)   the legislation doesn’t impose new sanctions immediately, and

(2)   the text seems to require the President to do what he can within the US Constitution to block new sanctions – but he can’t block legislation duly passed over his veto


I don’t think that there will be sufficient support in Congress to override a presidential veto.  However, if Congress were to do this, it would be a severe blow to the deal - the Iranian foreign minister has said that it would wreck it.



Q: What does this interim nuclear deal mean for Israel?


A: Portraying Iran as an aggressive state, hellbent on developing nuclear weapons and wiping out Israel, has been a convenient distraction for Israel from its continuing military occupation and colonisation of Palestinian lands – and an excuse to demand more and more military aid from the US. 


Like its US counterparts, Israeli intelligence never believed that Iran was developing nuclear weapons.  Last year, the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz, expressed the view that Iran hadn’t decided to develop nuclear weapons and probably wouldn’t ever decide to do so (see Haaretz article, IDF chief to Haaretz: I do not believe Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons, 25 April 2012).


If Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to oppose the deal – and directs the Israeli lobby in the US to take steps to sabotage it through the US Congress – then Israeli relations with the US could be damaged to the detriment of Israel, which for a generation and a half has relied heavily on US political and military support.



Q: Was the interim deal a sign of the triumph of saner voices in the US and the British administration over the war-mongers in the Bush regime?


A: There is some truth in this, though in Obama’s first term I did not detect a significant difference in policy towards Iran compared with his predecessor.  It may be that the appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State has made some difference: in an interview with the Financial Times about policy towards Iran in 2009, he described the inflexibility on Iran by the Bush administration as “bombastic diplomacy” that “wasted energy” and “hardened the lines”.  Under the NPT, Iran had “a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose”, he said.



Q: Why do you stress that the 24 November agreement was in fact not between Iran and P5+1 but between Iran and the US?


A: In my opinion, any nuclear deal that satisfied the US would have satisfied the other members of the P5+1, so in reality the deal was between the US and Iran.



David Morrison

28 December 2013