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
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)
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:
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
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.
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
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
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
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:
legislation doesn’t impose new sanctions immediately, and
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
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.
28 December 2013