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Cowardly rush back to flawed nuclear deal leaves world less safe

President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during a conference in Tehran. (File/AFP)
President Hassan Rouhani delivers a speech during a conference in Tehran. (File/AFP)
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27 Dec 2020 12:12:15 GMT9
27 Dec 2020 12:12:15 GMT9

Western naivety concerning Iranian maleficence never fails to plumb new depths. French, British and German foreign ministers embarked last week on a fresh diplomatic push for Iran and the US to return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program in return for an easing of sanctions — as if the past four years never happened. UN under-secretary general Rosemary DiCarlo criticized the US’s withdrawal from the deal and urged both sides to return to compliance.

Statements from Joe Biden also suggest that a straightforward US return to the JCPOA would be acceptable when he becomes president, and that any outstanding issues could be discussed at a later stage. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif states that Iran could “rapidly reverse” its enrichment activities in exchange for the lifting of US sanctions, and that renegotiation of the JCPOA was “out of the question.”

The stage is thus set for all sides to rush back into a deal that is scarcely worth the paper it is written on, particularly given that many of the principal provisions restricting Iran’s enrichment activities will have expired in less than five years. Indeed, the first of the principal “sunset clauses” — the arms embargo under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 — expired in October, meaning that states such as Russia and China can return to rearming Tehran with impunity.

Tehran by 2025 can thus return to proliferation-sensitive activities, while nominally remaining in compliance with its obligations — aside from what secret activities it may be engaging in on clandestine military sites. Let’s not forget that other regional states have made little secret of their intentions to develop nuclear programs if Iran continues advancing its nuclear and ballistic capabilities.

Despite being the principal victims of Iranian warmongering, Middle Eastern powers were excluded from JCPOA negotiations. They are set to be circumvented once again, because the Europeans have no intention of paying heed to GCC leaderships who are be abandoned on the frontlines of Iranian aggression. Even when civilian targets and economic infrastructures of GCC states were attacked over the past couple of years, Western states, including governments that have signed collective security pacts, did nothing.

The January GCC summit is therefore a moment when regional powers must assertively make their views felt, potentially through proportional and credible threats of economic and diplomatic retaliation if their interests are ignored.

When Barack Obama came to power in 2009 Iran was stirring trouble in Iraq and pulled Hezbollah’s strings in Lebanon, but could hardly be considered a credible regional power. Today Tehran dominates a 2,000km belt of territory stretching from western Afghanistan through to the Mediterranean.

The 2015 deal transformed Tehran’s circumstances, resulting in the unfreezing of about $32 billion in worldwide Iranian assets. A disproportionate volume of these funds (along with windfalls from new investments and the abolition of sanctions against financial institutions) was ploughed into overseas paramilitarism and Iran’s domestic military complex, including its ballistic weapons programme and the Revolutionary Guards.

Three years of “maximum pressure” sanctions have brought Iran’s broken economy to the point of no return. Yet the JCPOA states appear resolved to toss all this leverage away for the sake of a cheap return to the pre-2017 status quo.

Baria Alamuddin

It is no coincidence that 2016 represented the zenith of Iran’s military involvement in Syria: Tehran poured tens of thousands of Iraqi, Lebanese, Afghan, Pakistani and Yemeni mercenaries on to the battlefield, culminating in the blood-soaked recapture of Aleppo. According to a representative of Iran’s National Security Committee, Iran funneled about $30 billion into the Syrian conflict between 2011 and 2020, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrian citizens and prolonging the war indefinitely, while entrenching a blood-drenched dictator in power.

Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi also expanded massively in Iraq from 2015-17, from a ragtag assemblage of small militias to a massive force in excess of 150,000 fighters, with new Iranian weaponry flooding across the border. This coincided with the major expansion of the Yemen conflict, beginning with the Houthi announcement in March 2015 of a general mobilization to overthrow President Hadi and a huge increase in Iranian military support, as well as major upscaling of Houthi rocket attacks against Arabian Peninsula states. Iran’s annual funding for Hezbollah by 2017 mushroomed to $700 million, more than double what it was receiving a few years before.

During this period there were continual statements from Western officials lauding the successes of the nuclear accord, with scant attention given to Iran’s non-nuclear violations. While it is fair to criticize Trump for withdrawing from the deal while having no roadmap for an improved formula, European leaders have relished the opportunity to negate Trump’s policies, while refusing to recognize the deal’s grotesque shortcomings.

Just in the past few days, Iran-backed militia forces such as Asa’ib Ahl Al-Haq have been threatening to collapse the security situation in Iraq over the continued detention of one of its commanders who had been responsible for rocket attacks. When terrorist groups such as these control seats in parliament and are allowed to have such a devastating impact on national security in key states like Iraq and Lebanon, we have a real problem.

Three years of “maximum pressure” sanctions have brought Iran’s broken economy to the point of no return. Yet the JCPOA states appear resolved to toss all this leverage away for the sake of a cheap return to the pre-2017 status quo. The foundational philosophy of Iran’s terrorist regime is rooted in waging war against the “Godless West” and propagating the Islamic Revolution at the point of a sword. Yet this is the regime that Western officials plan to negotiate with in good faith, after throwing away all their leverage by abolishing sanctions. What “good faith” should we expect from a regime that has embarked on building entirely new nuclear facilities at the sites of Natanz and Fordo?

With presidential elections in mid-2021, the deal may be signed off by President Hassan Rouhani, yet the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei appears determined to crown a radical Republican Guard-affiliated new president, who by definition would commit Iran to a much more confrontational path.

With Trump in recent days pledging to retaliate if Americans are killed by Iran-proxy missile strikes in Iraq, the air is thick with threats and ill omens of conflict; so much so that I fear that even by the time this article is published something may have erupted that blows all these diplomatic plans out of the water.

Sleepwalking back to the 2015 deal is cowardly, short-sighted diplomacy that perversely from 2025 onward may facilitate Iran’s unchanged desire to build nuclear warheads. The tens of billions of dollars flowing into Iran’s treasury will fuel a second wave of aggressive, expansionist Iranian warmongering. Western officials are calculatedly closing their ears to this reality.

Showering a terrorist regime with funds while assuming it will spontaneously mend its ways is a crazed recipe for disaster. Biden’s win over Trump was billed as a return to responsible, mature governance. Let’s hope that one of its first foreign policy initiatives isn’t an act of pure insanity.

  • Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.
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