In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University.
Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has been one of his most controversial foreign policy decisions. As one of his campaign promises it was not unexpected, but the unilateral decertification of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) has multiplied the workload of international diplomats who are working hard to salvage the accord.
President Trump’s decision may originate from his hostility toward Barack Obama and his achievements, as well as Trump’s apocalyptic views toward Iran and the Muslim world. Whatever the reason, a robust international agreement has been dismantled by the US government and the long-term outcomes will be disappointing.
Peter Kuznick, professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, suggests that other signatories to the JCPOA are now in a difficult position. Once the US imposes new sanctions on Iran, they will need to adopt measures such as counter-sanctions to prevent the American unilateralism.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Professor Kuznick about the US withdrawal from the Iran deal, how it will affect US-Europe relations and what it means for the future of the Iranian people.
Kourosh Ziabari: The Iran nuclear deal was deemed by the international community to be working, and the UN’s atomic watchdog had confirmed several times that Tehran was complying with its commitments under the JCPOA. Why did Trump pull out of the accord?
Peter Kuznick: Trump’s decision to rip up the Iran deal — the JCPOA — had nothing to do with whether or not the deal was working as planned. The UN inspectors certified that it was, as did US officials, including Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] head Yukiya Amano told reporters last September that “The nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under [the 2015 deal] are being implemented. The verification regime in Iran is the most robust regime which is currently existing. We have increased the inspection days in Iran, we have increased inspector numbers … and the number of images has increased.”
Iran had closed most of its centrifuges, disabled [its] plutonium-producing heavy water reactor, shipped 97% of its enriched uranium out of the country, and allowed regular IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. Trump’s reckless decision was based on a longstanding hostility toward Iran, his mistrust of treaties, his hatred of Muslims, his desire to erase every achievement of the Obama administration, his subservience to Israeli hawks, and his itching for a military confrontation with a country that could not retaliate with nuclear weapons or other WMD [weapons of mass destruction].
Trump argued incorrectly that the deal’s sunset clauses would allow Iran to sprint toward a bomb when the deal was up, which isn’t true. Iran has not only denied any intention to build a bomb — its behavior is still governed by the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty], which precludes it from developing a bomb. If it took unilateral steps to defy the treaty, the world would have time to take action to stop it. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was so taken aback by Trump’s statements that he declared, “President Trump does not seem to have read the agreement. The third line of it states: ‘Iran commits to never developing nuclear weapons.’ There is no time restriction on that. The word we use is ‘never.’ The time restrictions relate to voluntary limits on our nuclear energy program that we have undertaken to give the international community confidence that we are sincere in our intentions.”
Trump also complains that the nuclear deal has not eliminated Iran’s missile program, limited its ties to Hezbollah or constrained its activities in Syria. That’s true but irrelevant. The JCPOA was only intended to curtail Iran’s nuclear program, which it has achieved with stunning success.
Ziabari: The European Union, Russia and China have made it clear that they will stick to the nuclear agreement. Do you think the deal will survive without the US?
Kuznick: The deal will survive temporarily, but it will probably not survive for long if the US begins to sanction and take other actions to penalize companies that deal with Iran. Trump says such punitive measures are imminent. That will put the other signatories to the JCPOA in a difficult position. But it’s time for them to flip the script and accuse the US of threatening world peace by these actions. They need to defy US policymakers and continue trading with Iran. If the US imposes sanctions, they need to place counter-sanctions on trade with the US.
Perhaps a global economic boycott of the US is needed to stop the kind of bullying, hypocritical behavior that enables the US to force sanctions on countries that do things it disapproves of while never being held to the same standards. If the US chooses to isolate itself, others should treat it accordingly. I realize this is far from being reality in today’s world. But somebody needs to at least highlight this double standard and deplore it openly.
Ziabari: If the United States imposes new sanctions on Iran and penalizes European companies that do business in Iran, then ordinary Iranian citizens will likely suffer as the economy deteriorates. What’s your take on the humanitarian implications of the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal?
Kuznick: Imposition of new sanctions and cutting off European trade will hurt the Iranian people in the short run, causing Iranians to suffer as they have in the past. This will strengthen the hands of the hardliners around Ayatollah [Ali] Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard, who opposed negotiations from the beginning, and weaken the position of President Hassan Rouhani, who pushed for the treaty. Between 2012 and 2017, Iran lost approximately $160 billion in oil exports. In the long run, though, the sanctions will backfire. They will solidify Iran’s economic and political ties with China and Russia. They will also force Iran to be more self-sufficient.
Ziabari: Will the US withdrawal from the deal empower hardliners in Iran who are opposed to reconciliation with Washington and were against the nuclear agreement to begin with?
Kuznick: Yes, of course it will. It will also empower Israeli hawks. It will undermine US credibility everywhere and cast doubt upon the kind of international cooperation we need to resolve other crises around the world. When you get such rare and positive cooperation between the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany, it is unconscionable to allow a despot like Trump to throw it away. There must be repercussions and consequences for such a crime against world peace.
Ziabari: US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently set out a list of demands that Iran should comply with. Does Washington realistically think the Iranians will agree to the list?
Kuznick: Neither Pompeo nor anyone else seriously thinks the Iranians will go along with US demands. Certainly the Europeans, Russians and Chinese have no appetite for indulging the Trump administration on this. They all have their own reasons to be furious with Trump and appalled by his behavior. Iran has made clear that it will not comply with US demands.
Ziabari: Is war on the horizon for Iran?
Kuznick: The US was ready to bomb Iran during the George W. Bush administration and probably would have done so if the CIA hadn’t reported that Iran gave up its nuclear program in 2003. John McCain was singing “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” in an obscene play upon an old Beach Boys song. The Republicans had done everything they could to sabotage the deal when it was being negotiated including unprecedented actions like inviting the Israeli prime minister to address a joint session of Congress [to] denounce the JCPOA and writing an open letter to Iranian leaders notifying them that Congress, not the president, had the ultimate power over treaties.
So instead of submitting the agreement to Congress, where it would have been voted down, Obama said it wasn’t a treaty and instead submitted it to the UN Security Council, which voted 15-0 in favor. Trump recently named John Bolton as national security advisor and Mike Pompeo as secretary of state. Though Pompeo has surprised many by acting responsibly on Korea, he has been an outspoken hawk on Iran. As a Congressman, he said he “look[ed] forward to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism.”
Secretary of Defense [James] Mattis, who has been more restrained of late, was forced to retire early by Obama because of his hawkish views on Iran. And Bolton advocated bombing Iran years ago. Col. Larry Wilkerson, who was formerly Secretary of State Colin Powell’s chief of staff, has warned that Trump is following the same playbook Bush used leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The difference, he said, is that invading Iran would be 10 to 15 times as costly in human and material terms as was the invasion of Iraq. He has been doing everything he could to avert that catastrophe.
So war is definitely a possibility and there are some US policymakers who would welcome it, but it would be a humanitarian disaster of the highest order.
*[Updated: August 20, 2018, at 22:20 GMT.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.