So now another “historic” framework agreement has been reached, this time between Iran and the P5+1 group – the US, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany. This April 2 deal, concluded in Switzerland, was supposed to prevent nuclear catastrophe. We were told that the powers had reached a comprehensive future nuclear deal with Iran, thus ending the decade-long threats and recriminations over Iran’s nuclear programme, which it has always insisted is for peaceful civilian purposes.
Nothing, we were told, was more important than this. Yet as soon as the ink had dried on the document the US repudiated its part of the deal. It signed the document as part of the P5+1, and by so doing agreed to lift sanctions on Iran. Now it is saying that the US Congress alone will decide whether sanctions are lifted, regardless of what the international community, (UN and the EU) and notwithstanding what the agreement actually says.
So apparently plenty of other things are more important than staving off nuclear catastrophe. When we look at the history and primary purpose of this agreement, it is not hard to see what these are.
New wine and old wineskins
“Historic” deals are always welcomed with a similar fanfare. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from the Munich Conference in 1938 with a similar historic agreement, which he declared would bring “Peace For Our Time”. Less than a year later World War Two broke out, and the same Chamberlain declared Britain to be at war with Germany. Unfortunately, this new historic agreement is already going the same way as that one.
The April 2 agreement was supposed to form the basis of a more comprehensive deal which would be signed on 30 June. It was based on a typical diplomatic compromise: Iran will be allowed to develop or maintain a limited enrichment capacity at the Fordow site, but it will become a nuclear physics facility, and no fissile material will be present at the site. Thus Iran will still be allowed to enrich uranium, but purely for scientific research purposes, unconnected with weaponry.
It was in return for this that all nuclear-related sanctions against Iran were due to be lifted. Iran has not had time to implement its part of the bargain – even if Fordow has become a research facility overnight, no one has had time to inspect it. Despite this, the blame game has already started, and there are obvious reasons why this is so.
Iran’s nuclear programme is not a new issue. It has engaged the highest levels of government, and the most important international organisations, since at least the days of the George W. Bush presidency. Iran was placed in the Axis of Evil, and stopping it from potentially having a nuclear weapons capacity became a global crusade. Iran, in its turn, built its national credibility on facing down Western threats and doing what it chose to do within its own borders, having painful memories of the externally-imposed wars and coups which have disfigured and slowed the development of that country for centuries.
In any sort of organisation, some people are committed and some aren’t. Over a period of time those who don’t believe in what that organisation is doing, or can’t come to terms with it for higher reasons, go elsewhere or are forced to go elsewhere. Everyone dealing with the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme, on either side, isn’t doing so by accident.
Only the most suspicious and confrontational individuals on each side have risen to positions where they can affect Iran’s nuclear programme. Those whose instinct or reasoning would have led them to this agreement years ago have been taken out of the game. Now an agreement has been signed on the basis that these individuals will implement the new policy, despite the fact they have built distinguished and lucrative careers doing the opposite.
With the best will in the world, this just isn’t going to happen. Senior politicians, diplomats and public servants are not going to risk being branded as war-mongering dinosaurs. As Congress has just demonstrated, they will continue to promote the same views within a different framework, undermining it to prove themselves right, in order to justify their original positions and the vast sums spent supporting those positions in the past.
In 1938 politicians and industries geared to mutual suspicion continued exactly as before, regardless of Chamberlain’s statement, because the same people remained in charge of them. Germany continued to bang on about self-determination for Germans outside the national borders, and the UK continued to point out this was a threat, precisely because an agreement had now been reached ostensibly over this issue, and both sides could accuse the other of not abiding by it.
We will now see more of the same with regards to Iran. The very existence of an agreement gives both sides ample opportunity to accuse the other of breaking it, or even intending to at some uncertain future date. The individuals who will make these claims will have got to the positions where they can make them by saying the same things for years on end. Unless all the personnel involved in this long standoff are replaced overnight a concrete agreement will do world peace more harm than good.
So many enemies, so little choice
The other major problem facing the agreement is that the concept of a “civilian nuclear programme” has changed significantly since the Axis of Evil was invented as a political ploy. As a result of the Three Mile Island accident in the US in 1979, the Chernobyl disaster and a number of other incidents, most countries scaled down or completely phased out their nuclear power generation programmes from the 1980s onwards. We were fed stories about plutonium isotopes taking 30,000 years to deactivate, and it was generally acknowledged that nuclear power was an inherently dangerous con.
In such circumstances, any country which talked about wanting a peaceful, civilian nuclear programme was hardly likely to be trusted. But at that time the international Green movement was still being underestimated, and that has proved to be a serious error.
The same individuals who objected to nuclear power were also simultaneously objecting to the use of fossil fuels. This seemed irrelevant when the nuclear decommissioning programmes began, because nuclear power was a comparatively easy target, seen as the flawed “modernist” energy supply solution of a group of corrupt scientists. Fossil fuels had such a tradition behind them they could never be replaced, merely reduced in importance, with the old compromises bringing more wind, wave and solar power into the mix.
But having won a victory over nuclear power, environmentalists entered new battlefronts. Terms like “C02 emissions” and “carbon footprints”, which were only the preserve of scientists before, became part of political discourse. Fossil fuels proved less resistant to attack than had been assumed. A whole political industry was devoted to demonising them, and thousands of people were appointed to government posts, at all levels all over the world, with the brief of destroying fossil fuel energy and imposing “sustainable” alternatives, on pain of fines, imprisonment or international isolation.
All this had the effect of driving more and more states to reactivate their nuclear plants. This was not a scientific decision, merely a response to the political wind. Nuclear facilities still had bad reputations, but were not being attacked as much as traditional energy sources were. When “clean” is the watchword, nuclear energy looks cleaner than most.
To meet genuine need and get themselves off the hook in this age of “carbon emission targets”, countries facing energy sanctions have driven a significant nuclear comeback, with new facilities planned and some old ones reopened or reactivated. The idea of a civilian nuclear programme is no longer a joke. In fact such a programme is almost obligatory, as the scale of the energy industry makes central planning measures essential to both re-establish this industry and demonstrate a concurrent commitment to refocusing away from fossil fuels.
One of the big issues in Iran’s region, and throughout the developing world, is the energy hypocrisy of the West. On the one hand, it tells the rest of the world it should move away from things like oil dependency. On the other, it buys up all the agricultural products of developing countries to create biofuel which is too expensive for residents of those countries to use. The people are starving, and forced to use the “dirty” fuel the rich countries won’t touch now.
Bringing back nuclear energy is therefore not only a necessity but a means of combating such policies, which ultimately derive from unelected trendies, not accountable governments. In this respect, Iran can claim to be a truer democracy than the US. It is not going to abandon its civilian nuclear programme as long as this is the case, but neither is the US going to admit that a civilian nuclear programme is necessary, and condemn itself. None of this would ever have changed for the better as a result of the Iran nuclear agreement.
Iran is not alone
This agreement should have the political effect of making Iran, if not exactly a friend of the West, at least a more acceptable neighbour. Therefore its desires would no longer be treated the same way by the international community. Everything it says and does would no longer be treated as dangerous by those who don’t agree with them, or a concession, and therefore a sign of weakness of will, by those who do.
But it is already being stressed that this agreement, which has not even been finalised yet, is about Iran’s nuclear programme only. Longstanding suspicions, largely based on the theocratic nature of the Iranian government system and its supposed natural sympathy with terrorist-backed and dictatorial regimes elsewhere, have not been addressed anywhere in this agreement. Congress has just felt the need to bow to these, as it was probably intended to from the beginning.
According to some commentators, Iran once said that Israel must be “wiped off the face of the earth”. It has long since been confirmed that this alleged comment was a mistake in translation, and an intentional one. But most governments have refused to acknowledge this because it has provided justification for opposing Iran’s nuclear programme, as only nuclear weapons would give Iran the capacity to attempt such action.
So what happens if the West allows Iran to proceed with its nuclear programme under certain mutually agreed conditions? Is it not saying that it is happy for Iran to destroy Israel, if that is what it says the programme is for? The Jewish lobby has proved itself immensely more powerful and better funded than the Iranian or Muslim lobbies for several generations. The State of Israel is allowed to adopt discriminatory policies on citizenship, territorial expansion, defence spending and religious issues, including marriage, which would never be considered acceptable elsewhere. This has made any opponent of Israel a natural enemy of the West, a policy which has largely created the independent Arab and Moslem lobbies.
It is too difficult for Western governments to ignore those who will regard a change of policy without a change of position as a slap in the face. In Iran, too much political capital has been gained by signing this agreement to give up one iota of its position now. Signing this agreement has made more confrontation, not less, a certainty.
Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition
Nuclear catastrophe has been brought closer by the Iran nuclear deal. Now both sides have clauses to hold the other to, while the old enmities still remain because the reasons for them still remain.
It would have been very easy for the Western powers, with their far greater technological resources and experience, to simply take over the Iranian nuclear programme from within, by creating a web of supply and servicing deals which would make it a Western monopoly. This is exactly how Iran’s oil was taken by the West in the 1880s, a situation which benefitted many Iranians far more than they think their present government is doing.
But too many of those on either side who are able to make this happen got there because they have a different mindset. No one is going to ride off into the sunset carrying this piece of paper. There are just too many reasons to continue to find things to hold against the other side. Both sides knew from the beginning that they had signed an agreement to enter the next round of combat, not a deal designed to make the world a safer place.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.