In the last week of June 2019, as this article was being written, tensions between the U.S. and Iranian governments escalated sharply. On June 20, 2019, in response to aggressive U.S. actions, including the mobilization of troops, naval forces, and aerial provocations, Iran shot down a U.S. surveillance drone flying near the Iranian border.(1) The U.S. government used this as an excuse to threaten to bomb Iran.(2) The United States might implement this threat in the near future, setting off a wider conflict.
The origins of these tensions are often traced to the U.S. dispute with Iran on its nuclear programme. However, both the Iranian nuclear issue and the current war-tensions should be more properly viewed within the context of a four-decade-long effort by the United States to undermine the Iranian government and assert U.S. hegemony over West Asia.
In this article, I will review the history of the Iranian nuclear issue from this perspective. This history is instructive because it sheds light on political trends both within the United States and Iran; it also reveals how arms-control issues have been used by Western nations to destabilize governments that they view unfavourably. I will conclude with some comments on the positions adopted by the Indian government, and a brief outlook on where these events might lead.
The origins of both the Iranian nuclear programme, and also the larger conflict between the United States and Iran, can be traced back to two separate decisions made by the U.S. president, Dwight Eisenhower. In 1953, the Eisenhower administration engineered a coup that removed the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, and installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi as the ruler of Iran.(3)
In the same year, Eisenhower instituted the “Atoms for Peace” programme, under which the U.S. government transferred nuclear technology to countries that it felt were strategically important in the Cold War. Although Eisenhower justified this policy by arguing nuclear materials could “serve the peaceful pursuits of mankind,”(4) it is difficult for anyone—except for Western strategic analysts—to take this rhetoric seriously. By this time, it was already well understood that nuclear technology had a dual-use character: the same fissile material that could be used to produce nuclear energy could also be used to make a nuclear bomb. In the Indian Constituent Assembly debates, several years earlier, Jawaharlal Nehru had already admitted that he did “not know how you are to distinguish between” research into nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.(5)
So the “Atoms for Peace” policy should be understood as a calculated decision made by Washington to allow a selected set of foreign governments to achieve a level of “nuclear latency”, where they would not possess an actual bomb but would be in a position to produce a weapon rapidly if required. The Unites States hoped to win the loyalty of these governments in this manner, but also retain a measure of control of them. This policy also aligned with the commercial interests of the incipient nuclear supplier lobby, which saw the U.S. lead in nuclear technology as an opportunity to export nuclear reactors globally on favourable terms.
Under the “Atoms for Peace” programme, the United States and then other European countries entered into a succession of agreements on nuclear cooperation with the Shah’s regime. In 1967, the United States provided Iran with its first nuclear reactor —the Tehran Research Reactor, located at Tehran university, which used highly enriched uranium. The Shah also procured a 10% stake in the European reactor-fuel company, Eurodiff, and sanctioned a $1 billion loan to assist with the construction of the Tricastin nuclear plant in France.(6) A West German company, Kraftwerk Union, started to construct the Bushehr nuclear plant in Iran.(7)
Although Iran signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, the Shah’s regime was not coy about its nuclear weapons ambitions. In 1974, soon after India’s first nuclear test—performed, incidentally, with fissile material from India’s research reactor, CIRUS, that used assistance from the United States and Canada(8)—the Shah explained in an interview that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons “without a doubt, and sooner than one would think.”(9) A few days later, the Shah’s government denied the contents of the interview; Western governments accepted the denial and simply continued the pretense that Iran’s nuclear programme had purely civilian ambitions.
The Islamic revolution of 1979 led to sharp changes in the attitudes of both sides. The new government decided to scale back the Iranian nuclear programme, and scrapped the Shah’s existing plans to build more than twenty nuclear reactors. Ayatollah Khomeini is reported to have termed the nuclear programme “the work of the devil”(10) and, consistent with this position, he later issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons.(11)
On the other hand, Western governments suddenly recalled the dual nature of nuclear technology. So, although plans for future nuclear cooperation were, in any case, understood to be canceled, Western governments and companies refused to honour even existing commercial nuclear contracts. The Germans refused to complete work on the Bushehr nuclear plant, where Iran had already invested about 8 billion Deutsche Marks;(12) the United States refused to provide any fuel to keep the TRR running, the French refused to repay the loan provided for the Tricastin plant, or even to provide any of the plant’s output to Iran.(13) Attempts to roll back the Iranian nuclear programme were not restricted to breach of contract. When Iraq, encouraged by the United States, attacked Iran, its air force repeatedly bombed the site of the Bushehr plant.
Iranian analysts argue that it was imperative for Iran—simply for commercial reasons—to complete work on the Bushehr plant, and find a source of fuel for the TRR, which was also being used for medical applications.(14) After negotiations over many years, in January 1995 the Russian company, Atomstroyexport, agreed to complete the Bushehr nuclear plant, using the infrastructure already in place. However, negotiations over fuel for the plant took even longer, and were finally concluded only in 2005.(15) In this period, the Iranian government developed its own expertise in enriching uranium to use as nuclear fuel. Iran claimed that developing this technology was essential as a backup, since international avenues for obtaining fuel for its reactors were blocked.
A nuclear weapons programme?
In 2002, as the United States prepared to attack Iraq under the guise of a false narrative of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction”, it also started leveling allegations that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. The first set of allegations were based on satellite data that showed that Iran had constructed a uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, which it had not reported to the IAEA.(16)
The Iranian government pointed out that there was nothing illegal about the Natanz facility. Under the Non Proliferation Treaty, Iran had a right to construct facilities to enrich uranium. Moreover, under the safeguards agreement it had signed with the International Atomic Energy Agency(IAEA), it was not obliged to report these facilities to the IAEA until “180 days before the first receipt of nuclear material at the facility”. Therefore Iran was not obliged to report the construction of the facility, until just before the start of operations.
The Iranian government also plausibly explained the secrecy in construction by explaining that the United States, which had already imposed sanctions on nuclear trade with Iran, would have tried to stop the construction by disrupting Iran’s supply chains.(17)
In 2004, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) claimed that it had received a laptop that contained extensive documentation on Iran’s studies to weaponize nuclear technology, including the testing of high-explosives and designs for nuclear tipped missiles. The CIA refused to provide details of how it obtained these documents.
Given the CIA’s track-record as one of the world’s most malevolent organizations, it is remarkable that this “evidence” was taken seriously at all. An obvious possibility was that the CIA could just have made up some, or all, of these documents and put them on a laptop. However, it is a revealing comment on the nature of the global diplomatic discourse that documents obtained from this laptop have set the terms of almost the entire subsequent debate on the military aspect of the Iranian nuclear programme.
The Director General of the IAEA at the time was the Egyptian Mohamed ElBaradei. Although ElBaradei was a consummate insider, he did not immediately throw the IAEA’s weight behind the CIA’s allegations. In his memoirs, ElBaradei describes his own doubts and points out that a typical reaction was “I can fabricate that data. It looks beautiful, but is open to doubt.”
In 2009, when ElBaradei stepped down from his position at the IAEA, his post was taken over by the Japanese, Yukiya Amano. A cable released by Wikileaks reveals that, before his appointment, Amano told the U.S. ambassador in Vienna that he was “solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme.”(18) Unsurprisingly, the IAEA changed tack under Amano: in his report to the Board of Governors, soon after taking charge, Amano explained that, in his opinion, the information contained in the “alleged studies” (i.e. the CIA’s laptop) was “broadly consistent and credible in terms of technical detail.”(19)
It is difficult to objectively assess the claim of whether Iran conducted any weapons-related research before 2003. For instance, ElBaradei’s own point of view, which he stated in 2012, was that “in the middle of the Iran-Iraq War” when “Iran was…under dire threat from Iraq” and “faced with…[an]…extreme sense of vulnerability, the Iranians might have originally intended to develop nuclear weapons. But at some point—perhaps after the war ended or in the mid-1990s … or perhaps after the Agency began its investigations—Iran may well have decided to limit its programme to the development of the nuclear fuel cycle, legitimately remaining a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT.” Moreover, he emphasized that the “skeletons in the closet are, in all probability, fairly insignificant; the body of evidence would otherwise be greater and harder to conceal.”(20)
In any case, even U.S. intelligence agencies found it difficult to sustain the claim that Iran had any nuclear weapons programme beyond 2003. They stated, in a report to the U.S. Congress in 2008, that “in fall 2003 Iran halted its nuclear weapons design and weaponization activities.”(21) Several years later, in 2015, the Amano-led IAEA was forced to come to a similar conclusion: the Iranian weapons programme, if it existed at all, was tentative and soon stopped by the Iranian government itself. The IAEA concluded that “these activities”—referring to weapons related research—“did not advance beyond feasibility and scientific studies, and the acquisition of certain relevant technical competences and capabilities.” Moreover, it stated that while “prior to the end of 2003” some of these activities were carried out “as a coordinated effort and some activities took place after 2003”, it also admitted that it had “no credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.”(22)
Arms control as an implement for regime change
In spite of the extensive evidence against any active nuclear weapons programme in Iran, the U.S. government continued to use this issue to put pressure on the Iranian government during both the Bush and Obama administrations. The U.S. strategy was simple: it made two impossible demands that it knew that Tehran could not meet.
First, it demanded that Iran completely shut down its existing uranium enrichment programme. Washington’s position was characterized by the phrase “not a single centrifuge”. This demand obviously had no legal basis in the NPT. Moreover, it was clearly political impossible for any government in Tehran to agree to such a demand, which would amount to an egregious surrender of Iranian sovereignty.
Second, Washington demanded that Iran provide international inspectors unhindered access to any facility that it declared to be suspicious. This included conventional military facilities, such as the one at Parchin. However, it is well known that UN weapons inspectors who visited Iraq were infiltrated by U.S. intelligence agents, who used the opportunity to gather intelligence about conventional Iraqi forces. Given this precedent, it was clear that the Iranian government could not acquiesce to such a demand.(23)
When Iran refused to “cooperate” with these demands, the United States bullied the IAEA board of governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council in 2005. The Security Council then passed a sequence of resolutions against Iran. UN Security Council resolution 1737 expressed its concern about “gaps in knowledge” about “Iran’s nuclear programme” and then demanded that Iran immediately suspend “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research”. When Iran refused to comply, the Security Council passed resolution 1747 imposing sanctions on Iran.
Over the course of the next ten years, the U.S. and allied countries in Western Europe turned away several opportunities that could have easily solved the nuclear issue. For instance, in 2010, Brazil and Turkey persuaded Iran to agree to a deal where 80% of Iran’s enriched uranium would be held in “escrow” outside Iran and, in return, Iran would receive fabricated fuel-rods for the TRR. In fact, these were precisely the terms that Western countries had demanded from Iran just a few months earlier. The Turkish ambassador to the United States explained that “We have delivered what they were asking for…if we fail to get a positive reaction it would be a real frustration.”(24)
However, this is precisely what happened. The Obama administration, whose secretary of state at the time was Hillary Clinton, refused to accept this deal and instead announced an agreement with other members of the UN Security Council to impose another round of sanctions on Iran.
This diplomatic offensive was coupled with physical attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities and scientists. In 2010, the United States succeeded in disabling a number of centrifuges at Iran’s Natanz enrichment plant by infecting their control systems with the “Stuxnet” virus.(25) Multiple Iranian nuclear scientists were assassinated in terrorist attacks, widely believed to be backed by Israel.(26)
Even the partial timeline listed above makes it clear that from 2002–2013, Washington was not particularly interested in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, but rather in keeping the issue alive as a means of exerting pressure on the government in Tehran.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action
Iran and Western powers finally reached a deal on the Iranian nuclear programme in 2015 in a deal called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Although a significant proportion of the media-commentary on this deal has focused on its technical aspects, the deal’s political aspects are far more significant.
The JCPOA owes its existence to a changed political scenario in Iran, and a shift in the strategy of the United States.
In 2013, Hasan Rouhani, from the so-called “reformist” faction, was elected the President of Iran, replacing Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. Rouhani had been the chief nuclear negotiator for Iran from 2003–2005 and he explicitly campaigned for the Presidency by promising progress on the Iranian nuclear issue. One of his slogans was “It’s good to have centrifuges running, provided that people’s lives and sustenance are also spinning”.(27) Rouhani was referring to the fact that UN sanctions had severely damaged the Iranian economy and created hardships, including shortages of essential drugs.(28)
However, without minimizing the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranians, it is important to recognize another force that was in play at the time. Iran itself is a deeply class-divided society and at least a section of its affluent elite would prefer an alliance with the West. A simplistic but useful characterization of this tendency is provided by the lament—which this author has himself heard from wealthy Iranians—for the lost days when Iranians could “go to Paris on shopping trips.” This section of society—which remains enormously influential—was willing to make a number of concessions to resolve the Iranian nuclear dispute.
Second, within the American strategic establishment, there has been a consistent stream of thought, that holds that it would desirable for Washington to co-opt the Iranian elite instead of replacing it. For instance, this policy was advocated in the 2006 report of the so-called “Iraq Study Group”, which was chaired by the former U.S. secretary of state, James Baker, and the U.S. congressman Lee Hamilton, and presented to then U.S. President, George W. Bush. The report stated that “Given the ability of Iran and Syria to influence events within Iraq and their interest in avoiding chaos in Iraq, the United States should try to engage them constructively. The issue of Iran’s nuclear programmes should continue to be dealt with by the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany.”(29)
The political situation in West Asia caused the Obama administration to pivot to this policy during Obama’s second term. Indeed Obama’s defense secretary from 2011-13 was Leon Panetta—also a member of the Iraq Study Group.
The immediate tactical imperatives of this policy-shift were clear. In 2011, long-term U.S. client regimes in Tunisia and Egypt collapsed during the “Arab spring” uprisings. Although Washington wholeheartedly supported efforts by traditional Arab elites to suppress these democratic impulses, including by supporting the Egyptian military coup in 2013, these events destabilized U.S. policy in the region.
On another front, in 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) had succeeded in mounting an offensive against the governments of both Iraq and Syria, and by 2015, it held major swathes of territory in both countries. Washington openly solicited Tehran’s assistance in the fight against ISIL. For instance, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, welcomed Iranian operations against ISIL including those that used Iraqi airspace by explaining that “I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact…the net effect is positive.”(30)
As a result, Washington explicitly backed off its demand that Iran completely cease uranium enrichment, and signaled its willingness to compromise on the nuclear issue. This led to the Joint Plan of Action, which was revealed in 2013. After 20 months of further negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1—the five permanent members of the security council and Germany, precisely as envisioned in the Baker-Hamilton report—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action was released in 2015.
From a technical perspective, the JCPOA involved an acceptance, by the P5+1, of what Iran had already offered—a reduced and restructured nuclear energy programme, with extensive verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Under the JCPOA, Iran also agreed to stop operating about 80% of its centrifuges, and place them in storage for 15 years. Moreover, it agreed to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kg—the same figure that Turkey and Brazil had negotiated five years previously.(31)
The JCPOA also formalized Iran’s renouncement of nuclear weapons, which, in any case, was consistent with longstanding announced Iranian policy. The JCPOA’s text begins with the declaration that “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” Taking this further, in 2017, Iran voted in favour of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As an aside, it is ironic to note that every member of the P5+1 failed to vote for that Treaty, and the United States, the United Kingdom and France even released a statement explaining that they “do not intend to sign, ratify or ever become party to it.”
In negotiating the JCPOA, Washingon explicitly ensured that it retained the option to immediately resume its programme of regime change in Iran if the geopolitical scenario changed, or if its programme of co-opting the Iranian elite failed. Obama explained in an interview to the columnist Thomas Friedman that “Iran may change…if it doesn’t our…military superiority stays in place.” (See [28:30] in Friedman’s video interview.(32)) This policy was also written into provisions in the JCPOA that allowed the re-imposition of sanctions at short notice. As Kerry explained to the U.S. Congress, “And if we have even a shadow of doubt that illegal activities are going on, either the IAEA will be given the access required to uncover the truth or Iran will be in violation and the nuclear-related sanctions can snap back into place.”(33) To belabour the obvious, this meant that the U.S. government could, at any point, make an unreasonable demand for inspection and then use this as a pretext to reimpose sanctions.
This possibility was also articulated explicitly in the internal U.S. debate. For instance, in a letter to Obama supporting the nuclear deal, 29 prominent American scientists explained that “As you have stated, this deal does not take any options off the table for you or any future president…the detection of a significant violation of this agreement will provide strong, internationally supported justification for intervention.”(34)
On the other hand, the Iranian leadership made significant concessions to enable the JCPOA. While it is true that the JCPOA is not dissimilar to the proposals that Rouhani had made as an Iranian negotiator ten years earlier,(35) this is somewhat misleading. Since, in the intervening decade, Iran had already spent a considerable amount of effort in building up its enrichment capabilities, the JCPOA involved not just a freeze but also a rollback of the Iranian nuclear programme. Iran also succumbed to the U.S. demand for access to the Parchin facility, which was visited by IAEA inspectors in 2015.
These concessions were a grave error, as subsequent events were to show.
Hawkish U.S. perspectives
The Iran nuclear deal was consistently opposed by hawks within the U.S. establishment. The various candidates for the Republican ticket for the 2016 Presidential election openly competed with each other in expressing their hostility to the Iran deal.(36) Trump, in particular, had already declared in 2015 that “The Iran nuclear deal is a terrible one for the United States and the world. It does nothing but make Iran rich”,(37) and he reiterated this position during the U.S. Presidential campaign.
While this section of the establishment sometimes claims that the deal enables Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, this position is untenable from a purely arms-control standpoint. A more forthright statement of the hawkish U.S. position is that the deal failed to address “Iran’s wide range of malign activities, including its global terrorist campaign.”(38) This claim deserves to be parsed in some detail.
The United States uses phrases like “Iranian support for terrorism” to refer to alleged Iranian support for armed groups in West Asia including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, and the Houthis in Yemen. But, while the Iranian government may provide these groups with some limited support, all these groups primarily represent domestic political forces in their countries.
Hezbollah is the major political force in Lebanon, which is only prevented from electorally taking over the reigns of government by an explicitly sectarian constitution. Hamas won the last Palestinian election in 2006, and although it was driven out of the West Bank by Israeli-backed forces soon afterwards, it has governed Gaza since 2007. The Houthi government in Sanaa has far more legitimacy than the U.S.-recognized government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, which largely functions from Riyadh.
What is common to these three groups is that each of them has successfully resisted military attacks by U.S. allied forces. Hezbollah played the major role in driving out the Israeli army from Lebanon in 2000, and also resisted Israeli attacks on Lebanon in 2006. In spite of strangulating the Gazan economy for more than a decade, and waging multiple military campaigns, Israel has been unable to displace Hamas from Gaza. The Saudi-led, and U.S.-supported, bombing campaign of Yemen, and the Saudi strategy of literally imposing starvation on the Yemeni population has, so far, failed to restore Hadi’s government.
Beyond Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, it is ironic that the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its campaign to displace the Syrian government of Bashar Assad have allowed the Iranian government to establish closer ties with the governments in both Baghdad and Damascus.
All parts of the U.S. establishment agree that it is illegitimate for anyone to resist the use of force by the U.S. military or by U.S. client states; for instance, Obama’s director of national intelligence told the U.S. Congress that Iran “continues to be the foremost state sponsor of terrorism”.(39) However, they disagree on the path forward. The deeper reason for this disagreement is that, given the steady decline of U.S. power, there is no clear path that will guarantee success for the United States in its aim of removing all challenges to its hegemony in West Asia.
The hawkish U.S. perspective holds that the best chance for the United States is to be as aggressive as possible. In particular, U.S. hawks hold that the Iranian government’s record of resisting U.S. hegemony makes it an implacable obstacle to U.S. designs for the region; so it cannot be co-opted and must be crushed through a direct conflict
U.S. policy under Trump
The election of Donald Trump marked the victory of hawks in the internal U.S. debate.
On assuming power, Trump rapidly started the process of initiating a conflict with Iran. In March 2018, Trump appointed John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Bolton has not only long advocated regime change in Iran, he has openly patronized the cult-like anti-Iranian group, Mujahedeen-e-Khalq (MEK).(40) Even the U.S. State Department classified the MEK as a foreign terrorist group until 2012.
In May 2018, the United States formally withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal. This was in spite of the fact that, just a few weeks earlier, the pro-U.S. Amano reported to the IAEA board that “As of today, I can state that Iran is implementing its nuclear-related commitments.”(41)
The Trump administration made some weak attempts to counter these assessments by referring to a clownish presentation made by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, in April 2018 that purported to reveal details of Iran’s nefarious nuclear-weapons plans. However, on the whole, the U.S. government did not try too hard to disguise the fact that its true reason for withdrawing from the deal was simply to resume hostilities with Iran.
Over the past year, Washington has steadily escalated its aggressive policies. Upon withdrawing from the deal, the Trump administration first imposed unilateral economic sanctions on Iran designed to cause distress within the Iranian population. Businesses were given either a 90-day or a 180-day period to wind down their dealings with Iran.(42) In particular, U.S. sanctions were designed to attack the Iranian oil industry, since the Iranian government derives a significant fraction of its revenue from oil exports.
In the first round of sanctions, the Trump administration granted what it called “waivers” allowing eight countries, including India and China, to continue oil-trade with Iran for six months beyond the six-month period granted to others. These waivers ended in May 2019. As a predictable consequence of these sanctions, Iranian oil exports fell by a factor of about five: from 2.5 million barrels per day (bpd) in April 2018 to about 500,000 bpd in May 2019.(43)
The end of the “waivers” marked the start of the second stage of the U.S. strategy, involving direct threats of force. In June 2019, the Pentagon announced that it had deployed 1,000 additional troops to West Asia for “defensive purposes.” One of the stated justifications for this move was that two oil tankers transiting through the Gulf of Oman were damaged in the second week of June. Although Washington has blamed Iranian forces for these attacks, these allegations are not based on credible evidence.
For instance, the U.S. military alleged that the Iranian revolutionary guards had placed a bomb on one of the ships and released a grainy video in support of this theory showing an unidentified boat removing an unidentified object from the side of the ship. However, the Japanese owner of the tanker dismissed the claim stating that “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”(44) Moreover, as the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif pointed out, the “reported attacks on Japan-related tankers occurred while” the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe “was meeting with Ayatollah Khamanei for extensive and friendly talks”.(45) Even the New York Times, which usually rapidly lines up behind the U.S. government against officially demonized foreign enemies, was forced to note, by quoting an Obama-era official, that “Trump’s credibility is about as stable as a snake oil salesman.”(46)
About a week later, Iranian forces shot down an American drone near the Iranian border. The drone was clearly engaged in surveillance activities, and Iran released a map showing that the trajectory of the drone intersected Iranian territory. In response, the U.S. government threatened strikes against Iran and Trump announced on 21 June that “10 minutes before the strike, I stopped it” because “150 people” might have died.(47)
Statements of this sort from Trump are sometimes interpreted as the sign of a difference of opinion within the Trump administration between a “non-interventionist” President and his hawkish advisers. For instance, a prominent headline in the New York Times read “Pompeo, a Steadfast Hawk, Coaxes a Hesitant Trump on Iran”, referring to Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.(48) However, to take this narrative at face value or explore it for deeper indications—as even some socialist analysts unfortunately do—is simply naive. First, Trump has himself publicly warned Iran of “obliteration” in the event of a war.(49) Moreover, he has ruthlessly fired those members of his cabinet who have crossed his path or ceased to be useful to him.
A better guide to his thinking on international questions comes, not from his unreliable and erratic public pronouncements, but from the fact that he has consistently appointed hawkish members from the Republican establishment, including individuals like Pompeo, Bolton and even Elliot Abrams—who previously played a key role in channeling U.S. support to death squads in El Salvador under the Reagan administration—to senior foreign policy positions.
In the Iranian context, when viewed as a whole, U.S. policy in the past few years has been one of relentless and steady escalation. Whether there are fine differences between individuals in the U.S. government, or whether Trump recognizes the benefits of playing out a “good cop-bad cop” charade, is not germane to any broader analysis of U.S. policy towards Iran.
The Indian position
The position of the Indian government in the U.S. dispute with Iran is also revealing, since it shows how the government is willing to acquiesce to the demands of the United States, even if these demands are damaging for India’s economic interests. This attitude—of subordinating domestic economic interests to imperialism—has been maintained steadily by both the UPA and the NDA governments.
The Indian government gave a clear diplomatic signal when it voted in favour of the U.S. resolution in the IAEA board of governors in September 2005 to refer Iran to the UN Security Council. From an immediate perspective, it is widely believed that the Indian government’s vote was a quid pro quo as part of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal. Therefore, the Indian government’s position was not only hypocritical, it was also indefensible within any independent foreign policy frame.
The hypocrisy lies in the obvious fact that the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal was meant to legitimize India’s status as a de facto nuclear-weapons power, and simultaneously allow the Indian government to pursue a large expansion of its civilian programme. It was absurd, even by the standards of international diplomacy, for the Indian government to declare, precisely at this time, that it felt that the much smaller Iranian nuclear programme “gave rise to questions that are within the competence of the Security Council, as the organ bearing the main responsibility for the maintenance of internal peace and security.”(50)
Moreover, it should have been clear to any neutral observer that the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal held very few tangible benefits for the country, even within its own terms. Indeed, it is remarkable that fourteen years after the deal was signed, it has not led to a single new purchase of nuclear reactors—except for the expansion at Kudankulam that the government may have pursued anyway under an older understanding with Russia.
Under U.S. pressure, India also stepped out of the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline, and it slowed its investment in the Chabahar port that it had agreed to develop in Iran, although both of these held significant commercial opportunities for Indian businesses.(51)
The Modi government came to power in the middle of the temporary U.S. rapprochement with Iran. So it resumed its cooperation with Iran on Chabahar and signed a deal promising direct Indian investments of $500 million in the port’s infrastructure in 2016.(52) However, with the advent of the Trump administration, the Modi government dutifully reversed course. Most recently, when the U.S. ended its “oil waiver” for India, the Modi government stopped the import of Iranian oil,(53) even though as late as June 2018, Iran was the second largest supplier of oil to India providing about 13% of its imports.(54)
Although there are various attitudes within the Iranian ruling elite on how to deal with the West, the Trump administration’s escalation has left the Iranian government with absolutely no room to manoeuvre. Even before the current rise in tensions, U.S. policies had put Rouhani’s government in an untenable position. Its critics contend that by negotiating with the U.S. in good faith, and making multiple concessions on the nuclear front, Rouhani’s government has sacrificed Iranian interests in a failed attempt to obtain better relations with the West. And, in an extraordinary speech, the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently publicly distanced himself from the nuclear deal and reminded his audience that he had communicated his reservations to Rouhani during the deal’s negotiations.(55) So the Iranian government has no option, in the near future, except to resist Washington’s dictates.
On the other hand, Trump’s belligerent policies are harmful for longer-term U.S. imperial interests. Astute upholders of U.S. imperialism, including establishment democrats like Hillary Clinton and the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, understand this very well. They would prefer a strategy where the U.S. government either continues dialogue with Iran in an attempt to co-opt its elites, or at least builds an alliance of imperialist powers before declaring war. In May 2018, Clinton tweeted that “Pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal is a big mistake…Anyone who thinks bombing is the answer is woefully misinformed.”(56) More recently Pelosi explained that Trump should “De-escalate, de-escalate, de-escalate. Take a deep breath and de-escalate.”(57) These urgent appeals to avoid military action do not represent any genuine desire for peace. Rather, there are clear military and economic reasons that make war with Iran a risky proposition for the United States.
On the military front, the United States is overstretched and cannot afford to enter into full-scale hostilities with Iran. By some estimates, the U.S. government has spent almost $6 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and on related spending.(58) Moreover these wars—which have devastated those countries—have also had a non-negligible impact, in terms of lives lost, within the United States. Counting both official U.S. military personnel and U.S. contractors, almost 15,000 American fighters have already died in these wars.(59) It is true that this number is only a small fraction of the total number of armed U.S. personnel, and that the rate of U.S. casualties is not sufficient to lead to large-scale domestic opposition of the sort that was seen during the Vietnam war. However, disabled and traumatized “veterans” of these wars have started to impinge on the broader public consciousness and make an appearance in popular U.S. culture. The constituency of people directly affected by these wars is large enough that Trump found it politically expedient to appeal to them in the 2016 elections.
Iran would pose a far more serious challenge to the U.S. military than either Iraq or Afghanistan. One reason is, of course, that the Iranian military is a formidable force, unlike the Iraqi army, which had been weakened by years of sanctions and a prior war. But one of Iran’s main strengths is political. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States ruthlessly exploited deep internal fissures within those societies. But it has been unable to find any foothold within Iran. Whatever the divisions within the Iranian polity, there is absolutely no support for U.S.-backed regime change. Hawks in the U.S. establishment can only count on the assistance of fringe groups like the MEK that have no base within Iran.(60) Faced with a population that is united in its anti-imperialist stance, the United States cannot hope to succeed militarily in Iran.
Although it is less widely recognized, the United States is also overstretched on the economic front. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. government has imposed unilateral sanctions on two large oil producers—Iran and Venezuela. These sanctions are effective only because they utilize the dominance of the United States in the world banking system, and the prevalence of the U.S. dollar in oil trades. So, the U.S. government is able to obstruct foreign entities from making payments for Iranian and Venezuelan oil, and threaten foreign businesses that they would themselves be locked out of the U.S. banking system if they were to violate U.S. sanctions. A U.S. government official boasted that this would be a “death penalty for any international bank.”(61)
While both European countries and countries like India have, for now, fallen into line, this strategy imposes stresses on one of the primary pillars of U.S. imperialism. This is because it tends to push other large countries to design mechanisms to bypass the U.S. financial system. For instance, in February 2019, France, Germany and the United Kingdom established the so-called “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” (INSTEX) to enable trade with Iran, bypassing U.S. sanctions.(62) Even the Indian government took some steps towards setting up a mechanism to pay for Iranian oil purchases in Indian rupees.(63) Perhaps most seriously for the United States, the Chinese government has also moved to trade with Iran through special payment mechanisms and by using the Chinese yuan instead of the dollar.(64)
So far these steps have only been tentative, and largely ineffective, considering the U.S.’s continuing global financial dominance. However, if the U.S. government continues to use its economy as a weapon, this will only lead other governments to intensify their search for alternatives. If such moves were to fructify, they would challenge the preeminence of the U.S. dollar and U.S. banking system, and have serious consequences for the ability of the U.S. government to project its power globally. So, by blundering into a confrontation with Iran, the hawkish section of the U.S. establishment may have unwittingly exposed the slowly rotting foundations of U.S. imperial power to dangerous damage.
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