Michael Klare is The Nation’s defense correspondent and a professor of peace and world-security studies at Hampshire College. He’s written 14 books on international energy and security affairs, including, most recently, The Race for What’s Left. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Jon Wiener: In the wake of Trump’s pulling out of the Iran treaty, there is some talk that Europe could still maintain the deal with Iran to monitor its nuclear capabilities, and that Trump might, over the long term, renegotiate this treaty in some way. What do you think?
Michael Klare: I don’t think there’s really a happy outcome from this. I don’t see some way in which Europe can rescue the Iran nuclear deal at this point. Trump says that he wants new negotiations with the Iranians for a totally new deal. I don’t think that’s in the cards at all. We’re going to see very tough sanctions on Iran. And I don’t think the Europeans will be able to protect their companies from the effects of US sanctions, so they will have to quit trading with Iran. And if the Iranians move to restart their nuclear-enrichment program, the next step is war.
JW: The Iran nuclear agreement has been a great success over the past three years. The UN nuclear agency has a monitoring station outside of Vienna where they get live video from inside Iran’s once-secret uranium-enrichment plants. Every week, scientists analyze dust samples collected from across Iran, looking for minute particles that could reveal possible cheating. There are UN inspection teams on the ground in Iran who work every day of the year checking and rechecking the nuclear facilities there, investigating tips that something might be going on. All of this has stopped Iranian nuclear enrichment.
MK: That’s correct. And it’s not just the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors—the UN and the Europeans also say that Iran is fully compliant. It’s the top American intelligence officials as well. Mike Pompeo and Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, have testified as recently as last month that, so far as they know, Iran is in full compliance with the agreement. There’s no evidence whatsoever of Iranian cheating on the deal.
JW: How unusual is this degree of scrutiny of Iran’s nuclear program?
MK: This is the most intrusive inspection regime ever mounted by the international community. There’s never been anything this intrusive in terms of the number of inspectors, the number of inspections, the constant intrusion into Iran’s nuclear facilities. Aside from the issues covered by the agreement, Donald Trump complains that Iran is engaged in other activities that he finds offensive—like ballistic-missile testing, like supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. The Europeans and others also object to those activities, but they are not covered by the deal that the United States signed. So Trump can’t say that those are in fact infractions of the deal.
JW: It seems like the effect of Trump’s announcement within Iran will inevitably be to strengthen the hard-liners there who want to restart the nuclear program and remove the surveillance regime. How likely do you think that is—and how soon do you think that might happen?
MK: That’s hard to determine. It would make sense for the Iranians to continue to abide by the agreement and to work with the Europeans to isolate the United States, to portray the United States as the bad guy, and not to rush into enriching uranium. On the other hand, there are forces within Iran who feel that the deal never worked to Iran’s advantage because the US kept up economic pressure on Iran throughout this period, so they never received the economic benefit they were led to believe they were going to receive. So the hard-liners may say, “Let’s just go back into enriching uranium, because that’s to our advantage.” How that will play out is impossible to say.
JW: Inevitably we have to talk about Israel. Israel sees Iran as its primary enemy in the region, and this will undoubtedly strengthen the hard-liners within Israel.
MK: When we talk about Israel in this case, you have to narrow it down to one person: Benjamin Netanyahu. He has made it a personal crusade to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal and has spent many years trying to do that. He’s thrilled by Trump’s decision. However, this is going to lead Israel on a collision course with Iran and possibly to a regional war, and I’m not sure everyone in Israel is so thrilled about that.
JW: Iran is a big country. What kind of military capabilities do they have at this point?
MK: Iran is not capable of defeating the United States in warfare. But it is capable of putting up a tough fight. I think its citizens will rally to any attack by foreign powers. The resistance will be fierce. But what you really have to worry about in the case of an attack on Iran is that it has allies throughout the region who are capable of great mischief—especially Hezbollah. I don’t believe that the conflict that might erupt will involve only the United States and Iran. Israel is likely to attack Iranian outposts in Syria, and that could spark Hezbollah, which has a huge trove of missiles, to attack cities in Israel. There are also Iranian-armed Shiite militias in Iraq who could attack American forces there. So throughout the region, there are Iranian-armed forces that are capable of inflicting great harm on American forces and American allies.
The problem is that President Trump has no Plan B in tearing up the nuclear deal. He said somehow we’re going to force the Iranians to come back to the table and give us a better deal, but that’s utter nonsense. The Europeans say there’s no path to such an outcome. The Iranians say there’s no path. And certainly Russia and China would not agree to such a path. So by tearing up the agreement, Trump has left no path forward other than war.