Daniel Falcone: Can you give me your opinion on the Iran nuclear-deal framework that was created under Obama? What are your thoughts on the original policy?
Richard Falk: The carefully negotiated agreement with Iran on its nuclear program in 2015—formally known as the JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and informally as the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran—was undoubtedly the greatest foreign-policy accomplishment of the Obama presidency. It was achieved despite fierce and unscrupulous domestic opposition orchestrated by the unabashedly pro-Israel Congress, which did all it could to stop the deal from happening, while Black Cube, the private Israeli intelligence firm, was doing its best to block the process by resorting to its bag of dirty tricks.
The agreement’s central bargain was an exchange of strict controls on Iran’s nuclear program for phased sanctions relief that was conditional on verification by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that Iran was in full compliance with the agreement. To begin with, it should be obvious that the core of the agreement was incredibly favorable to the West, as well as of great benefit to its regional and global nonproliferation goals. P5+1 was, in some sense, a terrible deal—but not as Trump meant it. Rather, as the Iranian hard-line critics contended.
The US government agreed to soften its harsh sanctions program by stage. The sanctions regime was itself questionable, a prime instance of dubious reliance on coercive diplomacy and double standards, given the silence about Israel’s nuclear-weapons capability. Iran’s willingness to accept the most intrusive international inspection commitments ever undertaken was a calculated risk, seeking normalization, which has now resulted in disappointment and betrayal.
In other words, Iran accepted major encroachments on the normal scope of its sovereign rights so as to obtain promised relief from sanctions that had caused economic austerity in Iran and considerable suffering by the Iranian people. From a political viewpoint all major states—except, of course, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and US—agree that JCPOA was a huge victory for moderates in Iran when signed, and a severe setback for Iranian hard-liners, who had a far better case for their opposition to its terms than did the pro-Israel forces in 2014–15 and far better than does Trump now. It is notable that Trump’s repeated denunciations of the agreement as “a disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated” were never backed up by evidence—there was none—or even by specific allegations, except for the irrelevant charges that Iran was doing political things in the region that Washington opposed, although the United States was doing similar things on a far larger scale.
Iran committed itself in the agreement to a permanent and unconditional renunciation of any acquisition of nuclear weapons at any time. Beyond this, Iran agreed to drastically reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium, by 98 percent; to fundamentally redesign its Arak reactor so that it is no longer capable of producing plutonium; to restrict uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent, when what was necessary to achieve weapons-grade uranium requires 90 percent enrichment; and to reduce the number of centrifuges well below the level needed to amass a sufficient amount of enriched uranium to enable the manufacture of nuclear weapons.
Additionally, all phases of the nuclear fuel cycle in Iran became subject to periodic inspections to verify compliance, and the IAEA had broad rights under the agreement to inspect any facility about which it had suspicions. The IAEA has issued 11 reports since the beginning of 2016, when the nuclear agreement went into effect, all indicating compliance. The head of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, reaffirmed Iranian compliance on May 9 in a carefully worded statement: “Iran is subject to the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime under the JCPOA, which is a significant verification gain.… As of today, the IAEA can confirm that the nuclear-related commitments are being implemented by Iran.” As Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser, pointed out, the agreement is about verification, not trust.
Under these circumstances, to withdraw from the agreement and repudiate it by this unilateral move is to undermine the reliability of multilateral diplomacy, compromise the peaceful resolution of disputes, and further erode the authority of international law. This harm to world order is further aggravated by the widespread perception that there were no reasonable grounds for withdrawing, especially given the opposition of other signatories to the Trump repudiation, including by America’s closest allies, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.
To break this agreement under these circumstances is shocking and dangerous. It should be remembered that Iran accepted these unprecedented restrictions on its nuclear program while Israel—with no restrictions or even significant international objections—continues to upgrade the quality of its nuclear-weapons arsenal while striking a menacing posture toward Iran. [Washington is doing the same, as noted in this May 14 New York Times article, headlined “As U.S. Demands Nuclear Disarmament, It Moves to Expand Its Own Arsenal.”] Israel makes thinly veiled threats to attack Iran militarily, threats given added credibility recently when Israel launched major military operations at Iran’s military presence in Syria—which incidentally is lawful, as it lends assistance to the legitimate government of the country faced with an insurgent opposition aided by foreign interventions. In both instances, Israel’s behavior involving threats and uses of force are flagrant violations of the key UN Charter prohibition. Recourse to international force is prohibited except in situations of self-defense against a prior armed attack. See Articles 2(4) and 51 of the Charter.
DF: Motoko Rich recently wrote that in announcing the US exit from the Iran nuclear accord, President Trump wanted to “send a signal” about another “hard bargain,” with North Korea. The author was critical of Trump. This clearly isn’t, however, the point of the exit, correct? Noam Chomsky recently indicated to me that the authors of the exit may not even believe in the pretext, and that Trump is on a mission to undo anything set forth by his predecessor to maintain a connection with his base.
RF: As is Trump’s style, his diplomatic moves are undertaken without any clearly articulated rationale that discloses his real reasons for acting so irresponsibly. It is always necessary to probe the real meaning behind the inflammatory language. The Korean dimension could have had some secondary relevance in this context, demonstrating that the United States would, whenever expedient, ignore prudence if it helps to impose its will on a weaker opponent if it resisted a proposed arrangement; but maybe not, given the great differences between North Korea, as a nuclear-weapons state, and Iran, as a non-nuclear state. Perhaps, we can say, as in the instances of Iraq and Libya, that they were attacked because they didn’t have nuclear weapons, and that Iran is under threat precisely because it lacks such a nuclear deterrent.
On the surface it seems evident that Trump’s primary motivations had to do with Middle Eastern politics, and especially the relevance of Israel’s and Saudi Arabia’s undisguised resolve to achieve regime change in Tehran. As with Trump’s internationally condemned decision, announced last December, to move the American embassy to Jerusalem, the geopolitical motives of withdrawal from the agreement are obscure, and likely ill-conceived, but the domestic and transnational incentives are clear—pleasing major Zionist donors to the Trump campaign, Sheldon Adelson, Bernard Marcus, and Paul Singer, and further cementing transnational solidarity with [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman. This is not idle speculation. Several Washington insiders have reliably confirmed these sources of influence on the Trump decision.
There are other factors present. Repudiating the agreement with Iran is one more example of Trump’s deliberate assault on multilateralism—compare this to his withdrawal from the Paris climate-change agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and his hostility to the UN and NAFTA. It seems to be Trump’s way of fulfilling his campaign pledge of “America First,” as if that were not the approach of the pre-Trump leaders who occupied the White House. What Trump evidently meant was that putting America first required ending international entanglements that weakened the ability of the United States to get the best of others in diplomatic settings. It is sometimes explained as a shift to “a transactional approach,” in which the United States uses its leverage and power to the fullest, without taking into account law, morality, and the sentiments of allies.
[Chomsky is correct in that] Trump seems obsessed with undoing the positive achievements of the Obama presidency across the board, from health care and empathy toward undocumented immigrants to environmental protection and foreign policy. In this sense, the P5+1 agreement must have seemed an irresistible target, enabling Trump to undermine, simultaneously, multilateralism and the Obama legacy, and as a side benefit to receive praise from Israel and Saudi Arabia. Whereas Obama sought—usually vainly—bipartisan support for domestic initiatives and mobilized international support—usually effectively—for global policy undertakings, Trump’s bluster, bullying, and bluffing represent a dysfunctional, if not toxic, combination of unilateralism and neo-isolationism.
DF: Robert Kelly, a political-science professor at Pusan National University in South Korea, remarked that “only a fool would trust the US to keep its word in a rogue state nuke deal now.” This sounds basically correct, no?
RF: I am not sure about this. It depends on whether leaders around the world see Trump as representing the true nature of American diplomacy or as a temporary anomaly to be soon superseded by a return to more dependable and familiar patterns of American leadership in world affairs. In the immediate future, the United States as a partner to international arrangements is certainly unreliable and untrustworthy, but worse, recklessly irresponsible, putting the country and Middle East on a path leading to an unpredictable war with likely catastrophic consequences for the countries involved and for a region already long victimized by intervention, chaos, and oppression.
DF: How is the state of Israel connected to the exit, and what do you think is at stake for Netanyahu?
RF: In important respects, the US exit is more about Israel than the terms of the agreement. It is important to keep in mind that the Trump presidency does not even bother to charge Iran with noncompliance or point to specific failures of coverage in the text of the agreement. Instead, it heeds Netanyahu’s warmongering efforts to discredit the agreement by reference to allegations of Iranian cheating that go back before the agreement was signed and were never persuasive, except now, belatedly, to the Trump White House, and to advisers like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who have never been shy about their desire to confront Iran militarily with the objective of replacing the present government.
It is hardly coincidental that Israel launched its biggest attack on the Iranian presence in Syria less than 24 hours after Trump’s formal announcement, as if awaiting a signal. That followed the visit of Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to Washington a few weeks ago, featuring meetings with James Mattis, his American counterpart. When Lieberman returned home he let it be known that Israel could do whatever it wished in the region, especially in Syria and Iran, and still feel confident of receiving American diplomatic and, if necessary, military support.
And of course the domestic pressures from a passionately pro-Israel Congress—reinforced by the AIPAC super-lobby and, further, the billionaire donors—create for Trump a win-win at home that seems to count more for this White House than the lose-lose with respect to national interests, alliance relations, and global diplomatic reputation. In light of these developments, it would be useful for all of us to reread the Mearsheimer/Walt critical assessment of the distorting impacts of the Israel lobby on the rational pursuit of American interests in the Middle East. While the lobby was virulent and powerful when their book was published, and of course attacked, back then the pro-Israel bias was at least somewhat subtler.
DF: Stephen Zunes pointed out that “Trump’s strategy appears to encourage the Iranians to resume their nuclear program in order to provoke a crisis that would give the United States an excuse to go to war.” This sounds plausible but very frightening. Can you talk about the likely outcome? Is it this bleak?
RF: I think this line of thinking is plausible, although it posits that Iran will react almost as mindlessly as Trump. Much depends on how the internal tensions in Iran play out, and whether this Trump roadblock undermines President Hassan Rouhani’s determined effort to push Iran toward moderation at home and normalization abroad. The Iranian response will become clearer when and if the supreme guide, Ayatollah Khamenei, takes a policy stand that goes beyond his angry statement in reaction to the Trump withdrawal. So far, Iran seems to be sensibly following a course of seeking to weaken the impact of the US decision to reimpose sanctions by appealing for compensatory relief to China, Russia, France, the UK, and Germany, all of whom have reaffirmed their commitment to maintain the P5+1 approach.
If Israel’s provocations continue, and an Iranian retaliation follows, then both regional war and a resumed unshackled Iranian nuclear program are highly likely. This would mean an expanded war zone and a likely nuclear-arms race involving all the major states in the Middle East. At least, so far, the United States has not fanned the flames further by invoking the so-called “snapback provision” in the agreement, which allows any of the six state parties to demand the reinstatement of UN sanctions, which were very burdensome in the period from 2006 to 2013, and are credited in the West with bringing Iran to the negotiating table. After the agreement was reached and UN sanctions suspended, the effect was to enhance greatly the stature and popularity of Rouhani’s moderate line within Iran.
DF: The nuclear agreement with Iran has been called a “one-sided deal” by the Trump administration. Some in Iran might agree with that, but for different reasons. Can you talk about how the United States has undermined the agreement almost from the start?
RF: As indicated earlier, the terms of the agreement are certainly one-sided, but mainly by promoting the nonproliferation priorities of the West. What most provoked critics about the terms of the deal was that it did not purport to regulate Iran’s political activities in the region: its support for Damascus in the Syrian civil war, its close ties with Hezbollah, its help to the Houthis in the Yemen war, and its positive relations with Hamas. As almost anyone would agree, this was not part of an understanding about Iran’s nuclear program, and Iran’s diplomacy is a far tamer version of what the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others have been doing for many years in the Middle East.
There is also an evident American frustration with its prolonged effort to reverse the outcome of the Iranian Revolution ever since Washington’s support for Iraq in its 1980s war with Iran ended surprisingly in a defensive victory for Iran. The persisting covert operations to destabilize the governing process in Tehran, including the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and the insertion of a virus in Iran’s centrifuges, did not achieve any changes in Iranian policy. And most of all, the American war of aggression against Iraq in 2003, undertaken to put an iron wall around Iran, resulted in an outcome directly opposite to what was anticipated, a leadership that was more responsive to Tehran than to Washington.
Nothing has better demonstrated the failure of American leadership to understand Iran and the region generally than these failed policies of confrontation with Iran over the course of decades. Trump has brought that failure into the open by the crude escalation of tensions and by his mindless display of coercive diplomacy, which has struck a far bigger blow against American credibility as a global leader than it has against the legitimacy and viability of the Iranian government.
It is necessary to observe the unfolding of events in the weeks and months ahead, but nothing more persuasively demonstrates the blunder of repudiating the P5+1 approach than the fact that the best that can be hoped for by rational commentators is that the effects of withdrawal will be somehow neutralized by the ineffectiveness of restored sanctions and the energetic efforts of the five governments that remain committed to keeping the agreement alive.
If the agreement can be made to work in spite of this obstructive behavior of the United States, it may ironically be viewed in retrospect as the start of a new muscular phase of multipolar geopolitics. This would imply a decisive weakening of the hegemonic US role, with reverberations far beyond Iran, the Middle East, and the nuclear-nonproliferation regime. If developments unfold in roughly this manner, it could also produce a costly blowback to Trump’s presidency, which is already the least popular since the end of World War II.