ODVV interview: Little support for Trump’s...
Although Iran and the United States never managed to solve their many differences fully following the 1979 revolution in Iran, their relations seem to have hit an all-time low under President Donald Trump. The US president’s withdrawal from the internationally-recognized Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nuclear deal, and his subsequent imposition of harsh economic sanctions on Iran, rendered ineffective all the achievements that were made under President Barack Obama in pursuing a diplomatic engagement with the Islamic Republic.
Iranian and US military officials are exchanging threats these days and observers are concerned that the provocative rhetoric by the two sides may lead to further insecurity in the Middle East and destabilize the global oil markets. Even though the US authorities, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have said the United States doesn’t seek a war with Iran, it’s unequivocally clear that that the White House’s aggressive policy towards Iran has unnerved the international community, including the close US allies who are not happy about the escalation of tensions between Tehran and Washington and are looking for ways to prevent the JCPOA from going extinct.
Now, as the Iran-US relations are locked into a downward spiral, ordinary Iranian citizens suffer from the tough economic sanctions that have targeted their livelihoods and sent the prices of basic staples and consumer goods soaring.
Robert Buzzanco is a distinguished historian and scholar of 20th century US history and diplomatic history. One of the leading authorities of Vietnam War in the United States, he is a professor of the University of Houston. Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has conducted an exclusive interview with Prof. Buzzanco to discuss the fluctuations of Iran-US relations, the US sanctions and their human cost and the destiny of the Iran nuclear deal. The following is the text of the interview.
Q: Which individuals or factors influenced President Donald Trump in his decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Was he merely intent on undoing the signature foreign policy achievement of his predecessor Barack Obama or did he genuinely believe, despite several reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency confirming Iran’s compliance, that the Iran deal was a weak agreement?
A: With his typical hyperbole, Donald Trump has referred to the JCPOA with Iran as the “worst deal ever” since it was signed in 2015. Understanding Trump’s motives for this view, or with his behavior toward other countries in general, is difficult because he has never displayed any consistent ideology on foreign policy since becoming president. To some degree, perhaps a large one, Trump, and the Republican Party in general, always opposed anything done by Barack Obama, especially an achievement like the Iran nuclear deal that was praised by most media and US establishment figures. And for many Americans, especially conservatives, there is also the residue of the various crises of the late 1970s and 1980s, such as the hostage crisis and American support of Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, hovering over any attempt to engage and negotiate with Tehran.
Virtually unmentioned in the American media, but always an important factor in Middle Eastern affairs, is the role of oil and natural gas, both of which are abundant in Iran. It should be no surprise that the three places currently absorbing the greatest amount of American attention and aggression are Iran, Venezuela, and Russia – all countries with vital energy resources.
Trump’s relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu has also been a significant factor in his approach to Iran, and to Middle East issues in general. Israel’s opposition to the government in Tehran has been long-established. Israel has been aggressively attacking government positions in Syria for years and Trump, though at times vacillating and contradictory in his approach to the war there, has followed suit. At Netanyahu’s urging Trump agreed to place the Iranian Revolutionary Guard on the official American terrorist list, and more recently the Israeli government has ramped up its claims that Iran had violated the JCPOA and was actively engaged in developing a nuclear program with military uses, a view Trump officially agreed with when he renounced the deal in May 2018, emphasizing allegations that Iran had not dismantled AMAD, a nuclear weapons development program.
Since then, both Israel and the US have intensified their claims about the Iranian nuclear program and have called for the ouster of the government in Tehran, citing its support of groups like Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda and Hamas as well as noncompliance with the treaty. While Trump and his allies in the US have always claimed that the JCPOA was a weak deal that did not adequately oversee Iranian nuclear efforts and that the US and international agencies had ignored Tehran’s nuclear program, they have offered no concrete evidence other than unproven allegations and Netanyahu’s statements based on what he claimed were documents smuggled out of Iran by Mossad.
Q: Has the United States’ unilateralism and its unprompted withdrawal from the Iran deal isolated this country in the eyes of its allies? Can Iran deal be a source of serious conflict between the United States and its close partners in Europe?
A: There has been little support for Trump’s aggression toward Iran either inside the United States or among allies. The American campaign of “maximum pressure” against Tehran is generally considered a failure in the US and abroad by almost everyone except for the White House, Israel, and the Republican Party. Establishment political figures in America and in the media have strongly criticized the president and lamented that his Iran policies have damaged US credibility and, even more, global hegemony, and polling has shown that significant majorities of Americans have supported the deal since 2015. In May 2018, 63 percent of Americans disapproved of the withdrawal from the JCPOA, with 29 percent agreeing, and 46 percent opposed his handling of Iran policy in general, with 37 percent approving.
More recently, the withdrawal from the JCPOA has alienated allies. Referring especially to France, Britain, and Germany – all of which continue to support the deal – Vice-President Mike Pence lamented that “sadly, some of our European partners have not been nearly as cooperative” as Persian Gulf countries have been. Just days ago British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, while stressing that the UK was wary of Iran developing a nuclear program, insisted that “it’s no secret we have a different approach on how to achieve” Iranian compliance. More to the point, the European Union does not hold Trump’s position on non-compliance and believes that Iranian involvement in Syria, if true, is not covered by the nuclear deal in any event. And the EU has made it clear that it will not support a military attack on Iran.
China has come in for harsher criticism. In 2016, after Trump’s election, China warned that implementation of the JCPOA should not be “affected by any changes in the domestic situations” in the US or Iran, and has since maintained that both sides should work to preserve the deal. With the most recent saber-rattling from Trump, China, which has warned Iran against leaving the deal, nonetheless has continued to oppose unilateral American action and sanctions against Iran, especially measures to limit Iranian oil exports, which China fears would cause global markets to become more volatile. Iran is an important commercial partner to China and, as the Chinese commerce ministry recently stressed, Beijing remains firm in defending the rights of its firms trading with Iran.
Trump generally is not well-regarded or respected by US allies in Europe or Asia, and the withdrawal from the JCPOA and sanctions against Iran are a major wedge in relations between those states with the Americans. Unlike the situation in Venezuela, where the US has, through coercion and the cooperation of right-wing governments in Latin America, convinced other states to endorse its demand for regime change in Caracas, any American aggression toward Iran will be more likely to be met with opposition.
Q: JCPOA was one of the most important documents dealing with nuclear non-proliferation and the outcome of months of engaged diplomacy and intense negotiations between Iran and six world powers as well as the European Union. What are the implications of the possible collapse of JCPOA for diplomacy, multilateralism and non-proliferation?
A: “Diplomacy, multilateralism and non-proliferation” are unfortunately held in low regard today in the White House. There are countless examples of Trump alienating allies at meetings of the Group of Seven or NATO. He has withdrawn the US from the Paris Climate Accords and demanded that NAFTA be restructured. He has boldly criticized allies in Europe on internal political issues like Brexit and has begun a tariff war with the world. In November 2018, he withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty [INF] while complaining that it was unfair that Russia and China got to “do weapons” that “we’re not allowed to” and raised the potential of great profit to the Military-Industrial Complex with the hundreds of billions of dollars he could “play with” if free to build a new generation of missiles.
Since the US and Soviet Union began negotiating limits on nuclear weapons in the early 1970s, there has been a real decline in missiles – even as many countries continued programs to try to develop nuclear weapons. Even President Ronald Reagan, a hero to conservatives, pursued meaningful arms control with the USSR in the 1980s. Trump’s goal of expanding America’s nuclear arsenal makes the world more dangerous and causes greater division between the US, its allies, and international agencies like the UN and IAEA. While the US is hardly isolated in the world, its reputation as an ally and global leader has suffered significantly. His policies on Iran have only intensified that decline as, noted above, America’s main allies in Europe and the Chinese have opposed the US abrogation of JCPOA and subsequent sanctions against Iran.
Q: The Iran nuclear deal was endorsed by the UN Security Council through the resolution 2231 and the international community backed it. The United States was one of the countries voting in favor of this resolution. Doesn’t the withdrawal of the United States from the agreement while it was one of the main signatories point to the existence of a flaw or shortcoming in the international law system?
A: Not just the system, but the basic idea of international law has been in decline for generations; the US Attorney General even referred to the Geneva Convention as a “quaint” set of rules amid the furor over American torture of Iraqis after the Abu Ghraib story became public. The Americans have selectively enforced, or ignored, international law since Woodrow Wilson refused to act against Britain’s “starvation blockade” in World War I. America used an atomic bomb against civilians in Japan and has overthrown sovereign countries time and again – and is trying to do so again today in Venezuela while sending pointed threats about regime change in Iran. Of course, the US role in overthrowing the government of Mohammed Mossadegh is a living lesson to Iranians of the US disregard for international laws.
American weapons also killed millions of civilians in wars in Korea and Vietnam and the US used carcinogenic chemical and biological weapons in wars there and elsewhere. Throughout the 1980s, the US simply ignored rulings by the World Court that its wars in Central America were illegal. It imposed a deadly “sanctions regime” against Iraq that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands. The US has never taken issue with Saudi Arabia over its well-known human rights abuses, and it has been Israel’s main defender in the UN when it simply ignores or rejects resolutions regarding land it has seized from the Palestinians. In fact, Israel has been the subject of more UN resolutions than any other state, but has ignored them or relied on American vetoes in the Security Council to avoid accountability. Trump’s rejection of Resolution 2231 is, unfortunately, another example of how weak the international law system is and how powerful countries can simply use it to fit their own purposes.
Q: To what extent will the US policy of economic sanctions and “maximum pressure” be effective with regards to Iran? Has the US sanctions on Cuba, Venezuela and other countries yielded significant results? The distinguished sanctions expert Richard Nephew notes in his book “The Art of Sanctions: A View from the Field” that the objective of the sanctions is to impose pain. Isn’t it important for the United States that the outcome of its unilateral measures is the violation of the basic human rights of the citizens of target countries?
A: In general, sanctions and “maximum pressure” affect the people of the country against which they are directed, but have much less impact in getting those governments to bend to the US will or be removed. When Trump left the JCPOA he also imposed sanctions against Iran and threatened action against countries or individuals still doing business there. In the first set of sanctions, the US insisted that Iran comply with its demands or there would be limits and then a ban on the purchase of American dollars, trade in gold, and the aviation and car industries. These are the harshest sanctions imposed on Iran, and target the heart of its economy – energy, shipping, and finance.
In the past few days, the US has raised the stakes, indeed increasing its level of “maximum pressure,” and sending a carrier group and bombers to the Persian Gulf, while it expanded its concept of the Iranian “threat,” so, as National Security Advisor John Bolton explained, an attack launched by a “proxy” of Iran against the “interests” of the US or an ally in the region [meaning, presumably, Israel or Saudi] could prompt an American military attack. Iran, he claimed, had made “troubling and escalatory indications and warnings,” a statement that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarified by claiming that, “a Shia militia group, the Houthis or Hezbollah” were working together in some way under Iran’s direction, though Pompeo offered no evidence, saying “I don’t want to talk about what underlays [sic] it.” Others close to the situation said the American warning was based on “information,” not intelligence, provided by Israel, but the New York Times reported that “several Defense officials ... have not seen reason to change the American military’s posture in the region.” The US, it surely seems, is looking for a provocation and, barring any Iranian action, appears likely to create one.
While the pressure on Iran is ramping up, the impact of sanctions on Cuba and Venezuela are good examples of the way that the United States can cause humanitarian crises. For over a half-century, the US embargo of Cuba has made it difficult for that country to get many of the vital resources it needs for development and made it increasingly harder to maintain the social programs brought in by the Revolution. Many economists have estimated that US sanctions on Cuba per year have caused economic damage in excess of Cuba’s annual national industrial production. In Venezuela, a recent independent report has suggested that 40,000 people may have died as a result of American sanctions.
And of course the impact of the sanctions regime directed at Baghdad in the 1990s has been well-documented, with various estimates that 500,000 to a million Iraqis died as a result of US pressure. In Iraq, the sanctions, intended to drive Saddam out of power, probably strengthened his hand. He was widely unpopular but was able to always cite the sanctions regime as the source of Iraqi misery and escape responsibility for it himself. Standing up to America became his strategy for survival.
Western reports suggest that Iranian oil production has declined significantly and social programs and other domestic spending have been cut as a result. With Trump now escalating pressure on allies who continue to trade with Iran, the human impact will surely rise. Inevitably, sanctions inflict pain on the most vulnerable people in society. There is no consideration of basic human rights when they are applied, just power and wealth under the veneer of a “humanitarian response.”
Q: One of the underreported aspects of the US sanctions against Iran is their human cost. Ordinary citizens are the first victims of the sanctions and they’re the ones who should tolerate the grueling pressures resulting from these punitive measures and see their economies crumble. Do you agree that unilateral economic sanctions violate the human rights and international bodies including the United Nations should resist them?
A: Absolutely. But, as noted earlier, international law and human rights are little discussed or applied when powerful countries like the US want to hurt or overthrow a government. While the sanctions themselves did not cause the overthrow of governments in Cuba, Iraq or Venezuela, [yet], the pain they have inflicted cannot be denied. And even international agencies like the United Nations have been of little help, since they often approve of pressure against countries targeted by Americans or, like the IAEA, do not have the ability to prevent countries from simply ignoring UN pressure to respect human rights, as best demonstrated by Israel’s continued violations of resolutions regarding its long-term aggression in Palestine.
In Iran’s case, the US sanctions are hitting particularly hard now. On May 11, President Hassan Rouhani compared the impact of the American pressure to the darkest days of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s –when close to million Iranians were killed and about half of national oil revenue was lost. The Trump sanctions are far more extensive, affecting banking, oil and trade, not just arms purchases as in the 1980s. Still, Rouhani insisted that Iran would not capitulate to Trump’s demands, since he and Bolton have insisted on nothing short of regime change, and caving in to the sanctions would be worse than suffering from them. Acquiescing to any point of Trump’s demands, Iranian leaders believe, would only encourage more intense aggression from Washington.
Q: Do you think Iran will abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action if it’s not able to benefit from its economic dividends and sell its oil in the global markets? Won’t Iran’s possible revocation of the JCPOA lead to further instability in the region and complicate its relations with the West?
A: The most recent pressure and threats from the Trump administration have put Iran in a dilemma. The sanctions are damaging its economy, especially its ability to sell oil, but completely renouncing the JCPOA would lead to more American pressure and almost certainly make its relations with the EU and China and India more tenuous. There have already been reports that representatives from the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization have said that they would no longer accept limits on uranium enrichment that could be used as bomb fuel. Indeed, the head of the agency has said that Iran could reject the limits established in the treaty “whenever we wish, and would do the enrichment at any volume and level.”
Iran has never openly violated any aspect of the JCPOA so the US would surely consider uranium enrichment a provocation and put more pressure on both Iran and its allies. Because there is still considerable opposition to Trump’s policies on Iran in Europe and Asia, it is still unlikely that Tehran will abrogate the treaty, instead hoping that the EU, China, or India intercede to develop some kind of modus vivdendi going forward. Reducing compliance would surely lead to a significant American response, but outright withdrawal would create a much more dangerous global crisis, both in Iran and the Middle East more generally.
The US is surely trying to bait Iran to take any kind of step that it could use to justify more pressure or even military action [much like the alleged attacks in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 created the justification for a mass escalation of the Vietnam War], but Trump, despite all the bluster, has not been indiscriminate in using military power – he has continued to seek an engagement with North Korea, has vacillated on the US troop commitment to Syria, and perhaps is rethinking Venezuelan policy in the wake of the incompetent and unsuccessful coup attempt there last week.
Q: What do you think is the solution to the current crisis? What are the steps Iran and the European Union can take to ensure the JCPOA is preserved and tensions between Tehran and the international community are mitigated?
A: Any solutions are not difficult to formulate, but executing them in the face of increasingly angry rhetoric and threats from Washington D.C. is more difficult to envision. Outside of Trump’s inner circle, especially Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, there is little support for the US hard line against Tehran. As recently as January 2019, America’s intelligence chiefs publicly disagreed with Trump’s assessment of Iran. America’s Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said “we do not believe Iran is currently undertaking the key activities we judge necessary to produce a nuclear device.” Gina Haspel, the CIA director who also oversaw torture programs in Iraq, agreed that the Iranians were in compliance but anticipated a debate in Tehran concerning the future of the JCPOA because it was damaging Iranian interests. As noted, American allies likewise have openly challenged Trump’s analysis of the nuclear deal with Iran.
Surely, then, there are significant elements of the national security community and international allies that will continue to pressure the US to reduce the incendiary rhetoric against Iran and seek a mediated solution. It is always difficult, however, to predict American behavior. While escalating tensions with Iran, Trump has alternated between threats and diplomacy with North Korea regarding its nuclear program, which is well ahead of Tehran’s. Moreover, the US has almost 7,000 nuclear missiles, so it is hard to credibly claim that Iran, or Korea for that matter, pose a threat to the United States.
Under normal conditions, the US and Iran, despite public anger, would meet with intermediary nations and try to formulate a working arrangement to preserve the JCPOA in its entirely or at least maintain the agreement in some form. With the American policy of threats and sanctions, that seems unlikely right now. Some type of US military action against Iran is still not a sure thing but American and Israeli pressure against Tehran will certainly continue into the near future, until clearer heads prevail or the Americans push Iran to the brink.
By: Kourosh Ziabari