The Middle East

Wiser Men on the Iranian Deal

obama peace in our timeBack in December 2013, former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger (who served from 1973 to 1977) and George Shultz (1982 to 1989) wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal titled “What a Final Iran Deal Must Do”. This missive appeared a week after President Obama signed the 2013 interim nuclear agreement with the Islamic Republic of Iran, one that purported to temporarily freeze Tehran’s decade-long advance towards military nuclear capability. Kissinger and Shultz warned that the Islamic Republic’s quest for the nuclear bomb would be enhanced by the 2013 interim agreement. On April 12, 2015, a week after Obama celebrated his latest “breakthrough” with the Mullahs of Iran, the so-called framework for a preliminary nuclear agreement, Kissinger and Shultz published a sequel in the Wall Street Journal, this time titled “The Iran Deal and Its Consequences”. The worst fears of the former secretaries of state appeared to be confirmed by the latest turn of events:

negotiations that began 12 years ago as an international effort to prevent an Iranian capability to develop a nuclear arsenal are ending with an agreement that concedes this very capability, albeit short of its full capacity in the first ten years.

The problem, in the opinion of Kissinger and Shultz, is that the P5+1 (UN Security Council members plus Germany) negotiations have progressively legitimised Tehran’s thirteen-year-old quest for nuclear weapons capability. Between 2003 and 2013 Tehran “defied unambiguous UN and IAEA demands and proceeded with a major nuclear effort, incompatible with an exclusively civilian purpose”. During this time Iran “periodically engaged in talks but never dismantled any aspect of its enrichment infrastructure or growing stockpile of fissile material”, notwithstanding six Security Council resolutions passed between 2006 and 2010. The interim agreement reached on November 24, 2013, had provided the Islamic Republic with an estimated $8 billion in sanctions relief in exchange for a temporary halt to some aspects of its nuclear program. Tehran was not being asked to dismantle or wind back its vast nuclear infrastructure, let alone lengthen the breakout time necessary to acquire nuclear weapons capability. Thus, the 2013 interim agreement effectively “recognised as baseline” past Iranian misconduct including uranium enrichment and plutonium production, all previously condemned by the United States and the international community as illegal and illegitimate.

In short, Kissinger and Shultz’s warning in 2013 was that sitting down at the table with the Islamic Republic had not made the world safer but quite the opposite. The 2013 agreement resulted in “a subtle but fundamental change in the conceptual basis of the nuclear standoff”. Formerly, the USA (and the UN) had insisted that the Islamic Republic remain “in the cold” until its nuclear weapons ambition was irrevocably ended. Some kind of nuclear program with an “exclusively civilian purpose” was not out of the question but the idea of “an Iranian military nuclear capability” and Iran as “a nuclear threshold power” had previously come under the category of non-negotiable. After November 2013, however, the rules of engagement changed or, to put it the other way around, engagement had changed the rules. Ever since, regrettably, the United States (along with the other P5+1 nations) has been prepared to negotiate about “breakout times”, implicitly accepting the Islamic Republic’s status as “a nuclear threshold power”.

This explains why Kissinger and Shultz, in their April op-ed, assert that the Islamic Republic has turned the original—we might say actual—purpose of the P5+1 deliberations “on its head”. The so-called framework appears to give Tehran virtually everything it wants: the possibility of progressing towards nuclear weapons capability and the lifting of crippling sanctions. Kissinger and Shultz argue that although President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry deserve “respect” for attempting “to impose significant constraints on Iran’s nuclear program”, including confining the enrichment of uranium to one facility, the 2015 framework has gaping holes. For instance, two weeks after announcing their diplomatic “breakthrough”, Obama and Kerry were still to release an official text of the agreement, allowing Iran’s principal negotiator to dismiss America’s interpretation of the agreement as “spin”. And even if the Islamic Republic dutifully signs up to a detailed preliminary nuclear agreement by the end of June, it is not required to dismantle the vast nuclear program, merely put it on hold—a “strategic pause” we might call it.

Moreover, if Tehran decides to pursue the goal of nuclear weapons capability over the next ten years, history tells us that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will not be up to the job of detecting such a development. And once those ten years are up, the “scope and sophistication” of Iran’s nuclear, military and industrial power almost certainly guarantee the very outcome all the P5+1 talks were meant to prevent. President Obama’s preliminary nuclear agreement, in the opinion of Kissinger and Shultz, does not diminish the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran but instead gives Tehran the “latent capacity to weaponise at a time of its choosing”.

Why has all this come to pass? The premise of Michael Rubin’s Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes (2014) is that government-sanctioned negotiations with rogue regimes, from the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea to the Islamic Republic of Iran, are not necessarily a positive thing. Unless a rogue entity is ready and willing to be “brought in from the cold”, as was the case in 2003 with Gaddafi’s WMD program, would-be peacemakers are likely to do more harm than good. US diplomatic outreach, according to Rubin, can end up not only legitimising a wayward regime but also emboldening it, usually at the expense of America’s traditional allies and the civilised world in general. Enter the Peacemaker-in-Chief and his attempted rapprochement with Iran. It is the rogue state, Kissinger and Shultz contend, that always has the upper hand in negotiations: “While Iran treated the mere fact of its willingness to negotiate as a concession, the West felt compelled to break every deadlock with a new proposal.”

Sanctions remain one of the obvious sticking points in the framework for a preliminary nuclear agreement. Without the release of an official detailed text we cannot be sure about the specifics. Obama and Kerry insist that economic sanctions will be relaxed in a piecemeal fashion concomitant to Iran’s verified compliance with an official 2015 preliminary nuclear agreement, but already the Iranians are engaged in pushback. Various Iranian spokesmen call American pronouncements a “misinterpretation” of the framework for the agreement, while Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei now insists he cannot countenance a June deal containing anything short of an immediate and total cessation of sanctions, and that the so-called framework his negotiators accepted on April 2 was “unfinished and non-binding”. Here is “the shrewd diplomacy” that Kissinger and Shultz note in “The Iran Deal and Its Consequences”. We can imagine a flannelling John Kerry on the line to a flummoxed Barack Obama, talking about how to break the impasse with yet another concession, this time on sanctions relief.

Team Obama has spoken about “snap-back” sanctions in the case of Iranian non-compliance. Kissinger and Shultz are sceptical, suggesting that any restoration of sanctions is unlikely to be as automatic as the expression snap-back implies: “In countries that had reluctantly joined in previous rounds, the demands of public and commercial opinion will militate against automatic or even prompt ‘snap-back’.” Some future attempt “to reimpose sanctions risks primarily isolating America, not Iran”. Besides, Khamenei and the twelve-member Guardian Council can—in the course of the next ten years—invalidate a nuclear deal authorised by President Hassan Rouhani whenever they deem the moment providential.

Kissinger and Shultz are not convinced America should be giving the Iranians the benefit of the doubt, because co-operation is not “an exercise in good feeling”, and for past thirty-five years the Islamic Republic has professed an existentialist hostility towards the United States (“the Great Satan”). Kissinger and Shultz put it this way:

Iran’s representatives (including its Supreme Leader) continue to profess a revolutionary anti-Western concept of international order; domestically, some senior Iranians describe nuclear negotiations as a form of jihad by other means.

As recently as March, Khamenei vented his feelings with an hour-long anti-American diatribe in front of a crowd of frenzied activists, climaxing with this Orwellian chant: “Death to America! Death to Israel!”

The lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic, in whatever form that might take, could give the ruling clique in Tehran the breathing space it requires to achieve nuclear weapons capability before their religion-infused kleptocracy becomes even less tenable. Even the current Iranian president, the “pragmatic” Hassan Rouhani, has boasted of misleading the international community throughout the first decade of the twenty-first century to buy time for Iran’s attainment of nuclear weapons capability. During Rouhani’s tenure as the Islamic Republic’s “nuclear envoy”, Iran built its top secret Fordow site and also a heavy-water plant in Arak capable of turning out plutonium. With “moderates” such as Rouhani what need does Iran have of “hard-liners”? The idea of a nuclear deal serving as “a way station towards the eventual domestication of Iran” is dismissed by Kissinger and Shultz as a dangerous delusion.

Not the least damning element of the Kissinger–Shultz critique of President Obama’s nuclear agreement “triumph” relates to Realpolitik or, as our wily former secretaries of state term it, “traditional balance of power theory”. Washington’s attempted rapprochement with Tehran makes no strategic sense, according to Kissinger and Shultz, since it involves aiding and abetting the “the rising or expanding power” rather than bolstering “the weaker side” in the sectarian conflagration raging throughout the Middle East. One enemy of the civilised world in the region, Islamic State, is the also the enemy of the Islamic Republic but, as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu pointed out in his March 3 address to Congress, that does not turn the Islamic Republic into America’s friend. The Islamic Republic, on account of its military and industrial capacity, has the potential to create far more mayhem in the Middle East than the Khmer Rouge-like Islamic State. Besides, the idea that the USA and the Iran might co-ordinate their respective resources to thwart Sunni militants (from the Taliban in Afghanistan to Al Qaeda in Iraq)—“the Grand Bargain”, as it was once tagged—lost all credibility long ago. Supreme Leader Khamenei explained the situation at his March rally: “America’s objectives on regional matters are the opposite to our objectives.”

Were the Islamic Republic to attain nuclear weapons capability—or even seem to be in the process of doing so—the United States would be left with two options. One involves watching on as Saudi Arabia and Egypt get the bomb, a process that in all likelihood would be facilitated by Pakistan. Here is the stuff of nightmares. The only alternative to this means America providing a “nuclear umbrella” to its Middle East allies, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt to Jordan and the Gulf sheikhdoms. Such a scenario, as Kissinger and Shultz make clear, would result in the US being forever ensnared in the machinations of the Middle East. So much for the Obama Doctrine and the promise of American disengagement. In either case, we are taking about the evisceration of the whole anti-proliferation structure as it currently exists.

The consequences of the Islamic Republic obtaining nuclear weapons capability are dire, something that President Obama himself has repeatedly acknowledged over the years. It would, as Kissinger and Shultz say, inflame a region that is already trending towards “sectarian upheaval” and involve Iran actively intensifying “efforts to expand and entrench its power in neighbouring states”.

The irresponsible conduct of the P5+1 negotiators, as the wise men make clear, has already done great damage well in advance of any final agreement. For the June preliminary nuclear agreement to have a positive impact on the region, Iran must give up its nuclear weapons ambition and its neighbours must believe that to be true. The real folly of P5+1 is to have allowed the Islamic Republic over the years to subvert their original mission by redefining the debate or discussion in terms of limiting Iran’s “breakout time”. It should never have come to this. The peacemakers, as is so often the case in history, have made war of every imaginable kind more likely, and that includes military intervention in Iran.

Daryl McCann reviewed Robert G. Rabil’s Salafism in Lebanon in the April issue. He has a blog at  


One thought on “Wiser Men on the Iranian Deal

  • says:

    The bottom line of this perilous debacle is the simple fact that none of the 5+1 was ever going to militarily punish Iran for any transgression contrary to rules agreed upon and the Iranians were always perfectly cognisant of this self-inposed handicap of their opponents, so they always negotiated and acted accordingly. Whatever agreement might be finalised in July, the Iranians will disregard any and all restrictions imposed on them, as they always did in the past. Western leaders, particularly the “great peacemaker” in the White House, continually fail to appreciate the simple fact that, ultimately, the only language rogue states understand is military force. As long as that threat is absent from the negotiating table, rogue regimes will always achieve their goals, as it happened with North Korea and is happening with Iran.

    Bill Martin.

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