Letter from America

The Iran bogey

Print edition : May 15, 2015

John Kerry (left), U.S. Secretary of State, with Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (right) before the start of negotiationson Iran's nuclear programme, in Lausanne March 20. Photo: AFP

U.S. President Barack Obama making a statement about the nuclear deal reached with Iran, at the White House in Washington, D.C., on April 2. Photo: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP

A compromise between Congress and President Barack Obama kept the President's hopes of the nuclear deal alive. Seen here is Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (left), on April 14. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, speaking against the nuclear deal with Iran at a joint meeting of Congress in Washington D.C., on March 3. Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran despite an irrational hatred for the country in Republican and Israeli circles signals recognition of new geopolitical realities.

On April 14, the United States Congress’ Foreign Relations Committee unanimously voted to approve a Bill that required congressional oversight for any deal made by the U.S. government with Iran. The Bill is more smoke than fire. If President Barack Obama can attract 34 Senators of the 100 in the chamber to agree with his nuclear deal with Iran, he can veto congressional disapproval. There are currently 44 Democrats and two independents in the Senate, which gives Obama decent odds that any deal will not be undermined by a congressional vote.

Why did the Foreign Relations Committee erect this ersatz roadblock against the nuclear agreement? Arguments about the constitutional separation of powers ring hollow. If Obama, as President, wanted to ink a treaty with Iran, or with anyone else for that matter, he would be bound to ask for congressional approval. Over the years, U.S. Presidents have avoided signing treaties, largely because of onerous congressional oversight. There is a good reason for this: between 1949 and 2000, the U.S. Senate gave its approval for only 7.4 per cent of treaties sent to it by the President. Over the course of the last century, Presidents have preferred to sign executive agreements, which do not require the input of the U.S. Congress. Between 1839 and 1889, 52.9 per cent of international deals were executive agreements; between 1939 and 1989, that ratio rose to 94.3 per cent. Obama’s percentages are in line with those of his predecessors, who have preferred carte blanche when conducting international pacts.

Clearer answers can be found in the politics that surrounds the Obama presidency and has enveloped West Asia as well. The Republicans are easily outraged by any action of the Obama administration. Some of this is tinged with the legacy of racism that cannot be brushed aside easily. Racism lingers in the Republican Party like the fetid carcass of an animal that everyone can see but no one wishes to actually remove. The New York Times editorial board wagged its finger at the Republicans for their behaviour against Obama’s role in the Iran deal as the attacks on Obama grew “louder, angrier and more destructive” (April 11). “If this insurrection is driven by something other than a blend of ideological extremism and personal animosity,” wrote the editors, “it is not clear what that might be.” These are stern words, dismissed out of hand by the Republicans and by those Democrats who subsequently voted for congressional oversight.

Demonisation of Iran

If not racism, then perhaps the distrust of this deal is fed by the Israeli government’s irrational hatred of Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Washington before the framework deal was signed to lobby Congress in order to tie Obama’s hands. Shortly after the Foreign Relations Committee vote, Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio that this vote was “an achievement for Israeli policy”. The purpose was to halt any deal that allowed Iran political gains in West Asia. Israeli policy has not merely aimed at stemming Iranian enrichment or preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb, but at fettering Iran’s regional ambitions. Netanyahu recently said that the West had been “comatose” in the face of “today’s Nazis, the Iranians”. These are hallucinatory words, but they have a following in the U.S.

Republicans—who are almost the U.S. branch of Netanyahu’s Likud Party—have completely adopted the Israeli view of Iran. Senator Tom Cotton, who authored the letter written by 47 Senators to the Iranian leadership (“Party of Paranoia”, Frontline, April 17), said as he left the Foreign Relations hearing that the framework agreement “puts Iran, the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism, on the path to a nuclear weapon”. This is language familiar to the Israeli leadership—the claim that Iran is a terrorist state and that it longs for a nuclear weapon. That Iran has expressed no interest in a nuclear weapon and that the framework agreement makes a nuclear-weapons programme relatively impossible are irrelevant to the Israelis and the Republicans. On this point, the Israeli government and the Republicans stand by themselves. The natural adversaries of the deal, the Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies, have come to terms with it (as evidenced by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman’s comments and by the statement from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, whose views are congruent with those of Riyadh and its allies). The Europeans and the Non-Aligned Movement also favour this deal, which means that the bulk of the United Nations’ members support it with varying levels of enthusiasm.

Saudi Arabia’s worry has been the exercise of Iranian power in West Asia, which the kingdom generally sees as its area of influence. Iran had been hemmed in from its revolution in 1979 until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. Both the American wars between 2001 and 2003 removed Iran’s two adversaries, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime, allowing Iran to stretch itself towards Kabul and Beirut. Attempts by Israel (with its war against Lebanon and Hizbollah in 2006) and by the West and the Gulf Arabs (with the bogey of the nuclear programme and the sanctions regime) to thwart Iranian influence have failed. Iran has emerged as a regional power with influence outside its borders.

Iranian influence does not mean that there are “proxies” to do Tehran’s bidding in the region. Hizbollah is a creature of the Lebanese civil war, the guerrilla war against Israeli occupation of South Lebanon and the resistance against Israeli threats to Lebanon. Iran is certainly a major logistical supplier for Hizbollah, which has an ear closely attuned to Iranian views; but this does not mean that Hizbollah is merely an appendage of Iran. Nor indeed is the Al-Wefaq Party of Bahrain an Iranian “proxy”, as the Bahraini rulers and the Saudis argue. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry looked at evidence for Iranian influence in the 2011 uprising in Bahrain and found that despite the Bahrain government’s claims (echoed by the Saudis) there was no “discernable link” between Iran and the protests. Much the same kind of canard is being spread about Iranian control over the Houthis of Yemen, with little concern for the accuracy of those allegations. Iran is so thoroughly demonised in the U.S. press that basic facts appear in a garbled form. There continue to be allegations that Iran’s intelligence services and “proxies” (mainly Hizbollah) operate nefarious rings in Latin America, despite a 2013 U.S. State Department report that debunks such claims (“Iranian influence in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said the report, “is waning”). Notwithstanding the evidence, there is no let-up on the assumption that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb. This latter accusation, highly dubious, is given marquee billing in the main newspapers—John Bolton’s opinion piece in The New York Times entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” (March 26) and Joshua Muravchik’s commentary in The Washington Post entitled “War With Iran is Probably Our Best Option” (March 13), are illustrative examples. Rational discussion with such a view is hard to sustain.

Expiration of the sanctions

War against Iran is off the table. The feverish ambitions of Bolton and Muravchik are not shared by sensible analysts or by the U.S. military. What is left is the slate of sanctions. But even that is looking increasingly threadbare. Europe can no longer tolerate the implications of U.S. aggression in Eurasia. The U.S.-driven policy in Ukraine pushed a sanctions slate against Russia, whose natural gas can no longer provide energy to Europe. Cut off from the energy of Russia, Iran and Libya, Europe is in a serious quandary. It is unlikely that the encirclement of Russia will end in the short term, which is why European capitals are eager for an entente with Iran. They cannot afford long-term problems with energy supply. If Europe and the U.N. drop their sanctions against Iran, it would give Tehran breathing room and would isolate the U.S. Obama is aware of this reality.

Western sanctions against Russia might intensify. This could mean that Europe would be forced to pressure the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) network for financial transactions to cut off Russia, as it had cut off Iran. Conversations in Moscow and Beijing suggest that there is serious interest in the creation of an alternative to the SWIFT system, too closely aligned as it is to the geopolitical manoeuvres of Europe. A new development bank based in Beijing, new pipelines that run from China to Moscow and perhaps from Iran to Pakistan, new financial wire services—these are the infrastructure of the emergent Asian states, and these would, of course, undermine the instruments for Western economic sanctions. It is precisely the expiry date on Western economic sanctions that makes this nuclear framework agreement appealing to Europe and to the Obama administration. In a decade, not only will open warfare be off the table, but so too might economic warfare. Such realities are beyond the comprehension of Republican politicians, who are too blinded by their view of eternal American supremacy.