The Iran obsession

President Donald Trump brought down the gavel at the United Nations Security Council. The United States holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council in October. The topic for discussion at its first session was to be non-proliferation. Trump wanted to turn the entire session into an attack on Iran and the 2015 nuclear accord signed with that country. The accord—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—had been ratified by the U.N. and was being overseen by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). There has been no indication of any violation by Iran of the terms of the deal. Appetite for ending the deal is near nil. Only the U.S. and Israel—as well as Saudi Arabia—have made it clear that they would like to nullify the nuclear deal and resume their pressure on Iran.

Trump said that the deal—which has paused the Iranian nuclear programme—was unacceptable. “This horrible, one-sided deal allowed Iran to continue its path towards a bomb and gave the regime a cash lifeline when it needed it the most. They were in big, big trouble,” Trump spluttered. “They needed cash. We gave it to them.” It is true that the Iranian economy had stalled for lack of ability to sell oil to the international market. That vital foreign exchange has been denied to Iran for two decades. It has put a great deal of pressure on a country that is reliant on oil sales and needs that money to tackle endemic problems—including poverty (one in five Iranians lives below the poverty line). Trump promised to throttle Iran with new U.S.-driven sanctions that go into effect in early November.

European diplomats, in the halls of the U.N., would not go on record about Trump’s assault on Iran. They are cautious. Europe has tried every legal measure to protect European firms that want to do business both with Iran and with the U.S. These firms—from Volkswagen to Airbus, from Total to Sanofi—do not want their dealings in Iran to impact the much more lucrative trade that they do with the U.S. Fear of being shut off from the U.S. market and from credit from U.S. banks drives the European agenda. The European Union’s (E.U.) foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, had tried to build a “legal shield” to insulate these firms. Such a shield, she was told by the Trump administration, was simply not available. That was the reason for the tepid response from Europe. Large European firms are too closely integrated into the economy of the U.S. for the E.U. to risk a confrontation with the U.S.

At the U.N. General Assembly, both Trump and Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tried to revive an anti-Iran mood. Netanyahu came once more with an aerial map that purported to show a secret warehouse for Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. The Iranian delegation laughed openly as Netanyahu spoke. Later, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi said that the site was actually a Persian carpet washing factory. “Israeli intelligence was taken for a ride,” Zarif said after the session. Aragchi concurred. “Someone set him up,” he said. Even three U.S. officials later admitted that the site pointed at by Netanyahu was not a nuclear facility. Despite this, the U.S. has asked the IAEA to investigate the site. Zarif said in a meeting with reporters: “The IAEA will not allow itself to be the arm of the boy who cried wolf.”

Plucky Bolivia

Inside the Security Council, it was left to the plucky Bolivia to challenge Trump’s claims about Iran. Both Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and his U.N. envoy Sacha Llorenty Soliz sharply noted that Trump’s statements on Iran were “unwelcome”. Morales pointed to the history of “unilateral action, political interventionism and regime change” by the U.S.—manoeuvres that are already afoot against Iran. Later, Llorenty said that the U.S. move in the Security Council had been “clumsy”, wrong-footed. Little was gained by the heavy-handed attack on Iran, which is not seen amongst most of the member-states of the U.N. as a threat to world peace.

The ugliest statements about Iran came from Trump’s close adviser, John Bolton. He warned Iran that it would have “hell to pay” if it harmed U.S. citizens or allies. There is a far-fetched tone to these comments. Threats from Iran are mute. Domestic economic challenges have galvanised the Iranian government, which worries about the new U.S. sanctions that will go into effect from November 5. The expense of its intervention in Syria and the inability to use payment systems to receive money for its oil exports are two daunting problems. No easy solution is available for either. Iranian officials know that they cannot abandon their ally in Syria, which will require considerable funds to rebuild the devastated country. They know as well that despite European appetite for Iranian oil, the U.S. will not permit European countries to easily pay Iran. Europeans are eager to create a new payment system—one that is immune from U.S. pressure. Iranian government officials hope that such a system can come into effect as soon as possible. They are not cavalier. They know that the new sanctions from November will have a strong negative impact on Iran.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi defended the Iran nuclear deal. It, he said, “is a consensus-based multilateral agreement endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. It serves the common interest of all parties concerned and the international community at large.” Ma Zhaoxu, China’s envoy to the U.N., was as clear that there should be no unilateral disposal of the nuclear deal. It had created stability in West Asia—a major goal for the Chinese government, which buys over 700,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day and which has considerable investment across Iran. That Trump is in the midst of a trade war against China put the steel in the Chinese comments. There was little space for compromise here. China made it clear that it would not honour Trump’s new sanctions and that it would continue to trade with Iran.

Fears of a U.S. war on Iran are not unfounded. Diplomats do not like to talk about war. Their mode of speech is muffled. Yet, on Iran, veteran diplomats said that the atmosphere resembled in many ways that of the lead-up to the U.S. war on Iraq. There is one major difference, however. The U.S. now faces an open challenge from many other powers, especially China, which will play its part to prevent a war on Iran. One diplomat from a South American country joked that he would like to see Chinese military aircraft enter Tehran as a shield against an Israeli or U.S. attack on the country. “It would be like the Russian entry into Syria,” the diplomat said.

Trump and Netanyahu, and certainly Bolton, have not come to terms with this elementary fact, namely that China and Russia are now not merely going to make quiet noises in the U.N. They are capable of challenging the U.S. and its allies where it matters, on the ground. A U.S. bombing run against Iran would certainly widen the war that is now slowly ending in Syria. This is precisely what Russia does not want. Nor does China. Chinese officials were pleased to switch the topic of conversation to the new train that runs from China to Iran. They would like to see the Belt and Road Initiative expand along the southern edge of Asia. It is a far better outcome for them than another war in western Asia, another set of unpredictable and dangerous consequences that would come out of Trump’s obsession with Iran.

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