Trump, Iran sanctions and the danger of war

On May 8, President Trump announced that the United States would violate the nuclear agreement with Iran and re-impose sanctions. Trump claimed that Iran was continuing its pursuit of nuclear weapons, contradicting 11 certifications of compliance by the International Atomic Energy Agency and ignoring U.S. government intelligence. Standing reality on its head, Trump said, “We will not allow American cities to be threatened with destruction.”

In reality, Iranian cities are in danger of destruction by U.S. bombings, not the other way around. Even before signing the JCPOA, Iran was in compliance with the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty. In contrast, the U.S., also a signatory of the NPT, has since 1968 refused to dismantle its terrifying stockpile of nuclear weapons. In fact, the U.S. has been expanding its nuclear arsenal by embarking on a $1.2 trillion nuclear modernization program.

Gross violation of international law

It is true that every three months, the U.S. president was scheduled to certify Iran’s compliance with the terms of the JCPOA to the U.S. Congress – something that President Obama added in hopes of placating Congress. But this was not an outlet for the U.S. president to express his like or dislike of the JCPOA. The president’s task was merely to certify compliance.

It is inaccurate to state, as the U.S. media commonly do, that Trump has withdrawn from the JCPOA. The accord has no “out” option and is binding on all signatories. As a signatory of the JCPOA, the U.S. did not legally have the option to pull out. Item 26 of the JCPOA states: “The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from re-introducing or re-imposing the sanctions specified in Annex II that it has ceased applying under this JCPOA. … The U.S. Administration, acting consistent with the respective roles of the President and the Congress, will refrain from imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”

And the IAEA has determined time and again that Iran is in compliance. Even Netanyahu’s outrageous show, relying on documents whose authenticity remains to be determined, did not claim any violations of the JCPOA – just the unproven claim that Iran had a nuclear weapons program in the 2000s.

Even if the U.S. had a legitimate claim of an Iranian breach of the JCPOA, it could still not legally pull out. It would have to resort to the “dispute resolution process provided for under this JCPOA.”

What if the tables were turned? After the signing of the JCPOA, in May 2017, Iran held its elections. As it turned out, President Rouhani was decisively re-elected. But what if a new president had been elected in Iran and the new president had unilaterally decided to “pull out” of the JCPOA. U.S. government and media would pounce on it as an act of war, proof that Iran was untrustworthy, unreliable, war-mongering. …

What are the terms of the JCPOA?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action took several years to craft, but it was on July 14, 2015, that it was signed in Geneva. The signers of the JCPOA were Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – and also Germany and the European Union.

According to the JCPOA, the U.S. and others recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes. This is a right guaranteed by the NPT. But up to that time, the imperialists had effectively refused to recognize this right.

In compliance with the JCPOA, Iran has implemented the “Additional Protocol,” giving the IAEA more powers to monitor its nuclear facilities. This means that all of Iran’s nuclear facilities have been under constant watch and surveillance.

Iran has reduced two-thirds of its uranium enrichment activity. Of the 19,500 centrifuges before the deal, only about 6,000 centrifuges are still spinning. Of the eight-ton stockpile of low-enriched uranium stored at the time of the signing of the deal, Iran has kept about 300 kg and exported the rest. The Fordow facility, built inside a hollowed-out mountain and virtually impenetrable by aerial bombardment, has remained operational but only as a research center. The heavy water plant at Arak has continued operating but redesigned to make it impossible to produce weapons-grade plutonium, if that were the intent.

The U.S. and its allies lifted nuclear-related economic sanctions, including oil embargoes and financial restrictions. This was supposed to also release $100 billion to $120 billion of Iran’s frozen assets. But in reality, only about $35 billion have been released.

Why did Trump decide to violate the JCPOA?

Ever since he was on the campaign trail for the 2016 presidential elections,Trump has been attacking the nuclear deal as the “worst deal ever.” It can be safely stated that Trump has little actual knowledge of the JCPOA and its provisions. Considering his all-around ignorance, it is quite possible that Trump actually thinks President Obama and all European imperialist leaders were duped by Iran. Given Trump’s self-declared mastery of the “Art of the Deal,” Trump may genuinely think that his great negotiating skills can get a better deal for the U.S., hence his dissatisfaction with the JCPOA.

French President Macron and German Chancellor Merkel tried to convince Trump to stay in the JCPOA with the promise that they would get Iran to make more concessions. Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif responded to this effort by criticizing the European leaders for offering “the United States more concessions from our pocket.” Iranian officials have flatly stated that they would not re-negotiate a deal signed over two years ago, nor would they agree to tack on new conditions to it. To maintain his own standing as a tough-talking master of negotiations, Trump had to leave the deal he had so thoroughly criticized for years.

But opposition to the Iran nuclear deal goes much deeper than Trump’s ignorance as an individual. Long before Trump’s election, a significant part of the U.S. ruling class opposed the nuclear deal. Imperialists do not typically back down from demands they place on oppressed countries. They usually impose conditions and issue threats. So-called negotiations between the U.S. and Iran went back over a decade. But it was only during President Obama’s second term that Washington showed a real interest in reaching an agreement. The key event that led to a shift in policy was the failure of the Obama administration to overcome strong opposition to its push for bombing Syria.When Obama was forced to take bombing Syria off the table, the imperialist dream of clearing the Middle East of independent states had to be shelved. But not all factions of the U.S. ruling class have been willing to give up that dream.

Following the downfall of the Soviet Union, U.S. imperialism took up the goal of removing the remaining independent states in the Middle East, at the time Iran, Iraq, Syria and Libya, in North Africa. Since then, the U.S. has overthrown the states in Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011. Syria is severely weakened as a result of a civil war that the U.S. has done much to foment.

So there are no strong, independent states in the region that the U.S. needs to worry about, other than Iran. Today, in many ways, Iran is the lynchpin of resistance to imperialist domination of the Middle East. It provides vital financial and military support to Syria. Iran’s support is key to the continued strength of Hezbollah, a Lebanese resistance force that delivered a crushing blow to Israel’s myth of invincibility in 2006. Iran also supports Palestinian resistance against Israel’s criminal state. Iran’s removal from the scene would be a welcome development for the U.S. and Israel alike.

Up to recently, Trump’s top advisors were also recommending against pulling out of the JCPOA. But National Security Advisor McMaster was replaced with Bolton and Secretary of State Tillerson was replaced with Pompeo – two notoriously war-mongering politicians.

JCPOA too favorable to Iran?

While Trump and others argue that the JCPOA is too lopsided in favor of Iran, the reality is the exact opposite. When the agreement was announced in 2015, there were people celebrating in the streets of Tehran, dancing and handing out sweets. But there was also opposition both among a minority of the people and in the political establishment. Those opposed to the agreement viewed any restrictions on the nuclear program as inherently unfair.

After years of sanctions, after the assassination of several nuclear scientists likely by the U.S. or Israel, some in Iran viewed reaching an agreement as a betrayal of the country’s independence. How could Iran be subjected to limits on its nuclear program on the pretext that it might one day develop nuclear weapons when the imposers of the restrictions were nuclear-armed states themselves?

Many of those Iranians who were in favor of signing a deal now see themselves as having been betrayed by the U.S. On May 11, tens of thousands of people demonstrated around Iran in protest to Trump’s action.

Will Europe stand up to the US?

Iran’s immediate reaction has been cautious. President Rouhani has said that Iran would stay in the JCPOA, provided that it receives benefits from it. Supreme Leader Khamenei has said that Iran would have to get guarantees from the Europeans if it were to stay in the deal; otherwise the Europeans could prove to be untrustworthy like the U.S.

Every signatory of the JCPOA has expressed strong opposition to Trump’s move. Germany and France have specifically urged Iran to stay in the deal. Russia has stated that it will work with the other Europeans to see what can be done to protect Iran.

In a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, German Foreign Minister Maas said, “It is important to learn about the rules concerning the so-called secondary effects, that is, what does it mean for a European company’s America business if it continues to do business with Iran.”

If there were any doubts, on May 13, National Security Adviser John Bolton made it clear that the U.S. would go after European violators of the U.S. sanctions. So, there is little possibility that the U.S. will look the other way when European companies do business in Iran, even when the transactions have absolutely nothing to do with nuclear issues.

Ever since World War II, European imperialist countries have been relegated to the role of junior partners to the U.S. Given the absolute dominance of the U.S. in the post WWII era, they had no choice but to consent to this new relationship of forces. With the decline of the U.S. economic dominance in recent decades, at times, some European imperialists have challenged the U.S. – for example, France during the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

The U.S. violation of the JCPOA and the humiliation of the Europeans is a good test to see whether they are willing to challenge the U.S. on this front. There have been statements of indignation from some European officials, such as those of France’s Economy Minister Bruno La Maire: “Do we want to be vassals who obey decisions taken by the United States while clinging to the hem of their trousers?” But the general tone of European leaders has been more cautious, like that of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, vowing to stay in the JCPOA but cautioning against damaging their “valuable transatlantic partnership” with the U.S.

How will Iran react?

The fact is that Trump did major damage to Iran’s economy even prior to the May 8 announcement just by verbally trashing the agreement. This was also in violation of the JCPOA, which states, “The United States will make best efforts in good faith to sustain this JCPOA and to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting specified in Annex II.” Very few foreign companies would invest in Iran when, even before the U.S. elections, the Republican Party had made promises to nullify the JCPOA if elected.

For months now, Iran’s currency has been in a downward spiral. Less than a year ago, Iran’s currency, the rial, had an exchange rate of 30,000 to the U.S. dollar. Today, the official government rate is 42,000, with the black market rate as high as 70,000. Mass fear of the re-imposition of sanctions did significant damage to the economy.

In 2012, when the U.S. and the E.U. imposed severe sanctions, Iran’s oil exports dropped from 2.5 million barrels per day to just a little over 1 million bpd. With the lifting of the sanctions, Iran re-emerged as a major oil producer in January 2016. How Iran will react in the long term may largely depend on the oil sector.

Comments made a few days before the Trump announcement by Gholamreza Manouchehri, deputy head of the National Iranian Oil Company, were optimistic. He talked about Iran’s plans to finalize seven upstream contracts worth around $40 billion with foreign investors, hoping to lead to significant increases in energy production: “They cannot stop Iran. Our oil industry’s development will continue even if new sanctions are imposed on Iran. … These contracts will be finalized under the current challenging circumstances by mid-year.” But it is far from clear that investors in the oil sector will not be chased away by the fear of severe U.S. penalties.

Danger of war

The fact that Trump announced the U.S. intent to violate the nuclear agreement is a potentially dangerous development. For over a decade, John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor, has wanted nothing more than a war on Iran. Secretary of State Pompeo, the highest ranking U.S. diplomat, is as belligerent as they come. And Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has been urging the U.S. to go to war against Iran since the time of President Bush II. Israel’s two rounds of bombing attacks on Syria, claiming the second time that it was responding to a (phantom) rocket attack by Iran, is an indication of how Israel wants to provoke Iran into a wider confrontation.

There have been objective factors keeping the U.S.from invading Iran, not the least of which is the fact that, unlike countries that the U.S. usually targets for annihilation, Iran has a significant capacity to defend itself. However, that may not be an impediment for the Trump war cabinet, which may be willing to go to war at all costs.

Further, the U.S. will likely engage in an intense destabilization campaign in a renewed effort for regime change. With Iran’s deepening economic crisis as a consequence of the sanctions, one can be sure that the Trump administration will be on the lookout for any domestic unrest. There will likely be opportunities for the U.S. to fund, organize and promote regime change from within.

The danger of a U.S. war on Iran is a terrifying possibility. Even more terrifying is the possibility that such a war may escalate into a confrontation between the U.S. and Russia and/or China. With the danger of such a confrontation going nuclear, it is no exaggeration to state that the Trump administration’s war drive has the possibility of putting the very survival of humanity in peril. We, in the U.S. anti-war movement, must be vigilant against the danger of another war in the Middle East, as well as continued sanctions, militaristic machinations and imperialist war-mongering.

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