A few years ago I had an interesting conversation with Iran’s former President, Seyyed Khatami, during lunch at Lambeth Palace. I asked him through his interpreter what Shi’a Islam had to say about nuclear weapons. “They are forbidden, haram”, was the answer through the interpreter. “Banned for use ?” I queried. “Forbidden for both possession and use” came back the answer from Khatami in perfect English.
Of course, with a little casuistry, you could have the components of a nuclear bomb available and ready for assembly and still “not possess nuclear weapons”. This was probably the aim of the Iranian nuclear programme pre-JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action): the international agreement on limiting and monitoring Iran’s nuclear capacity, signed in 2015 by Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, USA, China, Russia, France and UK plus Germany and the EU.
Iranian national pride is widely shared inside the country. You do not have to be a fanatical Revolutionary Guard commander to believe in national sovereignty. It is after all one of the basic principles of the UN. Nor from an Iranian perspective do you necessarily think possession of a nuclear weapon is perversely irrational. A number of States with a military presence near or around Iran’s borders have nuclear weapons: Russia, USA, UK, Pakistan and Israel. JCPOA took a lot of selling to Shi’a hardliners. To give the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) thorough monitoring access to Iran’s nuclear facilities was a big ask . But, according to the IAEA, Iran complied with the treaty and kept its uranium enrichment below the required 3.67%. Any preparations for a nuclear weapon were thus in abeyance, or discontinued, until the USA reneged on the JCPOA agreement enraging and humiliating President Hourani’s government and the Iranian public.
If we are to believe White House sources, we were 10 minutes away from a US attack on Iran two weeks ago with, probably, the Strait of Hormuz being blocked in retaliation. Iran had shot down a US surveillance i.e. spy drone. Remarkably the Stock Exchange barely blinked. So was it all playground bravado and will it remain only a war of words?
In the Trump era, sanctions are imposed on foreign countries as if they were a routine part of foreign policy. But oil sanctions on a country almost totally dependent on revenue from its oil exports devastate its economy and are close to being an act of war. Oil sanctions on Iran are estimated to have resulted in $50 billion in lost revenue. Iran had strong reasons to threaten retaliation by making warning attacks on shipping transporting oil through the Strait. As the cliché goes, one thing leads to another.
This dangerous state of affairs in the Gulf must primarily be laid at the door of the Trump administration and its unilateral withdrawal of the USA from JCPOA. The agreement was a triumph of diplomacy. Due to deep distrust between Iran and the rest of the signatories, detailed verification provisions were put in place. Iran has honoured these provisions and limited its stockpile of enriched uranium to the required 660 pounds. The US withdrawal was both a major blow to the ordered conduct of international relations, an insult to the co-signatories, and an economic blow to Iran; the Iranian rial lost three-quarters of its value. It undermined President Rouhani, by Iranian standards a pragmatic moderate, and illustrated that the Revolutionary Guards who opposed the treaty had been right all along. So strong are feelings about national sovereignty in Iran, there were, and are, only two ways of stopping the movement towards the possession of nuclear weapons: the JCPOA treaty or military attack.
So far the US has held back from military attack. It has followed up the oil sanctions it imposed, by bullying the rest of the world through threats to banks and trade into complying, with an almost total boycott of Iran. Further sanctions are now being piled on in the hope of bringing Iran to heel. One measure, banning the sale of enriched uranium to Russia, has resulted in Iran now being in breach of its stockpile limits.
Having told his core constituency that he will end US military intervention and “bring home our boys”, Trump is no warmonger even if his National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is. But a fundamental misunderstanding of the Iran’s complex political system and public opinion makes the chance of war by mistake a growing danger. Any loss of American lives, attributable to the Revolutionary Guards, would be a trigger.
It is understandable that the US and Israel are particularly unhappy about Iran’s support for Hezbollah, and to a lesser degree the Houthis in Yemen, along with a threatening Revolutionary Guard presence in Syria. Both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, key Sunni protagonists, see Iran’s defiance of the West and Israel in a sectarian context as their rival in the struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. But the way forward is indicated by the successful negotiations over JCPOA: perseverance in diplomatic initiatives and recognition of Iran as inheritor of an ancient Persian culture and the Shi’a Safavid Empire, a legitimate claim to leadership of the Shi’a world.
This religious element in the geopolitics should not be neglected. Westerners sometimes find this difficult to grasp. Iran is absolutely serious about seeking religious recognition in the Muslim world. Hence its support for Hezbollah and the Houthis and the foul anti-Zionism of its crazed former President, Mamoud Ahmadinejad, who took over from President Khatami in 2005.
So now thanks to President Trump and his coterie we have Iran’s centrifuges spinning again and building up enriched uranium suitable for Iran to build a nuclear weapon. The routine disavowal, “the United States is not seeking war with Iran” is unconvincing. War is, and has been, the default position of both Israel and the USA. And at the moment, on the trajectory set by President Trump, the USA or Israel will eventually undertake a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities with dire consequences.