The dinner was formal but friendly; the hojjat-al-Islam sitting next to me in Tehran was explaining how the CIA planned 9/11. He was an educated man, one rank below ayatollah. It was 2003. Away to the West in Iraq bombs were dropping.
My diplomatic skills had been tested to the limits over a long day of discussions with Shi’a scholars. Before I could stop, I heard myself say “Nonsense”. My companion’s response was a long fit of coughing. “I’m sorry”, he replied after a harrowing few minutes, “I was gassed during the war”.
The hojjat-al-Islam was referring to the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Saddam Hussein repeatedly used mustard gas, tabu, and later, another and newer organophosphate poison, sarin, on Iranian troops. At Halabja, he used it on his own citizens. By then Saddam Hussein was acting with impunity because Washington feared an Iranian victory.
In the early 1980s German firms supplied Iraq with an estimated thousand tons of precursor chemicals. As chance would have it, President Reagan’s Special Envoy to the Middle East, Donald Rumsfeld, met Saddam Hussein on 24 March 1984. The same day the UN issued a damning report on Iraq’s use of chemical weapons. The US restored diplomatic relations with Iraq a few days later alongside support: notably satellite intelligence and War Credits. When the “righteous power” of the US was marshalled against Syria’s chemical weapons, my dinner companion of 2003 came to mind.
I do not intend this reminder of unrighteous power past as a Putinesque jibe. After seven years of conflict the Syrian moral high ground is vacant. The governments of the USA, France and UK have just planted their flags on the moral summit. The dust has settled on three heavily bombed sites and the picture seems clearer. Such a circumscribed projection of power/symbolic intervention – presumably the storage facilities were empty, the research laboratories long since evacuated – represents progress. We want to limit the horror of war. To that end we deploy signals and understand symbols in its midst.
Recollections of Mr. Rumsfeld’s past diplomacy are only to give historical depth to an explanation why Iran was the dog that didn’t bark during the Allied attacks on Syria. Nor did it bark, at least not loudly, during the Trump Tweet-fest. A significant number of its citizens had suffered from chemical attacks themselves. The vast cemetery of the martyrs along the road to Ayatollah Khomenei’s mausoleum keep the memory of the Iran/Iraq War alive. More contemporary, Iran’s leaders have bigger fish to fry: the final Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the 20015 Geneva nuclear agreement, was, and is, under threat. And then there was the matter of the Israeli attack on 9 April on one of their Syrian drone bases with seven Iranian dead.
The Supreme Leader, Khamenei, true to character, called the Allied attack on Syria a crime and the USA, UK and French governments, criminals. Otherwise the Iranian government’s response was measured compared to the pantomime of Russian sabre-rattling and accusations. Though, as might be predicted, conspiracy theory ruled; many Iranians did not believe Assad was responsible for Douma. But the surprising official Iranian line that such acts would not benefit the USA in the region was the nearest Iran gets to constructive criticism.
It is now urgent that we build on the mutual advantage afforded by the Geneva nuclear agreement. The JCPOA is an outstanding multilateral diplomatic achievement. Iran, in its own view, has made risky and major concessions I met secular-leaning university teachers who felt Iran had a national sovereign right to develop its own nuclear deterrent. It was a matter of pride and of fear. Iran has several unfriendly States with access to nuclear weapons as neighbours.
There are only two ways of avoiding a nuclear armed Iran: either military strikes on nuclear facilities resulting in a major war, or the existing nuclear deal. And only US Secretary for Defense “Mad Dog” Jim Mattis seems to acknowledge this. The right-wing cabal that Trump is assembling around himself share his desire to wreck the agreement. On Iran Trump has strong Republican backing. Israel gets this message and Netanyahu will be tempted to authorise more major air strikes with incalculable consequences.
It is not easy to share Iran’s perspective on the world. Its judiciary and human rights record are deplorable. But, as everyone knows, the USA associates with other countries whose record is no better, saying it hopes that their human rights record will improve over time.
Iran exerts considerable influence over Iraq. It has several Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps bases in Syria. Its pariah status, apart from vying for prominence in the Muslim world in opposition to Israel by supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, is caused by expanding this defensive perimeter - creating supportive proxy forces. Yet Saudi Arabia has the same intentions in Yemen at no less humanitarian cost.
Iran today is a conflicted and politically divided society, more conflicted and divided than the USA. But it also has the potential for change. US policy currently undermines the Iranian progressives who need to see returns from the 2015 Geneva agreement, both economically and in terms of international acknowledgment of Iran’s diplomatic potential in the Middle East.
The people who gain most from the current US policy are Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the special Quds forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and their supporters. They see the Middle East as a site of struggle between the Sunni majority and Shi’a minority with the old enemy, the USA, on the Sunni side, Syria as key to national security. Along with undermining President Rouhani, Trump plays into this narrative. We are in trouble when it is a died-in-the-wool militarist, General Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis who plays a moderating role in the White House.
To date, internationally, Iran’s bark has been worse than its bite. The Trump Presidency risks reversing this order of things with catastrophic results.