by Zafar Bangash (Special Reports, Crescent International Vol. 44, No. 7, Dhu al-Qa'dah, 1436)
When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the Islamic Republic and the P5+1 group of countries (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany) was agreed in Vienna on July 14, Western media outlets immediately reported that there were “celebrations” in Tehran. The BBC as usual led the pack. Conversely, opponents of the deal were dubbed as “hardliners” whose personal interests would be affected if it was approved and implemented.
How widespread were these celebrations and who precisely was “celebrating” in Tehran was not explained. Were any celebrations held in any other Iranian city was also left unreported. Further, were those expressing reservations about the deal all hardliners?
Discussions about the JCPOA with a divergent group of people in Tehran — academics, activists, religious personalities and students — presented a much more nuanced picture than the simplistic assertions of the Western media. The varied perspectives in Iran are based on their assessment of the nature of the nuclear problem.
Before discussing these different perspectives, it is important to consider what the Rahbar, Imam Seyyed Ali Khamenei, has said or not said about the JCPOA. He has been generous in his praise of the Iranian negotiating team. He lauded their Islamic commitment, sincerity and hard work. He has, however, reserved judgment on the JCPOA itself. He has not described it either as an agreement or a deal. Instead, he has referred to it as “text” and urged the relevant authorities to carefully examine its content and also have it checked by legal experts.
Given the treacherous nature of Western policy-makers, especially the Americans, this is wise and prudent. Further, on August 17 while addressing the General Assembly of the Islamic Radio and Television Union (IRTVU) and the Sixth General Assembly of the Ahl al-Bayt World Assembly, the Rahbar made clear that even if the JCPOA were approved — which was not certain yet given the opposition in US Congress — the Islamic Republic would not allow this to be used as a pretext by the Americans to penetrate Iran. He emphasized that political, economic and cultural penetration of Iran would not be permitted under any circumstances. Iran has had bitter experiences of US/Western meddling in its internal affairs. The infamous joint US-British-engineered coup of 1953 that re-imposed the monarchy ushering in a 25-year period of oppression and tyranny is still fresh in the minds of many Iranians.
After the victory of the Islamic Revolution, the US unleashed its agents in Iran that perpetrated mass murders. Many leading figures of the revolution were martyred in terrorist attacks. When this failed to bring down the Islamic government, a vicious eight-year war was unleashed against the Islamic State from Iraq. The Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein and his criminal gang of Ba‘thists were financed, armed and provided every kind of intelligence information to undermine the Islamic Republic. Even poison gas and chemical weapons were provided to the Ba‘thist criminals that they used against the Islamic defenders — without the UN or the West lifting a finger against such war crimes.
Further, Zionist war criminals have murdered a number of Iranian nuclear scientists in the last few years. There have also been several attempts to sabotage Iran’s peaceful nuclear program through the Stuxnet virus. The Zionists have not denied any of their criminal activities even though for obvious reasons, they have not openly acknowledged their crimes. They could not have carried out such crimes without approval from Washington and in the case of the Stuxnet virus, it was unleashed with the active collaboration of the US. Thus, if the Iranians are wary of US-Western motives, there is a long history to it based on bitter experience. Their caution about the JCPOA is, therefore, not without reason.
Iran’s Majlis as well as the National Security Council have both said they would review the text of the JCPOA. In the Majlis, at least 201 of the 290 deputies have asked that the JCPOA be presented as a bill in parliament so that members can debate it. On August 19, the Majlis established a committee comprising 15 members to evaluate the JCPOA. The Rahbar has reserved judgment giving both bodies the opportunity to review the text carefully.
Contrary to popular belief, talks between the US and Iran did not start in September–October 2013; they had started as early as March 2013. The first US message to open secret channels of communication was conveyed through Sultan Qaboos of Oman in 2011. The Rahbar revealed this in a speech to government officials on June 23, 2015. He said, “Our negotiations with the Americans are, in fact, different from our negotiations with the P5+1. The Americans themselves asked for these negotiations and their proposals date back to the time of the tenth [Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] administration.”
The Rahbar emphasized “… the negotiations with the Americans began before the arrival of the current administration [of President Rouhani].” He further revealed, “They [the Americans] made a request and chose an intermediary. One of the honorable personalities in the region [Sultan Qaboos] came to Iran and met me [in 2011]. He said that the American president had called him, asking him to help. The American president said to him that they want to resolve the nuclear matter with Iran and that they would lift the sanctions.”
The Rahbar also said, “Through that intermediary [Qaboos], he [Obama] asked us to negotiate with them and to resolve the matter. I said to that honorable intermediary that we do not trust the Americans and their statements. He said, ‘Try it once more,’ and we said, ‘Very well, we will try it this time, too.’ This was how the negotiations with the Americans began.”
Once the Rahbar had authorized contact with the Americans, a preliminary meeting was held in Oman in July 2012. The American side comprised Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff to then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Puneet Talwar, the National Security Council’s senior director for the Persian Gulf at the time. The preliminary discussions, however, were suspended for several months due to the 2012 US presidential elections. Uncertainty about the outcome as well as the fear that any leaks of secret contacts during the presidential campaign would undermine Obama’s reelection bid, were clearly factors that weighed heavily on the American’s mind.
As soon as Obama was re-elected beating challenger Mitt Romney, one of his first priorities was to revive contact with Oman to restart the secret talks with Iran. Serious discussions took place in March 2013 and lasted three days. The US side was led by Deputy Secretary of State William Burns who continued to be involved in the talks even after he formally relinquished his post last year. At the March 2013 meeting, Burns conveyed the following message from Obama: he would be prepared to accept limited domestic enrichment in Iran as part of a final deal. Throughout the talks — both secret and open — Iran had insisted on its enrichment right.
It was clear that the Americans were desperate for a deal. Obama wanted to show something as part of his foreign policy achievement once his Palestine gambit with the ass-like stubborn Benjamin Netanyahu fell apart. Besides, it was clear to the Americans that sanctions had not stymied Iran’s progress in any significant way even if its effects were felt by some sectors of the Iranian economy. In defending the deal, American officials including Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have admitted that sanctions were falling apart and that the military option was not viable. In fact, if the US or Israel had made the mistake of attacking Iran, there would not only be severe blowback but that the Islamic Republic would be forced to go for the bomb, something it has hitherto eschewed as part of its defence doctrine.
The failure of sanctions is also well-known in Iran, hence the displeasure of some opinion-makers about accepting the deal at this time. They say that the sanctions regime was collapsing. Other players including Russia, China and the Europeans were also not happy about going along with the US-led sanctions indefinitely when they were losing so much. The Europeans too realized that Iran was entering into barter agreements with Russia, China and a number of other countries thereby keeping them out of the lucrative market. Given Iran’s importance in the region — as the pre-eminent power — it was considered vital to end the sanctions that were collapsing anyway and begin to make money. Iran offers rich opportunities with a highly educated and skilled manpower as well as vast natural resources.
There are three distinct opinions in Tehran about the nuclear issue. One considers it to be purely a technical matter that they argued could be resolved by addressing the West’s technical concerns, especially the US’, through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The second point of view is that it is both technical and political and that it should be addressed at both levels while the third considers it to be merely political. The concerns in Tehran spring from two distinct if related factors.
First, that the negotiations were rushed. It was not Iran’s need but the US’s desperation to have a deal. Given the evidence, this position seems to bear out. After all, despite decades of sanctions, Iran’s will has not been broken. Instead, as instructed by the Rahbar, a resistance economy was developing. If the sanctions are lifted and Western companies flood the market in Iran, the chances of local businesses being adversely affected cannot be ruled out.
The second concern is equally if not more serious. Would the US uphold its end of the bargain? Its record does not inspire much confidence. After all, the US has a habit of walking away from agreements once its stated objectives are achieved. Why should it be any different this time? Besides, it would be unrealistic to assume that the US has given up on its policy of overthrowing the Islamic system of governance. After all, this is the only challenge to its hegemonic policies. Would oppressors and exploiters sit idly by as the Islamic system takes firmer roots in Iran and its influence spreads to other parts of the world?
While Obama has an obvious stake in seeing the deal approved by Congress — he has threatened to veto a Congressional “No” but this would depend on his getting the requisite votes — he has also marshaled important American personalities in its support. He has not only been working the phones calling congressmen to support the deal, there have also been other voices supporting the JCPOA. One is that of the former National Security adviser to George H.W. Bush (Sr.), Brent Scowcroft. He was also closely linked to the Ronald Reagan regime. He is a Republican and therefore, cannot be accused of partisanship in the deeply polarized environment of US politics. In an op-ed piece, Scowcroft wrote on August 13, “To turn our back on [the JCPOA] would be an abdication of America’s unique role and responsibility, incurring justified dismay among our allies and friends.”
A week earlier, while speaking at the American University in Washington (August 5) Obama stated that if Congress were to reject the JCPOA, it would leave America isolated. He admitted that sanctions were falling apart and this was the best deal the US could get. He also rejected Israeli criticism saying Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was “wrong” in his opposition to the deal. He indirectly accused the Zionist cabal of wanting another war in the Middle East. He said it was the same people that had led the US into the war with Iraq in 2003 with disastrous consequences.
During the same speech, Obama also parroted an old allegation against the Islamic Republic: that it was supporting “terrorism” — referring to Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The allegation evoked a strong and swift condemnation from the Foreign Ministry in Tehran. It is the US that supports terrorism; its latest crime is to support the takfiri terrorists that have and continue to cause havoc in Iraq and Syria. True, Washington claims it is supporting only “moderate” Syrian rebels but the warmongers have not been able to explain how they distinguish between “moderate” and “extremist” rebels! The US record of supporting oppressive regimes whether in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Zionist State, military regimes in South America or elsewhere, is well-known. Besides, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been involved in the assassination of foreign leaders as well as overthrowing foreign governments for decades. Thus, Obama’s accusations against the Islamic Republic of supporting terrorism are completely off base.
So why did he repeat such scandalous allegations? Obama wanted to deflect criticism from the rightwing neocon ideologues who have accused him of being weak. In order to furbish his macho credentials, Obama admitted he had authorized the deployment of US forces to seven countries during his tenure as president. This was his way of covering his flanks while urging that the JCPOA be approved. He urged the American people to contact their representatives in Congress urging them to vote for the deal. Public opinion shows that the overwhelming sentiment in the US is against the deal, thanks to the well-heeled campaign by the Zionist lobby and their Christian fundamentalist allies who are hell-bent on war. So much for turning the other cheek!
There have also been wildly exaggerated figures mentioned about the amount of money Iran would get once the sanctions are lifted and its assets unfrozen. Figures of $100 billion or more have been mentioned. Iran’s Central Bank Governor Valiollah Seif dampened such speculation during a July 25 interview on Iranian television. He said a total of $29 billion — of which $23 billion was the Central Bank’s foreign exchange and $6 billion was the government’s money — would be released once all the restrictions are lifted. There are a number of caveats before that stage is reached and it would be interesting to see what the IAEA says in its report about Iran’s nuclear activities later this year. It would give an indication of the West’s, especially the US’ thinking.
The concern in Tehran is based not on warmongering — Iran has not attacked any country for more than 200 years; instead it has been attacked on numerous occasions — but on making sure that they protect their vital interests. The overwhelming majority of Iranians — at least 70% — want to see the revolution protected. They have made enormous sacrifices for its success and are not prepared to sacrifice them at this stage when the revolution has been consolidated and its influence is spreading rapidly.
The fears in Iran are real: they see the US now coming with a sugar-coated poison pill (of sanctions relief) when it had failed to undermine the revolution through threats, sabotage, sanctions (illegal to begin with) and outright war over a 36-year period. Addressing a forum at the Strategic Studies Institute in Tehran on August 4, the former Foreign Minister Dr. Kamal Kharazi said there need not be “too much pessimism” or “too much optimism” about the JCPOA. Always cautious in his pronouncements, Dr. Karazi was flanked by Dr. Javad Zarif the current Foreign Minister and lead negotiator with the P5+1 group of countries.
It would be interesting to see whether there is any room for optimism once the US Congress votes on the JCPOA later this month. Obama is desperate for a deal. It cannot be ruled out that he would make an attempt to shake hands with President Hasan Rouhani when the two address the UN General Assembly this month. He tried to do so two years ago but had to settle for a phone call as President Rouhani was on his way back to the airport. While Obama made the phone call, he initially lied that the Iranian president had done so.
The Rahbar, however, has made clear that even if — a big if — the JCPOA is approved, there would be no opening of Iran for US penetration. “We will firmly block their way. We will not allow the US to make economic, political or cultural inroads into the country. We will counter such infiltration with all our power.” The Rahbar went on, “We should first identify the enemy’s intentions and then counter their objectives through planning.”
This is the wisest course of action to pursue with the US that the late Imam Khomeini had described as Shaytan-e Buzurg (the Great Satan). This was not an emotional outburst but an accurate understanding of the true nature of the US.