LUND, Sweden (IDN) — General Colin Powell should know. He was chief of staff of the US military, and later secretary of state under President George W. Bush. When the Syrian civil war broke out and there was an effort in Congress and the media to persuade President Barack Obama to intervene, Powell made an observation, the one posted in pottery shops: ”If you break it you own it”. He had also made the same pithy remark before the first Gulf war but then he went along with leading the invasion.
Time proved the adage correct. The first Gulf War led to the second. The economy and social wellbeing of Iraq was all but destroyed and the country is still in an economic and political mess all these years later. The US and its allies have made insufficient effort to mend the destruction of war that they had brought about. (Unlike in West Germany and Japan after the Second World War.)
When President Donald Trump came to power, he effectively sidelined the Iraqi imbroglio. That was his predecessors’ issue. But he did charge into the Iran conundrum like a bull in a china shop. The deal made with President Barack Obama for Iran to reject the enriching of its sizeable stockpile of uranium to the point where it could be turned into fissile material suitable for the making of a nuclear bomb was anathema to Trump.
Obama had not been persuaded that Iran was committed to building a bomb, but he wanted to make sure he had copper-bottomed assurances in case Iran tried to deceive the US. Trump came to the opposite conclusion. He believed without any doubt that Iran was building a bomb. He slapped the most severe sanctions on Iran. The fragments of his four years’ of sanctions and political isolation of Iran now lie littered across the country’s floor, indeed further afield, provoking Iran’s aggressiveness in Syria and Lebanon and bitter resentment against the US.
To its credit, CIA never concurred with the view that Iran was racing to build a bomb, and privately some Western leaders acknowledged this.
Then came the Obama-initiated nuclear deal in 2007 with Iran negotiating simultaneously with the Americans, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese. It was one of President Barack Obama’s most singular achievements. It worked. At the end, Obama phoned President Vladimir Putin to thank him for Russian support. As part of the deal Iran sent to Russia 97% of its stockpile of uranium for safekeeping.
The memory of the Iran-Iraq war
The Iranian public was truly pleased about the deal. But President Donald Trump has all but sabotaged their benign feelings. His private war against the Obama deal became a bitter one, a test of his machismo and a calculated blow against Obama’s reputation. From day one, Trump was determined to scrap the deal and thus return to years of bitter antagonism, besides giving succour to Iran’s nuclear weapons’ lobby.
Trump made it clear that he knows little Iranian history. When the Iranian revolution happened in 1979, the Shah was overthrown and the fundamentalist Islamic Shi’a regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (and later Ali Khamenei) came to power, one of the first things the new regime did was to close down the Shah’s nuclear weapons’ research program. Ironically, it had had technical help from the US. It was only after Iraq attacked Iran that the program was resuscitated.
Underneath the Iranian skin of anyone over 40 lies the memory of the Iran-Iraq war.
They feared under Trump that the US might be reverting to those confrontational days when it covertly aided with sophisticated weapons and intelligence President Saddam Hussein in his eight-year war with Iran. Yet a handful of years’ later Saddam was the West’s number one enemy.
It was a terrible war, more akin to the trench warfare of World War 1 than any other, with opposing troops bogged down for years on end, fighting over a few hundred meters of ground. Iraq used chemical weapons on a large scale. The West said nothing. The death toll was horrendous — estimates range from 170,000 to 750,000.
For its part, Iran refused to use chemical weapons in retaliation. Its present-day Supreme Ruler, Ayatollah Khamenei, has made a point of reminding us of this, explaining that using a weapon of mass destruction would go against Islamic teaching. He has emphasized on many occasions that this is the key reason for Iran not building nuclear weapons. In 2003, he issued a fatwa to this effect and despite what many Western observers say, it would be impossible for him to cancel such an important part of Muslim belief as he has interpreted it.
President Joe Biden should not prevaricate on Iran deal
Now it is President Joe Biden’s move. He has said that he wants to restore the Obama deal which means ending sanctions and helping Iran recover from their effect. He has to publicly say that he concurs with those who believe that Iran is not pursuing a nuclear weapons capability. The US can be sure of this because the very well-informed Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, said in September that Iran is at least two years’ away from achieving the building of a nuclear weapon, assuming it wanted to — plenty of time for a warning to be given to the five negotiators. Mossad also said at present Iran lacked the scientific and technical wherewithal to make even a single weapon.
What is Biden waiting for? The sooner the broken china is repaired and paid for, the sooner a large part of the Middle East is stabilized. Extraneous demands that Iran renounce its manufacture of rockets or violence in Lebanon or intervention in Syria’s and Iraq’s politics should be dealt with in later negotiations. One step at a time.
Every week that passes, allows hardliners on both sides to mobilize resistance to a new deal. President Biden should get on with it: At the moment he seems to be prevaricating, seemingly suggesting that Iran must move first, reducing its stocks of uranium, especially that part which has been enriched to 20% and only then will sanctions begin to be reduced. This is counterproductive. The necessary moves on both sides should be synchronized and simultaneous.
There are worrying signs from inside the Biden Administration. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently said that Iran has enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon in a matter of weeks.
This is downright misleading. This is as wrong as one can be. This is talking like Trump. Biden must get his act together or this great opportunity will pass the US by.
* Note for editors: The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has also written many dozens of columns for the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times. He is the European who has appeared most on the opinion pages of these papers.
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