US President Donald Trump’s Iran policy is akin to that of a schoolyard bully. More worrying is the passivity of the rest of the world and the dangerous drift to another devastating war in the region. The US, after walking out of the Iran nuclear agreement, is now shouting foul as Iran has breached the 300-kilogram enriched-uranium stockpile limit of the accord. Does the US expect Iran to be bound by the accord while it happily reneges on it? Or is its concept of international accords the playground bully’s version of a coin toss, “Heads I win, tails you lose”?
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between six countries and Iran was signed in 2015. The six countries are France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, China and the United States. The JCPOA brought down Iran’s stockpile of processed uranium (uranium hexafluoride) from 10,000kg to just 300kg, or only 2% of what it had before the agreement was signed – the same JCPOA agreement from which Trump walked out in May last year, calling it the “worst deal ever.”
Those media sections hyping up Iran breaching the 300kg limit set by the JCPOA as a step toward acquiring nuclear weapons capability are simply providing an alibi for the Trump administration’s warmongering.
The US has termed Iran’s exceeding the 300kg limit as an example of how it was never serious about the agreement. In an Orwellian doublespeak, the White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said, “There is little doubt that even before the deal’s existence, Iran was violating its terms” (emphasis mine).
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the governing body on this issue, has certified as late as March 31, 2019, that Iran was fully in compliance with the agreement even after putting the US and other signatories on notice on its future steps.
The game plan of Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, is, and has always been, to beat Iran into total submission: no enrichment, no rocket or missile capability and no alliances or supporting groups or countries in the region that the US and its allies don’t like. This is what the US tried during the presidency of George W Bush with no success. This is the trajectory that led to Iran continuously building up its nuclear capability – centrifuges, stockpile, reactors, etc. It is the recognition that this was a route to nowhere, or another devastating war in the region, that forced president Barack Obama’s administration to come to the negotiating table and finally the Iran accord.
The Iran accord, though signed between six countries and Iran, put its major obligations on the US and Iran. Iran agreed to reduce its uranium stockpile drastically, bring down its number of centrifuges to less than a third, and dismantle some of its reactors. The US agreed to remove sanctions and unfreeze more than $100 billion of Iran’s assets that it had seized.
The US and its allies France, the UK and Germany had also agreed that they would not reimpose sanctions on Iran, and if they did, Iran had declared in the agreement itself which of the commitments it would breach. And one of them was the 300kg stockpile limit. To quote Section 8 of the JCPOA, “Iran has stated that it will treat such a reintroduction or reimposition of the sanctions … as grounds to cease performing its commitments under this JCPOA in whole or in part.”
The US sanctions not only affect Iran’s ability to pay for imports through the export of oil, but also block imports vital to its economy. Under Trump’s policy of maximum pressure, the US sanctions would be imposed on any entity that trades with Iran, a policy to strangle Iran economically
Why did Iran choose the 300kg stockpile limit as its response to the US sanctions? On May 8, The US additionally sanctioned Iran’s ability to export low-enriched uranium and heavy water out of the country, which it was doing before the last round of US sanctions. By exporting the extra amount of enriched uranium that it produces beyond its needs, it kept its domestic stockpile limited to 300kg.
In other words, its breach of the 300kg limit is a direct consequence of the US sanctions; or, as the JCPOA defined it, the US “imposing new nuclear-related sanctions.”
The US sanctions not only affect Iran’s ability to pay for imports through the export of oil, but also block imports vital to its economy. Under Trump’s policy of maximum pressure, the US sanctions would be imposed on any entity that trades with Iran, a policy to strangle Iran economically.
The sanctions that the US has imposed on Iran are not only in breach of the JCPOA but are equivalent to a declaration of economic war, and illegal under international law. The International Court of Justice in its judgment on June 27, 1986, concerning Nicaragua vs the United States, made explicit that any signatory to the United Nations cannot use physical, economic or any other measure to coerce another state. The Iran sanctions are economic warfare, war by other means. As Alfred-Maurice de Zayas, an expert on international law and formerly with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in the context of US sanctions on Venezuela:
“Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges of towns.… Twenty-first century sanctions attempt to bring not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees.”
The US sanctions are in violation of the UN Security Council resolution that endorsed the JCPOA.
The problem that Iran faces is that all countries that do not agree with the US on abandoning the JCPOA have done very little to counteract the US sanctions on Iran – except lip service. Even worse, they have tacitly become a part of the US sanctions regime while criticizing it, because of the US stranglehold on the world’s financial system.
The US control of the SWIFT foreign-exchange transaction system is only one element of the US sanctions regime. Even friendly countries or their companies face sanctions from the US, as any entity that is involved in the oil trade with Iran – the tankers, insurance companies, the refineries, banks – comes under risk of US sanctions; or if they export goods to Iran. No European company wants to touch either buying or selling goods to Iran as they are afraid of US sanctions on their non-Iran related activities. That is why INSTEX, the alternative foreign-exchange transaction system that European countries have created, has yet to take off.
A number of Indian companies also faced such threats the last time the US imposed sanctions on Iran. The State Bank of India and Indian oil companies at that time were threatened with US sanctions. This time, not only does India face about 10-12% of its oil/gas imports needing to be substituted from other sources, it also means that its exports to Iran would take a big hit.
Tehran had made it clear to the other countries that are signatories to the JCPOA that if they wanted Iran to abide by the agreement, they would then have to be willing to buy Iranian oil and continue their trade with Iran. Iran needs a range of goods – from medicines, to chemicals, to machinery – which it pays for with its oil exports. Turkey’s Halkbank faces penalties in the US over its sanction-busting last time, the reason Turkey appears unwilling now to confront the US.
After Trump’s pulling out of the JCPOA, the EU-3 – France, Germany and the UK – committed themselves (July 6, 2018, statement Para 8) as signatories to uphold their side of the deal. The EU-3 has failed to match its words with deeds. Iran had put the world, particularly the other signatories to JCPOA, on notice that if they did not take positive steps to trade with Iran, it would breach the 300kg stockpile limit on enriched uranium. It has now done so.
Where do we go from here? Will Iran quietly lie down and submit to the US? Or will it hunker down, allowing its industry to fail to modernize and its people to suffer various shortages? Will it hit back by arming the Houthis with better weapons against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the US allies in the region? Will it restrict oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, the world’s biggest choke point that carries 20% of the world’s oil and liquefied natural gas? What happens if a US drone or a spy plane is shot down over Iran?
We are now back to a collision trajectory between the US and Iran, which can only lead to another war in West Asia. The problem with the European powers, and to a lesser extent all the major non-NATO powers, is their passivity on this issue. They seem to be content for it to be a US-Iran issue, never mind its devastating consequence for the world and its economy. This non-intervention of the international community is the key issue that is facing us today – not just the US becoming a rogue hegemon.