Through a mixture of American threats, divisions in their own camp, an underlying barely-concealed hostility to Iran’s growing regional influence, and political opportunity offered by the recent downing by Iran’s military of the Ukrainian airliner, Germany, France and Britain have decided to read the last rites of the Iran nuclear agreement (the JCPoA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action).
They have officially initiated a dispute process within the bounds of the Iran nuclear accord. A regime change in Iran is back on the cards. As America’s neoconservatives bellowed just after the US invasion of Iraq – “Boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran”.
The so-called E3 (Germany, France and Britain) are now even more firmly in the American camp. They claim that Iran has taken irreversible steps towards a full-scale nuclear programme aimed at developing weapons of mass destruction, contradicting the on-the-ground assessments of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA’s powers of surveillance over Iran’s nuclear energy programmes make its inspection regime the most intrusive ever permitted by any government.
We should now take even more seriously that the US-led band of European powers, despite relatively important but ultimately ineffective and half-hearted resistance, is preparing a case for even greater US-backed sanctions and eventual regime change in Iran. Their hope is that Iran will implode as a powerful state under the weight of oil, other trade, financial restrictions and embargoes combined with exploitation and promotion of broad popular opposition to recent fuel price increases, Iran’s military spending in the region, and revulsion at the 176 airline passengers killed by Revolutionary Guards in the wake of the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani.
The E3 foreign ministers’ statement of January 14 claims that Europeans have done all in their power – both to bring the Donald Trump administration to the negotiating table and to help Iran via INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges), the ‘special purpose’ vehicle that actually proved toothless in alleviating the effects of US sanctions.
They also claim that their decision to initiate the JCPoA’s dispute resolution mechanism does not signify they are “joining a campaign to implement maximum pressure against Iran”. All they want is for Iran to move “into full compliance with its commitments under the JCPoA”, and the E3 promise to continue to “work with all participants to preserve it” and “strengthen the rules-based international order”. This is to turn the whole matter on its head.
INSTEX has proved completely ineffective. European multinationals simply refused to participate because they feared the cost of US sanctions against them was much greater than the benefits of continuing trading with Iran.
They behaved exactly how the US predicted – Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, said this of INSTEX: “We just don’t see any corporate demand for it because if a corporation is given the choice between doing business in the United States or doing business in Iran, it’s going to choose the United States every time.”
Ordinary workers and the people of Iran are paying the price: Iran’s economy (GDP) shrunk by 4.8% and 9.5% in 2018 and 2019 respectively; unemployment rose to almost 17% in 2019; foreign currency reserves have fallen by 20% of their 2013 levels (to $86 billion) – and only 10% of those reserves are actually available due to sanctions on its financial sector; its currency has halved in value.
Its oil exports have dried up from a daily level of over 2.3 million barrels to around 260,000 (mainly to China.
Standards of living for ordinary Iranians have plummeted as inflation has soared to over 30%: food items especially meat have seen an inflation rate of over 100%, and disproportionately hit rural areas; the inflation rate for consumers is over 40% while food and beverages increased by 60%, and tobacco by 80%, foreign investment has decreased to a trickle.
There are two factors militating against a more immediate American military attack or all-out war on Iran – the overwhelming opposition of the American people and electorate to another war in the Middle East, the influence of which is sharpened by the upcoming presidential election. And the fact the Pentagon, despite sending more troops, warships and air forces to the region, is not yet fully prepared for the level of military firepower that a war on Iran and subsequent occupation would require.
Iran is not Iraq; it is a far more populous country with a more powerful military and regime-legitimacy, as well as a population that knows full well the character of American power.
The Iraq ‘syndrome’ still stalks the American military and political establishment, echoes of the Vietnam syndrome. It is instructive as to the militarist mindsets of the American imperial power elite that any reluctance on American people’s part not to support wars of aggression and mass killing and casualties, is seen as a syndrome, a disease that needs to be cured.
Yet, youth, students and working people across America, right across the political spectrum, have protested and marched against war. More marches and demonstrations against war on Iran are planned in the near future. Polls show a majority of Americans believe President Trump’s order to assassinate General Soleimani made America less safe.
Trump, whose recklessness and bellicosity threaten to spiral down into large-scale military conflict, is held back from all-out war in the main for personal-electoral imperatives, despite running on a “no meddling in the Middle East” campaign plank in 2016.
Think tanks in the United States that refuse to back “forever wars” are becoming more prevalent and winning greater legitimacy. Even liberal scholars who support US “democracy” promotion urge restraint, while realist scholars urge military restraint and ‘offshore balancing’. There is a top-to-bottom opposition to ‘endless war’ that the militarist establishment must first convince to back war for regime change in Iran.
There are strong echoes of opposition to war in the Congress too – especially among the more progressive representatives – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the squad, and others – and in the US Senate. As Representative Ilhan Omar on the House Foreign Affairs Committee asked, why would the Iranians negotiate with Trump since unilateral withdrawal from an effective JCPoA, subsequent sanctions, illegal assassinations of foreign leaders, followed by even more threats on cultural sites and even greater sanctions?
Yet, European powers’ behaviour makes war more, not less likely, as Iran effectively ditches a moribund JCPoA, and questions the seriousness and sincerity of an American administration that would walk away from a working and effective international agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council.
Germany confirmed a Washington Post report saying that the US had threatened to impose a 25% tariff on imports of European cars if EU governments continued to back the nuclear deal. And as usual, the Boris Johnson’s British government has cynically declared that Iran should accept a new “Trump deal”.
The Europeans have chosen to line up behind an administration whose president has openly stated, reversing his initial justification, that “imminent threat” is not even necessary for the US to target assassination of foreign leaders – which is a violation of both international and US law.
President Gerald Ford was forced to sign Executive Order 11905 by public outrage in 1975:
“No employee of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in, political assassination.”
Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, in a speech at the Hoover Institution on January 14, argued that the Iranian “threat” was not imminent but part of an American deterrence strategy in the Middle East, directed not only at Iran but other powers too – which presumably means China and Russia too. Recall that the latter great powers conducted successful naval exercises recently with Iran in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.
The rule of law and the international rules-based order is fast-eroding, regardless of the administration in power. Law is in the service of interests.
The most reliable force for preventing another terrible war appears to lie in the hands of ordinary young people, students, and working people of the US whose scepticism of intelligence-based claims of imminent threat is based on bitter experience and runs very deep – across the entire electorate. They are making foreign policy central to the current campaign for the presidency of the United States.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.