Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Iran: An Unfortunate Anniversary And Getting Worse

It was a year ago today that President Trump removed the United States from the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran as well as Russia, China, UK, France, Germany, and the EU, under the auuspices of the UN Security Council.  Accoerding to IAEA inspectors, Iran was fulfilling its part of the agreement, and it has continued to do so up  until now as well, despite thi s unwarranted action by the US, although that may be about to change.  The other signatories have strongly opposed the US action, although it has been supported by Israel, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt somewhat less enthusiastically.  Nevertheless, the nations opposing this US action have been ineffectual in blocking US actions following up on this.

These actions have involved reintroducing economic sanctions on Iran. Oil exports from Iran have fallen by half since then and are likely to fall further as the US ended waivers on May 2 for a set of nations from the oil sanctions, although reportedly at least China and maybe Turkey will ignore these sanctions.  The decision to end these waivers has been followed by increased volatility in world oil prices.  The sanctions have also been imposed on any businesses operating in Iran, with many large European companies such as Total in France withdrawing from Iran, even as their governments oppose the US actions.  Efforts have been made to establish alternative payment systems, but so far the US effort has had a large effect on reducing foreign economic activity in Iran.  The upshot has been to increase economic problems in Iran, with GDP down by at least 6 percent in the last year as well as the inflation rate rising.

Furthermore, quite recently the US has imposed sanctions directly on the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist group.  While indeed this group has engaged in some such activities, this is the first time the US has declared a government entity of another nation to be terrorist group. Finally, just within the last few days, National Security Adviser John Bolton has announced that the aircrafft carrier, Abraham Lincoln, will arrive in the Persian Gulf supposedly to deter Iran from attacking US troops or those of US allies, although no specific reports of Iranian threats to do anything of the sort have been reported, just general claims.  Apparently last year Bolton tried to do this but was blocked by then SecDef Mattis, but this year, his successor, Shanahan, has approved this provocative move.

None of this is.good, although the Israelis claim that Iranian aid for Hezbollah in Lebanon has been reduced, which I suspect has been Israel's main goal in supporting this as I do not think they have viewed the supposed nuclear threat from Iran seriously, but they are afraid of Hezbollah, which they were unable to defeat easily the last time they invaded Lebanon.  The israelis regularly claim Hezbollah is a terrorist group, although it is many years since they have engaged in such activities, and these days are too busy being the  dominant party in the current Lebanese government.

The final shoe to drop on this anniversary is that it is being reported that apparently Iran is losing its patience with the other signatories of the JCPOA in their inability to counter all these largely illegal actions by the US.  They are going to stop fully adhering to the JCPOA, although without fully abrogating it.  Apparently as a result of the sanctions they do not have enough enriched uranium to  fuel their medical nuclear reactor. So in technical violation of the accord they will begin enriching a small amount of uranium up to 20 percent (still way below weapons grade level) for use in this civilian reactor.  This is unfortunate, although I fear understandable.  Of course, this amounts to an escalation that will simply fuel further aggressive actions by the Trump administration.

The Trump people claim that their goal is to induce Iran to return to the negotiating table to get a "better deal," although the JCPOA was very difficult to negotiate.  SecState Pompeo has issued 12 demands of Iran for removing the sanctions, which, while a few of these may be not too unreasonable, the entire package is clearly unacceptable to the current government.  Indeed, various figures led by Bolton have made it clear that what they really want is regime change, an end to the Islamic Republic and its replacement by somebody else.  Of course in the near term these US actions have strengthened the hands of hardliners, with this latest move to step back partially from the JCPOA a sign of that.

Indeed, these US figures are pretty deluded in what might succeed the current regime from an internal upheaval.  The "Green" opposition in 2009 that the US supported (if too quietly according to some)  supported retaining a civilian nuclear program, which is widely popular in Iran.  Indeed, current president Rouhani was elected on making an agreement with the outside world to restrict possible military nuclear development while maintaining its civilian program, and he was reelected to continue this.

As it is, it seems that Bolton and others are really itching to have a war with Iran to replace its current government.  Perhaps if the US militarily imposes a flunky regime, it  will stop the civilian reactor program, although we know this would be very unpopular.  However, such a war would without doubt be far more devastating than the botch of one George W. Bush started in Iraq, andd it would h ave far less external support than the one Bush started in Iraq.  After all, although in the end there were none there, Bush made claims that many believed at the time that Saddam Hussein possessed WMDs.  But nobody believes that of Iran now, and up until now it has fulfilled its obligations under the JCPOA to have no military nuclear program, and even what appears to be its likely coming violation of that will not amount to such a military program.  There simply will be no credible ground for such a war, which would draw only the support of the handful of nations currently supporting the current US policy.

All of this is very unfortunate and dangerous.  This is a sad and disturbing anniversary, even though much of the US media praises Trump for having "fulfilled a campaign promise" without providing any serious awareness of both how dangerous this policy is and how isolated the US has become in pursuing it.  I think that of the many unwise things Trump has done in his foreign policy, this is by far the worst and least defensible.

Addendum, 9 PM, 4/8/19:  DOD has released a supposed basis for fearing possible Iranian attacks on US forces or allies.  Apparently a dhow, a small Iranian boat, was spotted having on its deck some containers that might have fully assembled ballistic missiles.  Supposedly these boats have normally had disassembled such missiles on their decks, with these reportedly usually going to Yemen to supply the Houthis there.  So, wow, this is the big threat, some missiles on a small boat assembled rather than disassembled, probably heading to Yemen!  This clearly justifies a massive escalation by the US for sure.

Barkley Rosser


Anonymous said...

This is a boldly written superb essay, essential reading however distressing.

Thank you so much.

Anonymous said...

The pain inflicted on ordinary people from sanctions might also be discussed as Weisbrot and Sachs have done for Venezuela. Economists who are secure should be willing to discuss the collective punishment aspect of sanctions, though I can understand the unfortunate hesitancy:

April, 2019

Economic Sanctions as Collective Punishment: The Case of Venezuela
By Mark Weisbrot and Jeffrey Sachs said...

Yes, Anonymous, the broad population of Iran is suffering from these sanctions. Quite aside from all that pain, there is the unnoticed point that while many in Iran are critical of the amount of money being spent on various foreign adventures, the current president was not only democratically elected once, but reelected, unlike say, "Bone Saw" MBS in Saudi Arabia.

Furthermore, the people of Iran are very aware that the worsening of their economic condition is due to the sanctions imposed by the US, even though their government has been observing the JCPOA up until now. This was what they voted for, a government that would make an agreement to put their military nuclear plans in a tight box, while maintaining civilian nuclear power,in exchange for the ending of economic sanctions. They did as they promised, but here they are suffering from serious sanctions. If the people in the Trump administration think this is going to make people in Iran want to support a pro-American government in Iran, they are completely out of their minds.

Anonymous said...

Again, succinct and excellent and worrying analysis. This president and administration act as though crudely imperial and as such are very dangerous. When the president of China was a guest of President Trump, Trump made a point of ordering the bombing of Syria during the dinner and telling Xi what was in progress. I am sure this was meant as intimidation.

Trump is very dangerous and surrounded by dangerous advisers and administrators. said...

What I am tempted to say is funny but is not is that suddenly Trump has gone all dovish on Venezuela, apparently making snarky comments about Bolton's hawkish policy recommendations, just as he is following Bolton on Iran and has added even more new sanctions, this time on metals exports. It is Run To War on Iran, but, hey, maybe we should not be so mean to Maduro on Venezuela.

It would appear that what may have led to Trump's change of tone on Venezuela, aside from the failure of the attempted recent coup, is that he had a phone conversation with Daddy Putin, who told him that Russia is not involved in Venezuela and has no interests there, and Trump should leave Maduro alone, although apparently there are lots of Russian troops there, and Rosneft has more or less taken ownership of a large chunk of Venezuela's oil as collateral for Venezuela failing to pay interest on loans Russia has made to its government.

If only Iran had turned over oil reserves to Russia and taken out loans it is not paying interest on, as well as invited in Russian troops to help put down dissidents. Then Trump would be ignoring Bolton's push for war with Iran.

Anonymous said...

While I may be sympathetic to this latest comment, the problem is that it distracts from understanding that President Trump, and Trump alone, is responsible for administrative policy making. John Bolton strikes me as a foreign affairs monster, but Trump is president and Bolton works for Trump.

Trump is who I am afraid of, as a result. said...

Indeed. Thus Trump overrules Bolton on Venezuela while egging him on regarding Iran, the latter the much more dangerous situation.

Anonymous said...

What you would do well would be to write about the Trump temperament and how mercurial and threatening it is. This is a president with no evident "fellow-feeling," making his threatening and changing positions appear especially ominous to me.

Anonymous said...

The way in which this president speaks or writes is like a stereotypical mob boss, and in all sorts of ways this president can get what he says done. Yes, Iran is decidedly frightening but there is so much more. said...

I agree, Anonymous. Trump is mercurial, acts like a mob boss, lies all the time, has no principles other than self-aggrandizement, is seriously racist, and a crook, and much more.

Unfortunately foreign policy is where US presidents can really do a lot of damage and end up getting lots of people killed. It couls be worse, but right now it is looking pretty bad on several fronts, although Iran is the one that has me the most worried. He is really off the gonzo on it, with his absurd accusations against John Kerry a sign of how far out of it he is with the Iran situation, which could easily get really super bad.

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that this president is manipulative. When I read that John Bolton had come to Vietnam just before the end of the summit, I knew that Bolton had been told to go to Vietnam and I knew Trump was likely to try to abandon negotiations.

Anonymous said...

Also, about Venezuela, keep in mind that even today there were new sanctions imposed against international shippers to the country. We are strangling an entire people, which is truly economic warfare and Sachs and Weisbrot wrote.

President Trump is truly brutal, just as Bolton.

Anonymous said...


Please continue writing on this theme, since you have written so well already.

Anonymous said...

Also, remember that President Trump has decided that he can sanction another country such as India or China for buying oil from Iran even though we are not at war with Iran. Essentially the US at will can force other nations to engage in sanctions.