Iran deal: Break it and you own it

(A version of the article was published on May 23, 2016, in Masthead, the journal of the Association of American Opinion Writer)

ABSTRACT: Does the Iran nuclear deal remain in danger? The Obama administration been steadfastly defending the accord between Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. Stephen Mull, the U.S. diplomat charged with overseeing its implementation, told me during a State Department briefing that blocking Iran’s paths to acquiring nukes has been the goal of “several [U.S.] administrations for many years,” and that the accord does precisely that. Yet congressional Republicans remain unreconciled to the agreement, and some have threatened to scrub in the next Congress.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner, has already called for the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, arguing that Tehran violated a U.N. Security Council resolution by testing its Shahab-3 ballistic missile. I argue that scrapping deal would be a calamitous blunder for America. It would compel the United States to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, leading to war between the two countries. And Iran, with its military power and network of militias and activists throughout the “Shiite Crescent,” could wreak havoc to U.S. strategic and security interests and institutions in west Asia.

Paul Ryan tried to suppress a touch of elation when he declared that the Iran nuclear deal was “starting to unravel.” The House speaker echoed the anticipation, widespread among his fellow Republicans and the Israeli right, that the next administration and Congress would junk the agreement between P5+1 nations and Iran.

It reminds me of a Jay Leno spoof. “A retired Air Force colonel said that U.S. military operations are already under way in Iran,” the comedian told his TV audience. “You know what that means? That means that it’s time to break out the old ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner!”

On May 1, 2003, 11 days after U.S. troops roared into the Iraqi capital of Baghdad, President George W. Bush arrived in a fixed-wing aircraft to the bow of USS Abraham Lincoln. The aircraft carrier was anchored just off the San Diego coast. As TV cameras rolled furiously, the 43rd president, wrapped in a flight suit, flashed confident smiles and gave a self-congratulatory talk. But the war president’s ebullience was overshadowed by a long banner hanging behind him, declaring: ‘Mission Accomplished.”

The real Iraq war would begin soon. Droves of Iraqi guerrillas would stream into the streets and alleys of Iraqi cities and towns and engage U.S. and allied forces in a long, ferocious struggle.  In the decade that followed, close to 1 million Iraqis and 4,000 American troops would perish. The Iraqi state and society would come unglued. And the Islamic State terrorist nightmare would unfold, posing a persistent threat to American and European security.

Behind Leno’s insightful joke lurks a chilling warning about the possibility of America blundering into a war with Iran, triggered by the rejection of the Iran nuclear deal. But could the next administration really scrub the accord?  Stephen Mull, the U.S. diplomat charged with seeing through the implementation of the accord, wouldn’t rule it out. “It’s not a treaty,” he told me. “The next president can tear it up.”  He was explaining to a group of us from the Association of Opinion Writers the details of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name of the Iran accord.

Mull said, during the State Department briefing, that Iran’s agreement with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia) and Germany, called p5+1, already had achieved a major foreign policy goal, pursued by “successive U.S. administrations for many years”: the elimination of the threat from a nuclear-armed Iran. The JCPOA had, the diplomat continued, got Tehran to slash its stockpile of 1,2000 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride to just 300, a 98 percent cut. It bars the Islamic Republic from enriching uranium above 3.67 percent, far below the level required to make a nuke. The Iranians, too, had to reduce their stock of 19, 000 uranium-enriching centrifuges to only about 5, 000. And their nuclear sites had been “open for inspection 24/7” by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) “Iran has implemented this deal in completely good faith.”  All these and and other provisions of the pact had, Mull emphasized, “cut off every possible way for Iran to make nuclear weapons.”

But a majority of the Republican-majority in Congress has been dead-set against the JCPOA. Forty-seven U.S. senators have sent an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warning Iran’s supreme leader: “The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen.”

The deal could to come up for review by the next president, whoever that is. Donald Trump, the presumptive GOP nominee, has denounced it as “horrible” and vowed to scrub it, if elected president.  Democrat Hillary Clinton has long been hostile to Iran.  As President Obama’s secretary of state, she had to lead the U.S. diplomatic team to negotiate the Iran deal, and she obviously has to defend it on her presidential campaign trail. Yet hours after the United States dropped its part of the multilateral sanctions against Iran, as required by the JCPOA, Clinton demanded slapping new U.S. sanctions on it, citing Tehran’s testing of its Shahab-3 ballistic missile. The JCPOA doesn’t bar such tests, but she argued that Tehran was “violating UN Security Council resolutions with its ballistic missile program.”

America can, as Mull pointed out, scrub the agreement. But then? Their internal political feuds notwithstanding, the Iranians are a deeply patriotic nation, large swaths of which are pulsating with revolutionary zing. Iran’s population and military power are more than thrice those of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. America can start a conflict with the Iranians and throw a “Mission Accomplished” party after a likely initial victory.

But it’s only Iran that could end such a war. With its network of activists and militias across the “Shiite Crescent,” the Islamic Republic could set the Middle East on fire, which probably wouldn’t stop before consuming many of America’s interests and endangering its hegemony in Muslim west Asia.

On Aug. 5, 2002, Colin Powell, always a reluctant warrior, was trying, unsuccessfully, to dissuade President Bush from invading Iraq. The secretary of state told the president that the war being planned could land America into a costly and long-lasting quagmire, and told Bush about a pottery barn rule: “If you break it, you own it.”

Maybe someone should remind our anti-Iranian hawks of Powell’s caveat, again.

  • Mustafa Malik worked as a reporter, columnist and editor for the Hartford Courant, Glasgow Herald and other newspapers and think tanks. He writes about international affairs for various American and overseas newspapers and journals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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