What’s behind the push against Iran nuclear deal?

Iran being ‘demonised’ for opposing Western powers and their allies attempting to dominate the Middle East, experts say.

Iran nuclear
Rouhani says Trump is deciding for a deal reached among seven parties [Iranian Presidency Office via AP]

A sustained effort by the administration of US President Donald Trump and its allies at home and in the Middle East to cancel, or at least renegotiate, the Iran nuclear deal appears to have succeeded in bringing one major European country, France, to its side.

Trump is a fierce critic of the landmark 2015 pact, signed between Tehran and the US, France, Russia, Germany, China, the UK and the European Union.

French President Emmanuel Macron said during a visit to the US this week that he hoped to “work on a new deal with Iran” following “frank discussions” with Trump.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani swiftly countered, saying: “You [Trump], along with the leader of some European country, are deciding for an agreement reached among seven parties. Who allowed you to do that?”

On May 12, Trump is set to decide to whether to keep the US commitment to the nuclear deal or withdraw from it.

US media reports suggest he is likely to withdraw the US from the agreement.

Netanyahu’s accusations

On Monday Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, gave a special televised presentation in Tel Aviv in which claimed that “Iran is pursuing a secret nuclear programme“.

Fatemeh Aman, an Iran analyst and an expert on its  nuclear programme, said it “was more of a political presentation and offered no new intelligence on Iran’s nuclear programme”.

“Unlike North Korea, Iran’s compliance of its nuclear-deal commitments is verified based on facts since it has been under extensive monitoring system by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and scrutinised by the US and Western intelligence assessments,” she told Al Jazeera by phone from Washington, DC.

For their part, Iranian commentators say the real issue is not Tehran’s nuclear programme, and that even if it were taken out of the picture, “Iran would still be demonised and made evil” by its regional adversaries – similar to what has been happening, they argue, since the 1979 revolution.

“The root causes of Israeli and Western animosity towards Iran has to do with its opposition to Western hegemony in the region and its support and sympathy with the Palestinian people,” said Mohammad Marandi, professor at the University of Tehran.

“Iran’s key foreign policy objectives since the 1979 revolution were its moral stance against the South African apartheid and its solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

The push against Iran in Washington acquired more ammunition when Trump recently appointed John Bolton as his national security adviser.

Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN during the presidency of George W Bush, has been a vocal opponent of the 2015 deal, which was signed by the administration of President Barack Obama.

In a 2015 opinion piece at the New York Times, Bolton floated the idea of a US or Israeli bombing of Iran’s nuclear reactors.

“An attack [on Iran’s nuclear facilities] need not destroy Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its programme by three to five years,” he said.

“The United States could do a thorough job of destruction, but Israel alone can do what’s necessary,” he said.

Trump’s threat

During his election campaign, Trump made the nuclear agreement with Iran a central issue, promising to his supporters and allies to “dismantle” it.

Similarly, speaker after speaker at the annual American Israeli Public Affairs conference, AIPAC, held last March in Washington, criticised the deal and urged the Trump administration to take a stronger approach to it or withdraw from it all together.

The deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), eased sanctions on Iran in return for it agreeing that it would not develop nuclear weapons.

Aman, the Iran analyst, said if Tehran “decided to make between one to three nuclear bombs, it could have made them within two, three months based on the amount of highly enriched uranium they had before they signed the agreement with the US and its allies.

“But once they signed the agreement and shipped their highly enriched uranium to Russia, Iran is now much further away from producing a nuclear bomb,” she added.

“This has put Iran nuclear programme back to 10-15 years.”

The IAEA has repeatedly certified Iran’s compliance with the 2015 agreement, while the country is also a member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and a signatory of the Additional Protocols, which stipulate strict safeguard measures against nuclear proliferation, Aman noted.

Meanwhile, nuclear powers such as  Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea have signed neither the NPT nor the Additional Protocols measures.

Dire consequences

Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, warned that if the US walked away from the deal, there would be dire consequences for all parties.

She said Iran might find itself at a crossroads of whether to stay in the deal along with the Europeans, the Russians and the Chinese – assuming they resist pressure to follow the US’ lead – or resume its enrichment programme.

“If the other parties encourage Iran to stay in the agreement, it may do so and not violate it. Iran would then use the whole experience to isolate the US and say it’s the US who fails to keep its commitments with the international community,” said Slavin.

“This option would be smart,” she added.

The other option, Slavin said, would be that Iran could also walk away from the deal and revive elements of its nuclear programme but at a small level – testing what the reaction would be.

“Iran would then say, then, that it was the US that violated the deal, not us.”

Regional analysts question why the US and its allies in the Middle East insist on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, while at the same time neglect to say anything about Pakistan, which already has nuclear weapons.

Slavin said that unlike Tehran, Islamabad does not have adversarial relations with the US, Israel or the Arab Gulf states.

“Iran plays a very controversial role in the Middle East. It’s involved in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen; probably Afghanistan,” argued Slavin. “It’s not a country that keeps to itself.”

Pakistan, however, did face long years of sanctions for its nuclear programme until the US needed its help after the September 11 attacks.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been Iran’s most vocal regional adversary, lobbying the US government to impose stricter sanctions against Tehran to end its programme, often projecting a nuclear-ready Iran as an existential threat to Israel.

Budding alliance

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab countries allied with Israel in leading the charge against Iran, are also pushing the US for possible measures against Tehran if it did not end its nuclear programme.

“In recent years, Saudi Arabia has become an even more dangerous adversary of Iran [than Israel] and exerting a lot of influence over Donald Trump,” said Slavin.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has alluded on more than one occasion to the budding alliance between Israel and its Gulf partners amid efforts to undermine Iran’s rising power in the region.

When it comes to Israel’s apparent obsession with Iran and its nuclear programme, Alex Vatanka, senior analyst at the Middle East Institute, said the question ought to be “why Iran is fixated with Israel”.

Vatanka dismissed the “Iranian threat” theory peddled by leaders like Netanyahu in Israel and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, comparing Iran to Nazi Germany and Iranian leaders to Adolf Hitler.

“This is inaccurate and an exaggeration,” he said. “But if you are a small country like Israel, it is not unreasonable to feel threatened by the Iranian leaders’ statements and rhetoric.”

Pretext for Israel

Vatanka also blamed Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei for giving Israel the pretext to call Iran out.

He pointed out that Iran’s animosity with Israel is unnecessary in order to be a successful and powerful country in the region, and argued that Tehran must first strengthen its legitimacy at home with the Iranian people instead of financially supporting its regional proxies.

Experts in Iran, however, argue, that Iran’s support for its regional proxies is aimed at combining soft and smart power in order to deter any attack on the Iranian homeland by keeping the future battle lines away from the Iranian borders.

Marandi, the University of Tehran professor, pointed out that American policy towards Iran even under “extremists” like Bolton and the Trump administration is no different from what it was under the Obama administration.

“They only differ in tactics, but the fact remains that they portray Iran as evil because it is no longer in the American sphere of influence,” he said.

Follow Ali Younes on Twitter: @Ali_reports

Source: Al Jazeera