By Dan Steinbock
Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was the wrong decision in the wrong time. It is likely to compound global political, economic and security risks. Now EU must sustain the nuclear deal, along with Russia and China.
For three years, the comprehensive nuclear accord (JCPOA) has offered Iran relief from US, UN and multilateral sanctions on energy, financial, shipping, automotive and other sectors.
However, a shift in the U.S. policy began in late 2016, when the Senate and the House of Representatives unanimously extended the Iran Sanctions Act for a decade. Not only most Republicans, but many Democrats who had supported the JCPOA in the Obama era, reversed their positions surprisingly quickly.
That emboldened Trump’s far more muscular – and illicit – policy against Iran.
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Effort to destabilize Iran to win the Middle East
Regionally, Trump’s stance leans on Saudi Arabia for economic and geopolitical support, as evidenced by the $110 billion arms deal with Riyadh a year ago, and reinforced security ties with Israel, as reflected by U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as capital of Israel – a fatal policy mistake denounced by international community in the UN and one that reversed almost seven decades of US foreign policy.
The increasing convergence of the US, Saudi and Israeli interests in the Middle East reflects an escalating quest for regional primacy. In last October, the Trump administration designated for sanctions additional missile and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-related entities, while threatening to cease implementing the JCPOA. By weakening Iran’s “moderates,” the White House hoped to incite “hawks” into strategic moves that could be used as a pretext for regime change.
Supported by Republican neoconservatives and Democrats’ liberal interventionists, the plan relies on discontented Iranian exiles and Shah loyalists in the West, while Saudi Arabia and Israel try to soften Iran in military and covert operations in the region’s ongoing proxy wars.
Along with economic pressures, Trump seized covert operations naming the controversial Michael D’Andrea, who was deeply involved with the US interrogation program after 9/11 attacks, the head of CIA’s Iran operations, while the ultraconservative hawk Mike Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. Both D’Andrea and Pompeo favor regime change in Iran.
Trump also made the neoconservative John Bolton his national security adviser and Gina Haspel the new head of CIA. While Bolton contributed to the “weapons of mass destruction” pretense that led to the war in Iraq, Haspel served as chief of a CIA black site torture prison and played a role in the destruction of some 100 interrogation videotapes.
In 2003, Bolton relied on false data from U.S.-based Iraqi exiles; now he is reliant on flawed information from Iraqi exiles. In November 2017, Bolton urged the US to have a contingency plan for a “Shah of Iran scenario.” Four months before, he had advocated Trump’s withdrawal from the deal, pledging a regime change before February 2019 – the 50th anniversary of the Iranian revolution (see Figure).
After Bolton replaced Trump’s national security adviser H.R. McMaster in early April, he is now positioned to execute the regime change plan.
Regime change, terror, puppets, and hot money
Bolton supports Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian opposition group which he relies for information (and speaking fees). MEK advocates violent overthrow of Iran’s democratically-elected government. Until the early 2010s, the UK, EU and the US considered MEK a cultist terrorist organization but State Secretary Hillary Clinton de-listed the group, reportedly to use MEK for US purposes. Concurrently, Clinton effectively unblocked millions of dollars from the MEK to further lobby US Congress.
The U-turn followed after generous speaking fees by MEK lobbyists to prominent former government leaders supporting regime change in Iran, including former CIA directors R. James Woolsey and Porter Goss, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, FBI Director Louis Freeh, Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, chair of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Rogers, as well as Democrats, such as former Pennsylvania and Vermont Governors Ed Rendell and Howard Dean, and national security adviser to President Obama General Jim Jones, to mention just a few.
On the MEK side, the demands for regime change in Iran were orchestrated largely by its leader Maryam Rajavi, the “President-elect” of the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), who has been investigated for terrorism in and expelled from France (her husband is wanted by Iraq for crimes against humanity), and Alireaza Jafarzadeh, the NCRI’s public face, who has fed US and international agencies “information” about Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions since the early 2000s.
Some of the MEK funds were accrued during the Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) when the MEK was hosted by Saddam Hussein to fight against Iran, reportedly in exchange for millions of dollars. From the ‘90s to early 2000s, MEK coordinated terror raids against Iranian diplomatic missions internationally. According to US NBC, the MEK – “financed, trained and armed by Israel’s secret service – has assassinated Iranian nuclear scientists since 2007. Even before de-listing, the US provided training and funding for the MEK on the US soil and in covert operations in Iran, according to the highly-regarded author Seymour Hersh. When MEK uses substantial funds to attract prominent Americans, the monies originate from oney-laundering front organizations in Europe, US and the Middle East, according to FBI and State Department. The case of the MEK, argues constitutional lawyer Glen Greenwald, indicates that the “US government is not opposed to terrorism; it favors it.”
Along with the former Shah’s supporters in the U.S. and elsewhere, the regime change planners rely on these shady figures, and their quasi-legal organizations, just as they did with Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (NC) in 2003. That’s when sanctions led to the War in Iraq – which is their role now in Iran as well.
From old sanctions to new ones
Last week, the US, once again acting unilaterally, moved toward cutting Iran off from the global economy as the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on several Iranian companies, individuals and officials presumably for an illegal currency-exchange network in the UAE. Through his 2016 campaign, Trump described the Iran nuclear deal as a “disaster.” Aggressive rhetoric is a key element in his deal-making. It is followed by redefinition of the terms. These unilateral efforts rest first on economic pressure, then political intimidation and, when necessary, military force.
Following the JCPOA, primary sanctions on energy, financial, shipping, automotive and other sectors were lifted after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) certification in January 2016 that Iran had complied with the agreement. Yet, secondary sanctions on firms remained in place, along with sanctions applying to US companies, including banks.
The White House will seek to strengthen the secondary sanctions, while seeking to restore the primary sanctions. Last October, Trump demanded the JCPOA to limit Iranian ballistic missile development and regional activities. Accordingly, the administration has imposed sanctions on additional entities related to Iran’s missile program, Navy operations in the Persian Gulf, and other activities in the region.
The spotlight is back on Iran sanctions enacted or under consideration in the Congress, such as the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), plus pending legislation relating to Iran’s ballistic missiles, the assets of Iranian leaders, stricter oversight on Iran’s access to finance, the re-imposition of waived U.S. sanctions, and possible multilateral international sanctions.
Since Russia and China will stay solidly behind the Iran nuclear deal, the real question is whether the key European powers – Germany, France, the UK, and the EU itself – will defend it.
Effort to undermine EU-Iran ties
Prior to Trump’s decision, EU leaders stressed the importance of the full implementation of the JCPOA. French President Emmanuel Macron warned that “the nuclear non-proliferation regime is at stake.” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas argued that the JCPOA “makes the world safer.” UK Foreign Minister Boris Johnson said that the “UK remains strongly committed to the JCPOA.” And the top EU diplomat Federica Mogherini pledged the EU will remain committed to the deal.
Yet, recently Macron said that “we will work collectively on a broader framework, covering nuclear activity, the post-2025 period, ballistic activity, and stability in the Middle East, notably Syria, Yemen and Iraq.” Such statements suggest that some EU leaders may try to redefine the EU approach by leaving the JCPOA intact, but coupling the deal with new and broader conditions, which would undermine the deal.
The Trump administration is likely to target European businesses that have done business in and with Iran since the Iran nuclear deal. It may extend sanctions over to companies that represent other JCPOA parties – that is, China, France, Russia, UK, Germany and the EU – thus raising risks for their U.S. access. As Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin recently put it, European-Iran business agreements will be voided as “the existing licenses will be revoked.”
Along with Renault, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Sanofi, French companies have huge stakes in the deal, thanks to the Airbus contract to provide Iran Air 100 airplanes for $21 billion and the oil giant Total’s $2 billion deal to develop the South Pars oil field. Some 120 German companies, including Volkswagen and Siemens, operate in Iran and another 10,000 do business with Iran. Royal Dutch Shell would be adversely affected. Economic pressure could harm significantly Iran’s oil industry in which the largest single buyers include China, South Korea, Turkey, Japan, Italy and India.
The White House’s message is loud and clear: “Get out of Iran, if you want to stay in the U.S.” It is an effort at regime change but without international legitimacy since Iran has fully implemented the JCPOA conditions.
What’s in line now is the very credibility of the EU powers.
About the Author:
Dr. Dan Steinbock is an internationally recognized strategist of the multipolar world and the founder of Difference Group. He has served as research director at the India, China and America Institute (USA) and visiting fellow at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies (China) and the EU Center (Singapore). For more, see https://www.differencegroup.net/