THE 2015 DEAL to reduce some international sanctions on Iran in return for limitations on, and inspections of, Iran’s nuclear sites was one of the few hopeful moments in the turbulent and often destructive international politics of the Middle East. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been labelled by the US as a pariah, a rogue state, part of an ‘axis of evil’ - and European countries, while generally not using the same language, have acquiesced to the US stance. The result has been a long-term hostility across the Persian Gulf region, often spilling over into violent rivalry.
The nuclear agreement showed for the first time since 1979 that co-existence was possible. Agreed by Iran, the US, the European countries, China and Russia, and endorsed through the UN Security Council, it was a genuine multilateral effort. Its focus was limited, but it showed the way towards a less fractious future.
Although Iran’s regional influence is often overstated, its role, as the eastern Middle East’s most populous country, in any future durable peace in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Afghanistan will be crucial.
All those hopes have now been up-ended with the US decision on 8th May to reject the deal. This directly violates a Chapter VII requirement of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by re-imposing sanctions on Iran. But, perhaps more importantly, the US intends to sanction countries and companies outside the US who trade with Iran. The prospect of drawing the bludgeoning acrimony of an erratic and irascible US president serves to deter those who may otherwise start engaging with Iranians as people deserving of respect rather than as future military targets.
The US decision also brings back the prospect of violent confrontation. The US national security advisor, John Bolton, is a long-standing advocate of the Mujahideen e-Khalq (MEK), a violent revolutionary group that has previously used bombs and assassinations to undermine the Iranian government. A highly ideological group, the MEK draws upon a mix of radical Islamism and pseudo-Marxism, and was allied with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq before 2003, making Bolton’s decade-long support for it all the more extraordinary.
Bolton successfully lobbied in 2012 for the US State Department to remove the MEK’s designation as a terrorist group, and told its conference in 2017 that he was committed to bringing about regime change by 2019. The parallel with the Iraqi National Congress (INC), which was so instrumental in creating an agenda in the US for regime change in Iraq before 2003, is unmistakeable. Neither the INC nor the MEK had a support base within their own country.
The response by Iranians to the US decision has not been defiance or resistance, but tired resignation. Most Iranians are sick of the revolutionary slogans which have been part of everyday Iranian life since the 1979 revolution. The nuclear deal was the first step to normality, after 39 years of being the exception on the international stage. The re-election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president in 2017 - on the basis of a 73% turnout at the election, a higher popular mandate than any US president has had in the past 120 years - speaks to the hopes that many Iranians had for a different future.
European countries retain the potential to save the nuclear deal from collapse. By protecting those who engage with Iran - and potentially counter-sanctioning US companies who do business in Europe - there is some prospect of holding on, at least until the next US presidential election when a more responsible administration could come to power. European leaders still speak of their intention to preserve the deal, but their willingness to do so in the face of various other disagreements with the US is harder to judge.
If Europe is the firewall, then Israel is the fire-starter. Immediately after the US announcement, the Israeli military launched a series of attacks on Iranian bases in Syria, and made the seemingly false claim that Iran had fired missiles at the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights.
It seems likely that Israel, which bases its militant security posture on the assertion that it faces an existential threat, was attempting to provoke an Iranian military response - which would in turn cause a collapse of relations between Iran and European states. This time the Iranians were alert enough to being baited.
Iranians are right to be suspicious of Britain and the US. Every Iranian child can tell you how their country was invaded by Britain and the USSR in 1941 to unseat the government of Reza Khan, how the British and Americans conspired to produce the coup that unseated the democratic government of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, how the US trained and supported the torturers of Iran’s secret police, SAVAK, during the 1970s. The scars left by such betrayals can last for decades. It remains up to European countries to determine if 2018 is added to the list of years that provide the reasons why conflict persists across the Persian Gulf.
is a Lecturer and fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, specializing in political theory and international law.