He’d Better Watch His Fingers
March 5, 2021
Today, nine countries have nuclear weapons. And right now, it’s up to President Joe Biden to ensure that another nation in the middle of the most volatile region on Earth doesn’t become country No. 10.
“Joe Biden has a narrow window to save [the] Iran deal,” the Financial Times warned late last month. And that window is closing fast…
The U.S. and Russia account for more than 90% of the nearly 13,500 nuclear warheads on Earth that we humans have been dumb enough to make.
Nuclear warheads are like grains of sand in your swimsuit: It doesn’t take many to make things mighty uncomfortable, very quickly.
Even pocket-change, rounding-error nuclear powers like Pakistan (160 warheads, according to the Arms Control Association), North Korea (around 30 to 40), and Israel (90) have enough firepower to pulverize most of humanity many times over… to make The Day After – the 1983 film that was the first big-budget Hollywood production to show the aftermath of nuclear war – seem like a fortune-telling documentary.
According to the Economist, Iran now has enough enriched uranium (the secret sauce of the atomic age) to make two nuclear weapons – much of that made over the past few years. Whether it chooses to make them… well, that’s partly up to Uncle Joe.
Reversing a Failure
One of Barack Obama’s biggest foreign policy victories was the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (“JCPOA”), the 2015 agreement under which Iran rolled back its nuclear program and submitted to regular and rigorous inspections of its nuclear facilities. In exchange, some international sanctions on Iran were lifted, giving its economy some breathing room and rewarding moderate leaders in Iran for their efforts to cooperate with the West.
But Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal in 2018. He called it the “worst deal ever” and slapped sanctions back on Iran. Then he failed to replace the arrangement – one that gave Iran some access to the rest of the world – for something better… or, actually, with anything at all.
“Donald Trump has been a failure on Iran,” proclaimed the Right-leaning National Interest in November last year. “Trump may actually believe the notion – which has been heard in various forms in the four decades since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established – that just a little more pressure exerted for a little longer will crush the will of the Iranians,” it explained. There wasn’t a “no más” from Iran to satisfy Trump.
“Far from containing Iran, these actions aggravated the country’s leaders and emboldened them to expand their nuclear enrichment activities,” Foreign Affairs magazine explained.
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What this means is that there’s no time like the present for the U.S. to reenter and resurrect the JCPOA, which was co-signed by the U.K., China, France, Germany, and Russia, to arrest Iran from its nuclear trajectory. But it’s not that easy.
Before it returns to the negotiating table, Iran wants the U.S. to lift some of the sanctions on its economy. These have severely restricted the global market for the country’s oil and gas (Iran has the world’s second-largest energy reserves) and effectively frozen it out of the global financial system. Sanctions have also contributed to bringing about three years (and counting) of recession in Iran – the economy contracted by nearly 7% in 2019, and an inflation rate of 41% last year.
‘After You, Sir’
The U.S., though, doesn’t want to make the first move. And a few days ago, Iran rejected an invitation from Europe to talks with the U.S. Both sides “have demanded the other take the first step to return to full compliance with [the nuclear deal],” the Financial Times explained a few days ago… setting up a classic “After you, sir,” “No, after you, sir” scenario.
Political realities mean the window is closing. In presidential elections to be held in June, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani – whose government negotiated the JCPOA initially – will be unable to run again due to term limits, and his replacement will probably be far less interested in negotiating with the Americans. That means that Biden will need to persuade Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (who is the guy who ultimately calls the shots in Iran). He unenthusiastically approved the original deal – and later wanted nothing to do with Trump.
Meanwhile, Biden faces some hard sledding domestically. “No American politician has lost votes by being tough on Iran,” the National Interest explains. Biden needs to decide whether it’s worth burning valuable political capital with the electorate and in Congress on what could be a lost cause.
And let’s not forget that there’s plenty of bad blood between the two countries. In early January last year, the U.S. killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of the country’s Quds special forces unit and a war hero battlefield commander. At the time, the New York Times called it “the most perilous chapter so far in President Trump’s three years in office” and “the riskiest move made by the United States in the Middle East since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.”
And just last week – in what was Biden’s first military action since taking office – the U.S. launched airstrikes against militia groups in eastern Syria that are linked to Iran… which were in retaliation to recent attacks on American personnel in Iraq. Firing missiles at each other isn’t a great way to lay the groundwork to talk about, you know, peace.
Can’t We All Just Get Along?
With all the overheated rhetoric, it’s easy to forget that these sorts of conflicts aren’t between the people of countries… they’re 99% between the leaders of countries.
So when I’m looking at what’s going on in Iran – a member of former President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” and a country that 74% of Americans have an “unfavorable” opinion of, according to Pew Research (that’s even worse than how Americans view China) – I reflect on my visit there in 2014… where I found a country of 83 million people that was, actually, nothing like the movies, TV, or what politicians would have you think.
At the time, a former boss who was an expert on politics in the Middle East warned me, “Assume you’re being followed… Don’t do anything stupid.” In the weeks leading up to my trip to Iran, I got a lot of advice like this.
As you might guess – thanks in part to sanctions – Iran was completely absent of Western influences. There were (and are) no McDonald’s or Pizza Huts in Iran. CNN wasn’t on the hotel television. Tom Cruise and Scarlett Johansson were not playing at the local cinema.
And Iran is a devout Muslim country. (Remember though: It’s not Arabic… it’s Persian.) Women sat at the back of public buses, separated by a steel bar from the men in the front. Even the female mannequins in store windows wore headscarves.
I also didn’t find any beer… You couldn’t (legally) buy alcohol in Iran, although there were plenty of ways to get around this if you knew what you’re doing and you know the right people. (Instead, I drank the swill in the photo here… one of the few times in my life that I’ve never finished a beer. Although this didn’t really count since, well, it wasn’t really beer.)
An American in Tehran
Despite the scenes regularly featured on American news coverage of the country of riotous crowds of angry Iranians burning American flags and decrying the Great Satan, I saw very little evidence of anti-Western (or anti-American) sentiment. The old murals on the wall outside the former American embassy, for example – my photo below – are almost an artifact of a different era, more like a statue than a statement.
No one seemed to notice someone speaking English in public (though I could count on one hand the number of tourists I saw the entire time I was there). In Tehran, Iran’s capital, I hardly got a second look… Big city people – anywhere – are too busy with their own thing to bother.
Admittedly, I didn’t wear my American citizenship on my sleeve. I entered the country under a different passport. I was traveling with a friend and former colleague from Australia, so whenever someone asked me where I was from, I chimed in that I was from Down Under, too.
Travel pro tip: Many (bad) non-native speakers of English have a difficult time distinguishing between different English-language accents. It’s similar for other languages… With your high-school Spanish, can you tell the difference between a Columbian accent and an Argentinian accent? Probably not.)
So to me, my Aussie friend Sam sounded like he was quacking to my American-accent barking, no Iranian called me out for claiming that I was quacking, too. Or maybe they all laughed after I left about my transparent attempt at obscuring my real linguistic citizenship.
The biggest “hassle” I received during my whole trip was with passport control back at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., which was interested in chatting with me about why I had gone to Iran. But at the time it was perfectly legal for Americans to visit Iran, and after a short conversation with the polite passport control officer, I was on my way.
Outside of Tehran, the people I met, obviously just a small sample size, were engaging and pleasant. When the discussion turned to politics, they bemoaned how politicians had managed to mess things up for everyone.
Most of all, the Iranians I talked with – regular people, business leaders, stock market brokers, taxi drivers, journalists – were excited for the possibility of greater economic opportunity. Iranians were eager to experience the benefits of joining the world community. One young engineer I had lunch with wanted more than anything to design cars… But there was no way for him to leave the country to try his hand at it. And I’m pretty sure that there still isn’t.
Don’t get me wrong… Iran isn’t all peaches and cream.
According to research organization Human Rights Watch, last year “Iranian authorities continued to repress their own people. The country’s security and intelligence apparatus, in partnership with Iran’s judiciary, harshly cracked down on dissent, including through excessive and lethal force against protesters and reported abuse and torture in detention.” During a crackdown on protestors in November 2019, more than 300 people were killed by the authorities.
And Iranian society isn’t exactly permissive. “Iranian law considers acts such as ‘insulting the prophet,’ ‘apostasy,’ same-sex relations, adultery, drinking alcohol, and certain non-violent drug-related offenses as crimes punishable by death,” Human Rights Watch continued.
Even if those rules are implemented only occasionally, it reflects an attitude that runs counter to the freedoms that much of the west takes for granted.
What’s at Risk
It’s not just Iran’s nuclear capabilities… which are worrisome enough. Iran is the key to stability in the entire Middle East, a region that makes powder kegs seem as inert as dirt by comparison.
“A total collapse of the agreement would run the much greater risk of a full-blown crisis in the Middle East. And with diplomacy off the table, Iran and the United States could very well end up in a shooting war that neither wants or can afford,” warns Foreign Affairs.
Let’s hope President Biden gets it done.
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Executive Editor, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
March 5, 2021