It is often said that British ambition and influence in the world are on the wane. But there can be few greater demonstrations of this than our country’s lack of attention to one of the biggest issues of our time. I am in Washington at the moment, and have been admiring how intensely the Vienna negotiations have been on the political and news agendas here. But in Britain?
Obviously the British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been involved in the P5+1 talks. But it would have been easy to miss the fact. There has been no meaningful criticisms from within the Conservative party to the deal which Philip Hammond has just put this country’s name to. And although the Labour party are in the midst of a leadership race, none of the contenders seem to have expressed any opinion on the talks. I can find nothing on the issue from the party’s acting leader, Harriet Harman, while the party’s leadership frontrunner, Andy Burnham, seems uninterested in any disaster since Hillsborough. It is the ripest marker of the degradation of our politics that the only foreign policy matter to have slipped into the Labour party leadership campaign is the extent to which one of the candidates - Jeremy Corbyn - is a fan of Iran’s racist terror proxy Hezbollah.
Yet despite Britain’s increasing disengagement from the world the significance of this deal with Iran can hardly be overstated. Since 1979, when the revolutionary Islamists took power in Iran, the regime has hoped to be treated as a normal power even while behaving as a rogue, terrorist state. For years it has sought to super-charge its regional and international standing by acquiring nuclear weapons technology – a stated ambition which has repeatedly been proven by the regime’s game of cat-and-mouse with the international inspectorate of the IAEA. For years Iran has repeatedly been caught lying and cheating, with undeclared facilities and secret facilities built to enrich uranium not to the levels needed for civilian use (in a country flowing with natural energy resources) but to weapons-grade level.
Thanks to the Vienna deal the Obama administration claims that it has managed to bring Iran’s nuclear project under a more rigorous international watch and so to have avoided military conflict with the country. In reality America and her partners (including Britain) have been out-negotiated from the start. For years Iran has strung the talks along and to have things taken off the table or put back on the table whenever it wished. It has managed this because despite arriving at the talks in a position of weakness, the Iranians realised that the Obama administration appeared to want and need a deal far more than they did.
And now they have their deal. In return for the promise of inspections at its nuclear sites, Iran is now going to have billions of dollars of its assets unfrozen, have the capability to increase international trade and is even going to have the UN-imposed arms controls on the country lifted. This means that the country can increase its conventional weapons capabilities as a quid pro quo for promising to allow sunlight in on its search for nuclear capability. All this despite no change in the behaviour or ambitions of the Iranian regime.
The extent to which you think this 100 page agreement is worth the paper it is printed on depends on how much you think the revolutionary Islamic Republic of Iran can be trusted and the extent to which the regime’s inevitable eventual breaking of the agreement will be punished. It is worth recalling that the international community was meant to have worked out a similar inspections route to prevent the North Koreans developing nuclear technology – and we all know how that turned out. The present agreement rewards Iran before it has done anything to demonstrate that it deserves reward, other than sign a piece of paper.
And thanks to this deal – among many other things – the Iranian regime will not be going anywhere anytime soon. The regime of the Ayatollahs has continuously crushed all efforts by the Iranian people to replace it. When international sanctions on the country were really biting a few years ago the Iranian regime was at its most vulnerable and the people at their most volatile and potentially powerful. But all that has now dissipated. The Iranian President has just gone on Iranian television to boast of the regime’s success in getting the sanctions lifted and to claim that the deal has finally ‘recognised the nuclear activities of Iran.’ A win-win for Rouhani. This deal helps embed the regime as the legitimate representative of the people it seeks to control. And that regime has made a cold but sensible calculation. Will it be the case that the next US administration and the one after that, not to mention the next UK government and the one after that, will keep as close an eye on Iran’s behaviour as this document supposes? I doubt it, and I am quite certain that the Iranians doubt it – but it is there that the Ayatollahs will now have their opportunity.
Of course for the media, politicians and publics of the West alike there remain a hundred ways to avoid the significance of this deal. One will be to slip into an absurd type of moral relativism. In the coming days I expect we will hear the usual frivolous voices saying slightly more than their sponsors in Iran might expect: things like ‘America and Britain are hypocrites - they are both nuclear powers’ (that’s right – why not be ‘fair’ and give everyone a nuclear bomb?’). Or there is the type of moral vacuum the BBC has just just slipped into. The main report on Iran on its website now says of this deal that, ‘There has been stiff resistance to a deal from conservatives both in Iran and the US'. A statement which is not just incorrect, but which suggests that ‘conservatives’ everywhere are the problem and that US House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner and, say, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei are on the same moral tier.
So it may be worth remembering some of the facts the P5+1 seem to have forgotten. Not least that over recent decades Iran has been the world’s number one sponsor of terror – sponsoring attacks as far away as South America. And that its murder of Western citizens and soldiers is far from historic. It is only a few years since Iranian forces were planting roadside bombs to blow up British and American troops in Iraq. International sanctions undoubtedly hurt the regime – eventually forcing it to the negotiating table – but they did not noticeably change the nature of the regime.
Obviously the Obama administration thinks differently. But what it – and the P5+1 grouping as a whole – think they can see that nobody else can see is a mystery. Of course it is possible that they are right. It is possible that there is some crack in the grim face of the Ayatollahs akin to whatever it was Richard Nixon saw in the eyes of the Chinese leaders or Margaret Thatcher saw in the eyes of Gorbachev. They better be right, because the visible outward signs remain all that they have been for decades. Only a couple of weeks ago when the Iranian Parliament was discussing this deal, the session broke up with the Iranian representatives chanting their traditional cries of ‘Death to America’. Just last Friday Iran celebrated the day inaugurated by Ayatollah Khomeini as ‘Al-Quds Day’ (also celebrated by Islamists in London) when millions of Iranians take to the streets to chant ‘Death to America’ and ‘Death to Israel’ and to burn American, Israeli and British flags. Last Friday, the latest in the long line of allegedly ‘moderate’ Iranian leaders, President Rouhani, turned up to an Al-Quds day protest where they did the usual ‘Death to America’ and American and Israeli flag-burnings. This was all at the same time as the American and British governments were sitting down with the Iranians in Vienna.
Nothing has changed in the rhetoric of the Iranian regime in the thirty six years since it came to power. Nothing meaningful has been shown to have altered in its ambitions. But it is the presumption of this deal that the Iranian regime – a regime which continues to boast of its desire to wipe UN member states off the map – is a rational actor. This is in many ways morally as well as strategically bamboozling. If Iran were led, say, by a group of far-right wing white racist Ku Klux Klan members who had seized the country by force I doubt the American administration would regard it as a rational actor whose word on nuclear ambitions would be accepted and their build-up of conventional weaponry permitted. But the Iranian regime is instead a rabidly racist anti-Western and anti-Semitic regime which sponsors anti-Western and anti-Semitic terrorism around the world. The fact that our governments have just signed a deal with them is surprising. The fact that they have done so without any significant political opposition in the UK is damning.
Well now Iran can look forward to a flood of hundreds of billions of dollars of unfrozen assets. Lobbyists in London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing are already in place and limbered up to start promoting business with Iran. Once that show is on the road it is highly unlikely – whatever else happens – that the sanctions so carefully put in place by previous administrations will be reintroduced. What is highly likely is that after a brief interregnum the Iranian regime will start to lie and cheat and cover-up all over again. Will America or Britain be in a position to do much about it then? Will we have the will? What will happen when Russia sells Iran the anti-aircraft system Moscow has wanted to sell for years and which is now back on the table? What about when, in five years time according to this agreement, Iran is allowed to gain further ballistic technology? What about at any point in the next decade when the inspectors have their first refusal of access to a site, or the sense that the real action appears to be happening elsewhere?
Then Iran will have what the Ayatollahs have always wanted – the time to ‘break out’ and develop the weaponry which their leaders have repeatedly threatened to use. Then, or perhaps a long time before then, Sunni powers in the Middle East region who have become increasingly nervous about the unchecked ambitions of Iran and disenchanted with their ‘allies’ in the West, will compete in a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. At some point this will mean that the least stable continent in the world will be armed to the teeth with the world’s most dangerous weaponry.
I know that Greece is important. And I know that the manner in which a fox can be killed appears to matter to a lot of people. But it is also possible - just possible - that what has been going on in Vienna in recent days is more important than any of this and that Britain and the world will rue the day that our global interest became so limited and our diplomatic attention-span grew so wretchedly small.