AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
On Friday, Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie was stabbed in Chautauqua, New York by a Hezbollah activist inspired to carry-out the fatwa issued by Iran’s long-dead leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The incident should clarify a number of things.
First, Hezbollah has never been a respectable political party, and most certainly is not one now. Second, an Iranian government which could not even bring itself to condemn the attempted assassination, instead suggesting the author and his supporters only had themselves to blame, clearly does not value the prospect of any nuclear deal with the U.S. and Europe enough to even mouth meaningless words of conciliation. And third, despite this further addition to the overwhelming evidence that Iran is not serious about the process, the Biden administration is determined to push such a deal through, even if it means dropping the designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC) as a terrorist organization, allowing its agents to carry out actions such as the attack on Rushdie out in the open, rather than in the shadows.
The European diplomats, who have been acting as go-betweens in talks between American and Iranian diplomats in Vienna, released a “final draft” of proposals for a revamped Iran nuclear deal last week. The draft, produced in “close consultation with U.S. officials,” would nominally maintain sanctions on Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp imposed by the Trump Administration in 2019—something the Biden team always insisted was a red line—but in practice, the new plan cripples their effectiveness. According to Politico, “Under the proposed text, Europeans and other non-Americans could conduct business with Iranian entities engaged in ‘transactions’ with the IRGC without fear of triggering U.S. sanctions, as is currently the case, provided their primary business partner was not on a U.S. sanctions registry.”
One diplomat told Politico that “the wording also suggests that IRGC entities could seek to evade U.S. sanctions simply by conducting their business via surrogates and shell companies that create a degree of separation, rendering the U.S. restrictions toothless for non-American enterprises and individuals.”
The IRGC is increasingly a state-within-a-state in Iran, engaging in terrorism both domestically and internationally. Internationally, the IRGC has been active as far afield as Latin America, where it has provided support for the Venezuelan dictatorship of Nicholas Maduro in exchange for assistance in running a global heroin trading network. The force was responsible for the bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Lebanon in 1983 which killed more than 200 Americans, and its agents killed more than 600 Americans in Iraq. It has masterminded plots to kill former National Security Adviser John Bolton and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. As recently as a month ago, the Biden administration acknowledged this, suggesting they would rather abandon any deal than agree to lift sanctions, which makes the decision to back away look all the more weak in light of the Rushdie attack.
A quick examination of the IRGC’s domestic role illustrates both why European governments are so eager to do businesses with IRGC, and why any deal that does not break the IRGC’s power is not worth the paper it is written on. The IRGC has infiltrated the Iranian political and legal system, leading even the former head of the judiciary to denounce their disregard for the rule of law. They have taken control of tens of billions of dollars’ worth of economic assets, including firms which dominate the export and the energy sector. Most significantly, access to Iran’s energy sector is in the hands of the IRGC, and an energy starved Europe sees in the IRGC-controlled Iranian oil fields an alternative to having to deal with Russia or compromise with the Green lobby to keep nuclear plants open.
Yet that is precisely why Biden’s Iran deal cannot work. One of the many problems with the original Obama deal was that the methods of verifying Iran’s compliance with the deal were vague and insufficient. This created a situation where the burden of proof fell on the United States under Donald Trump to demonstrate Iran was not in compliance, not on Iran to prove that it was. Underlying this was the simple fact that the Iran “deal” was of more value to Europe than it was to Iran. Every time U.N. inspectors flagged Iranian non-compliance, Iran would threaten to suspend the deal unless the challenges were dropped. European diplomats, terrified of losing their precious deal, would then rush to pressure the inspectors to sign statements verifying Iran’s compliance.
If Europe wanted the deal more than Iran needed it in 2017, Europe needs it more now. If Europe is pursuing it not because European diplomats believe that it is the most effective means of curtailing Iran’s nuclear program but because they believe access to Iranian oil will save them from difficult domestic political choices, then they will never support enforcement of the deal against Iranian violations in a way that jeopardizes the access to Iranian oil they gain from the agreement. If the Biden administration is foolish enough to sign this deal, they will discover that the Europeans will refuse to enforce even its limited provisions.
The pressure to drop sanctions on the IRGC is not the only sign of how Europe will approach enforcement of the deal. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, Iran is already being held in contempt by the International Atomic Energy Agency for failing to disclose nuclear sites. The draft text of the proposal lays out that Iran must “answer the agency’s questions ‘with a view to clarifying them’” in order for the deal to take effect – placing significant pressure on the IAEA from all involved parties to say that Iran has complied with the inquiry.
But if history is any guide, the IAEA will attempt to verify Iran’s compliance only for its inspectors to be denied access to sites, face physical threats, and blatant obstruction. When they discover violations, which Iran will barely bother to disguise, Iran will arrest European businessmen on trumped up charges and threaten to suspend operations on joint-energy ventures until Brussels prevails upon the Biden administration to verify Iranian compliance and bully the IAEA into submission. Regional actors such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel will lose any modicum of faith in the value of such an agreement and resort to their own defense, causing an escalation of their proxy conflict with Iran.
The deal being discussed now by the Biden administration will fail to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. It will decrease Western leverage on Iran. It will increase, rather than decrease regional tensions. It is a bad idea. That Biden has allowed the process to reach this point is an indictment of his entire regional policy. It an insult to Salman Rushdie and the hundreds of thousands of victims of Iran’s regime.
While exploratory negotiations can be of value with almost anyone, as evidenced by Donald Trump’s outreach to North Korea, the premise of conducting negotiations on the nuclear issue alone with Iran is misguided, especially when Iran refuses direct talks with the United States. If such a process were justified, it must be conducted from a position of strength, not one in which the United States and Europe give every indication they are desperate enough for an agreement that they will ignore crimes in broad daylight. Finally, allowing Europe to use Biden’s desperation for a foreign policy win to gain access to Iranian oil will see Europe replace over-reliance on Russian energy with over-reliance on Iranian energy – handing Tehran, rather than Moscow, the corresponding leverage over Brussels.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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