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By Mohamed Jawhar Hassan
Posted on October 20th, 2020

There are two international security issues revolving around nuclear weapons today: the US-Iran conflict and the conflict with North Korea. In both cases the roots of the conflicts extend well beyond the issue of nuclear weapons.

Tensions pre-dated the advent of nuclear weapons, suspected or real, in both theatres. And unless addressed if not resolved, hostilities will persist even if nuclear weapons were no longer an issue.

In both cases, it is the underlying motives, interests and security concerns of all parties that should be the primary focus. However, the international community is less interested in discussing these matters. Spearheaded by the United States, nuclear weapons have been made the central issue.

I therefore focus on the big picture with regard to the US-Iran tensions before narrowing towards the nuclear weapons issue. I will spend a bit of time on the past, because it often sheds light on the present.

Factors leading to the rise of US-Iran tensions

The United States and Iran enjoyed very good relations in the beginning, in the 19th century. Iran was then known as Persia. There was mutual regard and friendship. The United States at the time was yet to cultivate global hegemonic ambitions. It had not become involved in the big power game outside the American hemisphere. It also strongly opposed colonialism.

But even then, the countries of West Asia and North Africa were too geo-strategically important to escape the predatory interests of the big powers. For Iran, it was its strategic location in the Eurasian landmass alongside the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Homuz. Its huge crude oil reserves, the fourth largest in the world, were too valuable to ignore. Oil and gas were vital to fuel the industries of the industrial economies. So it was for the oil-rich Gulf states to the south as well.

During this period Iran’s primary external threat came not from the United States, but from Britain and Russia. Iran was subject to diplomatic, military and economic pressure from both countries, and it went to war with them. It lost the two wars with Russia in 1804-1813 and 1826-1828. It also lost the war with Britain in 1856-1857. Britain and Russia in fact signed a secret Anglo-Russian Convention in 1907 that surreptitiously divided Iran into British, Russian and “neutral” spheres of influence.

Britain controlled Iranian oil through majority ownership of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later British Petroleum Company, or BP). It resisted Iranian attempts to negotiate more favorable terms for itself for more than two decades from the late 1920s. When Iran finally nationalised its oil industry in 1951during the democratically elected administration of Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh, Britain organised an international boycott of Iranian oil. The British government then successfully persuaded the United States to jointly mount a coup against Prime Minister Mosaddegh on the grounds that his administration could end in a Russian communist takeover. The coup launched by the CIA and SIS (MI6) in 1953 was code-named by the United States Operation Ajax. Britain called it Operation Boot.

The US/UK coup led to the destruction of democracy in Iran and resulted in the rise of an absolute monarchy under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His rule was brutal. He suppressed all opposition and dissent. His primary instrument of control was his secret police, SAVAK. It was established with the help of the CIA and Israel’s Mossad. The US supported and armed the Shah generously for the next quarter century until he was overthrown. It was the thick of the Cold War, and the US saw him as a staunch ally against the Soviet Union and the pro-Soviet Tudeh Communist Party in Iran.

The Shah did much to modernise and develop his country, but his brutality and secular policies under the so-called White Revolution plan alienated the influential Shi’a religious and traditionalist establishment and the vast majority of the people. The US was identified with the Shah regime, and both came to be hated.

The emergence of the charismatic and hard-line Ayatollah Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini as the leading opposition figure further galvanised anti-Shah revolutionary fervour. The Pahlavi dynasty was overthrown in the 1979 Revolution. It was replaced by a theocracy headed by Supreme Leader Khomeini. The new Islamic republic was ferociously anti-West and, to a lesser extent, anti-Russian. Khomeini called the US the Great Satan, the Soviet Union the Lesser Satan and Israel the Little Satan.

The event that sealed the animosity between the US and Iran was the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran in November 1979. It saw 52 American diplomats and citizens taken hostage for 444 days. The immediate reason for the seizure was the permission given by the US to the Shah in January 1979 to undergo surgery in the US. It was interpreted as granting asylum to him to escape Iranian “justice”.

The takeover of a foreign embassy is against international law. The US, which sees itself as a superpower that is above international law when it suits its interests, never forgave Iran for the act. Incidentally, the US was guilty of the same violation of international law when it air-raided the Iranian Consulate-General in Erbil, Iraq in 2007.  Five diplomatic staff were taken away and released 305 days later.

There were several other significant landmarks in the mounting hostilities between Iran and the United States. One was the Islamic Republic’s attempt to spread its influence in West Asia. This was perceived as harmful to US strategic interests in the region. Flush with revolutionary fervour after the fall of the Shah, Iran’s theocratic leaders sought to promote the Shi’a brand of Islam in the neighbouring Sunni absolute monarchies. Some of them were aligned to the US. Teheran’s foreign policy also became stridently anti-American and anti-Israel. Militant groups were cultivated among the Shi’a minorities in some of the countries in West Asia, Africa and Central Asia. Prominent among them is the Hezbollah, which is also a political party in Lebanon. Hezbollah was responsible for the bombing of the US Marine base in Lebanon in 1983. A total of 241 US and 58 French military personnel based nearby was killed.

Another major event that contributed to rising US-Iran tensions was the Iran-Iraq war of 1980. Launched by Saddam Hussein, it lasted eight bloody years. An estimated 500,000 military personnel from both sides died. All the major Western powers, the Soviet Union and the Arab states supported Iraq. They saw Iraq as a check against what was seen as Iran’s revolutionary and destabilising activities in the region. China was delighted to sell arms to both sides.

The United States supported Iraq in the war. US support included providing funds and supplying operational intelligence to the Iraqi military. The United States occasionally engaged Iranian forces directly. It shot down a civilian Air Iran plane in 1988, killing all 290 passengers and crew on board. It claimed it thought it was an Iranian military aircraft. The United Sates and the United Kingdom also blocked investigations and resolutions in the United Nations condemning Iraq’s extensive use of chemical weapons during the war. Next to Japan, Iran is the country that has suffered most from weapons of mass destruction.

President George Bush and the neo-conservatives in his administration adopted a more hard-line approach to the region following the September 11 2001 attacks on American soil. The policy aggravated US-Iran tensions further, although Iran had no part in the attacks. Iran was branded an Axis of Evil along with Iraq and North Korea in 2002. A year later the US invaded Iraq using the pretext of a non-existent WMD programme. Regime change was its objective. Iran feared it would be the next target. To contain and keep US forces engaged in Iraq, it expanded its clandestine Shi’ite network in the country as part of its asymmetric, forward defence strategy. Animosity between Iran and the US hardened even more.

Subsequent developments in the relations between Iran and the United States become closely entangled with the question of nuclear weapons. I turn to this issue now.

The US-Iran nuclear weapons issue

Interestingly, it was the United States that helped Iran embark on its nuclear journey in the 1950s, when they enjoyed good relations. Iran, Israel and nearly 30 other countries received technical assistance from the US under its Atoms for Peace programme. It was part of a US Cold War initiative. Iran received a nuclear reactor, nuclear fuel and weapons-grade enriched uranium. The Atoms for Peace programme for friendly countries was actually meant to render more palatable and respectable the American plan to develop a huge nuclear weapon arsenal for itself. The Soviet Union did the same. It provided similar assistance to its own circle that included North Korea.

Iran later also had nuclear assistance deals with France, South Africa and China. The US stopped providing assistance after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. The new Iranian President, Ayatollah Khomeini, was also opposed to nuclear technology and suspended his country’s nuclear programme. In 1984, however, he became interested in the technology again. Iran entered into nuclear cooperation agreements with Pakistan, China and Russia.

The agreements were not well received in Washington. Iran, which had become a party to the NPT in 1970, was regarded as not having been fully transparent to the IAEA. Suspicion that it might be covertly developing a nuclear weapon capability led the United States to prevail upon the countries cooperating with Iran to limit their cooperation. International pressure against Iran grew in August, 2002 when a dissident group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, publicised sites where nuclear weapon programmes were allegedly being pursued.

Iran’s nuclear programme, which Iran continues to insist is peaceful, then came under intense international scrutiny. The US, the EU, the UN and the IAEA attempted to secure greater transparency and access to the country’s nuclear sites. They were keen to reduce activity that could hasten the production of nuclear weapons, in particular the processing of highly enriched uranium. Protracted negotiations with a strongly anti-West President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad resulted in the imposition of several rounds of sanctions by the UN, US and EU. The effect on Iran’s economy and the people was severe.

Progress in negotiations was only possible when the more moderate Hassan Rouhani became president in August 2013. A Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was successfully concluded between Iran and the five Permanent Members of the UNSC as well as Germany (P5+1) in 2015. A Roadmap Agreement between Iran and the IAEA was also signed at the same time. The 25-year Plan of Action put a cap on Iran’s nuclear capacity in exchange for relief from nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the US, the EU and the UNSC. Several verifiable measures were prescribed to constrain Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium, so that the lead time to develop a nuclear weapon could be extended from a few months to a minimum one year.

Iran’s faithful compliance with the terms of the agreement led to the gradual lifting of all nuclear-related sanctionsIran was able to breathe again. Its economy picked up. Things were working well until President Donald Trump came on the scene. Assuming office in January 2017, the “America First” president withdrew the US from several critical international agreements and institutions. They were all devices that the US itself had a leading hand in crafting. Each withdrawal, such as from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans Pacific Partnership, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), the UN Human Rights Council and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, was a giant step back for the US and its contribution to international peace and global well-being.

Trump pulled the US out of the JCPOA in May 2018 on the grounds that it did not go far enough in limiting the threat from Iran, specifically its alleged support for terrorism and its ballistic missile programme. He claimed that Iran could reach the nuclear “breakout time” at very short notice.  Trump called Iran among other things “a murderous regime”, a “regime of great terror” and ”the leading state sponsor of terror”. He described the arrangement as “decaying and rotten”. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Iran’s government “a mafia” and echoed some of the President’s words.

All previous US sanctions were re-imposed on Iran. A raft of additional sanctions also came into force under the “maximum pressure” policy. The stated aims of the policy are to work with allies to counter Iran’s alleged destabilising activity and support for terrorists; impose additional sanctions on the country to check financing of terror; address Teheran’s “proliferation” of missiles and weapons; and prevent any access to nuclear weapons. Elsewhere, however, the US clearly stated that the intent of the sanctions is also to heighten dissent against the government and induce political change.

Iran’s alleged support for terrorism and its ballistic missile programme are not the concern of the JCPOA. The Agreement is confined only to limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity. But Trump, probably the most pro-Israeli of all US presidents, wanted a fresh agreement that would deny Iran effective forward means to deter hostile attacks and preserve its regional strategic interests. The US is clearly cognisant that Iran’s weak conventional military capability and critical economic and financial situation make it no match for the awesome military machine of the US and its allies in Europe and West Asia. Washington is only too aware that Iran must rely upon a defence strategy of asymmetrical warfare in which ballistic missiles and the cultivation of resistance forces and friendly governments in neighbouring countries are crucial to Iran’s continued viability. Hence the push for re-negotiating a new and more encompassing agreement that effectively cripples Iran’s defence strategy and military capability.

Trump, backed by hawks National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary Mike Pompeo, tried to convince their European allies to withdraw from the agreement as well, without success. China and Russia declined too. The EU announced that it will introduce a “blocking statute” which bans European companies from complying with US sanctions against Iran. In a statement issued later, the EU emphasised that upholding the JCPOA is a “matter of respecting international agreements and a matter of international security”. Despite repeated pressure from the US President as well as his senior officials, the international community rejected the US demands. Only Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Bahrain and the UAE stand with the US on the issue of the JCPOA.

On October 3, 2018 the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled unanimously that the United States “must remove, by means of its choosing, any impediments” to the export of food, agricultural products, medicine, aircraft parts, and other humanitarian goods. The Court concluded that Trump’s decision to reimpose sanctions on Iran was unfounded given Tehran’s compliance with the JCPOA. The ICJ ruling was ignored by the Trump administration.

US sanctions on Iran under the so-called “maximum pressure” policy are as draconian as those imposed on North Korea. The reasons are dubious. Iran was complying fully with JCPOA commitments. It has no nuclear weapons, unlike North Korea. Years of sanctioning, relieved for hardly three years when the JCPOA was in effect, have taken a heavy toll on the economy and livelihood of the Iranian people.

Iran’s continued adherence to what remains of the JCPOA after the unilateral US withdrawal depends very much on the speedy and effective implementation of INSTEX (Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges). INSTEX was launched by the EU-3 in   January 2019 to act as a clearing house for Iran to sell its oil and import products and services without the use of the US dollar, so that it could circumvent US sanctions. Six other European nations have joined INSTEX. (Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden).

INSTEX however is moving slowly. Iran is still not able to circumvent sanctions on the sale of its most critical export, oil, and to import products and services without the use of the US dollar. Iran continues to be subject very much to the US “maximum pressure” policy. As late as June this year for instance, the US imposed new sanctions on Iran Shipping Lines and its subsidiary, E-Sail Shipping Company Limited. Sanctions are biting badly, and the Coronavirus situation is aggravating the situation. There are concerns that if INSTEX fails to effectively enable Iran to by-pass the escalating US sanctions, it may feel compelled to exit the JCPOA.

The US is pursuing two other initiatives that are linked to the JCPOA. One is to secure an extension to the agreement’s ban on transfers of conventional arms to or from Iran. This ban is due to expire on October 18th. The US failed to get its resolution through the UNSC despite watering down the resolution it drafted. The vote in the Security Council was humiliating to the world superpower. It is testimony to how isolated the US is on the global stage on several issues. It is also a sign of its declining power and stature. Only one country, the Dominican Republic, voted with the US. China and Russia voted against. Eleven other members, including the US’s strongest NATO allies, abstained.

The ability to purchase and import arms is critical to Iran. Its entire military machinery consisting of the regular air force, navy and army and those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is decades behind in technology and capability. It contrasts sharply not only with the ultra-modern weaponry of the US, but also with the sophisticated weapons of all the other US allies in Europe, the Sunni West Asian nations and Israel. Purchase of arms could also enable Teheran to provide additional arms supplies to the irregular forces it supports in the region, if its straitened financial situation permits. They include the Hezbullah in Lebanon, the Shia militia in Iraq, the Huthis in Yemen, the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas in the occupied Palestinian Territories, militants in Bahrain and support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Understandably, Saudi Arabia supported the US on the extension of the arms ban.

The second initiative is even more important for the US. This is to activate the snapback provision in UNSC Resolution 2231 that endorsed the JCPOA. The snapback provision allows any party to the JCPOA to invoke the restoration of all pre-JCPOA sanctions in the event of “significant non-performance of commitments.” The US took the first move to activate the provision by formally notifying the UN Secretary General and the UNSC president on August 20th. This triggers the 30-day countdown to snapback unless there is a UNSC resolution that calls for the continued suspension of sanctions. The US intends to veto such a resolution if it materialises, so that the snapback will proceed.

The US initiative was immediately condemned by the EU-3, Germany, Russia, China and Iran. They cited the fact that the US forfeited the right to invoke a snapback when it exited the JCPOA. The US insists that it needs no approval and that the snapback countdown has already begun. Israel is the lone country that has expressed support for the US.

Sanctions are an important component of US foreign and security policy. It is one more weapon in its comprehensive superpower arsenal. Countries that are elevated to become threats to America and the world are subject to the most ferocious and relentless onslaught of sanctions through the UN Security Council and US’s own unilateral and secondary sanctions. (Secondary sanctions are sanctions imposed by the US against third countries, companies and entities that transact with countries sanctioned by the US and UN. They are not legal in international law). For target countries like North Korea and Iran they are designed to seal off all exports and imports, sever financial and trade transactions, and block US and US-linked foreign bank accounts. The end goal is to seal off the country from the international economy and paralyse its will and capacity to stand up to the US and its allies. If possible, through precipitating regime change.

The current security situation

Security in the West Asian region has deteriorated in the period after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in May 2018. Commercial ships and oil tankers have been attacked, and Iran has been blamed by the US, Saudi Arabia and others. Iran however has denied it was responsible and has alleged that the incidents were the result of false flag operations intended to implicate Iran.

Three incidents in particular stand out: the September 2019 drone attacks on the Khurais oilfield and Abqaiq processing facility in Saudi Arabia; the assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on 3 January this year; and the Abraham Accord, or the UAE-Israel peace agreement earlier this month, on the 13th. The event of the utmost security consequence, however, is the Coronavirus pandemic. It is sweeping the world, with the United States the global epicentre, and Iran the regional.

The drone attacks on the critical Saudi Arabian oil facilities exposed the extreme vulnerability of Saudi Arabia, other pro-US Gulf states and US military presence and interests in the region should there be an assault on Iran.

Iran lost the master strategist and the brains behind the country’s asymmetric national defence strategy when General Qassem Soleimani was killed. The strategy however will continue to be maintained. Teheran has no other option given the country’s inferior conventional military capability and dire economic situation exacerbated by the Coronavirus.

Incidentally, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani is illegal in international law and even in US domestic law.

The Abraham Accord is celebrated in Washington, Tel Aviv and, a little more mutedly, in Abu Dhabi. It is a significant political achievement for the United States and Israel. But it is far from the Middle East peace plan between Israel and Palestine that was promised by Trump and Kushner in January. Just as well, because that peace plan would have presented most of historic Palestine to Israel on a platter.

The most President Netanyahu had to concede to secure the accord was to “suspend” his already suspended plan to annex 30 percent of Palestinian land. The Abraham Accord is regrettable for another reason: it appears to implicitly recognise Israel’s right to land it presently occupies illegally in the West Bank.

The Accord formalises what has been growing UAE-Israeli cooperation for several years now. Diplomatic relations between the two countries will make Iran feel even more alone and hemmed in by its rivals in West Asia. But it will not make too much of a difference. The UAE is already in the American camp, and by extension, Israel’s. There are 5,000 American military personnel stationed in two American bases in the country, and the Port of Jebel Ali is the largest port of call for the US Navy outside of America.

Secretary Pompeo is now busy touring other Gulf states and Sudan. He will be followed by Senior Advisor Kushner. The aim is to persuade the West Asian states to follow the footsteps of the UAE, and Egypt and Jordan earlier, to normalise relations with Israel. Mr Kushner has dangled the sale of F35s to the UAE. It will be interesting to observe what inducements the US will offer to the others. Success will be a powerful boon to Tel Aviv and Washington, and to Trump’s prospects in the coming election.

The greatest security challenge confronting Iran and the US at present, though, is not these conventional security issues. It is the Covid-19 pandemic that is sweeping the worldThe US leads the world in terms of the number of persons of persons dead (more than 180,000) and infected (5.9 million).  Iran leads the West Asian region, with over 20,000 dead and 360,000 infected. The numbers continue to rise at an alarming rate.

The challenge to Iran, however, is of a totally different order compared to the US and other affluent nations. Though the hardest hit in the region, its capacity to fight the pandemic and other serious diseases is among the lowest (nations in turmoil like Yemen and Syria excepted). Four decades of harsh and relentless sanctions have severely undermined the nation’s economy, sapped its resources and overwhelmed the country’s health system.

Iran’s economy is in severe recession as a result of both the sanctions and Covid-19. According to the IMF’s estimates, it shrank an estimated 7.6 percent in 2019. The inflation rate was 41.1 percent over the previous year. The unemployment rate was 16.8 percent. Anti-government protests spiked in December 2017. They became even more severe towards the end of last year and early this year when the government had to increase fuel prices by 50 to as much as 200 percent.

The humanitarian impact of all this has been appalling

For the first time in 60 years, Iran approached the IMF in March this year for US$5 billion in emergency assistance. Six months have passed, but the IMF is still considering the request to what it calls its Rapid Financing Initiative. There are doubts that the IMF can approve the assistance because the United States sits on its decision-making body.

The US has totally politicised the virus outbreak. It has mounted a massive propaganda campaign against China and Iran. According to Mike Pompeo, “the Wuhan virus is a killer and the Iranian regime is an accomplice… The regime continues to lie to the Iranian people and the world. They put Iranians and people around the world at greater risk.”

The independent medical journal The Lancet has attacked the sanctions on Iran. On 18 March, 2020 it said:

“The economic loss caused by the spread of COVID-19 in Iran coincides with the ever-highest politically induced sanctions against the country. Although various sanctions have been in place for the past four decades, since May, 2019, the unilateral sanctions imposed by the USA against Iran have increased dramatically to an almost total economic lockdown, which includes severe penalties for non-US companies conducting business with Iran.

“Although sanctions do not seem to be physical warfare weapons, they are just as deadly, if not more so. Jeopardising the health of populations for political ends is not only illegal but also barbaric. We should not let history repeat itself; more than half a million Iraqi children and nearly 40 000 Venezuelans were killed as a result of UN Security Council and US sanctions in 1994 and 2017–18, respectively. The global health community should regard these sanctions as war crimes and seek accountability for those who impose them”.


Concluding remarks

  1. Relations between Iran on the one hand and the United States and Israel on the other remain on edge. A war is not impossible, especially with the US Presidential election just 70 days away. Incumbent US presidents have gone to war before to boost their chances of re-election, and President Trump looks like he could do with some help. The prospects for a decisive victory appear bright too. Iran is on its knees. It has been pummelled by 40 years of sanctions. Iran’s economy is literally under siege. Its military, para-military and irregular forces are short of everything. The Coronavirus has killed thousands and afflicted hundreds of thousands more. And war, of course, can be sparked by the smallest, unintended incidents.
  2. Yet I think an all-out war is unlikely. The United States is unlikely to mount an invasion a la Afghanistan or Iraq due to several factors: Iran is much more resilient than either of the two. Its deterrence capacity against US military presence in the region and pro-US Gulf states is relatively high. It uses asymmetric strategies and can defend in depth though at great cost. The US under Trump has lost its lustre and much of its strategic clout to prevail upon NATO and other allies to give any armed invasion the fig-leaf semblance of an international coalition. Russia and China will be totally opposed to any major war in West Asia. Unless there is a frontal attack on them, Gulf states have little appetite for outright violent confrontation with Iran that could last many years. Their sizeable Shi’ite population and pro-Iran militant groups will pose major security problems from within. Hezbollah and to some Hamas are quite potent forces. Covid-19 has been nearly as devastating on the United States and all the other European and regional states. And, of course, there could be a new President in the White House after November who will most likely pursue a less hawkish policy in West Asia.
  3. I therefore think a major war is unlikely in the foreseeable future. What looks assured is continued instability in the region. A return to the JCPOA will help moderate US-Iran relations and stabilise regional security significantly.
  4. For Malaysia, we are clear. We wish to see a West Asia that is at peace with itself and with the rest of the world. We would like outside powers to abide by international law, pursue peaceful policies and respect national sovereignty We want to be friends with all and prosper together with them. We do not wish to take sides. Our position on the Palestinian issue is the UN position. We look forward to good relations with Israel when it fully abides by and implements the relevant UN resolutions on Palestine.
  5. I believe many of us would like to see a West Asia that resembles Southeast Asia more. A region whose peace and prosperity is underpinned by the pacific and cooperative norms, principles and processes that characterise an organisation like ASEAN. Or something even better.

This lecture was delivered at the IDFR Lecture Series 2/2020 on 25th August 2020. Tan Sri Mohamed Jawhar Hassan is a Senior Advisor of the Asia-Europe Institute, Universiti Malaya.

Last Update: 30/12/2021