Gordon Campbell on why an attack on Iran is back on the agenda

9cb2298d9cc2ed3e6d9bReportedly, Christopher Luxon has the edge on Simon Bridges in National’s leadership contest although there is no firm evidence for that hunch. So, one hesitates about joining a media echo chamber that amplifies Luxon’s chances ahead of the 3pm caucus meeting today. You know how it goes: Luxon doesn’t quite have the numbers, so his people start talking to the media to make him seem like the smart bet. Or even perhaps: Luxon hasn’t got the numbers, and his people start talking to the media to talk up his support so that he gets a nicer consolation prize.

But let’s just assume for the moment that the gossip is right, and that the National caucus really is going for Luxon. There are reasons for doing so: But they’re mainly to do with Bridges being seen as toxic, rather than Luxon being seen as a miracle worker. Essentially a Luxon victory would mean that the caucus is willing to risk putting a new captain at the controls who has no proven experience of handling serious political turbulence. Can politics be any harder than his previous career as CEO of Air New Zealand? Yes it can. Luxon used to run an airline that already had a dominant share of the domestic market, and – as a typical CEO – there was no-one in the boardroom willing to question his judgement, or to criticise him to his face. Politics is a bit different. That’s not to say that Luxon won’t be able to stick the landing – but as of today, a National caucus that makes him leader is booking a seat on a flight into the unknown.

Iran in the crosshairs

Talk about other journeys into the unknown… New Zealand is heading into a Covid summer under a traffic light system that depends on a worrisomely high level of trust that some unvaccinated people won’t try to run the lights, regardless. The country is also gambling that its health system will be able to cope with the fallout. Meanwhile, the world has bigger potential disasters on its mind. In the coming months these could include:

  1. Russia invading the Ukraine.
  2. China forcibly “re-uniting” Taiwan with the mainland
  3. US and Israel attacking Iran to destroy its nuclear programme.

Russia might not stop at Ukraine. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania are all nervous about Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions. Ironically though, the most likely of these dire outcomes – a military attack on Iran – has always been the most easily avoidable. The US is 100% responsible for creating the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2015, Iran signed a deal in which it agreed not to develop a nuclear weapons arsenal in return for trade access to the West. It was a classic trade-off: make trade, not war. Iran resolutely kept its part of the deal – as the IAEA inspectors verified – but the US failed to fulfil its side of the bargain.

In quick succession, US President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal altogether, demanded further concessions from Iran and slapped on harsh sanctions that crippled the Iranian economy, impoverished millions of ordinary Iranians, and – when the pandemic hit – denied Iran access to essential medical supplies. The promised trade benefits for Iran never materialised, thereby discrediting the regime of PM Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani’s conservative critics rejoiced, saying that the liberals had humiliated the nation for nothing in return. On the side, Trump also threatened America’s friends – including New Zealand – with sanctions if they dared to defy Washington and trade with Teheran. Ever mindful of Washington’s wishes, New Zealand obediently scrapped an annual farm trade with Iran that was already worth over $NZ100 million to us, and growing.

Showdown in Vienna

This week in Vienna, Iran will be talking – directly and indirectly – with all the other key signatories to the 2015 pact – France, Germany, Russia, China and at arms-length the United States. Few observers are optimistic that this seventh round of talks will deliver a meaningful outcome. The talks are occurring in the shadow of (a) Israeli threats to attack Iran’s nuclear energy sites, and (b) a US threat to impose further sanctions on Iran. Recently, Iran announced that it has produced about 25 kilograms of uranium enriched to 60% purity. That is still below the 90% level normally used to produce a weapon, but not by a great deal. It would be a shame, Iran appears to be saying, if you pushed us into taking that final step, and/or if Israel went rogue.

True… Iran could be only months away from becoming a nuclear armed state, if it ever did decide to build a nuclear weapon. Some context might be helpful here. Israel, by contrast, is already estimated to have 90 nuclear warheads, plus sufficient enriched fissile material to build roughly a further 100 bombs. North Korea, India, Pakistan, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, the United States and China are the other nuclear armed states. Australia’s nuclear submarine deal – a key element in the recently unveiled AUKUS defence pact – would give Australia amounts of nuclear fissile fuel material enriched to levels well in excess of what Iran currently possesses. Can anyone spot the glaring double standard here?

Trumping Biden

A year ago, there had been flickering hopes that US President Joe Biden would revive the 2015 nuclear deal. But (a) out of fear of being called a wuss by the Republicans and Fox media and (b) in the wake of his Afghanistan fiasco, Biden has toughened up, and has refused to offer Teheran anything that the mullahs could seriously entertain. The impasse remains. Going into the Vienna talks the US has been publicly insisting that Iran must dial back its nuclear programme to where it was before Trump’s treacherous exit and then Washington might consider lifting its illegal, inhumane sanctions. Iran, under the new leadership of the conservative hardliner Ibrahim Raise, has been saying in response that Iran is through with making concessions up front, for no return.

As the Teheran Times reported last week, Iran’s position is that the onus is on the Americans to make the first move, by lifting the circa 55 trade and banking sanctions that Trump unilaterally imposed. As the New York Times recently reported:

The spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Saeed Khatibzadeh, said at a recent news conference that Iran had three conditions for Washington to return to the deal: It must admit to wrongdoing in pulling out of the deal, it must lift all sanctions at once, and it must offer a guarantee that no other administration will exit the deal as Trump did.

There’s not a chance that Biden would accept those terms. Privately, the US has been offering Iran a halfway house deal: a limited sanctions respite, in return for a simultaneous nuclear enrichment freeze. At best though, that proposition would only be a temporary way of buying a bit more time, and so far, that partial offer has been going nowhere. As things stand at the outset of today’s Vienna talks, the side that kept to the original conditions is being expected to make further concessions to the West about how it will conduct its foreign policy, and would also have to agree to curtail its missile programme – oh, and dial back its nuclear programme to 2015 levels – before the US will even consider living up to the original promises it signed up to in 2015.

In essence, Iran is being required once again to trust the US, despite all the recent evidence that Washington cannot be relied on to keep its word. In the meantime, Israel is reportedly poised to escalate its already formidable military aggression :

Over the past 20 months, Israeli intelligence operatives have assassinated Iran’s chief nuclear scientist and triggered major explosions at four Iranian nuclear and missile facilities, hoping to cripple the centrifuges that produce nuclear fuel and delay the day when Tehran’s new government might be able to build a bomb.

The recent history of Israel using insiders to destroy Iran’s scientific infrastructure has made the already paranoid mullahs even more gun-shy about allowing a fresh round of IAEA officials into the country to “monitor” Iran’s activities. Publicly, the US and Israel have disagreed about the wisdom of Israel’s readiness to use military force. So far, the Israeli attacks have been counter-productive. The Iranian facilities that Israel have destroyed have been rebuilt better, and with greater capacity:

American officials have warned their Israeli counterparts that the repeated attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities may be tactically satisfying, but they are ultimately counterproductive, according to several officials familiar with the behind-the-scenes discussions. Israeli officials have said they have no intention of letting up, waving away warnings that they may only be encouraging a sped-up rebuilding of the program — one of many areas in which the United States and Israel disagree on the benefits of using diplomacy rather than force.

Yep, it is pretty hard to make a convincing argument that your adversary needs to disarm as your closest ally keeps on attacking it, and killing its top scientists. If a stalemate ensues in Vienna – as everyone expects – the wheels of war will continue to grind onwards. Reportedly, Israel is already stepping up preparations for a unilateral military attack, the US is talking about imposing added sanctions, and – to that end – has been trying to get the Chinese to stop buying Iran’s oil, one of the few lifelines of foreign exchange propping up the Iranian economy.

In sum, all the elements for a major war in the Middle East are falling into place. The ensuing carnage would be likely to dwarf the recent civil war in Syria. Iran, during its war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, lost an entire generation in that bloody conflict. The looming war is avoidable, even at this late stage. It merely requires all the likely participants to take the political risk of losing a bit of political face, back at home. Thankfully, there are signs emerging from Vienna that some progress might be being made, thanks – it seems – to Iran’s unexpected willingness to discuss compliance issues.

Milo Changes

The metaphysical folk rapper formerly known as Milo is now recording under the name R.A.P, Ferreira but the chatty, wildly diverse lyrical content is still floating over lightly jazzy backgrounds. Here’s an ode to “Laundry” from his new album…

And here from 2013, is one of a much younger Milo’s more out-there musings about Hegel, and other knotty concerns weighing on his big brain: