Ross: A nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable

“The Iran deal made by the previous administration is one of the worst deals I have ever witnessed – and I’ve witnessed some beauties” – President Donald Trump, 5th April 2017.

Although Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan and his approach to international diplomacy is certainly unique, his administration’s analysis of the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPO), known as the Iran Deal, is absolutely right and has shrewdly recognised the malign motives of the Iranian regime.

There has been a howling and gnashing of teeth in parliament at the approach of the Trump administration in withdrawing from the Iran deal.

The Foreign Secretary was dispatched to Washington to hold talks with Vice President Mike Pence, appealing to Trump over his favourite channel Fox News and subsequently making an urgent statement to Parliament following the US decision to withdraw from the agreement.

While sitting in the Chamber of the House of Commons during this statement I could not help but think that Trump had called this right and we were getting it wrong.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not a recent development. The country’s nuclear programme first initiated under Muhammad Pahlavi Shah back in the 1950s, ironically with the support and the assistance of the Eisenhower administration in the US. It was not until 1967 that Iran established the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre equipped with a five-megawatt research reactor and joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

Tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme grew in the 1980s when the regime obtained information on how to enrich uranium from the A Q Khan network, giving it the ability to produce the raw materials for a nuclear weapon. Iran told the IAEA that gas centrifuge testing at the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre.

In 2002 the dissident National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed the existence of two nuclear sites under construction at Natanz and Arak. Iran’s lack of candour with international inspectors over several years has raised doubts about its compliance with its treaty obligations.

In 2007, then President Ahmadinejad declared that “our dear country has joined the nuclear club of nations and can produce fuel on an industrial scale.”

In 2013 the Institute for Science and International Security stated that Iran would be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear bomb by the middle of 2014.

The election of Hassan Rouhani in 2013 was welcomed with many speculating that his moderation and pro-western view would enable the West to do business with Iran. This was far too optimistic as the direction of the Iranian regime has simply not changed and this has not been helped by the West shirking away from the democracy movement in Iran and failing to support the values of freedom and democracy.

Quite simply, the Supreme Leader Khamenei holds the country in an iron grip and his hatred of the West, the US in particular, and his detest of the existence of Israel is clear and he has never wavered from it.

With international concern growing about Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the US and the UK, plus the EU) and Iran participated in intensive talks about the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme.

This concluded with the signing of the Joint Plan of Action on 14th July 2015 which was subsequently endorsed by the UN security council on the 20th July.

The implementation of the deal took place on 16th January 2016 when the IAEA confirmed that Iran had fulfilled most of its undertakings. The P5+1 lifted sanctions on Iran in response and this deal has since been heralded as President Barack Obama’s chief foreign policy achievements.

However, the Obama deal was never as good as it was made out to be by its supporters. So let’s look at the flaws - namely sanctions, verification and enrichment.

Sanctions

Rather than adopt an approach of gradually lifting sanctions, in line with Iran’s adherence to the deal, the P5+1 in their wisdom, and in one unified great demonstration of weakness, caved to Iranian demands by lifting all nuclear-related sanctions with immediate effect; including oil embargos and financial restriction. This very sanctions regime, the only leverage that the P5+1 had over the Iranian Government, was carefully built up over a number of years and it was precisely because of its effective economic effect that Iran was brought kicking and screaming to the negotiating table.

In surrendering to the Iranian regime’s key demand the P5+1 unlocked up to $150 billion of frozen Iranian assets as well as a payment of $1.7 billion. At the time a ridiculous argument was made that the Iranian regime would use this to pay off its debts and boost Iran’s economy. This is laughable. We have only seen the Iranian state benefit from the deal while ordinary Iranian households have seen their incomes fall by 15%. The main beneficiary was Ayatollah Khamenei who controls the secretive Setad conglomerate with estimated assets of around $95 billion.

The deal failed to provide any mechanism to prevent released funds from reaching Iran’s proxies - Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis in Yemen and President Assad in Syria. Trump was right when he stated on 9th May 2018 that “The deal lifted crippling economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for very weak limits on the regime’s nuclear activity – and no limits at all on its other malign behaviour, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world.”

Iran is a destabilising force in the Middle east. It has been a malicious and aggressive actor in Syria where it has exacerbated the civil war. It started a proxy war with Saudi Arabia in Yemen through the Houthis. It openly supports the Hezbollah in Lebanon where the Iranian regime provides financial assistance, weapons, ammunition and military training and it provides the same support to Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups including the Palestine Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

In August 2017 the Hamas leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar stated that Iran was the “largest backer financially and militarily” of Hamas’ armed wing and was quoted as boasting that the Hamas-Iran relationship had become “fantastic”.  Iran could not be more explicit that it is dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel which is the Middle East’s only functioning, open and liberal democracy.

This destabilising and malign behaviour is devastating for the region. From Beirut to Basra and beyond Iran has been a calamitous influence and it is hell bent on regional hegemonic domination and religious war.

Verification

It was Barack Obama who stated that the Iran Deal was “built on verification.” However, the verification mechanism within the deal does not provide for anytime or anywhere inspections to ensure that the Iranians are not operating a military nuclear programme.

Quite simply this was a major failing in the deal as automatic, unrestricted and unfettered access is what is required not a flimsy committee structure whereby access to inspectors is only granted when the IAEA declares a site “suspicious” and Iran has the ability to stonewall requests for up to 24 days.

This enables the Iranian regime to deploy delaying tactics and analysts of the deal have warned that this can enable the Iranians to hide violations of the agreement particularly on the design of components to manufacture nuclear weapons.

Further, the deal is notable for its lack of baseline on Iran’s past nuclear weaponization efforts. The failure to provide this technical detail makes it less effective for the IAEA to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities going forward and to have a robust and effective inspection and verification regime. This was a major surrender by the P5+1 to the Iranians.

Enrichment

As part of the deal Iran was required to reduce its uranium enrichment capacity by two-thirds. This meant that it was limited to installing no more than 5,060 of its 20,000 centrifuges at its Natanz facility for 10 years (the remaining centrifuges to be monitored are far in excess of the number required for a peaceful programme); The regime was required to keep its uranium enrichment levels at 3.67%; its uranium stockpile to be reduced by 96% to 300kg for 15 years (ignoring the fact that the regime already possessed quantities far in excess) and that the Iran would not be required by the international community to dismantle its nuclear programme.

Experts in non-proliferation such as Olli Heinonen warned that the deal’s short termism meant that Iran as a threshold nuclear power was still capable of producing a nuclear weapon within less than a decade. Once the temporary restrictions within the deal are lifted Iran would be permitted to operate an unlimited number of centrifuges and resume its programme of uranium enrichment leaving Iran with near zero breakout time to a nuclear bomb. In fact the head of Iran’s nuclear programme said that it would take him no more than 45 days to overcome the restrictions imposed by the nuclear deal. Heinonen warned that Iran could enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon within months.

The deal does not place any requirement on the Iranian regime to dismantle its Arak heavy water and plutonium plant or its secretive Fordow underground uranium enrichment facility. History has shown us that the Iranians have worked on their nuclear ambitions in secret and as I mentioned at the outset it was a dissident group which unveiled Iran’s Natanz facility to the world. It was therefore another deep flaw within the deal that it sought no guarantees to stop Iran from developing its nuclear facilities in secret.

Ballistic Missile Programme

Lastly, I turn to the lifting of the Iranians ballistic missile programme. The deal in lifting the arms embargo without guaranteeing any change in Iranian behaviour was another significant failing in the deal. Why? Iranian supplied arms and weapons have been used against British forces and our allies in Iraq and Afghanistan through the violent proxies that they bankroll as I outlined earlier. Further, the deal abjectly failed to mention ballistic missiles. Why is this another significant flaw? The most likely vehicle for a nuclear warhead is a ballistic missile.

Since the signing of the deal, the Iranians have tested several ballistic missiles.

In January 2017, Iran tested a medium-range missile that the US declared to be in violation of UNSCR 2231 and in September 2017 Iran showed off this new Khorramshahr missile at a military parade.  We have to ask the question: why would you want to develop the vehicle for a nuclear warhead if you apparently have no intention of developing a nuclear warhead let alone delivering one?

We have been consistently told that the Iran Deal must be protected and preserved as there is no other approach to constrain Iran’s malign behaviour and nuclear ambition. I do not buy that argument. The sanctions imposed by the West were economically effective and their impact brought Iran to the discussion table. However, the deal made so many sacrifices and concessions that it was bad for the West and good for the Iranians which is why they signed it. The deal isn’t working and I was sitting in the chamber when I rightly heard the former Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, state that the flimsy agreement “Far from constraining Iranian behaviour, it has enabled the Iranian regime to use its new financial freedom to interfere in Syria, in Iraq, above all in Yemen and to sponsor Houthi attacks on our friends in Saudi Arabia.” Mr Fallon has been the most senior British politician to support Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal. I’m so disappointed that the UK Government cannot see the glaringly obvious and comprehensive failings in this deal.

The Foreign Secretary was right in his statement to parliament that “Now that the Trump Administration has left the JCPOA, the responsibility falls on them to describe how they in Washington will build a new negotiated solution to our shared concerns.” With impending US sanctions on Iran there is still time for them to come to the table to renegotiate so that these flaws can be properly covered. However, it’s likely that the Iranians will test the US and its allies to see if they truly are “unified” in their understanding and commitment to the Iranian nuclear threat.

Therefore, I hope that the UK, rather than simply trying to convince Trump to save the deal as it is, proactively engages with the US to cover the flaws in the agreement. Like the US, we should not be afraid to bear our teeth.

At the end of the day, there is a duty on our policymakers to make decisions based on how the world really is and not how they hope it to be.

Iran has shown no signs of moderation, it continues to be a vicious and poisonous influence in the Middle East and a threat to our own security. A nuclear armed Iran is unacceptable.