What’s in a word? On Aug. 22, Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, who has been negotiating with Iran over the rebooted Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, called the latest response to his proposals from Tehran “reasonable.” Really? Is this perhaps a taster of what we can expect at the UN General Assembly in a few days’ time, when the Iranian foreign minister, the hard-line Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, will doubtless again perform the injured innocent act in front of a global audience?
What made Borrell’s comment even odder was that it came 10 days after the savage attack on Salman Rushdie at the Chautauqua Institution in tranquil upstate New York. The attacker, from a Lebanese Shiite background, reportedly held a forged driving license in the name of one of the most prolific assassins Hezbollah ever produced. And he seems to have been an uncritical admirer of the Islamic Republic and all its works.
The history of the Rushdie affair is well known, of course. Ayatollah Khomeini’s poisonous fatwa against him, issued in 1989, was an attempt by the ailing leader of the massively destructive Iranian revolution to reassert his global relevance after the humiliating ceasefire with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his regime’s failure to export the revolution beyond Iran’s borders.
But Rushdie is not the only casualty of the Iranian leaders’ impulse to procure the murder of people they do not like, including their own citizens. It has been an integral part of the ideology of the regime since the very beginning of the revolution in 1979, when the shah’s nephew was assassinated in Paris, and then 1980, when Khomeini ordered the summary execution of scores of officials and military officers who had served the shah. Other killings followed like clockwork, including hundreds of helpless prisoners executed in batches without trial in 1988, the shah’s last prime minister, Shapour Bakhtiar, again in Paris, in 1991 and the chain of assassinations of opposition intellectuals and artists between 1988 and 1998.
The recent revelations of an Iranian plot to assassinate senior US officials, just like the attempt to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington in 2011 (and perhaps even the most recent threats against his colleague in Beirut), are part of the same pattern. When Iraqi Kurds decided they wanted a referendum on independence in 2017, there were credible reports that senior politicians received death threats direct from Qassem Soleimani: An honor indeed.
At the same time, Iran — either directly or through its friends in Hezbollah, the Houthis and some of the Iraqi Shiite militias — has attacked oil installations and airports in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. For decades, it has sponsored terror attacks in Iraq (where, whatever voters want, a government is only acceptable if it is owned by Tehran), Lebanon (ditto), Kuwait, Bulgaria, Thailand, East Africa, Argentina and elsewhere. It continues to do so.
And yet too many people — including senior Western politicians and officials — still give Iran the benefit of the doubt. Rushdie is a case in point. Because nothing much had happened to him for years, it was tempting to assume the threat had gone away. The apparent deal that the British government struck with the Khatami government in the late 1990s over the implementation of Khomeini’s fatwa seemed to some to herald a greater realism in Tehran.
But Tehran’s actual behavior — subverting and destroying other states, murdering its opponents both outside and inside the country, seizing hostages, interfering with navigation in international waters, building up Shiite Islamist movements around the region, covertly seeking a nuclear weapons capacity, making claims to Islamic leadership, threatening the destruction of Israel, and establishing the conditions that would enable it to put all this into practice — never changed.
In 2003, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a statement that some saw as a fatwa forbidding the production and use of weapons of mass destruction. But the Iranian nuclear program continued at full pace. And Tehran now says publicly that it has the capacity to produce such weapons. Mohammed Khatami may have once said that Iran would not actively seek to implement Khomeini’s fatwa against Rushdie. But the fatwa was never rescinded or superseded. So it retained its power. On both counts, we now see the result.
And this is a warning to us all. The original JCPOA in 2015 was designed not just to constrain Iran’s ability to construct nuclear weapons, but to buy time — 15 years or so — within which, it was hoped, Iran itself would change and become a more normal member of the international community.
Fat chance. Even if we had had a plan for the 15 years or so that the agreement actually bought us, the Iranians simply saw it as a means to relieve intolerable economic pressure while continuing to build capability. In the event, the Obama administration seemed to regard the JCPOA as an end in itself. The mere fact of signature was the achievement it wanted. The rest of the international community followed suit. Donald Trump’s abandonment of the deal was undoubtedly damaging. But more damaging was our complacency.
And this brings its own lessons — as does Chautauqua. First, never underestimate the malevolence of the regime in Tehran. Its tame newspapers greeted the news of Rushdie’s stabbing with horrible glee. There is no sign that anyone who matters ever thought the affair was closed.
Too many people — including senior Western politicians and officials — still give Iran the benefit of the doubt
Sir John Jenkins
The same goes for what we hear about the current negotiations over a revived JCPOA. The Iranians want cash. They want guarantees to enable them to do business internationally. They want the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — the instruments of Khomeinist control within Iran, the spearhead of its aggression outside and, with Hezbollah, a major global criminal enterprise — de-designated by the US as a terrorist organization. And they want any investigation into certain previously undeclared sites and their previous nuclear weapons development activity, without which it is impossible to fully understand their current position or future intentions, ended.
They continue to develop a range of ever-more-accurate missile systems and proliferate them to allies throughout the region. They are reportedly exporting drones to help Russia destroy Ukraine. They continue to support the worst elements of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda (one of whose leaders-in-waiting, Saif Al-Adel, they probably still host — as they did family members of Osama bin Laden — and after Ayman Al-Zawahiri’s death may now have allowed to travel to Afghanistan). This is not the behavior of a country at ease with the world. Quite the reverse.
Of course, I understand that policy is not made in a vacuum and that international affairs are not a sophomore class in ethical idealism 101. Given the current global energy crisis, I can also see that a deal that returns an extra 1 million barrels per day or so of Iranian production to the market — plus maybe 100 million barrels in storage — would be attractive. And I can see why some might think a deal that provided at least some sort of international control of the Iranian nuclear program could be better than nothing; after all, we collectively face major security threats not just in the Middle East but globally, so parking one might help us address the others.
But they are interlinked. And they need to be addressed together. The Reagan administration made its red lines clear not just in Europe but in the Gulf. Tehran — like Moscow — understood what they were. George W. Bush’s administration aggressively went after Iranian funding of political violence, subversion and organized crime in the Middle East, South America, West Africa and elsewhere. That helps explain why Khamenei agreed to proper negotiations on the nuclear file after years of prevarication.
We need to remember how to be tough. And we need to be realists, as both Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been in their cautious bilateral approaches. Talking to Iran — or indeed Damascus — does not imply approval or indeed acceptance. It is a way of exploring the limits of the possible and protecting those parts of the relationship, trade for example, that work. It does not mean wishful thinking about the nature of the regime in Tehran. And it does not preclude prudent self-defense. Iran will remain a major threat to regional security, deal or no deal.
Sources in Washington say this is precisely what they are now doing. The US domestic politics of the deal remain tricky. But this new US resolve may be having an impact, if the disputed reports of Iranian offers of concessions on the IRGC and the past nuclear file are true. And it may be encouraging that, while the Iranian Foreign Ministry has described the latest Iranian response to Borrell’s proposals as “constructive,” the US has pointedly said it is “not constructive.”
But there are still major risks. Borrell’s words reflect a tendency, common at least in Europe, to think that Tehran will come to see sense with enough exposure to political reality. But Khamenei’s reality is not ours. His reasons are not ours. And in practice he has too often taken our words to mean that the West is weak and decadent. We are neither. But we need to show it. Whether a deal is done or not, our watchwords must be “distrust and verify.” We need strategic patience, determination and a detailed plan to confront Iran’s worst behavior, in the Gulf, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan and through its global criminal partnerships.
And let’s not use the word “reasonable.”
• Sir John Jenkins