Janine Jackson interviewed Murtaza Hussain about attempts to undermine the Iran nuclear deal for the September 15, 2017, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.
Janine Jackson: Americans don’t really need to be enjoined to “never forget” September 11, 2001. But what about February 5, 2003, when Colin Powell presented the UN Security Council with some blurry pictures and mistranslated intercepts he said proved that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that the US should go to war over? Today, media acknowledge that George W. Bush just wanted to invade Iraq, and concocted a scenario that would make it seem justifiable.
Donald Trump hasn’t troubled to veil his hostile intentions toward Iran and his desire to undo the 2015 deal, in which Iran agreed to give up enriched uranium, destroy thousands of centrifuges, and allow for UN inspections, among other things, in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Some say it’s a desire to please Saudi Arabia and Israel. Some say it’s just a desire to destroy whatever Barack Obama did. But whatever the causes, undoing the deal could have major negative consequence, and not just in Iran. Here to talk about the situation is Murtaza Hussain, a journalist for The Intercept. He joins us by phone from here in town. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Murtaza Hussain.
Murtaza Hussain: Thank you for having me.
JJ: The telegraphing began even before Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN, gave her recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute. Donald Trump, who has to recertify Iran’s compliance with the deal every 90 days, about a month ago simply said, “I think they’ll be noncompliant.” Coming from someone else, that might mean, I don’t think they’re actually complying, but from Trump, it sounds more like, I’m going to say they’re noncompliant. What, first of all, do we know about the reality of Iran’s fulfilling its end of the 2015 deal?
MH: The IAEA and European Union and Russia, China, have all indicated that they believe Iran will be compliant with the terms of the original nuclear agreement. And the Trump administration has not really provided any evidence in contravention of that. The American objection to the deal now seems to be framed around issues which never had anything to do with the deal—the general history of distrust and animosity that existed between Iran and the United States—and they’re using this as a means of reframing the deal retroactively about non-nuclear issues as a way of ultimately terminating it.
JJ: We got that feeling from Nikki Haley’s speech, which was really quite something. What were some of the things that she said in that speech that tell us the hand that the state is trying to deal here?
MH: In Nikki Haley’s speech, she identified a long list of American grievances, acts of terrorism over the past two decades which had been sponsored by Iranian military in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. But the thing is, both Iran and the United States have a long history of grievances with each other that stretch back several decades.
Arms control agreements—and we have a long history of these during the Cold War—they are seldom if ever created to address political issues, issues between states extraneous to the strictly defined goal of controlling the proliferation of weapons. So when the nuclear deal was created, it was created very narrowly around the nuclear issue itself, basically because if they made it about all these other issues, it would be impossible to ever reach any agreements.
Now, in the attempt to retroactively reframe the deal, it seems very clear that it’s an attempt to torpedo it after the fact by saying, well, no, actually we have all these other problems with Iran that we want to deal with, and the deal must be restructured to accommodate that. But it’s simply impossible. There’s no way that it’s going to be able to reopen the deal. And the Iranians themselves have indicated that any attempt to do so would be a nonstarter.
JJ: It certainly seems like moving the goalposts to say, we’re going to say they’re noncompliant for things that are not actually in the agreement itself. But nevertheless, the Los Angeles Timescalled Nikki Haley’s speech an “elegant but unconvincing attack” on the deal, which I found kind of surprising, especially given that one of the things she said was:
Judging any international agreement begins and ends with the nature of the government that signed it. Does it respect international law? Can it be trusted to abide by its commitments?
I mean, that just sounds like a howler to me. But there was this idea to say, Iran is just inherently law-breaking.
UN Ambassador Nikki Haley denouncing the Iran nuclear deal at the American Enterprise Institute.
MH: Yeah. It was a very strange speech in some ways. And the idea that the entire problem is making a deal with Iran at all, then the only option, other than that, is to have a war, or to ratchet up tensions to the point where war becomes extremely possible. It seems very clear that they’re trying to sabotage the deal. But because the deal itself was negotiated, not just by the United States, but several other parties around the world, the so-called P5+1 negotiating parties, they’re all loath to reopen this issue. As far as they’re concerned, they’re happy with the deal. It’s opened Iran up to their own businesses, to potentially do business, a very lucrative, untapped market.
And for the Americans to very transparently try to undermine that deal that took a lot of effort to negotiate, it won’t be looked upon kindly by other countries. And especially under this administration, a very bellicose and you could say unprofessional administration, for them to try to paint this as anything other than what it is, which is an attempt to cancel the deal, it’s not going to have a lot of traction.
JJ: This certifying process, this thing about the president certifying compliance every 90 days, that wasn’t in the deal itself, that was something Congress imposed. So I understand that declaring Iran noncompliant kicks things back to Congress. What would that mean?
MH: This 90-day period is something which was imposed by Congress, so they could have very stringent oversight of the deal going forward. Now, if Trump decides to decertify, it will be Congress’s decision what it wants to do next. It could try to reimpose nuclear sanctions, it could impose new non-nuclear sanctions. But the thing is that Congress has been historically hawkish on the Iran nuclear issue, probably even more than the executive, and it seems extremely likely that they’ll try to impose new sanctions. And if they do impose new sanctions, Iran will also respond in some way, which you could very quickly see a dynamic created which just leads to the unraveling of the deal as a whole.
JJ: Finally, elite media generally support the Iran deal, even if they sometimes still refer falsely to “Iran’s nuclear weapons program,” which they’ve never been shown to have. Nima Shirazi noted that the Washington Post, just last month, had to run a correction on that.
But there’s editorial support for this deal, and it seems like reporters see the goalposts being moved, but they’re just sort of narrating it. The New York Times on August 31 led with:
The world’s nuclear inspectors complicated President Trump’s effort to find Iran in violation…[by] declaring that the…inspections found no evidence that the country is breaching the agreement.
I find it a weird way to cover it. They said, the reports from the IAEA that Iran is complying “make it harder to create an argument that Iran is in violation.” I don’t really understand that way of reporting it. But I wonder what, in general, you would like to see from the press, more or less of, when it comes to reporting on Iran and this deal.
They’re willing to sacrifice nonproliferation, the core US national security interest, in the service of their ideological crusade against Iran.
MH: I think I had read something in the New York Times, an editorial a few months back, cautioning these efforts to tank the deal. They’re steeped in diplomatic language, which is the phraseology you identified, sort of an example of passive narration of what’s going on here. I think that as the efforts by the administration to tank the deal intensify, which seems very clear that they will, there should not be any equivocating about what’s going on here, and the risks of what’s happening here, and the fact that this is being done for completely spurious reasons. The United States has an interest in stopping nuclear proliferation. This deal stops proliferation. Even if Iran didn’t have a nuclear program before, it precludes them from choosing to have one in the future, through the stringent monitoring.
So why is this deal being destroyed? It’s being destroyed because of the interests of donors or pressure groups who are ideologically invested in a conflict between Iran and the United States, and they don’t care about nonproliferation. They’re willing to sacrifice nonproliferation, the core US national security interest, in the service of their ideological crusade against Iran, which has been going on for quite some time. And not to say that Iran is blameless in the situation, but at this present juncture, Iranians negotiated a deal in good faith, which they seem to be adhering to, and it’s the United States which is trying to renege on it.
I think that the press should talk about the very real risks of war and the completely irrational nature of what’s happening right now. But they should also talk about why this is happening, what interest is being served by destroying a very critical US diplomatic achievement. And if they do succeed in tanking the nuclear deal, how is America going to be able to do diplomacy in the future? The world may reasonably conclude that the US is no longer capable of doing diplomacy as it has been since the era of the Cold War.