"Trump violates international treaty!" "Trump tears up pact signed by world powers!"
These were some of the headlines that pretended to report US President Donald Trump's move on the "Iran nuclear deal" last week. Some in the Western media even claimed that the move would complicate the task of curbing North Korea as Pyongyang might conclude that reaching any deal with the world powers, as Iran did, is useless.
But what is it exactly that Trump has done?
Before answering that question let's deal with another question. Is Obama's Iran "deal" a treaty?
The answer is: no.
It is, as Tehran says, "a roadmap" in which Iran promises to take some steps in exchange for "big powers" reciprocating by taking some steps of their own.
Even then, the "roadmap" or "wish-list" as former US Secretary of State John Kerry described it, does not have an authoritative text; it comes in five different versions, three in Persian and two in English, with many differences.
The "wish-list" hasn't been signed by anyone.
Nor has it been submitted, let alone approved, by the legislative organs of any of the countries involved.
The various texts do not envisage any arbitration mechanism to decide whether or not it has been implemented. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was not involved in shaping the deal, is charged with the task of assessing and, if possible, certifying, Iranian compliance. But there is no mechanism for assessing and certifying whether other participants have done what they are supposed to do.
Legally speaking, the so-called deal doesn't exist and thus cannot be "torn up" by anybody.
The trouble with the "deal" starts with its genesis.
Jack Straw, a former British Foreign Secretary and an ardent supporter of Iran, had told me that the idea began at a meeting in his official residence in London with then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. At that time the IAEA had established that Iran had violated the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) and had asked the UN Security Council (UNSC) to take action. The UNSC had passed resolutions that Iran had rejected because the mullahs didn't want to appear to be repeating Saddam Hussein's "mistake" of walking into "UN resolutions trap."
Straw came up with the idea of creating an ad hoc group to work out a deal with Tehran, by-passing the IAEA and the Security Council, thus flattering the mullahs that they were given special treatment because their regime was special.
It seems that Rice was receptive and initiated a "bold move" by inviting then secretary of Iran's High Council of National Security Ali Ardeshir, alias Larijani, to Washington exactly at the time that Straw was about to leave office.
Over 100 US visas were issued for Larijani and his entourage. But Iran's "Supreme Guide" vetoed the visit at the last minute.
When Barack Obama entered the White House, he revived the scheme and after secret talks with Tehran in Oman, arranged by his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he transformed the idea into a process.
Tehran felt that in Obama it had a friend in Washington.
And, Obama really went out of his way to woo and flatter the mullahs.
He created a parallel Security Council, composed of the five "veto" holding powers plus Germany which was and remains Iran's principal trading partner.
The concoction, dubbed P5+1, was never given an official status.
It was not formally and legally appointed by anybody, had no written mission statement, implied no legal commitment for members and was answerable to no one.
Tehran accepted the trick with its usual attitude of sulking pride.
Larijani's successor, Saeed Jalili, boasted that the Islamic Republic's "special status" was recognized by "big powers", implying that such things as NPT or even international law as a whole didn't apply to Iran.
Jalili proved a pain in the neck. He saw talks with the P5+1 as a mechanism for Iran to suggest, if not dictate, the course of events on a global scale.
He was not ready to talk about Iran's nuclear cheating unless the P5+1 also discussed Iran's plans for a range of international problems. In one meeting, Jalili displayed his "package" dealing with "problems that affect humanity", from the environment to the "total withdrawal of the American Great Satan" from the region.
Somewhere along the way, the European Union, encouraged by Britain and Germany, hitch-hiked and secured a side-chair along the P5+1.
The idea was to use the EU foreign policy point-person as a punching bag against Iranians who appeared unwilling to play. Thus, the P5+1 was enlarged into a Group of 31, that is to say 28 EU members plus the US, China and Russia. (At one point Brazil, Turkey and Kazakhstan also seemed to have won side-chairs with the group but were quickly disembarked.)
Once Jalili was out of the picture, as the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, named his Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif as point-man, things began to move fast.
During his long years in the US, part of it as diplomat in New York, Zarif had established contacts with the Democratic Party, including John Kerry who took over from Mrs. Clinton as Secretary of State. Zarif persuaded his bosses not to miss "the golden opportunity" provided by Obama's administration which included many "sympathizers" with Iran.
Then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry talks with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif on May 17, 2016 in Vienna, Austria. (Image source: U.S. State Department)
Thus, in just two years what had proved impossible for 10 years became possible.
A vague text was established, fudging the issue, and declaring victory for both sides. The participants in the game agreed to keep the text away from their respective legislatures so as not to risk scrutiny of the witches' brew they had cooked.
The so-called "deal" was dubbed a non-binding "roadmap", implying that the "roadmap" isn't the same as the journey.
Two years after unveiling, the "roadmap" remains just that.
Neither Iran nor the G31 have delivered on their promises. Iran's path to developing nuclear weapons remains open, although this doesn't mean that Tehran is currently making a bomb. For their part, the G31 have not canceled the sanctions imposed on Iran.
Both sides have lied to one another and to their respective audiences.
Obama has left a dog's dinner of diplomatic deception. Interestingly, Trump hasn't thrown that dog's dinner into the dustbin and promises to rearrange and improve it.
Is that possible?
Amir Taheri, formerly editor of Iran's premier newspaper, Kayhan, before the Iranian revolution of 1979, is a prominent author based on Europe. He is the Chairman of Gatestone Europe.
This article first appeared in Asharq Al Awsat and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author.