Seeking to persuade the US President Donald Trump to drop his demand for improving the "nuke deal" with Iran, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have insisted on one shibboleth: No better deal is possible!
(In political circles of Paris and Berlin the Macron-Merkel tandem is now known as Macromel!)
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel chat in Berlin on May 15, 2017. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)
However, the Franco-German claim, subtly backed by the British and echoed by President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran, suffers from at least one logical defect: We won't know whether or not an improvement is possible unless we give it a try.
Tried for two years, the "deal", concocted out by former President Barack Obama, has proven unworkable.
Iran has been unable, not to say unwilling, to fulfill its part of the bargain on key issues.
These include the shipping out of Iran's stockpiles of enriched uranium; less than half has been sent to Russia for "safe-keeping". As for disposing of stockpiles of plutonium, Iran has been unable to find a client, although intermittent negotiations to that effect are under way with China. Iran has also dragged its feet on inspections. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been granted access to 22 of the 32 "sites of interest". But the two sides have failed to reach an accord on the modalities of a long-term process of inspection. Iran has reduced the number of its centrifuges, needed to enrich uranium, but installed new machines with higher productivity which, according to Behruz Kamalvand, spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, maintains productive capacity "fully intact."
It remains a mystery why Iran needs to enrich any uranium.
Iran has just one nuclear power station, built by Russians, who also provide the uranium needed as fuel for its life-span of 38 years. The uranium that Iran is enriching is of a different code, not suitable for use in the nation's only nuclear power station. Iran also needs a small quantity of uranium for its sole reactor, at Amirabad, which is used for medical and scientific purposes. But Amirabad uses higher grade uranium enriched to 20 per cent which Iran has imported without any trouble since the late 1950s. The uranium that Iran is enriching at just over 5 per cent is of no use in Amirabad.
In other words, Iran's nuclear project, hugely costly in both economic and political terms, makes no sense unless it is aimed at creating a threshold capacity to produce nuclear weapons at some as yet unspecified date.
The beauty of all this, if one might use such a term for an ugly deception, is that the Islamic Republic has been pursuing that goal since 1989 after a three-year interruption of the project launched under the Shah in the late 1950s.
There is of course nothing illegal about enriching uranium or producing nuclear weapons or even using them. The only thing is that you cannot be a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), as Iran has been from the start, and violate it at the same time.
Regardless of Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu's latest live-on-TV "revelations", Iran's overall nuclear project has never been really secret.
Iran - both under the Shah and under the mullahs - has used what one might call "the purloined letter" method spelled out in Edgar Allan Poe's short story of that name. In that story, a letter has been stolen from the salon of a high class lady by a devious politician who intends to use it for blackmail. Extensive searches fail to locate the letter because it has been on a desk in plain public view. Only detective Auguste Dupin knows that the best way to hide something is to put it on public display.
In the case of Iran it must be clear that no sane leader would spend so much money and effort, not to mention suffering huge economic and diplomatic damage, to enrich uranium and stockpile plutonium just for the fun of it. Thus, if the project has absolutely no obvious civilian use, it must be intended for something else. This, of course, does not mean that Iran is making the bomb; the mullahs may well be engaged in all their shenanigans just for fun.
The Europeans are certainly informed enough to know all that. However, it is in their short-term interest to pretend that they don't see the purloined letter.
Since the Obama deal was unveiled, British exports to Iran have risen to $1.1 billion a year, an increase of 168 percent. French exports have topped $1.8 billion, a rise of 85 percent while Germany has done even better with exports of $2.6 billion, a 77 percent rise.
And that is all for starters. Currently Iran is the largest market still kept outside the global system. If re-admitted, it would be worth $300 billion a year for key exporting nations, among them the European trio.
Just as Iran has been cheating in plain sight, the European trio has also reneged on promises in the "deal." They still refuse to give Iran access to banking and capital market services, and have suspended export-guarantees for trade with the Islamic Republic.
In other words the "deal" is propped up as a great diplomatic achievement by those, on Iranian as well as the European side, that have no intention of implementing it.
That the Europeans don't care much about the substance of the issue is indicated by Macron and Merkel insisting that "signatures" be honored. The fact, however, is that no one signed the "deal" which lacks a legal status.
The Obama "deal" is bad for Iran, bad for Europe and bad for the Middle East. It keeps Iran under never-ending sanctions with just enough relief to keep its dying economy half-alive in the short-term interest of European and Chinese exporters. At the same time it keeps the clock ticking towards the "threshold" moment when the mullahs, if their regime survives, decide to go full shebang for "the ultimate weapon."
Trump has two options: The first is to let the charade continue by "suspending" the implementation of the "deal" without formally denouncing it; in other words by adding a new layer of fudge to the thick layer inherited from Obama. The other option is to seek an improved deal, improved both for Iran and for the rest of the world, through a clear legal framework. To be sure, that kind of serious diplomacy won't get Trump a Nobel Peace Prize. But it might, just might, remove the spectre of war from a region that has had its full share of wars.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987.
This article was originally published by Asharq al-Awsat and is reprinted by kind permission of the author.