US and Iran “At Cliff’s Edge”

Jerri-Lynn here. Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani presented the EU with an ultimatum of two months to save the Iran nuclear deal. In this Real News Network interview,the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn  says  the deal is likely to continue to deteriorate.

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore.

Iran’s President, Hassan Rouhani, stated on Wednesday that the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, also more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Agreement, can still be temporarily saved if the United States allows Iran to take advantage of a $15 billion credit line from the European Union, as was proposed by France’s President, Emmanuel Macron. In the meantime, Rouhani also said that Iran will engage in a third violation of the JCPOA, which involves restarting nuclear research and development and the production of centrifuges for increased uranium enrichment.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: I announce the third step now. Our atomic energy organization is obliged to immediately start doing whatever technically required in the country in terms of research and development, and to abandon all commitments in terms of research and development under the JCPOA. We will witness development in research and development in the field of centrifuges, various types of new centrifuges, and whatever we need for enrichment, which will be handled by our atomic energy organization. And we will observe promptitude in this regard.

GREG WILPERT: In the last few weeks, Iran has tried to reach out to the US through diplomatic channels. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, even came to the G7 Summit in France last month to try to meet with Trump. He later said, however, that Iran would not negotiate with the US unless sanctions are lifted first. In a related development, Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a surprise visit to London on Thursday to meet with Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. According to news reports of the visit, Netanyahu’s purpose was to convince Johnson to reject France’s proposal for a $15 billion credit line to Iran.

Joining me now to discuss the latest developments with the Iran Nuclear Deal is Patrick Cockburn. He is an award-winning journalist and longtime correspondent for the British newspaper, The Independent. His most recent book is The Age of Jihad. Thanks for joining us again, Patrick.


GREG WILPERT: What do you make of these recent developments, the announcement that Iran will engage in this third step of violating the JCPOA, and the possibility of a $15 billion credit line to ease the US sanctions against Iran? Is there any chance that the Europeans— mainly France, Germany and the UK— could still save the JCPOA nuclear agreement?

PATRICK COCKBURN: I’m a bit doubtful about it. They have done a certain amount, this offer of a $15 billion credit line, to make up for the loss of Iranian oil revenue It was a French idea originally, but they are asking Iran to step right back into the old nuclear deal, but the Iranians are not likely to do that while they’re subject to US sanctions. US sanctions and the sanctioning of European companies or banks that deal with Iran, basically means that Iran is facing an economic siege.

So these are maneuvers. The Iranians want to show they’re being kind of moderate. They want to preserve this deal as they do. At the same time, they don’t want to look as though they’re pushovers, that sanctions are squeezing them to death, and they’ve got no alternative but to give up. This would be to surrender to what Trump calls the policy of maximum pressure. I think we’re a long way from any real agreement on this. It’s still escalating.

GREG WILPERT: Iran also just recently announced that it is releasing seven of the 23 crew members it is holding of a Swedish-owned, but British-registered tanker that Iran had seized last July. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard seized that tanker in retaliation for the British seizing an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar in early July, but the Iranian tanker has now been released. Now, how do you see the situation of these tankers evolving? Could such seizures of oil tankers eventually lead to an escalation and to even war?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, they could. This is sort of a game of chicken. As you said, it started off on the 4th of July when the British rather melodramatically dropped 30 Royal Marine commandos on the deck of this vessel saying, “It was heading for Syria. This had nothing to do with sanctions on Iran, but was a breach of sanctions on Syria imposed by the EU.” This never sounded right because it’s a peculiar moment for Britain to suddenly put such energy into enforcing EU sanctions, when we all know that Britain is trying to leave the EU at the moment. There’s a great political crisis here in Britain about this. This looked as though it was on the initiative of Washington. Then, as was inevitable, the Iranians retaliated against British-flagged vessels in the Gulf. There was an escalation that seems to have died down at the moment.

As I see it, the Iranian policy is to maintain pressure by sort of pinprick attacks. There were some small mines placed on oil tankers of the United Arab Emirates. Then when we had the shooting down of the American drone, a whole series of events to show that they’re not frightened, that they can retaliate, but not bring it up to the level of war. That’s sort of the way the Iranians often react to this sort of thing, with some covert military measures and to create an atmosphere of crisis, but not bring a war about.

Of course, once you start doing this, it could slip over the edge of the cliff at any moment. The Iranians did a sort of mirror image of the British takeover of their tanker when they took over the British tanker crew, which are just being released, as you mentioned. They dropped 30 commandos on the deck. There was a British Naval vessel not so far away, not far enough to stop this, but let’s say that Naval vessel had been closer. Would they have opened fire on a helicopter dropping these 30 Iranian commandos on the boat? That would have brought us – would have been a war, and could have very rapidly escalated. We’re always on, as I said, the edge of the cliff in the Gulf with each side sort of daring the other to go further.

GREG WILPERT: Iran says that the Europeans have two months to save the nuclear agreement, but Iran’s economy and its people are suffering tremendously under the US economic sanctions. The Europeans don’t seem to be able or willing to do all that much to avoid these sanctions, or to help Iran overcome them it seems, despite a barter agreement that they tried to initiate. What happens if the JCPOA completely falls apart? That is, if this two-month deadline that Rouhani had said is missed, basically?

PATRICK COCKBURN: Well, it’s falling apart by inches, but there’s still quite a long way to go on that. I think the one thing that has emerged is that the US, Trump and Iran, don’t want war. At one time, the US was calling on – some of its senior officials were calling for a regime change. How far do they really believe this? When Trump decided not to retaliate for the drone being shot down, that shows that he wants to rely on sanctions on this sort of very intense economic siege of Iran, but I don’t think the Iranians are going to come running. Once they know there isn’t going to be an all-out war, they’ll try to sustain these sanctions, and the situation isn’t quite as desperate as it looks. Obviously, they’re suffering a lot. On the other hand, they’re not isolated. China and Russia give them a measure of support.

The EU, rather pathetically, says it’s trying to maintain the nuclear deal of 2015, but it’s rather underlining the political and military weakness of the EU that they haven’t been able to do much about it. Big companies are too frightened of US sanctions against them if they have any relations with Iran. So the Europeans aren’t coming well out of it. Obviously, their relations with Trump are pretty frosty. They also probably don’t think it’s worth a really big crisis between the EU, the European states, and America on this issue, but they are looking pretty feeble at the moment.

GREG WILPERT: We’re going to leave it there for now, but as always, we’re going to continue to follow this situation. I was talking to Patrick Cockburn, long time Middle East correspondent with The Independent. Thanks again, Patrick, for having joined us today.

PATRICK COCKBURN: Thank you very much.

GREG WILPERT: Thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Probably an important factor here in the gamesmanship between Trump and Iran is Trump’s re-election campaign next year. Consider – Trump probably realizes that if he is no longer President by 2021, then the democrats and a host of others will have the knives out for him and seek to drag him through a series of courts to convict him of something, anything. It sounds so Roman that. Proof of this was the Meuller investigation which went nowhere but which was used to beat him over the head with for nearly three years. Another four more years of Presidency will keep him safe from these attacks.
    If a war breaks out then at a minimum Saudi Arabia’s oil fields and water filtration installations along with their capital is toast! The oil route through the Straits of Hormuz are blocked and the war may spread to other countries as well, including Israel. I would guess that this would result in more economic turmoil than the 2008 crash at a minimum. And there would go Donald’s chances of re-election. I know that some people may be surprised that Trump may put his personal interests ahead of that of the country but there it is. So, irony of irony, Trump may be the one factor stopping the trouble here from breaking out into a full blown war.

    1. Schmoe

      “So, irony of irony, Trump may be the one factor stopping the trouble here from breaking out into a full blown war.” Except that Trump’s exit of the JCPOA is the one factor driving the problems in the Persian Gulf (not including Yemen and Syria’s issues which preceded Trump but he has not made any better).

    2. VietnamVet

      I agree. Donald Trump has beaten back the intelligence community and media for now. That takes extraordinary single mindedness. He creates his own reality with a Sharpie. But he and his companies have been involved in over 4,000 litigations. He must be aware that he has to win 2020 to avoid indictment in NY State. Yet he portrays a Bull in the China shop. There are Black Swan events proliferating across the globe from Iran to Boris Johnson. Any could crash the world economy and prevent his reelection. He knows the last big one skewered his nemesis, John McCain. But the tweets keep coming,

  2. Tom Pfotzer

    There’s one thing that continues to puzzle me about the sanctions.

    My understanding of these sanctions is that they are designed to prevent the Iranians from importing certain goods from Western countries, and prevent export of and payments for Iranian goods to Western countries.

    Why are these sanctions effective?

    Iran has demonstrated that they can manufacture. They have open trading relations with Russian and China, which gives them access to materials and manufactures they might not be able to source within Iran.

    They can trade oil for goods, and that oil can readily be absorbed by China or re-packaged and sold by Russia if it chose to. Both Russia and China are highly motivated to bypass the SWIFT payments system.

    Both Russia and China have a roughly analagous situation re: trade with the West, and they have been coping with it for over a decade in the case of Russia, somewhat less for China.

    Why isn’t Iran re-directing external purchasing toward domestic sources, and using that pressure as a means to build their internal economic capacity?

    What am I missing?

    1. ambrit

      My two cents worth.
      Alas, this is now a sort of, kind of, globalized economic system. Even prior to the ‘Neo-Liberal Dispensation,’ the world had international trade in raw materials and some manufactured goods. As a side effect of this, internal national development of all sorts of materials and merchandise languished. Why build an expensive factory or mine to get something when you could buy it cheaper overseas? Where your idea has merit is in ‘national security’ goods production. The things that make a country ‘safe’ should be sourced, if at all possible, at home, where supply can be protected and controlled.
      The second point I’d like to stress is how that oil is paid for and delivered. If I read aright, most Persian oil is shipped to the end user. Thus, control of the seaways and vessles plying same is crucial. That’s why these somewhat symbolic oil tanker ‘grabs’ are important. This demonstrates to the world at large one’s ability to control the trans-shipment of oil, from anywhere, to anywhere. The seizure of the oil transit ships was a message to the entire oil using world: “We can shut down your economy whenever we want.” As Lambert sometimes quotes from Frank Herbert: “The power to destroy a thing is the absolute control over it.”
      The replacement of the SWIFT system would free the world from American economic thuggery. When oil is finally priced, in significant amounts anyway, in something other than American dollars, then will the world economy begin to regain equitability.

      1. Tom Pfotzer

        Of course if the option of trade is available, it’s in everyone’s interest to trade, under the “caparative advantage” principle which underlies the dogma of free trade.

        However, there isn’t free trade for Iran, China, Russia, N. Korea, etc. So, they have to improvise. Some countries, like China, are re-directing trade inwards. If Google won’t license the Android OS to Huawei, for example, Huawei makes their own smart phone OS.

        So the question becomes “why hasn’t Iran instituted a crash program to build Iran-based companies to enable Iran to substitute Iran-manufactured/sourced products for ones formerly obtained abroad?

        Russia and China have both done this very successfully, and there are many economic as well as “security” reasons to do it.

        With respect to the “selling oil to end-users .vs. to brokers”…the end-user would probably prefer to buy direct from the source, to cut out the middle-man’s fee. I don’t see how that presents an obstacle to buying Iran’s oil.

        Lastly, if it’s a question of whether or not the oil can be delivered, the rest of the world won’t side with the U.S. if we seize cargoes on the high seas. That’s what the fiasco with the Grace 1 demonstrated. Furthermore, the sales contract could simply specify that the goods are to be picked up dockside @ Iran, transferring the transport risk to the buyer (e.g. China, for ex). Nobody is going to hijack a Chinese oil freighter.

        Please rebut / add your 2c.


        1. ambrit

          Another farthings worth of comment.
          For the last point, I see two possibilities. First, the Neocons in Washington may not care what the rest of the world thinks, under the (fallacious) assumption that America IS the world. Second, the ‘disruptions’ of oil sea transport can be carried out by “arms length” third parties, viz. the recent spate of tanker ‘minings’ in the Persian Gulf being ‘sourced’ to dissident elements within the Arab world. So, some “Somali Pirates” would be the obvious choice for ‘hijackings’ of Chinese flagged tankers, or “Yemeni Pirates,” or “Baluch Pirates,” etc. etc.
          In reference to other points you raise, there is a lag time in the implementation of industrial policy. During WW2, America already had heavy industry available for war production. The lag time was determined by the length of time needed for retooling of those extant factories. When there is no extant heavy industry plant available, the lag time becomes much longer. Having worked in commercial construction during my life, I attest that planning, preparing for, and building industrial capacity, takes years. Iran could well be in the middle of an industrial building phase right now. Add to the usual worries attendant to industrial construction the worry of some outside hostile actor coming over and bombing your shiny new factory back to rubble and you have added a new layer of complexity to the endeavour. Air defense for industrial base has not usually been part of an average country’s economic planning regime.
          One reason I can think of as to why Russia and China have embarked on an “internalization” program way in advance of, say, Iran’s is that the two former State Socialist countries have weathered nearly a centuries worth of hostility, both rhetorical and military, emanating from the West. Their latest ‘internalization’ programs could be the result of several generations worth of institutional memory residing within the nomenklaturas of the two states.
          Iran, on the other hand, has had an up and down relationship with the West.
          At one time, a client state of the West, at another, in a fiercely nationalistic confrontation with the West, in both regimes, a trading partner with the West as far as oil goes.
          The promise of present day Iran for the world in general is that it is finally trying to forge an independent self-identity. Someone in power in the West must realize that, if Iran slips the leash of the West, then other countries will follow. Nothing less than Western Hegemony is at stake.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        Or if oil is progressively transcended and deleted from more and more of the world’s energy portfolio.
        That would give those who “don’t need oil anymore” some new post-petro freedom of action.

        1. ambrit

          One area where oil will be needed for the foreseeable future is in the lubrication of moving parts. I have yet to see a true “Buckey Ball” lubricant on the market.

          1. drumlin woodchuckles

            True. But the amount of oil needed for lubrication of moving parts is a tiny fraction of the amount of oil needed for fuel to keep moving the parts.

            Simplest possible example: How many quarts of oil is involved in a typical car total-oil-change? 3 quarts? 4 quarts? ( as a non-driving car non-owner, I don’t even know)
            But lets say you have just changed-replaced the oil. How many miles do you drive before you need to change the oil again? And how much gas ( from oil) did you burn in that time and distance?

  3. jefemt

    Good question. No answers here, but another observation and question:

    While I don’t endorse it, what about the legitimacy of Nation-states to pursue their best interest, and the implied hubris/ arrogance that counters with actions and policy precluding that autonomy? The Great Game ™?

    Cuba blockades. They have done pretty well, despite nearly 70 years of very harsh blockade. Look how much the US has punished the least amongst the Cuban human beings, some for their entire life…


    North Korea and Iran aspire to have the ultimate WMD. Why does the US get to have the say? My measuring stick senses that the US hardly holds the moral high ground.

    Then, the counter-point that we have never tried in the recent history of man–global cooperation and no more war. The image of our earth floating in space, the big blue marble, akin to a Star Trek enterprise ship, with all of the war-ing beyond-memory enemies all on board. Give every deck and wing some nukes. Avail them with the information on how to conserve and create renewable energy, to grow and put food by, to access clean drinking water, modest but efficient shelter, and access to books, education, and the arts. Awareness of ecology, full life cycle of plants, animals, and man-made products. The experiment that we must ever allow. Sharing.

    The whole thing makes my head spin.

  4. synoia

    Iran must import, and to pay fpr imports must export oil.

    The US prevents trade by sanctioning any bank who finances trade with Iran in dolllars.

    1. Oregoncharles

      The big question in my mind is, why does the rest of the world allow that sort of bullying, or more to the point, allow themselves to be vulnerable to it? Somebody’s been careless. We now see both Russia and China taking steps to be more autarkic, and even the EU waking up to the danger. It may be they just haven’t had time to develop new institutions.

    2. drumlin woodchuckles

      The rest-of-the-world could straight-up GIVE Iran the survival-critical things that Iran would otherwise have to import. The rest of the world could do that in return for Iran staying in the agreement till the next American election. This would give everyone time to see if America would elect a pro-deal-ante Democrat to the Presidency.

      ( This would require the rest of the world to actually be willing to give Iran that kind of c”cold-war-support” aid till the American election. It would also require the IranGov to be willing to stay in the agreement until the American election results shake out. It would need a lot of people to be willing to take a lot of slow long-term chances. Would everyone involved be willing to do that in a harmonized way?)

  5. drumlin woodchuckles

    The EU LeaderLords have no bravery and no taste for conflict with the TrumpAdmin. Not only will they not lift a fear-quivering finger to save the accords, they will not even buy and donate to Iran the goods and services Iran would need to survive until the next American election.

    It is too bad that Rouhani ( and his boss the Supreme Leader Khamenei) cannot have a remote long-distance Vulcan mind-meld with the DemParty nominee-wannabes in this country. Because if they could have such a remote long-distance Vulcan mind-meld, here is what they might well decide. Every DemParty nominee-wannabe would PROMise ( and MEAN IT) to take America right back into the JCPOA if elected, and to rescind every re-sanction that the TrumpAdmin imposed. And Rouhani ( at Supreme Leaders’s direction) would agree to keep Iran “in” the JCPOA till the winner of the American Presidential election were announced. Maybe such a remote mind-meld agreement openly and overtly stated might raise the chances of a DemParty victory and lower the chances of an Iran-America war.

  6. everydayjoe

    It is only a matter of time before Iran is pushed back 500 years as a civilisation , like we did to Iraq.
    All in the name of ” exporting democracy”.

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