Monday, May 06, 2019

My Responses to an Iranian Journalist on Current Iranian Affairs

Responses to an Iranian Journalist on Current Iranian Affairs

William O. Beeman

Q1: On Friday, US President Donald Trump’s administration renewed five of seven sanctions waivers that allow Russia and European nations to conduct civilian nuclear cooperation with Iran but revoked the other two as part of its pressure campaign against Tehran, according to the US State Department. Washington also stopped issuing waivers to buy Iranian crude oil on Thursday. Before the US moves, Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, had warned against their consequences. What is your assessment of the developments and how do you think about Iran’s possible reaction to the US decision?

I believe the U.S. actions were unwarranted and will eventually be dangerous for the world. However, they were not sudden or unanticipated. The waivers were always temporary, and had an expiration date last week that was announced some time ago. There is actually no restriction on Iran exporting petroleum products. The restriction is on the buyers. The United States has a stranglehold on Iranian oil purchases because they are denominated in U.S. dollars, or in transactions that pass through U.S. Banks. Also the United States has threatened sanctions against any nation that purchases Iranian oil. The U.S. action has yet to be tested, however. There is an open question of what might happen if nations violate the U.S. restrictions. Maybe the U.S. would retaliate, Maybe it wouldn't. I will guarantee one thing, and that is that the United States doesn't know HOW it will enforce its threats, which remain just threats for the time being. My feeling is that Iran should go ahead and find customers for its oil that are willing to take a chance that the U.S. will not be able to enforce its restrictions--but I am not in charge. I still think it is a very good bet that the U.S. threats are mostly bluff and bluster, but Iran's customers, such as Italy, Turkey, India, and Japan are nervous about what MIGHT happen, so they are hesitant to defy Washington.

I do want to emphasize one thing. Iran has a very robust internal economy. The United States doesn't seem to understand this. Of course, most of Iran's foreign exchange comes from oil sales, but Iran has enormous natural resources, and its manufacturing capacity is also very strong. The nation is capable of producing enough food for itself and for export. So yes, the loss of income from oil will be very painful, but if the people of Iran are resolute and patriotic, Iran can not only survive, but also forge ahead economically by continuing to support the internal economy. 

Q2: As you know, Zarif was recently in the US. In multiple interviews with US media outlets and a roundtable with reporters in New York last week, he made the case that a group dubbed “the B-Team” was goading the US toward conflict with Iran, not Trump. The B-team is a group of advisers and foreign leaders whose names share the same letter: National Security Adviser John Bolton, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ). What is your take on Zarif’s remarks? How do you assess the message of his trip to the US?

These leaders who are spoiling for conflict with Iran are led by John Bolton, Mike Pompeo and many informal "advisors" in organizations like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and its subsidiary, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). These are sometimes identified as "neo-conservatives." They have been calling for military conflict with Iran for more than 25 years. The America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has also called for conflict with Iran. Their main goal is "regime change." They believe that if economic conditions worsen in Iran, the Iranian people will overthrow the Islamic republic and install leaders that are more acceptable to Washington. However, they have no idea who these new Iranian leaders might be. Sadly, people like John Bolton has been courting the Mujaheddin-e Khalq (MEK) for many years. Not too long ago, he met with an assembly of MEK supporters in Europe and implied that the United States would support a MEK coup. Thes chances of this being successful are of course nearly zero, but that is indicative of the ignorance of people like Bolton. Nevertheless, with such a person in a position of power, the danger to Iran is still very important. 

Q3: Zarif recently said he plans to visit North Korea in the near future. What do you think about possible objectives behind his trip and do you think that it would have links with his recent trip to the US?
Foreign Minister Zarif is going to North Korea in order to rattle Washington. There is no reason he should not go, but I don't believe much can come of such a meeting in practical terms. It will get some press, and will trigger some negative comments from Trump and Pompeo, but at a time when Trump is trying to emphasize that he "loves" Kim Jong Il, having Iran making overtures to North Korea creates bad political optics for Trump. Of course, the implication is that Iran might start its nuclear program again, and that North Korea might help. Actually, that is the only thing that Korea could offer Iran, except perhaps being willing to buy some petroleum products (insignificant market). Thus far I don't see Iran making such a dramatic move, but that is what some people in the press and in Washington will claim.