When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose

The title of this post is from the song Like a Rolling Stone by Bob Dylan. I was reminded of it when reading news reports that Iran announced that it has exceeded the amount of low-enrichment uranium that they had agreed to under the deal arrived during the Obama administration between them and the US, Russia, China, UK, France, and Germany. Iran later announced that they were also going to enrich the uranium to higher levels than specified under the agreement.

Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, told reporters on Sunday that Iran would start enriching uranium for its Bushehr power plant to 5 percent, higher than the 3.67 percent agreed to in the deal. Before the 2015 deal was reached, Iran produced uranium enriched to 20 percent before the deal, a fraction of the 90 percent needed for nuclear weapons.

Iran will continue to reduce its commitments to the deal every 60 days unless the other countries that signed on to the landmark 2015 agreement — Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia — provide sanctions relief, according to the BBC.

Iran says that while they were complying with their end of the deal, the other side had not only not done what they promised, such as easing sanctions, the US had even withdrawn from the deal and increased the sanctions, and kept making threats of yet more sanctions and even military attacks. It looks like Iran has simply had enough. They are saying that they have gained nothing by sticking with their end of the deal and are being threatened with even greater losses.

The Trump administration on Sunday vowed to continue “maximum pressure” on Iran after the nation announced it would start enriching uranium beyond limits set under the nuclear 2015 deal, but the U.S. has few options when it comes to curbing Iran from producing a nuclear weapon.

After withdrawing the U.S. from the international nuclear agreement in 2018, President Donald Trump repeatedly said he wanted to negotiate a new deal with Iran, but he has continued to impose harsh sanctions and move troops to the region for possible military options.

Iran’s brazen move on Sunday threatens to put the U.S. and its allies back where they were before the deal — with no comprehensive restrictions on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, says that the blame for this situation can be placed squarely on Donald Trump.

In May 2018, the Trump administration unilaterally withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was designed to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and had been agreed on after 12 years of exhaustive negotiations.

The US began to impose new economic and political sanctions, targeting not just various sectors of the Iranian economy, but the state’s most influential entities and actors. The imposition of these sanctions has virtually killed off the possibility of diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis and will have political consequences for not just Iran and the US, but the whole region. The current situation is extremely fraught, with Iran responding to aggressive actions by increasing its level of uranium enrichment.

Next, in an unprecedentedly aggressive action, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Iran’s ultimate source of authority according to its constitution, namely the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Just as in the US the president has the authority to determine the general trajectory of foreign policy, the supreme leader in Iran is the one who sets the foreign policy of that country. Let’s not forget it was the supreme leader who allowed direct negotiation with the US over the nuclear issue in the first place. By sanctioning Ali Khamenei, Trump has effectively killed off any chance of diplomatic rapprochement so long as he is in office. And it is not only the political leadership of Ali Khamenei that is relevant here; he is also a religious scholar with millions of Shia Muslim followers – not just in Iran, but Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bahrain and elsewhere.

In addition, last week, the treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin said the Trump administration was looking to levy penalties against Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, who trained in the US and is one of the most distinguished career diplomats in Iran’s recent history. Zarif has been compared to the popular prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, who nationalised Iran’s oil industry and was deposed in 1953 in a coup organised by Britain and the US. Sanctioning Zarif is a mistake if the US ever wants to reengage with Iran, because he is in charge of the diplomatic channels that would be necessary to resolve this crisis. As Wendy Sherman, who led the US negotiating team in the talks that led to the 2015 accord, put it: “I can’t think of anything that makes less sense than sanctioning a key person who might actually be helpful if there is ever a dialogue with the US.”

I actually think that Trump would like to avoid a war with Iran, not because he likes peace, but because he vowed to get America out of its current wars. He has utterly failed to do that but may be hoping that his supporters do not notice that broken promise. Starting a new war would be something else altogether. But he has surrounded himself with people who are itching to start a war with Iran and he has taken actions that are setting the stage for war. When you deliberately try to strangle a nation’s entire economy, as Trump has done with the economic sanctions and trying to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero, you have essentially given that nation no choice but to defy you. This is what happens when you not only negotiate in bad faith but push the other party into a corner where they feel that they have nothing more to lose. Of course, a war will cause immense suffering to the Iranian people. But you should never force a person or a nation to choose between a slow death or a quick death because you cannot predict the outcome. Furthermore, a US attack on Iran would create blowback in many different ways.

What has puzzled me is the somewhat passive role of the other five countries to the deal. The UK I can understand. It is, and always will be, the lapdog of the US, doing what the US wants even if it means humiliating themselves. France and Germany occasionally show signs of some independence but invariably end up toeing the US line.

But what about Russia and China? Perhaps Vladimir Putin cynically thinks that Russia might benefit from a war in the Persian Gulf that sends oil prices skyrocketing. But China would be hurt by that. Why isn’t it taking a more active role?

Maybe there are frantic negotiations going on behind the scenes. One can only hope.


  1. says

    Unfortunately, the US has demonstrated again and again that it is not serious about non-proliferation, and now Trump is openly engaging in nuclear blackmail. Every rational dictator right now is exploring how to get nukes, because the US will take you seriously if you have nukes, otherwise you are a target for “regime change.”

    On top of all that, the US has embarked on a new generation of point-use nukes, which will enhance its ability to engage in nuclear blackmail on a global scale; probably only China and Russia will be able to fend off US threats. It’s a horrible situation and both sides of the US duopoly are in favor of it.

    What’s particularly galling to me is the US message that other politicians might be suicidal nihilists who cannot be trusted with nukes. Because, the US is not a bunch of suicidal nihilists who have never used nuclear weapons on cities full of civilians? Bah, it’s flat-out terrorism we’re looking at here, not foreign policy.

    For what it’s worth I do not think Trump is behind this. I think it’s the visible edge of the run-away national security state, who are doing whatever they’ve always wanted to do, now that Trump is in charge. The US is, literally, a puppet dictatorship -- Trump is not making these decisions, that’s why he flipflops so much: he’s not reading what they put on his teleprompter.

    Good thing they didn’t have pinpoint nukes in 1776 or they’d have used them on Trenton airport.

  2. says

    Here’s an idea. The other signatories should meet their obligations, and if the Us imposes sanctions on them, impose sanctions on Trump family businesses.

  3. file thirteen says

    On the one hand, Iran would be crazy to not try to develop nuclear weapons. It’s the only thing the US understands. However Iran is in a very bad situation. The US are laying the groundwork for a pretext to attack them, and unlike North Korea they have no China on their border to prevent that. In their situation you might think that developing nuclear weapons is paramount.

    But the flip side is that if and when they do perform a nuclear weapon test, I worry that the mad dogs in Israel might immediately launch their nuclear arsenal at Iran out of “self defence”. Israel will be condemned by all, but when has world opinion ever stopped them?

  4. jrkrideau says

    They are saying that they have gained nothing by sticking with their end of the deal and are being threatened with even greater losses.

    One cannot trust the USA to abide by a treaty. Everyone knows it. The Russians even have a name for it “Not Agreement Capable” (недоговороспособны). Do not attempt to pronounce this after two glasses of wine at dinner.

    I think you are making an American assumption that the US can just carry out a war on some other country and get away with it.

    Iran is not an isolated country with a toy army the way that Afghanistan or Iraq was. It is a modern state with a very well armed military. Oh, certainly it is no match for the US in the long run but they have a very sophisticated missile defence and about half a million men in arms. Not good from the US point of view.

    As far as I can see, the Iranians can drive the US fleet from the Arabian Gulf in hours or, at most, days. Then all hell is let lose. The Iranians destroy the Saudi and Emiratii oil infrastructure on the west coast of the Gulf and may take out the desalination plants.

    Allies, perhaps Hezbollah or the Iraqi Militias decide that the US is not “nice” and attack. Syrians of various stripes decide that the remnants of the illegal US troops in Syria must go.

    Of course as Marcus points out the US can go Nuclear. That means that anyone can shoot an American anywhere in the world. Probably to cheers and applause.

  5. John Morales says


    I think you are making an American assumption that the US can just carry out a war on some other country and get away with it.

    “An elderly lady was stopped to pull into a parking space when a young man in his new red Mercedes went around her and parked in the space she was waiting for.

    The little old lady was so upset that she went up to the man and said, “I was going to park there!”

    The man was a real smart ass and he said, “That’s what you can do when you’re young and bright.”

    Well, this really upset the lady even more, so she got in her car and backed it up and then she stomped on the gas and plowed right into his Mercedes.

    The young man ran back to his car and asked, “What did you do that for?”

    The little old lady smiled and told him, “That’s what you can do when you’re old and rich!””

    Iran is not an isolated country with a toy army the way that Afghanistan or Iraq was.

    Huh? Iraq-Iran war lasted 8 years, pretty much a stalemate till everyone got sick of it.

  6. jrkrideau says

    @ 5 John Morales
    Huh? Iraq-Iran war lasted 8 years, pretty much a stalemate till everyone got sick of it.

    And that was when Iran was isolated. A country coming out of a revolution, its military in tatters, no allies. Confusion in the population.

    Iran is not like Afghanistan or Iraq. I do not think the US understands this. Certainly idiots like Bolton and Pompeo do not. The military chiefs of staff may.

  7. John Morales says

    Iran is not like Afghanistan or Iraq.

    I concur. But that was not what you initially claimed.

    I do not think the US understands this.

    See, this is the problem with synecdoche.

    (Over 300 million people, bound to be a few smart cookies therein)

    Which gets back to my quoted joke. The USA can afford grievous wars purely for petulance, and get away with it. This is historical fact.

    cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/800-pound_gorilla

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