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A few thoughts on the US decision to axe the Iranian nuclear deal

This piece was published in The Hill Times on May 14, 2018.

I must confess that I hesitated quite a bit before putting pen to paper (fingers to keyboard?) on this topic.  I was sitting in a Maple Leaf lounge at LaGuardia Airport in New York when CNN broadcast its ‘breaking news’ coverage of US President Trump nixing US commitment to the JCOPA (as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iranian nuclear program is known).  This move was about as surprising as snow in Ottawa in February so I am not so sure how ‘breaking’ it was.  Nevertheless, I had decided not to write about it for the following reasons (among others):

a) a tonne of stuff has already been produced and I was not confident I could add much.

b) I am no longer an Iran specialist (I was once: for 20 years I was the senior Iran analyst at both CSE and CSIS so I do know something about that land.  Alas, that knowledge  is at least a decade out of date).

c) I know squat about nuclear programs (squat = very little).

And yet here I am putting my two cents worth in.  There are several aspects to this story which interest me as a former intelligence analyst and keen follower of world events.  These can be divided into three main categories: intelligence, the demonisation of Iran and the use of propaganda to push an agenda. I will discuss each briefly in turn.

A few weeks ago Israeli PM Benyamin Netanyahu announced with great flair that the Mossad (Israel’s intelligence agency) had uncovered a lot of material that showed that ‘Iran lied” (what is it with him and his cheap graphics?  Anyone remember the Wile E Coyote bomb figure?).  Except that most people rejected this ‘intelligence’ as old and not reflective of recent developments.  What I wonder is whether there is good, corroborated new information on Iran’s intentions and actions?  Does someone have sources within the Iranian nuclear program (HUMINT)?  Is the NSA or its allies in possession of good communications data (SIGINT)?  Are spy satellites capturing images which show Iran to be untruthful (IMINT)?  I have no idea but I bet that many spy agencies are doing their utmost to gather intelligence on this issue.

Iran is a nasty player on the domestic and international stages, of that there is no question.  Whether we are talking about the regime’s treatment of its  own people or its support for terrorist groups like Hizballah and Hamas it is clear that Iran has an unwanted role in regional events.  And yet Iran is painted as little different than Satan itself as leaders worry about the creation of a ‘Shia crescent’ beginning in Tehran and extending through Iraq, Syria and into Lebanon (all of which have significant Shia populations).  Is this merited?  Does Iran pose a greater threat than Sunni Islamist extremism carried out by groups such as Al Qaeda and Islamic State, both of which are very alive and very deadly?  Not in my books.

Sometimes the portrayal of Iran extends to the absurd.  A US judge ordered Iran to pay $6 BILLION in damages to the families of 9/11 victims for its role in the attacks.  Really?  And the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis steeped in hateful Wahhabi rhetoric doesn’t matter??  Until someone shows me otherwise, I still see Sunni Islamist terrorism as orders of magnitude more worrisome than the Shia version.

Finally there is the propaganda.  Not only Israel but Saudi Arabia and its cronies have been playing Chicken Little about Iran for years.  The Saudis see themselves in a cosmic battle with Iran over the dominance of the Islamic world (Sunni vs Shia) and have been very active in drawing attention to Iranian dastardliness.  The two are also engaged in a war in Yemen and, as usual, the civilian population is suffering.  The campaign to paint Iran as the world’s greatest threat seems to be working, at least in the White House.

In the end I do not know how significant the US decision to opt out of JCOPA is.  I will leave the analysis to much more qualified people.  Still, I fear that there is a lot happening behind the scenes and I am not so sure it is all true.  JCOPA may not have been perfect but, as Churchill once said, jaw-jaw is better that war-war.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Director of the National Security programme at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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