The Iran Nuclear Deal and the Question of “Trust”

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by Derek Davison

Politico reports that the White House effort to lobby Senate Democrats on the Iran deal has already started, and the theme that seems to be common among skeptical Dems is that we can’t trust Iran. Here are a few telling examples.

Delaware’s Chris Coons:

After the 30-minute call, in which Biden walked Coons through his concerns, the senator ticked off a list of technical questions that he wanted the administration to answer thoroughly. Coons said the talk with Biden was helpful, but until he hears more, he’s reserving judgment on the deal.

“Iran has seriously earned our distrust,” Coons said in the Capitol on Tuesday.

Montana’s Jon Tester:

“Verification, verification, verification, verification,” said Tester (D-Mont.). “That’s the big thing. Look, I don’t trust these guys, I want to make sure that whatever we’ve agreed to, we’ve got verification that’s going to happen.”

Could he vote against the deal if those concerns aren’t satisfied?

“Oh sure,” Tester said.

Coons again:

Coons, the Delaware Democrat who occupies Biden’s old Senate seat, said that given Iran’s past record of “supporting terrorism globally,” he enters the review process “with a position of suspicion and distrust of Iran.” He added that he must be convinced that the inspections regime and the way the sanctions relief is structured won’t enable Iran’s long-term ability to build a bomb.

The Irrelevance of Trust

“Trust” ought to be irrelevant at this point in the process. If we all trusted each other to use our nuclear programs for Good and not Evil, or to treat each other kindly and with good intentions at all times, we wouldn’t need to negotiate agreements like this in the first place. The rest of the world could have saved itself over a decade of grief, told Iran, “eh, we trust you guys,” and have been done with the whole issue.

But that didn’t happen, because no country will or should trust any other country when it comes to contentious international situations like this one. These reluctant Democratic senators need to decide if the provisions in the deal are solid enough that, should Iran try to renege on its obligations, it will be caught, punished, and blocked from developing a nuclear weapon. Assuming the worst-case scenario that Iran can’t be trusted, and evaluating the deal on that basis, is the only sensible way to approach their evaluation process.

Opponents of the deal are going to harp on this issue of “trusting” Iran, but that’s because they’re trying to make the deal about Iran and all the negative feelings that the Islamic Republic stirs up among people who have lived through the last 36 years of the US-Iran relationship. They oppose the deal, so naturally they’re looking for any way to kill it. But it’s not about Iran. You could swap any other country in the world for Iran and any judgment about the merits of this deal would still need to be made on the same dispassionate basis: if this country does try to cheat and produce weapons, are they likely to be caught and, if caught, will they be held accountable? Nothing else matters.

Trust is a Two-Way Street

While we’re on the subject, though, if it helps Democratic fence-sitters then they should know that the Iranians don’t trust America either, and for plenty of reasons. I won’t even get into the 1953 coup because its impact (and Mossadegh’s legacy) has been distorted both inside and outside Iran by people in virtually every corner of the US-Iran back-and-forth—but it doesn’t help Iranian perceptions of the US that we participated in a coup d’état against their constitutional government and installed the largely-despised (with good reason) Shah as an absolute monarch instead.

For the real reason Iranians don’t trust America, you only need to go back to Washington’s decision to back Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against Iran in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Afraid that the ideology of the Iranian Revolution might spread throughout the Middle East, America threw its considerable weight behind a dictator so toxic that America itself was at war with him a scant two years after the Iran-Iraq War ended. And America’s actions directly enabled Iraqi successes:

Officially, the United States was neutral. But Washington did not want Iran to win, so U.S. intelligence provided satellite imagery of Iranian positions to Iraq, along with military options. With American and other foreign guidance, the Iraqis constructed a replica of Faw for practice runs.

Iraq also used U.S. intelligence to unleash chemical weapons against the Iranians in Faw. U.N. weapons inspectors documented Iraq’s repeated use of both mustard gas and nerve agents between 1983 and 1988. Washington opted to ignore it. At Faw, thousands of Iranians died. Syringes were littered next to bodies, a U.S. intelligence source told me; Iranian forces had tried to inject themselves with antidotes. The battle lasted only thirty-six hours; it was Iraq’s biggest gain in more than seven years. The war ended four months later, when Iran agreed to a cease-fire.

According to conservative estimates, like the one that Robin Wright uses in the above piece, around 150,000 Iranians died during the war. But other estimates have the count far higher: as many as a million people in the most extreme ones. A million Iranians dead in the 1980s would, as a percentage of total population, be approximately equivalent to about 6.4 million dead Americans today. Whether it was 150,000, a million, or somewhere in between, if you’re thinking that it’s been 30 years and the Iranians should get over all those deaths in so long a war, consider how much the deaths of about 3,000 Americans in one single attack still affect US national consciousness 14 years later.

Many of the Iranian victims were killed by Iraqi chemical weapons, the residual effects of which are still sickening and killing Iranians to this day. Robin Wright continues:

In 2013, I visited a war veteran named Ahmad Zangiabadi at his small Tehran apartment. He was no longer mobile. His lungs were failing. “Life has become a prison,” he told me. He was sleeping upright on the floor, because getting up and down was too much for his lungs and heart. He was kept alive with the help of a noisy machine that pumped medicine and air into his body. Despite two corneal transplants, he had limited vision.

He recalled, between gasps, the 1985 Iraqi air strike on the southern Majnoon Islands. He was nineteen at the time and a volunteer. “I remember the smell, the mix of garlic and fresh vegetables, boiled vegetables,” he said. “The second time, it smelled so good I wanted to breathe deeply.” The pungent odors of garlic, vegetables, and freshly mown grass are telltale signs of mustard gas. Within hours, his skin blistered, his eyes burned until he went blind, and he suffered nausea and vomiting until he passed out. He was in a coma for forty days.

Last November, I received an e-mail from Zangiabadi’s doctor reporting his death. More than seventy thousand registered victims of chemical weapons are now receiving medical care, doctors and specialists told me. In 2013, I visited several patients in a special ward for victims at the former American Hospital in Tehran. One patient told me, “One of my wishes is to be able to take a deep breath again.”

Though the Iranians elected not to develop a chemical weapons program of their own, fear over Saddam’s nuclear program contributed to Tehran’s decision to take the Shah’s nuclear program out of mothballs and at least develop a weapons capability, if not weapons themselves. And Washington shared intelligence with Saddam’s forces that helped them use those weapons to maximum effect.

Bringing Up the Bodies

About a month ago, Iran buried the bodies of roughly 270 of its soldiers who were killed inside Iraq during the war and who were recently disinterred by Baghdad and sent home for reburial. Of those, 175 were bodies of Iranian divers who had been captured during a 1986 operation called Karbala-4. When the bodies were dug up, it was found that their hands were bound and that many, if not most, had been buried alive by the Iraqis. The United States didn’t bury those men alive, but it aided and abetted the regime that did, and for many Iranians that’s enough to make the US complicit in what happened to them.

The case of Iran Air Flight 655 is also very relevant here. As the Iran-Iraq War continued, tensions increased between US naval vessels and Iranian patrol boats stationed in the Persian Gulf. On July 3, 1988, only about six weeks before the war ended, a US guided missile cruiser, the USS Vincennes, engaged in a gun battle with Iranian patrol boats. During the battle, Iran Air Flight 655 took off from Bandar Abbas en route to Dubai, carrying 290 passengers and crew. The Vincennes fired on the aircraft and destroyed it, killing everyone on board. In 1996, the US government expressed “regret” for the incident and paid a $61.8 million settlement to the families of the victims, but never formally apologized. Many in Iran believed that Flight 655 was shot down deliberately, even as part of America’s efforts on Iraq’s behalf. This belief was only reinforced in 1990 when the US Navy awarded medals to both Vincennes’s commanding officer, who gave the order to fire, and the anti-air defense officer who carried out that order. Those medals may not have been awarded because those officers shot down Flight 655, but the fact that those officers were responsible for the deaths of 290 Iranian civilians didn’t prevent them from being awarded, either. The Flight 655 incident is another major reason why Iranians have no trust for the US.

Again, this is irrelevant where the nuclear deal is concerned. Both sides have their terms in writing and there’s no need for anybody to worry about “trusting” anybody else in order for the deal to be successful. But maybe if some Americans can take “Iran” out of the equation, or even acknowledge that the bad blood between our two countries runs in both directions, it will be easier to rationally evaluate the Vienna deal on its own merits.

Photo: Former Middle East envoy Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein

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Derek Davison

Derek Davison is a Washington-based researcher and writer on international affairs and American politics. He has Master's degrees in Middle East Studies from the University of Chicago, where he specialized in Iranian history and policy, and in Public Policy and Management from Carnegie Mellon University, where he studied American foreign policy and Russian/Cold War history. He previously worked in the Persian Gulf for The RAND Corporation.

5 Comments

  1. I find it so odd that one hardly ever hears in the media that it’s Israel that has the nuclear bombs, refused to sign the NPT and refuses to be inspected. This utter hypocrisy is never discussed.

    Who will protect Iran from an Israeli nuclear attack? We all now that the Israeli govt. is quick to war, and disregards civilian lives. Israel is a dangerous country.

  2. They keep calling Iran “a supporter of terrorism” without presenting a shred of evidence and yet Israel is terrorizing Palestinians daily and there’s no mention of that!! Also there’s no mention of the terrorism being introduced to the worild by one Israeli by the name Meanchem Began who brought a hotel down with all its guests in London UK!! One and only one reason for UK to plant and create an illegal state in the ME to get rid of its own and the rest EU’s Zionist terrorists!!

  3. How about the US shooting the Iranin passenger with 298 people on board over the Persian gulf? Would that be considered an act of terrorism?

  4. Most Iranians don’t believe Saddam would have dared pick a fight w/ Iran was it not for external assurances by the west.. He was confident of victory. Later, it was evident the grand plan was for both Arabs and Iranians to pay a hefty price. Some say the resulting Arab/Iran oil war broke the back of Soviet Union as with cheap oil flooding the world, Soviets couldn’t bankroll their block of nations. So, Iran’s Ayatollah comes in from *France* to replace the Shah, shakes up the whole area into a panic, war breaks out to maintain status quo, the devious west plays both sides for a prolonged war, And the Soviet order falls apart. Even Saddam’s attack on Kuwait was well telegraphed and the US only spoke against it AFTER it was done. Saudi’s and Ilk could only beg for US and the west to save the day. Poor Saddam, he fell for it every time. The sad part is that the locals don’t learn any lessons and are willing to pay to keep their seats. Maybe Iran is paying for independence, but the rest are laying on their back, buying arms, and keeping oil revenues in dollars for added western confidence and leverage. Many years ago, Bush Senior announced a “new world order”. I suppose the killing and destruction we’ve been witnessing is to pave the way for this new order. What is also sad, is that most westerners see themselves as the embodiment of peace, love and compassion, while their governments are far from it. You are either with us or against us…

  5. The point of views by the author and comments by many speak loudly as to why US should be distrusted by Iranians, and US should distrust Iran. However, the issue of mistrust has its basis in the miss-guided US foreign policy. In fact many say that such mistrust exist between US and most foreign governments, but is embarrassing to spell out. For example, since US has supported the creation and then survival of the state of Israel, the middle east has been in turmoil. Many people in the middle east see the creation of Al_qaeda and ISIL and the rest of those terror organizations as a reaction by the native middle easterners as well as a result of illegal foreign domination in their every day life. Lets hope some better minds will start guiding the US foreign policy. Otherwise, such may define the demise of the strongest power in the world.

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