This is what Hans Blix told me about the dangers of Donald Trump’s foreign policy

There are parallels between what happened to Iraq then and what is happening with Iran now – Trump’s threats to dismantle the nuclear agreement, allegations against Iran and a refusal to listen to experts who say that Tehran is abiding by its commitments

Kim Sengupta
Monday 16 October 2017 16:22 BST
The headline in Iranian daily newspaper ‘Arman’ reads ‘Crazy Trump and logical JCPOA’
The headline in Iranian daily newspaper ‘Arman’ reads ‘Crazy Trump and logical JCPOA’ (EPA)

Hans Blix remembers the fateful run-up to the Iraq invasion well, a time of ratcheting tension and desperate diplomacy to try and avert a conflict, and also a time of secrets and lies when America and Britain conjured up the tale of Saddam Hussein’s hoard of weapons of mass destruction in justifying war.

As the United Nations chief weapons inspector for Iraq, Blix was in the eye of that storm. George W Bush and Tony Blair had to maintain that Baghdad possessed a secret arsenal, with the now infamous claim that Armageddon could be unleashed in 45 minutes. To do so they presented bogus “evidence”, published the dodgy dossier and dismissed the findings of the UN search teams on the ground.

Blix can see certain parallels between what happened to Iraq then and what is happening with Iran now. There are Donald Trump’s repeated threats to dismantle the nuclear agreement, a repetition of allegations against Iran and a refusal to listen to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) when it says that Tehran is abiding by its commitments.

“The difference is that George W Bush was being urged towards the Iraq conflict by people in his administration who were neo-cons. They were civilians who were demanding military action. In the case of Trump we have people in the administration who are military but who are the moderates urging restraint. That is very interesting, isn’t it?” Blix reflected.

I met Blix, a former IAEA chief and Swedish foreign minister, in Paris where he was attending a conference of the Luxembourg Forum, a nuclear watchdog. Speaker after speaker from a membership of former senior politicians (Henry Kissinger has just joined as a board member) expressed concern about Trump’s inflammatory behaviour and warned how destroying the Iran agreement would vastly increase the danger of proliferation across the region.

EU condemns Donald Trump's decision to decertify Iran nuclear deal

I was among journalists with the UN inspection teams in Iraq at that time, seeing genuine progress being made in finding out whether or not there was a WMD armoury. But each time I returned to London, or went to Washington, I found preparation for military action was under way. We realised soon, I recalled while speaking to Blix, that the UN mission in Iraq, supposedly the key to resolving the crisis, was really just a sideshow.

“The US wanted a war; they did not want to hear things which may have stopped it. George Bush, if you remember, said ‘the UN don’t count’, so the people carrying out the searches don’t count. It was extraordinary, but that is what we had.” Blix shook his head.

“The difference this time, one would like to think, that the US do not want an actual war, they are not in a position to carry out an invasion and an occupation. But the language that Mr Trump is using is dangerous, just as the language he is using about North Korea is very dangerous, things can get out of control. And we have a situation where Trump is refusing to accept what the UN is saying – that Iran is abiding by the agreement.”

Iranian general says he would 'bury' Donald Trump

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defence Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor HR McMaster have all urged the President not to withdraw the US from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran. The other signatory states – France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China – have all repeatedly stressed that Tehran is sticking to its side of the bargain.

In his long-awaited speech last Friday, Trump did not pull the US out of the JCPOA. He sent the agreement to Congress, declaring that he would pull the plug on it unless tough additional measures against Tehran were brought in.

Those urging Trump to scrap the deal include Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister. He is at odds, however, with most Israeli experts in military intelligence, the Israeli Defence Forces, Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and the Atomic Energy Committee who all say that Iran has not violated a single clause.

Trump accuses Tehran of spreading 'chaos around the globe'

The Saudis, leading a Sunni alliance engaged in bitter sectarian strife against Shia Iran, have vigorously opposed Tehran’s rapprochement with the international community. Trump’s first official foreign visit after getting to the White House was to Riyadh – basically an arms-selling trip for Gulf States – where he castigated Iran for range of alleged transgressions.

There is also domestic pressure to scupper the deal from right-wingers like Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, Fox News and the former UN envoy John Bolton, who was an ardent advocate of the Iraq invasion.

“I think Netanyahu and certain right-wing Jewish lobbyists played a part in getting Trump to his decision. In the US, people like John Bolton have been going on about Iran for a long time. He was the one, if you remember, who said in 2003 that American forces should ‘turn right’ after getting to Baghdad. So there are people there who still want aggressive action on Iran, the consequences of that can be pretty terrible”, said Blix.

“But this is not just a Republicans who are hawks, of course. The Democrats also have a Wilsonian tradition of intervention, a sort of Democratic Salvation Army. John Kerry has been a saint in the way he patiently got the Iran agreement, but he was quite hawkish on Syria at the beginning.

“Obama changed that, he tried to disengage from Afghanistan and he pulled back from military action in Syria after the chemical attack. Trump, of course, wants to undo everything Obama did, let’s hope that doesn’t lead him to do something very unwise about Iran.”

Those of us who covered the recent parliamentary and presidential elections in Iran saw how contentious the nuclear deal had become, with the hardliners accusing the reformist government of Hassan Rouhani of being gullible and weakening the country’s security. The West, they claimed, will inevitably break the agreement. The collapse of the JCPOA, which may happen if the US pulls out, will play into their hands.

“There are things to criticise about Iran, of course, like their repeated use of the death penalty for instance” Blix acknowledged. “But it is a dynamic society and it seems the natural thing to do would be to give the reformists the chance to bring about change, and not to weaken their position. Let’s hope Trump listens to people in his administration, listens to the European countries, listens to the UN.”

On 14 February 2003 Hans Blix presented his report to the UN Security Council on the situation in Iraq. He pointed out that the Iraqi regime was being much more cooperative with the inspections and they should be given a chance to continue. He also systematically refuted some of the claims being made about WMDs by America and Britain. His presentation was so convincing that Washington and London realised there would be no UN mandate for military action.

But the plans for war went ahead anyway. The UN inspectors were forced to abandon their search. At a sombre dinner at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, the mission headquarters, Dimitri Perricos, head of the team, told us: “I am afraid the US and UK don’t want us to stay because they are afraid of what we may not find.”

Invasion and occupation followed. On 19 August a suicide bomber blew up the Canal Hotel, killing 22 people including the UN Special Representative in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello and injuring 100 others. It was the deadly notice that a bloody insurgency has begun. “What happened was terrible, really terrible. So many other awful things followed in Iraq. They could have been avoided. We can only hope now that mistakes of the past will not be repeated in the future” said Hans Blix.

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