LORD Palmerston said countries do not have friends, only interests. In other words, there is no room for misplaced morality or sentimentality in geopolitics. How does the Palmerstonian principle apply to the war in Ukraine and President Biden’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran? Rather neatly, it could be argued.
Nato countries are non-belligerent allies of Ukraine but protect their own interests by continuing to trade with Russia while accusing it of war crimes and demanding the removal of President Putin. Sanctions, supposedly the toughest the world has ever seen, have been imposed. The catch is that they do not apply to Russia’s oil and gas exports on which the EU depends both economically and politically. These flow without impediment despite vague promises to stop buying at some point. In the meantime, they help finance the Russian war effort. Europe’s need for oil and gas is more important to it than curtailing the war as soon as possible.
The sanctions do have an impact. Key players like McDonald’s and Starbucks have left Russia – the poor Muscovites must be feeling the withdrawal symptoms dreadfully – and its central bank cannot but be unaffected by its exclusion from the international banking system.
But scores of unsanctioned Russian banks are trading normally; how else would the West pay for its imports? The rouble exchange rate which crashed when the war began has bounced back to where it was before. These are not signs of a crippled economy.
If EU countries including Germany stopped irreplaceable Russian gas imports – pipelined across Ukraine and thoughtfully not sabotaged by the Kiev government – they would suffer immediate economic consequences. These are clearly more important to them than the fate of Ukraine which is simultaneously being encouraged to fight on.
European leaders have backed Ukraine with moral indignation and weapons to defend itself but there has been an evident trade-off between ethical purity and self-interest which St Augustine – ‘God, make me good but not yet’ – would have understood, never mind Lord Palmerston.
Meanwhile, President Biden denounces Putin as a war criminal on the one hand and on the other has relied on Russia to act as his go-between in the nuclear deal he is desperate to sign with Iran. The negotiations, really a series of surrenders by Washington to Tehran’s demands, are said to have one last sticking point: the mullahs want the US to remove the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from its list of international terrorist organisations.
This Biden has yet to swallow. The IRGC’s job is to keep Iran’s theocratic regime in power but it is also active in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen and has attacked US military bases without attracting retaliation. President Donald Trump authorised the assassination of its commander, General Qassim Soleimani, at Baghdad airport in 2020. His killing remains unavenged by Iran and appears to have become a complicating factor in the completion of the nuclear agreement.
This has come to light since the arrest in the United States of two men of mysterious origin who have been accused of subverting secret service agents with access to the White House. Almost no official information has been released by the authorities other than confirmation of the arrests and the suspension of four agents.
However, court filings and media reports suggested the men, who posed as federal government agents, were part of an Iranian plot to revenge Soleimani’s death by killing officials who served under President Trump officials including his secretary of state Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Iran special envoy Brian Hook. All three have been named as enemies in the Iranian media.
According to CBS news, the two arrested men, who were named as Arian Taherzadeh and Haider Ali, are US citizens but are being investigated for suspected ties with Iranian and Pakistani intelligence. In March, the Washington Examiner reported that at least two unidentified Iranians belonging to the IRGC’s Quds Force had been conspiring to kill Bolton.
Journalist and author Lee Smith, writing at The Tablet website, claimed Robert Malley, who leads the US team in the nuclear talks, failed to persuade the Iranians not to target American officials. Smith quoted Ali Vaez, a former colleague of Malley, as saying: ‘It is politically impossible for the Iranians to close the file on taking revenge for killing Soleimani. That proposal has been rejected by the Iranians. Iran has come up with a counter proposal that the US is now considering.’
This is extraordinary. What might be a counter proposal that would be acceptable to the US is hard to conceive of. Yet there is no guarantee that Biden will not give in again, so badly does he want an agreement.
Smith wrote: ‘In other words, instead of walking away from the deal with a terror state that is actively trying to murder former US officials, the Biden administration has been trying to arrive at a formula that licenses Iranian vengeance against its predecessors in government.’ Even if Smith is pitching it a little strongly, it’s bizarre.
Trump and the officials named all have official protection but the apparent gullibility of the suspended secret agents who became friendly with the two imposters puts the quality of that protection in question. If someone were assassinated, would Biden shrug on the Palmerstonian grounds that it was the cost of doing business with Iran?