Alexis Tsipras’s big fat Greek debt; Aung San Suu Kyi’s party plan; Cattle cuts payback By Hamish McDonald.

Iran nuclear deal in the sights of critics

National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi (centre) meets residents during this month’s door-to-door campaigning in Myanmar.
National League for Democracy chairwoman Aung San Suu Kyi (centre) meets residents during this month’s door-to-door campaigning in Myanmar.
Credit: AFP

With the fast-track negotiating authority he’s gained from congress on the contentious Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal (the core of his “pivot” to Asia), the United States Supreme Court’s dismissal of a case designed to scupper his Obamacare health insurance scheme, reopening of relations with Cuba, and the US economic recovery, Barack Obama is compiling a sizeable legacy.

With just 18 months left before he steps down, the US president will also add the conclusion on Tuesday of the nuclear agreement between Iran and the US, along with China, Russia, Britain, France and Germany.

There will now be concerted efforts to resist the nuclear deal by those who see the Iran of the ayatollahs as unfathomably evil and fanatic, self-sacrificial to the point where the normal calculus of deterrence doesn’t apply.

They will deride the positives of the agreement − that Tehran will remove two-thirds of its uranium enriching centrifuges, reduce stocks of partially enriched uranium to less than what would be needed to make a bomb, block the plutonium route to a bomb, suspend use of advanced centrifuges for 10 years, give International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors access to nuclear facilities, and generally extend the estimated “break-out” time (to dump the agreement and construct a bomb) to a year.

Instead, the uncertainties and concessions will be emphasised. The lifting of economic sanctions will eventually free up $US100 billion to $150 billion in frozen funds, allowing Tehran to divert more assistance to “proxies” in the growing Shia versus Sunni conflict across the Islamic world, as well as anti-Israeli movements. The last-minute bargain to lift sanctions on conventional arms transfers will help build Tehran’s regional power, though the Russians and Chinese didn’t get an immediate lifting of the bans but a five-year time frame for most weapons and eight years for ballistic missiles. The IAEA gets access to any site in Iran, including military bases, but a dispute mechanism allows Tehran to put off inspections for 24 days, which could allow removal of evidence the deal is being violated.

Can it now be derailed? All 16 Republican candidates are against the Iran agreement. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called it a “historic error” that will eventually help Iran become a nuclear power, with better missiles as well. The US congress has 60 days from the signature to review the agreement, but Obama has promised to veto any vote against the lifting of US sanctions and it’s unlikely enough Democrats would cross the floor to build the two-thirds senate majority to override the veto. Conversely, this is a political agreement, not a treaty requiring senate ratification.

Even if America baulks, the other five parties could stick to the deal, and US companies would be cut out of the race to sell infrastructure projects, aircraft, consumer goods and services to a re-opened Iran with oil money to pay for them.

The deal puts Netanyahu in a bind. He’s painted Iran as an existential threat, and has just added a Persian-language Twitter account to spread the message. Yet his effort to block US diplomacy through his controversial speech to congress in March caused great damage to the key US relationship. He can fire up the Republicans but will be strongly advised by wise heads in the Israeli defence forces, the Knesset, Mossad, and other institutions not to push it too hard. As commentator Amir Oren put it in newspaper Haaretz, they will also need to watch against any move, such as assassinating an Iranian scientist or other figure, designed to stir up Iran “in the hope of a chain reaction”. As for the Iranians, we can expect the “Death to America” rhetoric to take some time to subside.

1 . Tsipras’s big fat Greek debt

The latest European Union deal that the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras has astonishingly accepted, though harsher than the one he got Greek voters to reject in the July 5 referendum, seems unlikely to last even though the measures demanded by Brussels were passed by his parliament.

Variously described as putting Greece into a “debtor’s prison”, making it a “vassal state”, and driven by German “vindictiveness”, the deal requires Athens to immediately enact a tightening of value-added tax and reduction of pension benefits, and lists €50 billion worth of state assets for privatisation under supervision of a German agency.

In return it gets a third bailout of up to €86 billion to tide it over the next three years and service the existing €240 billion debt from previous European–International Monetary Fund bailouts. It’s hard not to see the Greek economy spiralling further downwards and the sovereign debt becoming even more unpayable. Better to leave the eurozone it should never have joined in the first place.

2 . Suu Kyi’s party plan

Myanmar’s general election is set for November 8, and Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has confirmed it will run, despite its leader being barred from taking the presidency if it gains a parliamentary majority.

Under the constitution introduced by the former military junta, the top job cannot be taken by anyone married to a foreigner or with children who are foreign citizens. This provision was all too transparently targeted at Suu Kyi, who was married to the late Michael Aris, an Oxford academic, and has two sons who are British nationals. Amid a raft of other constitutional amendments recently passed by a parliament stacked with former regime figures elected in 2010 when the NLD boycotted the system, this one was said to be too difficult to amend in time.

The sitting president, former army general Thein Sein, declared he would not be standing again for health reasons. This seems to leave the pathway clear for former general Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house and head of the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, to run for president in a vote by an electoral college that will be formed around the new parliament.

The fly in the anointing fluid, however, is that if the sweep shown by the NLD in April 2012 byelections is repeated, Suu Kyi’s party will hold the numbers and could vote in someone else to hold the presidency until the constitution can be amended for her. Announcing the NLD’s decision to participate, Suu Kyi said the party had a plan that “would be acceptable to our people” to tackle the bar against her, but declined to reveal it.

3 . Cattle cuts payback

Relations with Indonesia have never been better, insist Tony Abbott and Julie Bishop, but all the signs are that Canberra has been caught flat-footed by Jakarta’s decision to cut its live-cattle import quota in the July-September quarter to the lowest for many years.

Sure cattle imports usually tail off after the Ramadan fasting month, which is ending this weekend, and sure the quota fluctuates according to the level of economic nationalism among Indonesian politicians and officials (currently quite high). But it’s not hard to detect a certain enjoyment at the political pain being inflicted on Abbott after the affronts of his macho stand on turning back the boats.

Coming just after he announced his $6 billion scheme to open up the north to more cattle raising and other developments, which he then touted in Singapore, not Indonesia’s favourite country, the timing couldn’t have been better.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 18, 2015 as "Iran nuclear deal in the sights of critics".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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