Preparing for a nuclear Iran

The option of military action should be taken off the table now

David Clark has a fine piece in today's Guardian rightly arguing that the option of military action against Iran should be taken off the table. Many of those who advocate pre-emptive strikes do so because they assume that a nuclear-armed Iran would immediately attempt to incinerate Israel.

The Daily Telegraph's Con Couglin, for instance, has claimed that in the post-cold war world Iran cannot easily be deterred from unleashing a "nuclear holocaust". But as Clark says, such commentators profoundly underestimate the degree to which Iran is transfixed by the political potency of nuclear weapons - the status and prestige that still accrue to countries that hold these weapons, as opposed to the conventional military force they wield. He writes:

Military command and control is the prerogative of the clerical elite, which more than anything is concerned with preserving its own power structure . . . Dark fantasies about pre-emptive strikes on Tel Aviv or nuclear devices being handed to Hezbollah and Hamas have no basis in serious analysis.

One could add that any nuclear strike against Israel would also wipe out the Palestinians and destroy al-Aqsa Mosque, usually considered the third-holiest site in Islam. The human and political cost of such action is too great for the Iranian regime even to consider an assault on the Israeli state. Finally, the threat of external aggression against Iran continues to provide the primary justification for internal repression. This prolongs the wait for a more moderate government that may peacefully abandon the country's nuclear ambitions.

Oil giants to join in?

Yet Tehran's obstinacy in the face of Barack Obama's appeal to the regime to "unclench its fist" still leaves us with the unpalatable prospect of Iran shortly becoming the world's tenth state with nuclear weapons.

Clark states, rather too casually, that "proliferation is always a risk". The truth is that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons would almost certainly trigger an arms race in the Middle East.

As Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has warned, three dozen countries "with civil nuclear power have the technologies and understanding to develop nuclear weapons in a short period of time".

Algeria, Morocco, Egypt and Saudi Arabia have all curiously declared their interest in nuclear power, despite sitting on some of the largest oil reserves in the world. The only long-term solution to nuclear proliferation remains a new global agreement, as sought by President Obama.

At next year's major conference to review the Non-Proliferation Treaty the five official nuclear weapons states - Russia, the US, the UK, France and China - must outline credible plans to relinquish these national virility symbols.

In the meantime, as Clark soberly argues, the truth is that we must be prepared to tolerate a nuclear Iran. Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1967, though publicly revealed by the heroic Mordechai Vanunu only in 1986, cast a shadow over the Middle East long ago.

We need to become far more realistic if we want to see the direct and transparent negotiations that the west so desperately needs with Iran.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.