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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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.