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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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.