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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.