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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Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.