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Iran, my critics and me: Mehdi Hasan rebuts distortions

A response to the distortions and misrepresentations.

I spent much of the weekend in various Twitterspats with pundits (professional and self-appointed) and a Labour member of Parliament too. The issue? Iran. Yep, a mere mention of the word sends normally sane and rational (dare I use this word anymore?) people, on the left and the right, into spasms of hysteria.

I wrote a column for Friday's Guardian, entitled (in the online version), "If you lived in Iran, wouldn't you want the nuclear bomb?" and pointing out that any secret Iranian ambition to develop nukes would be "rational" given the fact that the self-proclaimed Islamic Republic is "literally, encircled by the United States and its allies". Nowhere did I call for Iran to develop nuclear weapons; nowhere did I apologise for, or sympathise with, Iran's rulers. To claim otherwise is disingenuous if not brazenly dishonest.

Yet Paul Staines, that online master of understatement and well-known Middle East analyst, referred to me as a "modern day Lord Haw Haw". Joe Watts, political editor of the Nottingham Evening Post, seemed to be able to read my mind, accusing me of having "very little" empathy for "the real Iranian people".

Labour blogger Luke Bozier said it would be "good" if I "just buggered off to Tehran". Can you imagine the media reaction if a British Jew wrote a column about Israel which prompted the response of "bugger off to Tel Aviv"? Bozier also claimed, in a later tweet, that by pointing out that Iran's rulers might consider the pursuit of nuclear weapons to be a rational move I was giving such behaviour an "implicit endorsement". Eh? What is he on about?? Does he understand what the word "rational" means or stands for? Never have I seen a better argument in favour of philosophy and logic being taught in UK secondary schools.

Sarah Vine, the Times columnist and wife of the Education Secretary Michael Gove, tweeted:

You're a lovely man and a brilliant writer but given how the Iranian regime treats women I don't want them having a nuke

She and I are in agreement then. I "don't want" Iran to have nukes either. Didn't she read my piece, which called for urgent diplomacy to tackle the Iranian nuclear issue? (On a related note, three of the previous five tweets in Vine's timeline were criticisms of Labour MP Denis Macshane for "selectively misquoting" an article by her husband. "Have you read the whole piece?" she asked Macshane. Oh, the irony!)

Vine continued:

and please don't make points about Israel etc which weaken you

But why? On what grounds do they "weaken" me? And why are they off-limits? How can anyone credibly condemn Iran's nuclear programme, which is open to IAEA inspections, without condemning Israel, which is in violation of UN Security Council resolution 487 - a resolution that "calls upon Israel urgently to place its nuclear facilities under IAEA safeguards" - and which possesses a secret stash of actual, rather than hypothetical, A-bombs? Why should I not make "points about Israel" when, according to the Brookings Institution's 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll, 77 per cent of Arabs regard Israel as the biggest threat to peace in the region and only 10 per cent regard Iran as the biggest threat? (Interestingly, 55 per cent think the region will be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons.)

Ian Austin, Labour MP for Dudley North and former Gordon Brown "boot boy" and bagcarrier, falsely claimed in a tweet that my piece "encourages dev't of nuclear bomb & not word abt internl repression", without citing a single quote from it. He later added:

It was a disgusting apologia for despots & dictators running Iran

Why? Because I used the word "rational". Disgusting! More than 48 hours later, Austin has failed to answer a simple question that I put to him on Twitter: when was the last time, in the Commons or in print, he raised the issue of "internal repression" in, say, Saudi Arabia or Bahrain or Kuwait, or dared describe the Saudi king or the Bahraini monarch as "despots & dictators"? It's easy to piously condemn repression by one of our "enemies"; it requires a bit more boldness and moral consistency to condemn or attack the repressive behaviour of our allies. It's also a bit rich for Austin, a member of the Labour government that armed Colonel Gaddafi with teargas, small arms munition, sniper rifles, etc, etc, to lecture others on "internal repression". How about an apology for arming Libya, Ian?

Norman Geras, a former professor of politics at Manchester University and ardent advocate of the Iraq war, claimed on his blog that I'd written a "general apologia" (there's that awful word again) for Iran's nuclear programme, without citing a single supporting quote for this grotesque misrepresention of my argument. He also railed against my use of the word "empathy". But, as he well knows, empathy isn't the same as sympathy; it isn't a crime or a sin to try and understand the mindset of one's opponent or enemy. To explain is not to justify or agree. And the suggestion that certain arguments, ideas or thought-experiments are off-limits or taboo is outrageous.

Geras also betrays his shocking ignorance of the Middle East and, in particular, Iranian history, when he writes:

On Hasan's account, it's as if the West might have designs against that country independently of the menace the current regime's acquisition of nuclear weapons

Er, it does and always has. Does Norm not know that the United States, with British support, helped overthrow the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran in 1953 in a CIA-orchestrated coup? Has he forgotten how the west backed Saddam Hussein's invasion of Iran in 1980, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iranians and the horrific use of US/French-supplied Iraqi chemical weapons against Iran? Geras might deem these points to be irrelevant to the current debate over Iran's nuclear programme; I can assure him that the Iranians don't.

Outside of the navel-gazing Twittersphere, most well-informed and well-respected Middle East experts are aware of the history, accept that the Iranian regime is a "rational" entity that is driven by hard political and geopolitical calculations, and don't deny that the Iranian public is behind the country's nuclear programme. I don't want to undermine my own column but I must point out that the arguments, and facts, that I laid out in the Guardian on Friday aren't that original - or controversial, for that matter, despite the best attempts of the ill-informed hysterics on Twitter to misrepresent it and smear me in the process.

Exhibit A: In 2004, writing in the New York Times, Israel's most famous - and hawkish - military historian, Martin Van Creveld used language very similar to my own when he observed:

Even if the Iranians are working on a bomb, Israel may not be their real concern. Iran is now surrounded by American forces on all sides -- in the Central Asian republics to the north, Afghanistan to the east, the Gulf to the South and Iraq to the west.

He concluded:

Wherever U.S forces go, nuclear weapons go with them or can be made to follow in short order. . . Had the Iranians not tried to build nuclear weapons, they would be crazy.

Is Van Creveld a modern-day Lord Haw-Haw too?

Exhibit B: Last week, on PBS's Charlie Rose show, Israeli defence minister - and former premier! - Ehud Barak was asked if he would "want a nuclear weapon" were he a member of Iran's government.

Probably, probably

he replied, before adding:

I don't delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear ... not to mention the Russians.

Damn you Barak, you Iranian stooge!

Exhibit C: In yesterday's Sunday Times (£), conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan went further:

Let Iran have a nuke

read the headline to his column. Has Sullivan been told to bugger off to Tehran?

So you can imagine my frustration. For the record, however, and for those of you who either innocently or wilfully misunderstood my column in the Guardian, here are my "views" on Iran and nuclear weapons, spelled out as explicitly and directly and honestly as possible:

1) Iran should not build a nuclear weapon. It would be wrong - politically, morally, financially - for Iran to develop nukes.
2) I have yet to see any evidence that Iran has a nuclear weapons programme or is in the process of starting such a programme.
3) Nevertheless, like Van Creveld, Barak and countless other Middle East analysts, I understand why some in Iran, both members of the government and members of the public, might want to acquire a nuclear weapon to use as a deterrent.
4) However, I can't support any Iranian attempt to build or acquire nukes because they are barbaric, morally abhorrent weapons which should be banned under international law as they fail to discriminate between combatants and non-combatants and are a threat to global peace, order and security.
5) Because of point (4), I believe the British government should not renew Trident and should instead set an example to the other nuclear powers on the Security Council, that have repeatedly promised - and repeatedly failed! - to disarm in recent decades. Meanwhile, new nuclear nations like India and Pakistan should be persuaded (pressured?) to engage in nuclear disarmament.
6) On a non-nuclear note, I believe Iran's human-rights record is poor and should be condemned and castigated. In fact, I highlighted and challenged one particularly grotesque aspect of it on the comment pages of the Guardian only a few weeks ago.

I'm annoyed that I've had to write this "clarifying" blogpost, and address the fact that a tiny minority of (vocal) Tweeters - out of ignorance and/or mischief - misrepresented and misquoted my piece. Thankfully, most people who read my column in the Guardian understood what the point of the piece was, and welcomed the argument I was making. As David Wearing put it, as he tweeted the link to my piece:

If you don't want Iran to go nuclear, don't create the conditions under which that's bound to happen

Hear, hear!

 

 

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.