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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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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours - but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.

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