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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.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.