Mehdi Hasan: Are we heading for an "accidental" war with Iran?

The Islamic Republic's vow to close the Strait of Hormuz, in response to sanctions, could give an excuse for action.

US warns Iran over threat to block oil route

screams the headline on the BBC website. According to the report:

The US Navy has said it will not tolerate disruption to a vital oil-trade route, following an Iranian threat to close it.

Iran warned it would shut the Strait of Hormuz if the West imposed more sanctions over its nuclear programme.

The BBC report quotes US Fifth Fleet spokeswoman Rebecca Rebarich as saying that the US navy would be ready to act if required:

The US navy is a flexible, multi-capable force committed to regional security and stability, always ready to counter malevolent actions to ensure freedom of navigation.

Reading the BBC headline and the hawkish quote from Rebarich, I couldn't help but think of a recent piece I read on the Huffington Post website, headlined:

The Coming Accidental War with Iran

The author of the piece, Lyric Hughes Hale, argues that

. . . due to the lack of understanding between our government and Iranian leaders who have been isolated from the rest of the world, war will not be a decision, but a mistake.

She quotes from a recent comment piece in the Los Angeles Times by Trita Parsi, head of a Washington think tank focused on Iran and author of the upcoming book, A Single Roll of the Dice: Obama's Diplomacy With Iran, who wrote:

In Iran, political cannibalism within the Iranian elite has reached new heights. While this has not necessarily given birth to a new Iranian adventurism (beyond the harsh rhetoric), it has paralyzed the state and weakened its ability to maneuver in a changing strategic environment. This is particularly the case when it comes to crucial issues such as its relations with the United States.

. . . The U.S. military leadership is rightfully worried about this situation. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael G. Mullen, has repeatedly raised the lack of communication between the United States and Iran as a major concern in the last few weeks.

"We are not talking to Iran so we don't understand each other," Mullen said last month. "If something happens ... it's virtually assured that we won't get it right." The lack of communication has planted seeds for miscalculation, Mullen argued. And miscalculations often lead to dangerous escalations.

Mullen's diagnosis is on target, as evidenced by the escalation in Iranian bluster. Talking to the Iranians is not guaranteed to resolve the fundamental issues that have created this dangerous atmosphere. But it might ensure that in the midst of the barking, there isn't an accidental bite.

So, will the accidental bite be the closing of the Strait of Hormuz? As the report on the BBC website notes:

The Strait of Hormuz links the Gulf - and the oil-producing states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) - to the Indian Ocean. About 40% of the world's tanker-borne oil passes through it.

In recent months, plenty of analysts have warned that an American and/or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would prompt the closing of the Strait of Hormuz - which is only 20 miles wide - and send oil prices through the roof. Few seem to have anticipated the reverse: that is, a pre-emptive closing of the Strait of Hormuz by the Iranians - annoyed by the new set of sanctions imposed on them by the west - which then offers hawks in Tel Aviv, Washington and, let's be under no illusions, London a casus belli for military action against the self-styled Islamic Republic.

But, if one of the arguments offered against war with Iran has always centred on the danger to the global economy of the Iranian regime cutting off not just its own oil exports (which, at around 3.5 million barrels produced per day, amounts to 2.5 percent of the world's oil supply) but the rest of the region's too, via the afore-mentioned blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, why hasn't it had much traction? Why do so many seemingly well-informed western pundits seem so relaxed about the catastrophic economic consequences of a war with Iran?

"I think the market has paid too little attention to the possibility of an attack on Iran. It's still an unlikely event, but more likely than oil traders have been expecting," remarked Bob McNally, head of the consultancy Rapidan Group and a former energy adviser to the White House, in November. McNally added that he believed oil prices could surge as high as $175 a barrel if the Strait of Hormuz is closed by the Iranians.

Meanwhile, according to the most benign of four scenarios presented in a recent paper by Greg Sharenow, a portfolio manager at bond house PIMCO and a former Goldman Sachs oil trader, oil prices would likely spike to at around $140 a barrel if Iran were to be attacked next year.

Noting the possibility of an Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz, Sharenow calls this "the Armageddon scenario" in which "oil prices could soar, significantly constraining global growth. Forecasting prices in the prior scenarios is dangerous enough. So, we won't even begin to forecast a cap or target price in this final Doomsday scenario."

Accidental wars. Armageddon. Doomsday. Bring on 2012, eh?

As we note on the cover of this week's New Year's issue of the New Statesman:

And you thought 2011 was bad. . .

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.

Show Hide image

Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital