Sorry, Melanie, your pants are on fire: Mehdi Hasan on Question Time

The Daily Mail columnist talked nonsense about Iran and the IAEA on last night's Question Time.

On last night's Question Time, well-known Middle East expert and respected nuclear analyst Melanie Phillips proclaimed:

The IAEA and virtually every western government believes that Iran is racing to develop a nuclear weapon. It is behaving entirely as if it is. It is boasting that it is.

Put aside the nonsensical and deluded claim that Iran has "boasted" it is building nukes (eh? Where? When? That would be big news, wouldn't it? We might even have seen it mentioned on the front page of the Mail...had it happened...).

Instead, focus for a moment on her confident claim regarding the beliefs of the "IAEA and virtually every western government". For a start, the IAEA has said no such thing. Here's the crucial bit from the IAEA's "hawkish" November 2011 report:

[T]he Agency continues to verify the non-diversion of declared nuclear material at the nuclear facilities and LOFs declared by Iran under its Safeguards Agreement

Admittedly, the IAEA does go on to point out that

the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and
therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

but that isn't the same as saying the IAEA believes Iran is "racing to develop a nuclear weapon", is it? It isn't even close. (Phillips omitted to mention, and none of her fellow panellists seemed aware of, the fact that the IAEA is no longer neutral on this subject: as WikiLeaks revealed, new IAEA boss Yukiya Amano told the Americans in 2009 that "he was solidly in the U.S. court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program".)

From the New Yorker in November:

A nuanced assessment of the I.A.E.A. report was published by the Arms Control Association (A.C.A.), a nonprofit whose mission is to encourage public support for effective arms control. The A.C.A. noted that the I.A.E.A. did "reinforce what the nonproliferation community has recognized for some times: that Iran engaged in various nuclear weapons development activities until 2003, then stopped many of them, but continued others." (The American intelligence community reached the same conclusion in a still classified 2007 estimate.) The I.A.E.A.'s report "suggests," the A.C.A. paper said, that Iran "is working to shorten the timeframe to build the bomb once and if it makes that decision. But it remains apparent that a nuclear-armed Iran is still not imminent nor is it inevitable." Greg Thielmann, a former State Department and Senate Intelligence Committee analyst who was one of the authors of the A.C.A. assessment, told me, "There is troubling evidence suggesting that studies are still going on, but there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb." He added, "Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report."

Then there is the official, consensus view of the US government's national intelligence community, which concluded in 2007, with "high confidence", that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform uranium into a nuclear weapon had been shut down since 2003, and also said with high confidence that the halt "was directed primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure". This view, as of 2011, had not changed.

How about the Israeli view? They're all hawks over in Tel Aviv, right? Wrong. From Ha'aretz on 18 January:

The intelligence assessment Israeli officials will present later this week to Dempsey indicates that Iran has not yet decided whether to make a nuclear bomb.

The Israeli view is that while Iran continues to improve its nuclear capabilities, it has not yet decided whether to translate these capabilities into a nuclear weapon - or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile. Nor is it clear when Iran might make such a decision.

So what on earth was Phillips talking about? And why did the other panellists, or the presenter, not challenge her hyperbole and sabre-rattling? Judging from last night's Question Time, I fear we are in Iraq/2003 territory once more. God help us all...

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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Northern Ireland is another Brexit circle Theresa May must square

The Prime Minister's promise to avoid border controls could collide with the imperative of limiting EU immigration. 

For much of the EU referendum, Theresa May shrewdly adopted the low profile of a "reluctant Remainer". One of her few memorable interventions was over Northern Ireland. During a visit to the province (which voted Remain by 56-44), the then home secretary said that it was "inconceivable" that new border controls would not be imposed in the event of Brexit. "If we were out of the European Union with tariffs on exporting goods into the EU, there’d have to be something to recognise that between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland," May warned. "And if you pulled out of the EU and came out of free movement, then how could you have a situation where there was an open border with a country that was in the EU and had access to free movement?"

Yet as prime minister, May has visited Northern Ireland today with a diametrically opposed message. She will support the Irish government's stance that there should be no "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic and that passport-free travel should continue. 

There is an awareness among the EU of the disruptive effect that new controls would have on the peace process. "It's a special situation and it has to be found a special place in the negotiations," François Hollande said during a recent meeting with Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny. But how special, like so much else, depends on the deal the UK strikes with the rest of the EU. If Britain imposes limited controls on free movement (such as an "emergency brake") and, at the very least, maintains visa-free travel, it will easier to maintain present arrangements with Northern Ireland. But should May bow to pressure from Conservative MPs and others to fully end free movement, it will be harder to justify an open Irish border.

As in the case of Scotland, the imperative of preserving the UK collides with the imperative of unifying the Tories. "Brexit means Brexit," May has repeatedly stated. But beyond leaving the EU, there is no agreement on what this means. For both Scotland and Northern Ireland, the best Brexit would be a "soft" version that preserves as much of the status quo as possible (through Single Market membership). But Tory MPs and many Leave supporters voted for a harder variety. Reconciling these poles will be the defining task of May's premiership. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.