The Iain Dale Iran challenge: Mehdi Hasan will pay him £100 if...

A nuclear throwdown.

Last night, on my way home after doing the late-night paper review on Sky News, I got involved in a minor Twitter spat with Iain Dale over the nature of Iran's nuclear programme. Iain is one of my favourite Tories - intelligent, open-minded, unpredictable, amusing. He's also my publisher - which means, of course, that I'm contractually obliged to say nice things about him.

Iain tweeted:

@ns_mehdihasan on #skypapers "... Iran's nuclear programme, if it exists at all." No, it's clearly a CIA plot [bangs head against wall].

When I pointed out that I had been referring to Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme, not its NPT-approved nuclear energy programme, Iain responded:

@ns_mehdihasan "alleged weapons programme"? Come on. Even the IAEA reckons they're developing such a programme. Not being partisan at all.

So here's my challenge to Iain: if he can find even a single quote from the IAEA's latest report on Iran in which the UN's nuclear watchdog says, without caveat or qualification, that the self-styled Islamic Republic is building a nuclear bomb, developing nuclear weapons, or working on an active nuclear weapons programme, I will pay him the princely sum of £100. This is the "Iain Dale Iran challenge". In fact, it's open to anyone out there in the blogosphere - not just Iain.

But, before you start Googling and ctrl-F-ing, let me just point out that quoting the bits in the report where it says:

The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device

or

The information indicates that prior to the end of 2003 the above activities took place under a structured programme. There are also indications that some activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device continued after 2003, and that some may still be ongoing.

or

The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme.

. . . will not be accepted. Why? Re-read those tentative sentences again - none of them state or conclude with any certainty or confidence that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons programme right now, let alone building nuclear bombs. They tend to relate to stuff that allegedly went on in or around 2003. In fact, in the same report, the IAEA admits that it

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

And as the BBC's James Reynolds pointed out at the time:

The report says that Iran has carried out activities 'relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device'. But. . . the report does not state that Iran is actually building a nuclear weapon.

Here's Greg Thielmann, a former US State Department intelligence analyst who now works for the Arms Control Association (ACA), commenting on the IAEA's November report:

There is troubling evidence suggesting that studies are still going on, but there is nothing that indicates that Iran is really building a bomb. . . Those who want to drum up support for a bombing attack on Iran sort of aggressively misrepresented the report.

Oh, and here's the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, speaking on CBS, in January (that is, two months after the publication of the IAEA's Iran report which, according to Iain Dale, "reckons they're developing such a programme"):

Are [the Iranians] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.

On a side note, I've noticed how people who seem so keen to confront Iran over its nuclear programme tend not to have actually read the IAEA's report, or followed the history of Iran's strained relations with the IAEA. Iain clearly hadn't read it - when I asked him to quote from the report itself, rather than newspaper reports about the report, he responded by citing. . . a newspaper report!

Here's Iain's reasoning:

@ns_mehdihasan How strange. The NYT is the type of lefty liberal paper you normally quote approvingly. Stop being partisan :)

The New York Times is indeed a "lefty liberal paper", by US standards, but it also has an ignominious history of misrepresenting WMD "threats" in the Middle East. In 2004, after the Iraq war, the Times's public editor , Daniel Okrent, issued a now-notorious apology for the paper's failure to challenge the Bush administration's false and exaggerated claims about Iraq's supposed "weapons of mass destruction":

Some of The Times's coverage in the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq was credulous; much of it was inappropriately italicized by lavish front-page display and heavy-breathing headlines; and several fine articles by David Johnston, James Risen and others that provided perspective or challenged information in the faulty stories were played as quietly as a lullaby. . .

. . . The Times's flawed journalism continued in the weeks after the war began, when writers might have broken free from the cloaked government sources who had insinuated themselves and their agendas into the prewar coverage. . .

. . . The failure was not individual, but institutional.

I only wish every journalist and blogger writing or tweeting on Iran right now would first have a read of Okrent's piece to avoid making the same mistakes again.

 

 

 

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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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.