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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.