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


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.


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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'll vote against bombing Isis - but my conscience is far from clear

Chi Onwurah lays out why she'll be voting against British airstrikes in Syria.

I have spent much of the weekend considering how I will vote on the question of whether the UK should extend airstrikes against Daesh/Isis from Iraq to Syria, seeking out and weighing the evidence and the risks.

My constituents have written, emailed, tweeted, facebooked or stopped me in the street to share their thoughts. Most recognised what a difficult and complex decision it is. When I was selected to be the Labour candidate for Newcastle Central I was asked what I thought would be the hardest part of being an MP.

I said it would be this.

I am not a pacifist, I believe our country is worth defending and our values worth fighting for. But the decision to send British Armed Forces into action is, rightly, a heavy responsibility.

For me it comes down to two key questions. The security of British citizens, and the avoidance of civilian casualties. These are separate operational and moral questions but they are linked in that it is civilian casualties which help fuel the Daesh ideology that we cannot respect and value the lives of those who do not believe as we do. There is also the important question of solidarity with the French in the wake of their grievous and devastating loss; I shall come to that later.

I listened very carefully to the Prime Minister as he set out the case for airstrikes on Thursday and I share his view that Daesh represents a real threat to UK citizens. However he did not convince me that UK airstrikes at this time would materially reduce that threat. The Prime Minister was clear that Daesh cannot be defeated from the air. The situation in Syria is complex and factionalised, with many state and non-state actors who may be enemies of our enemy and yet not our friend. The Prime Minister claimed there were 70,000 ground troops in the moderate Free Syrian Army but many experts dispute that number and the evidence does not convince me that they are in a position to lead an effective ground campaign. Bombs alone will not prevent Daesh obtaining money, arms and more recruits or launching attacks on the UK. The Prime Minister did not set out how we would do that, his was not a plan for security and peace in Syria with airstrikes a necessary support to it, but a plan to bomb Syria, with peace and security cited in support of it. That is not good enough for me.

Daesh are using civilian population as human shields. Syrians in exile speak of the impossibility of targeting the terrorists without hitting innocent bystanders. I fear that bombing Raqqa to eliminate Daesh may be like bombing Gaza to eliminate Hamas – hugely costly in terms of the civilian population and ultimately ineffectual.

Yet the evil that Daesh perpetrate demands a response. President Hollande has called on us to join with French forces. I lived in Paris for three years, I spent time in just about every location that was attacked two weeks ago, I have many friends living in Paris now, I believe the French are our friends and allies and we should stand and act in solidarity with them, and all those who have suffered in Mali, Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, Tunisia and around the world.

But there are other ways to act as well as airstrikes. Britain is the only G7 country to meet its international development commitments, we are already one of the biggest humanitarian contributors to stemming the Syrian crisis, we can do more not only in terms of supporting refugees but helping those still in Syria, whether living in fear of Daesh or Assad. We can show the world that our response is to build rather than bomb. The Prime Minister argues that without taking part in the bombing we will not have a place at the table for the reconstruction. I would think our allies would be reluctant to overlook our financial commitment.

We can also do more to cut off Daesh funding, targeting their oil wells, their revenues, their customers and their suppliers. This may not be as immediately satisfying as bombing the terrorists but it is a more effective means of strangling them.

The vast majority of the constituents who contacted me were against airstrikes. I agree with them for the reasons I set out above. I should say that I have had no experience of bullying or attempts at intimidation in reaching this decision, Newcastle Central is too friendly, frank, comradely and Geordie a constituency for that. But some have suggested that I should vote against airstrikes to ensure a “clear conscience” ’. This is not the case. There will be more killings and innocent deaths whether there are UK airstrikes or not, and we will all bear a portion of responsibility for them.

A version of this article was originally sent to Chi Onwurah's constituents, and can be read here