Iran Watch: A new series which rounds up media responses to the Republic's nuclear arsenal

Mehdi Hasan presents blogposts on the hawkish rhetoric surrounding the Islamic Republic.

Back in November, I wrote the following paragraph at the start of my weekly column in the magazine:

It has become an annual event in international affairs: the "Iran crisis". Belligerent politicians and febrile commentators refer to the "drumbeat of war", the "ticking clock" and how "all options are on the table". My own, oft-repeated favourite is "the window of opportunity" - to thwart Iran's nuclear programme through military means - "is closing".

But, as each week goes by, I can't help but feel as if this year the afore-mentioned "Iran crisis" is different - more urgent, more imminent, more serious. Others I speak to - in the inter-connected worlds of politics, the media, intelligence and security, business and economics, both on and off the record - seem to agree.

I'm worried. In fact, I'm very worried. I can't help it. I keep asking myself and my colleagues: are we sleepwalking into another catastrophic, bloody, illegal and unjustifiable conflict in the Middle East? The Iraq war was the most traumatising, divisive, frustrating and, perhaps, formative political event of my adult life. And the realisation that a growing number of politicians and pundits in the west, and in Israel, are now seriously considering military action against Iran, on spurious "WMD" grounds, is deeply depressing. I feel like we've gone back in time and I have to keep pitching myself everytime I come across a hawkish individual fear-mongering, on air or in print, about the "threat" from a "nuclear" Iran (e.g.have a listen to my brief debate with neocon hawk Douglas Murray on Five Live yesterday morning...)

The HuffPo's Michael Calderone feels the same way:

Military strikes expected! Weapons inspectors called in! A murky al Qaeda connection! And Cheney says time's up for Ira...

Wait. Haven't we seen this movie before?

It's already been a decade since the media hyped bogus WMD claims prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But it sure feels like 2002 for anyone who was around then and is now scanning newspaper headlines or watching TV talking-heads discuss a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities -- an act which could pull the U.S. into another thorny Middle East military conflict.

Or as the former New Republic editor and ex-Iraq-hawk Peter Beinart noted yesterday in a piece for the Daily Beast:

How can it be, less than a decade after the U.S. invaded Iraq, that the Iran debate is breaking down along largely the same lines, and the people who were manifestly, painfully wrong about that war are driving the debate this time as well? Culturally, it's a fascinating question -- and too depressing for words.

The role of the media - print and broadsheet, Anglo and American - in the run-up to the Iraq invasion was particularly egregious and shameful; unforgettable and unforgivable. Take the New York Times, which had to issue a public apology for its "credulous" and "flawed" coverage of the Bush administration's false and exaggerated claims about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" in 2002 and 2003.

Yet, a decade later, few lessons seem to have been learned. Here's the New York Times's public editor, Arthur Brisbane, commenting last month on the paper's ludicrously hawkish and alarmist coverage of the IAEA's latest report on Iran's nuclear programme:

Readers complaining about the Jan. 5 article believe The Times should avoid closing the gap with a shorthand phrase that says the IAEA thinks Iran's program "has a military objective."

I think the readers are correct on this. The Times hasn't corrected the story but it should because this is a case of when a shorthand phrase doesn't do justice to a nuanced set of facts. In this case, the distinction between the two is important because the Iranian program has emerged as a possible casus belli.

(For further details on the US press and Iran claims, check out Just Foreign Policy's Robert Naiman writing over at Huffington Post.)

Like Iraq, Iran isn't a left-right issue. For example, here's noted left-winger Seumas Milne of the Guardian, writing in his column today:

If an attack is launched by Israel or the US, it would not just be an act of criminal aggression, but of wanton destructive stupidity. As Michael Clarke, director of the British defence establishment's Royal United Services Institute, points out, such an attack would be entirely illegal: "There is no basis in international law for preventative, rather than pre-emptive, war."

It would also be guaranteed to trigger a regional conflagration with uncontrollable global consequences. Iran could be expected to retaliate against Israel, the US and its allies, both directly and indirectly, and block the fifth of international oil supplies shipped through the Strait of Hormuz. The trail of death, destruction and economic havoc would be awesome.

But, then again, here is the Conservative MP and former soldier John Baron writing on the Staggers blog:

We need to better understand and engage with Iran, and offer the prospect of implicit recognition of Iran's status as a major power in the region - a status we created ourselves by our misguided invasion of Iraq which fundamentally altered the regional balance of power. There is a precedent for recognising this new status. In the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power. His visit to China in 1972 took everyone by surprise, but it was the right decision - it was a defining moment.

I suggest the US needs to realise that this is one of those defining moments. Israel and Iran are two proud nations, both perhaps uncertain as to the best course of action. The US is the elephant in the room. It needs to put behind it the underlying antagonism of the last 30 years which defines this crisis. It needs to make clear an Israeli attack would be unacceptable, and then better engage with Iran. It is in Israel's long-term interest that this happens.

Meanwhile, top generals and spooks from the United States and Israel are lining up to warn against an air attack on Iran, including Martin Dempsey, James Clapper, Michael Mullen, Paul Pillar, Ephraim Halevy, Meir Dagan, Dan Halutz. My favourite quote comes from retired four-star general and former head of US Central Command, Anthony Zinni:

I tell my friends, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you'll love Iran

But is anyone listening? A frustrated Beinart, in his Daily Beast piece, writes:

Can you find former military and intelligence officials who are more sympathetic to a strike? Sure. But in my lifetime, I've never seen a more lopsided debate among the experts paid to make these judgments. Yet it barely matters. So far, the Iran debate has been a rout, with the Republican presidential candidates loudly declaring their openness to war and President Obama unwilling to even echo the skepticism of his own security chiefs.

And as the New York Times's Scott Shane pointed out yesterday:

Despite a decade of war, most Americans seem to endorse the politicians' martial spirit. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 58 percent of those surveyed said the United States should use military force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Only 30 percent said no.

"I find it puzzling," said Richard K. Betts of Columbia University, who has studied security threats since the cold war. "You'd think there would be an instinctive reason to hold back after two bloody noses in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Indeed. But there doesn't seem to be - and the media, a la Iraq, isn't helping. And so, as I said at the start, I'm worried. Very worried. We all should be.

So what are we going to do about it? I plan to start a new series of blogposts, with the original (!) title of "Iran Watch", in which I intend to try and examine and deconstruct the claims and counter-claims made by politicians and pundits about Iran, its nuclear programme, the IAEA's inspections, US/Israeli plans for military action, alleged al-Qaeda links, etc. I want to try and play a (small) role in holding opinion-formers to account on Iran in 2012 in a way that they weren't on Iraq in 2002 and 2003, a shameful period in which "dodgy dossiers" were embraced uncritically and our political leaders, in the words of the former weapons inspector Hans Blix, "misled themselves and then they misled the public".

Myths must be dispelled and falsehoods rebutted. And I need your help. Please send me, via Twitter, articles, headlines, speeches, quotes, reports, etc, that you come across which make false, exaggerated, fear-mongering or otherwise outrageous or nonsensical claims about the "Iran crisis". Whether wittingly or unwittingly, we can't afford a repeat of Iraq. We just can't.

Further reading:

"The road to hell" - Hans Blix, New Statesman, February 2012

"Now they tell us" - Michael Massing, New York Review of Books, February 2004

@ns_mehdihasan #iranwatch

 

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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.