Answering John Rentoul - on Iran, Israel and the never-ending nuclear debate

Iran Watch, part 6.

Iran Watch, part 6.

Ok. This is getting BO-RING. The Sindy's John Rentoul says "the world might have decided it has better things to do" than follow our ongoing blog-and-Twitter row over Iran/Israel/nukes - but, bizarrely, he says this at the end of yet another blogpost - "Calling Mehdi Hasan" - in which he yet again dodges the key issues.

This'll be my last post on Rentoul - I promise! - and I'll try and make it as short as possible because I know he doesn't like having to read long articles. (I can only guess that he prefers to conduct debates on geopolitics via 140-character putdowns on Twitter. Then again, his knowledge of Iran is pretty superficial: he claims, for example, that the Iranian president would be in control of nuclear weapons when of course, if such weapons were to be built by the regime, it would be Ayatullah Khamenei with his finger on the trigger and Ahmadinejad wouldn't be allowed anywhere near them!)

Three quick points:

First, Rentoul wants to misquote people and then pretend he didn't and/or pretend it doesn't matter. It was Rentoul who claimed President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had threatened to "wipe Israel off the map", refused to correct himself or the belligerent meaning he ascribed to those comments and who now says that he knew I "would go off into the old debate about the translation of the Iranian president's 2005 words about Israel". This is wonderfully evasive as it leaves the passing reader unaware of the fact that, "old" or not, the debate is over and Rentoul is wrong. Ahmadinejad, for all his flaws, sins and crimes, didn't say that. Rentoul knows he didn't say that. Yet this proud pedant continues to flagrantly misquote the Iranian president in order to beat the drum for war against Iran.

Second, Rentoul again asks "why the warmongering IAEA should allow such a government to develop nuclear weapons". I'm not sure I understand this contorted and rather loaded question - the IAEA isn't a "warmongering" organisation (though its director general does look a little compromised to me) and hasn't said Iran is developing weapons. Has he even bothered to read the IAEA's reports? I'm happy to extend the "Iain Dale challenge" to Rentoul, if he's interested in trying to win the £100 cash prize that's still on offer.

Third, double standards matter. Despite Rentoul's unfortunate smears, my own view is clear and well-documented: I want a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East in accordance with UN resolution 687. I don't want Israel or Iran to have nuclear weapons (and nor does the IAEA!); Rentoul is ok with the former having 'em but not the latter.

That's what this row has been about. The rest is noise.

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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Why the Lib Dems' Richmond by-election triumph will scare Tory MPs

New Conservatives have long feared they could be punished for Brexit. 

Lazarus has risen. The Lib Dems' Richmond by-election triumph confirms their return as an insurgent force in British politics. Tim Farron's party overturned Zac Goldsmith's elephantine 23,015 majority with a vintage swing of 21.7 per cent (their biggest since 1997). 

The victory will be commonly described as a "shock" today. But all the signs, as Stephen noted earlier this week, were there. The Lib Dems won a swing of 19 per cent in the recent Witney by-election and have long been advancing locally. In Richmond, they turned an ostensible referendum on Heathrow (the trigger for Goldsmith's resignation) into one on Brexit. The seat, which voted 69-31 for Remain, revolted against the incumbent's Leave stance. In a competitive field, Goldsmith (who lost with dishonour in London) may have had a worse 2016 than any other politician.

By not fielding a candidate, the Conservatives avoided the humiliation of defeat. But the result is also a rebuke - and a warning - to them. Were last night's swing replicated on a national level, the Tories' majority wold be wiped out. By-elections are a historically poor indicator of general election results but marginal MPs will still endure sleepless nights. If Goldsmith can squander a majority of 23,015, they will ask, what chance for us? Bath, Cheltenham, Kingston and Surbiton, and Twickenham are in the Lib Dems' sights (though its former south west heartland is staunchly eurosceptic).

Even before Theresa May became Prime Minister, new MPs pleaded with her not to go to the country for fear of a Lib Dem revival. Their warnings have been vindicated. An early general election, which May has long inclined against, is now even less likely. 

Since May became PM, much of the political pressure on her has been for a "hard Brexit". But Richmond gives supporters of a "soft" exit (or none at all) a rallying point. For the first time, the principle of blocking Brexit has been endorsed at the ballot box. Marginal Tories risk being caught on the wrong side of their constituents. 

Though the Conservatives have the most to fear from the result, it will also deepen Labour anxieties (it won just 3.7 per cent in Richmond). If Brexit becomes the new dividing line in British politics, the party risks a three-way squeeze between the Lib Dems, Ukip and the Tories. As Labour learned to its cost in Scotland, referendums can have painful afterlives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.