The reactor building at the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran. Photograph: Getty Images
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Iran Watch: Hats off to Guido, says Mehdi Hasan

"Staines has at least bothered to put together a response".

Hats off to Paul Staines, aka Guido Fawkes. Now there's a sentence I never thought I'd write. He's used a blogpost on an obscure, neocon-wannabe website to try and defend himself over his Osiraq gaffe that I highlighted here. (The website in question, incidentally, seems obsessed with me, once even accusing me of using too many "statistics" in my arguments. Damn those pesky facts and figures!)

The reason I say "hats off", however, is Staines has at least bothered to put together a response - unlike, say, John Rentoul, who hides behind snarky putdowns on Twitter and doesn't do substance. It's 1,300-words, which makes it the longest piece I've ever read by the self-described "pyrotechnician".

The problem is that, despite the length, it's fact-free, evasive and dodges the key issues. Poor Paul put a lot of effort into his "rebuttal" so let's take the effort of going through it para by para....

Poor Mehdi Hasan. His New Statesman blog is billed as a "polemical take on politics, economics and foreign affairs." No-one likes a good polemic more than I do. It's just that to be effective, it helps if you have a consistent approach to what you're talking about.

And so to the debate about Iran's nuclear weapons programme. Hasan can't make up his mind whether his strategy is to deny its existence or to allow it to progress to completion.

Really? My "strategy" is to point to the fact that the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies, as well as Israel's own intelligence chief, is that Iran isn't developing nuclear weapons and hasn't even made a decision as to whether it wants to develop and build such weapons - while at the same time pointing out how a putative Iranian nuclear weapons programme wouldn't justify military action and wouldn't automatically lead to nuclear armageddon. Is that not "consistent"? Perhaps it is for people who struggle with the English language...

More of that in a moment. But first there's some fun to be had. In an article last Tuesday Hasan took me to task for tweeting him about Israel's attack on Iraq's nuclear facility at Osiraq in 1981. The reactor was destroyed and Saddam's nuclear programme was halted in its tracks.

It's an obvious historical reference point for anyone seriously contemplating military action to stop the deranged Islamist theocracy in Tehran getting nuclear weapons. For the equal and opposite reason it's also obvious why apologists for said deranged-Islamist-theocracy feel the need to completely misrepresent its significance.

Hi-larious. I cited three leading experts on nuclear weapons (Richard Betts, Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer and Dan Reiter), who pointed out how Saddam's nuclear programme wasn't "halted in its tracks". They're all "apologists" for the "deranged Islamist theocracy in Tehran"? That's your best shot? How about Charles Duelfer, darling of the neocons and appointed by George W. Bush to hunt for Iraq's (mythical) WMDs? I quoted his report, which concluded that "Israel's bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor spurred Saddam to build up Iraq's military to confront Israel in the early 1980s". Is he an apologist for Iran? How about Bob Woodward? Staines needs to pick up his game. So far, this is childish stuff.

Enter Mehdi Hasan with his call for me to "stick to blogging about bond markets and deficits and stay away from foreign affairs and, in particular, the Middle East." Fair enough, but what's he going to tell Bill Clinton (you know, former president of the United States and all that), speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2005, who said "...everybody talks about what the Israelis did at Osiraq, in 1981, which, I think, in retrospect, was a really good thing. You know, it kept Saddam from developing nuclear power."

Shock, horror! Staines quotes a sitting US president - one who has been described as "the most pro-Israel president" of the 20th century - saying he thinks Israel's attack on Iraq thing.

What would I "tell" Clinton? 1) That he's wrong. 2) That he knows he is wrong because if the Osiraq raid "kept Saddam from developing nuclear power", as Clinton argued in 2005, then why did the UN's weapons inspectors discover a nuclear weapons programme in Iraq, in the wake of the first Gulf War, and why did Clinton himself claim Saddam had "nuclear arms" in 1998? and 3) I would ask him to have a chat with Professor Richard Betts of Columbia University, one of America's leading scholars on nuclear proliferation and a former adviser to the CIA and the State Department. I quoted Betts as saying, in 2006:

Contrary to prevalent mythology, there is no evidence that Israel's destruction of Osirak delayed Iraq's nuclear weapons program. The attack may actually have accelerated it.

Staines uses the testimony from a partisan politician to avoid having to deal with the Betts quote. How convenient - and how unlike the anti-politican "Guido Fawkes" persona he likes to hide behind. Also, while we're on the subject of Bill Clinton, does Staines agree with Clinton's critique of the coalition's austerity measures? If not, why not? Why the selective quoting of Clinton?

The point is uncontestable, as long as you are clear about what is being claimed.

Hasan obviously isn't which is why he devotes much of his article to weirdly diversionary arguments on the questions of whether the strike on Osiraq encouraged Saddam to redouble his efforts, this time taking his nuclear programme underground.

Sorry, the point is quite clear: Staines claimed on Twitter that "Israel bombed Saddam's nuclear reactor and ended his nuclear ambitions". This isn't just contestable, it's wrong. Plain and simple. I'm not sure how pointing how Saddam didn't just continue his nuclear programme, but intensified it, weaponised it and took it outside of French and IAEA controls is "weirdly diversionary". The only one guilty of diversions and evasions here is Staines himself.

But that's irrelevant to the issue at hand which is how one assesses the balance of risk and reward prior to adopting a course of action, and what can reasonably be expected to be achieved right now. You can never know in advance of any given action precisely what the consequences will be. Nor can you know what the world would have looked like had you not taken such action. (That's logic Mehdi; go take a class in it.)

"Logic"? It's been around 13 years since I attended logic classes but I can guarantee that there's no logical reasoning on display in that previous paragraph at all. None. I'm not sure which classes Staines took at the Humberside College of Higer Education but formal logic clearly wasn't one of them.

The Israelis looked at Saddam Hussein - almost as big a Jew-hating fanatic as the warmongers in Tehran - saw he was building a nuclear capability, and rightly decided it was far too risky to allow Iraq to proceed. Any threat of weaponisation arising from Osiraq was eliminated along with the facility. That's my claim, and that's hard to refute.

Well, of course, if you're specific and narrow claim is that "any threat of weaponisation from Osiraq was eliminated along with he facility", then, of course, Staines is correct. But there's some rather brazen and embarrassing goal-post-shifting going on here. Remember: Staines claimed that "Israel bombed Saddam's nuclear reactor and ended his nuclear ambitions". And, as I've shown, and as the experts agree, it didn't. Even Bill Clinton agrees.

On a side note, Staines omits to mention the fact that Israel, during the period he refers to, chose to arm "the warmongers in Tehran". According to the Jaffee Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv Arms, arms sales to Iran were worth around $500 million between 1980 to 1983. Then there's Israel's role in the Iran-Contra affair. Funny how Staines fails to mention any of this. To borrow a later line from his blogpost: "An inconvenient truth perhaps?"

Eight Israeli F-16s destroyed five years of work in less than 90 seconds. On 8 June 1981, Iraq was once again years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Er, I'm sorry to have to break it to Staines but, on 6 June, Iraq was also "years away from obtaining a nuclear weapon". Here's Professor Dan Reiter, a specialist on national security policy, writing in the The Nonproliferation Review in July 2005:

. . . before the Osiraq attack, both the French and the IAEA opposed the weaponization of Iraq's nuclear research program, and had a number of instruments to constrain weaponization, including control over reactor fuel supply and multiple and continuous inspections. After the Osiraq attack, the program became secret, Saddam's personal and material commitment to the program grew, and the non-proliferation tools available to the international community became ineffective.

The facts don't fit Staines's spin on behalf of Israel.

Of course, the magnificently executed attack on Osiraq did not mean Saddam would not have another go at acquiring nuclear weapons. And when he did have another go he was obviously going to do it as covertly as possible.

These are my favourite two sentences of the entire blogpost: buried in the middle of a random para. If the attack didn't prevent Saddam from having "another go at acquiring nuclear weapons", and that too as "covertly as possible", then how did it end his "nuclear ambitions" as Staines claimed in his original gaffe? And how does it serve as a template for military action against Iran? In these two sentences, Staines reinforces the argument that some of us have been making for months: attacking Iran's nuclear facilities 1) won't end their nuclear ambitions but just delay them, and 2) will lead to a covert intensification of Iran's nuclear programme. As former CIA director Michael Hayden has argued, attacking Iran:

would guarantee that which we are trying to prevent -- an Iran that will spare nothing to build a nuclear weapon and that would build it in secret.

I'm glad Staines, finally, agrees.

The best one may be able to hope for in such circumstances is that one delays a dangerous regime's acquisition of nuclear weapons until it is finally overthrown and replaced by something less unpalatable. Via a long and circuitous route at great cost in blood and treasure that is actually what happened in Iraq, and it shows why a policy of regime change is vital in and of itself but also as a complement to any military attack.

Is Staines claiming here that the Israeli attack on Osiraq in 1981 led to the fall of Saddam in 2003? Really? I mean, really?? And if that's the case, let's do the maths. There was a 22-year time gap between Osiraq and the fall of Saddam but an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities would set back Iran's nuclear programme by two or three years, according to former US defence secretary Robert Gates. So what do we do in the intervening twenty years until the mullahs fall, Paul? Keep bombing? Every two years? That's your plan? Fantastic. I bow to your Metternichian skills.

Now, I'm curious about something. I would never accuse Mehdi Hasan of being completely out of his depth, ignorant of basic facts or deliberately distorting a picture so as to produce a convenient outcome. But I do have a couple of questions for him about his article.

Great. Can't wait. Go on...

Why didn't he tell his readers that Israel was not the first country to attack Osiraq? Why didn't he say that none other than the Islamic Republic of Iran attacked Osiraq in September of the year prior to the Israeli operation, damaging the facility but failing to destroy it?

Er, because it's not relevant to our discussion about whether or not Osiraq offers a template for a future military action against Iran.

An inconvenient truth perhaps?

No, an irrelevant truth. More evasion from Staines. Stick to the subject, man!

Surely he would not have been concealing a piece of information that shows that it wasn't just the dreaded Jewish state that regarded Iraq's nuclear programme as a security risk; a devastating revelation that the very regime Hasan is desperate we do not attack today, was the one that set the precedent for using military force to destroy another country's nuclear programme in the first place. Oh, my. It's going to be a treat seeing how Mehdi gets out of this one.

How do I get out of it? By pointing out how 1) Iran was at war with Iraq, which had attacked it in 1980 with the encouragement and support of Staine's heroes, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Israel, on the other hand, wasn't - which is why it was condemned by the members of the UN Security Council, including the United States. 2) Whether or not it was Iran or Israel that attacked Osiraq, my overall point still stands. It intensified Saddam's pursuit of a nuclear bomb. It didn't stop him or, as Betts points out, delay him:

Obliterating the Osirak reactor did not put the brakes on Saddam's nuclear weapons program because the reactor that was destroyed could not have produced a bomb on its own and was not even necessary for producing a bomb. Nine years after Israel's attack on Osirak, Iraq was very close to producing a nuclear weapon.

By the way, Staines curiously glosses over the fact that the Iranian strike on Osiraq in 1980 was encouraged by the . From the relevant Wikipedia page:

At the onset of the war, Yehoshua Saguy, director of the Israeli Military Intelligence Directorate, publicly urged the Iranians to bomb the reactor. . . a senior Israeli official met with a representative of the Khomeini regime in France one month prior to the Israeli attack.

Hmm. How does this fit with Staines's argument that Iran is a "deranged Islamist theocracy" bent on Israel's destruction? Why were Iran and Israel working together in the 1980s then? Guess the Iranians are more rational than Staines gives them credit for, and the Israelis aren't as fearful of Iran as apologists like Staines like to claim. Otherwise, how to explain the first (Iranian) strike on Osiraq, with Israeli support, that Staines so gleefully refers to?

Oh, my. It's going to be a treat seeing how Paul gets out of this one.

But back to the issue of the day.


What do we do about Iran? In effect, Mehdi Hasan's answer is nothing. Which may be fine if you're Mehdi Hasan. But it's not quite so fine if you care about the future of the West and the survival of the State of Israel.

The Iranian regime has repeatedly threatened to destroy Israel.

No, sorry, it hasn't. I have dealt with this hoary old myth here. And here is the latest statement from the Iranian government on the subject.

It has backed up words with deeds in the form of the funding, arming and training of appalling Islamo-fascist terror groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah which are also committed to destroying Israel. It employs anti-Semitic rhetoric unheard of since the days of the Third Reich.

I don't deny that Iran has backed Hamas and Hizbollah - which, incidentally, were formed after Israel illegally invaded and occupied Palestinian and Lebanese land! - or that some Iranian leaders employ "anti-Semitic rhetoric" but how is this relevant to the debate over nukes? Pakistan and North Korea back terrorists and possess nukes - the former with the consent of the United States. And, lest we forget, Iran was backing Hamas and Hizbollah and deploying anti-Semitic rhetoric back in the eighties too, when Israel was selling it arms - why does Staines keep evading this issue? Oh, wait, because it doesn't fit his convenient and simplistic "Iran-is-a-deranged-theocracy-bent-on-destroying Israel" narrative.

Oh, and it's building a nuclear programme which every serious analyst in the world is concerned may lead Iran ultimately to acquire nuclear weapons.

Evidence, please! Staines knows full well that the consensus views of the US and Israeli intelligence agencies is that Iran is not "building a nuclear programme". The IAEA agrees. "Every serious analyst"? How about Leon Panetta, the US Defence Secretary? Here's Panetta speaking in January:

Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.

And here's Lieutenant General Ronald Burgess, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking in February:

[Iran] is unlikely to initiate or intentionally provoke a conflict or launch a preemptive attack.

Serious enough for you, Paul?

That is why the UN security council has implemented tough sanctions. That's why Israel is worried Mehdi, and since Israel is on the front line of the same civilisational battle as we are, that's why we should be worried too.

"Israel" isn't "worried". Netanyaho doesn't represent Israel as a whole. XX

In a previous article, this time for the Guardian last November, Mehdi argued that it would be "rational for Iran... to want its own arsenal of nukes" and in the same article asks us to accept that "bombastic" (his word, honestly) President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's "goal is only to develop a civilian nuclear programme, not atomic bombs". Muddled Mehdi wants us to rely on Ahmadinejad's irrationality for our security.

1) Since that article, both Ehud Barak and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the joints of staff in the United States, have agreed with my assessment that Iran is a rational actor. Poor Paul. 2) Poor Paul, like so many hawks, has a very limited understanding of how the Iranian government works. Ahmadinejad has nothing to do with any decision to stop or start building nuclear weapons; the person who decides whether Iran goes nuclear is the "Supreme Leader", Ayatollah Khamenei, who has repeatedly said he considers nuclear weapons to be unIslamic and sinful. You may not believe him but his views on this issue should at least be mentioned - and Staines is the one who mentioned how Iran is a "theocracy" so why not pay attention to the words of the theocrat-in-chief?

Finally, on the specific question, would a military attack be effective? No-one knows the answer for certain. The Osiraq precedent from 1981 certainly suggests that it could be. But there are no guarantees.

No, I'll give you a guarantee: if we attack Iran, it will be a disaster - both for the west's security and Israel's. We won't be able to prevent Iran building nukes unless we invade and occupy the country, burn down all the labs and kill all the scientists. Is that what Staines is arguing? If not, he should just keep quiet and stop posturing and invoking fraudulent historical analogies.

All we can do - those, that is, who truly appreciate what is at stake - is give our full support to military action if indeed it is taken, and hope against hope that it succeeds.

At least he's honest in his final paragraph. Staines wants war, and he wants us to uncritically support such an illegal, "preventive" and self-defeating war. He makes no mention at all of civilian casualties in his 1,300-word post (innocent Iranian women and children? Who cares!), nor does he analyse the potential, catastrophic consequences - from terrorist blowback in the west, to a secret Iranian weapons programme, to attacks on Israel, to a global oil price shock. For chickenhawks like Staines, this is all about, in the words of one academic, "mainstreaming" a war against Iran.






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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Industrial Strategy: Ensuring digital skills are included

The opportunities for efficiency, adaptability and growth offered by digital skills have never been so important to British businesses. The New Statesman asked a panel of experts, including Digital Minister Matt Hancock, Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner, Tech City CEO Gerard Grech and Google Policy Manager Katie O’Donovan, to pinpoint the weak spots and the opportunities for a smarter digital skills strategy.

British people spend more per capita online than any other country in the developed world. With 82 per cent of adults using the internet on a daily basis and more than 20 per cent of retail sales taking place online, it would appear that most British businesses are digitally capable. A closer look, however, reveals a significant digital skills gap between larger companies and the small businesses that make up 60 per cent of the private sector – comprising a workforce of over 15 million people, with a turnover in excess of £1.6trillion. Of these small enterprises, a third don’t have a website and more than half are unable to sell goods online. So, are digital skills taking priority in the government’s industrial strategy?

Matt Hancock, Minister of State for Digital and Culture, said digital education from an early age will be a cross-party objective for years to come: “We’re making some progress on this, and one of the most exciting things we did in the last parliament was to put coding into the curriculum from age eight. We’ve recognised that there are down-the-track requirements for digital skills, as much as with English and Maths, and we’ve got a huge array of initiatives to corral the enthusiasm for digital and make sure that it is best used.”

Hancock added that participation in the digital economy is important at every level of business and society: “I can group the facts and figures; 23 per cent of people currently lack basic digital skills, and about 90 per cent of new jobs now need some form of them. I think that what we’ve learnt following the Brexit vote is that the need to engage everybody is more demonstrable than ever before. This is a very important part of the Prime Minister’s agenda, and wider digital engagement is a key part of the broader issue to make an economy that works for everyone.” 

It is this wider opportunity to access and education that forms the bedrock of a new partnership between Google and the Tinder Foundation, aiming to deliver digital skills training to those in society who are most in need. Cue the Digital Garage. The project sees community organisations across the country provide skills support to small businesses, sole traders and indviduals, helping them to make the most of their resources.

Katie O’Donovan, Policy Manager at Google, explained: “Google has a longstanding commitment to train 250,000 people across the UK in digital skills. Since launching the Digital Garage in 2015 we’ve provided mentoring and digital skills training in Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle and Glasgow.  But as the UK faces a new chapter we want to ensure, whether you’re a student looking for your first job, a small business looking to attract new customers or a musician looking to promote your music, the right digital skills are freely available in your local community.

Tinder Foundation CEO Helen Milner recognised that a wider proliferation of digital skills would release a surprising amount of value into the economy. “Some of our research showed that every £1 invested in growing people’s basic digital skills put £10 back into the economy. But it’s not enough to save money - you’ve got to show how you can make money out of it as well.”    

The Labour MP for Aberavon, Stephen Kinnock, has seen at first hand the benefits of support for digital skills, and welcomes opportunities for partnership in his constituency. The shift from manufacturing, he accepts, needs direction and following the depletion of his local steel works he views digitisation as “the only way forward.” Kinnock added that exciting projects such as the Swansea bay region or ‘internet coast’ becoming a testbed for 5G could serve to re-energise communities which are in many ways in a state of decline. Kinnock said: “I’m absolutely delighted that we’re going to have pop-up versions of the Digital Garage in Port Talbot.”

CEO for TeenTech Maggie Philbin, meanwhile, stressed that digital education at school level must be taught through the lens of practical application. She warned: “Many young people aren’t greeted by any coherent messaging in school, so they don’t see why they’d need digital skills in the workplace. We’ve got to start getting a better message across and improve the opportunities for actual work experience that harnesses these skills.”

Karen Price, CEO at The Tech Partnership shares this view. For Price, adapting apprenticeships to incorporate digital skills will help to inspire a culture of innovation. She suggested that “if that's part of an apprenticeship that could be polished to use in a business environment, you'd have a digitally capable young person who could probably move that business on in a different way.”

Nick Williams, Consumer Digital Director for Lloyds Banking Group, views improving people’s digital skills as a matter of urgency and brought up research conducted by the company’s new Business Digital Index for 2016 which found that 38 per cent of small businesses and 49 per cent of charities are currently lacking digital maturity. “It’s no longer a matter of choice,” Williams said, “for organisations to survive, we must focus on a digital message.  Technology’s moved on and people just haven’t kept up. We have to show how these new skills can translate to greater productivity. Ability and access are the two variables to address. We are on the brink of going down the route of a digital divide – those who are capable and those who aren’t – and we’ve got to stop that.”

Rachel Neaman, Director of Skills and Partnerships at Doteveryone, was quick to pick up on this point. She warned that any digital training must not simply be for future generations’ benefit, but also be afforded to those already in work. “What are we doing for the people who currently lack these skills? How do we stop people from being left behind?” Neaman called for an “equal emphasis” on updating and upgrading the existing workforce. Julian David, the CEO at Tech UK, was also keen to highlight that digitisation is “an ongoing process” and therefore “retraining” at regular intervals is needed to cope with a continually evolving demand.

While Hancock spoke of a “unit-based standard learning system”, similar to that used in American schools, to help apply digital skills training where it is most appropriate, IPPR North researcher Jack Hunter said there were real opportunities to be grasped in the coming devolution agenda: “The new mayors that are coming in next year to drive the agenda and economic growth are going to be getting a lot more funding around a variety of different skills streams that feed directly into the digital programme.”

The panel agreed that the digital divide will only grow wider if action is not taken. Director of the Action and Research Centre at the RSA Anthony Painter said that society is being split into two camps: “the confident and creative, and those who feel held back.” Painter recommended that the latter group are given a fresh chance at being empowered digitally. He said: “They don’t tend to use the internet for professional development, whereas the others do. We’ve been having a look at this locally by creating a ‘City of Learning’ which combines a digital platform built around open badges which have micro-accreditations for learning; things that if you get someone’s passionate interest and then start feeding into more formal learning opportunities then you wrap around that a sort of city-led campaign which lets them identify with a common cause – we’re a learning city.”

Tech City UK CEO Gerard Grech concurred and went to explore the link between a strong web presence and business expansion or improvement. The problem identified is that many businesses may not realise the extent of their digital capabilities and thus run the risk of missing out. Grech said: “If you ask a window cleaner if they are a digital business, they might say no, but if you ask how they might go about quoting someone, they could find the address on Google Maps or get the Street View. That’s the idea, to show how digital can be used for them.”

Ultimately, the panel concluded, that the enthusiasm to add a digital depth to Britain’s talent pool was validated by its potential advantages. “A lot of the major challenges facing the economy,” Painter summed up, “are actually rooted in skills. Whether it’s the challenges of Brexit or the challenges of broadband, I think if you fix the skills, everything else falls into place.” The panel agreed that any government has a responsibility to champion digital strategy throughout society, regardless of location or economic standing, and equip businesses with the digital skills required to perform at their best.  

The round-table discussion was chaired by Kirsty Styles.

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