US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who says Iran isn't developing nukes. Source: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan's memo to Sunny Hundal: Iran isn't "developing nukes"

Sunny seems to think that Iran's open and undeniable enrichment of uranium, which is the country's legal right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, amounts to a weapons programme. It doesn't.

I made the mistake of getting into a Twitter spat with my good friend Sunny Hundal yesterday, on the subject of Iran's nuclear programme and the failure of Barack Obama's "diplomacy" efforts". I raised the issue of the US president's hypocrisy over the whole Stuxnet affair.

Sunny replied:

I've said before - until Iran keep developing nukes and ignoring diplomacy, BO [Barack Obama] is obliged at act.

I have to say that I was slightly taken aback by this strange statement. Iran is "developing nukes"? Now, I expect such sweeping, fact-free, propagandistic claims from the Israeli foreign minister or someone like Newt Gingrich or even Melanie Phillips but et tu Sunny? Shouldn't we expect more careful language, even on Twitter, from the editor of a blog called "Liberal Conspiracy"?

I'm not sure if Sunny has been following my Iran Watch series of blogposts, of which this post is the ninth, so let me remind him of what the facts are; in fact, let me show him how his "views" on Iran are more extreme and to the right of even the US and Israeli defence and intelligence establishments.

Here's the much-discussed verdict of the 2007 unclassified National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), the consensus position of the United States's 12 intelligence agencies:

We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program. . .  We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007, but we do not know whether it currently intends to develop nuclear weapons.

And, as Seymour Hersh has reported, the latest 2011 classified NIE doesn't dissent from the 2007 report's conclusions on Iran:

A government consultant who has read the highly classified 2011 N.I.E. update depicted the report as reinforcing the essential conclusion of the 2007 paper: Iran halted weaponization in 2003. “There’s more evidence to support that assessment,” the consultant told me.

Here's the Israeli intelligence community's position (via Christian Science Monitor):

Israeli intelligence also does not believe that Iran is currently pursuing a nuclear weapon.  In January, Haaretz reported that Israel believes Iran "has not yet decided whether to translate [its efforts to improve its nuclear power] capabilities into a nuclear weapon - or, more specifically, a nuclear warhead mounted atop a missile."  That same month, Israeli military intelligence chief Gen. Aviv Kochavi told a Knesset hearing that Iran is not working on building a nuclear bomb, reported Agence France-Presse.

But Sunny persisted for most of yesterday afternoon, claiming that, yes, Iran was "developing nukes". Note the wording: not a civil nuclear energy programme which could one day, theoretically, be converted into a as-yet-undiscovered/unstarted nuclear weapons programme. Nope, according to Sunny, they're "developing nukes", that is, nuclear weapons.

But here's US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta speaking in January:

Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No.

Hmm, pretty clear, right? So, I wonder, does Sunny know something the US Defence Secretary (and former CIA chief) doesn't? If so, he should probably get in touch with the Pentagon and give them his secret intel.

Or perhaps not. You see, Sunny seems to think that Iran's open and undeniable enrichment of uranium, which is the country's legal right under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, amounts to a weapons programme. It doesn't.

Sunny's last line of defence, during our Twitter spat, was to try and accuse me of being "naive" and lacking "credibility" for not acknowleding that the Iranian government "wants" nuclear weapons. Perhaps they do, perhaps they don't. But those of you who remember, as I do, arguing with Iraq hawks in 2002/early-2003 will find the speculative rhetoric eerily familiar.

For the record, and for the first time in my life, I happen to agree with the head of the Israeli military, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, who told Haaretz in April that Iran

is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn't yet decided whether to go the extra mile. . .  I don't think [Ayatollah Khamenei] will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.

I like Sunny and I admire his wit and passion but, on this ultra-important subject, he is hopeless and dangerously out of his depth. Then again, he might change his mind. I vividly remember him arguing, loudly and forcefully, in favour of Obama's prosecution of the Afghan war back in late 2009 on a trip to Nato's HQ in Brussels - a pro-war position that he recently and thankfully disowned (again, on Twitter). I can't wait for his U-turn on Iran and am happy to continue providing him with the facts he may need in order to execute it. 

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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war