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.

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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