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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation