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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The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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