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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.