Why the west should rule out military action against Iran

The threat of military force heightens tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely.

With tough new sanctions in place, further measures threatened by Iran, naval forces mustering in the Persian Gulf, and state-sponsored terrorism ongoing, we are on the brink of a military conflict. Israel, at this very moment, is contemplating whether to undertake a strike. This would be calamitous, and could lead to regional war. What is desperately needed is a fresh assessment of the situation. The west's approach of sanctions and sabre-rattling are yesterday's failed policies. The fact we are once again on the cusp of conflict is testament to that failure.

My motion today therefore calls for the government - and, by implication, the west - to rule out the use of force in order to reduce tensions and bring us back from the brink of war, and to redouble diplomatic efforts. By ruling out the use of force - except, of course, in self-defence - we can reflect on some of the inconvenient truths which the west chooses to ignore, and the need for a fresh approach.

The catalyst for the most recent round of condemnation of Iran has been the IAEA's latest report. However, close reading of the report reveals no 'smoking gun'. There is no evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so. Much is made of western intelligence reports. But Iraq should have taught us to be careful of basing major foreign policy decisions on secret intelligence.

A second inconvenient truth relates to the usual depiction of Iran as intransigent and chauvinistic in her foreign policy. Western governments too easily forget that Iran is not totally at fault here. There have been opportunities to better relations between Iran and the west which the west has spurned. We forget Iran expressed solidarity with the US following 9/11, and that attempts were made to develop contacts during the early stages of the Afghan war. Her reward was to be declared part of the "Axis of Evil" by President Bush. This led directly to the removal of the reformist President Khatami. Despite this, further attempts at cooperation followed in the run-up to the Iraq war, and these were similarly rebuffed.

I am not an apologist for Iran. No-one can agree with her human rights record, or her sponsoring of terrorism beyond her borders. But these are not arguments for military intervention. Rather, I suggest no-one's hands are clean in the region, including our own particularly after the invasion of Iraq.

The argument is advanced that, should Iran develop nuclear weapons, this will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region, but without the safety mechanisms that existed during the Cold War - and this could lead to nuclear escalation. I do not accept this argument.

There is no reason why the west's adherence to the theory of nuclear deterrence should not be equally valid in other regions of the world. Despite the rhetoric, there is no evidence of irrational behaviour by Iran. This view was re-enforced by the Israeli defence minister last year. Meanwhile, other countries in the region, such as India and Pakistan, have fought wars and yet shown nuclear restraint. Only one country has ever used nuclear weapons in anger.

We are then told it is naïve to rule out the use of force, that all options must 'be left on the table'. But I suggest pursuing a policy which has clearly failed is naïve. It has brought us to the brink of military conflict.

What compounds the error of this approach is that most agree a military strike would be counter-productive. It would unite Iran in fury and perhaps trigger a regional war. It would not work - a fact the US defence secretary has recently highlighted. Furthermore, knowledge cannot be eradicated by military intervention. There are even influential voices from inside Israel against a strike.

Yet, despite this, the present policy is to refuse to rule out the use of force. Such a policy is not only naïve, but illogical: we are keeping an option alive which all know would be a disaster; against a country which chooses to ignore it; yet this option heightens tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely. It is a nonsense.

A fresh approach is required. Israel will not attack Iran if Washington objects. Now is the time for the US to make clear to her ally that force should not be used. Ruling out the use of force would have the immediate effect of reducing tensions and making conflict less likely. This would lessen the chance of another accident, such as Iran Air 655, which could in itself trigger a conflict. Such a policy longer-term would give diplomacy a greater chance of success.

We need to better understand and engage with Iran, and offer the prospect of implicit recognition of Iran's status as a major power in the region - a status we created ourselves by our misguided invasion of Iraq which fundamentally altered the regional balance of power. There is a precedent for recognising this new status. In the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power. His visit to China in 1972 took everyone by surprise, but it was the right decision - it was a defining moment.

I suggest the US needs to realise that this is one of those defining moments. Israel and Iran are two proud nations, both perhaps uncertain as to the best course of action. The US is the elephant in the room. It needs to put behind it the underlying antagonism of the last 30 years which defines this crisis. It needs to make clear an Israeli attack would be unacceptable, and then better engage with Iran. It is in Israel's long-term interest that this happens.

We need to go the extra mile for peace. War should always be the measure of last resort: to be used only when all other avenues have been exhausted. We have not reached this point here.

John Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay. A former soldier and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he resigned from the shadow frontbench to vote against the Iraq war, opposed our intervention in Afghanistan, and was the only Conservative MP to vote against the Libyan intervention.

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Has Brexit, like indyref, changed the political axis to Leave vs Remain?

In Scotland, a referendum changed the debate. 

Not that long ago, politics in Scotland seemed to follow a familiar left-right divide. It was a Labour stronghold, and the fact there was only one Tory MP left seemed only to burnish its left-wing credentials. In the Scottish Parliament, too, the Labour narrative dominated.

Even when the Scottish National Party captured Holyrood, this left-right split was still taken for granted (the SNP were still, at that point, doing a good impression of becoming a centrist replacement for the Tories). 

But then came the Scottish referendum, and a Yes campaign that captured the imagination of not only SNP members, but Labour voters, and Greens. Meanwhile, sceptical No voters on both left and right found themselves in an uneasy coalition.

Labour backed the winning side, but ended up the biggest losers. While Ruth Davidson rebranded the Scottish Conservatives as the pro-union party, and Nicola Sturgeon put the SNP in touch with the wider left-wing Yes movement, Kezia Dugdale has been caught in the middle. The party lost all but one MPs in 2015. 

“That is the axis – independence,” Daniel Johnson, a Labour MSP who bucked the trend and won Edinburgh Southern in the 2016 Scottish parliamentary elections, told me in August. “We have to move it on from there. But, by default, that is what it will be.” I heard similar sentiments from Labour campaigners, exhausted after months and years of campaigning with little to show for it. 

Now, after another referendum, are we seeing a similar axis emerge in the UK between Remain and Leave? Just over a year ago, Lib Dem MPs were booted out of constituencies across the land. Now, a Lib Dem, Sarah Olney, has defeated the Brexiteer incumbent, Zac Goldsmith. The result is already being cheered as a victory for the coalition against hard Brexit.

Certainly, her support cut across party lines. She received the support of the Greens, which didn’t stand a candidate and, more crucially, many Labour and Tory voters.

There are important differences. The SNP, on the losing side of the Scottish referendum, nevertheless had a disciplined party, a high profile leader and a track record of centre-left government. Indeed, New Labour supporters often mutter darkly that it has "stolen our clothes". The national party with the clearest message on Remain, the Lib Dems, is by contrast, a diminished outfit after their own devastating defeats in 2015. 

Scotland’s parties also look more politically homogeneous, with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Scottish National Party all offering versions of the centre left. Under Davidson, the Conservatives have targeted the “tenement Tories” with a focus on social mobility and blue-collar traditions. It is unsurprising, then, that for many voters the overwhelming distinction is Yes to independence, or No.

In the UK as a whole, by contrast, the Remain vote is split between  the devolved nations, the metropolitan elites – Exhibit A, Richmond – and young people who may or may not be able to influence the constituency vote. 

If any party can stitch these groups together, it should be Labour. But the party is now locked in internal agonising over Brexit, and the direction of its leadership. Embracing a new axis could open the door to a soft Brexit progressive alliance, but might also mean abandoning Scotland to the SNP, and the North to Leave.

For now, it is ploughing on. Unlike the Greens, it stood a candidate in Richmond. Despite being a well-respected transport expert, he lost with just 3.7 per cent of the vote. Some things, at least, are like Scotland.    

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.