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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How working less could help you achieve more

A Japanese lesson in the paradox of productivity.

In Japan, the virtues of konjou and gaman – grit and endurance – have long been considered crucial for success. But the death of a star worker at the nation’s biggest advertising agency has prompted a rethink of a culture of overwork that commonly subjects employees to more than 100 hours of overtime per month.

The Japanese government is now seeking to pass legislation to limit overtime. The English-speaking world is waking up to the problems of overwork, too. A new book – Rest by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a Silicon Valley consultant and visiting scholar at Stanford University – argues that by working less you can accomplish more.

Around the world, the conventional wisdom that working longer hours leads to superior results is being challenged. “Even in today’s 24/7, always-on world,” Pang writes, “we can learn how to blend work and rest together in ways that make us smarter, more creative and happier.”

Matsuri Takahashi was gifted, attractive and successful. Fresh out of Tokyo University, she landed a job at the Dentsu advertising agency and seemed on course for a life on the corporate fast track. Yet it wasn’t long before Takahashi, crushed by long office hours, began posting about her struggles on Twitter. “My body is trembling . . . I just can’t do this,” she wrote, following up with: “I have lost all feeling except the desire to sleep.”

On Christmas Day 2015, the 24-year-old fell to her death from the third storey of her company’s dormitory building. Labour standards officials recorded the cause as karoshi – or “death by overwork”.

Takahashi’s case resonated in Japan, a country that was already grappling with statistics showing chronic overtime to be the norm. More than a year later, barely a day goes by without a TV chat show inviting scholars and celebrities to brainstorm ways to get Japanese people to work less.

The implications of this culture of overwork go beyond workers’ sanity. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s push to cap overtime at a yearly average of 60 hours a month – in a labour reform programme expected to be adopted this year – envisions higher productivity as a benefit. Meanwhile, some corporations are beginning to ask an unusual (even heretical) question for hard-working Japan: can taking things easier be a recipe for success?

There are some surprising answers to this in Pang’s book. The problems that Japan faces may sound extreme, but they are in no way unique, viewed alongside Western business environments where, as Pang writes, “The proliferation of mobile and digital tools . . . [lets] you work anywhere and any time, [lets] work follow you everywhere.”

Pang argues that rest is a crucial source of creative vigour and that slogging through workplace fatigue – a mantra in Japan and the United States alike – leads not only to burnout but inferior performance. “Rest is not work’s adversary,” he writes. “Rest is work’s partner.”

Pang cites an array of academic studies and creative luminaries to support his argument. What did Charles Darwin, Ingmar Bergman, Charles Dickens and Henri Poincaré have in common? Four hours: roughly the length of time they felt they could productively devote to work in a single day. This is not to say that nothing happens outside those four hours. Pang believes that our best work is done, unconsciously, when we are at rest – while walking in the woods, gazing out of the window, listening to Bach and, above all, sleeping.

In Japan, no corporation has yet proposed a four-hour workday (or encouraged its employees to take long walks to boost performance), but a handful are reporting intriguing results that support Pang’s thesis. Last October, Nidec Corporation, a motor manufacturer, cited a significant reduction in overtime as an important factor in its record profit projections. Nidec banned working outside office hours without a manager’s permission and slashed overtime by 30 per cent without affecting productivity. This year, the corporation went further, announcing that it will invest more than $880m to eliminate overtime by 2020.

Meanwhile, the IT company SCSK has devised a novel solution to the problem of excess office hours: paying workers extra for not taking overtime. Since launching its “healthy management” strategy in 2012, SCSK has succeeded in reducing average daily overtime to roughly half an hour a day (down nearly threefold), while enjoying higher profits every year.

“When you focus on your workers’ health,” the firm’s former chairman, Nobuhide Nakaido, told the Japanese media, “it’s going to result in better work.”

Japan has enjoyed spectacular business success by embracing a philosophy of gritting one’s teeth and putting up with crushing workloads. Yet a growing body of evidence suggests that many of the country’s achievements may have come in spite of a culture of overwork, not because of it. If Pang’s ideas are right, Japan’s admirable cult of quality – even perfectionism – could find greater opportunities to flourish without the inspiration-destroying effects of excessive labour.

Rest condemns neither hard work nor perfectionism, but rather celebrates both. The book advises us to work hard but in short bursts, with opportunities for recuperation, in order to bring out the best that we can achieve.

“I don’t want to deny the importance of work in our lives,” Pang writes. “The challenge we face when learning to rest better is not to avoid work but to discover how to create a better fit between our work and our rest.” l

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit