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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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster