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.

OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism