Hans Blix: How do we stop Iran getting the bomb?

A preview of our exclusive essay by the former chief UN weapons inspector.

In this week's New Statesman cover story, the former chief UN weapons inspector and ex-head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Hans Blix offers a diplomatic alternative to military action against Iran - and warns that any such attack by the west would be illegal and catastrophic:

If Iran were to be bombed, it would be another action in disregard of the UN Charter. There would be no authorisation by the Security Council. Iran has not attacked anybody and despite Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's wild, populist declarations that Israel should be wiped off the map there is no imminent Iranian threat that could be invoked to justify pre-emptive action.

Blix says he does not believe that the Iranian regime is trying to build or acquire nuclear weapons:

It is possible - but is denied by Iran and not evident to me - that there is a determination to make a nuclear weapon.

The former director of the IAEA points out that the much-discussed report on Iran released by the UN's nuclear watchdog in November 2011 "did not . . . conclude that Iran was making a weapon or had taken a decision to make one". And he issues a stark warning on Iran to the agency's current head:

In my view, the agency should not . . . draw conclusions from information where the supplier is not ready also to show evidence. Both Mohamed ElBaradei and I were careful on this point and I hope the present director general of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, follows that line. The agency should not risk its own credibility by relying on data that it cannot verify fully.

Blix says "bombing Iranian nuclear installations may be a path to disaster rather than to a solution" and condemns the "outrageous, gangster-style" killing of Iranian scientists. He writes:

Iranian leaders are not going to sit quietly and twiddle their thumbs . . . A war in the Gulf and skyrocketing of oil and gas prices are not exactly what a financially troubled world needs right now. Furthermore, not all relevant installations in Iran would be destroyed. Some may not be known. The capacity and know-how to produce more centrifuges will survive and after armed attacks the Iranian government, which many now hate, may get broad support in a nation feeling humiliated by the attack. If there was not already a decision to go for a nuclear weapon it would then be taken.

The former chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq calls for the establishment of a "nuclear-weapon-free zone" in the Middle East as a solution to the impasse over Iran:

To many, the idea of an agreement between the parties in the Middle East - including Israel and Iran - to renounce not only the possession, acquisition or development of weapons of mass destruction, but also the means of their production, might seem very remote. It does not seem far-fetched to me.

It would, to be sure, call for many difficult arrangements, including verification going beyond IAEA safeguards, as well as outside security guarantees and assurances of supply of nuclear fuel for civilian reactors. It would require that Israel give up its nuclear weapons, stocks of fissile material and capability to produce enriched uranium or plutonium. It would require Iran to do away with its enrichment plants and a number of other installations. All states in the zone would agree between themselves not to acquire or develop capabilities for the enrichment of uranium or production of plutonium.

And he explains why this arrangement would appeal to all sides.

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.