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There is no nuclear threat – but if we attack Iran, there soon will be, writes Mehdi Hasan

An attack on Iran would prompt an enraged Iranian government, backed by a united Iranian public, to return fire.

It has become an annual event in international affairs: the "Iran crisis". Belligerent politicians and febrile commentators refer to the "drumbeat of war", the "ticking clock" and how "all options are on the table". My own, oft-repeated favourite is "the window of opportunity" - to thwart Iran's nuclear programme through military means - "is closing". Is it? Is it really? For more than a decade now, the alarmists have warned that Iran is - take your pick - "one year", "two years" or "four to five years" away from acquiring nuclear weapons. Wrong, wrong, wrong. These random deadlines have come and gone without Iran building the bomb. The window is jammed wide open.

As the leading US arms control expert, Jeffrey Lewis, of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, asked on his blog on 7 November, in the wake of the latest bout of feverish commentary on Iran's nuclear programme: "Just what technical or political fact has brought the deadline to the crossroads?"

“The driver in all of this is Israel," a former senior MI6 official tells me. As long ago as November 2002, the then Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, demanded that the Bush administration turn its full attention to Iran "the day after" the Iraq invasion was over. The Israelis now have the backing of (Sunni) Arab states, alarmed by the prospect of (Shia) Iranian nukes. According to a WikiLeaks cable, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah urged the US to "cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake".

Iranian uranium

However, consider three very important issues. First, there is no hard evidence that Iran is in possession of nuclear weapons or working on a nuclear weapons programme. The Iranian government insists that its enrichment of uranium is for domestic energy only. And you might not have guessed it from the coverage on CNN or Fox News but, in 2007, the US intelligence community estimated with "high confidence" that Iran had halted its alleged nuclear weapons programme in 2003 - a view reiterated in testimony to Congress by the US director of national intelligence, James Clapper, in March.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) report of 8 November on Iran, which prompted the latest bout of sabre-rattling, failed to produce a "smoking gun". There were some ominous references to weapons-related research and development, high explosives, computer simulations and assistance from foreign scientists - much of this based on "secret intelligence" from western governments. But the IAEA's report provided no new information on whether Iran is building - or intends to build - a nuclear weapon.

The UN nuclear watchdog's credibility is at stake here. Under its former director general Mohamed ElBaradei - who once described the Iranian nuclear threat as "hyped" - the IAEA stood up to US pressure in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Yet, according to State Department cables released by WikiLeaks, ElBaradei's replacement, the Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano, told the US government in 2009 that "he was solidly in the US court on every key strategic decision, from high-level personnel appointments to the handling of Iran's alleged nuclear weapons programme".

For the sake of argument, however, let's assume Iran is indeed bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The second key issue to consider is whether or not such intent would merit a military response. In a world where nine nations - the US, the UK, France, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - are believed to possess nuclear weapons, would a tenth make a such a difference (beyond a slight shift in the balance of power in the Middle East)?

No threat

I'd prefer to see a global ban on nuclear weapons but, in the absence of such a utopian measure, are we expected to believe that Iran would behave any more irrationally or irresponsibly with its (hypothetical) nukes than North Korea? Or Pakistan? Paul Pillar, the CIA's national intelligence officer for the Middle East between 2000 and 2005, wrote last month that, contrary to conventional wisdom, there is nothing "in the record of behaviour by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality".

In spite of the claims from the Israeli prime minister, Benajmin Netanyahu, and his neocon allies in Washington DC, the truth is that a nuclear-armed Iran wouldn't be an "existential" threat to the (nuclear-armed) state of Israel. According to the former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, in a speech on 3 November: Iran's nuclear capabilities are still "far from posing an existential threat to Israel".

And the Israeli defence minister, Ehud Barak, who visited the UK earlier this month to build support for a military attack on Iran, has admitted that the ayatollahs in Tehran are unlikely to order the dropping of a nuclear bomb on the Jewish state. "Not on us and not on any other neighbour," Barak told Haaretz in May.

Above all else, however, an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be self-defeating. It would prompt an enraged Iranian government, backed by a united Iranian public, to speed up the country's nuclear programme and drive it deeper underground - and outside the IAEA's purview. As Robert Gates, the then US defence secretary, conceded in May 2009: "A military attack will only buy us time and send the [nuclear] programme deeper and more covert."

Hans Blix, the UN's former chief weapons inspector, agrees. "You cannot scare a country away from going down the path of [building] nuclear weapons," he tells me. Diplomacy is the only viable option. In a warning that should set off alarm bells inside foreign and defence ministries across the west, he adds: "If the Iranians haven't yet made up their minds to make a nuclear weapon, then they will certainly do so once they have been attacked."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.