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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?

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Jeremy Corbyn has transformed Labour from resisting social movements to supporting them

The opposition's new leadership has brought about a historic shift in its relationship with social movements.

“Another world is possible,” declared John McDonnell last month in his first major speech as Labour’s new shadow chancellor. These four words show how Labour’s leadership views its relationship with activists and campaigners outside the Westminster system. The slogan is the motto of the World Social Forum, an annual alternative to the ultra-elite World Economic Forum, formed by social movements across the world to struggle against, and build alternatives to, neoliberalism.

How times change. In a speech given at the George Bush Senior Presidential Library in Texas, United States, in April 2002, Labour leader and British Prime Minister Tony Blair offered his support to the administrators of the global economy, not those demonstrating against them.

He said: “It's time we took on the anti-globalisation protestors who seek to disrupt the meetings international leaders have on these issues. What the poor world needs is not less globalisation but more. Their injustice is not globalisation but being excluded from it. Free enterprise is not their enemy; but their friend.”

In 2002, Labour’s leadership wanted to take on social movements. Now, it intends to engage with and support them. “The new kind of politics” of Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is about more than focusing on issues over personalities and (anti-) presentational changes.

It is also “a new politics which is based on returning the Labour party to its roots. And the roots of the Labour party was as a social movement, representing the vast majority of working people in this country,” as McDonnell, Corbyn’s closest political ally, explains to the New Statesman.

Campaigners outside of the Labour party are excited. John Hilary, executive director of War on Want, a campaigning anti-poverty NGO, tells the New Statesman, “there’s a really positive impulse to the Corbyn/McDonnell leadership reaching out” to social movements. For Hilary, the immediate policy changes on TTIP – the EU-US investor rights, regulation harmonisation and non-tariff barriers deal negotiated behind closed doors – and a Financial Transaction Tax have already sent “a message to a disenfranchised part of the electorate that Labour is back”.

But, for the campaigners outside of the Labour party, this moment is not without risks. Political parties have a long record of crushing the autonomy of social movements.

“It’s important they aren’t incorporated or have to work on the terms of the political system. It’s a matter of a respectful relationship,” explains Hilary Wainwright, a political activist and founder and co-editor of Red Pepper magazine. Wainwright argues for “close engagement [between Labour and outside campaigners] that isn’t a bossy dominating one. One that seeks to collaborate, not govern”.

McDonnell agrees. “The most important thing,” he says, “is that all of the campaigns and social movements that are campaigning at the moment and those that will campaign in the future, need to maintain their autonomy from government and political parties. We respect that . . . Otherwise, we’ll undermine their vitality and their independence.”

To remain “strong, independent and radical” is “the most helpful” campaigners can be to Labour’s leadership, according to Hilary. Labour’s leadership “don’t look to us to make the sort of political compromises that they might have to do in order to hold a much broader spectrum of people together. What we can do best is hold that line as we believe it be right and support the Labour leadership in taking a line as close as possible to that”, he says.

The task for social movements and campaigners outside of the party is “to show how there will be popular support for radical and principled positions”, according to Hilary.

To win in 2020, Labour will “bring together a coalition of social movements that have changed the political climate in this country and, as a result of that, changed the electoral potential of the Labour Party as well”, says McDonnell. For Labour’s shadow chancellor, the people's views on issues are complex and fluid rather than static, making the job of politicians to bump up as close to them as possible.

Movements can help shift political common sense in Labour’s direction. Just as UK Uncut placed the issue of tax avoidance and tax justice firmly on the political map, so too can other campaigners shift the political terrain.

This movement-focused perspective may, in part, explain why the Corbyn campaign chose to transform itself last week into the Momentum movement, a grassroots network open to those without Labour membership cards. This approach stands in contrast to Blair’s leadership campaign that evolved into Progress, a New Labour pressure group and think tank made up of party members.

In order to allow movements the space to change the terms of the debate and for Labour to develop policy in conjunction with them, the party needs “to engage with movements on their own terms”, according to Wainwright. This means “the party leadership need to find out where people are struggling and where people are campaigning and specifically work with them”, she continues.

McDonnell says it will. He says Labour “want to work alongside them, give them a parliamentary voice, give them a voice in government but, more importantly, assist them in the work that they do within the wide community, both in meetings, demonstrations and on picket lines”.

This position is not one you would expect from McDonnell’s five more recent predecessors: Chris Leslie, Ed Balls, Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown. So, “this may seem like a unique moment if you’re looking just within the British context. But, if you look outside Britain it’s actually much more in touch with movements in many places in the world”, says Hilary.

He adds: “Political parties are going to have to have much more honest engagements between parliamentary politics and the social movement hinterland. For us, it just means that in a wonderful way, Britain is catching up with the rest of the world.”

McDonnell too sees this shift in how Labour engages with movements as “a historic change that modernises the Labour party”.

But, perhaps for Labour, this is a recurrence rather than a transformation. The party grew out of Britain’s biggest social movement: the unions. Labour’s new leadership’s openness to campaigners “modernises it by taking it back to being a social movement again”, says McDonnell.