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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?

Chris McKenna/Wikimedia
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A night in my old room, with the sink, the Wisdens, and the prospect of “full genitality”

The mirror is still there, though, into which I would, as Nigel Molesworth put it, gaze at my strange unatural (sic) beauty, and ask what purpose it served.

In my old bedroom, again. This is, at least, a matter of choice. Monday evenings and Tuesday mornings are now spent in the family home so that I can keep my father company and give my mother a chance to go to her choir practice, on Mondays, and her art class, on Tuesdays. (I suddenly asked myself today: what if my mother were rubbish at these things? She’s not, though – especially not at the singing, as anyone who saw her on Broadway or NBC back in the day can attest. As for her art, I couldn’t paint to her standard even if I applied myself to nothing else for years.)

Anyway: I find myself, after a 12-year hiatus, once again intimately concerned about a close family member’s capacity to eat, sleep, and move without injury, only this time the concern is directed towards the previous generation rather than the next one. That’s the way it goes, and from the way events are moving, it looks as though I will have only the briefest of respites from such cares until the close family member whom I worry about falling over, or worse, will be me.

And as if this temporal confusion were not enough, I now find myself once again in the room where I spent the years 1972-85, from childhood to young adulthood, learning how to leave the room. I didn’t have an unhappy childhood, apart from the unhappiness I brought to it. Which was considerable, and not so much from a gloomy nature as from the early realisation that anyone who thought things in the outside world were just dandy really wasn’t paying attention. The chafing, constantly under-entitled condition of childhood itself didn’t make things any better.

The old room has been repurposed now as a kind of art studio: but the thick blue curtains are still there, there is a sofa-bed in place of my own old bed (on which my youngest son now sleeps, perhaps absorbing its melancholy, like radon seeping from the rocks, while he sleeps), but it is in the same place; the little sink in the corner, into which I would piss and occasionally puke, is still there, but the taps have jammed solid. The mirror is still there, though, into which I would, as Nigel Molesworth put it, gaze at my strange unatural (sic) beauty, and ask what purpose it served.

For the main thing that bothered me in that room, from 1975 on, was of achieving, in the Freudian phrase, full genitality – or getting laid. Once this question arose, it became impossible to dislodge, and when I say I spent every hour of every day worried that I would somehow die before I lost my cherry, I do not mean I thought about it once an hour. No: I thought about it through all of every hour, of every day. And night. Even my dreams had only one subject.

Of course, it wasn’t just the brute urges of the body. The heart, or the soul, if you wish, yearned, too; and the idea of finding someone who could satisfy both carnal and spiritual selves seemed so perfect that it also seemed unattainable. So, to distract myself, I would read; and once I was tall enough to peer over a bar without standing on tiptoe, I would go to the local pub and have a couple of pints of Guinness, which would be enough to get my 14-year-old body sozzled. (How on earth did I manage that? I was small for my age and shaving was as remote a prospect as sex, but somehow I had the kind of bearing which convinced barmen that it was OK to serve me. I wonder if it is somehow my fault that there are now signs everywhere saying you’re going to be asked for proof of age if you look under 25. Twenty-five!)

So, in 2015, as I retrace the familiar steps and retire to bed, I look for reading matter. Most of my books are dispersed (quite a few of them in boxes in the loft above, creating ominous cracks in the ceiling beneath), but there are a few survivors; a P G Wodehouse or two, a set of Wisdens, much loved, from 1974-85. I pull out the 1974 edition and read of the promising young Somerset players Ian Botham and I V A Richards and their proud captain, Brian Close. I had forgotten he’d captained Somerset. (This was a week before his death.)

I turn the light off. The curtains in my old room shut out the light; in the Hovel it never gets dark, the street never wholly quiet. East Finchley, at night, is as silent as the grave. And the lines from Marvell pop into my head before I fall asleep. You know the ones? “The grave’s a fine and private place,/But none, I think, do there embrace.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide