Reviewed: A Dangerous Delusion by Peter Oborne and David Morrison

Myths and missteps.

A Dangerous Delusion: Why the West Is Wrong About Nuclear Iran
Peter Oborne and David Morrison
Elliott & Thompson, 112pp, £8.99

I wonder if Peter Oborne and David Morrison know what is about to hit them. I fear that the wrath of the neocons is about to descend upon them. The authors of A Dangerous Delusion have analysed the west’s case against Iran on the nuclear issue and find it unconvincing.

Oborne and Morrison first trace the origins of the present dispute back to the shah’s nuclear programme. The shah, with western assistance, planned for the generation of 23,000 megawatts of nuclear electricity. However, after the Islamic Revolution, the US, France and Germany cancelled all nuclear agreements with Iran, which then asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to fill the gap by providing hexafluoride feedstock for centrifuges. According to Oborne and Morrison, the IAEA was inclined to help but the US prevented it. This was in spite of the provision in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran, unlike Israel and India, had signed and which obliges nuclear weapons states to share nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

The NPT specifically recognises the rights of all signatories to nuclear power for peaceful purposes and does not prohibit countries from possessing enrichment technology. Argentina, Brazil, Japan and Germany all do – but the US was determined to put Iran in a separate category. Predictably, Iran has resisted this.

The trigger for ending co-operation was not the discovery that Iran was doing anything illegal. Rather, it was the overthrow of a regime sympathetic to the west and its replacement by an apparently hostile one. This is not surprising, given the US hostage crisis that began in 1979 and the Ayatollah Khomeini’s inflammatory rhetoric. Yet it is the Iran of today the west has to deal with, not that of 1979. The US still nurses a grievance over the treatment of the hostages and Iran remains aggrieved at what it sees as western support for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of the country in 1980. Both countries need to move on.

Another key incident in the breakdown of trust was the revelation in 2002 by a militant opposition group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, that Iran was building an undeclared uranium enrichment plant at Natanz. It was never demonstrated that Iran intended the existence of this plant to remain secret but the episode led to accusations that Iran was developing a nuclear weapon. From that point, the US was determined to get Iran reported to the UN Security Council.

Many were disturbed by the involvement of A Q Khan, the developer of Pakistan’s nuclear weapon. However, that Iran acquired technology from him was not by itself evidence that it was intended for military purposes. Oborne and Morrison argue that Iran had no choice, given the refusal of the west to supply materials for its nuclear programme. At first, the EU opposed attempts to bring the nuclear file of Iran to the Security Council. With the Paris agreement of 2004, a comprehensive settlement seemed possible. When the EU insisted on the abandonment of enrichment inside Iran, the result was stalemate and the US insisted on referring Iran to the Security Council.

A chance seems to have been missed during the presidency of the reformer Mohammad Khatami. He had suspended enrichment, denounced the 9/11 attacks and helped the US with the invasion of Afghanistan. For his pains, he was labelled part of the “axis of evil”. America wasn’t interested in what Khatami called “a dialogue of civilisations”.

Accusations and counter-accusations rage – but Oborne and Morrison remind us of certain basic facts: since 2007, the US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran has judged “with a high degree of confidence” that Iran does not have a programme to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran’s facilities operate under IAEA supervision and it has consistently confirmed that no material has been diverted from Iran’s installations for military purposes. Enrichment is not illegal under the NPT. The impression is given in the western media that IAEA reports on Iran are uniformly critical. Not so. The IAEA is always under pressure from western governments, supported by their intelligence agencies, to prove various negatives. This is not easy and the process can go on forever, as the Iranians always complain.

Iran has not been blameless in the nuclear negotiations. It has breached its safeguards agreements and there may have been some military dimension to its programme over a decade ago. Oborne and Morrison acknowledge human-rights abuses that no one can ignore. But the west will have to deal with Iran, just as it has had to deal with China.

This is a brave book that will be attacked. One hopes, though, that it will open up a more intelligent debate about Iran. We need that urgently if we are to avoid another catastrophe in the Middle East.

Norman Lamont is the chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce and a former chancellor of the exchequer

"The west will have to deal with Iran, just as it has had to deal with China." Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”