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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

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