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

Getty Images.
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George Osborne's double U-turn allows him to change while remaining the same

The Chancellor abandoned cuts to tax credits and the police but stuck to his target of a £10bn budget surplus. 

The U-turn is an underrated manoeuvre in politics. At a stroke, it reduces opponents to complaining that the government has done what they told it to do. As long as the U-turn is in the right direction, the voters, who pay little attention to such matters, are usually content.

The best climbdowns are often the fullest. In his Autumn Statement and Spending Review, George Osborne proved this not once but twice. As so often, the Treasury briefings that the Chancellor would merely provide "transitional" support for tax credit claimants were designed to lead reporters off the scent. Rather than modifying the cuts to in-work benefits, Osborne abandoned them entirely. In the face of the formidable coalition of Boris Johnson (his chief leadership rival), Tory backbenchers, the Sun, the work and pensions select committee, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Adam Smith Institute, he capitulated.

He does so at the cost of breaching his self-imposed welfare cap for three years. But this will only have the effect of amplifying his generosity. In fact, the cuts have merely been deferred (till 2020 as tax credits are absorbed by Universal Credit), rather than abandoned. But today at least, the Chancellor has got the headlines he wanted. 

After the Paris attacks, another formidable coalition of interests had inveighed against police cuts. And again, Osborne met their demands in full. Having suggested as recently as last weekend that there would be signifcant cuts (another bluff), he revealed in his peroration that there would be none at all. "The police protect us, and we’re going to protect the police," he declared. Just as his tax credits U-turn shielded him from one leadership challenger (Boris), so this move shielded him from another (Home Secretary Theresa May). The Foreign Office budget, he also announced would be protected in real-terms, joining health, international development and defence behind the ring-fence. 

The skill of Osborne's statement was to change while remaining the same. Against expectations, he announced that his promised budget surplus in 2020 had not fallen but risen to £10.1bn (up £0.1bn). Gross tax increases of £28.5bn, including the new apprenticeship levy (£11.6bn), higher council tax (£6.2bn) and higher stamp duty for second homes and buy-to-let purchases (£3.8bn), as well as lower debt interest payments mean that he is still forecast to eliminate the deficit (albeit years later than originally promised). Staring intently at John McDonnell, he vowed that the Tories would "fix the roof while the sun is shining" (the shadow chancellor having told me that he would "throw up" if he heard the line again). 

But Osborne's decision to avoid the most hazardous cuts should not distract from those that remain. The average cut to unprotected departments, including transport, business and communities and local government - is 19 per cent. After the reductions in the last parliament, any fat has largely been eliminated. The Chancellor will be cutting into bone. If past experience is any guide, today's U-turns will not be his last. But as history also shows, that may not be to his cost. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.