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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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.