Why Israel is dangerously out of touch with Iran

The fact is that it is now Israel, not Iran, that is making barely veiled threats of military aggression. But diplomacy needs a certain amount of trust on both sides to work.

When it comes to Iran, Binyamin Netanyahu seems increasingly to be a man out of time. Last year, he raised eyebrows by addressing the UN General Assembly brandishing a cartoon bomb representing the country’s supposed progress in developing nuclear weapons. He drew a red line near the top – at the 90 per cent threshold of uranium enrichment – to illustrate the point at which he believed the international community should take action. Obama groaned, his administration wary of making such dangerous commitments (a kind of danger more recently averted in Syria when a macho ultimatum by the US secretary of state, John Kerry, gave Russia a way to defuse talk of military intervention).

On Tuesday, Netanyahu dismissed the recent diplomatic overtures of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, as a “ruse” and called him a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. Netanyahu may ultimately prove correct in his distrust of Rouhani – according to UK and US intelligence estimates, Iran is about a year away from having the amount of highly enriched uranium needed to make a bomb – yet his reluctance to allow for diplomatic progress can only exacerbate tensions; it is as if he is willing the dark possibility of open conflict into becoming a darker inevitability.

The fact is that it is now Israel, not Iran, that is making barely veiled threats of military aggression. “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone,” Netanyahu said, acknowledging that the international consensus will likely desert him should his country deviate from the US-sanctioned strategy for the region. Obama made clear that the US would “take no options off the table, including military options, in terms of making sure that we do not have nuclear weapons in Iran” – but since his historic phone conversation with the Iranian president at the end of September, it seems that his commitment to finding a peaceful solution has been emboldened.

Scepticism is rife. Con Coughlin at the Wall Street Journal, for example, points out that though “expectations have inevitably been raised that Iran is serious about taking a more constructive approach to negotiations over the future of its nuclear program”, Tehran’s efforts to evade UN sanctions are at odds with the new president’s diplomatic overtures”. He explains: “Iran has intensified its efforts to circumvent the restrictions [caused by sanctions] by strengthening its trading ties with a number of neighboring countries, such as Turkey, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.” Coughlin highlights these “sanctions-busting activities” as evidence of Iran’s fundamental duplicity; however, it is unrealistic to expect the country to accept sanctions without a fuss, allowing the economy – already ravaged by rising unemployment and with inflation at 35 per cent – to belly-up. Rouhani’s major appeal to voters was, as Coughlin acknowledges, the promise that he would help alleviate Iran’s economic woes. His so-called charm offensive is clearly a part of his effort to fulfil this promise – it’s not merely a cover for some evil nuclear conspiracy, as Netanyahu seems to believe.

Coughlin also rightly points out that Rouhani is only as powerful as Khamenei allows him to be. The Iranian parliament’s endorsement of the president’s approach suggests that the supreme leader is to a surprising degree supportive of the new strategy – the parliament is largely controlled by factions loyal to Khamenei. Of a total of 290 parliamentarians, 230 commended Rouhani’s attempts to present the country as a “powerful and peace-seeking [nation that] seeks talks and interaction for the settlement of regional and international issues”. Call me a deluded optimist, but these developments suggest a diplomatic solution on Iran remains a possibility. Diplomacy needs a certain amount of trust on both sides to work – let’s hope that there’s enough of that stuff to go round.

Iranian president-elect Hassan Rouhani waves as he attends a press conference in Tehran. Image: Getty

Yo Zushi is a sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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