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 contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left