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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How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.