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.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.