Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi give a press conference. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty
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Leader: Iran comes in from the cold

For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran.

In an age when the problems in the Middle East look as intractable as ever, Iran’s agreement to curb its nuclear programme – and so abandon attempts to gain a nuclear weapon – is to be welcomed. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, described the deal agreed in Vienna with six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) as representing “a new chapter of hope”.

Indeed, it does. Iran has shown an interest in nuclear technology since 1957, when the pre-revolution regime received assistance from the US Atoms for Peace programme. Since 1984, when West German intelligence announced that Iran could build a bomb in two years using uranium from Pakistan, fears that the post-revolution Iran would obtain nuclear weapons have persisted. The threat has intensified since the existence of two nuclear sites under construction was revealed in 2002, the year in which George W Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil” along with North Korea and Iraq.

Ever since, the west has attempted to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Finally, progress has been made. After the latest round of negotiations, lasting two years, Iran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 96 per cent and its overall enrichment capacity by two-thirds and, most significantly, accept an unprecedented amount of international control over its nuclear programme. Not only will this lower the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but it should herald a new era of co-operation with the west. Ultimately, the world should become a slightly safer place.

None of this is to suggest that the deal is perfect. Iran is allowed to challenge requests for access from UN weapons inspectors, which would then be discussed at an arbitration board comprising representatives from Iran and the six powers. To Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, this is one reason why the deal amounts to “a historic mistake for the world”.

It is also true that the agreement will do nothing to alleviate the cold war between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran. And the extra funds that are freed up to Iran, as a result of sanctions by the west being lifted, could yet be channelled into extra sponsorship for its client Shia militant group Hezbollah and, Israel fears, into proxy wars around the Middle East. Such concerns are understandable. For all the ­progress, establishing trust between Iran and the west remains a process fraught with difficulty. Building relations with Iran must be done in tandem with assiduously monitoring developments in the country.

Yet everyone should laud the courage shown by the representatives of all seven countries involved in the negotiations – especially Barack Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani – in attempting to forge a new course. The sanctions imposed had a deleterious effect on the lives of Iranians but not the country’s nuclear ambitions. For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran, with attendant benefits for the rest of the Middle East, including in the struggle against Isis. If the Vienna agreement proves durable, it will be regarded as the most significant of the foreign policy achievements of the Obama presidency.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue