Nick Clegg’s recent refusal to rule out British participation in military action against Iran came as a surprise. Few noticed at the time, but the Lib Dems were the only one of the three main parties to explicitly oppose war with Iran in their 2010 manifesto.
“[W]e oppose military action against Iran and believe those calling for such action undermine the growing reform movement in Iran,” read a passage on page 68. Yet, in apparent breach of this pledge, Clegg told the House Magazine earlier this month that “you don’t in a situation like this take any options off the table”.
Now, speaking to the New Statesman, senior Lib Dem MPs have expressed their opposition to military action and urged Clegg to uphold his party’s manifesto. Menzies Campbell, the former Lib Dem leader and foreign affairs spokesman, told me:
Military action would have the effect of setting fire to the Middle East. Anywhere you go in the United States or any senior policy figure that you speak to certainly believes that. The anxiety is about the possible actions of Israel. It’s a damned close-run thing.
Unlike Clegg, he insisted that there should be a “presumption” against armed action.
The recently knighted backbencher Bob Russell invoked his party’s opposition to the “illegal war” against Iraq and warned that “it is vital that we do not get involved with a similar outrage against Iran”. He added:
We should condemn, now rather than after the event should it happen, any moves by Israel (with or without the backing and involvement of the United States) of a pre-emptive strike against Iran.
The consequences to world peace, not just in the Middle East, are immense.
Asked if he was opposed to military action, Martin Horwood, co-chair of the Lib Dem parliamentary party committee on international affairs, said:
Yes – and that was a Lib Dem manifesto commitment. Events move on and of course if British minesweepers were attacked in the Gulf or something like that, we would have to respond. But as things stand, the answer is clear.
Clegg would probably argue that the Coalition Agreement has trumped his party’s manifesto. But at a time when he is pursuing a differentiation strategy in other areas, most Lib Dems will be dismayed by his equivocation. If the Iraq war was the making of Charles Kennedy, could an Iran war be the breaking of Nick Clegg?
A version of this piece appears in tomorrow’s New Statesman.