Thursday, October 27, 2005

Wiped off the map

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has caused a political storm by calling for Israel to be "wiped off the map". The hardline authoritarian President was speaking in front of 3,000 students at a conference in Tehran entitled “The World without Zionism”.

The west reacted angrily to Ahmadinejad’s statement. The British Foreign Office described it as “sickening”. The White House said that it "underscores the concerns we have about Iran's nuclear operations". Israel's Vice-Prime Minister Shimon Peres called for Iran’s expulsion from the UN, saying that the remark "contravenes the United Nations charter and is tantamount to a crime against humanity”.

Whilst this reaction might sound like moral outrage, it can hardly be described as such. The term ‘moral outrage’ describes anger provoked by the violation of some ethical principle. To allow ourselves to be morally offended by one nation’s president calling for another country to be “wiped off the map” we must first have ensured that our own actions do not contravene the same operative ethical principles. In this respect, every citizen of the UK, the US and Israel has a very long road to travel.

In 1947, the UN decreed that historic Palestine should be partitioned, with 56 percent of the land going to the 600,000 strong Jewish population and the remaining 44 percent going to the 1.2 million strong Arab population. Earlier, in 1938, the Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, later the first Prime Minister of Israel, wrote, "[I am] satisfied with part of the country, but on the basis of the assumption that after we build up a strong force following the establishment of the state -- we will abolish the partition of the country, and we will expand to the whole Land of Israel". In the 1947-49 Arab-Israeli war, around 800,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their historic homeland by Israeli forces subjecting them to assasinations, rapes and massacres. Israel seized about 78 percent of the British 'Mandate' Palestine by force of arms, with Egypt and Jordan taking the remainder. The Palestinian state decreed by the international community had been forcibly ‘wiped off the map’, to use Ahmadinejad’s phrase. Successive Israeli governments ensured that it was never to emerge.

Does calling for the elimination of a state constitute “a crime against humanity”, as Shimon Peres contends? If so, then Ahmadinejad would be joined in the dock by every Israeli official who has not only advocated but effected the policy of expansionism that continues to prevent a Palestinian nation state from emerging. The list would be long and illustrious. In 1936, Ben Gurion said that "the boundaries of Zionist aspirations are the concern of the Jewish people and no external factor will be able to limit them". Moshe Dayan, famed military commander and later an Israeli government minister told the youth of Israel that expansionism was a continuous enterprise. "You have not started it, and you will not finish it!". Elsewhere, he said that "[Israel] must see the sword as the main, if not the only, instrument with which to keep its morale high and to retain its moral tension. Toward this end it may, no - it must - invent dangers, and to do this it must adopt the method of provocation-and-revenge...And above all - let us hope for a new war with the Arab countries, so that we may finally get rid of our troubles and acquire our space".

Since 1967 Israel has held further occupied territory in open defiance of international law. It has built vast settlements on that land and repressed the occupied population with a ferocity that has been savage in the extreme (more of which in a moment). In spite of this Shimon Peres has, with considerable self-restraint, never described Israel’s actions as crimes against humanity, or conceded its right to be a part of the United Nations, whose laws it treats with utter contempt.

The outrage displayed by western politicians at Ahmadinejad’s denial of Israel’s right to exist was nowhere to be seen when Dov Weisglass, one of the principal advisers to Israeli premier Ariel Sharon, set out his government’s strategy to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state in an interview last year. Weisglass was describing the policy aims behind the fraudulent Gaza withdrawal plan. Recounting the interview, Le Monde Diplomatique noted that "according to Weisglass, Sharon decided to give up Gaza, which he had never considered as a national interest, to save the settlements in the West Bank and, more important, to prevent any negotiated agreement with the Palestinians".

In the interview, Weisglass left very little to the imagination: "There was a very difficult package of commitments that Israel was expected to accept. That package is called a political process. You know, the term `political process' … is the establishment of a Palestinian state …. [its] the evacuation of settlements, it's the return of refugees, it's the partition of Jerusalem…we succeeded in taking that .. and sending it beyond the hills. Effectively, this whole package that is called the Palestinian state, with all that it entails, has been removed from our agenda indefinitely”.

Did the stated intention of keeping Palestine off the map “indefinitely” cause the White House any of the “concern” it expressed this week at the remarks of the Iranian President? Hardly. Weisglass boasted that he had achieved “all this with authority and permission. All with a presidential blessing and the ratification of both houses of Congress.”

Israel enacted the plan, making a great show of leaving 19 sq miles in Gaza and evacuating 8,500 illegal settlers, whilst expropriating 23 sq miles in the West Bank Land and introducing 14,000 illegal settlers there. The land grab would also involve, Sharon and Weisglass declared, the permanent annexation of the whole of Jerusalem, including the Arab eastern segment. Far from finding this whole charade “sickening” as the UK Foreign Office described Ahmadinejad’s remarks, Tony Blair wrote to Ariel Sharon, saying “I greatly admire the courage with which you have developed and implemented this policy”.

Despite Israel’s continued expansionism, open dismissal of Palestinian self-determination, brutal treatment of civilians in the occupied territories and total rejection of international law, the Blair government expresses its “admiration” for Sharon’s “courage” far more profoundly than with warm words alone. The historian Mark Curtis, formerly of Chatham House and a specialist in British foreign policy, notes that “[UK] arms exports [to Israel] doubled from 2000 to 2001, reaching £22.5 million as Israel stepped up aggression in the occupied territories. Supplies included small arms, grenade-making kits and components for equipment such as armoured fighting vehicles, tanks and combat aircraft. [The UK] has recently supplied Israel with machine guns, rifles, ammunition, components for tanks and helicopters, leg irons, electric shock belts, tear gas and categories covering mortars, rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons and military explosives”.

The contribution of Britain’s principal ally, the United States, hardly requires any review. By one estimate, US support for Israel between 1973 and 2002, military and otherwise, totalled $1.6 trillion, over $5,700 per head of population, more than twice the cost of the Vietnam War.

Moral outrage on the part of Britain and the US was conspicuously absent, as the weapons they had sold to Israel were put into murderous effect during the early years of the second intifada. US historian Norman G. Finkelstein describes the conduct of our Israeli ally: “To repress Palestinian resistance, a senior Israeli officer in early 2002 urged the army to "analyze and internalize the lessons of…how the German army fought in the Warsaw ghetto." Judging by Israeli carnage in the West Bank culminating in Operation Defensive Shield - the targeting of Palestinian ambulances and medical personnel, the targeting of journalists, the killing of Palestinian children "for sport" (Chris Hedges, New York Times former Cairo bureau chief), the rounding up, handcuffing and blindfolding of all Palestinian males between the ages of 15 and 50, and affixing of numbers on their wrists, the indiscriminate torture of Palestinian detainees, the denial of food, water, electricity, and medical assistance to the Palestinian civilian population, the indiscriminate air assaults on Palestinian neighborhoods, the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields, the bulldozing of Palestinian homes with the occupants huddled inside - it appears that the Israeli army followed the officer's advice. When the operation, supported by fully 90 percent of Israelis, was finally over, 500 Palestinians were dead and 1500 wounded.”

Finkelstein quotes a Human Rights Watch report on the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp in April 2002. According to the report, a "thirty-seven-year-old paralyzed man was killed when the IDF [Israel Defense Forces] bulldozed his home on top of him, refusing to allow his relatives the time to remove him from the home"; a "fifty-seven-year-old wheelchair-bound man…was shot and run over by a tank on a major road outside the camp…even though he had a white flag attached to his wheelchair"; "IDF soldiers forced a sixty-five-year-old woman to stand on a rooftop in front of an IDF position in the middle of a helicopter battle."

An Israeli soldier who operated a bulldozer in the assault on Jenin breathlessly described the experience: "I wanted to destroy everything. I begged the officers…to let me knock it all down, from top to bottom. To level everything…. For three days, I just destroyed and destroyed…. I found joy with every house that came down, because I knew that they didn't mind dying, but they cared for their homes. If you knocked down a house, you buried 40 or 50 people for generations. If I am sorry for anything, it is for not tearing the whole camp down.…I had plenty of satisfaction. I really enjoyed it."

As pressure builds on Iran over its nuclear weapons programme, the remarks made by President Ahmadinejad will be seized upon as evidence of Iran’s pathological depravity, and justification for the increasingly menacing stance the US and the UK are taking towards it. Tony Blair expressed his “revulsion” at the Iranian President’s statement. Saying that he had never heard of the president of a country saying they wanted to wipe out another country, Blair added: "Can you imagine a state like that with an attitude like that having a nuclear weapon?". The Prime Minister is of course well aware that he has no need to use his imagination. His government arms and otherwise backs just such a country: Israel.

Ahmadinejad’s remarks were offensive indeed. But if our disgust is to rise anywhere above the level of mere hypocrisy we should first acknowledge, reverse, and atone for the material support we have given to those who deny a people’s right to self-determination, not just in word, but in savage bloody deed.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Withdrawing from Iraq

With 59% of the US public favouring a withdrawal of their country’s armed forces from Iraq (up from 52% last month), 51% of UK public agreeing (1), and with talk of withdrawal widespread among the political classes (2), the anti-war movement is presented with an opportunity to push home its advantage. The challenge now is to formulate a detailed withdrawal plan and demand that the occupying governments adopt it. Now more than ever, the political conditions exist for such a strategy to gain the attention, consideration and support of the general public.

Its plain that, through a mixture of brutality, incompetence and lack of concern for the welfare of the civilian population, the US/UK occupation is making the situation in Iraq worse, as the country descends through bloody anarchy into the abyss. It is also clear that the occupation is helping to exacerbate ethnic and sectarian divisions within that country, e.g. through the US sponsored political process, run to a US timetable, that in the context of the worsening violence, provides a focal point for those divisions. (3) Clearly the US/UK are not politically or morally competent to perform the peacekeeping role and reverse the train of events they they themselves have set in motion. Not politically, because they are widely despised by the population. Not morally because of the reasons they are so despised, i.e. the fact that they are a colonial force with their own agenda and with a particularly gruesome record (backing for Saddam, the genocidal sanctions of the 1990s, Abu Ghraib etc). This is borne out by the results of the past two and a half years of occupation. However, many people are concerned that the damage already done to Iraqi society is such that if the occupying troops left the violence would escalate to a new, horrific level, similar to that in the Balkans ten years ago. (4).

Presented purely in terms of the presence or absence of occupying troops it seems that Iraq’s future holds nothing but catastrophe, with only the precise route it will take to get there left for us to discuss. We can however accept the need for, in fact campaign for, an external military force to keep the belligerents apart in any civil war, without being pro-occupation. The task now, of stabilising Iraq, drawing down the level of violence, and facilitating the transition to a peaceful settlement, is one that only an unbiased, international force under UN auspices can hope to perform. In addition, the adoption of such a nation-rescuing strategy would reaffirm the primacy of international law, and the role of the UN in upholding it on the global stage.

Significant factors would drive the international community to lend material support for the process and assemble the necessary military coalition. A stable Iraq - in the heart of the major energy producing region, and with oil at $60 a barrel and climbing - is plainly in the global interest. This is especially true given the threat of world oil production peaking in the near to medium term. Given what’s at stake, its doubtful that there would be a shortage of states willing to volunteer contributions to the logistical, military, economic and diplomatic aspects of a new international settlement, subject to its chances of success, more of which in a moment.

Its also worth noting that the overriding concern, in the context of the global economy, of stabilizing Iraq, is shared by the occupying countries themselves. Its true that some officials within the US/UK governments may see such a plan as thwarting their neo-colonial ambitions for Iraq. This would be an accurate view, were it not for the fact that those ambitions have long been defeated, and pursuing the present course will only serve to make that defeat far worse. In any case, the conduct of democratic states is a matter to be dictated by the electorate, not determined by the whims of government officials.

Planning and implementing a phased handover to an international military force would be a slow and complicated process. No easy solution to Iraq’s deep, potentially terminal problems, is available. But the announcement of such a handover could have significant beneficial effects almost immediately. As I’ve argued previously (5), a large part of the current violence, if not the majority, appears to be neither a civil war, nor a nihilistic Al Qaeda killing spree, nor a power-grab by Ba'athists, but instead a conflict between US troops and an array of resisting forces rooted in the population, with the latter, at least, not aiming their attacks at civilian targets (6). Its certainly true that the state if violence in Iraq feeds off nationalist anger against the occupying forces for the most part. So there’s good reason to believe that the removal of the nationalistic element of the equation would isolate the jihadist, sectarian minority represented by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, making it easier for such groups to be neutralised, principally by Iraqis themselves. The suspension of the illegitimate US-sponsored political process (7) and its replacement with a process under direct UN auspices could also serve to deflate the sectarian tensions that the current process appears to be exacerbating.

However, this, indeed any realistic solution, is only workable if the Iraqis buy into the process. That means the US and the UK having nothing to do with it whatsoever. Not through air cover as renowned Middle East expert Juan Cole has suggested. Not through the UN security council (the new active peacekeeping force should answer to the General Assembly). That’s the price of the animosity that results from the crimes we’ve committed towards that country. Its right to say, as some commentators have, that we should not simply walk away from Iraq having done so much damage to that country. But the only contributions our governments are competent to make are first, an orderly withdrawal, and second, massive, unconditional reparations.

The proposition for an international nation-rescuing plan could be debated and drawn up in detail through an exercise in international participatory politics facilitated by the various anti-war movements and other NGOs, e.g. through a forum such as the recent World Tribunal on Iraq. The argument for withdrawal has already been won. The task now is first to consider, then to decide upon, then to explain how that withdrawal can be effected to the benefit of Iraq and the wider world. Making this argument in the current political climate would be to push at an open door. The campaign against the colonisation of Iraq has come too far to squander this opportunity now.

(1) “Troops Should Leave Iraq Soon, Say Americans”, Angus Reid Consultants, 11 October 2005 http://www.angus-reid.com/polls/index.cfm/fuseaction/viewItem/itemID/9346, “Blair out of step as voters swing behind Iraq withdrawal”, The Guardian, 26 September 2005, http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,1578385,00.html
(2) For example see, “American Debacle” by Zbigniew Brzezinski, Los Angeles Times, 9 October 2005 http://www.commondreams.org/views05/1009-20.htm
(3) For more on the divisive effect of the occupation see Michael Schwartz’s “Why Immediate Withdrawal Makes Sense” September 2005 http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=23549, and “Open Letter to Amnesty International on the Iraqi Constitution”, The Brussels Tribunal, October 2005 http://www.truthout.org/docs_2005/100905B.shtml
(4) See Juan Cole’s response to Schwartz, “Schwartz: US out Now”, Informed Comment, 23 September 2005 http://www.juancole.com/2005/09/schwartz-us-out-now-violence-continued.html
(5) “Iraq's future: the present course and the alternatives”, David Wearing, ZNet, 14 June 2005, http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?SectionID=15&ItemID=8073 updated with links to sources at http://democratsdiary.co.uk/2005/06/iraqs-future-present-course-and.html
(6) See also “Does the Resistance Target Civilians?”, M.Junaid Alam, April 18, ZNet http://www.zmag.org/content/showarticle.cfm?ItemID=7670
(7) Brussels Tribunal

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Experts Predict US Attack on Iran (summary)

Scott Ritter - ex of the US Marine Corps and former chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq - was unequivocal. Plans for an attack on Iran are being drawn up and acted upon “right now….as we speak”. In preparation, the US is “already committing acts of war on a daily basis”, including reconnaissance missions and other cross-border operations, some of which are being carried out on its behalf by the terrorist group, the Mojahedin-e Khalq. All of these activities are violations of Iran’s national sovereignty.

Ritter was speaking in London last week on the subject of whether a US attack on Iran is in prospect, on the same evening that the UK Foreign Office accused Iran of being behind all the British troop deaths in Iraq this year. Alongside him were Dan Plesch, a former Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, and Fred Halliday, Professor of International Relations at LSE. Neither dissented from Ritter’s view.

According to Ritter, events will unfold in a familiar pattern. First, the deception, based around talk of the security threat posed by Iran’s non-existent nuclear weapons. Second, confrontation in the field of international diplomacy. The ‘EU3’ (Britain, France, Germany) have involved themselves in negotiations with Iran on its nascent civilian nuclear capability that the US has no intention of allowing to succeed. Dan Plesch described one of the offers made to the Iranians that he had been told about by officials involved in the discussions. In return for Iran promising never to pursue any nuclear capability, civilian or military, the UK and France alone would promise not to use nuclear weapons against Iran in any conflict. Hardly a sign of serious dialogue taking place.

When the impasse reaches the UN Security Council the US will challenge the international community to act, the fraudulent case for war will of course be rejected, at which point unilateral military action will commence. This had been originally planned for June 2005 but was postponed when John Bolton’s nomination to the post of UN ambassador to the UN stumbled in Congress. Bolton is central to the diplomatic side of the strategy.

Ritter described the stages various stages the attack would move through, starting with air strikes on political and military targets. Then, four divisions of US troops will invade from Azerbaijan and head straight for Tehran. By hitting Iran hard with air strikes, then applying pressure on the regime with the presence of ground troops on the country’s borders and encircling Tehran, the aim is to create the conditions for a civilian uprising to emerge and depose the regime. To this end ‘usable nuclear weapons’ (Ritter: “and the thing about ‘usable nuclear weapons’ is, they’re usable”) will be retained as an option.

Given the now all but universal acceptance that the invasion of Iraq has been a disaster, and the political crises currently circling the Bush Presidency, one might have expected discussion of a US strike on Iran to be couched in ifs buts and maybes, if not for the idea to be dismissed as a thwarted neo-con ambition. But Ritter was forceful in his certainty. One audience member asked how an invasion could be militarily feasible, and where the US would find the troops to control the situation on the ground post-invasion. Ritter, again, was unequivocal. We can discuss the feasibility of a military operation for as long as we want, he said, but the fact is that it’s happening. You can test this by checking the deployment of US National Guard units internationally. You’ll find them concentrated round the Caspian Sea area, in particular Azerbaijan. There’s no shortage of troops. The US has all the troops it needs for this plan, in the shape of air crews for the bombers that will form the main focus of the attack. Yes, the idea that the Iranians will help the US overthrow the regime is ludicrous. Yes, the attack will end in yet another military disaster for the US. And yes, any use of nuclear weapons will “uncork the genie” with terrible consequences. But none of this means it won’t happen because, in a White House administration run by the neo-conservatives, fantasy is reality.

Another audience member asked how accusations of WMD proliferation could be made with any credibility after Iraq. Scott Ritter said simply, “no problem”. Those who lied their way to war paid no serious political price for doing so. Bush has been exonerated in several inquiries on the subject. At least as far as the non-existent Iraqi WMD is concerned, they got away with it. Dan Plesch pointed out that the Reagan government had two maxims: firstly, always have a bad guy, and secondly, when in trouble change the subject. In the current political circumstances, an attack on Iran fits in very well with this way of thinking. As for political opposition, there’s little chance of the Democrats “defending the mullahs” (as any opposition would be portrayed), and in the UK, probably only a Tory party under Ken Clarke would oppose an attack, and that would cause it to split.

An audience member asked about the significance of oil. Dan Plesch said that oil is precisely what gives the greater Middle East its significance in world affairs. Currently the US, Russia and China are in fierce competition over access to and control over energy reserves throughout Central Asia. Fred Halliday said that the issue at stake was about who holds power in the greater Middle East: the US (and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia) or Iran. He noted that if the US interest in Iraq had been purely about access to oil it could have done a deal with Saddam. The concerns of hegemony and credibility were also factors. Ritter mentioned the recent US National Security Strategy, and its stated intention to dominate the globe, allowing no rival power to emerge anywhere. Control over resources is central to this.

Above all, Ritter stressed that the issue of Iran should not be seen as having to do with legitimate US/UK national security concerns. This has absolutely nothing to do with it, as was the case with Iraq. The real issue is the global ambitions of the neo-conservative Bush administration. Fred Halliday pointed out that in Washington in 2003, the modish phrase was, “wimps go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran”.
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I've written previously on the prospect of a US/UK attack on Iran here. For a full account of the talk given by Ritter, Plesch and Halliday, see below.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Experts Predict US Attack on Iran (full text)

5 October 2005 - On the same evening that the UK Foreign Office announced its belief that Iran had been behind all the British troop deaths in Iraq this year, a talk was given in London on the subject of whether a US attack on Iran is in prospect. The following is as full an account as possible of that talk Given the now widespread acceptance that the invasion of Iraq has been a disaster, and the political crises now surrounding the Bush Presidency, you may be surprised by what you read here; and alarmed, given the credentials of the speakers. They were:

Dan Plesch: a former Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies and regular interviewee providing political and military analysis for the BBC, CNN, ITN and other news media.

Scott Ritter: ex of the US Marine Corps and former chief UN Weapons Inspector in Iraq between 1991 and 1998

Fred Halliday: Professor of International Relations at LSE

Participating chair: Ewen MacAskill, Diplomatic Editor, The Guardian

Dan Plesch began by saying that the question posed in the description of the talk, “is Iran heading ineluctably towards a military confrontation with the United States”, should have been put the other way around. It is the US that is heading for confrontation with Iran. This time as last, war fever will be based around the issue of WMD; here Iran’s supposed nuclear weapons programme. Today’s announcement will fit into the general build-up. In truth, Iran’s involvement in southern Iraq can hardly come as a surprise to the UK since it delegated authority in that part of the country to militia’s armed and trained by the Iranians some time ago.

Will Iran ‘do a Libya’ and give up any WMD programme for the commercial and diplomatic benefits of a new relationship with the west? Probably not. Will the US/UK accept a continuation of Iran’s current defiance on its right to civilian nuclear technology? Probably not. Hence military action will follow. Such action would not involve a full ground invasion since the US doesn’t have enough troops available. The more likely course of action is a set of air strikes on military and political targets throughout the country.

Would this be electoral suicide? The Reagan government had two maxims: firstly, always have a bad guy, and secondly, when in trouble change the subject. Its attacks on Libya and Grenada fit this approach. So, in the current political circumstances, would an attack on Iran. Its also worth noting that US defence spending, whilst vast, is still at a relative low as a percentage of GDP, by US standards. The argument from military Keynesianism – ie using a state of real or perceived conflict to boost the economy through military spending into the technology sector; the ‘Pentagon subsidy’ – therefore applies. As for political opposition, there’s little chance of the Democrats standing up for Iran (as any opposition would be portrayed) and in the UK, probably only a Tory government under Ken Clarke would oppose an attack, and that could split his party.

Scott Ritter said that most people see foreign relations, e.g. the build up to the Iraq war, as having to do with legitimate security concerns. This notion needs to be abandoned. US foreign policy has nothing to do with national security and everything to do with the domestic position of the neo-conservative officials in the White House. Going back to their earliest incarnation in the Republican administrations of the 1970s, people like Cheney and Rumsfeld saw the Cold War as a “good guy/bad guy” narrative that could be used to shut off political debate, wherein any opponents could be accused of treachery. This modus operandi was employed in the case of Iraq – as it had to be since the case wasn’t based on fact - with Saddam playing the role of the bad guy. It will be used again here, just as it has been used in exploiting 9/11, to pursue a policy of perpetual conflict with global hegemony as its goal. This was explicitly spelled out in the National Security Strategy of 2002, which stated bluntly that the US would tolerate no rival to its power anywhere on the planet.

Ritter was unequivocal. This will happen, he said. The US has all the troops it needs: air crews for its bombers. Events will unfold in a familiar pattern. First, the deception, based around talk of a security threat. Remember that there is no proof of Iranian violations of the NPT. Iran is in full compliance. Second, confrontation in the field of international diplomacy. The ‘EU3’ (UK, France, Germany) have essentially been duped by the US into involving themselves in negotiations that it has no intention of allowing to succeed. When the impasse reaches the UN the US will challenge the international community to act. When the non-existent case is rejected, as the US hopes it will be, the air strikes will follow.

Ritter stated categorically that planning for these attacks is taking place “right now”. After the air strikes, four divisions of US troops will invade through Azerbaijan, heading straight for the Iranian capital, Tehran. The aim will be to create the conditions for a civilian uprising to emerge and depose the regime. ‘Usable nuclear weapons’ (“and the thing about ‘usable nuclear weapons is, they’re usable”) will be retained as an option. Of course none of this will work. It will lead to another disastrous military defeat. Further, any use of nuclear weapons will “uncork the genie”, with terrible consequences. Ritter finished by urging everyone present to press their government to prevent this from occurring.

Fred Halliday said that recently an Iranian diplomat told him, “we won!” Now there is no more Taliban, no more Saddam, two regional rivals defeated, and Iran effectively controls southern Iraq. Iran, the diplomat told him, is now the indispensable regional power. This fits into a historic patter of Iran overestimating its strength. One example is the decision, pushed by the Revolutionary Guard, to continue the war against Iraq in 1982, after Saddam had moved to negotiate.

Iran’s policy at present appears to be one of “nuclear ambiguity”, as pursued by Israel and South Africa in the past, ie a nuclear energy programme accompanied by the presence of at least a suspected weapons capability. This has the advantage of substituting for larger conventional forces and enhancing Iran’s status and bargaining power on the international stage. There are also regional security concerns sending Iran in this direction. Israel has nuclear weapons, as do Russia, India and Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is reportedly developing a capability with Pakistan’s assistance, both of them US allies. In addition, it seems clear that if Saddam had had nuclear weapons Iraq would not have been invaded.

It was also worth noting that, like many revolutionary regimes, the Iranians tend to romanticise the notion of a nuclear deterrent. Leading on from this Dan Plesch pointed out that disarmament through diplomacy is proven to work in countering proliferation, e.g. the USSR. If we genuinely worry about new countries like Iran developing nuclear weapons there’s much we can do about it - aside from the fraudulent US/UK manoeuvrings. The mechanisms are there in shape of the many disarmament and non-proliferation treaties drawn up between the mid-80s and the mid-90s. We can contribute something concrete and positive to the coming debates by advocating a proactive stance on global disarmament through genuine international diplomacy.

Continuing, Fred Halliday said that there is a new mood of nationalism in Iran. This is partly a reaction to the perceived external interference of international nuclear inspections. There is also a sense of resilience, born of 3,000 years watching western imperial adventures come and go over the centuries.

Iran is controlled, less by the clergy, and more by officials with links to the military and the security forces; the people that fought Iraq in the 1980s. These people are confident to the point of belligerence. They also believe they will have a long term close ally in Iraq. Moreover, the government has popular support, which will put up a fight against any aggression. There’ll be no ‘Orange Revolution’ in Iran.

In Washington in 2003, the modish phrase was, “wimps go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran”. There’s a grudge here going back to the Iranian hostage crisis over 25 years ago. But this is really about who holds regional power: the US (and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia) or Iran.

Finally, we should note that we cannot isolate ourselves from events in the greater Middle East. Suez was one of the great British post war political disasters. Conflict in Algeria hastened the collapse of the French Fourth Republic. The USSR’s collapse was at least related to its defeat in Afghanistan. President Carter was severely damaged by his failure to handle the hostage crisis, as was Reagan’s government by the Iran/Contra scandal.

Ewen MacAskill had just arrived from hearing the aforementioned announcement from a “senior source” at the Foreign Office. He expressed belief that any British involvement in an attack on Iran would split the cabinet and cause the Labour Party to haemorrhage support. That said, MacAskill claimed to “know” that Blair fully supports Bush on the issue.

As for Iran, it has its international involvements, for example its deals to supply energy to China, its involvement in Iraq and Lebanon, so it is in a fairly strong position the global stage.

Ultimately, given the mess Iraq is in, MacAskill said he thought it unlikely that there would be any attack on Iran.

Responding to this, Scott Ritter said that the US was “already committing acts of war on a daily basis” against Iran, including cross border operations, reconnaissance missions and so on, all of which are violations of Iran’s sovereignty.

Fred Halliday said it was worth noting the significance for Iran of its close neighbours India and Pakistan gaining their own nuclear capabilities in 1998. Additionally, there is much merit to the argument put forward by Scott Ritter with regard to the machinations of US domestic politics, and Noam Chomsky has written a great deal on the role of military Keynesianism in stimulating the economy. However, the part played by events in the Middle East is also significant. Iran certainly has its own regional ambitions. It has challenged the US in the past and Washington has not forgotten this. The debate for the Iranians at the moment, according to Halliday, was “how long do we let the US bleed in Iraq before we kick them out?” It was also worth noting that Iran would be “no angel” as a regional power.

Dan Plesch pointed out that the US was not in any way constructively engaged with the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear capability fronted by the EU3. He described one of the offers made to the Iranians that he’d been informed of by people involved in the discussions. In return for Iran promising never to pursue any nuclear capability, civilian or military, the UK and France (not anyone else) would promise not to use nuclear weapons against Iran in any conflict. Hardly a sign of serious dialogue taking place.

Questions were than taken from the audience.

How credible is Israel’s threat to attack Iran, and what would be the consequences of that threat being carried out?

Dan Plesch said that the US/UK planned to play the role of responsible nations acting to prevent this disaster by attacking Iran themselves.

Scott Ritter said that the Israeli lobby is the most powerful in Washington in the field of foreign affairs, embodied by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which no politician dares to stand up to. Israel will not tolerate so much as an Iranian civil nuclear energy program. He said he was told by the Israelis in 1996 that they had a plan in place for any future attack on Iran. The plan for specific strikes in the near term is being drawn up now, but the US wants to pre-empt this by attacking first. Originally this was scheduled for June 2005, but when the nomination of the neo-con John Bolton to the post of US Ambassador to the UN stumbled in Congress the plans had to be postponed. Bolton is central to the diplomatic side of the US strategy.

Fred Halliday said that Israel’s real concerns were related to Iranian support for the Palestinians, in the form of Lebanese Hizbollah and Islamic Jihad, rather than with the issue of nuclear warheads.

Thinking particularly about the Shia communities around the world, how might a US assault on Shia Iran play out, other than in the military sphere?

Scott Ritter said that the neo-cons are aware of the potential for Shia unrest all across the region that could be triggered by an attack on Iran. They just weren’t overly concerned by it. The Iranians, by contrast, are counting on a reaction from the wider community to play a part in any response, should they survive the initial attacks.

Fred Halliday, looking more broadly at the possible implications in the region, pointed out that Afghanistan, which neighbours both Iran and US ally Pakistan, could be destabilised by any US-Iranian conflict. Iran has its links to the wider Muslim community for example in that it is committed by its constitution to help the world’s Muslims, but there are limits to this in the military sphere. The Iranians haven’t invaded a country since 1736.

Mention of oil has been conspicuous by its absence. What is the role of oil here?

Dan Plesch said that oil is the reason that the greater Middle East is significant in world affairs. Currently the US, Russia and China are in fierce competition over access to and control over energy reserves throughout Central Asia. Elsewhere, given global shortages and peaking demand, many people - NGOs, some governments – are asking how we can wean ourselves off oil, and how fast.

Scott Ritter said that when considering the question of oil the US had, in the past, engaged with the realities of the region. The neo-cons see things differently. For them, realities are there to be subordinated to their will, as they seek control of oil and other essential resources as part of their wider strategy of dominating the globe.

Fred Halliday said that if the US interest in Iraq had been purely about access to oil it could have done a deal with Saddam. The concerns of hegemony and credibility were also factors.

The Iranians are part of the problem in Iraq, so aren’t we justified in retaining the threat of force when dealing with them?

Scott Ritter answered that Iraq is our disaster. We decided to invade based on a case for war that was entirely devoid of fact. Now Iraqis are attacking our troops, not Iranians. This is a problem of our own making so the solution can only come from us, and that solution is to withdraw, not to try and shift the blame onto Iran.

On the subject of Iraq, Fred Halliday said that we have to consider, now that we are there, what the least irresponsible thing to do by the Iraqis would be. The last time we cut-and-ran in the Middle East was in 1948, and the consequences were dire. But Dan Plesch did not agree: “‘I mugged you and broke your leg, and I now demand the right to set it in plaster for you?’ I don’t think so”.

How can accusations of WMD proliferation be made with any credibility after Iraq?

Scott Ritter said simply, “no problem”. Those who lied their way to war paid no serious political price for doing so. Bush has been exonerated in several inquiries on the subject. At least as far as the non-existent Iraqi WMD is concerned, they got away with it.

There would be serious logistical difficulties with invading Iran, particularly the circumstances on the ground post-invasion. How would the US control such a situation?

Scott Ritter, again, was completely unequivocal. We can discuss the feasibility of a military operation for as long as we want but the fact is that it is happening, right now. You can test this by checking the deployment of US National Guard units internationally. You’ll find them concentrated round the Caspian Sea area, in particular Azerbaijan where they’ll back up the four infantry divisions who’ll be launching their drive to Tehran from there. The military strike will come in three stages. Firstly, air strikes. Secondly, pressure on the regime from ground troops around its borders and encircling Tehran. Thirdly, the Iranian people will rise up and overthrow the regime themselves. And yes, this last part at least is total fantasy. But fantasy is reality in the neo-con’s Washington.

The evening finished with a warning from Dan Plesch to those intending to engage in political activism to avert any possible attack on Iran: don’t wait for the Labour left. Scores of backbenchers wrote to Kofi Annan saying that Blair should be tried for war crimes, but when it came to doing anything about him themselves they spurned the opportunity. Plesch and others had put together a case to impeach Blair for misleading the country into war. MP’s from almost every political party signed up, including Tory QCs and former cabinet ministers. Not one Labour MP, including those due for retirement, joined the campaign, and its in no small part because of them that we are where we are now.