Saturday, June 27, 2009

What's happening in Iran?

A few words about what's been happening in Iran the past couple of weeks. The two main candidates in the Iranian presidential election - Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - were both essentially establishment figures. Both had been vetted and approved by Iran's 'Guardian Council' before being allowed to stand, as is the normal procedure. Mousavi had been Iran's Prime Minister during the early days of the revolution, during the Iran-Iraq war where the US backed Saddam Hussein. As President he may have taken a less belligerent rhetorical stance toward the West than Ahmadinejad, but the substance would have remained: opposition to Israel on the Palestinian issue and an insistence on Iran's right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Poliferation Treaty. However, though Mousavi's establishment credentials were pretty much impeccable, he did hint at a relaxation of the various restrictions of personal liberties within the Islamic Republic, attracting him some support from Iran's overwhelmingly young population (over 60 per cent are under 30). Exactly how much support in the final instance is, of course, the question.

By now you will be familiar with the fact that the presidential election result is under dispute, with Mousavi and thousands of protesters claiming fraud and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisting that the announced result is legitimate and will stand. Based on the expert analysis I've seen, it seems reasonably clear that fraud is likely to have taken place. Though it should be noted that no hard proof exists of this, the point is that those who have crunched the numbers and those who know Iranian politics and society have examined the purported election results and see them not just as surprising but as wholly implausible. See this report by researchers at St Andrews University, edited by Iran historian Ali Ansari, or these three posts by the University of Michigan's world renowned Middle East historian Juan Cole. Statistician Walter Mebane, also of the University of Michigan, has examined the data and concluded that "the results suggest very strongly that there was widespread fraud in which the vote counts for Ahmadinejad were substantially augmented by artificial means".

So why fake the election result, if that is indeed what happened? As I've pointed out, Mousavi was hardly going to lead a revolution to topple the regime since he is, after all, a long-standing part of it. Indeed, its also worth reminding ourselves that Ahmadinejad is not unpopular, and its possible that he may have run Mousavi close and prompted a run off election if the actual votes had been counted. The Guardian's editorial shortly after the "result" was announced has what to my mind is the best explanation. Mousavi had been attracting mass rallies of energised young people to the point where any victory for him would have looked like a rejection of the regime from the Iranian youth, even if Mousavi hadn't intended it as such. The Supreme Leader could not allow such a serious undermining of the regime's credibility, fearing where it might lead, and so the hopes of those who had voted for Mousavi were, it appears, summarily crushed. Opponents were then arrested, massive demonstrations though largely peaceful were met with violence, and journalists were targeted.

Has it worked? Its hard to say, but one doubts it. If anything, the Iranian establishment now looks split down the middle. Iran's most senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has openly said that "no one in their right mind can believe" the official results. This may reflect growing disquiet amongst Iran's clerical elite, who perhaps never wholly bought into the regime's radical innovation of direct religious rule, adhering instead to the Islamic tradition that the clergy should keep out of politics. Meanwhile, even the hardline conservative Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani has said that a 'majority' of Iranians dispute the election results and, though he disagrees with them, they should be respected - not a tone that's entirely aligned with that of the Supreme Leader.

So allow me to speculate briefly about what will happen next. Say the stability of the regime over the past three decades has been based on a mixture of legitimacy (by which I mean a sufficient level of public perception that the regime is a legitimate one) and fear. The two pillars of legitimacy are the electoral system on the one hand and the religious character of the system on the other. The fear element is inspired by the security services and their known history of abuses. People either think the regime is legitimate, or are too afraid of it to challenge its existence, or both. Hence it stays in place.

What we can now see is potentially the two pillars of legitimacy crumbling. On the one hand, as Larijani has said, a majority believe the election result was a fabrication and many of those actively refuse to let this stand.

On the other hand, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's radical innovation of clerical rule may now be coming under renewed scrutiny within the clerical establishment. Khamenei's weak religious qualifications for the post of Supreme Leader don't help to uphold the credibility of vilayet-i faqih (clerical rule). This, it appears, is some of the background to Montazeri's strong remarks.

If the pillars upon which the regime's legitimacy rests are crumbling then the fear element is all that's left. That's not nothing. But still, unless the regime is now prepared not only to quell unrest with extreme violence, but to follow this up with a general, lasting (i.e. years long) crackdown on persistent dissent, then its hard to see how major changes can be escaped.

But if the dissidents are an uneasy alliance of privileged elites and disadvantaged citizens, what are the prospects going forward? If Mousavi stitches up a deal with Khamenei to end the whole thing (after all, this is a system that has generally treated him more than fairly) what happens to the demonstrators on the street? We'll learn the answers to these questions in the weeks and months ahead.

A final word about Western involvement. Britain and the US have a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, leading right up until the present day (I've reviewed the historical record in a bit of detail here). The crucial concern has been to deny or counter Iranian independence and retain it within or return it to the Western sphere of influence, for obvious reasons that include Iran's vast reserves of oil and natural gas. We can therefore assume that London and Washington are not indifferent to what happens next in Iran. This does not mean that hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters have somehow been manufactured or brainwashed by the West, as the Supreme Leader is rather pathetically attempting to claim. However, we should be alive to the strong possibility that if some sort of new Iranian revolution does break out, the US and Britain will be using all the considerable tools at their disposal to ensure that the Iran that emerges from that process will be the Iran they would want to see, irrespective of the wishes of the Iranian people themselves. It may be that for now London and Washington have calculated that their best bet is to stay well out of things lest they taint the Iranian protesters with their unwanted attentions. But don't bet on that staying the case. The reason events in Iran deserve our attention is precisely because of our governments' lamentable role in that country's affairs. Our concern should now be that the Iranian public are allowed to choose their own path free both from internal tyranny and foreign interference.

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Sunday, February 08, 2009

Britain in the early 20th Century

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. Again, I'm drawing on the third volume of Simon Schama's "History of Britain", all quotes being Schama unless otherwise stated. Page references are included in the text.

As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinent to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits.

While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it is an attempt to create my own analysis from that.


“Although, until the Liberals came to power in 1905, the majority of cabinet members were still drawn from the landed classes, their near monopoly of government was on its way out, shaken not so much by the advance of egalitarian democracy as by a long, steep agricultural depression. To all intents and purposes, between 1870 and 1910 Britain ceased to be a serious agricultural producer. Since it was unable to compete with colonial and American imports, 3 million acres were taken out of cultivation. By 1911 just 8 per cent of the 45 million people of Great Britain were earning their living from the land. Agricultural incomes in Britain over the same period fell by a full 25 per cent.....Almost a quarter of the privately owned land of Britain...went on the market between the 1870s and the 1830s. Many of the estates...were bought by the relatively recent rich whose fortunes had been made in industry, shipping mining, insurance or publishing: the Dominions. There were Australian and Canadian accents now at the point-to-points and grouse shoots, and the relics of the old nobility tried not to flinch. Churchill’s cousin, the 9th Duke of Marlborough...lamented that ‘the old order is doomed’” p308

“Those who did survive the shake-out of the estates belonged to an even more exclusive elite: by 1914, half the acreage of England and Wales belonged to just 4500 proprietors” p310

Poverty was still rife in the late Victorian era, with 10 per cent of the total urban working population living in festering slum conditions, families crowded into a single room or two at best. However, this was also the era where the recognisably modern home came into being for many ordinary people, including flushing lavatories and tap water. Public hygiene and diets improved. But the nation’s essential socio-economic character was largely unchanged. “On the eve of the First World War...10 per cent of Britain’s population owned 92 per cent of its wealth. As many as 90 per cent of the deceased, on the other hand, left no documented assets or property whatsoever” p313. Moreover, increased competition for Britain’s labour intensive, export-driven industries from rising economies like that of the USA made even the situation of the relatively well-off increasingly (albeit relatively) precarious.

The answer of the industrialists was rationalization, investment in labour-saving machinery, wage cuts and longer hours. They came up against a newly organised, unionised, assertive and mobilised workforce, leading to a string of hard-fought industrial disputes. The Labour Party was born as the political wing of that movement; a coalition of revolutionary Marxists, non-revolutionary Fabians, and the trade unionists themselves. Elements across the party, in their own way, cited the likes of Lilburne and Paine in their moral and ideological heritage.

“Fabianism committed itself to eschewing the half-baked, half-thought revolution in favour of a long campaign of re-educating both the political elite and the working class – the first to a new sense of their social responsibilities, the latter to a new sense of their legitimate social rights. Between them they were to make a modern, just and compassionate industrial society, without violence and without the sacrifice of freedom. There have been worse ideologies in the modern age” p316

The Fabian re-education programme included dinner-parties for the great and the good, attended by Liberals like Herbert Asquith, and even Tories like Arthur Balfour.

For the Fabians, it was economics that caused poverty, not the immorality of the poor. The Fabian argument for social justice was very similar to the nineteenth century Liberal/Whig argument for franchise extension. While not downplaying the genuine decency and compassion of the Fabians, it would be wrong, perhaps, to entirely rule out the role of pragmatic class interest in the thinking of these polite reformers. Indeed, the Fabians cited the health of empire – hardly a progressive institution – as requiring and resting on the domestic social reform that they advocated.

But who was going to pay? Not just for the social reforms, but for the maintenance of British Naval superiority and for the debts incurred during the Boer War? Not – at least not willingly – the mobilised and agitated working class, especially not during an economic slump. So the usual regressive taxes on commodities were eschewed as revenue raisers, in favour of progressive taxation on land, inheritance and incomes, in Lloyd George’s budget of 1909.

The “People’s Budget” had an unlikely champion: Winston Churchill, now President of the Board of Trade, who campaigned up and down the country against the obstructions of the House of Lords. “At the Victoria Opera House in Burnley in December, Churchill had a lot of fun with Curzon’s claim in nearby Oldham the that ‘superior class’ by blood and tradition had inherited the right to ‘rule over our children’. What did the noble lord say? That ‘ “all great civilisation has been the work of aristocracies”. They liked that in Oldham (laughter). ... Why, it would be much more true to say the upkeep of the aristocracy has been the hard work of all civilisations” (loud cheers and cries of “say it again”)’ p322.

Asquith forced an election, as a referendum on the Lords’ resistance to the budget. The Liberals’ overall majority was lost, but with Irish Home Rulers and Labour MPs support the Parliament Bill was passed and the upper house’s powers sharply curbed.

But if the reforms were conceived as the minimum necessary to forestall revolution, many of those it was intended to pacify were less than impressed. Riots and confrontations with the police began to occur, first with the miners, then with the increasingly militant suffragettes, some of whom had taken to direct physical action as a form of protest.


With Germany bolstering its military strength, and Britain keen to retain its naval advantage, Churchill took an active post in his new role as First Lord of the Admiralty. “Heavy guns were to be mounted on fast ships; and, most momentous of all, those ships would now be fuelled more cost effectively by oil, not coal. In retrospect this one decision, a commitment to the Anglo-Persian Oil Company – so apparently innocent, or at least so purely logistical (and so lightly glossed over in most Churchill biographies) – was to have more profound effects on the fate of the British Empire, not to mention the history of the world, than almost anything else Churchill did until the May days of 1940. It made the survival of the British Empire conditional on a Middle East presence, a halfway link between India and Egypt. That in turn would make Churchill, as colonial secretary in 1921, a strong supporter of a British mandate in Palestine and a protective role in Iraq (the former Mesopotamia) and Jordan. That would beget Suez. And Suez begat Islamic fundamentalism. The Anglo-Persian Oil Company, in which Churchill made sure to acquire a 51 per cent holding for the British government in 1914, would beget joint Anglo-American oil interests in Iran, which would beget the CIA overthrow of the Mossadeq democracy and the restoration of the Pahlavi dynasty, which would beget the Ayatollah Khomenei. And all the while the coal mines of Britain were relegated to terminal redundancy. But on the eve of the First World War, the battle fleet was well tanked and ready for action” p327-8.

Churchill’s failed plan, during WWI, to attack the German alliance at its weakest point – the Ottoman Empire – was in part aimed at securing the oil fields of Persia and Mesopotamia.


“At least 700,000 British servicemen had perished in the Great War, and a million and a half had been wounded. Another 150,000 were lost to the influenza pandemic of 1918-19. Some 300,000 children had lost at least one parent. One in ten of an entire generation of young men had been wiped out” p334.

Progressives like George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells saw the war’s terrible cost as an unanswerable case for the end of empire, to be replaced with enlightened global governance. The treaty of Versailles – pinning all the blame for and most of the cost of the war on Germany – and the League of Nations – diminished by its limited authority and its repudiation by the US Congress – were not what they had in mind.

The domestic political change that came in the war’s aftermath was more substantial: votes for all men aged over 21 and women over 30, 200,000 government built homes, the raising of the school leaving age to 14, nationwide standardization of wages and salaries, doubling of old-age pensions and near-universal unemployment insurance p333.

But the ‘war socialism’ of nationalised industries and state-controlled wages was quickly dismantled, despite pleas from the labour movement p336. And in addition, the overwhelming majority held by the Tory-Liberal coalition headed by Lloyd George meant that the government (and the Prime Minister) were free to rule almost as they pleased. “It was rule by dinner party; its weapons the artfully targeted rumour, the discreet business sweetener, the playfully or not so playfully threatening poke in the ribs. Honours were up for sale; insider commercial favours expected” p337.

Lloyd George did not preside over an empire of contented subjects. The failure of moves for Home Rule opened the way for the rise of the IRA and Sinn Fein, the former bringing the Easter Rising of 1916, the latter sweeping aside the Home Rulers in the 1918 elections. In Scotland, poverty, unemployment exacerbated by post-war demobilisation, and the disproportionate loss of Scottish life in the war (26 per cent of Scots to 12 per cent of the rest of the British troops had died) led to union demands for the retention of wage and rent controls, and a shorter working week. Refusal resulted in strikes, clashes with the police, and eventually the occupation of Red Glasgow by 12,000 troops and 6 tanks p338.

Further abroad, the war had tested the loyalty and acquiescence to empire of many colonial subjects. The Anglo-Saxon colonials believed their sacrifices earned them another step towards equal nation status with the UK. Non-Anglo-Saxon subjects simply became firmer in their demands for independence with the British now having to put down nationalist uprisings in Egypt and install puppet monarchs there and in Iraq.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Gaza fallout: threats of a Middle East revolt

Two things have come to light that could have serious implications for the situation in the Middle East.
The US tends to reflexively veto any UN Security Council resolution critical of Israel. So why did it only abstain from the UNSC's call for a ceasefire towards the end of the recent Israeli assault on Gaza, and seemingly thereby withdraw its backing for Israel's actions? Apparently, reports Robert Dreyfuss, because it feared its embassies in the region would be overrun by angry mobs outraged by the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.
And in addition, Dreyfuss goes on to say, the US was not alone in its concern about a popular uprising in the Middle East. Its pet tyrants are also getting the jitters. So much so that a senior Saudi minister has threatened to sever or seriously downgrade his countries relationship with the US, and even respond favorably to a request from President Ahmadinejad to ally Sunni Saudi Arabia with Shia Iran against Israel if there is not a substantive change in US-Israeli behaviour toward the Palestinians. So much for the Sunni-Shia regional schism.
The question then arises: at what point does Washington become so fearful of its regional allies either turning against it or being toppled in domestic uprisings that it feels compelled to rein in the Israeli expansionism and military aggression that fuels popular discontent in the region? If this pressure from the Arab world continues and increases, the implications for the Middle East should not be underestimated.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues, at a severe and entirely disproportional cost to the Palestinians, largely because the US has consistently backed Israeli colonialism and blocked a peaceful settlement to the conflict. But how useful is the Israeli alliance going to be to Washington if it loses the rest of the region altogether? The point of Israel, as far as Washington is concerned, is that as the regional military superpower it wields the club over the Middle Eastern oil-producing nations and keeps them in line. But if Israel's thuggish behaviour creates so much anger in the region that the oil-producing states begin terminating their own alliances with Washington then the equation changes drastically. Israel becomes a liability rather than an asset. And what then? Will the US clamp down on Israel, call a halt to its theft of Palestinian land, and allow the creation of a Palestinian state so as to keep its allies in the region on side? That would potentially be wonderful news for the Palestinians, whose current condition of impoverished and brutalised statelessness is akin to a form of slavery, as Juan Cole argues here.
So news of Washington losing its grip on the Arab world is potentially a very, very serious development. Remarkable in fact that the media has largely failed to pick up on it, as far as I'm aware. Clearly these are developments that need to be watched closely, and understood by us as activists.

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Tuesday, October 07, 2008

US Presidential Election: Analysis of Polling Data

Unless otherwise indicated, the following analysis is based on two opinion polls from CBS News dated 26 September and 1 October 2008. I talk about the main points and the implications for next month’s election in a separate post. Here, I’ll talk about the poll findings in detail, bringing out the points that I think are relevant.


Obama has fought the election on domestic issues while McCain has tried to either talk about Iraq, national security and his own experience, or just attack voters confidence in Obama. As we will see, Obama's strategy has a lot of mileage in it while McCain's has not a lot.

Voters were asked which will be the most important issue to them in choosing the next President.
52 per cent said the economy, 41 per cent clear of the next most important issue.

After the economy, you have 5 issues clustered round the 10 per cent mark. Terrorism and national security on 11, gas prices and energy policy on 10, and healthcare and Iraq tied on 9. Voters care much more about Obama's chosen specialist subject than McCain.

So if Obama wins on his turf and McCain wins
on his, it is not a draw: Obama comes out better.

The Economy

Voters are very concerned about the state of the economy, making it the number one issue by a huge margin.

At the time of the credit crunch, 7 per cent of voters thought the US economy was doing very well, 45 thought fairly well, 32 thought fairly bad and 14 tho
ught very bad: a net positive rating of plus 6. Now the net rating is minus 64.

46 per cent think the economy is doing very badly, 34 think fairly badly, 17 think fairly well. There is a dash, rather than a number, in the "very well" column for only the second time since 1992 (the last time was in April 08).

Voters are also worried by the direction of the economy. 70 per cent think it is getting worse against 2 per cent (statistical zero) who think it is improving.

Moreover, voters do not see these problems in abstract. They are acutely aware of what the financial crisis means to them. 45 per cent say they have been affected by the decline in property values, 58 per cent are concerned that their home will lose value over the next year, 48 per cent are concerned about their ability to pay their mortgage. One in five say they don't make enough to make the bills, with another 44 per cent on top of that saying they can only just make ends meet.

Which o
f the candidates addresses these concerns? 61 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in Obama's ability to handle the economy, while 39 per cent are not too or not at all confident. 49 per cent of voters are very or somewhat confident in McCain's ability to handle the economy (only 15 say "very" against 26 for Obama). 50 per cent - one half of the electorate - say they are not confident that McCain can handle the economy.

Can I get an award for understatement by saying that McCain does not want to be seen like this at this particular point in history?

This is a big lead for Obama, and a massive weakness for McCain, on what will probably be the defining issue of the election (barring a second 9/11).

Specifically on the financial crisis, 44 per cent approve and 32 disapprove of Obama's handling of the situation - a net approval of plus 12. McCain's net approval is minus 11, with 46 per cent disapproving of his approach. On a major test of Presidential ability and a key issue for voters, Obama passes and McCain fails.

A major aspect of this question for the candidates is "whose side are you on?", and McCain has problems here because voters associate him with those factors they blame for the crisis: big business and deregulation.

Asked to what they attributed the problems in the banking industry, 46 per cent said bad business management and 27 say a lack of government oversight. On business regulation, 21 per cent say there is too much, while 45 per cent say too little. Obama and Biden have portrayed themselves as the champions of regulation, while drawing attention to McCain's record of advocating deregulation on behalf of wealthy elites. This will resonate. Asked whom each candidate ca
res more about protecting - ordinary people or large corporations - 73 per cent said Obama cared more about ordinary people (up 3 in a week) and 13 (down 3) said he cared more about the corporations. 31 per cent said McCain cared more about ordinary people (down 1) and 57 (up 5) said he cared more about the corporations.

Bottom line: this election is overwhelmingly about economic issues, and McCain has a very serious public image problem in that regard.


McCain's strong suit is supposed to be foreign policy, especially the mythical success of the recent
"surge" of extra US troops, which he and Palin claim are bringing "victory" in Iraq. But McCain's strength here is pretty marginal.

As I said last month, the US public has made up its mind about Iraq. The war has not enjoyed clear support since late 2004. Those saying it was the right thing to do have amounted to mid-forties or less as a percentage since summer 2006, with those saying the invasion should not have occurred numbering around half of voters since late 2004. Currently, 55 per cent think the invasion was wrong against 39 who say it was right, and by now that's very much the established picture. Opposing the war from the start has worked very well for Obama, and supporting it from the start is a big weakness for McCain.

But what about the surge? McCain and Palin have been relentless in demanding that Obama acknowledge the "success" of the surge and the "coming victory" in Iraq. There is no clear reason to think that this will ring true with voters. 7 per cent think the war is going well and 39 somewhat well. 51 per cent think it is going very or somewhat badly. 44 per cent think the surge has made things better but the same number think it has made things worse or had no impact (11 and 33 respectively).

Going at Obama aggressively and sarcastically on his failure to back the surge is effectively to go hard and aggressive on half the electorate. A bad move.

31 per cent of voters are very confident in McCain's decision making on Iraq, while Obama's figure is 25. But if you add those that are "very" and "somewhat confident" in the candidate's decision making its 54 for McCain and 53 for Obama, while 45 are not confident in McCain and 46 are not confident in Obama. Statistically, that's no difference at all.

Bottom line: Iraq is at best a marginal strength for McCain. In many respects, the candidates are tied.

Actually both have lost a little voter confidence on this issue in the past fortnight, but McCain has lost more.

National security

There seems to be an assumption amongst many people that US voters are in tune with right wing neo-conservativism on foreign policy, and neither know nor care what the rest of the world
thinks about their nation's actions abroad. This is factually incorrect, and if its what McCain's banking on, he's misguided.

57 per cent of voters say it is very important that the US improves its image in the world. 53 per cent think Obama will improve their national image, with 12 per cent saying it will get worse and 29 that it will have no effect. Only 23 per cent think McCain will improve America's image after the Bush years. 26 per cent think he'll make things worse and 43 think he'll have no effect.

So 69 per cent think McCain will fail on a foreign policy goal that they consider to be very important.

In respect of terrorism, will the US be safer if it confronts certain groups and countries in the Middle East or if it stays out of the Middle East's affairs? 38 per cent say the US should intervene. 51 per cent say it would be safer to stay out.

Do these American voters realise how anti-American they are?

10 per cent think Iran is a threat to the US, while 20 per cent think it is not. 61 per cent think it is a containable threat. Banging on about Ahmedinejad is not necessarily a crowd pleaser.

When asked whether they were more concerned by having tough security laws than by any erosion of civil liberties, 51 per cent of voters said they were most concerned by the loss of civil liberties against 31 who preferred tough security measures. A false choice in my view, but still, so much for the baying right-wing mob. So much for the death of liberal America.

When asked if the US should try to "democratise" other countries, or whether it should stay out of their affairs (for now lets put aside the fact that US democracy promotion is a mirage) 15 per cent said the US should intervene against 65 who said it should stay out. 65 per cent of Americans reject the central principle of neo-conservativism, yet the neo-cons call themselves patriots and their opponents anti-American.

Will McCain make the better "Commander in Chief" of the nation's military? 73 per cent (down 8 in a week) say he is very or somewhat likely to be effective in the role against 61 (down 1) that say Obama will be effective. 37 per cent (up 1) say Obama is not likely to be effective against 25 (up 6) for McCain.

So while McCain has a solid lead here, both candidates have the confidence of the majority. McCain's standing is slipping while Obama's remains unchanged. This is an issue that McCain has been pushing hard. But again, he doesn't have much of an advantage because Obama is still rated positive, not negative as McCain is rated on the economy.

The Republicans have attacked Obama for his willingness to meet with the leaders of design
ated enemy countries. This will not resonate with the electorate, 73 per cent of whom think it is a good idea to do so, while 20 per cent agree with McCain and Palin that it is not. When they paint Obama and stupid and naive for taking this stance, they only insult the public. No one likes being insulted.

In the first Presidential debate, McCain said several times "Obama doesn't understand" this or that foreign policy issue. He had clearly decided to repeat this theme over and over. But what McCain doesn't understand is that 73 per cent of voters think Obama is very or somewhat knowledgeable about foreign affairs against 22 per cent who say he is not. McCain has much more of the voters' confidence on this (87-10), but Obama is by no means disapproved of. Any weakness for Obama here is relative rather than absolute, and McCain may be overplaying his hand. His jibes are unlikely to ring true.

Here’s the strange thing. Voters rank both candidates positively but McCain more positively on foreign affairs. Yet when you ask them about the issues, they’re strongly on the side of Obama.

Bottom line: McCain's has been campaigning on the basis that Obama has a weakness on foreign policy and national security. He doesn't. McCain sometimes polls better on these issues, but Obama is not distrusted. McCain's advantage is far from clear, and this is a secondary issue for voters anyway - they care much more about the economy. Also, as we shall see below, McCain lost the presidential debate on foreign policy in the eyes of the voters.

George W Bush

Oh dear, oh dear

Lets not forget the current President. Obama and Biden certainly haven't. They've relentlessly hammered away at McCain's closeness with Bush, saying that he's voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time and saying that voting for McCain would be like voting for another 4 years like the last 8. This is a very, very strong suit for the Democrats because Bush is stupendously unpopular and you have to look at the numbers to realise how damaging this could be for McCain.

Just after 9/11 Bush's approval ratings were stratospheric. 89 per cent approved of the job he was doing and 7 per cent disapproved; a net rating of plus 82. But Bush hasn't scored net positive for nearly 3 years. In January 2005 he dropped from plus 7 to minus 3, and in the next 10 months he dropped to minus 20. By the time of the Congressional elections two years ago he was at minus 24,
and from this time last year until now he's veered between minus 31 and minus 40, with only 26 per cent of voters approving of his performance.

Bush's approval rating on foreign policy has been net negative since he beat John Kerry four years ago and now stands at minus 38. His rating on the economy is something else entirely. Since July
2003 there have only been two polls where less than half of Americans disapproved of Bush's economic performance. There was a fortnight in December that year when the figure was 43 and a fortnight in October 2004 when it was 49. Apart from that first fortnight its been net negative since April 2003 - over 5 years. It was minus 16 at the last Congressional elections in 2006, minus 21 when the credit crunch started in summer 07, and is now.....wait for it....minus sixty per cent.


If Obama were running against Bush, Bush would have handed him the keys months ago. And getting the public to memorise the slogan "McCain voted with Bush 90 per cent of the time" is an immensely powerful weapon. Why vote for more of what you clearly despise?

Bottom line: George W Bush is incredibly unpopular, and Obama can credibly link McCain closely to the Bush presidency in people's minds. This could be electoral poison for the GOP candidate.

Strength/ nature of support

So that's the state of play on the main issues. What are the implications for the standing of the two candidates? We know Obama's now ahead by 9 points (in the latest of these two CBS polls). What else do we know about how the public see him and McCain?

Obama's supporters are more enthusiastic than McCain's, which means when it comes to the crunch, they're more likely to get up off their sofas and go out to vote. 61 per cent of Obama supporters are enthusiastic about their candidate (up 8 in a week) while 29 per cent (down 4) have reservations. Only 36 per cent of McCain supporters are enthusiastic (no change) while 47 per cent (down 2) have reservations.

So on enthusiasm, Obama's net rating is plus 32 per cent and improving markedly, while McCain's is stuck on minus 11. Turnout is a big deal in elections, and it doesn't look at all good for McCain.

What difference did the first presidential debate make? Most pundits called it a draw, but voters saw it differently.

Of those who watched it 51 per cent thought Obama won, while 26 thought McCain won. Two thirds of voters said the debate had made no difference to how they'd vote, but 28 per cent were left with a better impression of Obama and 6 per cent with a worse impression of him. Against that net change of plus 22 per cent for Obama, McCain scores minus 4. While 13 per cent were left with a better impression of the Republican candidate, 17 per cent were left with a worse impression of him.

Remember that this was the foreign policy debate, supposedly McCain's strongest suit. Even here he lost more votes than he won.

Which of the two candidates is more ready to be President? This question is another supposed Obama weakness that the Republicans have been focusing on. 60 per cent say McCain is ready (down 2 in a week) against 34 who say he is not (up 4). 52 say Obama is ready (up 6) against 43 who say he is not (down 2). So McCain has a lead here, but both candidates are seen as ready for the job, and Obama is improving on this measure while McCain is slipping.

Whether or not the voters think a candidate has their interests at heart is a key question, as we could see from Sarah Palin's cringe-inducing attempts to play the ordinary gal in the vice-Presidential debate. Asked whether Obama understands their needs and problems 67 said yes and 28 said no (both up 1). For McCain, 46 said yes (down 3) and 49 said no (up 4). That's decisive for Obama and ambiguous (and getting worse) for McCain. Not good at all for the Republican, given the state of the economy.

How are the candidates seen overall? 48 per cent have a favourable view of Obama and 32 per cent have an unfavourable view; a net rating of plus 16. It was plus 13 a week previously and plus 10 a week before that.

McCain's rating is minus 3.

It was plus 3 a week previously and plus 7 a week before that.

Put another way, Obama's favourability rating amongst voters was 3 per cent better than McCain's two weeks ago (which statistically is identical); now its 19 per cent better.

Bottom line: Obama's overall support amongst voters is strong while McCain's is weak. That is to say that Obama supporters are far less likely than McCain supporters to ditch their candidate. Obama is 9 points ahead now, but he may have further to rise, while McCain may have further, perhaps much further, to fall.

Biden / Palin

Sarah Palin was supposed to be the big game changer for John McCain, and she may yet be, albeit not in the way he'd hoped.

Palin's approval rating was plus 10 two weeks ago. By the time of the VP debate it was minus 1. Joe Biden's approval has dipped, but remained solid. It was plus 21 two weeks ago, and by last Friday it was plus 15.

As with the first Obama/McCain debate, the pundits called the Biden/Palin clash a draw. This on the absurd grounds that Palin had exceeded expectations by managing to speak in coherent sentences. That's clearly an achievement for her, but not for someone who plans to be a heartbeat away from running the world's most powerful country. At least that's the view US voters apparently took, with snap polls giving the debate to Biden. Snap polls are less reliable than others, but remember that they called the Obama/McCain debate correctly.

Bottom line: choosing Palin was a reckless throw of the dice from McCain. It had to pay off in a big way. It hasn't. At best she will make no difference, but at worse she will seriously damage him. Biden, by contrast, is an asset to Obama in the public mind.

See here for more analysis on what this means for the Presidential race.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Iran and Israel: challenging the propaganda

Last Friday, the Guardian published the following letter:

"John Pilger claims that "Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad never threatened to 'wipe Israel off the map'".

There have been competing translations of his words, but it is important to note that, while a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of "informing" everyone of the "falsity" of the claim, Ahmadinejad himself has been relishing the enhanced status he enjoys in Iran and certain quarters of the Muslim world as a result of the widespread belief that he did, indeed, threaten to wipe Israel off the map. Moreover, within Iran, banners featuring the English translation that Mr Pilger disputes have been photographed draped over government buildings, as well as over Shahab-3 missiles featured in official military parades.

It seems that President Ahmadinejad is successful at satisfying two distinct audiences: those at home who believe they have a leader brave enough to call for the destruction of Israel; and those in the west who have an ideological objection to recognising that Iran has threatened Israel, no matter what the evidence to the contrary."
Adel Darwish
Director, Just Journalism

My response was published in this morning's paper:

"Adel Darwish of the pro-Israeli lobby group Just Journalism says (Letters, August 8) that "a collection of western academics and journalists have busied themselves with the task of 'informing' everyone of the 'falsity' of the claim" that Iran's president threatened to attack and destroy Israel. This is a funny way of saying that people who actually speak Farsi have offered a correct translation of Ahmadinejad's words.

Darwish neglects to mention that as soon as the mistranslation of Ahmadinejad's words began to circulate, Ayatollah Khamenei (who has ultimate authority in Iran) stated unequivocally that "the Islamic Republic has never threatened and will never threaten any country". Darwish also refrains from explaining why we should believe that a regime which has done everything to preserve itself over the past three decades should suddenly commit collective suicide by attacking Israel. All in all, it's quite a story."
David Wearing

(I've added some links in the above two letters here, for background).

The Guardian editors amended my letter so that it described Just Journalism as "pro-Israeli", where my own choice of words in the original letter was "pro-Israeli state". The distinction is material. As I've written here in another context, its important not to conflate the government and the people when talking about a given country. So for example, it is no more "pro-Britain" to support the policies of Gordon Brown's government than it is "anti-Britain" to criticise them, as though criticism of the government's actions constituted some sort of racism against the British.

The "pro Israel / anti Israel" dichotomy is essentially a propaganda tool which apologists for the Israeli government use to avoid reasoned discussion of the factual record (unsurprisingly, since the facts hardly support their political positions). As Noam Chomsky has said many times "those who call themselves "supporters of Israel" are in reality supporters of its moral degeneration".

I should have made it clear to the Guardian editors that, whatever other changes they made, I wanted to insist on the correct terminology in this instance. The amendment they've made means that the propaganda terminology has been reinforced in the public discourse, and I certainly didn't want to be responsible for that. I'm pleased that the letter was published, but still, a lesson learnt here.

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Friday, August 01, 2008

George Monbiot on a nuclear Iran

George Monbiot had a good article on the Iran nuclear issue in the Guardian earlier this week, wherein he identified the bottom line: that if Iran does want nuclear weapons, the reasons will most likely have to do with the clear security threats that it faces. Aside from the existence of Israel's nuclear weapons and those of the UNSC P5, who are obliged to disarm under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (the same treaty they wave at Iran) but refuse to do so, Monbiot could also have mentioned that Iran has Pakistan and India's weapons in its neighbourhood as well, plus US bases/allies in practically every neighbouring country and US warships in the Persian Gulf. Plus the US has invaded and occupied two of Iran's neighbours, justifying those actions with similar accusations to those now made against Tehran. And Israeli and US politicians continue to implicitly or explicitly threaten to attack Iran militarily (threats of force being illegal under the UN charter).

But I appreciate that newspaper columnists have to work within the constraints of space, and Monbiot’s article was focused on upholding the international mechanisms for non-proliferation and reminding us of Britain's own flaunted obligations in that regard. So the above isn't a criticism, more an addition to the point he was making in the article.

While I wholly agree with the main thrust of the article, I’d respectfully take issue with a couple of points Monbiot makes within his argument. He tries to portray his position as being on a sensible middle ground between Western governments who say Iran definitely does and “some anti-war campaigners” who say it definitely does not have a nuclear weapons program. But in fact he offers no challenge to the position of the former group; only to the latter. He actually seems pretty certain such a program exists, and that's a highly problematic stance.

Personally, I don’t say unequivocally that Iran does not want the bomb. I note for example Israeli historian Martin van Creveld's statement that, given the security threats mentioned above, Iran would be "crazy" not to build a nuclear weapon. But nor do I think we can state unequivocally that Iran does have a nuclear program, or even say (as Monbiot seems to) that we can pretty much assume that it does. Its important (a) to acknowledge that we don't know one way or the other, and (b) to also note the evidence that and reasons why Iran might not have such a program. These remain just as significant as the evidence that and reasons why Iran would have a weapons program. And one can't overstate the importance of looking at this particular topic in as balanced and accurate a way as possible, given what's at stake.

Monbiot accuses some anti-war folk of “clutching” at the recent US National Intelligence Estimate's (the consensus opinion of all US intelligence agencies) conclusion that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program. He points out that the NIE also said that Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are such that if it decided to start a weapons program it could do so quite swiftly. Fair enough. But its hardly valid to skip lightly over the difference between having a weapons program and not having one (but being able to start one quickly) as though the difference between the two doesn't exist at all. Moreover, Monbiot is failing to join the dots between this and his overall argument (that Iran wants the bomb as a deterrent). Whether the difference between Iran having a peaceful nuclear program and having a weapons program is a substantial one or not depends on the security environment. To the extent that the West continues to start wars all over the Middle East, fill the region with troops, military bases and aircraft carriers, arms its allies to the teeth and threaten war on anyone who challenges its hegemony, then yes, it becomes increasingly likely that the difference between a peaceful and a non-peaceful Iranian nuclear program will be an academic one. Monbiot could have drawn this into his overall argument if he'd seen what appears to me to be a fairly obvious connection.

Monbiot says that the International Atomic Energy Agency has many questions outstanding in relation to Iran's activities. But he should also have mentioned – because (as I point out above) it is not exactly irrelevant - that the IAEA has also said there is no evidence of a weapons program existing. What we cannot do is, to use Hans Blix's memorable phrase, turn question marks into exclamation marks in respect of this issue. That takes us into the same territory of false logic as the pre-Iraq war US and UK governments and the 9/11 conspiracy theorists. People are not convicted on suspicion; there’s a very good reason why the burden of proof is on the party making the accusation and not on the party being accused.

(It is also, I regret to say, a little cheap of Monbiot to declare – with an adjective substituting for a properly functioning argument - that people citing a strong source of evidence that Iran has no nuclear weapons program – the NIE - are in some way desperately “clutching” at something flimsy. When the IAEA and the NIE both tell us that Iran is not making nukes, that has a good deal of authority, and for Monbiot to challenge this he needs to offer better arguments than these)

Monbiot says, rightly in my view, that "those of us who oppose an attack on Iran are under no obligation to accept [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad's claims of peaceful intent". However, as Juan Cole has pointed out, "the [Iranian] Supreme Jurisprudent has given a fatwa against having or using nuclear weapons as illicit in Islamic law. You can't acknowledge that Iran is a dictatorial theocracy and then turn around and say that his fatwa is irrelevant."

Recall that it is the Supreme Jurisprudent, not Ahmedinejad, who in ultimate charge of Iranian government policy. Note also that Khamenei's power is not simply material; it also rests on his credibility as an Islamic cleric. To flagrantly breach his own explicit ruling would clearly diminish his clerical and therefore his political standing, and that's something he'd have to take into account if he decided that Iran should have the bomb. That's not to say he would never do it, but its a non-trivial barrier for him to overcome, which may mitigate against it happening. Again, this is not something we can simply ignore.

Monbiot asks "Why would a country with such reserves of natural gas and so great a potential for solar power suffer sanctions and the threat of bombing to make fuel it could buy from other states, if it accepted the UN's terms?" There are three answers to this.

First, it would clearly make far more economic sense for Iran to maximise the amount of oil and gas that it can sell on the international markets rather than hand out at subsidised rates to its own people. That's should be fairly plain. Yes, it could (and should) address this via renewable energy. But Iran's hardly the only nation on the planet that's woefully behind the curve on that issue.

Second, Iran may want to assume the position of "nuclear ambiguity": not having the weapons, but being in the position where its enemies are aware that it could assemble them in short order, and are deterred from attacking it as a result.

But third, and perhaps most importantly of all, the Iranian ruling class are highly ambitious; aspiring to the status of regional power in accordance with their nation's historic role. Iran's willingness to stare down the West and insist on nothing less than its entitlements under the NPT needs to be seen in that context. If you look at the rhetoric, you see a recurring theme of Iran insisting on its "rights". This subtext is key, in my view. What Tehran is really insisting on is its desired status as a serious player on the international stage. Using solar power does not offer Iran the opportunity to make this sort of a stand. The NPT does.

So I would caution against ascribing a very high degree of probability to the idea that Iran has a nuclear weapons program. Absent any certain knowledge, and with evidence pointing in both directions, Monbiot’s approach needs to be more circumspect. Those best placed to judge say there is no evidence of such a program, and much of the Iranian behaviour which Monbiot cites as indicating the existence of that program can be plausibly explained in another way. I should neither be surprised nor unsurprised to learn for certain that Iran is trying to build a bomb. The fact is that we don't know, and in my view we can't call this in either direction with any serious level of confidence. Given the dangerous nature of the current stand-off between Iran and the West, a high degree of circumspection is essential to keep the temperature of this issue at a non-threatening level.

I should conclude by saying that I acknowledge Monbiot’s sound intentions to prevent a war with Iran (which would make the bloodbath in Iraq look like a tea party) and to hold our own governments to account for their role in nuclear proliferation. But I feel that his speculation on current Iranian activities leaves a little bit to be desired. He may actually be undermining his own aims by propagating the myth that Iran definitely or almost certainly does have a nuclear weapons program. It is important to fully acknowledge the fact that this accusation is a long way from being proven; not least because many thousands of lives may depend on how that question is answered.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

Jonathan Freedland on Iran

This letter to the Guardian was sent yesterday. Didn't get published.


Understanding the perceptions of the protagonists in a dispute is crucial to any progressive approach to security issues. To explain an actor's behaviour is not to excuse it but to gain the insights we need in order to be able to prevent the worst outcomes.

Sadly, in his article on the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran, Jonathan Freedland did not take this approach ("The West Has to Tackle Iran", Guardian, 25 June 2008). Freedland should have reviewed both the Iranian and the Israeli perspectives, and critically analysed both against the known facts. Instead, he took an indulgent view of Israel's perspective and ignored the Iranian view entirely.

The threats perceived by Iran are real enough. It is bordered by two nations recently laid waste by US regime-change. It is surrounded by US bases, forces and allies. Three of its close neighbours (Pakistan, India and Israel) have US-indulged nuclear weapons capabilities outside of international jurisdiction. And US backing for Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq war is very much within living memory. Moreover, the US rejected without consideration Iran's 2003 offer of a grand bargain for peace including removal of support for Hezbollah and Hamas and support for the Arab peace plan (i.e. the two-state solution accepted by the entire world bar the US and Israel).

These are several reasons for Iran to think itself in need of nuclear weapons to deter a grave and apparently implacable threat. They are reasons that have nothing to do with Islamist extremism or the wretched Ahmedinejad's denial of the holocaust. Yet this crucial context is omitted from Freedland's article. Instead, even the most preposterous of Israeli fears are taken at face value. For example, Freedland apparently takes quite seriously the idea that an Iranian regime pragmatic enough to collaborate with the US over Afghanistan and with Israel itself over Iran-Contra is also irrational enough to commit collective suicide by attacking Israel for no reason.

Is the view of Iran as a "suicide nation" not best left to maniacs like Alan Dershowitz, rather than the Guardian's leading op-ed writers?

Freedland also makes some important omissions and employs occasionally alarming forms of logic. For example, he says that the intelligence consensus that Iran has no nuclear weapons programme will be viewed with suspicion in Israel because the Yom Kippur war came as a result of Israel underestimating the Arab threat. This sounds rather like Dick Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine", which says that if there is a one percent chance that a threat exists then the US should act as though it definitely does exist. Thus evidence and rationality are dispensed with, and replaced by fantasy and innuendo. Not the best way to make judgements that could lead to the incineration of innocent Iranian men, women children. Furthermore, it ignores the fact that Egypt attacked Israel in 1973 after several diplomatic offers of peace on the basis of Israel returning stolen Egyptian territory were summarily ignored, just like Iran's peace offer to the US and Israel in 2003 was rejected without consideration.

But perhaps the most serious omission was the very idea that Israeli "fears" may be less than are claimed. It is only 5 years since the US launched a war of aggression aimed at securing strategic advantage in the Middle East under the cloak of a manufactured "threat". By now, it should be no more than routine in any serious analysis of a US-alleged "threat" for that "threat" to be examined for the possibility that it has been inflated or manufactured for political ends. Less sane elements within the Israeli and US governments have every reason to create a pretext for knocking-out a strategic rival in the region. Indeed, this is where Cheney's "One Percent Doctrine" comes in, with its obviation of the need for proof when making allegations that excuse aggressive war.

It is extraordinary that such questions can be ignored only five years after the WMD fiasco in which, lest we forget, uncritical writing in Western newspapers played a central part. Not least since, unlike the notion of Iran committing suicide, these threats exist in the real world.

Freedland's focus is all on what the West can do about the threat others pose to us. With one in five Iraqis a refugee and one in twenty-five a corpse, perhaps a more relevant question is the threat that we pose to others. A more balanced view would have been more informative for your readers and more productive in terms of promoting peace.

Yours sincerely

David Wearing

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

What's 'appeasement'?

Last week George Bush equated US politicians who are prepared to talk to Iran or Hamas with the politicians of the 1930s who appeased Nazi Germany.

Apparently, to be a neo-conservative/liberal interventionist is to see Hitler re-incarnated every second day of the week (which has got to fray the nerves after a while, surely?). Perhaps a few of the middle-aged, post WWII generation lust for the glory of fighting a "Good War" like the one their parents' generation fought. Perhaps they feel they missed out, which is why they never miss potential opportunities to start a new war. Maybe they fell asleep in the bit of history class which pointed out that war brings hell, not glory. But then again, its never the likes of tough-talking, testosterone-junkies like George W. Bush that do the fighting and the dying anyway.

But put aside the amateur psychology, and the playground fantasy that second tier nations like Iran, and ragtag guerrilla outfits like Hamas, which can be vaporised by the US at the push of a button, bear some comparison with the Nazi superpower that came within inches of dominating the Earth in the early 1940s. What do we actually mean by 'appeasement'?

As you can see in this clip, a lot of the people who throw the term around in politics haven't the first idea of what the appeasement analogy refers to. This right wing radio talk show host is asked repeatedly what it was that Neville Chamberlain did in the 1930s that was wrong: ie. what is this 'appeasement' that he comdemns people for engaging in? He hasn't a clue.


Chris Matthews puts it succinctly. Appeasement wasn't talking to Hitler; it was giving him half of Czechoslovakia. The problem was not negotiations, but the positions taken, and the outcome. Appeasement in the 1930s was a misguided policy because the calculation that Hitler could be bought off was made in error.

"Appeasement" is the attempt to mollify an aggressive and expansionist power by letting it have some of what it wants (even if that is unjust), in the hope that it might then forget about or modify its greater demands. After 9/11 Tony Blair felt that an aggressive US foreign policy was a new reality that the world was simply going to have to live with. Various insider accounts appear to indicate that he felt he was the man to curb Washington's worst excesses in this regard. Well, if you want an example of appeasement, that would be it. But to be honest, I think this gives too much credit to Blair, who was not the cautionary conscience of Bush-Cheney expansionism but its booster and enabler.

Going back to Chamberlain, it is too easily forgotten that only twenty years before the infamous Munich conference, Europe lay in ruins at the end of World War I. Britain and France lost around one in forty of their populations in the "war to end all wars". The fact that the bulk of the casualties came from men of military age meant that a large part of a crucial section of the population was simply lost to both countries. This catastrophe set the scene for another; the mismanaged attempt to re-order the world economy that led to the global depression of the late twenties and early thirties, which in turn facilitated the rise of fascism. It was an age of disaster-upon-disaster, the like of which had never been seen and probably could not even have been imagined when Chamberlain entered politics at the start of the 20th century.

The tragedy is that the efforts of the "appeasers'" to avoid another bloodbath only ended up precipitating the greatest one of all (so far). But it seems to me that to focus on their failed tactics while ignoring their motives is to ignore the relevant history, that the opprobrium flung in their direction by historical illiterates is perhaps not entirely deserved, and that it will take a bigger man than George W Bush to qualify as a credible critic of men who, however misguided, were working desperately to avert a cataclysm. Those who weild the appeasement analogy, believing that it gives them some claim to the moral high ground, should remember that trying to stop wars is a good deal more honourable a pursuit than trying to start them.

Here's Juan Cole on the "Crock of Appeasement".

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Saturday, December 15, 2007

So Condi, how's that "moderate" Arab, anti-Iran alliance shaping up?

If you know a little, but not a lot, about the Middle East at the moment, you know the Sunni hate the Shia and the Shia hate the Sunni.

If you know a little more than that, but still not a lot, you might be able to identify which regimes are Shia and which are Sunni.

Those people with that little amount of knowledge are probably the ones who'll tell you that the "moderate" Sunni Arab regimes ("moderate" means close to Washington) are asking the US to help them defend themselves against Iran. That, we’re told, is the scenario in the Middle East at the moment.

Here’s an example.

Early last week the normally understated, soft-spoken US Defence Secretary Robert Gates made some uncharacteristically bellicose statements about Iran. Iran, he said, should remember that "imperial Germany, imperial Japan, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the Soviet Union - all made this fatal miscalculation [of misunderestimating the US]. All paid the price. All are on the ash heap of history".

Recall that it was Gates that apparently led the efforts to push through the publication of the recent National Intelligence Estimate which said that Iran had no nuclear weapons programme after all, thus undercutting the warmongering of Vice-President Cheney and his allies. Plainly this public debacle made the US look weak; afraid of the consequences of a war with Iran (which Gates and more intelligent imperialists certainly are). This will never do. Gates’ fiery outburst was probably his way of overcompensating for any perception of weakness that might result from his leading the US retreat.

Gary Samore of the US Council on Foreign Relations has his own interpretation. For him, Gates' rhetoric was intended to reassure Washington's "moderate" Sunni allies. "The Gulf states are insecure and resentful but they are in a very weak position" Samore explained. "Gates had to reassure them that the US was not giving up on Iran after the NIE."

This is very much of a piece with the standard political correctness. The US is not seeking to dominate a continent on the other side of the planet from Washington for reasons as grubby as its own power and strategic advantage. No, Washington’s actions are defensive. It is defending its allies, defending its “national interests” or whatever. Well trained intellectuals, journalists and commentators have internalised this script to the extent that the merest idea of US power being aggressive – of the intrinsically aggressive nature of imposing our will on others – is, literally, unthinkable.

So if the “moderates” want us to defend them from the extremists, if in the backward Muslim world the Sunnis and Shia are gripped by an implacable, interminable blood feud which only the good offices of the civilised West can possibly control, how do the likes of Samore and others explain this photo?

It doesn’t get more Shia and “extremist” than the cartoon bogeyman of Western liberals Mahmoud Ahmadinajad, and it doesn’t get more Sunni and “moderate” than King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia (you can forget for a moment that “moderate” Saudi Arabia somehow succeeds in being even more tyrannical than Ahmadinajad’s Iran - western liberals certainly have). And yet, here they are, holding hands. Abdullah doesn’t look very “insecure and resentful” to me. He looks so relaxed and confortable you’d think Ahmedinejad was George Bush.

Ahmadinejad was meeting with leaders of the (“moderate” Sunni) Gulf Cooperation Council; the first Iranian President ever to do so. He came offering free trade deals and a regional security pact. His hosts praised his “gestures of goodwill”, saying they wanted to “develop our relations for the sake of regional stability”.

Hang on. Doesn’t “regional stability” involve lining up with Washington to isolate Iran? How does developing relations fit in to that? How isolated is Iran going to feel when it develops relations with a regional block that wields twice the investment clout of China?

And what’s this? The BBC now reports that "Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will this week become the first sitting president of the Islamic republic to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca, his office said."

"It follows a formal invitation from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, seat of the Islamic holy places and a long-time regional rival of revolutionary Iran."

"An official said the invitation was an important event in Saudi-Iranian ties."

""It is the first time in the history of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the king of this country invites a president of the Islamic republic to make the pilgrimage to Mecca," said presidential aide Ali Akbar Javanfekr."

Whatever script Gary Samore’s been reading, someone obviously forgot to email it to the colonies.

So what does all this tell us? Well, lesson one is that US claims to be performing a species of altruistic missionary work in the Middle East, protecting its “moderate” friends from the Iranian bogeyman, is a self-serving spin on what are strictly imperialistic machinations serving narrow self-interest. Lesson two: these small states that most commentators couldn’t find on a map have their own interests that are defined by their own realities, not the whims of Washington. Lesson three is that, increasingly, Washington is losing its power to bring these states into line.

And if there’s a lesson four, its that an interpretation of events that is useful to power can become an established truth even when it bears no relation whatsoever to the facts.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

US u-turn on Iranian nuclear weapons

A couple of points about this week's US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) - a report from all the US government spy agencies - which said that Iran does not have a nuclear weapons programme.

Firstly, note that this simply echoes what the International Atomic Energy Agency has been saying for some time, only to be ignored by Western policymakers, commentators and the media. That there was a "threat" from an Iranian nuclear weapons programme remained the conventional wisdon across the political spectrum until the US government said otherwise. This tells us a great deal about the discipline and respect of authority that runs right through mainstream politics.
You would think that the US government was a neutral assessor of the truth, whose judgements were in no way coloured by its own interests. You would think that the IAEA inspectors were peripheral, ignorant, hopelessly biased or irrelevant. You would think that the Iraq WMD fiasco never happened; an instance where Western governments and spy agencies colluded to distort and lie about the information available while the international bodies stuck by the truth and were vindicated in their judgement. Government's should take heart from this. Iraq changed nothing. If you want to nominate an official enemy as a "security threat" simply say the word and the echo chamber will do the rest, until you say otherwise.

The second point concerns the state of play in Washington at the moment. As I say, the NIE is not a neutral assessment. Its a political assessment made by an actor with its own interests. The question then is, why is it now decided in such a high-profile, high-level fashion that saying Iran has a nuclear weapons programme no longer suits US interests? Remember that two years ago the NIE said with equal "high confidence" that Iran did have such a programme, which the spys now say was actually abandoned in 2003. So why the U-turn?

The answers to those questions mostly come down to who's in the driving seat in Washington at the moment. What we seem to be seeing now is the neo-cons around Cheney being eclipsed by the "Realists" around Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

In 2002 those pushing for war on Iraq (the neo-cons) were in the ascendency. They could ensure that an NIE emerged which suited their purposes in respect of its assessment of Iraq's WMD capabilities. Things are very different now. Cheney and Bush may want war but Gates and Rice do not, and it seems the the intelligence and defence bureaucracies are aligned with the latter camp. Neo-cons Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Feith, Perle etc are all gone, so the Realists' hand is strengthened. Gates' apparently played a big part in getting this NIE published, and he will have been helped by an intelligence bureaucracy that contains many who actively loathe Cheney and his neo-con "crazies" (as the Realists call privately refer to them). For them, this will be revenge for the way the neo-cons bullied them to come up with the "right answers" over Iraq.

The NIE doesn't give the definitive assessment on the available evidence of an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. That's given by the IAEA. What the NIE gives is an indication of what Washington wants at the moment. Those able to define what Washington wants are by definition those in the political ascendency. An NIE that says Iran has no nuclear programme is an indication that the neo-cons are routed and the Realists are in command. The Realists understand that an attack on Iran would elicit a response that would make Iraq look like a tea-party. So they have removed Cheney's major casus belli.

Make no mistake, this is an almighty kick in the nuts for the Vice President. And indeed for Bush whose statements after the NIE have been humiliatingly incoherent even by his standards. Its possible that neither man will recover from what has effectively been a miniature bureaucratic coup.

Time precludes me from writing more about this, but the best place to go for more info and comment on this will certainly be Paul Woodward's indispensible site War in Context. For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my article "The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Iran threat - exchange with George Monbiot

My email to George Monbiot:

George - thank you for an excellent piece in today's Guardian drawing attention to the great unmentionable in respect of WMD in the Middle East: Israel's nuclear weapons.

Given how important it is for this subject to be raised prominently in a mainstream newspaper, I'm reluctant to find fault with what you've written. However, there are a couple of aspects of your piece which I think will counteract what I suspect is your aim, i.e. to help the campaign against a war on Iran. I refer to instances where you reinforce some of the erroneous assumptions upon which the drive to war is based.

First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone – especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?

The limits of our empirical knowledge of Iran's nuclear program are set by the findings of the IAEA. The agency has, after several surprise and intrusive inspections consistent with the NPT (it is the Additional Protocol, not the treaty, that Iran has withdrawn co-operation from) stated in its latest report (as it has many times previously) that it has no evidence of the "diversion" of enrichment activities towards a weapons programme.

I refer you to this informative commentary from Farideh Farhi on the dissonace between what the IAEA report said and how the media have been reporting it.

Second, it should be noted (though it never is) that Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued a religious ruling banning the construction and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

Now of course, Khamenei, like any other powerful person, is perfectly capable of telling untruths. But when a person whose authority flows from his religious piety issues a ruling that impacts on his own behaviour he stakes not only his credibility but his power on his adherence to that ruling. Few people have ever accused members of the Tehran regime of being indifferent to personal power. So one has to admit that the existence of this explicit fatwa at the very least reduces by a significant degree the likelihood of Khamenei subsequently authorising an Iranian nuclear weapons programme.

This highlights a further point, scrupulously ignored by those who favour war: that it is Khamenei, not Ahmadinejad, who is in ultimate charge in Iran. It is he who has the last word on foreign and security policy. Indeed, one might well argue, with reference to Iran's complex political hierarchy, that Ahmadinejad is not even second in command.

Yet in your article, you say: "Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state". It is by no means true that Iran is "under" Ahmadinejad. Ahmadinejad does not have the power to start wars, for example.

You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel." Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.

Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - odious Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts.

Two more things should be mentioned on this point. First, even if we dismiss the available evidence and believe in the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program, do we really suppose that Iran would consider for a moment the idea of initiating a war against an Israel armed with x amount of warheads and therefore also against the US with its many thousands of warheads? By what rationale do we argue that the Iranian regime wishes to commit suicide?

Secondly, noting that it is Khamenei that runs Iranian foreign policy, not Ahmadinejad, should we not acknowledge that Khamenei was "
directly involved" in formulating and proposing a comprehensive peace deal to the US and Israel, including acceptance of a two-state solution?

You see, then, why I believe these turns of phrase in your article to be problematic. Iran has no proven nuclear weapons programme, and is governed ultimately by a man who has forbidden the construction of nuclear weapons and who has offered to accept a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict. Yet your article gives the impression that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme and is run by a man who may wish to use the weapons he is constructing to destroy Israel.

Any hawk would be delighted that even The Guardian's George Monbiot is prepared to give this impression to his readers - and that’s a big shame given the excellent points you make in your article regarding Israel's nuclear weapons.

As you know, it is when someone at your end of the spectrum accepts the claims of power that those claims pass from points of view or allegations into accepted and unquestionable truths. Its a sad irony that I should be making this point in respect of this article, since your aim was plainly to challenge some of the received wisdom on this issue. However, unfortunately, you have reinforced many other aspects of the received wisdom in doing so. I wonder - is there any chance of your offering a corrective in a future piece?

I hope you accept these criticisms in the constructive and fraternal spirit in which they were intended. Because the issues raised deserve airing beyond private correspondence I am publishing this email on my website. I look forward to any reply from you and would be happy to post that on my site as well, with your permission.

Best wishes

David Wearing

Reply from George Monbiot:

Hi David, thanks for your message. No time for long reply, but v briefly:

[dw - George quotes my original email]

"First, you say that "I believe that Iran is trying to acquire the bomb". May I ask what the basis of this belief is? Do you think that reliance on "belief" can be an adequate position for anyone - especially a Western newspaper commentator - to take on such a serious issue? Given the potentially cataclysmic dangers inherent in any US-Iran war, should we not confine ourselves strictly to the facts and, where there are gaps in our knowledge, admit to our ignorance rather than filling the gaps with "belief"?"

Well, what do you think is going on? Why the insistence on enriching uranium? Why the long drawn-out dance with the IAEA? What do you think this is about (from latest IAEA report):

"Contrary to the decisions of the Security Council, Iran has not suspended its enrichment related activities, having continued the operation of PFEP and FEP. Iran has also continued the construction of the IR-40 and operation of the Heavy Water Production Plant."

Given the huge diplomatic and economic costs of Iran's nuclear programme, it looks to me as if it intends to derive a major benefit from it. Generating electricity does not seem to me to be sufficient, given that it has other readily available means (some of the world's largest natural gas reserves). I can't prove that it's seeking to develop a bomb, but I believe it is.

[dw - again, Geroge quotes my original email]

"You go on to say that "The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Of the problematic turns of phrase in your article, this is possibly the most serious. I'm sure you're aware that Ahmadinejad never threatened to "wipe Israel from the map", as the hawks often claim. But your choice of words - in its formulation of an Iranian nuclear threat - is functionally identical to that disproven "wiped off the map" claim.

Let us be clear. Ahmadinejad - wretched Holocaust denier though he undoubtedly is - has never threatened or advocated the physical, violent destruction of Israel. He has advocated the dissolution of what he views as an unjust regime, similar to the dissolution of the Shah's regime in Iran and the Soviet regime in Russia, neither of which resulted in either of those countries being "wiped off the map". He has advocated a single democratic state for Jews and Palestinians on all of mandate Palestine. You imply (whether you mean to or not) that he threatens a holocaust to destroy Israel. In reality, he calls for an election to dissolve it and effect a one-state solution. Believe him or don't. View his idea as foolish if you like. But lets at least acknowledge the facts."

I'm well aware that "wiped off the map" was a mistranslation. But if we are to use Juan Cole as our source, look at his translation of the same passage:

"The Imam said that this regime occupying Jerusalem (een rezhim-e ishghalgar-e qods) must [vanish from] from the page of time (bayad az safheh-ye ruzgar mahv shavad)."

Does that not suggest that Ahmadinejad is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel? What other regime did he have in mind? Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it.

See these too, which I am sorry to say come from Wikipedia:

"A synopsis of Mr Ahmadinejad's speech on the Iranian Presidential website states:

He further expressed his firm belief that the new wave of confrontations generated in Palestine and the growing turmoil in the Islamic world would in no time wipe Israel away.[23]

The same idiom in his speech on December 13, 2006 was translated as "wiped out" by Reuters:

Just as the Soviet Union was wiped out and today does not exist, so will the Zionist regime soon be wiped out.[24]"


"In a speech given on 14 December 2005 in the city of Zahedan, and carried live on Iranian television, Ahmadinejad made the following comments:Why have they come to the very heart of the Islamic world and are committing crimes against the dear Palestine using their bombs, rockets, missiles and sanctions. [...] The same European countries have imposed the illegally-established Zionist regime on the oppressed nation of Palestine. If you have committed the crimes so give a piece of your land somewhere in Europe or America and Canada or Alaska to them to set up their own state there. Then the Iranian nation will have no objections, will stage no rallies on the Qods Day and will support your decision.[64]"

I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel.

We are both against an attack on Iran. But I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government.

With best wishes, George


My response:

Hi George. I'm grateful for your response. Thank you.

Let me address your last paragraph first, where you say

"I do not understand how the case against an attack is strengthened by seeking to whitewash the Iranian government"

I'm tempted to now write a long paragraph in flowery language listing and denouncing the many crimes of the Iranian government in order to prove my moral decency. But there is no need for this because the question of my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government" does not arise, and there is no basis - none - for your suggesting that it does. What I have done is simply to insist on the facts. The factual record by itself condemns the Tehran regime to hell and back several times over. There's no need for anything else.

You've noticed that my position on this issue is informed greatly by Juan Cole. When discussing the "wiped off the map" issue, Cole said: "I personally despise everything Ahmadinejad stands for, not to mention the odious Khomeini, who had personal friends of mine killed so thoroughly that we have never recovered their bodies."

Despite these personal circumstances, Cole still absolutely insists on the facts regarding Iran, however those individual facts happen to reflect on the Iranian government. I think that sets a fine example to the rest of us.

It would be nice if you could retract your statement about my "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government".

Does Iran have a nuclear weapons programme? There are good reasons for believing it may do. Iran lives in the neighbourhood of a nuclear Israel, Pakistan and India. A nuclear armed United States is committed to regime change in Tehran. The US has occupied Iran's neighbours Iraq and Afghanistan. There are also US forces and allies surrounding Iran in the Gulf, the Emirates, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Pakistan. The last time the current ideological trend was in the White House they backed Saddam in war that nearly destroyed Iran. If Iran wants nuclear weapons in those circumstances, then we hardly need fantasies about Iran wishing to commit collective suicide by launching a pointless attack on Israel (and therefore de facto the US) to explain the reasons why. Iran has very compelling reasons indeed for starting a weapons programme.

However, there are also compelling reasons for believing it may not have such a programme. Like the fact that the Supreme Leader has effectively staked his religious credibility and therefore the essence of his power on their not building nuclear weapons. Like the fact that the empirical evidence points to there not being a weapons programme.

Why insist on enriching uranium when you're rich in gas and oil? Well why squander that wealth in domestic consumption when oil prices are astronomically high? Sensible economics would surely dictate that you maximise the amount of oil and gas for sale on the world market, no?

Why insist on enrichment in defiance of the UNSC? Well why wouldn't any small country insist on their rights under the NPT if it felt it could (Tehran seems to be banking, perhaps overconfidently, on Moscow and Beijing's eternal backing)? Why instead accept being walked over by the permanent nuclear states? Maybe this is just a state seeking to maximise its utility in the normal course of things.

Why the "long-drawn out dance with the IAEA"? Well ask North Korea. After a lot of bluster, Washington was finally forced to do a deal with Pyongyang. Iran tried to do a deal with the US in 2003. A generous deal from the Iranian point of view. The US responded by chastising the Swiss diplomat who brought them the letter from Tehran. Well now Tehran has a lot more bargaining chips, and its not giving them up lightly. That's a possible interpretation. You don't need actual nuclear weapons to be taken seriously on the world stage - just the threat that you might get them soon unless people play nice with you.

So there are many strong reasons to suppose that there is and that there isn't an Iranian nuclear weapons programme. My point is simply that it is not remotely adequate to skip lightly over all this complexity and just say you "believe" the programme exists. What's more, given the real threat of war, doing so is highly irresponsible - especially from someone in your position. Why not just acknowledge the fact that we don't know whether Iran is aiming to build nuclear weapons? That's not "whitewashing". Just a fair reflection of reality.

On Israel, you say:

"Of course, being opposed to the state doesn't mean he intends to destroy it."

This is precisely my point. Ahmadinejad's cretinous utterences on the Israel-Palestine issue are irrelevant to the question of Iranian nuclear weapons. You referred to his position specifically as constituting a threat to Israel. This is silly. Ahmadinejad has not threatened to destroy Israel. He and the Iranian government government have repeatedly said that they do not intend to attack Israel. Iran has offered to accept the Arab plan for a two state solution. Ahmadinejad does not even run Iranian foreign policy. And even if none of those things were true, by what rationale are we to suppose that Iran wishes to commit suicide by pointlessly attacking Israel (which would mean de facto attacking the US)?

You say:

"I think you would have to stretch things somewhat to argue to MA is not opposed to the existence of Israel."

I argued nothing of the kind. And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security. This is doing the war-party's job for it. I know that was the opposite of your intention with yesterday's article, which is why I thought it worth mentioning it to you.

Again, I'm very grateful for your response and would more than welcome any further reply. Since you didn't say otherwise when I asked, I'm assuming you have no objections to my making this exchange public on my website.

Best wishes



Reply from George Monbiot:

Dear David,

"And you did not simply argue that MA is opposed to the existence of Israel. You went far beyond that, suggesting that he was a threat to Israel's security."

Where and when?



My response:

Hi George

You said:

"Yes, Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a dangerous and unpredictable state involved in acts of terror abroad. The president is a Holocaust denier opposed to the existence of Israel."

Is the second sentence not intended to support the statement that Iran "under Ahmadinejad" (which it isn't - its "under" Khamenei, if anyone) is "dangerous"?

If not, I think it this part of the article could have been better expressed.

Best wishes


p.s. it really would be nice if you could retract your statement that I am "seeking to whitewash the Iranian government", unless you can point to where and when I've done this of course.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

"Israel’s foreign minister: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel"

Yes, you did read that right

Israel’s foreign minister: Iran nukes pose little threat to Israel

By Gidi Weitz and Na’ama Lanski, Haaretz, October 25, 2007

"Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said a few months ago in a series of closed discussions that in her opinion that Iranian nuclear weapons do not pose an existential threat to Israel, Haaretz magazine reveals in an article on Livni to be published Friday."

"Livni also criticized the exaggerated use that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is making of the issue of the Iranian bomb, claiming that he is attempting to rally the public around him by playing on its most basic fears."

Of course, we don't need Livni to tell us that the idea of Iran being able to wipe Israel off the map is a ridiculous fantasy. In the article linked to in my last post on this blog, Fareed Zakaria illustrates the essential ludicrousness of that idea.

But if true, these revelations show the depths the Israeli state is prepared to sink to for its own end. For has not the spectre of Israel's nuclear annihilation been linked implicitly and explicitly to the horrors of the Nazi holocaust? And if those who raise such fears know themselves that they are unfounded, is this not the most cynical exploitation of one of the greatest tragedies in all history? Does this not expose the idea that the Israeli state is the sole defender of world Jewry as an obscene sham? Can one imagine a more eloquent expression of sheer contempt for Hitler's victims, a more brazen assault on their memory, than to make political use of their corpses?

As to the implications for political debate in the west, Paul Woodward of the excellent "War in Context" site comments:

"While George Bush warns the world that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to World War III, Israel’s foreign minister says, behind closed doors — in other words in a situation where she means what she says — that Iranian nuclear weapons would not pose an existential threat to Israel."

"This should be banner headline news. The Washington press corp should be hounding administration officials, demanding an explanation for this utterly glaring clash of perspectives. Instead, what do we get? Silence."

"This is what things have come down to: We live in a state where the dissemination of information is controlled much more efficiently than it was in the Soviet Union. At least the Russians understood they were being lied to. Most Americans, on the other hand, are completely ignorant of the incestuous relationship between the press and the government. In this system shaped by unspoken agreements, there is no need for some clumsy Ministry of Information. All the managing editors of the major outlets can be relied upon to shape their products (within an acceptable latitude) in alignment with political and commercial power — even when that means that they knowingly makes themselves instruments of an altogether avoidable disaster. They will plead that they are merely messengers, yet they are no less culpable than the lunatics in political office. They choose what to report and what to ignore."

And so, with the truth in clear view for anyone that wants to see it (or report it), we inch closer to the only catastrophe that was ever really on the cards: a US war on Iran.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The End of the World is Nigh

Fareed Zakaria writes in Newsweek:

"At a meeting with reporters last week, President Bush said that "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing [Iran] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." These were not the barbs of some neoconservative crank or sidelined politician looking for publicity. This was the president of the United States, invoking the specter of World War III if Iran gained even the knowledge needed to make a nuclear weapon."

"The American discussion about Iran has lost all connection to reality. Norman Podhoretz, the neoconservative ideologist whom Bush has consulted on this topic, has written that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is "like Hitler … a revolutionary whose objective is to overturn the going international system and to replace it in the fullness of time with a new order dominated by Iran and ruled by the religio-political culture of Islamofascism." For this staggering proposition Podhoretz provides not a scintilla of evidence."

"Here is the reality. Iran has an economy the size of Finland's and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion. It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century. The United States has a GDP that is 68 times larger and defense expenditures that are 110 times greater. Israel and every Arab country (except Syria and Iraq) are quietly or actively allied against Iran. And yet we are to believe that Tehran is about to overturn the international system and replace it with an Islamo-fascist order? What planet are we on?"

Read the rest here. If you're yet to be persuaded that the purpose of this increasingly hysterical rhetoric is to prepare the ground for a possible war, you may be interested in this interview in Esquire:
"Two former high-ranking policy experts from the Bush Administration say the U.S. has been gearing up for a war with Iran for years, despite claiming otherwise. It'll be Iraq all over again."

"In the years after 9/11, Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann worked at the highest levels of the Bush administration as Middle East policy experts for the National Security Council. Mann conducted secret negotiations with Iran. Leverett traveled with Colin Powell and advised Condoleezza Rice. They each played crucial roles in formulating policy for the region leading up to the war in Iraq. But when they left the White House, they left with a growing sense of alarm -- not only was the Bush administration headed straight for war with Iran, it had been set on this course for years. That was what people didn't realize. It was just like Iraq, when the White House was so eager for war it couldn't wait for the UN inspectors to leave. The steps have been many and steady and all in the same direction. And now things are getting much worse. We are getting closer and closer to the tripline, they say."
Read the rest here. And see my earlier posts giving background on the Iran situation here, here, and my radio interview on the subject with Nadim Mahjoub here.

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Thursday, September 06, 2007


I'm going to be abroad until the last week of September, so its very unlikely that I'll post anything til then. If you want to contact me it might be better to wait until I get back. The Diary's email address gets a lot of spam and genuine emails seem to get mixed in amongst all that in the Bulk folder. I might not have time to fish your message out of there before its lost forever, so if it can wait please get in touch after 24th.

As ever, I highly recommend, Juan Cole's Informed Comment for a daily briefing and expert analysis on all things Middle East, Paul Woodward's War In Context for a daily round-up of global news stories relating to the "war on terror", and Tony Karon and Tom Englehardt for some of the best written and most thoughtful analysis around. For UK-specific stuff, it doesn't get any better than UKWatch, and a sharp and informed blog by the tenacious young Jamie Stern-Weiner is definitely one to watch.

One more thing, it appears that US Vice President Dick Cheney has issued "instructions" to friendly media, think tanks and general opinion formers to commence in earnest the propaganda campaign for massive airstrikes on Iran, as of this month. This will mirror the now-legendary campaign of deception - which also commenced at the start of the political season, September 2002 - that led to the invasion of Iraq.

Our task is not just to counter this propaganda campaign but also to ensure that the propagandists are not allowed to frame the debate as they were last time. Last time the equation placed in people's minds was "Iraqi WMD equals war", irrespective of the plain fact that a crippled, impoverished Saddam posed no threat to international security with or without WMD. This time it'll be "Iranian nuclear power equals nuclear holocaust" and "Iranian involvement in Iraq equals casus belli for massive air strikes". Simple points need to be remembered when countering this:
  • Iran will never launch an aggressive war to "wipe Israel off the map" when Israel has 200plus nuclear weapons, its sugar daddy the US has enough to obliterate the planet, and Iran has nothing, or next to nothing. Iran is not going to commit suicide. In any case, Ahmadinejad, never threatened to "wipe Israel off the map". He never said it. Its a bit of hysteria that's been got up out of thin air. Thousands of Iranians should not be slaughtered over a translation error - one which has already been corrected for the benefit of anyone interested in the truth.
  • There is no prospect of Iran "dominating" the Middle East. Iran is not a security threat. It is (a) militarily weak and (b) has to live in that region and so needs it stable. The biggest security threat in the region is the US and Israel, the two sides with both WMD and the worst recent history of aggression.

For more on this see my recent, "Still Time for War With Iran" which cautions that the prospect of a war should not be written off lightly, "The Iranian Hostage Crisis in Context" which describes the strategic issues from the Iranian perspective, and my interview on Resonance FM's Middle East Panorama, where I talked about that a little more.

That's all. Back in a few weeks, when you'll see a review of Britain's occupation of southern Iraq.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Still Time For War With Iran

Monday’s Guardian cites Washington sources who believe that military action against Iran is still being given serious consideration by the White House. It had been thought that administration figures such as Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates had persuaded President Bush to put less emphasis on the military option. Today’s report suggests that the pro-war camp, led by Vice-President Dick Cheney, is now winning the internal argument.

It would appear that reports of the
death of the Bush/Cheney Presidency have been greatly exaggerated. The world has eighteen months of this administration left to endure and little reason to assume that the incumbents intend to go quietly.


This latest report comes after news last week that a third US aircraft-carrier battle group – led by the USS Enterprise - is now on its way to the Persian Gulf

As the
Guardian reported, "The Fifth fleet battle group will join what is already the US Navy's biggest show of force in the Gulf since the Iraq war began in 2003."

If this looks like sabre-rattling, that's because it is. The US Navy says that ""[The carrier] Enterprise provides navy power to counter the assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour of some countries".

"Some countries", meaning Iran?

""These operations are not specifically aimed at Iran ... we consider this time unprecedented in terms of the amount of insecurity and instability in the region," Denise Garcia, a navy spokeswoman, said, citing Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan."

Well since Somalia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan all have US backed regimes in place, I think we can safely assume that the US doesn't see any of them as countries that need aircraft carrier battle groups on their doorstep to curb their "assertive, disruptive and coercive behaviour". In fact, we might almost take Washington’s bothering with no more than a derisory, half-assed denial as tantamount to confirmation that this show of force is indeed aimed at Iran. One thing we know about this administration is that when it really wants to
lie about something, its prepared to make a considerable effort.

The Pentagon says that the Enterprise is being sent as a replacement for one of the carriers currently stationed in the Gulf, and that there will be no overlap where there are three carriers off the coast of Iran simultaneously. But of course, the fact that the Enterprise is now heading to the Gulf means that precisely such an overlap will become an option for the US in the very near future.

There had also been talk of a third carrier battle group arriving in the Gulf earlier in the year but, according to historian and analyst
Gareth Porter, the idea was stamped on by Admiral William Fallon, then Bush's nominee to head the Central Command (CENTCOM) region which includes the Middle East. According to Porter's sources Fallon "vowed privately [that] there would be no war against Iran as long as he was chief of CENTCOM".

Porter continued: "Fallon's refusal to support a further naval buildup in the Gulf reflected his firm opposition to an attack on Iran and an apparent readiness to put his career on the line to prevent it. A source who met privately with Fallon around the time of his confirmation hearing and who insists on anonymity quoted Fallon as saying that an attack on Iran "will not happen on my watch".

Asked how he could be sure, the source says, Fallon replied, "You know what choices I have. I'm a professional." Fallon said that he was not alone, according to the source, adding, "There are several of us trying to put the crazies back in the box.""

The problem is that "the crazies" include
Cheney, perhaps the most powerful vice-president in US history, probably more powerful than Bush, certainly more powerful than Fallon, and a law completely unto himself. The recent sight of Cheney standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier 150 miles from the Iranian coast, bellowing threats at Tehran, need not be seen as a display of over-compensation for strategic impotence, as Iran takes advantage of Western blunders to extend its power across the region. Don't imagine for a moment that Cheney will tolerate the Iranian advance, or that he won't be prepared to consider extreme measures (even, according to Seymour Hersh, the nuclear option) to either put Tehran back in its box or even to topple the government there altogether. Regime change in Tehran is a long-standing mission of Cheney's cabal, and the urgency of that task from their point of view has increased massively in recent years, in direct proportion to Iran’s regional empowerment.

Imperial credibility

Recall that the neo-conservative plan was to forge a new Middle East settlement on the anvil of US military power. Iraq was to be a demonstration act (in that sense, a classic case of terrorism) with those who failed to collapse at the masters feet, quivering with "shock and awe", to be dealt with in subsequent exertions of industrial-scale violence. The result was to be a region transformed into one populated entirely by client states and dotted with US military bases. China, India and other global powers would be left having to accept access to desperately needed energy reserves on Washington's terms, and global dominance would be secured for a “
New American Century”.

Instead, the invasion of Iraq has been a demonstration, not of America's power but of its impotence, with the greatest military machine in all history humiliated by a few thousand tribesmen and ex-Iraqi Army personnel, augmented by a small but lethal cadre of foreign fanatics and armed only with improvised explosives and relatively light arms. To suffer defeat in such circumstances is no small matter for a global hegemon. Power after all depends on "credibility", that is to say, others believing in your readiness and ability to subject them to your will, brutally if necessary.
Michael Ledeen – a scholar close to the Bush administration – is reported to have put it this way: "Every ten years or so the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business". After Iraq, Cheney et al must be more conscious than ever of the need to send such a message to the world.

Washington's thinking in the wake of 9/11 provides an illuminating precedent.
Mark Danner notes that "Henry Kissinger, a confidant of the President, when asked by Bush's speechwriter why he had supported the Iraq war, responded: "Because Afghanistan was not enough." The radical Islamists, he said, want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them."

In other words, the presiding image of the war on terror — the burning towers collapsing on the television screen — had to be supplanted by another, the image of American tanks rumbling proudly through a vanquished Arab capital."

So what of the current image: of countless US soldiers "
burning in their tanks" to borrow the sinister phrase of the long forgotton Ba'ath propagandist "Comical Ali"? What of the image of an imperial hyperpower so unable to effectively subjugate a crippled third world country than it now finds itself trying - and failing - to re-conquer the capital city, over four years after President Bush declared “major combat operations” to be at an end? What new image, in the minds of statesmen like Kissinger and Cheney, will be needed to replace these in the interests of maintaining imperial prestige and “credibility”? “Shock and awe” in Tehran?

They wouldn’t, would they?

In arguing that such a move is unlikely, three principle arguments tend to be made. The first is that the US is tied down in Iraq with barely enough troops to lose that war, let alone start another. But from what is known or reasonably suspected of the
Iran plans, there is no suggestion of a major troop deployment, much less a boots-on-the-ground occupation. The US Army may be tied down in Iraq, but the Navy and Air Force are not, and it is they – it is said – that will lead the assault, in the hope that the ensueing chaos will prompt US-friendly elements within Iran to rise up and remove the leadership. Recall that it was mainly US air power and Special Forces, allied to local elements, that overthrew the Taliban in the autumn of 2001.

Secondly, it is argued that with Iraq forcing Bush’s poll ratings to historically low levels the White House could not possibly sanction another war. But Bush and Cheney are not up for re-election, so unpopularity can do little more than hurt their feelings. Furthermore, when the Republicans got a thumping in the congressional elections of November last year – which was widely understood as a message from the voters to draw down or end altogether the US involvement in Iraq – the White House responded by increasing troop numbers. This is an administration quite happy to do as it pleases. US casualties in any air war on Iran are likely to be low. And
leading Democrats may well support air strikes. So the political fallout is likely to be minimal.

Thirdly and finally, it is noted that a naval build-up in the Gulf does not in itself constitute the commencement of war. The intention may simply be to make a show of force that will incentivise Iran to “
change its behaviour” (a threat of violence which, as well as being a form of terrorism, is also illegal under international law). This is true, but there is also no guarentee that the US – especially the current White House administration - is capable of both escalating and controlling these tensions. The level of instability in the Middle East now is comparable to that in Europe in 1914. Now, as then, one unforseen incident could ignite a chain-reaction through various inter-linked crises and conflicts that leads to a generalised disaster. The US naval build up increses not only the temperature in the region but the liklihood of such a scenario occuring, whether intentionally or not.

Of course, none of this proves that war will occur. But it does show, as I argued
two years ago, that a US attack on Iran remains a distinct possibility; one not to be idly dismissed. That being the case, the sensible thing would be to start looking at possible consequences and asking ourselves, ‘what if the worst came to the worst?’

Consequences of a war

An authoritative
joint report produced last year by 15 organisations - including think tanks, aid agencies, religious groups and trade unions – warned that the consequences of a war would not be constrained by Iran’s borders. As well as resulting in large civilian casualties within Iran itself, Iranian allies in places like Iraq and Lebanon could retaliate against various targets, thus escalating various existing crises and raising the spectre of a regional war. The situation in Iraq in particular could markedly deteriorate even from its current state.

Iran has said that it could launch missile strikes on
600 Israeli targets in the event of Israeli involvement in any attack. The irony is that an Iranian-instigated offensive war on Israel, for all the Western propaganda, remains inconceivable while Israel retains its formiddable nuclear arsenal. But subjected to an aggressive war, Iran could hit Israel with devastating consequences. So much for the purported neo-conservative claims to want to defend the Jewish state.

Within Iran, Tehran hardliners would be strengthened rather than weakened as Iranian nationalism surged. After all, why should the White House believe that what worked for them post-9/11 – when political dissent in the US was practically suspended as the country rallied round the flag - wouldn’t work for Iranian President Ahmedinejad in the event of a US assault? This would only set back the chances of serious democratic reform in Iran. In fact, crackdowns are
already occuring, as the hardliners seize the gift handed to them by Washington.

It is unlikely that the consequences of a war would be restricted even to the Middle East. Disruption to the flow of the
twenty per cent of global oil supply that comes out of the Gulf via the straights of Hormuz (once described by the former Iranian Shah as “the West’s jugular vein”) could send inflationary shockwaves right through the world economy, with unpredictable and possibly severe consequences playing out on a global scale. And this is before we consider the substantial boost to international radical islamist terrorism that a new US imperial war in the Middle East would represent.

It is fair to say that, factoring in its regional and global implications, an attack on Iran could make the disaster of Iraq look like a relatively tame affair by comparison. There’s no way of knowing whether that’s the road we’re heading down, but there are many reasons to believe that it remains a realistic possibility.

The spear-carrier's role

For those of us in Britain, its worth noting that for all the talk of a fresh start on foreign policy under Gordon Brown’s premiership, UK involvement in any attack is far from unthinkable. Two years ago the then Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that military action against Iran was “inconceivable” (whether he meant it or not is another matter). The
Financial Times reports that Brown’s new Foreign Secretary David Miliband “repeatedly refused to repeat this statement” in an interview with the paper last week.

Though it is perhaps unlikely that British armed forces would be involved in the front line of any action, the UK can be expected to play the important political, diplomatic and military support role that it performed during Israel’s savage pounding of
Lebanon last summer. Britain’s involvement in that war was strongly opposed by the public. In the eventuality of a new war against Iran, that opposition will have to be turned into effective political action if vast new horrors are to be averted.

[For more background on Western-Iran relations, see my recent article "
The Iran hostage crisis in context" or listen to my interview on Nadim Mahjoub's show "Middle East Panorama".]

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Iran hostage crisis in context

Now that the UK-Iran hostage crisis has come to a close, it is possible to draw a few conclusions on the meaning of what has taken place over the last fortnight. However, standing in the way of our efforts to do so, we will find a broad cross-section of the Western news media which, since the crisis began, have reliably undertaken their standard task of caricaturing and infantilising the official enemy. Much effort has been spent ascribing to Iran the fanaticism, aggression and various other pathologies that constitute the designated framework within which we are told its actions must be understood. These depictions, implicitly or explicitly, have begged the question of how Britain, as a mature and reasonable nation state, can best deal with the unruly children in Tehran and their latest unprovoked tantrum.

These cartoon-like portrayals of the situation may make us feel warm and fuzzy about Western power, and instil suitable levels of contempt for the barbarians on the periphery, but they are unlikely to give us a realistic or productive sense of what has been happening over the last two weeks. Let us then step out of the standard conceptualisation and instead consider an alternative Iranian viewpoint: not that of the half-crazed spoiler of Anglo-Saxon missionary work in the Middle East, but instead as another reasonably rational (though undoubtedly unpleasant) state actor in a volatile region, which volatility presents it with a number of substantial issues to deal with. Using this alternative paradigm, we may approach the situation with fresh eyes and ask ourselves a couple of pertinent questions: what might Iran’s reasons for arresting the British service-people have been, and how have the various actors involved benefited or lost from crisis? To answer these questions through an understanding of a rational Iranian point of view requires an appreciation of the context within which these events have taken place. A look at the relevant history is therefore required.

The historical context

In the broader context of a Persian history that spans over two millennia, the involvement of Britain and the West is a relatively recent chapter, beginning in the late 19th century as Russia and Britain fought for control over Central Asia. The discovery of vast oil reserves in Iran, and the British navy’s switch from coal to oil, drew London and Tehran closer, particularly during the Second World War when Iran was divided between Russia and Britain for the duration of the conflict. In the early 20th century, Britain moved swiftly to secure the Iranian oil concession on favourable terms, enjoying vast profits through the Anglo-Persian oil company (which later became BP) while much of the Iranian population languished in squalor, seeing practically nothing of their nation’s riches.

Britain’s maintained a steady and decisive level of interference in Iranian politics throughout the first half of the 20th century, with the aim of maintaining its control over Iranian oil reserves. This manipulation peaked with the coup of 1953, effected with the US in the lead, that overthrew the elected Iranian prime minister - Mohammad Mossadegh - and replaced him with a repressive dictatorship. Mossadegh’s crime had been to nationalise
Iran’s oil industry, inspired by the radical notion that a country’s resources should benefit its own population, not the ruling elite of a distant power. For Britain and the US, such misbehaviour could not go unpunished. As penance, Iran would spend the next quarter century subjected to a reign of state terror under the Shah and his notorious secret police the Savak which Amnesty International described as “beyond belief” and which was backed to the hilt by the US and the UK.

This regime was brought to an end by the revolution of 1979, which ushered in the era of limited democracy compromised by severely authoritarian clerical rule that continues to this day. The West’s antipathy to this new regime is generally put down to the latter being a repressive theocracy that provides backing for international terrorism. To asses this claim, it will suffice to say that such descriptions are
even more true of Saudi Arabia, which continues to enjoy a relationship with London and Washington that is unusually close for any state, let alone one of the most brutal on the face of the planet. It is plain that the objection to Iran’s government is not one of principle. If only Iran were our terrorist-backing tyrannical theocracy, it could be far more repressive and have far closer links to far worse terrorists and suffer no adverse repercussions from the West. The problem for London and Washington since 1979, as in the early 1950s, has been Iran’s independence, not its moral character.

As per imperial traditions that long predate the current era of Western pre-eminence, punishment of independent behaviour must be swift and fierce. The centrepiece of the ensuing attempts to discipline this once-again rebellious nation was the West’s
backing for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88. This included Iraq’s large scale use of chemical weapons, which the West had helped Iraq to acquire, and escalated throughout the war to the point where the US was all but fighting alongside Iraq, providing active and extensive logistical back-up. The war had a profound effect on Iran, which lost hundreds of thousands of its people on the front and in Iraqi attacks on its population centres. The international communities failure to censure Iraq’s illegal war of aggression (note the contrast with the case of Kuwait in 1990) did not go unnoticed in Iran. Nor indeed did the fact that it had been isolated and systematically pulverised over eight devastating years with the material connivance of world’s powers.

Threats and responses

Bringing ourselves up to the present day, Iran has been declared a member of an “axis of evil” by a US government that has unilaterally declared its right to launch “pre-emptive” wars at will, without the approval of the international community or the cover of international law. It has seen this new doctrine put into action by the invasion and occupation by US-led coalitions of two of its major neighbours – Iraq and Afghanistan. Its attempt in 2003 to discuss all outstanding issues with the US with a view to reaching a long term settlement (including over relations with Israel, based on the Arab initiative) was ignored. It is currently being pursued through the Security Council by the West over its alleged nuclear weapons programme, despite a fatwa from the Supreme Leader banning the production of nuclear weapons and no evidence that his ruling is being transgressed. It is informed repeatedly that the US takes “no options off the table” in dealing with this much alleged but still unproven threat. It is also accused repeatedly, and again without serious substantiation, of aiding insurgent attacks on US forces in Iraq.

With global demand for oil sharply increasing just as global production comes close to its
projected historical peak, Iran finds itself sitting atop a strategic and material prize – its carbon energy reserves – whose value to the world’s powers has never been greater. Those powers that have most aggressively pursued Iran’s wealth and sought the subjugation of its government are visibly manoeuvring themselves into diplomatic, political and military positions that a rational Tehran could only find threatening in the extreme. Putting the diplomatic and political scenes to one side, on a military level Iran is currently surrounded by US forces and/or allies, in Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Gulf states. And as talk of US air strikes against Iran continues, with the strength of the Fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf increasing incrementally and with that fleet conducting “war games” simulating an assault on Iran, only the most reckless Iranian politician could refuse to see war as at least a realistic prospect.

To appreciate the Iranian perspective, we need only imagine that this history were our history, that this regional and political landscape were our own and that our nati
on were faced with hostile foreign powers whose raw military strength was so out of proportion to that available to us. In such a situation, any government whether liberal or authoritarian would view the fact and nature of the threat in much the same way, and could expect the population to share this view.

How then would a rational state deal with this situation? Its task would be to defend itself, but also to remain conscious of the disparity of forces available to it compared to its antagonists. It could not, unlike either of the superpowers in the Cold War for example, rely on the threat of massive retaliation to preclude any attack. It would therefore need to search for asymmetric methods of deterrence; a way to warn the unwelcome presence on its doorstep that any attempt to forcibly cross the threshold would carry risks sufficient to deter such action. All of the above principles apply both to the military and to the diplomatic scenarios faced by Iran.

In fact, significant asymmetric engagement between Iran and the West has been occurring over several months, perhaps even years. The fact that we have not heard so much of it in the West – let alone the howls of righteous indignation we’ve been treated to the past fortnight – is doubtless because it has been Iran on the receiving end of these efforts and not Britain or the United States. American troops have been
detaining Iranians in Iraq in increasing numbers over recent months, including Iranian diplomats present in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government (demonstrating where true power really lies in the Middle East’s newest democracy). In addition, several credible sources report that the West is constantly violating Iran’s territorial integrity. These have been said to include pilotless drone flights, US pursuit of “suspected insurgents” into Iran, and the backing of ethnic separatist terrorist groups within Iran whose activity the West hopes will destabilise the regime.

Losing at chess

In the context set out above, it appears that Iran’s arrest of the British service-people was aimed at drawing a line in the sand. To take similar action with US personnel would have precipitated a crisis that probably could not have been prevented from escalating into armed conflict. In addition, the disputed border in the Shatt al-Arab waterway offered a safety valve whereby the dispute could have been ended by being put down to a simple misunderstanding. Indeed, it was not clear (and, given the disputed nature of the border, could not have been clear, contrary to both London and Tehran’s claims) whether the British service-people were in Iranian or Iraqi territorial waters at the time of their arrest. But what was clear throughout was both Iran’s desire to see its territorial sovereignty respected and its willingness and ability to enforce that sovereignty.

Beyond this, a more important message was being sent by Iran: that it can apply pr
essure as well as receive it. Britain will now be painfully aware of the vulnerability of its troops should a US-Iran war break out. It will know of Iran’s deep ties with its Shia co-religionists in Iraq, and it will know that any US attack on Iran, even if Britain’s support was only of the diplomatic and political variety, would result in Iranian countermeasures-by-proxy that would see its troops dying or disappearing across Iraq in numbers not seen since 2003. None of this was a secret before, but the point has been well underlined.

But more striking than this for British officials will be manner in which Iran has demonstrated the shallowness of London’s international alliances and the limits of its strength on the world stage vis a vis Iran. This culminated in the rare sight of a visibly chastened Tony Blair putting on palpably uncomfortable performance before the cameras outside Downing Street shortly after Ahmedinejad’s announcement that the British troops would be released. It will not have escaped Blair’s notice that Iran released those troops not because of any decisive application of international pressure marshalled by London, not perhaps in the end even because of some deal that London was able to offer, but at a time and in a manner more or less entirely of Tehran’s choosing, which certainly caught Whitehall 100% off guard.

Recall that after a few days of relatively mild diplomacy in the initial stage
s of the crisis, Tony Blair had grandly announced that matters would enter a “new phase” if the Iranians didn’t come to their senses. There followed a staged presentation of information from Britain’s Ministry of Defence, designed to prove to the world that the troops had indisputably been in Iraqi waters. Instead this probably only served to remind the world (a) that what are Iranian and what are Iraqi waters in the Shatt al-Arab are not decided, and are certainly not to be decided by Britain, and (b) that where the Middle East is concerned, the world has heard rather too much from British and American intelligence already in recent years. Certainly the UN Security Council was not overly impressed. While Iran was chastised for arresting Britain’s troops the Council’s language was milder than that recommended by Whitehall and, crucially, member states did not endorse the view that the troops had been in Iraqi waters. Britain then took its case to the EU, where again, whilst condemnation was forthcoming it did not have the teeth that Whitehall was looking for, with Brussels failing to agree to tough sanctions against Tehran. In short, Blair’s “new phase” had fallen rather flat. Tehran had watched London attempt to internationalise their dispute and come up with very little. From there on in it would be between Britain and Iran, not Iran versus the “international community”; at least not to the significant degree that London had hoped for.

At this point, Britain’s language began to soften. The “new phase” was apparen
tly old news. Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett came as close to an apology as Tehran could possibly have expected when she told reporters that “the message I want to send is I think everyone regrets that this position has arisen. What we want is a way out of it."”. Then, after a week and a half when the British government apparently had not been able to get in touch with him, Iran’s chief security official Ali Larijani spoke, not to FCO diplomats but to Britain’s Channel Four News, criticising British attempts to internationalise the dispute and explaining that matters could be solved diplomatically between the two countries. Finally, following a brief flurry of speculation in Britain on what such a deal between the two countries might involve, Iran staged a final piece of theatre, releasing the troops as an “Easter gift” to Britain, entirely wrong-footing Whitehall diplomats which had expected bi-lateral discussions to continue for some time yet.

The message was not merely that Iran can reach British troops with relative ease. It was also that on the diplomatic front, Iran does not simply have to react to events as an isolated actor surrounded by a disapproving “international community” reciting condemnations dictated by London and Washington. In this situation, Iran appears to have been more or less in control of the narrative while a relatively isolated Britain has been at the mercy of
events, with this being most especially and dramatically true at the conclusion of the crisis last night. Finally, the events of the last fortnight can be seen as a microcosm of how Iran would like the West to see the broader set of disputes between them. Internationalisation is futile, but direct bilateral engagement on the basis of mutual respect – of the kind offered by Iran in 2003 – can yield positive results.

The photos released by Iran of the British troops playing chess in captivity provides us with a useful image. Iran has played a short game of chess with the UK and won fairly convincingly. But this limited result has greater significance. Iran may not be able to prevail in a straightforward military contest with the West, but it does have significant strategic options available to it. Iran has sent the message that in the wider game of chess with its adversaries it has effective ways and means of striking back and should not be underestimated. Iran may not be able to directly deter the Israeli or US administrations from any military action against it or from increasingly aggressive moves in the diplomatic sphere. But Britain has certainly been warned, and any resulting increase in caution on London’s part will cause problems for US-Israeli hawks. And in addition to showing the limits and risks of the current Western stance, Iran has also demonstrated an alternative and more productive path for its adversaries to take. Audaciously, Tehran has turned the tables to a small extent, and adopted a carrots-and-sticks approach to those it perceives as threatening it.


What are the lessons for those of us in Britain? One is that any US-Iranian war will have severe repercussions for British service-people (along with wider consequences that could be disastrous in the extreme). Another is that Britain’s standing on the international stage is not nearly as strong as policymakers in Whitehall might hope, and that this loss of prestige, influence, goodwill and credibility can not be unconnected with our adventurist foreign policy of recent years. But finally, if we approach what has happened and the context in which it has happened with a degree of honesty, it is a reminder of Britain’s real role in the world. We remain a nation complicit in aggression towards other countries far from our own borders, a clear and present danger to the peace and security of many people in the world. It should not take a demonstration of the costs of such policies to ourselves, a lesson dished out by one of the world’s most odious governments, to illustrate the fundamentally immoral nature of our self-appointed role in Iran’s history, in its present and in the Middle East more generally. Because for all the intricacies of the diplomacy over the last two weeks the question in the minds of many people around the world will have been a simple one: what business did the UK have in or around Iranian waters in the first place? Above all, it is that interference in the affairs of others, that drive to manipulate the outside world to our advantage, that lies at the root of the current crises.


Note - 13/4/07

An anonomous journalist at the Financial Times points out here that the term "hostage" in this context is a politically loaded one. It assumes that the British servicepeople were arrested by Iran in order to extract concessions.

In actual fact, though this article does not assume that the sailors and marines were in Iraqi waters at the time of capture, it does nevertheless argue that they probably were detained for political reasons. But in any event, had I considered the points made by the FT journalist, as I should have done, I might have used more neutral terminology. I'm not minded to correct the piece now, but I insert this note so that the issue's at least highlighted.

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Friday, December 15, 2006

Ahmedinajad and Holocaust Denial

Time magazine's Tony Karon has an excellent and thoughtful piece on the Iranian Holocaust conference over at his blog, 'Rootless Cosmopolitan'.
Sample quote:
"Ahmedinajad ought to pay attention to one particular guest, a Palestinian lawyer from Nazareth called Khaleed Mahameed, who runs a small Holocaust exhibit at his office in Nazareth, and argues that it is essential that the Palestinians understand the Holocaust because in it lies the root of their own suffering. Addressing the Israelis on the basis of an understanding of their experience was essential for the Palestinians to make progress in their own national struggle, he argues. He was invited to the conference after writing to Ahmedinajad telling him that the Holocaust was an historical fact that should not be questioned, and that doing so only played into the hands of right-wing Zionists. Indeed, the Zionist establishment doesn’t quite know what to make of Mahameed, because he’s directly challenging Ahmedinajad at the same time as making clear that the Holocaust has been abused in order to justify suffering inflicted on the Palestinians. That’s how a Palestinian Mandela would put it — the Holocaust, in fact, is part of the legacy of suffering that is the common history of Israel and the Palestinians."
Read the rest, and bookmark the site. Karon's analysis is always insightful, informed and sharply written. Highly recommended.

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