By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 12/04/06):
This week’s most terrifying remark came from the foreign secretary, Jack Straw. He declared that a nuclear attack on Iran would be “completely nuts” and an assault of any sort “inconceivable”. In Straw-speak, “nuts” means he’s just heard it is going to happen and “inconceivable” means certain.A measure of the plight of British foreign policy is that such words from the foreign secretary are anything but reassuring. Straw says of Iran that “there is no smoking gun, there is no casus belli”. There was no smoking gun in Iraq, only weapons conjured from the fevered imagination of Downing Street and the intelligence chiefs. It is a racing certainty that Alastair Campbell look-alikes are even now cajoling MI6’s John Scarlett into proving that Iran is “far closer” to a bomb than anyone thinks.
As for a casus belli, there was also none in Iraq. Tony Blair had to beat one out of the hapless attorney general before his generals would agree to fight. But Iran’s casus belli was set out in unambiguous terms by the prime minister in his speech to the Foreign Policy Centre in London on March 21. Blair was updating his 1999 Chicago doctrine of global intervention. Then it was justified by humanitarianism and was optional. Now it is vital for the “battle of values … a battle about modernity”. Those who are not of our values are to be subject to pre-emptive attack.
Blair demanded that the west become “active not reactive” against alien values (obviously Islamic) as “we risk chaos threatening our stability”. The crusade against them was “utterly determinative of our future here in Britain”. He accepted that Britain should seek international agreement before going to war, but should still fight without it. People were crying out for democracy. We must bring it to them since “in their salvation lies our own security”.
The speech was full of jihadist rhetoric. Blair’s desire to wipe non-democratic values off the map is akin to Iran’s view of Israel. But we know that when he says war he means war. The speech was the wildest by a British leader in modern times and was the clearest imaginable statement of a casus belli. He mentioned Iran three times. It was gilt-edged, copper-bottomed, swivel-eyed neoconservatism.
To such a world view, Iran is a far more plausible target than Iraq. It is a nation approaching 80 million people, whose values would be a real catch for “beacon democracy”. Elements within its regime want nuclear weapons. The country is rich and capable of buying the relevant components. The mullahs have sponsored terrorist groups abroad and fiddled elections. In February, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad restarted uranium enrichment at the Natanz plant, in defiance of the UN, and yesterday Iran’s nuclear energy chief announced that it had proved successful. What does Straw mean, “no casus belli”?
Tehran has two more weeks to stop enrichment, after which sanctions seem inevitable. Some ostracism of Iran’s ruling elite might lead the parliamentary moderates and clerical oligarchs to force Ahmadinejad to back off for a time. But sanctions will split the world coalition against nuclear proliferation, since Russia and China have close trading links with Iran. The US and Britain would then be back to the same “slide to war” as in Iraq. They would have to decide whether to fight on alone or endure humiliating retreat.
A land force attack on Iran is, for forces that cannot even hold Iraq, out of the question. But sowing mayhem through bombing military targets (always causing civilian deaths) might instigate enough anarchy to stir a putsch, a regional uprising or more subtle changes within the regime. There are reports of US special forces operating inside Iran and funds being channelled to opposition groups. The US is said to be aiding Sunni Baluchi insurgents in the south, as they once did the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Bush’s description on Monday of leaks about nuclear bunker-busters as “wild speculation” was part machismo, part tautology. Every weapon is an option to a soldier. It would be unlikely even for the Bush government (even with Blair’s support) to put the west’s status as world policeman back in the stone age. But such talk indicates the brain-scrambling effect of the Iraq war.
Iran is the first test of Blair’s interventionism, and the auguries are not good. Every sabre rattle in Washington must be music to Ahmadinejad’s ear. Whether or not a bombing attack might damage his factories, it is unlikely to destabilise his government, rather the reverse. It would heighten nationalist fervour and increase hatred of the west.
Sanctions that stop Iranians going to conferences or shopping in Knightsbridge are hardly of concern to mullahs. Any nation supposedly forced to “choose between weapons and the economy” chooses weapons (look at the US). The more the west threatens, the stronger is the case of Tehran’s hawks for a nuclear arsenal. Iran is within range of five nuclear powers, including the US. What army would not want a deterrent when the world is awash with crazies?
Confrontation without a willingness to use total force is bluff. Many Iranian hardliners must be itching to cause more trouble in Iraq, threaten tanker lanes in the Straits of Hormuz and set Asian opinion further against the west. As for backing the Baluchi insurgents, this is madness. The most lawless group in the region are, through the Taliban, the chief enemy of British forces in Afghanistan. Is Blair aware that the US is funding his enemies? This whole venture is degenerating into a fourth crusade.
The much-vaunted neocon campaign for a secure and liberal democracy in Asia is in retreat. It is ailing in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. What might have been gained through security and friendship has been wrecked by the war in Iraq. War puts a premium on paranoia and encourages existing regimes to crack down on dissent. These may be rogue states, but it is time for the west to decide again which are “our rogues”.
One country in the region that has retained some political pluralism is Iran. It has shown bursts of democratic activity and, importantly, has experienced internal regime change. If ever there was a nation not to drive to the extreme it is Iran. If ever there was a powerful state to reassure and befriend rather than abuse and threaten, it is Iran. If ever there was a regime not to goad into seeking nuclear weapons it is Iran. Yet that is precisely what British and American policy is doing. It is completely nuts.