At the 2011 Annual Congress of the European Liberal Democratic and Reform (ELDR) parties in Palermo last week, a major initiative from the UK Lib Dems was the successful tabling of an emergency resolution on the growing likelihood of war with Iran. Media and intelligence reports have described the ‘planned’ action as a multi-pronged attack on Iran by the United States and Israel, with military support from the United Kingdom and Canada. In Palermo, the UK Lib Dem resolution against the war, and against European involvement, was passed with a large majority. The ELDR resolution also condemned Iran for not allowing full IAEA access to its nuclear facilities and for not signing the key ‘Additional Protocol’ – a factor which has led to the IAEA relying more on US-based intelligence information, as much as its own forensic inspections.
The recent step-up in warmongering follows the publication of the latest IAEA report on nuclear weaponisation within the Iranian nuclear industry. This report has been spun as a much stronger indication that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. Alongside this media activity are reports of a Western troop build up in the Gulf and the stationing of cruise-missile-enabled submarines off the coast of Iran – and the widely publicised transfer of new ‘super bunker buster’ munitions to the region. Not only does it look like war is on, but it is being spun that the UK is likely to participate militarily.
All of this of course could just be about pressure on the Iranian regime. However, it is more likely that, with echoes of the Iraq war, it is instead the preparation of public opinion for war. The reason why this is more likely concerns the detail of the IAEA report itself. It is more likely for two important reasons, which show that the war rhetoric and the actuality of Iranian nuclear weaponisation have diverged.
First, as the UK Lib Dem resolution explained, the actual November 8th IAEA report does not say what it is claimed it says, and in fact contains very little that is new. The Director General of the IAEA, General Yukiya Amano wrote to the UN Security Council on 17th Nov that,
The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. It also indicates that, prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.
This is in effect agreeing with the United States’ 2007 multi-agency ‘National Intelligence Estimate’ – that Iran has stopped its embryonic nuclear weapons programme in 2003.
Second, the activities which ‘may still be ongoing’ include some potential research studies, and some other supporting evidence which originated with the US military and which has been strongly criticised by international experts – including a former IAEA inspector from the US. This disputed supporting evidence involves a Ukrainian nano-diamond scientist who has denied involvement, components controversially described as nuclear-use-only, and the alleged existence of an explosion chamber supposedly (and implausibly) used for testing nuclear-bomb triggers.
The IAEA’s more credible reports of potentially ongoing post-2003 minor weaponisation activities, however, are consistent with Iran enabling itself to revive its 2003 programme, should it decide to do so in the future. But will it ? President Ahmedinejad may have an objective of trying to bring the world’s attention to Israel’s nuclear weapons and to the fact that it is not a NPT signatory, and he is volatile and prone to inflammatory rhetoric. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader Komenei recently announced a plan to consolidate his power and reduce or abolish the presidency. The Supreme Leader has been critical of Ahmedinejad’s nuclear posturing.
Given the actual contents of the IAEA report, the criticisms of some of its post-2003 evidence, and the power struggle in Iran, the successful UK Lib Dem resolution at ELDR concluded that a large scale war involving 100,000 deaths or many more, could not be justified. It called for Iran to allow the IAEA to do its work and for Iran accept the IAEA’s demand for more inspections and further work, and ratification of the Additional Protocol. It also called for sanctions to be focused more effectively on any potential nuclear weaponsiation programme, as per the UN Security Council sanctions, relative to the more general sanctions applied by the USA and some of its allies.
With respect to UK government policy, any divisions on Iran are less likely to be between the Coalition partners. They are more likely to be between those Conservative factions who wish to see more inspections and the IAEA undertaking more of its own forensic research (official policy), and those who wish to see an attack on Iran regardless, and are happy to see ‘the facts fixed around the policy’. Liberal Democrats should make sure they are on the right side of that debate.