Opinion: the dangers of a new Middle East conflagration

Storm clouds are gathering over whether Iran should be invaded as a pre-emptive strike to prevent its manufacture of nuclear weapons. Already, Israel seems to be moving pro-actively, while the subject would have been discussed by Cameron during his trip to Saudi Arabia. The US has initiated the tightening of economic sanctions against Iran and has raised its naval profile in the Persian Gulf, though it would clearly prefer to postpone any military action until after the US Presidential election in November. Meanwhile, are the various diplomatic manoeuvres around Syria a rehearsal for future action against Iran?

Very great caution should be exercised if a major conflagration is to be avoided. The Iraq debacle should be enough for wise counsels to prevail. Saddam Hussein had no Weapons of Mass Destruction as it transpired, which was the “sexed up” claimed reason for the Bush/Blair invasion. The Chilcot public inquiry examining the validity of this claim has been delayed yet again – which itself is hardly reassuring. And still it seems the zeal for military adventurism is undiminished despite the more recent successive policy failures in Afghanistan.

One of the most searing influences in my political autobiography was the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 which ended in ignominy and was roundly condemned worldwide. Two politicians learnt the lessons though coming from diametrically opposite ideological positions: Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell both opposed any UK involvement in the Vietnam war. As PM, Wilson despatched Harold Davies, the left-wing MP for Leek and a junior minister of pensions, as his envoy to Hanoi to talk to Ho Chi Minh the Leader of Communist North Vietnam. The ploy worked and the visit served as the reason for the UK not supporting the US in an action that also ended in defeat. Powell took the view that nationalism would prove a stronger factor influencing the medium term future than the ‘domino theory’ then being advanced by Washington that the whole of SE Asia would turn Communist. Both Wilson and Powell, of course, were utterly vindicated by history.

Unfortunately, later generations of political leaders ignored the lessons of Suez and those now in office should be forcefully reminded of them as they contemplate new military excursions. The Liberal party vehemently opposed Eden’s invasion of Egypt’s Canal Zone and it, too, was proved right. Being in Coalition now, there is a high risk of the Liberal Democrats being dragged into a new conflagration in the Middle East.

UK governments, following the Iraq WMD farcical pretext, are now required to seek prior Commons’ approval for military action; in practice this approval will always be sought subsequently along with the inevitable mission creep.

That is why LD members should raise their voices now to strongly assert that no military action against Iran should be contemplated by the Coalition without cast iron evidence as to Iran’s malign intentions. LDs must maintain its distinctive commitment to agreed UN sanctioned intervention as a last resort.

To be sure, Iran is not currently a friendly nation as far as the West is concerned, while its internal record on human rights is utterly deplorable, and we recoil at its theocratic system of government and widespread anti-Semitism, but as yet there is far too little hard intelligence to justify armed invasion by land, sea or air. Iran also has potential for reform. Like many countries of the Arab Spring, Iran has a very young population. It experienced widespread popular protests of its own in 2009 when reformist presidential candidates were the victims of electoral fraud, and arguably has greater potential to develop into a stable democracy than its neighbour Iraq. Any military action must be carefully weighed against the effect it will have for eliciting greater nationalistic sentiment in Iran and support for its current government, and the further long term damage it will have for the relationship between Iran and both western powers and many of its regional neighbours with Sunni led Governments. Liberal Democrats should have the courage to tell its Leaders to resist the siren calls that the Tories, emulated by New Labour, cannot resist making – it’s second nature to them.

Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell would surely concur that the interests of the UK are best served by avoiding recourse to military action except in the most compelling and convincing circumstances. Iran is a long way from those. Liberal Democrats should take the lead in re-instating a Wilson/Powell-type coincidental consensus.

Trevor Smith has been a Liberal Democrat working peer since 1997, having joined the Liberal Party in 1955.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Arguably, covert operations within Iran present more of a threat of sparking a wider confrontation than sanctions. The assassination of nuclear scientists, sabotage of computer installations with the Stuxnet virus and unexplained explosions at missile bases all constitute potential acts of war as does the alleged assassination plot on the Saudi Ambassador to the US by Iranian elements. Such acts are illegal activities under International Law as would be any pre-emptive strike against Iran.

    The nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) is an international legal construct that provides that countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy. We have to recognise that the development of a civil nuclear industry in Iran will inevitably bring with it an enhanced capacity to develop nuclear weapons, should any future Iranian regime so choose. Acquiring such an enhanced capacity is not of itself a breach of the NPT.

    In confronting Iran, I believe we should take both a principled and pragmatic position.
    Firstly, we should unambiguously condemn illegal activities of all kinds, including assassinations, sabotage and cyber-attacks while publicly committing that, in the absence of the actual development of a nuclear weapon by Iran; we would not support a military intervention to halt an Iranian nuclear weapons program.

    Secondly, targeted sanctions should be extended to individuals in the Iranian regime associated with the gross abuses of human rights as debated in recent days at Westminster Hall http://www.theyworkforyou.com/whall/?id=2012-01-11c.109.1
    Sanctions targeted against the excesses of an authoritarian regime are much more likely to garner support internally and on a broader international front than sanctions exclusively tied to the nuclear issues.

    Thirdly, the UK government must continue to exercise its legal duty to protect shipping in International waters, and participate in ensuring the unhindered passage of maritime shipping through the Straits of Hormuz.

    Fourthly, export controls need to ensure that British companies are not supplying Iran with technology and systems that are primarily used for the suppression of civil liberties, such as the blocking of the BBC World Persian service, blocking of internet access and mobile telephone communications and surveillance technology in respect of equipment and software for executing signals collection from mobile phone systems.

    Finally, we should take the opportunity of the meeting with Iran to be arranged by Turkey in Istanbul not only to seek progress with Iran’s compliance with the NPT but to also pursue the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions calling for a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

    This final point involves engagement with Israel on its nuclear armaments. This recent article in The New York Times makes the case for such engagement http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/opinion/preventing-a-nuclear-iran-peacefully.html?_r=1&ref=iran

    “If Israel’s nuclear program were to become part of the equation, it would be a game-changer. Iran has until now effectively accused the West of employing a double standard because it does not demand Israeli disarmament, earning it many fans across the Arab world.”

    Where is our Middle East Peace envoy when you need him?

  • “though it would clearly prefer to postpone any military action until after the US Presidential election in November”

    Not sure that stacks up, it’s makes sense to us Brits but sense and US politics are not always aligned. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 but on the wave of Iraq increased his share of the vote to win more legitimately in 2004. The following from the White House site:

    “Bush was challenged in his re-election bid in 2004 by Massachusetts Democratic Senator John Kerry. The election was a good contest, but Bush’s contention that the invasion of Iraq had made the world more secure against terrorism won the national political debate. Bush was re-elected with 51 percent to 48 percent.”

    Only in America…

  • The United Kingdom together with Europe and the West generally have a strategic national interest in maintaining peace and stability among the oil producers and our trading partners in the Middle East. For this reason alone, active UK diplomatic and military engagement in the region will continue as a core element of UK foreign policy.

    Our problems with Iran are fourfold:

    1. Non-compliance with the NPT to which Iran is a signatory.
    2. Non-compliance with UN human rights agreements to which Iran is a signatory.
    3. Sponsorship and arming of destabilising or despotic regimes/organisations in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and Iraq.
    4. Belligerence against Israel and the Sunni majority Arab Gulf states.

    Efforts to resolve these problems requires engagement on a wider front than sanctions narrowly targeted on Non-compliance with the NPT.

    On the first issue, Iran needs to accede to the requests of the IAEA for unrestricted access to its nuclear and ancillary installations, including signing of the additional protocol. This will provide for independent verification that low level Uranium enrichment is being undertaken for the production of nuclear fuel rods and limited higher levels for medical research. Allowing the IAEA to confirm Iran’s statements, that it has no intention of embarking on a nuclear weapons program, will immediately serve to diffuse tensions.

    On the second issue of human rights, Iran needs to comply with recent UN resolutions calling for the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to be allowed unfettered access to complete his assignment and report. Failing this, wide-ranging targeted sanctions (including both travel bans and asset freezes) should be put in place against individuals identified as being associated with systematic human rights abuses in Iran.

    On the third issue, the most pressing of the current problems from an International and Syrian perspective, is Iran’s aide and succour to the collapsing Assad regime in Syria. Our efforts here need to be concentrated on pursuing and developing a UN Security Council resolution that can be supported by Russia and China calling for an immediate international arms embargo and UN supervised free elections in Syria. The alternative to such an International intervention is civil war in Syria.

    As regards the fourth issue, our support for the sovereign right of the State of Israel and Arab States to maintain military defences against external aggression, from any source, will remain undiminished. Such support however, does not extend to the introduction of weapons of mass destruction into the Middle East. Both the UK and US are committed by UN resolution to a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East. If this commitment is to have any credence, than Israel’s stockpile of nuclear weapons would need to be decommissioned.

    Israel’s nuclear weaponisation program began in the 1950’s under David Bengurion during an era of cold war tensions, As the New York Times article referred to above http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/16/opinion/preventing-a-nuclear-iran-peacefully.html?_r=1&ref=iran highlights, both public opinion and elements of Israel’s political and security apparatus have expressed favour for such a policy. The article writer notes “Given that Israelis overwhelmingly believe that Iran is on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons and several security experts have begun to question current policy, there is now an opportunity for a genuine debate on the real choices: relying on cold-war-style “mutual assured destruction” once Iran develops nuclear weapons or pursuing a path toward a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East, with a chance that Iran — and Arabs — will never develop the bomb at all.”

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