Will Israel attack Iran, and will this break the Coalition?

Although not widely reported in the British media, there is a build up of expectation that Israel will attack Iran. It amazes me that this was barely discussed at our recent Brighton conference. There were two motions on this submitted for conference but both with rejected by Federal Conference Committee and, perhaps as a consequence, there were no foreign policy motions debated at conference.

To raise the question I had to wait until Tuesday when there were two Centre Forum fringe meetings on foreign policy. Neither of the fringe meetings was specifically on Iran, but the question was asked about what would happen if Israel attacks Iran.

The diplomat and author Robert Cooper said that he believed that the alleged Iranian possession of nuclear weapons was a political story rather than a military story. He reckoned that this was probably sabre rattling by Israeli and that Netanyahu would ultimately probably not go ahead with it.

Paddy Ashdown said that he hoped Robert Cooper was right, but he was not so sure. Ashdown was very clear that he thought it would be utter madness for Israel to do this. However, if they do go ahead, they will do it before the US elections on November 6th. Israel knows that Obama will stop Israel from striking Iran at any other time. If Romney wins, then the attack is certain.

Phillippe Sands said that if Israel decides to do this it would break the Coalition. I saw Paddy’s face twitch at this point, but I could not read his thoughts. If I had been chairing I would have immediately turned to Paddy and asked him what he thought about that. But, amazingly, the actual chair didn’t.

So how do we make sense of this?

I think it is possible that even in the run up to the US general election, the US may still have enough leverage to stop Israel attacking Iran. On the other hand, Netanyahu used to be a colleague of Romney at the Boston Consulting corporation, and he may think that if Obama is going to win, then a strike by Israel on Iran may tip the balance in Romney’s favour. I put the probability at 50:50.

As for the political impact in the UK, we will have to get involved because as Sands said, we have lots of nationals living in Iran.

The UK will have to take a position. Obama will have to support Israel during a general election campaign. The Tories will inevitably support the US and Israel because they always do, whereas the Lib Dems are bound by their manifesto, which stated that we are opposed to such a strike. I am clear that Paddy will support that position and, almost certainly, so would Nick Clegg.

So, the question is “can the Coalition find a way to continue given the divisions on a fundamental issue like this?”. Clegg and Cameron will undoubtedly do what they can to keep the Coalition together but, like Sands, I cannot see how.

* Geoff Payne is the former events organiser for Hackney Liberal Democrats

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  • I think the image of Obama opposing Israel attacking Iran is unrealistic. Let’s remember this is the Obama who got Osama and launches regular drone attacks on Pakistan. The idea that he’s pro a nuclear Iran is frankly ridiculous.

    All Obama cares about is smoothing things until after the election. At that point he has the option of backing Israel, standing neutral or watching Iran get the bomb. I can’t see him doing anything other than option 3.

    As for our role, I can’t see us having anything other than a humanitarian role and don’t see how this will break the coalition.

  • Geoffrey,

    I agree that it was surprising that this fast developing issue was not scheduled for debate at conference.

    The coalition programme for government has superceded the manifesto and merely states “We will support concerted international efforts to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” The UK government line, from both conservative and Libdem ministers has consistently been “that no options are off the table”.

    Netanyahu has defined his administrations redline as the acquisition of the capacity by Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. He defines this as the enrichment of sufficient quantity of Uranium to a 20% purity level to provide enough fissile material that can be enriched to the 90% level needed for a bomb. The Israeli rationale is that enrichment to a 90% level could be completed in a matter of months, or even weeks, between IAEA inspections.

    The Obama administrations apparent redline is the actual development of a nuclear bomb.

    Israel has the military capacity to undertake a strike, but the effectiveness of such an action could be quite limited without American support. Even with American support, it is probable that Iran could only be delayed in efforts to develop a weapon, if that is their intention. In either case a conflagration is likely to erupt in the middle east as a consequence and the west would face the prospect of undertaking an invasion of Iran to effect regime change.

    UK military participation in an unprovoked attack or regime change cannot be justified on these grounds. We will, however, be drawn in as a consequence of affording protection to international shipping in the Staits of Hormuz. It is therefore incumbent on our diplomats to make it clear that the UK will not support military action and will act only to defend shipping in the Persian Gulf from an Iranian attack.

    A lasting solution lies with the Libdem policy committment to a nuclear free zone in the middleeast as discussed in this earlier article Breaking the deadlock

  • Richard Dean 28th Sep '12 - 5:16pm

    How can LibDems be realistically commit to a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East without being prepared to carry out hard enforcement actiions? Some of those regimes are not nice people at all.

  • Richard,

    Iran has consistently supported the creation of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the Mideast. In 1974, as concerns in the region grew over Israel’s nuclear weapon program, Iran formally proposed the concept of a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East in a joint resolution in the UN General Assembly. The Shah of Iran had made a similar appeal five years earlier but had failed to attract any support. The call for the creation of nuclear weapons free zone in the Mideast was repeated by Iran’s President Ahmadinejad in 2006. It was reiterated by Iran’s Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki in 2008.

  • Keith Browning 28th Sep '12 - 6:48pm

    All sounds very much like Saddam and his WMDs hitting all of us within 45 minutes. Its the same scriptwriters.

  • Richard Dean 28th Sep '12 - 8:01pm

    If tuition fees and the NHS did not split the coalition, why would bombing an Iranian power plant?

    If it’s a politica rather than a miltary story, what’s the motive?

  • There was a mini-debate on this topic when we discussed possible reasons for Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD. I think it would be further pressure on Nick Clegg’s leadership. As discussed on the other thread, NC has been (in Lib Dem terms), ultrasupportive of Israeli positions. Many other key people in the party would view bombing Iran with the same fury as invading Iraq. I do wonder whether had Clegg been leader in 2003, he would have brought many Lib Dems in in support of Blair. There’s an interesting topic for debate!

  • jenny barnes 28th Sep '12 - 10:09pm

    War options – see open democracy:
    in particular the likelihood that the US would want to use UK airfields for strategic bombers.

  • Simon McGrath 28th Sep '12 - 10:21pm

    Why would this split the Coalition? There is no prospect of the Tories support the US and Israel in military action.

  • Charles Beaumont 28th Sep '12 - 10:44pm

    Whilst there are many delusional voices here (unlike with Iraq, the UN has plenty of published evidence of Iran’s advanced non-civil nuclear programme; this is not some CIA/MI6 scam), Fran is completely right. There’ll be a mealy-mouthed condemnation by the Foreign Office and much private back-slapping of Israel’s military and that’ll be the end of it. Philippe Sands is evidently confused: unless UK nationals (of which I doubt there are many in Iran) are living in secret Iranian nuclear facilities they are unlikely to be affected. The idea that this will end the coalition is a QTWTAIN.

  • Helen Dudden 29th Sep '12 - 10:29am

    It has been proved very recently with our own conflicts, agression is not always the answer, costly on lives and on the actual cost to the country concerned.

  • until there is justice for Palestinians and Israelis alike there will never be peace in the Middle East. On this issue neither side has a moral highground and therefore outsiders should not be taking sides. Furthermore bombing or, worse still,: invading Iran will be like putting our hand in a hornet’s nest: results ,even if positive ,would not be permanent – just another chapter in an unending story.

  • Assuming the Tories would not oppose Israel outright (but perhaps they would?), the coalition would certainly be split on the issue. Would it break the coalition though? What is the line of reasoning here? If the Tories were determined to get involved militarily on the side of Israel, then it would. Irrespective of the coalition, it would be suicide for the Tories anyway to do that.

    Europe will be opposed to any Israeli action. The Tories might not go along with that, but the chances of getting the UK involved are surely too small to be worth considering.

  • Tony Dawson 29th Sep '12 - 1:23pm

    @Richard Dean :

    “How can LibDems be realistically commit to a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East without being prepared to carry out hard enforcement actions? ”

    Richard, are you suggesting we should bomb Israel before or after the US elections?

  • Paul McKeown 29th Sep '12 - 1:51pm

    Nothing can prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal, short of regime change and the imposition of a democratic government in Teheran. Netanyahu is simply off his rocker if he thinks that some form of bombing campaign will dissuade the Iranian theocrats or permanently disrupt their preparations. As the United States government would be incapable of obtaining and sustaining public consent to commit the necessary million (wo)men in uniform to overthrow the mullahs and rebuild Iran in the aftermath, then Netanyahu is clearly talking out of an inappropriate orifice.

    Israel has no choice, it must prepare for a long cold war and the logic of mutually assured destruction.

    Western democracies would be prepared to share its burden, but only if Israel were itself genuinely prepared to embrace full civil, property, economic and political rights for *all* within its present borders, whether or not that involved a return to the 1967 status quo ante. Until Israel show genuine commitment towards achieving a lasting and fair settlement, then the UK government official position should be “a plague on all their houses”.

  • jenny barnes 29th Sep '12 - 4:02pm

    Perhaps replacing the democratically elected Mossadeq with the Shah in a CIA engineered coup d’etat wasn’t such a clever idea? It had considerable UK support, because of the impact of Mossadeq’s plans to nationalise the oil that the UK thought it owned via the Anglo-Persian oil company aka BP. They have good reason to fear outsiders attempting to manipulate their polity, and they are surrounded by nuclear armed states: Pakistan, Israel, Russia, India, and the US navy.
    What would you do?

  • Richard Dean 29th Sep '12 - 4:12pm

    Can nuclear weapons actually be used? Except for the unlikely possibility of a totally successful premeptive strike, the retaliation would devastate the aggressor. Is it actually realistic to suppose that Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia, or the US would nuke a non-nuclear Iran?

  • The United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, has repeatedly said it has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. Since 2002 it has expressed concerns about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. Its latest report is at http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2012/gov2012-37.pdf

    An Iranian nuclear capability would be a threat not just to Israel but to the Gulf States and Saudi Arabia, and would probably lead Saudi Arabia and Turkey also to seek to obtain nuclear capability, leading to a nuclear arms race in an unstable area of the world.

    Israel has particular reason to fear a nuclear Iran because Iran’s President has again and again called for its destruction. As recently as August this year President Ahmadinejad said there was no place for the Jewish state in a future Middle East: ‘You want a new Middle East? We do too, but in the new Middle East … there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists’. This was rightly condemned by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who told the non-aligned movement conference in Iran: “I strongly reject threats by any member states to destroy another, or outrageous attempts to deny historical facts such as the Holocaust. Claiming that another state, Israel, does not have the right to exist, describing it in racist terms, is not only utterly wrong but undermines the principles we have all pledged to uphold.”

  • Toby Fenwick 29th Sep '12 - 9:10pm

    As Tim13 says, Nick Harvey and I debated Trident on the Wednesday Conference fringe – very many thanks to those who took the trouble to come.

    Neither Nick or I believe that there is currently an Iranian nuclear weapons programme – a position shared by US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta. However, the IAEA continues to have concerns about previous Iranian obfuscation and until these are cleared up, sanctions will stay in place. Personally, I think it is unfortunate that the Turkish-Brazilian fuel swap deal has not been taken further (see http://bbc.in/QC7hSO), but diplomacy is clearly the correct way forward.

    Any Israeli attack on Iran would, without explicit Security Council endorsement, be an illegal use of force. It is also hard from a technical standpoint hard to see how Israel would create enough damage to significantly retard the Iranian enrichment programme, especially at Fordow. In other words, for the Israelis, it’s actually a lose-lose; you (rightly) gain international opprobrium for an illegal attack, and then fail to do enough damage to seriously retard an enrichment programme that is not currently aiming at a bomb.

    I can think of few things more likely to get Iran to conclude that an atomic weapon was a good idea than the fact that the Israelis keep talking about only attacking Iran before it gets such a capability.


  • Tony Dawson 30th Sep '12 - 8:43am


    “‘You want a new Middle East? We do too, but in the new Middle East … there will be no trace of the American presence and the Zionists’.

    Surely, that statement does not, in itself, threaten the continued existence of their Jewish neighbours in their own lands? As I understand it, Zionism is the creed of those who think they have some strangely-sourced rights to force others out of their own homes.

  • Isreal will attack Iran (alone if it has to be) before the November US election. It will effect the entire region and will start world war 3. With US and NATO’s forces over streched and pre-occupied Russia and China wil invade. It will be very fast! The plan is to have one disaster follow another in rapid sussesion.

  • So far the lib dems while we have been in coalition have voted 1) not to support a palastinian state.2) not to admit palastine to any un body. 3) to give israel millions to maintain its brutal and racist occupation of the west bank and gaza. 4) to upgrade israel status with the EU. So in anwer to the question it will not break the coalition – clegg ludford and others will probably even vote to help israel bomb iran – all while claiming they are in favour of a palastinian state of course.

  • Netanyahu bombing Iran to help Romney into the White House? Talk of an Israeli air strike, perhaps, but not an actual one. That’d come in the early days after a Romney win to force a commitment of support.

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