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John Baron MP: The West has got it wrong on Iran

Baron John.ashxJohn Baron is the Member of Parliament for Basildon and Billericay. A former soldier and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he resigned from the shadow frontbench to vote against the Iraq War, opposed our intervention in Afghanistan, and was the only Tory MP to vote against the Libyan intervention.

Here we go again! The condemnation of Iran over the nuclear issue has become almost an annual event on the international stage.

The catalyst for this latest round of condemnation has been the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) report earlier this month, followed by the storming of our Embassy in Tehran. The US and UK seized upon the report as providing yet further evidence that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Further financial sanctions led directly to the events on Tuesday.

However, one should be careful of accepting such reports at face value: a close reading of the IAEA’s report reveals little new evidence that Iran is building a nuclear bomb. There is no smoking gun: only the suggestion that Iran is moving towards the option of a nuclear weapon. There is reference to weapons-related research and development, foreign scientists and high-explosives – much of this based on Western intelligence reports. But Iraq should have taught us to be careful of basing our major foreign policy decisions on secret intelligence.

The recent change in tack by the IAEA merits scrutiny. Iran’s nuclear weapons threat was described as "hyped" by Mohamed ElBaradei, the former Director-General. In 2009 he was replaced by the Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano. He apparently told the US Government in the same year that "he was solidly in the US court in every key strategic decision." After a decent interval, he is now bang on cue.

However, regardless of the lack of substantive evidence, let us assume that Iran wishes to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. This is understandable, especially in an area of the world where status is very important. The reason Saddam did not deny the existence of WMD is that it was in his interest not to do so – he had after all invaded Iran, with support from the West, which was now a key enemy.

Meanwhile, Iran is surrounded by nuclear powers – Pakistan, Russia, Israel and a US naval presence – all contribute to Iran’s feeling of encirclement. The contrast in the West’s military approach to Iraq and North Korea suggests to many in the region that it is better to have a nuclear weapons capability.

Furthermore, there is no reason why the West’s adherence to the theory of nuclear deterrence should not be equally valid in other regions of the world. Is there anything to suggest that Iran would be more irrational than the existing members of the nuclear club? There is scant evidence. Paul Piller, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the Middle East between 2000 and 2005 recently wrote that there is nothing "in the record of behaviour by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality". This view was reinforced by Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister, as recently as May.

At this point, the neocons turn to Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be "wiped off the map". Surely, they say, this is evidence Iran can not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons technology. But a careful examination of the translation suggests Iran’s president was badly misquoted – not least by his own English-language newswire. Even the New York Times, one of the first papers to misquote Ahmadinejad, accepts the word "map" was not used. A more accurate translation offers "the régime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time". Given that Ahmadinejad compared his desired option – the elimination of "the régime occupying Jerusalem" – with the fall of the Shah’s régime in Iran, it is quite clear he is talking about régime change and not the destruction of Israel itself. Just as he did not want the end of Iran in his comparison.

This pedantry over the translation is important. The immediate reaction to Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2005 was the-then Israeli Prime Minister calling for Iran to be expelled from the United Nations. The US urged its allies to "get tougher" on Iran. The mis-translation is still used to this day.

There is no doubting Ahmadinejad is hostile to the Zionist régime. But so are substantial numbers of Israeli citizens, Jews as well as Arabs. His opposition to Zionism does not in itself justify the international chorus of condemnation against Iran or, more importantly, a military strike.

With all the demonisation of Iran by Western powers, we can all too easily forget that it is a complex society and a country justifiably proud of its history. We tend to forget that, outside Israel, it has the most developed democracy in the region. The Parliament has protected seats for minorities. The 25,000 Jews in Iran are represented by a Jewish MP. A Jewish chat show (broadcast in Farsi) regularly attracts 2-6 million listeners – very few talking about destroying Israel. We forget there is no desecration of synagogues – this is more of a problem in Europe. We forget there is a very well-developed middle class in Iran which often disagrees with Ahmadinejad. Recent protests in Iran are testament to this.

And this is where a military strike would be counterproductive in so many ways. It would encourage a more aggressive Iranian government to speed up any nuclear weapons programme and to drive it further underground. National pride, as well as strategic wisdom, would require that. Iran would probably also drop out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (which Pakistan, India and Israel have not signed) and end all cooperation with the IAEA.

Furthermore, knowledge can not be eradicated by military intervention. It would only delay the inevitable. If Iran has set herself on nuclear weapons, she will not be scared away; if she hasn’t, a military strike would serve only to encourage her to do so.

Support for the current hardliners in Iran would probably increase as a result of a strike, just as the Iran-Iraq war boosted patriotic support for the régime and helped to cement the revolution. In the same way, Iranians responded to Bush’s talk of an "Axis of Evil" in 2002 by removing the reformist president Khatami.

No, the only sensible option is calm, yet vigorous diplomacy. I suggest we offer implicit recognition of Iran’s status as a major power in the region – a status we created through the castration of Iraq. There is a precedent for recognising new status – in the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power.

There needs to be a gradual normalisation of diplomatic relations between the international community and Iran. Without this, discussions on Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear weapons, and the Middle East peace process will remain needlessly difficult. The West underestimates the opportunity to influence Iran. She is a state in transition, with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles.

The challenge for the West is to influence those struggles. Crude threats of military intervention, inflammatory sanctions or appeals for "régime change" undermine local proponents of reform by making them look like imperialist lackeys. Offering Iran a new relationship with the West could strengthen the pragmatists at the expense of the hardliners.

Surely our recent interventions in the region have reminded us that military action should always be the measure of last resort. We can, and should, go the extra mile for peace. We need to renounce the option of a military strike. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on quiet diplomacy between Iran and the West. The UK is well placed to help in this effort: despite recent measures announced by the Foreign Secretary, of the three "enemies" of the Iranian state – the US, UK and Israel – there is only one with which Iran has diplomatic relations.

> Last week Sir Malcolm Rifkind set out a different view: A nuclear Iran would trigger nuclearisation of the entire Middle East and it must be prevented


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