Daily Telegraph: One of the many tragic consequences of the Iraq war is that it has made it harder to act against Iran. The geographical and alphabetical proximity of the two countries tempts us into false comparisons. Look at the mess the neo-cons made in Iraq, we think. We surely can’t let those clots try the same failed strategy against Iran. Nor do you hear this argument only from tousled students.
The Daily Telegraph
By Daniel Hannan
One of the many tragic consequences of the Iraq war is that it has made it harder to act against Iran. The geographical and alphabetical proximity of the two countries tempts us into false comparisons. Look at the mess the neo-cons made in Iraq, we think. We surely can’t let those clots try the same failed strategy against Iran. Nor do you hear this argument only from tousled students.
Mohammed El-Baradei, who heads the International Atomic Energy Agency, says that Iraq should serve as a warning to those who want a forward policy against Teheran.
Well, I am no neo-con. I was the only leader writer on this newspaper who argued against the Iraq war. I opposed the invasion because I didn’t believe that Saddam had a weapons programme. When it comes to Iran, though, there can be no doubt that the regime is developing a nuclear capability, and that it has the delivery mechanism: Shahhab-3 missiles, with a range of 1,500 miles.
Nor can there be much doubt that the reason the ayatollahs want the Bomb is so that they can use it. Look, after all, at what they are already doing. They have armed militias as far afield as the Balkans, the Caucasus and the old Silk Road Khanates.
They have supplied their Lebanese proxy, Hizbollah, with rockets. They have been implicated in the bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina.
Can we really be certain that, if they had the technology, they wouldn’t tip some of these bombs with nuclear warheads?
It’s the Buenos Aires bomb that I find most interesting. What possible strategic interest can the mullahs have had in Argentina? The answer, surely, is that the very remoteness of the target made it attractive: Teheran was flaunting its ability to strike wherever it wanted. That is what makes an Iranian bomb so frightening: we are not dealing, as we were in the Cold War, with a regime pursuing rational aims. The ayatollahs play by different rules.
They advertised this with the very first act of their revolution: the seizure of the US embassy. The sanctity of diplomatic personnel is the basis of all international relations. Even during the Second World War, when mutually antagonistic ideologies struggled to obliterate each other, legation staff were peacefully evacuated through neutral states. By violating this principle, the mullahs were sending out a deliberate signal: your notions of territorial jurisdiction mean nothing to us; we recognise a higher authority than yours.
They got away with it, too. Even while the US embassy staff were being held hostage, the Iranian mission in London was seized. We sent in the SAS, recovered the building, and handed it back to Teheran with a cheque to cover the breakages.
The ayatollahs concluded that they could have it both ways, being accorded the privileges of a sovereign state without having to reciprocate.
That set the pattern for what was to follow. Iran has never shown much respect for state sovereignty.
Like all revolutionary regimes, it has spilled out from behind its borders, seeking to replicate itself elsewhere. It has sought, in particular, to radicalise its co-religionists in the Arab world, prompting King Abdullah of Jordan to warn against a “Shia crescent” arcing from the Lebanon through Syria, Turkey and Iran to the Gulf monarchies.
Yet our response and by “our”, I mean the EU’s has been to pursue a policy of “constructive engagement” in the hope of jollying the mullahs out of their nuclear ambitions. To his credit, even Jack Straw, who was the most visible agent of that policy, and who for a while seemed to be in Teheran every other week, now accepts that it has failed.
What, though, is the alternative? Well, in between the current policy of trying to wheedle the Chinese into letting us pass UN resolutions, and the option of direct military action, there are several escalating steps. First, there is economic isolation.
By that, I don’t mean the withholding of investment by a few Western firms, something which is already happening; I mean proper sanctions. The EU is easily Iran’s largest trade partner and, as Malcolm Rifkind has pointed out, much of that trade is underwritten by export credit guarantees. Proper sanctions should include the seizure of assets, the freezing of accounts and travel embargoes.
Then there is the option of sponsoring internal dissent: something the Iranians are quite happy to do in other countries.
One of the sillier concessions we made to the ayatollahs during our “constructive engagement” phase was to decide that the military arm of the main opposition group, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, was a terrorist organisation. Removing that tag from this group the People’s Mujahideen of Iran and hanging it instead on the ayatollahs might indicate that we mean business.
There are plenty of disaffected Iranians. There are monarchists, secularists, socialists and students.
There are Sunnis, who are not even allowed to build a mosque in Teheran. There are national minorities, including Azeris and Arabs, with little love for the Persian state. We could be doing far more to back democratic opposition groups, as we have done in formerly Soviet territories.
As a last resort, if nothing else works, we could apply the kind of armed siege, complete with no-fly zone and targeted air strikes, that we imposed on Iraq between the two wars. Our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has removed two anti-Shia powers from Iran’s flanks; but we now have bases from which to deploy in extremis.
Before you complain about escalation, consider the consequences of further non-escalation.
The Iranians were implicated in terrorist attacks against Western interests.
They got away with it, so they started backing the anti-British militias in Basra. When they got away with that, too, they went a stage further and kidnapped our sailors.
By any definition, the use of force against uniformed British Servicemen on patrol in the territory of an allied state is an act of war, but still the mullahs escaped any consequences.
Now, our soldiers in Helmand complain that Iran is arming the Taliban. Our non-escalation, in other words, has encouraged a good deal of escalation from the ayatollahs. Can you really be sure that, if they had the Bomb, they might not use it?