OpinionIran in the World PressBlair’s New Tune on Iran

Blair’s New Tune on Iran

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Foreign Policy: British Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to play hardball with Iran. Frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program, the British—who used to give Iran the benefit of the doubt—are now hedging their bets on nuclear diplomacy by using Iran’s meddling in Iraq to make military options more palatable to the British public. Foreign Policy

By James G. Forsyth

October 2005

British officials used to be certain that a military attack on Iran was out of the question. Now, it seems, they’re not so sure.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has decided to play hardball with Iran. Frustrated by the lack of progress in negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program, the British—who used to give Iran the benefit of the doubt—are now hedging their bets on nuclear diplomacy by using Iran’s meddling in Iraq to make military options more palatable to the British public.

Blair’s policy of treating Iran with kid gloves was born out of the conviction that Iran would soon evolve into a democracy. In 1998, a year after Blair won his first election, full diplomatic relations were restored between Britain and Iran (despite the fatwa on British author Salman Rushdie remaining in place). Jack Straw became the first British foreign secretary to visit Tehran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Straw assured the Iranians they were not a target in the post-9/11 war on terror.

Now, though, the tide is turning. Jonathan Lindley, a Middle East expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says that the prime minister’s office has decided to use “more stick and less carrot” in its relations with Iran. The first evidence of this new approach came early this month, when a British official accused Iran of supplying the Basra insurgency with bombmaking technology via Hezbollah. The next day, Blair himself repeated the charge. That was a turnaround from previous statements, when British officials had argued that the Iranians were actually helping in Iraq by acting as a calming influence on the more excitable Shiite groups.

Then on October 11, the Foreign Office’s Middle East Minister, Kim Howells, declared in a Parliamentary debate that if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it could give momentum to proposals for Britain to upgrade its own nuclear arsenal. Howells ended the debate by responding to calls from members of parliament for a tougher policy toward Iran with a cryptic message, suggesting that the government is no longer quite as certain that it will never strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. “[T”>he world of diplomacy requires one to choose language very carefully. My right honorable friend the foreign secretary said that he could not envisage any circumstances in which there would be some sort of armed response to the problem of nuclear proliferation. I hope that the honorable gentleman will understand what I am saying.”

That same day, British officials privately briefed The Sun, a jingoistic tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch. They told The Sun’s reporters that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard was training bombmakers and smuggling them into Basra to kill British troops. The newspaper treated the story in a way the briefer must have anticipated. The headline roared, “Trained in Iran to kill our boys.” The choice to leak to The Sun, as opposed to briefing a more subdued or dovish publication, suggests that Blair was trying to whip up public anger toward Tehran. “They could depend on [that kind of spin”>, given everything The Sun has written about Iraq,” says Stephen Glover, the media commentator of the daily Independent. “The Sun has been the most bellicose supporter of British and American policy in Iraq. A fairly safe bet, on the government’s part, that it would continue to be so in relation to Iran.” If the government’s intention was to influence pundits, rather than the general public, The Times—also owned by Murdoch—would have been the more logical choice. And if the aim was simply to disseminate information, the bbc would have been the obvious venue.

So, why is this new British approach taking the form of a covert domestic pr blitz? The British public, which did not go through the emotional trauma that Americans experienced during the Iranian hostage crisis, has generally been unconcerned by the prospect of Iran’s acquiring the bomb. But it has felt burned by Iraq. After the past four years, Blair simply doesn’t have the political capital to sell another intelligence-driven war. Without any increase in public concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, British threats to support military action against Iran are hollow. And there is no better way to drum up anger than by telling the public that the Iranians are responsible for the deaths of British soldiers.

The Iranians, of course, know what is going on. The Iranian ambassador to Britain recently complained that Iran does “not expect the British to use Iraq to put pressure on Iran during nuclear negotiations.” If Iran can persuade the British public that accusations about Iran’s involvement in Basra are being used to build support for a possible military action, this new strategy will fail. Following the “dodgy dossiers” on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, people are not inclined to give Blair the benefit of the doubt. For now, however, London seems determined to use Iraq to strengthen its hand in the nuclear negotiations. The success of this approach depends on how seriously Tehran takes the threat of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The victory of hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran’s June presidential elections dented British hopes that a Tehran spring was about to bloom. Instead, we now may be in for a bitter cold winter of tough nuclear talk.

James G. Forsyth is assistant editor at FOREIGN POLICY.

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