Yesterday, Jack Straw wrote that an attack on Iran would never be justified, even if the Islamic regime developed an atomic bomb. Now that the Daily Telegraph has revealed that Iran is in all likelihood pursuing a more determined approach towards developing nuclear weapons than previously thought, it seems that Mr Straw’s argument may be dangerously close to being tested.
There was much in Mr Straw’s article that was worthy of admiration. He outlined Britain’s history of meddling in Iranian affairs – something which we are conveniently prone to forgetting in this country – and showed a commendable capacity for empathy for the Iranian psychology, asking readers to “think how we’d feel if it had been the other way round”. This, again, is something that is not seen enough in Britain.
His arguments were also substantiated by very real concerns. A nuclear Iran, he said, would probably not spark an arms race, as the regional powers have “little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a route”. Moreover, the fallout of a pre-emptive attack on the regime may spur them on to develop a weapon with renewed vigour, undermine the tempering effect of sanctions, and create risky political instability in the country. He added that in his “best judgment”, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, will probably “stop short of making [the nuclear] system a reality”.
Barring this latter statement of opinion, his analysis of the repercussions of an attack is probably sound. After all, he bases it on that of Meir Dagan, a former head of the Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, a former chief of the Shabak. Further, there can be no denying that a reluctant approach to war is generally preferable to the alternative. What is lacking from his article, however, is a recognition of the views of the Israeli security establishment.
Whereas Mr Straw unequivocally states that “a nuclear-armed Iran would certainly not be worth a war”, this is not the position of Meir Dagan. Straw cites Dagan’s famous statement from 2011 that an Israeli attack on Iran would be a “stupid idea”. However, Dagan later clarified this statement at length in an interview with CBS in 2012, saying that “an attack on Iranbefore you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it.” It is beyond dispute that Israel’s top security and military officials are generally far more doveish than Mr Netanyahu. But it would be a stretch to suggest that they believe, as Mr Straw does, that an attack on Iran should be taken off the table. To do so would be to weaken the Western powers’ stance on Iran, and evoke the spectre of appeasement.
From the Israeli point of view, although many experts believe that Iran would not be so irrational as to develop and deploy a nuclear warhead, this is counterbalanced by the regime’s frequent threats against the Jewish state, and propagation of aggression towards it. Netanyahu is adamant that a policy towards Iran should take into account the “never again” lessons of the Holocaust. While this may be partly rhetorical hyperbole, it underscores the seriousness with which Israel must take such threats. In this sense, perhaps, Jack Straw may lack a degree of empathy for the Israeli perspective.
This would be perilous for Britain. As Meir Dagan said in the CBS interview, “the issue of Iran armed with a nuclear capability is not an Israeli problem; it’s an international problem”. If Iran were to deploy nuclear weapons against Israel, Britain would almost certainly be drawn into the ensuing conflict, and would be profoundly affected by it. For these reasons, although war is to be avoided at all costs, it would be a mistake to remove it from the table completely.
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