I have to confess that I haven’t spent a great deal of time studying the Iran question, or looking at the long and tortuous attempts at negotiation over their nuclear programme. I just know what everybody else knows, from occasional newspaper articles, and speeches by well-informed politicians, like our Foreign Secretary William Hague.
So I know that Iran is governed by recalcitrant ayatollahs who are utterly irreconcilable with the West; who hate and reject our values; who are determined to wipe the State of Israel off the map; and who are hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons — to the extent that a military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities by the USA and/or Israel is, to say the least, a serious possibility. Aren’t they building centrifuges? And enriching uranium? And buying nuclear equipment and expertise on the global black market?
But a couple of days ago I received a very cordial note from columnist Peter Oborne, together with a new book “A Dangerous Delusion: why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran”, which he has co-authored with David Morrison.
Peter Oborne seems to be rather well-informed on Middle Eastern issues. I was particularly struck by his recent Telegraph column on Syria. He said that Cameron and Hague appear to have a rather simplistic view of Syria: brave insurgents committed to freedom and democracy, pitched against an evil dictator. There is little doubt that Assad is an evil dictator, but the insurgents are by no means the good guys. Oborne argues that what we are seeing is not so much a national insurgency in Syria, more a wider-ranging civil and sectarian war between Shia and Sunni Muslims across the region. Assad is supported by Iran and Hezbollah. The insurgents are supported by Saudi Arabia, and Qatar — and Al Qaeda.
Bad as Assad may be, Al Qaeda are not a lot better, and it is preposterous that our British government should be supporting an insurgent coalition which is backed by — and increasingly influenced by — a major anti-Western terrorist group. We in Britain should concern ourselves with dialogue, and external pressure, and perhaps humanitarian aid, but we should absolutely not be sending arms to either side (it only motivates Assad’s sponsors, including Russia, to raise the stakes on the other side). And above all we must not commit British troops to the Syria conflict.
But that is a digression. In his book, Oborne meticulously looks at published reports and statements from American security organisations, from the IAEA, even from Israel, and concludes that there is little evidence that Iran has had any nuclear weapons programme for the last ten years at least. He looks at the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and points out that Iran has broadly observed its commitments, while the demands being made on Iran are explicitly contrary to the Treaty — and while other non-nuclear states are clearly in breach of the Treaty, yet are not criticised or sanctioned.
Oborne also documents various negotiating offers made to the West by Iran, which could have formed the basis of a deal, but were rejected, apparently because Iran was regarded as the bad guy and no evidence to the contrary was to be contemplated.
I’m not in a position to support or deny Oborne’s proposition — it would be good to hear him debate it against someone who takes the conventional view. But I know this: if I were in William Hague’s seat, I should certainly ask my staff for an urgent review of our posture towards Iran, having read this book.
There is a broader point here, which relates to Oborne’s article about Syria. If we could reach some kind of rapprochement with Iran, bringing them into the international orbit, we might well have taken a first step to defusing the sectarian war between Shia and Sunni in the Middle East, which in turn might bear upon the Syrian story.