John 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.
We can all agree that the Baghdad talks on Iran’s nuclear programme are very important. The signs of tension are evident: naval forces continue to muster in the Persian Gulf; Israel is still open to a military strike; while possible military options are being discussed in the UK’s National Security Council. Some or all of this is about setting the mood music prior to the talks. But the outcome of these negotiations will largely define how this crisis unfolds, and to a large extent whether military strikes are conducted. There can be little doubt that a further diplomatic push is warranted.
We should remember that the International Atomic Energy Agency’s November report contained no ‘smoking gun’. When a number of Parliamentary colleagues and I visited the IAEA’s headquarters in Vienna last month, we were told that there was no evidence that Iran had contravened the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They have not contravened Article II, which bans manufacture, whilst Article X makes allowances for research.
There is no hard evidence of construction of nuclear weapons, nor of a decision to do so – a fact confirmed recently by US intelligence sources. Neither is there evidence of diversion of nuclear materials. Yes, there is circumstantial evidence, but we know where this led us when it came to Iraq: we must base our foreign policy decisions on solid ground.
Meanwhile, there have been missed opportunities on both sides. Part of the problem is that this crisis has been defined by the mutual antagonism between the US and Iran going back over 30 years. We tend to forget that in the aftermath of 9/11, Iran expressed solidarity with the US, unlike many in the Middle East street. Attempts were also made to develop contacts with the West during the early stages of the Afghan War. Iran’s reward was to be grouped together in the ‘Axis of Evil’ by President Bush. This led directly to the removal of the moderate and reformist President Khatami.
Likewise, Iran was foolish to rebuff President Obama’s early attempt to build bridges. But it is wrong to suggest that Iran’s foreign policy has been entirely belligerent and unreasonable, and therefore wholly to blame.
The West needs to recognise that Iran is a state in transition. It is a complex society, with multiple centres of authority with constant power struggles. The West’s challenge is to influence those struggles. We need to better understand and engage with Iran, and perhaps recognise her status as a regional superpower – a status we ourselves created through our misguided invasion of Iraq.
A military strike would be disastrous for the region. It would unite Iranians behind the hard-liners and would in any case only delay any nuclear weapons programme. Knowledge can not be eradicated by military intervention. If Iran has set herself on nuclear weapons, she will not be scared away; if she hasn’t, a strike would serve only to encourage her to do so.
It is also in Israel’s best interest that there is a diplomatic solution. It could be argued the historic policy of sanctions and sabre-rattling have failed – they have brought us to the brink of conflict. Iran is a proud nation which will not be cowed by external pressure.
Negotiations would be helped if there were greater clarity regarding the West’s ‘red lines’. For Israel, it appears to be uranium enrichment. For the US, weaponisation seems to be the ‘red line’. Meanwhile, the UK’s position appears to be somewhere in between. Let us hope the change of government in France is a positive factor.
It is therefore important that the West does not miss the opportunity afforded by the Baghdad talks. Indications suggest that nothing has been excluded from the negotiations. This is good news. Sensitive aspects of the Iranian nuclear programme, including enrichment, as well as the issue of sanctions, are to be included. But, given the suspicions on both sides, it is important that confidence-building measures are introduced as quickly as possible. There needs to be reciprocity when it comes to the negotiations – something Iran is very keen on.
History is littered with examples of politicians failing to rise to the occasion, and costly war and conflict being the result. The UK needs to do all it can to ensure the follow-through from these talks will not be a further example. In Baghdad, and beyond, the Government needs to go the extra diplomatic mile and not pass up a potentially historic opportunity to pour oil on troubled waters.