John Baron MP has got it very wrong on Iran. Writing on ConservativeHome this morning, the Honourable Member for Basildon and Billericay not only questioned whether the Iranian regime is in fact developing a nuclear weapon as determinedly as everyone believes, but also defended its reasons for doing so.
Extraordinary. And yet not.
I vividly recall debating the Libya conflict with John on Sir David Frost back in June, and much the same logic that informed his opposition to Britain’s intervention in that conflict guides his thinking on Iran now.
In short, and for whatever reason, he is willing to give violent dictatorships the benefit of the doubt.
One of John’s principle reasons for opposing our intervention in Libya was that we “could not be sure” that Colonel Gaddafi would have perpetrated a massacre in Benghazi. Given that this was the man who had recently pledged to “cleanse” his country “house by house”, and then demonstrated every intention of doing so, this was a risky assumption for John to make. Foreign mercenaries had been flown in; tanks were being used to crush protesters alive; and in one incident mourners at a funeral were machine-gunned to death.
One essential truth of geopolitics, particularly when it comes to armed conflict, is that certainty is usually very difficult to achieve. Decisions have to be made, often at short notice, and with less than adequate information to hand.
I will never forget a story once told to me by a senior British officer with regards to the conflict in Kosovo. “We thought we’d had a pretty good campaign”, he said. “We’d hit Milosevic’s forces hard, and were sure we had eliminated significant quantities of Serbian armour”. What a surprise, therefore, when following the Serbian surrender NATO intelligence counted more Serbian armoured vehicles driving out of Kosovo than they had believed existed in the first place.
And yet in the case of Iran’s nuclear intentions, the situation seems rather more clear-cut. The UK's decision to join the United States and Canada in stepping up sanctions against Iran, which prompted Tuesday’s attack on the British Embassy in Tehran, was a direct consequence of the IAEA’s latest report on the regime’s nuclear programme.
Amongst other evidence of Tehran’s intentions to develop a nuclear weapons capability, the report cited procurement of “nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities”; the development of “undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material”; the acquisition of “nuclear weapons development information and documentation from clandestine nuclear supply network”; and “the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components”.
John argues in his piece that this report does not provide a “smoking gun”, and perhaps he’s right. It was already blatantly obvious what Tehran’s intentions were even before the IAEA put pen to paper in this latest instance. The argument I have always found most compelling regards the economic incomprehensibility of an Iranian civil nuclear energy programme. Because it turns out that if you look at the size of the uranium deposits in Iran, they aren’t all that large. In fact, the US State Department has estimated that if Iran built six reactors for domestic production, their uranium reserves would be sufficient to run those reactors for just 12 years. You don’t build a whole industry if all you’re going to get is 12 years out of it.
Be that as it may, the second – and much the most troubling – aspect of John’s piece involves his defence of the Iranian rationale for developing a nuclear bomb. It may very well be that the regime in Tehran possesses very sound strategic reasons for wanting a nuclear weapons capability. Assessing the situation from a British strategic perspective, that is absolutely not the same thing as saying it’s a good idea to let it do so.
There are those who ask what right Britain and other nuclear-armed powers have to try and prevent a country like Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. The answer is very simple. This is one of the most unpleasant and irresponsible regimes on the face of the earth. This is a regime that murders its own citizens when they call for democracy, in public, in broad daylight. It is the single greatest state sponsor of terror in the world. It is a regime that would happily see the state of Israel vanish from the map tomorrow. And let’s not beat around the bush. As British citizens, we have absolutely no interest in seeing a regime armed with nuclear weapons that demonstrably loathes this country and all it stands for, and thinks that orchestrating its citizens to besiege a British Embassy whilst chanting “Death to Britain” is a good idea.
The final phase of John’s argument that needs addressing relates to the question of how we go about persuading the Iranians to desist in their nuclear ambitions, if that is what we want to do. Like others before him, John reasons that a combative approach can only be counterproductive. When confronted with a paranoid regime determined to develop a nuclear bomb, backing them into a corner can only make matters worse. The problem, as Barack Obama discovered to his cost early on in his presidency, is that when dealing with a messianic autocracy such as the Iranian regime is, an extension of the olive branch is just exploited as weakness.
The reality is, that short of a change of regime altogether, the only option left open to those countries opposing the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme are economic and technical measures that make it difficult or impossible for them to carry that process to completion, even if they want to.
Iran’s reaction to this latest imposition of UK sanctions demonstrates that the regime is feeling the pressure. A truly crippling next step, as France is now proposing, would be to place an embargo on Iranian oil exports, the only serious lever of economic strength the regime has left. If that compels the UK to leave its embassy in Tehran empty then so be it. You can’t be friends with everybody, and some things are worth fighting for. This is one of them.