By Paul Goodman
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Robert Halfon asked the question that mattered during the Commons statement that he obtained yesterday on Iran. (Please note: it was not volunteered.)
"Will [the Foreign Secretary] explain what will happen if the latest economic sanctions do not work?…Most people would accept that Britain has shouldered its fair share of the burden in tackling dictators, but it seems clear that the free world must send a message to Iran that, if it continues with its nuclear plans, it will lead to military action."
William Hague replied that "we are not planning to take military action in the Gulf" but also said at various points during his statement:
"This issue must be confronted…All options remain on the table…of course all options remain on the table for the future…It is indeed a red line issue [any Iranian development of a nuclear weapon]…It is the job of our armed forces to prepare for many contingencies…this is not the time to speculate about what might happen if [sanctions do not work]."
I have cut and pasted these snippets from the Foreign Secretary's carefully-crafted answers to indicate that despite his emollient tone he continued not to rule out military action against Iran.
It may be that the crisis never happens. Perhaps factions in Iran's unreadable polity, cowed by the threat or the reality of new sanctions, will halt the drive for nuclear weapons. Maybe the Government has no intention of being drawn into a war with Iran, and the latest escalation of sanctions is a last throw. It could be that the current tensions cool down, as they have before.
However, there is a sense of momentum about current events that reminds me of the period that preceded war with Iraq. Iran shows no sign whatsoever of stopping its nuclear programme. Hague hinted yesterday that it is within months of higher enrichment. Sanctions have not deterred Iran to date, and there is no reason to presume that the latest escalation will be more successful.
As Hague said yesterday, HMS Argyll joined a United States carrier group transiting through the strait of Hormuz last weekend. America and Israel are in a sense already at war with Iran. Iranian nuclear scientists have died in mysterious circumstances. There was an Iranian plot to kill the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. Some readers will be familiar with the Stuxnet saga.
My point about the run-up to the Iraq war is that the build-up of western troops and weaponry in the region as the row about inspections dragged on created a sense of inevitability: it became difficult for America and its allies to back off without being seen to back down (not that such an event was ever likely once the military build-up had begun).
We surely want to be conscious actors who help to shape this drama rather than passive instruments swept along by events. (And with Iran threatening to close the Straight of Hormuz, there is already a danger of a repetition of the Iran Air 655 incident, but one which this time causes events to spiral out of control.)
So Ministers should be asking themselves some hard questions, if they're not already – and having them put by others, too.
- Is our aim to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? If so, is it likely that a military strike, or series of strikes, would be successful in achieving that objective? If such strikes would serve only to postpone acquisition, would they not need to be repeated later? If we therefore become a participant in a long-running war with Iran, what are the consequences for security in the region – given the likelihood of an escalation by Hizbollah and perhaps Hamas in their campaign against Israel? What would the effects on trade, growth, jobs and prosperity be at a time of economic contraction in the western world? How would such a struggle impact on Iraq and especially on Afghanistan, where our armed forces are still engaged? Would Iran be capable of waging a terror campaign in Britain and elsewhere?
- Is our aim to go further and effect regime change in Iran? If so, what are the legalities? (And what are those of military action per se?) Who do we have in mind as an alternative government? What military commitment would such an objective imply, and how would this be compatible with our present defence capabilities and budget? Having withdrawn from Iraq and being in the process of withdrawing from Afghanistan, is it either possible or sensible now to make a major commitment, presumably including that of ground troops, in Iran? Could internal conflict of the kind that we've seen in Iraq grip Iran, and if so what would be the consequences for its neighbours and the region more broadly?
Some of these questions may be unanswerable. There is sense, none the less, in asking them, if only to grasp the scale of what is at stake. The creation of nuclear weapons by Iran is likely to drive a terrifying arms race in what is already an unstable region. It may none the less be that in the last resort we cannot stop it happening.
But whether this is so or not, it is time to start mulling over both these questions and others. I am very sceptical of the merits of military action against Iran other than to keep the strait open if necessary. But if such action is to be undertaken, then Ministers must be prepared to set out their reasoning soon, and any decision to take such action must be considered and debated – not sleepwalked into as a fait accompli.
P.S: As if all this wasn't enough for David Cameron to chew on, he will also be asking himself whether there is any rock more likely to shipwreck the Coalition than a vote on war with Iran.