By Paul Goodman
Follow Paul on Twitter
Cameron is worried that Israel may attack Iran…
I returned from Israel and Palestine recently, but in one sense didn't need to go. For although much of the conversation there was about Iran's nuclear programme and Israeli military action, the most vivid news about it broke back in Britain. The Daily Mail reported that John Sawers, the head of MI6, had made his own recent trip to Israel – to plead with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's Prime Minister, not to order a strike on Iran. "David Cameron," the paper reported, "is understood to have become increasingly concerned at the rhetoric from the authorities in Israel, who have been threatening unilateral military action to halt Iran’s nuclear drive".
Unlike, say, the Times, the Mail isn't especially interested in security stories, and this fact plus the detail above suggests that the tale came from a political source. The Mail also said that the prospect of an attack "has been discussed by the Government's national security council", before turning to the Netanyahu Government perhaps launching an attack "before the US presidential elections in November, while the leadership in Washington is in a state of limbo". (The paper might have added, as a domestic detail, "possibly during the party conference season").
…And no wonder, because although an Israeli attack been threatened many time before…
This is scarcely the first time that a strike has been mooted. There is a long record of senior figures in Israel's political and military establishment claiming that Iran is on the verge of being able to construct nuclear weapons (consider, for example, this item from five years ago), and warning that its facilities will be attacked. "When we look at the future and ask ourselves what is the biggest military problem we will face in the next decade, Iran's nuclear bomb is at the top of the list," an Israeli military official said as long ago as 1995.
It is far from certain that such a strike could halt Iran's programme for long, or that Mr Netanyahu could get his Cabinet to agree one. Furthermore, public opinion in Israel itself is divided about an attack: a former head of Shin Bet, a former head of Mossad and the current Chief of Israel's General Staff have spoken out against one, at least for now, as has the country's President, Shimon Peres. But that the boy has cried wolf before may not mean he's wrong now. The head of MI6 wouldn't have flown to meet Netanyahu without good reason.
…Such a strike could spark a regional war, and split the Tory benches…
No wonder Mr Cameron is agitated about a strike. Military action by Israel and Iran's possible respose would put our domestic debate about whether economic recovery is taking place or not into perspective. The repercussions could include an Iranian assault on American forces in the Gulf, the destablisation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the possible blockade of the Straits of Hormuz, through which 20 per cent of the world's oil passes. But the Prime Minister will have his mind not only on the economic consequences, but the political ones.
It is hard to assess the likely reaction to an Israeli attack by Tory MPs. Conservative Friends of Israel records 80% of them as members, but to be a friend of Israel isn't necessarily to be a friend of Mr Netanyahu, and for Israel's Prime Minister to act unilaterally, without the military support of the United States, would be unlikely to win him more on the Conservative backbenches. But it is the response not of Tory MPs but of Liberal Democrat ones, backbench and frontbench alike, that will be most on Mr Cameron's mind.
…Not to mention the Coalition
The LibDem benches in the Commons are full of soft-faced men and women who did well out of opposing the Iraq War. So if pressure from the left and British Muslims builds for sanctions on Israel, they are likely to carry on now where they left off after 2005. And although Nick Clegg is a senior member of the National Security Council, Jeremy Browne is no longer at the Foreign Office and Nick Harvey no longer at the Ministry of Defence. The reshuffle has left both departments without a LibDem MP at the very moment a controversial war may take place.
If Mr Cameron didn't try to stop this happening he was astoundingly cavalier, and if he didn't see the potential problem he was unforgivably careless (unless both men were quietly moved to forestall possible resignations). But whatever happened, the LibDems will have less institutional tie-in to Government policy in the event of an Israeli attack than would be the case were there LibDem Ministers in those departments. Is it possible to imagine voices in the Foreign Office supporting sanctions on Israel, or a motion to that effect being tabled in the Commons?
What would happen in Britain if the middle east flared up further?
How would Britain's (largely Sunni) Muslims react, and what would be consequences for Britain's Jewish communities? What would Ed Miliband do – especially if fault lines appeared in the Coalition that Labour could exploit? Could the Straits of Hormuz run through the Prime Minister's office, as Clarissa Eden said of the Suez canal during the Suez crisis? Above all, how should the Government respond to any Israeli strike? My thinking on all these questions has been challenged by reading David Patrikarakos's recently-published "Nuclear Iran".
Mr Patrikarakos provides an account of Iran's nuclear quest that is both detailed and gripping – a challenge given the technical nature of the subject. He has interviewed several of the country's key players, and is not unsympathetic to its position. He points out that the non-proliferation treaty (which Iran has signed) is tough on non-members of the nuclear club, that the country has nuclear neighbours – India and Israel both have the bomb – and that America treats nuclear-armed countries with respect, not hostility, however unstable they may be (consider Pakistan).
We cannot put boots on the ground, but nor should we sit on our hands
However, he draws a distinction between Iran and its government: "if the spectre of a possible attack on Iran is deeply troubling," he writes, "the spectre of a nuclear-armed Iran would be even worse". It would "more than likely" trigger a regional arms race, which Israel's possesson of nuclear weapons has not. The logic of mutual assured destruction just about held during the Cold War. But would it prevail if more middle eastern states, vulnerable to religious fanaticism and having obscure chains of command, built or gained nuclear weapons?
The threat of maniacs exploding a dirty bomb in London is remote but real. Britain cannot afford to fight another major war abroad. But that we cannot put "boots on the ground" is no reason to sit on our hands. In war flares in the middle east, the best course the Government could take is to try to keep our troops out of it and maintain the international diplomatic pressure on Iran. This would be difficult, since Russia and China's support for sanctions would probably collapse. But we must play our part in trying to stop the middle east going nuclear.