Allan Massie: Patience key to West’s approach to Iran’s nuclear ambition

DAVID Cameron’s play to the Israeli gallery asks serious questions about Western policy towards Iran’s nuclear posturing, writes Allan Massie

DAVID Cameron’s play to the Israeli gallery asks serious questions about Western policy towards Iran’s nuclear posturing, writes Allan Massie

David Cameron made a sensible speech on Monday. No, it was nothing to do with our referendum. The subject was more important. He was speaking about Iran at the annual dinner of the United Jewish Israel Appeal. Now, of course, hostility to Israel is so fierce in some quarters here that many may be offended to learn that the Prime Minister even addressed such a gathering. Nevertheless, he did, and what he said was admirable.

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The United States, the European Union and Israel are agreed that Iran should not be allowed nuclear weapons.

Some Arab states, notably our authoritarian, anti-democratic ally Saudi Arabia, are of the same opinion. Things might be different if the Iranian leadership had not repeatedly threatened to wipe Israel off the map.

Even then, there would doubtless be objections to welcoming Iran into the nuclear club. Nuclear proliferation is reckoned to be a bad thing. There is some evidence to the contrary.

There might on a couple of occasions have been a war between India and Pakistan if both countries hadn’t had nuclear weapons. Likewise, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) helped the Cold War to stay cold.

The trouble is that mad, in the non-acronymic sense, is just what Israel and others think the Iranian leadership is. They believe that the ayatollahs and president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad mean what they say when they speak of obliterating Israel.

As the Rev Peter Mullen, writing in the Daily Telegraph put it, a nuclear Iran could achieve in three minutes what Hitler failed to achieve between 1933 and 1945. This is an exaggeration. Nevertheless, it is what Israel fears. Hence the repeated threat of a pre-emptive strike.

Of course, nobody know for certain whether Iran is indeed trying to acquire a nuclear capability, or, if it is, how close it is to doing so.

The international atomic energy inspectors have found no proof. Moreover, Israel has been crying “wolf” for a long time. Iran has been “within two years” and sometimes “within months” of getting a bomb for more than ten years now.

So some scepticism is necessary, even if it is also the case that the Iranian programme – assuming it exists – has been disrupted by computer warfare and the targeted assassination of nuclear scientists.

On the other hand, we should remember that the boy who cried wolf was eventually killed by the wolf, with none of the villagers coming to his aid because they had stopped believing him when he called out that the wolf was at hand. Just because the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, often sounds paranoid is no reason to disbelieve him when he spies the wolf.

Time and again, he warns that Israel will resort to a pre-emptive strike if Iran’s programme isn’t stopped. Does he mean it? Is he bluffing? Are his threats aimed as much at Israel’s allies as at Iran, intended to stiffen their resolution? This is quite probable, for three reasons.

First, there is some doubt as to whether Israel possesses the capability to halt, rather than merely delaying, any Iranian nuclear programme. Second, Israel must know that any strike against Iran would invite retaliation from Iran itself and its clients, Hamas and Hezbollah, possibly from other Muslim states, too. Third, Israeli generals and a former head of their security service, Mossad, have expressed their opposition to Israel going it alone; they are sure that to be successful, any strike against Iran requires American collaboration.

Since that is not going to be forthcoming, at least in the near future, we can probably discount the likelihood of an Israeli bombing raid.

Here we come to Mr Cameron’s speech on Monday. He argued for patience. The tighter sanctions imposed by the EU are working.

“Iranian oil exports have fallen by 45 per cent. The rial has plummeted and inflation is soaring. Most significantly there are signs that the Iranian people are beginning to question the regime’s strategy with even pro-regime groups protesting at the actions of the government. The Iranian regime is under unprecedented pressure and faces an acute dilemma. They are leading their people to global isolation and an economic collapse. And they know it.”

There are, of course, arguments against sanctions: that they cause hardship to the people without damaging the leadership. So they often fail. There are plenty of examples to support this argument: Cuba, Zimbabwe, Bosnia. Where they may be held to have worked – after a long time – in South Africa and Rhodesia, for instance, they did so because the regime was sufficiently rational eventually to accept that the game was up. Is this the case in Iran?

One should also add that even if unrest leads to revolution there, and the overthrow of the clerical regime, it is possible – some may say likely – that any replacement would still be hostile to Israel, the US and the West in general, and might be equally determined to acquire nuclear weapons.

Nevertheless, the West’s present policy is the right one – as long as it is coupled with inducements. Sanctions are the stick, but, whether Netanyahu likes it or not, we should also hold out carrots. It is surely wise to try to bring Iran into the community of nations where it is recognised that, as Winston Churchill said, “jaw-jaw is better than war-war”.

Cameron, mindful of his immediate audience, didn‘t close the door on military action.” If Iran makes the wrong choice, nothing is off the table. A nuclear-armed Iran is a threat to Israel”.

However, he pointed out that at a time when the Iranian regime is itself under pressure and when its “only real ally” – Bashar al-Assad in Syria – “is losing his grip on power,” a foreign military strike would offer the Iranian regime the chance to unite its people against a foreign enemy. This is surely the case. History offers many examples of a beleaguered regime successfully playing the patriotic card.

There are some – and Netanyahu is probably among them – who believe that the Iranian regime is not only hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, but is also utterly irrational. Yet, even if you admit that its hatred of Israel, and the threats to Israel’s existence it has repeatedly offered, go well beyond the bounds of reason, it is also the case that its actions have been as cautious, even timid, as its words have been wild.

It is now more than 30 years since the Iranian revolution and in that time the government there has been more concerned to defend itself than to engage in anything more than verbal aggression.