IRAN’S announcement that it is ceasing all sales of oil to Britain and France is, on the face of it, fairly inconsequential – both countries, after all, are party to an EU move to end all European purchases of Iranian crude by July.
But behind the announcement looks to be an escalating agenda of move and counter-move that could end in serious conflict and disaster for the world.
The concerns that Iran is secretly building nuclear weapons are bad enough. Iranian promises that it is merely pursuing peaceful research and development for domestic energy needs are clearly not worth the paper they are written on. Why else would they refuse UN inspectors access to various facilities if there was nothing to conceal?
But the evidence now seems to be mounting that Iran is building the capacity to produce enriched uranium for which there is no other use than in a nuclear weapon.
Israel is the country which has most to fear if this does indeed to turn out to be the case. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied that the Holocaust ever happened and has said that the state of Israel will be “wiped off the map”. Much of the Muslim world might even applaud if Iran, in the name of defeating Jewish and Christian forces while liberating the Palestinian people, did launch a missile strike against Israel.
While praying that such a dreadful event never occurs, we do need to recognise that such are the awful forces of hatred and enmity that have built up in the Middle East, that these Israeli fears are not simply the product of paranoia.
Thus we should not be surprised if Israel is planning a pre-emptive military strike against Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities. Some reports suggest that it might be ready to take action by April.
The consequences of this could be just as catastrophic. Even if Iran did not have the capacity to launch a retaliatory strike, it has talked of blocking the Straits of Hormuz through which pass much of the world’s oil supply. That would bring not just the US, who have stationed an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Gulf, but also the British and the French, who both have naval vessels in the same waters, into direct confrontation with Iran.
Such vessels could not sustain a purely defensive operation aimed at protecting passing oil tankers for long. Military action against targets on Iranian territory would soon follow and there is no telling how that might end.
Diplomacy has rarely been more vital than it is now. One interpretation of Iran’s recent aggressive statements, including the cancellation of oil sales to Britain and France, is that it is not confident about the future and is talking loudly to mask inner doubts and disquiet.
That, at least, is one view that William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, has put forward. Hopefully he is right and the squaring up will lead to talks that can start resolving these matters peacefully. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.
Loose cannon Lord Forsyth misses all targets
As Michael Forsyth, when Scottish secretary, he was noted for his devoted loyalty to his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. As Lord Forsyth however, he seems to have become one of those Conservatives he most despised when in power – a loose cannon happy to fire off criticisms of the current Tory Prime Minister, David Cameron.
This might be a good thing for public debate on Scotland’s constitutional future if he was hitting the target. But his critique of Mr Cameron, that the Prime Minister is playing into Nationalist hands by promising further moves on devolution should independence be rejected in a referendum, looks to be well wide of the mark.
Was he suggesting that Mr Cameron should have said to Scots that if they reject independence, they will get nothing from him? Would that not have been the message that Alex Salmond really wanted to hear – that the Tories were reverting to Thatcherite type and drawing impassable lines in the sand?
Lord Forsyth thinks that Mr Cameron has opened the door to a debate about “devo-max” which will drown out any discussion of independence.
That sounds improbable, for it requires the SNP to only tepidly argue for independence in their own referendum, while turning up the heat on something less than that.
Enhanced devolution may or may not feature in the eventual campaign, but it is certain that independence will be the main show. The SNP will make certain of that.
True or false, this Swede is a survivor
If you think you have had a hard winter, stop your snivelling. Marvel instead at 44-year-old Peter Skyllberg, who got stuck in his car in snowdrifts in northern Sweden. That was on 19 December last year. And somewhat miraculously he survived there while temperatures fell as low as -30C with nothing much more than handfuls of snow to eat and perhaps lip balm.
It is the sort of story that might feature in one of Henning Mankell’s Inspector Wallander novels. The inspector, we think, would find it so improbable as to merit investigation. We doubt that he would be convinced by medical explanations that once Mr Skyllberg had run out of fuel to keep the car heater going, he lapsed into a bear-like hibernation state in which he needed no food or water to keep alive.
And his suspicions would certainly have been aroused by the discovery that people were after him because of a December court judgment involving £150,000 which he owed. Was this why Mr Skyllberg did not try to walk to safety? At any rate, Mr Skyllberg now has a story so astonishing that it must be worth something, perhaps even a debt-cancelling sum, not least to the makers of the car in which he avoided freezing to death.
An elaborate con, or a remarkable survival story? If the latter, Mr Skyllberg, skol!