Peter Oborne, and David Morrison
It is just over ten years since Britain and the United States launched the invasion of Iraq, now regarded very widely as a terrible mistake which has done huge damage to our reputation across the Muslim world. Today we are on the verge of an eerily similar error, only this time concerning Iran, write Peter Oborne and David Morrison in an article based on a new book.
The same sort of lies and falsehoods are being uttered about Iran as were told about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction ten years ago, and in some cases by the same people.
Iran is being painted in the west as an aggressive power, ruled by irrational mullahs, hell-bent on the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and intent on the destruction of Israel.
If this picture were true, the military threats uttered by Israel, the United States and Britain against the Iranian leadership would indeed be justified. But the picture is more complicated, less menacing and not nearly as one-sided as has been widely portrayed.
Certainly Iran has been guilty of very serious human rights abuses (though certainly no worse than many states, such as Saudi Arabia) which are regarded as western allies. But the central claim that Iran is an aggressive and malevolent power is based – to an astonishing extent – on sheer ignorance.
Let us consider, for example, the widely held belief – frequently repeated as fact by British politicians and in the western media – that Iran has an active nuclear weapons programme.
US intelligence thinks it does not. They have been clear on this point ever since they published a National Intelligence Estimate (a formal assessment expressing the consensus view of the 16 US intelligence agencies) on Iran’s nuclear activities in November 2007.
It stated that ‘We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program’ adding that ‘We assess with moderate confidence Tehran has not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.’ US intelligence has not changed its view since. Israeli intelligence seems to share this opinion. A year ago, the Israeli Chief of Staff, General Benny Gantz told Haaretz that he did not believe that Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons. And on his recent visit to Israel, President Obama talked about the close cooperation of US and Israeli intelligence and stated that there was “not a lot of daylight” between their assessments of Iran’s nuclear activities.
Nobody can say with certainty that Iran is not developing nuclear weapons in secret. But it would be very hard for them to do so. This is because the country is a fully signed up member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), has for the most part obediently respected its provisions, and continues to do so today.
This means that Iran’s enrichment facilities are open to inspection by the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA), as are its other nuclear facilities. Over many years the IAEA has verified that no nuclear material has been diverted from these facilities for possible military purposes.
Most experts consider that it would be impossible for Iran to produce weapons-grade uranium for a bomb without being spotted by IAEA inspectors.
It is certainly true that the IAEA is currently in dispute with Iran over some of its nuclear activities. But it is not in breach of its NPT commitments, and here the contrast with India and Israel, both allies of the west, is so very striking. Their nuclear facilities are almost entirely closed to international inspections, and Israel is in open defiance of UN security council demands to make them available for inspection.
The unfairness (grotesque from an Iranian point of view) is glaring.
Iran, which has no nuclear weapons, is the object of ferocious economic sanctions and threats of military action. By contrast Israel (with perhaps 400 nuclear bombs and the capacity to deliver them anywhere in the Middle East) is the object of more than $3 billion a year of US military aid.
These basic facts about Iran’s nuclear activities are (if you search for them) in the public domain. Yet the British media and political class rarely mentions any of them. As a result, almost all of our public discourse on the Iranian nuclear issue is misleading, and much of it completely false.
Here are just a few examples. Last year the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News began a report with the statement that ‘Iran has announced new developments in its nuclear weapons programme.’ This report simply took it for granted that Iran possessed a nuclear weapons programme.
One Times report wrote of ‘Tehran’s atomic weaponry’, while the Economist casually referred to ‘Iran’s nukes’. The fact that respected, sceptical and authoritative publications talk of Iran as if it already possesses nuclear weapons highlights the extent to which Iran’s presumed guilt is embedded in British (and of course American) public discourse.
British politicians fuel the myth. Last year Defence Secretary Philip Hammond spoke of how Iran is believed to be working ‘flat out’ to build nuclear weapons. while Foreign Secretary William Hague told The Daily Telegraph last year that Iran was ‘clearly continuing their nuclear weapons programme.’ Remarks like this from cabinet ministers add weight to the powerful narrative that Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be curbed, enhancing the case for ever harsher economic sanctions and, if that fails to do the job, for military actions. Meanwhile the mainstream media is behaving as it did in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when, instead of questioning every aspect of the case for military action, it became the cheerleader for war.
This brings us to the biggest falsehood of all – the claim that Iran is defiantly refusing to engage reasonably with the west. If anything the opposite is the truth. More than once, the Iranians have shown themselves ready to negotiate.
They did so in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 atrocities, which was met with candlelit vigils in Tehran and denunciations by senior clerics. Iran provided intelligence briefings and help in the war against the Taliban, even going so far as far as to offer to rescue US pilots shot down over Iranian territory. According to James Dobbins, the diplomat who led the US delegation in the negotiations leading up to the 2001 Bonn agreement on Afghanistan, ‘in 2002 and again in 2003 Washington actually spurned offers from Tehran to cooperate on Afghanistan and Iraq and negotiate out other US/Iranian differences, including over its nuclear programme.’ In 2005 Iran floated another deal at a meeting with a European negotiating team at the Quai d’Orsay. It offered to open up all its nuclear facilities to intrusive international inspection, along with a series of other concessions, so long as the west recognised its right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, a right to which it is entitled as a signatory of the NPT. This deal was (say foreign office sources) killed off by Tony Blair, acting on behalf of George W Bush.
A deal along the these lines could be struck today. But it would require America and the west to stop treating Iran as a pariah state, and instead as a proud, independent nation with legitimate regional interests.
If we fail to take this course of action, the consequences look bleak.
Within months the world could be plunged into a new round of war and bloodshed, with the added risk of global economic collapse. Such an outcome would not just be terrible. It is wholly unnecessary.