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War on Iran has begun. And it is madness

2011 December 4
by Paul Vallely

One of the more embarrassing features of the internet is that from time to time I find myself confused with a namesake. Paul E Vallely is not me. He is a retired US major general who is now the senior military analyst for Rupert Murdoch’s outrageously right-wing Fox News. Among other things he wants to bomb Iran, which is something I decidedly do not want to do.

There is something deeply disquieting about the deterioration in relationships between the West and Iran in recent days. William Hague was well within diplomatic protocol to expel all Iran’s diplomats from Britain after a mob sacked the British embassy in Tehran. But what is proper is not always wise.

Paranoia has long characterised Anglo-Iranian relations. An old Persian proverb warns: “If you trip over a stone in the road, it was put there by an Englishman”. British memories may stretch back to 1989 when Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa ordering Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie for his blasphemous novel The Satanic Verses. But Persian memories are longer still.

It was MI6, along with the CIA, who orchestrated the overthrow in 1953 of the popular democratically-elected secular prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq who had brought about major social reforms but who had had the temerity to nationalise the petroleum company which became BP. Through the 1960s and 70s Britain backed the Shah of Iran, a man whose regime rested on secret police and torture but who was seen as a plausible counterweight to Soviet influence in the Middle East.

And so it continued. Britain consistently backed the wrong leader. We favoured Saddam in the Iran-Iraq war. We derided the reactionary mayor of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, so much that when he was elected President another Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei talked about the British as “the most evil” of diplomats. In 2009 the BBC World Service Persian channel so annoyed Tehran that anyone interviewed on it was harassed or arrested. During the post-election protests that year a member of the British embassy’s Iranian staff was jailed. For the past year Iran has had no ambassador in London, without any explanation given for the vacancy.

So Britain taking the lead in international opinion against Tehran’s nuclear programme – arguing that its goal is not nuclear fuel but nuclear weapons – is perceived in Iran in the context of a long history of British perfidy. London is seen as an intelligence-gathering stooge for Washington, which has no embassy in Tehran. Britain is “the Little Satan” in contrast to the United States which is “the Great Satan”.

It was the Little Interventionist Tony Blair who first began sanctions on Iran. And the build-up of hostility to Iran has unnerving parallels with the case for war conjured by Blair and Bush against Iraq. We have another dodgy dossier in the shape of the report by the International Atomic Energy Agency which claims Iran is developing nuclear weapons, but does so largely on the basis of intelligence which ends in 2003. It relies on documents on a laptop found in 2004  by the Israelis whose reliability prompted deep scepticism among western intelligence communities at the time. The foreign scientist who was said to have been working on a bomb with the Iranians turned out to be a nanotechnologist. And a former IAEA chief inspector has said that the type of explosion chamber referred to in the report could never be used in a nuclear test.

On that is based hawkish noises and sabre-rattling sanctions. Intelligence chiefs publicly say things like the West must use covert operations to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme. Politicians make thinly-veiled threats of military attack using weasel words like “all options are on the table”. Pardon me if it feels like Iraq all over again.

Of course some political leaders in Tehran do want the bomb. It is not hard to understand why. Everyone else in the region has one – Israel, Pakistan, India and Russia. US nuclear weapons have Tehran within range.

But Iran is a big politically-sophisticated country, whose constitution of parliament, president, councils and assemblies of religious experts, creates a system of checks and balances in which change is possible. Reformers have held sway at times in this political pluralism. The Iranian establishment is fragmented into factions; a third of MPs did not vote for the measure to reduce the diplomatic status of Iran’s relations with Britain last Sunday. But it is precisely the wrong reactionary factions which are strengthened by the bellicosity of the West.

And make no mistake the war has begun. Virulent computer viruses disabled Iran’s nuclear centrifuges last year. Two of the nation’s leading nuclear physicists have been assassinated, and a third wounded by assassins on motorbikes. The UK’s decision to freeze $1.6bn of Iranian assets – which is what provoked the violence on the British embassy – was the fourth round of sanctions. Hawks like my military namesake talk openly of deploying unmanned drones against nuclear power stations and provoking an uprising against the government in Tehran. And now comes all the EU sound and fury about not bowing “to Iran’s intimidation and bullying”.  The hollow laughter from Tehran reflects heightened nationalist resolution and increased hostility to the West.

What is needed is the opposite. Instead of feeding a siege mentality in Tehran we should be finding ways of keeping open the engagement through trade and cultural exchange as Washington does with Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons appear to have provoked no threats of US attack.

There is another consideration. Iran is the world’s second largest producer of both oil and gas. (Which does make you wonder why it needs to exercise its “inalienable right” to produce nuclear fuel.) The EU last week reached agreement in principle to impose an oil embargo on Iran. But it delayed any detailed decision to mid-January to allow countries like Italy, Spain and Greece – which import large quantities of Iranian oil – time to find alternative supplies from Saudi Arabia or Libya as it recovers from civil war.

But what if Iran were to turn the tables and act now, cutting off oil to Europe, and concentrating on its massive sales to India and China? With Europe already in fiscal turmoil that move could create another oil shock on the scale of those in the 1970s which deflated the global economy, triggered a stock market crash, soaring inflation and a wave of unemployment which led governments to fall.

Or Tehran might announce a selective oil embargo against Britain, France and Germany – leaving its biggest clients in southern Europe untouched. The markets have already anticipated such a possibility; oil went up in price by $2 in a day after the storming of the British embassy and oil futures are up 4pc on the week.

This rush to madness could backfire terribly in so many ways. If we had as long an historical memory as the Iranians we would know that.

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