Is Hassan Rouhani the Iranian leader that the West has been waiting for?

Giles Marshall

When Iran last held an election – four years ago, as its constitution demands – protests greeted the re-election of Mahmoud Ahmahdinejad which went on for days and even led to some expectation in the West that a long awaited “green revolution” might be at hand. The U.S., under its relatively new and apparently liberal president, played a careful role, keeping public comments low-key in order not to further inflame a clearly delicate situation. President Obama was clear that there was to be no US intervention, and he faced a predictable round of right-wing criticism for his temperance.

Yet there is a case for seeing Mr.Obama’s earlier restraint as a necessary factor in this year’s victory of a would-be reformer in Iran. Using the voting booth – something western audiences could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that Iran doesn’t possess – the Iranians have now given their presidency to Hassan Rouhani, a reform minded cleric.

Mr. Rouhani may seem an unlikely reformer, and there are those in Iran who certainly consider his new, reform mantle to be as yet untested. Indeed, the clue to his political stance lies more in the pragmatism which he embraces than any ideological commitment to reform. Nevertheless, this is as good as it can get for Iran, and Mr. Rouhani came to power on the strength of many of the voters who saw the 2009 election as a fraudulent steal. With both of his pragmatist predecessors – Rafsanjani and Khatami – weighing in to support him, and the late withdrawal of the only openly reformist candidate, no-one can doubt where Mr. Rouhani has drawn the majority of his astonishing support.

The new president has given much cause for optimism, despite the predictably downbeat comments of Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, hard-line leader of the region’s only nuclear power. What his election now offers, however, is a real challenge to the policy makers of the West, and in particular to Mr. Obama.

The hostility to Iran has always been led by America, and in Mr. Ahmahdinejad they had a suitably clownish opponent, easily subject to caricature. America’s attitude, however, has not been without its faults. In a new and devastating critique of the West’s attitude towards Iran, Peter Oborne and David Morrison charge the United States in particular with an unwonted hypocrisy in its dealings with the Islamic state, which reach back to the CIA-sponsored coup of 1957. 

Oborne and Morrison’s book, A Dangerous Delusion, should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the alternative view of the threat that Iran poses towards the West. The authors set out, passionately but in convincing detail, the case for Iran. A power that has abided by the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty despite the provocations and misrepresentations it has been subject to; an essentially peaceful nation which has – rarely for the region – never provoked a war since the end of the Second World War; an intelligent regional power which can justly feel threatened by the lead swinging of its nuclear neighbour, Israel. They point out the baselessness of accusations of nuclear weaponry levelled against Iran, whilst countries who have failed to sign up to the NPT to which Iran is a signatory – Israel, India, Pakistan – have continued to receive substantial US investment. In short, Iran is suffering from a caricature portrayal in the western media that is not born out by its actions.

Iran has entered a new era with the election of Mr. Rouhani. The wrongs of the 2009 election have been righted, and that earlier American caution has paid dividends. However, Iran can only engage practically with the West if there is a similar desire to engage in the West itself. A couple of years ago, Barack Obama might have seemed just the sort of president needed to ensure that such engagement could happen. His international liberalism has taken a few blows recently, but the Iranians have offered him a tremendous opportunity to re-shape the world polity in a positive and less dangerous direction.

With the civil war in Syria showing signs of leaking abroad, the need to have a flexible attitude towards Iran that is based on respect towards an ancient regional power rather than the neuroses of decades of hostile reaction, is as urgent as it has ever been. But it doesn’t just require the pragmatic skills of President Rouhani. It requires realism and a willingness to break out of the Washington box from Mr. Obama, and that is still far from assured.

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Iran might be many things, but it is not the Soviet Union

Aaron Ellis 9.30am

Some of the worst decisions in history have been influenced by bad historical analogies. In an essay on the part played by such analogies in American foreign policy, Robert Dallek dubbed their malign influence “the tyranny of metaphor”.

“For all their pretensions to shaping history, U.S. presidents are more often its prisoners.”

The tyranny of metaphor is especially strong in this perennial debate over the Iran Problem. Those who want to attack the country often justify their position by comparing its regime to the Nazis.

One commentator noted recently:

“No other historical episode gets mentioned as often by pundits and policy makers in arguing that some menace or supposed menace needs to be confronted firmly. What is drawn from the Nazi analogy is an adage that a threat must be stopped forcefully now to avoid a bigger and costlier fight later.”

The comparison is ridiculous for any number of reasons, but it serves an important purpose: it is an easy-to-grasp analogy that helps coax those unsure about the use of force.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, in an urgent question to William Hague (video), Robert Halfon boldly described Iran as “the new Soviet Union of the Middle East”. Though his subsequent description of Iranian behaviour did not explain the comparison, there are two ways one can interpret it.

A generous interpretation would be that Mr Halfon believes the regime in Tehran is so crooked, contradictory, and such an aberration of Persian history that its eventual collapse is inevitable. It was this prophetic insight about Communism that led to George F Kennan devising the idea of containment, which won the Cold War. If we just applied continuous but restrained pressure, the Soviet regime would either yield to the West or be overthrown by the Russians and other subjected populations themselves. Going to war with the Soviet Union would not only be disastrous, but also unnecessary.

The more likely interpretation is that Mr Halfon genuinely believes that Iran poses the same degree of threat as the Soviet Union did, which is as absurd as thinking it poses the same threat as Nazi Germany.

Both Israel and the United States dwarf Iran militarily, whereas the Soviet Union’s conventional forces dwarfed those of the West years before the Russians successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1949.

Iran has only one friend in the Middle East - Syria - and it is unlikely that friendship will continue if the Assad regime falls. Until the final years of the Cold War, Moscow had almost all of Eastern Europe under its thumb and, until the 1960s, the important support of Mao’s China.

If Iran is like the Soviet Union in any way, it is the Soviet Union of 1991, a basket case. The influential commentator Fareed Zakaria wrote earlier this month:

“The real story on the ground is that Iran is weak and getting weaker. Sanctions have pushed the economy into a nose-dive. The political system is fractured and fragmenting.”

I wrote yesterday that the only way we can come to an informed decision about Iran is by raising the standard of the debate. Nik also wrote that a debate of such direct import must take place in the House of Commons before any substantive military move. Thankfully, Parliament was granted a preliminary murmur later yesterday afternoon.

Those who claim to have a solution to the problems posed by Tehran and its nuclear programme should furnish us with a coherent strategy, as well as explaining how to offset the trade-offs and indirect consequences of their preferred policies.

And yesterday highlighted another problem, which perhaps we shall never escape: the use and abuse of history.

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An Israeli strike on Iran would be a mistake

Alexander Pannett 6.58am

The report released by the International Atomic Energy Agency on 8th November has dramatically increased tensions across the Middle East as pressure builds for more aggressive action against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

The report says that it “has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the agency finds the information to be, overall, credible… that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

It is estimated that Iran now has enough highly enriched uranium to build, should it choose to do so, at least one nuclear weapon within a year and that this could be rapidly followed by several more. It is less clear whether Iran is capable of arming one of its Shahab 3 ballistic missiles, which have a range of 1,200 miles (1,900 km), with a nuclear warhead but the IAEA suggests that Iran has attempted experiments for such a purpose.

Following this release of the IAEA report, there has been a massive explosion at an Iranian military base that has killed 17 people including Major General Hassan Moghaddam, a Revolutionary Guard Commander, described by Iranian media as a pioneer in Iranian missile development.  Reports have linked the blast to Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency.

Tensions are clearly mounting and pressure is growing on Iran to abandon its alleged development of a nuclear arsenal.  But China and Russia have made it clear that growing criticism will not lead to stricter UN sanctions against the Iranian regime.  After Libya, both Russia and China are wary of allowing Western diplomats the ability to use a UN security council resolution as a legitimate casus belli against Iran, which is a major Russian ally in a strategically important region and also a large buyer of Russian arms.

The diplomatic stalemate has led to increased speculation that either Israel or the US will resort to military force to end Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.  Whilst the Obama administration regards such an approach as a last resort, reports suggest that the Israeli government is far more enthusiastic about the merits of a military strike. 

For the Israelis, there may never be a more propitious time for an attack.  The Syrian revolt has diminished the threat from this Iranian ally, the Israeli airforce has acquired new bunker-buster bombs that can penetrate hardened Iranian defences, the US drawdown in Iraq has mitigated against the range of reprisals available to Iran and a weak US presidency facing both an election year and a weak economy may even result in US assistance in a military confrontation as Obama will not want to look ineffectual.

A military strike however, would be disastrous for the region and global stability.  Firstly it would only at best delay Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not end them.  Iran has too many dispersed and hidden nuclear sites for the Israelis to permanently disrupt the development of nuclear weapons.  Iranian reprisals both directly and indirectly, through its proxy forces of Hamas and Hezbollah, would be deadly.  The attack would be a propaganada coup for Islamic fundamentalists across the region, who would be spurred by the direct attack on Islamic sovereignty.  It would also cause oil prices to dangerously soar, which would be enough to push the US and the rest of the West back into recession, undoubtedly causing untold damage to US-Israeli relations.  The peace process with Palestine would be set back and the Middle East united against Israel rather than increasingly split between a pro-Iran Shia pole and an anti-Iran Sunni pole. 

If Israel’s main aim was a more stable and secure Middle East, it would be better for it to devise strategies that accepted the eventuality of a nuclear armed Iran.  It should attempt to exact the largest price from Iran possible both diplomatically and economically for having nuclear weapons, and use the issue to forge an anti-Iranian alliance across the Middle East. 

A reapprochement with Turkey and more support for the burgeoning Arab democratic movements would be the best course for isolating Iran’s autocratic government. In conjunction with this approach, the West should deepen economic sanctions against Iran and demonstrate to both the Iranian regime and other prospective nuclear powers that the cost of the bomb in no way justifies its supposed benefits. 

Whilst a nuclear armed Iran sets a dangerous precedent and must be resisted as much as possible, a military confrontation at a time of relative Western weakness makes little strategic sense and could leave Israel dangerously isolated.

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David Cameron is right to harden his stance towards Israel

Nik Darlington 10.30am

The Times (£) reports this morning that David Cameron has withdrawn his patronage of the Jewish National Fund (JNF), a Zionist charity whose ‘historic mission’ is ‘turning the Land of Israel green’. I had not heard of the JNF until this announcement but it appears to be sort of military-religious Soil Association, greening the land to feed hungry Israeli mouths.

Downing Street are playing down the significance of the decision. It is only one of a number of charities with which the Prime Minister has necessarily cut ties because of time constraints. Moreover, the decision was taken prior to the meeting earlier this month between David Cameron and Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, when Mr Cameron threatened to recognise an independent Palestinian state if Israel did not come to the negotiating table.

Irrespectively, the announcement comes hot on the heels of a speech by President Obama, in which he too presented a hardening stance towards Israel and declared that a Palestinian state must be based on 1967 borders. Hamas and Fatah have come to an Egyptian-brokered agreement, apparently opening the way to further peace talks. Participants have been playing down the continued violent antipathy of Hamas as not an irrevocable obstacle to progress. Pragmatism rather than pugnacity is said to be guiding developments. Israel is also feeling the heat from the Arab Spring, which has focused global attention on a notion of pan-Arabic plight, which by crude implication puts Israel’s position closer to the likes of Gadhaffi and Assad.

Still on Israel’s head forlorn

Every nation heaps its scorn.

Emma Lazarus, a champion of oppressed Jewry, wrote those words in 1886, long before the British government facilitated the restoration of a Jewish homeland in Palestine; and it was a ‘restoration’, not a usurpation. Nevertheless, Palestinians too have a birthright to those lands and must not be denied it. Last summer, David Cameron described Gaza as like a ‘prison camp’. Recent visiting parliamentarians have confirmed that the situation is miserable and unacceptable.

Lazarus is more famously known for penning the sonnet ‘The New Colossus’, whose words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Israel has every right to defend its people from attack. It is a democracy and friend fo the West that is penned in by belligerent theocracies and autocracies, most notably Iran. Nonetheless, the Israelis know as well as anyone that there is only one satisfactory solution for Palestine.

The missiles launched at Israelis across the border are outrageous and damnable; but so are the poor, huddled masses of Palestine, the wretched and the homeless, yearning to breathe free. There is a narrow opportunity to soothe this tempest. For peace in Israel and Palestine, it must be grasped. David Cameron’s hard line is hugely important to this process; President Obama’s is pivotal, even if he cannot neuter the powerful Zionist lobby in his own country.

Israel seemingly has until the UN General Assembly meets in September to do the right thing and re-open substantive peace talks with the Palestinians. If they refuse, it is likely that President Abbas will make a stand at the UN and request that others follow. David Cameron has threatened recognition of Palestine. If it comes to it, he must follow through with that threat.

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