The head of BBC Persia Service, Sadeq Saba told an audience in the British Parliament on Monday that “any foreign intervention in any shape or form will harm Iran’s democratic movement.” Speaking as part of an expert panel at a meeting entitled Iran: Which Way Forward? he argued that the future of Iran will be determined by “the Iranian people, the struggle for democracy and also the economy.” With unprecedented levels of disunity within the regime Saba believes that the tipping point will come “if poor sections of the society come to the street and demonstrate and I think Iran is heading towards this situation.”
The meeting, convened by the Westminster Committee on Iran, explored the current crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme, bringing together parliamentarians, security analysts and Middle East experts to explore ways to resolve the standoff and to assess both the dangers of military intervention and the risks associated with not taking action.
In his analysis Paul Ingram, executive director of the British American Security Information Council, said that there were a number of uncertainties but that even under ‘ideal conditions’ Iran was several years away from having the capability to field any nuclear weapons should it choose to do so, and had yet to overcome some significant technical hurdles. “At current rates it would take Iran around fours years to produce enough 20% U235 uranium that would then require further enrichment for a nuclear weapon” he explained.
Mr Saba suggested that “both sides are exaggerating Iran’s nuclear capacity for their own motives” and pointed out that since the election there has been significant shift in ordinary Iranian’s attitude to the nuclear programme. “For a lot of Iranians the main priority has become the democratic issue rather than the nuclear issue.”
Warning of the impact of military intervention, Ben Zala security analyst referred to a new report published by the Oxford Research Group last week. “Military action would not involve surgical strikes but would be the start of an ongoing war” he said. The repercussions of such a war would be far-reaching with Iran withdrawing from the Non Proliferation Treaty, redoubling its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and engaging in long-term acts of retaliation, said Zala.
“The idea of military intervention against Iran makes my blood run cold” said Lord Phillips who has been visiting Iran since 1961. “It would strengthen all the wrong elements in Iranian society” he said arguing that the way to resolve the issue is for the Western nations to “back off and to treat Iran we treat other countries.”
On the subject of air strikes Alan Mendoza, executive Chair of the neo-conservative Henry Jackson Society, agreed that “it would be foolish to rush to that stage because the repercussions would be immense”. However he argued that Iran’s expanding sphere of influence cannot go unchallenged. Highlighting Iran’s support of Hizbollah and Hamas he said that Iran has “malicious intent and we can only imagine how that intent would be amplified were Iran to have nuclear weapons.” He added that it was a “well known secret” that “various security services have been conducting sabotage against Iran’s nuclear programme for some years.” According to Mendoza a significant tightening of the Western approach through even more stringent sanctions would “squeeze the regime” forcing it to shift position in order to stay in power. “One thing we know about this regime is that it does value its survive” he said.
With rhetoric on both sides ratcheting up there are concerns conflict may be increasingly difficult to avoid. In the past months there has been a fourth round of UN sanctions, unilateral US and EU sanctions and reports of military build-up in the Gulf. Last week the Iranian parliament passed a Bill that forces President Amadinejad to continue uranium enrichment up to the more sensitive level of 20 percent. “Both sides are throwing away their steering wheels in this game of chicken” said Paul Ingram. Although sanctions are seen by some as an alternative to military action they can also be seen as its natural precursor. The enforcement of sanctions will require the inspection of Iranian vessels by Western navys and with Tehran making it clear that it will not allow such inspections, it is easy to see how the current standoff could rapidly escalate.
Whilst many are convinced that Barack Obama would not lead the US into a war that even George Bush shied away from, it is perhaps the very fact that Obama is not Bush that he is able to contemplate military action against Iran. In getting Russian and Chinese support for Resolution 1929 last month Obama achieved a level of consensus on Iran among the UN Security Council permanent members that George Bush could have only dreamed of. The fact Germany and France are fully involved in the current military escalation in the Gulf contrasts sharply with the flimsy ‘coalition of the willing’ pulled together by Bush in the run up to the Iraq invasion.
“The demonization of Iran is such that it appears we are on a one-track punitive response even though few believe it will work but lack the imagination or belief in other options” said Paul Ingram. This meeting, the first in a series, was intended to offer that imaginative space and represents the type of open dialogue that should be going on at all levels if we are to bridge the trust gap that exits between Iran and the West and avert a further disastrous military conflict in the Middle East.
Stefan Simanowitz is Chair of the Westminster Committee on Iran, Jeremy Corbyn is MP for Islington North and Vice Chair of the Parliamentary Human Right Group