By Simon Heffer
The Daily Telegraph – As we survey, with appropriate unease and foreboding, the events now unfolding in Iran, we might like to reflect on one of Enoch Powell’s less well-known, but most universal, obiter dicta. "The supreme function of statesmanship," he once wrote, "is to provide against preventable evils."
We seem to have fallen somewhat short of this ideal both for ourselves and in terms of something called "the international community". True, we could hardly have prevented the Iranians electing what, by most objective standards, is a raving madman to run their country.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad believes in the coming of the Mahdi and something approximating to what Christians term the apocalypse. He also sincerely believes that Israel should be wiped off the map and that the Nazis did not murder six million Jews. I think we can agree that such a man ought not to have a nuclear weapon and, if we can’t, then those who dissent should urgently seek psychiatric help.
The awesome stature of this problem can be gauged from the fact that the United Nations Security Council’s major powers and Germany all agreed on Monday that Iran should suspend any nuclear development activities that could result in it making a bomb. Two significant difficulties remain, however.
The first is that these great nations cannot now agree on the tactics by which Iran should be brought to heel. The second is that Mr Ahmadinejad holds the considerable trump card of having a psychology completely immune to temporal pressure and, what is more, knows continuing events in Iraq do not allow America the luxury of moving in on Iran – not that that necessarily would have been a good idea even had Iraq never, as it were, happened.
The European powers – Britain, France and Germany – are calling for an emergency session of the International Atomic Energy Agency on February 2 and 3, with the aim of its reporting Iran to the Security Council. This could lead to sanctions on Iran. However, China, which has just done a multi-billion-dollar trade deal with Teheran, is unwilling to do this.
Even among the Western powers, there is a fear that sanctions could push up the price of oil, with the usual malign effects on economic growth, pressure on the money supplies of the nations affected, and public and political unrest. Russia, another with strong trading links to Iran, had initially signified that it was prepared to make sacrifices in the interests of preventing the manufacture of the "Islamic bomb"; now, though, it is in retreat on that idea. As was seen during the crisis leading up to the second Gulf war in 2003, getting the eventual agreement of the Security Council to take firm action against transgressors, or indeed implementing any resolutions that might be passed, is a wild and wacky process.
This brings us back to statesmanship. Following Iraq, America’s international credit on questions such as these is not especially high, which is a problem when one recalls that the US remains, even after overstretch and near-humiliation, the world’s only superpower. The three European powers have read Iran wrongly for years. Their policy of diplomatic negotiation has achieved precisely nothing.
It looked pretty hopeless in the era before Mr Ahmadinejad, when our Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, went to ingratiate himself with people who were merely extremists rather than psychotics. Now there can be no meeting of minds; there is considerably more chance of the Rev Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams each conceding that the other has a point.
An attempt by European foreign ministers to persuade Iran to forego its "right" to make a nuclear weapon is, in the present circumstances, likely to become 21st-century diplomacy’s equivalent of the Bodyline series: there might be two sides out there, but only one will be playing cricket.
Perhaps the Security Council can be made to agree to speak sternly to Iran. China could, perhaps, be propitiated by being persuaded to join the G8 (after all, it is far more qualified to be in that grouping than Russia). If Russia won’t play, then a reminder to the capricious President Vladimir Putin about a nuclear-armed Iran’s potential to ally itself with the Islamic states of the former Soviet Union that are strung along his country’s southern border might be used to stiffen his resolve. But what is Iran’s response to a Security Council warning likely to be? "Get lost." And so what do we do then?
There have been various mock-terrifying suggestions about forcing Iran to withdraw from soccer’s World Cup (for which it has qualified for the first time), or of preventing high Iranian potentates from going abroad on jollies. That this grave matter can be treated in such a fashion suggests that its gravity continues to escape some of the world’s senior politicians and their officials. Of course, it is painful for the diplomatic community to have to admit that sanctions will not work, any more than they did in Iraq. But some other, tougher means will now have to be considered.
The Americans talk of trying to encourage revolution in Iran. Sadly, the only revolution likely to succeed there is one that ushers in someone who makes Mr Ahmadinejad look reasonable. In a police state as oppressive as Iran, the scope for the people to rise up and remove the tyrants who lead them is, to say the least, limited. To rely on such a method to remove the threat is, like sanctions of all descriptions, the equivalent of doing nothing.
Doing nothing, however, is not an option. Aside from the obvious outcome of allowing Iran under Mr Ahmadinejad to have a nuclear weapon, it would also have a demoralising and highly dangerous effect on the whole world order. It would provide the final proof that the United Nations is largely pointless (interim proof came in the run-up to the 2003 Gulf war, when it resolutely refused to enforce its many resolutions against Iraq). It would also put the ball into Israel’s court. Before his coma, Ariel Sharon said Israel simply would not allow a nuclear Iran. Given Mr Ahmadinejad’s foreign policy aim of obliterating Israel, it is far from likely that whoever succeeds Mr Sharon after the March elections will feel it is politically wise to take a different view.
One can foresee all too easily a situation in which the rest of the world, unable to agree how to proceed against this menace, leaves Israel, as the stated target, feeling vulnerable. And anyone who thinks that Israel is going to allow another avowedly hostile state to build a nuclear arsenal to use against it has not been paying attention these past few decades.
Any military action against Iran, whatever it is and whoever takes it, is likely to be provocative to the wider Islamic community – but none is likely to be quite so internationally combustible as a unilateral decision by Israel to bomb – by conventional or possibly other means – Iran. This seems to leave only one feasible option, which is for a United Nations-endorsed series of air strikes on suspected nuclear installations in Iran, made after due and reasonable warning and only as a last resort. All that must be made clear – but it must also be made clear, by the united powers of the United Nations, that any insistence by Mr Ahmadinejad on pursuing his present policy will be met with such a response.
Whether this happy diplomatic state can be achieved looks, for the moment, unlikely. Our own Foreign Secretary has a distinct record of failure in this specific matter. With Tony Blair imminently preparing a reshuffle, he should ask whether Mr Straw is up to the intensely difficult job that now awaits him. The scope for British leadership on this question, given America’s perceived problems in the Middle East, ought to be considerable. However, for the moment we are punching below our weight.
Indeed, the present impasse with Iran is in no small part the consequence of misguided policy by the Foreign Office, in concert with other European powers, over the past four or five years. Britain is, to all intents and purposes, at the mercy of world events, but it can still choose whether to be a spectator, or a player.