openDemocracyUK

War with Iran? How should Britain proceed?

Conflict with Iran is looming, with the US and Israel circling around the possibility of a pre-emptive strike to prevent the manufacture of nuclear weapons. What course should Britain take? And what is the role of the Liberal Democrats?
Trevor Smith
31 January 2012

Storm clouds are gathering over whether Iran should be invaded as a pre-emptive strike to prevent its manufacture of nuclear weapons. Already, Israel seems to be moving pro-actively, while the subject would have been discussed by Cameron during his recent trip to Saudi Arabia. The US has initiated the tightening of economic sanctions against Iran and has raised its naval profile in the Persian Gulf, though it would clearly prefer to postpone any military action until after the US Presidential election in November. Meanwhile, are the various diplomatic manoeuvres around Syria a rehearsal for future action against Iran?

Very great caution should be exercised if a major conflagration is to be avoided. The Iraq debacle should be enough for wise counsels to prevail. Sadam Hussein had no Weapons of Mass Destruction as it transpired, which was the “sexed up” claimed reason for the Bush/Blair invasion. The Chilcot public inquiry examining the validity of this claim has been delayed yet again - which itself is hardly reassuring. And still it seems the zeal for military adventurism is undiminished despite the more recent successive policy failures in Afghanistan.

One of the most searing influences in my political coming of age was the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956 which ended in ignominy and was roundly condemned worldwide. Two politicians learnt the lessons though coming from diametrically opposite ideological positions: Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell both opposed any UK involvement in the Vietnam war. As PM, Wilson despatched Harold Davies, the left-wing MP for Leek and a junior minister of pensions, as his envoy to Hanoi to talk to Ho Chi Minh the Leader of Communist North Vietnam. The ploy worked and the visit would serve as the reason for the UK not supporting the US in an action that also ended in defeat. Powell took the view that nationalism would prove a stronger factor influencing the medium term future than the ‘domino theory’ then being advanced by Washington that the whole of SE Asia would turn Communist. Both Wilson and Powell, of course, were utterly vindicated by history.

Unfortunately, later generations of political leaders ignored the lessons of Suez and those now in office should be forcefully reminded of them as they contemplate new military excursions. The Liberal party vehemently opposed Eden’s invasion of Egypt’s Canal Zone and it, too, was proved right.  Being in Coalition now, there is a high risk of the Liberal Democrats being dragged into a new conflagration in the Middle East.

UK Governments, following the Iraq WMD  farcical pretext, are now required to seek prior Commons’ approval for military action; in practice this approval will always be sought subsequently along with the inevitable mission creep.

I set out in my recent OurKingdom article my ideas for saving the Liberal Democrats from possible meltdown. Today, LD members should be raising their voices to strongly assert that no military action against Iran should be contemplated by the Coalition without cast iron evidence as to Iran’s malign intentions. LDs must maintain their distinctive commitment to agreed UN sanctioned intervention as a last resort.

To be sure, Iran is not currently a friendly nation as far as the West is concerned, while its internal record on human rights is utterly deplorable, and we recoil at its theocratic system of government and widespread anti-Semitism, but as yet there is far too little hard intelligence to justify armed invasion by land, sea or air. Iran also has potential for reform. Like many countries of the Arab Spring, Iran has a very young population. It experienced widespread popular protests of its own in 2009 when reformist presidential candidates were the victims of electoral fraud, and arguably has greater potential to develop into a stable democracy than its neighbour Iraq. Any military action must be carefully weighed against the effect it will have for eliciting greater nationalistic sentiment in Iran and support for its current government, and the further long term damage it will have for the relationship between Iran and both western powers and many of its regional neighbours with Sunni led Governments. LDs should have the courage to tell its Leaders to resist the siren calls that the Tories, emulated by New Labour, cannot resist making – it’s second nature to them.

Harold Wilson and Enoch Powell would surely concur that the interests of the UK are best served by avoiding recourse to military action except in the most compelling and convincing circumstances. Iran is a long way from those. LDs should take the lead in re-instating a Wilson/Powell-type coincidental consensus.

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