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Attendee list for the event.

Dear Charlie Wolf,

I read your opinion piece, What’s alarming is that they believe what they say, on with great interest being a close follower (like yourself) of the standoff between Iran and the West, and having a number of Iranians friends; they are Western-oriented (there’s an oxymoron) and no slavish cheer-leaders of their government I can assure you. I too am sometimes surprised at how critical they can be of Israel, even on the left.

However, I am equally astonished at how imprisoned we are in our own narratives. Contrary to the standard dogma I am highly critical of the West for being an extremely bad friend of Israel in pursuit of our own greedy agenda and see the deep divisions in the region as a product of our own deep-rooted folly.

One of the problems we have in the West is that we draw a fence round our nation states, pat our own backs about how liberal we are and then righteously bomb the rest of the world to blazes to suit our own ends. This is a somewhat colourful summary but I am sure you will get my drift, which is to say that I think you might be just as imprisoned in your own narrative as the Iranians you were debating with on Press TV.

You must be aware of the writings of Uri Avnery. Without expecting you to agree with him, you will at least accept that his views don’t come about through being pickled in 30 years of propaganda. If you read his history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you will see that his perspective is not a million miles from that of the Iranians you were debating. See: Truth against Truth: A Completely Different Look at the Israeli Palestinian Conflict.

Believe me, I am not trying to claim anyone has any monopoly on Truth. The people I most respect are the dissidents challenging their own myths, in our case, people like Ron Paul and Uri Avnery.

I wish you and your countrymen a peaceful and prosperous 2008.

Chris Dornan

The West must reevaluate it relation ship with the whole middle east.

Trita Parsi, author of Treacherous Alliance – Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US has long been saying that Iran is a rational actor and has now been vindicated by the latest US National Intelligence Estimate on Iran. In a recent article Parsi asks Is Iran NIE a Blessing in Disguise for Israel? Parsi’s point is that Israel’s Iran policy has been getting out of touch with reality, leading to a strategic paralysis.  However, the NIE provides the opportunity and ammunition for wiser voices to begin asserting themselves and argue for a policy of accommodation with Iran through Condoleezza Rice’s good offices at the US State department.  This would be a reversion to the policy of security through the periphery where alliances are sought with states like Turkey, Iran and Ethiopia to balance the hostile Arab states on her borders, a policy which Israel continued to pursue after the ‘79 revolution; Israel was one of the few powers to help Iran repel Saddam (the real threat to Israel) while trying to patch things up with the US, so giving rise to the Iran-Contra scandal (see Treacherous Alliance).

Scott Ritter has long been saying that Iran has no nuclear weapons programme and has also been vindicated by the NIE, but in a recent article, US Must Reevaluate Its Relationship With Israel, has suggested that Israel is the irrational actor and more than hinted that President Ahmadinejad’s speculations about the impact of modern European history on the middle east—though provocatively expressed—may not have been quite so entirely ridiculous as their universal condemnation might have suggested.  He accuses Israel of being no friend to the US by interfering in US domestic politics in pursuance of Israel’s own national security and suggests that such unfriendly interference in an ally’s internal politics may be harming Israel’s long-term strategic interest.

As interesting as this thesis is, I would like to turn it on its head and argue that Americans and Europeans have been no friends to Israel, that the pursuit of a global empire and our desire to control the energy resources of the region have corrupted Israeli policy. These theses aren’t incompatible but I would say that the perspective proposed here is a healthier perspective for Europeans and Americans to focus on rather than pointing the fingers at another group of victims of our Middle Eastern imperial follies.

Ritter inveighs against Israel’s ‘shameless invocation of the Holocaust to defend its actions’ but if this is so we should ask why this situation has come about. Europeans have a brutal history of persecuting Jews, culminating in the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century where a vulnerable and collectively harmless and deeply civilised people were stigmatized and demonized across Europe and North America. When the Nazis institutionalized this trend far too little was done by all Europeans to halt it right up to the Allied reluctance to bomb the concentration camps—this was about much more than the ‘good Germans’. The centuries of persecution culminating in the Shoah have traumatised and scarred Europeans (including Americans) as well as Israelis and this terrible guilty taboo remains.

On top of this is our need to dominate the middle east, which has the most rotten luck in having all of our oil buried under their countries, the whole giving rise to a marvellous scam where we can exchange our oil for guns so that the Arabs can feel secure from the guns we supply to Israel (and other Arabs, and Persians), allowing the Western plutocrats in the oil and guns industries to retain their licences to print money, and keeping the rest of us in the cheap oil needed to support the lifestyle to which we have become accustomed (at the expense of the future generation’s biosphere).

All of this culminated in the neo-conservatives proposal to mop up the remaining unfriendly middle eastern states, after Afghanistan and Iraq, rampaging through Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, returning to Iran in five years. No wonder Donald Rumsfeld’s testy relationship with his chief of staff, with his stubborn request for several hundred thousand troops to execute Operation Iraqi Liberation.

There is more to this than self-flagellation (this not being just about the neoconservatives—they are merely a pathological example of something that we have refused to confront, the ‘good people’ being just as accommodating as they always have been). The US and the UK have demonstrated that they know how to make peace—yes, even this Bush administration—when it suits them, as they did in Northern Ireland. The first step is to patiently lean on both parties, as the British and Irish governments did with the Anglo-Irish agreement in the 1980s, and engaging the hard men in dialogue and, well, buying them off—as we know war is a profitable business and the alternatives need to be incentivised. And we have been doing none of this in the Middle East, but handing out guns all round and making the Israelis dependent on us, so keeping the racket going, and our guilt complexes have hidden this behaviour from us. Instead of using our perspective outside the situation, been a true friend to the Israelis, and shown tough love, we have been as indulgent as any narcotics vendor. It is we that have been the profoundly corrupting influence.

With the unravelling of this narrative there is every sign that the Israelis are starting to panic. However, there is no objective reason for this: Annapolis demonstrated the reality that the region accepts the fact of Israel and have done so since at least the Egyptian peace treaty. The Israelis have a perfectly good nuclear deterrent and nobody is realistically going to expect them to put it on the table until there is the prospect of full formal relations with all her neighbours and the IDF remains quite capable of dealing with serious military threats. But Trita Parsi is right. The NIE offers the opportunity to establish the kind of strategic peaceful relationship that arms can never in themselves provide.

Peace will not be served by any further demonising, of whatever kind. Since the 2001 attacks on the world trade centre the Iranians have been searching for a way to break the logjam and normalise relations and they keep trying to break though, the latest overture coming from a recent press conference by President Ahmadinejad: ‘We see this as a positive step and a step forward and if they take one or two more steps the situation will be totally different and the problems will lose their intricacy and the road will be paved for resolving regional and international issues and bilateral cooperation.’ There is no doubt that this is diplomatic code to say that the bargain offered to the State department in 2003, so carelessly discarded by the White House in a moment of hubristic insanity, is still on the table—de facto recognition of Israel, end of support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, cooperation in converting Hezbollah into a purely political party, a tightly monitored civilian nuclear programme—all in return for normalised relations with the US and security guarantees. Yet we keep to our dehumanising narrative that Tehran government is irrational and has to be dealt with through coercion, threats of force and ultimately force itself—irrational propaganda that we may have started to believe.

A better way needs to be found that recognises the interdependence and fragility of our situation, and that peace and security of one can only be achieved by working for the peace and security of all.

[Note: Siobhain Butterworth is the reader’s editor of The Guardian newspaper.]

Dear Siobhain Butterworth,

I am writing about Julian Borger report Decision time for US over Iran threat and the newsdesk podcast interview of Julian Borger by Jon Denis on the 11th November, the day after the release of the IAEA director general’s report on the Iranian civil nuclear programme. I wrote a letter to the editor but have received no reply or acknowledgement and, as far as I can tell the issues have not been addressed so I am writing to you. I still find these Guardian reports highly disturbing.

In Decision time for US over Iran threat Julian Borger says:

The installation of 3,000 fully-functioning centrifuges at Iran’s enrichment plant at Natanz is a “red line” drawn by the US across which Washington had said it would not let Iran pass. When spinning at full speed they are capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium (enriched to over 90% purity) for a nuclear weapon within a year.

In the newsdesk podcast, Jon Denis introduces his interview with Julian Borger by saying:

Iran has installed 3000 centrifuges. That is enough to enrich uranium to make a nuclear warhead within a year—that’s according to a report by Mohammed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA.

And the interview proceeds:

JB: It says that they now have 3000 centrifuges installed and they are feeding uranium gas into those centrifuges [and] they are up and working. The significance of that is that if those 3000 centrifuges were spinning full speed and working properly for the course of a year they could produce enough weapons grade uranium to make a bomb and for the US we know that that is the read line they have drawn down, past which they don’t want Iran to go.

JD: What happens if Iran does pass these red lines?

JB: The US is faced with a choice. Whether to relax the red line, abandon it and retreat to a red line further back, or to take action. This is the tough choice facing the US administration, but also the choice that is facing the Israeli government; at what point do you believe that there is some point of no return in the Iranian nuclear programme and take military action to set it back? It certainly raises the tension.

And towards the end of the interview we find:

JD: What is Iran’s view of this IAEA report?

JB: Iran’s view is that it is a complete vindication of Iran’s position. Most of the report was about Iranian cooperation with the investigation that the IAEA is carrying out into the past nuclear activities. That is the main subject of the report, it just noted in passing that Iran had come to this important benchmark. There were positive notes in the report about Iranian cooperation though it pointed out that it was far from perfect but President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad seized on the positive note to say ah look you see we were right all along.

Here are my questions.

1. Why is The Guardian reporting that ‘according to a report by Mohammed ElBaradei’, Iran now has the capacity to ‘enrich uranium to make a nuclear warhead within a year’? The IAEA report says no such thing, but it does say:

Since February 2007, Iran has fed approximately 1240 kg of UF6 into the cascades at FEP. The feed rate has remained below the expected quantity for a facility of this design. While Iran has stated that it has reached enrichment levels up to 4.8% U-235 at FEP, the highest U-235 enrichment measured so far from the environmental samples taken by the Agency from cascade components and related equipment is 4.0%. Detailed nuclear material accountancy will be carried out during the annual physical inventory taking which is scheduled from 16 to 19 December 2007. Since March 2007, a total of seven unannounced inspections have been carried out at FEP.

To enrich uranium for electricity generation requires uranium enriched to about 4.8% while a nuclear weapon requires uranium enriched to over 80%. While Iran was reporting to the IAEA that it was achieving the 4.8% level the IAEA can only find evidence that levels of 4.0% are being achieved and that uranium is being fed through the cascades at a lower than expected rate.

Indeed Iran had already announced that it had 3,000 centrifuges operating as we can see from a report in the Jerusalem Post on the 7th November:

US experts say 3,000 centrifuges are in theory enough to produce a nuclear weapon, perhaps as soon as within a year.

If the relevant clauses in the report cast doubt on the performance levels that the Iranians are claiming they are achieving and need to fuel their electricity programme, how can The Guardian summarise the IAEA report as confirming that the Iranians are achieving the vastly higher levels of performance that would be needed to make a bomb within a year?

2. Why has The Guardian seized on ‘a note in passing’, that merely adjusts downwards the Iranian public claims about the effectiveness of their enrichment programme, to dominate its report of the IAEA report? Only when Jon Denis got round to asking about the Iranian position at the end of the podcast interview did we find that most of the report was confirming the progress that was being made in clearing up IAEA outstanding questions concerning past activities.

3. Why does The Guardian say that if the Iranians continue to exercise their inalienable right under the NPT to enrich uranium for their electricity generating programme, under tight IAEA supervision, that a ‘tough choice [is] facing the US administration’ […] ‘but also the choice that is facing the Israeli government; at what point do you believe that there is some point of no return in the Iranian nuclear programme and take military action to set it back?’ There are many people that believe that the NPT is being exploited for political purposes by the USA to pursue regime change in Iran and that Iran is merely exercising its rights under the NPT signed and ratified by USA, UK and Iran. There are many others that say that even if Iran is positioning itself to weaponise its civilian nuclear programme that it is many years away and that the policy of coercion leading inevitably to military action and war would be a catastrophe, not least for nuclear nonproliferation. Why is The Guardian saying that the US and Israel are facing a tough choice as to whether to attack Iran if she continues to enrich uranium under IAEA supervision.

The truth is that many independent experts believe that the Iranian uranium makes a very unpromising starting point for a weapons programme. This is what Frank Barnaby of the Oxford Research Group had to say last year in Iran’s Nuclear Activities:

Iran will, however, have to solve a difficult technical problem before producing significant amounts of highly enriched uranium. Iranian uranium is reportedly contaminated with large amounts of molybdenum and other heavy metals. These impurities could condense and block pipes and valves in the gas centrifuges. In spite of this problem, the Iranians should be able to enrich uranium to the low enrichment needed for civil nuclear-power reactor fuel. But they would not be able to enrich above about 20 per cent in uranium-235.

They would, therefore, not be able to produce uranium enriched enough for use in nuclear weapons. To do so they would first have to remove most of the molybdenum. They would need foreign technical help – from, for example, China or Russia – to solve this problem.

Many doubt if the Iranians will be able, in the foreseeable future, unaided, to enrich their own uranium to the high levels needed for nuclear weapons.

I hope it is unnecessary to remind anyone of the appalling failures of the press in allowing itself to be manipulated in the government’s preparation of public opinion before the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Many people who have looked at this issue closely conclude that the US government is manipulating intelligence and the nuclear nonproliferation framework for political ends, and these are not crackpots. Given the importance this issue has for us all, the following should really be essential reading for everyone, never mind journalists reporting on this story. It is but a tiny sample.

My final question is this and it really subsumes all the others. Why is The Guardian uncritically reporting and indeed adopting the US government’s line on the Iranian enrichment activities?

Yours sincerely,

Chris Dornan


Dear Sir or Madam,

The Guardian in London reported today (Friday),

Iran has installed 3,000 centrifuges for enriching uranium – enough to begin industrial-scale production of nuclear fuel and build a warhead within a year, the UN’s nuclear watchdog reported last night. […]

The installation of 3,000 fully-functioning centrifuges at Iran’s enrichment plant at Natanz is a “red line” drawn by the US across which Washington had said it would not let Iran pass. When spinning at full speed they are capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium (enriched to over 90% purity) for a nuclear weapon within a year.

I suspect that this isn’t a very fair or balanced summary of the report, and I have written a letter to the paper explaining why, but it is difficult to be sure without being able to see the report, and it doesn’t seem to have been posted on your website. Given the well known failures of the press in the lead up to the Iraq war is it really wise to allow such crucial information to be made available exclusively through the news corporations? Some independent citizens are trying to support the work of the IAEA but it will be easier to do this if we aren’t taken out of the loop.

Yours faithfully,

Chris Dornan

[We may all soon become candidates for the Darwin Awards at this rate. Where have we seen this before.]

Dear Sir

Concerning Julian Borger’s article, Decision time for US over Iran threat, Julian says:

The installation of 3,000 fully-functioning centrifuges at Iran’s enrichment plant at Natanz is a “red line” drawn by the US across which Washington had said it would not let Iran pass. When spinning at full speed they are capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium (enriched to over 90% purity) for a nuclear weapon within a year.

The reader would be forgiven for assuming after reading the above paragraph that, according to the IAEA, the Iranians are within a year of having produced enough highly-enriched fuel to make a nuclear bomb, but, as I am sure Julian Borger is well aware, no reputable expert believes any such thing. This is what Frank Barnaby of the Oxford Research Group had to say last year in IRAN’S NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES:

Iran will, however, have to solve a difficult technical problem before producing significant amounts of highly enriched uranium. Iranian uranium is reportedly contaminated with large amounts of molybdenum and other heavy metals. These impurities could condense and block pipes and valves in the gas centrifuges. In spite of this problem, the Iranians should be able to enrich uranium to the low enrichment needed for civil nuclear-power reactor fuel. But they would not be able to enrich above about 20 per cent in uranium-235.

They would, therefore, not be able to produce uranium enriched enough for use in nuclear weapons. To do so they would first have to remove most of the molybdenum. They would need foreign technical help – from, for example, China or Russia – to solve this problem.

Many doubt if the Iranians will be able, in the foreseeable future, unaided, to enrich their own uranium to the high levels needed for nuclear weapons.

Is this really the right choice of topic to sensationalise?

Yours faithfully,

Chris Dornan

Dear Ron Dellums,

There is no need to reply to this message. With regards A RESOLUTION OPPOSING WAR WITH IRAN, I just wanted to thank you. You are a beacon of independence of thought and common sense, that is in such short supply at the moment. Your inspiring example has inspired me to campaign for our city to do the same.

Chris Dornan

10th November 2007

Dear Mary,

Thank you for your gracious and clear reply. I do not by any means believe that the international community should take Iran’s claims that their nuclear programme is for exclusively civilian use at face value, retire and leave Iran in peace, unsupervised—’Just trust us’ is no basis at all for protecting arms-control agreements. It is worth bearing the following in mind:

  • Iran is subjected to the most comprehensive of all IAEA inspection regimes and has voluntarily adopted a much more aggressive inspections protocol, which some say would hardly have happened if Iran wanted to hide a covert programme to acquire nuclear weapons as quickly as possible (as some have been claiming).

  • If we were concerned about Iraq’s nuclear programme in the 1990s, how must Iran have felt? (Some anomalies in the Iranian programme may be historical.)

  • Some independent analysts doubt that Iran will, unaided, in the foreseeable future, be able to overcome technical difficulties in purifying its domestic deposits to the 85% required to produce fissile material for weapons.
    Those who have been calling for calm, such as Dr ElBaradei, Vladimir Putin and the Chinese leadership, could hardly view the prospect of Iran subverting the NPT to gain the bomb with equanimity.

  • The whole international community would take a dim view it turned out that Iran was running a weapons programme after all, don’t you think. Iran has been investing a great deal in trying to break out of the box that the US has tried to keep it in—to humiliate all those who have been supporting the IAEA, and some very important strategic partners—it is difficult to see how it would make much sense. In any case, the heat will stay on.

  • Look at the map of the Persian Gulf responsible for transiting 20% of the world’s oil flows: as the Iranians keep saying they have a perfectly good strategic deterrent. With very little spare oil capacity, there is little doubt about some of the consequences for the world economy if Iran is attacked. (And don’t believe the neo-conservative bluster about invincible US military power; it is no coincidence that the most vigorous opposition to this reckless diplomacy has been coming from US navy officers like the CENTCOM commander Admiral William Fallon.)

We should also bear in mind that certain people, well known for their belief that US military power ought to be used to curtail Iran’s regional ambitions, successfully created a climate of ignorance and fear that stampeded us into the Iraqi invasion, and many have been monitoring these same people rerunning the same programme: see, for example Gareth Porter’s recent article: How Cheney Cooked the Intelligence on Iran. Their powers of manipulation by no means stop at the intelligence community, but become really formidable where the mainstream media are concerned. It is easy to play on fear and ignorance, and once that gets out of hand, rational arguments hold little sway as the delusion of the righteous use of arms looks more and more appealing. My point is that care must be taken to not facilitate the fear agenda, as if it is allowed to dominate, all the good sense about the folly of war will simply become moot. To avoid war, it’s causes must be attacked: ignorance, leading to fear and on to hate. In short I would plead that those who want to see less war be very careful about heightening the sense of fear.

It is indeed worth considering to what extent our fears are at all reasonable. Consider the outline of the situation, which is in essence this: the US, Israel, Britain and France are threatening Iran with nuclear war if it doesn’t halt its programme of IAEA supervised and NPT guaranteed preparation of uranium for its civilian nuclear programme. (Robert McNamara in a 2005 article for Foreign Policy, Apocalypse Soon, said ‘I would characterize current U.S. nuclear weapons policy as immoral, illegal, militarily unnecessary, and dreadfully dangerous’. The leading Republican candidates were making it plain that they would consider attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure with nuclear weapons. It is my understanding that US defence policy allows it to use nuclear weapons to deal with nuclear proliferation threats and to dig itself out of a military disaster with a non-nuclear state should one of its adventures go wrong.)

I know of Tehranis living in the shadow of a very real (and highly rational) fear that between now and the US election season they will get to see Shock and Awe II, and not on their TV screens. How do we justify our fear? Because of the personality of a popularly elected officials, with circumscribed powers, who certainly has never ever put on any tables the prospect of waging warfare on another nation (not to mention one involving nuclear munitions), but is insisting that treaties between nations be honoured. Please bear in mind that it is quite inconceivable that we (the USA, Britain and France) should strategically expose ourselves as recklessly as we are if we didn’t have the ultimate protection of our strategic nuclear deterrent.

Projection: Projection is one of the defense mechanisms identified by Freud and still acknowledged today. According to Freud, projection is when someone is threatened by or afraid of their own impulses so they [unknowingly] attribute these impulses to someone else. For example, a person in psychoanalysis may insist to the therapist that he knows the therapist wants to rape some women, when in fact the client has these awful feelings to rape the woman.

Is it possible that we might be victims of projection? President Ahmadinejad’s main power comes not from guns, but from speech. That is his record and that is how he one the 2005 election that surprised everyone, and that is how he derives his power at home to this day (his formal powers being quite limited). Ahmadinejad seems to terrorize us by coming amongst us and arguing his case and showing up our hypocrisy, neuroses (and psychoses), and it is indeed terrifying. (I have written elsewhere about his other pronouncements, but am trying to keep this discussion focused on this single point.)

Of course we might say that the Islamic Republic of Iran and President Ahmadinejad are special because of the religious beliefs that are involved but there is no rational refuge here, considering the highly perverse and divisive philosophies and the irrational, frightening nihilistic millenarianism right at the centres of power in the west and being propagated through the most powerful military machine in history. (I am studying Shia Islam and I have yet to encounter objective evidence that there is anything to fear from President Ahmadinejad’s religious philosophy over any other leader; I would not be at all surprised if his ethics is a very great deal more sound than that of our dearly departed war-criminal prime minister.) Here is an extract from an article on the Britannica Blog, coming from an intellectual very much in the milieu of the US (vice-)presidential court:

Is there a military option against Iran that goes beyond bombing but does not require a Iraq-style invasion and occupation – in other words that avoids another “quagmire” in the Middle East? In fact, as I’ve pointed out elsewhere, a realistic war scenario with Iran would involve an extensive air and naval campaign without a single American soldier having to set foot on Iranian soil:

1. The first step would be a United States naval blockade of the Straits of Hormuz backed by anti-missile Aegis class cruisers and destroyers, together with a guarantee of free passage for all non-Iranian oil shipping (thus reassuring the world that energy supplies will continue to flow).

2. At the same time, American Stealth fighters and bombers would target Iran’s air defense and anti-ship missile sites scattered around the Gulf, followed by what military analysts call an “Effects Based Operation,” as Air Force and Navy warplanes took out Iran’s extremely vulnerable military and economic infrastructure, including its electrical grid, transportation links, gasoline refineries, port facilities, as well as suspected nuclear sites.

3. Finally, American Special Ops and airborne forces would seize Iran’s main oil pumping station at Kargh Island and capture or neutralize its offshore oil facilities.

Far fetched?

Although the American public never noticed, the United States Navy managed to accomplish much the same thing during the so-called Tanker War in 1987-8, when Iran tried to widen its war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by attacking foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. Our navy managed both to destroy the Iranian navy and protect shipping through the Hormuz Straits in order to keep the world economy stable, while Navy Seal teams blew up and neutralized key Iranian oil platforms in the Gulf.

Fantastically expensive?

From start to finish, such an operation would probably require no more than one more carrier group than is already in the area, as well as one Airborne Brigade Combat Team and one Marine Expeditionary Brigade, combined with Special Ops units-fewer troops than reinforced General Petraeus’s current surge in Iraq. In a matter of days or weeks, the key components of the Iranian oil industry would be in American hands even as Iran itself ground to a halt. Iranian crude oil would continue to flow to the world’s economy. Foreign investors in Iran’s energy industry like Russia and China would see their investments kept safe, which would help to defuse their predictable outrage over unilateral military action against Iran.

The truth is that the Iranian regime is uniquely vulnerable to this kind of campaign. Ninety percent of Iran’s oil production and facilities sit in or near the Gulf, and are exposed to naval attack. With the exception of three Russian built Kilo-class subs (which would have to be neutralized in the opening days of the campaign), the Iranian navy is small and decrepit. Since Iran imports nearly 40% of its gasoline, an air campaign that destroys its refineries and gas supplies would leave the government and its trucks, tanks, and planes starved for fuel in two weeks or even sooner. [Highlight added.]

Compare this kind of talk with Charlie Rose’s interview with President Ahmadinejad, a demanding 54 minute interview where he (and not for the first time) tried to open up a dialogue with an entirely alien and suspicious culture through one of the very few people prepared to engage meaningfully in such a dialogue. Notice his finishing of the interview on a note of wisdom (reflecting on the transience of current difficulties), love and brotherhood. Yes, many will roll their eyes at the naivety of getting taken in by such cynical, opportunistic, manipulation, but at least he has the decency to try (and then there is the prospect—just the tiniest particle of possibility—that the sentiment is genuine).

President Ahmadinejad remains an enigma to me. I don’t mean in the romantic sense, but the sense of “I do not get on at all. I hear such different accounts of you as puzzle me exceedingly.” I will only say this—the more I examine the evidence of what is before me rather than the product of other’s fevered imaginations the more I find a person very different from the laughably one-dimensional hate figure that almost the entire mainstream media, and even the not so mainstream media, have settled for.

Now is the time for the good people to keep a good hold on their critical faculties if we are to avoid opening up the gates of hell a little wider. If we really do care about the NPT and nuclear non-proliferation as much as we claim to, then we the citizens should start insisting that our leaders abandon the coercive approach (be it siege or open warfare) and get all parties to sit down to unconditional negotiations with a view to avoiding a nuclear arms race in the most unstable and turbulent region of the world and ensuring that everyone abides by the same agreement. Why do you suppose that they are so resistant to doing this?

Once again thank you very much for your patience and for providing me the opportunity to engage in this stimulating and productive correspondence.


A letter in response to Now is the time for clarity over Iran

6th-7th November 2007

Dear Mary Riddell,

I am writing about what I feel is a contradiction at the heart of your article in Sunday’s Observer. Logically it made sense, was warning that we risk stumbling into another catastrophic war in the middle east—I wholly agree. Yet you may have been surprised at the response when it was posted on Comment is Free (CiF). Your article is not alone: a series of articles published in the papers on Iran are being critiqued by CiF and (e.g., Max Hastings, is in full cry for Timothy Garton Ash, the Saturday leader and your article).

Here is an extract from AnthropoidApe’s comment on your article:

“We know that Saddam manufactures botulinum toxin much as Skegness makes seaside rock or the WI produces chutney. In the four years since the weapons inspectors left, Iraq’s favoured cottage industry is certain to have become more sinister.”
Mary Riddell in March 2002,11581,661096,00.html

“Saddam, as we knew, has chemical and biological weapons.”
Mary Riddell in February 2003,12239,892046,00.html

“This time round, the intelligence is just as thin, but the Tehran weapon, unlike the phantom Baghdad bomb, is a real and dreadful prospect.”

Though a contribution of this quality would have a good chance of making its way on the letter page, this kind of analysis is not generally to be found in the print edition. (See also the comments on the article—this letter adds to them but there is much high-quality discussion that addresses many other issues).

This is worth a closer look.

The founder of the Daily Kos blog recently harangued a group of editors about their failure in Iraq, suggesting that the future was in blogs, but as one pundit pointed out on this site, blogs couldn’t operate without the traditional news media (and Guardian Unlimited/CiF maybe one of the very best site to combine both). While much has been made of the way the intelligence was manipulated in the sun up to the Iraq war less has been said about the way sentiment was manipulated, and this at the heart of the issue with seeming to detect a subtle repeat of a pattern we saw in the lead-up to the Iraq war. (Why this is so is an interesting question—social factors? media diet?) Although rationally, (almost) everyone is saying that war would be a disaster, the sentiments have been mixed—our heads and hearts are at war. The liberal establishment view seems to be (crudely): the Iranians are trying to acquire nuclear weapons and those sneaky fanatical brown people must be stopped, but how do we it without a war? The more restrained have cited an arms race in the Middle East (thereby avoiding my jibe) while others have suggested that the IRI can’t be trusted as reasons for taking action.

My point is this. Forget all the head stuff (which won’t decide anything) and consider the sentimental message (which will decide everything). The establishment pundocracy are flatly contradicting the director of the IAEA, in proclaiming as a fact that the Iranians are making a dash for the nuclear weapons, but if the director of the IAEA was one of our top scientists (and white) would we say this? What does it say about our respect for due process and the IAEA, the agency tasked with making this call? (The agency has not and won’t let Iran off the hook until all outstanding have been answered, but Dr Elbaradei has said in no uncertain terms “I have not received any information that there is a concrete active nuclear weapons program going on right now”).

In your article you plead for clarity in order to avoid a war that could spiral out of control, destabilising more than one nuclear power, involving a Christian nation attacking an Islamic state with nuclear weapons for carrying out activities it is guaranteed under the NPT, and in the name of nuclear non-proliferation. Not only are members of the current US administration ‘leaving this option on the table’ but most of the leading presidential candidates have signed up for this (especially leading Democrats) and the American public are starting to egg them on.

This is serious stuff indeed. But what do we find being discussed in your article? ‘Ahmadinejad is a pre-modern despot’ who apparently relishes executing gays while proclaiming that they don’t exist. Isn’t this a bit emotive? What is the real message being conveyed here? Bearing in mind the recent Zogby poll (reporting that half Americans want a war with Iran and half believe it is going to happen) some calm and coherent discussion is badly needed, but this is not really helped by a chorus that says the Islamic Republic of Iran is a pre-modern, despotic, depraved, duplicitous and irresponsible regime, and on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons; wrapping up all the fine words in the world around this message isn’t going to stop a slide to war.

But its all true the pundits seem to be saying. Really? Firstly it is worth pointing out that most of Iran’s immediate neighbours (Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Caspian states, including Russia) seem to be somewhat appreciative of its constructive input in dealing with turbulent problems that some might ungenerously believe originate in the behaviour of countries from outside the region. Indeed Vladimir Putin has likened recent US actions to a madman running around with a razor blade in his hand and curiously enough this has not been laughed out of the court of world opinion. Far from it, to many sane and balanced people, this is downright common sense. And Afghanistan and Iraq continue to burn under their endless hellish civil wars and military occupations. (See the comments on the article for the veritable Forrest of trees in our own eyes.) It will be well to bear in mind that history will probably judge us as serial war criminals.

And what of the president of Iran, his remarks about Gays, the Iranian gay scene and the Iranian criminal justice system. Being Iranian internal affairs, these ought not to figure, but they are intimately related to our complicity in menacing the Iran with nuclear weapons for trying to exercise clauses in treaties we have signed with her. (It should be remembered that unlike Jack Straw, the current PM and FS pointedly don’t rule out military action, which they well know means a possible attack with nuclear weapons by the USA.)

As everyone well knows there is an active gay scene in Iran, and gay sex (like many crimes) is a capital crime in the Islamic Republic and (roughly) this is because Iranian Law is based on Islamic scripture which is regarded as immutable. However, the way that the law is interpreted and applied is most certainly not fixed. Practically speaking (translated into terms that we would understand) it is being retired. This was explained by Ayatollah Khatami on a trip to the USA. For this capital crime there is a very high standard of evidence, requiring multiple observers (4?) to directly witness the act. Clearly, if this evidential requirement is strictly adhered to, nobody being discrete will be bothered by this law.

From what I can tell, nobody has been executed in Iran for gay sex since July 2005. Ahmadinejad, as you will know, was elected in August of 2005. In any case the President of Iran can’t order the death of anyone, that being the province of the judiciary. While devoutly religious, the President is actually not a cleric, so (as far as I am aware) can and never will be able to take part in prosecuting any legal proceedings whatsoever. Far from being a ‘pre-modern despot’ President Ahmadinejad was a surprise victor in the 2005 elections, his anti-corruption, redistributive message striking a cord. The President of Iran is in no position to dictate much, power being quite distributed, the figure with the most power, and the commander in chief, being the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

You might be surprised to read this comment added to Timothy Garton Ash’s Friday article:

Ahmadinejaad, is not a bad guy, he gets a terrible press in the biased and one sided media here and elsewhere…He is the first non-mullah president in Iran since 1979…I think he is a very decent man and talks more sense than many other presidents in this destructive world…he wants good for Iran and Iranians… we do not want to be bullied and cornered any more and this is ultimate aim… we will overcome these dark and uncertain days…

(Ahmadinejad tried to get family enclosures set up in the football stadia so that women could attend football matches, but the clerics opposed him.) Encouraged by this hint some had a go at explaining why he would be saying some of the things he does about Israel, the Holocaust and so on in the succeeding comments (see comments on Facing disaster in Iran, Europe must finally make the hard choices) and I have attempted a more extensive explanation is a letter to Jimmy Carter posted on my blog.

I am told that in practice homosexuality is widely but discretely practised, that there is a certain amount of social stigma attached to it (the account I heard sounded similar to my own observations in some conservative Christian communities in the USA), but its not a big deal. Apparently there is a problem for adolescents as many young women are determined to preserve their virginity until marriage so young men find alternative channels for their sexual energy, and I have seen some reports that corroborate this. It sounds to me like the Iranian scene in some ways makes our look quite repressed!

And so on to the famous gay-denial comments at Columbia university. He actually said: “We do not have homosexuals in Iran of the kind you have in your country” (see Getting Lost In Translation: Ahmadinejad And The Media). The last clause is crucial: the way that the gay scene and the legal system of Iran works is so dramatically different from ours that the comparison can only be done once Iranian culture is understood. Now I think that it is safe to say that the general Western understanding of Iranian society and legal system is zero so President Ahmadinejad was quite right: there was really no point in him trying to discuss the issue. In his Columbia visit he was trying to open a dialogue with us but he has also exposed deficiencies in our collective listening skills; some remedial attention here (and maybe a little more humility) might help dissipate misunderstandings and hey, it might even prevent a few wars. We and the president of Columbia University haven’t cover ourselves in glory, but very few people seem to be even remotely aware of this. (I have discussed other ways in which President Ahmadinejad has been misunderstood; see, for example, A Letter to Jimmy carter).

In the recent Stop the War Coalition AGM, Somaye Zadeh, an exiled dissident with no warm feelings for the regime, got shouted down while trying to explain that the Islamic Republic of Iran is not anything like as repressive as generally depicted, dissidents knowing that this demagoguery is a poison that the war party is relying on to disarm all opposition on the left when the right starts to scream for Iran to be ‘taken out’ before it starts World War III.

Do you know what President Ahmadinejad chose to talk about at Columbia university? Immediately after some prefatory comments protesting Lee Bolinger’s mostly ill-informed, bullying attack he cut straight to an elegant scriptural and philosophical discourse on why humanity has a duty to use science responsibly. Did you know that Ayatollah Khomeini has issued a fatwa declaring nuclear weapons un-Islamic. I will think of that discourse and all my Iranian friends while we continue to look on from the side as Darth Vader runs his nuclear wrecking ball over the next member of the axis of evil.

Thank you for your patience and for your excellent and intelligent writing,

Chris Dornan

P.S. One of the calmest, best researched and incisive analysis of the Iranian and Israeli foreign policy is Trita Parsi’s (see his website and recent article). Parsi argues (convincingly) that both Iran and Israel have always been rational state actors pursuing realistic foreign policies, that have been packaged ideologically, and that it is clear from the interviews that he has conducted that senior officials on both sides know this very well.

A response to the Guardian leader Stopping nuclear ambitions, Saturday 3rd November 2007

Dear Sir,

Your editorial contains crucial contradiction. Firstly the IAEA determines whether there is evidence of Iran weaponising its civilian programme and the IAEA director Dr ElBaradei has stated on the 28th that “I have not received any information that there is a concrete active nuclear weapons program going on right now”, and you say yourself that they tried to enter a strategic bargain which would guarantee them fuel for their civilian programme, from which we can conclude that the Iranians have a strategic need for nuclear energy. Their religious leaders have issued fatwas that state that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic and they repeatedly declare that their nuclear programme is civilian. Yet you simply assume that they have a covert weapons programme. If you have such evidence would you please publish it so that the director of the IAEA can be made aware of it and revise his assessment.

The situation with regards concealment is complex but it is by no means the case that Iran has ‘violated the NPT’ as you say. The situation is complicated; here is the CASMII fact sheet on the matter:

Iran has met its obligations under the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Iran has fully cooperated in the last three years with the IAEA and had voluntarily accepted and enforced safeguards well above the Additional Protocol until Iran’s nuclear file was reported under the pressure of the US to the Security Council in February 2006. (The U.S., by contrast, has neither signed nor implemented the Additional Protocol, and Israel has refused to sign the NPT.)

Iran’s earlier concealment of its nuclear programme took place in the context of the US-backed invasion of Iran by Saddam; Iraqi chemical weapons provided to Saddam by the US, German and UK companies with the approval of their governments which were used against Iranian soldiers and civilians and Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 with impunity. Iranian leaders concluded from these gross injustices that international laws are only “ink on paper” as Rafsanjani put it.

But the most direct reasons for Iran’s concealment were the American trade embargo on Iran and Washington’s organized and persistent campaign to stop civilian nuclear technology from reaching Iran from any source. For example, in 1995 Germany offered to let Kraftwerk Union (a subsidiary of Siemens) finish Iran’s Bushehr reactor, but withdrew its proposal under US pressure [3]. The following year, China cancelled its contract to build a nuclear enrichment facility in Isfahan for the same reason [4]. Thus Washington systematically violated, with impunity, Article IV of the NPT, which allows signatories to “facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the peaceful uses of nuclear energy”.

Nevertheless, Iran’s decision not to declare all of its nuclear installations did not violate any rules. According to David Albright and Corey Hinderstein, who first provided satellite imagery and analysis of the facilities at Natanz and at Arak in December 2002 [5], under the safeguards agreement in force at the time, “Iran is not required to allow IAEA inspections of a new nuclear facility until six months before nuclear material is introduced into it.”

The basis of nuclear non-proliferation is the NPT and the agency for oversight is the IAEA and the director of the IAEA is saying that the process is working. By publishing such misleading information you are undermining the IAEA and the NPT, contributing to a climate of fear and ignorance and not making the prospect of war one jot less likely.

Yours faithfully,

Chris Dornan