Thursday, April 20, 2006

UK Government split over possible action against Iran?

A quick update to Jack's post below on the allegations that the US is preparing for a military strike against Iran, and even considering the use of nuclear weapons in any such attack. The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, has been quite forthright in denouncing such ideas, claiming on BBC radio's Today programme that it was "inconceivable" that the UK would support any military action, and ridiculing any consideration of a nuclear strike as "nuts". Blair, on the other hand, has refused to take the military option off the table, arguing that to do so would take the pressure off Iran and constitute a sign of weakness.

It is interesting that these two positions differ significantly, particularly since the two men are not known for disagreeing over matters of foreign policy. Blair's position is worrying: the argument that military action must be kept open as an option is all-too-familiar from the build-up to the Iraq war; and requires, if it is to be effective, that it be unlikely that, in the final instance, the threat of the use of force will prove to be a mere bluff. Put simply, it will only work to add pressure if we are, in fact, prepared to use force; and, given Iran's past record of intrasigence when faced with Western demands, coupled with the increasingly stubborn rhetoric coming from the current administration there, it would be a brave man indeed who bet against them forcing some such showdown over their nuclear ambitions.

Blair, of course, if he chooses to bet, will not do so with his own money, his own life; he will do so with that of other people (which would, of course, make any such choice considerably less "brave"). Less worryingly, however, I think it is Straw's position that more accurately reflects the current political reality in the UK. It is, to me, inconceivable that the UK would follow the US into taking military action against Iran, for several reasons. Firstly, as Straw points out, it is highly unlikely that the Attorney General would this time give any sort of support to the legality of any such action (not even the highly equivocal support he gave to the Iraqi adventure); we need only look at the controversy surrounding Lord Goldsmith's Iraq briefing to see that the issue of international legality remains of crucial importance on the British political scene. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I simply can't see the majority of the parliamentary Labour Party, many of whom are becoming more and more disillusioned with Blair, supporting (or, in fact, allowing) such a move. Lastly, Blair is already something of a "lame duck"; no-one knows for certain when he'll go, but everyone suspects that it will be in the next twelve to eighteen months. It would be difficult indeed for a Prime Minister in such a position to lead his country into such a controversial and divisive military conflict, particularly as it is clear that he would not be the one to see it through to its conclusion.

Which, of course, raises the question: What would Brown do? The answer is that no-one really knows; he has very much kept his own council on controversial matters of foreign policy that fall outwith hsi immediate remit as Chancellor. At present, I would expect that he will follow a very similar course of action: head down, mouth shut, and only when forced to mumbling his "support for the Prime Minister". However, were matters to come to a head, I would be surprised and disappointed if Brown did not take a stand against any military action against Iran; any failure to speak out then would be political accomplice or cowardice, not the pragmatism that I suspect his approach to now has been characterised by; and it would mean that he began his own period of premiership, if that is to be what comes about, very much as damaged goods.

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