Former British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, writes: ‘All options remain on the table”, goes the mantra. This is code for saying that the West retains the choice of using military force to stop Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. We’ll hear it repeated this week, as negotiations between Iran and the “P5 +1” (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and Germany) resume in Kazakhstan. On occasions, I’ve used the phrase myself. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve become convinced that it is a hindrance to negotiations, rather than a help.
If Iran were to attack Israel, or, say, one of its Arab neighbours, international law is clear: the victim has the right to retaliate. But such an attack is highly improbable. Under Article 42 of the UN Charter, the Security Council can authorise military action where there’s a “threat to international peace and security”. Such resolutions were the legal basis for the actions against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, and Libya in 2011. But there are no such Article 42 resolutions against Iran; and there won’t be – China and Russia would veto them.
There are Security Council resolutions against Iran under Article 41, but this Article explicitly excludes measures involving the use of force. These resolutions have progressively tightened international sanctions against Iran, because of its lack of full co-operation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). With even tougher measures imposed by the US and the EU, sanctions have severely restricted Iran’s international trade, and led to the collapse of its currency, and high inflation.
The negotiations which restart today are the latest round of a 10-year effort by the international community to satisfy itself that Iran is not embarked on a nuclear weapons programme. This initiative was begun in 2003 by me and the then foreign ministers of France and Germany, Dominic de Villepin and Joschka Fischer, when it became clear that Iran had failed to disclose much of its activities to the IAEA, in breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to which it adheres. I visited Tehran five times as foreign secretary. The Iranians are tough negotiators, more difficult to deal with because of the opacity of their governmental system. (When I complained to Kamal Kharrazi, the Iranian foreign minister, about this, he replied: “Don’t complain to me about negotiating with the Iranian government, Jack. Imagine what it’s like negotiating within the Iranian government”). They have not helped themselves by their obduracy.
Resolving the current impasse will require statesmanship of a high order from both sides. From the West, there has to be a better understanding of the Iranian psyche. Transcending their political divisions, Iranians have a strong and shared sense of national identity, and a yearning to be treated with respect, after decades in which they feel (with justification) that they have been systematically humiliated, not least by the UK.
“Kar Inglise” – that “the hand of England” is behind whatever befalls the Iranians – is a popular Persian saying. Few in the UK have the remotest idea of our active interference in Iran’s internal affairs from the 19th century on, but the Iranians can recite every detail. From an oppressive British tobacco monopoly in 1890, through truly extortionate terms for the extraction of oil by the D’Arcy petroleum company (later BP), to putting Reza Shah on the throne in the 1920s; from jointly occupying the country, with the Soviet Union, from 1941-46, organising (with the CIA) the coup to remove the elected prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, then propping up the increasingly brutal regime of the Shah until its collapse in 1979, our role has not been a pretty one. Think how we’d feel if it had been the other way round. [Continue reading…]