Iran - Herald on Sunday article

From the land of fried Mars bars and ginger fizzy drinks, an article well worth reading.

Apparently the Straw may no longer bend in the wind. However, it is glaringly obvious that Bliar would face widespread mutiny from the general public, Parliament and Whitehall if he tried to follow Dubya into Iran.

Iran split

Foreign Office lawyers warn: Support for Bush military action would be illegal.

Army warns: we're too stretched to cope with any more military action

By Westminster Editor James Cusick and Neil Mackay

Foreign Office lawyers have formally advised Jack Straw that it would be illegal under international law for Britain to support any US-led military action against Iran.
The advice given to the Foreign Secretary in the last few weeks is thought to have prompted his open criticism last week of Tony Blair’s backing for President George Bush, who has refused to rule out military action against the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, Straw received similar private advice from senior Foreign Office lawyers who had also advised the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, on the illegality of an invasion without the express authority of the United Nations Security Council.

The Foreign Office’s deputy legal adviser, Elizabeth Wilmshurst, later resigned when the attorney general reversed his initial view on the war’s legality.

Sources within the Foreign Office say there is an express desire that this time their legal advice is heard and acted upon.

A source close to Straw told the Sunday Herald: “There is now a clear paper trail of legal advice.”

Straw last week passed on the legal advice to some of his cabinet colleagues after Blair effectively backed the White House view that military action could not be ruled out.

Although the Prime Minister claimed any other option would be a “message of weakness”, Straw said it would be “inconceivable” that Britain would support a military strike against Tehran.

The Foreign Office’s lawyers have gone further than merely advising on the legality of military assistance. It is thought their advice stretched to the use of British military advisers, UK airspace and even the dangers of Tony Blair expressing support which could be taken as legitimising a US-led attack without the express authority of the United Nations.

The lawyers have urged the British government to await the full report on Iran by the International Atomic Energy Authority’s head, Mohamed ElBaradei. His report will be handed to the Security Council in New York this week.

The report is not expected to identify a “smoking gun” that would point to Iran seeking to weaponise a nuclear programme that it still claims is for peaceful civilian energy generation. The matter will then effectively go back to the Security Council to consider what to do next.

But the White House is concerned that a rogue state is being given too much time by the UN, as it believes it did with Iraq. A State Department official said last week that time was running out for Iran and if the UN did not take action over a state which it claimed “was violating every nuclear agreement it has ever made” then it was time “for other countries to use their leverage”.

To add to the pressure on Blair not to become entangled in any military action against Iran, the officer in charge of army recruitment in Scotland has warned that the shortage of troops is so severe that another overseas conflict – or a resurgence of domestic terrorism in Northern Ireland – would lead to the UK having to pull troops out of Iraq or Afghanistan.

In an interview with the Sunday Herald, Lieutenant Colonel David Steele warned that although the UK armed forces can currently cope with its domestic and overseas duties, any additional strain would be too much.

“We are stretched,” he said, “but at the moment we have enough men to adequately do the job. If there was one more operation, we would have to look at it very carefully and ask ourselves if we could do the job.

“If the Northern Ireland situation worsened suddenly then we’d have to examine all our commitments.

“We are heavily committed at the moment. If there was another overseas conflict, we’d have to analyse the situation and see if we could commit to it or not. If it was something that we really had to do, then we might have to stop doing something else [in another theatre of conflict].”

Recruitment into the Scottish battalions – recently amalgamated in the Royal Regiment of Scotland – has fallen between 10% and 15% over the years since the war on terror and the war in Iraq broke out.

In the year 2000, some 1300 soldiers joined Scottish regiments each year. Today, only 1100 are joining.

The Scottish battalions will tomorrow launch a huge recruiting campaign across the county. This week, recruiting sergeants will be targeting deprived areas such as Clydebank in the hope of getting young disadvantaged men to sign up. Army recruiters and regimental pipers will be in Clydebank Shopping Centre tomorrow, aiming to attract unemployed youths with the promise of a career and travel

In March 2004, a year after the US-led invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair seemed to offer an olive branch of apology to all those who believed he and George Bush had sidelined international law and the United Nations to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein.
Blair said global threats needed a global response based on global rules. But two years on from that speech, with Blair and the United States finding themselves back in familiar territory in the Middle East, there seems to be no attempt to play by global rules.

The US is again calling the shots, and Blair is once again falling into step. Switch Iraq for Iran and we seem to be re-playing the same dances, the same posturing, the same excuses and the same move towards the White House-led conclusion that unless the world’s police force – the US – does the job, the world will be a less safe place in which to live.

That lie was exposed after the Iraq invasion. But again the US appears intent on military action before all other channels of resolution are explored. And just as he did over Iraq, Blair seems to be a blind follower of Pentagon policy, anxious to echo the noises from the White House rather than challenge or assist it towards a peaceful resolution.

Last time, Blair succeeded in outflanking his own party, his Cabinet and the Commons to back war. This time, expert international lawyers inside the Foreign Office, as we report today, have succeeded in getting their views publicly known through the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw. The result is that Blair’s authority and monopoly on policy towards Iran is being challenged. And it should be.

Foreign Office lawyers have made it clear that as Iran is not a confirmed threat to Britain, any military action against it would be illegal. There is little chance at this stage of Britain offering military assistance, even if it could. But the split between Straw and Blair should at least make Blair think twice before offering Britain’s unconditional support to the US over what could turn into another foreign policy disaster; and one designed not to assist peace in the Middle East but to help resurrect a failing presidency that sees potential political salvation in another war.

Another neo-con catastrophe is building and Blair will be tempted to help legitimise another military offensive if that is what the White House wants. There should be accountability alarm bells ringing all over Westminster. If Washington wants confrontation with Iran and believes it has to act quickly, the voices of Straw and other potential dissenters will help limit Blair’s unilateral backing for US aggression.

If a warning was needed for the Parliamentary Labour Party to see the dangers of Blair serving out a full third term, this is it. Any attack on Iran will leave lasting damage in the Middle East. Blair’s successor, not Blair, will be the one who has to deal with the nightmare aftermath if Washington again tries to sideline the UN. The cost? Just look at Iraq today.

His devotion to George Bush has proved the Achilles heel of his premiership ... and has now put him in conflict with his own Foreign Secretary. Will Iran be Tony Blair’s final embarrassment? Westminster Editor James Cusick reports

Threats from the US State Department are supposed to sound authoritative and determined. Under-secretary Nicholas Burns, say his colleagues “hit all the right notes” when he warned the United Nations Security Council last week that if it didn’t take action against Iran and its nuclear ambitions within “a reasonable time”, groups of other countries would pull together and take action themselves.
Washington expects a re-run of unconditional back-up from Britain. But they may be disappointed. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has already distanced himself from Tony Blair’s full support for the White House. Although Downing Street denies there is any split, Foreign Office lawyers are already asking just how far will Blair be prepared to go this time?

The Prime Minister has effectively signed Britain up to a “Mark II” version of the “coalition of the willing” by offering unquestioning support to President George W Bush’s policy of refusing to rule out military action. Early last week Bush said all options, including the use of military force, were “on the table”. The Prime Minister backed the stance, saying anything less would “send a message of weakness”.

The US President, as he did over Iraq, subsequently called for “a united effort with countries who recognise the danger of Iran having a nuclear weapon”. The subtext was clear enough and was reinforced by Burns at the state department only a few days later: if the UN won’t take action, the US, plus a few friends, will.

With other US government officials now openly saying Iran is “close to the point of no return”, the White House, as it did in the run-in to the Iraq war, is pressurising the UN Security Council to deliver what it wants, with the threat that if there is no approved action taken against Iran and its uranium enrichment programme, the US will again act outwith the authority of the UN.

With lawyers inside the Foreign Office already active in examining any move by Downing Street to offer Bush support that would help legitimise military action, Straw is understood to have taken advice from lawyers inside his own department and to have informed key Cabinet allies that the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith, could not – as he did over Iraq – approve as legal any British contribution to a military strike. Iran, according to FO lawyers, does not represent a threat to the UK and therefore a pre- emptive strike against Tehran would be illegal in international law.

Thus for Blair there is a hint of weakness in his own camp. Without the full support of his Foreign Secretary in the Commons, Blair would never have won the vote to back the US-led invasion of Iraq. But this time there will be no agreed policy on Iran, no Commons vote (because Blair wouldn’t dare risk certain defeat), and therefore no need to carry his Cabinet with him.

Instead, Straw’s divergence from Number 10’s expressed view indicates Blair’s weakening authority and his inability to impose US foreign policy on the Foreign Office as he did over Iraq. For Blair, Straw’s new-found independence will be an increasing embarrassment as the Iran crisis deepens.

To some extent this is familiar territory to Straw. In 2002, he knew – based on advice from his department’s lawyers – that the legal case for action against Iraq was poor to non-existent. Goldsmith, who also met with the FO lawyers, believed invasion without the authority of the UN would leave British forces legally exposed. But Goldsmith, under political pressure, changed his view in March 2003, and Straw eventually fell in line.

THREE years down the line, Straw appears unwilling to back Blair again in the face of similar advice on the rule of law. According to one party adviser close to Straw: “Jack may be taking a long view of the implications this time. Blair’s premiership is limited. But he [Straw] has been consistent on Iran. He said last year that this Iranian crisis would not be resolved by military means. Nothing he has learned since has changed that view.”

On Friday, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed el-Baradei, will deliver a report to the UN Security Council on Iran’s nuclear programme.

The Foreign Office is already working on the assumption that the report from el-Baradei will change nothing. The April 28 deadline from the security council for Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme is therefore expected to come and go without any significant result. Straw has said “we are working on the basis that Iran will not meet the proposal [from the security council] … The matter will then move back to the security council for discussions about the next steps.”

El-Baradei’s report, according to sources at the UN, is not expected to deliver a clear answer one way or another, but it is expected to back the view that the UN was correct in ordering Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme. El-Baradei – just like Dr Hans Blix over Iraq – is anxious for his organisation not to make any political decision. One UN source said: “Although Iran says it is fully co-operating with IAEA, it isn’t. Access is not full and open. There are gaps in our knowledge. The report will say that.”

The US initially gave the UN’s weapons inspections teams inside Iraq in late 2002 and 2003 more time to find weapons of mass destruction it insisted it knew were there. But it eventually called time on the inspections process. Invasion followed. The indication is that the US will only allow the diplomatic process a limited time once again before an acceleration towards military action. “All options on the table” will mean that the US has already began planning what military action is required.

For Blair, who recently attacked any criticism of the way the UK and the US acted in Iraq as “a doctrine of benign inactivity”, there is no problem in supporting the continuing neoconservative aggression of Bush’s White House. In January, Blair said: “Obviously we don’t rule out any measures at all. It’s important Iran recognises how seriously the international community treats this.”

In the run-up to the Iraq invasion in 2003, Blair, knowing the security council was not going to bail him out with a second resolution against Saddam Hussein’s regime, increasingly referred to the diplomatic authority of the “international community – namely Britain and the US. The same language is being used again because both the White House and Downing Street expect the security council to fail to deliver what they want.

Burns in the US State Department pointed out Russia and China’s interests in opposing sanctions, stating “billion-dollar commercial relations” were influencing their potential vote. Russia has plans to sell Tehran 29 TOR M1 mobile surface-to-air missiles, a deal worth $700 million. “This is not the time for business as usual with the Iranian government,” said Burns.

But for many of the Arabists inside the Foreign Office this is exactly the right time for business as usual with Iran. At a meeting of European foreign ministers in Luxembourg last week, Straw’s “dialogue first” policy received widespread support.

But some European countries are wary of putting too much faith in Straw or indeed the British government to be able to soften the White House’s aggression. There is no indication that Blair is doing anything other than echo the neocon foreign objectives of the Bush administration. Iran is still a key element of Bush’s “axis of evil” .

According to intelligence allegedly given to the US investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, the Bush administration have already increased clandestine military action inside Iran and intensified planning for major air attacks. The cut-off point for Bush is that by the spring of next year, Iran will be in a position to begin a pilot project based on enriched uranium, thus bring weaponisation closer. The White House believe it is necessary to stop Iran reaching that point. “Regime change” – or “democratic promotion”, as it is now called in Washington – is the objective.

The target is President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has said Israel should be “wiped off the map”, and who promised the Iranian military will deal with any attack by “cutting the hand of the aggressor”.

Bush’s military strategy is said to be premised on the belief that a sustained bombing campaign would humiliate the religious leadership in Tehran and lead ordinary Iranians to overthrow Ahmadinejad. Given the misjudged predictions and planning that the US forecast for a post-invasion Iraq, there is little weight being given in liberal diplomatic circles for such a tempered outcome.

As in Iraq, high-level planning appears to be going into the attack strategy, with less thought going into the post-Ahmadinejad stability of Iran. But as the world’s fourth largest oil producer, the energy needs of the US and the ability of the Middle East to continue serving world markets will not be far from minds of the White House strategists.

In Hersh’s article for The New Yorker, a retired military analyst, Colonel Sam Gardiner, estimated at least 400 Iranian targets would have to be hit, including chemical production plants, airfields, submarines and underground facilities . For suspected under-ground nuclear sites, Hersh claimed the US has considered the use of “bunker-busting tactical nuclear weapons”. Such targets include Iran’s main centrifuge plant at Natanz, 200 miles from Tehran, no longer part of the IAEA’s inspection regime.

The National Security Council in Washington has refused to discuss military planning, insisting that Bush is pursuing a “diplomatic solution”. The Pentagon was clearer: the issue of the use of nuclear weapons was never taken off or put on Bush’s table.

But if negotiations fail? The Pentagon repeated what Bush has said – nothing has been ruled out. In line with the way the US military does business, the US air force is said to have been recently updating its contingencies for dealing with what it terms “Iran’s nuclear ambitions”.

Although Jack Straw says it is “inconceivable” that Britain would support any military strike against Tehran, he did accuse Iran of deciding to “take on the international community”. On the prospect of the US deciding to use tactical nuclear weapons to halt Iran’s nuclear programme, Straw said such an decision would be “nuts”.

Divisions over the viability and need for military intervention are met with equal doubts over Ahmadinejad’s nuclear timetable. Robert Galluci, dean of the School of Foreign Service in Georgetown, Washington, insists Iran is still eight to 10 years away from deliverable nuclear weapons. Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, says one to two years.

Whatever the true figure, the impact of the debate is already hitting world oil. Prices this weekend are above $75 a barrel . Iran’s Ahmadinejad says the price hike is “very good” – indicating that he believes Tehran is safe because of the influence it holds on oil. But it works both ways: oil price instability could both encourage and discourage action, and given Washington and Bush’s record, there’s no easy way of predicting whether diplomacy will be given a decent chance.

And there is doubt over what “diplomacy” means. Straw has ruled out military action, but Blair and his defence secretary, John Reid, are falling in line with Washington on Iran just as they did over Iraq. Reid said recently that his favourite definition of diplomacy was the art of saying “good dog, good dog” until you find a rock big enough to bash the animal. He said the world community would not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon “without seriously taking some form of action”.

The conclusion? The US is already holding a big rock in its hands – the question now is whether it intends to throw it, and how hard.

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