An attack on Iran would be disastrous | Richard Norton-Taylor

An attack on Iran would be disastrous

Britain must resist US pressure for military action. Even if Iran had nuclear weapons, engagement is the only course to take

Iran - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits Natanz Nuclear Enrichment Facility

Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, visits a nuclear enrichment facility south of Tehran. Photograph: HO/Reuters/Corbis

“Would a British prime minister ever refuse a plea from a US president to join America in a controversial military operation?” This was the response, rhetorical and unanswerable as far as they were concerned, by Whitehall mandarins whenever they were asked why Tony Blair agreed to invade Iraq. It was not a matter of whether the invasion was wrong or right; it was that the occupier of 10 Downing Street would simply not turn down such a request from the White House.

For the US, Britain could offer not only political and “moral” support but a juicy physical asset – Diego Garcia, the base conveniently placed for American bombers, on the British Indian Ocean Territory.

This is what so worries Whitehall, and Britain’s top brass in particular – a growing fear that Barack Obama will find it difficult to oppose increasing pressure for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities within the next 12 months. British military commanders may be gung-ho, perennially optimistic and eager to please their political masters. They are also pragmatic, fully aware of the potential failure as well as the catastrophic consequences of such military action. And it would be hard for anyone to defend the legality of such pre-emptive strikes.

Amid such death and destruction what would be the end game, and the battles on the way? US and British military commanders have for years warned of the disasters that would follow missile strikes on Iran.

Iran’s forces may not be up to much but, with the help of Hamas and Hezbollah, they could wreak havoc. British and US troops in Afghanistan would be exposed to even greater danger than they are now – their bases in the Gulf, notably in Qatar and Bahrain, would be easy targets. The Strait of Hormuz, the entrance to the Gulf, the canal through which more than 50% of the world’s oil is shipped, would be closed. What would arise from the ashes?

Some may say that is a price worth paying to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The suggestion is that there is a “window” now that would enable Israel on its own to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. Next year, the “window” would be left open to the US (and the UK) before Iran’s nuclear weapons reached the point of no return.

Such reasoning, if this is what it can be called, is that of the dangerous fool. How crushed and devastated would Iran have to be before it could no longer restart a nuclear programme, even one just involving fissile material as a weapon for terrorists?

Israel is fast developing its arsenal, giving it a nuclear “triad” – weapons that could be delivered by land and air, and by submarines.

That’s fine and understandable because Israel is not Iran – unstable, unpredictable, under a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who wants to create havoc across the Middle East. So runs the argument.

Why attack, or even threaten to attack, a country whose leaders are increasingly worried, more worried, about the state of the economy and internal dissent than any perceived threat from Israel? Iran is a far more sophisticated and divided society than the picture generally painted in the west.

An attack on Iran would halt and reverse moves to reform. The Arab spring would become an Arab winter with disastrous consequences for US and European interests as well as Arab societies, including Saudi Arabia. The alternatives are many – to continue to apply economic sanctions, a policy of carrot and stick, but with much more emphasis on the carrot. Embraces are far more difficult to withstand than attacks.

Engagement with Iran is essential even if it continues to appear determined to possess nuclear weapons, or the ability to produce them – “the art, but not the article”. It is status, after all, rather than military practicality, that led Blair to keep the Trident nuclear missile system for Britain, according to his autobiography.

If the pressure continues to mount, we can only hope there are enough influential voices left in Whitehall to tell the prime minister, and in Washington to tell the president: “No!”