Wednesday, January 23, 2008

On whether “It’s better to bomb Iran that risk Iran getting the bomb”

By the time I took my seat in the Royal Geographical Society for last night’s debate I was in something of a foul mood. A bad day including a text argument, untold hassle at work, two friends then calling off at the last minute then culminated in being fleeced by an elderly woman at the door who wanted to buy my remaining ticket at a concessionary rate. However, by the evening’s end I was pleased I’d dragged my self-pitying frame to what was a spirited and entertaining debate.

The proposers for the motion “It’s better to bomb Iran that risk Iran getting the bomb” were Dr Bruno Tertrais, Senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la recherche strategique (FRS), Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi, Executive Director of the Transatlantic Institute, and Reuel Marc Gerecht, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former CIA Middle East expert. A friend had been disappointed on seeing this line-up that their number did not include John Bolton to which at the time I agreed. However, whatever one might have expected of Bolton was far surpassed by the booming tones and flailing arms of – by his own admission – an obviously wine-fuelled Gerecht (“I’m not as bad as Christopher Hitchens, but I can run him pretty close.”)

Against the motion were Sir Richard Dalton, British Ambassador to Iran from 2002 to 2006 (who stood in marked contrast to Gerecht: softly spoken, fastidious, composed), Dr Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian History at the University of St Andrews, and the journalist and author Simon Jenkins.

The audience were polled on entering the hall and it was announced at the debate’s commencement that 118 were for the motion with 480 against and around 200 undecided. At the end those in favour of the motion had increased to (I think) 154 with over 600 against. And this was surely on account of the compelling arguments of both Simon Jenkins and Dr Ansari. Jenkins felt the motion itself was “nonsense” arguing that to bomb Iran because of a mere risk that it could acquire a nuclear warhead was ludicrous. Ansari, of all the panel, was probably the person whose arguments were most evidentially based. He was at times dismissive and bordered on appearing arrogant but was amusing watching whenever his opponents had the floor: twitching, contorting and furiously scribbling notes to Jenkins and Dalton.

Both sides were could perhaps be accused of fudging the question to a degree. Ottolenghi constantly reminded the audience that he and his co-proposers were not talking about bombing “tomorrow” but were vague as to what date it was they favoured. Jenkins submitted that a pre-emptive strike is illegal under international law unless the perceived threat was imminent. He allowed that he’d “jolly well” bomb Iran first if Britain faced impending destruction. Ansari also pointed to international law and the necessity for it to be observed. But he conceded that the West was vulnerable to accusations of ignoring international law when it was expedient to do so. He did not reconcile these two positions to my satisfaction.

However, even less satisfying to my ears was the failure of either side to identify precisely the groups or individuals we ought to fear. “Militaristic elements” and “hardliners” were often referred to but never named. Gerecht ranted about Rafsanjani and Khamenei but then eulogised Khamenei as a learned and rational man. Still, I wondered, should, as is likely, Ahmadinejad loses the forthcoming March elections will there be cause for hope? Again this was not focused on as it ought to have been. Only Ansari saw it as a pivotal future event but he also believed the change of administration in Washington would be as important.

The discussion was peppered with criticism for Israel and its nuclear capabilities and Ottolenghi achieved the loudest laughs and jeers of the evening when he said that no countries in the Middle East saw Israel as a threat.

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