Britain must not follow America into war with Iran

By Rodric Braithwaite

Financial Times

Published: February 21 2007

You would have thought that, by now, President George W. Bush and his advisers would have learned humility as they contemplate a war in Iraq that they cannot win but cannot afford to lose. Instead they pay not a blind bit of notice either to their remaining friends among the moderate Republican conservatives or to the growing number of Americans who think the Iraq war was a disastrous mistake.

The president is sending more troops to Iraq, in a desperate attempt to snatch something he can call victory from the jaws of defeat. If this does not work, the incompetent and ungrateful Iraqis will be blamed, and the Americans will then leave them to fight their own bloody way to a solution. The talk of bringing democracy to Arabs hungry for western enlightenment has faded entirely.

But that is already yesterday’s story. Now the president is turning his attention towards Iran, his language even more surreal than before the attack on Iraq. The ideologues around him compare him to Winston Churchill in 1938 – the only man with the insight, will and courage to challenge the greatest source of evil today. It is Mr Bush’s historic mission, they say, to strike a decisive blow against Iran before it acquires nuclear weapons and before the wimps and appeasers take over the US government at the next election. Terrifying “intelligence” is once again being trotted out to paint the threat in apocalyptic colours.

We can hear the rumbling of a war machine gearing up for action. Yes, the advocates of decisive action concede, a military strike on Iran would have unpleasant consequences. But these are as nothing compared with the threat that would face us from a nuclear Iran. They brush aside the argument that if we could deter an infinitely more formidable Soviet Union for decades, we should be able to keep the Persians in their place for a little time yet: Iran, they argue, is run by crazy fanatics who would think nothing of seeing their country vanish in a nuclear cloud. For this implausible proposition they produce no serious evidence.

The president has neither the soldiers nor the domestic support for an invasion. So he seems to be considering a “surgical” strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an adventure might delay but would not scotch the Iranians’ nuclear programme. There would be heavy civilian casualties. The many Iranians who dislike the regime would rally round it. The Iranian government would be able, and strongly tempted, to disrupt the west’s oil supplies. An anti-American uproar would sweep the Muslim world. There would be a surge in anti-western terrorism. Israel would suffer as any Palestinian settlement was set still further back.

All this is sensibly analysed in a report by Crisis Action, a group of British non-governmental organisations, think-tanks and trade unions. It suggests the UK should help to build confidence between the Americans and Iran by “catalysing the process, mediating between EU member states and the US”. This, alas, is a triumph of hope over experience. The government – if the British can be said to have a government as the prime minister fades like a Cheshire cat in this extraordinary period of twilight interregnum – will no doubt tell us that it is working hard on the US in private and that we should not ask unhelpful questions meanwhile. But we know from bitter experience that British influence on the administration in these matters is non-existent. We must place our main hope elsewhere. The great American democracy is waking up again. That is what, if anything, will make the administration do the sensible thing.

Meanwhile, we must look after ourselves. The Iraq war has done immense damage to British interests in the Muslim world and to relations between communities in our own country. The damage will be much worse if we get mixed up in a US attack on Iran. The government should be saying – in private for now, if it likes – that we will not give such an attack either practical or political support. The White House should be told that, if compelled, we will say the same thing in public.

Some will call this appeasement of Iran – the tawdry weapon of intellectual terrorism trotted out to stifle discussion. But the government’s duty is to identify British interests and then to defend them vigorously. Old-fashioned talk of US leadership is out of place. We are under no obligation to follow a leader marching towards the abyss.

Sir Rodric Braithwaite, UK ambassador to Moscow 1988-92 and then foreign policy adviser to John Major and chairman of the joint intelligence committee, is author of Moscow 1941 (Profile, 2006)