Is war with Iran inevitable?
As tensions between Iran and the west escalate, and US politicians call for regime change, Susanna Rustin talks to former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Iranian-British academic Abbas Edalat, founder of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran [and a faculty member of Imperial College, London], about Iran's nuclear programme and the likelihood of war.
Malcolm Rifkind: I do not advocate a military attack on Iran, but the International Atomic Energy Agency says Iran is failing to comply with agency requirements and UN security council resolutions and it is very difficult for the international community to say it doesn't matter. If Iran is trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability, that has massive implications.
Abbas Edalat: Sixty years ago the British government was demonising the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, and it is doing the same to the Islamic Republic. When sanctions failed then, it organised with the US the 1953 coup and brought back the Shah. And in Iraq the same unfounded allegations of weapons of mass destruction that we are seeing now were used to justify an illegal war. Western intelligence sources are feeding fabricated evidence to the IAEA, whose new head [Yukiya Amano] was disclosed by WikiLeaks to be a hardline supporter of the US. But the IAEA's latest report [last month] is disappointing for the western alliance because it says Iran has not diverted its declared nuclear material [to weapons].
MR: Many of us who believe the Iraq war was disgraceful also believe Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons. If it does, it is likely that Saudi Arabia and possibly Egypt and Turkey will follow. Even Russia and China have supported pressure on Iran. You are wrong if you think Iran has only the west to deal with.
AE: A couple of days ago the prime minister of the United Arab Emirates said they don't think Iran is building nuclear weapons. I think the international community has seen the catastrophic illegal invasion of Iraq and does not want that repeated. And you didn't mention the coup of 1953, for which Britain has never apologised. What is happening now is a re-run. Russia has said the latest sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran are illegal. The west is playing a game of hypocrisy and deception. President Obama wrote last year to the leaders of Brazil and Turkey, urging them to persuade Iran to deposit 1,200kg of low-enriched uranium in Turkey. Three weeks later Turkey and Brazil brokered a deal exactly on those terms. Did the White House welcome this breakthrough? No, it proposed new sanctions at the UN.
Susanna Rustin: Is there evidence last week's attack on the British embassy in Tehran was approved by the authorities?
MR: It is inconceivable an invasion of a foreign embassy by a large crowd could happen without government connivance.
AE: This allegation is contradicted by US vice-president Joe Biden, who said he has no evidence the attack was orchestrated by the Iranian leadership. When did it happen? Just after the UK imposed sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran.
MR: Most reasonable people will say, fortunately we have the IAEA. You say it is pressured by the US; that's an insult. Its latest report said Iran is taking action in its nuclear programme that is only consistent with a military purpose. We acknowledge mistakes were made in the past – you referred to the Mosaddegh affair and I can only give my personal view. I think that was a foolish mistake.
SR: Should the British apologise?
MR: I don't believe in demands for apologies. The question is why Iran, which has more oil and gas than almost any country, needs to give such a huge priority to nuclear energy. WikiLeaks quoted King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia calling for the head of the serpent – that was his phrase – to be cut off, meaning he wanted a military attack on Iran.
AE: There is no shred of evidence that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. There is a fatwa by the supreme leader against weapons of mass destruction. And you quote King Abdullah, but the overwhelming majority of Arab people approve of Iran's nuclear programme.
SR: Does the discredited evidence of WMD in Iraq make tackling Iran harder?
MR: Much more difficult – the main beneficiary of the Iraq war was the Iranian government. Iraq traditionally was a sort of buffer but that has now disappeared because of the stupid policy of the US and Tony Blair's government.
SR: What do ordinary Iranians think?
AE: Sanctions will only unite them. Almost all the evidence in the most recent IAEA report is old, and Mohamed ElBaradei [former IAEA director] always said he had no confidence in allegations from the intelligence services of Israel and the US. The New York Times in 2004 questioned the provenance of the laptop from which these documents came.
MR: So everyone is wicked except Iran! Every piece of evidence is dismissed as fabrication. It's very depressing. Iran is a great country and ought to be playing a much more important role in the world. Instead, it has made itself a focus of antagonism. It is probably trying at the moment to produce the enriched uranium and missile technology that would enable it to stop for a period, then go to the final stage in months. Iran missed an opportunity when Obama came to power. He was willing to open up dialogue that could have led to normalisation of relations. And the Iranian government threw it back. The regime likes external enemies because it helps rally support at home.
AE: Old habits die hard, Sir Malcolm.
MR: Yours as well as ours!
AE: But we have not invaded another country for 250 years. When Iran was under attack by the western-backed invasion from Iraq, it did not respond in kind with chemical warfare. In October last year Sir John Sawers, the head of MI6, publicly said that the west should use covert operations to block Iran's nuclear programme. Since then two Iranian scientists have been assassinated. Why do you think Iranians believe MI6, Mossad and the CIA were behind that?
MR: I chair the Intelligence and Security Committee [of the UK parliament] and can categorically say the UK does not support assassinations. The US, on occasion, has given authority for that to happen, so have the Israelis.
SR: Were the US or Israel behind the assassinations?
MR: I don't think the Americans were, I've no idea about the Israelis.
SR: How do you expect the situation to develop?
MR: It depends on the Iranian government. If the IAEA concludes at any stage there is no reason for concern, there is no way international action could be taken.
AE: The US House foreign relations committee has produced a bill that would prevent Obama having dialogue with Iran for the first time in history. The current hawkish policy of western governments will lead to military conflict. And that will be a catastrophe.