This time there will be no excuses. Plans for British support for an American assault on Iran, revealed in today’s Guardian, are appalling. They would risk what even the "wars of 9/11" did not bring: a Christian-Muslim armageddon engulfing the region. This time no one should say they were not warned, that minds were elsewhere, that we were told it would be swift and surgical. Nobody should say that.
To western strategists, Iran today is exactly where Iraq was in 2002. The country posed no threat to the west. Yet "weapons of mass destruction" were said to be primed and had to be urgently eliminated. The offending regime could be subjugated by air power or, if not, by regime change. The cause was noble, and the outcome sure.
There any comparison ends. Iran is not a one-man, two-bit dictatorship, but a nation of 70 million people, an ancient and proud civilisation with a developed civil society and a modicum of pluralist democracy. Certainly its insecure leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wants a weapons-ready nuclear enrichment programme, as next week’s United Nations report by the International Atomic Energy Authority is expected to repeat. But he leads a country which, like Pakistan, Britain or Israel, craves status, prestige and the vague security that these unusable weapons seem to convey.
Nuclear dissemination is deplorable, but massively overhyped. Warheads cost a fortune to develop and keep in service. Modern anti-western aggression finds it cheaper and more effective to plan terrorist outrages. Nuclear bombs have not made Israel more secure. They have been useless to Pakistan in confronting India, and to North Korea against the south. They did not save apartheid in South Africa, or the Soviet Union from itself.
The planned attack on Iran is familiar in form. It is declared exclusively aerial, with missiles and unmanned drones deployed against nuclear and military targets. The airmen will promise, as they did in Belgrade, Baghdad and Benghazi, that bombing can do the job unaided. The enemy then digs in and fights back, the tempo of attack has to mount, and ground forces are sucked in.
We read that there are, as yet, no plans for a ground attack on Iran, though "a small number of special forces" may be required, as was required eventually in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. The mission will creep from wrecking Iran’s nuclear capability to ensuring it cannot be rebuilt, and then to securing regime change and "freedom". We have been there so often before. The logic of war tends towards totality, without which no victory can be declared.
Total war on Iran would be a catastrophe. Every politician involved in this business should be locked in a room and forced to read the cuttings on Afghanistan and Iraq over the past decade. Ahmadinejad may delight audiences with his bloodthirsty language about the west. But the rest of the world would ask by what right are two nuclear powers using violence to stop someone else joining their weirdly exclusive club. We would have no UN support for such a venture. No one seriously supposes that Iran, under whatever ruler, would seek to wipe out Israel – and anyway that is Israel’s business.
Stopping Iran from developing a nuclear capability is and always was a lost cause. It appears to be three years from deliverable warheads and is besieged by foreign agents launching cyber-attacks, selling fake components and assassinating scientists. But Iran would be no easy target, like Libya or Iraq. The more isolated and threatened Iran is by the west, the more nuclear assertiveness attracts its leadership, and the more allies would rally to its cause.