How to solve the Iran problem

I’ve been thinking about Iran recently, and I’m worried that the problems between the West and that country are… all my fault.

Or more specifically, the West’s fault. The Iran standoff is caused not by fear or hatred, but by our bad attitude. I think we’re getting Iran all wrong, and if we end up in a nuclear exchange, it’s going to be down to us.

The Iraq invasion was based on flimsy pretexts. Iran, by contrast, IS going nuclear. Its leadership IS hostile to the West. And it IS home to plenty of mad mullahs. There’d be an excuse to attack Iran. But an excuse is not a reason.

Now I’m not exactly the person you’d approach to debate peace in the Middle East; say Sunni & Shia to me, and I’m thinking more of ‘I’ve Got You Babe’ than Islamic factions. But consider the following:

We’re not giving Iran respect. Iran is discussed across the tables of the EU and USA as a political obstacle, like farm subsidies or healthcare. Journalists and newsreaders lump Iran in with Saudi and Iraq as ‘Arab’, not even realising that Iranians aren’t Arabs (in fact, not being Arab is what makes it Iran). In the 19th century, the ‘Great Game’ of power and influence between Britain and Russia was played out on … Iran’s turf, without a thought for the natives.

Isn’t this really, really RUDE of us?

Iran has a population of 70m+, a vast surface area, and huge energy reserves. It has democracy of a sort, its economy is functional although Statebound, and its public life has many colours besides fundamentalist. Iran deserves to be engaged with at least as much respect as … Russia. Yet our governments and media paint it the same simple shade: evil. That’s so wrong it’s just disrespectful.

Leaders aren’t populations. By concentrating on a president’s crowdpleasing, we’re ignoring the complex realities of a fascinatingly diverse country. Ahmedinejad is a bit of a livewire, certainly. But rather than being a mad Muslim, he appears merely mad, full stop. His policies are from the Robert Mugabe songbook: no understanding of basic economics and a tendency towards daft pronouncements.

But within Iran – even within his own party – Ahmedinejad does not seem to be a popular leader; the President isn’t Iran.

Iran is NOT a single ideology. It’s Muslim, sure, but the idea of ‘ijtihad’ – that Islam should be reinterpreted to suit the civilisation of the day – is active and respected. (It’s similar to the Christian debate about whether the Bible is literal truth or a set of allegories for living.) The Economist gives one example: women may be worth ‘half that of men’ principally because they were economically inactive when the Koran was being drafted, not because they were ‘worth less’. Similarly, not eating pork had a practical dimension in the ancient Middle East: pigs are genetically similar to humans, meaning there are a lot of things you can catch from them. Especially in a 14th century desert without running water or refrigeration. ‘Ijtihad’ discusses such concepts and their applicability to the 21st century.

The place where this ‘received wisdom’ is most vigorously debated today is … Iran.

Ahmedinejad is not Iran, he’s just the current gateway to talking with it. There are plenty of ways to engage Iran without attacking its prickly President, and we should be making more use of them – applying the ‘ijtihad’ principle to our own methods of approaching difficult regimes. As a nation, Iran is far less fundamentalist, and far more open to ideas, than our supposed ‘ally’ Saudi Arabia.

The nuclear evidence isn’t quite resounding. Okay, 2000 working centrifuges and hexafluorine gas COULD produce the stuff of bombs… but unlike terrorism or biowarfare, making nukes is REALLY, REALLY HARD. It’ll take another thousand centrifuges, running full tilt for a year plus, to refine enough stuff for a single small bomb. And then you’ve got the difficulty of tipping a missile with it (RPGs haven’t got the range.)

Isn’t it a basic element of our cherished legal system to give … the benefit of the doubt?

Amazingly, there IS an economic rationale for this nuclear technology. Iran’s refining capacity is so low that it imports most of its petrol, despite sitting on the world’s richest oilfields. These reasons extend into the political: government subsidies for a range of goods and services are so vast, and so politically important, that Iran HAS to export most of its oil simply to make ends meet. Unpalatable as it may sound, I have a problem with lecturing other countries on proliferation when nuclear power stations dot the European landscape.

Would nukes calm the situation by evening up the sides? Brussels and Washington trembled when Pakistan and India became nuclear powers… and today, the two sides are talking, visiting, gradually learning to treat each other as respected partners. EVEN IF Iran went nuclear … could this, just possibly, be a good thing?

Tiny Israel alone would still be able to destroy Tehran at an hour’s notice. Iran having a bomb wouldn’t, ultimately, increase the risk of conflict – and might well reduce it.

Might a nuke in Iran, even a little one, persuade Israel to engage its neighbours just a bit more respectfully? I like the Israelis – they’re a resourceful, hardy people, like the Russians – but to be blunt, I’m sick of seeing angry Jews on the news, faces contorted with hate.

Iran’s population is changing. It’s a young country, and young people have different ideas to their parents. We’re dealing with the old guard, when we could be engaging the next generation: 2 in 3 Iranians are under 40. They’re forming the views that will guide their country for the next half-century NOW. This is the greatest opportunity in the Middle East, and we’re throwing it away.

So here’s an idea.

What if Gordon Brown (it couldn’t be Bush) – or even ‘Envoy Blair’ acting on Brown’s instructions (ha!) – were to play the ultimate ‘Big Man’, and engage Iran for what it is – a major nation to be engaged, and not a political problem to be solved?

Forget about the nukes; accept that Iran’s going to go nuclear. State, in no uncertain terms, that we won’t throw the first punch. Give Iran the benefit of the doubt, and take away Ahmedinejad’s ammunition. Give something away, without expecting anything in return, and watch the barriers come down.

(Look at Gorbachev in the 1980s – cutting his nuclear arsenal without asking for anything back. It led to Russia’s emergence from Communism. Today, while not quite an ally of the West, it’s no longer quite an enemy.)

Imagine Britain, as a confident developed country, saying to Iran that its nuclear programme is okay with us. Maybe even having a bomb is okay with us. Perhaps, with such a pronouncement, Iran would never need to build one.

It won’t happen. But I can dream.

One thought on “How to solve the Iran problem

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