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'The Threat Posed by Iran has been Greatly Exaggerated'
Intelligence Squared Debate, London, 25 April 2006

Philip Cunliffe
posted 9 May 2006

As Iran's nuclear ambitions cause growing consternation in international diplomacy, IQ2 assembled several commentators and analysts for a lively debate on the nature of the Iranian threat.

There were Iranians arguing on both sides of the debate - one of the best speakers of the evening, Iradj Bagherzade, founder of the specialist Middle East and international affairs publishers IB Tauris, argued eloquently for the motion. On the opposing side was Mehrdad Khonsari, a former diplomat for the Shah, and now an editor of one of the satellite TV news channels that the US beams into the 'axis of evil'. Khonsari was joined by Patrick Clawson, deputy director of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Roey Gilad, a London-based Israeli diplomat. On Bagherzade's side, there was also Ali Ansari, a Chatham house Iran expert, and the Guardian's foreign editor, Martin Woollacott. The two best speakers of the evening, Bagherzade and the bombastic Ansari, were both arguing for the motion, and this was reflected in the final vote, that was decisively in favour, with 387 voting for, and 293 voting against (77 undecided).

The arguments of the side opposing the motion were generally weak, as exemplified by their predictable and tiresome invocation of the dangers of appeasement - an example that never seems to suffer from overuse, however disastrous the foreign policies and wars that it has previously justified (not least next door to Iran in Iraq). The more specific arguments were little better. Gilad undermined himself by citing Iran's support for Lebanese and Palestinian militias that have successfully fought against Israel as his only evidence of the Iranian threat. By inveighing against Hizbollah, Gilad failed to endow his argument with any wider appeal beyond Israeli self-interest. Presumably wary of being drawn on Israel's own nuclear arsenal (whose existence is still officially denied), Gilad skirted the nuclear issue, the ostensible rationale for the debate in the first place.

The former Shah's man, Khonsari, was equally unpersuasive. Khonsari provided an unconvincing caricature of Iran's Islamist regime as completely addled by theocracy, hellbent on precipitating the apocalypse, and incapable of rationally assessing Iran's own self-interest. Khonsari's lurid denunciation of the 'bloodstained' Islamist regime and its oppression of youth and women was particularly difficult to stomach, coming as it did from the mouth of a diplomat who had served the Shah for a decade in both Washington and London.

The best argument of the side opposing the motion came from the shrill Patrick Clawson. Clawson argued that it is the Europeans and the International Atomic Energy Agency that have taken the lead in pressurising Iran to abandon its nuclear programme. By pointing out that the issue was still safely in the multilateral hands of the 'international community', and that it was being treated seriously by Europeans, Clawson was trying to demonstrate that the question had not been hijacked by neocon hotheads; ergo, the threat was not exaggerated. Given how seriously the Europeans are treating the issue, Clawson was suggesting that there was no reason to suspect that the threat was not real, nor that anyone was over-reacting to it. But by pointedly avoiding any discussion of the US role in the crisis, what with its demands for regime change, its rhetoric of democratisation and military preparations, Clawson's argument rang hollow. It was ultimately unsatisfying to discuss the nature of a threat by reference to who was taking the lead in meeting that threat.

Thus the side opposing the motion was out-manoeuvered by their opponents, who met the hysterical rhetoric of appeasement with mostly sensible, measured arguments about the need for diplomatic sobriety, constructive engagement, and questioning whether Iran posed an existential threat to either Israel or the West. However nasty the Islamist regime, it would be ridiculous, they argued, to depict the regime's leaders as incapable of rationality. There was no reason to think that Iran would be willing to risk nuclear annihilation by using nuclear weapons that it might acquire in future, against Israel or America. Occasionally, they landed some palpable blows, as when Bagherazde responded to Khonsari by pointing out that the Iranian mullahs were always happy to contemplate other people's martyrdom, but less happy to contemplate their own (implying that the self-interest of the ruling elite would serve as a check on any irrational theocratic impulses).

But for all their pragmatism, the arguments mobilised for the motion were also ultimately unsatisfying, failing to call into question the terms of the debate: the idea that there was a threat in the first place. The fact that there was an 'Iranian problem', and that Iran's nuclear ambitions were fundamentally illegitimate, was taken as a given by all the panellists, both those for and against the motion. Nobody considered the possibility that the ultimate cause of the conflict is less Iran's longstanding nuclear ambitions (that are still years away from realisation), so much as contemporary Western intervention in the Middle East, with its clumsy and often brutal attempts to enforce political transition. This intervention has introduced a highly volatile element into regional politics. Nor did any panellist consider the effect of the Iraq war on the Iran question, and particularly how pontificating about Iran's desire for nuclear energy has allowed the West to restore a measure of unity and moral authority after the disaster of Iraq.


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