Just what is ‘getting tough’ on Iran?

December 14, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Posted in International | 2 Comments

If you ever come across a problem that you can’t ‘get tough’ on, I’m afraid you’re probably not cut out for politics. If one thing has been drearily consistent in this breakneck decade, it’s the sense that the root of all our problems can be found in someone, somewhere being too ‘soft’ on something. If we really are in danger from all this softness, then the only possible solution is to replace it with something ‘tough’, and so our politicians have ‘got tough’ on crime, drugs, immigration, asylum seekers, benefit claimants and even bankers. Well, almost.

But whenever someone calls for politicians to ‘get tough’ on something, it’s usually followed by a doing word. For example, were I to run as an MP, I might promise to “get tough” on dumbing down in schools by making all 8-year-olds recite the Iliad in its original language. Or if I wanted to ‘get tough’ on drugs I might wish to punish offenders by making them spend an entire month in the company of someone who’s high on cocaine.

So ‘getting tough’ usually means a person has an idea of how it might be achieved. Unless you’re Luke Bozier, who spends over 400 words on LabourList positively shitting himself about the “new Iran N-bomb evidence” and worriedly asking when the West will wake up and – yes, you guessed it – ‘get tough’.

I highlight this not out of antipathy towards Bozier’s rather innocuous piece, but to demonstrate that Iran is one of those strange policy areas where people can get away with demanding action without offering any proposals for how our apparently ‘soft’ policy can be made tougher. In fact, because Bozier doesn’t demonstrate any evidence that he’s even considered the alternatives, I’ll have a go on his behalf.

There are, as far as I can see, three ways the West can deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The first is to negotiate a peaceful settlement wherein Iran is only able to ‘go nuclear’ for the purpose of heating the stoves in Tehran. This has been the policy since President Obama was inaugurated; it has seen its share of successes & setbacks and it may well end with Iran having a nuclear weapon.

The second possibility is to impose sanctions with the hope of either materially crippling Iran’s weapon-making capability or hoping that internal dissent would eventually topple the government. The problem with this is that you’ve got to get China and Russia to play along, and whilst the Kremlin’s stance on sanctions has softened, I wouldn’t expect them to agree to any sanctions regime which would satisfy the ‘get tough’ brigade. There’s also no guarantee that it’ll stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon anyway.

And so the third possibility is military action. This could conceivably stop Tehran’s ambitions once and for all, but would also serve to rally a previously disgusted public around its government. What’s more, we simply do not have the resources, will or public support for anything other than a few finger-crossing bombing raids based on the available intelligence. And how good was our intelligence in the last war of choice?

Critics of the current policy towards Iran are entirely free to characterise the Obama administration’s position as being one of quivering vacillation if that’s what they truly perceive. But by trying to frame this as an argument about what is ‘soft’ or ‘tough’ you give the impression that there are simple solutions and any repercussions of our new ‘toughness’ will only be felt by the Iranians. This is simply a fiction.

The truth is that there are no guaranteed ways of persuading a paranoid & cantankerous crank state that it has no need a nuclear deterrent, especially when it has spent most of the past decade feeling threated by countries with nukes of their own. ‘Getting tough’ isn’t a policy; it’s a slogan, and one wielded enthusiastically by those who’re either too timorous or entrenched to consider all points of view. That’s something we can do without.



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  1. […] Bleeding Heart Show thinks Iran are a paranoid & cantankerous crank […]

  2. Just found this now – great piece. It really brightened up my day!


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