Sunday Telegraph: It was not the outcome the Foreign Office had been planning. When it was announced early last week that a senior British diplomat in Baghdad was flying back to London to give a briefing on Iraq’s constitutional referendum, the general expectation in Whitehall was that the following day’s headlines would focus exclusively on whether sufficient numbers of Iraqis would turn out to validate the exercise. Sunday Telegraph
By Con Coughlin
It was not the outcome the Foreign Office had been planning. When it was announced early last week that a senior British diplomat in Baghdad was flying back to London to give a briefing on Iraq’s constitutional referendum, the general expectation in Whitehall was that the following day’s headlines would focus exclusively on whether sufficient numbers of Iraqis would turn out to validate the exercise.
Imagine the surprise, then, of Jack Straw and his officials the following morning when they opened their newspapers to discover that the future constitutional arrangements for Iraq had been completely superseded by official British confirmation that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards were behind the deadly attacks that have recently claimed the lives of eight British soldiers.
For the past two years it has been a Foreign Office mantra that not a word should be uttered that could in any way be construed as criticising the Iranian government. Having voiced his last-minute opposition to the invasion of Iraq, Mr Straw had taken it upon himself to find a “negotiated solution” to the West’s stand-off with Teheran over its clandestine nuclear programme as an alternative to military confrontation.
Indeed, when The Sunday Telegraph two weeks ago revealed that agents working for the Revolutionary Guards had linked up with the Iraqi groups responsible for the attacks on British troops, the Foreign Office continued to insist that there was no firm evidence.
But now the cat is out of the bag. Not realising the sensitivity that Mr Straw attaches to Britain’s dealings with Teheran, the unfortunate diplomat unwittingly strayed from his referendum brief and started laying into the Iranians with a gusto not seen in the British diplomatic service for decades. The Iranians, said the diplomat, were colluding with Sunni Muslim insurgent groups in southern Iraq. They were providing them with deadly terrorist technology that has been perfected by the Iranian-funded Hizbollah militia in southern Lebanon against the Israeli army. And their motivation was to deter Britain from insisting that Teheran abandon its controversial nuclear programme. “It would be entirely natural that they would want to send a message ‘don’t mess with us’. It would not be outside the policy parameters of Teheran.”
This is diplomat-speak for, if Britain wants to confront Iran over its nuclear weapons programme, then Iran feels entitled to blow up young British soldiers.
The off-message tone of the unnamed diplomat’s comments sent shock-waves through the oak-panelled walls of the Foreign Office. “It was all very amusing,” said one official. “For years diplomats have been under strict instructions not to say anything in public that might upset the Iranians. And then someone gives it to them straight between the eyes.”
Perversely, this undiplomatic bout of straight-talking may turn out to have done Mr Straw and the Foreign Office an enormous favour. By baldly stating what the Iranians are really up to in southern Iraq, the diplomat has freed his employers from the obligation of persisting with the charade of constructive engagement with a regime whose only interest in construction appears to be directed at building an atom bomb.
The policy of kowtowing to the Iranians goes back a long way. It started in the late 1980s when Sir Geoffrey Howe, the then foreign secretary, attempted to establish a constructive dialogue with the mullahs in what proved a futile attempt to persuade Teheran to free British hostages in Lebanon. As part of this policy, the British government took the shameful decision to drop its claim that the Iranians had masterminded the Lockerbie bombing that killed 270 people in December 1988, even though British intelligence uncovered significant evidence of Iranian involvement.
Fast forward to 2005, and the British Government continues to play the supplicant while Iran continues to do as it pleases. For the past two years, Mr Straw and his French and German colleagues have argued that the best way to persuade the Iranians to give up their nuclear programme is to pursue a “negotiated solution”. As the Foreign Secretary insisted earlier this year, it was “inconceivable” that the US and Britain would take military action against Teheran.
Mr Straw’s pacifist tendencies were music to the mullahs’ ears, so much so that they expressed their gratitude by breaking the seals at the Isfahan nuclear processing plant and resumed their uranium enrichment programme. This action alone should have convinced the European negotiators to activate their long-standing threat to report Iran to the Security Council for its persistent failure to cooperate with the requirements of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog body.
But that was far too confrontational for Foreign Office sensitivities and, at the request of Mohammed ElBaradei, the head of the IAEA, the Europeans gave Iran one last chance to comply. That was in July. Since then, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new Iranian president, has gone out of his way to humiliate both the Europeans and the IAEA.
When Ahmadinejad addressed the UN general assembly last month, far from offering a compromise on the nuclear issue, he laid into the US and its allies, including Britain, accusing them of sponsoring terrorism. Mr Straw’s response? To reassure the Iranians that the crisis between Iran and the West would “not be resolved by military means, let’s be clear about that”. And even when the IAEA finally agreed to refer Iran to the security council, the timing and manner of reporting Iran was deliberately left open “to allow room for more negotiation”, as one IAEA official explained.
Mr ElBaradei’s disinclination to make Iran fulfil its international obligations is, of course, one of the reasons that he has been awarded the Nobel peace prize, a decision that will have the mullahs falling about with laughter in Teheran this weekend. This, after all, was the same ElBaradei who said he had no evidence that Libya was building an atom bomb until Colonel Gaddafi saw the light after the Iraq war and publicly renounced his nuclear weapons programme.
Certainly, the longer the West prevaricates over Iran, the more inclined the Iranians are to think they can get their way by resorting to the tactics of the bully. The Iranians clearly do not share Mr Straw’s aversion to military action: the moment we try to call them to account, they kill and maim our soldiers in southern Iraq.
With the help of last week’s unscripted remarks by that diplomat, Britain and its European allies should face up to the reality of dealing with modern Iran and accept that their policy of appeasement towards the mullahs now lies in shreds.