So here's the scenario. A sovereign nation in the Middle East is accused of developing weapons of mass destruction. The dictatorial leader is portrayed as psychotic and deranged across the western media, seemingly capable of anything. The international community releases intelligence reports, making a series of worrying accusations. The public is frightened. World leaders rally around, demanding action to avert a potential catastrophe. Diplomatic tensions escalate and war looks as though it could be on the cards.
Is this Iraq in 2003 or Iran in 2011?
If you're struggling to discern the difference, I can't say I blame you. The striking similarities are mounting up by the day, with a report published recently by the IAEA, claiming a nuclear weapons programme is being developed in secret by the Iranian regime, acting as a catalyst for the most recent escalation in hostilities.
Following the publication of the IAEA's findings, several nations floated the possibility of harsher sanctions against the Iranian government, with George Osborne announcing a ban on all activity by British banks in Iran. This decision prompted a (possibly government-backed) storming of the British Embassy in Tehran, followed by the withdrawal of diplomats from the Iranian capital, and the expulsion of those residing in London.
This increasingly disconcerting sabre-rattling prompts an obvious question, one which is not being asked in much of the media coverage: how much of a danger does Iran really pose?
Let us be clear, Iran (like western allies such as Saudi Arabia) is a nation in urgent need of reform and democratisation. Amnesty International's latest report on Iran, released earlier this year, documents a horrific set of human rights abuses taking place, including arbitrary arrests, torture and executions, along with various forms of discrimination against women and ethnic minorities.
Despite this, if we wish to discuss potential threats to the 'stability' of the Middle East, the danger Iran represents is negligible. As Seamus Milne wrote in the Guardian last week:
There is in fact no reliable evidence that Iran is engaged in a nuclear weapons programme. The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report once again failed to produce a smoking gun, despite the best efforts of its new director general, Yukiya Amano - described in a WikiLeaks cable as "solidly in the US court on every strategic decision".
As in the runup to the invasion of Iraq, the strongest allegations are based on 'secret intelligence' from western governments. But even the US national intelligence director, James Clapper, has accepted that the evidence suggests Iran suspended any weapons programme in 2003 and has not reactivated it.
Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which demands that states do not develop a nuclear weapons capability, something which the US is keen to point to whilst reprimanding Iran. However the treaty also enshrines the right to use nuclear technology for peaceful means, including in nuclear power. So far, nobody can present any conclusive evidence to prove that Iran has broken any of the rules, although complaints have been made by some inspectors expressing frustration with Iran's level of cooperation. Furthermore, let us remind ourselves that the NPT also urges full nuclear disarmament, something which the US and Britain have made very few moves towards themselves, despite being signatories.
We must also be careful not to dismiss the powerful historical narrative in play here, influencing the behaviour of Iran and its political and religious leaders. The details of this will be relatively unknown to many in Britain, but is neatly summarised below by David Wearing:
In 1953, Britain supported a US-backed coup in Iran, after the Parliamentary government there attempted to nationalise its oil reserves from the company that later became BP. The Western-imposed regime of the Shah was backed by successive Tory and Labour governments as it repressed and tortured its opponents en masse, killing about 10,000 over the course of its 25 year reign.
Additionally, it is important to note that as each of Iran's neighbours has been slowly invaded and occupied (with US Army bases literally encircling the borders) it is easy to see why President Ahmadinejad's fears of being next on the list are not without good reason.
Yet despite this, somehow it is Iran who is consistently portrayed as the aggressor.
The notion that lessons might have been learnt from the bloodbaths in Iraq and Afghanistan might be a tempting one. Sadly, as the dangerous propaganda currently being leaked to British media shows, the potential for further destructive military action in the Middle East still looms large.
The current low-level diplomatic hostilities may very well remain that way, but if the Iraqi play book is followed further and war appears to be unavoidable, those of us opposed to yet another US-led conflict for power and influence must take our resistance out onto the streets as in February of 2003.
However, we cannot stop there. We must force our opposition into both the mainstream media (who proved themselves deeply complicit in government deception during the build up to the Iraq war) and directly into the ears of our politicians. This time we must not fail.
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