The US military has “war-gamed” an Israeli attack on Iran. The conclusion of these exercises is that even attacks that don’t involve flying over Iraq lead inexorably, within a few days, to the involvement of US forces in the air and at sea against Iran to keep the Straits of Hormuz open. This was part of the reasoning behind President Bush’s decision to refuse point blank the Israeli request in 2008 to overfly Iraq and supply equipment to bomb Iran. Bush helpfully made this decision public before President Obama took office.
The UK is now seen as the hardliner on Iran and this gives us the opportunity to make our position clear, preferably publicly, that we do not intend to be sucked into overt military action against Iran by Israel. If the US president eventually were to decide to take pre-emptive military action against an Iranian nuclear weapons programme, that would be a serious option which any UK government would be bound to study with great care; but there should be no presumption that we would act jointly with the US. It will depend on many factors, not least what happens in the UN Security Council and the reaction of key Nato allies, in particular in this case, Turkey. We will also need to gauge the reaction of the elected Iraqi government.
A favourable negotiating opportunity with regards to Iran’s nuclear programme may present itself, particularly when Ahmadinejad’s presidency comes to an end. Until now, President Obama has wisely chosen a combination of dialogue, negotiation and sanctions with Iran. He has had some success with sanctions, mainly by resetting US relations with Russia. Meanwhile Iranian opposition leaders want the US, EU and the UN to be relentless against human rights abuses and to develop tougher but more selective sanctions.
Britain’s strategy must remain one of acting within the UN Security Council and of involving Russia and China in progressive sanctions to stop Iran proceeding to the stage of acquiring nuclear weapons. It is devilishly difficult to deliver, as it means accepting Iran’s right to develop a programme of civil nuclear-powered reactors to produce electricity while seeking to prevent, through tougher sanctions, the simultaneous development of a nuclear weapons programme. Yet this hard-nosed strategy is the one that the UK should not abandon now or in the immediate future.