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History could be repeating itself over Iran, warns MP
Back in 2002 Tony Blair asked MPs in Parliament to accept on good faith that evidence showing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein wanted nuclear weapons was “extensive, detailed and authoritative”.
As a result the House of Commons passed a motion sanctioning the invasion of Iraq. But not all MPs acquiesced, including the Conservative member for South Norfolk Richard Bacon.
At the time he remembers feeling baffled at how the pressure for war had mounted despite a lack of tangible evidence that Hussein even had chemical and biological weapons, let alone that he was seeking a nuclear capability.
Ten years on and the Norfolk MP has seen disturbing similarities in the way pressure has mounted for war against Iran, again to counter the country’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Tehran says the country’s nuclear programme is purely peaceful; its only purpose to provide energy to households and businesses. But western states suspect the Iranian government of using its atomic energy programme as a cover for a drive to develop nuclear weapons.
There has already been a fairly extensive regime of economic sanctions loaded on to the Iranian government. In February it was reported in several newspapers that Britain had drawn up detailed plans for a war against the country.
Then earlier this year US president Barack Obama said the “window” for a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear question was closing; the disturbing implication lurking behind his words being that when diplomacy fails, the military come in to play.
Determined not to allow the country to drift into another Middle Eastern conflict, Mr Bacon and a group of other MPs travelled to Vienna last week where they met officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which is tasked with ensuring the peaceful use of nuclear energy and inhibiting its use for military ends.
In particular Mr Bacon met the Iranian ambassador to the organisation. In an interview with the Eastern Daily Press the MP said there should now be a focus on constructive talks, meanwhile he warned against tying UK foreign policy too closely to that of the US.
He said “Different nations don’t get anywhere by shouting at each other through megaphones from thousands of miles away. I’ve been concerned about the revving-up of the rhetoric in the absence of hard evidence.
“This is what happened in 2002 [over Iraq], when evidence that was in fact limited, sporadic and patchy became ‘extensive, detailed and authoritative’ in Mr Blair’s mouth.”
Recent months have seen talk in the media of a mountain bunker at Qom, the enrichment facility at Natanz, centrifuges and uranium. Meanwhile in February Foreign Secretary William Hague told MPs in Parliament that Iran was “moving closer to acquiring the capability to build and deliver a nuclear weapon.”
Mr Hague also highlighted that in a report the IAEA had raised “serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme. But Mr Bacon is clear on what officials from the impartial body told him in Austria.
He said: “The IAEA have many concerns and they set out those concerns at length. But if you push the point they reply ‘we have no evidence of weapons-grade nuclear material’.
“The meeting with the Iranian ambassador was pleasant, courteous and informative. We expressed an interest in visiting Iran. I hope he will take back that request and that it will be considered in due course. Personally I think it would be a useful and constructive step.”
In fact while pressure for action has built, there have also been positive signs emerging from talks aimed at resolving the situation which occurred this month in Istanbul and will be followed up by a further round of discussions on May 23 in Baghdad.
Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs, said on-going talks would focus on the “principle of a step-by-step approach and reciprocity” and that the first round had been “constructive and useful”.
She also highlighted that Iran did have the right to a peaceful nuclear programme.
Meanwhile, Iranian head negotiator Saeed Jalili described the discussions as having been “very successful”, adding that confidence needed to be built.
Mr Bacon explained that it was crucial any progress made was not stubbed out by unhelpful negative rhetoric around the Iranian question.
“There is too much demonising going on and there is a lack of confidence on both sides,” he said.
“There are rational people in every country and I’m quite sure that this is also the case with Iran. The Iranians are a famous and historic people of the world and I think it would probably be helpful if we showed them some respect.”
One of the biggest charges made against the British government in the wake of the Iraq War from critics in both this country and abroad was that our foreign policy was too closely tied to that of the United States. Cartoons of Mr Blair as George Bush’s poodle adorned the pages of newspapers.
But Mr Bacon warned against following the same path. He said: “It seems the Foreign Office is waiting for a lead from the Americans on Iran. But one might observe that the last time we did that it didn’t turn out to be particularly helpful.”