Describing how to solve the Iranian Oil Crisis in early 1950, Winston Churchill, the then leader of the Opposition at the time, exclaimed that the only thing that was needed was simply: “a splutter of Musketry”.
Subsequently as Prime Minister, Churchill sanctioned a MI6/CIA orchestrated coup removing the democratically elected leader Mosadegh. This sentiment, therefore, comes to mind when certain armchair generals in our party childishly call for a “Start the War Coalition”.
I have never been a member of the Stop the War Coalition, nor would I describe myself a pacifist; and like most Labour Party members, I have supported military action from Kosovo and Afghanistan through to Sierra Leone and Libya.
There will be times when we can and should intervene militarily, and times when the best thing is to not do so.
Instead of military action, the current round of sanctions on Iran is quite effective. Germany was their third biggest trade partner and with Italy and France now also closing their doors to Iran, if South Korea can be brought on board too then Iran would see a fifth of its imports under threat. In a country like Iran, which relies on importing new technology and intermediate goods to keep the pumps flowing, this is quite a big deal.
Especially as it was widely reported in Iran last October that the IMF estimated the Iranian economy was set to grow by an enviable 3.5% this year and inflation was expected to drop by 10% from its 2011 level of 19.1%. These estimates were largely built on high oil prices (pistachios are one of their next biggest exports), which are around $120 a barrel. The IMF believes that in order for Iran to balance their budget, oil prices of $90 a barrel are required. And things were running to plan as inflation was slowly dropping until last January.
Inflation has been a good sign of political unrest in Iran (it was around 25% CPI in 2009 and 30% during the demonstrations in 1999 that led to a reformist candidate being elected).
However, in recent weeks Iran’s inflation (CPI) has risen and is above 20%. This doesn’t bode well when combined with an unemployment rate of around 15% and a youth unemployment rate of 50%. The latter is particularly perturbing in a country where around two thirds of the population is under thirty.
Last weekend’s Majlis elections saw no reformist candidates standing, by their own omission, and instead a battle between varying conservative candidates. However, next year is the presidential election – when Amadinejad will have to stand down – and it would be hard to imagine there not being a reformist candidate. But, if military action were to take place this year, it would make that prospect not only less likely, but be a major boon to the conservative candidate.
One of the things that is crucial in Iranian politics is to avoid being viewed as a beganeh-parast (a worshiper of foreigners). Those who have been tarred with this brush have been brought down and removed repeatedly in Iran’s recent history, and it is not an electoral asset to have this badge.
From the Tudeh party of Iran, who failed to take hold and spread in post-War Iran due to their links to Moscow; to Mohammad Pahlavi Shah being seen as a puppet of the USA (due to his heavy reliance on the US administration); and even former president Mohammad Khātamī and the reformists were tainted for their pro-western outlook and support.
After all, Iran sees itself as an over 2,500 year old country. Therefore, it feels a bit aggrieved that on its borders it has countries only around 60 years old who are seen as big international players and that happen to have nuclear weapons.
Those who think international acknowledgement or history doesn’t matter in Iran, remember this – during the Nuclear NPT discussions back in 2003, Iran quoted the Treaty of Turchmanchai in 1828 as an example of Western machinations.
Instead, to defuse the situation a way that lets Iran bow out gracefully is the best option. So a return to previous offers of external enrichment of nuclear fuel for Iranian power stations and membership of the World Trade Organisation may be a more productive avenue.
Ultimately, military action now, or even cheerleading for it, risks providing a distraction away from the more likely regime changing domestic issues. Or as David Miliband described it “quite wrong” and as Jack Straw once said “completely nuts”.
Although we shouldn’t take military options off the table, when we consider how to deal with Iran, we should remember a “splutter of musketry” must be our last and not our first thoughts.