One thing I sometimes forget is that people born before, say, 1980, didn’t really grow up, like I did, being aware of the constant background noise of the Cold War. That is, even for people in their early thirties, it’s as distant a memory as the Second World War was for my parents’ generation.
For my own, who came of age in the Eighties, there was always a certain paranoia that, at any moment, we might all be shuffled into hastily-built shelters, our bodies covered in radiation burns. Leaving our fate to politicians seemed doubtful: as Sting put it at the time, “what might save us, me and you, is if the Russians love their children too”. Four years later, President Gorbachev seemed to prove him right, by ending the Cold War. Perhaps, we thought, the Russians were not really that different from us, after all.
Our own time bears witness to two other nuclear face-offs. One is between two populous countries which periodically growl at each other. But, while disturbing, the long-time India-Pakistan friction over Kashmir seems less likely to instigate the first nuclear war of the twenty-first century than the coming face-off of the 2010s. In a virtually unprecedented briefing from the head of MI6 it was reported that, by 2014, Iran will have nuclear weapons.
It’s important never to confuse the good citizens of a country and the people who are in charge of it. However, let’s be clear: the modern guardians of centuries of Persian heritage represent, putting it euphemistically, a pseudo-democracy and are trying to maintain themselves in power by fair means or foul. The regime has a terrible record on human rights, free speech, and is a downright oppressor of women and persecutor of homosexuals. The state is already a pariah – whether you agree or not with the sanctions that have made it so, it’s a fact – and therefore has increasingly little to lose from total disconnection from the West.
There is also the little matter of its President being quoted as saying he’d like to “wipe Israel off the map”. For those like journalist Mehdi Hasan, who valiantly insists this was just a mis-translation, and for the avoidance of doubt: Ahmadinejad has also suggested the Holocaust was made up by the Allies and rejoiced at the news of Ariel Sharon’s stroke, pleasantly hoping that he were dead. I mean, whatever the translation, not really the kind of bloke you’d like to have pointing a missile at Tel Aviv.
Without entering into an entirely separate debate, suffice it to say that Israel’s ongoing sixty-year old conflict with Palestine has hardly covered either side in glory and and remains deadlocked. Perhaps more relevant, though, is that the country is currently in the hands of perhaps one of its most unhelpful, belligerent governments ever. Netanyahu was a rather disappointing prime minister last time around, and is a pretty poor one this time, too; his settlements policy seems entirely self-defeating and he really couldn’t have found a more troublesome deputy than Avigdor Lieberman, a man who seems to make enemies wherever he goes. But Netanyahu is, for all that, the prime minister of a bona fide, essentially liberal democracy which does not discriminate against gays or women, one which is plugged into the West and which therefore has everything to lose by withdrawal of its support. And neither has he ever, to date, called for his neighbour’s annihilation.
So far it has largely been sabre-rattling on both sides: but the ante is suddenly upping as the region changes in the wake of the Arab Spring. The current troubles in Iran’s big ally, Syria, make Iran feel more vulnerable. And Mitt Romney last weekend, in another moment of exquisite, bull-in-a-china-shop diplomacy, offered his support to Israel for a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Yes, that’ll help calm things down.
Most frustrating about all this is that Iran is ultimately one of the best-placed countries to be a beacon to the moderate Muslim world. Underneath the apparent Islamist domination of every aspect of daily life, Iran’s other secular, liberal tradition persists against all odds.
My best friend was several months in Iran on a filming trip a few years ago, and was lucky enough to spend time not just in the public Iran but in the private Iran. I remember clearly from his stories the image of young women covered from head to foot in black in the street, who would go back to their houses, where they would wear Western clothes and listen to Western music. This image was rekindled on reading this brilliant piece in the New York Times the other day: ordinary Iranians want the same things, surprise surprise, as we do. The internet and satellite TV have been powerful weapons against the regime’s attempts to impose thought-control.
The problem we have on the left is that some of us pretend that, rather than wanting the kind of lives we have, what they actually want is to have them dictated by an autocratic man with a beard and social mores from the 16th century. They do not: but that does not stop some of our “useful idiot” politicians appearing on the regime’s odious mouthpiece, PressTV, in the name of “engagement”, thus helping legitimise the state and spread its propaganda.
Meanwhile, politically, the Iranian regime acts increasingly like a cornered rat – and that is when rats are at their most dangerous. At this point, we must rely on the hope that its leaders see, beyond their perversion of Islam, beyond their autocratic government and their oppression of women, what the Russian and American leaders did: that the fleeting sense of security of being able to hover their fingers over a nuclear button might well end up costing the lives of their own children, as well as those of many thousands of Israelis and theirs.
Good news, in short, this is not: and that is assuming any conflict were to stay conventional. An actual nuclear strike – by either side – does not even bear thinking about.