Barack Obama's decision to sign a package of tough new energy and financial sanctions against Iran comes at a time when the United States has increased its naval strength in the Gulf to three aircraft-carrier groups and 10,000 combat personnel. These two developments are not unrelated.
While sanctions themselves are unlikely to dramatically alter the political dynamic in the short term, the attempt to enforce these sanctions through high-seas inspections of ships entering or leaving Iran could have massive impact. President Ahmadinejad has stated that he will not allow inspections of Iranian boats and, as we have seen before, skirmishes with the Iranian navy in the Gulf of Hormuz have a tendency to escalate.
While it is hard to imagine that Barack Obama would lead the US into a war that even George Bush shied away from, it is perhaps the very fact that Obama is not Bush that he is able to contemplate military action against Iran. In getting Russian and Chinese support for Resolution 1929 last month, Obama achieved a level of consensus on Iran among the UN Security Council permanent members that George Bush could have only dreamed of. The fact that Germany and France are fully involved in the current military escalation in the Gulf contrasts sharply with the flimsy "coalition of the willing" pulled together by Bush in the run-up to the Iraq invasion.
On Capitol Hill there is widespread support for pre-emptive military action against Iran and the sanctions Bill had unanimous support in the Senate and over 98 per cent approval in the House of Representatives. President Obama, with one eye on mid-term elections and his 2012 campaign, may feel he has little room to manoeuvre on Iran. The Washington hawks have not had their wings clipped by their failures in Iraq, and military strikes on Iran are no longer just a real possibility. They are becoming an imminent reality.
Chair of the Westminster Committee on Iran,
One hundred and three Nato troops and thousands more Afghans have lost their lives in the month of June. Government and military propagandists are telling us that we must "hold our nerve" and "finish the mission". There is even an implication that those who are calling for an immediate withdrawal of troops are betraying those soldiers who have already died.
None of the military commanders who appear on the nightly news seem to have a clue what the mission in Afghanistan actually is. Instead we get waffle and half-truths from embedded alleged journalists about "objectives and progress".
None of our original objectives for going into Afghanistan nine years ago has been met. We were told we went into Afghanistan to get Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, alleged mastermind of 9/11, but he got away (allegedly with the help of warlords the US was paying at the time).
We were told we were going in to crush the Taliban and their allies al-Qa'ida. Bin Laden and Omar are both free, the Taliban rule large parts of Afghanistan and al-Qa'ida has long since left and set up bases in 100 countries around the world.
Most of the people doing the fighting in Afghanistan are not Taliban, al-Qa'ida or any other terrorist organisation. They are people whose country has been occupied for the last 30 years. The unpalatable truth is that the only solution to the Afghan war is withdrawal of all foreign troops.
It is interesting to see that, after Lord Goldsmith's Damascene conversion on the legality of invading Iraq, the best he could say was that "I am prepared to accept that a reasonable case can be made."
That is lawyers' code for "if you took it to court, you would have a chance of winning but you would probably lose". Had he been convinced that invasion was legal, he would surely have said that there was a good case, a strong case, that he was satisfied as to legality, or some such formulation. Clearly he still felt that the Government's position was much weaker than that. On the basis of that equivocal advice we went to war.
Your front page on 1 July included the line: "The basis for the Iraq war was built on sand". It should have read: "The basis of the Iraq war was built on what lies under the sand – oil."
The spectre of factory farms
Plans for three massive factory farms in England raise huge concerns about the environmental and social impacts of industrial meat and dairy production ("New battle of Britain as plans for factory farm revolution looms", 25 June).
Understandably the proposals have raised alarm over animal welfare, but there is also a hidden chain which links UK factory farms to the large-scale destruction of forests overseas, as well as contributing to climate change.
Precious South American habitats are being destroyed and local communities pushed from their lands to make way for vast soy plantations to feed our factory farms. At the same time, price pressure from supermarkets is forcing UK farmers to intensify production. The intensification of our meat and dairy sector brings no benefits to farmers, consumers or the environment.
Friends of the Earth is calling for UK animals to be fed on grass or home-grown feeds, and urging people to choose less, but better, meat and dairy.
We are also supporting Robert Flello MP, who has just announced that he will introduce a bill to Parliament to reduce our dependence on animal feed grown in South America. This will help protect UK farmers from yo-yoing animal-feed costs and help prevent them being squeezed by big-business farming. The Bill would require the Government to deliver a strategy, within two years, which will significantly reduce the global and domestic impact of UK livestock production and consumption – and give a welcome boost to UK farming.
Without urgent action to fix the food chain, the rush to intensify our livestock sector will continue with disastrous consequences for welfare, people and the planet.
Food Campaigner, Friends of the Earth, London N1
I was disappointed that Martin Hickman, in his report on the "plans for massive factory farms" made no mention of sustainable alternatives, rather than just inducing alarm and revulsion. The dairy industry would be foolish to gloss over welfare and environmental concerns that have been raised, since public perception will ultimately determine the decision whether or not to buy our milk.
As a milk producer I regret that we have, for too long, failed to engage with the population upon which we depend for a living, relying instead on celebrity chefs and celebrities to salvage our ailing businesses. But there are a number of farmers who are acutely aware of the concerns being raised about industrialised factory farms and who do not wish to see our cattle and pigs farmed in this way.
I believe we have considerable scope to harness the natural attributes of the land and livestock we work with to deliver high-quality food from systems that place less pressure on welfare and still deliver a profit.
The adoption of robust, dual purpose dairy breeds such as the British Friesian and the Montbeliarde deliver good milk yields from pasture, while retaining the wherewithal to spawn valuable male calves for the beef industry. Animals like this, that have been not been bred with a single-minded focus on milk yield or weight gain, retain the ability to divert energy towards reproduction and survival, resulting in a long, healthy and productive working life. By creating real value from simple farming systems, we can perhaps halt the decline in dairy-farmer numbers and reduce the pressure to manage our stock in a way that turns consumers against us.
I hope that having raised a number of questions and concerns in the minds of your readers, you will now give farmers the voice to address them. Only by openly discussing the issues and facilitating widespread consultation, can we build a farming industry that delivers what is good for the cow, good for the consumer and good for the farmer.
The joys of holiday reading
"Will somebody please explain to me what 'holiday reading' is?" asks Howard Jacobson ("Beaches and books just don't go together", 3 July). May I, as a school teacher, enlighten him?
Holiday reading is what you do for an hour after breakfast while sitting back on the hotel terrace, sipping a delicious coffee and forgetting that, usually at that time, you would be flying off to work.
It is the reading you do in half-hour chunks between vigorous swims in the sea when you would otherwise be wondering where the next minute is coming from and hoping that this lesson will end and the next one be ready to begin when the bell says they should.
Holiday reading is what you do in your hotel room after coming off the beach rather than attending meetings, answering internal emails, getting in some early-evening marking or going home and preparing the meal and catching the news. It is what you do in the late evening on your balcony with a glass of wine instead of picking up a novel in bed before falling asleep a few minutes later with the book still in your hand.
For my wife, it embraces the joy of choosing the dozen or more books that she will take on holiday when she is usually lucky to manage just one book per month. For me it means choosing two or three weighty historical tomes when, usually, my mushy mind struggles to manage anything more than repeats of Q.I. and DVDs of Whatever happened to the Likely Lads?
I greatly admire and envy people like Mr Jacobson who have the time and mental energy to sustain throughout the year the amount and quality of reading that I can only manage in the blessed holidays.
'Radical' ideas for education
Where is "the radical new approach" in the proposed merging of the education services of Westminster City Council and Hammersmith & Fulham Council (letters, 2 July)?
What about the Inner London Education Authority (1965-1990)? This also included Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Islington, Kensington & Chelsea, Lambeth, Lewisham, Southwark, Tower Hamlets and Wandsworth. I look forward to the two council leaders who are so excited by their "innovative ways of working" announcing soon the arrival of their iWheel.
Worthing, West Sussex
Out-of-date British laws
I would like to contribute to the debate over long-overdue changes to British laws ("Tell us which laws to scrap, urges Clegg", 1 July). In Hereford's Cathedral Close it remains illegal to shoot a Welshman with a longbow on Sunday. In Chester that's perfectly OK within the city walls during the hours of darkness any night of the week, and Henry IV seemed to make enduring provision for the decapitation of not only Welshmen but anyone who shows them sympathy. Meanwhile any Scotsman carrying a bow and arrow in York is fair game.
Obviously this is all monstrously discriminatory, especially against those who can only get Sundays off, those who work nights, and those who don't live within easy commuting distance of Hereford, Chester or York.
Oi, ref – let's change the rules
In the light of the handball incident at the end of the Ghana-Uruguay World Cup match (sport, 3 July), maybe IFAB ought to consider allowing referees the option of awarding a goal if the ball has been prevented from entering the goal by a deliberate handball such as the one performed by Suarez of Uruguay.
In cases like this, the offending player is fully aware that the chances of a penalty kick being converted are less than 100 per cent, while his team suffers only his loss in the remainder of the current match and the next one. Ghana lost out because of a deliberate transgression of the laws of football in which the punishment clearly did not meet the severity of the crime.
No appetite for history of failure
Anyone tempted to get annoyed by your interview with Niall Ferguson (2 July) should remember that history is lived going forward. History is written in retrospect, sometimes by scribes seeking to earn a crust by acting as praise singers to the current monarch.
An intellectually more challenging exercise would be to maintain a current narrative of the reasons why states and societies sequentially fail, century after century. Reasons might include the exhaustion of the necessities of life (food, water and heat), repetitive loss in war, pandemic, or an inability to develop a sustainable economy.
I don't suppose there is much of a current a market for such a narrative in New York or London, just at the minute.
Pupils with cash will choose junk
I regretfully agree with Mr Lansley (report, 30 June); at my previous, state, school I didn't like the school meals, and since we paid cash for them, we just bought Double Deckers and cans of Coke from outside school instead; £1.75 was enough for plenty of the junk teenagers like.
Schools need to stop taking cash and be given the funds to serve meals for free, so pupils don't have so much money to splash out on junk. This is effective in my current private school, and should be offered elsewhere.
Scotland's budget surplus
I'm delighted to hear that Scotland enjoys a budget surplus (letter, 1 July), but wonder if Alex Orr has failed to remember that it was principally two Scottish Banks (RBS and HBOS) that were heavily implicated in the recent banking crisis?
Had Scotland had fiscal independence throughout that period, it is very doubtful its people would have been able to meet the results of the bank's losses, now shared out among the population of the rest of the UK.
Many south of the border would welcome Scotland's fiscal independence, not least because of the extra £1,500 per capita annual funding received in Scotland under the Barnett Formua. Or, perhaps, now Scotland has a large budget surplus, its government is planning to return some of that?
Monique S Sanders
Who's the bird?
I was disconcerted to read in Helen Taylor's "The call of an immortal mockingbird" (2 July) that she believed the symbolic mockingbird of the book's title to be Tom Robinson, the innocent man represented by Atticus Finch. My understanding was that it was Boo Radley; Scout says at the end of the book that to lock him up for killing Bob Ewell, who was trying to kill her and Jem, would be like "shootin' a mockingbird".
We're used now to house prices going down as well as up, but in "Uncertainty puts brake on property prices" (28 June) there was the strange statement that market conditions were expected "to remain subdued with prices likely to track sideways at best". Can someone explain to me how property prices or, indeed, any price can move sideways?
Perspectives on female bishops
Compromise to move forward
The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have proposed a compromise solution in the controversy concerning the consecration of female bishops in the Church of England. This would allow certain parishes, who do not accept the ordination of women as valid, to be placed under the episcopal oversight of a bishop following a direct line of male bishops from St Peter to the present day.
This has understandably caused outrage amongst those firmly in favour of female bishops, not least because the General Synod has already declined such a compromise. However, the plan of Dr Williams and Dr Sentamu may be the only way to prevent considerable numbers of Anglicans breaking away from the Church of England, either to join the Roman Catholic Church, or to form a "Third Province". If the schism can be prevented, this should be given every chance of success.
But it is essential that this is not seen as a permanent settlement, but as a transitional stage. Once the positive benefit of female bishops has been evaluated by the Church of England, it may be possible to remove "episcopal oversight", allowing the whole Church to move forward in agreement with this significant but laudable change in Anglican tradition.
St Paul's views on women
Patricia Stewart asks (Letters, 29 June) how there can be a problem with the full inclusion of women into the Church of England in the light of St Paul's "clear statement" in his letter to the Galatians that in Christ there is no longer male and female. For those who regard Paul as an authority on how we should live today, the problem is that he contradicts this statement elsewhere.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, he writes: "Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law.
And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church." (Chapter 14, verses 34-5)
And what could be clearer than that? To the outsider, what seems clear is that, whatever the question, St Paul is unlikely to be the answer.
Yardley Gobion, Northamptonshire