Mary Dejevsky: A misreading of Iran that risks a fatal replay of Iraq

There is no evidence at all that Iran colluded with al-Qa'ida

Tuesday 02 February 2010 01:00 GMT

Since its misfired election last June, Iran increasingly resembles a curled-up hedgehog: preoccupied with its own difficulties, while projecting general hostility to the outside world. I only hope the impression of introversion is true, because Tehran has been the target of some deeply misguided words, and perhaps also deeds, in recent days. Just now, it would be better if Iran were not listening.

From Washington come reports that the US is sending Patriot missiles to the Gulf States, and keeping two warships in the region capable of shooting down Iranian missiles. Now Patriots are neither state-of-the-art nor offensive weapons and deploying two warships is hardly the most aggressive stance a superpower can take. But the deployments – or their threat, it is not entirely clear which – hardly send a friendly message, especially not as "spun" to the US media. They speak of contingency planning and expecting the worst.

These signals from Washington, though, were a good deal less menacing than the image of Iran that emerged from Tony Blair's testimony to the Iraq Inquiry in London last Friday. A recurrent theme of his self-justification over the war was a nigh-apocalyptic forecast of what role an un-checked Iran might play. Although he was being questioned about Iraq, he mentioned Iran several dozen times, and always in a negative light. In the worldview of the former prime minister, Iran came across as the next threat to global peace. George Bush's "axis of evil", it seems, never really went away; the overthrow of Saddam Hussein merely reduced its membership by one.

But Mr Blair's analysis fatally, and doubtless deliberately, confused cause and effect. Iran is only as powerful as it is today because of the vacuum created in Iraq by the US and British invasion. We are fortunate, in fact, that because of its own post-election turmoil, it is not even more dominant than it is. The notion that Iran – in league with al-Qa'ida – fomented the violence that ravaged Iraq in the latter part of 2003 and 2004, rather than exploiting it, has no basis at all in either the facts or the sequence of what happened.

In the intervening days, we have had two categorical rebuttals of the Blair version from people unimpeachably qualified to know. Sir Richard Dalton, Britain's ambassador in Iran at the time, accused him of fundamentally misreading the situation. Iraq then and Iran now, he said, were quite different situations. There was no evidence that Iran and al-Qa'ida had colluded to destabilise Iraq's reconstruction, he said, and there was no precedent for a nuclear-capable state passing its secrets to terrorists – one of the catastrophe scenarios held out by Mr Blair.

Yesterday, testifying to the same Iraq Inquiry, General Lord Walker, who was Chief of Defence Staff as the violence spread, said that he had no evidence of anything more than marginal involvement by Iran. In his view, the chief cause of the mayhem was the US- ordered disbanding of the Iraqi army, which had destroyed a whole tier of administration. Iran might have moved a few border look-out posts, he said, but most of the border was guarded and there was no trace of infiltration by Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Mr Blair's view was that, once a dictatorship collapsed, the whole state did too – a lesson, he said, to be learned.

It is hard not to conclude that this analysis was more about creating a continuing defence of the Iraq war (and the near-civil war that followed) than it was about today's Iran. Maybe there will some time be a dictatorship that links up with a terrorist group that links up with nuclear weapons. But that is not what Saddam Hussein was about, nor is it where Iran – which, by the way, is far more complex than a dictatorship – is today.

To suggest that it is, however, is highly dangerous. An argument constructed for largely personal ends will circle the globe via Mr Blair's lucrative consultancy commitments, poisoning influential, or at least highly-paid, opinion as it goes. The threat of US deployments can equally be seen less as reflecting reality – today's Iran is divided and weak – as meeting a sectional political requirement: Mr Obama's need to show that he will not be made to look foolish during the mid-term campaign by Iran's apparent rejection of his outstretched hand.

There is no sign that Iran harbours malign or expansionist intentions, or even that a nuclear Iran would present a global threat. Unlike India, it is signed up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. To misread Iran so comprehensively is to sow the seeds of the very same misunderstanding that brought us the Iraq war.

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