Malcolm Rifkind at the Edinburgh Literary Jewish Society

Sir Malcolm Rifkind came to talk to “The Lit” last Sunday about the Arab Spring. Given that he and I are rather far apart on the political spectrum, I enjoyed his talk very much and found surprisingly little to disagree with. I thought his cautiously enthusiastic assessment of the the Arab Spring was sensible. He played down fears of Islamic extremism, and saw the movements for democracy in a positive light. He was even able, as the local hero of the Hebrew Congregation, to get away with a quite unflattering comparison between Netanyahu and Salim Fayed (the Palestinian prime minister), and slipped in his opinion that the settlements are a (or the) major obstacle to a settlement that Israel itself desperately needs. So far, so uncontroversial. In fact, I think he may be taken as a representative of Foreign Office conventional wisdom, which makes his views on Iran all the more frightening.

Asked about Iran, he hedged his answer quite carefully. He first explained his understanding of the Iranian government’s intentions: that they want to be nuclear-ready: that is, stopping short of actual weapons production, but ready to produce weapons at short notice. His view was that the first decision that “we” should make is whether “we” would want to tolerate this situation. In case the answer is no and other pressures such as sanctions have failed to prevent it, his next question was “Is the military option viable?” He pictured an attack on Iran as needing to last several days in order to destroy its many widespread and well-protected nuclear facilities, a campaign which in his view would be beyond the capabilities of the IDF and would require American participation. For him, the important question is the military viability of such an attack; he showed little concern about coping with Iranian retaliation of various kinds.

Afterwards I took up with him the question of the morality of planning a pre-emptive attack on Iran. He wasn’t very concerned about this either; his calculations are all of a very practical kind. Although he did use the well-worn argument about nuclear-armed fanatics (Ahmedinejad), it wasn’t with much enthusiasm. His primary—and I believe genuine—concern was to do with a regional arms race. He believes that Iran’s accession to the nuclear club would be rapidly followed by Saudi Arabia’s and probably Turkey’s; with Pakistan already in possession and many other states in the region having the resources and ability to join, this is indeed a terrifying prospect. So I repeated a question he had been asked earlier: What about a nuclear-free Middle East region?

And this is where the rubber hits the road. His realistic view is that it’s futile to call for a nuclear-free region while Israel is known to be in possession of probably 400 warheads. And that Israel can’t be expected to give up her weapons in the absence of a general peace agreement. And, as he had replied earlier, that’s not going to happen while it is prevented by (among other things) the settlements issue. How does that sit with another remark of his that the Israel-Palestine conflict is not the central problem of the region? Well, the British government is currently following Sir Malcolm’s logic in preparing for a military adventure whose immorality and catastrophic consequences will exceed those of the Iraqi disaster. And that road is being followed because Israel’s unrelenting grip over the Palestinians cannot, it seems, ever be challenged.

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