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.

The BBC “reports” on Iran

I have just listened to a report on the BBC Radio 4 programme The World At One, “discussing” the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan today. This is what I wrote:

I wish to complain about the coverage of Roshan assassination. I think it’s extraordinary that the only coverage that WATO provided of this murder of a civilian should be with a representative (Danny Yatom, ex-chief of Mossad) of the security establishment that very likely killed him. Is it now normal practice for the BBC to cover all murders by means of an extensive interview with the murderer, “questioning” him with gentle prompts from time to time to help him explore his self-justification? Or is this only to be reserved for murders committed by our prospective allies in a forthcoming pre-emptive war?

I regret missing out the word “dishonest” to describe Yatom’s justification of this crime (which I should also have described as “terrorism”, in line with the common use of this term to describe political assassinations of people we don’t like).

There is an Israeli/Palestinian relevance to this issue that goes beyond Israel’s probable involvement. I’ll explain it in a further post later.

Update (13th January)
The BBC (in the person of Mark Madden from the complaints department) have replied to my complaint as follows:

Thank you for contacting us about ‘The World at One’ broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 11 January.

I understand you feel coverage of the recent assassination of an Iranian scientist was biased as the only interviewee was a spokesman for Mossad, who you feel were responsible.

Impartiality is the cornerstone of all our news and current affairs output and we ensure all our correspondents and production teams are aware of this to help us deliver fair and balanced coverage for all the stories we report. Mr. Yatom retired from Mossad many years ago, indeed he left the job in protest at an assassination policy and does not support such actions. The perpetrators of this assassination have not been identified.

It is not always possible or practical to reflect all the different opinions on a subject within individual programmes. Editors are charged to ensure that over a reasonable period they reflect the range of significant views, opinions and trends in their subject area. The BBC does not seek to denigrate any view, nor to promote any view. It seeks rather to identify all significant views, and to test them rigorously and fairly on behalf of the audience. Among other evidence, audience research indicates widespread confidence in the impartiality of the BBC’s reporting.

Aside from the standard dissembling over the alleged involvement of Mossad (if this wasn’t taken for granted, why interview Yatom at such length about this particular incident?), and about balance (Mr. Madden obviously hasn’t been reading the Glasgow University Media Group’s quantitative evaluation of their “balance”) this reply contains such an extraordinarily bold lie (or total misunderstanding) as to totally discredit anything else in it. The idea that Yatom resigned in protest at an assassination policy is surreal in its inaccuracy: he was forced to resign as the result of the spectacular failure of a 1997 assassination attempt which he himself planned and oversaw. The climax of this fiasco was his public flight to Jordan carrying the antidote for the poison that his own agents had administered! The intended victim was Khaled Mashaal, now chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau.

As for the idea that Danny Yatom does not support assassinations, we have a relatively recent update of his opinions from this 2010 interview with Al Jazeera:

Al Jazeera: So Mossad carries out extra-judicial assassinations?
Yatom: The way I will refer to it is that whoever deals with terror should not enjoy any immunity.

Is Mark Madden’s reply an indicator of the BBC’s grasp of history and personality in the Middle East? If so, I want my licence fee back!