Jack Straw on the Possibility of a Military Strike Against Iran: “War is not an option.”

This is a very interesting piece by Jack Staw, the former UK Foreign Minister. Before I get to his real substantive points, I have to say that when I first read this, and saw Straw quoting from the UN Charter and giving an analysis of international law in the first few paragraphs, I was shocked at the hypocrisy of the man. This is the same Jack Straw, after all, who infamously rejected the legal advice of his own excellent legal adviser, Sir Michael Wood, when Straw was Foreign Minister and Sir Michael clearly advised him that the 2003 invasion of Iraq was in violation of the same sources of international law Straw now quotes. Read this story on that little bit of history. So I don’t know if Straw is now trying to re-create his image, after having been fully a party to Britain’s involvement in that imprudent and disasterous war. Maybe he sees this as the only way he’ll ever be part of another Labour government in the future. In any event, it smelled funny to me.

On a more minor legal point, I don’t agree with his legal assessment that Iran’s failure to declare Natanz and Arak before 2003 constituted a violation of the NPT. As I’ve explained previously, if anything this was an instance of non-compliance with Iran’s IAEA CSA and no more.

But here are the real substantive analyses and conclusions of this particular piece, with which I do very much agree:

I have never been complacent about a nuclear-armed Iran, which is why I   devoted so much time to negotiations with the country. My own best judgment   is that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who controls the nuclear   dossier, probably wants to create the intellectual capacity for a nuclear   weapons system, but will stop short of making that system a reality. If I am wrong, further isolation of Iran would follow; but would it trigger nuclear   proliferation across the Middle East? Not in my view. Turkey, Egypt and   Saudi Arabia “have little to gain and much to lose by embarking down such a   route” is the accurate conclusion of researchers from the War Studies Department of King’s College London.

In any event, a nuclear-armed Iran would certainly not be worth a war.

There has been no more belligerent cheerleader for the war party against Iran   than Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. Netanyahu was widely   expected to strengthen his position in the January elections for the Israeli   parliament, but lost close to a third of his seats. The electorate seemed to   take more heed of real experts such as Meir Dagan, a former head of Mossad,   Israel’s external intelligence agency, and Yuval Diskin, a former chief of Shin Bet, its internal security agency.

In 2011, Dagan described an Israeli attack on Iran as a “stupid idea”. More   significantly, both Dagan and Diskin have questioned the utility of any   strike on Iran. Diskin says there’s no truth in Netanyahu’s assertion that   “if Israel does act, the Iranians won’t get the Bomb”. And Dagan is correct   in challenging the view that if there were an Israeli attack, the Iranian   regime might fall. “In case of an attack [on Iran], political pressure on   the regime will disappear. If Israel will attack, there is no doubt in my   mind that this will also provide them with the opportunity to go ahead and   move quickly to nuclear weapons.” He added that if there were military   action, the sanctions regime itself might collapse, making it easier for   Iran to obtain the materiel needed to cross the nuclear threshold.

As with the reality of a nuclear-armed North Korea, the international   community would have to embark on containment of the threat if, militarily,  Iran did go nuclear. But these hard-boiled former heads of the Israeli   intelligence agencies are right. War is not an option.


36 Comments on “Jack Straw on the Possibility of a Military Strike Against Iran: “War is not an option.””

  1. yousaf says:

    I wonder if this is not just a pragmatic stance (i.e. war is a crazy proposition and not viable) rather than a ethical or legal rebirth in Mr. Straw? If war was easy and cheap would he still say the same thing?

  2. yousaf says:

    On the legal minutiae of Natanz declaration to IAEA and relevant timing issues there was this by Prof. Sahimi a couple of years ago:


  3. Don Bacon says:

    Foreign Ministers ought to take the trouble to understand the military aspects of foreign policy, just as Defense Ministers should understand political matters. The point is, that if “Israel acts” against Iran, Israel would no longer exist. It would be destroyed by explosive missiles dispatched by Iran and its allies. I believe Iran has made this clear, and also its counterattack on US resources in the area.

    So yes, war is not an option, and all the talk of it is an effective distraction from the ongoing Zionist rape of Palestine, a conspiracy of the West.

    • “The point is, that if “Israel acts” against Iran, Israel would no longer exist. It would be destroyed by explosive missiles dispatched by Iran and its allies.”

      Iran has no capability of causing Israel to “no longer exist”. Neither does Syria or Hizballah. None of them have either separately or together a sufficient number of sufficiently powerful missiles to seriously damage Israel’s infrastructure.

      What they CAN do is make a war with Iran expensive in economic and political terms, not military ones. Keeping Israeli citizens in bombs shelters for hours every day would harm the economy and tick off the electorate, possibly causing them to vote out the Israeli ruling party in the next elections. THAT is something Netanyahu wants to avoid.

      Which is why we have the Syria crisis. That is ENTIRELY intended to enable foreign military intervention by the US and NATO to degrade the Syrian missile arsenal and in turn that is intended to allow Israel to attack Hizballah in Lebanon to degrade its missile arsenal.

  4. Mohammad says:

    “On a more minor legal point, I don’t agree with his legal assessment that Iran’s failure to declare Natanz and Arak before 2003 constituted a violation of the NPT. As I’ve explained previously, if anything this was an instance of non-compliance with Iran’s IAEA CSA and no more.”

    Could you please provide a link to your explanation? I could not find any by a Google search. Perhaps I should buy your books? 🙂
    I thought that while whether Iran violated its Safeguards Agreement by not declaring the Fordow facility before September 2009 is controversial, it was perfectly legal for Iran to not declare Natanz and Arak prior to 2003, and this is not even disputed. Am I not right?

    Note to casual readers: Neither Fordow, nor Natanz and Arak facilities had started operations or were less than one year close to starting operations, when Iran announced their existence. So Iran did not hide any actual nuclear activity in these facilities.

  5. Johnboy says:

    This is an interesting comment: “My own best judgment is that Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, who controls the nuclear dossier, probably wants to create the intellectual capacity for a nuclear weapons system, but will stop short of making that system a reality.”

    I’m actually struggling to see what is wrong with Iran being in possession of that “intellectual capacity”.

    After all, saying this:
    “but will stop short of making that system a reality”
    is simply a weasel-worded way of saying that Straw understands that Iran doesn’t intend to m.a.n.u.f.a.c.t.u.r.e. nukes.

    But that’s an important acknowledgement, since what is prohibited by the NPT is….. the m.a.n.u.f.a.c.t.u.r.e. of nukes.

    Not the “intellectual” knowledge of how to make nukes.
    Nor even the “capacity” to make nukes.

    Nothing in the NPT outlaws gaining the knowledge nor the technology required to make nukes.

    What it outlaws is….. the making of nukes.

  6. Straw is also wrong when he says Khamenei wishes to have the “intellectual capacity to make nukes”. Khamenei has made it clear he does not desire nukes AT ALL.

    This is supported by the historical fact that the only time Iran ever considered building nukes at all is when they were concerned that Saddam had a program. Saddam with nukes was an existential threat to Iran. Neither the US nor Israel are existential threats to Iran because neither country could use nukes against Iran without serious geopolitical repercussions – and Iran knows this. As soon as Saddam was removed and the political control of Iraq was turned over to Shia parties created and grown in Iran, Iran promptly stopped even the limited “feasibility studies” it had been pursuing prior to 2003.

    It is also supported by the fact that Iran has absolutely no use cases for nuclear weapons as it has no nuclear enemies except the US and Israel. Pakistan would only be a threat if its government collapsed and was controlled by Taliban-like Islamists – and long before Pakistan became a problem for Iran in such a scenario, it would be attacked by either India or the US.

    We hear this business about Iran wanting “nuclear capability” from just about every “pundit”. It is nothing more than “conventional wisdom” without a shred of logic behind it. No one has bothered to think it through – except the Iranians themselves who have rejected the concept.

    • yousaf says:

      Khamenei does not constitute the entirety of Iranian polity — so even if you knew what is going on inside his head, there is no way to be 100% certain. Iranian polity is not monolithic so, just like in the US, there are hawks and doves. There may be Iranian politicians who favor a weapons capability — something, in my view, Iran already has.

      The point is this: the NPT permits a nuclear weapons _capability_ , thus the entire discussion is not terribly enlightening.

      • Cyrus says:

        No one is 100% certain about anything anywhere so why for Iran? There may be Iranian politicians who favor getting nukes, and in fact recent polls show a growing portion of the Iranian populace is in favor of that, making them more hardline on the nuclear issue than the govt but Khamenei is the head of state and what he says is official policy regardless.

      • yousaf says:

        Agree — several Brazilian politicians have been very gung-ho on nukes. And they don’t have the AP and had a nuke program and denied access to IAEA inspectors at Resende. They also want nuclear powered subs.

      • Yes, I’m sure there are Iranian hardliners in government and out who would desire nukes. There are several people over at the Leveretts site proclaiming that’s the way Iran should go: withdraw from the NPT and make nukes for “security”.

        There is no shortage of morons in any country or government as the pundits like Samore demonstrate daily here.

        But it is clear from statements made by Khamenei and Ahmadinejad and others that Iran is fully aware that it has no need of nukes – and therefore there can be no need for “nuclear capability” either.

        I also agree that the discussion is “moot” – for us. But it’s not moot for everyone else due to the constant refrain from the so-called “pundits” who have not thought it through. It does not help us to have people say we shouldn’t attack Iran because “they might go ahead and get the bomb” or that we should allow Iran to have “nuclear capability” – especially when the majority of people don’t even know what that means.

        It needs to be made clear that Iran has NO likelihood of EVER wanting nukes in any respect short of a real existential threat to the Republic from a nuclear-armed state such as Iraq. And the reason is that no matter what Iran thinks, they actually CANNOT use them in any effective way, either in military terms or geopolitical terms.

        Brazil and Argentina have no use cases either. It’s unlikely they will ever have nukes. They don’t have the AP, but they do have a regional non-proliferation regime associated with the IAEA. If they ever build nukes, it will be for the same reason the US builds more nukes than it needs: because someone is getting PAID to build them out of taxpayer dollars.

        Nuclear subs are another matter entirely. Iran has said they might want those as well. You don’t need nuclear weapons to see advantages in having a nuclear sub.

  7. Bob says:

    It seems to me that the current game/tension being played out is somewhat to the benefit of all parties. Israel receives over $6B annually in military aid from the US and countless more funds from civilians and Jewish agencies within the US, Canada, UK, etc.. (collectively the West). Given the dire economic conditions faced by all these countries in the last 3-4 years, Israel could have been facing a huge cut in the flow of funds. Given that the Palestinian rock-throwers or even the random rockets fired do not really require $Billions to deal with, the case of Iran was a fantastic economic opportunity to ensure, not only the flow, but an increase in the funds sent to Israel, thus helping their economy (who would refuse a few $Billion?). It just does not make sense for a country possessing over 100 nuclear war-heads to be so afraid of a few bombs – even if they do exist. But making an economic payday out of the hoopla created by Netanyahu and fellow neo-cons in the US – why not?

    It is less beneficial for Iran (as a whole) given the overall economic losses but certainly beneficial to the Regime and its elite. By all accounts, the Islamic Republic has garnered additional internal support, the regime’s elite are making more money from the sanctions and the drop of the Iranian Rial vs. the Dollar and everyone is happy, except for of course the average Iranian who has to suffer through economic hardship, average Israeli, who despite a massive flow of funds and massive build-out of settlements has to still suffer from a made-up psychological threat of annihilation and the ever-generous US Tax-Payer who does not own shares nor has an executive position in RTN, LMCO and others who funds the whole show.

  8. Nick says:

    Here is what Samore said at the Brookings about the failed 20% agreement with Turkey and Brazil:

    …..And at the very last moment, as most of you will remember,
    Brazil and Turkey and Iran announced an agreement which was viewed in
    the White House really as a pretty transparent effort to try to delay the
    sanctions. So we went ahead with those sections. And since then we and
    the Iranians have been locked in this sort of spiral where we keep
    increasing sanctions. As the negotiations make no progress, they keep
    going ahead with their nuclear program, and both sides are trying to build
    up bargaining leverage.

    • Cyrus says:

      What rubbish. Iran agreed to the same terms that Obama had endorsed, as the miffed Turks and Brazlilians later pointed out when they publicized the letter Obama had sent them.

      • Nick says:

        Yes, that is why I posted that excerpt. I recommend folks to take the time and read the rest of his comments from two days ago.

        On the Nuclear Free Middle East and the Israel’s position, Samore gets very defensive and provides a very biased view, as expected. If this is the White House that Vali Nasr described so negatively in his book, where any Afghan proposal from the Foggy Bottom was blocked, then there really was never any hope of reaching an agreement with Iran.

      • Don Bacon says:

        That would be Gary Samore of United Against Nuclear Iran, so of course he talks rubbish.

    • yousaf says:

      Nick — is there a link?

  9. yousaf says:

    Here is the link to Nick’s quote — start listening from about minute 29:20:


  10. yousaf says:

    Bacevich’s letter to Wolfowitz may shed some light on the Iran issue:


    ” I refer here to the famous (or infamous) Defense Planning Guidance of 1992, drafted in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm by the Pentagon policy shop you then directed. Before this classified document was fully vetted by the White House, it was leaked to the New York Times, which made it front-page news. The draft DPG announced that it had become the “first objective” of U.S. policy “to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.” With an eye toward “deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role,” the United States would maintain unquestioned military superiority and, if necessary, employ force unilaterally. As window dressing, allies might be nice, but the United States no longer considered them necessary.”

    The admin may not buy it but appears much of congress has.

  11. With reference to the issue of whether Iran desires a “nuclear capability”, Peter Jenkins has this piece in Asia Times today. I think he gets it completely wrong as my comment at the end of the Asia Times piece indicates. His fundamental mistake is exporting the Shah’s desire for nuclear capability at some point in time forward to Khomenei and Khamenei without considering whether Iran at that time had any use case for nuclear weapons, let alone today, and without considering the fundamental differences in political worldview between the regimes.

    Jenkins usually gets things fairly right on Iran, but not this time. It is of no help to the antiwar movement to claim Iran has a desire and use for nuclear capability. If Iranian leaders were saying so, like the Shah did, it might be a different story. But that’s not the situation.

    Iran’s nuclear father gives US a clue

  12. yousaf says:

    Iran already has a nuclear weapons capability in my view. As does Brazil, Argentina and others. Such a capability is consistent with the letter of the NPT.

  13. yousaf says:

    Incidentally, Hibbs has an interesting post at ACW about the proposal Peter Jenkins recently made:


    • Cyrus says:

      Iran has repeatedly stated that the TRR has reached the end of its life and must be replaced by a larger reactor. But apart from that, Iran has repeatedly offered to entirely cease 20% enrichment, and had agreed to the Brazil/Turkish deal too. In fact Iran offered multinational enrichment on its soil. All it asked in return is recognition of its right to enrichment. These offers were summarily rejected or simply ignored. I’ll say it again: the nuclear issue is a pretext for imposing regime-change on Iran. It is a POLITICAL dispute, and won’t be resolved until and unless the US recognizes Iran…which it can’t due to domestic political considerations. So without taking the political context into account, no purely technical solution to this standoff is possible. The Iranian negotiators are cognizant of this which is why they insist on seeing the “end game” of the negotiations before they make any deals.

      • Nick says:

        This idea that they can’t do this or that has been visited before. Let me give you a run down of what I remember:

        * Iran’s UF6 is tainted with impurities (Molybdenum) and will crash IR1s as soon as they are introduced for enrichment. Well, that has passed IRI has processed 10’s of tons of homemade UF6.

        *Having one cascade is easy, but industrial level enrichment, is a different story. There are roughly 15000 centrifuges running at different levels of enrichment.

        *Fordo is just a threat and a hole in the ground at best, IRI will have a hard time starting another enrichment plant. Fordo has been working as expected.

        *Fitzgerald in an earlier report estimates that Iran has enough parts for 10000 centrifuges. Iran is way past that, and he admitted to his mistake at a recent UK parliament special session.

        *Finally, the 20% is beyond the scope of Iranian scientists and will take them years to master this technology. They have done that in less than a year from the start of the project.

        Now it is the 20% U3O8 for TRR; I think undermining their abilities is a recurring theme that will have the same outcome as before.

      • Don Bacon says:

        Excellent summary. I guess the one exception would be Bushehr, but that seems to be more a political problem as Russia still owns it.

        Underestimating IRI prowess and technical expertise also extends to other fields, such as sanctions response. IRI’s failure to buckle and its abilities to change and adapt have been a minor shock to the West, especially since Europe seems to be the major victim.

      • yousaf says:

        The fabrication of the enriched plates is a bit more difficult than most people assume. Besides Iranian statements that they made some such plates there is no evidence they have mastered the technology. In any case, an offer such as this helps everyone. I agree resistance to IAEA TC appears to be political in nature.

      • Don Bacon says:

        “. . .resistance to IAEA TC appears to be political in nature.”
        Please, I don’t understand what you said, could you provide some clarity?

      • Agree completely, Cyrus. There’s an article at Antiwar.com today pointing out how the official policy of the US vis-a-vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War was explicitly to roll them back from anyplace beyond their borders and then effect regime change in the Soviet Union itself.

        As Noam Chomsky points out in his Edward Said lecture this year, the US policy is first and always: Obey or be crushed. This has been true for at least the last sixty years and probably for much longer as indicated by things like the Phillipines, Haiti, etc.

  14. Straw has been consistent in publicly opposing force against Iran since late 2002. But unlike his colleague from those times, Joschka Fischer – who has adapted his understanding of the crisis to the evolving facts on the ground – he still doesn’t understand that diplomacy must recognize the legitimacy of force to have a fighting chance of success

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