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Iraq, Iran, GB, Obama and diplomatic chess

Posted on 17 March 2009 | 10:03am

A new survey on opinion in Iraq (broadly positive and so largely ignored by the UK media) shows people feel safer and more optimistic about their future.

Eighty-five per cent describe security as good or quite good, up 23 per cent. Fifty-nine per cent say they feel safe in their neighbourhoods, up 22 per cent. They also report improved access to fuel and power. So good news at a time democracy continues to take root.

Views on the invasion remain divided, with a slight rise in opposition, and there is similar division on views of American and British troops, both their effectiveness and the desirability of them being there at all.

But what I found most interesting in the survey done for TV stations BBC, ABC and NHK, was that Iran is up there with the US as a source of concern and discontent.

Iran will be in the UK news today when Gordon Brown makes a speech in London offering the Iranians help with their civil nuclear programme. It is not the first time this has been mooted, but the change in tone and emphasis suggests to me there may be movement of some kind. It is quite a big step.

I blogged yesterday on the climate change film, The Age of Stupid, and talked about how sometimes there is more than one inconvenient truth that governments have to deal with. Gordon’s speech, and his approach to Iran, shows that once more.

He knows that whatever Britain does on climate change, it is a global problem and we have to do our bit to try to bring about a global solution. If China carries on building coal-fired power stations at the rate of one a week, then a bit of recycling instead of binning, and cycling instead of driving, is not going to save the world. We need both. So leaders like GB have to work at getting both done.

He seems to be framing his offer of  help to Iran as part of the climate change challenge. But you do not have to be a Washington neocon to fear the Iranians’ military nuclear ambitions, so he is right to want to surround any support for civil nuclear power with stringent tests and conditions with regard to the enrichment of uranium.

It is said of most Prime Ministers that there comes a point where they tire of domestic politics and policy and seek to immerse themselves more in foreign policy. But this issue shows as well as any how it is impossible to separate them. Our economic future rests in large part on international co-operation to get ourselves out of the current mess. Elements of our economic, environmental and security futures are all wrapped up in the speech he is making today.

But amid the inconvenient truth, there is also a more convenient one. It is unlikely that he could or would have made the same speech, with the same hope of it having any effect on Iran, until Barack Obama became President of the US. Powershifts work in many ways, on many levels, in many different timeframes. Gordon’s words on Iran are an interesting example of that. Let’s hope it leads somewhere. Don’t be surprised if the immediate reaction of the Iranian government is either to ignore or to reject. Equally don’t be surprised if some time down the track, there is a sudden move by Iran which suggests that just maybe they’re listening more than they let on.  

ps. On more trivial matters … Peggy Mitchell has very kindly posted a thank you on the EastEnders website for my words of advice on her run for election to Walford Borough Council. And David Cameron said something about the BBC yesterday. Got to hand it to him – another day, another policy free zone for the man who can’t make difficult policy decisions.

  • Achilleas

    Another very interesting post from Alastair! thanks to twitter we get the blog updates instantly… Working as an advisor to the Greek minister of Foreign Affairs Dora Bakoyannis, I would like to highlight (sharing kind of similar experience in greece)the following quotes from Alastair’s recent post, “there is more than one inconvenient truth that governments have to deal with”, “It is said of most Prime Ministers that there comes a point where they tire of domestic politics and policy and seek to immerse themselves more in foreign policy..”, “But this issue shows as well as any how it is impossible to separate them.”, and “Powershifts work in many ways, on many levels, in many different timeframes”..Thank you Alastair for bringing these out!

  • liesbeth schoor

    Interesting comment from Greece. I was working for the Dutch government during the war of Kosovo and I remember when opinion polls in Greece showed something like ninety per cent opposition to Nato. How inconvenient was that for the Greek government? Yet somehow Nato stayed together and won.

  • Andy G

    The license fee freeze idea from David Cameron is a bit of a stunt, but it highlights that when he says the BBC will be ‘safe’ under a Conservative government, it means absolutely nothing. First opportunity he gets to have a cheap shot at them he takes it. Seems ironic considering a lot of Labour supporters think the Conservative Party are getting a surprisingly easy ride from the BBC, compared to the relentless negative coverage of The Labour Party and Gordon Brown in particular.

  • Ken Coker

    Alastair. Currently I’m reading, as you know, your diaries; in tandem with this I’m reading the latest volume of Tony Benn’s diaries. Could you perhaps compare the willingness of GB to engage with the nuclear community of Iran with TB’s unwillingness to engage in a similar way before the war with Iraq? (Yes, I did read the Attorney General’s briefing and yes I did think he made a reasonable case; I may not have agreed with it, but…)

  • nic careem

    Moshe Dayan the former Israeli General once said “talking to your friends will not achieve peace, it’s by talking to those you dissagee with you bring peace” So I am with Obama on this. Call me naive and simplistic or any adjective that suits, but I believe had we ‘bombed’ Iraq, Afganistan and Gaza with food and aid we would have achieved our objectives ( whateever they were) without the needless loss of so many innocent lives. Sometimes I wonder how those who lead us into needless conflicts in the blinkered notion to safe guard our values and civilisation can sleep at night. And even worse are those who legitamise their crimes in the name of religion certainly are “not doing god!” I certainly couldn’t sleep at night knowing that their actions has caused the needless death of innocent children and I suspect the vast majority of the world couldn’t either.

    I just hope the Global campaign (Hatebuster Global a campaign to make hate history )I am launching against hate will generate a mass lobby that will help free future generations from the most distructive emotion of all…IRRATIONAL HATRED!

  • AC

    Ken, I think the difference is Obama. In other words, I’m not sure it would have had any effect on Iran with the Bush Administration still there. That is what I mean by change interlocking with change. It may be, also, that even Obama saying what GB is saying will make no difference at all. The Iranians have elections coming up in the not too distant future and they are if anything like to toughen their line. But if you are Obama or GB, you have to keep trying. Andy G, re the Beeb and the Tories. Cameron just wants to get through each day with a bit of media coverage. So one day standing up for the BBC suits his purpose. Yesterday the opposite. My worry is that the BBC will soften their stance on the Tories even more, because they’ll be thinking about how best to lobby them should they win. Best to stop them I say. Liesbeth, I remember a poll in Spain when Aznar had four per cent approval for his stance on Iraq. As TB said to him, that is roughly how many people think Elvis is still alive

  • Jack Holt

    I wonder if we would have heard of the Iraq survey if it had said the opposite. I have been going through some of the papers this morning. Not a word. And it’s probably only on the BBC website because they paid for it (probably hoping for a different answer which could have led the news)

  • Alina Palimaru

    What a much appreciated overture of collaboration from PM Brown! It dovetails nicely with the new U.S. approach. So far the Iranians have warmed up, it seems. During a visit between Iranian and Afghani officials last week, the Iranians stated that they welcome Clinton’s outreach and are awaiting an official invitation to join regional talks. So I am confident that GB’s words will not fall on deaf ears. Also, for your information, the Fars News Agency (in Tehran) called Mr. Brown’s speech a “timely diplomatic intervention”!

    I suspect many will be tempted to say that all GB does is copy Obama. That would be a fallacy. GB has been very proactive and innovative in his foreign policy. A case in point would be UK’s discussions with Hezbollah, which reverberated in an interesting way here in Washington, as the Americans have yet to establish a new position on that group.

    Finally, let me point out that the Tories have no official foreign policy strategy. I understand that diplomacy is a chess game and matters shift quickly, but an underlying approach is required, at least one that demonstrates that Party’s weltanschauung, their lens for the world. Sometimes silence is the best answer, and a very profound one. But in this case, the Tories’ intellectual silence illustrates how unprepared they are, and how unlikely it would be for Cameron et al. to be taken seriously on the international stage.

  • Emilianna

    Seems to me under-reporting regarding Iraq goes both ways. Proponents of the war never point to women having gone from a pre-war, veil-free existence with full participation in the workplace to being victims of random acts of violence and a new wave of wholesale repression against them. Participation of women in the Iraqi government is a joke and the West might very well exit Iraq with the entrenchment of Sharia law as a parting gift. Never mind half of the Iraqi population as long as the oil industry is in private hands.

    I love the “honest” scene in “W.” when Dick Cheney tells Bush that the plan is to control Iraq and Iran and that there is no exit strategy. Isn’t it clear that in a not-so-remote future either Iran will have its nukes or our troops will march on Iranian territory? Obama’s willingness to enter into discussion without conditions is the right path of course but what’s the likelihood of success without a direct appeal to the Iranian population and that population’s willingness and ability to transform those who govern it?

  • Steven Callaghan

    Alastair, marvellous stuff on the Tories, you never miss a chance to but the boot in to my amusement but, the fact is, that your lot, like the Tories and then the no-hopers are a bit of a charisma free zone since TB, and, dare one say it, your good self, left the stage.

  • Hemi bhatt

    Mr Campbell I am not surprised that you want to find some comfort in any good news from this catsstrophic war against Iraq where you were so instrumental in presenting the case for war which now more and more has been found to be based on completely false grounds.
    God knows Iraq deserves peace now but please do all our combined intelligence a favour and do not tell us that the War was a success after more then 600000 mostly Iraqis have died since the war began . Oh sorry this is a piece of statistic you will say is false and made up , am I correct ? You talk about Iran but one of the worst outcomes of the war you,Tony and your mate George are responsible for is the fact that it has let Iran build up its Nuclear arms and the reason is they do not fear the UK and USA . It is plain to see that in their eyes the USA is a spent force after the fiasco in Iraq. I think you may have fought the wrong war !. If there is use of Nuclear weapons in the future in the Middle east , I hope you and Tony take just a few seconds to look in to your consciences , instead of slapping each other for a good job done !

  • Alina Palimaru

    To Steven Callaghan: Brilliant! I second that!

    To Hemi: Alastair did not use the word “success” at all in relation to Iraq. He was merely acknowledging the new numbers, noting how different they are from what we have seen so far. So no definitive statements there…. Also, Iran’s problematic positioning in the context of Middle Eastern politics predates TB’s time in office, so blaming him for build-up and tensions is nonsense. These problems are long-standing and deep-seated, have much to do with strong national mindsets, and the challenge to moderate a diplomatic discourse that is vaguely acceptable to all parts is tremendous.

  • Alan Quinn

    Never a word from the anti war brigade about the gas attack on Halabja, never a word on the invasion of Kuwait, the draining of the marshes around Basra, the war on the Shias, the war with Iran, the mass graves, or the Scud attacks on Israel.
    The French and the Russians on the UN security council would never back action on Iraq because they had already agreed to develop the Ramallah oil fields with Saddam.


  • Marek

    As you well know, in the 90’s Labour only came out with its policy programme six months before the general election. It was a good move. Now that the Tories look like doing the same thing you are criticising them. Grow up and start acting like an Oxford graduate rather than like a boxing promoter. It makes me sad that you abuse the truth.

  • Mike

    I was strongly opposed to the war but hope the people of Iraq manage to establish a peaceful and democratic country. That seems doubtful as long as theocratic militants remain active there.

  • aji

    So long as USA is controlled by *** (people who are smart but tricky), USA shall keep doing so. Aren’t you people aware of that?
    I realize that USA as government is for sure different with its dwellers, however those dwellers will never change every decisions the government made. -Powerless on the other words-. It seems to me that Democracy and Human Rights are merely big talk.

  • nic careem

    Thousands of innocent men, women and children died in the Iraq war. I think Saddam could have been removed without the need, for such a loss. The CIA or MIF could have taken him out. So what was the real agenda here…will we ever really ever know. Whatever the spin Iraq is still one of the most dangerous places on earth. I would be careful read anything into the recent polls. It all depends on the kind of questions which was asked in the first place. I could quite easily produce a poll which could show the opposite