Jeremy Corbyn’s right about Iran, isn’t he? On the attacks on ships in the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday, he tweeted (and don’t you just wish politicians could use a more considered medium?):
‘Britain should act to ease tensions in the Gulf, not fuel a military escalation that began with US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. Without credible evidence about the tanker attacks, the government’s rhetoric will only increase the threat of war.’
What, precisely, is wrong about that? What exactly about it caused the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to call him ‘pathetic’ and ‘predictable’? Hunt himself didn’t exactly follow the US party line in announcing Iran was to blame for the attacks initially. He instead qualified it a teeny bit by saying he thought the US intelligence assessment blaming Iran was ‘correct’, but the UK would also investigate. The response since from the FCO has been pretty unambiguous though: ‘No other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible.’
Yet the situation in the region seems pretty well exactly as Corbyn describes: there is no credible evidence so far that Iran definitely carried out the attacks (although they are certainly one of the suspects). And until there is, Britain should be wary of blaming any one actor. The assumption is that Iran is trying to bring about the relaxation of sanctions imposed by the US and to restore the nuclear deal that President Trump repudiated.
Which may be the case. None of us knows yet. But it’s not an absolute given that the US is right. No one from the US or UK navies has actually been on board the two ships that were affected. But one of the vessels was Japanese, and it seems a tad tactless on the part of the Iranians to attack a guest’s ship at the very time you were having the Japanese prime minister to tea (Japan is very vulnerable to insecurity around oil shipping). And, Yutaka Katada, the president of the ship’s operator, Kokuka Sangyo, said members of the crew had reported ‘that the ship was attacked by a flying object’. Maybe a missile, maybe a drone.
In the circumstances, Jeremy Corbyn’s circumspection seems prudent. He deserves a better response than the other Jeremy’s jeer that ‘From Salisbury to the Middle East, why can he never bring himself to back British allies, British intelligence or British interests?’
Corbyn was right about the Salisbury attacks too. That is to say, he was right to say we should keep an open mind about who was guilty until we had evidence. In the event, the case against Russia was proven – in spades once the authorities produced the two goons, who maintained they were in Salisbury to admire the sights – but until the evidence was in, only a fool would have definitely assumed Russian guilt.
The notion that we should always believe that the US is right in its intelligence judgments is downright alarming, and only forgivable for individuals who are too young to remember those grainy black and white photos that Colin Powell (remember him?) used to justify claims of Saddam’s WMD programme, and hence the war against Iraq. That’s when allies of the US should have lost their willingness to accept US intelligence blindly. Certainly not to the point of following it now into conflict with Iran.
But for now, Mr Corbyn is to be congratulated for exercising prudence, while Mr Hunt looks anything but statesmanlike. Actually, it’s interesting isn’t it, that the two frontrunners to be prime minister are a former and present foreign secretary. And how much tough scrutiny have they had to weather about their approach to Iran, and the possibility of conflict with it, during the course of the leadership campaign? Quite.