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Intelligence Squared Debate – ‘Iran is a Paper Tiger’, Royal Geographical Society, London, 24th February 2011.

My initial response to the motion ‘Iran is a Paper Tiger’ really emphasises the value of having debates like this one. Before I heard that this debate was taking place I never really considered the possibility of Iran not being the major threat to international security that it is always made out to be. I had  always presumed that all of the ‘axis of evil’ and ‘existential threat’ rhetoric must be informed by some truth (why would anyone make it up?). This debate did its job and forced me to reconsider. It proved once again that having a debate is not only an important way to tackle an issue about which we know that there is controversy, it is also relevant, perhaps especially relevant, when seeking to address issues about which there is a perceived consensus.

The contribution of the Iranian journalist and first speaker against the motion, Nazenin Ansari, fertilised the newly sown seeds of doubt in my mind about the alleged threat from Iran. Her breathless and blinkered presentation of the danger posed by Iran seemed to exactly reflect the automated and manic message that is pushed by what the first speaker for the motion, Roger Cohen, called the “Iran threat industry”. Any discernable argument that Nazenin Ansari had was almost wholly obscured by her relentless listing and the maddening dullness of her delivery.

The central argument from the team arguing against the motion was set out by their second speaker, human rights lawyer, Geoffrey Robertson QC. Quoting the famous diplomat George Marshall, Robertson made the pronouncement upon which much of his team’s case rested: “Governments which systematically disregard the rights of their own people are not likely to respect the rights of other nations and other people, and are likely to seek their objectives by coercion and force.” Robertson then went on to describe, in all its abominable detail, the Iranian government’s mass-murder of their political prisoners in 1988. This atrocity, which Robertson called the “worst single crime against humanity in recent years”, is all the evidence we need to show us that Iran is a real potential threat – a genuine Tiger, and warn us not to allow it to fulfil its ambition and acquire nuclear weapons.

The crucial task for the team arguing for the motion was, then, to disentangle the question of Iran’s outward threat from the blatant fact of Iran’s domestic human rights abuses. As the first speaker for the motion, journalist and author Roger Cohen wasted no time in this respect. “Let’s make clear at the outset what this debate is not about: it’s not about the Islamic Republic’s abject human rights record or it’s intermittent brutality against it’s own people. There is no debate about that.” Once this concession was made, the for team could go on to build their case. Roger Cohen did so by arguing very convincingly that the Islamic Republic of Iran’s overriding foreign policy is one of “cautious strategic calculation”. According to Cohen, “nuclear ambiguity, nuclear muddle stands within the bounds of acceptable risk for this regime – a rush for a bomb does not”.

Persuasive as his argument for motion was, I think that Roger Cohen’s denial of the relevance of Iran’s human rights record was too hasty. The way that a government treats its own people surely provides some indication of how it is likely to treat people from other countries. Indeed, this belief in the link between a countries internal and external behaviour is a key aspect of the liberal and democratic world order that I suspect all members of both teams would support.  The real question here, however, is whether domestic human rights abuses alone are sufficient to label a country a real tiger. I’m not sure that they are. Countries with questionable human rights records and nuclear ambitions may cause legitimate and understandable alarm in the international community. But does this mean that they constitute a real threat to international security, that they are genuine tigers?

The final speaker against the motion, Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow with the Foundation for the Defence of Democracies and former specialist at the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, sought to provide the evidence of the outward aggression that would help to characterise Iran as a real tiger. Although he admitted that “the notion that Iran is, at least at this time, a military threat I don’t find at all credible”, for Gerecht the real issue was terrorism. Building upon the argument of Geoffrey Robertson before him, Gerecht suggested “that the way a country acts internally is also the way it acts externally, that’s why the [revolutionary] guard corps has, from its inception, been the liaison organisation for just about every terrorist organisation is the middle east. Every one!” He warned that poor, impoverished regimes are more than capable of engaging in terrorism. Reminding the London audience that “poor British Muslims were able to bring this town to halt.”

The relevance of the inquiry into the 7/7 bombings gave Gerecht’s fearmongering added potency, but I still found his terrorism argument unconvincing. If the ability engage in terrorism makes you a genuine tiger, then almost any minimally political organisation – whether it is a rich state, poor state or not a state at all –  could count as a tiger. One of the main reasons that terrorism is so dangerous and hard to police is that you need not be strong, rich or particularly organised to engage in it. Moreover, if the fact that a country has supported or facilitated terrorism makes that country a tiger, then the most shambolic and miserable countries would count as real tigers.

As I’m sure most of you have noticed, nobody ever really explained what a genuine tiger looks like. Indeed, this probably serves the interests of those who wish to portray Iran as one; fuzzy definitions help to support fuzzy arguments. I would argue that if every country or political organisation could count as a genuine tiger (as would be the case if the ability to engage in terrorism was the really significant criterion), the idea of a tiger would cease to make sense. Genuine tigers surely have military might, economic strength and diplomatic weight. Three things that the third and final speaker for the motion, Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment and former chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, proved that Iran doesn’t have.

So what is the big deal about Iran? Perhaps the ability to make people believe (or trick people into believing) that you are a real tiger is all that matters. If that’s true, then Iran has done a pretty good job.

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