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Tony Blair, Europe, and the Prospect of a U.S. Attack on Iran

In connection with the release of his memoirs, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has given a number of interviews this week in which he endorses the first-use of military force to stop Iran’s nuclear development.  Blair’s statements on the matter prompted us to reflect on where European policies toward the Islamic Republic are really headed.

We start with the following exchange, from Blair’s interview with Charlie Rose that was broadcast on Tuesday, September 7, as a representative statement of the former Prime Minister’s views on Iran:

TONY BLAIR: [T]ake Iran — I completely understand the view that says — and there are friends of mine, friends of mine that I see in the U.S. who say to me, look, of course Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon.  But are you crazy?  Are we really going, after everything we’ve been through, to take this on as well?  Why not just manage the situation?  We bring it about with sanctions.  Why should the regime be so stupid as ever to use nuclear weapons?  Look, it’s a situation that’s bad, we know, but it’s manageable, and it’s better to manage it than the alternative.  That’s a perfectly sensible argument.  I’m not going to sit here and say that’s a stupid argument.  I can understand the leaders taking that view.

CHARLIE ROSE: The argument is we can contain an Iran with weapons.

TONY BLAIR: Yes.

CHARLIE ROSE: As we did Russia with weapons.

TONY BLAIR: Yes.  In the end, my view is no, this regime is qualitatively different in their makeup.  I see them now exporting terrorism, instability around the Middle East.  I think the risk of not them so much using a nuclear weapon, because I agree that’s a remote contingency although, you know, you can’t ignore the fact the president of the country says Israel should be wiped off the map.  If you were an Israeli, you’d worry about it.  But there’s the risk of the leakage of the technology.  Would they give that technology to one of these terrorist groups?  I don’t know.  So I can’t be sure.  Now — OK, so you’ve got a situation you can manage it.  You confront it.  Who’s right?  It’s really difficult.

CHARLIE ROSE: But your fear is that it’s unacceptable for them because they may lose it to some — or give it to somebody.

TONY BLAIR: Yes, yes. . . .   If in the end sanctions fail, diplomacy fails, I do not think it is acceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, and I think you can’t rule out military action, and, indeed, it would come to that if they continue and sanctions and diplomacy simply can’t work.  So, yes, it’s a very difficult balance.

CHARLIE ROSE: So what do you think the chances of sanctions and diplomacy working here based on what you know so far?

TONY BLAIR: I think it depends, actually, on how serious they think we are. . . .  I think the Iranians — I think if they actually understand the seriousness of intent, then I think you have a greater likelihood — I don’t say you’ll stop them, but you have a greater likelihood of stopping them.  And that’s why it’s so important to send a clear, strong, and unequivocal message.

CHARLIE ROSE: What would you do about the diplomacy not being done?

TONY BLAIR: Do what we’re trying to do, which is to gear it up and make it work.  But it’s hard.  It’s hard.  It always is hard because countries have their interests, and some countries take the first view which is, look, there are other things in the world to worry about, manage it.  There’s a line of political argument that runs like that, and that’s why I say it’s such a difficult issue, this, because you can’t say that’s a stupid thing.  Now, on balance, my view is it’s a risk not worth running. . . .

That Blair would say these things about Iran does not really surprise us — this is the same man who says that he “can’t regret” the Iraq war.  But we are struck that, while Blair’s position would put him squarely in the middle of the American foreign policy establishment regarding Iran, it is — in principle, at least — quite “un-European.”

Blair seems to advocate — in terms similar to the arguments of John Bolton, Reuel Marc Gerecht, and other Iran “hawks” in the United States — that the United States engage in “preventive war” against Iran because of a perceived risk that it might begin converting its (internationally safeguarded) nuclear activities into a weapons program and, then, give nuclear weapons to terrorists.  (Blair says he believes that, if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would not use it.  Why he doubts Iran would be sufficiently rational to refrain from giving a nuclear weapon to others who would use it is not clear.  But that’s another issue.)  Blair’s “case” for launching a “preventive war” against Iran is certainly not the “mainstream” European declaratory position.  Virtually all of the senior “continental” European officials with whom we’ve spoken agree with us that there is only a diplomatic path for addressing issues connected with the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.  From their perspective, for the United States or Israel to attack Iran because it is enriching uranium would be profoundly counter-productive, imprudent — and illegal.

This reading was confirmed on Charlie Rose’s broadcast the very next evening, by an observer whose insights are always interesting and often on the mark — John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of The Economist.

CHARLIE ROSE: [Blair] believed that Saddam had to be taken down, whether he had weapons of mass destruction or whether he maintained the potential to do it because of plans.  He also believes that if Iran has nuclear weapons there’s a possibility they’ll fall into the hands of people who will use them, not Iranians but whoever else, and that therefore you cannot allow it.  And he’s prepared to say that if sanctions and diplomacy and everything else doesn’t work then you have to have a military attack.

JOHN MICKLETHWAIT: Again, I think he’s coming out of his closet — if I can put it that way — more about Islam.  He’s coming out and saying things more directly than he would perhaps do in office.  But I think it’s there.  Blair again has always had this deep abiding worry about nuclear weapons, about what people could do with them.  And the history is very clear.  This predates George Bush by a very, very long way.  It’s something he was badgering Bill Clinton about.  It’s part of him.  And I think, again, give him some credit.  He’s not actually meandering.  He’s not pandering to people.  These are not popular things to say.  Nobody on this side of the Atlantic is gunning to go for Iran.

Of course, most “continental” European states took a similar view of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 — that the Bush Administration’s decision to take military action against Iraq, with the strong support of Tony Blair’s government in London, was fundamentally illegitimate.  But, once the deed was done, those European states which had opposed the war — and whose judgments were roundly vindicated by the disastrous course of America’s post-Saddam occupation — rushed to “make peace” with the United States.  Indeed, many of these states have taken their own Iran policies in deeply dysfunctional directions at least partly out of a desire to make the Iranian nuclear issue an arena in which U.S.-European cooperation could be restored.

That raises a series of questions which, for us, prompt serious doubt about Europe’s capacity to have a genuinely independent foreign policy.  (Interestingly, many of our Iranian interlocutors have already given up on this prospect.)  What would Europe do if Israel and/or the United States were to initiate military action against Iranian nuclear facilities?  Say that the action was illegal?  And then?  How quickly would Europe seek to “make peace” with America after an attack on Iran?


Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  She is also Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 10 September 2010 under a Creative Commons license.




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