Why is Fox “bigging up” the threat posed by Iran?

One would hate to think Liam Fox was overplaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions and capability as a way of bigging up the importance of his own portfolio, writes Frank Spring.

As reported in the Telegraph, prime minister David Cameron appears concerned defence secretary Liam Fox has gone off-script with regard to Iran. Fox reportedly informed MPs recently that Iran could have a nuclear weapon next year, a claim disputed by the Telegraph’s sources, who said the official estimate is that Iran is four years away from developing nuclear capability.

The confusion on when Iran could produce a nuclear weapon is understandable; the clandestine nature of the program makes it impossible to know for sure, and CIA Chief Leon Panetta said in June of last year that Iran could have a weapon by 2012 – other estimates say it will take longer.

Fox is not completely off-base; both he and Panetta could be right, although one does wonder why Fox found his own government’s projection so unreasonable that he was compelled to use someone else’s.

Chronology, however, is not the real subject of this dispute. Cameron’s concern, apparently shared by foreign secretary William Hague, is that exaggerating the threat posed by Iran aggrandizes the administration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for whom there is political capital to be gained by appearing to be Iran’s defender and advocate against a hostile world.

The incident appears to have inspired Cameron to order a “new strategy for statements” on the subject, more in line with the government’s desire to frame the Ahmadenijad regime as corrupt, ineffective, and weak, while focusing specific criticism on its repressive political system.

This is not completely absurd; Ahmadinejad enjoys the role of international gadfly and is good at generating political heat out of remarks from the “axis of evil” school of rhetoric. Defending his government’s performance to his own people, however, is a less comfortable position for him.

None of this explains why, exactly, the prime minister, defence secretary and foreign secretary were unable to sing off the same hymn sheet before the cacophony went public. This is not the first time Fox has gone off-piste, and it is harder to tell what he hopes to gain on this occasion.

What can Fox have hoped to achieve by “bigging up” Iran, to borrow the prime minister’s phrase? (The derivation of which is anyone’s guess.) What were the MPs in question supposed to have done with this information (or misinformation)?

The truth is there is comparatively little Britain can do about Iran and its nuclear ambitions that is not already being done, short of drastic measures unworthy of contemplation.

Iran might get a nuclear weapon next year. It might get it in two years, or five, or ten. The government has a responsibility for planning changes, if any, to its security posture in the region based on when it thinks Iran will develop nuclear capability.

No part of that responsibility includes accelerating that timetable against the best analysis of Britain’s own intelligence services, nor does it involve making MPs’ flesh creep for reasons unclear; Fox would do well to recall that the public may be less amused than it once was by exaggeration of a Middle Eastern power’s access to weapons of mass destruction, and to explain the incident.

One would hate to think the defence secretary was overplaying Iran’s nuclear ambitions and capability as a way of bigging up the importance of his own portfolio.

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