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Last Updated: Friday, 19 January 2007, 15:57 GMT
To fight or not
By Brian Walden

Neville Chamberlain
Chamberlain wanted to avoid bloodshed
How best to respond to Iran's bullish nuclear ambitions? Hawks can be dismissed as warmongers; doves can be blamed for a policy of appeasement, as our history shows.

Few things are as important for humanity as the issue of war or peace. Yet whether to fight or not can be a very controversial subject. Getting the decision right depends on timing as well as judgement.

I learnt that lesson when young, because I remember Neville Chamberlain's return from Munich. He waved his famous piece of paper with Hitler's signature on it and the British people were told there was to be "peace in our time".

Chamberlain was wildly applauded by the man and woman in the street. He appeared on the balcony at Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen and if he'd called an immediate general election, he'd have won an overwhelming majority.


One man we've all heard of didn't agree. Winston Churchill said the Munich Agreement was an unmitigated national defeat and Hitler was an aggressive dictator whose word couldn't be trusted.

Churchill's stance wasn't popular. The general belief was that he was an elderly warmonger who was trying to save his reputation by getting us involved in an European war.

This grossly unfair view soon changed when German tanks entered Prague the following March.

The policy of appeasement collapsed and in September Chamberlain made his sad radio broadcast telling us that Britain was at war with Germany because of its attack on Poland.

When the early stages of the war went well for Germany, British opinion swung decisively against Chamberlain. He was no longer the man who'd brought us peace, but the stubborn, foolish man who'd been duped by Hitler. Churchill was no longer a warmonger, but a far-sighted statesman who'd been on to Hitler's game all along.

Hawk and dove

Chamberlain's reputation has never recovered, so I'm anxious to be fair to him. However misguided he was, his principal motive for appeasing Nazi Germany had been his horror of war. As a middle-aged man, he'd seen the slaughter of young servicemen in World War One. At all costs he wanted to avoid another bloodbath.

Churchill on a balcony raising the victory salute
Churchill on VE Day
Churchill and Chamberlain served together in government from the start of the war until September 1940. Chamberlain brought in Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty, and then when he resigned as Prime Minister, he stayed on under Churchill as Lord President of the Council. The man who'd thought war inevitable and the man who'd been determined to avoid it sat side by side.

The pairing of the warrior and the conciliator is more common than you might think. Napoleon Bonaparte, who favoured military solutions, had Talleyrand as his foreign minister and Talleyrand thought France needed peace. In Britain we had Lord Palmerstone, an outstanding war leader, sitting in the same cabinet with Mr Gladstone, the great pacifier.


That such individuals could work with each other points to the fact that the decision between war and peace is often very finely balanced. We have a choice of that kind looming in the world, although Britain may not be directly involved.

Iran has been uncompromising in its development of a nuclear programme. Though a formal declaration of war is unlikely, the United States and Israel both have to decide whether to attack Iran before it makes its own nuclear weapon.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Sanctions haven't put off Iranian president
To some people such a pre-emptive attack is unthinkable, whilst others can't understand how anybody could be so stupid as to let Iran become a nuclear power without at least trying to stop it. How did things come to this and why is making the right choice apparently so difficult?

In January 1979 the Shah left Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini arrived in Tehran on 1 February, amidst wild rejoicing. In April, after a landslide victory in a national referendum, Khomeini declared Iran to be an Islamic republic. Like most Iranians, he was a Shiite Muslim and personally he was a dyed-in-the-wool fundamentalist. Many of the Western educated elite left the country immediately.

The Iranian regime, since its inception, has been violently anti-American. Its supporters captured the US embassy and took hostages in November 1979. It doesn't seem to be getting any more moderate, and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for the state of Israel to be annihilated. He wants Muslims to, in his own words, "wipe out Israel".

Power hungry

Last December a conference was held in Tehran, with implicit government approval, the purpose of which was to deny that the Holocaust ever took place. So, to say the least, neither Israel, nor the US, are relaxed about the Iranian nuclear programme.

This sounds an unhappy yet straightforward story, but it isn't. To start with, everything about Iran's nuclear potential is a matter of dispute. For instance, it's possible the Iranian government really does mean what it says, that its nuclear development is for peaceful purposes.

Iran nuclear trip
Uranium enrichment plant at Natanz, central Iran
The demand for power is booming in Iran, while the hydrocarbon and electricity industries both seem to have financial problems. There's talk of shortages in supply this year. There are green arguments for helping the environment by using nuclear power. And let it not be forgotten that Iran has a right to develop it.

But there's a powerful case on the other side. If Iran has no intention of creating nuclear weapons, why are its nuclear facilities spread about all over the place and situated, in some significant instances, deep underground? Some are said to be 200 feet deep and buried under a mixture of soil and reinforced concrete.

This stirs the interest of military experts, not many of whom believe Iran's nuclear programme is for peaceful use. Many leading Iranians can't have any illusions about where Iran stands. If your president wants to destroy the people of a state in your region, and you never take any notice of anything the United Nations (UN) says, you mustn't be surprised if your actions arouse suspicion.


No doubt the likelihood of an aerial attack on Iran would be easier to predict if there was general agreement on when Iran can start producing weapons grade uranium. But there isn't and the estimates vary widely. Some expect it to happen as early as next month, with the ability to make a nuclear bomb within two years. Others say five years and a few say 10.

You may well ask what point there is in bombing Iran's nuclear industry anyway, if its most important bits are way down below under layers of concrete? Surely no conventional bomb - however penetrative - could destroy them?

The chilling answer is that although no bomb, conventional or otherwise, has the depth of penetration needed, there is an atomic contraption, called the neutron bomb, which would do the job. It can mimic earth tremors and destroy electronic equipment, however deeply buried.

The Middle East needs less action and more restraint
The neutron bomb isn't as horrific as it sounds, because it leaves no radioactive fallout and destroys only over a small area.

Israel's nuclear weaponry is thought to include a good number of neutron bombs, although nobody who knows whether this is true or not would dream of saying a word publicly.

Indeed Israeli authorities have denied they have any plans to attack Iran. They could hardly say otherwise. But they could be telling the truth, because to attack would be to take a hell of a risk.

War and peace

Here is a contemporary example of the difficulty of choosing whether to fight or not. All our better instincts cry out for peace. But in this situation - what's the right way to get it? If the UN, the US and Israel all do nothing aggressive, and some Iranian leader gets a nuclear weapon and uses it, this policy of appeasement might be blamed as much as Chamberlain's was.

Thank goodness I don't have to make the decision, but it's moral cowardice not to express an opinion and give grounds for it.

I hope there won't be a pre-emptive strike on Iran, because the Iranian regime must have a reason for doing everything it can to provoke an attack from Israel. Perhaps they want a pretext for an attack of their own.

The pre-emptive strike launched at Saddam Hussein was aimed at weapons of mass destruction it turned out he no longer possessed. That isn't a happy precedent for drastic measures. The Middle East needs less action and more restraint.

Your comments

Brian Walden's analogy to WWII Germany fails in several respects. First, unlike Germany, Iran has never attacked another country -- period. Second, Germany was not surrounded by nations aligned against it, some with nuclear weapons, like Iran is. Third, even if Iran did someday attack Israel -- how does that really affect the West?. Finally, the IAEA has promised all signatory nations the absolute Right to develop nuclear power -- unfounded suspicions not withstanding. We're all being set-up to buy into another Iraq scenario. Once again, the media just loves it. Trust me there is big money involved - but not for you and I.
Ron Pineda, Dallas, TX - USA

We tend to forget that war is good for business. The Iranians have signaled many times that they are willing to sit down and talk. This would be a good thing, but bad for business and the American economy.
Robert Millette, Granby, Quebec, Canada.

The overture of restraint must come first, and let Iran show the world it trully wants harmony.
Phil, Hertford

It is utter madness to attack another country that is not breaking international law. In fact to do so is breaking international law. And that is the problem...... we have some countries and even some commentators.... who believe that they are above international law.
Deryk, Victoria BC Canada

I read the other day how Britain is spending billions on a new Trident nuclear weapon system. What hypocrisy to expect other nations such as Iran and North Korea to abandon their quest for nuclear technology, when we in the west are continually building bigger and more devastating weapons.
Tim Deane, Belleville, Ontario, Canada.

Walden has written a succinct and evenhanded editiorial that neatly summarizes the dilemma in dealing with Iran's burgeoning nuclear capabilities. I admit that I am pleasantly surprised by the neutral and sober viewpoint in this editorial; perhaps I have grown to expect polemics from many media sources. While the rehabilitation of Chamberlain's reputation remains unlikely, his legacy stands as a lesson on the perils of weakness and wishful thinking in statecraft - and this applies to the Bush team too. One cannot help but feel that on so grave a matter of Iran's nuclear ambitions and capabilities (not to mention intentions) our politicians and commentators should rise above their differences, which seem petty in comparison to the consequences of miscalculation. This editorial deserves praise for its honesty and evenhandedness, and represents in its own way a small step in that direction.
David Wade, Chicago, IL US

Here we go with BBC's propaganda machine inflating a non existent threat and fueling the fear mentality ahead of plans of Blair and Bush.
Michael Edwards, London-England

I'm glad Brian Walden isn't one of those people who goes around literal-mindedly applying the Churchill-Chamberlain analogy to every situation. Not every dictator or sharp-tongued head of state is Hitler, and there are other means of dealing with them. I'm a bit worried, though, that perhaps Mr. Walden thinks that the neutron bomb is a little too cute and fuzzy. When it was first introduced, the neutron bomb's selling point was that it killed all the people and left most of the buildings standing -- "not as horrific as it sounds"?
Tom Marshalek, Bloomington, USA

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