David Miliband

The British Foreign Secretary has failed to take on Iran’s mullahs

David Miliband’s ambition to become Labour leader got off to a bad start when he was photographed at the 2009 party conference brandishing a banana. He also disappointed Blairites by failing to take on Gordon Brown for the leadership, issuing instead a lukewarm endorsement of the PM. Miliband showed himself willing to wound yet afraid to strike. 

Miliband’s stewardship of British foreign policy has been characterised by more than his fair share of gaffes and misjudgments. In January 2009, not long after the Mumbai Islamist terrorist attacks, he went to the Taj Mahal Hotel to lecture the Indians that, “resolution of the dispute over Kashmir would help deny extremists in the region one of their main calls to arms and allow Pakistani authorities to focus more effectively on tackling the threat on their western borders”. What was striking about this homily was not just its insensitivity — though the main Indian opposition Bharatiya Janata Party remarked, “in recent years, there has been no bigger disaster than Miliband’s visit”. Rather, the remark revealed how little Miliband understood the nature of globalised Islamism, and an extraordinarily narrow view of what should be a common struggle. Imagine if the Indians had told him that the presence of British troops in Afghanistan was causing a disturbance which was distracting Pakistan from tackling terrorism in Kashmir? This and similar incidents caused a largely sympathetic Independent to wonder whether Miliband was “as accident-prone as Mr Bean”. No wonder he and his somewhat less hapless brother, the Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband, have been dubbed “Dedward” after the vacuous Irish twins from the X-Factor.

All this matters greatly as the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme escalates. When Tehran notified the International Atomic Energy Agency last month that it would begin enriching its nuclear fuel stockpile in order to achieve the 90 per cent weapons-grade uranium required to make a bomb, London hardly reacted. It is telling that the state-run militia, the Basij, retaliated against recent European criticism of Tehran’s nuclear equivocations not by demonstrating outside the British embassy, usually the default scapegoat, but by stoning the missions of the much more outspoken French and Italian governments. Miliband’s caution is in marked contrast to the robust stance taken by Angela Merkel’s Germany.

Equally regrettable is the hands-off approach adopted with regard to the stolen Iranian elections. Miliband argued that “the memory of foreign intervention…is deep within all Iranians”. This was why he would “not fall into the trap of allowing anyone to say that Britain…is trying to choose the government of Iran, that we’re siding with one side or another”. It is true: Iranians have objected strongly to outside interference, such as the early-20th-century Tsarist intrigues against their constitutional liberties, or the 1953 Anglo-American coup against their democratically-elected Prime Minister Muhammed Mossadegh. But Iranians have always welcomed foreign support in defence of their freedom. In 1908, for example, Persian liberals took refuge in the grounds of the British embassy after being attacked by the Shah’s Russian-officered Cossacks.

This is why the Iranian opposition feels so let down by Brown and Miliband: they know perfectly well that they are being abandoned in the hope of a grand bargain on the nuclear and regional issues which the regime has no intention of delivering. It is only recently that London has begun to move away from this policy of appeasement. The refusal last month to send the British ambassador, Simon Gass, to the 31st anniversary celebrations for the Islamic Revolution is a step in the right direction.

The comparison with Merkel’s Germany over Israel is even more instructive. Miliband was among the first European ministers to call for an immediate ceasefire during the 2006 Lebanon war, despite the fact that this would have left the initiative with Hizbollah. The Chancellor, by contrast, has been robust in her support for Israel’s right to self-defence, restrained in her remarks when the Jewish state tries to put this into practice. Yes, Miliband has met his former counterpart, Tzipi Livni, but he was left scrambling at the end of last year when Ms Livni, now the leader of the Opposition, planned to return to London. She cancelled the visit, because Palestinian groups had persuaded a magistrate to issue an arrest warrant over her role in the 2008/9 Gaza offensive. 

Miliband must realise that this is not just an issue for Israel. Islamists and Stop the War activists in Britain and other states could well use the same legal instruments to charge British ministers for war crimes in Afghanistan. If Miliband wants to avoid being served with warrants when he next visits Belgium, he should work out a sensible solution on a pan-European basis. Otherwise, it will be said that what he was holding at that fateful conference was not a banana but a boomerang. 

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