William Hague Interview: “Iraq should not inhibit our Iran policy.’

William Hague Interview: “Iraq should not inhibit our Iran policy.’

The man who may be Britain’s next Conservative Foreign Secretary defines his foreign-policy agenda in terms of the three I’s — Israel, Iran, and Iraq. By the time of the next General Election, he warns, the convulsions in the Middle East — not least Iran’s determination to develop nuclear weapons — may be uncontrollable. Hague wants urgent attention paid. And he wants it now.

We’re in a building at the heart of the Westminster village: Portcullis House, the over-spill from Parliament itself. Downstairs, there are committee and conference rooms. Upstairs, amid a forest of light wood panelling, the MPs have their offices. Hague’s is gorgeous: two walls are picture windows, giving out on a breathtaking view of the Big Ben tower. “If you get the angle right,” he jokes to our photographer, “you can see my ears coming out of the clock.”

For someone with a famously high public profile since he was 16 — when, notoriously, he upstaged Margaret Thatcher at a Conservative Party conference — Hague is both cheerful and self-deprecating. After the disastrous election failure of 2001, in the wake of which he resigned as party leader and returned to the back benches, Hague has carefully reinvented himself. David Cameron appointed him to the Shadow Cabinet in December. Today, aged 45, he’s one of the party’s big guns.

He has just returned from Israel, his third visit to the country (on one occasion slotting in a holiday in Eilat) but his first as Shadow Foreign Secretary, this time accompanied by the Shadow Minister for the Middle East, Keith Simpson, and the party’s bankroller, Lord Ashcroft. In two weeks’ time, five Conservative MPs are spending five days in Israel; Hague himself is speaking at a Conservative Friends of Israel lunch on June 7, two days after David Cameron addresses the Board of Deputies.

Perched on a window seat, with a glamorous picture of his wife Ffion propped up next to him, Hague is upbeat about Israel. It was, he says, a “listening and learning” trip, in which he spent time with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Op- position leader Binyamin Netanyahu, and the outgoing national-security adviser, Brigadier Giora Eiland, with whom he discussed Iran.

“There’s been an enormous amount of development,” Hague says of Israel. “Housing, new roads… considerable economic expansion. You can never go to Israel without admiring the amazing ability of such a small country to create such a vibrant nation… If you tried to put any of the central European countries into the security situation under which the Israelis have to operate, and said, ‘come up with five per cent annual growth,’ you wouldn’t get very far.”

Hague clearly has genuinely warm feelings towards Israel and the “can-do” mentality of much of the country. But he is far from uncritical. He made it his business to look at one of the hottest of Israel’s many hot potatoes, the security fence, which he viewed from both sides. He was briefed at the fence by the head of military intelligence, Maj Gen Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, spending several hours with Israeli soldiers on the West Bank, seeing how the barrier operates. “Then I went to the other side, with Palestinian representatives — not Hamas — in East Jerusalem. It’s not a pleasant thing to see, clearly a very divisive thing, and in Palestinian eyes an oppressive thing. At the same time, one has to respect the right of Israel to defend itself and, after the suicide bombings, a security barrier has proved to be the only effective means of defence.”

But, Hague emphasises, “the concern which a lot of us have is that legitimate self-defence does not become the unilateral setting of borders. We don’t believe there is long-term security for Israel without a settlement with the Palestinians, and we don’t tend to believe that the unilateral drawing of borders will be effective in the long run. We would have preferred it, if they were building a security barrier, if it had been built on the Green Line — which in parts, it is. Obviously, they have to defend themselves, but we don’t want it to be so entrenched in the Israeli view that [the fence] is the border.”

He’s all too aware that Israel hasn’t much wiggle room while Hamas is in charge of the Palestinian government, and robustly endorses the view that progress is virtually impossible while Hamas refuses to change its covenant, recognise Israel or renounce violence. But Hague would like to see Israel doing its best to hold further talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. It’s important, he says, for Israel “to remember that international opinion matters… For a long time, Israel has been on the wrong end of international opinion… With its with- drawal from Gaza, it has received a more sympathetic international press.”

He did notice, he says, “very sensible Palestinians” for whom Hamas’s rise to power has been “a tragedy.” He briskly dismisses those, such as the Russians, who would try to have contacts with Hamas without a reciprocal “adjust- ment” on its part. “The more united the international community is, the more people will see sense and learn that votes have consequences.”

Nevertheless, a compassionate Hague is extremely unhappy about the rapid contraction of the Palestinian economy in the wake of Hamas’s electoral victory. “It’s not just the reduction in budgetary aid, which has quite rightly been applied by the Quartet [the EU, USA, Russia and UN], but… that shops and banks are withdrawing credit. We have to set up some mechanism to help the Palestinian people without going through Hamas. We have to do this urgently, and in the interests of Israel as much as the Palestinians.”

On Iran, Hague believes, “it’s right to make overtures to them and to show that every possibility of the peaceful use of nuclear power is available to them — if that is their real objective. But… Jack Straw [the former Foreign Secretary] said that military action was ‘inconceivable.’ Now I’m not advocating military action at this point, and might never do so, but to say that it was ‘inconceivable’ was, I think, a mistake, a weakening of the international response” — and, he believes, was probably the reason Blair fired Straw as Foreign Secretary. And Hague regards as tragic the possibility that the experience of Iraq might inhibit attitudes to Iran.

On Iraq, he disagrees with his col- league Michael Ancram’s view that British troops should be brought out of Iraq. “It is encouraging that a government has been formed in recent days. To pull out troops now,” says Hague, “would be to pull the rug out from under the feet of some pretty brave individuals who are trying to establish democratic government in the most horrendous conditions, after the Iraqi people voted in numbers which we can’t match in this country, despite those conditions…

“Military action against Iran is a dramatically different proposition from military action against Iraq. I’m not calling for it, but I don’t think it should be ruled out. All options should be available.”

In the short term, he thinks there should be “stronger support for specific sanctions against Iran, some of which have been floated by the US. I think the British government should give more vocal support to specific ideas, including, for example, a United Nations ban on the sale of military technology to Iran.”

Unfortunately, Hague observes, since Russia has recently done significant arms deals with Tehran, “it’s very hard to see Iran coming under serious pressure as long as permanent members of the Security Council are selling arms to them on a large scale.”

Iran, says Hague, needs to be aware that there are “negative consequences” to its actions. “I also believe that they need to know that there will be determined actions, rather than just determined statements without any accompanying actions, which is what we’ve tended to do so far. The likely consequences [of Iran developing nuclear weapons] is that, over the coming decade, quite a few other countries would do the same, and Iran would then find itself in an even less stable and more dangerous region, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would, in effect, have broken down entirely.”

Israel, Hague notes, is extremely concerned about Iran, and he agrees that the anti-Israel statements made by Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are likely to be part of a calculation as to how far the international community can be pushed. “We all live in the hope that he doesn’t actually mean the things he says, but I think they are deliberate and calculated.”

But he observes that Israel is not the only country to be worried about Iran. Jordan, which Hague visited before returning to London, is also unhappy. “We mustn’t think, further away, that this is nothing to do with us. Besides, some of the nuclear missiles could have the capability of having European cities well within range.” He is also conscious of considerable anxiety within the Arab world; though he’s unsure of how much leverage Arab countries have with Iran, Hague thinks that Russia, China and Japan “need to look beyond their immediate economic interests. They need to take a tough line in the interests of preventing nuclear proliferation in the world. This is top of the world agenda. And well-informed Israelis don’t think there’s a lot of time left.”

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  • 2 June, 2006