Forging a U.S.-British Coalition to End Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program

Report Middle East

Forging a U.S.-British Coalition to End Iran's Nuclear Weapons Program

April 24, 2006 7 min read
Nile Gardiner
Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow
Nile Gardiner is Director of The Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's latest threats against Israel, combined with his announcement that Iran has successfully enriched uranium and joined the 'nuclear club,' has greatly escalated the stakes in the confrontation between the West and Tehran. Ahmadinejad's statements that Israel was "heading towards annihilation" and that the Middle East "would soon be liberated,"[1] echoed his remarks of October 2005, when he warned that Israel would be "wiped off the map."


The United States and Great Britain have also been the targets of the Iranian regime's venomous rhetoric. Iran is threatening to unleash 40,000 suicide bombers against "American and British sensitive points" in the event of action against their nuclear facilities, and a senior official with the Revolutionary Guard has warned that "Britain's demise is on the agenda."[2] Hassan Abbasi, Ahmadinejad's chief political adviser, has described Britain as "the mother of all evils," and boasted of "a strategy for the destruction of Anglo-American civilization."[3]


If Iran succeeds in building a nuclear weapon, which it may do within three to ten years, there can be no doubt regarding the regime's willingness and intent to use it against Israel or other close U.S. allies. Nor is there any doubt regarding Iran's potential to arm a terrorist organization such as Hezbollah or Al Qaeda with nuclear material. Significantly, a senior Iranian spiritual leader recently issued a fatwa sanctioning the use of nuclear weapons.[4]


Unfortunately, the United Nations Security Council is unlikely to be decisive in diffusing this crisis, given the huge financial, military, and strategic interests that both Russia and China have in Iran and their willingness to protect Tehran. While the United States pushes for targeted economic sanctions and for political change inside Iran, it must also proceed with preparations should diplomacy and economic measures fail.


As America's closest ally, and the only major partner with the ability to contribute extensively to military operations against Iran, London should forge a close alliance with Washington in confronting the Iranian threat. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair should hold crisis talks to discuss a range of options against the Iranian regime. Both the U.S. and UK should push for Israel to be admitted to NATO as a security guarantee in the face of Iranian threats and intimidation.[5] As well, the Pentagon and the UK Ministry of Defense should discuss a potential Anglo-American military operation, sending a clear warning signal to the Mullahs in Tehran.


A Shift in British Strategic Thinking

There is a growing realization in London that the EU-3 negotiations between Britain, France, Germany, and Iran, have been a huge failure. The EU-3 talks exposed the weakness of a European Union negotiating position that has been all carrot and no stick. In parallel, the discredited policy of 'constructive engagement' with Tehran, championed by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, has all but disappeared from the lexicon of Foreign Office diplo-speak.


Straw, dubbed 'Tehran Jack' by the British media for his frequent trips to the Iranian capital,[6] appears increasingly at odds with Tony Blair as well as the Ministry of Defense over strategy towards Iran. Straw, who was initially opposed to military action against Iraq before subsequently switching his position, has been an extremely vocal critic of the idea of using force to halt Iran's nuclear program. He has talked of military action as "inconceivable," and recently described the notion of a pre-emptive strike as out of the question, telling the BBC, "there is no smoking gun, there is no casus belli. We can't be certain about Iran's intentions."[7]


Straw's views are not, however, representative of opinion in Downing Street and reflect a divided state of affairs within the British government. In addition, his outright rejection of the use of force as an option has been sharply criticized by the UK's Shadow Defense Secretary, Liam Fox, and the Conservative Party, which is pushing an aggressive line on the Iranian issue.[8]


In contrast to his foreign secretary, the British prime minister has never ruled out military action against Iran and is reportedly showing "signs of exasperation" with Straw's approach.[9] Blair was greatly angered by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats against Israel and hinted at military action to halt Iran's nuclear development. In October, the British prime minister warned Iran's leaders that they were making "a very big mistake" if they believed the West would not respond forcefully. Condemning the Iranian leadership, Blair stated: "If they carry on like this the question people will be asking us is-when are you going to do something about Iran? Can you imagine a State like that with an attitude like that having nuclear weapons?"[10]


Recent British press reports suggest that Blair's realist view, rather than Straw's ultra-cautious stance, is gaining ground in London. British defense chiefs reportedly held "secret talks" in early April with officials from Downing Street and the Foreign Office to discuss the implications of U.S. military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. The meetings signify a shift in strategic thinking in London over how to deal with Tehran. Britain's position may continue to harden. In the words of a senior British government source cited by the Sunday Telegraph: "If Iran makes another strategic mistake, such as ignoring demands by the UN or future resolutions, then the thinking among the chiefs is that military action could be taken to bring an end to the crisis. The belief in some areas of Whitehall is that an attack is now all but inevitable." [11]


If the UK were to take part in U.S.-led operations against Iran, the British contribution could include Special Forces (Special Air Service) contingents for covert operations, as well as air and navy support. The 8,000 British troops stationed in southern Iraq would, if still based in the country, play a key role in protecting the border with Iran, and combating Iranian-backed Shia militias. The British-owned Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, which houses an Anglo-American military base, would be an important launch pad for air strikes by B-2 stealth bombers, as would the Royal Air Force Base at Fairford in southern England. In addition, Britain's Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) would be a critical component of any intelligence gathering operation.


The British Political Dimension

British participation in, or even strong support for, U.S.-led air strikes against Iran would be fraught with political and military risk for the British government. With growing disillusionment in the UK with the war in Iraq, a campaign against the largest power in the Middle East would be met with strong opposition among large sections of the British public and media.


For Tony Blair, whose approval ratings are presently at an all-time low, the Iranian crisis poses a dilemma. On one hand, this issue is likely to split the Cabinet and the ruling Labour Party and prompt a major rebellion by left-wing backbenchers who favor a policy of appeasement toward the Mullahs. On the other, Blair, serving his final term of office, will not want to be remembered as a weak-kneed leader who promised 'peace in our time' in the face of threats to wipe an entire country and its people off the map.


The prime minister and his closest advisers are acutely aware of the strategic threat posed by Iran and, through their experience with the Security Council negotiations over Iraq, understand the limits of international diplomacy. They are likely to draw the conclusion that the risks to British national security posed by a nuclear-armed Iran outweigh the political drawbacks posed by military action. Blair, who has built a strong reputation on the international stage as a leader of the war on terror and committed British forces to three major theatres of operation (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kosovo), is unlikely to back down in the face of threats from a rogue state. Although his position as prime minister is significantly weaker now than it was in 2003, when he backed the invasion of Iraq, Blair's instinct will be to defy opposition from within his own party and side with the United States over the use of force against Iran.


In the British context, the timing of a potential military action is highly significant. While there is a strong possibility that the United States could rely on Blair's support for operations against Iran, his heir apparent, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, remains an enigma. Blair has committed to departing office before the end of his final term, which must conclude by 2010. In the face of mounting domestic political problems and increasingly vocal threats of mutiny within the Labour Party, Blair could well stand down earlier, with a 2008 departure a strong possibility.



As Iran moves closer towards its goal of producing a nuclear weapon and its threats against Israel and the West grow louder, the United States must build a powerful international alliance to confront and, if necessary, forcibly disarm the regime in Tehran. Britain should be at the heart of this coalition of the willing, helping to bring on board European countries and international allies from Australia to Japan.


Great Britain has stood alongside the United States in every major conflict involving American forces since the Second World War, with the exception of Vietnam. British troops have fought alongside their U.S. counterparts in Korea, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If the United States is forced to confront Iran militarily, her closest ally will likely join her.


Nile Gardiner, Ph.D., is the Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow at the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

[1] "The State of Israel Will Soon Be History, Says Iran's President," The Times, April 15, 2006.

[2] "Iran Suicide Bombers 'Ready to Hit Britain,'" The Sunday Times, April 16, 2006.

[3] Quoted by Mark Steyn, "Happy Warrior," National Review, November 21, 2005.

[4] "Iranian Fatwa Approves Use of Nuclear Weapons," The Daily Telegraph, February 19, 2006.

[5] See John Hulsman Ph.D. and Nile Gardiner Ph.D., "Confounding the Mullahs of Tehran: It's Time for Israel to Join NATO," Heritage Foundation WebMemo No. 966, January 24, 2006, at

[6] "Tehran Jack Gets Confrontational," The Daily Telegraph, March 14, 2006.

[7] "The Idea of US Nuclear Attack on Iran is Just Nuts, Says Straw," The Times, April 10, 2006.

[8] See Fox's speech to The Heritage Foundation, February 16, 2006, at

[9] Straw Uses Tough Language to Rule Out Iran Strike," Financial Times, April 10, 2006.

[10] "Blair Hints at Military Action After Iran's 'Disgraceful Taunt,'" The Times, October 28, 2005;

"We Will Use Force, Blair Warns Iranians," The Daily Telegraph, October 28, 2005.

[11] See "Government in Secret Talks About Strike Against Iran," The Daily Telegraph,

April 2, 2006.


Nile Gardiner
Nile Gardiner

Director, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom and Bernard and Barbara Lomas Fellow