Analysis: Does Blair's Iran critique mark shift in focus away from Israel?

British PM denounced Holocaust conference and regime's attempts to destabilize the Middle East.

blair 298.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
blair 298.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a blistering attack on Iran this week, denouncing Teheran's Holocaust Conference and the regime's attempts to destabilize the Middle East. And in so doing, he appeared to be shifting British policy on the Middle East. Blair's comments at a Tuesday press conference - in which he charged that "Iran is deliberately at the present time causing maximum problems for moderate governments and for ourselves in the region, in Palestine, in Lebanon and in Iraq" - seemed to represent a refocusing of priorities in the region away from Israel and toward Iran. Teheran's parley "questioning the Holocaust [was] shocking beyond belief," Blair said at the 10 Downing Street press conference. "To go and invite the former head of the Ku Klux Klan to a conference in Teheran which disputes that millions of people died in the Holocaust, I mean what further evidence do you need to have that this regime is extreme?" The prime minister stated he did not believe President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government was "supported by the majority of the Iranian people, but it is a deeply extreme regime that is hostile to our interest," and "poses a major strategic threat to the cohesion of the entire region. In Lebanon, in Iraq, in Palestine there are major problems, and all of this is now overshadowed by the issue of Iran," he said. The vigor with which Blair spoke reflected "his genuine disgust at a conference specifically organized to deny an event in which the world knows millions of Jews were killed," his official spokesman said later that day, but his remarks did not amount to a change of policy as Blair had "always adopted a very strong position on Iran." The prime minister has also refined his foreign policy thinking in an article to be published next month in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, arguing that the war on terror is as much a battle of values as it is a military conflict, and can only be won by the triumph of tolerance and liberty over intolerance and oppression. While Downing Street denied Britain was hardening its position toward Iran, Blair's comments on Tuesday along with his Foreign Affairs essay represent a shift in emphasis over the last month in Britain's Middle East priorities. In a foreign policy address delivered at London's Guildhall on November 13, Blair had argued the war on "global terrorism" would be won by the West only when there was peace for Israel and the Palestinians. A "whole Middle East strategy" did not start with "changing policy on Syria and Iran," Blair said at the time. "On the contrary, we should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core." In his comments this week on Iran and in his forthcoming essay in Foreign Affairs entitled "A Battle for Global Values" Blair has refined his arguments, pushing tactical engagement with Iran and a strategic confrontation with militant Islam, and has quietly pulled back from the Israel focus of his November speech. The war with militant Islam was "not a clash between civilizations; it is a clash about civilization. It is the age-old battle between progress and reaction," Blair wrote. For militant Islam, "we are the enemy. But 'we' are not the West. 'We' are as much Muslim as Christian, Jew or Hindu. 'We' are all those who believe in religious tolerance, in openness to others, in democracy, in liberty, and in human rights administered by secular courts," he added. It was "rubbish to suggest that Islamist terrorism is the product of poverty," Blair argued. Nor was the issue of Palestinian nationhood its cause. The aim of militant Islam was "not to encourage the creation of a Palestine living side by side with Israel but rather to prevent it. They fight not for the coming into being of a Palestinian state but for the going out of being of an Israeli state," he said. Blair noted that "Some people believe that terrorist attacks are caused entirely by the West's suppression of Muslims. Some people seriously believe that if we only got out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the attacks would stop. And, in some ways most perniciously, many look at Israel and think we pay too great a price for supporting it and sympathize with those who condemn it." Were each of these issues resolved to the Islamists' satisfaction, the Islamist terrorism would continue, Blair argued, as it was an ideologically driven conflict, not a political one. "Islamist terrorism will not be defeated until we confront not just the methods of the extremists but also their ideas," he went on. "I do not mean just telling them that terrorist activity is wrong. I mean telling them that their attitude toward the United States is absurd, that their concept of governance is prefeudal, that their positions on women and other faiths are reactionary. We must reject not just their barbaric acts but also their false sense of grievance against the West, their attempt to persuade us that it is others and not they themselves who are responsible for their violence," he argued.