The UK's defense secretary, Philip Hammond (in the suit above), made his first official visit to Washington, DC, today for a round of talks with the Pentagon to discus the United States' new defense strategy. I was lucky enough to catch a talk he gave this morning downtown at the Atlantic Council before he headed across the Potomac to meet with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
One of the most timely and interesting things Hammond said had to do with Iran; a country more and more people think we're in a shadow war with. Remember, Iran just told the U.S. not to send an aircraft carrier back into the Persian GUlf and the White House recently announced that it will cut Iran's central bank off from the world financial system if Tehran doesn't quit working to build a nuclear bomb.
While Hammond left open the door for talks with Iran over its nuclear program, he essentially said that the UK and the West won't back down from its pledge to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon -- something he thinks Iran is going all out to achieve. The only way to combat this is by making it too painful for Iran to develop "illegal" nuclear weapons.
"My working assumption is that they are flat out," said Hammond in response to an audience question about whether sanctions would only accelerate Iran's efforts to build a bomb. "I would be very surprised if somebody in Tehran is listening to people in Washington or London or Berlin or Paris and says, 'you know what, I'm going to call up the guys down at the centrifuges to turn up the speed and go a bit faster.' I think they're going as fast as they can. Our working assumption has to be that Iran has settled on a course which it will only be deterred from if the price of achieving the goal that they have set becomes too high. That is what we're in the process of doing by stepping up the pressure on oil revenues, on the operation of the central bank, of the economy, that generally is about raising the price and causing the regime to think about the price that it will pay in order to achieve the goal that it appears to have set for itself."
Still, Hammond kept the tough talk to economic pain, saying he does not favor a preemptive military strike against the Middle Eastern country. This echoed his earlier comments where he said that the UK is ready to talk with Iran about ending its WMD program.
"We have a strategy of pressure and engagement. Pressure is clearly mounting, the sanctions announced have clearly rattled Tehran, the Iranian economy is very fragile" and the proposed sanctions that would isolate Iran's central bank from the international financial system "is ratcheting up pressure on the regime," said Hammond. "At the same time, we have to be prepared to engage if the regime is prepared to back down from the position that it has adopted over the illegal acquisition of nuclear weapons. So we hope there will be a peaceful outcome. Part of ensuring a peaceful outcome is to make our resolution very clear; you don't, in my judgement, deal with regimes like the Iranian regime by backing away, you stand firm while making it clear that there is scope for a peaceful resolution if they choose to take the opportunity."
One has to wonder if sanctions, even those as tough as the ones that will cut it off from global markets will be enough to deter Iran if Western nations are unwilling to conduct a military strike against the Tehran's nuke program. When asked if he thought Iran would try to bait the UK or US into armed conflict, Hammond said:
"I think, certainly on our side, and the U.S. side, that precautions are being taken that [ensure] any response to any provocation is very measured so that there isn't an accidental escalation. Of course, what we cannot answer for is whether there is a [similar] plan on the other side."