Thwarting Iranís nuclear weapons ambitions:
Our failed diplomacy, by former British minister

Published:30 December 2011
Briefing Number 305

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Summary: This Briefing contains the text of a letter published on the letters pages of the UK-based Times newspaper by former British Minister Dr Kim Howells in which he admits that international efforts to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons capability by diplomacy and sanctions have failed.  He sharply criticises the level of international effort, and also implies criticism of those who think that Iranian threats to Israel are “mere rhetoric”.  The letter was published on 26 December 2011.   We republish the core of the letter verbatim, together with some background comments and links to related Beyond Images resources.

Key message:  Israel regards  a military strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure as an extremely risky last resort measure.  The context for Israel’s decision-making on this matter is the international effort to prevent Iran going nuclear.  As Dr Howells recognises, that effort has been insufficient.  This failure must be taken into account in judging Israel words and actions in the future. 


Iran is on the brink of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. 

For many years, Western powers have been involved in diplomatic efforts to prevent an Iranian bomb, combined with economic pressure.

Successive Israeli leaders have repeatedly been urged to give international diplomacy and sanctions  “a chance”, rather than using a military strike to set back Iran’s nuclear plans. 

Most recently, various European countries have strengthened sanctions, and an oil embargo on Iran is under consideration.   While these measures will certainly impact on Iran, many consider that they are too late to stop them.   
No-one in Israel wishes to use a military option, with the massive risks attached. But Israeli leaders have for many years also said that Israel is keeping the option open as a “last resort” if international efforts to prevent the Iranian nuclear weapons capability fail.

Israel’s actions are therefore crucially linked to international success, or otherwise, in thwarting Iran.   That is the context for Israeli decision-making.  

Dr Kim Howells was a minister in Britain’s Labour government from 2005-2008.  He was deeply involved in British and wider Western diplomacy regarding Iran.  Howells is a long-standing member of the British Labour Party.  He is broadly supportive of Israel but strongly criticised Israel in 2006 for the conduct of the second Lebanon war.  Generally, Howells has a reputation for being outspoken and not afraid to speak hard truths publicly.

On 26 December 2011 the UK-based Times newspaper published a letter by Dr Howells in which he frankly admitted that Western diplomacy had failed to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  After referring to a previous news report about Iran and North Korea, Dr Howells writes as follows:

“As the minister responsible (2005-2008) for helping diplomatic efforts to prevent the proliferation of states developing nuclear weapons, I became increasingly frustrated at the unwillingness of the UN and certain key players such as Russia and China to countenance any effective action against Iran.

Time and again, I watched in horror as the Tehran regime circumvented the lines drawn in the sand by Western governments.  The UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency should have been shouting warnings from the rooftops and coordinating blockades that might have deterred the Iranians from developing nuclear weapons.  
But the IAEA was worse than useless, complicit in spreading a fog of confusion about the purpose of Iran’s uranium enrichment programme.          

Diplomacy has failed miserably to deter yet another authoritarian, fundamentalist state from arming itself with weapons of mass destruction.  Iran’s declaration that it wishes to annihilate Israel is dismissed as “mere rhetoric” by so many of the governments who, for so many years, pretended to believe that Iran, with its vast oil and gas reserves, was really only interested in a civil nuclear programme to generate electricity.

It is not too late for the world to prevent Iran acquiring an atomic bomb, but we will not do so by continuing with the moribund, constipated diplomatic initiatives that have failed miserably so far”.

- Dr Kim Howells, The Times (letters page), 26 December 2011

Some related Beyond Images Briefings

Beyond Images Briefing 237 – 17 March 2009
The Speech of Iran’s supreme leader Khamenei calling for Israel’s destruction

Beyond Images Briefing 217 – 25 July 2008
Iranian leaders’ incitement to genocide against the Jewish people

Beyond Images Briefing 216 – 25 July 2008
‘US intelligence says Iran probably gave up nuclear weapons plans in 2003....’

See generally

The Israel Project’s Iran Press Kit (

The Daily Alert coverage of Iran (

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs reports on Iran (