Influential Europeans – including many Muslims – recently debated freedom of expression with the Danish editor who commissioned the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed which led to riots. Held in Berlin, it was a good, at times blazing, debate.
Freedom of expression, we were given to understand, is one of the valves in Europe's heart that must remain open to keep our continent alive and healthy. In good faith I exercise that freedom in this column. Let us see if readers and interest groups will support my right to write what follows even if they violently disagree with my observations.
From past experience I bet many will find that impossibly hard. They will denounce me as an enemy within, a rule-breaker of unspoken rules, bringing up stuff that must be left buried in the name of peace and justice. I see no reason to comply. This week shows us how such doublethink and doublespeak pulls the world towards Armageddon.
Leaders of the rich nations have turned their fire on Iran, quite rightly. On Friday came news that the Islamic Republic had been building a secret uranium enrichment plant near Qom. Then the junta fired test missiles, to prove that the bearded ones have really big willies. Unlike Iraq under Saddam, there are, in Iran, nuclear developments that could lead to weapons of mass destruction. It is not an immediate but a future danger, say credible intelligence experts and indeed Barack Obama himself.
Suddenly the president has got uncharacteristically belligerent, instructing Iran to open up all its nuclear facilities for inspection if it wants to avoid "a path that is going to lead us to confrontation". In May, Obama stood in Washington with the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, who we were told was there to seek assurances that there would be no shift from the conventional US position of total and unconditional support for Israel's policies right or wrong, known and clandestine.
On Thursday the US, China, Britain, France, Russia and Germany meet in Geneva and, by that time, Iran will be expected to submit to international scrutiny. As a supporter of the now crushed and broken reformers in Iran, I back the ultimatum to the fanatic and bellicose Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But what about that camel in the room? The one we all see but can't point out? What about the only power in the Middle East, also fanatic and aggressive, which has a vast stockpile of weapons enough to obliterate the region? Listen people, we need to talk about Israel. And soon. Like now.
I have been in contact with a young Iranian woman who wore a green scarf and lipstick on the streets of Tehran, whose uncle is currently being tortured in prison there for demonstrating against the results of the election. Somehow she escaped from the country and is in Britain briefly before going on to the US to make a new life. Let us call her M.
Nobody could hate Ahmadinejad more than M; she hates the whole regime, the treacherous leaders who betrayed the people. When she speaks she often gets asthmatic. But yet, but yet, she finds her passions rising for her country this week because of fears of military strikes by Israel and the manifestly unfair way that Israel is indulged. "I will go back if they attack my country, even if they put me to jail," M says. "That is my duty. Israel is the enemy of peace and America gives them money to get more arms. I don't want Iran to have these terrible weapons, but Israel must also be stopped."
The big powers are moving tentatively towards global de-nuclearisation, taking small but significant steps to show they do want everyone to pitch in. Obama's decision to shelve the European defence missile programme shows serious intent, so too Gordon Brown's announcement that Britain would cut down from four to three its Trident missile-carrying submarines. There was a moment this spring, albeit fleeting, when Rose Gottemoeller, an assistant secretary of state and Washington's chief nuclear arms negotiator, asked Israel to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, thus breaking the 40-year-old silence and US complicity in its accumulated, un-inspected arsenal. Her reasonable appeal provoked apoplexy in a nation that assumes special, indeed exceptional, treatment.
In the 1960s, Israel successfully hid its weapons from US inspectors. In 1986, Israeli nuclear technical assistant Mordechai Vanunu revealed information about the concealed stockpiles and has been punished ever since. Hubristic Israel no longer cares to deny that it has hundreds of atom and hydrogen bombs and devastating biological "tools". Netanyahu has been warning he will destroy the Iranian sites if his country feels the danger is real. Now he has just what he wanted – another crisis in the Middle East, to keep up the idea of plucky, vulnerable, endangered little Israel.
Alarmingly, even the liberal Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz is on side. History has made too many Israelis fear all humanity in perpetuity and that fear brings out the worst in that nation. It has predictably rejected the long, sober, unbiased UN report on the last assault on Gaza chaired by Richard Goldstone. He accused Hamas of crimes against Jewish civilians and charged Israel with grave crimes, the breaking of the Geneva convention, punishing and terrorising unarmed civilians.
I have some images of these victims sent to me by a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist. Children turned to ash, blistered mothers weeping, and on and on. There still is no respite for the hungry and dying in Gaza. If Israel can mete out such treatment and not be called to account, just think what the state feels entitled to do to Iran.
The Israeli human rights activist Gideon Spiro bravely asks that his country be subject to the same rules as Iran and all others in the Middle East: "Rein in Israel, compel it to accept a regime of nuclear disarmament and oblige it to open all nuclear, biological and chemical facilities and missile sites to international inspection." The US has leverage because it maintains and funds Israel. If Obama shies away from this, there can be no moral justification to go for Iran or North Korea or any other rogue state. And the leader whose election and dreams gave hope to millions thereby hastens the end of the world.