The Spectator's Notes

The Iran deal is a western concession not matched by change on the other side

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

12 May 2018

9:00 AM

The point behind the argument about the Iran nuclear deal goes beyond precise nuclear facts. It is like the row over SALT II when Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter as US President in 1981. SALT (the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) was not formally junked, but it did not operate because, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the end of 1979, the Americans felt the necessary trust was absent. Better times, including the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev, allowed Reagan to pursue negotiations which culminated (under his successor, the first George Bush) in START I (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) being signed in 1991. By then, the United States and its Nato allies had backed huge changes in the Soviet bloc and won the Cold War. The Obama Iran deal resembles SALT in the 1970s — a western concession not matched by real change in the attitudes of the other side. In 1987, Reagan famously stood in Berlin and said, ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’ There has been no equivalent western attempt today to back the millions of Iranians who want to return to the principles of the country’s liberal constitution of 1906 and reject their Islamist theocracy. The West lets the regime isolate them. Once a week, crowds organised by the Iranian state chant ‘Death to America!’ and ‘Death to Israel!’ The ayatollahs promote the aims expressed in those slogans wherever they can, unpunished. Surely President Trump’s revolt against this is right.

On Tuesday, the present (ninth) Duke of Wellington proposed the latest Remainer amendment in the House of Lords, which removes the date of leaving the EU from the Bill. He is the most politically engaged Wellington since the first one, so it was nice to see him. But I wish he had called to mind his great ancestor’s behaviour over the Corn Laws. Wellington strongly opposed repeal, but when Peel backed it in 1846, the Duke urged peers to submit. They could not afford to cut themselves off from the Commons, he told them. He thought the good government of the country more important than any particular Bill. Should peers feel grander now than in 1846?


Near where we live in Sussex, an interesting fight is going on. Having bought and restored the rest of the old Kent and East Sussex Railway, ‘heritage’ steam enthusiasts are trying to capture its last two and a half miles, near Robertsbridge. All things being equal, this is a nice idea. The little line provides jolly jaunts. But how equal are all things in this case? The two smallish farms in the path of the railway are resisting, but they are being threatened with a Compulsory Purchase Order. I had thought that CPOs were instruments of last resort which allowed the public authorities to enforce governmental projects for essential social goods — a bypass, a new school. I had not realised they can be deployed for private projects. It is hard to see why the rights of property should be overridden because somebody else wants to have fun on your land. If wider social good were, indeed, the criterion, the project would probably be stopped in its tracks by the need to run the line — and therefore crash barriers with consequent delays — across the already unbelievably impeded A21, as well as by problems with flooding and parking. Since the line closed in 1961 (I can just remember seeing its last goods steam train), this bit of the Rother valley has become a haven of peace and high environmental quality. The family of Andrew Hoad, who owns one of the farms, has been in the village since Tudor times, and already had the land before the railway first cut across it in 1900. In effect, his family and that of his neighbours ‘re-wilded’ it before that idea became fashionable. If this is a heritage battle, I feel they should win.

I had read little by George Santayana, the once-famous philosopher, novelist and aphorist, but this weekend I chanced on his memoirs in a friend’s house and began them. I did so at the recommendation of Santiago de Tamarón, who became a friend when he was the Spanish ambassador in London. Santiago writes a celebrated literary blog (reached by a weblink which sounds more like a triumphal arch, ‘Portal del Marqués de Tamarón’), and is a true man of letters. Hence his affinity with Santayana, added to by their joint interest in the Anglosphere. Santayana was chiefly Spanish, but part Bostonian, and described himself as an American. Santiago’s Anglo links are disclosed in his full name — Santiago de Mora-Figueroa y Williams. I think the Williams bit has to do with sherry. In the wake of the Windrush affair, I was particularly struck by Santayana’s description of his first visit to England in the 1880s. The boat moored at Tilbury and the customs officials came aboard: ‘Quiet they were, well spoken, laconic yet civil; half business-like and half deferential, as if in the first place they recognised us for gentlemen, and as if in general they were respectful towards other people’s privacy and peace. Perfectly ordinary men like policemen; yet how different from any customs officials that I had ever come upon in Spain or America, in France or Germany! What decent officials! They didn’t seem to suspect us of lying or cheating, and showed no tendency to brow-beat or deceive us with rigmarole and loudness. A national note, firmness beneath simplicity…’ I do hope these characteristics persist. Several stories from foreign friends suggest otherwise.

One of Santayana’s most famous dicta is that ‘To be interested in the changing seasons is a happier state of mind than to be hopelessly in love with spring.’ This may be a metaphor for life, but it is also literally true. It matters in countries such as ours, where no season is so extreme that it cannot be enjoyed. If you agree with Santayana, you will be irritated by our BBC weather forecasts, which misrepresent the weather as a constant, and generally losing, battle to get warmer. In their language, temperatures are forever ‘struggling’ — always to rise, never to fall.

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