Defence Minister: Clegg axed me because I won't support attack on Iran
By Mark Nicol and Brendan Carlin
A Liberal Democrat Defence Minister has claimed he was sacked to avoid a damaging Coalition split over a pre-emptive strike on Iran.
Former Armed Forces Minister Sir Nick Harvey told friends that he was fired in the reshuffle to allow Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg to sign Britain up to an Israeli-US preventive strike to take out Iran’s nuclear installations.
Friends of Sir Nick – who was handed a knighthood just days later – say that he could have embarrassed the Lib Dem leader by being too critical of Israel’s actions if he had still been in the key Ministry of Defence post.
The row broke as sources confirmed that British intelligence agents are already deeply involved in attempts to discover Iran’s nuclear secrets.
It is also understood that the US has asked Britain to provide frigates to patrol the Straits of Hormuz, through which much of the world’s oil passes.
The sacking of the respected Minister took MPs and Army top brass by surprise.
Party sources have insisted the move – which has left the Ministry of Defence staffed entirely by Tories – was due to Mr Clegg’s decision to accept Lib Dem ministerial jobs in other, more ‘voter-friendly’ Government departments.
But when approached by The Mail on Sunday, Sir Nick confirmed he had considered his sacking was linked to mounting speculation of a pre-emptive strike on Iran and the expectation that UK forces would be drawn in afterwards. However, the MP went on to say he had since discounted that theory.
‘I have cast my mind over the issues that might have led the party leader to this decision,’ he added.
‘But having toyed with that one, I have decided it could not have played any part in it.’
However, one party insider said the idea made sense, adding: ‘With our record over opposing the Iraq War, no one in our party is going to congratulate Israel on launching a strike.
‘But Nick may have been particularly outspoken, especially in the immediate aftermath and when we’re bound to get caught in cleaning up the mess alongside the Americans.
‘He probably takes the view that we’d need to give a particularly strong condemnation of Israel to show the Arab world that we didn’t approve. However, that could have caused a problem for some of Clegg’s Tory Coalition colleagues.’
The reshuffle earlier this month came amid renewed speculation that Israel is planning to launch a unilateral attack to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons.
Only last weekend, Israel’s defence minister Ehud Barak appeared to hint that he believed the US would join his country in the pre-emptive attack.
There were also reports that US President Barack Obama was poised to set out the ‘red lines’ that would trigger an American attack if Iran continued to press ahead with its nuclear programme.
MoD sources yesterday confirmed that contingency talks over the dispatch of Royal Navy minesweepers to the Gulf had already been held.
Last night, Professor Malcolm Chalmers, of the Royal United Services Institute, suggested that the Lib Dem reshuffle arrangements would not release the party from difficult defence decisions as part of the Coalition.
He said: ‘The United Kingdom is doing everything it can to keep a handle on what the Iranians are doing and we have got a lot of well-developed sources in the region – signals and human intelligence.
‘The Liberal Democrats cannot simply wash their hands of national security issues by removing their Ministers from the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.
‘As a member of the National Security Council, Nick Clegg is briefed on the latest intelligence on Iran and will continue to be so.
‘Clegg could adopt a position of agreeing to disagree, raising his objections to the Prime Minister but saying go ahead.’
Dr Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iran at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, said the US and Britain were sharing ‘a great deal of intelligence at this time’.
Sources close to Mr Clegg last night denied the Iran situation had played a part in the decision to remove Sir Nick.