Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor Fred Halliday, London School of Economics


  1.  The election of President Khatami marks a major change within Iran to which the UK, and the west in general should respond. A strong movement from below is pushing the President, but unresolved constitutional, and power, relations may impede or even reverse this process.

  2.  Iran's foreign policy has to be seen in its historical and regional contexts. Iran's historic conflicts with the outside world, both regional and global, have left considerable resentment on both sides. Today Iran faces a difficult regional context on several fronts, most particularly viz-a"-viz Iraq.

  3.  In Western eyes, the three most contentious international issues are Iran's policy on the Arab-Israeli peace process, weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. Each allows of political and diplomatic resolution.

  4.  The UK should engage with contemporary Iran and promote diplomatic, economic, educational and cultural links. The time is right to build a new, equal, relationship.


  1.  I am Fred Halliday, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics since 1985. I have been a chairman of the Department of International Relations at LSE (1986-89), Chairman of the Research Committee of the Royal Institute of International Affairs (1989-92) and an Academic Governor of LSE (1994-98). I was during the 1970s a member of the Middle East Sub-committee of the Labour Party. I am currently a member of the Advisory Council of the Labour Party's Foreign Policy Centre.

  2.  I have, amongst other interests, a long-standing interest in Iran, a country which I first visited as a student in 1965, and which I have visited twice since the revolution, in 1979 and, most recently, in September of this year. I have published a book on Iran, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Penguin, 1978), which was translated into10 languages, including Persian. I have, in addition to writing a number of academic articles on Iran, broadcast on radio and TV on its foreign and domestic policies. I have lectured on Iran at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Royal United Services Institute, the Arab Research Centre, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research as well as at universities in Britain, Holland, Egypt, Israel, the USSR, USA, Singapore and other countries. I am a regular commentator for the BBC World Service and the BBC Persian Service on Iran. Over the course of more than 30 years I have met many of the leading political and intellectual figures of modern Iran and have had contact with a range of sources inside and outside the country. I have in recent years kept in touch with most of the FCO officials responsible for Iran and with Iranian diplomats working in London. The text of what follows drawn on this background as well as on earlier public statements on Iran that I have made.

  3.  My relations with both the Shah's regime and that of the Islamic Republic have involved significant disagreements of opinion and I have repeatedly criticised the post-1979 government for both its human rights violations at home and for aspects of its foreign policy. I remain, however, of the view that engagement with Iran, at unofficial and official levels, is to be encouraged. I am in particular of the view that the election of President Khatami in 1997, reinforced by the Majlis elections of February 2000, represent a major change within the country and an opportunity for improved Iranian-west and Iranian-British relations. I welcome the exchange of ambassadors between Tehran and London, and the resolution of the diplomatic dispute over Salman Rushdie. While not confident about the future course of events within Iran, I do not subscribe to the view, irresponsibly promoted by some exile groups and too readily accepted by some western, including British politicians, that nothing has changed or that we should not promote relations with Iran. Too much public and parliamentary discussion of Iran is driven by individuals and groups, who either know little or nothing about Iran or have special agendas. Indeed, believing as I do that the situation inside Iran is one that could develop in a number of directions, I would argue that a strong, supportive but critical, engagement with Iran today is in the best interests of the Iranian people, of the Middle East and of the Muslim world as a whole, and of the UK. Such an engagement should include not only the FCO and other departments of state, including parliament, but also business and academic interests and NGOs: for its part Iran's commitment to a "Dialogue of Civilisations" should include a dialogue with human rights NGOs such as Amnesty International, and a dialogue within Iran itself.

  4.  Britain continues to occupy a special place in the outlook, and imagination, of many Iranians: this is something with both negative and positive dimensions. While it may lead to unjust accusations, any easy temptation in that will continue for many years, it also means that whatever the UK does is given a special significance. The restoration of ambassadorial relations has been widely welcomed in Iran. In this regard I think it is regrettable that the Foreign Secretary has not, to date, seen fit to visit Iran and that the Prime Minister was not able to take advantage of their simultaneous presence in New York in early September to meet President Khatami. The UK does have legitimate human rights and judicial questions to raise: these are not greater than in regard to other countries—eg Russia, Saudi Arabia—that our ministers do visit.

  5.  I visited Iran most recently in September 2000 as a guest of the Institute of Political and International Studies (IPIS), attached to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I was invited to give seminars at IPIS, at the Centre for Strategic Studies attached to the Expediency Council and to the Institute for Political Studies of the Ministry of the Interior: these were on culture and international relations, globalisation and civil society respectively. I met the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Majlis, or Parliament, Mr Miradmadi, who recently completed his PhD at Cambridge, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Sadegh Kharrazi, and the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr Vaezi. I had discussions with the British Ambassador to Iran, Mr Nick Browne, and other members of his staff as well as with diplomats from several other countries. This visit aroused considerable controversy within Iran: I was attacked in various right-wing newspapers for, inter alia, being part of a British plan to bring secularism to Iran and to undermine the Islamic republic. Amongst those I met, however, there was widespread interest in improving relations with Britain, as well as with British universities, and a desire to set the past behind us.


  6.  The following analysis concerns Iran's relations with the west and with the UK in particular. It is prompted by the election of President Khatami in May 1997 and the promise this holds out for a change in Iran's relations with the outside world. Few can doubt the qualities of Iran's new president. Khatami himself is a man steeped in the revolution and the clerical establishment: he is related by marriage to Imam Khomeini, served as a minister of culture in the 1980s, and was a close associate of the Imam's son Ahmad 'till the latter's death in 1995. He is a man of integrity, intelligent and shrewd, as well as being well read and modest. In his development, within a Shi'ite theological framework, of ideas of civil society, a close associate of any rule of law and in his use of the concept of independent and rational judgement within Islam, ijtihad, he reflects not only intellectual developments within Iran but also more broadly those in the Islamic world, notably in Lebanon and Iraq. As his main book, From City State to World City, shows, this is a thinker who is not afraid of western thought, and whose confidence in his own theological and cultural tradition takes the form not of denunciatory rhetoric, but of a considered, calm engagement. This does not mean that he is in agreement with western criticisms of Iran: he has a strong belief in Iran's national interest and in the legitimacy of the revolution.

  7.  The election for president in May 1997 was not free, in that many candidates were denied the right to stand, and political parties remain in effect prohibited in Iran. Other relevant rights, of association, publication and assembly, remain limited. But, for all that, Iran is not an authoritarian country: it has advanced a long way towards pluralism of expression, as is intermittently evident in the press and in the parliament, the Majlis. The massive vote for Khatami was, by all accounts, an expression of a deep, nation-wide, desire for change. This was confirmed in the Majlis elections of February 2000. The desire for change is not, it would seem, primarily about external relations. It is, in the first place, about domestic order, a protest against the bi-ganuni, literally lawless, condition of life in Iran, be it in the administration, the role of the various militias and security organisations, and controls on people's lives. One of the most dramatic events which came after the election of Khatami, the spontaneous popular rejoicing in the streets when it was announced that Iran had qualified for the World Cup in 1998, was an index of a similar shift of mood in the country. Second in Khatami's priorities, and those of his voters, is that of the economy: Iran is not a poor country, even if it is poorer than it was in the time of the Shah. GDP per head in purchasing power is over $4,500 a year, higher than Turkey's, but much of industry is stagnant, and there is still no clear line on such issues as foreign trade. There is widespread underemployment and unemployment: many people want to leave. However much this is downplayed in Iran itself, anyone can see that the state of the economy is not separable from Iran's international relations: as long as Iran's relations with the USA remain subject to embargoes and blocks on credit and technology, the prospects for full economic growth will remain stunted. That said, many of Iran's problems are not due to the embargo, but to domestic mismanagement.

  8.  If we come to foreign policy itself, this is something which it is still not easy to discuss publicly in Iran, especially as far as the most sensitive issues, relations with the USA and Israel, are concerned. There is too much bitterness, and not a little demagogy, around to make that possible: but as Khatami has shown, he does wish to relaunch relations with the USA and to work in a negotiated way towards some normalisation of relations. He has recognised the greatness of American culture, apologised for the hostages affair, condemned terrorism, modified Iran's position on the Palestine question. He has avoided raising the issue of a restoration of diplomatic contacts with Washington, broken in 1979, but everyone can see that this lies along the road. According to opinion polls, a majority of Iranians support this.

  9.  The question must, however, be posed of whether Khatami can realise his aims. His predecessor, Hashemi Rafsanjani, was president for eight years, from 1989 to 1997, and achieved very little in this regard: perhaps Rafsanjani's greatest achievement was to ensure a free election in May 1997. The obstacles are well known and should not be underestimated. There is, first of all, an uncertain constitutional position: it has been said that Iran has not one, but three presidents—Khatami, Khamene'i as rahbar, leader, and fagih, jurisconsult, and Rafsanjani, still influential and with uncertain political ambitions, as chairman of the council for Determination of the Interest of the System majma-vi tashkhis-i maslahat-i nizam. We have seen occasions when Khatami and Khamene'i have spoken in divergent tones, at the OIC summit in Tehran in December 1997: and most recently in Khamene'i's order to the Majlis to block freedom of the press. There are those who claim that this is a calculated divergence, and that Khamene'i in fact supports Khatami, but even if this is so it must have its limits. More worrying than any divergence of views, is the distribution of responsibility: Khatami as president may have control of the foreign ministry and even the ministry of security, but the armed forces, and the judiciary, remain under the effective control of Khamene'i. The latter's intervention in August of this year to curb press freedom suggests a serious divergence between president and leader.

  10.  Then there is the fact that, as a result of the very pluralism of Iranian politics, there is no one centre of power or policy: the Majlis contains conflicting voices, some of them responsible, some not rather as in the US Congress; the informal system of police and security systems remains a menace to ordinary citizens—who exactly controls the militia ansar-i hizbullah. Is it as we are led to believe Ayatollah Janati, known for his view that an Islamic Republic does not need novels or someone higher up? Finally, the task of putting Iranian politics on a constitutional basis is far from complete. Two obvious examples. First, political parties remain inhibited—if one of the peculiarities of the Iranian revolution was that in effect it never had a ruling party, with a brief and partial exception of the Islamic Republican Party, the limiting of politics and elections, to an informal jostling of factions and views is a major bloc on the consolidation of legality. The weakness of parties also makes it next to impossible to conduct orderly parliamentary business. Secondly, there is dispute about the powers of the rahbar—those who in December 1997 suggested that this position be subject to a time-limit and its powers reduced were attacked and threatened with prosecution. As his recent action over press freedom shows, Khamene'i is not minded to yield. Equally, the powers of the maslahat committee are unclear—indeed one of the indices of political change will be the nominations and choice of new members of this committee and the indications it will give of the future rule of Rafsanjani. Khatami is engaged in what one Iranian described to me as bandbazi, a form of acrobatic rope-dancing ie a balancing act: through the presidential and Majlis election the Iranian people have spoken, but it is far too early to be sure that the change which he envisaged will go through, in domestic or foreign policy. What is not in dispute is the deep desire for change in Iran and the interest of the outside world in this change.


  11.  In assessing external relations it is important to begin with some recognition of the obstacles which any normalisation of Iran's relations with the outside world will encounter. There is indeed much hostility to Iran in the outside world. Let us begin with perceptions outside Iran, not only in the west and the UK, most of all in the USA, but also in something that affects the US policy, views of Iran in the Middle East, in the Arab world and Israel. Prior to the revolution of 1979 Iran was a close ally of the west and had, to a considerable degree, reasonable relations with the Middle East: under the Shah, the least reasonable relations were in the Persian Gulf—Iran fought an undeclared war against Iraq from 1969 to 1975, a conflict that, in my view, was the first "Gulf War" and was the root of the two later conflicts bearing that name; it imposed its will on the region and in particular occupied three Arab islands, Tumbs and Abu Musa in November 1971. Pahlavi power politics left a legacy of resentment in the Arab world. With the revolution Iran entered into a confrontation with the region: it committed itself to the destruction of Israel, it encouraged Islamist insurrection in a range of Arab states, saluting, inter alia, the assassins of President Sadat in Egypt in 1981 and President Boudiaf in Algeria in 1993, and it fought an eight year war with Iraq, from 1980 to 1988. Its relations with the west soon entered crisis, symbolised by the detention of over 50 US diplomats in their embassy in Tehran for 444 days, in what the Iranians termed the jasus-khane, the house of spies, and by a general, rhetorical and political, challenge to western policy in the region.

  12.  Relations with the Europeans were, on and off, better than with the US, but things did not run smoothly there either. There were hostage takings in Lebanon, assassinations of opposition leaders in Europe, and the incitement to kill Salman Rushdie. Relations with Britain were particularly difficult but none of the major European powers, including the USSR fared much better. In 1997 the EU withdrew its ambassadors after Iranian state officials, including the president and head of the intelligence organisation, were implicated in the assassination of four Kurdish opposition leaders in Berlin in 1992.

  13.  This has all added up to a rather negative record. It is one that will have to be addressed, at least in the sense that any improvement will involve clear and sustained evidence that Iran has altered its policies. It would not take much for elements in the Iranian state opposed to the president, by word or deed, to sabotage any such improvement. This is a history that weighs over any normalisation. It has led some, especially in the USA to qualify Iran as a "rogue", or "outlaw", state. But there is another side to this issue, one that must qualify any view that the onus of historical rectification lies with Iran. It does not behove the UK to have a one-sidedly negative view of Iran. For all the crimes that Iran has committed, and the irresponsible policies it has pursued, the onus of history and of rectification dos not lie with Iran, but with those opposed to it. To take the three major conflicts of the past century: in the First World War, foreign troops from Britain, Russia and Turkey all occupied parts of the country; in the Second World War, Russia and Britain in violation of international law, occupied the whole of Iran, a neutral country, in August 1941; in the cold war, the US and British governments, or more specifically the CIA and MI6, organised riots and a military coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of Iran and its premier Dr Mosadeq. This was an action which, its criminality aside, was, by removing the nationalist and secular opposition movement, to pave the way for the rise of Khomeini a decade later. Nor is this all: the greatest act of irresponsibility towards Iran was to come in the context of the Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980. Whatever provocation Iran had offered prior to September 1980, Iraq's invasion was a clear violation of international law and the UN charter, an undisputed case of aggression. What such an act necessitates is an immediate resolution by the UN Security Council not only condemning the aggressor, but insisting that it return to the frontiers prior to hostility. As has been well documented, this did not occur: Iraqi obstruction and western collusion delayed the Security Council for days and even then in the notorious SCR 479 of 28 September 1980 it called only for a cease fire in place, not a return to the status quo ante. Only in July 1982, in SCR 514, did the Security Council get round to calling for a return to the internationally recognised boundaries. Iran felt, rightly, that this amounted to collusion with Iraq.

  14.  Iraq thus received a green light, and large-scale military and financial help, in its war with Iran, and was later joined by the US navy. The latter, under the reflagging operation, sank an estimated third of the Iranian navy in the Gulf, in a tanker war Iraq had begun, before going on to shoot down an Iranian civilian airliner with 269 people on board. Iran's repeated insistence on the naming of the aggressor in the war, and on compensation, was finally incorporated into resolution 598 of 20 July 1987, but it has remained a dead letter. Iraq was lamely named as the aggressor after it invaded Kuwait in 1990: but no compensation has been paid, and Iranians remain prisoners of war in Iraq to this day. This whole story is a disgraceful one. There will be those who say that Iran deserved what it got because of the US hostages affair. But this, itself illegal, act has no bearing, and should have had no bearing, on the Security Council determination of aggression.

  15.  The historical legacy does, therefore matter, but some element of recognition that Iran is far being the only transgressor is in order. A sanctimonious, one-sided pressure on Iran by the west to apologise will be a waste of time. Until and unless this is recognised any resolution of the historical balance sheet will be incomplete.

  16.  One further historical point needs to be made. Much is made in current critical commentary on Iran of its aggressive character. There are Arab states which talk of Iranian expansionism al-tawassu' al-irani. Iraqi propaganda has even compared Iran to Israel, a "Zionism of the east", similar to that already installed in the west. It was also common, in the 1970s at least, to regard Iranians living in the Arab states of the Gulf as settlers, part of some sinister expansionist conspiracy, like that in Palestine. Anti-Persian racism was a stock in trade of Iraqi Ba'thism at least, as was anti Shi'ism part of the officially promoted orthodoxy in Saudi Arabia. Saddam's uncle and father-in-law, Khairullah Tulfah, published a book entitled Three Whom God Should Not Have Created—Persians, Jews and Flies—and note the order. The Shah was imperial in his policies, but we should be wary of how far such stereotypes remain latent in Arab criticism of Iran. As for the record on matters of aggression, the picture is rather different. Compared to any of its near neighbours—Russia, Turkey, Iraq, all of whom have repeatedly invaded other countries—Iran has, over the past two centuries, a record more pacific than any. The last time that Iran occupied any other country was when Shah Aga Mohammad took, or rather retook, the Transcaucasian states of Armenia and Georgia in the 1790s. These had long been part of the Iranian political and cultural world. In the 1820s Iran lost these areas to Russia, a loss to which it has remained remarkably reconciled: almost no one in twentieth century Iran, a century noted for its obsessive and self-pitying nationalist claims to territory far and near, challenged that loss of territory. Iran did occupy the three Gulf islands in 1971, but this was after it had conceded on the much larger and more sensitive claim to Bahrain, and had sought a peaceful resolution of the islands issue. We may accept, or not accept, the legality of the treaty concluded with the Amir of Sharjah on Abu Musa and deny the right of Iran to take the two Tumbs from the Sheikh of Ras al-Khaima by force: but the occupation of these islands is no indication of a broader, expansionist drive. To sum up, Iran has, overall, been one of the most pacific, and restrained, of states in the Middle East in modern history.


  17.  Turning to the present, we can now consider Iran's place in the region, and its relation to regional conflicts on or near its frontiers. It is these regional issues, as much as issues in bilateral UK-Iran relations, which bedevil relations with the outside world. It may be that the first such conflict which will occur to people is the Arab-Israeli, but this would be mistaken. The Arab-Israeli is far from being the sole, or most costly in human lives, of the conflicts besetting the region: any policy towards Iran determined solely by Iran's views on this conflict would be distorted. The Arab-Israeli dispute is one of several, indeed close on a dozen, regional conflicts in which Iran has been, and remains, involved. The record is not always one that does credit to Iran, but nor is it one that sets Iran in an especially, or uniquely, negative light.

  18.  To take the Gulf itself. Few can doubt that, over the past two decades, the main source of aggression and instability in the Gulf has been Iraq. One need not labour the history of the eight year war with Iran or the occupation of Kuwait. Iran, it must be emphasised again, paid the heaviest price for this: many tens of thousands dead, cities destroyed, economy disrupted. Much is made of the Scuds that Iraq launched against Saudi Arabia and Israel in 1991, and rightly so: but Iraq has in all launched around 390 scuds in its recent wars, 308 of them ie around 80 per cent, against Tehran and other Iranian cities, with the loss of over 2,226 lives and 10,705 injured. [8]There is no reason, despite the containment of the 1990s, to presume that this pattern of Iraqi behaviour is over. For all its current weaknesses, Iraq promises more danger for the whole region. Iraq will, on current expectations, become a major oil exporter again, it will become a significant military power and it could then turn on that state which has been its major enemy, Iran. That is why for the foreseeable future Iran's major security concern and the issue that gives meaning to its foreign and security policy, will remain Iraq.

  19.  Elsewhere in the Gulf, in the early 1980s Iran was supporting opposition groups in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, even Oman, but this has now ceased, in large measure, to be the case. The causes of opposition in those countries are not made in Iran but in the denial of democratic and legal guarantees to the populations of those countries. In the case of Bahrain in particular, we see a recalcitrant government, refusing to meet popular and reasonable demands for a return to the constitution abolished in 1975. It is exactly this kind of undemocratic policy that runs the risk of provoking unrest in the future. The Bahraini state is still unwarrantedly indulged by Britain and the US in this refusal: Labour policy on this has done them no credit. On the islands, there remains room for compromise, but it is not one that will be helped by Arab nationalist exaggeration of Iran's overall intentions, nor by moves, such as support by Gulf states of the Afghan taliban, that have been seen by Iran as part of an Arab attempt to encircle it on the east.

  20.  Turning to Afghanistan, we have here one of the sorriest, most criminal, chapters in the history of west Asia, one in which three countries in particular—Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA—have over two decades sought to destabilise that country and impose on it a collection of terrorist gangsters. The British government and its security services were active participant in this foolish and costly venture. The PDPA regime that came to power in April 1978 in Kabul was, in its first 20 months in power especially, responsible for terrible human rights crimes: but I was, and remain, of the view that the stabilisation of that regime, accompanied by an opening to opposition groups, was the best hope for the future of Afghanistan. One need only look at the ex-communist regimes of Central Asia today with which the UK is happy to trade and have relations. Nowhere is the myth of western hostility to political Islam turned on its head more than here, where in the largest covert operation in its history, the CIA backed the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who first rose to prominence throwing acid in the face of women students at Kabul university, in his fight against the PDPA regime. With the predictable civil war between supposed allies that followed the collapse of the PDPA regime in 1992, Pakistan, with Saudi money, has now created an even greater monster, the taliban, an organisation whose contempt for human rights, for women and now for the rights of ethnic minorities is known to all. That Pakistan is now reaping the fruits of this irresponsibility, through the proliferation of arms, drugs and inter-ethnic strife should bring no comfort. It does, however, set in some perspective any claim that it is Iran, a country which has hosted over two million Afghan refugees largely at its own expense, but which played a secondary role in the Afghan conflict, which is the major source of instability in the region. Indeed, it is a strange irony that the one area in which Washington and Tehran are now, prior to any general normalisation, engaged in direct negotiation, through what is termed the "Six plus two talks", with a view to conflict resolution, is Afghanistan.

  21.  In the republics of the former Soviet Union Iran has not pursued particular advantage in the former Muslim republics of the USSR. It has implemented what has been termed siasat-i dast-i gol, the policy of the bouquet of flowers, ie greeting whoever turns up at Tehran airport from those countries irrespective of ideology. In Tajikistan Iran has, in conjunction with other Central Asian states, sought to mediate. In the Nagorno-Karabagh dispute Iran has, contrary to any supposition of Islamic solidarity, formed an alliance with Armenia against Shi'ite but pro-Turkish and pro-American Azerbaijan.

  22.  Iran's policy in another part of the former communist world, namely Bosnia, is also worth mentioning: from the imprecise information available, it would seem that Iran supplied arms and security personnel to Bosnia in the period 1993-95 in violation of the embargo on supplies to both sides. A mistaken policy, it might be said, and evidence of Iran's interference in countries far from its frontier—the first time, indeed, that Iran had played a militarily significant role on European soil since the time of the battle of Thermopylae, in 480 BC, a while ago. But on closer examination it turns out that this Iranian involvement, for which it has subsequently been condemned in the west, was carried out with the knowledge of, and, tacit acceptance by the US government and the CIA in particular. Just as Washington was doing what it could to circumvent the embargo, and aid both the Croatians and the Bosnians, it allowed Iranian men and material to reach Sarajevo. This was, therefore, hardly an index of Iran's rogue or outlaw behaviour.

  23.  We can now come to the most contentious issue of all, the Arab-Israeli dispute. Here the record one that certainly merits criticism. Since the revolution of 1979, Iran has not only had no relations with Israel but has, implicitly and on some occasions explicitly, denied the right of an Israeli state to exist. In this its policy is rather similar to that which China, forever denouncing Soviet "revisionist" indulgence of Israel, pursued from the mid-1950s until the late 1970s. Iran has in addition provided some material aid to one of the Palestinian groups most opposed to the state of Israel, Islamic Jihad, and has also, through Syria and its Islamic Guards units in Lebanon, backed the Lebanese Hizbullah. The central point, that Iran has not only criticised Israeli policy, but has also promoted a policy aimed against a two-state solution, was until recently valid. It represented a throw back to the intransigent, rejectionist, Arab attitudes of the 1950s and 1960s and in no way accorded with Iran's national interest. Nor does it accord with the interests of those, in Palestine and Israel, who support the kind of two-state compromise that is made possible by the 1993 Oslo accords.

  24.  Contrary to most people, however, I do not think external pressure will make that much difference to the Israeli-Palestinian relations: the key lies in the evolution of opinion within both nations. The idea of a bi-national state, involving Palestinians and Israelis, has long ceased to be relevant, if it ever was: but the peace process is a bi-national one, since it involves support, what in Northern Ireland would be termed "sufficient consensus", in both communities. The last thing the Palestinians need is Iran, or any other state, engaging in self-indulgent rhetorical excess from afar. The Palestinians, and the large number of people in Israel who are willing to envisage a two-state compromise, including on east Jerusalem, need a firm, critical and responsible, engagement by Iran in the process, the better to secure a just and lasting settlement. This is something the Syrians, rather too comfortable in their rejectionism, could also do more to engage in. But this is not a one-way process either. Iran is criticised for having refused to recognise the right of the Israelis to a state, but the obverse also applies: an Iranian engagement in negotiations on a two-state solution will make little difference if those in Israel and elsewhere who, in a mirror image of anti-Israeli rejectionism, have persisted in their refusal to accept the right of the Palestinians to their state, on the territory occupied by Israel in 1967, continue to do so.

  25.  The support for Islamic Jihad and, indirectly, for Hamas may be less significant than is claimed: no only argues that these groups get their main support from Iran. As for Hizbullah in Lebanon, we are dealing here with an organisation that is both political and military: like Sinn Fein/IRA in Ireland it is not a purely military organisation; in Hizbullah's case it has representatives in the Lebanese parliament—no boycotts here. The hope must be that now that the issue of the occupied security zone in southern Lebanon has been resolved, by an Israeli withdrawal, politics can prevail in Lebanon. Iran has assisted this process, supporting the incorporation of Hizbullah into Lebanese political life, and encouraging an Israeli withdrawal in return for a cease-fire. This is arguably the best news to come out of the region for some time.


  26.  The picture painted here of Iran's regional involvements is designed to underline two points: first, that Iran's regional policies cannot be seen in relation to one specific conflict, and certainly not the Arab-Israeli, but as part of an attempt to manage, and in some cases take advantage of, a broader mosaic of conflicts; secondly, while some of Iran's policies—its official position on Israel most of all—have contributed to exacerbating regional problems, Iran is far from being the only, or even main, source of instability in the region. There remain, however, specific questions that stand in the way of an improvement of western relations with Iran, three issues that recur in US and EU statements, to which UK policy is sensitive, and which have to be addressed in their own right. The first is the Arab-Israeli question itself. Iran has already moved some way on this: by meeting twice with Arafat at the OIC summit in December 1997, and by denouncing terrorism, Khatami has opened the possibility, one cannot say more than that, of the kind of change mentioned above. Meanwhile, the progress of peace in Lebanon has removed the greatest single irritant in Iranian-Israeli relations.

  27.  Involving both the Gulf and Arab-Israeli contexts, is the second issue, that of weapons of mass destruction, specifically nuclear weapons. The charge is two-fold: one that Iran is, at its Bushehr nuclear plant, engaged in a programme that will give it nuclear weapons material, probably in a few years; two, that at the Shahid Himmat Industrial Group research facility south of Tehran it is, with Russian help, assembling the materials for a missile based on the Russian SS-4 with a range of 1,250 miles. Both are being carried out, it is claimed, with Russian help. Israel and the USA, not to mention Prime Minister Tony Blair and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, have been trying to get the Russians to stop this flow of material and expertise to Iran, as the Americans have with regard to the two other states believed to be helping Iran, China and North Korea. The Iranians, of course, deny both charges, but given the region they are in, and given to date the quite unreliable character of Russian export controls, one would be prudent in suspecting that some programme is afoot. It is not necessarily a crash programme and much will depend on what happens in Iraq, but the probability is of such an intention. No one suggests that Iran would use this material in the short run and it is in all likelihood designed as a deterrent against Iraq. But in Israel in particular there is concern. The Israeli position is that Iran and Iraq now constitute its two main enemies, and they believe that Iran will within a short time have a missile capability capable of hitting Tel Aviv. In these circumstances, and given the precedent of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq, there remains a danger of an Israeli strike against Iran.

  28.  Iran has, of course, denied any such intention or capability. It has signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Act, both of which permit international inspection, as it has the treaty on chemical weapons. But in the current climate of the region this will not be sufficient. The long-term solution has to be to find a way of creating a security framework for the region, through arms control agreements and confidence building measures, that will, if not remove all nuclear weapons, reduce fears of their irresponsible, or first, use. Here it is essential to remember why Iran faces a threat: it is not from Israel, nor from the west, but from states nearer home, notably Iraq. The precedent for such a security framework exists in the European case—in the negotiations and building of confidence that began in the 1960s and have continued to this day in the context of the OSCE. Of little relevance to the Middle East, it may be said, given the even lower levels of trust, the disproportion between Israeli and other states' capacities, and the multiplicity of conflict lines, in contrast to the single, east-west division in Europe. All this is true, but there are countervailing arguments. First, Israeli predominance is, as the Israelis are the first to say, a dubious one, given the very small geographical space their country occupies: other states in the region could survive a nuclear hit, Israel might not. Secondly, we have elements of confidence building over the past 20 years: the frontiers between Egypt and Israel, and Syria and Israel, have been stable if not cordial, while in the Gulf Iran has engaged in some limited confidence building measures, such as prior notification of naval and air manoeuvres. In the case of the Middle East the same political logic applies; the time to think about it is now. It is a pity that, when, on the initiative of Prince Hassan of Jordan, suggestions on this were floated in 1997, Iran rejected them. It would seem to be wiser to look again at confidence-building measures, something that involves the interests of all in the region. Linked as it could be to a significant shift on the Arab-Israeli question, this could provide a way of lessening concern about the purposes of Iran's military programmes.

  29.  The issue of terrorism, the third contentious question on the list, has also been given prominence by Iran's critics, and it is one that President Khatami has sought to address, distinguishing as the OIC final statement of 1997 did between terrorism, which was condemned, and acts of violence in pursuit of national liberation, which was legitimate. This is a distinction which everyone, in any religious or ethical system, can accept. If we look at the Iranian practice, we see that for much of the revolutionary period Iran has pursued its political enemies with ferocity and has violated human rights in the process, to a degree far greater than did the Shah. Iran's enemies have certainly made much of this, especially in the USA. Sometimes this has been based on facts, but sometimes not: the passage by the US Congress of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 1996 took place at a time when both the Oklahoma Bombings, and the TWA 800 disaster, were blamed on Islamic groups linked to Iran. Here too there needs to be more precision. First of all, by far the greatest number of human rights violations by the Islamic Republic have occurred inside, not outside Iran, and against Iranians themselves. Everyone in Iran knows this, and it is the end of such abuses that, is in part, the promise of Khatami's support for the rule of law. I would include in this category of violations not only persecution of political prisoners but also two particular consequences of the post 1979 interpretation of Islam that are in flagrant contradiction of international norms: the denial of civil and religious rights to Bahai and the coercive imposition of the veil on women. Both are in violation of UN conventions to which Iran is a signatory. How it works out in the future is a matter for Iranians, not least the question of how to resolve, and settle, the deaths and disappearances of the early part of the 1980s and 1988. Perhaps Iran needs a truth commission, perhaps a historic documentation of human rights abuses, by the state and its opponents. One cannot say, however, that Iran is the only country in the region where human rights violations have occurred: one can think of at least four of its neighbours where the human rights record over the past two decades has been deplorable.

  30.  Terrorism abroad involves two forms of activity: support for armed groups and assassination of enemies of the Iranian regime. Support for armed oppositions has certainly occurred though not always, as the cases of Afghanistan, Iraq and Bosnia show in ways that western states disapprove of. The case of Lebanon allows of a political solution, linked to rationalisation of Iran's position on Israel. As for the Arabian Peninsula, it would seem that Iran has abandoned support for armed opposition groups in these Arab states. This leaves unanswered the question of the Khobar bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996: but since there is no published evidence on this, and since Saudi Arabia has itself sought to improve its relations with Iran, this should not constitute an obstacle to improved relations between Iran and the west. Assassination of enemies abroad was a pattern of state activity up to the early 1990s: it claimed the life of, among others, two people I knew, Abder-Rahman Qassemlu, the KDPI leader, enticed by regime into agents into supposed negotiations in Vienna in 1989 and then murdered at the third meeting, and Shahpur Bakhtiar, a long-time opponent of the Shah and transition prime minister in 1979, who entered in the 1980s into an unwise alliance with Iraq, and the CIA, against Tehran. More recently there was the murder of more KDPI leaders in the Mykonos restaurant in Berlin, in 1992. But the incidence of that kind of action virtually ceased thereafter. It is, moreover, worth noting that the US argument on Mykonos proving the failure of the EU "critical dialogue" is mistaken, since the dialogue only started in late 1992, after the killings in the Mykonos had occurred. One could argue, but not prove, that the European "critical dialogue" of 1992-97 can count the diminution of assassination as one of its successes. The situation in the countries immediately around Iran is, of course, less clear, but here one has to distinguish between those who are themselves involved in military opposition to the Iranian regime and those which are not: for the Iranian regime to attack those who are themselves seeking to overthrow it by force may be illegal but is hardly, by any international standards, a form of terrorism.


  31.  Where does this leave us in terms of the possibilities of improvement in relations between Iran and the west and between Iran and the UK? Since 1997 we have seen a marked improvement. President Khatami has initiated a new policy at home and abroad, and there has been some reciprocation from the west. The EU including the UK has returned its ambassadors and dialogue has resumed, on the lines outlined above. In the US case friendly gestures have included the placing of the Mojahidin on the terrorism list, Clinton's message to Iran on Eid-i Fitr in 1998, sporting contacts, and some easing of visa and trade restrictions. US military officials in the Gulf have made clear that their activities there are not directed against Iran. In Washington itself opinion is certainly moving a bit: there is no enthusiasm for sanctioning foreign firms that are deemed to have violated the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, and a number of voices, academic, political and in the oil industry have called for an end to the policy. One swallow does not, however, make a summer. We have been there twice before—once, in 1986 with the Iran-Contra affair, and again, in 1989, with George Bush's tentative overture in his inaugural address as president. In both the USA and Iran there are lobbies who are against any improvement in relations. Israel too, concerned about the issue of missiles, is also circumspect. Both sides are also wary because they have still fresh in their memories occasions when they got burnt by attempts to open contacts—for the Americans it was Iran-Contra, for the Iranians it was the US-Iranian meeting in early November 1979 in Algiers, between premier Bazargan and presidential adviser Brzezinski, which precipitated the occupation of the US embassy.

  32.  In immediate terms, it is clear what both sides want. The Iranians lay special emphasis on two things: the return of the Iranian assets, mainly credit for military equipment not delivered, and held since 1979, and an easing of travel restrictions between the two countries. More generally, they want to see a lifting of the economic sanctions on Iran, with regard to investment in Iran and Iranian participation in the Caspian development. The Iran-Libyan Sanctions Act of 1996 has a time limit: it will lapse in August 2001, unless renewed. On the US side the list is clear, the issues discussed above. Progress should be possible, with the caveat that neither the US nor the Iranian president controls everyone in their own political, or state, systems: provocations of all sorts are possible.

  33.  In the longer-run, and arising out of the analysis I have offered above, I would suggest four areas to which attention might be drawn. First, if there is talk of history, and of historical wrongs, this must be two-sided. It is no good the west, or the UK, criticising Iran for what it has done in the past century if the west, and the UK, does not to some degree acknowledge what it has done. Secondly, the solution to the regional problems, not least those of nuclear weapons and missiles, cannot come through military means alone: the source, and the solution, lie in the mosaic of inter-state insecurities in the region. These have to be addressed in a spirit of confidence building, in order to create a regional security system. If Iran's particular sensibility vis-a-vis Iraq has to be addressed, Iran has, for its part, to address the consequences of its past policy towards the Arab-Israeli question. Thirdly, in Iran's relations with the Arabs, we should get away from the presentation of the conflict, beloved by nationalists on both sides, as being something timeless and inevitable: the two people have rubbed along reasonably well over the centuries, it is modern nationalism, shaped by the antagonisms and lies of states, that has given it its critical character. I did not say they can, or will, love each other, but they do not need to go to war, or sustain strategic rivalries. Finally, on UK-Iran relations, I would only stress the opportunity and the importance, of the current situation in Iran and the potentially positive role which the UK could, and should, play. I do not think that UK policy should be held back by partisan, or domestic considerations nor, while paying due attention to the views of the USA, should Washington be permitted to obstruct our initiatives. In this context, I welcome the Foreign Affairs Committee's inquiry into relations with Iran and hope that it will provide the context for a fruitful development of relations between the two countries.

September 2000

8   S Taheri Shemirani, "The War of the Cities", in Farhang Rajaee, The Iran-Iraq War (Gainesville, University of Florida Press, 1993). Back

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