Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report

7  Iran


190. Our predecessor Committee published a wide-ranging Report into Iran in 2004. Since then, the importance of Iran as a regional actor in the Middle East, and factors which affect its relations with the UK, have made it even more crucial for this Committee to consider this country carefully. We are addressing different parts of the Government's policy towards Iran in three separate ways. Recently, we published a Report on the foreign policy aspects of the recent incident involving the detention by Iranian Revolutionary Guards of UK personnel operating in the Shatt al-Arab waterway.[316] This Report addresses Iran's impact on regional dynamics in the Middle East. Finally, we launched an inquiry earlier this year on Iran's nuclear programme, for which we are still gathering evidence. We intend to report to the House on this issue in due course.

Iran's Impact on Regional Dynamics

191. Iran has had an impact on regional dynamics in the Middle East in a number of different ways. Dr Howells told us that Iran was an "emerging great power" in the region.[317] When he gave evidence to the Committee, Professor Anoush Ehteshami provided us with a broad outline of the key issues in which Iran is involved:

The issues are: Lebanon, the stability of the Sunni-led Government and the role of Hezbollah therein; Iraq and Iran's role therein; Iran's nuclear programme and its impacts—environmental, political, security and so on—on its neighbours; and last but not least, Palestine.[318]

We address the impact of these issues below.


192. As we noted in our chapter on Lebanon, there is no doubt that Iran is a key supporter of Hezbollah, both in terms of Hezbollah's domestic ambitions and its international impact. Dr Howells went so far as to call Hezbollah a "puppet organisation" run by the Iranians.[319] In his written submission, Professor Ehteshami argued that last summer's conflict in Lebanon "illustrated an altogether new dimension to Iran's regional role." He succinctly set out how this occurred:

The Iranian government's open and unreserved support for Hezbollah stood in sharp contrast to the more cautious line of the Arab governments in the Gulf and in Egypt and Jordan who largely pronounced Hezbollah's action as 'reckless' in the early days of the war… Furthermore, if this campaign was ultimately a proxy war between Tehran and Washington, as many commentators in Iran and Washington insiders have surmised, then the fact that mighty Israel was being reduced to that of the US' 'champion' in the battle against Iran's much smaller Arab protégé played out very badly in strategic terms for Israel's desire to maintain its deterrence against hostile neighbours.

However, he noted that there was an even more serious aspect to Iran's support for Hezbollah:

[T]he fact that in the eyes of the Arab masses Israel (and by extension the US) in fact lost the war will have a much bigger strategic implication for Iran's neighbours as Tehran's neoconservatives begin to position themselves as the only force able and willing not only to challenge the US-dominated status quo but also to change the regional balance of power in favour of 'the forces of Islam'.

Professor Ehteshami suggested that Iran had managed to carve out a role for itself in the Arab world, "giving it another platform" for the exercise of its power in the Middle East. He noted that this power base in Lebanon was now being reinforced through massive welfare spending projects in the Shi'a areas.[320]

193. Dr Ali Ansari argued that Iran could not "direct" Hezbollah in the way some suspect it can, using the analogy of the relationship of the US to Israel.[321] Professor Ehteshami agreed, noting that:

Iran has a very direct interest in the success of Hezbollah as a political force, just as it has been nurturing the other Shi'a organisation in Lebanon—Amal. Iran's interest is to domesticate Hezbollah as much as it can.

However, he warned that the security element of the relationship could not be ignored:

If Iran felt any threat from Israel, for instance by way of pre-emptive strike on its nuclear capabilities, I think that it would find it too difficult to resist the temptation to use Hezbollah regionally.[322]

On the basis of this evidence, it is clear that Iran's role in Lebanon is crucial to understanding the broader political dynamics of the Middle East.


194. Iraq is perhaps the most intensive and important theatre for the projection of Iranian influence across the region. We noted in our chapter on Iraq that Iran is widely believed to be having a destabilising influence in the country. In this section, we take a closer look at the nature of Iran's relationship with Iraq. Dr Rosemary Hollis told us of the connections between Iran and Iraq. She remarked:

You would have to say that the situation in the 1990s—when there was very limited coming and going, except smuggling, on the Iraq-Iran border—was more abnormal than the situation after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Government […] I do not think that you can draw a line, separate the two and say that they have no business in each other's affairs.[323]

Professor Ehteshami expressed a similar sentiment when he told us that "it always surprises me that people express concern about Iran having influence in Iraq", noting that this influence is culturally and socially rooted. Dr Ali Ansari, referring to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, highlighted a strategic aspect beyond this cultural relationship. He said that Iranians had made it,

clear that they had one single red line as far as Iraq was concerned, which was that they would not allow a military threat to emerge from the country again. I think that that is a valid concern that they have in Iran; that is what they want to do. Therefore, they will exercise a certain amount of influence.[324]

195. We have seen that the Government is now openly speculating about the disturbing and negative influence of Iran in Iraq. Dr Ansari told us that with regard to issues of "sabotage and insurgency support", one is required to distinguish "between elements of what we would call the formal Government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which sometimes has a separate agenda." However, he did acknowledge that the two were linked when he commented that the ascendancy of Iran's President Ahmedinejad in 2005 let the Revolutionary Guard "off the leash."[325]

196. We are particularly interested in this issue of different agendas and power struggles within Iran itself, and how this impacts on Iraq. Dr Ansari addressed differences of opinion with regard to coalition forces in Iraq, telling us that:

There are two schools of thought within Iran on the issue […] On one hand, they would rather not have permanent American bases in Iraq; at the same time there is a range of views in Iraq that say, 'The Americans should at least clear up the mess they made and then they can go. Let's not get them out now.' On the other hand, there are also those—let us be honest about it—who are extremely ideologically ill-disposed towards the west […] who think this is a good opportunity to irritate and harass them and force them out.[326]

197. In his written submission, Professor Ehteshami warned how the situation in Iraq could affect the dynamic between Iran and other states in the region. He argued that,

when one hears a high ranking Saudi official say that 'Iraq is already a lost battle', then one is left with little doubt that a much bigger crisis than the 2003 Iraq war itself will be facing the region in the seasons to come. Without regional co-ordination, or indeed a security dialogue between Tehran and Washington, the drift in Iraq will deepen the chasm between Iran and its Arab neighbours.[327]

This is not an appealing prospect.


198. In 2005, President Ahmedinejad notoriously remarked that Israel should be "wiped off the face of the earth."[328] He has also hosted a holocaust denial conference in Tehran. Professor Ehteshami told us that the President's rhetoric has killed the efforts (that were beginning to emerge under his predecessor, President Mohammed Khatami) to "establish intellectually Israel's right to exist."[329] Dr Ansari argued that his pronouncements were aimed at "the wider Arab world rather than the Iranian world", and that he leaned towards "Islamist-populist" tendencies. He noted that the holocaust conference had "engendered a certain amount of very negative reaction in Iran" itself.[330]

199. Iran funds and politically supports the Hamas movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[331] Professor Ehteshami told us about Iran's relationship with the Palestinians:

Iran's reach has not come through just polemical or ideological support for the Palestinians. For the first time, there is a Government in the Palestinian Territories—a Hamas-led Government—who choose to make their first foreign trip to Tehran and not to an Arab capital.

He told the Committee that Iran had supplanted the EU as the biggest financial backer to the Palestinian Authority, and that this had "not sat well with the Arab world", in particular those states such as Saudi Arabia that have a large stake in the Palestine issue and Egypt and Jordan, who "are worried about how Iran could influence" their relations with Israel. He argued that US pressure on Arab states not to deal with Hamas had left an opening that Iran was able to exploit.[332]

200. Earlier in this Report, we outlined Saudi Arabia's role in establishing the national unity Government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories through the Mecca agreement. Given Saudi Arabia's broad regional opposition to Iran, we asked Dr Gooderham how Iran would react to the agreement. In his reply, he noted that Iran has,

said from time to time that it would accept any outcome to which the Palestinian people themselves were committed. Naturally, we hope that it will abide by that and that, if a Government of national unity are formed and their platform reflects the three Quartet principles, Iran will not attempt to undermine that Government and bring about their collapse.[333]

Professor Ehteshami warned the Committee that it would be easy for Iran to oppose the Mecca agreement if it sensed that Hamas was being coaxed into "changing sides."[334] However, as we have documented in this Report, the EU and US did not alter their relationship with Hamas following Mecca. Iran's ability to influence Hamas was therefore not seriously challenged, and indeed could have been increased.

201. There are fears that the events of June 2007 will only serve to strengthen Iran's influence with Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The isolation faced by Hamas in the Arab world following its forceful takeover arguably leaves it more reliant than ever on its core political support. It remains to be seen how Iran will seek to influence Hamas in the coming months.


202. It is important to consider the changing nature of Iran's relationship with states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. We noted earlier that Dr Howells referred to Iran as an "emerging great power" in the Middle East. At an earlier evidence session, Dr Gooderham had warned us that not all states felt this way. He noted that:

You say that Iran sees itself as the regional power. I do not think that any other country in the region sees it, or wants to see it, as the regional power. Some of the activity that we have seen on the part of the Arab Governments, particularly since the Lebanon war, has clearly reflected that. There has been a determination to demonstrate that actually there are other Governments in the region who can play a positive role and are determined to try to do so. That is why there has been the emergence of the so-called Arab quartet, which is an informal grouping.

The Arab Quartet is comprised of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Dr Gooderham emphasised how the Arab Quartet's work on the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in particular, was attempting to counter Iran's role in the region.[335]

203. The issue of Iran's nuclear programme also impacts on its relationship with key Arab states. Professor Shai Feldman, in his written submission, argued that following the Iraq war, Iran was the dominant local power in the Gulf region.[336] The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), an organisation comprising of six Arab states, has expressed concern at Iran's nuclear development. Professor Ehteshami wrote that in September 2006,

without a hint of irony, the GCC Secretary-General used a major conference on the risks of nuclear pollution and proliferation to call on the Arab world to join forces to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes.

He further argues that if Iran is able to develop nuclear weapons unhindered, "it will have acquired a major lead over all its neighbours in both geopolitical and geo-strategic terms." This will represent a "major shift in power" away from the Gulf Arab states towards Iran, and will impact on all who rely on the Persian Gulf for energy supplies.[337]

204. Ultimately, Professor Ehteshami warned that the key question now was whether Tehran would be able to develop, "for the first time in Iran's modern history" an "uninterrupted chain of alliances that would take its influence from Afghanistan and Tajikistan to the east right across to Lebanon and Palestine in the west."[338] Dr Ansari made an interesting point when he argued that:

When we talk about Iran's growing regional influence, one of the things that we have to bear in mind is that a lot of this is a consequence of own goals that have been scored by various parties in the Middle East.[339]

Whether it is Israel's perceived defeat in Lebanon, the inability to sustain the national unity Government in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, or the lack of planning for the aftermath of the Iraq war, this argument appears to hold.

The Role of the UK & the International Community

205. The UK established full diplomatic relations with Iran in the late 1990s. Professor Ehteshami told the Committee that Britain's relationship with Iran is "long-standing and complicated."[340] Dr Ansari agreed, arguing that "there is no more complex relationship than that which Iran has with the United Kingdom." This, he argued, had an important historical dimension that is "extremely sensitive" on all sides.[341] The historical dimension refers to events such as the British influence in Iran during the period of Empire, Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa against Sir Salman Rushdie and, as Professor Ehteshami noted, Iran's unwillingness to forget the role that the UK played in toppling Prime Minister Mossadeq through a coup in the 1950s.[342] Dr Ansari told the Committee that:

The Iranians certainly value the relationship with the United Kingdom. There is a strong element of respect for what the British can do politically. That is historically founded. There is obviously also a great deal of cynicism as to what Britain can do politically. That means that it is a relationship that has to be worked on […]

There is clearly a huge amount that Britain can do, and it can play a very positive role, but it needs to be done very much with an eye on history.[343]

206. We asked our witnesses whether Iran saw the UK more as a trans-Atlantic player or as a member of the European Union. Professor Ehteshami replied:

I would say that it sees Britain in both roles. It sees Britain as the United States' closest global ally alongside Israel, which is a problem for Tehran. At the same time, being America's closest ally apart from Israel is an opportunity. One gets the interesting sense that Iran sees Britain much less as a European Union power than as a transatlantic actor. It is that perceived capacity that I think causes Tehran to give weight to Britain's voice internationally.[344]

Dr Ansari believed that, given the variety of views in Iran, different parts of the political spectrum viewed the relationship with the UK in different ways:

The current Government in Iran, with Mr. Ahmadinejad, has an ideological dislike of the United Kingdom—'You are the little Satan, but not a poor one.' That would be quite difficult, but there is a range of opinions in Iran, particularly in the previous Government and also among moderate conservatives and others who would see some sort of relationship with Britain as very positive.[345]

207. The UK is engaged with Iran over a number of issues, including Afghanistan, the various crises in the Middle East and Iran's nuclear programme. We were told by Dr Ansari that "Iranians see everything in a holistic way. I do not think that they separate those issues." He warned that "the tendency of western analysts to categorise and compartmentalise things does not work" when addressing the relationship with Iran. However, Professor Ehteshami believed that there were specific issues that could be addressed without addressing the whole. For example, he told the Committee that the City of London is "crucial to Iran's international trade" and that it has the potential to be an important partner for Iran's business community.[346]

208. The US has no diplomatic relationship with Iran. However, as noted earlier in this Report, it has begun to engage with Tehran on the issue of Iraq in recent months. Simon McDonald told the Committee that the US and the UK have differences in their diplomatic approach to Iran:

We have not had press conferences. We are trying to change Iranian behaviour. That is a central feature of our dialogue with Tehran.

However, as noted elsewhere in this Report, he did acknowledge that US policy was "evolving".[347]

209. We conclude that Iran is rapidly increasing its influence and power across the Middle East. It has demonstrated that it is able to generate or exploit crises in a range of countries, thus furthering its own interests. We conclude that it is vital that the UK and the international community engage constructively and coherently with Iran on these difficult issues. We will consider the challenge of engagement, in particular on Iran's nuclear programme, in greater depth in our report on Global Security: Iran.

316   Foreign Affairs Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2006-07, Foreign Policy Aspects of the Detention of Naval personnel by the Islamic Republic of Iran, HC 880 Back

317   Q 192 Back

318   Q 114 Back

319   Q 178 Back

320   Ev 31, para 9 Back

321   Q 118 Back

322   Q 119 Back

323   Q 74 Back

324   Q 109 Back

325   Q 109 Back

326   Q 110 Back

327   Ev 32, para 15 Back

328   "Israel should be wiped off map, says Iran's president", The Guardian, 27 October 2005 Back

329   Q 116 Back

330   Q 115 Back

331   Q 10 Back

332   Q 114 Back

333   Q 34 Back

334   Q 114 Back

335   Q 52 Back

336   Ev 94, para 14 Back

337   Ev 33, para 17 Back

338   Ev 33, para 17 Back

339   Q 114 Back

340   Q 120 Back

341   Q 121 Back

342   Q 120 Back

343   Q 121 Back

344   Q 120 Back

345   Q 122 Back

346   Q 123 Back

347   Q 40 Back

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Prepared 13 August 2007