Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Written evidence submitted by Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Durham University



  The Middle East region is going through unprecedented change at present, combining oil income-generated prosperity and wealth creation in the Gulf Co-operation Council countries with massive geopolitical dislocation brought about by regime changes in Afghanistan and Iraq and the never ending War on Terror. The strategic consequences of these developments have again put the spotlight on the Persian Gulf sub-region, with special attention being paid to Iran and Iraq. The dynamics of the fall of Baghdad in April 2003 also provide the geopolitical backdrop for the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West (and the UNSC since the passing of UNSCR 1737 in December 2006) and Iran's enhanced presence across the Middle East.


  1.  Iraq and Iran's nuclear programme remain the most problematic issues for the Persain Gulf region to manage at the present time, which have been compounded since 2006 by the growing tensions between Iran and the West over the direction of Iran's nuclear-related activities and the possible consequences of the stand-off for regional security as a whole. While the US has continued to refuse to take the use of force against Iran off the table—as demonstrated by VP Dick Cheney's statement in Pakistan in February 2007—with Iraq still burning few regional leaders were displaying any appetite for yet another military conflict engulfing the area. This has been so despite the Arab world's many reservations about Iran's nuclear programme and the conduct of its nuclear diplomacy. The so-called 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah was one instant of the geopolitical tensions befalling the region, but not by any means an end in itself if viewed in the context of the other regional developments. The reasons for this rather gloomy assessment stems—in part—from the fear that Iran under President Ahmadinejad may finally have entered a period of post-de[acute]tente in its relations with the outside world. Post-de[acute]tente may not mean post-reconciliation, but has, in practice, meant a harder Iranian foreign policy line as populist-nationalism of this neoconservative administration has taken hold.

  2.  At home little doubt has been left that Iran has been "deliberalizing" under Ahmadinejad. The assault on the seats of learning, the arts, cultural openness, the press, and the publishing community has been matched by senior personnel changes which have brought to the centres of decision-making individuals with close proximity to the president himself and also close to the powerful Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). 1 These changes at home have been accompanied by a hardening tempo in foreign relations. The growing "securatization" of Iran's domestic and foreign policies has been fed by rising tensions in the region. Lebanon, following the election victory of Hamas in Palestine in January 2006, provided for the deepening of the set of regional crises that Iraq and the apparently unending war on terror had already created.


  3.  The July-August 2007 conflict in Lebanon illustrated an altogether new dimension to Iran's regional role in these rather tense circumstances. The perception of an Iranian-backed small but dedicated militia "winning" the first Arab war against Israel in the Jewish state's 60 year history has scarcely been resisted in commentaries. Although the true cost of the war to the Arab side—Israel's unlikely willingness to give up any Palestinian or Syrian territory without cast iron and enforceable security guarantees, death and destruction visited on Lebanon, major loss of life and property amongst the Lebanese population, the arrival of more foreign military forces in Lebanon, political instability in Lebanon, and the deepening of factional and sectarian differences in the country—are indeed great, one is still left with the feeling in the region that Hezbollah and its 15,000 militia has managed to dent Israel's aura of invisibility. The fact that Hezbollah had apparently single-handedly fought the Arabs" longest war with Israel to the bitter end—firing some 246 rockets into Israel on the last day of the war, superseding the previous record of 231 fired on August 2nd—and had forced Israel to agree to an internationally negotiated cease-fire with it were sufficient reasons for it to feel victorious and for Iran to feel proud of its own role and achievements. 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. The fact that this line changed to one of muted expression of support for the "Lebanese resistance" half way through the war was perhaps a clear indication of the groundswell of support on the Arab street for what was portrayed by the Arab media as Hezbollah's heroism in the face of an unjust onslaught. 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 prote[acute]ge[acute] played out very badly in strategic terms for Israel's desire to maintain its deterrence against hostile neighbours, and particularly against an emboldened Iran. But even more seriously, the 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".

  4.  For Iran, its popular opposition to the current situation in the Arab-Israeli conflict—its declared position of resistance and rejection of what it calls "imposed solutions"—enjoys legitimacy at home and on the Arab street, including in many GCC countries. On this foundation the Ahmadinejad administration has built a much wider commitment to the Palestinian cause, as championed by the Hamas-led government until early 2007.  Tehran's growing diplomatic and financial commitment to the Palestinian government—high level and publicized visits by Hamas authorities to Iran and in excess of $120 million in aid in 2006—combined with Palestinian expressions of gratitude to Iran during their time of hardship continues to win Iran supporters. But what is less apparent is the chasm that is widening between Iran's vision of peace in Palestine and that of the Saudi-led "Abdullah plan" presented at the 2003 Beirut Arab Summit and since followed up by the Saudi-forged Palestinian "national dialogue" between Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas" Fatah-led forces in January 2007. Last year it was President Ahamadinejad's imprudent comments about Zionism and the state of Israel that complicated Tehran's relations with its GCC neighbours; for this year we can add their competing approaches to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a further complicating factor.

  5.  Iran and Hezbollah, moreover, have spared no expense to kick-start a massive rebuilding programme of both the private and public facades of Lebanon. Iran has not only raised substantial amounts of cash through private donations, but has also seen its government commit as much as $50 million to the rebuilding of Lebanon. This is sum equivalent to what Saudi Arabia offered in aid in July. Iran announced in October 2006 that it was going to build and fully equip 60 schools in Beirut alone and a further 40 in the Bekaa Valley. In addition, it was to build five hospitals in southern Beirut, four in the Bekaa and a further 10 in the south of the country. It also announced a plan for the rebuilding of roads, bridges, mosques and Shia places of learning across the country. Such expression of intra-Shia solidarity, which has included material support for the Lebanese Shia communities, has also been seen in the GCC countries. In practice, such open expressions of solidarity help in making common cause with Iran as well, albeit indirectly at present, further fuelling Arab concerns about Iran's geopolitical and geo-cultural reach in the post-Saddam era.


  6.  Matters remain fluid largely due to the fact that the greater Middle East region in general and the Persian Gulf sub-region in particular do not have a viable and effective security regime in place to regulate regional relations and help in defusing tensions. This is a grave irony, given the strategic importance of this area to international security and economic relations. Indicative of the negative impact that the absence of region-wide security structures or networks has had was the potentially serious crisis over the "fishing boats" dispute between Iran on the one hand, and the UAE and Qatar on the other in 2004.  The capture of an Iranian shipping boat and its crew off the coast of Dubai in June of that year, and Iran's response by detaining seven UAE fishing boats and their 28 crew members, helped in raising the political temperatures on both sides of the waterway. To Tehran, this was another ploy to assert the UAE's claim to the three islands, while to the GCC it again illustrated Iranian intransigence and Tehran's militaristic approach to problem solving with its southern neighbours. Although disputes of this nature are not uncommon, the ease with which the fishing boat incident escalated is disturbing, particularly as it led to an attack by the Qatari navy on another fishing boat, detention of a further two boats, and the death of an Iranian fisherman. In a short period of time, Tehran had found itself entangled with two of its neighbours simultaneously. Did the fishing boats incidents disguise deeper security problems stretching across the Gulf? The answer is almost invariably yes. With the UAE, the islands dispute is in danger of becoming a permanent fixture of bilateral relations, but at least both sides have seen fit to "manage" it. At the same time, however, both sides are suspicious of the other's motives in national security terms and there exists the danger that the islands dispute could ignite a much wider conflict.

  7.  The dispute with Qatar was altogether different, but equally dangerous, for here the two countries share a much bigger prize: Access to the world's biggest off-shore natural gas reservoir (some 7% of global known reserves) straddling their territorial waters. With Iranians warning their southern neighbours that they should moderate their output from the shared field, and aim to settle their disputes with Tehran "through negotiations instead of confrontation",2 one can envisage a situation in which Doha or a GCC neighbour seeking military support from its resident military ally, the United States, thus raising the political temperature even further. In the current environment, Iran could misinterpret GCC moves and actually take an even harder line in its discussions with its neighbours, accelerating the cycle of enmity.

  8.  The absence of transparent regional security structures, therefore, means that an apparently small incident could unravel what might appear to be cordial relations. In addition, without a framework for security dialogue any moves by the GCC states to improve their links with the West also could be viewed with great suspicion by Tehran. Note in this regard Iran's rather frosty response to the EU-GCC final statement issued on 18th of May 2004 in Brussels, which proposed that the three islands dispute be referred to the international court of justice in the Hague. Tehran saw in this statement, opportunistic gains by the two parties. It saw the EU using the EU-GCC roundtable as an opportunity to apply renewed pressure on Tehran over its nuclear activities; and it saw the UAE capitalising on the broader EU-GCC dialogue for its own narrow ends against Iran. From Tehran's perspective, the growing relationship between the EU and the GCC had added to its security challenges in the Persian Gulf.

  9.  Iran's suspicions have grown at a most inopportune time, however, as it finds itself entangled with both the EU and the United States over its nuclear programme. The GCC states, of course, also look with great concern at Iran's ambitious nuclear-related plans. Security continues to matter in the region, therefore, forming the most important element of immediate concerns in the region. In terms of security matters themselves, such issues as Iraq, terrorism, Iran's nuclear programme pose serious challenges for the two sides to manage their affairs without suspicion. Yet the position that Tehran has been adopting since autumn 2005 does raise a number of issues. If any new evidence for this observation was needed then the Lebanon crisis and the significant role that Iran has consequently managed to carve for itself at the heart of the Arab world should suffice. Like most wars, this one too injected a noticeable degree of dynamism into the regional system and allowed the proactive parties to it to capitalize on its course and make gains at its end. In Iran's case, the gain has been at the regional level, giving it another platform for the exercise of its role in the Middle East in general, and its own neighbourhood in particular. This strategic link which has emerged since late 2001 between Iran's growing regional role and the geopolitics of its engagements has been graphically outlined by the head of the IRGC, General Yahya Rahim Safavi, who explained in an interview in Tehran that "if the Zionist regime or the Americans make problems for us and organize attacks against us . . . [they should remember that ] The Zionist regime is about 1,300 kilometers from our centers. If we have a missile range of 2,000 kilometers, it is only natural that a distance of 1,300 kilometers is within this range. I'd [also] like to say something else . . . the Zionist regime was defeated by a group of Hizbullah in Lebanon ... After all, Hizbullah is a small group in Lebanon, which defeated the Israeli army in this 33-day war. How can Israel withstand a great nation that numbers 70 million, 90 percent of which are Shiites? As for the IRGC and the Basij—we have 10 million Basij members and strong Revolutionary Guards. There is no comparison".3 The message is clear: Iran, is now ready for a showdown with the US-Israel regional axis.

  10.  It has also been stressed by Iranian officials that its armed forces were so well placed that they could drive Iran's advantages home at the sub-regional level too. These added security concerns were unwelcome additions to the on-going nuclear stand-off between Iran and the West/international community, which in 2006 moved closer to open confrontation between Iran and the Western members of the Security Council. The GCC's line on the nuclear standoff itself has begun to show signs of hardening, in particular over fears of radiation contamination in the waterway. In March 2006, Iran's nuclear programme was described as a "major concern" for the GCC states. 4 Two key problems vex the GCC states. First, that Iran's nuclear reactor (Bushehr) was well within the internationally agreed 500 km distance radius of settlements in the Persian Gulf region and any accident at the reactor would require the resettlement of entire countries, which would be an unprecedented problem for the region and the international community to manage. In the case of Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar, they were 200 km or less from the reactor and in the case of Saudi Arabia its oil-rich Eastern Province was a short distance away. The second issue relates to water supplies. As the GCC states are dependent on Gulf waters for some 80% of their water supplies any radiation leaks from Bushehr would spell disaster for virtually every neighbouring country.

  11.  It is therefore interesting that Gulf Arab leaders have been ready to make much more direct statements about Iran's nuclear-related activities. Shaikh Mohammed bin Zayed, for example, stated in the presence of the French president at the Elysee Palace on 21st of January 2006 that "we are against Iran acquiring [a nuclear capability]" and that "any nuclear programme will pose a threat to the Gulf region".5 The tough words of the GCC have often been articulated by the GCC secretariat and it has been the GCC Secretary-General who has stated that if Iran was to be found in breach of its IAEA obligations and if "all dialogue" were to fail, the GCC "would have no objection in referring Iran's nuclear issue to the UN Security Council".6 The GCC foreign ministers turned the diplomatic screw further by demanding, at their 98th ministerial meeting in early March 2006, that Iran should address the three islands dispute with the UAE at the same time as urging Tehran "to respond positively to the international demands and initiatives" in respect of its nuclear programme. 7 Iran's announcement in April that it had successfully enriched uranium to the level needed to make reactor fuel triggered a deeper sense of anxiety across the waterway, however. The UAE foreign minister has added that the GCC would need "more assurances and guarantees" that Iran's programme was peaceful. 8

  12.  Following former president Rafsanjani's visit to Kuwait immediately after this announcement to provide "assurances" about Iran's nuclear activities, it emerged that Kuwait in fact had led the GCC countries" efforts to take practical steps against nuclear fallout and had created a nuclear-fallout emergency and contingency plan for the member states. The real news though broke in September 2006 in Bahrain when, and 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. The fears by the international community that Iran's nuclear activities and its unwillingness to compromise over its programme would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation across the region were dangerously closer to being realized, with far-reaching consequences for the region as a whole.

  13.  Iran's five high-profile military exercises and war games since early 2006 have done little to address concerns about an uncontrollable spread of crisis from Palestine to Iraq and Lebanon to include Iran. While the week-long naval war games of the Islamic Republic was treated in a low key fashion, eliciting the response that "it is not the first time they have had manoeuvres. We do not believe that they are a threat to any of their neighbors",9 the GCC and Iranian exercises in summer and autumn 2006 proved to provide new flashpoints for both sides to disagree upon. Iran's announcement in August that it had successfully test-fired a long-range radar-evading air defence missile (known as Sagheb) from one of its three Russian-supplied Kilo-class submarines during its war games in that month was the first signal that such exercises were now directly being used as a means of both deterring the West and the US in particular and also pressing the GCC states into distancing themselves from the US' military ambitions and designs in the Persian Gulf.

  14.  This exercise was followed by another round of military exercises in November 2006, the "Great Prophet 2" exercises, during which Iran's Revolutionary Guards practiced firing cluster warheads mounted on Shahab-2 missiles and testing Iran's other long-range missile systems, notably Shahab-2 and Shahab-3 and Zolfaghar-73.  The respective range of the two main systems is said to be 700 km and 2,000 km, bringing much of the Arabian Peninsula into range. The cluster bombs generate some 1,400 bomblets on detonation. The exercises took Iranian forces to the Sea of Oman and around the Strait of Hormuz, coinciding with an US-led military exercise to include the GCC states. Iranian military exercises in February 2007 added to the sense of crisis. Symbolically at least the battle lines have already been drawn, despite the assurances from Tehran and the GCC to each other that neither is target of these activities. Nevertheless, the nature of these various exercises indicate only of the military planners' desire on the Iranian and the American sides to be ready for when rhetoric gives way to action.


  15.  In all this, Iraq has a central place. Since 2006, the on-going violence—some 120 Iraqis dying every day in the country according to the UN—has created a greater sense of tension in the area, raising greater concerns about the security and territorial integrity of Iraq in the medium-term. But tensions in Iraq have also underlined the need for a region-wide approach to the security situation in Iraq. The phrase "civil war" has gained common usage and even in the US these words are being used on a regular basis. The US-led Coalition's inability to contain the insurgency as one set of concerns was compounded this year by talk of a possible US-Iran "understanding" being reached over Iraq that might exclude Arab and GCC involvement. In the meanwhile Baghdad has drawn inexorably closer to Iran under the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Under the first six months of his premiership he signed a comprehensive co-operation agreement with Iran and one of the most important of these on broad security and economic co-operation he signed on 11th of September 2006, the same day on which the GCC Secretary-General called for Arabs to develop the use of nuclear technology for themselves. Nevertheless, Iraqis continue to complain about Iranian and Syrian interference in their country's internal affairs. 10 There is, nonetheless some room for optimism were Iran and Syria able to contain the internal security crisis of Iraq. But on the other hand, when one hears a high ranking Saudi official say that "Iraq is already a lost battle",11 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. With Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia apparently forming a defensive bloc against King Abdullah II's "Shia crescent", the position that Iran will adopt with relation to Iraq and also with regard to Baghdad's relations with its Sunni Arab neighbours will play directly into the direction of relations between Tehran itself and the leading Sunni Arab states. While with Saudi Arabia Tehran may have an open door relationship, relations with Jordan and Egypt are at a low ebb, adding to Jordanian and Egyptian suspicions of Iranian involvement in their core issue—the Arab-Israeli conflict. This fear is reinforced of course by the close partnership between Iran and Syria.


  16.  Over a short period of time since 2002 a structural imbalance has begun to emerge between Iran's position in the Arab-Israeli conflict and that of the pro-Western Arab governments which Tehran has been able to exploit to great effect at times of crisis. So far it has been able to do so without too much cost in terms of its relations with Arab states, but this can change at any time if the nuclear issue, or Iran's role in Iraq, continue to erode Arab confidence in the Iranian administration.

  17.  My sense is that since autumn 2005 a new situation in terms of relations between Iran and its Arab neighbours can be discerned. With Iraq Tehran has now entered an unique and perhaps enviable partnership and with every passing day its role there is being strengthened. Once the Coalition forces leave, of course, Iraq will be even more dependent on Iran for political, socio-economic and ultimately security support. When the military connection is added as a formal basket of bilateral relations, then we will be marking a dramatic shift in the balance of power in this vital sub-region. Were Iran able to continue with its nuclear programme unhindered, then it will have acquired a major lead over all its neighbours in both geopolitical and geo-strategic terms. The consequences of such a major shift of power are great for all the parties concerned, particularly for those countries who view the Persian Gulf as the main source of their energy and an important market.

  18.  Relations between the GCC states and their northern neighbours seem to have entered a new phase, therefore, and here one has the sense of it going in a more unpredictable and unwelcome direction. With Iraq on the verge of all out civil war, the nuclear stand-off between Iran and the UN Security Council nowhere to be resolved, and the dynamics of electoral politics—from Kuwait to Bahrain in 2006—directly feeding into the GCC's internal policy parameters, the region is entering a new and highly unpredictable period in its existence. It is therefore in this wider context that I wonder if we have firmly entered the "post-détente" stage in relations between Iran in particular and its GCC neighbours. In the meanwhile, the Lebanon war and subsequent political crisis has added a new dimension to Arab-Iranian relations and has provided Tehran with a solid platform on which to build for the current leadership's foray into the Levant. Iraq could be a vital link to Iran's strategic objectives in the region and in the absence of a viable alternative to the bloodshed there its role will more than likely go unchallenged. But the bigger question to ask is will Iran's neoconservative leadership be able to create, for the first time in Iran's modern history, the 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? We already see in the role that Saudi Arabia has been playing in leading the Arab world in both Lebanon and in relation to the formation of a post-Hamas government of national unity in Palestine, that Iran's powerful Arab neighbours will not let Iran's rise go unchallenged. It would be comforting if we could interpret these moves as collective efforts to reduce tension across the Middle East, but with Iraq still a geopolitical gaping hole and Palestine and Lebanon barely away from the edge, I would rather not count my chickens until well into 2008—by which time we will not only know where Iran's nuclear dispute with the UNSC will have taken the region, but will have a much better idea of what post-Hamas Palestine and post-war Lebanon might look like politically. The train of dynamic instability is still in motion.

  Professor Anoush Ehteshami is Professor of International Relations and Head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University. He is also a Fellow of the World Economic Forum. He was Vice-President of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) 2000-2003.  His many book-length publications include: Globalization and the Middle East: Old Games, New Rules (New York: Routledge, 2007), Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives (with Mahjoob Zweiri) (London: IB Tauris, 2007), The Middle East's Relations with Asia and Russia (co-editor) (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004), The Foreign Policies of Middle East States (co-editor) (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2002), 380pp.

1International Crisis Group, Iran: Ahmadi-nejad's Tumultuous Presidency, Middle East Briefing No. 21, 6 February 2007.
2Iranian Deputy Interior Minister, Ali Asghar Ahmadi, quoted in Ettelaat International, 15 June 2004.
3The Middle East Media Research Institute, No. 1360, 17 November 2006.
4As described by UAE foreign minister on 3rd March. See Agence France-Presse, 4 March 2006.
5Gulf News, 22 January 2006.
6Khaleej Times, 20 February 2006.
7Khaleej Times, 2 March 2006.
8Speaking at a GCC foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh. Arab News, 4 June 2006.
9The words of the Saudi foreign minister. Reuters, 5 April 2006.
10Note President Jalal Talabani's comments to the US National Public Radio. Reuters, 26 September 2006.
11Comments of Nawaf Obaid, head of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, in the US. Kuwait Times, 3 November 2006.

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