Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-130)|
7 MARCH 2007
Q120 Mr. Hamilton: In 1998-99, the
late Labour Foreign Office Minister, Derek Fatchett, was responsible
with the late Robin Cook for restoring UK relations with Iran.
That marks us out from the United States, which to this day has
still not restored diplomatic relations with Iran. The UK has
tried to be a voice of reason with Iran, leading the E3 when Jack
Straw was Foreign Secretary. I today met Bronwen Maddox, foreign
editor of The Times, who confirmed that the UK and Iran
have been working on the trade in drugs that come through Afghanistan
into Iran. There has been a lot of co-operation on that. Do you
think that Iran values its co-operation and dialogue with the
United Kingdom on drugs, regional security and other issues, or
does it see the UK just as a part of the coalition with the United
States and the west?
Prof. Ehteshami: 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.
Iran has many issues, some of which go
back in history. Jack Straw himself has said that every time he
sits down to talk an Iranian official, the official starts the
conversation with the subject of Mossadegh and the 1950s, so that
he has to repent before the official will say anything else to
him. I hope he will forgive me for quoting him on that.
Britain's relations with Iran are certainly
long-standing and complicated. For the moment, Britain is playing
a useful role in Afghanistan, and Tehran is very comfortable with
the Karzai Government. Britain is in Afghanistan in forcewithin
the NATO coalitionunderpinning the Karzai Government, and
that is very welcome as far as they are concerned. However, on
the other side of Iran, in Iraq, Britain plays a very different
role. That duality tends to feed into Iran's perceptions and local
policies towards Britain. It blows hot and cold over certain issues,
and it is also affected by statements coming out of Whitehall.
Increasingly, Iranian belligerence is being echoed by bellicose
statements coming from Whitehall. It does not help matters that
Britain is increasingly put alongside the United States and Australia
as a coalition around President Bush.
Q121 Mr. Hamilton: Professor Ansari,
do you agree?
Dr. Ansari: It would be fair to
say that there is no more complex relationship than that which
Iran has with the United Kingdom. As we know, the historic relationship
is extremely dynamic and extremely sensitive on all sides. It
is not just Mossad; there are other things that the Iranians are
now very concerned about, and they believe that the British are
involved in Khuzistan, which would not be helpful. Again, that
has historical antecedents.
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 are clearly divisions within the
Government on how to approach Iran. That comes across quite clearly
when you look at the different statements coming, say, from the
Foreign Office or Downing street. These things need to be taken
into account. 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.
Q122 Mr. Hamilton: Given what you
have both said, and understanding the history and complexity of
the situation, could the Government persuade Iran to play a more
constructive role in the region, or would it simply take no notice?
Dr. Ansari: 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 positiveor
a reconfiguration of that relationship. There is no doubt in my
mind that Britain can do a lot more, but it has to be extremely
proactive about it. Iran is a difficult country in many ways,
but given that we are in Afghanistan and Iraq we cannot afford
to ignore it.
Q123 Mr. Hamilton: Is the nuclear
issue tainting what we can and cannot do, and whether or not Iran
listens to us on other issues, or is it seen as a separate issue?
Dr. Ansari: I think that the Iranians
see everything in a holistic way. I do not think that they separate
those issues. I would not necessarily say that it taints you,
but I think you have to see it as a collectiveness; all sorts
of things need to be done and you cannot deal with things separately.
But they will not read it in that way. The tendency of western
analysts to categorise and compartmentalise things does not work.
Prof. Ehteshami: The nuclear issue
does not play much in the bilateral debate; it is where Britain
sits with the US that matters. In that regard, now that EU3 is
very much in concert with the American position, it makes it much
more difficult for Britain to strike out at a tangent. So Iran
sees Britain as an important player of P5+1, as things stand now,
but beyond that, as we have heard, I would say that there is a
lot that Britain can do. Co-operational narcotics control is one
of them, but there are other areas where Britain is important.
The City of London is crucial to Iran's
international trade. In that sense, the City can be a very important
partner to the business community, which has an interest in working
with the world and not against it. That is one example. Britain's
military and industrial complex is valued in Iran. I cannot for
a moment see Whitehall selling weapons to Iran, but none the less
there is an industrial side for which Iran desperately needs expertise.
The oil industry is a classic example. Aviation is another good
example. Iran's motor cars are choking the country to death because
they are the old Hillman Huntersif nothing else, Britain
owes something to the population of Tehran. Frankly, looking at
it from the outside, you can see that countries like Germany,
Austria, France and Italy have got a real lead there, because
they have found ways of reducing the pressure from Washington
on dealing with Iranian community as a whole, not just the political
establishment. France is now, for instance, the leading motor-car
adviser-manufacturer, a position that used to be Britain's. And
we have not even touched yet on the role that China, Korea, Japan
and India are playing.
Q124 Chairman: It will be interesting
to see whether that will affect the position that the French will
take on sanctionsI will not go into that.
May I ask you some questions looking at
the region as a whole? You said that it was dangerous to compartmentalise,
Dr. Ansari, but we also have the other problem, where people generalise
too much. The Prime Minister referred to an arc of extremismdo
you think that that is a helpful concept?
Dr. Ansari: In my view, not at
all. I think again that this is what I was mentioning earlier.
As far as I can see, there is a fashion, which emerged over the
summer, to lump everyone in; basically, the Shi'as became the
bad guys, overnight. We have gone completely back to square one
following 9/11, when the bad guys were clearly radical Sunnis.
This fitted various numbers of policy requirements; that was part
of the rhetoric that helped. I am not convinced by it and I agree
that generalisation is one of the banes of our policy life.
Q125 Chairman: But King Abdullah
of Jordan talked about a Shi'a crescent as well, tying in this
point we made before about Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah and Iran.
Clearly some of the Arab regimesthe Sunni regimesfear
the rise of Shi'a Islam. It was touched on earlier, with reference
to Bahrain. There is a Sunni minority within Iranis there
potential for a Sunni-Shi'a conflict both within and between countries
in the region?
Dr. Ansari: Can I just add something
before I pass on to Anoush? I think that there is a definite agenda
there. It is an agenda-driven policy. They have fears, but it
is driven in a sense by an irrational fear, which tends towards
generalisation. I know that King Abdullah raised this; I think
a number of other Arab leaders have made some really quite astonishing
comments over the last two months. I was very struck to hear Walid
Jumblatt, the leader of the Druzenot the most orthodox
religious group in the worldof all people, describe the
Shi'as as Majus, which is Magian, essentially Zoroastrian fire
worshippers. This is very bizarre. It is very bizarre language,
which is basically, as I said, coming out of this Arab-Persian
divide. They are saying that all the Shi'as are beholden to Tehran
and so on and so forth, although the evidence on the ground does
not suggest that. There are linksof course there are linksbut
the direct idea of Persian hordes rearing their heads again is
not helpful. It does not make policy easy. It basically simplifies
us into making more mistakes.
Prof. Ehteshami: On the arc of
crisis, I can draw you a zigzag, which is even longer than an
arc, and we can still maintain the argument that there is a crisis.
There is certainly a crisis, and this thing stretches beyond Pakistan,
beyond Kashmir; you can bring it right round to Lebanon and beyond;
if a bomb goes off in Egypt tomorrow, we can include Egypt as
well, then go all the way down to Darfur. This region is in crisis.
There are reasons why the region is in crisis. One of them is
of course the geopolitical vacuum that the war in Iraq has created,
with the opportunities that therefore brought for a country like
Iran. The empowerment of the Shi'as in Iraq is akin to the genie
being out of the bottle; the Shi'a issue is now an Arab issue,
it is no longer a Persian-Arab issue. That is what is causing
concern to King Abdullah of Jordan. If I was sitting in his place,
I would have similar concerns.
Q126 Chairman: Is Iraq a bigger threat
to regional security than the other conflicts that we have been
talking about: Israel-Palestine and Lebanon?
Prof. Ehteshami: I think that
an unstable Iraq is a threat to the stability of the neighbouring
countries. If you were to ask whether that was a regional security
concern, I would say yes; but the critical regional problem is
Palestine. That, I am afraid, we cannot walk away from. Darfur
can burn; Baghdad can burn; Pakistan can be in chaos; Afghanistan
can be in chaos; I do not think that we will ever find a satisfactory
solution to Iraq without the involvement of all the neighbouring
countries; but even if we do settle Iraq, so long as we do not
have a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflictand we will
start in mandate Palestine, and hopefully get to Syriathe
region will not acquire stability, because the heart of the region
will remain unresolved. I would say that it makes perfect sense
to try to bring that one to heel, as we have the Quartet at least
dealing with it, and then move across and deal with Iraq.
Before I hand over to Ali, may I add one
more thing, which we have not had a chance to talk about? The
complexities of the region are underpinned by the absence of any
regional forum to enable dialogue between competing forces and
parties. That strikes me as a real absence. Britain, and the European
Union more broadly, can play a significant role, in bringing 27
diverse countries into one union. The European Union model is
important for preaching the message of dialogue and compromise.
No one else out there can do that more effectively. It is ironic
that we do not have that in place in a region that the world so
concretely and directly depends on for its security.
Dr. Ansari: I do not have much
to add to thatthat was summed up very well.
Chairman: Two final brief questions,
Q127 Sandra Osborne: Can I ask whether
you see any prospect at all of a split in the Iran-Syria alliance
and how significant that would be?
Prof. Ehteshami: I do not see
that happening in the immediate future, because there is no incentive
for either Tehran or Damascus to end the alliance. If anything,
external forces are reinforcing this partnership and pushing them
ever closer. The alliance has now jumped the generations. It started
with Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current Syrian President,
who has inherited it and regards Iran as Syria's only reliable
partner in the region. It is interesting, is it not, that Syria
is the only Arab nationalist regime around, yet its closest ally
is non-Arab Iranand not just that, but an Islamist Iran
led by President Ahmadinejad. Frankly, that is not a happy situation
for Syria to be in, because its natural home is with Egypt, Jordan
and Saudi Arabia, not with Iran, given its Arab-nationalist pedigree.
But Syria is with Iran, because it has very little else to rely
Also, the Iranians have been good partners
to Syria. They have provided the Syrians with financial support
when they have needed it and with hydrocarbons, oil in particular.
However, the partnership also goes beyond that. The same cultural
element that binds Iran and Iraq also binds Iran and Syria. There
are Shi'a shrines in Syria, and Iranian pilgrims visit Syria in
their hundreds of thousands with pockets full of money that they
spend in Damascus and other places. So there is more than just
grand politics at stake here.
Also, it is important for Iran's regional
role to have an Arab ally. We heard in the last session that Syria
is ruled by a 10% minority of Alawis, who are a link to Shi'aismit
is still very unclear whether they are Shi'as or not, but there
is some evidence of an intellectual relationship with Shi'aism.
Iran sees an interest in keeping Syria that way for the moment.
But if you are looking at how that partnership might change, I
would say that it would change if Syria was given incentives by
either Arab states or the west to change direction and move away
from Iran. Syria needs tangible results on the Golan Heights and
discussions with Israel, it needs to be sure that Lebanon will
not become a backyard for Israel and the west, and it needs to
be sure that the sanctions that are now in placefor instance,
from the US and so onare lifted, so that it can survive
in this very competitive international environment. Frankly, at
present I see no signs of any of those coming to fruition.
Dr. Ansari: Can I just addI
know that I am not mainstream on thisthat I think that
far too much weight is given to the separation of Iran and Syria,
to the point that as far as I can see the real beneficiary of
the relationship is Syria? As Anoush rightly says, there is a
certain prestige element in having this association with an Arab
state, but in financial terms and other terms the links go one
way, as far as I can see. Iran provides Syria with things; I do
not know what Syria provides Iran with. It has sometimes been
commented that Damascus could be a mediator towards Washingtonfat
chance. I cannot see that happening. If they are going to do it,
they will do it through London. Quite a bit is made out of that,
and it might fit the dynamic of the Arab-Israeli peace process.
It will look bad on Iran if it loses yet another ally, but in
practical terms I do not see how it will affect Iran.
Chairman: The final question.
Q128 Mr. Purchase: Turning now to
the Gulf Co-operation Council, there is no question but that it
is very focused on the Israel-Palestine issue despite the distance
between them, even more soat one level at leastthan
on the problems of the Iranian presence in the GCC countries.
What role do you think the council plays in the middle east's
general and multiple crises?
Prof. Ehteshami: It plays a very
significant role in an environment in which the Saudi GNP multiplies
exponentially with the price of oil. The whole weight of the region,
in my view, has shifted away from the Levant and the Mashreqthe
old heartland of the Arab worldto the city states of the
Arabian peninsula. That has taken time to mature; it has matured,
in my view. The current oil price determines that. Saudi Arabia
has in the past been able to use oil as the key weapon of its
diplomacy, and it has used it effectively, as did Kuwait during
the Iran-Iraq war, when it used the oil income to ensure that
Saddam Hussein provided the first barrier against the export of
the Iranian revolution as they saw it in the 1980s.
That has carried on. Of course, the jihad
in Afghanistan in the 1980s was won by Saudi money when they supported
the mujaheddin against the Soviets, and so on. They were intimate
partners of the United States, in that the US provided training
and other resources and the Saudis and some of the other GCC countries
provided the means for the jihad in Afghanistan. Today, with the
weight of the GCC economies being what it is, they have a much
more proactivewhich is unusual for themand vocal
presence on the regional issues, whether on Iraq, Palestine or
Lebanon, and we will hear them on Darfur, Somalia or the situation
between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Saudis are coming into their
own. They are doing that partly because no other Arab state can
play that role, because they have the resources to play that role
and because they need to come out of the box that the US had put
them in after 9/11 of being the real sponsor of Salafi Islam.
Q129 Mr. Purchase: Thank you very
much. Do you want to comment, Dr. Ansari?
Dr. Ansari: I just want to add,
on the subject of Iran's relationships with the GCC states and
in the Persian Gulf, that we tend not to look so much at the economic
underpinnings of that growth. It is striking to see how much Iranian
private sector there is in the Gulf region. That emphasises the
point that despite some of the political differences, I have yet
to find anyone in the Gulf who would be in favour of an extension
of the conflict into Iran. They are very worried about it. In
terms of their business opportunities, it will cause a lot of
Q130 Mr. Purchase: Professor Ehteshami,
you said in your written evidence that there is a lack of regional
security structure in the Gulf. What kind of structure could be
established that might defuse some of the tensions?
Prof. Ehteshami: I am impressed
that you have already read it and digested some of the comments.
It is a really good question and I wish that you had raised it
a bit earlier, because I should like to spend an hour talking
Chairman: Unfortunately we do not have
Prof. Ehteshami: As we do not,
just to be brief about it, there is much we can learn from the
Helsinki processthe process, not the outcome. The logic
of it is that you bring people of different persuasions around
the table, for them to find common ground, to put it as simply
as I can. In the absence of that structure or forum people always
tend to assume the worst about the other. My fear is that, where
we are nowwe have heard about the Shi'a-Sunni and Arab-Persian
concerns, and you can cut it so many waysin this charged
environment, not being able to talk to the other side, look them
in the eye and understand their concerns more fully creates the
instability and insecurity that we now experience.
If we could find any way that could begin
with the Helsinki process of "Well, let's sit down and talk
about our differences; what are our mutual concerns and what are
your interests?" that would be the beginning. Sadly, though,
the dominant player in the region, the United States, at present
does not have that on top of its agenda. If the talks over Iraq
and in Iraq go well next week that may provide the means, but
to go back to what I said earlierand I know the Chairman
is pressing me to stopthe European Union can play a role
here, because it can lend itself as a model for a regional forum
In the region we jump when there is a meeting
about Iraq and everyone meets around that, and then people move
on. There is no continuity. Over Palestine we had the Madrid conference
of 1991. Look at us now in 2007; we still have not even mentioned
the road map once today. There is a good reason for that, because
it is practically non-existent. A forum that can bring the disparate
and wide range of issues to the table would also force adversaries
to begin to appreciate the other side; Iran would have to recognise
some of Israel's concerns.
Chairman: Professor Ehteshami and Dr.
Ansari, thank you both extremely much; it was a very useful sitting
of the Committee for us, and when we visit the region in the next
few weeks we will be aware of more of the complexities than we
would otherwise have been.
Mr. Purchase: Whether we understand them
is another matter.
Prof. Ehteshami: Thank you for