Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

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 force—within the NATO coalition—underpinning 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 positive—or 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 Hunters—if 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 sanctions—I 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 extremism—do 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 regimes—the Sunni regimes—fear the rise of Shi'a Islam. It was touched on earlier, with reference to Bahrain. There is a Sunni minority within Iran—is 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 Druze—not the most orthodox religious group in the world—of 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 links—of course there are links—but 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 conflict—and we will start in mandate Palestine, and hopefully get to Syria—the 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 that—that was summed up very well.

  Chairman: Two final brief questions, Sandra Osborne.

  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 Iran—and 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 on.

    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'aism—it 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 place—for instance, from the US and so on—are 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 add—I know that I am not mainstream on this—that 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 Washington—fat 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 so—at one level at least—than 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 Mashreq—the old heartland of the Arab world—to 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 proactive—which is unusual for them—and 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 problems.

  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 about it.

  Chairman: Unfortunately we do not have the time.

  Prof. Ehteshami: As we do not, just to be brief about it, there is much we can learn from the Helsinki process—the 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 now—we have heard about the Shi'a-Sunni and Arab-Persian concerns, and you can cut it so many ways—in 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 earlier—and I know the Chairman is pressing me to stop—the European Union can play a role here, because it can lend itself as a model for a regional forum for talks.

    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 having us.

previous page contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 13 August 2007