Saturday, 21 June 2014

The West and Iran - a muddle and a mistake

On June 16 Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, announced that diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran are to be restored.  The British embassy in Tehran and the Iranian embassy in London are to be re-opened, initially on something less than ambassadorial level.

It was in November 2011 that the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, voted amid cries of “Death to England”, to sever ties with London.  Afterwards, hundreds of protesters stormed the British embassy compound and looted the residence. The UK ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, and his family were evacuated at some speed.

This pattern of events is nothing new.  Ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979, the UK and Iran have been in an on-off diplomatic relationship.  Immediately after the overthrow of the Shah, Britain suspended all relations with Iran, and it was not until 1988 that the British embassy was reopened.  Only one year later, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomenei issued a fatwa ordering Muslims across the world to kill British author Salman Rushdie. Diplomatic ties with London were broken off again, only to be resumed at a chargé d'affaires level in 1990. 

They remained uneasy until the election in June 2013 which resulted in the elevation to the presidency of the apparently “moderate” Hassan Rohani – the man who had held the UN and the West at bay with soft words for month after month, while allowing Iran’s uranium enrichment  programme to forge ahead.

Nevertheless much international opinion, the US, the EU and the UK among them, seized on Rohani’s election as on a gift from heaven – a chance to avoid grasping the nettle of Iran’s unacceptable nuclear and political ambitions and to by-pass outright confrontation.  Hence the talks about Iran’s nuclear program – an initiative enthusiastically entered into in November 2013 by the six countries known as the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council:  China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany).  The talks which have of course got nowhere were heavily supported by Russia, since this was a sure way to avert the one-time threat of a military strike, by either the US or Israel, against their ally’s nuclear facilities.

Meanwhile, events within Syria and the wider Middle East have given the geo-political kaleidoscope a thorough shake-up – and a new pattern has emerged.    

The Syrian conflict, which began as an internal protest against the regime of Bashar Assad, quickly morphed into a free-for-all where jihadists of many persuasions joined the conflict to fight each other with ferocity.  Assad and his regime were part of the wider Shia axis, master-minded by Iran’s ayatollahs, and including their heavily-armed instrument, Hezbollah in Lebanon.  They were initially opposed by a grouping of Syrians opposed to Assad – a grouping half-heartedly supported by the US and the West, though not to the extent of providing direct military assistance.  When al-Qaeda, representing  Sunni Islam, joined the fight against Assad, any hope of direct Western support for the opposition vanished. 

Then a Sunni military force, far more extreme, more bloodthirsty, more ruthless than al-Qaeda began to make its presence felt in Syria.  With the ambition of creating a caliphate across the Middle East, subject to the strictest application of Sharia law, the new body became known by the acronym ISIS, standing for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (or the Levant).  The first stage of the plan was to take over all of northern Syria and turn it into an Islamic state.

However Assad, supported by Russia, Iran and a substantial Hezbollah force, appears to have turned the tide.  So ISIS, forced to flee parts of Syria, has spilled over into Iraq where, confronting the demoralised Iraqi army, it has made substantial gains and could soon be threatening Baghdad itself.

But the prospect of this formidable force controlling large areas of Iraq is a genuine threat to the West. Among a number of other undesirable consequences, it puts oil supplies in jeopardy.  So although in next-door Syria the West is opposing Assad and his Shia Iranian ally, in Iraq the West is making overtures to Iran, in the hope that it will act as proxy for them in beating back the fanatical Sunni ISIS. This is what is behind the UK’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, and Washington’s recent statement that the US is “open to engaging the Iranians” over the crisis in Iraq.

What a mistake!  In a twinkling of an eye Iran has been transformed from a sponsor of terror around the world, supporting the Assad regime’s mass slaughter in Syria, developing nuclear weapons to further its war against the West and its declared aim of exterminating Israel. Suddenly it has become America’s ally and the West’s new best friend.

Both President Obama and Britain’s foreign secretary, William Hague, have ruled out any prospect of taking direct military action to tackle ISIS. They are looking to Iran to take the steps necessary to halt the Sunni extremists in their tracks – and indeed Iran has already sent the head of the Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force to supervise the defence of Baghdad.

The Quds Force has, of course, undertaken a similar – and highly successful – role in neighbouring Syria, where its efforts have helped to revive the fortunes of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. And herein lies the fundamental paradox that both US and British policymakers must now contend with. In Syria they oppose the Iranian-back Assad regime, in Iraq it is the Iranian-backed Shia forces they support.  Indeed, desperate for help to enable Iraq’s government prevail against the Islamist militants, they are increasingly relying on the experienced Shia fighting forces flooding in from Syria.

When you sup with the devil, runs the old saying, be sure you use a long spoon.  Deep confusion about the challenges posed by the Middle East seems to hold sway both in the White House and in Whitehall. But assuredly there will be a price to pay for the West’s determination not to engage directly with ISIS on the ground.  Look to the on-going negotiations aimed at curbing Iran’s ambition to become a nuclear power.  Iran suddenly finds itself with a dominant – if not winning – hand.    What quid pro quo will it exact for its continued involvement against ISIS forces in Iraq, and what price will the West have to pay for it further down the line? Time will tell.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 June 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 22 June 2014:

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