Sir John Jenkins is a former British Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and co-author of the Government’s Muslim Brotherhood Review of 2015. He is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange.
How do we – the UK – solve a problem called Iran? The answer is more complicated than it should be, given the fragmented state of British politics, the way in which the Brexit debate has sucked all the policy oxygen from the room and now the absurd diplomatic spat with the Trump Administration.
But it is also urgent, given the way regional tensions are rising, bellicose noises from Washington DC and Tehran and our own self-understanding as a major international actor with a massive stake in global order and the reduction of conflict in the Middle East. What we decide to do about Iran now will also shape the views of Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the US, France and Germany about what sort of power we shall continue to be after Brexit. It’s a test of our national will.
The general view of the commentariat seems to be that recent tensions are the fault of Donald Trump and his National Security Adviser, the belligerent John Bolton. They shouldn’t have abandoned the JCPOA, the nuclear deal negotiated over many painful years by the EU3+3, it is said. They shouldn’t have reapplied sanctions. They certainly shouldn’t overreact to Iran’s deliberate breach of the 300kg/3.67 per cent limits for uranium enrichment. And they should lay off Twitter. Is this fair?
Well, let’s remember that Iran has been an aggressive and often hostile presence in the Middle East since 1979. Under the Shah, it may have thrown its weight around from time to time. But it did so largely through OPEC and by trying to bully much smaller countries like Bahrain, backing down when confronted.
By contrast, the Islamic Republic tried from the start to export revolution. When this failed, it sought to subvert its neighbours by providing support to a wide variety of largely Shia Islamist groups. It helped to establish Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s. After 1983 it built similar groups in Iraq – and after 2011 in Syria – on the same model. It now backs the Houthis in Yemen.
Throughout this period, Iran has engaged either through others or on its own account in terrorist attacks on the US (Beirut and Kuwait 1983), France (Beirut and Kuwait 1983), Kuwait (1983, 1985, 1988), Saudi Arabia and the US (Al Khobar 1996) and Israel (Buenos Aires 1994, and Thailand and Bulgaria 2012). It sponsored kidnappings in Lebanon throughout the 1980s and the 2007 abduction of a British IT adviser, Peter Moore, and his close protection team in Iraq. Through its allies in Iraq it killed and maimed US and UK military personnel from 2003 to 2010. It has conducted regular assassinations at home and abroad.
During the latter part of the Iran-Iraq war, it indiscriminately sowed mines in international shipping lanes. It is almost certainly behind the recent attacks on shipping off the UAE, in the Gulf of Oman and elsewhere. For years it has offered tactical if intermittent support to Al Qaeda – and at one time to the Taliban – including training the operatives who carried out the 1998 East Africa bombings. It has given substantial and sustained military support to the Assad regime in Syria. It has illegally supplied missiles and advanced guidance systems to Hezbollah, some Iraqi Shia militias and the Houthis. And it continues to seek to establish permanent military bases in Syria in order to threaten Israel directly.
You’d think that all this would give commentators pause, especially when they wonder whether war is coming. They don’t seem to have noticed that it never really went away as far as Iran is concerned.
Now you could argue that this picture is exaggerated. Everyone’s doing it in the Middle East. And that in any case Iran is simply defending itself against sectarian Sunni revanchism and bone-headed US hostility.
But everyone’s not doing it. The brutal murder of Jamal al Khashoggi was shocking for many reasons. But one of them is precisely that the Saudis don’t normally do that kind of thing. They may, of course, do lots of other things people don’t like, including locking up human rights activists, executing people without what we would consider due process and exporting extremism. There’s truth in all that – but Iran does the first two things on an even greater and the third on at least a comparable scale. And the point here is not whether a particular country has an unpleasant way of managing itself, but what the impact is on regional and therefore global security.
On this point, there is no comparison. The Saudis, together with the UAE, certainly helped fund popular opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. But such opposition already existed, was widespread, peaceful and growing from 2012 onwards. There has been regional competition for influence in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war there in 2011. But no other Middle Eastern power has sought so consistently as Iran to foment violent revolution in neighbouring states or exported vast quantities of weapons to those who seek to subvert them. No-one else since the collapse of Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi has sponsored terrorist attacks across the region and abroad, obstructed maritime free passage, harrassed foreign naval vessels or laid mines. Virtually everyone else has made some sort of accommodation with Israel.
And no other state has talent-spotted, backed or created and sustained such an array of powerful and purposeful sub-state actors – from Lebanese Hezbollah to the Badr Brigade, the Leagues of the Righteous and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq, the Afghan and Pakistani Shia militias in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. No doubt these groups have their own interests and their own purposes. Hezbollah in particular is also a global criminal enterprise with its tentacles extending through West Africa to Europe, Australia and South America, engaging in human trafficking, money laundering, the drugs trade – including a nice recent line helping smuggle Captagon out of Syria to pay for Iranian oil – and cheque fraud on a vast scale
But with the exception (mostly) of the Houthis, they all recognise the supreme religious and political authority of the Supreme Leader in Iran and in practice share the same overriding goals, of an expanded Shia hegemony over the greater Levant and, if possible, further afield under an Iranian umbrella and the eventual triumph in these areas of Khomeini’s heterodox doctrine of Wilayat al Faqih – the trusteeship of the righteous jurisprudent, in practice the Supreme Leader in Tehran.
The Houthis now fire missiles with gay abandon at airports, power stations and desalination plants in Saudi Arabia, and have threatened to do the same to the UAE. It turns out that the most recent drone attack on oil pipelines in the Kingdom – something that only makes sense in the context of Yemen – originated in Iraq. You might say that KSA is at war with the Houthis. But you can’t condemn Saudi attacks on civilian infrastructure in Yemen without doing the same for the Houthis. And what’s Iraq got to do with any of this?
The answer, of course, is that they’re all in it together. Iran has mobilised its allies and assets from the Bab al Mandab through the Gulf of Oman up to Iraq, Syria and indeed Lebanon in order to send a clear signal about its geographical reach, the variety and deadliness of its partners and the way in which it can use asymmetric and often deniable attacks to compensate for its conventional weaknesses as it seeks to preserve its gains in the wider region, face down the US and intimidate Europe.
The US under Trump seems incapable of transmitting such clear and consistent signals – there’s the constant hiss of tantrum-driven static instead. But you’d think in the circumstances that the EU would be inclined to stand with Washington – its single most important ally – and state clearly and collectively that we will not be intimidated, we condemn all targeting of civilian infrastructure and interference with shipping; that we will join forces to guarantee the freedom of navigation in the Gulf and adjoining seas, work to prevent further missile proliferation and respond robustly to attacks on the Arab Gulf States – at the same time as seeking to end the calamitous war in Yemen.
You’d be disappointed. The EU’s incoming High Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs, the Spanish Foreign Minister, Josep Borrell instead simply shrugs his shoulders and says that the EU will continue to work with Iran – and if Iran wants to destroy Israel, well, we’ll just have to learn to live with it. His predecessor, Federica Mogherini, quixotically used her last months in office to promote a special financial mechanism to enable European companies to avoid the impact of US bilateral sanctions on Iran. They won’t use it, of course. Who in their right minds would? But it was important to show willing. Willing to help Iran, that is.
And this points to a bigger problem in the mindset of European and indeed US elites over Iran, quite separate from the question of whether the US was right to withdraw from the JCPOA. If there’s any benefit of any doubt going around, Iran gets it. This isn’t just because Iran keeps teasing Europe with the idea that they might be the ones to save the JCPOA (though it does). And it isn’t quite universal. There’s an excellent and acerbic account of the intense final stages of the nuclear negotiations by the then French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, which makes clear his view of how Iran played the Kerry team. And even Europe may eventually run out of patience with Iranian posturing.
But there has long been a strong thread of Iranophilia in European policy circles, particularly but not exclusively on the Left. This is not out of love for Iran: but because far too many people in these circles dislike the US and did so even before Trump. A year or so ago at an Iran-related event, I heard a senior European External Action Service adviser tell a friend that it was important to support Iran (rather than Saudi Arabia) because only Iran in the region stood up to US imperialism.
That’s not an uncommon view and is now combined with a visceral loathing for Trump. It’s reflected in the way that many liberal commentators can’t bring themselves to admit that Iran, the Houthis, Hezbollah and many of the Iraqi Shia militias are in cahoots. The argument tends to be twofold: (a) Iran has a right to defend itself and (b) proxies equals puppets – any suggestion that these groups are just proxies misses their functional independence within particular socio-political contexts.
It’s a classic straw man argument. No one serious claims that these groups are puppets or simply proxies. They’re actually lots of different things, most of them unpleasant. But none of that alters the fact that they will serve Iran when Iran calls. We have seen them do so repeatedly from the 1980s – when Badr fought with Iran against their fellow Iraqis and Hezbollah bombed and kidnapped with impunity – to the present – when the Houthis keep the Saudis pinned down and distracted with Iranian technology while pumping out their propaganda from the Hezbollah stronghold of South Beirut. And little of this is about Iran’s right to self-defence.
It’s still not clear to me that there will be open war between the US and Iran. The latest French outreach to Iran may encourage both sides to step back. Neither wants a real fight. Trump has made clear his aversion to one as the US enters an election year. Iran knows and seeks to exploit this just short of conflict, though it also believes that if something does kick off, Trump is likely to want to end it quickly.
But you never know. And there are some clear if unsurprising policy conclusions for the new Foreign Secretary – when one is appointed and has decided who will replace the admirable Kim Darroch in Washington. First, si pacem vis, bellum para. What stokes the flames at times of tension is weakness and a lack of clarity. During the 1980s, Iran backed off because the US was crystal clear about both sending and acting upon its signals. Barack Obama set a bad precedent by abandoning his red lines in Syria in 2013. Trump didn’t do much better by striking Syrian targets once in 2017, blustering, and then last month advertising the fact that he had aborted a military response to the Iranian downing of a US surveillance drone.
This can only be remedied in Washington. That’s going to do take a lot of work. We should certainly advise against war – there are other things we can do instead. But we must stand by the US when it acts – whatever we may think about the President, the US is more than one person and remains indispensable to our security. The instinctive wringing of hands in Brussels and other European capitals simply encourages Iran.
The French at least will probably also want to be robust. We should work with them in shaping a realistic response with the US. If that means joint military action, we need to be part of it. We also need collectively to be clear about the triggers for any escalation ladder – from the new Gulf maritime protection force proposed by the US to the use of proportionate force in self-defence against Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) naval forces, the possible targeting of IRGC command and control nodes if they persist in hostile action and so forth.
We should be hard over against the Iran-aligned Shia militias in Iraq – just as we’ve decided belatedly to get real with Hezbollah by ending the feeble pretence (which they publicly ridiculed) that they have separate military and political wings. The Iraqi Prime Minister has said he wants to bring them under proper central governmental control. Some people suspect that’s an excuse to let them take over the state instead. We need to work with partners – again the US and the French, the Kurds, elements of the Iraqi government and key Iraqi Shia clerics – to stop them doing so.
We need to push for a settlement in Yemen. The war damaging, draining and entirely counterproductive. The UAE have wanted a settlement for the last couple of years and are now drawing down their forces. We have our differences with them. This is an area where we can potentially work together.
In the longer term, British and indeed western policy towards Iran needs to be what it always should have been, clear, robust, sustained and collective containment and deterrence. I’ve recently seen some very prominent former Obama officials argue that that’s precisely what the JCPOA was.
I didn’t think that withdrawing from the deal was particularly sensible. But that wasn’t because I thought it was a great deal. It was because I thought it bought us time – around 15 years to be precise. The task was to agree how to use that time well. But that’s not what actually happened. When the deal was formally ratified in 2015, the Obama Administration did nothing about Iran’s horizontal escalation in the region. Instead, they urged western businesses to start flooding back.
But business was reluctant – they suspected rightly that they’d find themselves in bed with some alarming partners which would spell serious trouble for them back home if these partners didn’t stop doing what they were doing in Iran, in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, not to mention further afield. And that was the problem. There was no effort to stop them nor any plan for containment and deterrence, just relief that we’d escaped from the trap we’d set for ourselves when we’d threatened consequences we weren’t prepared to deliver.
I’m glad to see we’ve now had the guts to stop a tanker we believe is smuggling Iranian oil in defiance of sanctions on Syria. The fact that the Iranians have threatened to retaliate – and may already have tried – suggests the charge is true. This won’t have been an easy decision to make. Over the last decade, there has been a startling lack of action over Iranian smuggling – of weapons, missile components and oil, even in areas where international maritime task forces – with British participation – operate such as the Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa and the approaches to the Red Sea. So to stop a tanker now – even if it is Syria-related – sends a message of intent. It may also suggest that we are becoming more inclined to back the US – which has probably have supplied the intelligence on which the stop order was based.
And this is one way ahead. It’s not a question of toppling the Iranian regime. That’s a matter for Iranians. Nor is it a question of war: if the Iranians insist on continuing to threaten their neighbours, imperil shipping and subvert our friends, then we need to find and use ways to stop them doing so. But we need to do so proportionately, coolly and in partnership with others who are similarly willing, the US and the French in particular: the Germans will remain ambivalent. We also need to go after the criminal money flows around the world that sustain Iran and its allies in the region. The US Department of the Treasury and the FBI have been doing so for years. We should be part of all this.
In doing so we need to make sure that our military, our intelligence and security services and our diplomatic effort are properly funded, with the right equipment, staff and skills. And that they feel they have the full backing of ministers. That’s not been the case for some years now. Putting things right will be a generational task.
Needless to say, none of this will be remotely possible if a Corbyn government gets elected. So best get cracking now…