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Jacob Cheli reports on the South Asia and Middle East Forum panel

On 17 October, the South Asia and Middle East (SAME) forum hosted a panel event, ‘Iran: Looking to the Future.’  Forum chairman Khalid Nadeem assembled an impressive panel of Iran experts to discuss a wide range of issues, which have only amplified in importance since recent developments.

Dr Farhang Jahanpour, formerly of Oxford University and BBC Persian, offered a passionate call for coherent and strategic leadership with regard to the Middle East, conspicuously missing in the Trump administration. The Iran expert’s recommendation was to negotiate a regional comprehensive security arrangement that includes all local states. Emmanuel Macron’s four-point plan offers a chance to do this and to take immediate action to help alleviate conflict in Yemen, centred around the broader regional security plan advocated by Dr Jahanpour.

The former Labour, (now independent) MP Ivan Lewis argued that the people of Iran have shown a desire for democracy and moderation, but the main problem has been the attitude of the regime. He identified two main obstacles to a nuclear deal being renegotiated in the near future. Firstly, the US’s antipathy towards the nuclear deal is astronomical, and secondly, Iran has already begun to breach points made in the deal, which should still hold binding for its remaining signatories.

Julian Lewis MP, Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, was singled out from the audience for a question from Mr Nadeem, who asked about the UK government’s failure to deliver Chieftain tanks for which £400 million had been paid by the Shah’s government before the 1979 revolution. Mr Nadeem cited sources that indicated that this money had become a factor in negotiations over the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Mr Lewis conceded that the government would never explicitly acknowledge that, and emphasised that it was indeed legitimately owed and should be paid, but that it was dangerous to link payment of the money to Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention.

Emma Nawaz of Blackstone Solicitors delivered the next talk, giving an initial overview of the sanctions, particularly in the banking sector, which have been in place on Iran since 1978. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) attempted to rebuild business and the financial sector in Iran by lifting financial sanctions, but UK banks did not comply. Ms Nawaz argued that practically speaking, the UK cannot fulfil Iranian financial transactions due to a fear of the US and of secondary sanctions.

Ms Nawaz benefited from the attendance of her MP, Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers, who asked whether the Italians had seen any consequences from the way they were conducting business with Iran; she responded that they hadn’t, as they were off the US radar which was predominantly focused on China and Turkey.

Dr Jack Caravelli, ex-CIA and the Clinton administration’s nuclear proliferation advisor, was the panel’s Washington insider. He launched a fiery critique of the Trump administration, which was in his words “entirely focussed on re-election.” He had a balanced view of the JCPOA, arguing that on the positive side, by any reasonable measure the Iranian path towards a nuclear weapon capability had been slowed. However, he criticised the fact that Obama, in his rush to finalise what Dr Caravelli called “a legacy deal if I ever saw one,” failed on some counts.

Khalid Nadeem, spotting General Lord David Richards, former Chief of the Defence Staff, asked him what we should hope to see from the US and UK in terms of a Middle East strategy. The problem, Lord Richards opined, was that there was no coherent Western strategy on the Middle East. As long as we don’t pursue long-term strategic goals, and focus instead on short-term political victories, our governments are doomed to stay in what he described as the current “muddle.”

The DUP’s Jim Shannon then spoke on religious freedom in Iran. Mr Shannon indicated that Iran’s human rights record was a concern of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief. Levels of religious tolerance and freedom were appalling, he asserted, with wide reaching and vague blasphemy laws used to oppress Iranians with non-religious or minority religious views.

The panel’s final speaker was Jonathan Paris, a US policy expert and Senior Advisor at the Chertoff Institute. Mr Paris described the sudden decision by the US to break with the Syrian Kurds and the handling of the decision in Washington as indicative of an administration that has lost its way. Trump’s repeated insistence that no interests in the Middle East justified the loss of American lives sends a dangerous message, emboldening ‘enemies,’ as the administration views Iran, and weakening and scaring allies. He concluded that even though US and Iranian officials do not want war, they could blunder into one based on miscalculation.

The bottom line of the panel discussion was a need for dialogue and rapprochement with Iran, led by the American administration returning to the deal after their unlawful abandoning of the JCPOA, combined with pressure on Iran to stick to the terms once the Americans are seen to be doing their bit. The consensus seemed to be that the ‘maximum pressure’ campaign of sanctions isn’t working; conversely, the abandonment of the JCPOA has emboldened Tehran’s hardliners and driven the country toward Russiaand China.

The inherent problem with anything written on Iran in today’s political climate is that it risks being obsolete by the time it reaches publication. Since the panel met last year, the US assassinated Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, and the Iranians retaliated with a series of airstrikes on US military bases in Iraq. The UK has not been left unscathed, with the British Embassy and Ambassador in Tehran bearing the brunt of the UK’s perceived support for US actions in the region. With the US disparagingly known in Iran as the ‘Great Devil’, the UK has risen to fill the role of ‘Little Devil’ amongst Iranians supportive of the government.

Events have escalated: angry crowds have protested outside the British Embassy with placards of support for the regime, and UkraineAirlines Flight 752 was shot down by a missile in apparent ‘human error.’ The UK’s top man in Tehran, British Ambassador Rob Macaire was arrested, and has since been declared a persona non grata by the spokesman for the Iranian judiciary. However, Iran has also had its own anti-government demonstrations.  Iran is a powder keg at the moment, caught between loyalist factions and an increasingly mobilised progressive youth, with a spark looking increasingly close. Leaders would do well to heed the SAME Forum panel’s call for dialogue and care, but at this fractious time, any of the parties might find their hand forced to action.


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