The heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ lined up in front of a parliamentary committee for the very first time this month. Chairing the session was Sir Malcolm Rifkind. In an exclusive interview, the former foreign secretary sits down with Stephen Oryszczuk to offer his thoughts on national security and voice his hopes for a new approach by Iran [divider]
JN: Both Israel and Britain are known to have extensive intelligence capabilities. To what extent do the two countries co-operate on security matters?
Sir Malcolm Rifkind: We have important security relationships with several countries across the world, not least with America, and one could reasonably expect that a democratic nation in the Middle East would be among them. However, Israel’s focus is very much on the region, whereas Britain’s is more global, and you typically co-operate only on matters that affect both countries’ national interests.
JN: When it comes to Britain’s interests in the Middle East, the Foreign Office has for years been seen as leaning naturally towards the Arab states. Is that still true?
Sir Malcolm: I don’t know if it ever was. I was foreign secretary or a minister in the Foreign Office for seven years, so I know the department and the perception but I’m not sure it ever bore out in truth. Bear in mind there are 22 Arab states, with 22 British ambassadors – the so-called ‘camel corps’ – all reporting back to London, while there is only one Israel. But I’m not convinced there is this natural leaning one way or the other.
JN: In John Major’s government, you were the first foreign secretary to commit Britain to a two-state solution. A lot has changed since, not least the growth of Jewish settlements. Has your thinking on a future Palestinian state also changed?
Sir Malcolm: I still advocate a two-state solution. I don’t see any alternative. There are those in Netanyahu’s government who talk of a one-state solution, or of annexation, but I think Israel would struggle to remain Jewish and democratic if it were to take this road, and the occupation cannot continue indefinitely.
JN: Perhaps the biggest threat to Israel currently comes from Iran and its nuclear programme. Would you support military intervention against Iranian nuclear sites if the deal reached with the P5+1 failed to become permanent?
Sir Malcolm: What we’ve said, what we continue to say, is that all options are on the table, but there has been a distinct change in the kind of rhetoric we’re hearing from Tehran and from Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani.
It was interesting recently when his foreign minister used Twitter to wish the Jewish people a happy new year. Somebody replied, saying that this was all very well but that his predecessor had denied the Holocaust. The foreign minister’s response was very telling, I thought. He simply said: “That man is no longer the president of Iran.”
So yes, all options are on the table but I hope Iran’s new president ushers in a change of direction. Importantly, he seems to be acting with the agreement of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, which is where the real power lies.
JN: On the revelations made by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, your opposite number in the US, Dianne Feinstein, recently said: “It is abundantly clear that a total review of all intelligence programmes is necessary,” suggesting the Senate Intelligence Committee which she chairs didn’t know what the American intelligence community was up to. To what extent do you think your own committee is also in the dark?
Sir Malcolm: Those comments related to allegations that the NSA bugged leaders of European countries, and there are questions in America at the moment as to who knew what, but some states have been doing this sort of thing for years. In the UK, there were allegations that GCHQ might have circumvented UK law. We investigated and found the allegations to be unfounded.
In addition, recent legislation [the Justice and Security Act 2013] gives my committee greater powers of over-sight and an increased remit. This now includes operational activity, and we can now demand highly classified material relating to operations, which we couldn’t before. So we are now far more able to probe the activities of our intelligence services, and rightly so, because those services receive £2 billion of public money every year.
JN: Finally, if you were a betting man, would you bet on a Scottish vote for independence next year?
Sir Malcolm: If I was a betting man, I’d bet my house and everything I owned against a vote for independence. If you look back at some of the world’s most prominent independence movements, inspirational leaders have often led an oppressed people. Think of Nelson Mandela, for instance. But the Scottish people do not think of themselves as oppressed. That is why we have Alex Salmond!