With sanctions against his country lifted, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif arrived in London last week touted as part of the solution to – not the cause of – turmoil in the Middle East, writes Stephen Oryszczuk
Last year, when it looked like Iran would verifiably scale-back its nuclear programme, Israeli voices changed tack – rather than focus on how mad, bad and dangerous Iran would be with nukes they bemoaned how mad, bad and dangerous it was without.
Alas, it was a doomed effort to keep sanctions in place, in part because the world was suffering from ‘Iran fatigue’. For 32 years, since then-ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu stood up at the UN to criticise Iran, he has obsessed about the Islamic Republic, such that by last year, he’d begun to sound like a broken record. Exacerbated, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond told MPs that Israel didn’t like the deal because Israel didn’t want a deal, preferring instead a permanent stand-off. Not true, said Bibi, shuffling between shifting goalposts. As Israel and the world agreed to disagree, Iran came in from the cold.
In Jerusalem last summer, Hammond sought to reassure his seething host, saying Iran’s “regional conduct” would “have to be dealt with in the months and years to come,” adding: “We are not naive about this.” Really?
Fast forward to February 2016: Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif arrives in London to preach about the Middle East’s security issues, when his government is widely thought to be behind most of them. Zarif, who negotiated the easing of sanctions, also attended an event with PM David Cameron and other dignitaries on Syrian refugees, and met parliamentarians at “a private event”. It was an interesting way of “dealing with” Iran.
Who are we dealing with, anyway? Now Iran’s nuclear programme has been shuttered, what’s left? Are they really Mad, Bad and Dangerous? Not quite all three. Despite the much-used ‘Mad Mullahs’ moniker, the Iranians are perfectly sane, and played their way out of a hole with the skill of a Chess Grand Master. But most assume they are Bad (saints don’t survive long in the Middle East), and almost certainly Dangerous.
First: The Bad. With a scriptwriter’s timing, Iranian authorities arrested former BBC Persian reporter and dual Iranian-British national Bahman Daroshafaei as Zarif touched down in London. His crime? Translating a George Orwell novel, and a beginners’ guide to politics. It should have illustrated who we were having to dinner in Whitehall and Westminster.
Despite elections (in which only approved candidates need apply) Iran is an oppressive state. More than 20 journalists are currently detained, with more than 50 arrested since “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013. Since then, more than 2,000 people have been executed, its Arab minority has been persecuted and 11 newspapers have been shut down, most at gunpoint. Beyond the sinful world of news reporting, regime prisoners include physicist Omid Kokabee, women’s rights activist Bahareh Hedayat, civil rights activist Narges Mohammadi, human rights lawyers Abdolfattah Soltani and Mohammad Seifzadeh, and Green Movement leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi and Zahra Rahnavard, to name but a few. It’s an interesting take on “moderate”.
More importantly, is Iran Dangerous? If Danger equals Capability plus Intention, then yes. It overtly supports fighters in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen, and covertly supports fighters in Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Bahrain and Pakistan (home to the world’s second largest Shia community), some of whom it drafts in to Syria. It is also expanding its operations: three new cells linked to Tehran were discovered last year in Kuwait, Jordan and Cyprus, while last month, the US Drug Enforcement Agency arrested half a dozen operatives selling cocaine to raise money for weapons.
Netanyahu says that, with sanctions lifted, Iran is “unleashed,” and that its proxy Hezbollah now has its hands on SA-22 missiles “to down our planes” and Yakhont cruise missiles “to sink our ships”. He also accused Iran of supplying Hezbollah with “precision-guided missiles and attack drones so it can accurately hit any target in Israel,” and of “aiding Hamas in building armed drones in Gaza”. There was little mention of any of this in the conversations Foreign Minister Zarif had in London.
Foreign policy doves spin a different line. Asked if Iran is ‘Bad,’ they say it depends who you mean by ‘Iran’. Messrs Rouhani and Zarif are engaged in a power struggle against Iranian hardliners linked to the Revolutionary Guards, they say, and the latest detentions should be seen in this light, and for their timing, with parliamentary elections due later this month. Asked whether Iran is ‘Dangerous’, the doves say it simply needs to defend itself: as the dominant Shi’ite power, it is waging war with newly-interventionist Saudi Arabia, the region’s dominant Sunni power. The doves are less clear as to why Iran would need to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles to hit a rival barely 100 miles across the Persian Gulf.
What of its intentions? In the words of the deputy commander of Iran’s feared Quds Force: “The Islamic revolution is not limited by geographic borders.” He added that “Palestine” is one such country to be “conquered”. His boss, army chief Maj.-Gen. Salehi, said: “We will annihilate Israel… We are glad to be at the forefront of executing that order.” His boss, Ayatollah Khamenei, was even less ambivalent, saying: “There will be no Israel in 25 years.” Food for thought for those rolling out the red carpet to Iranians across Europe.