A report on the South Asia & Middle East Forum held in House of Commons on 18 April
Khalid Nadeem, Chairman of the South Asia & Middle East Forum, opened the session noting the pertinence of Iran’s affairs to the global political landscape.
Jack Caravelli, Senior Visiting Fellow at the UK Defence Academy, followed with his presentation addressing the nuclear situation in Iranand the present state of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Dr Caravelli emphasised the uncertainty surrounding the treaty and that its future rests on USPresident Donald Trump. While the JCPOA signified a diplomatic achievement, its scope and its reception has been lukewarm. Dr Caravelli pointed out that the treaty is only binding for a fixed period of time — and there is no telling what Iran may do when it expires. Iran continues to allocate resources to its missile programme, causing concern for the international community. As Mr Trump made clear during his campaign, he is no fan of the JCPOA, and he may well walk away from the deal. If he chooses to do so, Iran will walk away, too. For many partners, this is a worst-case scenario. [Indeed, in early May, US President Mr Trump rejected the JCPOA, breaking with US allies in Europe.]
Jonathan Paris, Senior Advisor to the global advisory firm Chertoff Group, delivered the second presentation, entitled ‘US-Iranian Relations’. Mr Paris focused on the geopolitical implications of the situation in Syria. For Mr Paris, Iran faces a number of challenges. Firstly, Iran did not foresee the discontinuity in foreign policy between the Obama and Trump Administrations. Mr Trump has decided to pull out from Syria; the lacuna that it leaves behind will be filled by Saudi Arabian troops. This, Mr Paris noted, will mount tension between Sunni and Shia players in the region. Moreover, Iran is threatened by Israel’s capabilities in Syria. Israel is better equipped, more sophisticated and geographically closer. At the same time, Iran would be unwise to devote more resources to Syria. Iran’s ‘achilles heel’ is its domestic frictions which are fueled by a poorly performing economy — any resources devoted to Syria will be seen as negligence to devote them to Iranians. However, Iran is not ready to pull out of Syria. Its presence in Syria, and its allegiance to Bashar Al-Assad, is a debt which Iran is paying back to Syria for its support during the Iraqi invasion. To add a further layer of complexity, in the background Major General Qasem Soleimani of Iran is deepening these tensions by activating ideo-religious cleavages around the region.
Jim Shannon MP followed with his presentation on ‘Religious Toleration in Iran Today’. Mr Shannon argued that the Iranian government was not doing enough to protect religious minorities, and that women in Iran did not hold the same socio-political rights, or social standing, as men. He illustrated these points through a number of cases that had been brought to his attention in his position as Shadow Spokesperson of Health and Human Rights for the Democratic Unionist Party. He concluded that the international system should press Iran for greater accountability. Mr Shannon’s presentation was met with controversy among attendees of the forum — with some attendees strongly in favour and others against his view that women in Iran were effectively ‘second-class citizens.’
Tom Brake MP presented on ‘UK-Iranian Trade Relations’. Mr Brake reiterated the Liberal Democrats’ position on Brexit — that they are working to cease Britain’s exit from the EU. However, he acknowledged that if Brexit remains on course, there will be new trade opportunities for the island. For Mr Brake, however, these negotiations must go in hand with assurances that Iran will respect human rights, workers’ rights and environmental protections. This, as well as doubts over the future of the JCPOA (which would put British companies in jeopardy), and the conflict in Syria (which sees the UK and Iran on opposite sides of the conflict), are obstacles to the negotiation, he noted.
Reza Shaybani, member of the Board of Directors at Quercus Investment Partners, followed with his presentation on ‘Economic and Political Challenges facing Iran Today’. Dr Shaybani emphasised that challenges also bring about opportunities. Iran has a great economic base; it has an educated and young population of 80 million, the country boasts great infrastructure and ports, and benefits from its geographic location. However, this base has suffered from governmental mismanagement. For Dr Shaybani, former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been the cause of great havoc for the economy. His geopolitical ambitions, his reliance on oil and gas and currency devaluation, all marred further by a general background of corruption, have been detrimental to the country. These bad policies have been given political space by the lack of a party system in Iran, argued Dr Shaybani. Moreover, Dr Shaybani regretted the warfare led by the US and wished that defence spending could be reallocated towards global prosperity.
Shahrzad Atai, Head of Middle East Desk at Child & Child, spoke of banking and sanctions between the UK and Iran. Mrs Atai argued that lifting sanctions in 2012, following the JCPOA, had not spurred the anticipated growth in Iranian trade. While the removal of sanctions lifted legal barriers, British trade with Iran still lacks an enabling banking infrastructure. She noted that the UK’s neighbours (including France, Italy, and Liechtenstein) had been more successful than the UK in implementing smooth banking between the two countries; and that, perhaps, Brexit could create more scope for this to improve. On geopolitical matters, Mrs Atai expressed her view that there was a Western bias against Iran that she wished was otherwise.
Sir Malcolm Rifkind closed the session with his erudite presentation on UK-Iran relations. Sir Malcolm focussed on his concern for mounting tension between Iran and Israel. This he attributed to a greater Iranian presence and influence in the region. The formation of a ‘Shia Arc’, through Hezbollah and Iranian military presence in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, threatens Israel’s security. In particular, the establishment of Iranian bases near the Syrian-Israel border had already caused minor incidents. Sir Malcolm addressed three points raised by the audience. In response to Mrs Atai’s view that the West held a bias against Iran, he posited that there was no bias, only two clear facts: Iran had held an anti-Western foreign policy and that Shias made up only 15 per cent of the Muslim world. On the point of the effectiveness of sanctions, Sir Malcolm argued that they are a useful part of the diplomatic toolkit. He pointed to the recent de-escalation on the Korean Peninsula and shared that this was due to the leverage of a drastic reduction in Chinese trade with North Korea. The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was also raised. Indeed, Richard Ratcliffe was a guest at the Forum. Sir Malcolm expressed his conviction that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe is innocent, and that private diplomacy may be the solution.