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British FM: We Should Not Blind Ourselves to the Risks of a Deal with Iran

The British foreign secretary tells Asharq Al-Awsat his country's military presence in the Gulf should be seen as part of a permanent commitment to the region's security
British FM: We Should Not Blind Ourselves to the Risks of a Deal with Iran

Since becoming the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary on July 15, 2014, Philip Hammond has had to deal with a series of crises, from Ukraine to Syria. However, he and his counterparts from the United Nations’ Security Council and Germany are basking in a historic diplomatic success with the signing of the nuclear deal with Iran. However, he also is faced with the need to convince key allies that the deal with Iran does not mean undermining the security of Arab allies, raising concerns about Iran’s activities in the region.

In an expansive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the foreign secretary outlined British policy on a number of Middle Eastern issues, with a central focus on relations with Iran. His experience as former Secretary of State for Defense means he is well-versed in military affairs at the heart of security issues in the Gulf. He was keen to highlight British security guarantees to the Gulf and a commitment to further strengthen them.

From his office at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Hammond gave Asharq Al-Awsat the following interview:

Asharq Al-Awsat: The nuclear deal with Iran has been signed, and increasingly we hear statements from the UK and European countries about Iran playing a role in resolving regional issues. Is there any indication you have had from the Iranians that they can change their position and play a positive role?

Philip Hammond: First of all, so long as we had the nuclear issue outstanding, it was impossible for the international community to engage in any practical way with Iran. The fact that we have now made this nuclear deal, provided that Iran lives up to its obligations under the deal, it means there is a possibility that the international community could engage with Iran on other issues, including its interference in the affairs of other countries in the Gulf region. The hope of course is that Iran over time will become a more responsible player in the international community, in particular in the region. But we should be realistic about the situation in Iran. It is not a monolithic structure, there are different voices. There are hardliners and there are reformers and we have to hope that the reformers who want Iran to play a more engaged and contractive role will win the debate. But it will not happen overnight and it is not a forgone conclusion that it will happen in the way that we hope.

I think it would be good for Iran and good for the region if Iran decided to be a more engaged player and to play a more constructive role. That does not mean that Iran will always be taking a line that all of its neighbors agree with or approve of and we have to expect, as we find in many regions of the world, strong differences of view in policy. The issue is about how countries and actors pressure those differences of view. So long as Iran pursues its policy position by financing and sustaining terrorism groups, then the West and the international community will stand shoulder to shoulder with our partners and allies in the Gulf in resisting that approach. If Iran, over time, shows a willingness to abandon the use of support for terrorism as a tool of state policy, and starts to engage in international political debate in a more conventional and acceptable format then that would be a very positive step forward. But we ca not guarantee it.

Asharq Al-Awsat: You must have heard from counterparts in the Arab world that there is a concern that Iran will use the windfall from sanctions relief to spend on militias and militants especially in Iraq and Syria.

Hammond: Of course we have heard those arguments and there are two sides to this. As Iran reengages in international trade and commerce, as assets are unfrozen as there is compliance with obligations under the nuclear deal, on the one hand, Iran will have access to more resources, on the other hand. All history tells us that countries that are engaged in the international system and have a stake in the international system, that are seeing the potential for investment in their infrastructure, that are seeing their citizens traveling overseas, that are seeing international visitors coming into the country, have an incentive to play a more measured role in the life of the international community. So I think there will be forces that work both ways in this debate. In Syria, of course historically, Iran’s role has been one of propping up the Assad regime and of course we wholly deplore the Assad regime and we believe that for Syria to move forward, we need to move into a political transition in Syria very rapidly. But the reality of course is that whether we like it or not, Iran is a significant and influential player, along with Russia, in Syria and in reality the best way to get traction in Syria will be to persuade Russia and Iran that they want to work with other players in the region to reach a compromise solution. It won’t be the solution that perhaps we or the US would propose, maybe not the solution that Saudi Arabia would have proposed. The solution that we can all recognize would be a better outcome for the Syrian people than the current one.

Asharq Al-Awsat: I know negotiations were focused on nuclear file with Iranian Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, however in your talks with Iranians, did you gauge the possibility of change?

Hammond: I have to enter a caveat first of all, which is the one I have already mentioned, I am acutely aware that having spent weeks holed up in a hotel in Switzerland and Austria with Minster Zarif of course you get to know someone and of course there are opportunities for conversations on the margins. We talked about other things apart from the nuclear file and one forms an opinion that possibly there is a discussion that we could have about various things, including Syria. But I am acutely conscious that this is not a monolithic regime and that just because someone holds the title of foreign minister does not mean that they have the monopoly of decision-making power over foreign policy and Zarif’s was just one voice in this debate. My sense is that Zarif is a pragmatist who sees Iran’s best interest as being to have a greater degree of engagement with the international community and a better relationship with countries in the region so that Iran can play an influential role. That means pursuing policy which Iran thinks is in its interest. But I think there is a recognition that that can never happen in a constructive way if Iran’s policy tool is always supporting terrorism. Iran has to find other ways of exerting its influence given that it is a large and potentially wealthy country in the region. It is a country that naturally should be influential in the region but it will always be a pariah if it tries to exert its influence through the support of terrorism.

Asharq Al-Awsat: I think this idea of being influential in the region is one that raises eyebrows, or concerns, because there is a belief that you can be influential in terms of culture and ties but it is very different from trying to exert that influence either through ‘the export of the revolution’, which is still at least part of the Iranian rhetoric, and also through the actual actions in Iraq where there is an important fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), one that is the UK is engaged in. But there is concern when Iran is seen as partner in fighting ISIS without holding certain militias accountable, this actually stokes sectarian tensions that concern the Arab world. So how do you balance between saying Iran can fight ISIS whereas on the one hand there are concerns about militias and non-state actors? Not only does Iran support terrorism but it is involved in the weakening of state structures through the support of non-state actors.

Hammond: First of all, the reality is that Iran is a major power in the region and its power has been heavily constrained by international sanctions against Iran that have limited its options and its levers. And it has pursued its foreign policy through the chosen tool of financing state-sponsored terrorists and actors in certain countries. Any country whose foreign policy is primarily about trying to export an ideology or revolution or a creed or ‘an ism’ of any kind is likely to find that that generates strong resistance by the countries they are trying to export their ‘ism’ to. And I think that is no different in this case.

Bringing Iran back in to the international community requires recognition of the legitimacy of other countries of other regimes, and [requires] the respect for the independence and integrity of those other countries in the region. We in the UK have opinions and views. We sometimes take strong issues with other countries about their policies and we express our views in our policies, but we do not pursue them by supporting terrorist movements within other countries. That is the big difference and that is the big step Iran has to make to enable it to become an expected player in the region and beyond in the future. As for Iraq, the UK of course is playing a major role as part of the coalition in battling ISIS in Iraq. We are determined to continue playing a role both in Iraq and in Syria in defeating Daesh [ISIS]. And we are playing a significant role and [UK Secretary of Defense] Michael Fallon talked about how we are going to extend that role. The prime minister has also talked about the possibility that we will go further in the future in extending that role in Syria. We are absolutely clear that Daesh has to be defeated in Iraq and Syria and we will need military action to do that.

Asharq Al-Awsat We are a year into the military campaign against ISIS. Has it brought enough results to say that we can continue with the military campaign at the time when the politics seem to have stalled?

Hammond: The two have to go in parallel. We have always been clear about that. But let’s look at what we have achieved on the military campaign. The campaign started at a time when Daesh seemed to be unstoppable. They were advancing on Baghdad and the Iraqi security forces were crumbling. What the coalition air intervention has done is stabilize the situation. It halted the advance. We have now seen about 20 percent of the territory occupied by Daesh recovered by the government of Iraq and the Peshmerga. We are seeing the Iraqi security forces in the broadest context, including the militias, building strength because in the end they have to fight the ground war; we cannot do that; we should not do that. We forced the enemy to change its tactics to adopt the tactics of guerrilla warfare because the conventional tactics they were operating last summer were vulnerable to coalition airstrikes. And that has changed the dynamics on the ground and I am confident we always said it would take time but I am confident it will be successful in Iraq. But it is not going to happen in weeks or months. It is going to be a process that takes years and we have said that.

Asharq Al-Awsat: There are currently protests on the ground in Iraq because of the lack of services. I think what many of our readers would say is that ‘yes ISIS is a huge problem and they are brutal but also there has been a failure of governance whether it is in Iraq or Syria.’ That is allowing groups like ISIS to crop up. So what is the UK’s position in trying to stop that failure of governance?

Hammond: Well, it is absolutely true. Politicians and statesmen sit in palaces and offices and talk about strategic issues. For people on the ground what matters is ‘who is delivering the basic services that they need for everyday life, who is providing protection for them’? We know there are failures by legitimate government to deliver the proper infrastructure, the proper basic rule of law infrastructure that makes them vulnerable to organizations like Daesh. But we know that what is happening on the ground now is that in the ISIS-controlled territories those basic services are not being provided, security is not in evidence. What we have done both in Iraq and importantly in Syria is work with the government of Iraq in Iraq and with the moderate opposition in Syria to ensure that proper services can be delivered in areas that have been liberated and to secure popular support in those areas. There is much more to do. And in Iraq of course the challenge is to ensure the Sunni parts of the country feel that they are getting the same kind of attention and the same kind of delivery of service that the rest of the country is getting.

As I said, it is not just about the military response in Iraq; there does have to be a political track operating in power. Prime Minister [Haider] Al-Abadi is performing a tightrope walking act. On the one hand, he has got Iraqi Shi’ite militias and Iraqi Shiite politicians including, the former prime minister [Nouri] Al-Maliki. He also has got pressure from Tehran. On the other hand, he has got the demands of the Sunnis and the constant tension in the relationship between Baghdad and Irbil. Of course we would like him to have been able to move faster in doing some of the symbolically important things around creating the National Guard which would provide some greater security reassurance in Sunni areas; in ending the de-Baathification program in a way that would allow less important elements of the former regime to come back in place in civil society and perhaps make the contribution to the security situation as well. We would like all of that to have happened more quickly, but we do understand that Abadi is facing some real challenges and we still feel the best way to support Iraq is to support him and encourage him. I think the other thing we need to do, and he needs to do, is foster a sense of Iraq as a nation. We for various reasons historically spent a lot of time being wary of Iraqi nationalism, but actually what we need today is a stronger sense of Iraq as a nation. While Iran is clearly an influence, it is not the case that all of the Shiite forces in Iraq are controlled from Tehran. There are Shi’ite nationalists within Iraq and we should not allow that to be forgotten.

Asharq Al-Awsat: I want to ask you about Bahrain and the defense pact that has been signed. Your very famous speech at the Manama Dialogue in 2014 with the return to East of Suez made many headlines. It opens a new chapter of Britain’s role in the Gulf and its security…

Hammond: It is significant particularly in the light of the deal that we have done with Iran. We have always been conscious to the fact that there were two pillars here. We needed to close the nuclear file with Iran and then we needed to reassure partners in the Gulf that we will continue to stand with them in protecting their security against threats, from wherever they come, including the threat of Iranian-supported terrorist activity. That is why we are moving towards the more permanent basing of a military presence in the Gulf. The reality is that we have had a continuous military presence in the Gulf for thirty years now and we expect to have a continuous presence for the foreseeable future. We have reached an agreement with the King of Bahrain, where he very generously has agreed to build more permanent naval facilities for us. This means that our naval presence will be more well-founded, more permanently based, with service personnel being based in the Gulf for longer periods, taking their families with them to Manama, making it a more permanent Royal Naval facility. But it also means we will be able to accommodate larger ships. Right now we are constructing large aircraft carriers which will be deployable from 2018 and we expect them to be deployed into the Gulf and will be able to service and support them from the facility in Manama. So that is a very very important part of our future plans. And we have got at any one time about 1,600 military personnel in the Gulf and we want that presence to be seen as part of a permanent commitment to the Gulf which underpins complex relationships that we have with the key players in the Gulf. There are defense relationships but there is also increasingly security relationships where we are working on the broader security threats, working on cybersecurity, counterterrorism, policing – and in other areas in investment, trade and areas where we have not had such strong collaboration in the past but where we are seeing huge opportunities now. For example, in the education and the healthcare sectors in many countries around the Gulf we are seeing British businesses and British institutions carving a niche role for themselves.

Asharq Al-Awsat: It is very significant what you are saying about the naval base and the sort of the longer term security but also that it is beyond words because I think what we have seen recently is that there is a lot of statements that you support your Gulf partners. But there is a kind of a need for physical guarantees. So could you elaborate more about the sort of guarantees that are given to the Gulf at the time when Iran is seen as brought in from the cold?

Hammond: Well, we have been very clear that we will support and stand by our Gulf partners in resisting interference in their internal affairs and protecting the integrity and sovereignty of their territory, and the naval base in Bahrain is one example of that. We are also talking to other partners in the Gulf about the possibility of doing more regular deployments of land forces for training purposes. We have regular deployments of air force capabilities into the area, and that is something that we expect will become more permanently established in the future.

Asharq Al-Awsat: The concerns in the Gulf are that the threats are not the conventional ones. So they are not expecting a war. But there are the nonconventional threats, whether it is supporting non-state actors and bombs going off for example in Manama. On the other hand there is also Yemen. What is happening there sis a strategic threat for all of the Gulf.

Hammond: You are absolutely right. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries collectively spend far far more on defense than Iran does, and they have far more advanced equipment and weaponry than Iran does so conventional warfare is probably not the big concern. And this by the way is not unique to the Gulf. We are seeing in Europe, for example, attention focusing to asymmetric warfare infiltration: the use of deniable proxies which the Russians have employed in Ukraine. I would say that one of the most important areas of our cooperation with the Gulf countries is in counterterrorism and cyber defense. Those kind of newer and less conventional areas of defense and security where we have a growing and very effective collaboration and it is less visible to the public than fighter jets landing, or naval ships arriving. And this is not just the public in the Gulf it is the same in Europe. We have to make the argument to our public that more and more of our defense effort is going to be doing things you cannot see or do not even have a physical embodiment. Cyber defense does not have physical embodiment; you do not do it with a jet fighter; you do it with men in a basement sitting at keyboards. And that is the kind of thing that we are doing very successfully with partners in the Gulf. It is a very symbiotic relationship. It helps the GCC countries to protect their own security but because the threats we face are common and shared, the threats from Islamist extremism for example, it also helps protect our security. So this is not an act of charity or altruism, it is a mutually beneficial collaboration which work for both sides.

Turning to the question of Yemen, you are absolutely right. That is a strategic threat to the Arabian Peninsula. We are supportive of the Saudi-led coalition and we have been giving direct effect to that support through the network of agreements we already have with Saudi Arabia and others in the region, including the very substantial relationship that we have around supporting the Royal Saudi Airforce and that goes directly to the air campaign that Saudi Arabia has been waging in Yemen. But we are also very clear that there has to be a political solution to the situation in Yemen that gives all legitimate actors in Yemen a stake in the future of that country. If we go back to September 2013, when the agreement was made in Sana’a, we had the makings of the shape of what an agreement would look like that brought all the legitimate actors into the fold. We have to reinvigorate the political track as well as, this is critically urgent now, deal with the humanitarian crisis that is happening in Yemen. It is very very important for the long-term strategic interests of the GCC and the whole Arabian Peninsula that the humanitarian crisis is addressed. Allowing a humanitarian disaster in Yemen would create the conditions that could destabilize the Peninsula for a generation and that mustn’t be allowed to happen. So we need to work together on support for the coalition and on reinvigorating the political track, but also on an urgent humanitarian response. And I think we are seeing good progress on all three in the work we are doing, the Americans are doing with Saudi Arabia and other countries to ensure that all three channels are moved forward together. We have always had partners and allies in the Gulf and we have always been clear supporters of the Gulf’s security, but what is happening over the last few years, we have seen I think a much clearer vision that your security is our security, that we have a very strong coincidence of security interests. Protecting the security of the GCC is part of protecting our own security, particularly the work we are doing in counterterrorism, cyber defense and so on is mutually highly beneficial. Giving a clearer and more permanent, visible form to our security commitment in the Gulf and the naval base in Manama is the most obvious, but only one, element of that, is the way we go forward over the next few years. We want to be clear that this is a strategy. It is not just a piecemeal. It is a coherent whole. We have a got a vision for our relationship with the GCC which in the short term will provide reassurance about Iran. We understand that there is a high degree of skepticism about Iran and it is perfectly legitimate. Iran’s behavior in the past means we all should be extremely wary and cautious in our dealings with Iran, but we hope over time it will become the basis for our long term engagement in the Gulf as the tensions with Iran gradually relax and that will not happen over a couple of months or even years. It will happen over a couple of decades but we hope that twenty years down the line Britain will be seen as a key and enduring defense and security partner for the GCC countries within the region, working more collaboratively with the states of the region to deal with the real threat which is the non-state terrorist actors particularly the threat from Islamist extremism.

Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the message for the Gulf? Because the concern is that the shift in strategy means Europe seeing that extremism is from ISIS and only ISIS.

Hammond: The lesson of history is that you do not have the luxury of saying ‘the problem is no longer this, it is that’. Those in the West who thought twenty years ago we could forget Russia and concentrate on something else have been proved wrong. You have to maintain your guard against all possible threats. You have to have a flexible posture. You have to look for the opportunities and there may be an opportunity to normalize relationships with Iran but in looking for the opportunities you should not blind yourself to the risks and you have to maintain vigilance against those risks. And if I may say so, those countries who perhaps have been doing this a bit longer— Britain, France, the US—perhaps have a greater appreciation of the danger of flying off on the latest fad or fashion. We have to look for opportunities but we know from our experience that we cannot let our guard down and should stick working with our partners to protect our long term security interests.


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