The lack of joined-up thinking in the dealings of the West with the Middle East is exemplified by the premature enthusiasm for the lifting of sanctions against Iran. In his rush to create a foreign policy legacy, President Obama has rushed into a deal which lifts key trade and financial sanctions against Iran without thinking through the strategic consequences.
The Obama administration’s removal of American troops and bases from Iraq smoothed the way for Islamic State (ISIS) to extend its reach into the country and across the whole region. Now the easing of economic, financial and diplomatic pressure on Iran can only encourage the export of Iranian-sponsored terrorism.
How quickly the US and its compliant European Union allies (desperate for the new export markets) forget the threats of Iran’s fanatical supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to eliminate Israel and to wish death upon America.
It is Iran which pays for and helped to create the Hezbollah forces that kept President Bashir Assad in power in Syria after fighting a bloody civil war against the democratic movements in the country and his own people. By allowing Hezbollah to become a battle-hardened force it has become the greatest threat to the security of Israel on its northern frontier.
Elsewhere in the Gulf, Iran is the principal backer of the radical Islamic Houtis (the former Ansar Allah movement) in Yemen, which displaced the government and shows scant respect for human rights. In London this month, Saudi foreign minister Adel al Jubeir noted: “Iran’s record has been one of war and destruction, terrorism, destabilisation and interference in the affairs of other countries.”
Western sanctions on Iran were lifted on 17 January after the nuclear watchdog, the IAEA, ruled that Tehran was complying with the nuclear containment deal agreed last year between Iran and six powers including the US and Britain.
As was the case a generation ago in South Africa, financial sanctions were the ultimate weapon which brought Iran to the negotiating table. Starved of access to global finance, the nation’s currency fell sharply, trade ground to a halt and the threat of internal dissension driven by cash-starved businesses and their employees forced the allegedly-moderate British-educated president, Hassan Rouhani, to the negotiating table. He was fortunate to find in Obama an over-eager partner, and in the EU an economic bloc desperate to open new markets.
The British government particularly was effective in blocking Iran’s route to international finance. Visitors to the Treasury website can see how active it has been in corralling banks, financial firms and investors seeking to circumvent the sanctions regime. The concern must now be that the effort to reward Iran for its current restraint on the nuclear front will see years of work that has starved Iran of the funding to spread terrorism and mayhem lost.
How quickly the US and the EU forgot the Iranian reaction to the Saudi Arabian execution of the radical Shi’ite cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. No country knows more about blood-stained executions than Iran. Human-rights groups estimate more than 1,000 people, many of them human-rights activists and defenders of freedom, were put to death by the regime in 2015 alone .
Death should not be a numbers game, but this compares to 175 executions in Saudi. Yet the suppression in Iran of non-Islamic groups such as the Baha’i goes virtually unprotested.
Western commerce is straining at the leash to re-open trade doors to Iran after sanctions. Under the current deal, some $100bn (£70bn) of Iranian assets (equal to 25 per cent of the country’s GDP or total output) could be freed.
Iran will comfortably pump a further half a million barrels of oil a day from existing wells. Eventually a further 1.1 bn barrels, twice the current production, could be released. The only saving grace is that with the current low oil price, which has fallen 75 per cent to below $30 a barrel, the immediate rewards will be more limited.
The stampede of Western firms and ministers to Iran in anticipation of big new orders is unseemly and foolish given the country’s continued human-rights violations and export of terror. But the promise of selling 114 passenger jets made by the Airbus consortium has European trade ministers rubbing their hands. Short-term commercial gratification conquers all.