ANALYSIS: Iran, Looking To The Future

special report
“Iran: Looking To The Future”
House of Commons
South Asia &Middle East Forum
London, April 18th, 2018


Khalid Nadeem was chairman of the “Iran: Looking to the Future” session of the South Asia & Middle East Forum. The session was hosted on April 18th 2018, at the House of Commons. Mr Nadeem is the founder of the South Asia & Middle East Forum and has been the chairman since its inception in 1998. He trained as a lawyer and has worked in the finance and property sectors.

Panelists included: Dr Jack Caravelli, a political advisor who served 25 years in the US government, and an expert on terrorism and non proliferation issues; Jonathan Paris, a London-based specialist on regional political and security matters and consultant to the US government; Jim Shannon MP, a member of the Committees on Arms Export Controls until June 2017; Tom Brake MP, Liberal Democrat member for Carshalton and Wallington and Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs until June 2017; Dr Shaybani; Shahrzad Atai, a solicitor and Head of the Middle East Desk at Child & Child; and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, former Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary, and Chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament.


Dr. Jack Caravelli began the session with a speech on US-Iranian relations, focusing on the nuclear situation.

He drew the audience’s attention to the question of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), alluding to doubts in diplomatic circles about whether Trump intends to honour his deal with the Iranians or renege on them. He said that Obama knew that bipartisan domestic agreement on the deal would be difficult, and to many Americans, it was simply a deal – a piece of paper that could be honoured at convenience, rather than a binding treaty. Historically, Dr Caravelli added, the American government had been reluctant to walk away from agreements; however, as with other things, he felt that Trump could break this tradition.

Dr Caravelli explained that the JCPOA was not a permanent fix. For all parties, this treaty was a more of a bet, because when it expired, Iran would have the freedom to do as it wished. He noted that the West could only hope that Iran would not change its policy on the nuclear programme. This was why the President of the United States (POTUS), was worried. Dr Caravelli himself, who worked as a CIA officer and policy-maker in Clinton’s administration, expressed concerns over the fact that Iran was continuing to put resources into its missile programme, even though it had agreed to slow down its nuclear activity.

Dr Caravelli noted that any dithering from Trump could threaten the entire deal. If the US walked away,  he said that Iran would also walk away. Meanwhile, the other partners to the agreement did not want to see the JCPOA overturned. Dr Caravelli felt that May 12th could be a turning point for the future of this deal.

Jonathan Paris spoke next about US-Iranian relations, with a focus on Syria.

On one hand, he said, Trump intended to pull out of Syria, and Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir announced that Saudi Arabia would deploy its own troops in Eastern Syria. On the other hand, Bashar al-Assad had supported Iran during the Iraqi invasion, which had led to a sense of indebtedness to Syria in Iran. Overall, Jonathan felt that tension was mounting between the growing Sunni Arab coalition and Iran’s expansive plans in the Middle East.

Mr Paris went on to outline four strategic fallacies around Iran:

First of all, Iran did not anticipate the discontinuity in the foreign policy of the United States between the Obama and the Trump administration. Secondly, Iran’s position was far from Syria’s own, and Israeli intelligence was more sophisticated, meaning that it could disrupt Iranian plans in Syria. Thirdly, the demonstrations in Iran had caused tangible upset: Iran was overstretched – just as the Russians are in Syria – with a poor performing economy. Finally, the risk of their legitimacy is undermined if they decide to leave Syria, disabling them from getting out.

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani (L) stands at the frontline during offensive operations against Islamic State militants in the town of Tal Ksaiba in Salahuddin province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

Mr Paris went on to observe that at the same time as the pressure to leave Syria and counterweight Sunni players in the region was mounting, there was also the possibility of a different pressure developing, on Major General Qasem Soleimani, to defeat ISIS through an Arab-Israeli coalition. Jonathan reminded the audience that Qasem Soleimani had been operating for years under the radar, and building militias to spread ideological baggage around the Middle East.

Mr Paris felt that many of these undecided questions depended on the outcome of the 12th of May meetings, more specifically, whether the US would completely walk out on Iran. Jonathan explained that this also would have implications on North Korean deal talks.

Jim Shannon (MP) spoke next, presenting an outline of the human rights and religious toleration context in Iran. He argued that the government in Iran should be held accountable for its human rights abuses. This was explained through some cases that had been brought to his attention, as the shadow Democratic Union Party Spokesperson for Health and Human Rights. Among his examples, he noted that women in Iran did not enjoy the same level of political rights or social standing as men.

Moreover, he stressed that religious groups in Iran did not receive their due freedoms and that it was not only that the Iranian government discriminated against other religions, it discriminated against denominations within the Islamic faith. In particular Sunnis, and Bahai’s were marginalised groups. He emphasised that the government was meeting the lowest standards of protections for these groups and they were not carrying out their moral responsibility towards these groups.

This view was considered to be controversial among some attendees of the Forum, with some vocally opposing his position that women were effectively second-class citizens in Iran, while others shared his concerns over unequal standing between men and women.

Tom Brake MP was next to take the floor. He spoke about UK-Iranian trade relations and shed light on the economic issues that were most central to Iran’s future.

Mr Brake said that he hoped Brexit would not happen – but as it was approaching, the UK was now seeing new trade opportunities around the world. At the same time, he felt that the UK government was at risk of losing a vote about staying in the customs union. He went on to say that it was very likely that the UK would be forced to accept some form of customs arrangement, as its trade ability was deeply linked to the trade ability of the European Union – although mostly with regards to services. He then expressed some doubts over the capacity of the UK and Iran governments to reach an agreement on services.

He then moved on to the topic of Syria, a topic in which the UK and Iran are on opposing sides of the conflict. Mr Brake mention that this created barriers for negotiations. Nevertheless, he noted that there was still a strong lobby within the EU towards the US Congress to maintain the nuclear deal. He explained that a decertification of the JCPOA by the US would create difficulties for British companies involved in Iran and put them at risk.

With the upcoming customs union vote and the wider repercussions of Brexit, Tom said that there were opportunities as well as challenges facing UK-Iranian trade relations. Within the UK, opposition parties were interested in trade deals with other countries, if Brexit should happen, which did not only involve trade, but other issues such as human rights, workers’ rights, and environmental protection. Mr Brake explained that this created challenges in the Iranian context and that whether or not the two countries would successfully arrive at an agreement was yet to be seen.

Dr Shaybani followed Mr Brake, with some thoughts about the economic and political challenges facing Iran today.

Dr Shaybani reminded the audience that challenges bring opportunities. He said that Iran was an important country in the Middle East and the world, in many ways. Its vast land stretches from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf, and it has a population of 80 million, most of which are young and educated. Unfortunately, he continued, Iran is a misunderstood country, and the US and its allies have not learned from their mistakes.

Dr Shaybani said that looking at the current economic situation in Iran shed light on the domestic issues facing the country. He said that not all of its problems could be ascribed to government mismanagement. According to Dr Shaybani, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad alone, Former President of Iran from 2005 to 2013, caused a lot of damage to the country when he claimed that Iran planned to ‘wipe Israel off the map’. Other bad policies, such as currency devaluation, too much reliance on oil and gas, and corruption in general, had also culminated in a bad economic situation. Nonetheless, Iran had the potential, he said, to become a huge exporter, given its good infrastructure and its geographical position. However, it had no industrial strategy, and faced unemployment, corruption, and a growing gap between the rich and the poor. All of these issues were symptoms of Iran’s economic problems. He noted that the government needed to enhance the country’s economic development and distribution.

Turning to the political situation next, Dr Shaybani raised the issue of the struggle between Republicans and Revolutionists. Iran’s reforms today were the product of an ongoing political conflict between Republicans and Revolutionaries. Yet, there was no party system and no political parties, which he explained was a challenge domestic politics in the country faced. Finally, he mentioned that the water shortage was another big problem facing not only Iran, but the entirety of the Middle East today.

Dr Shaybani criticised warfare led by the US, and the ‘coalition of chaos’ (the US and its allies). Instead of investing in wars, Dr Shaybani ended his talk by suggesting that the US and its allies should invest more in education and health and global prosperity, so the world could become a better place.

Shahrzad Atai was the next speaker, and spoke extensively on banking sanctions, trade and Brexit. She began by offering a history of the Iran deal, starting with the detrimental impact of economic sanctions in 2012 leading to China, France, Russia, the UK, US, Germany and the EU to offer a deal to Iran to forego their nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions.

Ms. Atai then spoke about how the lifting of sanctions was not a golden bullet for Iran’s economic woes. In her view, the lifting of sanctions wouldn’t automatically lead to an abundance of trade. For example, she highlighted the absence of a banking relationship between Iran and the UK, which was a lot of weaker than many other countries’ financial relationships with Iran, including France, Italy and Lichtenstein. Ms. Atai explained that the Brexit vote provided an opportunity for Anglo-Iranian trade relations to flourish. However, she felt that what was needed was a development of the banking relationship which is essential to trade. Ms. Atai pointed out that there were difficulties in developing this financial payment structure.

Ms. Atai highlighted the disparity between the treatment of Saudi Arabia and Iran when it came to relations with the West. She contrasted the human rights records of the two countries and made a case that there was hypocrisy in the way the West viewed Iran. She finished her speech by saying that America was the only country in the world to have deployed the Nuclear bomb.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind presented the final speech, which provided unique insight into the current and future state of Iran’s geopolitical situation. His speech focused on UK-Iranian relations.

He made three key points throughout his speech, including a warning that the greatest danger for Middle East stability on the horizon was an Israeli-Iranian military conflict. Sir Malcolm highlighted Iran’s expansion of influence throughout the Middle East, and the danger that the formation of such a ‘Shia Arc’ (throughout Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) posed to Israel’s security. In particular, he noted that the build-up of Iranian forces on Israel’s borders and the established long-term Iranian military bases in Syria would be likely to provoke military confrontation.

Sir Malcolm then emphasised that there were different approaches to countries developing nuclear programs, which worked for different countries. He compared US strategy in Iran with that in North Korea. On the one hand, the Trump administration had been trying to press China to leverage North Korea into abandoning its weapons programmes. On the other hand, he explained that Western governments had often imposed sanctions on Iran as a strategy to get it to comply with Western agreements. He then mentioned that Iranian global ideology had not evolved and remained different from British government’s policy and global objectives. Sir Malcom said that this made negotiations much more difficult, as governments simply could not negotiate with ideology.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her daughter Gabriella pose for a photo in London, Britain February 7, 2016.

The topics discussed during the Forum also included the detainment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, whose husband Richard Ratcliffe had been invited as a guest. Dr. Shaybani invited the audience to consider the thought that the only way to proceed was to create a diplomatic, friendly environment, based on mutual respect. Sir Malcolm Rifkind added that he did not doubt Nazanin’s innocence and that this tragic case might be part of a wider strategy pursued by the Iranian government. He called upon private diplomacy between Iran and the UK. Mr. Khalid Nadeem stressed the importance of pressuring both governments towards more transparency and also further reminded the speakers and audience of the responsibilities that the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, had with regard to the Nazanin’s case.

Richard Ratcliffe, reflecting on the day’s discussion:

“I thought the Forum was a very interesting mixture of differing views and insights, and very thought-provoking because of it. I am grateful to all the speakers on the panel who raised Nazanin’s case and encouraged both the British and Iranian governments to work together to find a solution soon. I agree with one of the speakers – that is only helped by mutual respect, and I would add honesty, particularly in turbulent times.”