Iran begins to fuel its first nuclear power station - but what happens next? Photo: IIPA via Getty Images
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John Simpson: The Iran deal won’t make the world much safer

It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran.

After the Vienna agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme was announced, Valiasr Avenue, the long, snaking road that brings traffic southwards and downhill from the middle-class suburbs of northern Tehran to the city centre, was blocked until 2am. Excited, relieved and optimistic, people piled into their cars and headed out to celebrate, hooting their horns, singing and chanting. For Barack Obama and the western leaders, the agreement seems to offer a new start after 36 confrontational years. But for millions of middle-class people in northern Tehran, it promises something even more enticing: the chance to weaken the control that the religious conservatives have maintained over everyday life since 1979.

It has been hard, over the years, to explain to western readers and viewers the deep contradictions of Iran, one of the world’s least-reported-on major countries. The problem is that we think we know what the Islamic Republic is all about. We see the pictures of black-robed demonstrators in the streets denouncing the west and all its works. We recall the former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with his unshaven face and simian eyes, and think that he speaks for an entire nation of extremists. We assume, therefore, that Iran’s nuclear programme is intended to wipe out Israel and threaten western interests. And, as a result, we get Iran wrong every time.

The reality is that it is a highly complex political society – too complex for its own good – in which, for nearly 40 years, the old conservative revolutionaries have battled against the instinctively pro-western, relatively liberal instincts of a clear majority of its people. Even now, the conservatives manage to keep a grip on society through the structure of the state, which gives the unelected religious leader more authority than the elected president, and through the system of religious policing, which forces everyone to toe the line.

Every time the liberal section of society gets the chance to celebrate a victory over the conservatives, it does so in style – hence the parade of honking vehicles up and down Valiasr Avenue on 14 July. For the people leaning out of the windows and waving pictures of their foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who led the negotiations to their successful conclusion, the agreement signals an end to sanctions and confrontation with the west. No wonder Iran’s conservatives are nervous about the deal. It probably ensures that the markedly liberal president, Hassan Rowhani, will be re-elected in 2017; and it will make Iranian society more “westoxicated” (an old revolutionary term) and even harder to control.

Will it prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons? The agreement doesn’t, on the face of it, seem particularly watertight, so Iran will likely be able to get around it if it wants. Yet there has never been any serious indication that Iran – even the Iran of the conservatives – wants nuclear weapons. What it seeks is the status that generating energy by nuclear means seems to confer; for the most part (and aside from the terrorist attacks it has carried out), Iran has been relatively timid in international affairs.

It is a country with great imperial pretensions and it feels that British and American machinations have historically prevented it from exercising real power in the region. What power it has is exercised through the Shia nexus, linking it with Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad government in Syria, the Shia parties in Iraq and Shia groups in the Gulf. Iran is not and cannot be an existential threat to Israel but it can be a major diplomatic and military nuisance – hence the bitter condemnation of the Vienna deal by Binyamin Netanyahu.

Hence, too, the fears of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf rulers. The old system, in which the US kept the Middle East under control through military, political and economic links, is just about finished. The ground is shifting under everyone’s feet, so that in their different ways both Saudi Arabia and Israel are now out in the cold and Shia Islam is in the ascendant. A new alliance with Sunni Islam is up for grabs.

In Iran, the big winner after the deal is President Rowhani. He is affable, moderate and calm and has managed to stabilise the country after the violent ups and downs of the Ahmadinejad years. Any reformist leader can rely on roughly two-thirds of the electorate for support but the complexities of the Iranian constitution and the wiles of the politicians have often shackled the reformists’ powers. Now, however, the wave of prosperity that ought to follow the lifting of sanctions should strengthen Rowhani greatly. Will he be able to convert this into new political powers?

For those of us in the west, there are immediate, practical advantages. Iran’s oil will be back on the open market and should drive the price of oil down to $50 or maybe even lower: a big economic benefit. Whatever we may think of Iran, relying on prejudice and the television pictures of angry crowds, the reality is that the country is a sophisticated society that can once again play the pivotal role it did under the shah – though, one hopes, with a bit more common sense.

Is the world safer now? Not particularly, if only because the threat from Iran was mostly exaggerated out of proportion by Israel and the American right. Yet it will be a differently dangerous place. Sanctions, which are an unpleasant and lazy way of exercising power, have proven their effect; so has working with Russia instead of against it. The Vienna agreement will bring nothing good for Isis and it will be easier to co-ordinate a western/Shia campaign against it. The great anxiety now is felt by Saudi Arabia. What does it do and where does it go? After all the years of worrying about Iran, maybe we should start worrying about the Saudis instead? 

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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"Labour are as pro-Brexit as the Tories": what do Sinn Fein's MPs really want from Westminster?

Its seven MPs are much less sympathetic to Corbyn's party than popularly imagined, and won't ever take their seats.

Should the Conservative minority government fall, what is Jeremy Corbyn’s route to power? The counterfactual as popularly understood goes like this: Corbyn would pick up the phone to his old pal Gerry Adams and convince Sinn Fein’s seven MPs to abandon the habit of a century and take their seats.

There are countless reasons why this would never happen, most of them obvious. One is more surprising. Despite Corbyn’s longstanding links with the republican cause, the Labour party is not all that popular among a new intake, which is preoccupied with one thing above all else: Brexit.

No wonder. Sinn Fein’s long game is an all-Ireland one, and the party believe the UK’s departure from the EU will hasten reunification. In the meantime, however, its priority is a Brexit deal that gives Northern Ireland – where 56 per cent of voters backed remain – designated status within the EU.

Pioneered by the moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party as an antidote to Brexit, designated status would allow the six counties in the North to continue to enjoy the EU’s four freedoms. But the idea is anathema to unionists and the UK government, and Sinn Fein sees little evidence that the Westminster establishment will make it work – not even Labour.

“They are as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are,” says Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy. “We’re anti-Brexit. We want to see the right of the people in the North who voted to remain in Europe respected.”

Simmering resentment over what the party perceives to have been broken promises on Tony Blair’s part – especially over legal protection for the Irish language, a key stumbling block obstructing the resumption of power-sharing – makes the already implausible deal even less likely.

“The Irish language act was something that Blair agreed to,” says Molloy. “So when people talk about us taking our seats, they don’t realise we would be backing a Labour government that wouldn’t be living up to its commitments either, and would be just as pro-Brexit as the Conservatives are."

That criticism may well surprise a lay audience whose working assumption is that Adams and Corbyn work hand in glove. But it is perhaps the best illustration of Sinn Fein’s parliamentary priorities: its seven MPs will not in any circumstances take their seats but use their Westminster presence to lobby ministers and MPs of all stripes while running constituency offices at home (they are unsalaried, but claim expenses).

Crucially, its MPs believe abstentionism strengthens, rather than weakens their negotiating hand: by their logic other parties need not and do not fear them given the fact they do not have voting power.

They will use their leverage to agitate for special status above all else. “Special status is the biggest issue that we are lobbying for,” says Molloy. “We feel that is the best way of securing and retaining EU membership. But if we get a referendum on Irish unity and the people vote for that, then the North will automatically join the EU.”

But that wasn’t always the received wisdom. That assurance was in fact secured by Mark Durkan, the former deputy first minister and SDLP MP beaten by Sinn Fein last week, after an exchange with Brexit secretary David Davis at the leaving the EU select committee. The defeat of the three SDLP MPs – two of them by Sinn Fein – means there will be no Irish nationalist voice in the commons while Brexit is negotiated.

Surely that’s bad news for Northern Irish voters? “I don’t think it is,” says Molloy. “The fact we took two seats off the SDLP this time proves abstentionism works. It shows they didn’t deliver by attending. We have a mandate for abstentionism. The people have now rejected attendance at Westminster, and rejected Westminster itself. We’ve never been tempted to take our seats at all. It is very important we live by our mandate.”

If they did, however, they would cut the Conservatives’ and Democratic Unionist Party’s working majority from 13 to a much more precarious six. But Molloy believes any alliance will be a fundamentally weak one and that all his party need do is wait. “I think it’ll be short-lived,” he says. “Every past arrangement between the British government and unionist parties has always ended in tears.”

But if the DUP get its way – the party has signed a confidence and supply deal which delivers extra cash for Northern Ireland – then it need not. Arlene Foster has spoken of her party’s desire to secure a good deal for the entire country. Unsurprisingly, however, Sinn Fein does not buy the conciliatory rhetoric.

“They’ve never really tried to get a good deal for everybody,” says Michelle Gildernew, who won the hyper-marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone back from the Ulster Unionists last week. “The assembly and executive [which Sinn Fein and the DUP ran together] weren’t working for a lot of groups – whether that was the LGBT community, the Irish language community, or women...they might say they’re going to work for everybody, but we’ll judge them by their actions, not their words.”

Molloy agrees, and expresses concern that local politicians won’t be able to scrutinise new spending. “The executive needs to be up and running to implement that, and to ensure a fair distribution. If there’s new money coming into the North, we welcome that, but it has to be done through the executive.”

On current evidence, the call for local ministers to scrutinise the Conservatives’ deal with the DUP is wishful thinking – Northern Ireland has been without an executive since February, when the late Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister and triggered a snap election.

The talks since have been defined by intransigence and sluggishness. James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland secretary, has had to postpone the talks deadline on four separate occasions, and has been criticised by nationalists for his perceived closeness to the DUP.

The final deadline for the restoration of an executive is 29 June 2017. Sinn Fein has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself in favour of a neutral chair. “His hands are tied now, completely,” says Molloy. “The Conservative party were always questionable on where they stood – they’ve always been unionists. The issue now is whether they can act neutrally as a guarantor to the Good Friday Agreement.”

He believes that question is already settled. “Legally, they have to act to ensure that nothing happens to damage that agreement – but we’ve already breached it through Brexit. There was no consultation. The people of the North voted to remain and it hasn’t been recognised. It totally undermines the consent principle.”

Just how they and Brokenshire interpret that principle – the part of the Good Friday Agreement that specifies the constitutional status of the North can only change by consent of its people – will be key to whether they can achieve their ultimate goal: Irish unity.

Molloy and Gildernew say the fact that 11 of Northern Ireland’s 18 constituencies voted to remain in the EU is enough for Brokenshire to call one within the next five years (though polling consistently shows that a clear majority of the province’s electorate, including a substantial minority of nationalists, would vote to stay in the UK). They are confident they can win, though, failing that, Molloy envisages it as the first in several referenda on unification.

But beneath the optimism lies the knowledge that the British government are unlikely to heed their calls. And, willingly absent from the Westminster chamber, they say the UK government’s discussions about Brexit are illegitimate. They see their real powerbase as elsewhere: in Dublin’s Dail Eireann, where Sinn Fein is the third largest party, and the chancelleries of Europe.

“That’s where most of the negotiation will actually happen,” says Molloy. “The EU27 will make the decisions. They won’t be made in Westminster, because the British have already set out what they’re doing: they’re leaving.”

But with seven MPs already lobbying ministers and a united Ireland unlikely to happen in the immediate future, Sinn Fein itself won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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