Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali Akbar Salehi give a press conference. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Iran comes in from the cold

For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran.

In an age when the problems in the Middle East look as intractable as ever, Iran’s agreement to curb its nuclear programme – and so abandon attempts to gain a nuclear weapon – is to be welcomed. Mohammad Javad Zarif, the Iranian foreign minister, described the deal agreed in Vienna with six world powers (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) as representing “a new chapter of hope”.

Indeed, it does. Iran has shown an interest in nuclear technology since 1957, when the pre-revolution regime received assistance from the US Atoms for Peace programme. Since 1984, when West German intelligence announced that Iran could build a bomb in two years using uranium from Pakistan, fears that the post-revolution Iran would obtain nuclear weapons have persisted. The threat has intensified since the existence of two nuclear sites under construction was revealed in 2002, the year in which George W Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil” along with North Korea and Iraq.

Ever since, the west has attempted to curtail Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Finally, progress has been made. After the latest round of negotiations, lasting two years, Iran has agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 96 per cent and its overall enrichment capacity by two-thirds and, most significantly, accept an unprecedented amount of international control over its nuclear programme. Not only will this lower the threat of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but it should herald a new era of co-operation with the west. Ultimately, the world should become a slightly safer place.

None of this is to suggest that the deal is perfect. Iran is allowed to challenge requests for access from UN weapons inspectors, which would then be discussed at an arbitration board comprising representatives from Iran and the six powers. To Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, this is one reason why the deal amounts to “a historic mistake for the world”.

It is also true that the agreement will do nothing to alleviate the cold war between the Sunni Saudi Arabia and the Shia Iran. And the extra funds that are freed up to Iran, as a result of sanctions by the west being lifted, could yet be channelled into extra sponsorship for its client Shia militant group Hezbollah and, Israel fears, into proxy wars around the Middle East. Such concerns are understandable. For all the ­progress, establishing trust between Iran and the west remains a process fraught with difficulty. Building relations with Iran must be done in tandem with assiduously monitoring developments in the country.

Yet everyone should laud the courage shown by the representatives of all seven countries involved in the negotiations – especially Barack Obama and Iran’s president, Hassan Rowhani – in attempting to forge a new course. The sanctions imposed had a deleterious effect on the lives of Iranians but not the country’s nuclear ambitions. For all of its limitations and the uncertainty that still abounds, the deal could come to be seen as a historic leap towards stability in Iran, with attendant benefits for the rest of the Middle East, including in the struggle against Isis. If the Vienna agreement proves durable, it will be regarded as the most significant of the foreign policy achievements of the Obama presidency.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.