With Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza well under way, I spoke to John Jenkins, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Syria, about the wider state of play in the Middle East. We discuss the role Iran is playing in the recent region, and what legacy the Israel-Hamas war will leave. Jenkins, who also served as a senior diplomat in Jerusalem, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Malaysia, and as director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Foreign Office in London, wrote the essay “The Iran trap” for the New Statesman earlier this month.
Katie Stallard: Where are we right now in the conflict between Israel and Hamas?
John Jenkins: Senior Israelis say it’s a paradigm shift. It is in the sense that the Israelis realise the policy they have pursued for the past two decades, of seeking to, as they say, “mow the grass” [periodically debilitating Hamas and Hezbollah in small-scale conflicts] – while resisting a serious return to negotiations on a Palestinian state – has essentially collapsed. They now cannot tolerate a Gaza which is under Hamas control, although it’s not at all clear what they think is going to come afterwards. And that also means that they will not be able to tolerate the sort of presence that Hezbollah has established over the last 23 years in southern Lebanon.
The Israelis are trying to remove Hamas from Gaza, whatever that means, and they’re trying to keep the north quiet. But the level of attacks across that border from Hezbollah and the Israeli responses has ticked up noticeably in the last two weeks. [Hassan] Nasrallah [the leader of Hezbollah] has now spoken twice since the conflict erupted and it looks to me as if Hezbollah is trying to do what Hezbollah has always tried to do, which is calibrate their level of attack with an Israeli level of response which stops short of an outright conflict, because I think the memory of 2006 [when Israel fought a month-long war with Hezbollah] and the massive destruction that wreaked on Lebanon is still very raw. You’ve seen the Lebanese prime minister [Najib Mikati] saying that Lebanon needs to stay out of conflict because it would be disastrous, but he also says he trusts Hezbollah’s judgement, which of course he has to say, and that’s an issue: can Hezbollah calibrate this effectively?
You are also seeing Iranian-inspired groups attacking the US, particularly in Syria and Iraq – the US still has a military presence in the north-east of Syria, on the border with Jordan, and in the north of Iraq. It looks to me quite unstable. I don’t think anybody wants to have a major regional conflict, but people miscalculate.
KS: Is that Iran’s reading too?
JJ: I think the Iranians see great virtue in strategic patience. They think Israel will eventually disappear because it is divinely ordained: their duty is to help it along, but not to provoke a regional conflict – particularly with two US carrier groups off the coast of Lebanon and Israel – that would precipitate a major US-Israeli attack on key Iranian assets, in Iraq, Syria, or indeed in Iran itself.
KS: If we take a step back and look at the key protagonists here – Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and the Shia militias in Iraq and Syria – what do we need to understand about their shared objectives, and how they view Israel?
JJ: From the early 1980s onwards, the Iranians developed a method of forward defence. This essentially meant that if there was going to be a conflict with their enemies – in the Gulf, or with the Americans or the Israelis – it wasn’t going to be on Iranian soil. This is why they helped found Hezbollah in the early 1980s. Hezbollah emerged out of other Shia groups, particularly Amal, which still exists. Hezbollah was then the recipient of training from [Iran’s] Revolutionary Guards, and of massive equipment transfers and a lot of money, and that’s continued for 40 years.
This is the same model that they have deployed in Iraq – helped, of course, by the 2003 invasion and the destruction of the Saddamist regime, which removed any controls on Iranian activity inside Iraq, in Syria and now in Yemen. These groups are not all the same. Hezbollah has a particular trajectory because of this setup by the Revolutionary Guards and because historically there was always a connection between Lebanese Shia and Iran, going back to the 17th century. Of the various Iraqi militias, some are less inclined to take direct Iranian instructions – the Sadrists, for example, are a militant millenarian group, but they are more Iraqi nationalist than aligned with Iran. And the Houthis represent a different strand of Shiism, but they have developed over the past 20 years very close links with Tehran and with the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – the main branch of the Iranian armed forces].
So there are different expressions of this fundamental DNA, but in essence [Tehran’s backing of these groups] is a way of making sure that any conflict happens elsewhere, and it gives the Iranians a way of projecting force in the region, as we saw with the 2019 attacks on the oil installations at Abqaiq and Khurais [in Saudi Arabia]. We’ve seen it with Houthi attacks on airports in the United Arab Emirates, and we’ve seen this recently with attempts by the Houthis to launch missiles to hit Eilat [an Israeli city on the Red Sea]. We have seen the transfer of sophisticated guidance systems to all these militias, which enables them to hit a variety of targets at very long distance across the region. So this is not simply defensive, it’s also offensive.
KS: All of these groups are committed to the destruction of Israel. But what tensions might we see play out between them?
JJ: Some of this is shaped by domestic politics. If you look at the way that the Iraqi militias, for example, are talking about all of this, they’re very, very punchy. They want to keep pressure on the Iraqi government to deliver what they want inside Iraq. For the Houthis too, one of the reasons they are agitating is because they want to be useful to Iran, but also because it actually helps them inside Yemen, where hostility to Israel is very widespread – as it is in many Middle Eastern countries.
Israel is a very powerful mobilising issue because a lot of these groups think that the destruction of Israel is necessary to facilitate the return of the Hidden Imam. Shiism has this belief in the return of the Twelfth Imam, who entered into occultation sometime in the 9th century and will come back at the end of time as a Mahdi, [bringing about the] destruction of Israel, the destruction of the Jews. All these sorts of millenarian things – that we also saw with the Islamic State in a Sunni context – are present.
I remember in Iraq, in 2009 or 2010, speaking to a former Iraqi national security adviser about [the president of Iran from 2005-13, Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad who famously left a seat at the cabinet table vacant just in case the [Twelfth] Imam turned up for a cabinet meeting. I laughed at this and the former national security adviser said, “Why are you laughing? Do you not believe that the Imam will return?” I said, “Well, it’s not that I don’t believe that the Imam will return. I’m Catholic after all, so I believe in the end of time as well. I just don’t think he’s going to turn up for Ahmadinejad’s cabinet meeting.” But this is present as a factor, and it has a symbolic importance for these groups that is quite hard to understand, I think, in the West, where the symbolic sphere in which we operate is so different, so secularised.
KS: Does this also play into how we in the West have assessed Iran? As you wrote for us recently, there seems to have been a shift. Iran was seen as expansionist and revolutionary. Now it is seen as more pragmatic, perhaps more aware of its regional limitations. What have we failed to understand about the ideology driving the regime?
JJ: Well, we talk about secular rationality and I think of Kant’s famous essay on perpetual peace. He is iconic in terms of Enlightenment rationality and that sense that if people are just rational enough, they can achieve peace, they can achieve negotiations, they can achieve the settlement of any sort of issues. It is deeply embedded, I think, in the way that Western policymakers think of the world. I think it’s one of the reasons Jake Sullivan famously said, a couple of weeks before all this kicked off, that he hadn’t seen the Middle East so quiet for decades and this was good for him because he could concentrate on other stuff.
Well actually, these “frozen conflicts” weren’t frozen at all. Conflicts are never really frozen in the Middle East. They’re always there. Partly because of the way that people pursue different interests in the region, but also because throughout the region there are these fault lines of interpretation.
This isn’t some sort of crass point about age-old sectarianism. These sectarianisms take a very modern form, and they are shaped by modern ideologies. Look at Islamism in the 20th and 21st centuries [and how it has been] shaped by certain forms of quasi-metaphysical Western thought, including existentialism – I mean, Heidegger is central to the way that Iranian revolutionists construed the revolution there. You need to understand the symbolic world in which these actors move in the Middle East… and I just think we’ve lost the ability to interpret the religious mindset when it is applied to politics. Tony Blair famously said, “We don’t do God.” Well, in the Middle East, they do do God. And I think bridging that gap is really important.
KS: What does this mean for the temporal dimension of this conflict? I’m thinking in terms of the broader time span, and the sense you outline in your essay of the trap that Iran has laid for Israel and the United States. What is Tehran’s long-term strategy?
JJ: The Iranians want the United States out of the Middle East. They think that this is an impediment [to] Iran asserting not just a secular hegemony over the Middle East, but also exercising full and legitimate leadership over the Muslims of the world. Behind this is the sense that Iran has – by its nature as a state, by its geographical position, by its demographic weight, but also by the fact that it is the major Shia power – that it has ownership of this issue, of the Shia communities around the world.
There are severe obstacles to this of course: one is the presence of the United States in the region, and the other is Israel, which they [Iran] believe will be expelled from the region like the crusaders – I mean this isn’t going to happen, but that doesn’t mean they don’t believe it. How do you negotiate with a state which believes that this is divinely ordained and just needs to be helped on its way?
KS: What does that mean for Israel when on the opposite side of this nominal negotiating table is a state and a regime that believes it should not exist? As you put it, how do you solve an essentially political problem when the other side doesn’t believe in political solutions?
JJ: If you listen to [Osama] Hamdan, the senior Hamas politburo member who gave a notorious interview to Lebanese TV [on 11 October], in which he said, we will continue doing this because Israel can’t exist, shouldn’t exist, won’t exist. This sort of teleological, millenarian mindset is very common. Now, apologists for Hamas will say, well, they’ve offered truces. Yes, they have offered truces, which has a model in Islamic history, but that only buys a certain amount of time. I mean, [the first Israeli prime minister, David] Ben-Gurion’s great mantra was always “one day at a time”: let’s make an advance here and then see where we are tomorrow. And I think you see a bit of that at the moment with regards to Gaza. But for Hamas, they’re looking at the longue durée, and they think that they are going to win. So they can make tactical withdrawals, tactical concessions – but they’re only tactical. In the end, there is only one solution to this, which is the destruction of Israel, and I think that’s also the case for Iran.
Now, you might argue: well, you can try and work that through, make tactical concessions, buy some time, and then people will change. Well, Iran hasn’t really changed. There have been Iranian pragmatists – [Akbar] Rafsanjani was the most prominent of them when he was president [from 1989-97] – he was a believer in the revolution, but he was also a businessperson and he was comfortable dealing with other actors who didn’t believe in the same things that he did. But I think that tendency was destroyed sometime after 1997 and the election of [Muhammad] Khatami [who campaigned on a platform of reform].
After that, you saw a reaction by the deep state in Iran under [the country’s supreme leader] Ali Khamenei, which saw what had happened in the 1997 election and was determined to avoid a repeat. They instituted a programme of winnowing out those in the Revolutionary Guard they didn’t think were committed enough and producing a very sophisticated and elaborate programme of indoctrination. Personally, I think it’s folly to think that this is going to change, because every time it looks as if something will change, the regime reacts.
KS: As someone who has covered this region and these issues in depth for many years, how do you view this current moment? What is the significance of what we see unfolding now?
JJ: I think this [war] in Gaza has destroyed the assumptions of the last 20 years. It is interesting in terms of the whole question of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, because the Israelis were always much keener on this than the Saudis were, and every time Netanyahu looked eager, Mohammed bin Salman put the price up. I think the Saudis are still interested in this because they see something that helps reduce the level of conflict in the region as important for their own social and economic ambitions. But whereas before this conflict, I think the price for normalisation may have been something less than a Palestinian state, I think the price now is a Palestinian state.
In the end, that’s the answer to this. I mean, it’s not the answer to everything. It’s not the answer to Iran. It’s not the answer to Hezbollah and the rest of it. But it’s the answer to a lot of the other conflicts, and it removes one of the major causes of unease, anger, and unrest in the Middle East and the Muslim world more generally.
It is important what happens on the day after this conflict ends – what sort of arrangements are in place for Gaza, and for the Palestinians more generally, because they’re not going anywhere. [The Israeli security minister, Itamar] Ben-Gvir and [the finance minister, Bezalel] Smotrich may want to force them out of the West Bank and Gaza, but that is not going to happen. It would be immoral, but it’s also not practical politics. You’ve got to have a plan to deal with this. Now you need a different sort of Israeli government and I don’t know how long that’s going to take. But if it’s important for the Middle East, it’s going to be important for the United States as well. When Biden, or indeed Obama, says we need to pivot to the Asia Pacific and we’re going leave the Middle East behind, well to paraphrase the old saying [by Leon Trotsky], you might not be interested in the Middle East, but the Middle East is interested in you. That may be a cliché, but there’s a lot of truth in it.