Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

US must 'contain, constrain and deter' Iranian influence in region

A panel discussion on Gulf security hosted by 'The National' in London hears the roots of the current crisis stretch back decades

Diplomats and security experts urged the US to “contain, constrain and deter” Iran from spreading its influence in the region amid heightened tensions, but warned that US president Donald Trump must have a “clear” strategy to keep Iran contained.

Diplomat Sir John Jenkins said he was surprised by “how measured it is on the Iranian side”, and warned the US of a “series of miscalculations on how to deal with Iran”.

“Iran has developed and evolved its capacity to fend off attacks,” said Britain’s former ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, who has served in Abu Dhabi, Syria and Iraq in a career stretching over 35 years.

Other long-standing security issues were discussed on a warm London evening where discussion flowed between Middle Eastern diplomats, security advisers and members of the media.

Speaking on a panel event hosted by The National in London on Monday evening addressing the recent tension between the US and Iran, author and The National columnist Con Coughlin said senior members of the Trump administration want to bring Iran back to the negotiating table despite the threat of military action.

“When that decision was taken [to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal], the ambition was to get Iran back on the negotiating table.”

Coughlin spoke of the impression he got from US secretary of state Mike Pompeo and US national security adviser John Bolton.

“What both of them reminded me and others is that when the Trump administration decided to withdraw [from the Iran nuclear deal], it did so in the expectation and hope of getting a better deal. One thing Trump likes is a deal,” said Coughlin.

Trump described Obama’s nuclear deal as “terrible”, while Mr Pompeo on Monday said Iran “has engaged in 40 years of terror and aggression against the United States and our allies”.

Coughlin warned that Iranian influence is “not confined” to its geographical borders and it has long been “exporting” its ideology since the revolution.

Middle East expert and former security adviser Emma Sky, who has also previously spoken about Iran’s influence in Iraq and Syria post-Iraq war, said the US president wants to avoid conflict but others in his administration have conflicting views.

“It’s a confused national security decision-making process,” she told The National.

“The US must have the determination… for long-term commitment. And that is not seen.”

She added that the US position on Iran was “very erratic” and “not clear” enough, with Trump “caught" between Mr Bolton and Mr Pompeo.

While senior figures such as Mr Pompeo have been firm against Iranian aggression, some cable news channels in the US have urged Mr Trump to refrain from military intervention in the Middle East – a promise he made when he beat Hilary Clinton in the race for the White House in 2016.

When asked whether the Palestinian question had been forgotten by the Middle East, Sir John said the issue still had a “mobilising force”.

“You cannot wish the Palestinian issue away and you cannot buy it away,” he said.

“I still think romantically [the region needs] a renewed push for a Palestinian state.”

He said Hamas had a choice of remaining as “insurgents” or coming to the table in a mainstream political way.

All three experts remembered a “sense of hope” for a Palestinian solution in the 1990s, despite Yasser Arafat’s “many flaws”.

Ms Sky, involved in British Council projects during in the 1990s, warned that the moment for a two-state solution benefiting Palestine had long gone.

“The conditions for Palestine aren’t there and Israel is booming. The moment has sadly passed.”

Updated: June 25, 2019 08:35 PM

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