EXCLUSIVE- Tony Blair: Iran ‘an ideology with a state’, controlled by hardliners
Forty years after its Islamic Revolution that toppled US-backed Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Iran is still controlled by hardliners and has become “an ideology with a state”, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya in London.
“I would say, frankly, that the hardliners are still very much in control of Iran, and I think we in the West tend to view this sometimes very naively,” he said.
“We think of Iran as a state with an ideology, but actually Iran really is an ideology with a state.”
In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya news channel’s London Bureau Chief Rima Maktabi, Blair drew parallels between the Arab Spring and the Iranian Revolution, stating that the different groups involved thought the revolution was going to open up Iran into a whole set of liberal influences, and that there was “a profound disagreement over what happened afterwards.”
“The trouble is always when you have got a fight between Islamists, who are numerous and well organized, and a broad mass of the population who are numerous but badly organized. Well organized people win,” Blair said.
“It is a little like what happened in parts of the Arab Spring, I think. And therefore the West, because it looked at this really more through its own lens than through the lens of the country itself, believed that this was going to usher in a time of great hope for Iran, and quite the opposite happened.”
Iran’s Islamic Revolution overturned 2,500 years of monarchical rule and brought hardline Shiite clerics to power.
The anniversary starts every year on February 1 - the day Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 returned from France after 14 years in exile to become the supreme leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Across the country on Friday, sirens rang out from trains and boats and church bells chimed at 9:33 am - the exact time Khomeini’s chartered Air France Boeing 747 touched down 40 years ago at Tehran’s International Mehrabad airport.
The United States marked the 40th anniversary of Iran’s Islamic Revolution by highlighting what it says are the “broken promises” of the Middle Eastern country’s leadership.
“When he returned to Iran in 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini made lots of promises to the Iranian people, including justice, freedom, and prosperity. 40 years later, Iran’s ruling regime has broken all those promises, and has produced only 40 years of failure,” the US State Department wrote on its official Twitter account on Sunday.
Many international rights groups have blasted the republic over the past decades for violent crackdowns on minorities, journalists and activists. Media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said that Iranian authorities jailed, and sometimes executed, 1.7 million people around the capital Tehran alone in the first 30 years after the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The organization on Thursday revealed its count that included regime opponents, Baha’is and other religious minorities and at least 860 journalists.
Iran has also been asserting its influence through its ties with “extreme groups” like Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi militias in Yemen, Blair said.
He added that they do not support a two-state solution with respect to the Palestinian issue, and have provided on-the-ground support to the Assad regime in Syria as well.
“The nuclear question is obviously important. This regime with a nuclear weapon would be disastrous and dangerous but quite apart from the acquisition from the nuclear weapons, it’s this destabilizing influence,” he said.
A needed alliance
Blair noted that part of the problem is the West’s narrow view of struggles in the Middle East, categorizing them as “Sunni versus Shiite, or “Iran versus Saudi Arabia.”
“I think this misses the essential point. The struggle across the Middle East today is really about whether you have religious faith as a normal part of society or whether you turn one view of one religion, which is the view of Islam, to a political ideology that necessarily becomes totalitarian. What is important to realize about Iran is that they are driven by this ideology,” he said.
Last November, US President Donald Trump abandoned a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and major powers, saying the accord was flawed in Tehran’s favor, and reintroduced sanctions on Iran that had been lifted under the pact.
The sanctions hit the Iranian regime’s energy, shipping and financial sectors, targeting over 700 entities, heightening tensions between the two countries.
When asked about a solution, Blair said that an alliance needs to be formed.
“You have got to be clear eyed about what Iran is doing. It is in my view the single most destabilizing force across the region, and we have to realize that in these circumstances, therefore it’s important that we build a strong alliance to push back against that power and influence where it’s possible to try and help those people in countries that are having their independence undermined, to stick by their independence and promote it,” Blair said.
Blair added that the upcoming conference in Warsaw is a first step.
The US State Department had announced that it would jointly host a global conference focused on the Middle East, particularly Iran, this month in Poland.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed the planned event, where more than 70 countries are invited, as a “desperate anti-Iran circus.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News in an interview that the meeting would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”
“The meeting coming up in Warsaw is actually important, to build an alliance between external players like the US, UK, Europe and those within the region who support a view of the region that isn’t about taking on Iran because it’s a Shiite nation, or taking on Iran because of Iranian interests, but are standing up for the principles that religion should be in its proper place in politics,” Blair said.
The meeting is set to take place on February 13 and 14.