If you were born and raised in Saudi Arabia in the 1980’s like I was it was palpably clear what the hardliners in Iran were; a malevolent force orchestrating some of the world’s most egregious terrorist acts who would stop at nothing to reach their religious and political goals.
More recently European leaders may have bought Tehran’s ‘undertakings’ about its nuclear program, and turned a blind eye to where all the freed up millions from its sanctions free economy were going, but fortunately for us Donald Trump saw through it.
Dispatched by Theresa May to try and turn the President away from his campaign pledge Boris Johnson did his best. But fortunately nothing was going to sway the Donald.
Whatever your views about the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the one positive outcome is that there finally seems to be broad acceptance that Iran is a supporter and enabler of terrorism and a malign global force. By all means we should stop the spread of nuclear weapons. But don't throw the rest of the region under a bus to get it.
Lest we forget the truck bombings and kidnappings which defined the Middle East during the 1980s never really went away. Even if after 9/11 the spotlight of the world’s media focused on terrorism inspired by a false interpretation of Sunni Islam.
But when Iran’s actions abroad and political system at home are put under the spotlight, any notion that the country is a rules-based member of the international community appears completely fanciful.
There has been no meaningful reform in Iran. Hardliners used JCPOA as cover to strengthen the economy and their own position, while increasing their sponsorship for armed proxies and terrorists in the region.
Inspired by revolution
The political Islam that drove the Iranian 1979 revolution still inspires its paramilitary action in Yemen, Syria and other conflict zones today. As a child I grew up in the conservative shadow it cast across the Middle East – my family and friends increasingly aware of Tehran’s ever increasing determination to meddle and destabilize.
As the mullahs and revolutionary guards burned US flags and its newspapers screamed “death to America”, Iran’s real ruling power was evident: The theocratic Wilayat al-Faqih model that enshrines the Iranian clerics’ power, hatred of the West and desire to dominate and defeat their enemies using religious justification.
The founding revolutionary constitution of post 1979 Iran declares that Iran’s army and Revolutionary Guards Corps “will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of jihad in God’s way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God’s law throughout the world.”
The real power
Scratch the surface today – and nothing has changed. The victory of President Hassan Rouhani was hugely misleading. Sure he is more telegenic, and a friendlier face than the populist hardliner Ahmadinejad, though that is no great achievement. Rouhani may have sought improved international relations and economic development but behind this so-called “moderate” lies the real power with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Institutions report to him, not the president. And the advice he provides isn’t general religious counsel or polite suggestions imploring peace and worldly happiness.
A glance at his prayer companions gives the game away. Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Quds – the paramilitary wing of the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps worships with the Supreme Leader then seeks his orders. Soleimani’s remit – to spread chaos and instability throughout the region to advance the regime’s agenda.
And Iran has been doing this stealthily since 1979, exporting its politicized version of Shiite Islam regionally and globally, driving violence and instability across the Middle East. And up until now the world has just watched. Militias like Hezbollah operate largely unhindered with Iranian support in Syria, Iraq where it supports to tens armed groups, Yemen, and elsewhere.
“But they are so helpful running the hospitals and airports in Lebanon” says many a dewy eyed European traveller when they arrive back from partying in Beirut. A more astute observer would ask why Iran has such a foothold in a sovereign state.
So the message to European leaders seeking to breathe new life into a dead deal is simple. Do what you can to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. But don’t at the time sleepwalk into an alliance with a country whose primary foreign policy aim is to spread a domineering religio-political ideology through terrorism.
Iran didn’t use its rapprochement with the West to improve its society, a theocracy where women have to disguise themselves as men just to watch a game of football. No the petrodollars released by the freeing up of sanctions went directly into the militias promoting Iran’s global ambitions.
Anyone could have told you that from the start. Well done Mr President.
Najah Alotaibi is Senior Analyst at Washington-based think-tank the Arabia foundation. She was among the winners of the “Every Human Has Rights” media awards, which marked the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Alotaibi’s articles and columns have appeared in The World Today magazine (produced by the Chatham House); the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics (an initiative of the Tony Blair Foundation), London ban-Arab Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and the Saudi Gazette, among others. Alotaibi is also working on a doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia on the role of soft power in Saudi Arabia's foreign policy. Alotaibi holds a Master’s degree in International Journalism from London City University, You can follow her on Twitter here: @najahalosaimi.