The next decade will see the UK take a more proactive foreign policy stance in challenging
the rising threat posed by Iran’s regime, according to the government’s newly published Integrated Review.
The Integrated Review – the biggest review of the UK’s defence, security and foreign policy since the cold war – outlines ‘Global Britain’s’ overarching national security and international policy objectives until 2030.
Thus far, the domestic and international reaction to the 114-page document has been almost exclusively focused on the UK’s Indo-Pacific shift to address “China’s increasing international assertiveness”. But a closer look at the report reveals the priority the UK is giving to challenging
the rising threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
After more than a decade of what can be best described as a reactive stance, the Integrated Review provides the foundation for the UK to have a more proactive foreign policy against the Islamic Republic. This is exemplified by the fact that, alongside Syria, Iran is the most referenced nation in the Middle East throughout the report. This newly found appetite to take on Tehran’s nefarious role could not have come at a more crucial time as we witness the ongoing militarisation of the clerical regime at the behest of its ideological army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
The absence of explicit reference to the 2015 nuclear agreement – or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – is perhaps the first most noteworthy change in the UK’s stance towards Tehran. It is no secret that since 2015, the UK, like its European counterparts, has almost exclusively defined its Iran policy through the JCPOA and its commitment to upholding it. The Integrated Review for the first time breaks from such posturing and implicitly acknowledges the shortcomings of the existing agreement by calling for a “more comprehensive nuclear and regional deal”. Commenting on the newly published report, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab specifically named Iran as the looming threat that keeps him “awake at night”, asserting that “we must never see Iran get a nuclear weapon.” Of course, while the Integrated Review underscores UK’s pledge on “renewed diplomatic effort[s] to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon”, this no longer appears to be exclusively confined to the boundaries of the JCPOA. This, coupled with the calls for the agreement to be expanded to cover Tehran’s regional destabilisation, marks a significant shift in UK government’s Iran policy.
The emergence of this new stance opens the opportunity for the UK to play a leading role in working with the Biden administration to explore expanding the remit of 2015 nuclear agreement before sanctions are eased on Tehran. Given Europe’s reluctance to tackle Iranian regional destabilisation, Britain’s departure from the European Union means that it can, and should, play a key mediating role in bridging the gap between Washington and Brussels and developing a transatlantic policy towards Tehran.
The UK’s increasing focus on Iran’s regional destabilising behaviour is perhaps indicative of the changing landscape in the Middle East, and an acknowledgement that the scale and threat from Iran-backed militias is increasing.
Categorised as “opportunistic states” alongside Russia and North Korea, the Integrated Review makes it absolutely clear that Iran is a “key factor in the deterioration of the security environment and the weakening of the international order.” In doing so, the report underlines the UK’s priority to “hold it to account for its destabilising activity.”
In an all but explicit reference to Iran’s militia network, the UK government raises concern about how “states increasingly work with non-state actors to achieve their goals” and identifies the root of the problem in countering Iran-backed militias, namely plausible deniability. The West’s inability to determine both the command-and-control structures and the nature of the of the relationship between the IRGC – the principal executor of Iran’s militia doctrine – and the non-state-actor groups it supports has constrained its ability to counter them. In turn, Tehran has effectively been able to – in the words of IRGC commander Mohammad Reza Naghdi – use this “unrecognizable force” to target governments in the region and attack Western positions with enough plausible deniability to prevent an international response.
The Integrated Review acknowledges that the UK “must improve its ability to detect, understand, attribute and act in response to aggression across the range of state threats.” Crucially, this includes threats that are also “non-military in nature.” This is an important step in the right direction in countering the reach of the IRGC and Iran-backed militancy and provides space for the UK to take on the ideas driving the violence, rather than just the violence itself. The formal groups that make up Iran’s militia network and their hard power assets are only the tip of the iceberg. The IRGC is fully supported by Iran’s soft-power organisations – educational, cultural, humanitarian and diplomatic institutions – that play critical roles in the recruitment and radicalisation of militants across the Middle East and beyond. This speaks to the ideological nature of the IRGC and its militia network, not least groups it has manufactured. As well as arming, funding and training such groups, the IRGC has invested a significant amount of capital indoctrinating these fighters to embrace its Shia Islamist extremist ideology.
The IRGC and the extremist ideas that it promotes have a wide-reaching influence, not only on Iranians, but on Shia communities worldwide. In turn, rather than viewing the IRGC’s regional destabilisation exclusively as a foreign policy issue with the Iranian state, the UK would benefit from treating the nature of this problem through the lens of counterterrorism (CT), counterinsurgency and counterextremism.
The surge in the IRGC and its proxy Hizbullah’s activities on European soil in the past six years – such as successive assassinations of dissidents and foiled terror plots – underscores that the threat of Iran-backed terrorism is not confined to the boundaries of the Middle East and is a threat far closer to home. As part of the Integrated Review, the creation of a new Counter Terrorism Operations Centre (CTOC), which will for the first time create a single integrated counterterrorism centre, can play a critical role keeping the UK and Europe safe from the rising threat of Iran-backed terrorism. But this is only if UK government acknowledges Shia Islamist extremism as an ideological threat in the same way it does Sunni Islamist extremism.
An important start towards this would be the proscription of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation – a recommendation recently supported by the UK Foreign Affairs Committee. In 2019 the UK government proscribed Hizbullah as a terrorist organisation with the objective of restricting its ability to raise illicit funds and spread its extremist propaganda. But efforts to restrict Hizbullah activity are undermined so long as the IRGC – its primary supporter – remains able to provide it with ideological, financial and armament support. It is explicitly clear from the IRGC’s own internal training manuals that are used to radicalise its recruits as part of a formal programme of ideological indoctrination in the Guard, that its ideology is extremist, violent and dependent on the distortion of religious scripture in a way that is not too dissimilar to groups the UK has already proscribed, ranging from ISIS to Hizbullah.
Proscription should be coupled with increased safeguarding measures to protect against homegrown Shia Islamist extremism and radicalisation – a rising possibility in the West as acknowledged by the US Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Thus far, the UK’s PREVENT programme, which seeks to stem the ideological challenge of terrorism and homegrown radicalisation, has almost exclusively focused on Salafi-jihadi ideology. PREVENT should be broadened to encompass the full spectrum of Islamist extremism and include Shia Islamist extremism. This is particularly important given the presence of Iranian-state-run institutions on UK soil – like the Al-Mustafa International University – that have played an instrumental role in the recruitment and radicalisation of militants and operatives for the IRGC’s Quds Force around the world.
Of course, Iran-backed militancy constitutes only one aspect of the looming challenge Tehran poses.
The Integrated Review rightly highlights the “growing threats from states such as Iran, Russia and North Korea” in relation to proliferation of weapons and prioritises these nations in its countering proliferation efforts. Countering proliferation here is defined as “preventing the spread or development of CBRN capability and their means of delivery, or advanced military technology to state or non-state actors that could threaten UK interests or regional stability.”
Rising concerns surrounding Iran in relation to countering proliferation will have no doubt been exacerbated following the lifting of the UN Arms Embargo on Tehran on 18 October 2019. The expiration of the 13-year UN Arms Embargo means Iran can now purchase advanced conventional weapons and will no longer be prohibited from exporting such weapons to foreign countries or its militia network across the Middle East. The Islamic Republic has openly declared its intent to purchase advanced military hardware from states like Russia and China. More importantly, the arms embargo had restricted Iran’s freedom to export conventional arms to the militant groups in the region and had forced it to use illicit means and routes. The expiration of the arms embargo has freed Iran’s hands and allows it to deliver shiploads of weapons to its militia groups without fear of being exposed and stopped. The surge in Iran-backed militia missile strikes – such as the rocket attack in Erbil in Iraq and the escalation of Yemeni Houthi strikes against civilian targets in Saudi Arabia – underscores the urgency in scaling back this threat. As part of its commitment to countering proliferation, the UK should work with Western and regional allies such as the Gulf States and Israel, and lead efforts to impose a new arms limitation restriction on Iran.
The Integrated Review makes it clear that ‘Global Britain’ means being a “force for good” and asserts the UK’s firm commitment to “standing up for human rights around the world.” The introduction of a new system of ‘Magnitsky-style’ sanctions from July 2020 onwards enables the government to “hold to account human rights violations or abuses, by imposing targeted asset freezes and travel bans.” Yet, the absence of Iranian government and IRGC officials in the first round of this new sanctions regime was, as Tom Tugendhat MP, chairman of the UK Foreign Affairs Committee, stated: a “striking omission.” Despite increasing human-rights violations by the Islamic Republic, no senior Iranian officials were listed among the 49 individuals and entities from nations such as Russia, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. In the immediate term, the UK must ensure that senior Iranian government and IRGC officials directly involved in gross human-rights violations are included in the next round of ‘Magnitsky’ sanctions. This should include individuals like Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, responsible for shooting down the Ukrainian civilian airline that killed all 167 passengers and crew, and Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi, Minister of Information and Communications Technology, for his key direct role in imposing an internet blackout during the November 2019 Iran protests as a way to censor, and facilitate, the bloodshed on the Iranian streets. Imposing sanctions on such individuals sends a powerful message to the Iranian regime that such behaviour will not be tolerated and will not be without consequences.
The next decade has the potential to bring forth the emergence of a new Middle East – as seen by the historic peace agreements between Israel and the Arab states – that brings economic prosperity and stability to a region that has been wrought by over four decades of turmoil. But for this optimistic landscape to succeed, the forces of destabilisation and extremism must be proactively contained and pushed-back. The Integrated Review makes it absolutely clear that the Islamic Republic is both a threat to stability in the Middle East and a looming challenge to the international, rules-based order. Its interests present a direct challenge to not only UK interests and values, but also that of interests of the people of Iran and wider Middle East. Crucially, as we witness the militarisation of the clerical regime at the behest of the IRGC, the scale and nature of this threat will only grow. The report therefore rightly gives Iran the attention it deserves. The Integrated Review provides a solid foundation for the UK to adopt a proactive Iran policy that represents what ‘Global Britain’ represents: namely, a force for good. This must now be followed up with tangible steps that can put paper into practice.