UK defence chief issues warning on nuclear Iran

Dr Liam Fox, the British defence secretary, has said the international community will not stand by and watch Iran become another North Korea.

The British defence secretary Dr Liam Fox.
Satish Kumar / The National
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DUBAI // The international community will not stand by and watch Iran become another North Korea, the British defence secretary said yesterday.

Liam Fox, who was visiting Dubai to meet British troops and hold talks with Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, said it was inevitable that Gulf states would co-ordinate their armies increasingly closely and security concerns would continue to become more global in nature.

"Having just watched the experience of North Korea, the international community is not simply going to stand by and watch further nuclear proliferation, and trigger what would probably be a nuclear arms race in the region," Dr Fox said. "We must want something better for the future generation."

He drew attention to the different tacks taken by the GCC states and Iran at the recent conference on Gulf security in Bahrain.

"GCC countries are talking about their global role, talking about the global economy, talking about their potential," he said. "The Iranians are saying, 'we don't want foreign influence in our region'."

Given that the GCC states are allied with Britain and other western military powers, while Iran is the sworn enemy of the US, the Iranian position is probably not surprising, but Dr Fox sees the position of the GCC in a broader context. "There is no doubt that the application of economic sanctions from here have had a huge effect, and not just for the reason of economics alone. It has also sent a very strong message to Iran that it is increasingly isolated."

The realisation that today's threats often come from afar is changing the way Britain thinks about its security. In a recent review, it drew up plans for "smaller, more agile" armed forces, designed to work in tandem with those of other countries.

"We recognised that the political structures that we have and the levers that we have to use don't match the picture," Dr Fox said.

"While globalisation has been progressing apace, politicians have been behind the curve."

Globalisation, he says, has not just applied to economics. "What happens in the UK banking sector affects financial deals done in Dubai. What happens on the Pakistan border affects our security on the London Underground."

Historically, Gulf security has been guaranteed by an alliance of foreign military powers, particularly the US and Britain. While individual Gulf states have improved their militaries, Gulf-wide co-operation remains in its infancy. This, Dr Fox believes, will soon change.

"You've got countries here that are economically, militarily, diplomatically as capable as the world's most effective players," he said.

“I think they are increasing in self-confidence and I think you will get more of a shared identity as that role picks up over time.”

For a sign of the times, Dr Fox looks to the the multinational naval force fighting piracy in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.

“You have the EU and Nato and various different groupings of individual nations coming in, being co-ordinated but not commanded, and there you’ve seen the evolution of the security framework for that particular problem.”

While Iran is not a member of the joint task force, its navy has worked in concert with the group.

This sort of loose confederation of military powers, several of whom are enemies, was made possible by the common threat to precious shipping lanes.

“Once we get people to recognise that we do have shared threats then the main obstacles begin to fall.”

There are limits, though. As well as maintaining close ties with many Arab states, Britain is an ally of Israel.

India and China are increasingly involved in the security of the seas around the Arabian Peninsula, raising the possibility of a maritime arms race between the rivals.

Even Britain’s new defence co-operation agreement with France has created a stir.

“There are those in Nato, for example, who saw the Anglo-French relationship as somehow being threatening, that somehow this bilateral relationship was undermining the multilateral relationship,” Dr Fox said.

By that token, opponents of his position, including Iran, argue that western involvement muddies the waters, complicating regional problems rather than solving them.

Dr Fox acknowledged that globalisation had resulted in “the unavoidable importation of strategic risk”, but argued that “there are no multilateral relationships that are not underpinned by strong bilateral ones”.

Each of Britain’s relationships, even those with the various Gulf states, was unique, he said.

The key is whether a country embraces co-operation with the rest of the world. Reality, he said, demanded that the West had a stake in Gulf security.

“Go and visit ground zero in Manhattan, or look at the pictures of the London Underground or the Madrid bombings, and tell me that anyone can be isolated.

“We are now, like it or not, interdependent, and the quicker our political and security structures understand that the better.”

Whether Iran gets this message will determine its future.

“Successful countries are now those that look outwards and forwards, and not backwards and inwards to what they perceive as past glories.

“That for me is the definition of whether a country is going to be a progressive contributor to global security and prosperity, or whether it’s going to be an anchor.”