Britain troubled by the threat from Iran, says UK foreign affairs chairman

Tom Tugendhat warns that Iran's proxy conflicts have damaged the relationship that forged the 2015 nuclear agreement

Tom Tugendhat MP is watched by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown (right) at the launch of a new bipartisan report titled The Cost of Doing Nothing, co-authored by the late Jo Cox MP, at the Policy Exchange in Westminster, London.
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It is end of term in the Palace of Westminster and the London landmark has lost much of its conspiratorial buzz.

Time for Tom Tugendhat, the influential chairman of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, to look beyond collegial obsessions over Brexit to the Gulf region, where Britain has a “long history” of “fruitful co-operation”.

It is a view troubled by the threat from Iran, which he says is fuelling proxy conflicts across its neighbours and by such actions should have forfeited the goodwill for wholesale sanctions relief after the 2015 nuclear agreement.

“The actions of Iran not just in the region but in many other parts of the world as well has been extremely distressing to see and it’s a great shame,” he told The National. “The reality is that the lifting of sanctions that the Iranians are now claiming should have happened was based on goodwill and when the Iranian government is testing missiles and then actively firing missiles into Riyadh, it’s very hard for any goodwill to arise.

“So I think the Iranian government needs to think very hard about what sort of future it seeks because the route it is on is seeing its people suffer, its prosperity diminished and it is not seeing an end to the sanctions because they rely on goodwill.”

The list of countries facing internal conflict that Iran orchestrates stretches far and wide, including Bahrain, Iraq, Syria and southern Lebanon. President Donald Trump is now reflecting the concerns over the 2015 agreement that Mr Tugendhat and many in the Gulf have long aired that Tehran has been unshackled and needs to bear responsibility for its activity. “Its not just Donald Trump, in fact Saudi Arabia and the UAE are well aware of it from the start,” he said.

A scholar of Arabic who studied the language in Yemen, Mr Tugendhat believes Iran’s role there must be confronted. “The international community has a role at the UN in talking to the Iranian government about their sponsoring of attacks on Saudi Arabia through, effectively, a proxy militia,” he said. “Those actions are unacceptable and they must stop.”

The former army officer hopes that the conflict can be part of the focus when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman visits Britain next month. The concerns of British politicians, who had consistently put the conflict at the top of the agenda when dealing with regional leaders, is, he reflects, grounded in a real public sympathy for the country’s plight.


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“Firing missiles into Riyadh and into Jeddah is absolutely unacceptable and the Saudis have the right to self-defence. We must also do all we can to ensure the government of Saudi Arabia understands the issue as the British people see it when they look at what’s going on in Yemen,” he said.

“I hope that Mohammed bin Salman sees that when we seek to intervene diplomatically in areas like Yemen we are seeking to help a friend.

“I’m glad the blockade appears to have been lifted and I would urge the Saudis to use what they have, which is an extraordinary generosity and to flood Yemen with all the aid that they can muster.”

Enthused by the Vision 2030 reform agenda of the Crown Prince, Mr Tugendhat believes that Britain must pick up on the signal sent by his statement in October on Islam and overall emphasis on combating extremism.

He notes that Prince Mohammed has directed his comments to a domestic audience.

“I welcome enormously the reforms that Mohammed bin Salman has conducted recently. He is rightly showing a vision for Saudi Arabia that sees her taking her place as a player in the global economy and I think that is incredibly positive, not just for Saudi Arabia, but for the world,” he said.

“There has been a rise in extremism in certain societies that has caused tensions. Mohammed bin Salman was very clear in his speech and I was very pleased to hear him say it, not in English but in Arabic, that he was keen to return to a moderate form of Islam that Saudi Arabia has practised in the past. Indeed if you look at Saudi history there is a long history of Bedouin Islam being moderate and I look forward to that asserting itself.”

The shared concerns about extremism extend across the GCC region as a whole and reflecting on the Arab Quartet’s boycott of Qatar since the summer, Mr Tugendhat called for a united vision on combating the scourge. “It is the duty of every government to protect their citizens by stamping on these extraordinary extremist creatures who preach nothing but hate and destruction,” he said.

“The GCC has been such a positive force, it is a great shame it is going through period of difficultly as a result of deep and long-felt tensions between certain countries.”

A new report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, which Mr Tugendhat has led since last year, is sharply critical of the Britain's incoherent policies on Syria and Iraq, particularly in relationship to the Kurdish question. It is clear that the chairman often has difficulties with the leadership that Boris Johnson is providing, at one point telling a television interviewer that the Old Etonian could "cut-out the jokes" in order to exercise more influence with regional leaders.

While a strong proponent of the Remain argument in the 2016 vote, Mr Tugendhat is keen to stress that the British exit from Europe cannot mean a national eclipse. Speaking in a House of Commons meeting room with an etching of the 14th-century Siege of Calais on the wall, he observes the "essential truths of the United Kingdom won't change", even as it unpicks a four-decade partnership with the EU.

“It’s a moment when we have to think hard about what are the UK’s raw interests, our immediate interests but also the interests of our friends and allies. We have got to think hard about who counts in many ways.

“And then when we think about the Middle East there’s a long history of very deep and fruitful co-operation – nowhere more so than the Emirates.”