US President Joe Biden will face a major foreign policy test in the Middle East with Iran posing the greatest challenge, the region’s most senior British general has predicted.
In the circumstances it was vital that the US defied the Tehran campaign and continued its role in maintaining forces on the ground, especially to keep the resurgent ISIS in check, Lt Gen Sir John Lorimer said.
In his final interview before leaving the British Army, he told The National that Iran was strengthening its ballistic missile and drone armoury, accelerating its nuclear programme and conducting proxy wars as part of negotiation tactics.
“Iran is trying to strengthen its position before any discussions start so they can negotiate from what they perceive as being a position of strength. Their destabilising activity across the region is all part of this,” he said.
The new US administration is yet to make clear how it intends to position its troops around the world, including the 2,500 left in Iraq.
Ball in Iran's court over nuclear deal
In his keynote foreign policy speech on Thursday, President Biden ordered his defence secretary Lloyd Austin to lead a "global posture review of our forces" so that US troops were "appropriately aligned with our foreign policy and national security priorities".
The review will consider the force levels in Iraq, although it is unclear whether they will increase or reduce further in numbers.
The US State Department has also reiterated that it has not changed its position on what it will take for the US to return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal stating that Tehran must make the first move before Washington will be ready to rejoin the pact.
While former president Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran in 2018, Mr Biden will want a deal to curb Tehran’s growing menace in the Middle East, including its ambitions to build a nuclear bomb.
Commentators believe that while Mr Biden made no reference to the Iran deal in his speech, the question of how the first moves between Washington and Tehran play out will be a key test.
At this delicate juncture, attacks from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, partly Iranian-inspired, are “extremely dangerous and raising the temperature”. These come just at a time when the humanitarian situation is dire and peace is needed, as Mr Biden has noted. “The conflict just needs to stop to help the people of Yemen get out of what is a pretty horrendous situation,” he said.
Sir John believed that while Mr Biden was not going to rush into multiple changes in foreign policy, especially given America’s Covid-19 crisis, it was clear that “the nuclear deal and relationship with Iran is very high up on their list of priorities of foreign policy issues”.
Many of Iran's neighbours hope Mr Biden can sustain elements of the “maximum pressure” approach to Iran as tough sanctions “have gone down very well with some countries,” Sir John said.
A fluent Arabic speaker whose great-grandfather was the British Political Resident in the Gulf, Sir John has spent the last three years travelling extensively across the region meeting national leaders and their teams as Britain’s Defence Senior Adviser to the Middle East.
In tandem with many regional leaders, he understands the stability that the US military presence provides to the area. The pillar of support was compromised by Mr Trump’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq that has seen numbers shrink now to levels around 2,500.
When asked if American military was needed on the ground, Sir John said: “I think it's essential that the US plays a meaningful role in the region.”
In particular, the training, surveillance and specialist soldiers were required to keep ISIS from regrouping as a serious threat. “ISIS hasn't gone away,” he said. “The coalition is still required to help support the Iraqi security forces to put pressure on ISIS, otherwise they'll come back again. I'm not saying that they may come back tomorrow but they will fill any vacuum so it's really important that we continue to support the Iraqi security forces.”
He also admitted that under the Trump administration, the region's relationship with America “had been a challenge”.
Travels in a time of Covid-19
During his last weeks as Britain’s senior Middle East representative, Sir John has been travelling around the region after almost a year of conducting diplomacy by Skype, Zoom and telephone.
“I travel because people want to talk and business has to continue. Skype or Zoom are not the same as sitting down and having a face to face discussion. People like to see body language and have a proper face to face conversation.”
Taking regular Covid tests and precautions, he has recently visited the UAE, Egypt, Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman and was speaking to The National from Bahrain after a meeting with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.
“The UK is important to the region, it’s really valued, the historical and traditional links. We have some baggage — some good and some not good — but on the whole it’s a very positive and natural relationship.”
Sir John also recently visited Lebanon, where the British government recently donated 100 armoured patrol vehicles to help the border regiment to control terrorist and smuggling activity.
There, he found a struggling nation: “The internal politics are a challenge, the economy really needs help and significant reforms are required, and they’re in a difficult neighbourhood with tough neighbours.”
He remains “very hopeful” that a political situation might be found in Libya “but there's an awful lot to be done to get to that point”. He said: “You're relying on people to make some quite big moves in terms of commitment to the peace process.”
Hope for post-Brexit Britain in the Middle East
While the immediate post-Brexit years are challenging, with UK-EU trade negotiations completed he feels Britain can become a significant partner.
“We've got a real opportunity to make a valuable contribution, enhancing and developing bilateral relationships as they do like our values and some of the things we stand for."
It is understood that Britain in the post-Brexit world is looking to increase its influence globally by appointing military figures with close ties to certain regions.
The Ministry of Defence’s long-term commitment to defence diplomacy with the Middle East was demonstrated by the appointment of a highly experienced and decorated RAF pilot.
Air Marshal Martin "Sammy" Sampson knows the area having conducted many operational tours and has just completed two years as director of the UK's Saudi Armed Forces Projects.
In his final message to the region, Sir John posted a video in both Arabic and English. He said his job had been challenging and rewarding, travelling from the Maghreb to the Gulf. “You have taught me a lot about your culture, your traditions, your history and your politics. I am most grateful,” he said in the video.
Asked about his final reflections on the region, Sir John praised Arabian generosity and “putting up with some silly questions in terms of me trying to understand the region”.
He has yet to consider his next career move but it is unlikely that such depth in friendship and knowledge will go unnoticed.