Iran at risk of 'backward economy and society' says Rory Stewart

Once a British leadership contender, Stewart likened the Iranians to Myanmar's generals

Conservative MP Rory Stewart reacts as he walks past the Houses of Parliament in central London on January 16, 2019. - Prime Minister Theresa May was left "crushed" and "humiliated", Britain's newspapers said today as they raked over the fallout from parliament's huge rejection of her EU divorce deal. (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP)

Rory Stewart made his name as an adventurer who walked from the Arabian Gulf to Kabul in 2001 before becoming a British Cabinet minister.

But when Mr Stewart looks at Iran now, he says it is in danger of becoming a modern version of isolated and impoverished Myanmar.

The country is in danger of being stuck in decades of lost growth under an autocratic regime that is stuck in the 1970s, he told The National.

Mr Stewart said that when Iran eventually freed itself from its fundamentalist leadership, it would find itself in a terrifying position with a backward economy and an oppressed society lacking the skills found in advanced economies.

To some extent Iran is in danger of being frozen in the late '70s

“Iran is losing years of growth and is increasingly in danger of becoming like Myanmar under the generals, where Myanmar ‘lost’ 50 or 60 years," the former London mayoral candidate said.

"And when it popped out, you felt that things hadn't really changed since the 1950s.

“To some extent, Iran is in danger of being frozen in the late '70s and that will mean when it comes back into the world, it’s going to face a very, very serious and terrifying set of adjustments.”

The contrast with the progress around other areas of the Arabian Gulf should give Tehran pause as it looks to confrontation over dialogue.

Despite the problems with Iran, Mr Stewart believed that people in the Gulf were becoming increasingly prosperous, with better health and education standards.

“Living standards are being transformed and will continue to be transformed powerfully over the next 20 or 30 years, and people whose grandparents will have had very little will end up in a very prosperous situation," he said.

"What kind of civilisation and what kind of science and technology emerges from that remains to be seen.”

Mr Stewart, who was a contender to become Britain's prime minister during the Conservative leadership race last year, believes that with Covid-19, sanctions and low oil prices, Iran is in a dangerously weak position.

A writer and now lecturer in contemporary politics at Yale University in the US, he has travelled extensively across the Middle East in his time as a politician, diplomat and travel writer.

Mr Stewart believes the effect of Covid-19 on the region could lead to Britain and America’s power and influence diminishing, with both suffering severe recessions.

“It’s very important to see Covid as the great distractor of global attention that has replaced the Middle East in the headlines," he said.

"We’re likely to see a Middle East over the next five to 10 years with much less US and European involvement. And that could be a good thing or a bad thing.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Shutterstock (10315484b)
Rory Stewart
Rory Stewart visits Kabul, Afghanistan - 14 Jan 2002
 British Diplomat Rory Stewart photographed whilst travelling around Asia.
Mr Stewart has travelled extensively across the Middle East during his time as a politician, diplomat and travel writer. Shutterstock

"But it’s a very unusual thing because really over the last 100 years they have played an incredibly strong part in the creation of states, the sustaining or the toppling of regimes and almost every aspect of politics and economy. So that's a really big shift.”

Suleimani killing could have been 'tinder box moment'

He also suggested that the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani could have been a tinder box moment similar to the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which sparked the First World War in 1914.

Mr Stewart, the former secretary of state for international development, was concerned that the Gulf region was heading towards the Great Power struggles that culminated in the slaughter of the 1914-1918 war.

Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-EsteCrown Prince of Austria. Getty Images

Qasem Soleimani, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Major General and commander of the Quds Force. AFP
Mr Stewart compared the US assassination of Qasem Soleimani to the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. AFP

In that atmosphere, one small incident “can spark you into war", and the drone killing of the Quds Force commander in Iraq in January this year “brought us very close to an extreme Iranian reaction”.

With a hostile and aggressive mindset, one country can drag both its neighbours and leading power centres around the world into unwanted conflict.

“It was something that felt to me for a moment a bit like the assassination of the Archduke in Austria, a relatively small thing that tipped the Europe into war,” Mr Stewart said from his new home in Connecticut.