The UK and its allies should take a harder line on Iran over attacks by its Houthi proxies in the Gulf which should not be forgotten because of the war in Ukraine, a former British cabinet minister said on a visit to the region.
Liam Fox, who was in Bahrain with a UK group promoting the Abraham Accords, said the Houthi attack on the UAE in January did not receive “anything like the attention that it should have had” in Britain and the rest of Europe.
Dr Fox said world powers would risk financing such attacks if they lift sanctions on Iran under a revival of the nuclear agreement between Tehran and world powers.
He told The National that he would only regard any such agreement as a success if it also dealt with Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its support for groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Such a pact would also need to address Iran’s involvement in drug trafficking and its attempts to spread political influence beyond the Middle East in order to make a “useful contribution”, he said.
The US and Gulf countries have expressed willingness to go beyond the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and negotiate on such matters, but Iran says its ballistic missile programme is not up for discussion.
A deal to return to the JCPOA would lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for limits on its nuclear activities, which are meant to restrain it at the starting line in the race to develop an atom bomb.
Those negotiations are being pursued by the UK government along with Germany, France, Russia, China and indirectly the US, the original signatories to the deal along with Iran.
But “if the price of an agreement that pumps a lot of money into the Iranian economy is simply to delay for a decade their nuclear ambitions, then I think that any agreement would have failed in its original intent”, said Dr Fox, who left the cabinet in 2019.
The former defence minister said he was in Bahrain to show that “we haven’t forgotten our allies in the region” as Russia’s attack on Ukraine dominates international politics.
Before leaving, he requested a debate in the House of Commons on what he described as Iran’s destabilising activities, extracting a statement from the government that it would “not tolerate interference in other states”.
He mentioned the Houthi drone attack on Abu Dhabi in January, which killed three people and injured six at an oil storage plant and caused a fire at the airport, as well as missiles launched into Saudi Arabia in recent months.
“The attack by the Houthis on the UAE has not had anything like the attention that it should have had in the UK as well as the rest of Europe,” said Dr Fox.
“This is an important friend and ally and an important trading partner for the UK, and if that was a country closer to home geographically that was being attacked in this way, we would really be making a huge fuss over it.”
He said the West’s response should be to make its outrage with Iran clear and to signal that it would not tolerate such attacks while negotiations on the JCPOA took place in Vienna.
“I think Iran cannot possibly think that we are willing to overlook this sort of behaviour in any discussions with them,” he said.
“If Iran is behaving in this way, why would we want to come to an agreement that would give it the potential to finance such activities in the future?”.
The visit to Bahrain by Dr Fox’s Abraham Accords delegation follows a trip to the UAE in January in which it met Emirati leaders.
Dr Fox praised the accords, the 2020 agreements normalising relations between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, as a “potential historic turning point” towards security and prosperity for the region.
“It’s such a historic moment, and it’s such a great opportunity,” he said. “If we can see what coexistence, normalisation of relations, improved prosperity, increased trust could all bring, then I think you’re looking at a much more enlightened future.”