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Iran’s hidden war with the West – and what we can do to fight back

The nuclear deal makes it more vital than ever that Britain helps hold Iran to its obligations

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

24 October 2015

9:00 AM

When British troops were on patrol in Iraq and Afghanistan, we faced many enemies, from jihadis to press-ganged civilians. But for me, the most terrifying ones lay buried. Bullets usually miss. Improvised explosive devices – IEDs — don’t. They are frighteningly simple. Old munitions wired together or plastic bottles packed with fertiliser and ball-bearings could destroy a vehicle and kill its passengers.

During my four years in Afghanistan I saw IEDs evolve: first came remote triggers, then pressure plates and then low-metal-content devices. Curiously, IEDs evolved in a similar way in Iraq. This should be no surprise, since the groups trying to kill British troops shared one common resource: Iranian support.

For years, Tehran has armed insurgents. Through the Quds Force, the special forces unit of the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, it has killed British troops and plotted to assassinate diplomats in Washington DC. The ayatollahs have nurtured terrorists around the world. Their war has never been declared, but has cost many lives.

Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Forces, has waged a secret war against Britain for years. Seeking to limit our options, his forces, Russian allies and Syrian and Hezbollah proxies, have slaughtered the more moderate Syrian rebels. What’s more, he is trying to split us from our allies. By smuggling weapons into Bahrain and Kuwait to encourage violence, he’s trying to force the Royal Navy from its principal base in the Persian Gulf.

Serving in the armed forces across the region, I learned how Iran spreads its malign influence. In Lebanon and Syria I saw how its Revolutionary Guard Corps supported fighters and shaped regional leaders. Today, we are watching Russia join Tehran in military adventurism in Syria — not just to secure Assad but to challenge our interests. And now they have won the end of sanctions in exchange for little more than a ten-year delay in nuclear production. From our allies’ perspective, Iran is winning.


For the first time since Egypt stopped receiving Russian support in 1970, the US is on the back foot and Moscow is back in, on the Shia side. The nuclear deal doesn’t sound like peace, but acquiescence to Tehran’s ambitions.

This was a US deal. Our leverage was removed by the flood of businesses pushing to get around sanctions and the Obama administration’s determination to reach a deal. But to our allies among the Gulf countries, we are part of the group who pushed Iran hard for years, and then blinked.

The deal is now done and our role is clear. First, we must make sure the watchdog has teeth. In the past, the International Atomic Energy Agency has misread Iranian intentions and missed violations — that’s why Iran’s nuclear ambitions got so far. Now, with Iranian scientists contracted to support the group on the ground and Tehran’s intelligence partner — Russia — on the IAEA’s governing board, we must be increasingly vigilant. But it’s a tricky business.

Even the ‘snapback’ mechanism for re-imposing sanctions — the supposed assurance that the Iranians won’t cheat — isn’t as simple as it sounds. You can bet the EU won’t want to discuss a new embargo when companies are signing billion-euro deals in Iran. And would Tehran be so rash as to be caught in a clear-cut breach? Unlikely. If they made a series of infringements just below the level they know would trigger a reaction, trying to invoke the mechanism could leave the UK, not Iran, isolated.

Meanwhile, even during the moratorium on nuclear production, Iran’s scientists will continue their research, learning better ways to rebuild their stocks of fissile material. No wonder Iran’s neighbours in the Gulf states are concerned.

America has the luxury of knowing for sure that Arab nations will continue to see it as an essential partner. Germany and others have already made their choice and leapt into Iranian markets. But we in Britain, with our deep historic links to the Gulf, must be prepared to challenge Iran for any breach if Tehran reverts to type. That would reinforce the relationship of trust that David Cameron built with our Gulf partners in the early days of his premiership.

Obama’s voice may have carried further than ours in the negotiations, but his withdrawal from the stage means that we cannot rely on Washington to ensure the agreement works. The deal should have included acts of terror and subversion. It should have included a real end to the nuclear progamme and it should have stopped Suleimani and his Quds Force undermining our position.

If Iran falls short and seeks to use subterfuge to undermine our allies, we must stiffen America’s resolve. We had to do so before, when Margaret Thatcher ensured President George H.W. Bush defended Kuwait in 1990. We must be prepared to do so again.

Tom Tugendhat served with the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is now Conservative MP for Tonbridge and Malling.


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