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Iran's support for militias threatens GCC, British politicians hear

ABU DHABI // Iran’s nuclear deal and the republic’s support for militias across the region are some of the major threats GCC countries face, the head of an Abu Dhabi think-tank told the British Parliament.

Dr Ahmed Al Hamli told the International Relations Committee this threat had led to a regional shift of power from legitimate states to illegitimate terrorist groups, weakening the region for the Islamic Republic to gain more control.

“The nuclear deal does not include inspection in military facilities and the region feels that Iran is still moving forward to obtain nuclear weapons in secret through its military facilities,” said Dr Al Hamli, president of Trends Research and Advisory, giving evidence last week on the subject of “Transformation of power in the Middle East and implications for UK policy”.

“It is important to include tougher conditions and a mechanism to hold Iran responsible for its breach to the nuclear deal.”

He said the politicisation of religion and Iran’s support of militias in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere was spreading regional insecurity.

“Iran is trying to gain control over the region through militias on the ground in the region and also through obtaining nuclear weapons,” he said. “They are both [nearing] their goals and this is where we find Iran is getting the green light to control the region.”

Arabian Gulf states, including the UAE, have long-criticised Iran for creating turmoil in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Bahrain.

This year, Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran after it refused to condemn an attack on its embassy in Tehran, while the UAE recalled its ambassador and downgraded relations.

“Iran first has to understand there are consequences for its behaviour in the region,” Dr Al Hamli said. “The [nuclear] deal needs to make sure it has enough mechanisms on the ground to hold Iran responsible for any violations. It would be welcome if the UK stressed that the deal needs to engage GCC countries as well [as] there are concerns.”

Earlier this month, at the 37th GCC Summit in Manama, British Prime Minister Theresa May reaffirmed the UK’s support for regional allies, adding it would help “push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions”.

In a joint statement, Gulf states and Britain agreed to a “strategic partnership”, stating they “oppose and will work together to counter Iran’s destabilising activities”.

Shortly after, Iran summoned the British ambassador in protest at Ms May’s “interference”.

“This [joint] working group on countering terrorism will facilitate more understanding about perceptions of regional security,” Dr Al-Hamli said. “We need to come together to understand how we fight terrorism and [we] are working on tackling the ideology that drives these people to go fight in the battlefield. The group will facilitate this discussion and [give a] common understanding about the threat facing the region.”

He said the new Trump administration in the US could potentially bring stability in Syria and Iraq.

“This is what the region was lacking as a new strategy and a precise and clear US foreign policy,” he added. “The new administration could bring much a clearer approach. We need to build the way for governments like Syria and Iraq and secular states will be a solution for what the region is facing.”

Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, chairman of the Arab Council for Social Sciences, said Iran had become a difficult neighbour since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the signing of the nuclear deal.

“It is a huge political and security challenge,” he said. “The Gulf over the past 35 years has managed to contain and deal with it but it is the main feature of Middle East politics today and every vital sign shows that this is going to be around for years to come.”

He said Iran was less of a regional power than it was at the time of the Obama administration.

“Any help coming from the new administration or any change in attitude, policy or discourse coming from Washington is going to be a plus to the GCC and a minus to Tehran,” he added. “If on top of that you have a committed Britain as we heard it, that is even better in this zero-sum balance of power. It will all add up to the GCC’s advantage in their political rivalry with expansionist Iran.”

The UK and the US identify Arabian Gulf states as vital partners but have always viewed Iran as a threat since the revolution, said Sabahat Khan, senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai.

“As far as the American and British role in the region is concerned, there is consensus on all sides that the strategic threats and challenges posed by Iran require collaboration but what’s been missing at times is the long-term common approach and vision for this.

“With the Trump administration taking charge next month, the Americans are very likely to lead their partners in the West like the UK, and in the region, with a more decisive policy in getting Iran to change its behaviour and addressing the sort of strategic challenges it generates.”

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