Thomas Graham is a Policy Fellow of The Pinsker Centre, a campus-based think tank which facilitates discussion on global affairs and free speech. The views in this article are the author’s own.
When identifying the cause of Middle-Eastern instability in the 21st century, all fingers point towards Iran. The Ayatollah’s regime has been described as nothing short of ‘religious fascism’ by, the former foreign minister of Canada, John Bairdand is responsible for a myriad of problems in the region as well as the internal suppression of the Iranian people. Iranian authorities, self-ascribed ‘exporters of the Islamic revolution’, provide assistance to violent terrorist organisations in the region, threaten the attainment of nuclear weapons and wilfully persecute minorities and their own people, whilst pushing their ideology of political Shia Islam in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
Iran ardently suppresses its own people through the denial of religious freedom and civil rights. The death penalty is also applied to a broad range of infractions such as homosexuality, ‘waging war against God’ and ‘corruption on Earth’, the ambiguity inherent in the latter two is exploited to persecute religious and ethnic minorities. Suppression is not restricted to minorities, however, as 1500 Iranians were killed in a series of protests across the country in 2019. Clearly, Iran will stop at little to maintain its grip on power, and this has been the case since the 1797 revolution.
After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which installed a theocratic government, the state became a prominent supporter of terrorism in the Middle-East, offering financial and military support to jihadi groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Houthis. Through these, the Ayatollah projects his power and influence over the Middle-East without risking direct inter-state conflict, using them as tools for advancing Iran’s interests; carrying out deadly attacks and fighting proxy wars on Iran’s behalf.
Hezbollah has been implicated in the assassination of the Lebanese Prime Minister in 2005, the firing of unguided rockets into northern Israel and suicide bombings targeting Americans and Israelis. Moreover, the Iranian leadership has branded the United States the ‘Great Satan’ and Israel the ‘Little Satan’, while “Death to America! Death to Israel!” is a common chant heard in the streets of Tehran. In a similar fashion, the Houthis’ slogan reads: “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” This group resists the internationally recognised government of Yemen on behalf of the Ayatollah, enabling the war in Yemen to effectively become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Hence, Iranian aligned terrorist cells bring violence and destabilisation at a time where Arab powers, such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain seek peace, stability and cooperation through diplomatic mechanisms, exemplified by the Abraham Accords.
Beyond state-funded terrorism, much concern is drawn toward Iran’s nuclear weapon capability with several Iranian presidents stating that Israel should be “wiped off the face of the earth”. Despite ratifying the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1970, the Iranian nuclear weapons programme was initiated in the late 90s with the ‘Amad Plan’ and continues to this day through Iran’s Ministry of Defence.
In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)sought to curtail the development of nuclear weapons, by lifting UN, US and EU sanctions in exchange for Iranian adherence to the NPT. Despite superficially appearing to commit to the nuclear restrictions, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), responsible for reporting on Iran’s nuclear facilities, has repeatedly cited both a lack of adequate access to military sites/personnel and credible explanations for the amount of undeclared uranium in the country. For example, a 5th February 2021 IAEA report stated that traces of radioactive material were found in two sites to which inspectors had previously been denied access. Such blatant attempts to deceive the IAEA demonstrates the Iranian government’s contempt towards the JCPOA, a factor which certainly contributed to the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the deal in 2018.
Iran has consistently breached the terms of the JCPOA, despite attempts from the UK, France and Germany to keep the deal alive, and has enriched uranium to 60%, well beyond the level necessary for civilian use. The Ayatollah’s regime, therefore, has a programme prepared to make nuclear weapons, in short order. Thus, even as nuclear deal talks between the USA, under new administration, and Iran are scheduled to continue, Iran’s continual development of its weapons capabilities means that these negotiations are unlikely to succeed.
To conclude, it is clear that Iran’s national and foreign policy continues to threaten stability in the Middle East. Hence, many Arab countries increasingly understand the danger posed by Iran. Iran possesses a repressive revolutionary ideology which projects its influence through terrorist organisations while continuing its long march towards nuclear capabilities and perpetrating violence within the country’s borders. If these threats are to be effectively countered, countries in the MENA region will have to strengthen their cooperation to face Iran’s government and act as a united front.