As Iran marks the 45th anniversary of its Revolution The time bombs in the Middle East

*Moosa Srour


** Paul Ingram

(Nuclear Disarmament Expert)

***Murad Qureshi

(Labour politician, former London Assembly member)

Tuesday 20th February 2024

The race between peace and war in the Middle East is intensifying. The Israeli war on Gaza has caused enormous distress among people inside the territory and outside it. Despite the disparity in the balance of power between the Palestinians and the Israelis, the war has not been conclusive. On the contrary it has led to more polarization in the region, dashing the hopes of those in the West who had anticipated a wider move towards wider political settlements. Regional powers; Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Iran have different agendas, but the Israeli challenge has always led to a degree of consensus among the regional powers especially since the Gaza episode erupted four months ago. The prospects of peace and war are still in the balance, but the political skirmishes continues unabated.

Paul Ingram: When I see the images  of Gaza on tv I experience shock and despair. It is terrifying and the scale of  destruction is just indescribable. If  any human being who sees these images and does not experience anger I defy them to be a human being. 

But what do we do with that anger is one of the key questions that we have tonight. The cycles where people experience these sorts of  incredibly inhuman experiences and feel  the  need to have revenge and retribution is something that spirals and spirals. It is easy to sit  here in London and I am very conscious of this. We are not in Gaza. I don’t have relatives in Gaza. It is easy for me to say this. I think it is really important for us to go beyond the feelings.

This is an inflection point. But more than this it is a sort of climax in the escalation of violence that we have been seeing for many, many decades since the establishment of Israel.  That conflict is not going to  suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke but we do have a totally different environment than we had in the summer of last June.  And that presents opportunities. It presents the opportunity to change the nature of the game that is being played. There are  risks. Let me go to the risks first.

I am from Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risks. I usually describe this as the study of the end of the world. We look at all sorts of global catastrophes and it is really terrifying because every single hazard that we look at is getting worse and accelerating.

And what is more the hazards have a habit of interconnecting with one another. And the risks in the middle of a war that could escalate are obvious. The conflict could get deeper and the next generation will be fighting the same war but  with even more devastating equipment. The talk of WW3 has been happening in the last few weeks more than we have heard for a very long time. It is the inevitable (and I use that word advisedly) – it is the inevitable consequence of the paradigm  that our governments operate from. And I describe this as strategic deterrence by domination. And we have to allow for it.

With regard to this inflection point – there is nothing wrong with the ideologies that drive many governments even when they are different. Liberal democracy when you think about it liberty,  freedom, democracy, power of the people – what is there not to be good about that? That is not the reality because liberal democracy has been bastardized and picked up and used. And now it is used for strategic dominance as a reason to go in and tell other people how they need to run their societies.

I would say that there is an overall problem here that exists in pretty much every state of the planet.  That is that there is a small,  unaccountable elite that runs on behalf of the mass  majority. And all the time that this happens – whether it is in the name of liberal democracy, capitalism, communism or any other number of  ideologies – we will continue on that  accelerating road towards oblivion.

That is my quick introduction. When we look at what I have just said in the current context I think it is really clear that  Netanyahu and the current Israeli government is not representative of the Israeli people. You can see that before the war there were  many demonstrations in Israel and demands to lock him up.

In the UK the two main parties who  resisted until the last few hours calls for an immediate ceasefire do not represent the British public. The Arab states generally monarchies not particularly responsive  to the people would  rather do business with Israel rather than have any conflict with Israel and they do not represent people. The people are generally aware of the injustice at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian issue.

It is not necessarily just because they are Arabs –   actually  it is because they are human beings that see the injustice at the heart of their region. So Arabs  and their states have a big gap between them.

As a result there is a vacuum  and that vacuum is being stepped into by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)  and its allies across the region and that demonstrates an opportunity for the  IRGC to use this to not just  promote the revolution 45 years later but also to use the  relationships for strategic deterrence. I will just come back to that  point in a second.

I just want to take a step back and notice that in the first few days of the conflict wasn’t it interesting how the Brits and the Americans deployed significant naval assets into the region and said back off let Israel carry on. Back off, don’t escalate by sending lots of warships into the region. The irony of this is at the heart of what I am saying.

If we think that by building peace we prepare for war and threaten with nuclear weapons overwhelming forces  people that disagree with us we face oblivion. It is as simple as that.

Now just a couple of weeks ago on February 2nd the Americans bombed 85 targets with 125 bombs and they said to the Iranians don’t escalate. This was after a single drone killed three Americans and President Biden said if you harm an American we will respond.  He could have finished this sentence by saying if you harm a Palestinian we will do nothing.

What is Iran’s response? I think it is really interesting because we have not seen one yet. Two weeks and we have not seen a response.  And I can’t imagine the Americans allowing that if the tables were turned the other way. Does  that mean the Iranians are completely peace loving and would never respond?  No it doesn’t. It does mean that they are either  being responsible or biding their time. More likely the second.

I mean lets just take a step back. I will give you a couple of examples. When the Americans withdrew from the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2001 the Russians complained and they did nothing on the surface. Seventeen years President Putin gets up and makes a speech announcing  the development of a whole suite of  novel nuclear weapons development programmes that have been developed over those 17 years in response to America’s investment in anti-ballistic missile technology.  Bearing in mind the Americans have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on that programme over the past 25 years with little to show for it. And the Russians now have nuclear powered cruise missiles and they have drones, the  under water drone,  nuclear powered delivery systems and the like. They took their time.

The  Iranians themselves when they were attacked with cyber weapons by the Americans and the Israelis  with a virus that set by their nuclear enrichment programme back by several months and they decided not to respond immediately. But the Iranians now have the most third or fourth most sophisticated cyber force on the planet. And they are responding all the time.

Let me just take another step back and give  a little bit of background on the nuclear weapons issue in the Middle East. I am involved in a civil society organization looking  at the  development of a  WMD  free zone in Western Asia. Iran is usually the focus. It has quite a sophisticated  enrichment programme and if  it  decided to develop nuclear weapons it could have done so years ago.  And it has chosen not to for a variety of reasons both internally and externally.  But actually because nuclear weapons are a pretty poor investment.

The UAE, Jordan and Egypt have ambitious civil nuclear programmes but they are many, many years away from any capability of developing a nuclear weapon. The Saudis have a  more  ambitious nuclear programme. They are now trying to attract a lot of investment from South Korea and other parts of the  West and they have been very recalcitrant  in agreeing to international inspection and verification processes.

And then there is Israel. Nobody knows how many nuclear weapons they have. It is probably somewhere between 80 and 200. And they are protected by the United States. Israel is the only country that is a US ally or any other country that the US allows to exist without any punishment for its secret nuclear weapons programme.

The United Nations has now been meeting three years to discuss the WMD zone in the Middle East. I think and I have always thought it is achievable  if we approach this from a position of principle. But I think it is even more achievable now because we sit at this point of inflection.

I think it is not ambitious enough. I think we should be talking about a West Asian Union. This continent that we are living in  was in significant conflict 80 years ago the latest of a whole series of  wars over several  hundreds of years and then we had out of that the European Union. And was unimaginable just a few years earlier created an economic union and you have France and Germany co-operating  and within literally a couple of decades they were not going to go to war.

But it is not going to work if it is modelled on the European Union. There are all sorts of problems with the European Union  not least because it is centralised.  We have an opportunity  to be thinking creatively about how societies in Western Asia can cooperate  more effectively in a decentralised way, in a way that is people focused rather than state focused because the elites of the states in the region do not speak to the people.  That is  an opportunity. I think it would only work if there was a treaty of non interference by external forces.

So I want to conclude by talking  about how this is an important part of the global shift, a global shift that needs to happen away from strategic deterrence by dominance that I was talking about earlier. A focus on co-operation and the rule of law and respect for people who organize themselves and have cultures that are different from ones, where injustice is recognized and where those states that have been involved in that injustice cough off with damages just as we are talking about climate change.

That the processes need to be opaque, that those involved need not be attached to particular outcomes and more focused on the process of building relationships with each other, that these are adaptive processes.

And I think that internationally the frameworks are already in existence around the sustainable development goals, the secretary general’s new agenda for peace which is developing at the moment and the concept  of human security. Now is the year for this. We are in the middle of a war that could go in all sorts of directions. We have the UN summit for the future in September, we have elections in this country and in the USA and in many other countries that are perpetrators of the current system. So there are opportunities for engagement.

Murad Qureshi:  Thank  you for inviting me this evening. I am glad I heard the tail end of the last speaker because the nuclear aspect of  what could happen in the Middle East is something I am not to aux fait with.  I have learned from listening to your contribution.

Let us just be grateful to the South Africans for taking the case to the ICJ. I think that is the only way we are going to have any moral authority about what happens in the future. That is why I am wearing a South African scarf while most of you are wearing Palestinian scarves. We should not lose that.

It is also the day when I think the third motion to the UN Security Council  has been vetoed and I just think   the Americans and the West generally just does not realize that it has lost any  moral authority or any sort now  and this will  stay in the psyche of the rest of the world.

We are in times when geopolitically  things are changing rapidly more so than the authorities here realise. Being involved in London  politics I see a microcosm of this in London  with the various communities that we have historically and the political distance. The insights I get from them certainly from the Middle East gives us a good insight into what is actually happening.

It has been mentioned that this is the 45th anniversary of the Iranian revolution. I remember those faithful days in 1979. In my household global politics was always a matter of interest especially with my dad. With the Iranian revolution things changed in the Middle East and also here domestically with the election in 1979 of Margaret Thatcher.

We should not forget that interventions like the Mossadeq coup in 1953 often takes us places that even the CIA or MI6  could not  have imagined. I wasn’t around then but for my dad’s generation  in South Asia that was a huge issue. Then we saw Nasser emerge from Egypt and others responded.

But the key issue was then was the nationalisation of Persian oil. We Brits took afront that the colonial subjects could suggest that it was theirs. We should not forget that meddling around the world has led to circumstances and regimes coming into power which haven’t helped the advancement of civilisations in the widest terms.

In today’s context 2024 is going to be more significant than we realise. It is not just the horrific events we are seeing in Gaza. I call it revenge slaughter quite honestly. I am not a lawyer. I am not here as a parliamentarian. I am here as a local lad who grew up around here. The important thing is that there are significant things and we should not lose sight of other things that are happening.

I think in the immediate future my more immediate concerns will be the Arab street and how they respond  to their leaders continuing, at least in economic terms, relations  with Israel. General Sissi from what I am hearing on Edgware Road is very vulnerable and I am not sure what ideas are entertained on the other side of the Rafah crossing. There are going to be heavy restrictions around al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.

I am not a person who normally listens to sermons but on Christmas Day I actually made a  point of jumping out of bed to listen to a sermon coming from Bethlehem. I have not heard a sermon like that before. Tell me if I am wrong. I  was grateful the pastor was here this week among the protesters.

That gave me hope and he made quite an interesting joke. He was amazed at  the number of Christians who come from Europe and the USA and  ask him when did they convert over. The Palestinian Christians were the first Christians in spreading the word.

Further afield I think about the  things we are hearing from Iraq and Syria about  sporadic fighting there. There is no place for American bases there. I was staggered that they are still there after the Iraq war. I thought they would have done a midnight runner as they did in Afghanistan. But I would not be surprised if that happens sooner than we realise.  That is something we have to look out for militarily.

Lebanon. If you go down Edgware Road a lot of Lebanese businessmen are bailing out their families from Beirut. The economy was broken anyway and there is no doubt that there are huge tensions there with Israel.  I am not sure where that is going. There are  probably people here who know more about that then me.

With Iran it is not just a case of the nuclear issues there. They have also enhanced their missile capacity in terms of  launching things further than many people anticipated.  The thing that has changed and I don’t think people have realised,  is they have just  joined Brics  plus on 1st January. I think that is significant because one of the things that has  constrained Iran up until now has been economic sanctions. They probably found a way now to more openly sell their oil and not necessarily in American dollars. That is probably a life saver for the regime.

There are many things to keep an eye out for and I think ultimately the US is no different from the Roman Empire that we  had several hundred years ago. When that came to an end like all empires they over stretched themselves in a number of places whether it be Iraq, the Middle East and low and behold Taiwan and China.

America has got to get real. The election is  at the end of the year in November and Americans will ask themselves what they are getting for the money they are sending abroad to these three parts of the world. I don’t think it is helping to enhance their living standards or their quality of life. They do not need to get involved in the geo politics. They just need to try and maintain their basic standard of living. It is the same for us Brits here. I am amazed how quickly money is found for very relevant causes. When we wanted to bail out the banks we started printing like nothing and when money is needed for military matters there is always a magic money tree for that.

Those are the things I feel we have to keep ourselves focused on.  Brits voting in the next general election and I trust and hope that this can be done in a reasonably – it is not going to be peaceful. The changing order of the world is done in a way that we cause the least casualties and fatalities  and we grow to accept that there are going to be several major powers standing next to each other in the foreseeable future.

 On that last point I will return to the chair and I hope that is enough from me.

Moosa Srour: First of All I would like to thank the  Gulf Cultural Club for the invitation and I would like to stress one matter: all the ideas in this seminar are personal reflecting  my personal view and I am not speaking on behalf of any organisation or group or community.

 The fundamental   challenges of the operation of Al Aqsa flood in the region – this  is my topic for tonight. 

First I believe the clock now in the Middle East  is setting on Gaza time. Despite the tragedy and the plight of the Palestinians we are witnessing a new chapter and new dawn in the Middle East. Ex Foreign Secretary  William Hague said the war in Rafah might define the fate of the Middle East .I can add the Middle East  is already in change. Why ?.

The status -quo of stability for  at least for two decade is smashed. A new Middle East  is emerging . the war on Gaza will reshape the region. Palestine’s  right for a state is on the top of the global agenda. I believe also that international community is facing a dilemma presented by the  new fact . The  events of 7th October  revealed that Israelis and Palestinians cannot coexist . The  Israeli government is not convinced yet to recognise the Palestinian state . This  will clash with their supporters especially the Europeans states.  The events expose that their plan is to displace them .  Furthermore, it shows that maybe for  the first time the Palestinians have the feeling they are not alone .They are supported by the sympathy of the global world   and also by their allies in the Middle East. Moreover the conflict is not between Hamas and Israel  – it’s between right and wrong, between the global population and Israel and its allies.

Israel is fighting on  many fronts at the same time:  north and south and in the Red Sea and all around the world. Its narrative as  the victim has been diminished .

However,  the “Al-Aqsa Storm” operation and the failure of Israel’s intelligence and security system at a time when the most extreme government in history of Israel was at work showed that the increased security of the Israeli government and the presence of anti-Palestinian tendencies along with the special support that this regime received from Western allies, especially the United States not only created a security margin for it, but also caused more vulnerability

Israel itself has changed. The Israel we knew died on October 7th. The new nation will be scarred for generations . This was a headline  in The  Times  Israel. What it will come to look like is something we cannot imagine yet. But of one thing there is no doubt: the trauma of the Black Shabbat will leave the deepest of scars in the soul of this new nation. For decades, it will shape Israel’s character, its politics, the relations between its people, between its people and its enemies, between its people and the anti-semites and Israel-hating Nazis around the world.

It’s true Israel will change its relationship  with its neighbours especially Egypt and Jordan . Israel is facing an axis of resistance: Hezbollah, Yemen  Iraq and Syria. 

 Moreover, the event shows that Iran has a crucial role in region which enhanced its position as a  regional power. 

I believe the US  government has fallen  in the trap of the Middle East  and its interference has shown its true face as a  biased broker in the way it has managed Israel’s brutal war  against the Palestinians. This  has benefited the Russians and Chinese to approach the crises and the fight in a different way.

 The attack and the events which followed it  regardless of  their  regional dimensions, emitted meaningful messages in the international arena. This  represents  security challenges to the domination  and the influence of American power in the region. The  war in Gaza has obstructed the American strategy . They were focusing on Ukraine. Ukraine is a strategic  and considered as essential for the security for Europe.  According to America, Ukraine was the transit point for more than 80% of Europe’s gas imported from Russia, and without the presence of this country and Russia’s energy highway to the West, Moscow’s efforts would be devoid of geopolitical influence. However, the occurrence of this war and the expansion of its scope made it clear that Washington lacks a clear and specific strategy for a full-scale field commitment to Ukraine or for a diplomatic compromise with Russia, thus leaving Kiev alone in an unequal battleground.

The events of Gaza have accelerated the  changing process of power relations. They help  to clarify the establishment of a new order and puts an end to the domination and supremacy of the United States.

Meanwhile, the war in Gaza has increased the depth and dimensions of the international faults that had already been created following the Russian military operation in Ukraine, and now this gap is showing up more than ever with bloody events in the occupied territories. China and Russia, have expressed their opposition to the Middle East war and are creating new arrangements to replace the new order  and creating new  rules and institutions that emerged from the approach of the United States and its allies in the post-World War II era. And in this regard, the connection of big and small players in the West Asian region, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, to this partnership can disrupt the dreams that America had for the future of its exit from the Middle East through the project of outsourcing to Israel.

Given that fact that US has an engagement  in the war in the Middle East. The Biden administration is seeking to end this war in favour of Israel. The US is manging the war against the Palestinians.

The escalation by Israel and its invasion of Rafah  has included  new restriction on the Palestinians in the  West Bank to prevent them from praying in Al Aqsa mosque during Ramadan. I believe the Middle East is on the way to a regional war.  The office of the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stated that Israel will impose some restrictions on access to Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan according to “security needs.”

One of the objectives of Israel and the West is to eliminate Hamas.  That is a mission impossible. Because Hamas is an idea and it’s impossible to eliminate it . Hezbollah is a pattern. The US  is clearly manging the war and  seeking to pursue a political and security victory for Israel . The Biden administration is  supporting and helping Israel in  waging a war against Hamas.   The USA is deceiving  the world. It tells the world the war will end  and claims it is engaged in hard negotiations between Hamas and Israel.  

It has set a policy after their strategy which  is called pivot to Asia. After the destruction of Iraq, Syria and many other countries it has  pursued a strategy to normalise the relationship between Israel  and the Arab gulf states.  But the USA cannot fight in and  on different fronts. 

There is no plan how to deal with  the Palestinian cause. They relinquished their role after Oslo and it’s been assigned to Israel  with the US backing its actions.

Its support for Israel has exposed the true face of the US.  The American  ambassador to Russia ( 2012-14) told Putin you should not worry about the expansion of Nato because it is a benign hegemony  but the support of Israel it is a malignant  hegemony.

*Moosa Srour is the Correspondent and Head of the London Office of Al Mayadeen TV. In 2007 he graduated from the Lebanese University in Beirut with a degree in Law. He pursued his postgraduate studies in the UK and in 2007 received an MSc in Law.  In 2022 he completed another MSc in International Relations from Brunel University. He has worked on Southern Lebanon affairs. He also worked as a journalist with ANN in London and as a  freelance journalist with Al Jazeera and produced a documentary about Naji Al Ali, the famous cartoonist assassinated in London in 1987

**Paul Ingram  is an expert on the global nuclear disarmament debate and global security. He has specialised on Iran’s nuclear programme and nuclear proliferation politics in the Middle East. For many years he led the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and is now at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. He is also a Director of the civil society Middle East Treaty Organisation (METO), working to strengthen the belief in establishing a zone across the region free of WMD and particularly nuclear weapons.

***Murad Qureshi (born 27 May 1965 of Bengali parents) is a British Labour and Co-operative Party politician, and a former Member of the London Assembly. He attended Quintin Kynaston School and graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in Development Studies in 1987, before undertaking an MSc in Environmental Economics at University College London, which he completed in 1993.

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