Kourosh Ziabari – Iran Review: On April 27, the 7th United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Global Forum wrapped up in the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. More than 3,500 participants from across the globe, including some 150 young leaders from nearly 100 countries attended the 3-day international gathering, exploring the venues for creating inclusive societies and promoting representative democracy to realize global peace and sustainable development.
The UNAOC Global Forum was attended by several dignitaries from different nations, including incumbent and former heads of government and state, foreign ministers, parliamentarians, UN officials, academicians, public figures and other luminaries. In panels and plenary sessions, the speakers and participants surveyed themes such as the role of media in materializing inclusivity, the impact of proper education on sustainable development, the challenges posed to the international community by the EU refugee crisis, counteracting hate speech and xenophobia and the significance of intercultural dialog.
On the sidelines of a panel addressing the concern of terrorism and violent extremism, I had the chance to sit down with a noted Irish politician and discuss a range of regional and international issues with him.
Lord John Alderdice is a member of the House of Lords, where he assumed the position of the Liberal Democrat Lords Principal Spokesperson for Northern Ireland in June 2015. He has been the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly between 1998 and 2004 and the leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland from 1987 to 1998.
On the prospects of Iran-UK relations, Mr. Alderdice says he has been encouraging collaboration and the improvement of bilateral ties between the two countries and hopes Iran and Britain can work together as two committed business partners, even though they can “disagree respectfully” on matters of contention. He noted that even though Tehran and London have been successful in diffusing tensions, there are people in Britain who don’t understand the diversity and “depth of culture and intellectual power” in Iran and still push for enmity with the Islamic Republic groundlessly.
Mr. Alderdice believes the British-Saudi relations and Prime Minister David Cameron’s military sponsorship of the Arab kingdom is not an “uncontentious matter” in Britain and there’s a dynamic debate as to whether the UK should really support the Saudis and sell them arms while they’re engaged in a massive military expedition in Yemen.
Lord Alderdice has been critical of the British government’s approach to the Syrian crisis and maintains that the West should be talking to the major stakeholders in this dilemma, including Russia and Iran, to cooperatively find a solution to the 5-year-long mayhem and ensure that bloodletting is over and the ISIS terrorists are decisively defeated.
John Alderdice is an honorary citizen of the city of Baltimore and a recipient of the Silver Medal of the Congress of Peru. Currently, he is the Director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict (CRIC) at Harris Manchester College at the University of Oxford.
Mr. Alderdice responded to our questions concerning the hurdles in the way of the full implementation of Iran nuclear deal, the thaw in Iran-UK relations, the conflict in Syria and the global war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Q: At the outset, I would like to have your take on the nuclear agreement inked by Iran and the six world powers last summer and the fact that Iran is opening up to the West following this diplomatic breakthrough, and relations with Britain are also improving. Visits were exchanged between the Iranian and British officials, including Irish businessmen and government representatives. How do you feel about that? Do you think the future is promising for Iran, particularly now that the sanctions have mostly been lifted and the economy is emerging?
A: I’m very positive indeed on the deal that has been achieved by President Rouhani and his colleagues with other important countries. And in fact, I would say that looking at the global situation, it’s one of the most positive signs in your whole region. Things are very difficult, very negative and very dangerous and this agreement and what it implies and the opportunities it creates is one of the very few really positive possibilities. So, I’ve been encouraging our own government in the United Kingdom and other governments to try to build upon this. In fact, as an example of this, I organized a small workshop – a conference at Oxford University last December, bringing together a number of Shiite theologians and scholars from Iran and a number of British and Irish Protestant theologians to engage with each other, not to persuade each other to choose their faith or even necessarily to see what all the commonalities are, although there are many, but simply to say, “look, we have different perspectives, but we respect each other and we want to build a relationship of respect,” and indeed at the end of the conference, I took the theologians to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace. We had a very positive meeting and I know that he’s also keen to follow up. So, I think in professional ways, in legal and scholarly ways, in political ways, we need to try to build these relationships because for many years things have been very negative and that’s not in the interest of the people of Britain; it’s not in the interest of the people of Iran; it’s not in the interest of people globally. Now we can actually give a positive sign to a world that desperately needs positive signs.
Q: Well, it was just last year that Secretary Philip Hammond traveled to Iran to reopen the British Embassy in Tehran and you’re definitely aware that there are so many brilliant Iranian students who wish to travel to the UK to pursue their studies, so many Iranian academicians and businessmen who would like to engage with their British counterparts, and similarly there’s an immensely growing interest on the side of Britons to work with Iran in a range of activities. What do you think the future holds for Iran and the UK and the fact that over the past 5-6 years, there have been ups and down and bitter tensions that are being gradually eliminated? What’s your take on the ongoing detente between the two states?
A: This is about relationships as you rightly say. And in any relationship, even in personal relationships, you cannot take anything for granted; you have to work for that. Anybody who takes his or her relationships for granted is immediately in trouble with them. So we must work hard at this relationship and we must try to build on developing it respectfully on both sides. We won’t always agree on everything – of course not, but we can disagree respectfully as well as agree on some things. I very much hope it’s possible to build on this. Within Iran, apart from the extraordinary history and culture and background, there is a tremendous educational system and there are many people who could benefit from engaging with the UK and there are many people in the UK who could benefit from engaging with universities in Iran. And I think we want to build that two-way relationship, not exclusive, not cutting ourselves from other people but recognizing that there is something very important and precious there for us to build. And I’m fairly optimistic about it. We are living in a very difficult world and things can go wrong not least in politics, but I’m fairly optimistic and I’m absolutely personally committed to trying to do what I can to help in this relationship. It’s one of those elements which I regard for myself as a priority issue.
Q: Some people in Iran, especially among the critics of President Rouhani, are complaining that the West has not fully complied with the commitments it has undertaken in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. They hold that the U.S. has illegally confiscated $2 billion in Iran’s frozen assets that were supposed to be unblocked, and also the sanctions are not fully lifted. This debate is going on in Iran heatedly while the critics assert that the country is not completely benefiting from what it has actually agreed to in the nuclear negotiations. What do you think of it? Do you believe the West is geared up and prepared to live up to its commitments and reciprocate Iran’s compliance with its part of the bargain?
A: It’s very important to understand that in each of our countries and in the West more widely, there is not a single view and there are those who are opponents of the deal. There are opponents in the West. In the United States, there are some who are for and there are some who are against it; likewise in Britain, there are some who are for and some who are against. And even in Iran, there are some who are for and some who are against the deal. So, all the time those of us who want to build a relationship have to acknowledge that we’re not dealing with a homogenous entity there. We are dealing in our own countries and in other countries with a mixture of feelings and when you try to take something forward and while you try to implement issues, when you try to implement sanctions, it’s not universally respected. When you try to lift the sanctions, it’s not universally respected either. It’s true and that’s part of the reality of life. We must just continue to try to work to implement the lifting of the sanctions, not just the ones that have been agreed but ultimately all of the rest as well.
Q: Well, I’m just talking about the international law and the fact that the UN Security Council has already endorsed this deal through the Resolution 2231. So, there is an obligation the P5+1 has to fulfill…
A: There is! But, you know, the United Nations can agree many things. There are many things that they can’t even agree on; but it can agree many things while implementing them is a huge problem. You know, one of the issues, which is a difficulty in relationships between Iran and the United States is the question of Israel and Palestine. And the UN has passed so many resolutions on that front, but they haven’t been implemented! We’re here in Azerbaijan; the UN has issued several recommendations and rulings in regard to Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that haven’t been implemented. So, there is a real problem about international law and the policing and implementation of international law which is by no means exclusive to the issue of Iran or Israel or Nagorno-Karabakh for that matter.
Q: Do you see any obstacles in the way of the implementation of the nuclear deal? Do you feel there are certain powerful elements in the different segments of the U.S. government trying to block the smooth enforcement of this agreement to the detriment of Iran?
A: I have no doubt that there are people in the United States establishment, both within Congress and the executive branch, and within various arms of government and those who are not in government but want to be, who are negative about this. There are also others who are extremely positive and are taking political risks to try to make sure that the deal is fully implemented. This is a struggle and it will continue to be a struggle because the opponents will not be quickly converted to being supporters. The good news is that the supporters will not be quickly converted to being opponents. But it is a struggle and that’s what politics is like and we have to work with others.
Q: Are you sensing any pressure exerted by the United States on you in Britain not to facilitate the banking transactions or economic, financial deals with Iran in the aftermath of the conclusion of the nuclear deal?
A: I’m not sensing that myself at present as I’m not in the government! So, I can’t say whether or not that is the case. I do know that on a number of issues in international relations, for example in relations with China, the United Kingdom has been prepared to go way beyond what the United States has been interested in doing. And the United Kingdom is a significant financial center; it has its own rules, it has its own ethos and has the capacity to make its own decisions. And, you know, we had this past week President Obama saying that the United Kingdom should stay within the European Union. And the government would like to stay within the European Union, but ultimately the people will decide that; they may decide yes or they may decide no. I myself do not observe the United States putting pressure on the United Kingdom in the way you describe. That is not to say that it is not happening behind closed doors. That may be the case. But I think that particularly in this question of the relationship with Iran, there has been perhaps even more interest within Britain in improving relations than is the case in the United States. So, I’m pretty optimistic from that point of view.
Q: There are some critics who opine that the government of Prime Minister Cameron has been overly willing to assist states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia financially and even support them with weapons and arms in their military expeditions in the region at the same time as Saudi Arabia, for example, is involved in a deadly war on its impoverished neighbor, Yemen. This is while these countries do not necessarily reflect and share the democratic values that a liberal society like the United Kingdom symbolizes. Why do you think there is such a special relationship between the UK and these Arab countries in the Persian Gulf? Well, at the same time, there are so many loud voices in the UK who are opposed to any kind of opening toward Iran, which is a way more tolerant and pluralistic society than Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is described by many observers of the Middle East as a totalitarian state.
A: As far as the question of weapons and engagement with Saudi Arabia and some of those states is concerned, this is not an uncontentious matter in the United Kingdom. There are a lot of arguments about this, but historically, the United Kingdom and the United States have regarded Saudi Arabia as an ally and in that sense, some other countries. I think it’s not unreasonable to ask the questions you’re asking. It is also not unreasonable to expect that a country does not overnight change its alliances and relationships. I think many people in Britain feel extremely uncomfortable about the ways Saudi Arabia conducts its business – and I don’t just mean its economic business, and there are many debates and complaints about this. There are others who say, “yes, we are concerned but we hope changes are taking place and we would like to press for changes” and they will, for example, note some of the changes on the economic front and say, “it’s not the case that nothing changes.” That may turn out to be true or it may turn out not to be true, but this is an active debate. However, it’s also the same with people who are not your allies and things do not change overnight, and there are many people in Britain who do not understand the complexity of Iran; they do not understand the diversity in Iran and they do not really understand the depth of culture and intellectual power in Iran. It’s portrayed in the British media and spoken about as dominated by theologians and dominated by theologians of a very conservative or even fundamentalist kind; that it is dominated by particularly anti-Western and anti-UK perspective. And I know it for myself that, although I have not yet been able to visit Iran – not because I haven’t been invited but I haven’t been able to get it into the schedule and I very much hope to do that in the next twelve months – but many people do not understand that diversity, that richness; they just see it as the enemy. We should change that way of thinking not even to make Iran a friend but to make Iran a business partner. It’s a major change. It doesn’t happen easily; it doesn’t happen quickly. That’s why we have to work at it and not to give up easily.
Q: And just recently, the British Airways announced that it would resume its direct flights between London and Tehran in mid-July and there have been so many British citizens who are signing up for tours to visit Iran’s historical sites.
Q: And it obviously helps to change the calculus and the way the relationships progress, I think.
A: Absolutely! And, you know, you have good cultural relationships developing. I know from talking with British Council that they are extremely keen to develop good relations with Iran. The British Museum has been keen to engage; the universities are keen to engage. And I can say for myself and for my own university – Oxford University – that there is a real keenness to build up and develop two-way relationships, two-way traffic, and we’re just going to work on that. Even regarding the question of the British Embassy reopening, many of us liked to have that happen much more quickly and much more fully and find it much easier to get visas and so son. We would just have to keep on pushing at these things.
Q: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions on the tense situation in the Middle East, as well. On the crisis emanating from Syria and the operations carried out by the ISIS, do you think there is a real diplomatic solution to this conflict? There have been military options that were tested, airstrikes and bombardments, but they have not paid off. Is it conceivable that eventually the opposition and the government of President Assad would be able to sit together and negotiate meaningfully and resolve this predicament? Do you think the UN efforts and the efforts made by the Friends of Syria Group are effective in putting an end to this five-year-long chaos?
A: From the beginning, I was very critical of the approach that was being taken by the British government in respect of President Assad, not because I think President Assad is an angel on the country but because I didn’t believe that the kind of way we were engaging was helpful. I think you’ve got to look outside Syria- Iraq. First of all, the problems there cannot be dislocated from the problems that previously existed in Iraq and in Afghanistan and in the relationship between Russia – formerly the Soviet Union – and the West. Well, Afghanistan was of course about Al-Qaeda and so on but it cannot be divorced from what happened before with the support of the West for the Mujahedin in driving out the Soviets. Then Russia remembers that and says, I will get back at you, and so on and so forth. So, one must understand that what is happening in the wider Middle East is affected by geo-politically bad relationships and resolving what’s happening there, which will take a very long time, if at all we are successful, involves improving those geo-political relationships again. So, it is crucial for the United States, and indeed the UK and France and others to talk with Russia, to talk with China, to talk with Iran and to say, “look, how do we find a way to peacefully get back together again?” They should say, we have to cooperate; none of us are going to like everything that happens with all of this but what is happening at the moment is completely catastrophic and in danger of spreading like wildfire across the globe. So, we’ve got to see the alternative to some serious negotiations at the top is catastrophic and we’ve got to reconcile and get back into the negotiations. So, if that begins to happen, then I think it begins to be more possible to see a future and that future is going to involve, in my view, changes to attitudes and foreign policy on the part of the West and of others. But at the moment, what’s so much happening is that people are not thinking; they’re not reflecting, they’re not exploring these questions; they’re just reacting all the time. So for me, the first step is the rebuilding of relationships at the Security Council.
Q: So to tackle the crisis and to counter the ISIS, do you think there is any way to stop this masses of radicalized young people from across the world – from Europe, from Asia, from other continents – from flying to Syria and Iraq and fighting for this death cult? There’s something which I cannot comprehend, and that is why there are so many young Europeans being captivated and absorbed by the ideology of ISIS. Maybe they’re questing for an identity, maybe they are seeking adventure, maybe it’s financial gains that are at play; I’m not sure. First, what do you think is the reason there are so many young people from across Europe including Britain who are joining the ranks of ISIS and fighting for them? And second, how is it possible to prevent them from going there?
A: I think there are two or three things involved in this. The first is that of course there are a lot people in the Muslim community who feel that Muslims globally have not been well-treated, have not been well-regarded, and when a community of people feels that they have been disrespected and not treated fairly, they get very angry and the people who get angriest are the youngest, and young men, if they get angry and if they don’t have prospects of jobs and so on, then it’s very tempting for them to do that. But we must understand that not all of those who went to fight had no jobs or whatever; that’s absolutely not true. The second thing is, young people especially need to believe in something; they need to have a vision. I don’t like the word “narrative” because that’s far too cognitive. People need something that they engage with passionately, that they really believe in. And I think for many young people in the West, the dissipation of religious belief – I don’t mean fundamentalist belief but just a religious conviction – has left many young people feeling a bit empty and for a long time, for the last two or three hundred years, much of this was filled by expectations about education, about science, about technology, about advancement and so on, but as the last century has gone on and people have seen that the technology does not resolve the relationships and creates expectations which are hard to fulfill, then I think many young people are losing not just their faith in the transcendent but their faith in the present and in many of the educational, intellectual, scientific, technological advances. So, there is a kind of vision deficit and when young people see here’s a group of people, and they’re so convinced that they will die happily for the cause, some young people feel, “I would like to feel like that; I want to get away from a flat, boring, none-passionate sense” and so they do it. For you, a passion is journalism, it is educations, it is understanding, and you see opportunities and you’re excited. So, a young person should feel that excitement. It’s okay if you are 60 and you don’t feel excited, but if you’re 20 and don’t feel excited and somebody comes along and says here’s excitement, then that’s very tempting.
Q: There is something worrying and that is ISIS is gaining so much territory across Iraq and Syria, even though they’ve suffered some setbacks recently, but the international community has been simply unable to stop them. They’re still there. Different actors are contributing to the deterioration of the status quo in Syria. Is it really possible to eradicate ISIS after so much investment on the political efforts, talks, bargaining and negotiations? Does it take place conveniently?
A: First of all, whatever happens with territorial advancement in Syria and Iraq – and it may be that ISIS will be pushed back in some of these areas, it’s simply going to increase in North Africa and then in Sub-Saharan Africa and in South Asia. It’s like a balloon; you squeeze it here and it comes up somewhere else. So, you’re not going to be able to expunge it or get rid of it or wipe it out, because it has some fundamental human connection and the only way you change that is by providing an alternative. We’ve been talking here of “counter-narratives” and it’s important, but the problem with counter-narratives is if all we are doing is attacking their perspective and not putting an alternative vision in place, we won’t succeed; only temporarily because people need something that gets them up in the morning, that makes them excited about things and that I think is the thing that is missing. So, we’ve got to look to our own history, look to our background and look to the development of a vision which is a human vision; it’s not just a mere technological vision or a material or economic vision. And there is a reasonable critique that much of what we have done in the West has been too much based on materialism and technology. And they are important things, but they’re not on their own enough to fulfill human needs.
Q: As an observer of international politics, are you hopeful about a possible reconciliation between Iran and the U.S. after being at loggerheads for some four decades? Well, this nuclear deal has demonstrated that there are some chances for the two countries to bridge the gaps and talk to each other civilly. Do you think it can be replicated in other areas and perhaps lead to the recommencement of diplomatic ties?
A: The question, “can it be?”, I’d say absolutely it can be. “Will it be?” That’s another matter, because there are forces in the United States that influence the process. For example, would this policy be affected if Hilary Clinton is in the White House or Donald Trump is in the White House? Of course it will be; in one case it is much more likely, I think, to move forward than in the other case and the wider world is in a very, very dangerous place. I don’t think you should underestimate the danger. I believe that we are perhaps not just on the cusp but perhaps already in a global conflict. It’s not like the World War II or the World War I but it’s a global conflict nevertheless. And unless we find ways of pulling ourselves back from that, we will descend further into it and eventually some horrible things will happen. Many horrible things will happen eventually and we’ll experience drawbacks, but for the moment we are still on the way down. Iran deal is one of the few things going the opposite direction. Most other things are going down the way. And so I’m not pessimistic but I’m fearful.
Q: How does the upcoming presidential vote in the U.S. affect the possibility of Iran and U.S coming together in the near future? As you said, you are somewhat anxious about what’s going to happen and what the future entails.
A: Yeah, I’m very anxious about it because I think the global implications of the two main likely presidential candidates are so different that it cannot but affect all our relationships. You know, we recently had a substantial number of members of Parliament in the United Kingdom saying that we don’t want Donald Trump to come to the UK. Can you imagine that there has ever been such a presidential candidate in United States? Well, this was the attitude of members of the UK Parliament.
Q: Yeah, and that petition with more than 500,000 signatures!
A: You know, this is unthinkable and yet this is the way things are. So, we’re in a very dangerous place at the moment and those of us that see that and fear it and desperately want to do something about it must try to work together, and I believe that the deal with Iran is one of the ways in which we try to rebuild a fabric of international relations, global relations, not just relations between Iran and the West.
This interview was originally published on Iran Review.