The release of Peter Moore, held hostage for 946 days, demands that we renew our focus on Iran’s role in sponsoring international terrorism. Even if Mr Moore was not actually incarcerated within the borders of Iran, as some have alleged, the regime in Tehran backs the League of the Righteous, the extremist Shia group that is believed to have seized the British IT consultant.
His release comes at a moment when the Iranian regime’s behaviour is more dangerous than ever. Its violent suppression of protests on the streets of Iran has made it clear that the Supreme Leader and his acolytes will do anything to stay in power.
Yet with so much attention on Afghanistan and Pakistan (and more recently Yemen) the wider security threat posed by Iran has slipped down the agenda. It is a regime skilled in the diplomatic arts; some argue that it has successfully distracted attention from its promotion of terrorism by getting the international community to focus on its nuclear programme.
There are three reasons why we must take the threat from Iran seriously: the nature of the regime itself, its willingness to export instability and terror and its attempts to develop nuclear weapon technology.
Those who have studied the speeches and writings of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s Supreme Leader, will have noted unshakeable consistency over 30 years. His commitment to the religious rigour of the Islamic revolution, his hatred of the US and his contempt for the existence of Israel have never wavered. It is extremely unlikely that we will see any behavioural change under his leadership.
When you add Iran’s advances in missile technology, its desire to gain nuclear weapon technology and the growing influence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), it becomes disturbingly clear that we are facing the toxic combination of an increasingly militaristic state headed by a hardline theocrat.
The recent defiant testing of Shahab and Sajjil missiles, at the time when President Obama is sounding a more conciliatory tone, is a sign of the contempt for outside opinion long held by the Supreme Leader. The Shahab3 can reach targets up to 2,000km away. The Sajjil, a solid-fuel rocket, offers greater accuracy, while its multiple stages will offer even greater range for the future.
We have long known about British soldiers being on the wrong end of Iranian training and weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the allegations of Iranian involvement in the kidnap of Mr Moore will come as no surprise to those who have followed Iran’s activities and interference with its neighbours.
Iranian involvement in Syria and Lebanon — funding and training terrorists — continues to stoke regional tension and is an obstacle to an Israeli-Palestinian solution. One senior Iranian official once boasted to me that “in Syria we pull the strings. It will do what we want.” Some believe that Syria is moving, or has moved, up to a third of its missile stockpile to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In addition, the attempt by Iran to send to Hamas Fajr5 missiles, capable of striking Tel Aviv from Gaza, further increases Israel’s sense of vulnerability.
The internal power balance in Tehran is complex but increasingly the IRGC is taking a leading role. An IRGC consortium recently bought a controlling share in the state telecoms company and the IRGC has been heavily involved in suppressing internal dissent, which has included blocking the BBC’s Persian service. The EU should target the IRGC — and its business interests — for its links with terrorism, just as the US has done.
General Hossein Salami, the IRGC senior commander, recently boasted that Iran could not be ignored because of “its regional and global clout”. There is no doubt that Hezbollah, with Iranian backing, is increasing its global reach. Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, told the US Senate Armed Services Committee this year that there is increased Hezbollah activity in South America, in particular the tri-border territory of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Security forces fear that they will seek to exploit anti-Western feelings among immigrants from the Middle East. The US worries that its border with Mexico could be vulnerable to terrorist activity emanating from the lawless territory where Hezbollah has chosen to make its base.
But it is Iran’s nuclear programme that is of greatest concern. In the autumn Iran was forced to admit the existence of the almost completed nuclear facility near Qom, on top of the increased uranium enrichment at Nantaz. Olli Heinonen, the UN chief inspector, has said that Iran’s nuclear activities are “not consistent with any application other than the development of a nuclear weapon”.
At its current production rate of 2.75kg per day of low-enriched uranium, some sources believe Iran could have enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon before 2010 is out.
Last year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. Many believed that the era of the nuclear arms race was over or, at least, arrested. Now we face the prospect of a new nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region as Iran’s neighbours seek to counter- balance the threat from Tehran.
That is why international pressure on Iran must increase and European action must match that taken by the United States. William Hague, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, has advocated a Europe-wide ban on investment in Iranian oil and gas and on export credits that subsidise trade with Iran, action against Iranian banks and the mirroring of US financial sanctions. Taken together they would send a strong signal that the international community wants the regime to pay a price for its intransigence.
We cannot know how the current political crisis will play out. The regime may well intensify its brutal suppression of dissent and rally the people against an external enemy. But as a change in outlook of the current leadership is unlikely, Iran appears set on a course of continued confrontation with the world.
If the Iranian people are to find their very real potential as a nation there will need to be a significant change in Iran’s bellicose behaviour. Just how that change manifests itself must lie in the hands of the Iranian people. We have a duty to help them to have their voice heard around the world this year.
Liam Fox, Shadow Defence Secretary.