The Foreign Office has lost the plot in the Middle East

The Foreign Office has lost the plot

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

Last Friday the UN Security Council rejected any extension of the arms embargo on Iran. That embargo — imposed in 2007 — began to get phased out after the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But a ‘snapback’ provision was put in place intended to allow the return of åall such sanctions should Iran violate the terms of the deal. Iran has been violating those terms for some time, but on Friday, when the United States hoped that its allies would join it in deploring this fact, only the Dominican Republic voted with it. The UK, like France and Germany, chose to abstain. On the question of whether Russia and China should once again start selling arms to Iran, this country apparently takes no view.

It would be nice to be able to say that this was peculiar. But it isn’t. In the same week that Britain abstained at the Security Council the US brokered an historic deal elsewhere in the Middle East. Under its supervision, the United Arab Emirates and Israel signed an agreement to normalise relations. The Israeli President, Reuven Rivlin, has now invited Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed to visit Jerusalem. As the economic and diplomatic benefits of normalisation become clear, other countries in the Middle East are expected to follow suit. Deals like the UAE-Israel agreement are part of a larger attempt to find unity among states wishing to avoid Iranian dominance. Hence President Rouhani’s threatening condemnation of the UAE for its ‘treacherous’ actions. There are rumours of Bahrain and even Saudi Arabia at some point joining the UAE’s acceptance of reality.

In the British Foreign Office, meanwhile, such reality appears to be a world away. Responding to the US-led initiative the Foreign Office (FCO) released a statement which made precisely two curt points. The first welcomed the normalisation. The second consisted of the FCO’s perennial claim: ‘Ultimately, there is no substitute for direct talks between the Palestinians and Israel, which is the only way to a [sic] reach a two-state solution and a lasting peace.’

Defenders of the FCO like to present it as a first-class vessel, cruising along on the deep wisdom accrued from decades of masterly global circumnavigation. Recent events suggest otherwise. Just take last week’s statement. The Foreign Office was insisting that the only way to peace in the Middle East is for ‘direct talks between the Palestinians and Israel’. Yet it was doing so in response to an agreement that demonstrated precisely how unnecessary any such ‘direct talks’ actually are.

The historic nature of the UAE–Israel deal is not just the normalisation itself, but that it demonstrates how states in the region can make peace with Israel without needing to go through the corrupt and rejectionist Palestinian Authority. For decades the wisdom of the FCO (trotted out whichever party is in government) has been that an Israeli-Palestinian ‘two-state solution’ will ‘unlock’ and otherwise solve all the wider problems of the Middle East. It is to this failed venture that British diplomacy remains principally wedded. But if the UAE can reconcile itself to making peace without needing to go through the Palestinian cartel, then why can’t the British Foreign Office?

It isn’t just on the Palestinian issue that the Foreign Office’s thinking is proving un-able to adapt. Take the status of the Golan Heights. Seized by Israel at the end of the 1967 war, the Golan provides a strategic vantage point that would always be able to be used against Israel so long as it was in its opponents’ hands. For more than half a century it has been a defacto part of Israel. There is no scenario in which Israel would hand it over. The American government last year acknowledged that reality.

Back in London the FCO continues to think otherwise. ‘The occupied Golan Heights’ is how the FCO still refers to the area. Indeed it does so in its latest Covid travel advisory warning. It remains the FCO’s position that Israel should give the Golan back. To whom, one wonders. Almost anyone, would appear to be the view of the FCO. But what this means in practice is handing the Golan Heights to the Syrian regime. The institutional delusion must be strong to imagine such a scenario. Why would it help anyone if the Israeli government presented a peaceful and well-maintained piece of Israel to Bashar al-Assad? It isn’t as though his family has had any paucity of territory to immiserate over the past decade.

As on so many issues, the FCO’s stance is anachronistic. Which is strange because on other issues, not least Hong Kong, the UK has shown itself to be engaged, principled and practical. In the morass of the Middle East, by contrast, it is stuck, flailing to find a position that even acknowledges the shifting regional scene.

On the Iran vote, Britain had two directions in which it could have gone: the American route, which seeks to keep Iran isolated so long as it keeps up its nuclear ambitions; or the European one, which broadly continues to seek to ‘open up Iran’ and enjoy its markets even if that does allow the region’s largest terror-sponsor to boom.

So why should Britain sit out a vote which seeks to hold Iran to account? One reason is that there are strong elements within the FCO as well as the wider government who have been consistently sympathetic to the Iranian government. Six years ago here, I identified Ben Wallace MP as part of an active ‘Iran lobby’ within Westminster. Since then he has distinguished himself as one of Boris Johnson’s most prominent defenders in parliament and been rewarded with his current position of Defence Secretary.

Perhaps Wallace and others believe it is worth Britain carving out a niche as ‘neutral’ on the question of Iranian rearmament. But even if it were morally defensible, diplomatically and strategically it makes almost no sense. In any scramble to enrich ourselves at Iran’s teat, Britain is a long way behind both France and Germany. And our failure to stand by America at the Security Council leaves us unnecessarily distanced from our most important international partner.

There are parts of the world where it is doing well, but in regards to the world’s most volatile region, the FCO isn’t helping us to glide through the international waters. Rather it is showcasing British foreign policy as not just out of date but all alone, and very much at sea.

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