The new Iranian crisis: former minister and leading Cranfield University academics explain why it matters

Iranian General Qasem Soleimani
Iranian General Qasem Soleimani was assassinated by US forces on Friday 3 January

Following the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the Bedford Independent spoke to one of the Borough’s former MPs, a former minister for the Middle East, plus two academics from Cranfield University for their expert views on the situation.

Alistair Burt was Minister for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf from 2010-15 and again 2017-19.

Alistair Burt
Former MP Alistair Burt speaking in the House of Commons

His most recent post covered overseeing support for post-conflict Iraq; delivering UK Government’s Gulf Strategy through leading working groups and partnerships; maintaining UK relationship with Iran post JCPOA withdrawal by US and supporting governance and economic reform across MENA.

The new Iranian Crisis

“The assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani is not, even in these difficult times, simply another incident in the long running pain of the Middle East. It is equivalent to the killing of the UK’s head of MI6, Chief of the Armed Forces and Deputy Prime Minister rolled into one.

“It brings more than a year of gradually escalating reprisal and counter reprisal in the region to a head, and the consequences are unknown. It is a very big deal indeed.

“Amidst so much complexity, perhaps two points are clearest.

“Firstly there is no common ground between the US and its allies in the area, and Iran. The US, Israel and others in the region see Iran as seeking to export its revolution of 1979, and establish a regional dominance, which owes as much to history as to recent events.

“By contrast Iran sees threatening neighbours, well armed, who stood by as Iran lost perhaps a million people in a war with Saddam Hussein, who want a weak Iran and the end of its regime.

“The stakes could not be higher – each side feels existentially threatened by the other.

“Secondly, it has not been possible to bring a diplomatic end to this sense of threat which each feels. And while that has not been possible, behaviour continues which worsens the problem.

“Israel for example feels acutely threatened by thousands of advanced missiles being sent to Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon on Israel’s border, while Iran feels economically strangled by the US determination to stop the lifeblood of its oil sales, putting its rulers at risk.

“President Trump believes that the action he has taken will shock Iran into change, and break the deadlock in the region. Others believe that acts of violence seem to have achieved little but huge loss of life and misery over the past thirty years or so.

“So we wait to see what the consequences might be.

“I am certain that the UK should be working flat out, with countries in the Gulf region, to find a better answer than a reprisal for what has happened, and a proper pathway not just to avoid immediate conflict, but finally address a series of issues which have been the background for the agony and tears we have seen the people of the Middle East suffer for too long.”

Commenting on the current situation in Iran, Dr Anicée Van Engeland, Senior Lecturer in International Security at Cranfield University, said, “Iranians haven’t been this unified in a long time with moderate, reformist Iranians falling behind conservatives in their condemnation of the US actions.

Dr Anicée Van Engeland, Senior Lecturer in International Security at Cranfield University

“The killing of General Solemani has given the two sides within Iran a common enemy and has become a rallying point for Iranians.

The nuclear deal with the EU

Dr Van Engeland continues, “There has been much talk of Iran leaving the nuclear deal (JCPOA) with the EU but this is a trajectory it has been on since the US announced renewed sanctions against it.

“Rather than leaving, it is a further scaling back of its commitments under Article 26 of the agreement. We have seen previously Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation announce that they could scale up uranium enrichment for domestic nuclear energy supply and there could be a political decision to do this.

“There is now tremendous pressure on the UK and other EU countries, who want to make the nuclear deal work while maintaining allied relations with the US.”

What happens next?

Dr Van Engeland said, “Both international law and Islamic law allows for retaliation and self-defence in the event of an attack such as this, so the legal path for Iran to respond looks clear.

“The issue Iran now faces is both a political and security one.

“Iranians will insist on a response and there seems little doubt that some form of retaliation will happen through possibly a cyber or hybrid attack. The question will become, will the response satisfy the population who are unified in their outrage and condemnation of the US actions?”

The threat of a cyberattack

Dr Duncan Hodges, Senior Lecturer in Cyberspace Operations at Cranfield University, said,
“Iran is a credible offensive actor in cyberspace having moved in recent years to boost their military capability in this area – in the past, they relied on third party groups and supportive hackers to carry out attacks.

Dr Duncan Hodges, Senior Lecturer in Cyberspace Operations at Cranfield University
Dr Duncan Hodges, Senior Lecturer in Cyberspace Operations at Cranfield University

“Iran’s history of cyberattacks has been more destructive rather than manipulative. They have looked to destroy and degrade infrastructure and hardware, most notably in their recent large-scale attack on a Saudi oil refinery.

“They have also not traditionally been too worried about being identified after the event, using detection as a way to demonstrate their strength in this area.

“Offensive cyber activity has been used in the past to de-escalate tensions and avoid physical military engagement, such as in the US/Iran conflict in the Gulf of Oman last year. With the present conflict we could, for the first time, see cyber attacks used to escalate conflict.”

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