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How much should we really worry about Iran?

Today is a bit of a departure, but just a bit: I want to talk about Iran. You know, that country in the Middle East which everyone thinks is public enemy #1!

NB This perspective came from an idea/request shared with my by one of my contacts, whom I will simply call ‘Russ’. Thanks Russ!

When I lay my head down at night there are a lot of threats much scarier than Iran in my thoughts.

If there is one thing I have tried to emphasise over the past five (almost six!) years that I have been blogging and podcasting it is that I will never do either of the following two things:

  • I will NEVER refer myself as an ‘expert’ as there are far too many of these around, most of whom are anything but in my view; and
  • I will limit my columns to matters and issues I believe I have something somewhat of value to add. In other words I refuse to comment on things I have no direct experience in.

Today is a bit of a departure, but just a bit. Today I want to talk about Iran. You know, that country in the Middle East which everyone hates and thinks is public enemy #1.

I want to push back a bit on this ‘collected wisdom’. Simply stated, the ‘threat’ Iran poses is much smaller than that represented by other actors. Bear with me.

Ayatollah Khomeini
I am going to crush you all with this hand! Nah, just kidding! (Photo: Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Image)

A little background

OK, first a little background, in light of what I just wrote about my promises to my readers. I actually do know a fair bit about Iran, although that knowledge is a tad dated. I worked as an Iranian analyst in Canadian intelligence for two decades, from 1985 to 2005. For the first fifteen years of those years I was a Farsi linguist at Canada’s signals intelligence agency (SIGINT), Communications Security Establishment (CSE), where I provided finished intelligence on Iran for the government (I was fluent in written Farsi).

In 2001 I moved to CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) where I had been asked to fulfill the duties as senior Iranian strategic analyst, a function I performed until my other hat, Islamist terrorism, took over.

Since that time I have maintained a ‘watching brief’ on Iran but I am fully aware that my day-to-day knowledge is nowhere near what it once was. There are lots of people who have a much better grasp of current Iranian politics and intentions than I do. In addition, I no longer have access to intelligence and presume I am missing an important piece of the puzzle. Nevertheless, I do believe (accurately I hope!) that I know more about Iran than the average bear.

The ‘threat’ Iran poses

With all that, let me return to the ‘threat’ Iran poses. I did not fall off the turnip truck yesterday. I know that Iran is involved in several areas that are of legitimate concern to all of us. These include its sponsorship of terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hizballah, its meddling in neighbouring nations (such as Yemen and Iraq, although they are not the only unwanted interlopers) and of course its nuclear ambitions. These are all very real menaces.

But each one is less serious than many make them out to be. Let me go through them one by one.

I am missing an important piece of the puzzle. Nevertheless, I do believe (accurately I hope!) that I know more about Iran than the average bear.

When it comes to terrorism, Iran’s involvement is not any more worrisome than that of other states in other areas (Pakistan in India is a good example as is Saudi Wahhabist ideology: the latter has led to more attacks and more deaths than anything Iran has had its finger in). Quite the opposite: Sunni terrorists inspired in many ways by Saudi thinking continue to kill thousands around the world every year. Iran’s contribution to terrorism is a mere shadow of that figure.

WATCH Armin Navabi from Atheist Republic – Iran and religious extremism

When it comes to foreign interference Iran is by far not the only nation to contribute ‘unhelpfully’ where it should not. The aforementioned Yemen has also been the scene of Saudi and UAE involvement, and Iraq is a rat’s nest of foreign actors, including Russia and the US which stupidly went in back in 2003 to get rid of Saddam Husein in the wake of 9/11 when it should have held the Saudis responsible in part for that massive attack. And what about Turkey, spreading its influence under the autocratic President Erdogan who seems as if he wants to re-create the Ottoman Empire?

Finally, the nuclear issue

No one wants to see Iran get the ‘bomb’. And yet it did submit to negotiations and limits under the JCPOA (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, reached with the so-called P5+1 – the US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany). This deal was more or less working – I am sure Iran was ‘cheating’ a bit – but it should have been maintained. Former US President Trump backed out only because he was unable to recognise anything his predecessor Barack Obama had achieved.

The fact is, as a nation Iran can indeed agree to talks, something more dangerous actors like terrorists are either much less willing or capable of doing or are just far less trustworthy. As an aside, this fact should be at the forefront of US ‘peace talks’ with the Taliban terrorists: don’t talk with terrorists!

The Americans never got over the humiliation of the 1979 hostage affair and the fact that a friendly despot (the former Shah) was tossed aside.

Maybe it’s just me, but I see the angst over Iran driven by two or three primary factors. One: the US. The Americans never got over the humiliation of the 1979 hostage affair and the fact that a friendly despot (the former Shah) was tossed aside. How is it that the US can negotiate with another intractable foe, Taliban terrorists, who have killed thousands of soldiers in Afghanistan and cannot do likewise with Iran who have been directly responsible for next to no US casualties?

When Religion Kills

How Extremists Justify Violence Through Faith (2019)

Christian fundamentalists. Hindu nationalists. Islamic jihadists. Buddhist militants. Jewish extremists. Members of these and other religious groups have committed horrific acts of terrorist violence in recent decades. Phil Gurski explores violent extremism across a broad range of the world’s major religions.

The second is Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom and its vile, hateful interpretation of Islam see Shia Muslims as apostates and it has spread its message that the only good Shiite is a dead one to the four corners of the earth (by the way Iran is 90% Shia, hence Saudi’s obsession with it). The Saudis have been beating the ‘Iran is public enemy #1’ drum for decades, despite the fact that its neighbours (Qatar, the UAE and Oman) don’t seem to have a problem talking to Iran. To my mind, Saudi has a lot more to answer for than Iran does. Um, like 9/11 (15 of the 19 terrorists were Saudi, raised on Wahhabi worldviews)?

Lastly Israel. That nation has a legitimate concern with Iran over its help to Hamas and Hizballah, both of which are terrorist groups that attack Israelis, although neither poses an ‘existential’ threat to its safety. The Netanyahu government never misses an opportunity to cite Iran as the source of all evil, especially when it comes to its nuclear programme. Wait a minute: when it comes to Iranian nukes, can Israel really be all high and mighty when it has its own surreptitious efforts?

In the end, Iran has not been an ideal international player for the past four decades. The opposite would be a much more accurate description. Nevertheless, it is a nation state with which we can have meaningful exchanges. The JCPOA was working after all.

Then we have the vast majority of average Iranians. They want better relations with the West and the rest of the world and have demonstrated that they also want profound change in their own country (i.e. they are sick of the 40-year theocracy which has ruled the roost). Yes, the government is hardline and has its own extreme actors such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a particularly nasty bunch internally and externally, but it also knows its own people hate it. So yes, there is hope for a shift in Iranian direction.

So back to my initial statement

When I lay my head down at night the concerns I have may be many – Sunni Islamist terrorism, the odd far right actor here and there (albeit much less worrisome than the jihadis on a global scale), COVID, global warming, etc. – but Iran really is not one of them. PS The fact that I think about terrorism and such when I go to bed is a whole different matter, one that comes out from having spent the past nearly 40 years thinking about these things!

The upshot is that the time has come to enter into serious, binding talks with Iran on a number of fronts. It can be done. So let’s just do it!

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By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. and Programme Director for the Security, Economics and Technology (SET) hub at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute (PDI). Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of five books on terrorism.

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