Still hesitating while others act

Harman letter 1You may remember the post last October where I described my efforts to help a Yemeni friend of mine who was trying to flee his country with his family. Yemen has been torn apart in recent months as Saudi Arabia and Iran fight a proxy war.

My friend, Adim (not his real name) and many of his fellow Officers had initially been tolerated by the Houthi rebels, the group supported by Iran who now hold power in Yemen. Slowly though, distrust and open aggression took over. Fearing for the safety of his family, Adim decided to try to leave the country.

He tried a number of options, all to no avail, then approached me. I  sought help from Harriet Harman, my MP, hoping she would convince the Foreign Office to provide Adim a visa for entry into the UK. I offered accommodation and was reasonably confident I could arrange employment with the British Defence Academy.

Harman letter 2As I wrote at the time, to my intense frustration Ms Harman not only did not help, but also (in my view) fobbed me off with the very thoughtless reply ‘I am not in a position to assist [Adim] as he is not residing in the UK..’ which, as I hoped was obvious, was the whole point of my reaching out to her.

So I felt a pang of sympathy for Labour Councillor Jamille Mohammed when he came doorstepping in January in advance of local elections. The poor chap got both barrels from me and had to ditch his prepared chat about bin services and cycle lanes as he suddenly found himself knee-deep in a debate about geopolitics and refugees. To his credit he took it in good grace and promised to follow up my gripe with Ms Harman.

I received the two replies above. Neither addressed my central question about requesting the Foreign Office to approve a visa for Adim and his family. I can only conclude Ms Harman has unfortunately missed the point once again. Still, as she says, I’ll try not to hesitate before contacting her in the future for any more help.

Adim sent me an email last week. He has managed to escape with his family to the neighbouring country of Oman. A mutual friend of ours in the region was able to do what we – Harriet Harman, the British state and I – totally failed to do: get through the bureaucratic and political treacle in order to provide succour to a family in genuine need. Makes me proud to be British.



Stormy waters

sailorsAt best it warrants only a footnote in this nation’s proud sporting history, but you need to be aware that in 1985 I jointly won the Enfield Lawn Tennis Club’s Under-16s doubles trophy with my mate, Jason Caddis. Of course, achievements of this magnitude don’t just happen by accident.  No, they take many afternoons whacking tennis balls in the back garden, some of which would sail over the fence onto Mrs Cuomo’s lawn next-door.  Why do I mention this? Because there was more bureaucratic foot-dragging and mutual suspicion involved in negotiating the safe return of my tennis balls than was exhibited yesterday by Iran and America over the repatriation of the US sailors who had strayed into Iranian waters.

I wonder why. On the one hand, the rapprochement between the two countries has lost no momentum since the historic deal in July last year regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The International Atomic Energy Agency adopted a resolution in December over the outstanding thorny issue of Iran’s ‘possible military dimension’ to her nuclear energy programme. It concluded that the “coordinated effort” to develop a nuclear weapon ended in 2003.

But on the other hand, there are last-ditch efforts in the US Congress to block the easing of sanctions on Iran and the deal has not been universally welcomed in that country either. As Norman Lamont told the Conservative Middle East Council (CMEC) round-table on Iran recently, many in the country fear a toxification of Western culture. Furthermore, if any ‘peace dividend’ of the release of an estimated $100 billion in frozen Iranian bank accounts is not felt by the population fast, President Hassan Rouhani could be fatally undermined. The hawks are waiting to pounce, says Ali Ansari, Professor of Iranian History at St Andrews University. “How much foreign policy is for foreign consumption?” he asked at CMEC. Without a consensus  between Rouhani, the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the ideological custodians of the revolution, the deal would never have happened in the first place. That goodwill could easily dissolve.

So the idea of an enduring nuclear deal, money-taps turned on and a moderate and pragmatic guy in charge could easily turn into a nightmare. A diplomatic spat over navigationally-challenged sailors could have been all it needed. There is, after all, a Pavlovian response to the word ‘Iran’ from many in the US, according to Nicholas Soames, Chairman of CMEC. Hence the flurry of diplomatic activity to contain the situation. (John Kerry, US Secretary of State, thanked Iran for their “cooperation and quick response”.) But such a demonstration to the world (and internal audiences in both the US and Iran) of mutual respect and a workable relationship was helpful. Perhaps even stage-managed, if you fancy indulging your inner conspiracy theorist.

Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank, says that Iran (i.e. Rouhani) cannot let the deal falter. Iran is currently facing crises in Yemen and Syria (where it has thousands of troops), a potential split with Russia over the future role for Assad and a question mark over its relationship with Hezbollah. So the benefits of a lifting of sanctions are clear.

But how overt can the West make its support for Rouhani without (a) undermining him in the view of the hardliners, (b) cosying up to a country killing thousands of anti-Assad fighters in Syria or (c) adding to existing Saudi fears that having got rid of Saddam the West is actively encouraging shiism?

Don’t forget that as soon as the banking sanctions are lifted, Iranian oil will flow into an already saturated market, where the price has collapsed from $100 a barrel last year to $30 today. Saudi Arabia is content to see the black stuff go cheap so it can make whatever it can before the days of easily extracted oil ends – 30 years? But as Iran has a much more diverse economy than Saudi Arabia, hastening the end of easy-oil will only add to the tension between the two countries as Iran would likely fair better economically.

So, huge imponderables and challenges ahead for a region already on fire. The nuclear deal will very likely increase the tension within Islam. But as Norman Lamont said, the deal is worth having (and sanctions lifted) as it will prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons; it’s not about trying to solve all the region’s problems. Whether it adds to them is another matter.

He who hesitates is lost

Scan0007-2What do the words asylum seeker mean to you? In the current climate it is a politically loaded term; a conflation of economic migrant and refugee. The crisis facing Europe today is at once easy to understand yet impossible to meaningfully comprehend, let alone solve. The phrase has been purloined by those less interested in the plight of the individuals than for the political capital to be made from a good bout of tub-thumping demonisation.  But how serious do you think our mainstream politicians are in debating the issues and trying to do the right thing? My confidence has been shaken by the letter I received (pictured above) from Harriet Harman MP, my member of parliament, over a case I took to her regarding a friend of mine in Yemen, in similarly deep trouble to those fleeing Syria.

I met my friend Adim (not his real name) when I attended the Advanced Command and Staff Course at the UK’s Defence Academy a few years ago. Adim is a Yemeni national, a fluent english speaker and very intelligent man, albeit with a dubious taste in shoes. He’s a good guy. His country is currently in the grip of a regional proxy war, in all but name, between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In September last year Houthi rebels, backed by Iran, seized the capital, Sana’a, and now control all the major organs of state. Of course, the situation is more nuanced than I give it credit or column inches for, with Da’ish (or ISIS) and other armed groups also involved, but that’s the nub of it.

Although under suspicion from their new Houthi masters, Adim and many of his colleagues were, initially, tolerated. Steadily though, harassment built up against perceived supporters of the ousted regime. Adim moved his family out of their home last December and some of his fellow officers have been killed or disappeared (as have their children). Adim has not been paid for months and has resorted to dressing as a woman so as to hide his identity and allow him to move around. He has also been shot at. He is obviously very afraid for the continued safety of his family and wants out.

Having tried a number of options in various countries he reached out to me. I took the issue to Harriet Harman, hoping she would encourage the Foreign Office to issue a visa for Adim, thereby allowing him to travel to the UK and seek asylum. I was confident that he would work straight away, possibly on the staff of the Defence Academy, adding valuable perspective and experience to our military training. And yes, I offered to provide accommodation.

It is at this point (if not before) many will call me naive and/or daft and the discussion could fracture into well-rehearsed arguments on all sides. But it boiled down to this: there’s not much I can do to help the millions running from persecution and violence, but I could, perhaps, help one family. So I made a decision, discussed it with my wife and acted. I’m not interested in the reductionist politics of the Farage brigade (“so, how many homeless people have you housed?”); he was a friend in genuine fear for his life and those of his family.

To be honest, I was not expecting to be successful, at least not straight away. But what I was not expecting, as you will see from the letter above, was the wilful missing-of-the-point employed in the let down. To dismiss the issue with a breezy and simplistic ‘I am not in a position to assist [Adim] as he is not residing in the UK..’ cannot be ignorance; Ms Harman is far too intelligent for that. I cannot see it as anything other than being too difficult, too political. He is not residing in the UK – that’s the whole point; I’m trying to get him here so that he and his family are removed from a situation of grave danger. If there is any doubt that Adim is, in fact, hoping to be an economic migrant, I will personally pay his air fare back. But let’s get him and his family over here to discuss the issue in safety first. Politicians like to remind us of the proud history the UK has of offering sanctuary to refugees and the oppressed. It seems the bar for qualifying for such sanctuary is set very high.

Still, as the letter ends, ‘if I can be of help or assistance in the future with any other matter please do not hesitate to contact me.’ Nice to know.