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The Security Challenge 2011: The Arc of Instability from the Middle East to East Asia

Ambassadorial Briefing delivered by Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant to BritishAmerican Business.


Thank you to BritishAmerican Business for inviting me today, and thanks to Arup and KPMG for sponsoring this event. I am delighted to come back - almost a year to the day since last year’s event.

After 30 years in international diplomacy, I know that crises and terrorist threats can emerge anywhere. In the last couple of months, the UN Security Council has spent a lot of time discussing North Korea, Haiti and Cote d’Ivoire.

But I want to talk today about an area sometimes called the Arc of Instability. It runs broadly from Sudan, Somalia, through Yemen, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran to Afghanistan and Pakistan. You can be sure that at least some of these countries will feature prominently in the headlines in 2011. Indeed, almost all of the major direct security challenges we face can be linked to this Arc of Instability. And the Arc is expanding, as events in Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks have shown.

Let me say a word about Egypt. We should be on the side of openness and political reform in the Middle East. We want to see a transition in Egypt to a more broadly-based government, with the proper building blocks of a free and democratic society. It does a disservice to the Egyptian people to suggest that there is only a choice between an autocratic security state on the one hand and a fundamental Islamist one on the other.

I shall focus now on four of the key challenges we face in the arc of instability: terrorism, religious violence, conflict and nuclear proliferation.

A. Terrorism

The 9/11 attack was carried out by terrorists instructed by the Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan. The failed attempt to blow up a plane in Detroit on Christmas Day 2009 was planned in Yemen. Iran has been behind terrorist attacks carried out by its proxies, Hizballah and Hamas.

In the UK, the Police and Security Services have disrupted nearly 60 serious plots since 2001 (one attack was tragically successful in 2005). Over 200 people have been convicted of terrorist related offences in that time, many of them – like the 2006 plot against transatlantic flights – have deliberately targeted the transatlantic relationship. 70% of those terrorist plots link back to the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.

Of course, terrorism is not solely a problem related to Muslim communities. Suicide bombings were first carried out by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka. In the UK, we still face threats from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland. Just over a year ago, several missions to the UN received hoax biological attacks in New York, emanating from Texas. Congresswoman Giffords’ attacker was an Arizonan student.

But the most significant terrorist threat we face does come from AQ, whose narrative is Islamist; and many terrorist acts are committed in the name of a perverted version of Islam.

Let me be clear. Islam is a religion observed peacefully and devoutly by more than 1 billion people worldwide. Islamist extremism is a political ideology, supported only by a minority. At the furthest end of this minority are those who back terrorism to promote their ultimate goal of a worldwide Islamist realm.

The absence of democracy in many parts of the Islamic world and perceived historical and current injustices imposed by non-Muslim countries has proved fertile ground for such extremist ideology to flourish. That is why we should encourage political reform in the Arab world (of the sort under way in Tunisia and Egypt), and it is why the current absence of a dynamic Middle East peace process is so damaging. We must address that.

But we must also do more within our own Muslim communities to confront extremist ideology and to empower moderate voices. As my Prime Minister, David Cameron, said in Munich at the weekend: “We need a lot less of the passive tolerance of recent years and a much more active, muscular liberalism. A passively tolerant society says to its citizens, as long as you obey the law we will just leave you alone. It stands neutral between different values. But I believe a genuinely liberal country does much more; it believes in certain values and actively promotes them.”

B. Religious tension/Violence

We should not forget that most victims of terrorism live in the region itself. Levels of religious tension and violence are high across the region. They take a number of forms:

- the tension between Israel and Palestine is the main poison in the well of relations between religious communities. The chances of progress in 2011 currently look slim, despite US efforts to bring Israel and Palestinians together in direct negotiations. It would be quite wrong to argue that peace in the Middle East would immediately stop extremism and terrorism. But it would go a long way to undercut AQ and other groups’ extremist narratives. That is why we believe that a more prescriptive approach to the peace negotiations is now required.

- Muslim/Christian relations have become increasingly bitter elsewhere too. The inability of the government in Khartoum to allow Christian communities to flourish in Sudan was an important factor behind the overwhelming vote for southern Sudan’s secession in last month’s referendum. Hundreds have been killed in Muslim/Christian riots in Nigeria. There have been well publicised attacks on Christian communities in the last few weeks in both Iraq and Egypt. I do not believe in Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilisations theory, but for those that do, there is some worrying supportive evidence.

- Sunni/Shia tensions are another important feature of the Arc of Instability. They caused an 8 month delay in the formation of the Iraqi government. They underlie instability in Lebanon. The Huthi rebels in Yemen are minority Shia. Sectarian attacks kill thousands every year across the region. Indeed, Intra-Islamic tensions, often arising from the adaptation of Islam to the modern world, probably pose as serious a threat to stability as inter-religious tensions. The assassination of the Governor of Punjab in Pakistan last month (because of his moderate views and opposition to the blasphemy law) is symptomatic of the struggle for the soul of that country.

C. Conflict

I have already touched on the Israel/Palestine conflict. But 2011 will be crucial year for Afghanistan as well. We have a strategy in place. Now is the time for delivery. That means an increased focus on the transition of security responsibility from the International Coalition to the Afghan Security Forces that we have trained, combined with an Afghan led reconciliation effort, which offers a way out to those Taliban who are prepared to renounce violence and accept the new Afghan constitution. The US and UK commitment to Afghanistan is long term, but we have both set an end date (2014/15) for direct involvement in combat operations in Afghanistan.

The conflicts in Darfur and Somalia also threaten wider stability in Africa. The piracy epidemic in the Indian Ocean is a direct result of the lack of stable governance in Somalia. It costs the global economy about bn a year. There is much we can do to offer shipping greater protection, but piracy will not be eradicated until the Al Shabab have been defeated and some form of sustainable government established in Mogadishu.

D. Proliferation

We have a race against time to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The big powers have been encouragingly united in their efforts to achieve this, through what is called the dual track. The recent talks in Istanbul failed, because Iran did not come to the table prepared seriously to discuss the generous proposals offered by the E3+3. But we have made clear that the door remains open.

The stakes are high because, if Iran succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons, not only will Iran be emboldened to spread instability in its neighbourhood, through proxies such as Hizbollah and even Hamas). But there will also be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

It would be fair to say that the dual track policy has not yet worked. But it has not yet failed either. The imposition of sanctions – last year’s SCR 1929 was the strongest yet and is having a real impact – and increasing isolation has helped to delay progress in Iran’s nuclear programme. 2011 will be an important year to judge whether there is any realistic prospect of a peaceful diplomatic solution.

International Response

These four threats have another aspect in common. They cannot be tackled at a purely national level. There needs to be a strong and coordinated international response. The UN has a central role in this, through the Security Council. The 2011 Security Council is a particularly weighty one: with India, Germany and South Africa having joined Brazil and Nigeria as elected members, it in many ways prefigures what a reformed Security Council in the future might look like. This means that, when United, the Security Council this year will have a particular authority. But I hope that it doesn’t prove more difficult to reach agreement, in the first place interest and the different perspectives that the big powers bring to the table.

I have discussed the role that the UN plays in tackling nuclear proliferation in Iran (it is doing the same on North Korea). But it also:

- gives legitimacy to military action in Afghanistan and, in 2011, is likely to play a role in the necessary reconciliation process in that country; it is taking a leading role in tackling conflict in Sudan and Somalia. The latter is a classic case of a country where the UN is taking the lead;

- works with states to raise counter-terrorism standards and enhance capability, as well as monitoring the evolution of risks and threats that go beneath the radar. In countries like Yemen and Pakistan, the UN can promote vital economic and political reform as well as deliver humanitarian and development assistance;

- tackles failed and failing states, where extremism and terrorism breed. UN peacekeeping operations have been successful in Lebanon and Sudan and the UN is supporting African Union efforts in Somalia. If Southern Sudan does become an independent country in July, the UN will need to lead the International Community’s efforts to maintain its stability and build a viable state.


I am conscious that I have painted a rather gloomy picture. There is no escaping the reality of the Security threats and challenges we face in 2011. But it is not all doom and gloom. We are heading in the right direction in Iraq and Afghanistan. The peaceful referendum on the separation of southern Sudan is remarkable given the history civil war and conflict (though many risks remain).

More generally, the strategic trend towards democracy and individual human rights across the world is very clear. The Jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the upheaval in Egypt are an expression of that trend. African leaders no longer tolerate unconstitutional changes of government – or unconstitutional refusal to leave power, as in Cote d’Ivoire. I was struck by the increase in the number of countries voting before Christmas to condemn human rights abuses in Iran, North Korea and Burma. The Millennium Development Goals Summit in September gave a strong impulse to the international fight against poverty; the December meeting in Cancun has put the international negotiations on climate change back on track. These are all reasons to be hopeful in 2011.

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