Home » Iran is making ‘bad choices’ in Russia ties, says UK’s chief Middle East military adviser
Defence Featured Global News Military National Security News United Kingdom

Iran is making ‘bad choices’ in Russia ties, says UK’s chief Middle East military adviser

Yet Air Marshal Martin Sampson tells The National there are grounds for optimism in overcoming the region’s conflicts

As a veteran of 500 air combat sorties across the Middle East and as Britain’s key adviser in military matters across the region, it is worth paying attention to Air Marshal Martin Sampson’s thoughts.

People should, therefore, heed his words when he raises concerns over what Iran’s regime might receive in return for its shipment of drones and other suspected armaments to Russia since the launch of the war in Ukraine.

“Our friends in the region should be a little bit nervous about what comes back [to Tehran] in return for that support,” he told The National

In his role as Defence Senior Adviser Middle East, Air Marshal Sampson — “Sammy”, as he is widely known — has spent the past two-and-a-half years travelling the area and meeting leaders using his experience and authority to assist in problem solving.


That ability was developed early on as a Royal Air Force pilot flying Jaguar attack aircraft into combat in Iraq during the 1991 Gulf War and leading the Operation Shader offensive against ISIS two decades later.

In his first newspaper interview, the officer has painted a picture of a region of continued strife, as well as one where there is hope for countries to rise above conflict for a brighter future.

Arms to Iran

But that vision could easily be thwarted by Tehran’s alliance with Moscow in which it has supplied hundreds of kamikaze drones that have been used against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.

“Anybody who aligns with the type of regime or country that will invade other people’s sovereignty, ignore international rules and norms, is making a bad choice,” he said.

“We don’t think anything good can flow into the region as a result.”

It remains unclear, other than receiving cash, precisely what equipment Iran is receiving from Russia, although it is likely to include advanced technology to assist its drone and missile capabilities.

“We need to be aware of anything that flows in the opposite direction [from Russia], because Iran’s practical behaviours have been destabilising in the region. Everybody should be concerned about the transfer of technology,” he said, speaking at the UK’s Ministry of Defence.

While many powers, including Britain, transfer military assets to the region where it is used responsibly, there remains a question over its use in Iran.

“Iran’s destabilising activity in the region is still present,” he said. “Everybody is concerned about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and we need to work with our friends in the region and internationally to inhibit those nuclear ambitions.”

Similarly, in Yemen, advanced technology could undermine any fragile ceasefire.

“This is an increasing concern, particularly with Iran and its alignment with Russia, and what that might bring with new threats and the ability for people to use technology against you.”

Poor performance

The poor performance of Russian weapons during its war on Ukraine has raised doubts on the effectiveness of the equipment it has provided to some Middle East countries.

“We don’t want our friends and allies to be weaker but the harsh reality is that there are shortfalls in Russian equipment,” said the 55-year-old officer.

With the loss of more than 1,500 tanks and thousands more armoured vehicles, Moscow’s generals have been keen to keep as much equipment spares as they can, especially with sanctions biting.

This has meant contracts elsewhere have been unfulfilled. “The ability of Russia to be a dependable partner in terms of resupply of spare parts or the transfer of technology or supporting your industrialisation that’s not there either.”

Meanwhile, countries such as Britain were supplying advanced technology which Air Marshal Sampson argued showed “the broad offer that we have and the very narrow offer that Russia has”.

“If our friends are nervous about that, then there is an obligation for us to help with alternatives,” he added.

Friends of Iraq

With 20 years elapsing since the invasion of Iraq — “you can’t rewrite history,” Air Marshal Sampson admits — there is hope that with continued western support progress can accelerate.

“The impression when I go to Iraq is that people are very much looking forwards not backwards. Iraq has the option to build a strong future for itself and it understands very clearly where its challenges lie.”

Western powers needed to give a “long term deep commitment” to help Iraq build its institutions “at their pace”, he said.

“The appetite will grow to a point when Iraq has the ability to say, ‘hey, we’re good now’ and that will be the best day because of our friends are able to stand on their own two feet.”


Another key aspect for Iraq is to follow Gulf States in converting their fossil fuel earnings into renewable energy.

“The trick is to use that resource wisely as a transitional resource to invest in a future so that in 2060 or 2070 people are less reliant upon hydrocarbons,” said Air Marshal Sampson.

Iraq’s progress could also be helped by ISIS presenting less of a threat due to “the amount of degradation of their leadership that has happened over the past six months” meaning that their ability to impose their will on people has diminished.

But there was still a requirement to keep an eye on the threat both “physically and in cyberspace”.

Wagner’s interests

Two years ago Libya was facing a disastrous civil war but now the security situation is improving to the point that there could be elections at the end of the year.

However, the Russian mercenaries of the notorious Wagner Group, whose brutality has been highlighted in Ukraine, are doing much to polarise the country.

“Anywhere Wagner is, good does not happen,” said Air Marshal Sampson. “We would like to see horrific organisations like Wagner out of places where we’re trying to promote stability and security, they don’t play into good governance.”

The mercenaries, whose leader is closely aligned to President Vladimir Putin, are attempting to establish a foothold in North Africa in order to fulfil their ambitions deeper into the continent in places such as Mali and countries that hold rare metals.

“What they’re doing there is furthering Russia’s and Wagner’s interests, they’re not there to help promote stability,” said the officer, who put their numbers in the “low thousands”.

Middle East home

Despite the recent turmoil in British politics, with three prime ministers in the past year, the UK’s relationship with the Gulf endures.

“It goes from our royal families, down to the hundreds of thousands of UK citizens that have been welcomed into the region, either for holidays or work,” said Air Marshal Sampson.

Military institutions such as Sandhurst have also played their role having been attended by Gulf leaders.

In 2020, Sheikh Zayed bin Mohamed completed the gruelling year-long course at the prestigious academy that trains all officers for the British Army.

His father, President Sheikh Mohamed, at the time Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, attended the passing out ceremony.

Sheikh Mohamed had also graduated from Sandhurst.

Other royals to have graduated from Sandhurst include Crown Prince of Dubai Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohammed, King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Hamad of Bahrain.

Air Marshal Sampson also praised the energy of the Gulf’s young population and its desire to be more globally connected. “You put those two together, and it feels like the region is a natural bedfellow with real kind of mutual opportunities.”

The father-of-four has spent much of his military service in the region with four years in Saudi Arabia and year or longer stints in Bahrain, Oman and Qatar.

That has usually meant accompanied tours with his family including his 15-year-old son whose knowledge and experience has been greatly enhanced.

“Teachers at his boarding school say that his contribution when talking about philosophy, religion and world events is so much broader and so much more mature than anybody else’s because he’s had the privilege of living in another country.”

Then he adds with a chuckle: “He feels almost more at home in the Middle East than he does in the UK.”

Source: The National