London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Veteran Left-wing British MP Jeremy Corbyn has represented a London constituency on behalf of the Labour Party since 1983. A vocal advocate for human rights and critic of Western military intervention abroad, he recently travelled to Iran as part of a cross-party group of British legislators at the invitation of the Iranian parliament.
On his return, Corbyn spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his impressions of Iran and his views on the future of its relationship with the UK, the US, and the international controversy over its nuclear program, and his opinions on the prospects for political reform in the Islamic Republic.
Asharq Al-Awsat: What was your general impression of Iran during the four days you spent there?
Jeremy Corbyn: Our delegation was an all-party parliamentary group (APG), with both Labour and Conservative members. We all have different political positions in Britain and have some differences of opinion surrounding Iran. However, we are all in favour of trying to normalize relations between the UK and Iran, and so after our visit we then gave evidence to the [British House of Commons] Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the impressions of our visit.
I’ve never been to Iran or Tehran before, so to me it was fascinating. I have always wanted to go. So that was nice. It was the sense of presence of Tehran, as a very important capital city, and of how powerful Iran is and was—these huge national buildings and the grandeur of it. That impressed me. And the Majlis [parliament] was interesting, with the amazing decorations in it and the history. We also went to the British embassy and stood in the dining room were Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt once had dinner. There is a brass plaque on the wall which indicates the seating arrangements, which was interesting. Of course, the building is closed at the moment.
Q: Did you have any impressions of the delegation you went with?
Our delegation was a mixture of people. Jack Straw was the foreign secretary in the Blair government when they went to war in Iraq [in 2003]. I was a member of parliament throughout that period and I was totally and absolutely opposed to the war to Iraq. So, we had two pretty big differences there in our delegation.
The issue of nuclear weapons is something very dear to my heart. I am the chair of Stop the War Coalition in Britain and I am a national officer with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I don’t think anybody should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think they are moral.. Iran has a legal right to develop nuclear power. I personally am not in favour of nuclear power, but I recognize that [Iran can legally develop it]. What it cannot do is to develop nuclear weapons and remain a member of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. Iran has never left the NPT. And the prize of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East is one that we should all strive for. So I always thought that the sanctions against Iran were actually counterproductive in isolating Iran, and probably encouraging those who want to move in a more militaristic direction.
Be that as it may, politics moves on. Britain and the USA did not go to war in Syria. Instead, we were forced to negotiate with the Russians, and we negotiated at least a couple of weapons conventions in Syria—and that had clearly involved Iran in some ways, because of the Iranian relationship with Syria. And that then brought about the interim nuclear deal, which I hope will become a permanent deal in six months’ time. I think it is a fantastic step forward. So the purpose of our visit was to recognize that step forward, to encourage the reopening of full diplomatic relations, not this rather odd position of non-resident chargé d’affaires, and to recognize that there are great many people in Iran, particularly among the political classes, who actually want more normal relations with Europe and North America. Jack Straw pointed out that there are more American PhDs around the cabinet table in Iran than in Washington.
Q: I want to ask about the image of Britain inside Iran. On the one hand, the Iranian government thinks Britain is meddling in Iran. The, on the other hand, there are ordinary people who think Britain was behind the 1979 revolution, that it brought the current regime to power, and that Britain is still manipulating the current government. There is an old saying that ‘’if you remove the turban of a mullah, ‘made in England’ is written on his forehead.’’ Did you pick up on this paradox during your time in Iran?
I picked up these impressions from various people we met in the parliament. I mean, whether Britain was involved in 1979 or not—I think that is highly questionable. The thing [that] may be in doubt is that Britain and the Soviets’ occupation during the Second World War didn’t completely end in 1946. The Kurdish question was certainly not resolved in 1946, and it is still not resolved. The coup in 1952, brought in the Shah, a very powerful, pro-Western, secular government that was in many ways and quite abusive of human rights—and that then led to reaction.
But did Britain organize the 1979 revolution? I doubt it. But I think Britain’s involvement in 1952 started a political chain of events that brings us from one extreme to another. So, in that sense, Britain was involved.
Q: Did you get the chance to talk with ordinary people who are resentful of what they see as British meddling in Iran’s affairs? By which I mean people who think Britain was behind the revolution.
Only through the members of parliament. This was a short and limited visit, and I accept all its limitations. We were not walking around chatting to ordinary people. We were picking up people from, if you like, the loose term would be the “political classes” in its widest sense. Do a lot of people in Iran think Britain is deeply involved? Yes. I have very large Iranian diaspora community in my constituency, and they are of all generations and all political views. Many of them think that Britain is deeply involved in organizing Iranian politics.
When you see the size of the British embassy and that massive garden surrounding it, well this is an incredibly large embassy for what is actually quite a small country on the global scale of things and this is where Iranian government was, in effect, run from for a very long time. So, there is this feeling that Britain cannot stop itself from interfering. And so some of the people we met were extremely hostile, and the press conference we held at the end of the visit was a more a kind of a bear-baiting event than anything else. There were two hundred people at the press conference and most of the questions were extremely hostile.
Q: What do you think about the opposition groups within Iran that support things like democracy, free elections, and a referendum to decide the system of government? Should the West support any of these groups?
It’s not up to the West to decide anything that happens in Iran. It has got to come from the grassroots in Iran. I think the degree of public participation in elections would select the candidates, the vibrancy of the university sector and the determination of the people in Iran to change their society; it is up to them to do that. Basically, democracy and human rights comes from within the society, not from without. You don’t get that much democracy at the end of a NATO bomb.
Q: But if there were some groups that have some followers in Iran, such as the monarchists and republicans, would it be a good idea for a country like Britain to support them?
No. I don’t think that it’s a good idea to give political or financial support to any internal opposition groups. I think it is important to try to open up a dialogue which gives them space to organize and develop within their own societies. Surely, this [is obvious in light of the] history of past British and European meddling in Iran, which has brought about massive shifts of political status and opinion in Iranian history over the past century.
Q: What would you say to the Iranians who still believe that Britain is behind all political problems in Iran and are unhappy with the current government?
I am an internationalist, very opposed to British imperialism and everybody else’s imperialism. I fully understand why people are very angry with the British involvement and meddling in the whole region. I fully understand all that. I want to see normal relations, I want to see the development of a free and democratic society in Iran, and I applaud those people that are standing up for the trade union and workers’ rights and human rights in Iran. And I think that opening a dialogue gives more space to that kind of debate.
Q: Many international organizations, including Amnesty International, have raised concerns about Iran’s human rights record. Did you raise this with your hosts while you were in Iran?
Yes. I am officer of the All-Party Human Rights Group here [in the UK]; I attend the Human Rights Council in Geneva on the part of the Society Organization, and now on behalf of the British government. I have been extremely aware of the treatment of dissidents in Iran under the Shah and in the Islamic Republic since 1979—the executions, the disappearances, the abuse of [trade] unionists and many other people. I have frequently raised those issues in parliament here and elsewhere.
Did we raise this? Yes, at each meeting I raised the human rights issue in the context of the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review on Iran which is very, very critical of Iran. The response we received was that Iran wished to cooperate with the Human Rights Council and would respond to the UPR in due time. That I am sure it will, and that they would also prepare to reopen a human rights dialogue with the European Union.
The number of executions that has been reported [during President Hassan Rouhani’s time in office] is enormous, probably higher that the rate it was going on before. We did raise the question of the death penalty. I have a personal thing that I would not support the death penalty in any circumstances for anybody, ever. That is my position, but I realise that it is not a universal position outside of much of Europe. We did raise the question and we were told, roughly speaking, that it was the responsibility of the judiciary and that public opinion was in favour of executions for wrongdoing, [though] not without being very specific about what this wrongdoing actually was.
The death penalty is illegal within the European Union, and I recall the debate about the death penalty in Britain during my lifetime. I remember execution was abolished in 1965, when I was a child, and now there is no significant public demand to bring it back. I would hope that an Iranian government will prepare to put a moratorium on executions even when the law allows it and move on from there. I just think personally that executions are wrong.
Q: Do you have an insight into attempts to re-establish ties between Iran and Britain?
I think both sides are anxious. There is an issue of the physical condition of the embassy. We inspected the whole of it. It has been damaged and trashed. One of the buildings had a fire on the ground floor that had been put out very quickly, but the smoke damaged it. I don’t think there is structural damage there. It could be reopened quite quickly.
Q: Do you know anything about the status of talks about reopening the embassy in Tehran?
They are in negotiations about reopening it. It is more important to get the visa regime reopened. That is more significant in terms of trade and travel to Iran. I have a certain significant Iranian diaspora [in my constituency], and all of them would travel back and forth to Iran.
Q: You are interested in trade union issues. What do you think about the labor movement in Iran, especially given the fact that many of the Iranian workers have not received their wages for many months?
I am obviously in touch with the trade unions in Britain, and we are getting support for the bus workers’ union and other unions in Iran. We did not have one-to-one or any special meetings with trade unions in Iran, which I regret. I want to have a second delegation that can both build the relationship with anti-war and peace movements in Iran, but also the relationship with the trade union movement because, yes, you are quite correct.
There are numbers of groups of workers who have not been paid; there are numbers who have been taking industrial action who have been very brutally repressed as a result of that. I would want to see that dialogue and Iran adhering to the principals of the International Labor Organization on rights to organize, rights to trade union membership and rights to representation. The thing here is that Britain has supported the bus workers in a number of other industrial disputes that have taken place, and we will continue to do that. There have been some discussions about press freedom in Iran as well. Indeed, I chaired a the meeting in parliament together with Ben Wallace, who is a Conservative MP, with the National Union of Journalists and others to discuss the issue of press freedom and security of journalists in Iran. So, there is a whole series of issues we are taking up here.
Our visit was the first parliamentary visit for a very long time to Iran. I think it was a right thing to do because it opens the dialogue. It’s not an uncritical dialogue. In fact, it’s a harshly critical dialogue in many ways. Its building of a better economic and political relationship has got to help the opening up of a civil society and the development of human rights and civil rights in Iran.
Q: When do you think UK–Iran relations will be restored? What will be the next step towards this?
Well, it is already happening. We got the non-resident chargé d’affaires; we have the possibility of reopening of activities very quickly, which would help travel and obviously would also help trade. The banking system would be affected, so that there is a bank in which people can send money to or receive money from Iran. That’s a big problem for the diaspora community. There are 300,000 people in Britain who have Iranian background or nationality. Not all have nationality, but some have Iranian family connections. They deserve the right to have a normal relationship with their family. So, I feel very strongly for that.
Q: Is there a date set for that?
I couldn’t give an exact time for it but it is moving pretty fast, and I would hope that we’re going to get . . . movement by the summer on that matter. The six-month [deadline] for the negotiations concludes in, I think, early July. We have invited a parliamentary delegation to visit the UK from Iran. They have accepted the invitation.
Q: Some European countries have sent trade delegations to Iran. Britain has not done that yet, and at the same time the US is putting pressure on European countries not to sign any major trade deals with Iran. What is your position on this issue, and what should Britain’s position be?
That’s a very interesting point, because the US takes upon itself [responsibility for regulating] international trade: look at the laws for Cuban trade, for example, and the sanctions policy on Iran. I can see there is a huge tension developing between the European Union and the USA about their relations with Iran . . . There is going to be a parting of the ways on the nuclear strategy, because Europe really wants to trade with Iran. Our plane [to and from Iran, which went through Frankfurt] was absolutely filled with German businessmen going there to make deals to reopen trade with Iran.
Q: What about Britain sending a trade delegation to Iran?
Well, that is the problem. Britain is not as involved as it ought to be. Britain was once quite an important trading partner with Iran. I think it will be a growth of British trade with Iran, and there are certainly a lot of products that we can import from Iran, and also things that can be exported to Iran, particularly machinery related to the oil industry.
Q: Some Iranian officials are saying privately that Iran has been pushed towards the Russians and the Chinese by the Western pressure. What do you think can be done to reverse this process?
I think those officials are correct; a figure I was given showed there has been a fifteen-fold increase in trade with China during the period of sanctions. It might be an exaggeration, but the figure shows that there has been a very big increase in trade. There has been a huge reduction in trade with Europe, and the USA does almost no trade at all [with Iran]. It is actually counterproductive. What it has done is increase the Chinese and Russian influence in the region and reduced any sort of normal relationship with the rest of the world. I would want Iran to be respected for its history and its presence and have normal trading relationships, and with that comes the dialogue on civil rights and human rights, environmental protection and all the other issues that we all have to face.
And I would want to see a deal and an agreement which will put to bed once and for all the whole concept that Iran could develop enough enriched uranium to be used in a weapon. The 5 percent limit means that there is no weapons-grade fissile material there, and that in turn moves on to the concept of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East, which must of course involve Israel as well.
If we don’t do that, then . . . I was at the Non-Proliferation Treaty [Preparatory Committee] past year. The Arab League, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and a number of others were all threatening to walk out if there isn’t a conference on the Middle East. But they say, ‘How is it that Israel is developing nuclear weapons, and everybody else in this region is banned from doing so?’ There is a danger of nuclear proliferation, and last year this was addressed.
Q: Do you think democracy is possible in Iran in the present climate?
Well, can a religious state be a democratic state? There are religious states and secular states in the world. There are secular states that are quite religious and there are religious states that are quite secular. Iran is a religious state that is very secular, and Britain and the USA state are secular states where [the] leadership is quite religious. In Iran you have an Islamic Republic which does also in law guarantee the rights of other religious faiths there.
Q: But in practice?
Well, I said “in law.” I hope that those laws are observed and I hope that there would be recognition of the diversity of Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and any particular faith that people wish to follow. Yes, I accept that it is an Islamic Republic, Islam is the dominant faith in the same way that other countries follow different faiths, and personally I think government ought to be secular, but that’s my theoretical position and it is not up to me to decide [what Iran’s] constitution should be. That was the problem with Britain in the past.
Q: Do you believe opening up relations with Iran would promote democracy inside the country?
I think opening relationships opens many different paths: direct links between universities, direct trading links, direct links between journalists, going back and forth with greater ease. All of those things help the development of a more open and free society. And a large number of people in Iran would want that.
Q: As a politician, do you trust the Iranian government?
Do I trust any government? Good question. They answered our questions. They did meet us. They do want better relations with the West, and I think those relations have got to be a good thing. Certainly, the speeches made by the new president when he went to the UN were markedly different from what was happening before, the nuclear talks that have gone on and are going apparently quite well, and [there will be] a final agreement that we will reach within the six-month timetable. That would [have been] inconceivable two years ago. Had Britain and the USA involved themselves in the Syrian war, I don’t think any of this would have happened.