Opinion: Foreign policy lessons for the Lib Dem approach to Iran

The Green movement in Iran after the presidential elections in 2009 was the first of the recent popular backlashes against entrenched corruption in authoritarian regimes. That was followed by the Arab spring, continuing upheaval in Egypt and now a similar movement in Russia and elsewhere.

At the time of the electoral protests in Tehran, Iranian staff at the British embassy were being accused by the Iranian authorities of treason and fomenting unrest. There was only muted support for the reform movement in Iran from the international community.

Last month we saw the British Embassy in Tehran ransacked and vandalised and the ambassador withdrawn. The same authorities in Iran that were able to disperse tens of thousands of democracy activists in 2009 were seemingly unable to protect the Embassy and its staff from harassment.

The lack of vocal support for human and democratic rights in Iran was carried over into initially tepid and ambiguous support for the rights of protestors across the Middle East, until the violence and repression reached levels that could not be ignored.

On Iran, attention is focused almost exclusively on the potential nuclear threat (WMDs) and escalating sanctions (largely ignored by Russia and China) – the precursors to the invasion of Iraq.

If there are to be any lessons from Iraq – it is that we need to provide an outlet and genuine visible support for voices in Iran that seek a progressive and democratic counterweight to the overbearing dominance of the theocracy that seized power following the overthrow of the Shah.

These foreign policy issues are often serious and complex, particularly in the Middle East.  The UK needs to maintain a principled and consistent advocacy for protection of human and civil rights, that is not abandoned in favour of the apparent stability of ‘better the devil you know than the one you don’t’ or traded off for concessions on inspection of nuclear facilities. In this way we will be better prepared to respond to potential unrest in Iran following the inevitable collapse of the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

Gaddafi was donned with a veneer of respectability and allowed to maintain his parasitical domination of the Libyan people, without external criticism, in return for giving up Libya’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Are we to repeat the same mistake with the equally brutal and repressive rulers of Iran?

As Liberal Democrats we should be able to reach out and engage with reformists in Iran that seek only the freedoms and human rights that we take for granted in the West. Our support for universal human rights should be unequivocal and untainted by the belligerency of despotic regimes.  It is these reformists in Iran that may hold the key to muffling the drumbeat to war and advancing the future prospect of a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East.

* Joe Bourke is an accountant and university lecturer, Chair of ALTER, and Chair of Hounslow Liberal Democrats.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Colonialist nonsense. ‘We’ should mind our own blasted business, especially in Iran where we have a long record of obnoxious meddling.

    Britain is a country with a very poor version of democracy (did you get a vote for Queen, or for your local Lord? I didn’t) where basic human rights are under constant attack from a government which apparently objects to the most basic international standards for a free society. ‘We’ aren’t in a position to lecture anyone.

  • Chris,

    admitedly, the record of the British Empire in Iran, when that country was a pawn in the ‘Great Game’ is not one to be proud of. Equally the machinations of the Anglo-Persian Oil company, prior to nationalisation of the oil industry, leave a lot to be desired.

    We are not, however, prisoners of history. Progress is possible. Reform of the House of Lords to bring about an elected second chamber in this country is on the legislative agenda in the UK. In Iran there is a new generation of young, educated and aspiring Iranians, intolerant of backwardness and struggling to rid themselves of restrictions on the most basic of freedoms in everyday life. They are deserving of our support and encouragement.

    “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Winston Churchill, 1947.

  • Ed Shepherd 22nd Dec '11 - 6:44pm

    Nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East? I await your plans as to how you are going to take Israel’s nuclear weapons away…I am not surprised that the Iranians seek nuclear weapons. There are three nuclear-armed countries (Israel, India and Pakistan) in close proximity to Iran. Britain and the USA both have nuclear weapons and have a long track record of launching wars against countries in the Middle East. The USA has dropped nuclear weapons on foreign cities on two occasions. It is no surprise that the Iranian government seeks nuclear weapons. The Iranian government seems undoubttedly to have a poor track record on democracy and human rights but the West supported the undemocratic regime of the Shah and gave him sanctuary.

  • Ed,

    the three states you mention; Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty and therein lies a big part of the problem. How to get these 3 states to join the 189 countries that are party to the treaty as well as bringing North Korea back into the fold. That is a discussion for another day.

    I would submit that Iran joining the nuclear club would do immeasurable harm to any efforts to cajole these states into the NPT and only spark an arms race in the mideast.

    Nuclear-weapon-free zone (NWFZ) currently include: Latin America, the South Pacific , Southeast Asia, Africa and Central Asia. They can be achieved in the right circumstances.

    Iran itself has called for a NWFZ in the Middle East – a call that should be taken seriously by all the actors in this theatre.

    Noam Chomsky reminds us that the US and UK have a special responsibility to work to establish a Middle East NWFZ, Security Council Resolution 687 (1991), which called on Iraq to terminate its development of weapons of mass destruction, commits its signers to move to establish a NWFZ in the Middle East.

    Iranian democracy activists in the USA have recently called on the government of Iran to abandon its program of enrichment of weapons grade Uranium., most probably echoing the sentiments of many in the reform movement in Iran. We should be encouraging and supporting the voices of reason and progress.

  • Ed Shepherd 22nd Dec '11 - 8:01pm

    I don’t understand why the UK and USA don’t set an example of nuclear disarmament by giving up their vast numbers of nuclear weapons. The official line of the USA and UK is that nuclear deterrence is the most effective way for a country to defend itself so I can’t blame the Iranians for wanting to have nuclear weapons. What exactly would Iran do if a future belligerent government of Israel or Pakistan or India threatened them with nuclear weapons? That’s why the existence of other nuclear bombs in the Middle East is not a discussion for another day but the precise reason why some Iranians might want their country to have nuclear weapons just like the UK and USA have. How would the Iranians defend themselves if they were threatened by invasion by a belligerent future US government that wanted to steal the Iranian oil supplies? Be in no doubt, this debate about “Iranian nuclear weapons” is about oil supplies and not democratic reform. I don’t hear the USA or UK government demanding that Saudi Arabia or Bahrain implement democracy. It seems to me that the main lesson of the fate of Colonel Gadaffi and Saddam Hussain is that any dictator who gives up his WMD’s ends up getting brutally butchered. The dictatorships in North Korea and China still have their nuclear weapons. Their rulers know that nuclear weapon possession makes them perfectly safe from western intervention no matter how many human rights abuses they carry out. Maybe the Iranian rulers want the same protection against a gruesome death at the hands of a mob in the future.

  • Ed,

    In the article I commented that the current focus of attention was on Iran’s assumed program for development of nuclear weapons. It should not be the real issue of focus in my opinion. There is no concrete evidence that the Iranian regime is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. The recent IAEA inspection report only confirmed what we already knew – that Iran has the technical capacity to develop nuclear weapons at some point in the future.

    The recent ELDR resolution makes this quite clear: http://policycenter.eldr.eu/UserFiles/Files/2011_Prospects_war_Iran.pdf

    Iran’s relations with the rest of the world will undoubtedly be influenced by its large oil reserves and its burgeoning trade with China and Russia. I just don’t see, howver, how the acquisition of a nuclear deterrent can add to the security of the country or the region. Such weapons cannot be used against your own population, even by the bloodiest of dictators. They are not of themselves a deterrent to conventional warfare – for the long recognised reason that the suicidal use of nuclear weapons against another nuclear armed state would bring about retalitory attacks. Were the current Iranian regime to develop a nuclear weapon, it would almost certainly bring about a military response from Israel backed by the U.S.

    We should be calling for democratic reforms in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain along with Iran, as freedom and economic progress is the only path that leads away from the confrontation and violence that will accompany the escalation of a nuclear threat in the Middle East.

  • jenny barnes 23rd Dec '11 - 9:19am

    The UK & US have a long history of ” bringing democracy to the Middle East” aka trying to control the oil. Mossadegh and the Shah????

  • Matthew Harris 23rd Dec '11 - 11:29am

    Geoff, to bracket Israel with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia is like bracketing Britain with Russia and North Korea. Israel is a Parliamentary democracy in which every citizen has the vote, there is a free press and equality before the law. People in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia would kill to have the rights that all people have in Israel. As an Arab citizen of Israel of either gender, I could be elected to Parliament, become a government minister or serve as a judge. When all of that becomes possible for all Arab citizens of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, I shall be the first to celebrate. Israel’s Christians and Muslims enjoy complete freedom of worship, whereas it is simply illegal to be Jewish or Christian in Saudi Arabia. Even in the West Bank, Palestinians enjoy vastly better human rights than do the citizens of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and they have recourse to Israeli courts that protect human rights in a way that Saudi and Bahraini people can only dream of. Although of course Palestinians in Gaza are being brutally suppressed by the Hamas regime that seized power there in 2007.

  • The Libdem 2007 spring conference unanimously passed the following motion:

    Conference urges the Government to:
    1. To make clear in public that the UK will not support a US military attack on Iran.
    2. To pursue diplomatic dialogue with a view to ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons.
    3. To work with the United States, the European Union and others towards giving Iran adequate guarantees for its security, including serious negotiation to implement the UN Security Council resolutions that have called for a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
    4. To ensure Iran is invited to participate in collective international efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq, as the Iraq Study Group proposes.

    In early November 2011, Nick Clegg said there was a “real threat of a nuclear armed Iranian regime which has proven to be completely deaf and blind to what the rest of the international community wants”. He said: “Iran with nuclear weapons, flouting the international community, flouting countless United Nations resolutions, flouting a near universal consensus in the international community, would be a very, very bad thing for peace and security in our world. “So we must work tirelessly with our partners in Europe, the United States and elsewhere to continue to do what we have done for a long time now, which is to apply pressure on the one hand, and also reach out through engagement with the other. “That continues to be our strategy. We want a negotiated settlement, but clearly we take no options off the table.”

    Mr Clegg said that if the Iranian regime could prove it was only engaged in a civil nuclear programme then the UK would co-operate with it. In a statement, Downing Street restated its commitment to “a dual-track strategy of pressure and engagement” and said it was not advocating military action.

    Following the attack on our Embassy in Tehran. Clegg commented the UK’s relationship with Iran had “taken a very serious knock”. He said: “Something really bad happened when the Iranian authorities allowed those people to overrun our embassy compounds, and it is quite right that we have been very clear in our response – as have many other European countries who have withdrawn their ambassadors for consultations. “It doesn’t mean we’re cutting off all diplomatic relations with Iran. It doesn’t mean we are in any way lessening our determination to try to find a diplomatic solution to the nuclear question, which is immensely important to Europe and the whole world, and we will continue to work tirelessly to find a negotiated solution.”

    So, how far have we got since the spring of 2007:

    1. We have made clear in public that the UK takes no options off the table, including support for a US military attack.
    2. UK diplomatic relations with Iran reduced to the minimal possible level.
    3. No serious or even not so serious negotiations to implement the UN Security Council resolutions that have called for a zone free from weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.
    4. Iranian participation in collective international efforts to bring peace and stability to Iraq rejected as unjustified meddling in the affairs of its neighbours.

    We need a new approach, not blinkered by paranoia over the possibility of a nuclear weapons capability in Iran to the exclusion of all else, but focused on engagement with the horrendous human rights record of this dangerous regime.

    Daniel Brett is right in his comments above, when he says:

    Liberals can do a lot by supporting these freedom struggles in Iran – holding meetings in university campuses, getting MPs to sign EDMs, making these issues central to EP resolutions on Iran, assisting Iranian human rights groups in lobbying international bodies such as the UNHRC, writing letters. A narrative of freedom for trade unionists, ethnic and religious minorities and the poorest sections of the population will seriously shake the regime.

  • Geoff,

    That the Mahgreb is not likely to blossom into a utopian paradise of liberty, equality and fraternity has been clear for sometime, despite the fleeting promise of fundamental reform in North Africa.

    There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an Islamic based republic as practised in Turkey, our Nato ally and prospective EU member, or even with a practical interpretation of Sharia law adapted for the modern age, that we cannot accommodate in a multi-cultural world.

    I have long been a pragmatist with respect to the defence industry. I was living in California when the Berlin wall came down in 1989. There was much talk of a peace dividend at the time, allowing the US to reduce its cold war military expenditure and return to a balanced budget. As cutbacks in military expenditure were implemented there was much griping from Senators and Congressmen in states where military camps were scheduled for closure. The big reductions in the Federal budget hit the defence and aerospace industries in California pretty hard, for a year or so. Then in 1991, Saddam Hussein decided to invade Kuwait and the military-industrial complex went back into full production.

    George Bush senior explained to the American people that the US was obliged to defend its allies in the Middle East, much as Asquith explained to us that we had to go to war with Germany to defend violated Belgium in World War 1. When this explanation did not go down to well, the president spelt out what Saddam Hussein’s control of the Persian gulf would do to oil prices, the US economy and American jobs. This brief moment of candour only lasted for a day before the President was advised to change his message to defence of democracy as in World War 2.

    For me, if you have to go to war, I would rather it be for concrete reasons like defending your economic interests and jobs at home, rather than the more woolly defence of democracy in far flung regions of the world.

    When it comes to UK defence exports, it is hard to get around the logic that if you don’t meet legitimate demand for munitions overseas, then other less concerned arms manufacturers will step into to fill the orders. We have reasonably effective arms export controls in the UK to avoid inflaming tensions in conflict zones. Although not perfect, they do provide for a balanced approach to the global trade in arms that so many jobs in the UK are dependent on.

  • Jenny.

    great article you pulled from the Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/dec/19/arab-spring-seven-lessons-from-history.

    I like to think we learned our lessons in this country after Suez in 1956, but I coud be wrong about that.

  • Matthew,

    The problem with Israel seems to be that you have almost two entirely distinct Jewish cultures in one state. Tel Aviv is a modern, secularist metropolis populated by a progressive, forward-looking citizenry with an expressed strong desire for a negotiated peace settlement with the Palestinians. Move to Jerusalem or the Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and you meet with an entirely different worldview – based on orthodox fundamentalism and belief in a biblical inheritance to all the lands of ancient Judea. Add to this mix the trauma of the holocaust and the recurring wars since 1948 and you have the divided state that is modern day Israel.

    We hold Israel to a higher standard than other states created in the Middle East during the twentieth century, precisely because it is a modern parliamentary democracy, aligned with the West, that should recognise the primacy of human rights in the application of its laws and defence of its population.

    For Israel to be taken seriously as a peacemaker in the Middle East, it needs to embrace the role of a champion of human and civil rights beginning with the welfare of its own Palestinian population and taking the lead on negotiation of a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the region.

  • Geoff,

    British Law and official guidelines require us to block exports of military equipment that could be used for internal repression. That these measures have been ineffective in achieving their purpose, in the authoritarian regimes of the Middle East and North Africa, is beyond dispute – from the Mubarak and Gaddafi regimes in Egypt and Libya, to Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

    That we have taken steps to revoke some licenses for arms exports to Bahrain, in the wake of the unacceptable treatment of protestors there, is a step in the right direction. That Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other sovereign states have a right to defend their territory against aggression is also a view that few would dispute.

    The UK regime for exports of arms is in need of overhaul and review, in the light of the errors of judgement in the granting of licenses for export of military use equipment to regimes that do not have a record of respect for human rights. This overhaul and review should be based around a wider international agreement on the guidelines for exports of arms by the major suppliers.

    The permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, Italy and increasingly Israel undertake the great majority of International arm sales. Such sales to countries like India and Brazil are not generally seen as controversial. Conversely, while the UK does not supply any military equipment to Iran, the sale of other technology such as surveillance equipment, clearly used for internal repression, is not controlled.

    The aim of the review should be for the coalition government and its international partners to an agreement to set out – how it is intended to reconcile the conflict of interest between the sale of arms and equipment that may be used for internal repression by authoritarian regimes, with an unequivocal upholding of the UN convention on human rights.

    A tall order, some might say, but perhaps the only practical route to containment of the baser instincts of such regimes.

  • Hazel Dakers 4th Jan '12 - 5:37pm

    Joe Bourke says: “There is nothing intrinsically wrong with an Islamic based republic as practised in Turkey”. Well Joe I suggest you read The Guardian of 28th December 2011 and see what it has to say about the treatment of Kurds. I see a lot intrinsically wrong there.

  • Hazel,

    that is a disturbing report on events in Turkey. The Kurdish community there seems split between political action/civil disobedience and the armed uprising advocated by the PKK. Turkey still has some way to go in developing effective anti-terrorism measures. They are making the same mistakes the Heath government made in Northern Ireland in dealing with civil rights activists under coercive emergency anti-terror laws and radicalising a new generation in the process. For all Turkey’s faults and human rights failings, it is still a safer place for most Kurds than neighbouring Iran.

    United Nations Member States yesterday (04/01/2012) expressed deep concern at reports of human rights violations in Iran, including torture, the use of cruel punishments such as flogging and amputations and “pervasive gender inequality and violence against women,” and called on Tehran to strengthen its national human rights institutions.

    In a resolution adopted in the General Assembly, Member States voiced deep concern at Iran’s “serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations,” including a dramatic increase in the use of the death penalty, particularly for crimes “lacking a precise and explicit definition,” and the “ongoing, systemic, and serious restrictions” of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression.

    The resolution received 89 votes in favour and 30 votes against. Sixty-four countries abstained.

    The death penalty drew particular concern, with the General Assembly noting “the absence of internationally recognized safeguards,” the continued practice of public executions, the carrying out of secret group executions and the imposition of capital punishment against minors.

    Member States also voiced deep concern at the practice of suspension strangulation as a method of execution, and the fact that prisoners continue to face sentences of execution by stoning, even though there has been a national directive against it.

    In the resolution, Member States also called on the Government to immediately and unconditionally release any prisoners who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained “for simply exercising their right to peaceful assembly and participating in peaceful protests.”

    They also strongly encouraged Iran to discontinue the “systemic targeting” of human rights defenders and review the country’s “pervasive gender inequality.”

    The text also noted Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s recent report highlighting the deteriorating rights situation in the country as well as the concern expressed by Ahmed Shaheed, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, over the alleged targeting of minority groups by the Government.

    Arabs, Azeris, Baluchis and Kurds and their defenders have all faced rights violations that at times amount to persecution, according to the resolution, with religious minorities such as Christians, Jews, Sufis, Sunni Muslims, Zoroastrians and Bahá’ís.

    The resolution expressed particular concern at Tehran’s failure to launch an investigation into the suspected electoral violations after the 2009 presidential vote and strongly urged the Government “to ensure free, fair, transparent and inclusive parliamentary elections in 2012 that reflect the will of the people.”

    Member States further called on Iran to consider ratifying or acceding to the international human rights treaties to which it is not already party while effectively implementing those human rights treaties which it has already ratified.

    It will be interesting to see if, in March this year, we see “free, fair, transparent and inclusive parliamentary elections that reflect the will of the people.”

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