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Rebuilding relations with Iran

JEREMY CORBYN explains why it’s high time that Iran’s political isolation be brought to an end

The enormous British embassy compound in the centre of Tehran with its beautiful garden, visa offices, chancery and residence is a building with an impressive history.  

It was here in 1943 that Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met around the dining table in the residence to agree on the opening of a second front against the nazis.  

There is a brass plaque in the hall which sets out the seating arrangements and a commemorative plaque explaining how the unity of nations helped to defeat the scourge of fascism.  

Yet this historic building remains closed for diplomatic business as relations between Iran and Britain — and much of the Western world — remain frosty. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

I visited the embassy last week as part of the first British parliamentary delegation to Iran since 2008.  

We used the opportunity to discuss Syria, nuclear issues and rebuilding relations between Britain and Iran.

The war in Syria, which borders Iran, has become a ghastly maelstrom of conflict between Saudi Arabian-backed forces, the Free Syrian Army, backed by the US and politically by much of western Europe, and the government forces of President Assad, who are supplied with arms and political support from Russia.

This vicious three-way war cannot be resolved by anything other than a political process. So to offer Iran anything less than full participation in next week’s Geneva 2 conference on Syria would be counterproductive and insulting to Iran.

Despite requests from British MPs on both sides of the house for an assurance that Iran would be involved as a full participant as one of the neighbouring states and one that has been politically aligned with Assad, there is no confirmation that this will happen.

We hope that even at this late stage the British and US governments will recognise how crucial it is for Iran to be involved in order to bring about a ceasefire and ultimately a political solution.  

Two million refugees and 100,000 dead and horrific shortages of medicines and food for the entire population are a humanitarian disaster.

Unless there is an effective peace process and ceasefire, the war can only spread into neighbouring countries. There is no value in excluding Iran from this process.

The second area we discussed, where political engagment could lead to a real improvement in relations, is Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme, which, as we know, has caused much controversy in the West.

The interim agreement reached with Iran on nuclear processing has now come into force.

This means there is a six-month window of opportunity to negotiate a full settlement with Iran which would also lead to the restoration of full diplomatic relations and the lifting of sanctions.  

Indeed, some sanctions had already been lifted with immediate effect.  

For all the rhetoric against Iran and its nuclear processing facilities, we should recall that the country is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and accepts International Atomic Energy Agency inspections within the terms of the treaty.

Iranian government representatives have said many times that, so far as the supreme leader is concerned, nuclear weapons should not exist and are contrary to Islamic belief.   

However, to bring about the prize of a region free of weapons of mass destruction, as has been called for at successive NPT review conferences, there has to be much wider engagement.  

Israel possesses at least 200 nuclear warheads — a point that was apparently not mentioned in the eulogies to Ariel Sharon on Monday.
Israel is the only country in the region with nuclear weapons, and the only one that is not a signatory to the NPT.

There therefore has to be a nuclear political process outside the treaty in order to ensure Israel decommissions its nuclear weapons.  

The Finnish government undertook the task of organising such a conference, but this did not take place, as required, by the end of 2013.

Unless the conference is held soon there is a huge danger of other countries in the region withdrawing from the NPT.

And the final area we discussed with Iranian officials is the sanctions policy, which has more or less dried up most trade between Iran and Britain and much of the rest of Europe.

There are shortages of a number of key medicines and anyone transferring money in or out of Iran faces huge difficulties.   

Among the British government’s stated reasons for the continuation of sanctions are the breakdown of relations and a 2011 incident when a crowd of protesters stormed British embassy.  

While there was damage to embassy’s offices and furniture and some slogans such as “Down with England” were daubed on the walls, the damage is repairable.

There is no case for the embassy to remain closed and to have no visa service. Opening the embassy would obviously help to improve relations, and would particularly benefit the Iranian diaspora in Britain who cannot access visa services when they need them for family visits.  

They are obliged to make expensive visits to Dublin or Brussels just to make an application and then wait for an interview.

Anyone who has followed Iranian politics since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and indeed before that, will be well aware of the concern over human rights in Iran, as well as the trade union movement’s difficulties in securing decent wages and conditions for its members.  

Iran is a member of the UN human rights council and, like all who are a party to the UN human rights process, is subject to universal periodic review. The last review made many criticisms of its record.  

These are due to be responded to by the middle of this year and will then be discussed when the next full review of Iran’s human rights record takes place in Geneva.

When we raised this subject, both with Iranian all-party parliamentary groups and government ministers, they were concerned about double standards on human rights and pointed out, quite correctly, the US torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and atrocities in Iraq were also human rights violations which must be condemned.  

The relationship between Britain and Iran, as we were frequently reminded, has often been abusive in that British colonial interests were based on oil exploitation.

Indeed BP was formed from the nationalisation of the Anglo-Iranian oil company by Winston Churchill in order to provide a steady supply of fuel for the navy before WWI.  

Britain’s colonial domination of Iranian politics lasted a long time, and it should not be forgotten that Mohammad Mosaddeq’s government was removed by a British and US-inspired coup in 1953, in order to prevent Iran from nationalising its oil industry and developing closer relations with its neighbour to the north, the Soviet Union.   

The success of the coup brought the Shah to power and his regime’s appalling human rights record was accompanied by an open-door policy to international oil companies.

Iran saw war launched in 2001 in Afghanistan on one border and the invasion of Iraq two years later on its other border.  

It also lost hundreds of thousands of lives in the disastrous Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s when the West supported Saddam Hussein whose forces used chemical weapons to devastating effect on Iranian conscripted soldiers.
 
There are still 70,000 people in Iran suffering the effects of mustard gas from those conflicts.   

Continued isolation, sanctions and military threats against Iran have been counter-productive and very dangerous.  

The opportunity now for agreement on nuclear processing, peace in Syria, the lifting of sanctions and a region free of WMD is not one to be passed up.

Jeremy Corbyn is Labour MP for Islington North.

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