By Emily Thornberry, Labour Member of Parliament and Shadow Foreign Secretry, published in Facebook, with thanks to Owen Jones who introduces her post: “Support human rights in Iran, learn from the calamitous history of Western intervention in the Middle East. Excellent post from Emily Thornberry.”
A number of you have been in touch with me on Facebook and elsewhere in the past week asking about the situation in Iran, so I thought I’d write you a brief note giving my take on events, and explaining how the Labour Party is responding.
The 2015 deal reached with the Iranian government to stop its nuclear programme in return for the lifting of sanctions was a vital step in itself, but it was also intended to be the bridge to something better and broader. It was meant to show that if trust could be established and maintained on one crucial issue, and if economic and diplomatic ties could be strengthened between Iran and the West, then we could start to open a dialogue on other issues, from Iran’s regional influence to its approach to human rights, including full freedom for Iranian women.
That is ultimately where I believe we need to get back to, but there is no mistaking the fact that recent months have been full of setbacks on those fronts, from Donald Trump’s attempts to undermine the nuclear deal and the escalation of Iran’s proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, to the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari Ratcliffe and – in recent days – the response of the Iranian authorities to the protests across the country.
I’m sure you – like me – have been appalled by the reported violence, with several protesters believed dead and many hundreds of others awaiting an uncertain fate after being arrested. As with all situations like this, there is a particular responsibility on the Iranian authorities to show restraint in their policing, to allow peaceful, democratic protests to proceed, and to enable a proper dialogue so that all political and economic grievances can be raised and resolved.
In addition, there is a responsibility on the authorities to ensure that – where peaceful protesters have been arrested – they are treated fairly, and released promptly. Peaceful protest should never be treated as a crime, and to do so will only worsen the sense of grievance among those who have taken to the streets in recent days.
Of course, those of you who have joined me and the Labour party in recent years in campaigning for the freedom of Nazanin, or against the barbaric punishment of the Iranian LGBT community, women having sex outside marriage, and other persecuted groups know just how draconian and arbitrary the Iranian judicial system can be, but we must urge them to turn a new corner, starting with those protesters currently in detention.
As for the protests themselves, I have read large volumes of analysis and commentary in recent days – some extremely well-informed and some (like Donald Trump’s Tweets) quite the opposite. What is clear to me is that there are an extremely complex set of factors at work, and any attempt to impose a one size fits all understanding of the origins, organisation and objectives of these protests is frankly futile.
For example, it seems fairly clear that the original protests in Iran’s second city, Mashhad, were orchestrated by hardline supporters of Iran’s theocratic establishment seeking to undermine their opponent, the so-called ‘reformist’ President Rouhani, and exploiting public anger at rising food prices to do so. There is also little doubt that Rouhani’s own supporters responded in kind at protests in other cities by orchestrating chants aimed at the hardliners.
However, beyond those orchestrated elements of regime infighting, there were clearly large, spontaneous public outpourings within the protests that we can all understand and support: trade unionists campaigning for workers’ rights; women fighting against arcane laws governing their clothing and sex lives; working-class communities protesting about unemployment and the cost of living; and young people appealing for greater political freedom.
But in different cities at different times, there have also been voices calling for the restoration of Iran’s pre-1979 monarchy, hardly remembered as a glorious age for human rights and political freedom; and less reported in the West, there have been several generic ‘pro-government protests’, well-orchestrated and well-attended demonstrations designed to show that it is not only the various different anti-regime demonstrators who can fill the streets.
So, in short, it is no simple thing to understand what is happening in Iran, let alone sum it up in a few Tweets. And my personal view is that, in these kind of complex situations, we need to show a bit of caution, and avoid rushing to conclusions about what we are seeing and where it will lead.
Because, as so often in the Middle East and North Africa, we have been here before. During the Arab Spring, following the successful street revolution in Tunisia, there was a rush to label every uprising in every country with the same badge: they were all optimistically interpreted as popular protests by ordinary people seeking to overthrow oppressive regimes and usher in a new era of liberal, secular democracies.
And there is no doubt – just as in Iran in recent days – that a large element of protest in each of those Arab Spring countries represented exactly that vision. However, that was never the full picture, and as the dust settled, it became clear that what had emerged from many of those protests was not remotely what the West – or indeed many of the protesters – had anticipated.
A new revolutionary government in Egypt seeking to impose an Islamic constitution, itself over-thrown in a brutal military coup two years later. A chaos of competing armed factions in Libya fighting over the spoils after the West helped overthrow President Gadaffi. And in Syria, a descent into the world’s worst civil war, as predictions of the strength of Western-backed, anti-Assad rebels proved as mythical as many of us always thought.
And across the entire region, lest we forget, what accompanied this entire period of instability was the creation of ungoverned spaces, which allowed Daesh to branch out from its base in Iraq and spread terror and training camps across the Middle East and North Africa.
It is of course impossible to know what the outcome would be if the recent protests in Iran were to resume, escalate, and become a genuine challenge to the authority of the Iranian regime. Would we end up with a relative success story like Tunisia? Or the regime increasing its repression to survive, as happened in Bahrain? Or a lurch from one revolution to another, but no actual improvement in democratic or human rights, as happened in Egypt? Or would it simply descend into chaos and civil war and fresh ungoverned space for Jihadist terrorists, as we have so tragically seen in Libya and Syria?
The point is we simply do not know, and if recent history has taught us one thing – not least in Iraq – it’s the sheer folly of failing to think through and plan for the aftermath in situations like this.
So it would be easy to say: let’s throw our weight behind the Iranian protests, even if we don’t fully understand what they are; let’s pursue the overthrow of the Iranian regime, even if we don’t know what would replace it; and as for the future, let’s just assume it will all work out for the best. Yes, that would all be very easy and probably quite popular, but it would also be totally reckless and irresponsible.
When it comes to foreign policy, I will always be on the side of peace, political dialogue, democracy, freedom, female empowerment and human rights. That is what I want to see in Iran and everywhere else, and they are clearly needed now in Iran more than ever, to restore the promise and progress offered by the 2015 nuclear deal.
However, I am not prepared to indulge in the wishful thinking and heroic assumptions that say pursuing regime change in Iran will automatically deliver those outcomes. We were promised the same thing about Iraq and Egypt and Libya and Syria, but instead of learning the lessons from what actually happened in those situations, some people want to just keep repeating the same mistakes.
That, for me, is not the sensible, cautious, thoughtful foreign policy our country needs, and – when we see the immense suffering that has been caused elsewhere as a result of ill-planned Western interventions – nor do I believe it can be described as particularly principled.
As ever, please let me have your thoughts.
Best wishes and Happy New Year,