Jeremy Corbyn, a Labour Party MP, represents London’s Islington North constituency. In recent years he has warned, in dramatic language, of the threat of war with Iran. This January, he made his first trip to Iran at the invitation of the majles [parliament], joining three other members of Britain’s All-Parliamentary Group on Iran: Labour MP Jack Straw, Conservative MP Ben Wallace, and Conservative peer Norman Lamont. From January 6th to 10th, the delegation met a range of Iranian officials to discuss relations between Britain and Iran, Iran’s nuclear program, human rights and the war in Syria.
Corbyn spoke to IranWire about his visit.
There is a wonderfully open-ended question that Iranians are heard to ask visitors: “What is your idea about Iran?”
It’s the center of the most amazing history of the Persian civilization and the Persian Empire – and it’s been the center of endless western meddling. Britain’s involvement in Iran is not new. The key period was the 19th century, when Britain was involved in the Great Game – the game for controlling Afghanistan and protecting Britain’s interests (so-called) in India. And of course [there was the] conversion of the British navy from coal-fired steamships to oil-fired steamships and then the need for a source of oil, and therefore the establishment of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which was designed to exploit Iranian oil.
And so, Britain’s involvement goes back a long way, including occupation of Iran during the Second World War jointly with the Soviet Union, and the promotion jointly with the USA of the coup [against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh] in 1953, which brought the Shah to power, and then the excesses of the Shah, and then in turn the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
I have a quite a big Iranian diaspora community in my constituency, who are of very varied points of view, from monarchist elements to Islamic elements to socialist elements. I have also met a lot of trade union people in exile, so I have an involvement with Iran through that.
Can you give an outline of your itinerary?
We were guests of the majles. Essentially it was a series of discussions with differing ranges of opinion within the parliament: those that were very hostile to the idea of improving relations with Britain and those that were in favor of it. We had meetings with the defense ministry, a long meeting with the foreign minister, and we also met the representative head of the supreme leader’s office, as well as the president’s office, to discuss how relations would go on.
We visited the British Embassy, and met the non-resident chargé d’affaires Ajay Sharma, who was there for a short period during our visit.
We also had a discussion with a university-based training organization for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, which was an off-the-record roundtable about relations between Britain and Iran. We met the ministries of commerce and the chamber of commerce. We held a very large press conference.
We visited the peace museum, and we met people who were victims of the chemical war between Iran and Iraq in the 1980s. Seventy thousand people are still suffering from mustard gas poisoning. We met victims of attacks in Iran, including the families of nuclear scientists who were killed in ride-by motorcycle shootings.
One Iranian MP, Shahin Mohammad Sadeghi, was paraphrased in the Guardian, stating that Iran had set pre-conditions for your visit, partly in response to the visit European MEPs paid to Jafar Panahi and Nasrin Sotoudeh last December. Did your group express any interest in meeting opposition figures?
We expressed a wish to meet the widest range of opinion we could. Our visit was as guests of the parliament, and there was a lot of criticism of the MEP visit by a wide range of people. I was not totally aware of what had happened on that visit until I got there.
Should we have met a wider range of people? Yes. I was disappointed we didn’t get a chance to meet trade unions, either the journalists’ union or the bus workers’ union of Tehran. I hope there will be further delegations to Iran, which will build up those relations with a much wider range of civil society.
Did you encounter opposition to the visit, either within Iran, or within the diaspora?
In Iran, yes. There were members of the majles who were extremely hostile to our presence there and said so. Indeed, one member got up at a meal we were having and just lectured us about British imperialism. Actually, I agreed with him. I thought it was a very good lecture, a very good analysis. I think irony was completely lost on the occasion, as it often is.
Within the diaspora no, except for the People’s Mujahedeen, who didn’t contact me directly. But amongst the Iranians I come across in London, not at all – quite the opposite. They were keen [that I was going] and also keen that [the delegation represented] a diversity of opinion, in the sense that those of us who are completely opposed to Britain holding nuclear weapons as well as others [holding them] have more credibility in the debate.
What is your perspective on prospects for a nuclear deal?
I hope there will be a final agreement with Iran on nuclear processing by June, in which case Iran will be within the [Non-Proliferation Treaty], processing nuclear fuel only to five per cent. Therefore, it cannot be used for weaponry. I hope this will be followed up by a Middle East nuclear weapons-free conference, which would include Israel. That would have to be done outside the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NFT), because Israel is not a signatory to the NPT, whereas Iran is.
Do you think that a nuclear deal with Iran will re-open the nuclear question inside Israel?
It must, it must. In fact, it already has in a way. The last two NPT review conferences both agreed that there should be a [conference held on] a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East. Finland was supposed to have organized it before the end of 2012, and didn’t do so. Last year we had the [NPT Preparatory Committee] meeting in Geneva. Egypt walked out but didn’t leave the NPT. The Arab League was very critical, [as were] a number of others.
To put it bluntly, the issue is this: Israel has nuclear weapons, probably 200 nuclear warheads. Iran has nuclear facilities and, it is claimed, wants to develop nuclear weapons. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other countries have either the finance or the capacity to develop nuclear weapons or to buy them from Pakistan.
If there isn’t a process that involves Iran and Israel on the back of this agreement, then there is going to be nuclear proliferation in the whole region and that is incredibly dangerous.
Will Israel and Iran sit at the same table?
Well, they talk to each other anyway. Israel talks to everybody all time. They don’t admit it, but they do. Israel is isolating itself in many ways by its behavior towards the West Bank, particularly with its settlements policy, [but] there is a smallish but nevertheless significant anti-nuclear peace movement in Israel.
Is it going to happen tomorrow? No. But Israel had not refused to attend the conference that Finland should have organized, and so the NPT PrepCom next April and May in Geneva will go back to this issue again. Since there is now a completely changed landscape in relation to Iran, this is the next stage forward.
Should human rights questions be tied into a nuclear deal?
Human rights should be part of a changed relationship with Iran. Should you make a nuclear deal conditional on human rights? That would be quite difficult to do, and would probably drive Iran away. I did raise human rights questions at every meeting we went to, particularly in response to the Universal Periodic Review on Iran (UPI), which is obviously very critical of Iran on human rights. We also raised questions of death penalty and executions.
They did say two things: one is, they would give us a response to the UPI in the timetable required and, on normalization of relations, they were prepared to re-open human rights dialogue with the European Union. That is an improvement [but] obviously the human rights record of Iran is not good in any sense.
Is it right to re-open relations with Iran?
Yes. Otherwise, what’s the alternative? To continue down the road of building up for a war with Iran? Would that bring anything other than a great deal of cost and destruction to the West and to Iran? The experience of Afghanistan and Iraq and Libya is hardly one that shows that western intervention has brought any peace or respect for human rights in any of those scenarios.
The former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates told BBC’s HARDtalk that neither Bush nor Obama seriously considered striking Iran, and that Dick Cheney was an “outlier”. What’s your view?
Well he has said that, he obviously has reasons for saying that. But nevertheless, the buildup on Syria, the development of weapons by Israel and the many statements made by [Benjamin] Netanyahu and others suggest that there are forces or people that would be prepared to start something with Iran. Gates said that, but he didn’t say that when he was defense secretary.
Obama appears to be generally supportive of some kind of relationship with Iran, which is a huge change from every other US president since Jimmy Carter. Now, I suspect that the dangers for the changed relationship are if the right in the senate succeed in bringing in greater sanctions against Iran. I doubt they’ll get it through, and Obama probably wouldn’t sign [a new sanctions bill] if it did go through. But people in Tehran were well aware of that debate in the USA.
Could you expand on all the human rights issues that you raised?
The issues of human rights are executions, right of assembly, trade union rights, and treatment of minorities in Iran. In response [to the latter] they say that there are, within the Islamic Republic constitution, guarantees of religious freedom for all faiths, and [they] point to representation within the parliament of people of different faiths.
I am totally opposed to the death penalty, and Iran has executed a very large number of people in the recent past. They reply that China, Russia and the USA all practice the death penalty. That is not an answer, is not a defense. The death penalty is wrong. [Russia has observed a moratorium on capital punishment since 1996.]
As to the treatment of people in Iran, and rights of free assembly, they argue that there is a right of free assembly. I would point to the last  election, when there was a great deal of violence in Tehran. This  election, whilst it did have [state-] selected candidates, did have very wide support. A very large number of people took part, and I get the impression – time will tell – that the agenda of the new president is one of building relations with the rest of the world.
IranWire has just run a series of articles about the trauma Iranian authorities inflict by hanging prisoners in public. Michael Barrett, the last person publicly hanged in Britain, in 1868, was executed for a crime committed in your borough. Does the history of capital punishment in Britain carry any tactical lessons for Iranian abolitionists?
The death penalty in Britain was abolished for most crimes in 1965 after a very long campaign. Abolitionism didn’t start in 1960, it goes back a long way. I remember as a child that there were executions that took place in British prisons, and there were question marks about the guilt or otherwise of [Derek] Bentley, for example, in 1951, which raised more debate about the death penalty.
Finally, parliament voted for [the abolition of the death penalty for murder]. Margaret Thatcher tried to bring back the death penalty in the 1980s. Twice there were votes in the British parliament on the restoration of the death penalty, which were defeated on a free vote, when there was a big conservative majority in the house, on both occasions.
I remember it very well because the majority of my constituents at that time were completely against [abolition]. The postbag I got was overwhelmingly in favor of the death penalty. Now, having finally made that big jump in the 1960s, I don’t think there is public support for the restoration of the death penalty. Indeed, it is now illegal within European law, and at the [UN] Human Rights Council, whenever a [universal periodic review] comes up, Britain opposes the death penalty in every other society.
Is there a lesson for abolitionists elsewhere? Yes. The argument in favor of the death penalty is, either you believe it’s some kind of justice under an Old Testament philosophy of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” or you believe it’s a deterrent. Well, I don’t accept that taking a life actually protects any other life, and I don’t believe it is a deterrent. The USA has the death penalty and the largest prison population in the western world, and a very high rate of crime.
I would hope that dialogue and adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which should be a basis for human rights law, will take things forward. You’ve got to be a brave person to oppose the death penalty, and I think one of the heroes in Britain was Sydney Silverman, a backbench Labour MP who introduced the private members’ bill to abolish the death penalty, which was finally successful.
You wrote on January 17th of your desire to see Iran included in diplomatic discussions about the future of Syria. A few days later Ban Ki-moon rescinded his invitation for Iran to attend Geneva II. Was he wrong to do so, in light of Iran’s refusal to endorse the Geneva Communiqué?
Yes, I think he was wrong. I was pleased that he issued the invitation, and certainly Iran was keen to be involved in the talks, To withdraw the invitation under pressure, presumably from the Syrian opposition who didn’t want Iran there because they said Iran hadn’t accepted the principle of Geneva I – well, since Iran was not involved in Geneva I, they could hardly be expected to sign up for something they hadn’t been party to.
It would have been better to move on and say, “Well, we’ve got Geneva II, we’ve got everyone around the table, Iran’s going to be there.” Interestingly, after the invitation was withdrawn, Iran protested, but not very vehemently, and it carried on at the same time with the parallel nuclear talks. Had Iran been there, would the talks have got further? Who knows? But if you’re going to bring about any kind of ceasefire followed by some kind of political agreement in Syria, Iran has got to be involved.
Iran supports the government of Syria, Russia supports the government of Syria, the USA supports the opposition, Saudi Arabia supports an Islamic opposition, Qatar supports another group in opposition, everybody’s done a lot of wrong in Syria by getting involved at all in what was a civil uprising against the government there. Every war has to end in a political settlement, and Syria is no different.
I hope that we get some kind of resumption of the talks, or maybe a series of local ceasefires followed by humanitarian aid. The situation is disastrous: more than 100,000 dead, two million people are internal or external exiles. Can the situation there be helped by the diplomatic involvement of Russia and Iran and the USA and Europe? Yes, and they’ve got to get on with it.
What would Iran add to the talks?
It can put pressure on the Syrian government to come to an agreement. They’re obviously a major political influence on the Syrian government.
In what direction do you think they would take the talks?
It is in no interest of Iran to have lots of military activity in Syria. There are people in Iran who believe that western involvement in Syria would then be the start of a military threat to Iran, despite what Robert Gates is saying, and I’m sure that there are long-term defense analysts who would want to start that.
To what extent is Iran determined to keep Bashar Assad in power?
Hard to say. I think Assad is there because a lot of people in the regime are dependent upon him, and he does have some support amongst his own community, although he’s obviously got a huge amount of opposition.
Should the process be [based upon] a precondition of removal of Assad and every aspect of his government? I don’t think you could get a settlement. I think you have to make a precondition of bringing in some kind of transitional government, which is more or less the direction in which the Geneva II process was moving.
Will there be a majles visit to London soon?
Yes there will. The date is not fixed, but it will be this summer.
Do you know who will come?
No, that’s up to them.
Do you plan to go back any time soon?
I’d like to, yes. There’s no invitation at the moment to go back, but I’d be very happy to go. I want to have a longer visit, because I want to meet a wider range of people, particularly those involved in the peace movement and the trade unions and human rights issues. I think that fairly normal relations will resume fairly soon.