Corbyn in Mashhad

Jeremy Corbyn. London, February 2015.

Jeremy Corbyn. London, February 2015.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been notably quiet on the protests in Iran. It has been left to Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to define the party’s stance on Iran and so far the signs have been disappointing.

Thornberry’s words were criticised by the right for not being tough enough on the Iranian regime, while sections of the left were much more concerned about the explicit lack of solidarity. These factions are fundamentally opposed on the question of Western military intervention. But both want to see more from the Labour leadership.

Of course, there is the cross-section of liberal and even leftist opinion, which is convinced that Corbyn is taking the side of the Assad regime in Syria and thus frames his silence on Iran in these terms. The problem is Corbyn has explicitly called for the end of the Assad dynasty and supported the ceasefires and the UN-backed Geneva talks. Yet this is inconceivable for good boys like Peter Tatchell, Idrees Ahmad and Sam Hamad.

You’re either for Assad and mass-murder, or you’re against it and for Western bombs falling on Damascus. We’re back to square one in 2003 when the anti-war movement was regularly slandered as being pro-Saddam for opposing the madness of the US war machine. Likewise, we’re now told Corbyn is pro-Assad, pro-Putin and pro-Khamenei.

So it’s worth beginning from the standpoint that this line is skewed and we need a more nuanced reading of the leadership’s positions. It’s almost as if nuance is too inconvenient for some people. This is why it’s important that we examine what the party has said about the protests in Iran.

Where does Labour stand?

At first Thornberry tried to strike a balance between not endorsing a new protest movement and condemning state violence. She did very well in calling for restraint, but she was far too cautious when it came to the marches.

Exhibit A: “The picture surrounding the protests in Iran remains highly uncertain and Western politicians should be cautious in claiming to understand their origins, organisation or objectives when many Iranian experts are still struggling to do so.”

Exhibit B: “One thing is absolutely clear. The escalation of violence must be stopped and it is particularly incumbent on the Iranian authorities to show restraint in their policing, allow peaceful, democratic protests to proceed and enable a political dialogue so that all political and economic grievances can be raised and resolved.”

Yet just a few days later on Nick Robinson’s chat show, Thornberry struck a different chord and focused her comments on calling for caution above all else. If she had maintained the points about restraint, this would have satisfied enough people to avoid the outrage of the last week.

Exhibit C: “Our approach now is one of extreme caution when it comes to Iran, and a recognition that the society in Iran is a immensely complex one, and seemingly contradictory.”

“For example, with these current riots, sometimes they are calling to reinstate the monarchy, sometimes they’re calling out against the Khamenei [regime], sometimes they’re calling for Khamenei, sometimes they’re calling for the price of eggs.”

“It’s very difficult, in those circumstances to actually come to a conclusion as to what political forces are behind the current disputes on the streets of Iran, so we take a cautious approach.”

“We don’t want to leap to judgement and say, well we don’t like the regime in Iran, these people are against it, they must be the guys with white hats, because it doesn’t work like that.”

“We’ve seen that in Syria, we’ve seen it in Libya, we see it time and time again in Egypt. Actually as Westerners we cannot simply impose our views on people who are fighting against, you know, Mubarak, who we don’t like.”

It’s worth noting that these comments were made in the context of Robinson trying to corner Thornberry into criticising Corbyn’s record on Iran. These comments were defensive and clearly made to emphasise caution over the calls for ‘regime change’ from liberal hawks. However, this retreat was taken up by critics as further proof of Corbyn’s secret commitment to totalitarianism.

Soon after, Emily Thornberry responded to critics and sought to clarify her position on Facebook. It emphasises the importance of multilateral agreements and diplomacy, while also returning to the themes of restraint. Here is a decent excerpt, but I recommend reading the full statement:

Exhibit D: “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.”

Are Thornberry’s words really a call for defending the Iranian regime? I think not. So where should Labour policy head on the protests in Iran. Should it join the neocons in calling for ‘regime change’? I think not. Should it just be confined to calls for restraint? Definitely not, so we should expect more from the leadership than this cautious approach.

Where should Labour stand?

When I first read those words I was really disappointed that the Labour leadership appeared to be taking a weak line by not coming out firmly on the side of the Iranian protesters. Still, I don’t buy the moral blackmail being deployed by right-wing and liberal hawks who would love to bomb Iran into the stone age. I mean no one asks why Theresa May doesn’t condemn the atrocious crimes of Saudi Arabia against the people of Yemen. But that doesn’t mean Corbyn shouldn’t come out in support of the protests in Iran.

After all, Corbyn is the rebel leader of British politics. He has stressed the need for an ‘ethical’ foreign policy, in which the UK will stand up for democratic ideals while not indulging in the warmongering of the Blair years. This is why the Labour Party should aim for a distinct position on Iran, which is neither aligned nor compromised with the hawks in Washington, London and Tel Aviv.

It’s clear in my mind what the left must do: support the Iranian protests, call for the end of economic sanctions, lift the Muslim ban, oppose the Islamic regime and oppose US interference. Otherwise we will just reinforce the choice between Tehran on the one hand and Washington on the other. Iran can be more than a holdout regime for right-wing Islamists. This should be obvious, but it isn’t sadly.

It’s also imperative that the Labour left defend the leadership from the self-described ‘moderates’, who want to drag Corbyn’s name through the mud and defend a war on Iran. The cause of war will only favour the hardliners in Tehran and elsewhere, yet this is precisely why there are sections of the right that still wants this confrontation. And this is a crucial test for the international left.

Photograph courtesy of Abdullah Manaz. Published under a Creative Commons license.