UK’s soft approach to Iran human rights violations -opinion

When it comes to the Islamic republic, the Conservative government may talk the talk, but it very rarely walks the walk.

 BRITISH PRIME Minister Liz Truss speaks at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham, last week. Inaction on Iran has been the UK government’s default mode, says the writer.  (photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)
BRITISH PRIME Minister Liz Truss speaks at the Conservative Party’s annual conference in Birmingham, last week. Inaction on Iran has been the UK government’s default mode, says the writer.
(photo credit: TOBY MELVILLE/REUTERS)

This week, the UK Foreign Office, at last, announced it was imposing a handful of sanctions on Iran as the regime continues to violently crackdown on street protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.

The announced sanctions target the morality police, its national chief and head in Tehran, as well as five officials implicated in the bloody suppression of the 2019 demonstrations against the ailing regime.

This much-belated slap on the wrist – one which ignores a host of other individuals and actions that Labour Friends of Israel (LFI) called for months ago – was taken reluctantly and illustrates the British government’s “softly, softly” approach toward the tyrants in Tehran. 

In Liz we Truss?

When it comes to the Islamic republic, the Conservative government may talk the talk, but it very rarely walks the walk. In some regards, this is unsurprising. Like its European allies, France and Germany, the UK has been desperate to salvage the 2015 Iran nuclear deal at any cost. 

At the same time, however, the Conservative government likes to paint itself as one of Israel’s closest and most reliable friends. Indeed, just hours after the Foreign Office civil servant responsible for the Middle East rapped the knuckles of Tehran’s chargé d’affaires, Prime Minister Liz Truss was singing Israel’s praises at the Conservative party conference and proclaiming herself a “huge Zionist.”

 A man gestures during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's ''morality police'', in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022.  (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS) A man gestures during a protest over the death of Mahsa Amini, a woman who died after being arrested by the Islamic republic's ''morality police'', in Tehran, Iran September 19, 2022. (credit: WANA (WEST ASIA NEWS AGENCY) VIA REUTERS)

Sadly, Truss’s commitment to Zionism doesn’t extend to proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Tehran’s ideological army which runs its global terror operations and snuffs out dissent at home – despite the fact that, until a month ago, she was in day-to-day charge of taking such decisions as foreign secretary.

The prime minister can hardly claim she was unaware of the issue: nearly two years ago, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee concluded in a report: “The actions of the IRGC meet the criteria for proscription in the Terrorism Act 2000, due to its clear and enduring support for terrorists and non-state actors working to undermine stability in the region.” 

Calls to take action against the IRGC have been taken up not just by the LFI, but by other campaign organizations and Jewish communal groups, such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews. 

Tom Tugendhat, the former chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is now a member of the government, serving as the minister for security. Let’s hope that he can now persuade his boss to take the action she scrupulously avoided during her tenure as foreign secretary.

Foot-dragging on IRGC

THE GOVERNMENT’S foot-dragging on the IRGC has a precedent, recalling its years-long reluctance to fully ban Hezbollah and its related insistence that the terror group’s military and political wings were separate; a self-evidently ridiculous claim that even Hezbollah itself explicitly denied. 

Similarly, and despite its announcement this week, the government has dragged its feet when it comes to using its much-heralded post-Brexit “Magnitsky Act” sanctions regime – which targets human rights abusers and those accused of corruption – against Iran. 

When the new sanctions regime was introduced in 2020 – previously, the UK’s actions in this field were largely coordinated with the EU – the government targeted individuals in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Myanmar and North Korea. Subsequently, individuals and entities in Chechnya, Xinjiang, Belarus, Pakistan and Venezuela have been hit with financial sanctions and travel bans. 

Without a doubt, these were all worthy targets. But Iran has been consistently conspicuous by its absence. Crucially, while the UK “rolled over” previous EU sanctions against Iran into its new domestic framework, the failure to add to it meant that key perpetrators of the 2019 crackdown went unpunished – despite both the EU and the US imposing sanctions on them.

It’s also difficult to applaud the government for – finally – sanctioning just five individuals in relation to their activities in 2019, when it has left so many others off the list. Men like Mohammad Javad Azari-Jahromi, the former minister of information and communications technology, who imposed the Internet blackout; and IRGC commander Salar Abnoush who said that he was “on the scene” until the “final hours of involvement with the sedition” and in the IRGC’s monitoring room.

Of course, Iran’s atrocious human rights record isn’t confined to 2019 or 2022. Why, for instance, have successive Conservative administrations taken no action against Gholamreza Ziaei, the former head of the notorious Evin prison, who was sanctioned by the US in January 2018 and the EU in April 2021? 

Ali Ghanaatkar, who has acted as head of interrogations and as a judge at the prison, has similarly been let off the hook. As LFI detailed in a policy pamphlet earlier this year, these omissions from the sanctions list aren’t exceptions. Inaction on Iran has been the UK government’s default mode.

Perhaps even more peculiar is the manner in which the government allows the presence of Iranian-state-run institutions on UK soil, which, say experts like Kasra Aarabi of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, have played “an instrumental role in the recruitment and radicalization of militants and operatives for the IRGC’s Quds Force around the world”.

Moreover, as Aarabi has also highlighted, the government continues to allow a charity funded by the Iranian authorities to operate in Britain whose director spouts the regime’s propaganda. Last week, Sayed Moosavi, who serves as personal representative of Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, labeled protesters “the soldier of Satan” and said women who remove their hijabs were spreading “poison.”

Failing to defend liberal democratic values 

As well as failing to defend liberal democratic values when they come under attack from Tehran’s London-based mouthpieces, the government has adopted a remarkably blasé attitude toward Iranian disinformation and meddling in the UK’s internal affairs, such as in the debate about Scottish independence. When questioned, it has instead confined itself to bland rhetoric.

Truss’s government is so keen to avoid offending Tehran’s delicate sensibilities that it won’t even label Iran’s policy of arresting British citizens – such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – and holding them for years behind bars on trumped-up charges what it really is: state hostage-taking. Across the channel, by contrast, President Emmanuel Macron’s government doesn’t pull its punches: last week it not only described two of its nationals held by Iran as “state hostages” but termed their treatment “shameful, revolting, unacceptable and contrary to international law.” 

Britain’s appeasement policy is counter-productive. How can we expect Iran to take seriously our professed concern about its human rights abuses, threats toward Israel and neo-imperialist regional activities when our actions suggest a total lack of interest?

Britain should be standing with the Iranian people as they fight for their freedoms. Instead, under this Conservative government, we’re quietly sitting on the sidelines, hoping not to offend a thuggish regime of butchers and terrorists. 

The writer is the director of Labour Friends of Israel in London.