Mike Freer is the Conservative candidate for Finchley and Golders Green.
Ever since the UK became one of the six parties to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear programme, the British Government has been opening itself up to criticism that it is neglecting the issue of Tehran’s record of human rights violations.
Similar criticisms have been levied against the US, France, Germany, and other parties that were not involved in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action but that nonetheless eagerly sought to benefit from its re-opening of the Iranian market.
Has the post Brexit Britain left the UK so eager for new trading partners that policy makers are willing to overlook Iran’s behaviour – all for the sake of retaining Tehran’s interest in British investment?
But as the Iranian people strive to take advantage of the recent sanctions relief, the nature of their regime remains unchanged. Iranian hard-liners will not be content to simply embrace investment from Western partners that are relatively uncritical of the Islamic Republic.
Rather, they will strive to exert power over the UK and its close partners, in keeping with the mullahs’ self-perception as a bulwark against Western influence in the Middle East. Indeed, this sort of power play has already been evident in Iran’s behaviour since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations.
From ballistic missile tests to provocative manoeuvres against Western naval vessels in the region, the Islamic Republic has found a number of ways of saying, “If you wish to have economic relations with us, you will have to accept all our efforts to shape the future of the region.”
Yet nothing has been a more serious test of Western will than Iran’s escalating human rights violations and crackdowns on domestic dissent. From the perspective of anyone defending of human rights and free expression, the West are failing that test.
Recent reports have indicated that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has stepped up its arrests of dissidents, civil activists, independent journalists, and other threats to the country’s hard-liners in the run-up to presidential elections in May. And these reports come after years of other reports indicating that arrests had already escalated in the wake of the nuclear agreement’s implementation.
The IRGC has made it plain to both domestic and international audiences that the Islamic Republic will not compromise its repressive, theocratic ideology for the sake of the international community. Meanwhile, the international community has sent exactly the opposite message: that it is willing to overlook even the most basic principles of modern, democratic societies, for the sake of promoting re-engagement.
So far, the UK government has put forth no recognisable effort to discourage Iran from its worsening crackdown. Neither has it pressured Tehran to safeguard the lives of other political prisoners already languishing in Iranian jails, many of whom have participated in a recent wave of hunger strikes, some of them lasting upwards of two months.
The Islamic Republic has a long history of denying medical treatment to these and other political prisoners as a means of pressure and extra-judicial punishment, and that trend is still ongoing under the noses of the foreign powers that are so eager to invest in Iranian markets.
What makes the neglect much worse is the fact that these investments have a high likelihood of providing the IRGC and other repressive institutions with additional resources for their arrests and persecutions of peaceful protesters.
The leading Iranian opposition group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), released a report in March detailing the “rise of the Revolutionary Guards’ financial empire”, and explained that hard-line forces in the Islamic Republic had apparently taken control over more than half of the country’s gross domestic product through a vast network of front companies – companies the West is now free to invest in. What is more, it seems eager to do so.
When will the potential consequences of this investment become so odious that this no longer seems justifiable? If the answer is “when it begins to directly affect Western nationals,” we passed that threshold long ago. The escalating Iranian crackdown has explicitly and unmistakably targeted dual nationals who have committed no crime, such as the Iranian-British mother and charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has endured fake trials and fake appeals ending with a five year sentence for non-specific national security charge.
Ignoring Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe and a general neglect of human rights issues would be bad enough if it only affected Zaghari-Ratcliffe. But in this case there is also a child involved, her daughter Gabriella, whose passport was confiscated when Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested.
Gabriella marked her second birthday while in the care of her Iranian grandparents, unable to be with her mother or to return to her father in the UK. Other people have suffered much greater sorrows as a result of the IRGC’s crackdown, but Gabriella has the distinction of having been victimised in her infancy. If the Western world is willing to look the other way on this, what would it not be willing to ignore?
The kidnapping of a child is hardly beyond the pale for a regime that remains not only unrepentant but actually boastful about the mass execution of 30,000 political prisoners affiliated with the Iranian opposition in the summer of 1988. But the kidnapping of a child and mass executions are intolerable, regardless of what we stand to gain.
Human rights advocates need not demand that the UK give up its gains altogether. There are measures that can be taken that stop short of simply withdrawing from all economic interactions with the Islamic Republic.
The main driving force behind the current crackdown is the Revolutionary Guard Corps, and it is already the case that the US Government is examining the possibility of blacklisting that paramilitary organisation as a foreign terrorist organisation. The UK should see fit to follow suit and do everything in its power to prevent Western capital from ending up in the hands of the most violent, hard-line factions of the Iranian regime.