Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and is the MP for Stratford On Avon.
On December 28th, protests apparently initially about the cost of living in Iran started in the city of Mashhad, and quickly spread around the country. This began days of protests on an ever-widening set of issues which united the various groups in Iran who have been let down by their Government. The protests have ranged in size, location and aim, but in total they have been the greatest threat to the Iranian regime since the 2009 election.
Typically, the Labour Party have equivocated on the subject. Jeremy Corbyn has been silent while he reportedly takes a long holiday in Mexico. In the meantime, his shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry said that the party didn’t want to ‘leap to judgement’. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee on which I sit, Tom Tugendhat, has rightly led a wave of criticism and pointed out how extraordinary it is for Labour to refuse to say the regime should change in response to the legitimate concerns of its people.
Perhaps the Shadow Foreign Secretary is just toeing the line of her leader, who has taken £20,000 from a TV channel that is the mouthpiece of the Iranian government, but it should not be hard to reach a firm and reasonable judgement on these protests. It would be wrong for any western government or political party to urge on a violent and destabilising revolution, especially if you are unwilling to help militarily. It’s perfectly fine to urge a peaceful solution. However, Labour’s line does not reflect what is actually occurring on the ground. Indeed, for Labour and their supporters to equivocate in this way only adds fuel to the regime’s accusations that these ordinary protestors are American puppets seeking a bloody overthrow of the regime, rather than people with dreams of a better future for their children. There is absolutely no evidence that this is some kind of evil US operation; this exists only in the brains of anti-Western fantasists. Many of whom now find themselves in positions of power in the Labour Party.
We should remind ourselves of what the Iranian regime is, and think about exactly who Labour are refusing to condemn. Iran pays lip service to democracy, but this is only a façade in practice, with the whole system run according to what the Ayatollahs are willing to allow. Religious police roam the streets, and fine or imprison women who are not covering their hair. Millions are spent by the Iranian Government, not on supporting its own people but on funding terrorist groups across the Middle East. And protestors are killed when asking for their Government to change. In the face of all this, it is truly shameful for Labour to have remained silent for so long, and even worse for them to muddy the waters when they do find something to say.
Iran is a theocracy that spends vast amounts of its wealth on a battle for regional control rather than for the benefit of its own people. That is why demonstrators are asking for reform, and that is why we should openly support those goals. This is not about destroying the Iranian state, but about encouraging change and creating the environment for this to happen.
Moving from autocracy or theocracy to democracy is not simple. Britain took 713 years to get from Magna Carta in 1215 to the achievement of full voting rights to women in 1928. Democratic institutions are one thing, but complicated networks of civil society institutions are even harder to nurture, and cannot be transplanted from one country to another. However, there are lessons, assistance and advice that can be passed on that would make Iran’s change faster than our own.
There are two competing visions for government in the Middle East. The first is one of reform, and separating mosque and state, which is being attempted by the UAE and Egypt. The other is the way of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Ayatollahs’ theocracy. The second is not conducive to good governance, but still holds a great sway in the region. We should do what we can encourage reform. Dictators hollow out opposition, political thought and the infrastructure of civil society. When one is removed, it creates a vacuum that is often filled by military or religious extremists. It is in our interests to encourage reforms that enhance stability and increase the chances of steady transition to resilient democracy. Because no people will accept autocracy for ever.
The inevitability of the worldwide march towards democracy has been dented and doubted in recent years. But we mustn’t give up on the democratic ambitions of the people of the Middle East. The region is full of ordinary people who have no less desire for stability, security and prosperity for their families than you or me. They have no less tolerance for corruption and iniquity than the peoples of democratic nations. They want the same things that we want, and they will eventually achieve these ambitions. We must never stop advocating their right to achieve these goals through a peaceful process and reasonable reforms, and we must not be shy about doing so. We must also make clear why change is in the benefit of the regime as well. The alternatives, whether the status quo, or a populace reaching breaking point, are unacceptable.