|British MP: UK–Iran relations are being restored||
LONDON (Asharq Al-Awsat) — Veteran Left-wing British MP Jeremy Corbyn has represented a London constituency on behalf of the Labour Party since 1983. A vocal advocate for human rights and critic of Western military intervention abroad, he recently travelled to Iran as part of a cross-party group of British legislators at the invitation of the Iranian parliament.
On his return, Corbyn spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about his impressions of Iran and his views on the future of its relationship with the UK, the U.S., and the controversy over its nuclear program, and his opinions on the prospects for political reform in the Islamic Republic.
Q: What was your general impression of Iran during the four days you spent there?
A: Our delegation was an all-party parliamentary group (APG), with both Labour and Conservative members. We all have different political positions in Britain and have some differences of opinion surrounding Iran. However, we are all in favor of trying to normalize relations between the UK and Iran, and so after our visit we then gave evidence to the [British House of Commons] Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on the impressions of our visit.
I’ve never been to Iran or Tehran before, so to me it was fascinating. I have always wanted to go. So that was nice. It was the sense of presence of Tehran, as a very important capital city, and of how powerful Iran is and was—these huge national buildings and the grandeur of it. That impressed me. And the Majlis [parliament] was interesting, with the amazing decorations in it and the history. We also went to the British embassy and stood in the dining room were Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt once had dinner. There is a brass plaque on the wall which indicates the seating arrangements, which was interesting. Of course, the building is closed at the moment.
Q: Did you have any impressions of the delegation you went with?
A: Our delegation was a mixture of people. Jack Straw was the foreign secretary in the Blair government when they went to war in Iraq [in 2003]. I was a member of parliament throughout that period and I was totally and absolutely opposed to the war to Iraq. So, we had two pretty big differences there in our delegation.
The issue of nuclear weapons is something very dear to my heart. I am the chair of Stop the War Coalition in Britain and I am a national officer with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I don’t think anybody should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think they are moral.. Iran has a legal right to develop nuclear power. I personally am not in favor of nuclear power, but I recognize that [Iran can legally develop it]. What it cannot do is to develop nuclear weapons and remain a member of the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty]. Iran has never left the NPT. And the prize of a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East is one that we should all strive for. So I always thought that the sanctions against Iran were actually counterproductive in isolating Iran, and probably encouraging those who want to move in a more militaristic direction.
Be that as it may, politics moves on. Britain and the USA did not go to war in Syria. Instead, we were forced to negotiate with the Russians, and we negotiated at least a couple of weapons conventions in Syria—and that had clearly involved Iran in some ways, because of the Iranian relationship with Syria. And that then brought about the interim nuclear deal, which I hope will become a permanent deal in six months’ time. I think it is a fantastic step forward. So the purpose of our visit was to recognize that step forward, to encourage the reopening of full diplomatic relations, not this rather odd position of non-resident chargé d’affaires, and to recognize that there are great many people in Iran, particularly among the political classes, who actually want more normal relations with Europe and North America. Jack Straw pointed out that there are more American PhDs around the cabinet table in Iran than in Washington.
Q: Do you have an insight into attempts to re-establish ties between Iran and Britain?
A: I think both sides are anxious. There is an issue of the physical condition of the embassy. We inspected the whole of it. It has been damaged and trashed. One of the buildings had a fire on the ground floor that had been put out very quickly, but the smoke damaged it. I don’t think there is structural damage there. It could be reopened quite quickly.
Q: Do you know anything about the status of talks about reopening the embassy in Tehran?
A: They are in negotiations about reopening it. It is more important to get the visa regime reopened. That is more significant in terms of trade and travel to Iran. I have a certain significant Iranian diaspora [in my constituency], and all of them would travel back and forth to Iran.
Q: When do you think UK–Iran relations will be restored? What will be the next step towards this?
A: Well, it is already happening. We got the non-resident chargé d’affaires; we have the possibility of reopening of activities very quickly, which would help travel and obviously would also help trade. The banking system would be affected, so that there is a bank in which people can send money to or receive money from Iran. That’s a big problem for the diaspora community. There are 300,000 people in Britain who have Iranian background or nationality. Not all have nationality, but some have Iranian family connections. They deserve the right to have a normal relationship with their family. So, I feel very strongly for that.
Q: Is there a date set for that?
A: I couldn’t give an exact time for it but it is moving pretty fast, and I would hope that we’re going to get . . . movement by the summer on that matter. The six-month [deadline] for the negotiations concludes in, I think, early July. We have invited a parliamentary delegation to visit the UK from Iran. They have accepted the invitation.
Q: Some European countries have sent trade delegations to Iran. Britain has not done that yet, and at the same time the U.S. is putting pressure on European countries not to sign any major trade deals with Iran. What is your position on this issue, and what should Britain’s position be?
A: That’s a very interesting point, because the U.S. takes upon itself [responsibility for regulating] international trade: look at the laws for Cuban trade, for example, and the sanctions policy on Iran. I can see there is a huge tension developing between the European Union and the USA about their relations with Iran . . . There is going to be a parting of the ways on the nuclear strategy, because Europe really wants to trade with Iran. Our plane [to and from Iran, which went through Frankfurt] was absolutely filled with German businessmen going there to make deals to reopen trade with Iran.
Q: What about Britain sending a trade delegation to Iran?
A: Well, that is the problem. Britain is not as involved as it ought to be. Britain was once quite an important trading partner with Iran. I think it will be a growth of British trade with Iran, and there are certainly a lot of products that we can import from Iran, and also things that can be exported to Iran, particularly machinery related to the oil industry.
Q: Some Iranian officials are saying privately that Iran has been pushed towards the Russians and the Chinese by the Western pressure. What do you think can be done to reverse this process?
A: I think those officials are correct; a figure I was given showed there has been a fifteen-fold increase in trade with China during the period of sanctions. It might be an exaggeration, but the figure shows that there has been a very big increase in trade. There has been a huge reduction in trade with Europe, and the USA does almost no trade at all [with Iran]. It is actually counterproductive. What it has done is increase the Chinese and Russian influence in the region and reduced any sort of normal relationship with the rest of the world. I would want Iran to be respected for its history and its presence and have normal trading relationships, and with that comes the dialogue on civil rights and human rights, environmental protection and all the other issues that we all have to face.
And I would want to see a deal and an agreement which will put to bed once and for all the whole concept that Iran could develop enough enriched uranium to be used in a weapon. The 5 percent limit means that there is no weapons-grade fissile material there, and that in turn moves on to the concept of a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East, which must of course involve Israel as well.
If we don’t do that, then . . . I was at the Non-Proliferation Treaty [Preparatory Committee] past year. The Arab League, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and a number of others were all threatening to walk out if there isn’t a conference on the Middle East. But they say, ‘How is it that Israel is developing nuclear weapons, and everybody else in this region is banned from doing so?’ There is a danger of nuclear proliferation, and last year this was addressed.
Q: As a politician, do you trust the Iranian government?
A: Do I trust any government? Good question. They answered our questions. They did meet us. They do want better relations with the West, and I think those relations have got to be a good thing. Certainly, the speeches made by the new president when he went to the UN were markedly different from what was happening before, the nuclear talks that have gone on and are going apparently quite well, and [there will be] a final agreement that we will reach within the six-month timetable. That would [have been] inconceivable two years ago. Had Britain and the USA involved themselves in the Syrian war, I don’t think any of this would have happened.
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