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Curbing Iran's nuclear ambitions should not deter the UK from taking a tougher stance on Tehran

Steve McCabe has backed calls for further sanctions against the Iranian regime.

5 min read

Whatever the eventual outcome of the talks surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, one thing is clear: we must urgently develop a comprehensive approach to tackling the multi-faceted challenges posed by Tehran.

As Labour Friends of Israel argues in a new publication released today, those threats – ranging from the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile programme to its destabilising regional agenda – have been downplayed for too long thanks to the west’s understandable desire to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

We also need to abandon the fallacy that, as a group of prominent Iranian human rights activists suggested last year, it is possible to detach our national security interests from the plight of the Iranian people themselves.

Indeed, the signing of the original nuclear deal in 2015 and the Vienna talks to revive it over the past year have seen no let up in Iran’s nefarious activities.

As Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute explains, the last decade has seen a dramatic expansion in the role played by Hezbollah in pursuing Iran’s regional ambitions. While Hezbollah continues to use Lebanon as a base from which to pursue the goal of destroying Israel, it also now works to train a network of Iran-financed Shia militant fighters across the region. The terror group’s tentacles have thus spread to Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Bahrain and Kuwait.

Domestically, according to Freedom House, the regime’s already dire human rights record continues to worsen. The 2020 parliamentary and presidential elections were rigged by hardliners. Despite executing nearly 300 people last year – including those convicted of committing crimes when they were children – the regime continues to expand the death penalty. And, of course, the cases of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz have brought to wider public attention Iran’s policy of arbitrarily detaining foreign nationals.

Both the scale of the late 2019 anti-government protests and the manner in which they were put down – the security forces are believed to have killed as many as 1,500 people – underlines the growing gap between the Iranian people and a regime determined to cling to power. As Kasra Aarabi of the Tony Blair Institute suggests, this gap is likely to widen as, Ayatollah Khamenei implements his blueprint for the “next stage of the Islamic Revolution”. His loyal protégé, President Raisi, offers a combination of “indifference to violence and devotion to the regime’s Islamist ideology” which are well-suited to the task of “purifying” Iran, rooting out “deviating” influences, while empowering the most radical and ideological committed forces within the regime. Key to this task will be the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps whose shock troops Raisi has appointed to senior ranks in the government, including the foreign and interior ministries.

While coordinated international action is required to confront these challenges, that does not mean Britain can do nothing alone.

First, two years after the government announced the first tranche of sanctions under the new Magnitsky Act-style regime to punish gross breaches of human rights, no Iranian individuals or entities have been named. While sanctions imposed when Britain was a member of the EU have rolled into UK law, this list has not been added to in nearly a decade. Moreover, while the EU and US both imposed new human rights sanctions against Iran last year, Britain did not follow suit. This leaves those responsible for a litany of human rights abuses over the last 10 years to go unpunished.

Second, we cannot expect Tehran to believe that we are serious about promoting the human rights of the Iranian people if we do not adequately protect the human rights of British citizens and dual nationals. It is ridiculous that the UK government refuses to label Iran’s detention of its citizens as “state hostage taking”, obliquely referring instead to “consular cases”. As the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee recommended in its December 2020 report, we should call out ‘State Hostage Taking’ for what it is and, using our position at the UN, take the lead in shaping a united international response. 

Third, the threat posed by the IRGC makes it imperative that the UK government proscribes Tehran’s terror army in its entirety. This would signal both our determination to deter Iran’s regional meddling, but also show our solidarity with the Iranian people whose freedoms and rights it works to crush.

Fourth, ministers trumpeted the decision to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety in 2019 but have been cagey about it since. Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee should request the police, intelligence and security services provide it with a report detailing the use of the proscription powers against Hezbollah over the past three years. 

Finally, there is mounting evidence of attempts by Tehran to interfere in the UK’s domestic politics – including last year’s Scottish parliamentary elections. The UK government should urgently draw up and publish proposals setting out how it intends to combat and disrupt the threat posed by Iranian disinformation here at home.

Iran has consistently refused to discuss its non-nuclear activities during the Vienna talks. We should now make clear that – whatever deal we make regarding its nuclear programme – Britain and its allies don’t intend these issues to remain unaddressed.


Steve McCabe is the Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak and chair of Labour Friends of Israel.

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