If Jeremy Corbyn voiced his support for Iranian workers protesting against a repressive theocracy in Iran, it would not herald the beginning of a peaceful transition to liberal democracy. The Labour leader’s calls alone would not compel Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme religious leader, and Hassan Rouhani, the country’s president, to embrace reform. Yet Mr Corbyn’s silence on the political crisis in Iran does speak of something questionable in his politics. Voters will wonder whether that silence places the Labour leader, who has received £20,000 for hosting phone-ins on Iranian state television, on the wrong side of history.
The protests in Iran began last week after a subsidy cut caused the price of eggs to rise, but protesters’ grievances go beyond the cost of living. They have been chanting about corruption and the moral bankruptcy of the government. Whereas the Iranian regime portrayed the protesters of 2009 as a gilded, self-indulgent elite, the streets are now flooded with an angry working class.
Demonstrations spread through Iran’s cities quickly and some grew violent. Hundreds have been arrested and the death toll has risen to 22. Ayatollah Khamenei has predictably blamed unnamed “enemies of Iran” for stirring rebellion, accusing pernicious foreign powers of infiltrating his country.
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, made a vague statement yesterday warning of the uncertainty surrounding the protests, and calling for a “political dialogue” in which “all political and economic grievances can be raised and resolved”. But Mr Corbyn remained silent. The situation is undoubtedly complex, with some hardliners thought to be among the dissenters, but this is no excuse for evading the simple truth others have grasped: that this regime deserves censure. It silences dissent and executes more of its people than almost any other in the world. Recently it has been accused of opening fire on protesters.
To be accepted as a credible leader of the opposition, Mr Corbyn needs to show some integrity and moral leadership. If he does not speak, voters can only assume that his silence is the intellectual progeny of a world view in which America is always the enemy, and America’s enemy is always a friend, no matter how it behaves, or how many of its own citizens it muzzles and murders.
Mr Corbyn has form on this front. He has written in the past of the need to end Iran’ “insulting” isolation, and once warned readers of his Morning Star newspaper column to be “very wary” of verbal attacks against Iran, arguing that American allegations of a nuclear weapons programme were manufactured as a pretext for chasing Iranian oil. “Iran has a civil nuclear power programme to which, in law, it is entitled,” he wrote. The Labour leader insisted that he used his airtime on Iranian state television to raise “human rights issues”. Now would be a good time to do so again.
Moreover an intervention from Mr Corbyn could resonate. His seemingly ideological sympathy with the Iranian regime, along with his trenchant anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, mean he cannot be brushed off as yet another Washington stooge. Over the weekend protesters in the city of Khorramabad were heard chanting “we don’t want an Islamic republic”. The question for Mr Corbyn is: does he, or would he prefer a peaceful transition to a less odious regime?