Asylum, Blogging and Iran

“The image conjured up by the name Persia is one of romance – roses and nightingales in elegant gardens, fast horses, flirtatious women, sharp sabres, jewel-coloured carpets, melodious music,” explains Michael Axworthy in Empire of the Mind. “But in the cliché of Western media presentation, the name Iran conjures a rather different image – frowning mullahs, black oil, women’s blanched faces peering from under dark chadors, grim crowds burning flags, chanting ‘death to …’,” he argues further. Considered to be public enemy number one and part of the “axis of evil” just a few years ago, a resurgent Iran is fast becoming the envy of historically pampered American allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Much to their dismay, Iran, the classic rogue state looks set to become America’s ally in the “war on terror”. Barack Hussein Obama’s Iran deal, symbolising the great thaw in relations with the Ayatollahs, is arguably as historic as Nixon’s deal with the Chinese.

As expected, Republican efforts to scupper the deal were killed by Democrats in the US Senate, securing a major foreign policy victory for President Obama; he will not have to veto any moves against the deal that reforms Iran’s nuclear programme. Republicans remained two votes short of the 60 needed to take the resolution to a final vote. “This vote is a victory for diplomacy for American national security, and for the safety and security of the world,” Obama said. In the run up to Obama’s triumph, likening the Vienna Agreement (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)) to a football match, a jocund President Hassan Rouhani posited that Iran had won the game by three goals to two. With chaos reigning supreme in the Middle East, a serious attempt at détente with the Islamic Republic is likely to be emollient for all sides in many respects. For the West, improved ties with Iran may be the key to halting the expansion of the hated “Islamic State”. (Why take military action yourself to kill Reyaad Khan and Ruhul Amin, and invite legal challenge, if you can get Hassan Rouhani et al to do your dirty work?) For the Iranians, the reconnection of their annual $400 billion economy – surpassed in the Middle East only by ultraorthodox Saudi Arabia – to the world’s financial system and the unfreezing of $150 billion of seized assets are profoundly important goals.

These are doomsday developments for the Israelis and Saudis who are used to having their way with the Americans but are now beginning to feel the pinch in Washington’s foreign policy. Last week, Obama acquired the 34th senator’s support for the deal. This meant that the two-thirds majority needed to override a presidential veto was no longer possible. Coming out in support of the agreement, the 34th senator Barbara Mikulski – who was part of a dozen undecided senators tipped to make or break the ambitious accord – took the view that “no deal is perfect” but she nevertheless argued it “is the best option available to block Iran from having a nuclear bomb.”


The plight of bloggers in the Islamic world was thrown into the spotlight with arrest of Raif Badawi; the 31-year-old Saudi blogger who founded the website Saudi Arabia Liberals, was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes (to be publicly inflicted, 50 lashes at a time after Friday prayers) and fined one million Riyals (or approximately £170,000) for insulting Islam. His initial sentence of seven years and 600 lashes was considered too lenient and revised accordingly. Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haider fled to the safety of Canada in 2013 with their three children after her husband’s arrest in June 2012 for organising a conference marking “a day of liberalism”. Equally, non-state actors are also persecuting and murdering bloggers who dare to defy traditional belief systems. In Bangladesh four secular writers have been hacked to death by Islamic lunatics this year alone: as reported, in the case of Washiqur Rahman, Bangladeshi authorities have charged five men for murdering the atheist blogger and it will be up to the magistrates’ court to open a trial or order further investigations. These are the first charges brought, in the face of international condemnation and pressure to protect free speech in an officially secular Bangladesh, in relation to these brutal murders by senseless religious zealots.

In the appeals arising in AB and Others (internet activity – state of evidence) [2015] UKUT 257 (IAC) (30 April 2015), three appellants claimed they were refugees because of their blogging activities. It was unclear to the Upper Tribunal how the Iranian officials are able to intercept blogs but in this lengthy decision Warr and Perkins UTJJ allowed AB, CD and EF’s appeals. Below, I first address the points in the tribunal’s decision. I then provide a snapshot of the momentous political developments relating to Iran which have been unfolding on the international stage.

The Cases

AB, CD and EF’s cases threw up crucial questions about use of social and other internet-based media (posting articles, linking, uploading/streaming photographs or videos, using Facebook etc) and whether the use of such tools to voice (actual or perceived) political dissent by Iranians is likely to bring them into conflict with the tyrannical regime in that country. Naturally, the dynamics of the Iranian authorities’ capability to detect and monitor internet activity – both within and outside Iran – were central to these cases. These cases are a grim reminder that the deal with the Americans does not erase Iran’s appalling human rights record and the tribunal’s decision, which is linked to Iran’s 42,000,000 internet users, testifies to that fact. (For example, from between January and July 2015, the regime has executed 694 people.)

AB, who was born in 1989, entered the UK illegally in March 2011 and appealed a decision (made the same month) to remove him. AB’s appeal was dismissed twice but his appeal was remitted by the Court of Appeal to be decided on the particular basis of events in the UK relating to blogging. CD, who was born in 1975, entered the UK in September 2010 as student, claimed asylum and appealed a decision to refuse to vary her leave to remain. Her appeal was dismissed but she was given permission to appeal because her blogging activities had been given insufficient weight. EF, who was born in 1972, appealed a November 2011 decision to remove him. The appeal against that decision was initially dismissed but in May 2013 the Upper Tribunal found that the First-tier Tribunal had erred in law and set the decision aside. CD and EF gave evidence to Warr and Perkins UTJJ.

Apart from monitoring abilities/capacity of the Iranian state, the level of internal public interest in criticism of the regime posted/generated abroad was another issue in these appeals as were issues related to past criticism by returnees, returnee profiles, sur place activities while in the UK and the immigration history of the returnee, including whether the returnee has left Iran illegally. Yet more points turned on issues arsing out of possession of internet devices, the means employed by the Iranian authorities to be able to link a returnee to social media/internet-based activity conducted abroad and the relevance of the opportunistic use of social/internet-based media. The tribunal was surprised that there was little challenge to the evidence, which it found unusual for a case of this nature.

The headnote to the decision looks somewhat disappointing (and indeed some of the other judicial errors are pretty darn miserable) and is expressed in the following terms:

The material put before the tribunal did not disclose a sufficient evidential basis for giving country or other guidance upon what, reliably, can be expected in terms of the reception in Iran for those returning otherwise than with a “regular” passport in relation to whom interest may be excited from the authorities into internet activity as might be revealed by an examination of blogging activity or a Facebook account. However, this determination is reported so that the evidence considered by the Upper Tribunal is available in the public domain.

Unlike most immigration decisions coming out of the tribunals these days, which are replete with authoritative case law, this decision dwells on factual issues and contains important information about the repercussions that dissenting Iranians in the UK are likely to suffer for the crime of blogging. Indeed, the details are quite telling about the state of intolerance in Iran. Return to Iran is always a potential pressure point and as seen in SB (risk on return – illegal exit) Iran CG [2009] UKAIT 00053 nothing changed the reality that illegal exit from the Islamic Republic is an offence that interests the authorities (which detain and interrogate returnees).

The tribunal mentioned other cases such as SA (Iranian Arabs – no general risk) Iran CG [2011] UKUT 41 (IAC) which held that an Iranian Arab was not at risk because of his ethnicity, however returning from London – which was considered a centre of separatist activity – was of itself a risk factor. Similarly, in BA (demonstrators in Britain – risk on return) Iran CG [2011] UKUT 36 (IAC) it was recognised that a returnee could expect to be screened on arrival and an activist could be the subject of further enquiry and possibly risk depending on all the circumstances.

Reference was made to the case of AP (Iran) [2011] NZIPT 800012 where, the New Zealand Immigration and Protection Tribunal’s predecessor, the Refugee Status Appeals Authority (RSAA) was attracted to an article in the Wall Street Journal involving interviews with 90 Iranians “living abroad” some of whom had been back to Iran following election related activity abroad. It was clear that:

Dozens of individuals in the US and Europe who criticised Iran on Facebook or Twitter said their relatives back in Iran were questioned or temporarily detained because of their postings. About three dozen individuals interviewed said that when travelling this summer back to Iran, they were questioned about whether they hold a foreign passport, whether they possess Facebook accounts and why they were visiting Iran. The questioning, they said, took place at passport control upon their arrival at Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport. Five interviewees who travelled to Iran in recent months said they were forced by police at Tehran’s Airport to log into their Facebook accounts. Several reported having their passports confiscated because of harsh criticisms they had posted online about the way the Iranian Government had handled its controversial elections earlier this year.

The discussion also became drawn to the Strasbourg case of RC v Sweden (41827/07) [2010] ECHR 307, an authority which left no doubt that:

the Iranian authorities frequently detain and ill-treat persons who participate in peaceful demonstrations in the country.

The tribunal’s decision does contain some useful information. It states that Iran may have 42,000,000 internet users but access is nothing like what we are used to. Notably, providing “slow and expensive” internet, is a major service provider operated by the Iranian Telecommunications Company. As a government agency, it operates under the aegis of the Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology and owns and operates the entire Iranian telecommunication and internet infrastructure and allocates bandwidth to Internet Service Providers (ISPs). Whilst a typical internet service provided by British Telecom of 16 megabytes per second (mps) is available to the end user for £16 a month, in Iran a service offering half that speed (8mps) costs the end user the equivalent of £600 per month – approximately six times the minimum monthly wage in Iran. There are 600 internet service providers in Iran offering various subscription packages. The UN’s International Telecommunication Union estimates show a surge in internet use in Iran. Over the last decade, the number of users has increased from one percent of the population to 13 percent. Research from 2009 not only noted that Iran is dubbed “blogistan” but also calculated that there may then have been 700,000 Iranian blogs and websites.

The tribunal did not call but nonetheless placed reliance in the expert evidence of an individual known as “Mr KG” – an experienced Microsoft Certified Engineer who had designed computer systems for Iran’s financial services sector and had worked as a network administrator in the transport industry – with forensic specialism to set the scene because in its view, “he was the witness best able to describe the ways in which the Iranian state monitors computer activities and how some computer users respond.”

Yet this part of the decision reeks of armchair anthropology, or poor knowledge of historical facts. From what I can see, either Mr KG or the clever Upper Tribunal judges Warr and Perkins UTJJ got seriously confused; much to our bewilderment they erroneously credit Ayatollah Ruhollah Moosavi Khomeini (universally known as “Khomeini”) with initiating censorship of the internet in May 2001 (“the then supreme leader who dictated the policies of the Iranian Ministry of Telecommunication and Information Technology”, see at para 34). The problem with this puerile analysis is that Imam Khomeini, who was synonymous with the bugbear of terrorism until the rise of the new age of Sunni Salafist jihadis, died on 3 June 1989 and the tribunal and its expert must mean to say Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei – who replaced Khomeini as rahbar (supreme leader) on 4 June 1989. Anyway, the expert also said, perhaps correctly in this instance, that the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution mandated regulations concerning internet use, the most important of which concerned filtering, despite President Khatami’s protests with respect to adopting such measures without parliamentary approval.

Yet, the ignorance of the “learned” tribunal does not end there. The judges at para 36 proceed to accept Mr KG’s expertise crediting Khomeini with creating the Supreme Council of Virtual Space (SCVS). So that they did not mislead the public, Warr and Perkins UTJJ should have vetted their decision with greater precision, they should have paid greater attention to what they were doing; this is especially so as they elected to report this determination so that the evidence considered by them is available to the public as this was for the greater good. It seems that they did change some errors because the decision was initially promulgated on 19 March 2015 and re-promulgated on 30 April 2015; but they still failed to spot the simple, obvious difference between Khomeini and Khamenei.

On the other hand, some of the other content in this determination is less rubbish like. For example, in addition to the SCVS, we are told that other actors monitor and enforce internet laws. These include the Committee for Determining the Criminality of Web Content (CDCWC), the Iranian Cyber Army and the Information Exchange Police. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wields authority and handpicks officials for all of these enforcement agencies, albeit the SCVS lies at the apex of laying down internet management strategies. The CDCWC is the final authority of what is or is not legally permissible on the internet: the watchdog is responsible for creating a list of banned websites for improper content with respect to insulting Islam, Khomeini, national security or bypassing internet supervision by the state.

The SCVS and CDCWC have a special working relationship. They share committee members such as the intelligence minister, the minister of science, research and technology and the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting. Iran’s prosecutor general is responsible for monitoring these state watchdogs: it is responsible for submitting the list of banned websites to the Iranian Telecommunications Company and other organisations in charge of distributing web content. New legal requirements introduced in 2007 mean that all website owners and blog publishers must officially register. Islam and the revolution must not be insulted or misinterpreted. Moreover, the Regulating of Internet Websites Act produces a total of sixteen categories of restricted content; these range from restricting criminal activity such as money laundering or disclosing military secrets to insulting the existing supreme leader or the late Imam Khomeini. Retribution for misconduct can result in a fine of up to £20,000 and a prison sentence of up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

Although Iran is an “internet enemy”, its supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has Facebook and Twitter accounts. Equally, during the presidential elections in 2013, which catapulted the comparatively moderate Hassan Rouhani to power, all six election candidates maintained a presence on both platforms. Similarly, President Rouhani is a Facebook and Twitter user as are other members of the cabinet.

A senior common room member at St Anthony’s College, Anna Enayat also gave evidence. In addition to the need to control the internet because of swelling social unrest, she mentioned that an enemy of Iran used the Stuxnet Trojan to mount an attack and damaged Iran’s nuclear programme in 2009 and 2010 by causing significant delays in progress. The regime sees this as a part of “soft war waged by the West”. Enayat cited an Israeli study that Iran had allocated US$1,000,000,000 to develop technology and expertise in using and controlling the internet but she nevertheless accepted that the state’s ability to control and monitor internet activism was nowhere near ubiquitous; the agencies concerned were unable to act in real time because Iranian activist groups on the internet were very “tech-savvy” and were well-versed in using decryption and proxies and other devices; thus there was a considerable gap between identifying an IP address and tracing that to a particular known user.

As noted above, much has been made of the mistreatment of bloggers in Muslim countries; their predicament has been in the spotlight for sometime now. But in truth asylum seeking and bloggers’ rights are unimportant and microscopic issues because the wider implications of normal relations with Iran entail mouthwatering business opportunities for British business. It will be interesting to see whether the Iran deal will have the effect of reducing asylum claims, arsing out of blogging or otherwise, in the West.

The Vienna Agreement, JCPOA, 14 July 2015

The deal between the United States, Germany, Britain, China, Russia, France, the European Union and Iran – which ambitiously aims to draw the poison out of the West’s relations with Iran – is as misunderstood as the tribunal’s error about Khomeini and Khamenei. Those who want to wreck the deal think that Tehran has been given carte blanche to propagate fundamentalism and to expand its support of terrorism. However, the mood is decidedly different in Iran itself because hardliners – who see the pact as dovish capitulation – accuse their government of ceding too much ground. In fact, president Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif are internally under attack for appeasing the Americans (the Great Satan) and making overtures to evil Europeans. For example, it is proving hard for Rouhani and Zarif to justify placing two-thirds of their country’s 19,500 centrifuges in storage and it is equally difficult to pacify the hawks about why Iran should be compelled to export 98 percent of its stockpile of low enriched uranium under the JCPOA. Iranian hardliners are at pains to understand why their country’s interests should be made usufruct to the wider regional hegemony of the West. After all, their glorious revolution was victorious so why on earth should they be made to suffer humiliation like the defeated Germans did under the Treaty of Versailles 1919.

But Rouhani has been elected on a mandate to normalise relations with the West in general and America in particular. He enjoys the backing of Khamenei and other theocrats. For him, the moment has arrived for the US-Iran cold war, which began with the 444-day ordeal suffered by 52 US diplomats held hostage in the American embassy (or “the den of spies”) in November 1979, to be turned into a warm peace. Chants of “Death to America” – which could be heard long after the downing of an Iranian passenger flight by the USS Vincennes in July 1988, killing 290 civilians including 66 children – are also drifting into the background. Although the Americans never aplogised for the attack and were equally happy for Saddam Hussein to annihilate Iran with chemical weapons, one of the diplomats held captive in the embassy John Limbert reasons that “each side has its own grievances … but certainly, if you ask today, nobody is going to say that shooting down the passenger plane was a good thing.”

Israeli hawk Dore Gold, the director general of the foreign ministry, has argued in 11 July’s Telegraph that “Iran must unequivocally abandon its backing of international terrorism if it ever wants to rejoin the world community.” For him, the Iranian state sponsors global terrorism: the international community cannot “trust Iran in the war on terror” because of egregious events such as the truck bombing (suicide version) of Israel’s embassy in Buenos Aries in 1992 (killing 30 people, mostly Argentinean citizens) and its backing of countless terror groups (of which Hizbollah and Hamas are the icing on the cake). Gold was arguing his counter-point in opposition to Javad Zarif’s rosy representations – in 8 July’s Financial Times – that the normalisation of relations with Iran will “open new horizons” because Tehran will “join the international battle” against “the increasingly brutal extremism that is engulfing the Middle East.”

Dore Gold equally questioned Iran’s recruitment as an ally in the “war on terror” on the basis of its Shia credentials; he pointed to its funding of Sunni militant outfits such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad and even the Taliban; he said that upon visiting Lebanon Zarif joyfully laid a wreath at the grave of the iconic Hizbollah terrorist Imad Mughniyeh (wanted for the Buenos Aries bombing) whose portfolio of activities included an array of spectacular attacks on America including the bombings of the US embassy in Beirut in 1983 and the subsequent bombing of American and French military forces which left hundreds dead. (These events lead the Americans to ditch their military presence in Lebanon altogether.) To Dore Gold making an arsonist part of the fire brigade cannot be a part of the cure. In any event, he was clear that Tehran had also granted asylum to fleeing al-Qaeda jihadis, when the Taliban fell, in the aftermath of the 2001 American invasion of Afghanistan.

Conversely, in 28 July’s interview to the Telegraph in Tehran, Majid Takht-Ravanchi, Iran’s deputy foreign minister described the deal as a “new baby” that offered opportunities to America, but he said a lot depended on how the baby is “brought up”. Ravanchi was adamant that “if everything goes well in the implementation of the agreement” then “there will be opportunities” – but he maintained the caveat that he could not predict “to what extent Iran can cooperate with the West.” But it was inevitable that Iran and “Little Satan” (Britain) would bury the hatchet. The stage looked set for that to happen when the Supreme Court dismissed Mrs Maryam Rajavi’s appeal last December. (She is a “dissident Iranian politician, resident in Paris”.) It is the position of the British government that Rajavi’s exclusion, pursuant to paragraph 320(6) of the Immigration Rules, is conducive to the public good for reasons of foreign policy and in light of the need to take a firm stance against terrorism. This is so because of her de facto leadership of Majahedin e-Khalq (known as MeK, PMOI, MKO etc). The extreme irony, of course, is that for hundreds of British parliamentarians such as Lord Carlile of Berwick QC, who invited her to the Palace of Westminster to address them on democracy and human right issues, Rajavi is the harbinger of true western liberal democracy in Iran. Security fears for British embassy employees and personnel were central to excluding Rajavi from the UK. Burying her appeal, the Supreme Court held that – on the Foreign Secretary’s recommendation – the Home Secretary was entitled to exclude Rajavi because her entry into the UK would risk jeopardising its diplomatic and economic interests with Iran and might create violent backlash there causing damage to British property and endangering the safety of British and local embassy personnel. In the Supreme Court, because of the delicate nature of the situation, even Lady Hale DPSC was forced to pay respect to the superior judgment of the executive in foreign policy matters.

Iran and the Brits

Less than a year later, the UK and Iran are close to becoming friends again. The two quarrelling nations reached a milestone when British foreign secretary Philip Hammond reopened the British embassy in Tehran on 21 August 2015 almost four years after it was trashed by a Basiji mob of Iranian students who burned the Union Jack and vandalised diplomatic premises. Hammond’s entourage included diplomatic stalwarts such as Simon Gass (director general, political at the foreign office and ambassador in Tehran from 2009-2011). In response to the embassy’s ransacking, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said that the attack was “not right” but he also said that “the [general] sentiments of the youth” vis-à-vis the “evil embassy” were correct. As one can see, subtlety is not Khamenei’s métier. But then again, what else could he have said? After all, the embassy has historically been the epicentre of treachery and imperialism. For example, before being overthrown in the 1953 coup, Iran’s first democratically elected socialist prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh – who nationalised the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (now BP) – had ordered the embassy’s closure in 1952 because of British plots, which ultimately triumphed, to unseat his staunchly patriotic government.

Against that history, Britain’s exploitation of Iran in colonial times, its meddling and murky designs make it an unlikely ally of the Ayatollahs. However, signalling the end of the nadir of relations between London and Tehran, Hammond reopened the embassy (albeit with “Death to England” still graffitied above pictures of the Queen) with high hopes for the future and explained that the road ahead was being explored. “History is history,” he stoically said as the Iranians simultaneously reopened their mission in London. But Hammond did not foreclose the possibility of recovering damages for the vandalism: “We will want to pursue a proper claim for the damage, but the most important thing now is to look to the future and rebuild our relationship.” Hammond is the first foreign secretary to visit Iran since Jack Straw’s visit in 2003, making them the only two foreign secretaries to visit there since the 1979 Revolution catapulted radical Islamists into power. (Straw himself argues that “we are moving in the right direction” and he aggressively pursues peace with Iran, and even accuses the Americans of bullying the Iranians.) Some like former Tory Chancellor Lord Lamont have accused the establishment of being “miles behind” on seizing the moment in Iran; he is concerned that the French, Italians and Germans are beating the British to Persia’s historic riches.

Hammond’s counterpart Zarif was keen not to alienate his guest and – discounting the possibilities of Brexitdrew a distinction between Britain and America by saying: “If we are going to have a bigger relationship with the EU, this means having a bigger relationship with Britain.” Explaining that strong bilateral relations were the order of the day, Hammond also joyfully reciprocated by saying that Rouhani’s election and the nuclear pact “were important milestones” and “potential to go much further” existed. He also pointed to “encouraging trade and investment once sanctions are lifted” and envisioned future cooperation on many issues “including terrorism, regional stability, the spread of ISIL in Syria and Iraq, counter-narcotics and migration.” Upon his return home, Hammond was adamant that the Iranians had worked honestly and strong relations with them would transform the war in Syria. Although “new phase” developments are not “instant solutions” Hammond was unequivocal that progress had been made in his meeting (24 August 2015) with Hasan Rouhani, albeit disagreement loomed over the fate of Bashar al-Assad who Tehran regards as “the glue that holds much of Syria together” but who simply has too much blood on his hands for the UK to do business with. A first timer in Iran, Hammond eschewed the popular western caricature of Iran as a theocratic and backward place and said that:

But what I’ve seen is a perfectly normal, bustling dynamic, entrepreneurial, thrusting, middle-income developing country that clearly has enormous potential, not a regimented, disciplined society under the thumb of the authority.

Despite all these big developments, some British businesses have snubbed opportunities in Iran. For example, BP snubbed Hammond’s trip because it will be some time before the crippling sanctions – which are expected to be repealed by early 2016 in the event Iran honours the deal – against Iran are lifted. “Sanctions are still in place and we are not doing anything while that is the case. We are monitoring the situation,” BP explained. (Notably, BP’s Dutch arch rival Shell accompanied Hammond and plans to pay a £2 billion debt to Iran’s national oil company which it had withheld owing to sanctions.) Concerns are also afoot about the willingness of banks to lend to companies with ambitions in Iran’s vast markets and there are similar concerns over an “informal boycott” that may ensue even if sanctions are permanently removed.

Sarosh Zaiwalla – the veteran lawyer who represented Bank Mellat in the UK Supreme Court, sacked Tony Blair for insufficient preparation, advised Sonia Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto and even acted for Senator Asif Ali Zardari (as he then was) against the Home Department – recently opined that the Brits “are joining the race a bit late” and “the Germans, the French and Italians are already there in a very big way.” Iran is lobbying investment of £185 billion in oil and gas projects by 2020. Of course, there are other sectors as well and Zaiwalla is of the view that “there is too much focus on the oil industry” with the upshot that “other industries have been stalled for many years in Iran.”

Notably, BNP Paribas, the world’s fourth largest bank and the largest French lender, was sentenced in May 2015 to pay a record penalty of almost $9 billion for sanctions violations that unlawfully opened the US financial markets to Sudan, Iran, and Cuba. Moreover, another French bank, Crédit Agricole is expected to pay fines of $1 billion for breaching sanctions imposed on Iran and Cuba.

Giant French banks remained absent from a French business delegation visiting Tehran in September 2015. The delegation involved more than a 100 companies listed on the CAC 40 (including big names such as Airbus, Peugeot and Total) and sought to generate impetus prior to the lifting of sanctions but the banks were afraid to get involved too directly because they did not want to get into trouble for wrongdoing or sanctions violations. Iranian bankers complained that only the second and third tier European banks had visited Tehran. Eager to mitigate their risks, big lenders are being cautious. Rather than running to Tehran, they are waiting for the Iranians to show true commitment to the deal first.

Israeli Blues

Benjamin Netanyahu argued that opposition to the nuclear pact is not “a partisan issue in Israel” and he implored the US to follow suit and not make a “historical mistake”. He took the highly unusual step of confronting Obama and siding with the Republicans in a speech in Congress. For him, the “dangerous deal” signifies one of history’s darkest days and he considers it his responsibility to prevent what he perceives as a second Holocaust. But eager to make peace with Iran a part of his legacy, an infuriated Obama denounced such hawkish tactics by drawing parallels to the type of “mindset” that lead to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He thinks that the demonisation of Iran is counterproductive and unhelpful to America whose traditional alliances in the Middle East may be falling short of expectations in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Netanyahu seems to have misjudged everything and has dealt himself a serious diplomatic blow by being so aggressive with the White House. He claims that an “overwhelming majority of the American public sees eye-to-eye with us” but despite universal concern about Iran’s intentions in Israel itself, Netanyahu, whose very political career has been constructed on the Iranian bogeyman, has been excoriated by Yosi Verter of the Ha’aretz who raised the important question: “If Netanyahu knew the outcome, did he really have to plunge Israel’s relations with the White House to an unprecedented nadir with his reckless behaviour?” In return, unlike his usual self, Netanyahu has remained quite mute on the issue.

“We believe that what we have laid out here is a way of making Israel and the region in fact safer,” said John Kerry a few weeks ago to take the sting out of the relentless AIPAC propaganda that was designed to prevent the White House from amassing the number of votes needed to keep the deal on target. “I’ve repeatedly asked both Prime Minister Netanyahu and others to present me a reasonable, realistic plan that would achieve exactly what this deal achieves, and I have yet to get a response,” explained the American President in an interview with CNN on 9 August 2015. In his speech at the American University, he was clear that the agreement was not a panacea. Rather, in the circumstances, with the Middle East boiling over, Obama was adamant that he had chosen the best outcome:

The agreement now reached between the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran builds on this tradition of strong, principled diplomacy. After two years of negotiations, we have achieved a detailed arrangement that permanently prohibits Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. It cuts off all of Iran’s pathways to a bomb. It contains the most comprehensive inspection and verification regime ever negotiated to monitor a nuclear program. As was true in previous treaties, it does not resolve all problems; it certainly doesn’t resolve all our problems with Iran. It does not ensure a warming between our two countries. But it achieves one of our most critical security objectives. As such, it is a very good deal.

Despite all the diplomacy aimed at hardwiring peace with Iran, the US is equally eager to keep its historic alliance with Israel and John Kerry has said that Israel’s security is “sacrosanct” and that “unprecedented levels of military assistance” would be delivered to the Jewish state over the next decade including state of the art F-35 fighter aircraft and funding to develop newer systems like “the Arrow-3 and David’s Sling.” But Kerry has also been busy busting myths shrouding the agreement. Speaking on 2 September 2015 at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, in a talk entitled Debunking Myths Around the Nuclear Agreement With Iran, Kerry sought to repudiate five key misconceptions about the deal. He rejected that his government was naïve in making the deal. He unequivocally reasserted that Israel was not being abandoned by America and counterclaimed that Israel would maintain its military superiority to address complex emergent security threats. Kerry argued that rather than legitimising Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, “under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards” the agreement effectively prohibits Iran “from ever pursuing a nuclear weapon.” He explained that there was “no way” that Iran could somehow covertly build a nuclear facility because the deal allows a maximum of 24 days to get access to a suspicious site.

According to Kerry, the JCPOA “involved a quid pro quo” and the parties (the United States, Germany, Britain, China, Russia, France, the EU and Iran) were clear that Iran’s demands about relief from sanctions would come at the cost of ensuring the winding down of Tehran’s nuclear programme to a wholly peaceful nature. “Without that trade-off, there could have been no deal and no agreement by Iran to the constraints it has accepted,” argued the US Secretary of State. Stressing that the deal would stop Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, he concluded by saying:

In closing, let me point out that the Iran agreement is not a panacea for the sectarian and extremist violence that has been ripping that region apart. But history may judge it a turning point – a moment when the builders of stability seized the initiative from the destroyers of hope – and when we were able to show, as generations before us, that when we demand the best from ourselves and insist that others adhere to a similar high standard, we have immense power to shape a safer and more humane world.

Indeed, the Obama administration toiled quite hard over the long hot summer to coalesce the votes needed to prevent Congress from obstructing the accord. Before Barbara Mikulski announced her game-changing decision by coming out to support the deal, senators such as Patti Murray (Democrat) were adamant that “moving forward with this deal is the best chance we have at a diplomatic solution” because “it puts us in a stronger position no matter what Iran chooses to do, and it keeps our options on the table if Iran doesn’t hold up to their end of the bargain.” Murray’s support of the deal had come off the heels of fellow Democrat (minority leader) Harry Reid’s dénouement that “I’m going to do anything in my power to make sure the deal stands.” Similarly, Debbie Stabenow (Democrat senator from Michigan) similarly supported the deal by explaining: “this is the best way, the only way, to keep Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, as reported in the press, a pair of Democratic senators – Charles Schumer from New York who is set to become minority leader in 2016 and New Jersey’s Robert Menendez – came out in opposition to the deal.

As the Washington Post explained the other day:

Now that the veto-sustaining 34th vote in favor of the deal has been pledged, the question is not whether the Iran deal will survive its congressional test, but how. Ten Democrats remain undeclared, and if just seven more of those senators vote for the deal, Obama’s supporters will number 41 – enough to sustain a filibuster against a resolution of disapproval, meaning the president might not need to use his veto pen.

Key Senators such as Ben Cardin (Maryland), leading Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, are still coming out in opposition to the deal – Cardin thinks it “legitimises Iran’s nuclear program” because “after 10 to 15 years, it would leave Iran with the option to produce enough enriched fuel for a nuclear weapon in a short time.” But ultimately his resistance did not preventing the disapproval resolution from even coming to a final vote because of being bottled up in the Senate with a filibuster. In any event, the first Jewish congresswoman to represent Florida, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and former Secretary of State (2001-2005) Colin Powell have also backed Obama’s judgment because of “remarkable changes” in Iranian attitudes. Powell is of the view that “It’s a pretty good deal”. If one is to believe John McCain, the chairman of the armed services committee, the nuclear deal is “very, very weak” but despite his rhetoric Obama’s once “dodgy” deal with the Iranian mullahs is looking like a shining success. The EU diplomatic service’s former boss Pierre Vimont suggested that Europe can act as an “honest broker” in facilitating a smooth transition after the Vienna Agreement, JCPOA.

In August, Israel blamed Iran for orchestrating terrorism and instigating rocket fire, but notably without fatalities, from Syria in a Golan skirmish where four rockets landed on the Israeli side (seized in 1967). A démarche published by Israel’s foreign ministry condemned the incident as Iran’s blatant “involvement in terrorist attacks against Israel and in the region in general.” Israeli diplomatic sources in Washington are angry and concerned that “the Jewish community in the United States is not standing as a united front against Israel”.

With jihad on the rise, one can understand Israeli concerns about living in a rough neighbourhood. But the unrelenting suffering of the Palestinians totally undermines Israel’s one-sided point of view; to most neutral and secular people, Israel’s human rights credentials appear to be much worse than Iran’s. For example, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has produced telling figures on Palestinian casualties. OCHA estimates that more than 2,300 Palestinians were killed – and more than 17,000 were injured – by the Israelis in 2014 alone. As revealed by OCHA, 2014 was the bloodiest year in the history of the conflict since 1967: the year of the six-day war in which Israel emerged triumphant. Indeed, as the upcoming documentary film Censored Voices (inspired by the book The Seventh Day) promises to unveil, the details of human rights abuses retold by Israeli veterans of the six-day war are explosive even half a century later.

But the battle rages on. Opponents are trying for fresh sanctions, specifically targeting the Republican Guard, against Iran which aim to supersede earlier measures. There are calls to block funding for the IAEA, the body charged with overseeing the implementation of the deal. Republican frontrunner for the presidency, business tycoon, Donald Trump thinks that it is “a truly stupid deal” and plans on opposing it at all costs. Despite all out plans to somehow scupper the deal, Florida’s ex-governor Jeb Bush has been less aggressive than Trump. However, Texas Senator Ted Cruz agrees with Trump and, along with Sarah Palin, has headlined a rally against the deal on Capitol Hill. Meanwhile, Obama has lambasted Dick Cheney – who suggests that the White House had been outwitted by the mullahs – for contending (like Tony Blair) that his judgment on Iraq was “right”. To the contrary, the White House argues that Cheney was “Wrong Then [and is] Wrong Now”. Equally, Hillary Clinton is also arguing a case for the deal, she said that America could elect to “move forward on a path to diplomacy or turn down more dangerous path leading to a far less certain and riskier future” but anticipating attacks to her presidential campaign, Clinton explained she “would not hesitate to use military action” in the event the Iranians reneged on their commitments.

Furthermore, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is extremely concerned that David Cameron’s unilateral drone actions in Syria, his insistence on using hard military force and his pledge to remove Bashar al-Assad from power are destroying the goodwill underpinning the agreement. Steinmeier thinks it is an inopportune moment for the UK and France to play the military card because it destroys the prospects of a negotiated solution. “It can’t be the case that important partners, who we need now, back the military option,” he said to German lawmakers. He also expressed profound concern over Russian plans to step up arms supplies to Damascus.


The Iranian media is forbidden from even mentioning the name of Mohammed Khatami, the former reformist president who is not allowed to leave Iran or make public appearances because of being considered an enemy of the regime. However, local journalists (imprisoned by the regime) believe that the “red lines” of conduct are being expanded and will widen further if a deal is reached: “Iran is changing for the better,” and it is said that the human rights situation is expected to improve.

Iran’s nuclear programme has been aided by Pakistan which, according to Toby Dalton of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center, has been producing 20 nuclear warheads annually in comparison to India’s five warheads a year. It is said that at this rate Pakistan (which currently has 120 warheads in comparison to India’s 100) will, within a decade, join the ranks of Russia and the US in the league table of states possessing the largest nuclear arsenals. But rising to the top echelons of this unnecessary military power comes at a very great cost to the impoverished country whose teeming population is mostly without basic amenities like water, power, sanitation, transport and education. In 2004, Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the mastermind behind the first Islamic bomb was arrested for proliferating nuclear technology to rogue states such as Iran, North Korea and Libya. Because he was considered a proliferation risk, he remained under official house arrest until 2009 when the Islamabad High Court controversially declared him a free citizen and restored his constitutional right of freedom of movement in Pakistan.

Apart from having an absolutely appalling human rights record, Saudi Arabia’s recent incursion into Yemen – where Iran’s sympathies naturally lie with the Shia Houthis – has claimed 2,000 lives and put the country on the verge of famine. It is an oddity that Saudi Arabia, the country enjoying a special relationship with the West, was allowed to infect the world with its hardline and intolerant version of Islam. I have denounced the Wahhabis in the past; this is because many people known to me have died as a result of the spread of Wahhabism/Salafism. In the bustling bar rooms of Pakistan’s district and high courts, we often hear about how promising young Ahmadi, Christian, Hindu and Shia advocates were murdered by religiously motivated jihadi attacks. Even judges are not spared. I doubt very much that anyone could do better than Khomeini himself in denouncing Saudi Arabia. This is what he memorably said about “the mercenaries of the arch Satan – the criminal United States” upon the massacre of Iranian pilgrims in Mecca during the 1987 Hajj pilgrimage:

If we had to prove to the world that the Saudi Government – these vile and ungodly Saudis, are like daggers which always pierce the heart of the Muslims from the back – we would not have been able to do it as well as demonstrated by these inept and spineless leaders of the Saudi Government … How opportune it was that immediately after the incident at a time when the bodies of our loved one were still lying on the ground, Saddam and the Jordanian Husayn and Moroccan Hassan, in support of Al Sa’ud’s crime, announced their solidarity, as though Arabia had conquered a great fortress. How opportune it was that by massacring hundreds of defenceless Muslim men and women, using machine guns on them, and walking over their pure bodies, it achieved a great military victory that they could congratulate one and other about.

However, nowadays things are decidedly different. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman visited President Obama on 5 September 2015 and Riyadh is satisfied that the Iran deal is in the wider interests of the region and will bolster security and stability in the Middle East. According to Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, King Salman supports the deal and the Saudis have accepted Washington’s assurances that the deal debars Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, includes inspections of military and suspected sites and provides for the restoration of sanctions if Iran breaches the agreement. Ironically, senator Ben Cardin’s announcement that he would vote against the plan coincided with al-Jubeir’s statement signalling King Salman’s consent to it.

“Iran is less a country than a continent, more a civilization than a nation,” explains Michael Axworthy in Revolutionary Iran. For him, Iranians believe “that they have the best poetry, the best music, the best philosophy, the best food – or at any rate the best rice – and of course the best religion.” I can agree with the Iranians on all these points save the “best religion” bit. But even with my suspicion of religion, a resurgent Iran might fortify Shia fortunes in Pakistan. It may even reduce the threat to Pakistan’s Shias from the jihadis and the Taliban; this would be a welcome development because at the moment, Shia communities are being targeted in an extraordinary way in Pakistan. Equally, the completion of the Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline will be a boon for Pakistan; a textile based agricultural economy totally crippled by an overwhelming energy crisis.

Anyone who has visited Iran will know that it is a modern country; its government is capable of delivering basic services to its people, unlike India and Pakistan for example. However, gender disempowerment makes it compulsory for women to cover their heads and they are also prohibited from becoming president. Since segregated carriages for women on the tube are being mooted in London because of concerns arising out of safety and sexual harassment, it is worth noting that men and women (including married couples) travel separately in city commuter buses, there are optional women only carriages in the metro but no such arrangements are available on trains and intercity buses.

When I visited Iran during the Khatami era, it was an idyllic place with amazing food, great carpets and very friendly people. Arrival at the airport was a bit like the Australian border, the customs officials could be see handpicking all the baggage; but for some reason they waved me through immediately and I was not searched at all. Iranian border officials were politer than the UK Border Force and HM Customs. Outside the airport, women actively participated in traditionally male dominated professions, for example they drove taxis and buses in Tehran – not a common sight in South Asian cities (though a female rickshaw driver boom is reported in Chennai, India). At least through foreign eyes, women seemed to have been well represented across the labour force in Iran (apparently they make up 49 percent of it).

Speaking of taxis, I use an Iranian taxi company in London but none of its workers are female. Reza, an elderly gentleman has driven me to Heathrow on several occasions, confesses that it was a mistake to protest against the Shah. He says: “In 1979 we were just going out to demonstrate because it was fashionable, but we were wrong.” An unlikely monarchist, his son-in-law said: “Reza Baba and his generation, they made a big mistake you know, the mullahs are useless people. They have ruined Iran. The revolution was just a knee-jerk reaction, the Shah overdid things, the elite was too westernised and the gap was too wide. This created huge misunderstandings.”

I agree with both of them and can confess that returning to corrupt Pakistan after my visit was refreshing because it had English law, it was an American colony and a freer place than most – a bit like the Wild West. A comrade who just returned from a trip to Iran the other day reported that it is a very corrupt place these days; sharab (alcohol) is everywhere, intravenous drug users sit in parks and shoot up publicly, things are badly off. Moreover, bright young people are disgruntled by theocratic rule and they want freedom. The mullahs in Tehran must be worried about maintaining their hold on power; they probably don’t want to be overthrown in a “Persian Spring” and therefore peace with the West is probably the best way forward. Iran craved change in 1979 because of the Shah’s profligacy. Nowadays people want change because of the overall inadequacy of decades of backward mullah rule.

Jahiliyyah Revisited

As noted in an earlier post, in Islamic narrative the jahiliyyah refers to the pre-Islamic “age of ignorance”. Moreover, in everyday Hindustani/Urdu, a jahil is someone who cannot read or write; by its very nature, the insinuation of the word is deliberately derogatory. By analogy, in comparative perspective, it is possible to apply the notion of a jahiliyyah to the practice of immigration and asylum law in the UK. The whole system of applications and appeals is a jahiliyyah. Grandiose ideas about the British taking thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of refugees are a jahiliyyah. And redolent of the annual Tier 2 (General) limit, taking 20,000 refugees over the next five years is a totally pathetic response to the scale and the reasons behind the problem; it is a jahiliyyah not to acknowledge that western wars are primarily responsible for creating the refugee crisis. But we can rest assured there isn’t enough room here in the UK for drowned children such as little Alan Kurdi, his brother Galip or their mother Rehan. Or for Douma’s severely burned Yousef Rajab whose life is a living hell. How could there be?

Here there is despair even for those with an indefeasible right of abode. Here thousands of children grow up as Skype kids because of the euphemistically called “minimum income requirements” under Appendix FM. Here even relatively wealthy British citizens who can pay to keep their elderly sick parents, who may die on their own elsewhere without care, are treated as if they are criminals. Here you will find a hog of a home office presentation officer who will relish in abusing an illiterate Hindu woman in her mid seventies who has nowhere and no one to return to India. He’ll try to taunt you with shouts of “Nagre” and “Gulshan” without ever having bothered to read what had been said there. Here an equally foul immigration judge will refuse to follow the tribunal president’s guidance on adjournments; instead, he will make fun of an old Hindu woman’s family because they are awaiting a report from a privately instructed expert to confirm that she suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. (From this perspective, thoughts about family life, the duty to the child or EU law will seem like a pipe dream leave alone refugees.)

Such behaviour will bring to mind the type of individuals who conducted the Amritsar massacre – of unarmed children, women and men – in 1919 to “civilise” the natives. Here, you will find an all out jahiliyyah in the immigration courts; the judges will be like General Dyer who infamously confessed subsequent to the mass murder that, in addition to using single shot rifles, had the narrow Indian road been a bit wider and permitted it, he would even have driven the armoured car into Jallianwala Bagh in order to machine gun the tens of thousands of non-violent protesters gathered there. Here such is the popular judicial, official and social mindset.

I swear it by Jesus Christ, Great Messiah and Prophet, the Lord of the Christians.

About Asad Ali Khan, BA, MSc, MA, LL.B (Hons), LL.M

Senior Partner, Khan & Co, Barristers-at-Law
This entry was posted in Appendix FM, Asylum, Blogging, Business, European Union, India, Iran, Islam, Israel, Pakistan, Politics, Refugee Convention, Terrorism, Tribunals, United States, Women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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