Foreign AffairsSpeeches

Martyn Day – 2024 Speech on Freedom and Democracy in Iran

The speech made by Martyn Day, the SNP MP for Linlithgow and East Falkirk, in the House of Commons on 1 February 2024.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this debate. The issue of freedom and democracy in Iran is a very important one, and I find myself commending him for his speech and agreeing with every point he made.

As we have heard, the issue is really about a lack of democracy and a lack of freedom. Elections will of course be held on 1 March to Iran’s Parliament, but they can in no way can be considered free, fair or credible. It is more of a selection than an election, with the unelected, 12-strong Guardian Council having the power to approve candidates. With a track record of banning moderates and reformers from standing, it is no surprise that many candidates have already been disqualified. This body can also veto laws made by the Parliament.

My litmus test for fair, free and credible democratic elections is: can any individual freely stand for election, can anyone vote in secret for any individual who is standing and can the sovereignty of the people be exercised by their representatives? Clearly, Iran fails on all those counts. The reality is that Iran is ruled as a totalitarian theocracy: it is not a democracy. Ultimate power rests in the hands of the country’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the unelected institutions under his control.

Corruption persists across all levels, with powerful actors such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps operating beyond scrutiny. Media and civil society face restrictions hindering their role as independent watchdogs for ensuring transparency and accountability. The regime, as we have heard, is ruthlessly held in place by its intelligence and security force the IRGC and is supported by the wider apparatus of the state, including the judiciary, the Ministry of Intelligence, the police and others.

Iranian authorities have extensively used Iran’s repressive machinery to censor discussion of these issues and persecute women, human rights defenders and anti-death penalty activists. Political activists who support democratic change have been particularly vulnerable to detention and death over many years, despite which the organised resistance, the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran—or MEK—have remained determined to establish a free democratic and secular republic, and I wish them every success with that struggle.

The level of oppression and human rights abuses by the current regime in Iran is truly appalling and is getting worse. According to Freedom House, Iran has decreased its total global freedom status from a derisory 14 out of 100 in 2022 to 12 out of 100 last year. Freedom House gave Iran zero scores for most areas of fundamental rights including: the individual right to practice or express religion, faith or non-belief in public and private; free and independent media; the Government operating with openness and transparency; safeguards against corruption; the question of whether the freely elected head of Government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the Government; and fair and free elections.

The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran expressed alarm at

“the disproportionate number of executions of members of minority communities, in particular the Baluch and Kurdish minorities”,

and I share this concern. Last year, at least 864 people were executed, the highest figure since 2017. Any use of the death penalty is unacceptable to me and I believe this substantial increase reflects the regime’s inability to suppress the protests that have arisen.

Women lack equality and face discrimination in both law and practice. Examples include a woman’s testimony in court being given half the weight of a man’s and unequal compensation for victims’ families. Women also face disparities in inheritance rights. The regime fails to protect women and children from sex trafficking while Iranians and migrant workers, especially from Afghanistan, are subject to forced labour and debt bondage.

The reality is that some 88 million Iranians are effectively living in what is a state prison, otherwise known as the Islamic Republic of Iran. But it does not have to be that way and I applaud the courage and determination of those who have stood up to the regime and protested for the rights that we take for granted, and have done so at great risk to themselves.

The ongoing uprising began in September 2022 with the arrest of a Kurdish Iranian girl in Tehran by the Tehran morality police for not veiling, after which she was brutally beaten, fell into a coma and tragically lost her life while in custody. That brutal killing of Mahsa Amini prompted widespread protests across Iran, with thousands of people demanding regime change for a secular democratic republic. The ongoing uprising has resulted in over 800 unlawful deaths, including of minors and women. Additionally, around 30,000 Iranians face cruel treatment in jails, including torture and sexual violence, highlighting the dire situation in Iran.

Ultimately, Iran’s future must be decided by its own people, but given that they have virtually no avenues for reform, the people have no option but to resist, to demonstrate, to defend themselves, and to seek alternative forms of opposition. Iran has been witnessing a massive popular uprising—a call for freedom and democracy largely led by women and young people. I have heard it described by some as a revolution, and I hope it is a successful one. It has clearly rattled the Tehran regime and I believe this is partly behind the regime promoting and encouraging conflict outwith its borders as it seeks to dampen the momentum of the protests inside Iran while simultaneously rallying the regime’s own forces behind the Supreme Leader’s fundamentalist agenda.

As we have heard, Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism. This exporting of international terrorism by Iran cannot and will not be tolerated, nor should be its support for Russia in the war with Ukraine, use of cyber-attacks, or hostage-taking diplomacy, and I condemn the involvement of Iranian officials in the killing of US servicemen. According to reports in The Times on Tuesday this week:

“Tehran has already been accused by MI5 and police of more than a dozen assassination and kidnap plots in Britain against dissidents and media organisations in the past two years. Officials have previously expressed fears that, emboldened by the situation in the Middle East, Iran could ramp up its activity in the UK and present a wider terror threat.”

Although I welcome the recent announcement of additional sanctions on senior Iranian officials, I wonder why we are not taking an even stronger approach. At a minimum, we should urgently proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. I have lost count of the number of times that I and others have called for that action. Proscription would be a tangible step in the UK in the furtherance of freedom and democracy in Iran. We should also support calls for the UN to dispatch international observers to visit Iran’s prisons and to meet those detained by the regime. We should all support the democratic aspirations of the Iranian people. I pay tribute to the work of the resistance units that emerged in late 2017 and have helped inspire Iranians to defy the prevailing tyranny.

In conclusion, the SNP stands in full solidarity with Iranians journalists, women, men and young people calling for democratic change. The bravery of Iranian citizens standing up against brutality and dictatorship is beyond inspiring. I wish them every success in seeking a new democratic and secular republic in Iran. It will be better for them and the world when they succeed.