LONDON — A mountain of press articles, books and academic research has been devoted to Russian interference in the 2016 United States presidential election.
However, even in the United Kingdom itself, rather less attention has been focused on the Kremlin’s effort to sow discord in Britain: its backing for Brexit during the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union in 2016 and its alleged support for hard-left Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn during the following year’s general election.
Russia is not, though, the only hostile state attempting to influence political debate in the UK. According to recent reports, Iran has its sights on assisting Corbyn. Among its reported targets for trolling are Israel and British Jews who complain about anti-Semitism in the UK’s principal opposition party.
The reason for that support will worry both. It underlines a long and controversial association between the Labour leader and Iran, and throws light on the radically different approach Corbyn advocates for British foreign policy in the region — which he might seek to advance were he to become prime minister.
Last month, Twitter published details of more than 10 million social media posts generated by a relatively small number of anonymous Russian and Iranian accounts. A million of these tweets have been linked to 770 accounts that Twitter believes originated in Iran.
As the Jewish Chronicle reported, Iranian accounts such as the now-defunct “VoiceofQuds” tweeted messages such as: “Jeremy Corbyn poses a threat but NOT to Britain’s #Jews rather, what he stands for is a direct threat to #IsraelLobby ideological & economic interests #JeremyCorbyn4PM #GroupPalestine.”
Other tweets and retweets identified by the paper included: “Zionist Inquisition in Full Cry Their quarry: anti-racist Labour leader #JeremyCorbyn. Their weapons: antisemitism smears. Their purpose: to oust Corbyn and replace him with a compliant pro-Israel stooge.”
There is no suggestion that Labour knew of, or supported, Tehran’s efforts. Rather, these posts were part of a wider Iranian effort attacking Israel, with false stories linking the Jewish state to Islamic State and other Islamist terror groups in Syria.
The latest revelations from Twitter follow the news in August that Facebook shut down what The Times described at the time as “an extensive network of pro-Corbyn, anti-Israel… accounts posing as media outlets and left-wing activists.”
The social media giant pulled the plug on 652 pages, groups and accounts for “coordinated inauthentic behavior that originated in Iran.”
The Corbyn-supporting fake accounts reportedly included “The British Left,” which described itself as the voice of the “genuinely independent” British Progressive Front and pushed out stories designed to bolster the Labour leader. At the same time, an account that purported to represent the Patriotic Palestinian Front pumped out anti-Israel propaganda, with stories such as “Israeli secret service behind attempts to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn.”
Following a warning from a cybersecurity company, Fireeye, it was discovered that many of the pages were linked to the “Liberty Front Press,” which Facebook says was traced to “Iranian state media.”
Fireeye’s Lee Foster told The Times: “This influence operation linked to Iran aims to promote political narratives in line with Iranian interests, including anti-Saudi, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian themes.”
It is not hard to see why the Islamic Republic might be keen to see Corbyn in Downing Street. The Labour leader’s links to Iran have certainly not gone unnoticed in the UK.
Most famously, Corbyn received £20,000 for appearing on programs on Press TV. An English- and French-language 24-hour news channel affiliated with Iran’s state broadcaster, Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, Press TV was launched in 2007 to break the West’s alleged “stranglehold” over the world’s media. The station was subsequently banned from broadcasting in the UK for screening a “confession” from a Newsweek journalist who had been arrested and tortured in an Iranian prison.
While Corbyn has claimed that he severed his ties with the station after Iran’s brutal crackdown on those protesting the 2009 election results, he was apparently still appearing on Press TV as recently as June 2012 — six months after British regulators revoked the channel’s license, making it only available online in the UK.
Moreover, the Labour leader’s claims that he used his platform on the Iranian station to “address the issues of human rights” have also been disputed.
Indeed, the reappearance of some of the comments Corbyn made on the channel have subsequently come back to bite him. In July, for instance, footage emerged of the Labour leader telling a Press TV interviewer that he suspected “the hand of Israel” in a 2012 terrorist attack on Egyptian police. The following month it was revealed that he had told the channel in 2011 that the BBC “has a bias towards saying that … Israel has a right to exist.”
Corbyn is highly defensive about the subject. Two months ago, he angrily refused to say in a media interview whether he regretted working for Press TV.
Corbyn’s relationship with Press TV is underpinned by a seeming affinity for Iran which reflects the Labour leader’s anti-imperialist, anti-Western worldview. This is perhaps best understood by his long involvement in, and support for, the Stop the War Coalition, a purportedly anti-war British campaign group founded shortly after 9/11.
As the British commentator, James Bloodworth, argued: “Stop the War promotes a very specific brand of ‘anti-imperialism’ in which, to paraphrase the long-dead German socialist Karl Liebknecht, the main enemy is always at home. Put another way, if the United States invaded hell, the Stop the War Coalition would soon be making favorable remarks about the Devil.” Corbyn is a founder of the group — which is also fiercely anti-Israel — and was, until his election as Labour leader, its chair.
In January 2014 — the year prior to his unlikely and unexpected rise from backbench obscurity to the leadership of his party — Corbyn traveled to Iran on a small, cross-party visit, the first British parliamentary delegation to Iran since 2008.
The following month, he addressed an event staged by the Islamic Center of England entitled “Marking the 35th Anniversary of the Islamic Revolution: The All-Encompassing Revolution.” Corbyn’s address was billed as “The Case for Iran.”
In it, he lauded Iran as “a country that is strong, a country with the most amazing history and a country that has suffered very grievously during the Iran-Iraq war.” He lamented the West’s attitude towards it: “We had the isolation of Iran, we’ve had the sanctions against Iran, we’ve had the military threats against Iran, [and] we’ve had the demonization of Iran.” He also laid the blame for “horrors of the Iran-Iraq war” squarely at the door of the West, which had “poured arms into Iraq.”
Unsurprisingly, when discussing the Iran nuclear program, he largely gave Tehran a pass, while noting Israel’s supposed possession of nuclear weapons. Similarly, he touted his steadfast opposition to US and British military intervention in Syria, while offering warm words for the role of Iran. “The involvement of Iran has helped to bring about the chemical weapons agreement with the Syrian government,” he claimed, and “helped to bring about [the] Geneva 2 [peace talks] taking place.”
He moved swiftly over Iran’s appalling human rights record, noting that he’d been reassured by the country’s foreign minister that it would respond fully to the UN Human Rights Council’s periodic review (which, Corbyn added, “every country has to undergo”).
Among the audience at the Islamic Center of England event were said to be Abdolhossein Moezi, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s personal representative to the UK.
In a column for the far-left Morning Star newspaper, Corbyn added a little additional color on these discussions. “When we raised this subject, both with Iranian all-party parliamentary groups and government ministers,” he wrote, “they were concerned about double standards on human rights and pointed out, quite correctly, the US torture camp at Guantanamo Bay, extraordinary rendition and atrocities in Iraq were also human rights violations which must be condemned.”
Corbyn’s conclusion: It was high time to “rebuild normal, proper, good relations with Iran which means an end of sanctions, full diplomatic recognition, proper visa arrangements, and an end to the financial sanctions which are so damaging to Iranian families.”
Having berated Britain’s past dealings with Iran — “British influence in Iran… has not always been for the good of the people of Iran but has very much been in the interests of both Britain’s colonial policy as well as the interests of British commerce” — Corbyn’s view of where the onus in rebuilding relations lay was clear: “I respect Iran’s history, I respect what brought about the revolution in 1979 and I hope I understand the need and wish of the people of Iran to have a peaceful relationship with the rest of the world,” he suggested. “I want our children in this country not to be brought up in a history of grand imperial Britain.”
Corbyn’s sympathies have already reshaped his party’s attitude toward Iran. That was most graphically apparent during the protests against the regime that occurred earlier this year.
Interviewed by the BBC, the Labour leader was asked: “You’ve been very reluctant to condemn the government of Iran. Can I read you what Amnesty International has said about Iran…?” Corbyn swiftly interrupted, accusing his questioner of “spending too much time reading the Daily Mail,” a right-wing tabloid newspaper.
The Labour leader went on to offer what the journalist and commentator Tom Gross labeled “generalized” comments about human rights in Iran. “Judging by Corbyn’s actual record over many years one must assume they are little more than expedient lip service,” wrote Gross.
More striking, however, was the manner in which Labour’s lead spokesperson on foreign affairs and likely foreign secretary in a Corbyn-led government, Emily Thornberry, said her party did not want to “leap to judgment” about the widespread anti-regime protests in Iran late last year. Thornberry said her party was instead was adopting a “cautious” approach.
It was difficult to understand the political movements behind the protests, she told the BBC, and argued that those opposing the regime were not necessarily “the guys in white hats.”
Thornberry’s stance was in sharp contrast to the speed with which she formed a judgment on the cause of the bloodshed at the Gaza border in May and the emotive language — she called on the IDF to stop “this vicious and utterly avoidable slaughter of peaceful protesters demanding the right to return to their homes” — she deployed to attack Israel.
This example illustrates a wider shift which could have important implications if Labour wins power. As BICOM, a pro-Israel think tank, argued in a report last year on the party’s approach to the Middle East, “a Labour government would likely bring a significant change in tone with respect to Iran.” Thus, while Labour and the UK government both support European efforts to maintain the Iran nuclear deal, this is as far as their agreement goes.
“The position of the current government is still that Iran is a threat to the stability of the region,” posited the report, noting that Prime Minister Theresa May has previously declared: “We must also work together to push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or in the Gulf itself.”
“This tone is unlikely to be sustained by Labour,” BICOM argued. Instead, a Labour government would cool relations with Sunni Arab states — in 2017, Labour barred the Saudi ambassador from attending its annual conference over its actions in Yemen. By contrast, a Labour government might abandon the UK’s policy of non-engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah. Corbyn has previously defended his meetings with them as part of a necessary dialogue to bring about peace.
Samuel Armstrong of the UK-based Henry Jackson Society think tank paints an even darker picture. “The prospect of a Corbyn government will make the region yearn for the dark days of the Iran Deal,” he warns.
Referring to Seamus Milne, the Labour leader’s influential director of communications and strategy, Armstrong argues: “That Corbyn has taken money off the regime in the past pails into insignificance when compared to the views of [his] chief consigliere, Seamus Milne. Milne is a hardened anti-Israeli firebrand who could well steer the British Government into a conciliatory or outright pro-Iran angle.
“The UK could turn the other way if Iran engaged in further aggression within the region … This tacit or indeed open support could well manifest itself with further significant military action from Iran unfettered by Western criticism,” says Armstrong.
Iran is not Russia and its crude social media efforts on behalf of Corbyn are unlikely to have anything like the impact of the Kremlin’s backing for US President Donald Trump. But Tehran’s apparent desire to see the Labour leader at the helm of one of Europe’s major powers is nonetheless telling.