UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband on the Today programme: Iran Elections

Evan Davies (ED), presenter: The Iranian revolution of 1979 is meeting its biggest threat yet.  We’re used to scenes of fervour on the streets of Tehran, perhaps directed against the Americans or Zionism, but what is occurring now is unprecedented, a modernist fervour directed against the authorities themselves, and events there are turning nasty.  Iranian radio has reported that seven died yesterday; more trouble is likely today.  One Iranian news agency says that a rally in support of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has been organised today in the same place where supporters of the defeated presidential candidate Mir Hossein Musavi plan to gather.  Well the Foreign Secretary David Miliband has to carve out a British response to the events there and he joins us now.  Good morning.

David Miliband (DM), Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs: Good morning.

ED: Can you outline what your hopes and what your fears are of what is going on in Iran?

DM: I’ve spoken to our ambassador in Tehran this morning.  Obviously the most fervent hope is for peaceful protest to be met with peaceful response from the state authorities.  The loss of life that’s happened, the seven that have been reported, the credible reports of greater loss of life, are extremely… are to be deplored very, very clearly.

Secondly it’s obviously very important that the Iranian people choose their own government.  I thought that President Obama chose his words very carefully and very appropriately last night.  I spoke to Mrs Clinton, the Secretary of State, and we are all determined not to fall into the trap of being seen to back one side or the other, this isn’t a pro-west or anti-west… versus anti-west competition in Iran, it’s a competition to reflect the will of the Iranian people, and I think that we have to hold fast to that point.

However we also have to say that there is a potentially unique moment.  You referred to 1979 and the 30-year period since then.  The fact that we now have an American administration breaking the taboo that has said an American administration shouldn’t reach out to Iran is very significant and I think that that makes this a particularly important moment for the election of a new government in Tehran.

ED: Right, I hear what you say and really you’re saying it’s not going to be very helpful for us to take too strong a position in one side or the other in this, but it is pretty clear, isn’t it, whose side most people in this country are on.  Is there anything… well, isn’t it?

DM: Well there’s obviously… it’s not just about this country, there’s obviously real discontent in Iran.  I think there are two things that I would highlight from the events of the last couple of days.  First of all this isn’t just a group of university discontents, you don’t get that number of people on the streets of Tehran without encompassing a very wide section of society: clerics, academics, the middle class, but also… liberal reformers, but also people who just want a better deal.  Secondly this isn’t just Tehran.  As your very interesting report an hour ago, from I think Jon Lyne said, this is a movement that is feeling severely disaffected and not just in Tehran but elsewhere in the country, and I think that is a very significant development.

ED: Well Foreign Secretary, if you can stay on the line for a moment, we’ve got John Simpson up in Tehran now.  Let’s just get the latest from him and come back to you.
[interview resumes at 08.15]

ED: We’ll go back to David Miliband.  I think a lot of people would say is there something or anything we can do to help the demonstrators but what I’m hearing from you, Foreign Secretary, is that that would be counterproductive or undesirable.

DM: Well I think it probably would be counterproductive.  Obviously the long thesis of the conspiracy by foreign powers against Iran is one that is deeply ingrained in the popular imagination and peddled vociferously by the regime.  The demonisation of the West, the United States, the UK to some extent, has been a feature of the last 30 years.

I think that what is very, very important is that we continue to show respect for the Iranian people – that’s what President Obama did yesterday – that we continue to insist that it’s for them to choose their government, and I do think it’s important to give a bit of a gloss for people.

Mr Musavi, former Prime Minister Musavi, is one of the regime’s founding figures.  He was close to Ayatollah Khamenei after 1979, he was prime minister for eight years during the Iran/Iraq war; it would be quite wrong to present this as a clash between on the one hand the hardliner and on the other hand the raging reformer.  Mr. Musavi, I think, is a pragmatic reformer but he is part of the revolutionary generation.  He probably does want to see a bit of economic and social reform; he sees President Ahmadinejad as the architect of the economic misfortune that now faces Iran and he’s tapped into that.

I think our position must be to be absolutely clear that internally it’s a matter for the Iranians to choose their own government but externally the world needs an Iranian government that’s willing to live up to its responsibilities.  That of course is not just something for the president, it’s a critical role for the Supreme Leader who sets the tone and the substance of Iranian international policy.

ED: If out of all of this Ahmadinejad remains president, does it change the way we work with Iran, does it change the approach we take to Iran, the fact that the legitimacy of his election is being questioned?

DM: I think the bigger question is whether it changes the posture of the Iranian government.  We’ve made our decision very, very clear: we offer, in President Obama’s word, the hand of friendship to Iran but if it refuses to take it then there are consequences, and the only way that the international system can work is if countries live up to their responsibilities as well as assert their rights.

In respect of Iran that is above all in respect of the nuclear file but it also relates to their role in the wider Middle East and the funding of terrorist groups, and so I think that we will certainly maintain a very clear determination to engage with Iran, that’s something that the UK has done since 1979, but I think the question is where does it take Iranian policy, and instability within the regime could lead, as John Simpson says, in any direction.

LOCATION Radio 4 Today Programme

SPEAKER Foreign Secretary David Miliband

EVENT Iran Elections

DATE 16/06/2009


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