45-year-old Vahid Beheshti had just completed the 70th day of his hunger strike on Wednesday 3 May 2023. He is a British Iranian journalist who is using this hunger strike to pressure the UK government to consider the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist group. He insists that he will continue this strike until they do so. His last two months have been spent in a tent set up outside the foreign office and, since his 50th day, he has been in a wheelchair. Vahid Beheshti’s wife Mattie Heaven, the Conservative Deputy Chairman of the West Midlands and Councilor in Coventry, spoke to The Boar about why this cause is so urgent and important.
The IRGC have allegedly attempted to assassinate ambassadors and blow up embassies
She said: “My husband is an independent journalist and a human rights activist and for 15 years he has been using his space here in England to be a voice for those people who can’t speak out for themselves, especially related to human rights. He was born in Iran and twice was prosecuted by the IRGC and had to flee at the age of 22. For that reason, he has always been standing for people’s rights, regardless of their race and religion. Freedom of speech is really important for him.”
The IRGC is an organisation that was established in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution and its primary objective is to protect this revolution and export its ideologies to the rest of the world. In the past 44 years, the IRGC has committed many terror attacks, which are not restricted to the Middle East. They have allegedly attempted to assassinate ambassadors and blow up embassies in the US and other locations, as well as providing bombs and weapons to the Taliban. Until now, they have been free to use diplomatic channels and charity organisations for money laundering. They own a huge amount of Iran’s wealth and by proscribing the IRGC, Heaven says “we would then legitimately be able to go after the channel of money that they are using”.
Although the IRGC has been around for over 40 years and has done a huge amount of damage during this time, the last seven months have been a huge tipping point. Heaven says that “for 44 years people have been constantly uprising and uprising but their message wasn’t heard and for the first time the world heard them”. She is talking in particular about the uprising started by Woman Life Freedom after the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who was killed after she wasn’t wearing a hijab properly. Heaven suggests that young women in Iran see themselves to be valued as half of a man which sparked the need for protest. She says that this “incited a lot of passion inside the young people. They feel, why should we be suppressed in a way that we can’t even choose to go out with free will on what to wear”. The protests that have been taking place over the last few months have begun to weaken the regime in Iran. People are finding the courage to stand up and say that they don’t agree with these extremist ideologies when they previously would not dare.
We cannot be afraid to touch the IRGC for fear of what they may do in retaliation
The biggest mistake is to assume this does not affect us here in the UK. The threat is not restricted to Iran alone as British Iranians, particularly journalists, are at great risk as MI5 claims that there have been 15 attempts of assassination here in the UK. Freedom of speech in Iran and the UK is being compromised and Heaven claims: “This is against our principles of democracy, this is against our principles of humanity… if we don’t speak out against these issues, well, tomorrow there will be no-one to speak out on our behalf.”
However, the government does not see this decision of proscribing the IRGC to be an easy one. By putting the organisation on the terrorist list, it could damage the vital relationship between Britain and Iran. Alicia Kearns, the chair of Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, says taking this decision would be “considered by the Iranians as a hostile act and we would have to close our embassy in Iran”. This could make it more difficult to rescue British citizens that are currently in Iranian prisons.
When asked if proscribing the IRGC could cause more damage or risk a greater loss of life, Heaven encourages us to think of terrorists in the same way that we consider other criminals, using the example of serial killers. “If I could lock you up, would there be the fear that, if I lock you up, you’d do more terror activity, or become more of a serial killer? If someone has done a criminal activity you have to look at it that way. That’s how they survived for 44 years. They try to portray, through media channels and different bodies and organisations, that ‘it could get worse if you do something’. But if they are terrorists, why should we allow them to carry on?” She says that if we take action against a serial killer and their acts of aggression intensify, that means they would have committed those acts regardless. Therefore, Heaven believes that we cannot be afraid to touch the IRGC for fear of what they may do in retaliation.
When discussing why angering Iran may be risky in the eyes of the government, the topic of nuclear weapons was addressed. Heaven spoke about how the recent nuclear discussions should not influence the decision to proscribe and explained the current state of events. After Iran bypassed previous agreements to restrict the growth of their nuclear weapons, the JCPOA agreement was set up to monitor and ensure that Iran did not exceed a certain percentage of nuclear weapons. However, they have now far exceeded this limit and Heaven says: “The nuclear agreement shouldn’t even be at the point of having a discussion, because they have already exceeded. This whole JCPOA agreement is just buying time for the regime. The appeasement policy with a dictatorship does not work. We have seen how the appeasement policy with Russia has not worked. Look at what they are doing to Ukraine. That is the key thing, we need to stand really strong against it.”
We have had diplomatic ties for 44 years and things are only getting worse
Hence, there are many reasons, economic and political, why the government is delaying this decision, but Heaven blames the reluctance of the government on their “naivety”. She claims that they have bought into the image of Iran being such a dangerous country that they feel constant diplomatic ties are essential. She feels that we have had diplomatic ties for 44 years and things are only getting worse.
However, Heaven’s view of the future, if we do not proscribe the IRGC, is extremely bleak. She says: “It would be very dangerous. It would be absolutely dangerous. It would give the wrong message and give a green light to the regime, giving them the impression that we continue to support their ideology. They have already said the Islamic Revolution has got no borders. Iran has got no borders as far as they are concerned. It is not about Islam, this is anti-religion, anti-human, anti-civilisation.”
She says that somebody has fought for our freedom here in the UK and it is our job to maintain it: “Freedom is not free. You have to preserve it, you have to look after it.”