Why does the British Prime Minister appoint politicians with links to violent regimes as trade envoys?
On January 30, Prime Minister David Cameron selected Baroness Emma Nicholson as Britain's trade envoy to Iraq. Questions have now arisen about the nature of her connections to the Iranian regime, and what, if anything, these connections might mean as a result of her appointment as trade envoy.
Before 2003, Nicholson spent many years highlighting the cruelties of Iraq under its former President, Saddam Hussein. Her charity, the AMAR Foundation, provided support to the Marsh Arabs and other Iraqi victims of Saddam Hussein's regime. Although Baroness Nicholson was a steadfast opponent of Saddam -- and did much to highlight the plight of his regime's victims -- she has repeatedly defended its neighbor, Iran, which has previously provided "considerable help" to Nicholson's AMAR Foundation.
Baroness Nicholson's defense of the Iranian regime first became apparent after the Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa [Islamic religious opinion] and the Iranian government's offer of a $2 million bounty to anyone who would murder the author Salman Rushdie for his fourth novel, The Satanic Verses. At the time, Nicholson said Rushdie's "blasphemy" -- not Iran's order to murder him -- was "intolerable." Nicholson also urged the British government -- in spite of Iran's call to murder Rushdie -- to maintain links with the Iranian regime to bolster the "balance of sanity" in the region and provide continued opposition to Saddam Hussein.
Rushdie, writing his autobiography many years later, described Nicholson as a leader within the "anti-Rushdie" camp and quoted Nicholson's declaration that, at the height of the crisis, she had grown to "respect and like" the Iranian regime.
After the fatwa of Ayatollah Khomeini (right) against Salman Rushdie (center), Baroness Emma Nicholson (left) labelled Rushdie's "blasphemy" as "intolerable".
Addressing the House of Lords in 1998, Nicholson again referred to the "Rushdie problem," and claimed that his blasphemy had led to hostility between the West and the Tehran regime: "We should do all possible to resolve the bilateral problems that have been put on our plate by blasphemy. We should remember how important blasphemy is to real worshippers of whatever faith. We should try to overcome an issue that has gone well past its sell-by date -- the Rushdie problem."
In 1992, Nicholson dismissed the repression, violence and summary executions practised by the Iranian regime: "There are worse things in life than living under a fundamentalist religious regime -- such as being next door under Saddam Hussein."
In 2005, Nicholson no longer had her Saddam excuse when Iranian dissidents protested outside the headquarters of her political party, the Liberal Democrats, after she claimed that, "Iran is one of the most advanced countries in the region. ... The Iranian government may not be popular globally, but it is highly organized and democratically elected within the Islamic code of understanding. ... Iran has the most advanced women's rights in the region. ... You could say that Iran is conducting an Islamic democratic experiment, to see how different ways of life can be not just complementary but united."
Nicholson also frequently repeated disinformation distributed by the Iranian intelligence ministry. These falsehoods included charging Iranian groups that opposed the Iranian regime of being involved with the Taliban and complicit in chemical weapons attacks against Iraqi Kurds in the 1990s. A report by Friends for a Free Iran, a European Parliamentary committee, noted that, according to a UN investigation, the source for the claims was "an agent of the Khomeini regime's Ministry of Intelligence."
In April 2003, according to Iranian media, Nicholson called for Western coalition forces, during their invasion of Saddam's Iraq, to destroy the refugee camps belonging to the Iranian opposition group, Mojahedin-e-Khalq (MEK; also known as the PMOI): "I welcome the destruction of PMOI camps. I strongly warn the world that this group must be destroyed."
Not surprisingly, Nicholson has recently called on the British government to work closely with the Iranian Government, a steadfast supporter of the Assad regime, and cease its support for moderate groups within the Syrian opposition.
Senior European politicians have previously expressed alarm over Nicholson's connections to Tehran. Nicholson was, for instance, an inaugural member of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iran, which former MEP Mario Mauro described as the "Iranian Embassy's representation inside the European Parliament." Geoffrey Van Orden MEP further labelled the Delegation as "a tool for Tehran's misinformation."
In 2003, another MEP, Ulla Sandbaek, stated: "It is well known that Baroness Nicholson strongly supports the regime in Iran to the extent that she totally disregards the fact that all international human rights organisations have expressed their concern and indeed outrage at the gender apartheid against Iranian women."
Also in 2003, Nelly Maes MEP denounced a three-day conference, organized by Nicholson's AMAR Foundation, as "a forum that serves the propaganda purposes of the despotic regime which rules Iran." The conference featured Iran's presidential advisor on women's affairs as a keynote speaker.
In 2005, Iranian media reported that Baroness Nicholson organized a meeting in her parliamentary office with officials from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and National Security, and Anne Singleton, a British woman whom a U.S. government report has accused of spying for Iran.
Again in 2005, a report in Iran's Kayhan newspaper stated that Nicholson held a private meeting in Tehran with Ali Younesi, then Iran's Minister of Intelligence and Security. The report suggested that the Ministry of Intelligence and Security was using Nicholson as a conduit for the regime's disinformation efforts.
While Nicholson has noted on several occasions that she has received "considerable help [from] the Iranian authorities" in her charitable endeavours, and that her AMAR Foundation "has been careful to establish solid links with the [Iranian] Ministry of Health," what was not said is that the Iranian Ministry of Health operates in Iraq under the guise of the ostensibly non-governmental Iranian Red Crescent organization, which, according to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable, it is in fact "an agent of the IRGC."
The Anglo-Iranian Community in Greater London, described by Lord Alton of Liverpool as a "respectable group," has alleged that "the Baroness has for more than twelve years cooperated with Iranian authorities and received direct and indirect funding and support from the Iranian government for her efforts to supposedly provide humanitarian aid to refugees from Iraq who fled to Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. However, it seems that the refugees mostly formed Iranian-funded groups such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's force [a paramilitary group], who took refuge in Iran and were trained and funded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iranian regime's extra-territorial Qods Force, believed responsible for coordinating parts of the insurgency in Iraq today."
Regardless of the AMAR Foundation's apparent associations, Baroness Nicholson's unquestioning support for the Iranian regime should probably have disqualified her as a suitable candidate to represent British relations with a key member of the Shia bloc.
What, then, does the appointment of a trade envoy to Iraq have to do with Iranian interests?
A number of experts on Iran-Iraq relations claim the current Iraqi government works to further Iranian interests. Emma Sky, for example, a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, has noted that, "in the drawn-out negotiations after the 2010 elections, it was Iran that played the decisive role in assuring [Iraqi] Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki a second premiership."
Karim Sadjadpour, an expert on Iran with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has claimed, "At the moment, Iran has something akin to veto power in Iraq, in that Maliki is careful not to take decisions that might alienate Iran."
According to former Iraqi national security minister Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani "is the most powerful man in Iraq, without question. Nothing gets done without him." Soleimani himself has said that Iraq is in "one way or another subject to the control of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its ideas."
There are reportedly more than 40,000 Quds Force operatives inside Iraq, of whom 17,000 have allegedly infiltrated the security forces. Leaders and representatives of Iraq's Sunni community have frequently referred to Iran as an occupying power.
Any appointment of a British representative to Iraq, then, must be mindful of Iranian influence. A great many lives were lost ridding Iraq of its despots. To surrender the country to Iranian control would be grotesque. Yet, the British government has elected to send an unabashed supporter of the Iranian regime to Iraq as its trade envoy. Although Baroness Nicholson is now the British government's trade envoy to Iraq, exactly whose interests will she be serving?
It might be that Nicholson's appointment is further instance of a British government determined to mollify the Iranian regime. Around the same time as Nicholson's appointment, Britain announced the official renewal of direct diplomatic relations with Iran for the first time since the 2011 ransacking of the British embassy by an Iranian mob. On April 13, it was reported that an Iranian parliamentary delegation plans to visit Britain in the near future.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who introduced the trade envoy positions, appoints the envoys directly. There is no oversight, despite the fact that the current envoys are clearly political appointments. Consequently, Baroness Nicholson is not the only problematic official.
Britain's trade envoy to the Palestinian territories, for instance, is Baroness Morris of Bolton, who is also the president of a British charity, Medical Aid for Palestinians [MAP]. The charity's founder, Dr. Swee Ang, has admitted that some of the nurses working for her became suicide bombers in the 1980s -- acts she claimed were a necessary "to defend their people."
In 2002, MAP accepted the proceeds from a book, After the Terror, which claims that "those Palestinians who have resorted to violence have been right to try to free their people, and those who have killed themselves in the cause of their people have indeed sanctified themselves." Furthermore, MAP has reportedly made payments to the Al-Ihsan Charitable Society, a Palestinian group designated by the US Treasury Department in 2005 as a "charitable front for the Palestinian Islamic Jihad … [which] masquerades as a charity, while actually helping to finance Palestinian Islamic Jihad's acts of terror against the Israeli people and other innocents."
Although one cannot know all the reasons behind the appointment of Baroness Nicholson as Britain's trade envoy to Iraq, her pattern of support for the Iranian regime clearly indicates that her appointment should be opposed.
Meanwhile, Britain's program of trade envoys should become accountable so that other politicians with connections to extremist groups or despotic regimes will not be appointed to represent Britain's interests.
 Nigella Lawson, Chewing the Fatwa, Evening Standard, April 14, 1993.
 Paul Eastham, Tory Backlash as Major Sets Date with Rushdie, Daily Mail, April 12, 1993.
 Salman Rushdie, Joseph Anton, Page 377. Also see: Andy Lamey, Rushdie on Gandhi, the fatwa and the Stones, National Post (Canada), September 28, 2002.
 Christian Tyler, Tory MP Emma Nicholson has adopted the cause of Iraq's Shias. What made her do it?, Financial Times, September 12, 1992.
 Also see: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld199899/ldhansrd/vo990622/text/90622-20.htm
 Jafarzadeh, A. (2007). The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and the Coming Nuclear Crisis. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
 Sara Roy, Hamas and Civil Society in Gaza: Engaging the Islamist Social Sector, Page 140.