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Prevention of Nuclear Proliferation

Charities Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 5:18 pm on 13th December 2011.

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Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 5:18 pm, 13th December 2011

I beg to move,

That the Financial Restrictions (Iran) Order 2011 (S.I., 2011, No. 2775), dated 21 November 2011, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21 November, be approved.

Today I seek the support of the House for the financial restrictions measures against the Iranian banking sector that the Chancellor announced on 21 November. The Government have taken decisive action to respond to a significant threat against UK national interests by putting a stop to all business between UK financial institutions and those in Iran. The Treasury has laid the Financial Restrictions (Iran) Order 2011 before Parliament under the power in schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008. This order contains restrictions requiring UK credit and financial institutions to cease business relationships and transactions with all banks operating in Iran, including their branches and subsidiaries, and with the Central Bank of Iran.

I turn first to the rationale behind the order. The Government have serious concerns about activity in Iran that facilitates the development or production of nuclear weapons. This concern has been repeatedly raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN body charged with monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities. Its latest report, in November, highlights its deepening concerns about

“possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear programme”.

The restriction in the order was made in response to Iran’s nuclear activities, as highlighted by the IAEA, and the urgent calls from the Financial Action Task Force for counter-measures to be taken against Iran. Iran’s nuclear programme poses a significant risk to the UK’s national interests. This order seeks to address that.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West

Is there not a danger, if we push Iran too hard, of it expelling the IAEA inspectors from the country? If that happens, instead of acting in the knowledge with which they provide us, we would be acting in ignorance.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

It is important that we continue the twin-track approach—of engagement and challenge—that the Government have set out and which the previous Government also followed.

The November IAEA report documents Iran’s failure to co-operate fully with the agency and the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. The IAEA reports on Iran’s programme on a quarterly basis, but the November report set out its concerns in the strongest terms to date. It states that information available to the IAEA indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device. The report notes that

“while some of the activities identified have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons”.

The Government view these developments with the utmost concern.

In response to the November IAEA report, its board of governors issued a resolution expressing “deep and increasing concern” about the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme. The board urged Iran to abide by its international obligations and called on it to engage seriously on the nuclear issue. These concerns are of the most serious nature and have far-reaching consequences for the UK’s interests and those of the region. Some 32 of the 35 countries on the board of governors supported the resolution.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I will outline some of the action taken by several countries to exert pressure on the Iranian regime and to ensure that targeted action is taken to prevent the development of nuclear technology. I shall address some of those issues later.

The case for UK action is also underlined by the recent calls from the Financial Action Task Force for countries to apply effective counter-measures to protect their financial sectors from money laundering and financing-of-terrorism risks emanating from Iran. Those calls were renewed with urgency on 28 October 2011 and noted the taskforce’s particular and exceptional concern about Iran’s failure to address the risk of terrorist financing. It also flagged up its concerns about the serious threat that this posed to the integrity of the international financial system. The taskforce has not expressed such serious and ongoing concerns about any other country.

The UK is leading action against Iran because Iran’s proliferation-sensitive activities pose an ongoing concern for the UK and the international community as a whole. The measure that we have imposed is strong but necessary, and we encourage other countries to take similar tough action. The UK is an important global financial centre, so UK restrictions will have a significant impact on the options available to Iranian banks. That will make it more difficult for Iranian banks to use the international financial system in support of proliferation-sensitive activities and protect the integrity of the UK financial sector. Other countries share our and the taskforce’s concern about Iran’s nuclear activities.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I will finish this paragraph and then give way.

That includes the US and Canada, which implemented further restrictive measures against Iran on 21 November, alongside the action that the UK took.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

I sought to intervene on the Minister when he started talking about other countries. One of the things that slightly surprises me about this measure, whatever its merits, is that only two other countries supported it, which left us rather isolated and an easy target for the thugs in Tehran. Why did the Government not discuss and then take steps to agree with as many European Union partners as possible a similar measure in advance of this measure being promulgated?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

Given the UK’s importance as a financial centre and its interconnectedness, there was an opportunity to act to close down opportunities for banks in Iran to use our facilities. The other point is that on the day that we announced our measures, President Sarkozy wrote to us supporting our financial sanctions and also proposing sanctions on oil. There will be a further debate in the European Union about that next month at the Foreign Affairs Council, where we will push this issue further. We are working in concert, not just with our European allies, but with the US and Canada, as I have said. Indeed, the EU already has strong financial sanctions in place against Iran, and introduced asset-freezing measures and travel bans against 180 Iranian individuals and entities at the beginning of this month. The EU is considering taking further measures to implement that, and we will be pushing our partners to take strong measures too.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but with great respect, I am still rather perplexed. We are members of the EU, and although I am aware of the individual-specific action that the EU is taking, that is different from the measures in this order. What I simply do not understand, just to repeat the point, is this. Whatever the merits of this measure, the manner of its introduction must leave us very isolated and exposed. Why was there such a hurry? Was it because of an American timetable, or was there some other, more commendable reason for doing it in advance of getting what I would have thought the Minister might judge to be a significant number of other nations alongside us and then making a co-ordinated announcement?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The Government bore in mind when making their decision the strong concerns raised by the IAEA in its November report. Indeed, the way in which it expressed them marked a step change in its level of concern compared with previous quarterly reports. The increase in concern on the part of the Financial Action Task Force about how financial systems could be used to finance terrorist acts or in other areas led to the Government’s decision to move, which was an important thing to do. It is a proportionate response to the risk posed by Iran to require the UK financial sector to cease all business relationships and transactions with the Iranian banks and their branches and subsidiaries, including the Central Bank of Iran.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

Can my hon. Friend perhaps answer a technical question relating to the Treasury’s responsibilities? Is the United Kingdom in the correct legal position unilaterally to stop banks being used in trade with Iran, or could we find UK companies that abide by the European Union ruling or law, which still allows that, taking the UK Government to court to allow them to continue using those banks?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

We are acting under powers that were put on the statute book by the previous Government. My hon. Friend will be aware that there is a licensing regime in place, and some licences have already been issued on a general basis—there are applications that I shall perhaps turn to a little later when dealing with specific examples. Permission has been given on a general basis to enable transactions to be completed, for example, so there is a regime in place. However, if my hon. Friend has particular concerns, I would encourage him to engage with Treasury officials to take them forward. I know that my hon.

Friend, as chairman of the British-Iranian all-party group, has a clear interest in this subject. If there are particular concerns of which businesses are aware, I encourage them to talk to us about them.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The Minister has been speaking for about 10 minutes, during which he has come from expressing concerns about Iran’s nuclear activities to discussing financial regulations. He would, however, recognise that Iran remains a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Does the Minister not think that a serious diplomatic initiative by all members subscribed to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty would be a more fruitful way of dealing with the issue, rather than descending to what some of us fear will be a much more serious situation, including possible military conflict with Iran?

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

The purpose of the order is not to enable debate of the broader issues of engagement with Iran, but to put in place financial restrictions against Iran. As I said earlier, there is a twin-track approach of both engagement and sanctions, where appropriate. That is what we are doing. I think we would all want Iran to come back and engage in this process; we need to find a mechanism for that to happen.

Let me return to explaining why we have imposed the restrictions in the order. Iranian banks play a crucial role in providing financial services to individuals and entities within Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Many Iranian banks have already been sanctioned by the UN and the EU for their role in Iran’s proliferation-sensitive activities. However, experience under existing financial sanctions against Iran demonstrates that targeting individual Iranian banks is no longer sufficient. Once one bank is targeted, a new one can step into its place.

Taking this action will also protect the UK financial sector from the risk of being used unwittingly to facilitate activities that support Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. As I said to Jeremy Corbyn, the action is in line with the Government’s dual-track strategy of pressure and engagement with Iran. The aim of the pressure track is to encourage Iran to begin serious and meaningful negotiations.

Let me explain the specifics of the order. It was made under schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, which provides the Treasury with the power to give a range of restrictions to UK credit and financial institutions in response to certain risks to the UK national interest. The power enables the Treasury to respond to proliferation risks, money laundering and terrorist-financing risks, or where the Financial Action Task Force calls for counter-measures. The restrictions in the order sit alongside sanctions already imposed on Iran by the UN and the EU, but go further, as they prohibit additional activities.

The restrictions came into force at 3 pm on 21 November 2011; shortly after that, the Treasury published a series of documents on its public website to alert the financial sector to the restrictions and to provide detailed guidance on their implementation. Those documents were also e-mailed to more than 13,000 subscribers to our e-mail alert system. In previous debates on these measures, one concern raised by the Opposition was about how we ensure that people are made aware of the restrictions.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I want to make some progress. This is a time-limited debate, and in looking at the number of Members present on both sides of the House, I am conscious that others wish to participate.

The Treasury asked various supervisors, including the Financial Services Authority, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other Government organisations, to publicise the restrictions and to provide information to firms on the requirements associated with them. Alongside the order, we published six general licences exempting specific activities from the restrictions. Those general licences enable credit and financial institutions with existing business relationships or transactions with the entities concerned to manage the cessation of business in an orderly and controlled way. The licences permit the provision of financial services for humanitarian purposes and of personal remittances between individuals here and in Iran. Further licences, whether general or individual, may be granted by the Treasury to manage the impact of the requirements on third parties. This approach is similar to that used in asset-freezing measures.

The restrictions apply requirements to persons operating in the UK financial sector, including FSA-authorised firms, money service businesses and insurers. Firms are required to establish whether any current or future business relationships or transactions are affected and comply with the requirements of the restrictions. Although the restrictions are given only to the financial sector, they will make it more difficult for other companies to trade with Iran. The UK Government actively discourage trade with Iran, and UK trade with the country has declined by 46% during the first eight months of this year in comparison with the same period in 2010.

As I said to my hon. Friend Mr Wallace, companies affected by the restrictions can apply for a licence of exemption, and we are willing to grant licences where UK companies are owed money under existing contracts that can only be paid via an Iranian bank to the company’s UK account. We will examine applications on a case-by-case basis.

The use of existing procedures means that firms will already have in place systems to meet obligations relating to financial sanctions and anti-money laundering, which should assist in minimising the burden of compliance with the restrictions. All institutions operating in the UK financial sector will need to ensure that they do not undertake new transactions or enter into new business relationships with any bank incorporated in Iran, including the central bank, and branches or subsidiaries. It is expected that compliance costs for the sector as a whole will be moderate, although any institution with significant business relationships with an Iranian bank will face higher costs.

Supervision of compliance with the restrictions will form part of the existing supervisory regime of entities such as the FSA, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Office of Fair Trading, and the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation in Northern Ireland. It is an offence to fail to comply with the requirements of the direction or intentionally to circumvent the requirements. Breaches may be subject to civil penalties imposed by supervisors, or to criminal prosecution. The maximum criminal penalties are: a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, £5,000, in the magistrates court; or 2 years’ imprisonment or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court. Those penalties are equivalent to those for breach of other financial sanctions regimes such as the EU asset-freezing regime in relation to Iran. The financial services sector takes very seriously the implementation of restrictions and sanctions, and takes steps to ensure its compliance with any restrictions.

To conclude, the order was issued by the Government to respond to the severe risk that Iran’s nuclear activities pose to the UK national interest. The measure is strong but necessary. Iran’s proliferation-sensitive activities are a serious and ongoing concern for the UK and the international community as a whole. It is vital that we continue to take steps to increase pressure on the Iranian regime and encourage Iran back to the negotiating table to find a diplomatic solution. For those reasons, I commend the order to the House.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I remind the House that the debate can continue until no later than 6.48. After the shadow Minister has finished speaking, Members will wish to do the maths in their heads to divvy up the time. If they do not do so, in the spirit of Christmas, a time limit will be introduced.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury) 5:37 pm, 13th December 2011

As the Minister has outlined, events in Iran in recent months and weeks have been deeply concerning. It is right that we have a debate today on the nature of the British response to those troubling developments. Elements within the Iranian regime have been fomenting public discontent outwards towards other countries, partly in an attempt to stop the Iranian people from looking inwards at the regime itself. The increased fuelling of hostility to the outside world is a worrying move, to which neither we nor the international community can afford to turn a blind eye.

Last month, the comprehensive and unequivocal report from the International Atomic Energy Agency made clear the fact that there is an accumulating body of evidence regarding the possible military dimensions of the nuclear programme in Iran. As the Minister has said, in the light of that, it was right that the UK, along with the US and Canada, took the decision to increase diplomatic pressure on the regime in Iran.

We welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that the UK would sever all ties with Iranian banks, including the Central Bank of Iran. As the Minister said, a position came into force on 21 November and is now formally before the House. Since then, important developments have taken place. Following the announcement of the further sanctions, the Iranian Parliament approved a Bill that called for the downgrading of diplomatic ties between Iran and the UK, and several MPs in the Iranian Parliament chanted “Death to Britain” as the measure was adopted. Within a few days, hundreds of demonstrators overran the city centre compound of the British embassy in Tehran. They looted and vandalised the homes of embassy staff and set fire to the main buildings, while Britain’s second embassy compound in the north of Tehran was simultaneously attacked and looted.

I echo the Minister’s comments. I also fully support the remarks made on 30 November by the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr Alexander, about the “unyielding professionalism and… bravery” of our UK diplomatic staff in Iran.

The notion that such an assault against our embassy could take place without permission, and indeed instruction, from elements in the Iranian regime is too far-fetched to be entertained, and the belated and limited response from the Iranian diplomatic police serves further to discredit such delusions. Let us be clear: this was a co-ordinated attack on two British embassy compounds by a student militia controlled by elements within the regime.

All diplomatic avenues available to the UK and the international community must surely be pursued to increase the peaceful pressure on the regime in Iran to ensure that it fulfils its responsibilities and obligations under international law, and the financial restrictions that we are discussing today should be seen in that light. The attacks on and looting of the British embassy compounds in Tehran following the measures that we are debating serve to highlight the desperation of the regime in the face of increasing pressure and isolation from the international community. It is therefore right for us to cease dealings with Iranian banks and their subsidiaries, and with the Central Bank of Iran, to avert the risk of the financing of terrorism or money-laundering activities emanating from Iran.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

May I say now what I should have said in my first intervention? I declare my interest as a co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran, although I have absolutely no financial interest.

I am listening carefully to what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he share my significant concern about the fact that we were joined by only two other countries in advancing this proposal? If the case was as strong as is suggested, we could surely have had many others alongside us, and our diplomats would not have been exposed in Tehran as they were.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I understand my right hon. Friend’s point, which brings me neatly to the five questions that I wish to ask the Minister.

The Government say in the impact assessment that they want to press for further international action. They also say that

“there is a risk that the measure will be weakened by financial institutions in other countries providing financial services to Iranian banks, including in support of Iran's proliferation-sensitive activities”.

My question to the Minister echoes some of the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend. Will he assure us that he and his Foreign Office colleagues will be active in using all available diplomatic channels to put pressure on other countries to impose sanctions similar to those bilaterally imposed by the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada? It is clear that a concerted international effort is greatly needed to put further pressure on Iran to change course.

We think it important to support the order, but some of my questions are important as well, including one concerning enforcement and penalties. We know that there have been instances of financial institutions breaking rules laid down to prevent Iran’s progress towards nuclear capability. Two years ago, in December 2009, Credit Suisse was fined $536 million in the United States for the removal of information in relation to the origination of US-bound transactions from the “Atomic Energy Organization of Iran” and the Iranian “Aerospace Industries Organization”. In January 2009 Lloyds bank was fined a substantial $350 million in the United States for similar breaches involving Iran and other international restrictions, while in August 2010 Barclays was fined $300 million.

Criminal offence and civil penalties will apply in relation to non-compliance with—or knowledge of, and intentional circumvention of—the new requirements that we are discussing. The penalties are the same as those that the enforcement authorities and courts have in respect of non-compliance under the money laundering regulations 2007—fines, imprisonment for a maximum of two years and so on. The Americans clearly take breaches very seriously, as is shown by the scale of the fines they have imposed, so my question to the Minister is: can he reassure the House that the UK will take a similarly robust approach, with penalties on a scale that reflects the seriousness of the offence, both to prevent breaches of the rules and to punish appropriately those who breach them?

My third question for the Minister relates to the explanatory memorandum, which makes it clear that a licence for exemptions from this order can be granted by the Minister on a case-by-case basis. The impact assessment states that

“it is unlikely we will license significant further exemptions for businesses as this would risk undermining the purpose of the measure”.

That is self-explanatory. We recognise that exemptions are not likely to take place on a significant scale, but will the Minister set out in what circumstances exemptions might be made to those restrictions?

My fourth question relates to the fact that the order has a time limit of a year and, under paragraph 38 of schedule 7 to the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, the Treasury will be obliged to report every year on the exercise of its functions under that schedule. The Minister has said, as does the explanatory memorandum, that the order will be kept under review, but given the fast-moving developments and narrow time scales involved in the situation with Iran, will he commit to reporting to this House before the annual deadline if circumstances change—for instance, if negotiations on the nuclear programme were to improve or worsen? We hope that the latter would not be the case.

Lastly, will the Minister make it clear to the House, and leave no doubt about the message we are sending today to the people of Iran and to the international community more widely, that despite attacks on our channels of diplomacy with assaults on our embassy, we will not be deterred from actively and creatively pursuing all diplomatic options at our disposal to ensure that Iran upholds its responsibilities and obligations under international law? There is a widespread hope that diplomacy must prevail. We, and other nations around the globe, cannot afford to be complacent. The Opposition welcome this measure from the Treasury and hope that, with the Foreign Office, it will, as my right hon. Friend Mr Straw said, be proactive in building a broader diplomatic effort across the globe to stop Iran flouting international law.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

As earlier, I ask hon. Members to look to see how many others are standing. I think that there are about nine, we have to finish in an hour’s time, and I am sure that the Minister will want three minutes or so to wind up.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North 5:47 pm, 13th December 2011

May I declare an interest, as co-chair of the all-party group on Iran? I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the fact that I shall have to leave before the conclusion of the debate as I have to chair the group’s meeting on The Daily Telegraph versus The Guardian on the future of Iran, which we hope will be an entertaining event.

I would like to put on the record why I support the Government’s attempt to impose sanctions on financial transactions coming out of Iran. My support is not unqualified, but I support the aims and ambitions. It is absolutely clear that in the past decade or so Iran has used a plethora of its banking network to fund Hezbollah and other organisations, and to try to acquire conventional and perhaps potential nuclear parts for its programmes at home. So I understand what our Government are trying to achieve.

I would have been less supportive before June to July 2009. Before then—indeed, when I last visited Iran—whatever we may have thought of the Iranian Government, they ruled by consent, and attempts were made by a number of senior members of the Iranian Government to reform Iran. Unfortunately, after President Ahmadinejad’s last election, we have seen a clear move away from the rule of law towards a much more totalitarian state. Anyone who has contacts with the Baha’is or with mere critics of the Iranian Government will notice that these people’s human rights are constantly being exempted from the Iranian constitution under the guise of “national security”, “spying” and so on. All those traits lead me to worry about the shifting nature of the regime.

I know enough about Iranian history to put aside the rhetoric. Death to America day is still an annual event in the Iranian calendar and has been since 1981, but let us not forget that before that there were plenty of other annual events, under both shahs and even before that, which related to us, too. I put aside the rhetoric because it is a regular occurrence that the British embassy is abused. Every Tuesday rent-a-mob turn up on a bus and stones are thrown over the wall. When I was there they were pelting stones into the garden. Under the previous Government it was invaded twice, although certainly not as seriously, and without any threat. We should be in no doubt that that is certainly co-ordinated.

The antagonism towards the British embassy goes back hundreds of years to the time of the “great game”. More recently, in the ’80s, the street running parallel to it was renamed Bobby Sands avenue, just to annoy us. It is a game the Iranians play, I am afraid, and one could say that part of the Iranians’ problem is that they have too much history, not too little, to draw on.

I shall push aside the rhetoric, however, and focus on what is more worrying: the nature of the regime. I can understand that it is certainly time to send a strong message that the rule of law is the best protection for the Iranian people and the Iranian street. I mean the rule of law according to their constitution not ours, not a rule of law that we seek to impose on them. Their constitution is actually one of the few in the middle east to give automatic rights to Jews, Christians and a range of other peoples. By making those exemptions, they show the danger of the nature of regime that the west and the rest of the United Nations should seek to put right.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way, and I shall be very brief. Does not my hon. Friend agree that although the Iranians may have the constitution in place, they certainly do not act as though a constitution were in place? Therein lies the problem with human rights.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

Absolutely. They do so less and less each day, and that is one of the major regrets for someone like me who believes that Iran has a great future and that the west often looks to the wrong allies in the middle east in the long term. I disagree, however, with the position on the Mujahedin-e Khalq. I believe that if one of the few things the Iranians and the Americans both agree on is that the MEK should be a proscribed terrorist organisation, we should perhaps maintain that.

I have some specific questions for the Minister about the sanctions. Why did he choose to include the Central Bank of Iran? A number of cases have been brought to my attention, including one from a company in Cambridge that has gone through five regimes of British export licences, and has European as well as Treasury approval to sell engineering goods to Iran. It is owed £12 million for goods already delivered and the sanctions—either those effectively extraterritorially imposed by the United States or our own—have prevented it from getting its money. I suspect—in fact, I know—that that threatens its very viability. When I went to visit Treasury officials, the answer to the problem was that they did not really get engaged in commercial-to-commercial decisions. I am afraid that the Treasury’s decisions have caused the problem, and in the past, companies—including American companies—have used a corridor from central bank to central bank to clear certain moneys. Not so long ago, JP Morgan in New York received money from Iranians that was owed to an American/UK contractor. If they can do it, so can we.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

The only question I would ask is: would not the Iranians consider it to be part of the irritation factor not to use such a channel, if there was one? They could stop that payment, which is owed to one of our companies, just to irritate us further, even if there was such an avenue.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

My hon. Friend would have a point if it was not for the fact that at the moment, the Iranians need our goods more than we need theirs. I meet plenty of day-to-day Iranians in business and everything else—not in my business, as I do not have any such interests—who try to do the right thing and live by the rule of law.

Secondly, I ask the Minister what our European colleagues are doing. Historically, Germany and Italy are some of the biggest traders with Iran, and my worry is that the strength of the E3 plus 3 was unity. That was its strength: we brought together the three European powers of Britain, Germany and France along with China, Russia and America. For every round of sanctions that has come before this House or the international community, there have been fewer and fewer signatories to it. As Mr Straw pointed out, as we get fewer and fewer signatories we are at risk of undermining the message that says that we all agree that Iran should not be progressing along such a path.

My worry is that the Iranians are super-sensitive to such differences. They are one of the greatest trading nations in history, of course, and my word, are they canny! When I was there, there was no shortage of some of the things that were subject to sanctions. They used to use the Bahrainis as one of the greatest routes for money, goods, new cars and so on. Without Germany and without Italy, there is a real danger that we could be left high and dry.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Labour, Blackburn

May I, as one of the three Foreign Ministers who got the arrangement going in the middle of 2003, underline the hon. Gentleman’s point about the E3? There were two huge advantages. One was that we were not the United States, although we consulted them, and the second was that because France, Germany and the UK were working together, each of us could reach out to a series of other allies. We did not just get three rather large countries on board but many others, too.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

It is absolutely true that Russia and China often need to know that the west is united before they move from an agnostic position to a proactive one. One worry I have about the full closure of the embassy in Tehran is the fact that I have seen the Chinese and Russian embassies in Tehran, and the Chinese and the Russians will not waste any time in becoming the prominent voice of the E3 plus 3. I know that we have not shut down diplomatic relations, and I reiterate the importance of that.

Another thing to which the Iranians will be hypersensitive is the charge of hypocrisy in the middle east. We must always be aware of it. Pakistan is one of their neighbours, and it not only started a nuclear programme but distributed it. In fact, Mr Khan is probably the one responsible for giving the Iranian programme a bit of a boost. The response to that is that the west has done everything other than punish the Pakistanis for not being a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation pact: therein lies part of the problem. I noticed last week that Australia has agreed to sell uranium to India. India is not a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation pact and is not going by that rule, and although the nature of the Indian Government is entirely different, the Iranians are obsessed with treaties and they can see what is happening. We must be consistent.

The other issue is Israel, of course. This is not about the conflict or whether it is right or wrong, but Israel is another country in the middle east with a nuclear weapon that does not sign up to the UN nuclear non-proliferation regime at all. That will be used against us. As long as we are consistent and say to Iran that it must comply, but we would also like Israel to comply, that strengthens our hand.

Thirdly—and finally, because I am aware that many people wish to speak—where will we go from here on sanctions? It is important to recognise that sanctions are part of the process of trying to bring Iran back to the rule of law, and back to attempts to solve the issue by allowing inspectors in. That would allow Iran to play a full role in the world, which it should do, and would allow the Iranian leaders to understand that we are not trying to make war with Iran but to make peace and allow it to live to its full potential. The worst thing for the Treasury and this Government would not be if the sanctions failed, but a war or military intervention that would see oil prices go through the roof. I do not think that this frail economy could survive oil at $250 a barrel.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. There will now be a five-minute limit on speeches, with the usual injury time for interventions.

Photo of Paul Flynn Paul Flynn Labour, Newport West 5:59 pm, 13th December 2011

The threat of war is far more serious than an increase in oil prices. The effect of a war, particularly if nuclear weapons were involved, would be almost unimaginable, particularly given the situation regarding Iran and its clients in Hezbollah and other groups. We should not treat this issue lightly or suggest that it is not important that we are seeing a new nuclear state because it would lead, I am certain, to others such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia also wishing to acquire nuclear weapons. The great fear is that a wall of sanctions can rapidly become a war of weapons. I have watched two terrible decisions being made in this House, and I believe we are on the brink of stumbling into another dreadful conflict.

When we went to join Bush’s war in Iraq, that decision was taken on the basis of a deception in the House. Eighty Labour MPs opposed the war and had signified their opposition to it, but during the debate they were bribed, bullied and bamboozled into abstaining or voting for the war. The majority on which that measure was passed was 179—coincidentally exactly the number of our brave troops who died in that war. If we had known the truth then, that war would not have taken place because 80 Labour MPs would have opposed it.

I have also seen the second-worst decision in my time here—the decision to go into Helmand province in 2006. At that time, only two British soldiers had died in the conflict. The figure is now 192. Again, the basis on which that decision was taken was the hope that not a shot would be fired and that we would be there for, at the most, three years for supervision purposes. We are now in grave danger of deepening the chasm of suspicion between ourselves and Iran.

There are reasons for saying that although the Arab awakening has not affected Iran in the same way as it has many other countries in the region, there is discontent in that country. There is division on almost all issues except one—the nuclear issue. If there is any way of guaranteeing that almost all sides of opinion in Iran join together it is the threat from outside—from us—which wants to deny it the possibility of having a nuclear power programme or the nuclear weapons that Israel, Pakistan and India already have. The great danger is that this escalation seems to be going on now. We should be seeking means of reducing the tension, building confidence and bridging the gap. We know the provocations that have taken place, but there is this grave danger. Unless we recognise the truth of the threat, we might find ourselves in another terrible situation of going along a slippery slope that could lead to warfare—in this case, possibly nuclear warfare.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South 6:03 pm, 13th December 2011

Let me say at the outset, in order to set my hon. Friend the Minister’s mind at rest, that I fully support the measures that the Government have taken on sanctions. I welcome the sanctions as they have been levied, but I would have wished us to have applied a whole series of sanctions in a more programmed and measured way for a longer period. However, we are where we are. The information I am getting from people inside Iran is that the sanctions are already proving quite successful, but I think the Minister mentioned that.

The action of shutting the Iranian embassy in London and downgrading our staff in Tehran desperately needs to be followed up by our European Union partners and others in the wider western world. It has been a tragedy over many years that we have consistently given messages suggesting that we were attempting to appease the mullahs as though they were friendly English vicars eating cucumber sandwiches and drinking their tea on their lawned gardens. We all know that not to be the truth, but that impression seems to have been ingrained in the Foreign Office for a long time. Every time I talk to the Foreign Office about Iran, it seems to want to bring the mullahs on board, as though any kind of appeasement would achieve a friendly outcome in which we could all eat cucumber sandwiches together. There is no hope of that, so we need to go further and apply sanctions, perhaps in the oil and gas arena, but we need the help of other nations to do that. The Germans and French seem particularly concerned about our interests at the moment, but doing that would be in their interests. We are talking about a mediaeval theocracy that is building a nuclear weapon, and that is very surprising.

Let me remind the Minister that the Iranian people had the courage and the bravery to start the first demonstration that could be described as the beginning of the middle east spring—I shall not call it the Arab spring, for obvious reasons. They were the people who recognised that their elections were corrupt and who rose up in their hundreds of thousands to make a point to a regime that they have found difficult to influence. We have talked about the constitution, but that constitution is not regarded very highly by the people who have a duty and a responsibility to operate it.

Let us look at Iran’s human rights record. Minors have been executed: Amnesty International said only a short time ago that a 16 and 17-year-old were hanged this year. Young women are being stoned, and trade unionists, students, bloggers and members of the Baha’i faith have been imprisoned and, in some cases, hanged. Three fathers who went to visit their children in Camp Ashraf in Iraq were charged on their return with moharebeh—being an enemy of God. Those three people were killed too. So much for a constitution.

This is a country that needs to see strong measures from the west and to hear strong messages that we support what is a sizeable wish for democracy and freedom. The sanctions are a measure in the right direction, but more needs to be done. I ask Ministers to make every effort to implore their fellow Ministers in the EU and beyond to send a strong message that will give hope to the people of Iran and to those Iranians who are working externally for a free and democratic Iran.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 6:08 pm, 13th December 2011

In this brief debate, we should think very carefully about the long-term implications of the path on which we are apparently setting out today. I recognise much of what was said by the hon. Members for Northampton South (Mr Binley) and for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) about human rights abuses in Iran. I draw attention to early-day motion 2526 concerning trade unionists in Iran, and there are human rights abuses against people of the Baha’i faith, Kurdish people and others. I am extremely well aware of the abuse of human rights that takes place in Iran and of the determination of many people, including working-class people, trade unionists and intellectuals, to do something about their society and to take part in that political debate. We should recognise that a lively, if robust and sometimes very dangerous, political debate is going on in Iran.

We should also think carefully about the rhetoric we use when we talk about Iran. Iran is an inheritor of the Persian tradition, a place of enormous civilisation and culture, and a place of enormous unity when faced with an external threat, as my Friend Paul Flynn pointed out. We should not denigrate the whole history of the Persian people and the contribution that they have made to history while ignoring our own scandalous role in their history, from the attempts at exploiting oil, which eventually led to the formation of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which became BP, through to the coup in 1952 inspired by the British and the CIA. We do not have clean hands in the history of Iran, and we should have some humility when dealing with the situation there.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Absolutely. I sat in the Chamber in the run-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when the House indulged in an orgy of demonisation of a particular country. That created a sufficient head of steam in public opinion which was deemed by the Governments of the day to endorse an invasion of those countries. I remind the House that 10 years later we are still in Afghanistan, we have spent £9 billion or £10 billion on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there is no end in sight.

The reason the Minister gave for proposing the Financial Restrictions (Iran) Order 2011 to the House was that this is a banking order—a finance order—but he relied heavily on the IAEA reports and the issue of Iran’s nuclear capacity and nuclear capability. I stand here as somebody who is passionately opposed to nuclear power and nuclear weapons in equal measure. I believe nuclear power to be intrinsically environmentally unsustainable and dangerous, and I think nuclear weapons are absolutely immoral. However, I recognise that in law there is a distinction in that any country is allowed to develop nuclear power; it is not allowed to develop nuclear weapons.

Iran remains a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Last year’s NPT review conference came to the conclusion that the best way of bringing about a nuclear-free world—a big step—would be the creation of a nuclear-free middle east. That would, of course, mean a mechanism for negotiation involving Israel and Iran. Israel, I remind the House, has 200 nuclear warheads and the rhetoric of the Israeli leaders is strongly critical of Iran. We need to bring about a mechanism, impossible within the NPT while Israel remains outside it, and possible only within the terms of a nuclear weapons convention. I hope the Government will put considerable efforts into promoting a nuclear weapons convention, and retaining a diplomatic link and debate, negotiation and discussion within Iran.

There are those who say that the war has not started yet and there is nothing to worry about. I remind them of a number of facts. One is that the US fleet in the Gulf is enhanced and enormous. There is a US base in Bahrain. Iran shot down and captured a drone missile that had apparently strayed over the border or been deliberately sent over it, depending which narrative we care to follow. A serious and significant number of assassinations and explosions have occurred in Iran over the past few weeks, with greater and greater intensity. I do not know who is causing those explosions. It could be foreign forces; it could be internal opposition; it could be all kinds of people, but there are clearly enormous tensions. Isolating Iran in the current circumstances is more dangerous than anything else I can think of.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points, but I am not clear whether he opposes a tougher sanctions regime. Surely a tougher regime is the peaceful means by which we will persuade Iran not to develop nuclear weapons, and therefore avoid the higher risk of another state intervening in a more aggressive and violent way.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

What I want is engagement and recognition, first, of the human rights abuses in Iran, which are clearly immoral and wrong; a great deal of attention has been drawn to those. Secondly, serious engagement is needed which does not lead us to a descent into war with all the incalculable consequences of that, not to mention very high oil prices for the rest of the world. Today’s debate is, to me, one staging post in the process. Whether the sanctions will have any effect I have no idea. I suspect they will have very limited effect, particularly as my right hon. Friend Mr Straw pointed out that they are being imposed by Britain with the United States, virtually in isolation from the rest of the world.

I hope we have learned lessons about the folly and stupidity of getting involved in wars that allegedly are for our own protection, but in reality are often seen to be part of western expansionism and the assertion of US power within the whole region. We are here to make a decision on one fairly small aspect. I hope we can be a little more careful and sensible about this and recognise that there are very many people in Iran who will be united, as my Friend the Member for Newport West pointed out, in opposition to any foreign intervention and any invasion of Iran. Perhaps it is those people whom we should be thinking about now, rather than preparing for yet another war.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow 6:15 pm, 13th December 2011

I welcome this debate because, contrary to what has just been said, I believe that Iran is in essence the new Soviet Union of the middle east. It supports terrorism. We know well its strong backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon. It supplies Hezbollah with the missiles and the finance that it needs to destabilise the region and to fire attack missiles on Israel. Iran also supports Hamas, and we know what Hamas has done in Gaza, overthrowing the more moderate Palestinian Authority, running a totalitarian mini-state known as Hamastan in Gaza, stopping moves towards peace and regularly firing missiles on Israel.

Iran has also undermined democratic states. Not long ago it fired missiles on to the Kurdish regional Government. It is supporting the Syrian Government of President Assad and his crackdown on the recent anti-Government protests. It has provided the Syrian authorities with equipment, advice and technical know-how to help curtail and monitor internal communications. It has provided material assistance in the form of riot and crowd dispersal material, as well as military training for Syrian troops. Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria are in essence proxies for Iran. We well know that Iran has sent suicide bombers into Iraq and attacked our troops.

All this would be bad enough were it not for Iran’s nuclear programme. As has been said, the development of the nuclear bomb in Iran is incredibly concerning. The IAEA report has been highlighted and clearly shows that Iran has been covertly developing the technology needed to weaponise nuclear material. If we think the current Iranian regime is extreme, its so-called more moderate predecessor said that it would be okay to use a nuclear bomb in the middle east against Israel, because if a few million are killed in the process, it does not matter for the wider good.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The hon. Gentleman mentioned nuclear weapons. Does he not have concerns that Israel has 200 nuclear warheads and is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty? Does he not think a nuclear weapons convention including Israel would be a helpful step forward in the region?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I am happy for any nuclear convention to reduce nuclear weapons in the middle east, but the crucial point that the hon. Gentleman misses is that Israel is a democracy and Iran is a dictatorship.

Photo of Mike Freer Mike Freer Conservative, Finchley and Golders Green

I agree with my hon. Friend. May I point out that it is not Israel which has threatened to wipe its neighbour off the face of the earth? Is that not the key point in this?

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

My hon. Friend, who is a strong supporter of Israel, is exactly right.

The one difference between Iran and the Soviet Union is that, when the Soviet Union and the west had nuclear weapons, we lived under the doctrine known as MAD, mutually assured destruction, and for MAD to work one had to be sane, but the sad fact is that Iran does not have that level of sanity, given that, as my hon. Friend says, the President often says that he wants to wipe Israel off the map. We know how the regime behaves from its recent treatment and trashing of the UK embassy, from its taking of American hostages and from its many other human rights abuses.

Jeremy Corbyn mentioned the abuse of trade unionists and the imprisonment of women, an issue that The Times has highlighted so well, so I strongly welcome the fact that the Government have brought in the tough measures before us. This is the first time the UK has used such powers to cut off an entire country’s banking sector from our financial sector, and that is hugely important not just because of the hoped-for effect of stopping the Iranian nuclear regime, but because of the message that it sends to other tyrannical regimes throughout the world—that Britain will not be weak, but be strong and do everything it can to stop the actions of such dictators.

Although I strongly welcome these tough sanctions and praise the Treasury for having the courage to introduce them, I note that we may be too late. Iran is not far off acquiring a nuclear bomb, and we—perhaps not this country itself, but NATO—may need to take further military action to rid the world of that bomb, to put pressure on the country’s evil regime and to bring about a true democracy, with the rule of law, freedom and everything that the Iranian people deserve.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington 6:21 pm, 13th December 2011

I, too, preface my remarks by stating that I have been a consistent opponent of the regime in Iran. I founded the Hands Off the People of Iran organisation in this country to campaign for the restoration of democracy in Iran and, with my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn and Mr Binley, have signed a number of early-day motions in support of human rights in Iran. I have focused on the persecution of trade unionists, particularly those in the Tehran bus workers union, but I also led the campaign in this country to free Jafar Panahi, the film director.

Having said all that, I am extremely fearful of the statutory instrument under consideration, because I fear that it will take us into the cul-de-sac of war, which is an all too familiar path for us in this country: we seem to find an opponent, which is usually associated with minerals or oil; we then find that it is a threat to world safety; and we then find or concoct evidence of that threat. The International Atomic Energy Agency’s recent report failed to find any conclusive evidence of nuclear weapons production and, in fact, found no evidence of Iran’s

“diversion of declared nuclear material” to weapons production.

The report relies on past evidence, which we have debated in the House before: a laptop computer, originating we believe from the Israeli or US intelligence services and referring to the development of a nuclear weapons programme by a certain scientist, Vyacheslav Danilenko. We were told at one point that this Ukrainian was a nuclear science expert, but we now discover that he was an expert in nanotechnology and had no real expertise in nuclear weapons. We were told also that there was a technique, supposedly being developed by the Iranians, involving a test explosion chamber, but we now know from the evidence of Robert Kelly, the chief of the IAEA for eight years in Iraq, that the chamber could never be used in a test.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

I would, but we are short of time, so if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will not. I am sure that he understands.

All that evidence led to the conclusion by Mr Mohamed el-Baradei, the former head of the IAEA, that he had “no confidence” in the allegations based upon it, but it has convinced the new head of the IAEA, Mr Yukiya Amano. WikiLeaks has, unfortunately, exposed comments from the US on Mr Amano, however, whom it describes as

“solidly in the US court” and “ready for prime time”.

So I begin to doubt the independence of his judgment on the matter.

It seems that we are being drawn into an atmosphere of war, and sanctions lead to war. Recent research by Professor Robert Pape of the university of Chicago demonstrates that 95.7% of cases of sanctions since world war one have led to military conflict, but who suffers? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North that it is not the elite, but the poorest. The reaction is usually for the ruling elite to blame the ills of the country on foreign forces, and sometimes it even unites the country against a foreign foe, but the tragedy is that sanctions often motivate a regime to seek to protect itself by acquiring the very weapons that we seek to rid ourselves of.

There has been military action on the ground already. We have evidence of that from various reports—not just the drone, but intelligence assets on the ground relating to assassinations. The chair of our own parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee could not rule out such assassinations having been undertaken by Israelis, and he confirmed that on occasions the US and Israeli Governments have given authority for assassinations.

I just want to get on the record my fear that we have trodden this path before, and that after sanctions come the bombs, then invasion, then loss of life, destabilisation and a growth in terrorism, then usually the installation of a puppet regime and the privatisation and exploitation by western countries of the mineral and oil resources. I hope against hope that we are not embarking on that tonight with this statutory instrument, but I have this dreadful fear of “Here we go again”.

Photo of Rory Stewart Rory Stewart Conservative, Penrith and The Border 6:26 pm, 13th December 2011

In the debate about Iran, we tend to be presented with two pictures of the country: either it represents an extreme existential threat to national security, in which case any response, however aggressive, is justified; or it is not a threat at all, and therefore we do not need to do anything.

The truth is of course more complicated and tragic. Iran poses a significant threat to the United Kingdom, Europe and the United States, but our options are limited. There is not time in a five-minute speech to talk about the issues that Jeremy Corbyn raised, but it is true that Iran is a highly complex and fragmented society. There is an elite, particularly in Tehran, Isfahan and Shiraz, who are liberal, western-friendly and progressive, but there is also an extremely conservative and isolated rural population, who provide the support base for Ahmadinejad. There is no doubt at all, however, that Iran is a priority.

Many things in which the House has become involved have not been priorities. In recent debates, we have become involved in everything from Somalia to Mauritania, and we have exaggerated the importance of Afghanistan, but Iran clearly matters—in terms of its connection to terrorism, its nuclear bomb, rights and regional stability. There is no greater potential force for regional stability or instability than Iran, but we must face the fact that our current policy of sanctions, though rational and wise, is designed to delay the development of a bomb; and we must face the fact that there is a very high probability of Iran eventually developing a bomb. It may well develop a bomb even if an Islamist Government are not in place, because an atomic bomb has become a source of national pride for many people going well beyond the Islamist supporters.

What is our appropriate response to that threat? We should continue to do the things that we are doing at the moment. First, we should ensure that we have a clear, consistent policy towards Iran. That means that we do not wish to appease the Iranian Government, or to give any impression at all that our sympathies lie with that Government. We need to be robust in our defence of Iran’s regional neighbours, because the primary threat that will be posed by an Iran in possession of a nuclear bomb, however erratic and eccentric its Government are, is unlikely to be the bomb’s deployment; it is more likely to be a considerable increase in Iran’s prestige and in its threat towards its neighbours through terrorism or border disputes.

We must also, however, do things that we are not doing enough at the moment. One is to recognise that because the problem is primarily political, the Foreign Office and our armed forces must invest more and more in area expertise and linguistic expertise in relation to Iran because that will become more and more important—either in deterring some of our allies from unwise precipitate action or in helping us support our regional neighbours.

Secondly, it would make enormous sense to diversify our energy supply. Some 30% of the oil on which western Europe and the United States depend comes through the strait of Hormuz. That is far too much. Iran has a stranglehold on us, but we can overcome it through the smart deployments of new routes of delivering oil and gas to Europe and the United Kingdom.

Finally—a new idea in the last 30 seconds—we need to change our relationship with Shi’a communities around the Arab region and in Pakistan. Too often, we have acted as though Shi’a communities are natural allies of Iran, but there is no reason for them to be so. There is no reason why Britain cannot use its history and knowledge to develop a more constructive and productive relationship with those communities. If we can get that right, continue to invest in the financial sanctions and measures that we are already taking and develop the three areas that I have identified, we can move away from a policy of lurching from extreme aggression to inaction and find a principled, moderate and passionate response.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole 6:31 pm, 13th December 2011

I rise to support the motion and the words of the Minister. Some of the shadow Minister’s comments about wanting to see an international extension were perfectly reasonable, but I do not think that that alone should have prevented us from acting on our own, and acting with the United States and Canada was entirely correct.

A great deal has been said that I do not wish to repeat, although I endorse what my hon. Friend Robert Halfon said about comparisons between Israel’s having nuclear weapons and the acquisition of those weapons by the despotic regime in Iran. We are talking about two completely different Governments and to try to mix them up is unhelpful, to be polite about it.

I do not think that anybody who has spoken today has in the slightest attempted to denigrate or insult the history of Iran or the Iranian people. The issue that we all have is with the Iranian regime; the debate has been consensual in that we have all expressed our outrage at what that does to its own people. I do not think that those who urge us to go further are in any way seeking to denigrate the Iranian people or their history.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is not trying to denigrate anybody, but unfortunately the history of interventions is that, however supportive people are or odious the regime is, we end up with an awful lot of wholly innocent civilians being killed, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of us wants to see that in Iran.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I do not think that anybody wants to see conflict in Iran; more importantly, none of us wants Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon at all. We are on the same page on that one.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

We have nuclear weapons here.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

That is a different debate for a different day, but I would rather that nuclear weapons were in the hands of the United States or this country than in the Iranian regime’s, as it is currently constituted.

John McDonnell commented on the International Atomic Energy Agency report—[Interruption.] I apologise for my croaky throat, Madam Deputy Speaker; it is difficult to get my words out. The hon. Gentleman’s conclusions were slightly different from those drawn by others. I want to remind him of a couple of things in that report. Crucially, the report found evidence that Iran has procured

“nuclear related and dual use equipment and materials by military related individuals and entities”; has developed

“undeclared pathways for the production of nuclear material”; has acquired

“nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network”; and has worked

“on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components”.

Further evidence is provided by the reports that we have seen about the high explosive test sites, the neutron initiator and the uranium enrichment, which all prove that Iran is closer than ever to a nuclear weapons programme.

There has also been the non-co-operation with the IAEA, of course—we know that inspectors are consistently barred from entering Iran. In some cases they have been expelled; in 2007, 38 inspectors were expelled. We can read a great deal into the response of the Iranian regime to the IAEA findings; it simply dismisses them as having been written by people acting on behalf of the United States or its western allies.

I do not think that the report’s conclusions were quite as the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington suggested. We should be extremely concerned. It is absolutely right that we act as we have been acting and show leadership on the issue. Yes, we would like other European countries to come on board, but acting as we have, along with the United States and Canada, is right for this country and what we are all trying to achieve—Iran never getting hold of a nuclear weapon. I associate myself with many of the comments made in this debate and I endorse the position of the Government.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay 6:36 pm, 13th December 2011

I rise to suggest to the Minister not only that it is questionable whether sanctions are working but that they may be counter-productive. I also suggest that the west underestimates its ability to influence Iran. It is a complex society with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles. I hope that our Government will recognise that better in our diplomatic efforts.

Iran is a very wealthy country when it comes to minerals; other major powers are queuing up to gain access to its oil. That lessens the impact of sanctions from the west. Anyway, if Iran has set herself on nuclear weapons, she will not be scared away; if she has not, sanctions will, in my view, serve only to encourage her to get them.

In our discussions on Iran, we tend to forget too easily that it is a complex society justifiably proud of its history. As we have heard, the Parliament has protected rights for minorities; Iran’s 25,000 Jews are represented by a Jewish MP. We forget that there is no desecration of synagogues, which is more of a problem in Europe. We also forget that there is a well developed middle class in Iran that often disagrees with Ahmadinejad, as recent protests have illustrated.

My concern is that sanctions are counter-productive. Support for the current hardliners in Iran probably increases as a result of sanctions—Iranians responded to Bush’s talk of an axis of evil in 2002 by removing the reformist President Khatami. I suggest that the only sensible course of action is calm yet vigorous diplomacy.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I am incredibly grateful for my hon. Friend’s thoughtful remarks, although I come from a completely different perspective. He said that sanctions have made the regime more extreme, but some years ago there were no sanctions yet the regime became more and more extreme. Can he explain that?

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

I am afraid that my hon. Friend was not listening. I did not say that sanctions made the regime more extreme, but that they reinforced the position of the hardliners within Iran, itself being a complex society. There is a difference. The only sensible option is calm yet vigorous diplomacy. We need to offer implicit recognition of Iran’s status as a major power in the region—a status that we created ourselves by castrating Iraq. There is a precedent for recognising a new status. In the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power.

As I said, the west underestimates the opportunity to influence Iran. She is a state in transition with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles. The challenge for the west is to influence those struggles. Crude sanctions or appeals for regime change undermine local proponents of reform by making them look like imperialist lackeys. Offering Iran a new relationship with the west could strengthen the pragmatists at the expense of the hard-liners. We can, and should, go the extra mile for peace. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on quiet diplomacy between Iran and the west.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

Does my hon. Friend recognise that we have approached the Iranians bearing gifts in that we proscribed the MEK as a way of mollifying them and encouraging them to be our friend? None of our overtures over the past 12 years has worked. Does my hon. Friend recognise that a consistent but strong voice is now the only way to proceed, and that the last thing we want is military intervention?

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

I am afraid that the Iranians have a slightly longer memory than just 12 years. They remember our support for Saddam Hussein when he invaded Iran, and many other interventions in Iran by the west are still fresh in their memories.

We need to go the extra mile for peace. Much greater emphasis needs to be placed on quiet yet vigorous diplomacy between Iran and the west. The UK is well placed to help in this effort. Despite recent measures announced by the Foreign Secretary, of the three stated enemies of Iran—the UK, the US and Israel—only one still has diplomatic relations with Iran.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

No, because we are very short of time—I apologise.

I suggest that we give diplomacy a greater chance for one final push before it is too late.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury 6:42 pm, 13th December 2011

This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate. As anyone listening to it will have recognised, there are a range of views about Iran and how the UK should engage with it, but there is also the common strand that everyone expressed—our concern about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and how we seek to tackle that.

In response to my hon. Friend Mr Baron, we all want to see a diplomatic solution, but we need a process whereby there is not only engagement but pressure on the Iranian Government. At the moment, unfortunately, there are no signs to suggest that the Iranians are interested in meaningful and serious negotiations on the key issue of their nuclear programme, and it does take two parties to engage. The E3 plus 3 has been trying to negotiate with Iran, and it is not that group’s fault that the negotiations have not yet succeeded. It is Iran that needs to engage in serious negotiations.

Let me reflect on some of the comments that have been made. Mr Straw and my hon. Friend Mr Wallace, who are co-chairmen of the all-party group on Iran and are currently at one of its meetings, asked about support for the action that the Government have taken and why we did not act in concert with EU member states. It is worth highlighting two points in that regard. We have undertaken a significant programme of lobbying internationally and continue to do so. As I said earlier, the US and Canada acted alongside us in imposing the sanctions on 21 November. However, there is a balance to be struck. Clearly, we want to encourage as many people as possible to join with us to impose these sanctions, yet at the same time there is a real sense of urgency on this issue. The risk of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon becomes more serious as time passes, as was highlighted in stark terms by the IAEA report. We consider it imperative to act now and to encourage others to follow.

Photo of Mark Hoban Mark Hoban The Financial Secretary to the Treasury

I want to make progress and conclude fairly promptly because there is a time limit on this debate.

We will engage with our European counterparts at the Council meeting next month. As I said, President Sarkozy wrote to us supporting moves for financial sanctions but also suggesting broadening them to the import of oil.

Let me turn to the points raised by Chris Leslie. I have dealt with his first point about putting pressure on other countries to act. His second point was about whether the UK will use significant fines to promote enforcement. As I said earlier, the civil and criminal penalties for breaching these restrictions enable the authorities to levy unrestricted fines. In the context of the civil sanction, for example, the fine should be proportionate, effective and dissuasive. I believe that the authorities take this matter seriously and will act proportionately to that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about exemptions, which relate to the licensing process that we have talked about in other situations. Some general licences are in place to deal with transactions that are already in progress. People can also apply for specific licences. Fifteen specific licences have been applied for; one has been granted and fourteen are in the process of being considered. This is an ongoing process. I hope that that also addresses the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North.

We are committed to reporting regularly to Parliament. The Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 says that we should report as soon as possible after the calendar year in which the actions have been taken. We will endeavour to do so, and we will keep the House informed about the progress that is made.

Everyone across the House recognises the dangers that attach to nuclear proliferation. This is a process of negotiation and diplomatic engagement. We need the other party to engage in that diplomacy, too, but we should not be afraid of applying pressure to the Iranian regime where we think that that is appropriate and proportionate and will help to further our objective of keeping the world a safer place. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Financial Restrictions (Iran) Order 2011 (S.I., 2011, No. 2775), dated 21 November 2011, a copy of which was laid before this House on 21 November, be approved.