Because of the level of interest in speaking in this debate, I have imposed an eight-minute limit on most Back-Bench contributions. That does not apply to Mr Baron, who is opening the debate. He will be aware of his time limit, to which I know he will faithfully adhere.
I beg to move,
That this House
believes that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons;
and calls upon the Government to rule out the use of force against Iran and reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts.
May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for supporting my application to debate this subject today? Statements by the Government allow opportunities to ask a question, but rarely allow a thorough examination of the issue. I also thank those Members who supported me in calling for this debate. Many did not agree with the motion, but all felt that such a debate was long overdue, as is borne out by the number of people who have put in to speak this evening.
The debate is urgently required. With tough new sanctions in place and further ones threatened by Iran, with naval forces mustering in the Persian gulf and with state-sponsored terrorism ongoing inside and outside Iran, this might be the only opportunity for Back Benchers to discuss the topic before hostilities begin. Israel is contemplating an air strike, and we could be on the brink of a regional war. I called for today’s debate because I believe that we need a fresh approach. The sanctions and the sabre-rattling are yesterday’s failed policies, and the fact that we are once again on the brink of military conflict is testament to that failure. My motion calls on the Government—and, by implication, the west—to rule out the use of force in order to reduce tensions and bring us back from the brink of war and military conflict, and to redouble diplomatic efforts. That would give us time to reflect on some of the inconvenient truths that the west chooses to ignore, and on the need for a fresh approach.
I shall start by outlining some of the inconvenient truths. The catalyst for the latest round of condemnation was the report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last November. The United States and the United Kingdom chose to see the report as evidence that Iran was building nuclear weapons, and further financial sanctions followed, which led directly to the storming of the British embassy in Tehran, inexcusable though that was. We should be careful about accepting such reports at face value, however. Close reading of the report reveals no smoking gun: there is no evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so.
I want to make some progress, then I will try to accommodate all colleagues who wish to intervene.
The fact that there is no evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons or of a decision to do so was confirmed by Peter Jenkins, the UK’s former permanent representative to the IAEA. Robert Kelley, a former director of the agency, highlighted the fact that the report contained only three items that referred to developments after 2004—the year in which the American intelligence services concluded that Iran had ceased its nuclear programme. Indeed, the agency spends 96% of a 14-page annexe reprising what was already known. I therefore ask the Foreign Secretary to highlight for the House today the paragraphs in the report that provide evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. He has referred to this matter many times, but I can see no such evidence in the report. Is he willing to highlight those paragraphs for the benefit of the House now? I am willing to take an intervention from him.
Order. We cannot have two Members standing up at the same time. Mr Baron is perfectly tall enough. We can see him; he has nothing to worry about.
I will take and answer one intervention at a time, if I may.
We need to be careful when considering the report. Much has been made of the circumstantial evidence and of western intelligence reports, but Iraq should have taught us to be careful about basing our foreign policy decisions on secret intelligence and circumstantial evidence. That is a lesson that we should have learned from Iraq.
Another section of the report talks about the
“acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network”.
It concludes that:
“While some of the activities identified in the Annex have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons.”
How else are we to interpret that?
That does not answer the actual question. That is circumstantial evidence; it is not concrete evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. It is as straightforward as that. I challenge the hon. Gentleman who asked the question: if he could point to concrete evidence, it would be useful for the House.
It is very straightforward. There has to be evidence of nuclear weapons. We were told, for example, that there was no shortage of circumstantial evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but it turned out that there were no WMD there. That shows how careful we need to be and how clear we need to be about the difference between circumstantial evidence and concrete evidence.
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. In certain quarters in the middle east, it is felt that double standards are being applied in that Israel has developed nuclear weapons and the west does not seem to worry about them. [Interruption.] My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind suggests that the evidence is circumstantial, and I am willing to grant him that point.
Can my hon. Friend name any experts in the field who would explain how enrichment to a 20% threshold, currently being undertaken by the Iranian regime, could plausibly be for civilian and not military use?
My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which I will address later in my speech, but I say to him now that there is a world of difference between nuclear capability and actually having nuclear weapons. I am sure that the House would accept that difference.
A second inconvenient truth relates to the usual depiction of Iran as intransigent and for ever chauvinistic in her foreign policy. Western Governments, I suggest, too easily forget that Iran is not totally at fault here. There have been opportunities to better relations between Iran and the west, but the west has spurned those opportunities. We forget, for example, that following 9/11, Iran—unlike many in the middle east street—expressed solidarity with the US. We forget also that attempts were made to develop contacts during the early stages of the Afghan war. What was Iran’s reward? It was to be labelled or declared part of the “axis of evil” by President Bush, which led directly to the removal of the reformist and moderate President Khatami. Despite that, there were further attempts at co-operation in the run-up to the Iraq war, but those efforts were similarly rebuffed.
Again, I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he is prepared to deny that the west has made mistakes in its dealings with Iran and has missed opportunities to better relations. I would genuinely like to hear his views on that and would welcome an intervention.
I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman refers to lost opportunities. Does he agree that the Iranian regime was at fault in rejecting President Obama’s initiative when he first came to office? Is that not a sign that the regime in Tehran is afraid of international engagement and is pursuing this course relentlessly?
I am the first to agree that Iran was completely wrong on President Obama’s offer. Let me make it clear that I am not an apologist for Iran. No one can agree with its human rights record, its sponsoring of state terrorism or the storming of our embassy—all are terribly wrong—but they are not arguments for military intervention; they do not justify war. Rather, I suggest that no one’s hands are clean in this region, including our own, particularly after the invasion of Iraq on what turned out to be a false premise. Opportunities have been missed on both sides. I would have thought there can be little doubt about that.
Let us get to the nub of the issue and think the unthinkable. Let us assume, despite the lack of substantive evidence, that Iran is moving towards the option of nuclear capability. Hon. Members will be fully aware that there is a world of difference between nuclear capability and possessing nuclear weapons. This is perhaps understandable. We in the west underestimate the extent to which status is important in that part of the world. The reason Saddam Hussein did not deny possessing weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that he did not have them, was that it was in his interest not to deny it. He had, after all, failed in his invasion of Iran. Iran’s insecurity is also understandable. Those who view the map from Tehran’s point of view will see that she is surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia, Pakistan, a United States naval presence, and Israel. All those powers contribute to Iran’s feeling of encirclement.
I am very conscious, as the House will be, of the argument that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, that will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region but without the safety mechanisms that existed during the cold war, which in itself could lead to a nuclear escalation. However, I do not accept that argument. There is no reason why the theory of nuclear deterrence to which the west adheres should not be equally valid in other parts and regions of the world. Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the middle east between 2000 and 2005, recently wrote that there was
“nothing in the record of behavior by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality”.
India and Pakistan have fought wars, yet both have shown nuclear restraint. As the House is well aware, only one country has ever used nuclear weapons in anger. Furthermore, the view that an Iranian nuclear capability would start a nuclear arms race in the region does not take into account the possibility that regional allies of the west will opt to shelter under a US nuclear umbrella. That happens in Japan and in South Korea.
I am afraid that this is sounding terribly like an appeasement argument. If the hon. Gentleman does not wish his position to be characterised as such, will he say something about what the western powers should do to support legitimate protest in Iran by the people who are pushing for regime change, whom we have supported in other countries and whom we should support in this instance?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient. I promise to deal directly with that later in my speech.
At this point, many invoke President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the face of the map. Surely, they say, that is proof of irrationality; surely that is evidence that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. However, a careful examination of the translation suggests that President Ahmadinejad was badly misquoted. Even The New York Times, one of the first outlets to misquote Ahmadinejad, now accepts that the word “map” was never used. A more accurate translation offers
“the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”.
Given that Ahmadinejad compared his desired option—the elimination of “the regime occupying Jerusalem”—with the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran, it is quite clear that he was talking about regime change and not about the destruction of Israel itself, just as he did not want the end of Iran in his comparison. The pedantry over the translation is important. Some Members may scoff, but this is a terribly important point. The immediate reaction to Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2005 was the then Israeli Prime Minister’s call for Iran to be expelled from the United Nations, and the US urging its allies to “get tougher” on Iran.
That mistranslation is used to this day, even by former Foreign Secretaries outside the House. I wonder why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not provided more clarity on the point. I hope that it is not to do with a hidden agenda. Perhaps it is to do with a shortage of properly qualified Farsi speakers, but we would appreciate clarity from the Foreign Secretary in due course. I ask him to tell us whether he denies at least the possibility that President Ahmadinejad was misquoted.
If the hon. Gentleman is so dismissive of Iran’s statement that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth, can he explain why, in February 2011, Ayatollah Khamenei repeated the statement that Israel was a “cancerous tumour” that must be removed?
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I must say that we need to examine these statements very carefully, because that translation too is open to dispute. It is all very well coming to the House with these translations, but Farsi is a complex language, as she will know, and we have to make sure that we get them right. Many scholars outside this place verify that President Ahmadinejad’s original statement was misquoted—theses have been written about it—which is why I ask the Foreign Secretary to clarify the situation. We need to get this quote clarified.
There can be little doubt that the west’s policy of sabre-rattling and sanctions has failed; the Iranians are not going to back down on their nuclear programme.
Mr Mousavi, the unofficial leader of the green movement and one of the great hopes of the west, said during the 2009 presidential campaign that any backtracking on the nuclear issue would be tantamount to surrender. Iran’s statement that it is introducing an oil embargo for certain countries shows that it is impervious to sabre-rattling, yet we in the west still pursue that policy when confronting Iran. Indeed it is considered “naive”—I have heard that word used a lot—to rule out the use of force. We are told that all options must be left on the table. Some people go further: there seems to be a hairshirt auction among Republican candidates for the presidential nomination in America as to who can be toughest on Iran, with Mitt Romney openly advocating war over the nuclear issue. I would counter that by saying that what is naive is pursuing a policy that has clearly failed. Sanctions and sabre-rattling are yesterday’s policies and they have brought us to the brink of a military conflict, which is hardly the sign of success.
What compounds the error of that approach is that most agree that a military strike would be counter-productive to the point of being calamitous. It would reinforce the position of the hard-liners at the expense of the pragmatists within Iran, just as the Iran-Iraq war boosted patriotic support for the regime and helped to cement the revolution. Military intervention would not work; the US Defence Secretary judges that it would delay the Iranians for only a year at most. Knowledge cannot be eradicated by military intervention, and such intervention will only delay the inevitable. If Iran has set herself on acquiring nuclear weapons, she will not be scared away; and if she has not, a military strike would encourage her to do so. We even hear voices from within Israel against a strike. Meir Dagan, the hard-line former chief of Mossad—nobody could accuse him of being a pussycat—has referred to an attack on Iran as “a stupid idea.”
I ask hon. Members to reflect on a wider historical point. It is perhaps relevant to reflect more generally that military action often has an embedding effect: it reinforces the position of the existing regime. For example, communism has lasted longest in those countries where the west intervened militarily—North Korea, China, Cuba and Vietnam.
My hon. Friend talks about the verdict of history. Is the verdict of history not also that when dealing with tyrannies it is unwise to rule out force in defence, and that sometimes it is wise to keep tyrannies guessing as to one’s intentions?
Yes, although I suggest an exception: keeping an option on the table that heightens tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely is less worthy, and we have to examine that position.
Order. May I remind Mr Baron that he has already taken 20 minutes? This is an over-subscribed debate, and we will impose an eight-minute limit on speeches after the Front-Bench contributions. He would be generous to his colleagues if he began to draw his remarks to close.
I very much take that on board, Mr Deputy Speaker. If hon. Members will forgive me, I will not accept any more interventions.
A strike by Israel or the west would unite Iran in fury and perhaps trigger a regional war, and it would certainly encourage the hard-liners to push for a bomb. Despite that, the present policy is to refuse to rule out the use of force. Such a policy is not only naive, but illogical: we are keeping an option that we all know would be a disaster, against a country that chooses to ignore it, yet that option heightens tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely. That is nonsense.
A fresh approach is required. Israel will not attack Iran if Washington objects. Now is the time for the US to make it clear to Israel that force should not be used. Ruling out the use of force would have the immediate effect of reducing tensions and making conflict less likely. That would lessen the chance of another accident like the shooting down of Iran Air 655, which could spark conflict. Such a policy in the longer term would give diplomacy a greater chance of success. Iran will not be persuaded to give up her pursuit of nuclear technology. We need to understand and engage better with Iran, and offer the prospect of implicit recognition of Iran’s status as a major power in the region—a status we created ourselves through our misguided invasion of Iraq, which fundamentally altered the balance of power in the region.
There is a precedent for recognising that 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. His visit to China in 1972 took everyone by surprise, but it was the right decision—it was a defining moment. I suggest that the US needs to realise that this is one of those defining moments, which needs to be seized.
Israel and Iran are two proud nations but they are perhaps uncertain about the best course of action. The US needs to put behind it the underlying antagonism towards Iran that defines this crisis. That will not be easy, but speaking as an ally of the US, too often in the past the US approach has been to overwhelm an issue rather than to solve it. This is not one of those occasions.
In conclusion, the US needs to adopt a wider perspective: it needs to make it clear that an Israeli attack would be unacceptable, and then to engage better with Iran. That would be in Israel’s long-term interests. No one is suggesting it is an easy option, particularly given the presidential elections in both countries, but without it discussions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and a host of other issues will remain needlessly difficult. 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 internal debates and struggles. Crude threats of military intervention and sanctions, along with talk of regime change, only reinforce the hard-liners’ position.
We need a better understanding of what makes Iran tick. We need to better understand the culture, the people, the history, the religion—the British Museum’s current Hajj exhibition is a well worth a visit. We need to renounce the option of a military strike and go the extra mile for peace. War should always, I remind the House, be the measure of last resort, to be used when all other avenues have been exhausted. We have not reached that point with Iran. As such, it is my intention to test the will of Parliament by dividing the House on the motion tonight.
Order. Will hon. Members resume their seats? I will explain the procedure to be applied so the House can follow what is going on. I will call an Opposition Member next. The Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, whom I will call after the first speaker from the Opposition side. I will then call another Opposition Back-Bench Member, then we go to both Front Benches. The time limit will then be formally applied. I say to those Members whom I call before that if they exceed eight minutes, plus two minutes for interventions taken, I will cough loudly. I may become even more explicit than that. I call Michael McCann.
I should start by declaring that my sister is married to an Iranian and that I have strong links with the Iranian community in the west of Scotland. I have taken the community’s temperature on this issue.
We know that every Government face challenges, foreign and domestic, during their period in office. The longer the Government are in power, the more likely that challenges will come along and that their frequency will increase. The foreign challenges that we face focus public attention, at times, on making decisions or considering military options that will put our people in harm’s way. Sadly, over the past decade or so, we have seen many challenges in foreign lands—Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, the coalition Government deployed UK forces in Libya.
On each occasion each Member of the House has had to come to a view on where they stand on the issues. Some will always adopt a pacifist approach. Others will weigh up other factors. The pacifists among us will always have respect and legitimacy for the principled position that they hold, but they must also recognise that their position lacks remedies in the harsh territory—
I shall make progress. The hon. Gentleman has just had the opportunity to move the motion. He should not try to come in again so swiftly.
The pacifists among us do not always recognise that their position lacks remedies in the harsh territory of international conflict and that at times it can be seen as a white flag in the face of tyranny. What is more difficult to absorb are those non-pacifists who disagree with a particular decision and then seek to stand astride the moral high ground after the event and lecture us about how they did not support the action in the first place.
Iraq is the most obvious recent controversy. I have often mused about what would have happened in March 2003 had the French and Russians put their vested interests aside and supported a united final UN resolution. Would Saddam have capitulated? We will never know. I have no issue with those who seek to post-rationalise events, but I do have an issue with those who seek to do so in a manner which neglects to mention that they did not have a feasible proposition to resolve the original problem—in the Iraq context, Saddam’s refusal to abide by the will of the international community. Now we look to Iran.
I do not support the motion; I support the amendment. In reaching that decision I have examined the actions of the Iranians thus far, and in particular the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the issues. What actions have the Iranians taken thus far? The International Atomic Energy Agency stated on
To this I add the Iranians’ rhetoric that the holocaust did not take place and President Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Israel should be wiped off the map; I refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay. If that declaration was somehow misinterpreted, were the Iranians also misinterpreted when they said that the holocaust did not take place? We must also question the Iranians’ close relationship with Syria.
It appears that President Ahmadinejad likes to cherry-pick his arguments. Clearly, he is an anti-Semite who is intent on getting rid of the Jewish people by denying the holocaust. He also talks about getting rid of the occupation of Jerusalem, but that is just looking at the past hour’s news. Look at the years before that, when the Jews were there before the Muslims. When President Ahmadinejad makes such statements, his intent towards the Jewish people is clear.
Absolutely. The question is the degree to which President Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semite rather than whether he is an anti-Semite in the first place.
The close relationship with Syria is headline news at the moment, and there is also state sponsorship of terrorism.
I will make some progress and then I will be happy to give way.
At home in Iran—this is important for Iranian communities throughout the United Kingdom—there is the suppression of Iranian citizens, with 650 people executed in 2010 alone, and the violent suppression of democracy protests across the region that we in this House have championed.
Will my hon. Friend add to the list of crimes committed by the Iranian regime the horrific way in which the Ahwazi Arabs have been treated for many years? Many of them have been tortured to death and many have been prevented from taking part in all the ordinary political discourse that we would expect in any other country. Does he agree that that is consistent with the anti-Semitism that we have seen in many of the public pronouncements of the regime?
Sadly, it is a consistency that runs through the regime, like lettering through a stick of rock, alongside all the actions of the Iranian Government and the Iranian leadership. What it tells me about the leadership that we are dealing with is that we must consider all possible measures to determine how to move forward.
Do I believe, as the motion suggests, that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counter-productive? I do not know the precise answer to that question, but what I do know is that ruling it out would be counter-productive. It would say to an extreme set of people that their tactics have paid off, and the willingness of the Iranian regime to ignore the international community and six UN Security Council resolutions, and to repress the Iranian people’s rights, tells me that diplomacy and sanctions should not be our only options. The Foreign Secretary pointed out on television yesterday, quite properly, the complex nature of the threat, and for those reasons, nothing should be ruled out.
I appreciate that many wish to speak, so I will finish on this point. Two weeks ago at a local high school in my constituency, I listened to a gentleman named Harry Bibring, who, as a 12-year-old in March 1938, witnessed Nazi troops march into Vienna. Days later, the persecution of the Jews started in that city. In that same year, the Peace Pledge Union, a British pacifist organisation, asked people to make this pledge:
“I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.”
I am sure that all would agree that those are laudable aims and that all of us would be prepared to sign up to that pledge to remove all causes of war. But I am also acutely aware of Edmund Burke’s quote:
“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
That is why I oppose the motion and will support the amendment.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add,
‘supports the Government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia;
and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table.’.
I have a genuine respect for my hon. Friend Mr Baron. It is courageous sometimes to put forward a view that may have very little support, but as I listened to his speech, I could not but irresistibly be reminded of the remark that was made about a Minister in the 1930s, who had the reputation of being very logical. It was said of him that starting from a false premise he had moved inexorably to the wrong conclusion. I say to my hon. Friend in all honesty that I feel that he is in that situation.
Of course, we all want to see a peaceful resolution of this dispute by negotiation. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a powerful case to see if we can have a normalisation of relations between the United States and Iran, but it takes the two to have such a negotiation, and, as he himself conceded, when President Obama put forward such a proposal, it was rejected in Tehran. There is no evidence that Tehran has changed its position. If it has changed it, it would be very easy for it to say so.
I want to go straight to the question raised in the motion rather than to the wider issues involved, and that is whether there is a powerful or persuasive argument at this moment in time for renouncing the use of force. I presume my hon. Friend means not by the United Kingdom, but by the west—the international community in general. I believe he is profoundly wrong for three reasons. First, if the United States—the key country in this regard—the west and the international community renounced the use of force at this stage, I believe that Israel would be more likely to decide to act unilaterally. The Israelis know perfectly well that their military capability is far less than that of the United States and that the Americans, with their cruise missiles, bunker-busting bombs and other capabilities, stand a much better chance of destroying or severely degrading Iran’s nuclear capability. As long as the United States has not ruled out that option, the Israelis are under much greater pressure to allow the negotiations the best possible opportunity to produce the desired result. If that option is removed from the table, particularly by the United States, the Israelis will say, “We are sorry, but sanctions are not working and the negotiations are going nowhere. Every week that passes creates a more dangerous Iran. If no one else will act, we will.” I say to my hon. Friend that, for anyone who understands the Israeli position, this is not scaremongering, but the most likely consequence.
The Israelis acted unilaterally against Iraq when they removed the Osirak reactor, and both the western world and the Arab world breathed a huge sign of relief. It would ultimately depend on how successful the Israelis could be, and that is a separate question.
Secondly, this is inevitably an extraordinarily complex period of diplomacy and, as other hon. Members have noted, diplomacy requires maximum pressure. It requires carrots and sticks. To reduce unnecessarily the pressure we can apply would be to act fundamentally against our own interests. There are circumstances—very limited circumstances—when it is right to rule out the use of force in advance. Let me give an example, because it is a question of disproportionate responses. When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands, some rather foolish people said, “The United Kingdom has a nuclear weapon, so why does it not just threaten Argentina that it will use it if it does not withdraw from the Falkland Islands?”
The Government at the time rightly said that under no circumstances was that an option, because it would have been an incredibly disproportionate response, and that was of course the right position to take.
However, we are not in such a situation. When a country is contemplating acquiring nuclear weapons, as the rest of the world believes Iran is, even if my hon. Friend does not, and when we know that that would dramatically alter the geopolitical balance of power in the Gulf—the capability of producing a nuclear weapon in a few weeks is as serious as actually having one—that is a huge threat. We can debate whether it is a legitimate threat, but the possibility of using conventional force to destroy that capability in order to prevent the emergence of such a nuclear weapon state is not inherently unreasonable, extreme or irrational.
That might be an option, but the political reality is that Israel has had nuclear weapons for 30 years and that has not led to Arab countries threatening seriously to develop their own nuclear capability. The reason the Saudis and others have reacted in such a hostile way to Iran is that they know that Iran is intent on geopolitical dominance in the Gulf region by being the only country of the Muslim world, other than Pakistan, to have nuclear weapons capability or the reality of it. I believe that we cannot rule out a military response because the potential for such a response must be part of the equation.
I do not want to accept too many interventions, for the reasons you have mentioned, Mr Deputy Speaker.
Thirdly, the use of force will never be a desirable response, but it might be the least bad one if all else fails. In considering that, let me put to the House what I think is a very important point. Many commentators have drawn attention to all the downsides of a military response. They suggest that an attack by the United States—let us concentrate on the United States at the moment—would lead to a hike in the oil price, which is correct. They suggest that it might lead to increased terrorist support by Iran for Hezbollah or Hamas and to attempts to block the strait of Hormuz and all that that would entail, and they are right. There are various other downsides, too. But, when we think about it, we find that almost all the examples—the correct examples that have been given—of the adverse consequences of a military strike by the United States are relatively temporary. They are short to medium-term: they might last a few days, weeks or possibly even months, but they would gradually cease to have any impact.
The alternative, however, of an Iran with nuclear weapons capability is not temporary; it is permanent. Therefore, we have to come to—we cannot avoid coming to—a judgment. If diplomacy fails, if negotiations go nowhere and if sanctions do not deliver, we will at some stage still have to come to an honest judgment: whether the downside, which I do not deny exists, nevertheless has to be borne if the long-term objective is either to destroy or seriously to degrade Iran’s nuclear capability.
That brings us to a crucial question: would such action in fact do so? Do the Americans have the capability? That is ultimately a military question, and we are not privy to the military advice that the President may be receiving. If the advice is, “No, it wouldn’t,” it is not worth considering the option, but, if the advice is that we could either destroy or seriously degrade Iranian nuclear capability so that it is pushed back five or 10 years, that is a different argument.
I am listening very carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend, but does he not accept that even the US Defence Secretary admits that a successful military strike would only delay the programme for about a year—those are his words, not mine—and that what my right hon. and learned Friend ignores is the possibility that a strike could actually do much worse and inflame a regional war?
Panetta was probably referring to the consequences of an Israeli attempt to damage Iranian nuclear capability which, because the Israelis do not have cruise missiles or bunker-busting bombs, would clearly have a much more limiting effect, even if it had some limited success.
In the interests of time, I shall share my final point with the House. Sometimes the inference of those who argue against even the option of a military response is that the world would be a much more peaceful, happy and gentle place if only we renounced the use of force, even as an option, in resolving this dispute. I say to my hon. Friend, however, that we have to contemplate— for a very brief moment, Mr Deputy Speaker—the consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapon state. There is not just the one response, to which my hon. Friend referred—whereby the Saudis themselves, pretty certainly, feel obliged to become a nuclear weapon state, Egypt and Turkey perhaps follow them and, therefore, the middle east, which is already the most dangerous part of the world, becomes incredibly volatile for all the perfectly obvious reasons that I do not have to go into. The only alternative, which my hon. Friend touched on, is that in order to discourage any Saudi, Egyptian or Turkish response of going nuclear the United States would have to give a nuclear umbrella guarantee to the Arab and Gulf states of the region, just as it has to NATO members, to Japan and to South Korea. In each case, when the United States gives such a guarantee, however, the guarantee is not credible unless the United States has bases in the area, as it has had in western Europe and has in the far east.
My hon. Friend’s view leads to the point that, if Iran became a nuclear weapon state, to have any prospect of discouraging the Saudis and others from becoming nuclear powers themselves, we would have to envisage not just for a few weeks, a few months or the odd year or so, but for the indefinite future, the middle east as a region where the United States, far from disengaging, became more committed and involved than it ever has—committed by guarantee not just to go to war, but if necessary to use its nuclear weapons in the defence of what would then be its allies, in the sense that NATO is an alliance, alongside the need for bases in the region, with all the inflammatory consequences of American troops in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf on a permanent basis.
The stakes are very high, and my hon. Friend cannot just sleep quietly, saying, “I don’t think we should have the military option, and everything would be peaceful if only people accepted the judgment that I have come to.” It has to be an option. We must hope that it never comes to that, but it cannot be ruled out at this stage. It is no one’s interests that it should, and therefore I commend the amendment to the House.
First, I declare that I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on Iran, along with Mr Wallace. I congratulate Mr Baron on securing this important debate. I was one of the people who supported him in obtaining the debate, although it will be noted that I have not signed his motion. If there is a vote, as I suspect there will be, I will vote for the amendment in the names of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and many other right hon. and hon. Members.
I will first offer the House briefly my experiences of negotiating with the Iranians as Foreign Secretary. I visited Tehran on five occasions and I am the only Foreign Secretary who has visited Tehran since the Iranian revolution in 1979. I will also offer a brief assessment of where we are today.
I want to make it clear to the House that in supporting the amendment, I do not for a moment believe that we are anywhere near reaching the bar for military action. I am sure that I speak for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench in saying that none of us are giving the Foreign Secretary carte-blanche approval for military action, and I am sure that he would not see it that way. The other side of the coin—I say this to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay—is that I do not think it reasonable to ask the British Foreign Secretary, on behalf of the British Government and Parliament, to negotiate on this difficult issue, but to remove one option that may, in distant circumstances, be necessary.
Some may ask how I square that position with the statement that I made in November 2004, when I was asked on the BBC whether I thought that Israel or the United States would go in for the bombing of Iran. I said:
“Not only is that inconceivable but I think the prospect of it happening is inconceivable.”
That was my judgment at the time. The fact that it has not happened in the intervening seven and a half years may suggest that I was not far off the mark. The more important point is why I made that intervention as stridently as I did. One reason was that we were engaged in two wars, as was the United States. It was inconceivable at that time, given the difficulties in both theatres, that the United States would wish to engage in a further military action even if it had the capability, which I doubt it did. The second reason was that we were making progress in negotiations with the reformist regime in Iran.
I accept what the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay said about there having been a number of missed opportunities in dealing with Iran. Tony Blair asked me to go to Tehran as a positive response to President Khatami’s reaching out to the west straight after 9/11. Mr Blair took a risk there. He responded in a positive way by sending me. We had the support of the US Department of State. I am sad to say that our efforts were partly undermined by the line in President Bush’s speech at the end of January 2003 and by other efforts to undermine the strategy, although not by the State Department. That said, we made progress with Khatami. After an extraordinary and tense negotiation in October 2003, when Joschka Fischer, Dominique de Villepin and I came very close to walking out altogether, we got the Iranians to agree to a series of measures, including effectively abandoning their work on a nuclear programme and signing an additional protocol under the non-proliferation treaty. The effectiveness of that agreement is shown by the US national intelligence estimate from four years later, which stated:
“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”.
I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me not to go down that particular rabbit hole. I have given endless evidence to the inquiry into Iraq, and I do not resile from my support for that military action, not least for the reasons that my hon. Friend Mr McCann gave. We can have that debate on another occasion, but it is incontrovertible, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay showed, that the Iraq war changed the balance of power in the region. We knew that it was going to do that, but that provides still more reason for us to use better our relations with the US.
Progress was made, but for a variety of reasons, including errors by the US, the reformists lost out and President Ahmadinejad came to office in the summer of 2005. Since then, there has been a gradual deterioration in relations with Iran, despite, in my judgment, the best efforts of successive British Governments and many others. I wish that I shared the view of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay about whether it will be possible to achieve a shift by the current Administration without any pressure. I have literally sat across a table from President Ahmadinejad trying to negotiate with him—an interesting situation that did not lead to any great progress. Since 2009 and the disgraceful attitude of the Iranian authorities towards the elections, and then following their reaction to the Arab spring, things have got worse, not better.
We have yet to hear whether the right hon. Gentleman is going to support the amendment or the motion—[Hon. Members: “The amendment.”] I beg his pardon. Were the implicit military threat to be taken off the table, with whom in the current regime would we negotiate? Is that not a matter of considerable complexity? I am all in favour of negotiation, but with whom should we negotiate? Is that not part of the problem?
I have had a serious problem in my right ear since 1981, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is a very good consultant just across the river at St Thomas’s, on the NHS. I have been treated there for 30 years. I think it was within the hearing of the House and Hansard when, within about my first two sentences, I spelled out that I would support the amendment moved by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington. I apologise if it did not quite get as far as the bubble in which the hon. Gentleman sits.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current situation is very similar to the prelude to the war in Iraq? Does he really think that going to war on the basis of what proved to be non-existent weapons of mass destruction was worth the loss of 179 British lives?
The two are very different, and in any case I have already said that I do not regard us as being remotely close to the bar for military action at present. It is important that Members, particularly those who support the amendment, are cautious and do not get themselves into a lather, as some but not all did in respect of Iraq and other issues. It is very important to acknowledge the evidence.
If the House refers to paragraph 53 of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report of November, it will see that it states:
“The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”
However, it continues that information
“indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”
The truth is that—until recently, we think—the major part of the programme stopped in 2003. It is my judgment, but no more than conjecture, that Iran’s aim has been to build up a nuclear weapons capability on paper, but not to turn it into a nuclear weapons programme. With respect to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, there is a big difference between the two.
Finally, I urge caution. I hope that we hear less of the suggestion that were Iran to get a nuclear weapons capability, there would automatically be an arms race in the middle east. I do not believe that. A senior Saudi diplomat said to me, “I know what we’re saying publicly, but do you really think that having told people that there is no need for us to make any direct response to Israel holding nuclear weapons, we could seriously make a case for developing a nuclear weapons capability to deal with another Muslim country?”
This is a complicated issue, and we need a resolution to it. We need to ensure that the Foreign Secretary does not go into negotiations without options open to him, but I also believe that with sensible negotiations, and working with the United States, Europe and other allies, we can ensure that there is a peaceful solution.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s policy towards Iran. I pay tribute to two distinguished predecessors of mine who have just spoken with the benefit of their enormous experience. My right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind made a compelling, almost unanswerable, case for his amendment and against the motion tabled by my hon. Friend. Mr Straw, to whom I have often paid tribute in the House for his efforts to reach a rapprochement with Iran—I do so again today—spoke with his great experience of the difficulty of trying to arrive at an accommodation. I did not agree with quite everything he said, but he said many wise words about the current situation.
Iranian nuclear proliferation risks one of the most serious crises in foreign policy that the international community has faced in many years. As Iran moves closer to acquiring the capability to build and deliver a nuclear weapon, and as it continues its confrontational policies elsewhere in the world, that crisis is coming steadily down the track. Three years after Iran’s secret nuclear site at Qom first came to the attention of the world, it is expanding its uranium enrichment programme in defiance of the United Nations Security Council, and it is enriching uranium to 20% on a scale greater than that needed for a civil nuclear power programme. It remains in breach of its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions and it is not meeting the requirements of IAEA resolutions.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay asked me to read the relevant extracts from the IAEA report of November. The right hon. Member for Blackburn has already referred to one of them. Paragraph 53 states:
“The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
The report goes on to make the points to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.
First, it is of course not the IAEA’s view that Iran has been fully transparent. Indeed, it states in paragraph 52 of that report that
“the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities”.
I hope the hon. Gentleman listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, who pointed out that it could very well be argued that adopting the policy prescribed in the motion would increase tension and the likelihood of military conflict in the near term. I certainly hold to that view.
Another part of the IAEA report says that
“in 2005, a senior official in SADAT”— that is, the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies—
“solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.”
A solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives can be found only in the core of a nuclear weapon.
I am a signatory to the amendment tabled by Sir Malcolm Rifkind, but I was very concerned about his belief that an American military attack would have only temporary consequences. I am not suggesting that it be taken off the table, but would the Foreign Secretary care to give us his own thoughts on the consequences if we were to face such a situation in which the Americans intervened militarily in order to stop the programme?
It will be clear from my remarks that that is not what I am calling for, although I will shortly come to some of the arguments about it. It is very difficult to speculate about what the actual physical impact of a military strike would be, as it would depend on who did it, what they did it with, and exactly which facilities were struck. However, it is not something that we are advocating, as will be clear from my speech.
Would my right hon. Friend like to disabuse the House of the notion that were it not for 9/11 there would have been a rapprochement with the Iranian regime, given that well before that period Iran was the leading state sponsor of international terrorism, as we have seen most recently in Azerbaijan and Bangkok?
I am about to come to that point, so I will make some more progress in doing so.
It is our assessment and that of our allies that Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons—that is in line with what the right hon. Member for Blackburn said—and is steadily developing the capability to produce such weapons should it choose to do so. A nuclear-armed Iran would have devastating consequences for the middle east and could shatter the non-proliferation treaty. On that point, I differ from the right hon. Gentleman, because I believe, given everything that I have seen and heard in the region as Foreign Secretary so far, that if Iran set about the development of nuclear weapons, other nations in the middle east would do so as well, and that there would be a nuclear arms race in the region.
As my hon. Friend Mr Jackson suggests, our well-founded concerns that Iran’s intentions may not be purely peaceful are heightened by its policies in other areas. It is a regime that recently conspicuously failed to prevent the sacking of our embassy premises in Iran; that conspired to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States on American soil; that only last week was accused of planning and carrying out attacks against Israeli diplomats; that is providing assistance to the Syrian Government’s violent campaign against their own people; and that supports armed proxy groups including Hezbollah and Hamas. Taken together with Iran’s nuclear activities, this behaviour threatens international peace and security. That is why Iran is one of the very top priorities in foreign affairs for this Government, just as it was for the last Government.
The Iranian Foreign Minister and I spoke twice during and after those events, so we were in touch at the time and immediately afterwards. We are now in direct touch with the Iranians at official level to clarify with each other the arrangements for protecting our embassies in each country. Of course, we continue to be able to discuss matters with Iran in multilateral forums, as well as bilaterally should we choose to do so. We have not broken diplomatic relations with Iran.
I had better continue, because the embassy is a bit of a side point.
Our quarrel emphatically is not with the Iranian people: we want them to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as we do and to live dignified lives in a prosperous society. Today, they labour under a repressive political system that attempts to stifle all opposition and has incarcerated more journalists and bloggers than that of any other country in the world, on top of its appalling wider record on human rights. Let there be no doubt that the Iranian Government’s current policies endanger the interests of the Iranian people themselves, as well as undermining global security.
One does not condone the human rights record of Iran; there are many regimes around the world that have abysmal human rights. May I bring my right hon. Friend back to the report? Does he agree that there is a world of difference between moving to the option of capability and what we have sometimes heard about evidence suggesting a nuclear weapons programme or a decision to develop one? He has still failed to present the House with proof that nuclear weapons are being developing or that a decision has been made to do so.
I read out some quite interesting paragraphs from the IAEA report. My hon. Friend should also consider the evidence that is now coming out of Iran saying that it will use its expanding stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium to make fuel for the Tehran research reactor. That reactor is designed to produce medical isotopes, but its capacity is being expanded to produce near-20% enriched uranium to levels far beyond what would be required for that purpose. On that basis, one would have to be extraordinarily trusting and innocent in world affairs to believe that this programme had entirely peaceful purposes and that no possible provision was being made for the development of nuclear weapons. My hon. Friend must remember, too, that the regime deliberately concealed—we do not know for how long, because western nations revealed it—the construction of the secret underground facilities at Qom. It has a strong track record of deliberately concealing aspects of the nuclear programme, and that might lead him to be just a little bit suspicious about its purposes.
Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the Iranian people that we are opposed not to Iran having nuclear technology but to the breach of the non-proliferation treaty? The regime could have accepted the Russian proposal on Bushehr, for example, which would have resolved these issues.
Given the amount of blood and treasure that we have shed in the middle east in recent years, does my right hon. Friend agree that in this difficult and potentially dangerous situation we should look to the considerable regional powers to take the lead, in consultation with the United States of America, and not rush in ourselves?
Of course we need to work on this with all the regional powers. My right hon. Friend can be assured that the regional powers are extremely concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme. However, we also have our responsibilities as a member of the United Nations Security Council, and we must live up to those responsibilities on this, as on all other occasions.
I will give way later, but I must have regard to the number of hon. Members who wish to speak.
Our Government’s objective is simple. It is shared by the international community as a whole and, I believe, by this House and by our country. We wish to see a peaceful, negotiated diplomatic settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis by which Iran gives the world confidence that it is not developing, and will not develop, nuclear weapons. All our efforts are devoted towards such a peaceful resolution.
Our strategy to achieve this and to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon coming about has two elements: first, diplomacy and engagement with Iran; and, secondly, pressure on Iran in the form of peaceful and legitimate sanctions.
I think that I must carry on with my argument for a few minutes.
This strategy of diplomacy and pressure has been reflected in six consecutive United Nations Security Council resolutions backed by all its permanent members including Russia and China, which work alongside
Britain, the United States, France and Germany as the E3 plus 3 to negotiate with Iran on behalf of the international community. These resolutions have shown that the world is united in opposing Iranian nuclear proliferation and in supporting a diplomatic solution. The UN sanctions target companies and individuals associated with Iran’s nuclear activities and ballistic missile programmes. On top of this, European Union member states have adopted successive rounds of sanctions, including, most recently, an embargo on Iranian oil exports into the EU that will come to effect on
I am going to carry on for a few minutes.
Those are unprecedented sanctions and we have been at the forefront of bringing them about. Members will be aware that Iran announced this weekend that it would end oil exports to the UK and France. Given that we are already imposing an oil embargo, that will have no impact on Britain’s energy security or supplies. Britain has also adopted stringent sanctions against Iran’s financial sector, severing all links between British banks and Iran, alongside similar measures taken by the US and Canada.
I shall finish the argument on sanctions before I give way again.
Sanctions are designed to show the Iranian Government that there is a considerable price attached to their current policies and to urge them to change course. The sanctions have a practical impact, slowing Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapons capability. They are also necessary to uphold the authority of the UN and the IAEA, which have called on Iran to suspend its enrichment programme—demands that Iran would otherwise flout with impunity. The Iranian Government can act to bring sanctions to an end.
Sanctions, however, are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Our ultimate goal is a return to negotiations that addresses all the issues of concern about Iran’s nuclear programme and the successful conclusion of the negotiations. The door of negotiations has been open to Iran at every stage over the past eight years and it remains open today.
I will give way in a moment—I want to conclude this point.
To help bring Iran to negotiations, the E3 plus 3 has offered it help to develop civil nuclear power stations—a point that was just made—and its economy in the form of economic and agricultural assistance, provided Iran satisfies the concerns of the international community about its nuclear programme. That offer was most recently put to Iran again at talks in Istanbul in January last year. It remains on the table and we urge Iran to respond to it in good faith.
Mr Straw, a former Foreign Secretary, has said that he reckons the bar for military action is quite far away. Does the current Foreign Secretary agree with his analysis?
I will come to that point. As I made clear in interviews over the weekend, we are not calling for or advocating military action, although we do not agree with the terms of the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay.
Thus far, our debate has concentrated on the political and the pragmatic, but does the Foreign Secretary feel reinforced in the attitude he has just expressed from the Dispatch Box by the fact that, under customary international law, there is an obligation to exhaust all possible political and diplomatic alternatives before embarking on military action? Is that not what we are engaged in?
As one who supports the amendment, I welcome the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks in the past few minutes, as I believe engagement is important. He might recall that some years ago four hon. Members of the House, including me, were asked to go to Iran to meet the leaders and negotiate on the release of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. I am saying not that it was a pleasant experience or that we succeeded immediately, but that we made a contribution to an improved situation and their release. As somebody much better than I once said, to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.
That is very much what we want. This may be an opportune moment for me to update the House on where we are now on negotiations.
“If there is going to be dialogue then Iranians need to enter it in a new spirit and recognise they are taking a different path.”
We hope the Iranians do so in respect of any such negotiations as we study that response.
We will continue to intensify our diplomacy and the peaceful, legitimate pressure on Iran. There is still time for peaceful diplomacy to succeed. That remains the best course available to achieve the goal of an Iran without nuclear weapons and to avert the risk of any military conflict.
I shall speak for a few minutes before I give way again. Otherwise I will take too much time.
That is why the Government are not seeking, advocating or calling for military action against Iran. One hundred per cent. of our efforts is devoted to the path of diplomacy and peaceful economic pressure. Our strategy is designed precisely to increase the pressure for a peaceful settlement, not to lead to any conflict. I am on record in this House saying that although Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would be a calamity, the consequences of military action might well be calamitous themselves. As the Prime Minister has stated in this House,
“nobody wants military action, by Israel or anyone else, to take place”.—[Hansard, 28 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 580.]
That is our position, and the effort we have put into negotiating, securing and implementing sanctions on Iran is testament to our determination to pursue robust diplomacy, which we are pursuing daily. We are in regular contact with our E3 plus 3 partners about Iran, and I discuss the issue frequently—daily—with other Foreign Ministers from around the world. An entire unit—one of the largest in the Foreign Office—is devoted to finding a diplomatic way forward with Iran. We confirmed our commitment to engagement by not completely breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran even after the outrageous provocation of the attacks on our embassy compounds, which made it necessary to withdraw our diplomats.
We also play a leading role at the IAEA and support its efforts to work with Iran to address the concerns about the military dimensions of its programme. Senior IAEA officials are visiting Iran today and tomorrow. They are seeking co-operation from Iran in addressing the agency’s findings about the “military dimensions” of the programme, including access to a sensitive site at Parchin. We urge Iran to co-operate with the IAEA and to permit access to that site. The House will join me in paying tribute to the dogged and painstaking work of the IAEA in Vienna and on the ground in Iran, under very difficult circumstances, and we look forward to the next meeting of the IAEA board on
All those efforts will continue, and diplomacy remains the driving force of our policy towards Iran, but the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay calls for the Government to take a course that no responsible Administration could take on this issue, namely unilaterally to rule out the use of force.
Given all that my right hon. Friend has said, especially on the unanimity on the six UN resolutions, was he as disturbed as I was at reports in today’s press that some of our friends and allies are engaging in barter deals to weaken the unprecedented sanctions to which he and the E3 plus 3 have agreed?
I would be very disappointed if that took place, but I believe the sanctions will be well upheld across the EU. Some countries have difficulties because of the extent of their supplies from Iran, which is why we have phased in those measures. The sanctions will also be well supported by many nations outside the EU. Other major consumers of Iranian oil have indicated that they will reduce their purchases or that they have already done so. My hon. Friend may have seen press reports this morning that Iran is currently having difficulty selling a large part of its oil production.
My right hon. Friend’s approach on sanctions is to be warmly welcomed, but I wanted to follow up directly on the previous intervention, and particularly on press reports that Iran is speaking to China and India. We clearly and rightly have warm relations with India. As he knows, we have a large aid programme in India and rightly support its desire to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Can we use our warm relationship with India to put pressure on it as our ally not to help Iran with its sanctions-busting programme?
We have made and will make that point to India, as we have to many other nations. My hon. Friend mentions China, which, perhaps for other reasons, has substantially reduced its purchases of oil from Iran in the past two months. We will energetically make the argument that he calls on us to make.
I wholly support everything that the Foreign Secretary has said about diplomatic efforts and I want to achieve the same outcome as every other hon. Member, but my anxiety is that diplomatic language, by moving from forceful to robust to pugnacious to belligerent, can sometimes have a ratchet effect that makes the use of violent force almost inevitable. I hope that he will stick with forceful and assertive, and move no further.
It is certainly our approach to be forceful and assertive without being belligerent, and I hope that we will be able to continue with that posture. We have had many occasions to be forceful in our language about Iranian behaviour over recent months.
Our policy is that while we remain unswervingly committed to diplomacy, it is important to emphasise to Iran that all options remain on the table. This policy is not new. It was the position of the previous Government, and it is the position of our closest allies not to rule out the use of military force while emphasising that peaceful diplomacy is the way forward that we all wish to see.
No United States President has made a more powerful appeal to Iran peacefully to negotiate an end to its differences with the international community than President Obama, and yet as he said in his State of the Union address last month,
“America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”
That is the approach of our Government, and it was also the approach of the previous Government. The former Prime Minister, Mr Brown, said when asked in July 2007 if he would rule out a military strike against Iran:
“I firmly believe that the sanctions policy that we are pursuing will work, but I’m not one who’s going forward to say that we rule out any particular form of action”.
It is also the position of France and Germany, and I believe that on this issue we and our key allies should stand united together.
Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the middle east, some of which are deemed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iranian revolutionary guard corps commanders have repeatedly hinted at their ability and willingness to strike at their opponents overseas. Iranian officials have threatened to use military force to close the strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most vital trading corridors, including for the passage of oil supplies.
Under these circumstances, no prudent Government, despite what the motion implies, could rule out any use of force in the future. Let me be clear that ruling out other options would be irresponsible given the serious nature of our concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and the consequences of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. We should not relieve Iran of any of the pressure it is currently facing. If we rule out military action, Iran might perceive that it can get away with aggressive actions. Taking other options off the table might cause Iran to respond by stepping up its aggressive and destabilising activity in the region. Taking options off the table would also have implications for the positions of several nations in the Gulf and potentially undermine their security. This adds up to a compelling case to keep the policy that we have.
The Foreign Secretary is making a brilliant speech, and I agree with every word he has said. Can he shed light on Ahmadinejad’s standing with his own people? Does Ahmadinejad’s belligerence command the backing of the Iranian people, or are we simply talking about the Iranian regime?
That is a hard thing to determine in a country in which opposition is not free to operate in the way it should. Just last week we commemorated the one year under house arrest and effective imprisonment of both main opposition leaders. It is not easy to assess the state of democratic opinion in such a country. We know that there are many divisions in the regime and that there is much discontent about many issues in Iranian society. I doubt that support for the policies of the President overall is universal.
I am deeply heartened by much of what my right hon. Friend says, but my understanding of article 2 of the United Nations charter and the Kellogg-Briand pact, which I understand is still in force, is that the United Kingdom is not entitled to hold military force as an option on the table and that we long since delegated that power to the United Nations—[ Interruption. ]
Not all international law is in the charter, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell, with all of his legal experience, says. It is the view of many of the leading nations in the United Nations that we are fully entitled to retain that position.
If we were to adopt the course of action proposed by my hon. Friend in his motion today, we would break with longstanding British policy, abandon the position of our allies and create the appearance of division and uncertainty between leading members of the international community. We would send the wrong signal to our allies in the region, and we would weaken the diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime at the time when our efforts to persuade Iran to return to negotiations are more vital than ever, giving the impression that our determination to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons is waning, and possibly emboldening those within the regime who favour a more aggressive approach. This would be the wrong course of action for this country and for all those who wish to see a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Far better is the approach that the Government are taking with our allies of diplomatic engagement combined with robust pressure pursued with will, energy and determination. That strategy is the world’s best hope of averting any military confrontation with Iran, with all the very serious risks and consequences that that might bring.
Today the message that this House should send out is to call on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment activity; to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations and the IAEA; peacefully to negotiate a settlement to its differences with us and with the international community; to abandon any intent to acquire nuclear weapons now or in the future; to turn away from confrontation; to stop support for violence and terrorism; and to allow the Iranian people the full benefits that would flow from their nation enjoying its rightful place in its region and the world at large. To send this message to Iran with one voice today there is no course for this House but to reject the motion and vote in support of the amendment.
I commend Mr Baron for securing this debate and welcome the timely opportunity for the House to debate the subject of Iran. Like the Foreign Secretary, I will urge hon. Members to support the amendment in the name of Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
I shall start with the broader regional context of the issues before the House this evening. Iran stands more isolated today than it has for many years. As several hon. Members have suggested, in recent years Iran has sought to build its influence across the middle east, supporting groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and backing repressive regimes that could help to enhance Iran’s network of influence in the region, most notably that of Assad in Syria. Today, however, the regional balance of power has shifted away from Tehran. Recent events in Syria leave Iran further isolated, and in time Iran will lose this vital state ally in the Arab world and its main proxy for the arming of Hezbollah. Iran’s hold on the region is slipping, and even previously reluctant players, such as the Saudis, have now publicly condemned Iran and given their support to the EU oil boycott by promising to fill the gap in Europe’s energy demands. Sanctions today, unlike those in the past, are showing signs of having an impact and the Iranian regime seems to be struggling to contain their effect.
The Iranian regime’s response to declining domestic legitimacy and increasing international isolation has been to channel discontent towards external enemies beyond its own borders. The regime continues to support terrorist groups across the region, and by its sponsorship of terrorism threatens the lives of British service personnel today in Afghanistan. In particular, members of the regime have directed their hatred towards Israel, from their denial of the holocaust to the continued threats to the people and state of Israel, and for those statements and threats they deserve our clear and unequivocal condemnation. Israel should know that the international community is united in condemnation of this violent and abhorrent rhetoric and the world view that it reveals—there can be no excuse and no defence for such outrageous and inflammatory language about any member of the international community, and it should be condemned without qualification—but Israel should also understand that its friends in the international community see Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as affecting not only Israel’s security alone, but the security of the broader region and indeed the world.
The non-proliferation treaty is clear: Iran can have civilian nuclear power, but it must not have nuclear weapons. If Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, its capacity to destabilise the middle east would be enhanced. It is disconcerting to be at odds with a distinguished former Foreign Secretary on my own Benches, my right hon. Friend Mr Straw, but I believe that the potential response from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others would put at risk the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. In so unstable a region, the chance of a nuclear weapon being used again would significantly increase.
Several Members have mentioned the IAEA’s latest report, issued last November, which sent the clearest warning yet that Iran had carried out tests
“relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.
As this debate takes place, IAEA representatives are in Iran having talks aimed at clarifying the possible military aspects of its nuclear programme. Everyone in the House is aware of the decades of failed negotiations, despite the best efforts of some Members present today, and the numerous Iranian breaches of the terms of the NPT. Iran is a signatory of the treaty and so is under obligations to comply with its terms, but despite that, Iran hid an enrichment programme for nearly 18 years. As a result, the Security Council has rightly decreed that until Iran’s peaceful intentions can be established it should stop all enrichment, and has imposed seven rounds of UN sanctions in the face of continued Iranian defiance.
The IAEA report sets out clearly that Iran is not complying with its international obligations and therefore the intentions behind its nuclear activities cannot be accounted for. Alongside the deception, secrecy and concealment that has characterised Iran’s relationship with the IAEA, the report for the first time highlights evidence to suggest that Iran is undertaking activities that could indicate a military dimension to its nuclear programme. To quote directly from the report:
“The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”
Following the publication of that most recent report, the IAEA board of governors passed a resolution expressing “deep and increasing concern” over the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme and said it was
“essential” that Iran provide additional information and access to the IAEA. We are right to heed the IAEA’s warnings.
Can the right hon. Gentleman provide any evidence that the theory of nuclear deterrence would not be effective in this region, as it has been in others? India and Pakistan have fought wars and shown nuclear restraint. The evidence suggests that Iran is no more irrational than any other country. Can he provide the evidence to counter that assertion?
The environment in the middle east—the sectarian divides, the history of tension and its multifaceted nature—surpasses even that of India and Pakistan in its potential threat not just to regional security but to global security. It would be a very brave or very naive individual who, in the absence of the sorts of communication that were the foundation of our capacity to maintain peace over the 50 years of the cold war, presumed that we could feel confident that, whether intentionally or inadvertently, there would not be a heightened risk of nuclear conflict in the region. That is why it is right that the House tries today to speak with one voice in urging on the Iranians a different course from the one implicit in the scenario that the hon. Gentleman depicted, which is the development of nuclear weapons.
My hon. Friend Mr Baron has twice mentioned nuclear deterrence, but would the right hon. Gentleman agree that nuclear deterrence requires a threat from a nuclear armed state to deter another country with a nuclear weapon? Other than the Saudis and other Arab states themselves becoming nuclear weapon states, that would require an American nuclear umbrella guarantee, with all its implications, including American bases in the region, for the indefinite future?
I listened with great care to the point that the distinguished former Foreign Secretary made about the American security guarantee and the potential for basing within the Gulf and elsewhere. I would also suggest, though, that given the financing of A. Q. Khan in the past, one would also need at least to countenance the possibility that, rather than rely on an American nuclear umbrella, other states in the region might take matters into their own hands. Although it might take 10 or 15 years for the development of nuclear technology, it could spur the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other means, principally financial, rather than through research. We should work extremely hard to avoid any of those scenarios in these circumstances.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there would be not only a scramble among other nations in the middle east to get hold of nuclear weapons to balance things out, but a danger that some of the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists and so be even more difficult to control?
We must do everything in our power to avoid nuclear weapons first proliferating and secondly falling into the hands of non-state actors. When we reflect even for a moment, as the Foreign Secretary did for the elucidation of the House, on the track record of the regime in Tehran in supporting non-state actors and their violent methods, even in recent days, we should redouble our efforts to avoid a scenario in which Tehran would have that choice. That would be a deeply worrying prospect not only for its immediate neighbours but for global security more generally.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be foolish to take any options off the table, given that many foreign policy specialists believe that President Ahmadinejad is under severe threat, that he and his supporters might be removed from the parliamentary elections in 2012, and that he might be excluded from the presidency in 2013 and replaced by revolutionary guard-supported politicians and a more theocratic, militarist, jihadist regime?
For the reasons that I have outlined and will continue to outline, I believe that it would be wrong to take those options off the table. When calibrating the way forward, one has to factor in the potential for change within the Iranian regime, given the prospect of elections next month. We are facing some critical months in terms of judgments to be reached in Tehran and elsewhere. That is why the responsible course at this juncture is to advance the twin-track approach that has characterised the attitude of the international community.
Does my right hon. Friend think that, although the Foreign Secretary rightly condemned what were probably terrorist attacks by Iran, he failed to attack incidents involving major explosions in Tehran, a cyber-attack against Tehran and the murder of four of Iran’s scientists? If we are to be taken as honest brokers, is it not right that we attack terrorism on both sides and insist on transparency not only in Iran but in Israel?
There is surely consensus on both sides of the House on the desire for a peaceful resolution to this crisis. That is why I argue that the strengthening of the sanctions regime to an unprecedented level is a necessary response to the growing tensions. All of us have an interest in a peaceful resolution.
I do not want to embark on a theological discussion about deterrence, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the effectiveness of deterrence depends on the party against which nuclear weapons might be used being unwilling to accept the consequences of using them? To base the whole issue of non-proliferation in the middle east on something so uncertain—the regime is renowned for its uncertainty—would be very dangerous.
I have some sympathy with that view. I will argue that there have been instances where the regime in Tehran has come to judge where its own self-interest lies, and the continued pursuit of sanctions reflects that reality. That said, I sympathise with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s broader point about what is implicit within a relationship of deterrence. That is why, despite my appearance on the “Murnaghan” show on Sky television yesterday morning, I was rather restrained in my mild rebuke to the Foreign Secretary over his cold war analogy. He was more accurate in describing the potential risk of an arms race, but I would not say that the cold war is the perfect historical parallel. First, it involved a global struggle for supremacy, and it mischaracterises the threat that we are confronting in the middle east to suggest that there is a perfect parallel with a global struggle for supremacy. Secondly, it is fair to say that mechanisms were developed during the cold war that allowed for a peaceful resolution. In that sense, it was in some ways a prospect more favourable than that which we are facing now, unless we find a resolution as I have described.
I have been generous in taking a number of interventions. I would now like to make a little progress. What would I, on behalf of the Opposition, argue is the way forward? In my view, there has been too much discussion in recent days of possible military action and too little discussion of how diplomacy can still succeed. As one of my colleagues suggested, we must avoid talk of the possibility of military action becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our efforts must focus on how we can use all the diplomatic tools available to force the Iranian Government to change course. In the past, Iranian leaders have adjusted their behaviour in the face of international pressures—ending the war with Iraq in 1988 and stopping assassinations of Iranian dissidents in the 1990s are just some of the most significant examples.
Evidence is now accumulating that the sanctions are beginning to put unparalleled pressure on the Iranian regime. Sanctions in place for many years now on exporting materials relevant to the development of nuclear weapons have slowed Iran’s nuclear programme and directly hindered its ability to develop next-generation centrifuges. The combined effect of international sanctions on the Iranian financial sector, including steps taken by the Government last year, has triggered an enormous currency devaluation, which the regime is struggling to contain. The Iranian Government can no longer access reputable sources of international credit, insurance for its merchant fleets or investors for its state-led infrastructure programs. Crucially, Iran is struggling to find investors to revitalise its dilapidated energy infrastructure, which requires billions in new investment if production levels are to be maintained. Alongside that, the oil embargo, of which we have already heard a little, is increasing the strain on the Iranian regime even before the EU embargo comes into full force on
Despite rejecting offers of talks in past years, Iran has now signalled that it is willing to resume talks with the E3 plus 3, and reports suggest that Iran’s supreme national security council replied last week to a letter from Cathy Ashton, on behalf of the European Union, inviting Iran to resume those talks without preconditions. Those are encouraging signs, but let me be clear that we must remain vigilant against the prospect of Iran seeking to draw out talks while continuing its nuclear programme unabated. The Opposition welcome the diplomatic steps that the international community has so far taken: the United Nations Security Council has passed seven resolutions on Iran in less than six years, and the EU, the US, and the UK Government and others have all taken important steps in recent months to increase further the pressure on Iran. However, despite those efforts, we have seen too little progress. What is needed now is a more concerted and co-ordinated international response. At this crucial time, it is vital that we remain focused on pursuing the twin-track approach, which remains our best route to resolving the crisis.
As we have heard, sanctions are not designed to punish the Iranian people. They are intended to increase pressure on the regime, and those pressures now seem to be mounting. This month, the Iranian Parliament voted to hold a special session to force President Ahmadinejad to account for some of the dire economic and social indicators in Iran today. Unemployment is high, growth is low and anger is mounting. The Iranian regime is beginning to show signs of doubt as to whether the cost of international isolation is simply too great a price to pay. Alongside that, parliamentary elections to elect new members of Islamic consultative assembly are due to be held in Iran on
The motion focuses on the use of military action, which has rightly been the subject of much debate in the House today. The risks facing the region are real, but I believe we must make it clear to our friends in Israel that now is not the time for a pre-emptive strike. However, notwithstanding our view that pre-emptive action should not be taken now, we are firm in our view that all options must remain on the table. That is because the prospects for a diplomatic resolution are enhanced, not undermined, by all options remaining on the table at the present time. Leaving all options on the table actually strengthens the international community’s hand in negotiations and therefore increases the likelihood of achieving a peaceful resolution, to which I believe the whole House is committed.
Wars often start because of an element of uncertainty, so let us be quite clear: notwithstanding the fact that the Opposition favour negotiations at this point, is it the Labour party’s position that we must not tolerate Iran being nuclear-armed?
I have said on the record previously that the cost of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is too high. I could not be clearer that this is an issue not simply for Iran’s immediate regional neighbours, but for the whole international community. That is why I am grateful for the Foreign Secretary’s gracious acknowledgment that the position being advanced by the British Government today is entirely consistent with the position that was advanced when Labour was in office.
The right hon. Gentleman has been gracious in most of his remarks about the Foreign Secretary, but as he has said, he did not agree with the cold war analogy. Will he clarify the Labour party’s position on that? Is it not the case that, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind pointed out, we are talking about the difference between a hot war—a fiery and more immediate conflagration—and a cold war-type scenario, where Iran has a nuclear device, with all the hostilities and the fractious situation that would evolve from that, potentially over the very long term? The analogy with the cold war is therefore quite accurate in the circumstances.
I remain unconvinced. I listened with care to the explanation of his remarks in The Daily Telegraph that the Foreign Secretary offered on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday morning, but it is really up to him to elucidate the analogy he chose to set before the public. My view is clear: this is a point at which we need clear minds and cool heads. We need to ensure that the language we use is consistent with the approach, which I welcome, that the Foreign Secretary set out before the House today: that there should be a 100% focus on finding a diplomatic resolution.
In line with the arguments that I have put to the House, the Opposition support the amendment, which is supported by two former Foreign Secretaries as well as by Members from across the House. In the spirit of that amendment, we agree that the Government should focus their efforts on finding a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue and recognise the value of making it clear to Iran that all options remain on the table, but the threat of military action must not be allowed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now is not the time for a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Now is the time for redoubling our diplomatic efforts to capitalise on the progress that is being made.
Let no one doubt that Iran presents a real and urgent threat. We should be doing all we can to dissuade Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. With Iran feeling the pressure from co-ordinated international sanctions, I believe that the prospects for finding a diplomatic resolution have been enhanced, not diminished. The coming months are crucial. To digress, deviate or dither at this crucial stage would be to undermine the months and, indeed, years of diplomatic and co-ordinated efforts to increase pressure on the regime and promote dialogue as the path to a peaceful resolution of this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron, who is a valued member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on securing this debate. He is at least consistent: he voted against the intervention in Iraq, the intervention in Libya and the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Afghanistan, and now he wants to rule out an attack on Iran. I respect his point of view, but I believe that he is underestimating the challenge facing the western world and the civilised world.
The Iranians are tough so-and-sos. As the Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out, they have sacked our embassy in Tehran, they are propping up the regime in Syria, they are undermining peace efforts in Afghanistan and Syria, and they are supporting terrorism around the world. In my view—it is quite clearly also the view of many people in this Chamber—it is critical that we do not blink first. The production or potential production of nuclear weapons has the ability to destabilise the region, with profound global impact. My hon. Friend says that the threat of military action is counter-productive. I am sorry to say this, but I simply do not agree. I believe that if we take this option off the table, the
Iranians will go full throttle, as my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind pointed out, in a speech of lucidity that I can only envy. It ill behoves anyone to quote Chairman Mao in support of their argument, but it was he who said that peace comes from the end of the barrel of a gun. That is particularly pertinent here, and we must keep the option on the table.
There are four ways through the growing mess: diplomacy, sanctions, a military strike or learning to live with a nuclear Iran. Diplomacy has clearly not succeeded, despite countless United Nations resolutions. I remember when Mr Straw was making regular visits to Tehran. I was a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee at the time, and I remember meeting him there on one occasion. He tried valiantly, but I felt at the time that he should have pushed harder and that we should have threatened sanctions at a much earlier stage. I was left with the feeling that he was trying to do something about the situation without having any conviction as to what it might achieve.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record, he will see that we were working in concert with Germany and France, and with the tacit but quite active support of the United States. This was before the E3 plus 3 architecture got going. Those negotiations were tough, but they produced a positive result at the time. That is what followed from the October 2003 negotiations. Furthermore, it is my belief that had President Khatami been allowed to stay in place, with all that that would have entailed, we could have made further progress. It was others in the regime who decided to undermine him and the progress that we had made.
I do not want to be unduly critical of the right hon. Gentleman. I recognise that he believed that he was doing the right thing at the time, but, as history illustrates, it was not enough to deter the regime.
A second course of action involves sanctions and, as I have said, I wish that they had been imposed much earlier. It is possible that they might work, and one can only hope, genuinely and passionately, that they will. They must be as tough as possible, and I look with dismay at the slow speed with which our European Union partners wish to impose them. I understand that Greece, of all countries, is holding up their full imposition until it can get its own oil contracts in position. Sanctions can be effective. The United States has the ability to jam up the financial markets and the oil trading markets, which would have a significant and profound impact.
The Iranians have threatened to shut the straits of Hormuz; I believe that to be a completely hollow threat. The straits are defendable. When I served in the Royal Navy in the 1960s, I was based in Bahrain. Even in those days, we had a game plan for the region. Now, the Iranians are faced with the full might of the US sixth fleet, which, I have to say, I would not want to take on in these circumstances.
If sanctions fail, there will be no other choice than that between a military strike and learning to live with a nuclear Iran. I am sorry that my hon. Friend has left the Chamber. We are having a debate about intervention. Support for non-intervention is a perfectly respectable point of view that is held by Russia and China and a number of South American states. The common factor for all those regimes is that their democracy is either weak, non-existent or new.
I have to confess that I am a reluctant interventionist. I was quite prepared to oppose the intervention in Libya until the United Nations resolution went through. It is hard to oppose a successful campaign in those circumstances. I would hesitate to intervene in Syria without UN backing, although diplomacy is clearly failing. I was not persuaded that the UN resolutions on Iraq gave proper cover for military intervention, and I was against such an intervention until the then Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and persuaded me that the security of the western world was threatened. This illustrates that the only occasions on which we should intervene in such circumstances are those in which we have the backing of a UN resolution or those in which our interests are threatened.
In these circumstances, our interests are threatened by a nuclear Iran. It has been pointed out that there is a possibility of a nuclear arms race in the middle east. I believe that Saudi Arabia will want a bomb, and that it will be in contact with Pakistan to ask it to supply one. What really worries me about Iran having a nuclear weapon is that I am left with the feeling that it might, in certain circumstances, actually use it. Many countries with nuclear powers hold them exclusively for the purpose of self-defence. The Iranians might not use the weapons themselves. They might use them in a proxy manner, supplying terrorists with radioactive material for a dirty bomb to be used in a western capital. Either way, this is going to be messy.
As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington said, if there were to be a military strike, moderate Arab opinion would not be too upset. The hard-liners are now distracted: Syria, Libya and Egypt are out of action, and Russia and China might huff and puff, but I do not believe that they would make a serious move in the event of a strike. I genuinely believe that we would live to regret Iran getting the bomb, and that an attack might be the least bad option.
Does my hon. Friend accept that there are certain movements in Iran, notably the green movement, that are working below the surface for change? What weight does he attach to the argument that too much sabre-rattling could alienate such movements from the pro-western stance that they have been taking?
There is a confusing situation in Iran. My hon. Friend is right, however. As the shadow Foreign Secretary pointed out, progress is being made, and negotiations are starting again. I am slightly cynical about how effective they will be at this stage, however. I repeat that an attack is the least bad option, and we can only pray that either sanctions or sanity will prevail, so that this whole debate becomes completely academic.
I congratulate Mr Baron on securing this important and timely debate. I will not go through the history of the sanctions, but I believe that more effort needs to be made along diplomatic lines. We need to consider smart sanctions and to think about hitting the elite in Iran rather than the most vulnerable, as has happened in the past. One problem with sanctions is that they can sometimes be a blunt tool.
I anticipate being in a small minority this evening when I vote for the motion. I was in that position in the Iraq debate, but I believe that I was right. The evidence was not in the least convincing, and the evidence now is not in the least convincing either. However many people criticise the way in which I vote this evening, I shall do so according to my conscience, and according to what I have learned, read and understood. We are all sensible to the fact that every possible effort will be made to go down the diplomatic route; everyone wants that to happen. I believe, however, that the sabre-rattling and leaving the threat of military force on the table could ratchet up the tension, making a diplomatic resolution impossible.
The Russia Today news channel reported two weeks ago that the United States was carrying out military drills based on simulations of the shape and width of the straits of Hormuz. The Iranians were participating in their own war games in the straits at the end of December, and if those news reports are true, they could indicate that the US is even now preparing for a stand-off, or worse. Similarly, concern has been expressed by Israel about the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons. The assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists and the threat of pre-emptive strikes from Israel both bring their own sense of chill. That would, of course, be the quickest possible way to inflame the situation outside of international diplomacy, and it would be a step that nobody in this Chamber or elsewhere wants to see. The same might be true of Saudi Arabia, which has spoken of increasing its nuclear power technology and has explicitly linked it with weapons technology. This has taken place in the context of various UN resolutions, with which it has to be said Iran is not fully complying—no one could say that it is.
It is important to have a level playing field in our approach to the middle east. That is why I believe the US diplomats who have spoken, via WikiLeaks, about Mr Amano are making a grave mistake and performing a grave disservice. They said:
“This meeting, Amano’s first bilateral review since his election, illustrates the very high degree of convergence between his priorities and our own agenda at the IAEA. The coming transition period provides a further window for us to shape Amano’s thinking before his agenda collides with the IAEA Secretariat bureaucracy.”
We need to show that international organisations are neutral, but that kind of talk is not conducive to such thinking, and I believe it will only inflame the situation so far as Iran is concerned.
There has been criticism of the positions adopted by Russia and China at the UN Security Council and of their unwillingness to support the US and UK position. We saw similar frustration over Syria a few weeks ago, when those two powers used their veto. Although the impulse to act is understandable, so is the rational concern that acting in haste might lead to a greater problem. That is clear for all to see if we reflect on what happened in Iraq, for example.
Some comments made about Iran sound like the echoes of the run-up to war in Iraq a decade ago—for example, the assertion that nuclear weapons existed, even though they could not be pinpointed or proved in the least; the stereotyping of a country so that it could be easily demonised through the media; and the ramping up of rhetoric to justify an invasion that could not be substantiated in international law or by the pretext of humanitarian assistance.
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s views on Iraq, which is why I strongly opposed the war. I agree with most people that war is an appalling prospect in any circumstances and I concur with his scepticism about the intelligence, but does he not agree that if this House were to rule out the possibility of war and if other Parliaments around the world were to do the same, it would almost guarantee giving Iran a green light to develop the bomb, which we all so fear?
The hon. Gentleman is right that that is the core of the debate. It is where he and I disagree. He may be right; I may be right. I know not, but this is the debate we are having. I do not pretend to be an expert in international law, but I heard it said that Iran will not be favoured; nobody wants to favour its position.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the immediate priority is to ensure that the present war of words does not deteriorate into a war of weapons, and that our task should be to reduce tension, not to increase it?
That is absolutely right. I referred to sabre-rattling, and the hon. Gentleman puts it succinctly. That is not the way to have a diplomatic dialogue with any country.
We might not like the Government of Iran. Its human rights record remains appalling, despite reports last week that it is looking at revising its penal code. There are many Governments around the world, however, with whom we would not agree. Iran is a highly developed and complex society, and stereotyping makes it easier to demonise and create an atmosphere of fear based around simple sketches of society and the dehumanisation of those within it. It seems we have quickly forgotten the scenes in Tehran in 2009 when the green revolution was taking place and millions voted for Mousavi. Iran has a highly developed middle class, which often disagrees with Ahmadinejad. My point is to remind us all that the spirit of democracy is alive and well, and that when we make international judgments we should remember that the Government are not always representative of the views of their people.
As a party, we believe in being internationalist and in being committed to peace and justice. We are also strong believers in the importance of international law and diplomacy. We support the United Nations and we would like to see it strengthened. We reject weapons of mass destruction and military alliances based on the possession thereof. We support a role for the European Union in conflict prevention and peacekeeping. These, I think, must be our core aims, but as we speak, the drums of war are beating—and they are a ghastly echo of the run-up to the Iraq conflict. We must ensure that we do everything possible through every diplomatic means to silence those drums of war.
I hope that the IAEA’s mission in Tehran this week is unequivocally successful. With elections in Iran and in the US this year, we know that there is a lot of political mileage in talking tough and ramping up the rhetoric. Our role in this House, however, is surely to listen to the facts, make a calm and reasoned examination of the situation and scrutinise the actions taken on our behalf by our Government. I hope that every effort is made to pursue each and every diplomatic avenue vigorously in order to avoid war and the accompanying destruction of countries and lives. We should pause and listen to reason from informed observers.
One such person is Hans Blix, whose essay was published in the New Statesman of
“the idea of an agreement between the parties in the Middle East—including Israel and Iran—to renounce” nuclear weapons
“does not seem far-fetched to me”.
He went on to refer to a recent poll in Israel in which a substantial majority of Israeli people said that they thought it would be better to have no state in the middle east with nuclear weapons than to have two states with them. I commend this article to all those listening to this debate. I believe that the motion is consistent with the good thinking of that article.
I start by warmly congratulating my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind on what was a remarkable, almost unanswerable, speech. I also congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on giving the House this opportunity to conduct this important debate. Although I am afraid that I cannot agree with him, I greatly respect the consistency and sincerely held nature of his views. Naturally, I agree with some of them.
It is impossible not to agree that we are right to be deeply distrustful of the Iranian regime. It is, after all, in breach of so many of its most serious obligations, and it is responsible for the brutal suppression of its people, for endless tail-tweaking and interference with its neighbours and elsewhere—putting it beyond the pale in many respects. It is safe to say that the mistrust is entirely mutual, so where do we start?
It is difficult to be optimistic about the opportunities in 2012. Without wanting to be rude about our revered American friends’ almost unbelievable campaign rhetoric, I think it unlikely that any approach to Iran would be regarded as anything other than appeasement. At the same time, Iran has its own elections this year. No doubt its contempt for the great Satan and his friend the United Kingdom will be on further public show.
In common with my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, I was taken by Peter Jenkins’ article in The Timesrecently, in which he argued that if we made a deal and allowed the Iranians to continue to enrich uranium, it would be in the interests of all for there to be a proper monitoring regime consistent with the IAEA rules. If that were possible and Iran volunteered some confidence-building measures, it would be very much in our interest to have constant inspection.
However—like every other Member who has spoken—I fear an Israeli attack on Iran, and I do not agree with the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, that the effects of such an attack would be purely temporary. I think that it would lock in the Islamic republic for a generation, that it would cement the appalling Syrian regime, that it would radicalise Arab opinion at a moment of the most delicate long-term, difficult transition, that it would ignite Hezbollah on the Lebanese border, and that it would boost Hamas. It would undoubtedly lead to a series of violent terrorist acts, it would propel the price of oil through the roof and trigger a possible regional war and, at best, it would set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions for only a few years.
Although there are no circumstances in which I would countenance a renunciation of the use of force, and although I wholly support the amendment tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, I also support the Foreign Secretary’s admirable determination that diplomacy, negotiation and constant, unremitting effort to resolve this matter should be the order of the day.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, who is making a powerful point. Would he care to add the further point that as a result of the Arab spring, the popularity of President Ahmadinejad and the Iranian regime throughout the Arab world has plummeted—according to all the polls—from about 85% before those events began to between 5% and 10%? Were this conflagration to happen, that would of course change radically.
I agree. I think that the Arab spring is a very fragile flower, and that we must guard it with great care.
The role of the British Government should be clear: we should encourage every effort to ease tensions, and, for our own part, try to repair diplomatic relations. In that regard in particular, our strong connections and relationships in Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are extremely important in maintaining stability and retaining peace in the region. We need to work alongside them, the United States and Saudi Arabia.
I hope that our Government will be bold, and will be prepared to explore—either with or without our immediate allies and if necessary, of course, in secret—the options for setting the choreography, which is always so critical in these difficult matters, of who does what and in what order. I remember well that, in the midst of the cold war negotiations with the Soviet Union, it was considered essential for us to develop confidence-building measures so that each side could convince itself, through some small but significant successes—that could convince everyone—that it was worth working with the other side, and thus allow diplomacy to bear fruit. We in Britain must remember those lessons.
Given the American elections on the one hand and the Iranian elections on the other, this is a good time to think about some specific steps that could be taken in regard to confidence-building. I am sure that the IAEA will have some very good ideas on the technical side, and perhaps we could promote a protocol to prevent “incidents at sea”. I believe that it is only a question of time before some ill-disciplined patrol boat sets off a major shooting match in the strait of Hormuz. Perhaps we could also co-operate in dealing with drugs from Afghanistan. Iran, the United States and Afghanistan, perhaps with specialist European Union help, might be able to work together on controlling the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan into Iran. We know that Iran is worried about that, and of course we are very worried about it too.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.
Whatever steps are taken, they must not loosen the sanctions regime or, indeed, involve a renunciation of the possible use of force, but must rather show that we are serious about progress and the possibility—if it could be there—of reaching a peaceful agreement.
I do not believe that Iran has any interest in outright war, whether with the United States or with the wider international community. In my judgment, its actions and reactions must be seen through the prism of coercion. It is applying what coercive tools it has—for example, the ability to restrict traffic through the strait of Hormuz, or the use of terrorist proxies around the world—in response to the west’s application of its own coercive tools, such as the escalation of sanctions. New sanctions will cause damage to Iran. They will almost certainly enrich its strongmen, but they will not directly affect the nuclear programme. Unless we are prepared to break out of the conventional approach, this dance will get worse and worse.
The Foreign Secretary and his fellow Ministers have re-marshalled and re-energised the efforts of the foreign service to the great advantage of this country, and are in the process of revitalising the new global networks that will in future constitute a global super-highway through which great diplomatic and international disputes will be settled. I was very impressed by the line taken by the Foreign Secretary tonight, and with the commitment that he showed. I appeal to him to ensure that we in Britain use all our resources, all our relationships, and all our influence and help—quite apart from our relationship with the United States of America, and our conventional relationships in the Commonwealth, the European Union, the United Nations and the IAEA—to get ourselves into a position in which we can at least agree on some future ground rules for engagement and progress in the future. I fear that, in the absence of such action, this dispute has the potential to have the most dreadful long-term consequences, and we must avoid those at all costs.
I join others in congratulating Mr Baron. It is important for us to have a full opportunity to discuss the growing concerns about Iran’s activities to develop nuclear weapons. I fervently hope that those activities can be stopped by peaceful means, hopefully through negotiation or sanctions, and I think it is essential for all international efforts to be directed towards that end.
I want to explain in my brief speech why this matter is of such concern, and why it is of international concern. First, the Iranian regime is domestically a savage regime that attacks dissent. Last year alone, more than 600 dissenters were executed. The UN’s special rapporteur has reported attacks on, and persecution of, groups including Arabs, Kurds, Christians, Baha’is, and gay people. On
Secondly, Iran threatens international peace, because it exports terrorism and provokes conflict, preventing peaceful solutions to long-standing conflicts. I refer specifically to its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and for Hamas in Gaza. There is clear evidence that it is not just promoting terrorism, but supplying weapons and training to those groups. One of its main aims is to prevent a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Until the events of the Arab spring earlier this year, we were told that that conflict was the only issue in the middle east. We now know that that is not correct, but Iran’s efforts were and still are designed to prevent a peaceful solution there.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on her comments. Does she agree that, as well as supporting terrorist proxies in the middle east, Iran has been responsible for an attempt to assassinate an ambassador—the Saudi ambassador—on American soil, has sacked the British embassy in Tehran, and in many other ways has behaved in the international community in a way that is completely inconsistent with the behaviour of a civilised nation state?
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. Iran exports terrorism, and is a force for instability. Last year 80 Iranian Katyushas went to Gaza and continued the conflict there, and in March 2011 the Israeli navy seized 50 tonnes of weapons from Iranian-loaded ships bound for Gaza. Those attempts by Iran—the supporting of terrorism and the provision of arms to perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—are underlined by its continually expressed theological objection to the very existence of the state of Israel.
Another major reason for being concerned about the possibility of Iran promoting and perhaps using nuclear weapons is its pro-genocidal activities. It has repeatedly called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the map. That, combined with repeated holocaust denial, including the outrage of holding an international conference in Iran to see who could produce the “best” cartoon on holocaust denial, is just another example of Iran’s motivation and Iran’s danger. In February last year, Ayatollah Khamenei referred once again to Israel as a “cancerous tumour” that had to be removed, and this February, his chief strategist stated:
“In the name of Allah, Iran must attack Israel by 2014.”
I cite those examples to illustrate the danger that Iran poses to peace, not only in the middle east, but throughout the world. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary said, what Iran does in the middle east has repercussions outside that region, potentially in the whole world. That is why it is so important that this genocidal regime, which already exports terrorism by practical means, must be prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons. I fully support all international efforts to secure that by negotiation and by sanctions, if necessary, but it is vital that everyone understands how important it is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear-armed power. If it were to acquire nuclear weapons, as it now seems determined to do, that would provoke a new arms race across the middle east, and it would mean the exporting of more terrorism and perhaps the equipping of those terrorists with nuclear weapons. That is why I will be supporting the amendment and why I hope it will receive universal support.
At the outset, may I declare that I co-chair the all-party group on Iran with Mr Straw, and that I have held that position for the past six years?
I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on securing this timely debate, because it is important that the House moves to more discussion of Iran. From what I have heard so far, the debate has been very good, and I have certainly enjoyed the contributions of my right hon. Friend Nicholas Soames, whose speech was extremely good and clear about where we are trying to go and the problems we face, and the right hon. Member for Blackburn. I also congratulate the Foreign Secretary on making it clear that the Government are not advocating force or even calling for force to deal with this problem. One of the problems I have with the motion is that although I do not think military action is the correct way forward, given the current position in Iran, I also do not believe that we should ever tie a Government—I do not believe in the principle of ruling something out of such a policy. We have to examine events as they come and see what develops.
I am not going to argue the point about the International Atomic Energy Agency and whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon. It might be more suitable to have this debate after the inspection is completed and we see the reports from the recent access in Iran. What worries me is what happens after this stage. In the six years that I have done this job in the all-party group, I have never met an official in the United States Government, in the Foreign Office or in the Israeli Government who privately has not said to me, “If Iran thinks it wants a bomb and is really determined to have one, it will get it.”
I am also yet to find many officials who say that they think sanctions will work in the long term to prevent Iran from getting what it has desired not for five or 10 years, but since 1968. In fact, the Americans helped the Shah to build the reactor in Iran; General Electric was involved in that. It has been a long-standing ambition of Iran to possess nuclear power for energy and, I suspect, for nuclear weapons to add to its view that it is a superpower in not only the region, but the world. It did not launch a tortoise and an insect up into space a few years ago just for fun; it did so to show that it, too, could enter the space race. Unfortunately, Iran was entering that race about 40 years too late, but that was very much about the psyche of Iran and Iran saying, “We, too, can do it. We, too, can be a superpower.”
We have to ask ourselves the question: what happens if Iran produces a bomb? Both Pakistan and India produced a bomb, as did North Korea, in isolation. If Iran does produce a bomb or gets close to doing so, we must ask ourselves what the plan B is and what we are to do. That is where the question for the United Kingdom becomes separate from the question for Israel and the United States. The question for Britain and Her Majesty’s Government is: is it in Britain’s interest to take military action? I know what is in Israel’s national interest, and I defend Israel’s taking that action to defend itself, but that is not the same as what is in Britain’s national interest. The challenge for the policy makers and for the Government will be to prove to this House and to my constituents why taking some form of military action, most likely outside the United Nations and perhaps in support of only one or two other countries—Israel and the United States—is in the interests of my constituents and in the interest of the national security of Britain. That is a much further jump to make from today’s situation.
We need to point out differences between Iraq and Iran. Until recently, Iran certainly ruled by consent—we did not like it and we did not choose the policies, but it ruled by consent. Saddam Hussein never ruled by consent and was a military dictator in the region, and although we should rightly be concerned about Iran’s moving—it is more than drifting—towards being a totalitarian state, we must remember that there are differences.
We must also remember how things appear from an Iranian point of view. If you are an Iranian, your neighbourhood is not very nice; Saudi Arabia is ideologically opposed to the Shi’a sect and thinks that you are heretics. I come from and live in Lancashire, where in the 17th century puritans and Catholics were hammering each other, and the view is the same in this region. Pakistan developed a nuclear weapon and was rewarded with a seat at the top table. That part of the world is unstable, and the arms race has already started; Israel possesses a nuclear weapon and it refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Iranians will feel that there is an inconsistency in the west’s position. A number of resolutions, both at the IAEA and the UN, have asked Israel to sign up to that treaty, but it is has consistently refused to do so. That consistency is where we have to start.
We could also try to redouble our efforts on other measures. I congratulate the Foreign Office on the investment that has been made in the past few years to try to double our presence around the world, or to increase it in many embassies. However, we have to know our opponent when we are dealing with Iran. It is full of a separation of powers and full of personalities, because that is how the politics is decided there. The right hon. Member for Blackburn knew that when he tried that communication.
My hon. Friend mentions differences within Iran, and there are huge differences of opinion with Ahmadinejad; hundreds were killed after he was elected, five people were hanged last night in Tehran and the middle classes are against him. We may well find in the next few months or years that he cannot stay in power and is replaced. Let us just hope that that happens and sense comes from the people of Iran, because I am not sure that we can do very much from the outside.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. He rightly says, first, that Ahmadinejad will not be able to stay in power, because he is term limited; this is the end of his term as President and someone else will emerge in the next elections. My hon. Friend is also right about maintaining the momentum of the Arab spring. We must double our efforts on maintaining the momentum on the street. I approve of BBC Persian and I approve of doing much more work to support, externally and internally, opposition groups on the streets of Iran. I have not forgotten the lesson of the cold war, where Poland and the printing presses made so much difference. We should bring those lessons into Iran as much as possible.
We need to maintain the momentum of the Arab spring, although Persia is not Arab, and be consistent in Bahrain and Syria. If we unlock Bahrain and Syria, I would pledge that, in that instance, Iran would start to turn and those middle classes and those on the streets would begin to see a difference. In Bahrain, where the Shi’a majority rose up against a Crown prince, we saw a rather lukewarm response from the west, but it was different in Libya and Syria. Let us be consistent, and push that momentum, which will help to make a difference to solving the problem.
On the diplomatic track, I am delighted that the Foreign Secretary has reiterated that we have not broken off diplomatic relations with Iran. I urge the Foreign Office to examine whether we can send a diplomat back to Iran. We do not have to open up the embassy—we did not break relations. We need to be there. The Union Jack means something to many people on the street, and it means something to the opposition. The embassy is well used to co-ordinated protests, stones, and streets being called Bobby Sands avenue next to it as a reminder, apparently, of British imperialism. The Foreign Office used to stand for the Union Jack around the world, and we should be a bit stronger than that.
Is there not a big difference between what happened to British embassies in previous years and what was carried out, co-ordinated by elements in the regime, just a few months ago? It is not just the naming of streets but the ransacking of diplomats’ homes and of the embassy complex.
I fully agree that it is very different. I do not propose that we open the embassy as if nothing happened. If we had a diplomat in another embassy, as we have done before, we could provide visas. The strength is to open and maintain transport links to and from Iran so that people can see what is going on in Iran. Iranians could come and see what is going on in the real world outside, away from some of the manipulation. If we could secure a consulate section in another embassy, that would help.
Every protest outside the embassy was co-ordinated by the regime, and that has been the case for 30 years. It is not new—most of this is not new. In dealing with Iran, we have to know them as well as they know themselves if we are to secure a diplomatic solution. Trying to do that in isolation, or trying to do it with the E3 plus 3 that sometimes works, but sometimes does not, depending on the mood of China and Russia, is one of our biggest challenges. Most of the sanctions that have been mentioned are unilateral, and are not
United Nations sanctions. It would be worrying to set off down that path if we did not remember that, at the end of the day, if we were going to take the next step to military action, we did not have UN sanctions. I urge the Government, who are doing the right thing—the Foreign Secretary made the position clear—to ensure that we never stop the effort to achieve a peaceful resolution to this problem.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for any mix-up that may have occurred.
There are two people to whom the House ought to be grateful including, first, Mr Baron. I attended the Backbench Business Committee with him to push for this debate. I made it clear that I did not agree with the motion he had drafted, but that it was important that it should be tabled. He has come to the Chamber to express an unpopular point of view. Long may people do so, because challenging the consensus in the House, as elsewhere, is enormously important. He has done so tonight to good effect, although I disagree with the motion and will not vote for it. I will vote for the amendment tabled by the other Member who has made a particularly important contribution tonight: Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
We ought to be grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman because I have the greatest respect for his knowledge and experience, and for a Member with such knowledge and experience to reveal that he believes that an American military intervention in Iran would have temporary, limited consequences is of great value. It reveals—and he is not alone in this—that there is, both in America and in this country, what can only be described as a war party. That justifies the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay in the first place: the notion that American could intervene militarily in yet another Muslim country with only limited, temporary consequences is believed, but it is complete and utter nonsense.
The consequences of an American military intervention, let alone an Israeli intervention, in Iran would be profound and long-lasting, as has been said by many other Members, and it should be avoided. That is not to say that we should take the option of military intervention off the table. We are dealing with a police state. Iran is a proud country with a rich culture, a strong middle class and a young population, but they have been repressed by a bunch of paranoids. Yes, those people put a religious connotation on that, but we are dealing with a police state. History surely teaches us that we do not deal effectively with a police state by telling it before we even talk to it that, in the final analysis, if all else has failed, we will do nothing about it.
Let us be equally wary of the people we are dealing with who are repressing the people of Iran, and of the war party, which is happy, whether it does it in the tones of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington or in the more belligerent tones of some American politicians who are pushing us towards an end that we are all—one would hope that people in Iran wish this too—desperate to avoid. Let us voice our desperation at the same time as our determination to find a reasonable solution that suits the Iranian people as well as peace in the region and peace in the world. That is enormously important.
We are already doing as much diplomatically as we can, but we have to put as much effort as we can into encouraging the growth of democracy and encouraging those people who are against the Iranian Government so that somehow they have the courage and support from outside to break out and get rid of the hoodlums who are running the country and causing so much chaos throughout the world.
That is exactly the point that I want to come on to: the limitations of soft power on its own when dealing with a regime such as Iran.
There are two issues that I want to raise: first, satellite communications to the people of Iran have been jammed locally, with possible health consequences because of the powerful jamming equipment that is used, and they have been jammed at source as well. We are effectively doing nothing about that. The victims have been punished, but not the perpetrators. The Iranian regime has jammed those signals, but when Eutelsat and other providers raised that with the Iranians, they were told, “Oh, dreadfully sorry, there’s not a lot we can do about it.” Then we wind up the BBC Persian service, with Farsi1, Asia News Network and Voice of America being taken off those satellite platforms, which would effectively be shut down if that did not happen. We are depriving the Iranian population of access to international opinion. We are allowing those stations to be closed, rather than taking effective legal, international action against the regime, which prevents its own people from listening to world opinion. We have to do something about that. I ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, who is on the Treasury Bench, to take effective action within the European Union and within the international forum of the United Nations to prevent such activity to the maximum extent possible.
There is one other area in which we can help. Increasing numbers of diplomats and others are defecting from Iran. “Defecting” is a cold war word that has almost slipped out of our vocabulary, but there are people who are so contemptuous of what they are being asked to do by the Iranian regime that they are walking away from their jobs and defecting. We are not making them as welcome as we should and thereby encouraging others to do the same. We are not allowing them access. We are not giving them visas or platforms to tell us what is going on within the system to the extent that we should do in order to expose the iniquities of the regime.
I appeal to the Government to consider how those defectors can be encouraged. Yes, I know there is a political imperative to deal with the immigration regime, but let us look at visas for that category of people so that we can be educated about what they are being asked to do that is against the interests of their own people. Those are two areas of soft power that we ought to make work.
Although I do not support everything he said tonight, I totally support the amendment of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and the tone and content of the speech from the Foreign Secretary. That is absolutely the right policy, which we must stick to.
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Ainsworth. I agree with a great deal of what he said. I am pleased to support the amendment that stands in his name and in the names of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Menzies Campbell and many others.
I also agree with quite a lot of what Mr Baron said in his opening remarks. It is rather a shame that in the wording of the motion and in some of his emphasis on the nature of the evidence that we have, he has almost extracted disagreement from potential agreement. In particular, he gave the unfortunate impression at times that he was searching for excuses for the Iranian regime, when none should be given. He concentrated a great deal on the difference between circumstantial and actual evidence, when the difference is between evidence for the existence of nuclear weapons, which I do not think anybody is asserting, and the clear evidence, which I think is in the IAEA report, of intent to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA is pretty clear about that and produces convincing evidence for that.
May I correct the hon. Gentleman, for the record? He is wrong to suggest and almost alone in believing that I was trying to make excuses for the Iranian regime. I was making the point that mistakes have been made by both sides and opportunities have been missed by both sides, as has been acknowledged by speakers on both sides. As for his point about the report, there is a world of difference between nuclear capability and developing nuclear weapons and a decision to do so—something that is not recognised enough by the hon. Gentleman.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that important point, to which I shall return. He is right to emphasise the importance of evidence and that the international community on this occasion acts in response to and with proper observation of the evidence, in contrast with what has happened on other occasions. However, if we are going to trust the evidence of the IAEA, two things follow. First, we must believe the IAEA when it says that there are elements of the nuclear programme in Iran that can only be contributing towards the development of a nuclear weapons programme. If we are trusting the IAEA to produce the evidence, we must believe it when it says that. Secondly, there is the contrast with the situation before the war in Iraq, when we did not spend long enough listening to the evidence from the weapons inspectors, Hans Blix and his colleagues. In effect, military action pre-empted the end of the weapons inspection process. With hindsight, we know that there were no weapons of mass destruction present at that time, and we went to war, in my view, on a false prospectus. That is an important contrast to make.
There are other contrasts with what happened in Iraq and the more recent military action on Libya. The Foreign Secretary said there were three important characteristics to the military action that the international community took in respect of Libya: first, it had a clear legal and humanitarian justification; secondly, there was clear regional support; and thirdly, there was explicit
UN sanction. All those features were present in the intervention in Libya; none of them was present in the intervention and the invasion of Iraq, which is why I am still proud that Liberal Democrats opposed that at the time; and those conditions are not present now in the case of Iran, either. That is why we should be clear that we should not be talking about an attack on Iran.
There is a further parallel with Iraq which is extremely important: that is, just how unpredictable military action can be. We all remember George Bush on an aircraft carrier in the Gulf rather prematurely celebrating victory in the war in Iraq, whereas as we know, it turned into an incredibly complex, costly and painful conflagration and insurgency, where allied troops ended up embroiled in an almost interminable series of interlocking and violent episodes. We must hesitate before we get embroiled in anything similar in the case of Iran.
The Foreign Secretary’s remarks over the weekend, which were clearly intended to discourage others from getting involved in such a potential conflagration, were well made. His clear messages to our friends and allies in the United States and in the region were similarly well made. It might well be that a military attack to get rid of a potential nuclear programme is impossible in practice. It might require a sustained campaign of bombing over a number of sites across the entire country. We know that the nuclear programme has been dispersed in Iran, so it would be a very dangerous undertaking in any case.
The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay was right: we should go the extra mile for peace. I want to make it clear that the Liberal Democrats believe that a preventive attack on Iran would probably be illegal and quite possibly be unsuccessful, and it could destabilise the entire region and lead to the ignition of a war over which we would then have no control. As Nicholas Soames said, it might well boost the likes of Hamas, Hezbollah and even al-Qaeda in the region and could undermine the fledgling democracies of the Arab spring and any potential for an equivalent Persian spring in Iran.
Do I take it from my hon. Friend’s comments that he will stay true to the Liberal Democrat manifesto promise to rule out the use of force when it comes to Iran?
I wondered whether that would come up. That is the phraseology in the hon. Gentleman’s motion today, but it is not the phraseology that we used. We talked about opposing military action against Iran. That was written before—[Interruption.] No, it is not weasel words. It is about moving with events. It was written before the attack on the British embassy and before Iran, in effect, threatened the use of military force to close the straits of Hormuz. It would have been better to say clearly that we opposed preventive military action against Iran. That is why I do not support the motion, which rules out the use of force, apparently in any circumstances. We have minesweepers in the Gulf: if those came under attack, would we really rule out the use of force?
Is not the real point about the Liberal Democrat manifesto that one simply cannot rule anything in or rule anything out in what is always a moveable feast?
Yes, I think I agree with that. Moreover, it is not always wise to say that one rules something out even if one would not actually do it. I still support the instinct of the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledge. We can say that we still oppose preventive military action against Iran and that we should pursue every possible option. The Foreign Secretary expressed exactly those sentiments. He said that we are not seeking, advocating or calling for military action. One might be able to quote that to him in a few months’ or a few years’ time and ask if he still sticks to that, in the same way that hon. Members quote the Liberal Democrat manifesto at me now. The instinct expressed is that that is the absolute last resort; that is not something that one should risk bringing about. The objective must be a peaceful and negotiated settlement. We must also avoid bringing about such an eventuality by accident. We must be careful not to box Iran into a situation where war or military action is the only action that it can take and retain what it regards as its national pride.
Sanctions do have to be imposed and they have to be robust, otherwise Iran would be able to act with absolute impunity; but we also have to explore every possible avenue to de-escalate tension, to reduce tension and to engage diplomatic channels to try to address this crisis. That could include support for the work of the weapons inspectors or support for a regional conference on non-proliferation, which might allow Iran a pathway out, but it could also include diplomatic action that does, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay said, draw a distinction between nuclear capability and the actual possession of nuclear weapons. That is a situation that we have tolerated in Japan for many decades quite happily. We must not talk ourselves into a war in the area of Iran, and we must seek every possible avenue for peace. I think that that is the Foreign Secretary’s instinct, and I was very happy with his words today. I am happy to support the amendment.
It is a pleasure to follow Martin Horwood. We can certainly say that the next Lib Dem manifesto will be categorical in not ruling anything out for certain or ruling anything in. It will be fairly open. A lesson has been learned, judging by what he has said.
It is a pleasure to take part in this timely debate, which deals with one of the most important issues facing the world today, and I congratulate Mr Baron on securing it, along with others. I pay tribute to the Backbench Business Committee, which has again demonstrated its great worth in providing time for this important debate. I will be voting in favour of the amendment tabled and so eloquently proposed by Sir Malcolm Rifkind.
The regime in Iran is undoubtedly the major threat to peace and security in the world, and while some—not necessarily in the House today—have sought to minimise the threat that Iran poses, it is becoming clear that Iran is determined to acquire both the capability to build its own nuclear weapons and to develop the weapons themselves. In the past week, we have had clear reports that Iran has completed the preliminary work that would allow the rapid expansion of its uranium enrichment programme at its mountain facility near the holy city of
Qom. Like others, I believe that no nation has the right to deny other countries the right to develop their nuclear capabilities for domestic and non-military purposes, but it is clear that Iran is intent on developing a nuclear weapon, and that must be stopped. Not only would a nuclear-armed Iran mean great regional instability, but it would lead to other countries in the region wanting to acquire nuclear weapons. The proliferation of nuclear capability in a region as volatile as the middle east is something that we should all be concerned about, and we must do what we can to stop that happening.
Clearly, the No. 1 threat is directly posed to Israel, first and foremost. The regime in Iran has made its views on Israel absolutely clear. I do not intend to repeat some of the quotes from President Ahmadinejad, but it is clear that he not only denied the holocaust, but on the 60th anniversary of the state of Israel he made it clear that
“the reason for the Zionist regime’s existence is questioned, and this regime is on its way to annihilation.”
In 2010, he said;
“The nations of the region are able to eliminate the Zionist regime from the face of earth,” adding that the Israeli
“regime has no future. Its life has come to an end.”
Anyone who suggests that the use of the word “regime” refers to a particular Government as opposed to the nation state is stretching credulity.
In November 2011, as reported in Reuters, he said:
“This entity”— that is Israel—
“can be compared to a kidney transplanted in a body that rejected it… Yes it will collapse and its end will be near.”
There are many other examples of such statements, both from him and other senior Iranian figures. They demonstrate the thinking of the regime towards Israel and its people, and that should be a cause of great concern in the House. While such language may appear abhorrent and so over the top to many of us here in the west that they can be almost dismissed, the tragedy is that many people who say these things, in Iran in particular, really mean them. That can be seen in the fact that there is so much support in Iran for terrorism and in the clear evidence of the way in which Iran is exporting terrorism across the world.
Clearly the threat is not only against Israel directly, but against the west in general. The most immediate threat is more of an economic threat—the threat to close the straits of Hormuz. That will affect oil prices, which will affect everything from food prices to energy costs and travel costs. The idea that a nuclear-armed Iran could exist without posing a long-lasting and permanent threat to energy supplies to the west is simply not credible. Last Friday, oil reached $120 a barrel, and it is clear that in the event of Iran getting nuclear weapons, the price of oil would go through the roof, with all that that means for the west and elsewhere.
Iran is a threat on a number of fronts. It is a threat not only to Israel directly and to the west, but to its own citizens. Members on both sides of the House have highlighted the vicious nature of the Iranian regime as seen in its treatment of its own citizens, particularly but not only religious minorities. Whole sections and sects have been targeted and there are restrictions on freedom of worship and religion. We in the west have no particular selfish interest in that—this is not about our citizens. It is, however, about the right of people to practise religion and worship as they want to, regardless of their ethnic background, and their right to speak out and to have freedom of speech.
What position should we in the United Kingdom adopt? Clearly, we need to continue to support the Government in their view that the way forward is sanctions and co-ordination at an international level to bring about a diplomatic solution, but it is vital that sanctions are effective. It is clear from some press reports today that some countries—Turkey and China have been mentioned—are working to undermine sanctions. I would be grateful to know how effective the Government think sanctions are. It is vital that sanctions are made to work. The financial restrictions order imposed by Parliament last year rightly targets those who seek to use British financial institutions in their quest to fund the nuclear weapons programme, and we support such sanctions.
We support the twin-track approach, but it is essential that the sanctions work. They will be judged effective only if they actually stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Hon. Members have already described the vista we might see if the plan does not work—we have to face up to the fact that it might not work. The idea of living with an Iran with a nuclear weapon is simply unthinkable, not only for Israel and people in the west, but for the world as a whole, the countries in the middle east and the citizens of Iran themselves. It is absolutely essential that we face up to these issues.
The right hon. Gentleman says that living with a nuclear Iran is simply unthinkable, yet we have tolerated a number of states developing nuclear weapons, including North Korea, which was a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. A laborious process is going on to try to denuclearise that country, but no one has suggested invading it.
We have learned in recent years that each country is different and has different circumstances. Some of us might like to go back in time and take different approaches. We have seen different approaches to intervention in Libya and Syria, for instance. We are dealing with Iran, and I believe that there is an opportunity to do something to prevent Iran getting hold of nuclear weapons, but I believe that Iran, given its dire and direct threats against the state of Israel and its particular threat to the people of the entire world, poses a unique threat. We should be conscious of that and we must be prepared, if necessary, to do something about it.
I commend the bravery and courage of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay in proposing the motion, but I am afraid that its terms remind me of the motion that was once proposed in the Oxford Union—that this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country. The word “appeasement” has been used. I think that the motion, if passed, would smack of appeasement. It is vital that we send out a strong message.
I am giving the right hon. Gentleman an extra minute to wind up his speech, so I hope that he will smile upon me accordingly. The word “appeasement” has been used several times. A number of us in this House are former soldiers and have medals to prove that we are not appeasers. There is no doubt about that. We believe in the case for a just war. I have seen comrades killed by the enemy. The right hon. Gentleman must surely accept that the policy of sanctions and sabre-rattling that has characterised the west’s approach has failed. Iran will not step down, so is this not the right time for a fresh approach that recognises her regional status?
I am glad that I was able to give way to the hon. Gentleman just before the time limit. It remains to be seen whether the policy of sanctions and negotiations has failed, because we are in the middle of that process. I have the utmost respect for him and others who have served in Her Majesty’s forces and I fully respect his personal position, but that in no way detracts from the ability of others to describe the policy they enunciate in the terms we have used. The significance of the famous debate in the Oxford Union was the message it sent out to those in Nazi Germany who were following the policy. If the motion is carried tonight, this House will be sending a strong signal to the Iranian regime to carry on and aim for nuclear weapons, because we will do nothing about it. We need to send out a clear message that is the reverse of that, which is that we will not stand for that kind of approach.
I felt like intervening on Mr Dodds to give him a fourth minute of extra time, but I restrained myself. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on securing the debate, but that is as far as I can go, because I disagree with almost every word he said. I strongly agree with my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who moved the amendment. We need to be very careful about how the tone of the debate comes across and ensure that it is not bellicose. I agree with almost everything he said, with one exception: I think that any military intervention in Iran would not be a short-term matter and would become a longer-term matter, as my right hon. Friend Nicholas Soames, who is no longer in his seat, made clear.
Having said that, the Iranians—the Persians—are a proud nation with a very ancient history. They have a very educated middle class, and I doubt very much that they approve of what the Iranian leadership is doing. Nevertheless, they do have such a leadership. There will be elections on
I am sorry that Mr Llwyd is no longer here, because in the debate in this House on
As my hon. Friend, who is often spot on, will know, Iraq is virtually a proxy state of Iran. That is a hugely important step for the world, because both countries combined have 19% of the world’s proven oil reserves, so instability in the region will lead to a real problem. That compares with a figure of about 7% in Kuwait and about 2% in the United Arab Emirates. To put it into context, the figure for the proven oil reserve in the hands of Iran and Iraq is very significant indeed.
The Iranian regime not only promotes instability and terror in its own country—the example was given of five executions only last night—but is one of the greatest exporters of terror around the world. I have always been a supporter of Israel, but I would shudder to live in Israel today, with Hezbollah from the Syrian state and Hamas from the Palestinian state. The Israelis are in a very difficult position. If war were to break out in Iran, I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex that the proxies in the region, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, would become even more active than they are at present.
I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary when he said at the weekend that Iran acquiring nuclear weapons could trigger an arms race in the middle east. One or two Members have disputed that, but we should look at history and the example of Pakistan and India. The moment one got nuclear capability, the other had to have it. If Iran acquires a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia will probably do so, the Syrian regime, if it survives, will certainly want to, and perhaps other states in the middle east will, too.
Given that Israel’s acquiring nuclear weapons has not led to its Arab neighbours acquiring them, why does my hon. Friend believe that Iran’s Muslim neighbours would have a greater urgency to do so?
I knew somebody was going to make that point to me, so I anticipated it. Of course Israel, although never acknowledged, has a nuclear capability, but the difference between Israel and Iran is that Israel is a stable democracy and Iran is an unpredictable country—under its current regime. That is not to say that under a future regime it will not change, but under its current regime I should not predict the circumstances in which it might or might not use such nuclear capability.
The whole essence of the cold war—Russia, America, Britain, France—was that none of us dared use nuclear weapons even if we had the inclination, which I am sure we never did, because we knew the destruction that they would cause, having seen it in Japan during the second world war. It is a huge thing to press the nuclear button, so, despite my hon. Friend disagreeing with me, I think that we have to be very careful about reaching such a situation with Iran.
The other point that I wish to make, in the rapidly shrinking time that I have this evening, is that I wholly support the efforts of my right hon. Friends in the coalition to bring about a diplomatic solution. That solution has to be backed up with sanctions, and I wholly believe that we must have the military option available to us when we go into the diplomatic negotiating chamber. I profoundly disagree with my hon. Friend and Mr Llwyd, because if we rule out that option before we have even completed diplomatic negotiations we will be in a considerably weaker position.
Of those three legs to the stool, we need to concentrate on sanctions, and the greatest role that the British Foreign Office—our Government, our Ministers—can play is to get some of our allies on side: to get Russia, China, Turkey and India all on side to make those sanctions effective. If the reports in the newspapers today are to be believed, and Turkey, China and India are participating in barter deals to get around our banking sanctions, that very considerably weakens them. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench take that point well and truly on board.
This country has always been very good at soft power. Our diplomatic service has always been the best and our British Council has always been the best, but in this situation one of the greatest contributions we can make to resolving the problem without the necessity of going to war—I cannot stress enough that I do not advocate war, which is the last thing we want to see—is, as Mr Ainsworth said, to look very carefully at the BBC World Service. The BBC’s Farsi service can contribute a huge amount to the situation, and we should go the extra mile to ensure that it is not jammed, that we do not cut the service and that we broadcast the optimum number of hours on shortwave, over the internet and on television, for those middle class people in—
It is a pleasure to follow Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, and I endorse entirely what he said about the importance of the BBC World Service. I congratulate Mr Baron, a fellow member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, on initiating the debate, but I will not support him in the Lobby. I will support the well drafted and measured wording of the amendment, not because I believe that we should be engaged in military action against Iran, but because I want to stop military action against Iran and a war that would be a precursor to a conflagration in the region.
I am concerned about the potential consequences of the current crisis. I recently held discussions with a senior figure in the Pakistani Government, who said that the consequences for Afghanistan and Pakistan of a conflict involving Iran would be dire. Anybody who has been, as I have, to Herat, the Afghan city close to Iran, and seen how calm and peaceful the area is will recognise that it is no accident; it is because that border between Afghanistan and Iran is stable and calm, and that would not necessarily be the case if there were a conflict involving Iran.
Similarly, Iran’s borders are very complicated. Reference has already been made to some Gulf states, including Bahrain, but other neighbours such as Qatar and Kuwait are in range of Iranian missiles, and the Iranians would not even need to send missiles; they could send people with bombs in bags or in suitcases.
Reference has been made also to Iraq.
I will give way in a moment.
With the Defence Committee several years ago, I visited the KBOT terminal at the top of the gulf of Hormuz, just south of Basra, from where, along with the ABOT terminal, most of the Iraqi oil from Basra leaves. That was a few weeks after motor launches from Iran had set off bombs underneath the terminal to try to destroy it. The area is now much more strongly protected, but the potential for a conflagration involving Iran, leading not necessarily to a blockage of the strait of Hormuz, but at least to attacks on facilities, urban centres or bases in the area, is great. We as an international community therefore need to be careful and measured and to send out clear signals, whether in relation to mad speeches by Newt Gingrich or to the Israeli Government, that the use of language referring to military action is not necessarily the best solution to the crisis.
I can understand why politicians in Israel are worried. I would be worried if not just the President of a country but a succession of its leaders had said that they wanted to wipe out my state, which they regarded as a cancer, but we need also to point out, as senior figures in Israel have, that military action by Israel will not be in its own long-term interests regarding its relations with the Arab world.
Military action would be extremely difficult. There are at least 10 different nuclear sites in Iran, and trying to obliterate them would be almost impossible for Israel alone, so military action by Israel alone is probably very unlikely or, at the very least, unwise.
I agree, and that allows me to move on to what I think is actually happening.
Somebody once said that war was diplomacy by other means, but we have a third way, which is Stuxnet, targeted assassinations and unexplained events. I am not sure whether we can attribute blame or responsibility in any particular direction, but it is quite clear that over recent months and years various things have happened to aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, and events have occurred which might indicate that, without having a war, attempts are being made to delay the nuclear programme, the development of centrifuges and other things.
If the Iranian regime is really determined to get nuclear weapons, and I fear that elements of it are, it will do so at whatever cost, but others in Iran, including some in the regime, recognise that there are benefits to be gained not by acquiring nuclear weapons but by saying, “We are a proud country and we want to be noticed, so we will give the impression that we are moving in that direction so that people notice us, states in the Gulf region become fearful of us and the rest of the world says, ‘Iran is a country that matters.’”
The Foreign Affairs Committee went to Iran in 2007. Mention has been made of its chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Jalili. I was involved in an hour-long exchange with him in a meeting. It was a fascinating exchange, because he started off by explaining that having a nuclear weapon was un-Islamic and forbidden. We went on to have a long discussion about the additional protocol, the non-proliferation treaty and various issues to do with the IAEA. I came away realising that he was very intelligent and calculating. He must be a tough person to negotiate with. I was not involved in real negotiations. Speaking with me was like practice for him before he dealt with the Ministers. It was apparent that Iran is clear in the way that it uses the arguments.
I suspect, as the Foreign Affairs Committee said in 2007, that Iran will at some point get to breakout capability. However, as was said earlier, that does not necessarily mean that it will have a nuclear weapon. It will have the capability to get a nuclear weapon quickly when it gets to that technological position. However, it might choose not to go that far, but to have just the potential, because that will make people notice it. Iran is a country that wants to be noticed.
The tragedy is that Iran has a young, dynamic population that wants to engage with the rest of the world. Anybody who has been to Iran knows that. People come up to visitors in the street and talk to them openly. They criticise their Government openly in a way that does not happen in all other countries in the region; and yet, at the same time, Iran has a theocratic regime at its cap. I do not think that it matters who succeeds Ahmadinejad, because he is not the power in Iran. The power is Ayatollah Khamenei, who is the supreme leader. It is he who rejected the approach from President Obama. It is he who determines where the political process goes, including who can run as a candidate and who can stand for election. Iran has a quasi-pluralistic and quasi-democratic system, but with a theocratic cap. Somehow or other, that system will have to change. Revolutions run out of steam. At some point, the voice of the Iranian people will come through. We have to be clever and not undermine that in the way that we handle this crisis.
It is a great pleasure to follow Mike Gapes, who, as ever, made some perspicacious and penetrating points.
I congratulate my hon. and gallant Friend Mr Baron. I regret that he had to defend himself against the charge of appeasement from Mr Dodds. I resent that charge on my hon. Friend’s behalf. This is a motion not of appeasement, but of courage. I may not agree with it and other Members may not agree with it, but this is a courageous and necessary debate. Perhaps it flies a kite—I do not say that with any disrespect to my hon. Friend. By golly, it is a kite that needs to be flown. This situation has been referred to as white-hot dangerous by distinguished analysts in the United States and other parts of the world.
Of course I do. I was trying to make a point. The right hon. Member for Belfast North has made his point. In defence of my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, I know his record and his background. I watched the 3rd Battalion the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers in action in the native city of the right hon. Member for Belfast North and they never appeased anyone. It is a fine battalion and he is a fine officer.
Some fascinating statements have been made tonight. I cannot support my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, despite my admiration. I find the amendment interesting. I found the comment from my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind that American action might be acceptable or amenable—forgive me, I am paraphrasing and have not quite got the right phrase—in the short to medium term wholly remarkable in the light of what has happened in Iraq and what is happening in Afghanistan on the Pakistani border. I really do not accept that.
Perhaps I can explain to my hon. Friend what I was saying. I think that it will be clear from the record, if he reads it tomorrow. I was saying that there would of course be serious consequences from a military intervention by the United States, which could last weeks, months or even one or two years—who knows? However, if the alternative is Iran having a nuclear weapon on a permanent basis, which would mean a massively enhanced threat from a nuclear weapon state, one cannot simply dismiss the military option because there would be a significant downside for one or two years.
I am most grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend. However, the words still sit uneasily with me. I do not believe that we are in the business of tinkering with world peace.
I found Defence questions earlier today very depressing. The right hon. Member for Belfast North said in this debate that this situation is the biggest threat to world peace. We are already involved in a regional war in this area. As my hon. Friend Geoffrey Clifton-Brown made so very clear, the country that we are talking about borders Afghanistan, and the regional war stretches through Afghanistan, into Pakistan and touches nuclear-tipped Russia at one end and the potentially nuclear-tipped Iran at the other. We cannot afford any ill-judged military action.
I do not want to sound like a stuck record and to go through all the points that have been made about Iran’s hideous rhetoric; the fact that she may be working on a weapons programme; the fact that, as we speak, she has troops involved in an exercise in southern Iran, called in support of the military leadership; the fact that she is threatening to close the strait of Hormuz; and so on. However, I will say this. When I visited Tehran, some interesting things came to mind. For instance, until I was taken down the boulevard of Bobby Sands—there is a boulevard of that name in the centre of Tehran—I had not realised that Great Britain, and Iran’s relationship with Great Britain, had such high relevance in Iranian and Persian thinking. I had not realised that Great Britain punched above its weight in Iranian thinking. I had not realised that Iran saw Britain as being perfidious Albion—I am generalising hugely, of course.
Much of the west’s foreign policy is seen, obviously wrongly, as being dictated by ourselves as a tiny but important nation. I had not realised that a Tehranian might say, “Heavens above, it’s raining again. It’s typical British weather.” All the ills of the world seem to be laid at this country’s door. That puts us in an extremely important position in negotiating with Iran. Many of the Foreign Secretary’s comments therefore give me heart.
When I was in Iran, the Iranians said to us, “Are you honestly suggesting that we support al-Qaeda? Please demonstrate.” Of course, we said, “Well, we have the evidence.” “Do you?” “No, we only have circumstantial evidence.” Of course, we are used to hearing misinformation and black propaganda—we need look no further than our intervention in Iraq under the last Government, in the second Gulf war. In Iran, we said, for instance, “We have heard that the central shura of al-Qaeda is resident here in Tehran”. The reply was, “Please point it out, because it is not. There is no evidence to suggest that that is the case.”
Similarly, we asked British troops in Afghanistan whether they could demonstrate whether any of the weapons being used against them had come from Iran. The answer was yes, but there were also weapons that had come from France, the USA, Germany and Britain herself. There was nothing to indicate a relationship between al-Qaeda and Iran, despite everything that we were hearing from the western press.
Here is the rub: the single most important thing I heard in Iran was that the current generation of leaders there fully understand what it is like to be involved in a war of national survival. Many of the individuals who are now of political maturity were young men of military age during the Iran-Iraq war. One Member—forgive me, I cannot remember which—said earlier that nuclear weapons had only ever been used once. That is true, but let us not forget that in the Iran-Iraq war, when hundreds of thousands of men were killed in action and millions of people died, weapons of mass destruction were used willingly.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend and entirely agree. My point is that many of the current generation of decision makers, if that is the right phrase in Iran—we cannot look at them as one cohesive political body—have experienced war at first hand. They understand what weapons of mass destruction are like, and my opinion is that if they are allowed to get hold of such weaponry, they will probably use it.
That puts us in an exceedingly difficult position on the one hand and an exceedingly powerful position on the other hand. I say to the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary that if we want our military position to be credible, let us make it so. Let us not have instances such as we had in the past of the Royal Navy being embarrassed in the Gulf. Let us ensure that our operations are above reproach. We cannot be anything less than credible.
In the current white-hot and dangerous situation, we have the opportunity to negotiate. When it comes down to it, no side really wants to fight. Let us therefore take the opportunity for Great Britain to prove that she is not perfidious, and to speak to her friends in Israel and America and lead the way. We can use our influence, to use an awful aphorism, to punch above our weight. Although we have the military option, let us pray that we never, ever have to use it.
I join other Members in commending Mr Baron. I say to him that being in a minority does not necessarily mean that someone is not right, and that when the House is unanimous, it is invariably wrong. I will support his motion.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I find it important when we have these debates to have a prologue condemning the theocratic regime in Iran. I am one of the Members who consistently table motions supporting human rights campaigns in Iran, most recently on the Tehran bus workers and on the persecution of the film director Panahi, whose release we have been successful in securing. I agree with Mr Llwyd. I am fearful of again treading down the path that starts with rumours of weapons of mass destruction, goes on to sanctions, sabre-rattling and covert operations, and then develops a momentum that carries us into military action, death and destruction, and increased terrorism and instability. My right hon. Friend Mr Ainsworth is not in his place, but I, too, worry about the approach whereby we try to negotiate peace by threatening war; it does not work that way.
Hon. Members need to be very clear about the decision that they take tonight. Those who vote against the motion and for the amendment will be sanctioning the threat of military action. In my view, if one threatens something. one has to ensure that one understands the full implications of acting on the threat, and I am not sure that there is clarity in the House about why this threat is being made. The notion of Iran being close to having nuclear weapons is open to doubt as there is no solid evidence, but as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay said, the issue is really about nuclear capability. Nuclear capability is a threat only if one believes that nuclear weapons will be used. Even in Israel, people do not believe that there will be a nuclear strike, and that is true of wise heads around the world. I cannot find any advisers in the US who are recommending to the President that action should take place on the basis of a nuclear threat. Like the hon. Gentleman,
I have listened to some of the spokespeople in Israel. I have also listened to a former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, who said that it is all about scaremongering and that there is no threat to the state of Israel as a result of this supposed escalation.
Why are we being implicated in the threat of military action? First, as Sir Malcolm Rifkind said, the threat is based on the danger not of a military attack but of Iran becoming a regional superpower. At the moment, the implications of that are not, by any means, sufficient to justify the threat of military action. Secondly, there is the argument about nuclear proliferation. If we are anxious about nuclear proliferation, we have to start with the root cause, which is Israel illegally gaining nuclear weapons. Unless we attack that root cause, the issue will not go away. Thirdly, it is about Israel’s own domestic political agenda: the crisis atmosphere suits Netanyahu and the hawks who surround him.
Fourthly, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington said, we are being blackmailed by Israel to the effect that if we do not support military action, it will. After Iraq and Afghanistan, and in the midst of the global economic crisis, there is no appetite in the US for war. That is why the Americans sent General Martin Dempsey to Tel Aviv in January to let the Israelis know that there was no such appetite. It is now time for us to face down Israel and ask what sanctions we are willing to exercise against it if it seeks to threaten military action. I fear that the debate is gaining the momentum for a military strike, which will make matters worse, not better.
We are already at war by proxy in undermining the potential for peace and change in Iran. The sanctions are a siege of Iran. Its currency is collapsing, imports of grain staples are drying up, and people are becoming impoverished. That is not undermining the regime but hardening support for it by giving it the excuse that an external enemy is causing the impoverishment and hunger. The covert military actions carried out by organisations and individuals whom we now know, as a result of exposés in Der Spiegel, were trained by Mossad, have prompted more terrorism around the world through Iran-sponsored attacks in India, Thailand and elsewhere. The cyber-war that was launched under Stuxnet, with the worm or bug that was put out to undermine Iran’s industrial complexes, has provoked even more retaliation, which has undermined some of the ability of Iran’s freedom movement to communicate with the outside world. I would welcome information on that extremely complicated cyber-attack. Did Israel sponsor it or its development? Was GCHQ alerted to it?
The actions that have taken place have escalated the potential for conflict, and they are strengthening the hard-liners in Iran and hurting the Iranian people, who are desperate to throw off the yoke of that theocracy. The way forward was spelt out by our former ambassador, Richard Dalton, who said that we needed multilateral negotiations to secure a nuclear-free zone across the middle east. Unless we tackle the issue of Israel holding nuclear weapons, we cannot confront Iran sensibly or creatively.
I reiterate that we cannot negotiate peace by threatening war, and I fear that we are again on a path that we have witnessed time and again in the House. We are threatening military action, which gains momentum that results in loss of life, including the loss of British soldiers and military personnel.
I pay tribute to the gracious stance taken by my hon. Friend Mr Baron and to the articulate and sincere way in which he put his case. That is as much as I can say to him, because I will vote not for his motion but for the amendment moved by my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind. I share much of my hon. Friend’s analysis, but unfortunately from his point of view I reached an entirely different conclusion.
I should like to focus on the political background in Iran, which was touched on by my hon. Friend, and to test the efficacy of sanctions, if they are plan B. It is not too fanciful or exaggerated to say that we might be in a similar moment to Europe in the mid-1930s. Iran is a state that presents an existential threat to its neighbours and has designs on regional and possibly global hegemony. The Foreign Secretary was right at the weekend to describe it as having the potential to set off a chain reaction cold war in the proliferation of nuclear weapons to Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other states. Iran also has a record of significant lack of compliance with IAEA inspectors and an appalling human rights record, which was mentioned in a Westminster Hall debate last month in which I was fortunate enough to participate.
We are at an historic juncture, and the Foreign Secretary is right to point out the dangers to the world of a nuclear Iran. However, unlike, for instance, North Korea, Iran is not a monolithic regime. It has varied centres of power and influence. There is institutional conflict within the regime and among the dominant conservative strain within the elite, particularly between the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and President Ahmadinejad. There is a battle between theocracy, republicanism, nationalism and clericalism. As I mentioned in an intervention, there is a chance that President Ahmadinejad will be impeached or removed before or in 2013.
One important factor in the development of a jihadist, militarist theology is the impact that the revolutionary guards could have on parliamentary elections and in suppressing the green movement, as we saw in 2009. There is also an ongoing power struggle between the President and Parliament over political appointments.
We should bear in mind in all decisions we take—particularly any decision to remove the option of military action from the table, or decisions on the current sanctions regime and the positions we lay out in Israel, Europe and the United States—that we could still see the consolidation of the power of hard-line clerics, the revolutionary guards and their militia, the Basij. The starting point could be that a candidate much more extreme than Ayatollah Khamenei is in place by the end of 2013. A military regime with a theocratic basis would threaten the greater middle east region and the world. We face that prospect.
No one seriously thinks that Iran has not developed a nuclear capability. Its enrichment of uranium to 20% of the threshold can be for no other reason than military use—it has no plausible civilian use. The IAEA has previously said that Iran has 5 tonnes of low-enriched uranium of 3.5% and if enriched to 90% this would be enough fissile material for four to five nuclear bombs. Experts have predicted that once Iran acquires more than 150 kg of uranium enriched to 20%—by, say, early 2013—it would need just two weeks to produce enough fissile material for a bomb.
In short, the regime has the knowledge, technology and resources to create a nuclear bomb. Specifically, it has the high-explosive test site at Parchin, computer models, precision detonators and—most importantly—missile delivery systems. If plan B is sanctions, will they work, given that Iran has set its face against the west and a more peaceful negotiated settlement of this issue? People make much of the EU oil sanctions, and it is true that 18% of Iran’s exports are oil to the EU—450,000 barrels a day. Severe disruption to the oil industry would be problematic for the state, given that oil revenues are 60% of the Iranian economy, 80% of exports and, more importantly, 70% of government revenues. We know, however, that other countries would take up the slack. South Korea and Japan each take 10%, and China and India take 34% of Iran’s oil exports between them and would surely step in to buy the oil rejected by the EU.
Iran may discount oil prices, but it is estimated that even with a 10% drop in shipments, the reduction would be just $24 billion in a $480 billion economy. Sanctions will undermine state spending and perhaps cause a deficit of up to 2% of GDP, but Iran has a low debt to GDP ratio—only 9%, as against well over 100% for some EU countries, as we know. Raza Agha of the Royal Bank of Scotland says:
“The public finance impact seems manageable in the immediate future…given the bulwark of public sector deposits and other domestic financing options”.
Iran has also put its interest rates up for long-term bank deposits, so it has plenty of foreign reserves to see it through the difficulties of short and medium-term sanctions.
We can take options, including military action, off the table only if we are absolutely certain that sanctions will work and will force Iran back to the negotiating table. Sanctions may serve to destabilise the existing political regime in Iran. The west faces the most profound foreign policy problem since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and for that reason we have to have courage, firmness of purpose and intellectual coherence in facing down this problem. Israel will perhaps attack Iran before the end of June. None of us wants war, but the alternative of a militaristic, jihadist country threatening its neighbours may be a lot worse.
Iran is a historic nation with a proud and brave population. Many hon. Members will, like me, have friends in Iran and know of the hospitality of its people. There is little doubt, however, that the Iranian regime is one of the most oppressive anywhere in the world. It is a sponsor of terrorist activities, is involved in systematic persecution of the opposition and minorities, and is attempting to isolate its people from the outside world.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2008 democracy index ranked Iran 145th out of 167 countries and listed it among 49 countries considered authoritarian. Amnesty International has reported regularly that trial hearings are often heard in private and that political detainees are being denied access to legal counsel during judicial proceedings despite official assurances to the contrary. A 2007 US Department of State report pointed out that although in theory defendants had the right to a public trial, a lawyer of their choice and the right of appeal, in practice these rights were not respected by the regime.
We know that women and young people were at the heart of the pro-reform green movement in 2009, with young people comprising 40% of the electorate, yet the regime has launched a vicious counter-offensive by resorting to the mass detention of young activists and expulsions from universities, and by widening the powers of its youth paramilitary forces. Many Iranian women have resisted the imposition of a religiously justified patriarchal structure that systematically discriminates against them.
From extensive interviews with men and women inside and outside Iran, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread patterns of arbitrary arrest and torture based on sexual orientation and gender identity. As the UN discovered in 2010, the regime’s failure to meet young people’s socio-economic expectations is a major cause of its internal unpopularity: about 70% of the unemployed in Iran are young people; youth unemployment has doubled in the past 20 years; and even graduates take on average about three years to find a job.
Abhorrent though the regime is, pre-emptive military action, whatever its origin, would be as wrong as it was in Iraq a decade ago. But we must not take the options off the table. The attitude of the young people of Iran will shape its future in the coming decades, which is why we should stand with them, attempt to engage with those parts of Iranian society that believe in co-operation with the rest of the middle east and the west, while being firm in our opposition to the regime’s internal repression, its state sponsorship of terrorism elsewhere in the middle east and its belligerence over the status of Israel.
Following the attacks on the Israeli embassies in Tbilisi and New Delhi last week, the Government of Iran and their agent, Hezbollah, are increasingly isolated in the middle east, as many of their traditional supporters have been alienated by a perceived pro-Shi’a favouritism in Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain and Iraq. Syria acts as a prime channel to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as a base for Hamas leaders running Gaza, as a front-line ally in the confrontation with Israel and the United States and as a political and commercial pathway into the Arab world.
The Iranians know, however, that in Syria the political balance between the minority Alawi Shi’a regime in Damascus and the Sunni majority has shifted to Iran’s distinct disadvantage, and that their main regional ally could soon fall. The Iranian regime knows that if the Arab spring topples the Assad regime in Syria, its greatest threat will be from revolution from within.
The true purpose of Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme is difficult to establish comprehensively, which leads to suspicions about its motives. The RAND Cooperation think-tank published a paper recently stating that Iran would be able to acquire the threshold capabilities to build a weapon within the decade, but its view was that Iran did not yet have the will to develop nuclear weapons. Analyses by those such as the Royal United Services Institute, Stratfor and even the IAEA concur that there is no conclusive evidence, as yet, that Iran has decided to build a nuclear weapon. Rather, they believe that Iran’s aim is to reach a stage where it can let the international community know that it has the ability and resources to have the option of acquiring the bomb rather than to actually do so. Nevertheless, last November’s IAEA report remains suspicious of the regime’s intent given its concealment of the third enrichment facility near Qom.
There is evidence that sanctions that focus on Iran’s central bank might secure a diplomatic solution to the crisis. The new restrictions, announced by the US Administration last week, target banks that handle proceeds from the sale of Iranian oil imports if the country that they belong to has not significantly reduced the volume of oil that it imports from Iran by the end of June. The sanctions complement the EU embargo on Iranian oil imports, to be introduced by
A diplomatic solution is best for the stability of the entire middle east. Although all options should remain open, constructive dialogue should be the aim of the policy of this Government and the United Nations. In the event of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, the Iranian leadership could use its connections and regional influence to cause regional breakdown, and deploy its paramilitary allies elsewhere in the region, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and insurgent groups in Syria and Afghanistan to create mayhem. As Colin Kahl, the former US deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the middle east said last month,
“force…should remain…a last resort, not a first choice.”
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron on his courage. I fear that my conclusions might mean that I cannot go through the Lobby with him, which is saddening. May I also pay tribute to Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, who sadly died very recently? He was a great contributor to debates on Iran, and I know that many Members of this House would wish to join me in saying how greatly he will be missed.
This is an opportune moment to consider Iran. The conduct and ambitions of the Government of Iran run counter to our interests and to the peace and security of the region. We must not lose sight of that fact. We therefore need a credible and sustainable response, and our actions should be based on the most up-to-date information and analysis. To my knowledge, that has sadly not been the case in the Foreign Office over the past 15 years—indeed, at a meeting with a previous Minister, who has now left this place, I was assured that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran had not renounced its pledge to give up weapons and fight for peaceful internal change in Iran. The fact that the Foreign Office was not in control and that it had that information in its hands six years after that position was stated and agreed is very worrying indeed. My hon. Friend Patrick Mercer made the point that much misinformation has been accepted as information by the Foreign Office, which has been harmful to our cause.
I wanted to talk at length about the Iranians’ human rights record, but many others have paid heed to that problem. It is indeed a scar on the face of humanity, as we all know. We also know that the Iranian regime is not one that we can do business with as a trusted ally, and it never will be. We should, however, strive for robust and honest relations with Iran. There are Iranians who share that appetite for positive dealings. Sadly, until a few months ago our approach to them was variable. Our dealings with the PMOI and with Camp Ashraf are symptomatic of that weakness. As I said, the PMOI stated in 2002 that it was working for a peaceful transition to a democratic Iran, but that aim was not recognised. Ministers need to make decisions based on the best and most reliable information, but there have been serious concerns about the quality of analysis and the currency of the information available.
I remind Members that Camp Ashraf is home to 3,500 Iranian dissidents, including 1,000 women, living in Iraq. All members of the PMOI, they originally opposed the mullahs’ regime. The PMOI is the largest opposition group and the greatest thorn in the side of the present Iranian regime, as proved by the fact that more than 90% of the 120,000 political prisoners executed by the regime have been members of the PMOI. It is that group’s success in harnessing widespread support that engenders the hatred directed towards it by the regime. That is why the blacklisting of the PMOI was an initial Iranian precondition for participation in international talks in 2002. Mr Straw sadly acceded to that request as a result of attempting to appease Iran. The talks, of course, never happened.
I will explain. My hon. Friend asks how looking at the case of the PMOI will help to resolve the Iranian situation. The truth is that cruelty and inhumanity have been visited on Camp Ashraf residents as a matter of routine by the Iraqis at the behest of Iran—the Iraqis have acted as Iran’s proxies. Ensuring that the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mr al-Maliki, and the Iraqi Government change their attitude, as they should do, would diminish Iran’s position in the middle east and weaken its role in the wider world. That is how changing attitudes towards the PMOI and to the people who live in Camp Ashraf can be of help.
This is not just a matter of a few thousand Iranian dissidents in Camp Ashraf, however. The situation raises fundamental questions about the entire region, and beyond. The al-Maliki Government’s flagrant disregard for human life, universal rights and international laws should ring alarm bells. When people see that the depth of cruelty and inhumanity following western intervention is not much better than it was under Saddam Hussein, is it any wonder that they are cynical about our motives and actions? When they see that the al-Maliki Government’s actions present him as a western-supported puppet of the Iranian regime, are they not entitled to ask why we sacrificed so much blood to achieve that objective? If we are to find an effective way to tackle the crisis of intransigence and hostility from the Iranian Government, it will not be done through examples of that kind.
That is why I call on the Government tonight to promise to act to ensure the removal of Iraqi forces from the perimeter of Camp Ashraf, to end the siege and to lift the ban on journalists, parliamentary groups, lawyers and families of residents entering the camp. Residents, particularly those who have been wounded, must be given immediate access to medical services in public hospitals. There must be an independent inquiry by a panel of jurists into the actions perpetrated at the camp. Residents should also be entitled to the return of their personal belongings. Such actions would, I repeat, immediately undermine al-Maliki’s role and position as a proxy of the Iranians, which would be in the interests of us all.
We have heard some bold attacks by the Minister of late, and they are most welcome, but I regret the fact that we have not pressed the United Nations to take action on Camp Ashraf. I look to the Minister tonight to say that we will do so, if for no other reason than respect for the lives lost in Iraq, which we should honour and can honour, by protecting the very people now under attack by the Iraqi regime. If we are to overcome the real threat of Iran, we must stop appeasing the regime as we are in relation to Camp Ashraf and the PMOI.
Following the failed adventures in Iraq, Iran is much more powerful. Threatening it with military adventures is not the answer, but we need to stop being weak in the face of the Iranian bullies and work with those best placed to bring about positive change for Iran, in Iran and by Iranians themselves—many of them young people who have a vision far more positive than Ahmadinejad and his supporters.
This House engaged in a war with Iraq that was based on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, and 179 of our brave British soldiers died along with an uncounted number of Iraqis. We remained in Afghanistan and went into Helmand on the basis of a non-existent terrorist threat to the United Kingdom from the Taliban. When we went into Helmand, two British soldiers had died in warfare and five more in other ways; having gone into Helmand, however, the figure is now 398. We are now in a position of stumbling into another war on the basis of non-existent nuclear weapons and non-existent missiles.
Some of us present when those decisions were taken vividly remember how the decision on Iraq went through this House—not on the basis of truth or evidence, but because this House was bribed, bullied and bamboozled into taking a decision that many thought was wrong. Mr Baron was one Member and Sir Malcolm Rifkind another who opposed that decision because the evidence was not there.
We should look at the evidence before us now of the threat from a missile in Iran with a range of 6,000 miles. Members will recall that we heard of this threat three or four years ago when America wanted to set up missile sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. The Russians were quite rightly angry about this, but the pretext for it was the protection of the Russians and the Poles from missiles from Iran. It was a wholly implausible threat and we have not heard much of it since, but now that an election is coming up in America, the myth has been resurrected.
I claim some pedigree in opposing nuclear weapons and nuclear technology in Iran. I raised the subject in December 1992 in parliamentary questions—I shall not bore the House with the details—to the then Minister, Michael Heseltine. At that time, we were told that it was absolutely right to hand over nuclear technology to our ally at the time—the Shah of Persia.
One Conservative Member said, “We must still punch above weight.” Why? Punching above our weight means dying beyond our responsibilities. A young soldier from south Wales died last month, but he will not be counted among the 398 dead in Afghanistan. He was shot twice there and was slightly injured in two further incidents involving improvised explosive devices, but the event that destroyed him was watching his virtually limbless best friend die in his arms. He came back broken in mind, and last month he took his life.
We have lost 398 and at least 1,000 others are also broken in mind and body because we as a House decided that we wanted to punch above our weight in the world. That was our decision, and we cannot escape from it. The present Government and previous Governments have tried to minimise the extent of the bereavement and the loss. Those who have suffered because of this, the loved ones and the bereaved, will face an awful situation in the future. When the death toll reaches 400, which it surely must, although we all regret it, all the grief will be churned up again and there will be attention to it. To get the list of the dead on to the Order Paper requires 24 early-day motions, but what we should look at is what those people will see. Many of them were consoled by the belief that their loved ones died in a noble cause—that they died preventing terrorism on the streets of Britain. What conclusion will they reach when, in a few years’ time, we hand over the government of Afghanistan to the very people whom we said we were fighting against, to the very same threat? We will be handing it back to the Taliban.
Mr Binley was absolutely right. The effect of our intervention in Iraq was to replace one rotten, cruel, oppressive regime with another rotten, cruel, oppressive regime, and the result in Afghanistan will be the same. A bad regime, the Taliban, will go out, and we will replace it with what? With the Taliban again. It seems extraordinary that we have to behave as though we were still in the 19th century and that Britannia still rules the waves. We do not have to take on these situations. We do not have to be the Little Sir Echo to American policy.
There is an unsolved riddle in the House about how we have been represented. There was an investigation of the conduct of the last Defence Secretary that was alleged to constitute a breach of the ministerial code, but the investigation itself constituted a breach of the ministerial code because it was not carried out by the sole enforcer of that code, Sir Philip Mawer. He has resigned within the last couple of months and someone else has been put in his place. There is great concern that the person involved in this matter, Adam Werritty, who was the adviser to—
Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is about to return to the subject of Iran. I am sure that that is where he is heading next.
This is precisely about Iran, because it has been claimed that Adam Werritty and the former Secretary of State were in meetings with Israelis—indeed, it is a proven fact that at least five meetings took place—and that the subject of those meetings was Iran. That has been reported in many of our national newspapers. However, the investigation has yet to be carried out. We have seen a brief investigation by a civil servant who was not entitled to carry it out, and we have seen the resignation of the person who is the sole enforcer and who told a Select Committee that he believed that he, not Gus O’Donnell, should have conducted the investigation.
We have yet to find out what on earth was going on. Did we have a Secretary of State who was conducting his own foreign policy on Iran and perhaps bringing us to closer to war? The Select Committee has yet to finish its report, but a fortnight ago I asked Philip Mawer’s successor, “If the Committee decides that you are not a fit person to take on this job”—because he has not shown the robust independence that is necessary to the job—“what will you do?” He said that he would relinquish his position. That has yet to be decided.
Finally, let me say that the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay deserves great praise for introducing the debate. He has already succeeded—
Paul Flynn knows that I followed him into the Lobby to vote against the war in Iraq, doing so because I place great belief in the traditional concept of deterrence. I have never been a unilateral disarmer, but I have always been a multilateral disarmer and I always assumed that deterrence would work with Iraq. I must admit that I was not that prescient and that I, like everybody else, assumed that Iraq did have some sort of weapons of mass destruction and was astonished when none were discovered. But I did oppose that war and I have since visited Iraq, when I saw the agony of the country and of the mothers who had lost their sons; it is not just British troops who, sadly, lost their lives, but tens of thousands of people there. So I am with the hon. Gentleman on Iraq and I am also with him, to a certain extent, on Afghanistan—I have, again and again, questioned that. There is no doubt in my mind that the Taliban are remaining there and that there is a great danger that after the terrible loss of life of British troops we will end up with another Taliban Government. I believe that it was and is possible to keep their heads down.
We are neglecting to acknowledge that Afghanistan was the incubator for a violent jihadist, Islamist ideology that resulted in the deaths of 3,000 men, women and children on
Not for a moment does anyone in this House casually disregard it. I have always argued that there had to be a means, through special forces or even through the limited use of air strikes, to have controlled a Taliban Government. However, I am with the hon. Member for Newport West so far and, to an extent, I am also with him and with others who opposed the Libyan conflict. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Baron, and I also accept the argument that we should not assume that deterrence would break down if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon. However, Iran’s having a nuclear weapon would be of a different geopolitical order from what we were confronting in Iraq. Iran with a nuclear weapon would be a calamity, but a pre-emptive strike at this stage would be calamitous. Therefore, we are in an extraordinarily dangerous position. I do not need to do this, because it is so obvious, but as a Government we need to urge our American and Israeli allies to proceed with extreme caution.
There has not been a great deal of debate so far about what is actually happening on the ground. I do not accept the argument that all the evidence is circumstantial. The Fordow site has enriched uranium to 20%. Enrichment of 90% to 95% is required for weapons, whereas only 5% is required for less sophisticated civil reactors and more sophisticated reactors run on 3% or less. There is no doubt that this enrichment is for military purposes. I am not necessarily arguing that Iran would take the final step to acquire a capability to deliver these nuclear weapons, but I believe that we are in a very dangerous position.
An attack would be extraordinarily difficult. It would not be simple like the Israeli attack on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981. As we have heard, the Iranian programme is geographically, as well as functionally, extensive. It includes not 15 sites, as was mentioned earlier, but up to perhaps 30 sites, which could not be destroyed in a single attack—it would likely take an air war lasting several weeks to do that. In addition, as we know, the Qom facility was kept secret. I do not believe that Israel alone could stop Iran’s nuclear progress; only America could reliably destroy the nuclear capability. The conclusion must be that Israel does not have the capability to attack effectively; it could wound but not kill, which might be the most dangerous thing of all. Israel does not have the capability and America does not have the will, and if Israel were to attack, it is plausible that Iran would retaliate against not only Israel, but, much more worryingly, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is only 150 miles from Iran at its closest point and shares a maritime border with Iran along the length of the Gulf. There are only 258 troops from US central command in Saudi Arabia at the moment. General Hossein Salami, the deputy commander of the elite revolutionary guard, has threatened retaliation, stating:
“Any place where enemy offensive operations against the Islamic Republic of Iran originate will be the target of a reciprocal attack by the Guard’s fighting units”.
There is no doubt in my mind that if there were an attack on Iran it would elicit an immediate and perhaps devastating response against Saudi Arabia. Israeli planes would experience problems, even in attack, and would have to overfly a combination of Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Saudi Arabia just to reach Iran.
Will economic sanctions work? We have to proceed on that basis, but they may not, which is why I come on to the second part of my speech. I am sorry that there is not a simple solution, but I cannot follow the hon. Member for Newport West in saying that we can do nothing—that we can accept the motion and rule out force and that somehow things will be all right. Yes, it is calamitous to attack, but it is even more of a calamity if that country acquires nuclear weapons.
That is a very different situation, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me for saying so. I am not sure that what was going on in Vietnam was a direct threat to us or to the whole region.
What happens if Iran acquires nuclear weapons? We cannot just dismiss that and say that deterrents would work. It is widely believed—and I think that it is true—that Saudi Arabia would acquire nuclear weapons very rapidly. Could we forgive it for doing so, if Iran developed a nuclear weapon? Saudi Arabia is reported to have made a deal with Pakistan on buying nuclear warheads in exchange for the substantial assistance that it gave Pakistan during its nuclear development in the 1980s. If the Israelis attacked, there would doubtless be a response from Hezbollah. Iran is perhaps the worst governed country in the region, because of strong ethnic identities and the opaque system of government we have heard about. No doubt there would be a confused and difficult response.
What is my conclusion from all those difficult conundrums? As my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind said, there is no good solution, there is only the least bad solution. I believe that any attack on Iran would have negative consequences for stability in the middle east in general, and would directly affect our allies in the region. Iran is extremely volatile, and it could easily overreact to provocation, so an attack at this stage would be disastrous. Any attack without American support would hinder but not stop the Iranian nuclear programme. My right hon. and learned Friend is right, however, that taking the possibility of an attack off the table would make Israel more likely to act unilaterally to retard Iran’s programme.
So what do we do? The only thing that we can do is continue with economic sanctions and be realistic about their likely impact; we must recognise Iranian concerns, and not engage in sabre-rattling; and we must recognise that it is a proud nation that feels that it is surrounded. All of that is very wise. We should try to take the issue off the boil and keep them guessing. That is why I am sorry that I cannot support the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay, as it would be wildly dangerous to remove from the table the threat of military action. It is not necessary to do so. As I said, when dealing with tyrannies—surely, this is the verdict of history—we have to keep them guessing.
The Foreign Office had a policy of keeping our potential enemy guessing in the 1930s, but ultimately that policy, too, was disastrous, because there was no certainty about our intent, which brings me to my conclusion that there should be no pre-emptive strike. We should keep talking, and keep them guessing. Ultimately, the Iranian regime must know that if it is on the brink of acquiring nuclear weapons, the west—namely America and Israel—will act at that stage, and must do so to defend all our freedoms and to defend stability in the entire region.
I was with Mr Leigh for much of his speech until he reached the very end. The same is true of Mr Baron. I confess that I began the day rather sympathetic to his motion, largely because the preferred profession for many people in my constituency, as has been shown in many opinion polls—and this is true across many former mining constituencies—is the armed forces. I do not want to send more British armed forces—young people from the Rhondda—to go to fight in a war a long way from home that may have no discernible goal, and may have a very uncertain future. However, I did not find his argument persuasive. In fact, I found it the opposite of persuasive. I found it deeply unpersuasive and I will not be able to support him tonight.
This is not about whether we like or dislike the Iranian regime. I do not think there can be anybody in the House who likes the Iranian regime, perhaps because of its phenomenal and extraordinary use of the death penalty. It owned up to 252 cases last year but the figure is far more likely to be 600, which puts Iran second only to China, which is a much larger country. There are currently 143 people under the age of 18 on death row in Iran. It is a security state, in the way that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, described the term in the late 1930s. It has laws against harming national security, against disturbing public order and also against insulting public officials. The regime uses them whenever it wants to repress dissent.
I found the hon. Gentleman’s argument about Israel to be naive. I would rarely use that term in the House, but a pedantic argument about the semantics of what Ahmadinejad said or did not say is neither here nor there. The truth is that there is a powerful body of opinion within the leadership in the Iranian regime which is wholly inimical to the success of the Israeli state. Whatever criticism I may have about Israel and its failure to adhere to United Nations resolutions and the rest, I believe that Israelis have the right to self-determination and to believe that they can live in their country in security.
The hon. Gentleman should be a little careful with his words. I did not argue for one moment that there are not those within Iran—many within Iran—who loathe the state of Israel. There are many Arabs and Jews within the state of Israel who disagree with their own Government on many issues, but that cannot justify military intervention. He needs to be careful when he talks about naiveté. I would suggest to him that it is naive to pursue failed policies.
The hon. Gentleman has not heard the rest of what I am going to say. Perhaps he will be less unhappy with some of that. I would argue back to him that the theocratic argument that is used by many in Iran, including very senior figures in the regime and those who have direct access to military power there, may at some point lead to direct assaults on Israel. It would be understandable for the Israelis to want to protect themselves. In that set of circumstances, Ahmadinejad could easily have said, “I’m terribly sorry. I gather there’s been a terrible misinterpretation of what I said which has gone around the world, and I would like to correct it because I did not mean that Israel could be wiped from the map.”
There are other reasons why I hate the regime. Its record on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights, which I have referred to in many speeches over the years, is shocking, but it is getting worse. In September last year three young men were executed for homosexuality. In the past the regime has tried to maintain that such cases were non-consensual homosexuality. On this occasion it owned up to the fact that it is executing people for consensual homosexuality.
I would also highlight what the regime has done to the Ahwazi Arabs. Those are a people who are often forgotten because they do not fit into many people’s understanding of what Iran must look like, and certainly do not fit into what Ahmadinejad’s version of Iran looks like. In September last year four Ahwazis were sentenced to death for “enmity against God”. Likewise, a 19-year-old, Naser Albushoka, another Ahwazi, recently died under torture. The repression of the Ahwazis has gone on for many years.
This is also not about whether any of us believe that Iran should have nuclear weapons. I do not think there is anybody in the House who would support Iran having nuclear weapons. It is about the potential justice or injustice, rightness or wrongness, of possible military intervention.
There is a series of questions that we always need to ask ourselves before we engage in military action. First, is the action of the aggressor certain? Are we certain that it is either doing this or going to do it? At this moment it is not absolutely certain. I am fairly convinced about what the Iranian regime intends to do with its military capability, but it is not absolutely certain that it intends aggression.
Secondly, is this a grave ill or a major act of aggression? Thus far, it is not as grave as many of the other things that have happened in other countries, not least Syria.
I am very engaged with everything that the hon. Gentleman says. Does he agree that no one wants to go down the road of action against Iran? Does he take the same comfort as I do from the first line of the amendment that what we all want to see is the British Government and the Governments of the world doing everything that they can to secure a peaceful resolution to the issue that we face, and that all we are discussing is keeping on the back burner, as distant as we can, any idea of military action?
Yes, sort of. I will come back to the hon. Gentleman’s point in a moment. We must analyse whether there are better means of achieving the end that we want. As the Foreign Secretary and the shadow
Foreign Secretary said, there clearly still are better means that we have not yet exhausted and that we need to pursue to their logical end.
Would there be a clear goal if military action were to be taken against Iran? It is difficult to see what that clear goal would look like. Similarly, would it be achievable if we knew what that goal was? As Mr Leigh said, it is difficult to see how it would be possible to achieve that secure goal. Would it be proportionate, not only to the aggression being shown, but to the action that we choose to take in other cases, because otherwise we might be accused of hypocrisy? That is undoubtedly true for many countries when they look at how we choose not to force the implementation of UN resolutions in relation to Israel but force their implementation in relation to others. Similarly, is there a danger that the outcome of military action might be even worse than the result of not engaging in military action? That is always the toughest question. We look at what is happening in Syria at the moment, and our heart goes out to the people there, but would military intervention from the west make for a better or a worse situation? It is still uncertain whether our intervention in Libya and elsewhere will produce the goods that we always hoped for.
I have a real worry about what I would call the ratchet effect. Today we are forceful in our language. Tomorrow forceful is not enough, so we have got to be assertive. The next time we have got to be aggressive, then we have to be pugnacious, then belligerent, then bellicose, and then we find ourselves at the doorstep of war. That is in part what happened in relation to the step up towards military intervention in Iraq. We have to be careful. The Foreign Secretary is a very persuasive man in many cases, but sometimes he is so eloquent that his language ratchets things up.
I will not, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I have taken two interventions and others wish to speak.
I worry that like a spanner that one can use to ratchet up but not down, if we use language that is exorbitant and goes too far, we will end up in a situation where, from no real decision of our own, we may be at the doorstep of war. [Interruption.] I understand that they ratchet up as well, but this is true also of the Falklands. The Argentines can huff and puff for all they want, but quite often it is best to leave them huffing and puffing, rather than to rattle the sabre back at them.
I would say two things in closing. First, we must put considerable trust in the European Union process. This is one of the areas where going it alone for the UK is unlikely to achieve great success. Not that anyone is proposing that. Just going it alone with Israel and the United States or a coalition of the willing, or whatever one wants to call it, would not be a good idea. Binding in the E3 plus 3 has thus far been an extremely successful process and has avoided war.
Finally, I believe that the Israelis, contrary to what the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, would be wholly wrong to take unilateral action. I do not think that they would be able to do so or that they would be successful if they tried. If they were to take from our decision tonight the message that we believe that they should take military action, they would be wrong.
I welcome and congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Baron. I am glad that we have had the chance to have this incredibly important debate. If I had been asked about this subject 12 months ago, I would have spoken out in favour of the motion that my hon. Friend has tabled. That was my original position, and it stems from a simple fact: I want us, as politicians, to do everything we possibly can in this place to try to ensure that we do not kill innocent people. All politicians need to start from that position.
When we talk about a campaign in Iran, we wonder what we would actually do. Would we drop bombs from 36,000 feet in built-up areas? Would we put troops on the ground? The Iran-Iraq war led to a million deaths, but only one mile was covered in eight years, and that was with the full backing of a landlocked country with western support. We wonder what we would do, but we have to look at the bigger picture. I believe that my sentiments back then were naive, to use the word Chris Bryant used. It was a naive position for me to take, because a country does not actually need to use a nuclear weapon to have a devastating effect on the region if it so wishes. The Iranians would like to believe that they have a right to some of the United Arab Emirates. They could walk into those islands and occupy them through the use of totally conventional forces, but what can we do about it if there is the threat of a nuclear weapon in the background? What will we do if they are at that stage with a nuclear weapon? What suffering will be meted out to the people in those states?
Much has been said tonight about a proxy war, which I believe could only be ratcheted up if Iran had a nuclear weapons capability. I fear that organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas would be empowered by the fact and would be bolder in their terrorist activities and the steps they take against the state of Israel simply because they would know that they had such a powerful ally behind them. What will be planted out on those organisations if a nuclear weapon lies behind them?
I was elected in 2010, but I remember clearly watching the debates in this House on the Iraq war a long time before the war began. I remember listening to Tony Benn, who stood on this side of the House and said that war with 24-hour news coverage is too sensationalist and that too many people out there would revel in the fact that bombs would be falling on Baghdad. I think that we have a problem with the 24-hour news cycle, because it is almost as if it wants military action because it makes such great television pictures. It appeals to people and entertains them, but the reality is far more harsh.
Equally, I remember the speech my hon. Friend Kris Hopkins made when the House debated the Libya campaign. He graphically described the reality of war and the photographs, brought back to him by colleagues he had served with in the armed forces, of burned and dismembered bodies. Paul Flynn described how one of his constituents took his own life as a result of the mental trauma he had suffered in Afghanistan. It is never an easy decision to talk about military action. I have said in the House before that war is the failure of politicians—of people like us, in the safety of this House, in this country—to work within an organisation, but does that mean that we should hamstring ourselves at the start and say, “No matter what you do, there will be no military action”?
Military action could simply be provoked in the strait of Hormuz. If that waterway were closed, if British or any shipping were attacked, we would have no choice but to react. We have minesweepers and other ships in the area. If we pass the motion today and say that we will take no military action, we will send out an even worse signal to the world, but, even though I shall support the amendment in the name of my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Malcolm Rifkind, it does not mean that I do not sympathise with the motion that my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay has tabled.
This has been an intelligent, heartfelt and engaging debate, and the one message from every speaker, whether they have been for the amendment or for the original motion, has been, “We want to avoid military action,” but I am slightly concerned that at times the debate has appeared to be about military action tomorrow. Military action tomorrow is simply not on the agenda, and if next week the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister came to the House and said, “We are going with the Americans to attack Iran because we can’t go any further,” I do not think that the House would be supportive. I do not think that at this stage of events the mood of the House would be to support such military intervention.
I return to the point, however, that that is not what we have been discussing today. We have been discussing whether we remove the option completely from the table, and I do not believe that we can. We need to work hard diplomatically and with countries such as Russia and China. We must have far better diplomatic negotiations with Russia to try to push Iran away from nuclear proliferation and ensure that it focuses on energy needs, because I am quite sure that the Russians do not want a nuclear-armed Iran and, then perhaps, an escalation in the middle east, just as much as everybody else does not, but unfortunately they are not prepared for other reasons to support the United Nations and the west in those areas.
I have absolute faith in this Foreign Secretary; I really do. This Foreign Secretary and this Foreign Office have moved the Department to a new standing in the world, something that had declined in recent years, and the Foreign Office and the people in it are well respected. As the Foreign Secretary said in his speech today, an entire section of the Foreign Office is engaged purely in negotiations with Iran and in diplomacy in the area, and that is to be applauded. I imagine that that is where all Members want the situation to move to, but, as much as none of us actually wants to use the military option, it does not mean that we can take it off the table.
I congratulate again my hon. Friend Mr Baron on securing the debate. Although I disagree with everything that he has said, I am grateful to him for challenging my views and those of others who oppose his motion.
I have three fundamental points to make. First, my hon. Friend said that there is no smoking gun, but I shall argue that there is a big smoking gun and that Iran is building a nuclear bomb; secondly, the nuclear programme is not a response to sanctions, as it was happening already; and, thirdly, we cannot be sure that if Iran had a bomb it would not use one either directly or through one of the many terrorist organisations that it supports.
It is worth examining those points in turn. First, is Iran building a nuclear bomb? The International Atomic Energy Agency report of November 2011 states clearly that Iran has acquired the knowledge, technology and resources to create a nuclear bomb within months. Its main findings, to quote section G, paragraph 43, are that Iran has procured
“nuclear related…equipment and materials”; acquired
“nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network”; and worked
“on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components”.
Putting that aside for one minute, what do Arab nations in the region say? They are in no doubt about what the Iranians are planning. As far back as 2008, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia urged the United States to
“cut off the head of the snake” by halting Tehran’s nuclear programme. Last week, I was in Kurdistan in northern Iraq. The Kurds know all too well what a nuclear Iran would be like and are incredibly concerned about the implications. That is what is at stake in the region.
Nuclear ambition was not a response to sanctions; Iran already had it. We cannot appease Iran or hope for moderates to emerge within the regime. The United Nations sanctions began in 2006 in response to Iran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment. As far back as 2002, the National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed Iran’s secret nuclear programme, much of which was later admitted to by the Iranian leadership on state television. Iran has repeatedly dismissed calls to negotiate. President Ahmadinejad now insists that his nuclear programme is unstoppable.
The only time when Iran suspended uranium enrichment, co-operated with the UN and signed the full non-proliferation treaty was in October 2003. Why did it do that at that time? Because a quarter of a million western troops had just toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq and were close to Iran’s western border. As soon as that threat diminished, Iran returned to its nuclear programme, which has led us to the point that we are at today.
Thirdly, we cannot be sure that Iran would not use a nuclear bomb. Iranian leaders have made numerous statements calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Just last week, the Iranian website Alef published an article by Khamenei’s strategy chief, Alireza Forghani, detailing plans for the extermination of Israel. As British newspapers have reported, the dossier even pinpoints the housing estates with the highest concentration of Jewish people. That piece, which is now being run on most state-owned sites in Iran, states that because of the United States’ presidential election, the time for Iran to strike is now.
Last week, Iran’s Ministry of Defence announced that it had tested a two-stage ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear bomb. Earlier this month, the Deputy
Prime Minister of Israel said that he had intelligence showing that that missile has a range of 6,200 km—enough to hit the United States and the United Kingdom.
I have described Iran before in this House as the new Soviet Union of the middle east: it represses its people at home and has expansionist aims abroad. It is widely recognised as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism. It provides support to insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan that have attacked and killed British troops. A nuclear Iran does not just mean a nuclear Iran; it means a nuclear Hezbollah, a nuclear Hamas and so forth. As the former Iranian President, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, said, the
“application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel”.
The extremists in charge of Iran see their conflict as not just with their neighbours, but with the west. That is why they threatened to bomb Turkey last year. In 2006, Hassan Abbasi, the head of the Iranian doctrinal centre for strategic studies, said:
“Britain’s demise is on our agenda”.
“We have a strategy drawn up for the destruction of Anglo-Saxon civilization…we must make use of everything we have at hand to strike at this front by means of our suicide operations or by means of our missiles.”
In conclusion, the Foreign Secretary has described the Iranian nuclear threat as the new cold war. The situation may be worse than that because in the past, nuclear deterrents worked because of mutually assured destruction—MAD—and the clear lines of communication. However, for MAD to work, one has to be sane and the Iranian regime has shown itself not to be with its constant human rights abuses, its attack on the British embassy and its support for terrorism. Let that be a lesson for the free world.
As I have mentioned, I was in Kurdistan last week near the Iranian border. I met Iranian Kurds who are persecuted by the Iranian regime. They knew the reality of a nuclear Iran, and they said that the only way that things would change was if there was regime change there. They asked why the west had not done more to support democratic and opposition movements, which would have made some difference and perhaps helped to facilitate regime change.
Finally, I wish to quote Niall Ferguson, who wrote recently in Newsweek:
“War is an evil. But sometimes a preventative war can be a lesser evil than a policy of appeasement. The people who don’t yet know that are the ones still in denial about what a nuclear-armed Iran would end up costing us all.”
Order. I intend to call Mr Baron to wind up the debate no later than 9.56 pm.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Baron for securing the debate.
We need to be clear about the danger that the world would face from a nuclear-armed Iran. As other Members have said, it is a state widely recognised as the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism. It funds, trains and arms groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas, and, as my hon. Friend Robert Halfon has just said, it would be a grim prospect for the cause of peace in the middle east if those terrorist groups gained the protection of an Iranian nuclear umbrella.
The belligerence of the regime is perhaps explained by its expanding conventional missile programme. The Iranian regime has a large arsenal of missiles with a range of 1,300 km, which are capable of threatening Gulf states. As other Members have said, a nuclear-armed Iran would spark a nuclear arms race, as Saudi Arabia, Jordan and perhaps Egypt all sought to counter its regional hegemony.
Some argue, as some Members have tonight, that the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran is exaggerated, and that in any case we would be able to contain the threat. I believe that those people are living in a dream world. Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran would require overwhelming force and huge military deployment in the middle east, and we would need to confront its terrorist proxies. With the current conditions in the middle east and the instability of the region, that is not a realistic long-term option.
We have a responsibility to prevent Iran from ever becoming a nuclear-armed power, and the Foreign Secretary and other Members are right to say that all options must be left on the table. The Foreign Secretary is right to pursue an aggressive sanctions policy. There is a lot of evidence that the sanctions regime is beginning to bite, but I believe it could go further. The assets of the Iranian central bank have been frozen in Europe, but there are limited exemptions to permit some legitimate trade. US sanctions do not include those exemptions. I believe that EU banking sanctions must be tightened up to bring them more in line with those imposed by the United States.
We should also examine the shipping industry more closely. Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines has been renaming and reregistering cargo ships to avoid sanctions. It has renamed 90 of its 123 ships since 2008. Given that Britain is a hub of shipping insurance, we need to work to ensure that the legal loopholes that the Iranian regime is exploiting are closed.
I believe that, as other hon. Members have said, we must do everything we can to prevent Iran from achieving its nuclear ambitions. The Foreign Secretary is right to work with our international partners across the European Community and the world to ensure that the sanctions that have been agreed, which are beginning to bite, will continue to do so. As I have said, I believe that more needs to be done to tighten up the sanctions regime that has been imposed on Iran. It poses a major threat to peace and stability in the middle east, and it must not under any circumstances be allowed to get a nuclear weapon.
I think it can safely be said that I have been in a very small minority in today’s debate, but I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for participating in it. The extent of the interest shown, particularly with a one-line Whip, has proved that it has been worthwhile, and there have been many interesting contributions. I remain of the view, though, that Government and
Opposition Members have failed to address various points and have missed opportunities to better relations between Iran and the west.
The current policy of sanctions and sabre-rattling has failed. Iran will not be deterred, and yet the policy has brought us to the brink of military conflict. As most people accept, a military strike by Israel would be a disaster. It would unite Iran in fury behind the hard-liners in the country, it would not work because it would merely delay matters for perhaps a year at most, and it could lead to a regional war. Those who think otherwise are very wrong. Yet the Government and the Opposition keep the option of force on the table despite the fact that it would be disastrous, despite the fact that Iran ignores it, and despite the fact that it increases tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely. My contention is that by ruling it out we would reduce the tensions, bring ourselves back from the brink of military conflict, and give diplomacy a greater chance.
There has been no answer to my suggestion that the time has come for a fresh approach that recognises the status of Iran as a regional superpower. We need better to understand and engage with Iran. The precedent for this new relationship is Nixon’s rapprochement with the Chinese during the 1960s and 1970s; after all, China and the west had been at war in Korea just a decade before. The US needs to make it very clear to Israel that military action will not be acceptable. I saw no appetite for that in the House today, and I believe that we are missing a defining moment.
I hope that most of us, if not all, can accept that war should be the measure of last resort to be used only when all other avenues have been exhausted. My belief, in contrast to many of those who have spoken, is that we have not yet reached that point. I shall therefore oppose the amendment to my motion.
Question accordingly agreed to.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to .
That this House supports the Government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia; and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table.