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Backbench Business — Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:24 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Richard Ottaway Richard Ottaway Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 12:24 pm, 6th November 2014

I am grateful to Mr Straw and my hon. Friend Mr Bacon for securing this debate. I was delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have disagreed over the years, although I have the highest regard for his intellect, and his tone and approach to foreign affairs, started with the context in which we have to look at Iran, because that is incredibly important.

In a way, I see Iran almost as two nations, which are sometimes contradictory. Iranians are sophisticated and proud people—they do not want to be humiliated—and it is important to remember that they are Persians, not Arabs. Yet there is quite a strong liberal streak inside Iranian society. One very good example of that is the widespread acceptance of family planning. Iran has the most effective family planning regime in the world. In 1979, Khomeini wanted to expand the population of Iran to fight Iraq, but was told he did not have the infrastructure to support an expanding population. So a complete U-turn was done and Iran has stabilised its population growth, without any of the draconian methods that China, for example, has had to impose. Tehran university has more female undergraduates than male undergraduates at the moment, so there are indications that a young, youthful, well-educated society is on the way up, which may yet change the face of Iran. I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister was able to meet President Rouhani at the United Nations the other day and supported the conventional thinking that we need to keep the dialogue going. On the other hand, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn has said, Iran has the most appalling human rights record, with child executions, political prisoners, the presidential candidates from 2009 still under house arrest and almost non-existent press freedom.

Iran is a foreign policy nightmare: its support for President Assad in Syria, through Hezbollah funding and the positioning of the revolutionary guard in Syria, is causing immense difficulties; it is undermining the Government of Bahrain by support for the Shi’a minority there; it openly supports, and is funding, Hamas in its criticism of and aggression towards Israel; it is running a complex network of weapons-smuggling routes into Gaza, through Egypt, with the sole intention of attacking Israel—it is in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions on that; it has engaged in the funding of and support for attacks on Israeli diplomats around the world; and its antipathy towards Saudi Arabia is legendary, although this goes both ways. I will return to that point in a minute.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have serious implications for a number of different factions and groupings around the country. For the EU and the west, there is an impact on our security if the Iranians have a nuclear capability. There will also be economic consequences, with a loss of stability in the middle east. Israel is rightly concerned about Iran’s ambitions. The regional consequences are also serious, with Saudi Arabia now developing its own nuclear research programmes, as is Jordan—surprisingly. That just shows the nervousness in the region.

Iran has a complex and cumbersome structure of government, and one often asks oneself, “Who is actually running the show?” The ultimate power lies with the Supreme Leader, who does not exercise his power in an authoritative, dictatorial way, but does so in a more consultative way, with occasional nudging, sometimes aggressively, as we have seen in the nuclear negotiations. Just to add to the complications, the Supreme Leader at the moment is ailing and, as he has to make difficult decisions about the negotiations, that is not helpful. On the other hand, we have the President, who is more the chief executive, but a strong one, and he is the head of the nuclear negotiations.

When President Rouhani was elected to office—to the surprise of many as he was the most moderate candidate—we all said that he was a man with whom we could do business. He is a moderate who suits the situation. But we must judge him by his actions, not his words, and reining in a few hotheads in the Revolutionary Guard is about all we have seen, and we are still waiting for the beef.