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Backbench Business — Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:06 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham 2:06 pm, 6th November 2014

I want to start by welcoming the debate and making it clear that I wish to seek a better relationship with Iran. I congratulate Mr Straw not only on securing this debate with my hon. Friend Mr Bacon, but on making an outstanding opening speech. It really was superb. Anyone who read the article that the right hon. Gentleman wrote on 24 September in The Daily Telegraph can see the line of travel that he wishes us to take, and he set out his case extremely well. Similarly, the contribution from my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway underlined why we will miss both Gentlemen, from different sides of the House, very strongly when 2015 comes and they are no longer in this place.

I take the view that it is important to visit a country, if one can, before one tries to cast an opinion. I regret that I have not had the opportunity to visit Iran, although I have travelled extensively throughout the region, going to Beirut, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. However, it is good to speak almost last in the debate—obviously I await the contribution of my hon. Friend Neil Parish—because I have had a chance to listen. There are clearly differing views across the House. There are those who have grave concerns that we are being too generous to Iran and that we run the risk of making things more dangerous and difficult and appeasing a potentially very dangerous adversary. One cannot deny those risks, and the hon. Gentlemen who set those matters out do so legitimately and, in some cases, with good cause.

At the same time, however, as was set out fairly by my hon. Friend Mr Baron, the failure to act at this stage has its own significant downsides—that is an underestimation—and consequences. In this House and in Government, one often does too much, but often one does too little as well. I feel that this is a case where if we do too little, the opportunity will ebb and flow away, and we will not be in this place again for a very long time.

It is rare that I would want to quibble with comments from my right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames, who made the point in an earlier intervention—I summarise; this is the note I took of it—that it is tough if Iran does not abide by the rules. Of course one makes that point, and it is a fair point well made, by someone with every historical advantage that most of us do not have. However, at the same time, one must be realistic, in that, first, this is a negotiation, secondly, there is distrust on both sides and, thirdly, we have to work out what ultimate objective we seek to obtain, and it is inevitable that there will be difficulties, hurdles and obstructions along the way. I, for one, would wish our Government to push ahead, while accepting and making the fair point that this is not going to be a perfect ride along the way.

I was struck by how my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South set out that this is very much about two nations in conflict. Parts of Iran are genuinely liberal and generally progressive—he made the fair point that there are more women than men at the university in Tehran—but other parts we all find abhorrent, not least the difficulties in relation to Iran’s human rights record, but also its support for Assad and Hamas, its actions in Gaza, its opposition to Saudi Arabia and, frankly, the interventions it is pursuing in many countries.

We should not ignore the idea that Iran is a country that we can do business with. We have that opportunity now in a way that has not been possible for a considerable period of time. Although we need to look for a deal that is good for both sides, I take the view that the more we can move towards a deal, the more we empower the elected Government of Iran in what is obviously a power struggle over the country’s direction of travel.

Several Members have drawn attention to the interesting and complex political situation. The right hon. Member for Blackburn said that the elected Government do not control the judiciary. When I heard that, I nodded very wisely and thought that the point was particularly important, but our Government do not control the judiciary. It just so happens that the Iranian Government and the judiciary have slightly differing views of where the country should be going. In many cases, the judiciary has raised cases of great concern. We are all aware of constituency examples, to which the BBC and other organisations have rightly drawn attention. However, with a quasi-elected or appointed House of Lords, a coalition Government of parties that often move in different directions, and other interesting concepts—my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and I had a rather esoteric discussion about what role the Privy Council genuinely took or might play in our country—the Iranians would probably look at us and say, “Well, this is also a slightly interesting political arrangement.”

The reality is that we surely cannot push Iran away. I want to talk about the 24 November deadline. It seems that we are all tremendously focused, and rightly so, on 24 November, but if the deal cannot be done within the period available and we need to extend the deadline, that is what diplomacy is about. It is no different from a contractual negotiation between two businesses. If both sides wish to make a deal, but for whatever reason they cannot reach an agreement, my view is that the deadline should be extended. I have no difficulty with that, and I would totally support the Government and the various parties to the deal if that is what they so wish.

It is absolutely paramount that everybody stays around the table in the long term, and ultimately that a deal is done. That will take—one must be realistic—concessions and a control of rhetoric on all sides. It will clearly not be easy for everybody to accept all parts of the equation. From some of the speeches today, it is clear that several organisations or interest groups are very sensitive about any particular deal. I want to make it clear that I have gone on a Conservative Friends of Israel trip to Israel and that I am a massive supporter of Israel, but that support does not prevent me from wanting progressive and better relationships with Iran.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk increased our linguistic awareness by explaining that “purdah” was originally a Persian word. As we all know, in UK politics, purdah means that the Government effectively cease to exist and cannot make decisions, and that no actions are taken. We are approaching purdah in several ways, not just in this country, but in the US with the changes following the mid-term elections. However, there is still a very large window up to—and potentially beyond—24 November in which to resolve these matters.

I completely endorse the points that several Members have made about the embassy, but the British Government must knock heads together to ensure that the embassy is reopened. I entirely accept that such things are not simple. We in this place, like many others, have often decried our Foreign Office’s failure to train and upgrade people to have sufficient ability to speak the language like a native or to have a genuine grasp of all aspects of the geopolitical situation in the country to which they are sent. However, if ever there was a need for diplomats in Iran, it is now. In my humble opinion, the prize post for diplomats of any shape or form should be a post in Iran in the next year or two. The capacity of such individuals to make a difference there, by working the traditional diplomatic routes, is patently obvious to all of us, but it needs to be grasped by the UK Government. Such diplomats clearly have a genuine and real job to do, and it is vital that they do it.

I support entirely all the comments that have Members have made, and I praise the quality of their speeches. I endorse the direction of travel, and I urge the Government to do everything possible to do a deal so that we can take this matter forward.