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Backbench Business — Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 2:22 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 2:22 pm, 6th November 2014

It is a pleasure to follow Neil Parish and to participate in this debate, having had the opportunity to listen to some speeches that were extremely thoughtful and provocative in the best sense. In that regard, I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr Straw for his continuing considered interest in Iran, and to the debate’s other sponsor, Mr Bacon.

In its recent report on UK policy towards Iran, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee rightly said that it would be in the UK’s interest to have a mature and constructive relationship with Iran. In that context, the Government were right to take the in-principle decision to reopen the embassy in Tehran, and the Prime Minister was right to meet President Rouhani in September.

Despite these recent important steps, there are many reasons for considerable caution and care in our engagement with Iran, not least because the 24 November deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s nuclear programme is approaching fast. Scepticism about Iran’s motives and intentions for these negotiations is hardly surprising, given the country’s links to terrorist organisations, the routine failure of its politicians to recognise Israel’s right to exist, its support for the Assad regime and the widespread concern that it has in the past actively sought a nuclear weapons capability.

This debate, then, is a welcome opportunity to explore the progress that has been made in the nuclear negotiations, and to examine the progress—or the lack of it—on other aspects of our policy towards Iran, including its future role in the region and its attitude to its people and their rights.

Almost a year ago, my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary welcomed the efforts of the Government, and particularly those of Baroness Ashton, as part of the E3 plus 3 to conclude a thorough and detailed interim agreement in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. As others have said, that included a joint plan of action with a series of crucial commitments—commitments that, if implemented properly, would mean that the aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme that were thought to pose the greatest risk could not be developed further during the period of the interim agreement. In addition, some of the most disturbing parts of Iran’s nuclear programme to date would be significantly scaled back, including the eradication of around 200 kg of 20%-enriched uranium. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s assessment of the extent to which the commitments in this joint plan of action have been adhered to and can be built on.

That interim agreement also set out the elements of what a comprehensive agreement could look like: adherence to Iran’s obligations and rights under the non-proliferation treaty and IAEA safeguards; full resolution of concerns around the heavy water research reactor at Arak; agreed transparency and monitoring; and co-operation on Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. In return for confidence that Iran’s programme is solely peaceful, the plan of action suggests a mutually defined, enrichment-based programme, with agreed parameters and limits—but only as part of a comprehensive agreement. Sanctions would begin to be further lifted at that point.

Others close to the negotiations, notably in the US, have suggested that all the components of a plan for a long-term definitive agreement that should be acceptable to both sides are on the table. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary noted, it is the pressure of sanctions, albeit coupled with a readiness to negotiate, that has helped bring Iran to the negotiating table and helped to achieve the progress that has been made.

As Sir Richard Ottaway, who is the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and indeed Sir Nicholas Soames, pointed out, one crucial test of Iran’s willingness to engage with the profound concerns about possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme surrounds the access given to the IAEA to its nuclear sites and staff. There remain concerns that IAEA inspectors still do not have full access to every one of Iran’s nuclear sites—for example, I understand that Iran has agreed only to limited inspections by the IAEA at its main enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz. IAEA inspectors still do not have access to the heavy water second reactor being built at Arak or to the Parchin military base, mentioned by Dr Offord, where the IAEA and others suspect Iran has attempted to develop a nuclear explosive device in the past. Perhaps the Minister will outline how this critical issue of IAEA access for monitoring is being addressed in the negotiations.

I recognise the importance of reaching a deal, both in building a little more trust in Iran towards the west and in keeping the more reactionary forces in Iran at bay, but negotiations cannot be allowed simply to drag on and on. Can the Minister reassure us that the Iranian side is fully engaged in the negotiations and remains committed to the 24 November deadline? Also, what steps would be taken if agreement were not achieved? Would sanctions that were lifted when the interim agreement was concluded last November, for example, be re-imposed?

There has been little public discussion to date about the role Iran is playing or might play in the future in the international effort against ISIL. Some have suggested that the threat ISIL poses in the region should be a reason for more flexibility towards Iran in these nuclear negotiations. I have to say that I do not agree. If there were not a willingness by the Iranians to build the trust of the international community on the nuclear issue, we could be replacing one very difficult threat with the re-emergence of another very significant threat. I hope, instead, that these negotiations will help to build further the scope, if not for trust, at least for better communication on a wider range of issues where our interests are aligned, of which the threat ISIL poses is clearly the most significant at the moment.

There have been reports of Iranian troops on the ground in Iraq, although there has been no formal announcement. Will the Minister set out his assessment of Iran’s role in resisting ISIL both in Iraq and Syria? Iran continues to have a choice as to whether to be a force for stability in the region. Its record to date has been decidedly mixed. It has a history of supporting the Assad regime in Syria and supporting and supplying a series of highly divisive and terrorist groups in the region which pose a continued threat to our allies there, including, but not only, Israel. It would be useful to hear from the Minister about the efforts that he and other Ministers have made in encouraging Iran to take a different approach to regional stability.

Many Members have mentioned the reopening of the embassy, which is, as they have said, a potentially important step in expanding bilateral engagement with the Iranians. An embassy, and diplomatic representation, would help us to develop relationships and gather information, which is essential, over time, to the building of trust and the facilitation of constructive dialogue, and which—again, over time—could perhaps influence attitudes and events for the better. Will the Minister update the House on progress towards the reopening of the embassy? In particular, will he deal with the suggestion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn that concerns in the Home Office are holding up the issuing of a timetable? Will he also tell us what further action has been taken, or consideration given, to ensure that staff will be safe and secure at the embassy in the future, in the light of the events in 2011 to which Mr Bellingham alluded?

As a number of Members have pointed out, Iran’s human rights record continues to be of deep concern. At the weekend it was reported that the British-Iranian women’s rights activist Ghoncheh Ghavami had been found guilty of spreading anti-regime propaganda and sentenced to a year in prison after being detained for trying to watch a men’s volleyball match. My hon. Friends Mr Slaughter and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) expressed the profound concern that I am sure we all feel about her imprisonment and sentencing. Amnesty International has described her as a prisoner of conscience, and has raised concerns that Ghoncheh and her fellow demonstrators were beaten by police officers when they were arrested.

There have been widespread reports of torture and ill treatment in Iranian prisons, including sexual violence, severe beatings, denial of medical treatment, and long periods of solitary confinement. The number of executions is up. Indeed, as we heard from Neil Parish, Iran has the highest execution rate per capita in the world. Reyhanah Jabbari was executed on 25 October for killing a former intelligence officer after she had alleged that he had attempted to rape her. Amnesty International has said that it believes the court’s impartiality may have been affected by the victim’s connections with the Ministry of Intelligence. In addition, human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers have been arrested and their work censored.

While in theory Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism are recognised alongside Islam, religious minorities continue to face discrimination, with converts particularly affected. That point was made by Mr Hancock. There have been reports of harassment, desecration of religious sites, restricted access to education and employment, and even arrest and torture. Members of the Baha’i faith, which is not recognised, have been especially discriminated against. The situation for lesbian and gay people is profoundly worrying. Homosexual acts are criminalised, gay people are executed simply for being gay, and many lesbian and gay people have reported that they have been denied access to education or dismissed from employment once their sexuality has become known. Last week, the Iranian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s periodic review of the human rights situation in Iran again appeared dismissive of concerns.

Annotations

Harrow Council for Justice (HCJ)
Posted on 7 Nov 2014 3:31 pm (Report this annotation)

Regarding Iran, is the MP representing the views of large Khoja Shia Ishna Ashri community in his constituency - doubtful!