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Iran

– in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East 3:31 pm, 13th January 2020

(Urgent Question) To ask the Foreign Secretary to update the House on the security situation in Iran.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Further to the oral statement made by the Defence Secretary on 7 January, I will make a statement on Iran in response to the urgent question from my right hon. Friend.

Let me first express my condolences, and those of the Government, to the loved ones of those who tragically lost their lives on Ukrainian International Airlines flight PS752. Our thoughts are with all those affected during what must be a devastating time. Among the 176 passengers who tragically lost their lives were four British nationals, as well as 82 Iranians.

On 9 January we stated publicly—alongside partners such as Canada and the United States—that, given an increasing body of information, we believed that Iran was responsible for the downing of the aircraft. Despite initial denials, the Government of Iran acknowledged on 11 January that they were responsible. Now it is time for a full, transparent and independent investigation. It must be a collaborative endeavour, with a strong international component. The families of the victims—including those in Iran—must have answers, and must know the truth. The UK is also working with the Canadian-led International Coordination and Response Group, consisting of countries with nationals killed in the plane crash. The group will help with the issuing of visas and the repatriation of the bodies of the victims.

Separately, Her Majesty’s ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, was arrested over the weekend, and was illegally held for three hours. On 11 January, the ambassador attended a public vigil to pay his respects to the victims of flight 752. He left shortly afterwards, when there were signs that the vigil might turn into a protest. Let me be very clear about this: he was not attending or recording a political protest or demonstration. His arrest later that day, without grounds or explanation, was a flagrant violation of international law. Today, in response, we will summon the Iranian ambassador to demand an apology, and to seek full assurances that this will not happen again.

Given the treatment of the ambassador, we are keeping security measures for the embassy under review, and, as I am sure the House would expect, we updated our travel advice on 10 January. We currently recommend that British nationals should not travel to Iran or take any flights to, from or within Iran. On the diplomatic front, in the past week I have met our international partners in Brussels, Washington and Montreal, and I attended an E3 meeting yesterday in Paris. I spoke to Foreign Minister Zarif on 6 January, and the Prime Minister spoke to President Rouhani on 9 January. We welcome the overwhelming international support for Her Majesty’s ambassador to Iran, and for the rights to which all diplomats are entitled under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations. The regime in Tehran is at a crossroads, and it can slip further and further into political and economic isolation, but there is an alternative. The regime does have a choice. The diplomatic door remains open, and now is the time for Iran to engage in diplomacy and chart a peaceful way forward. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. Tensions have clearly ratcheted up since the drone strike that killed General Soleimani and the Iranian reprisals. The Iranian President and the United States President have momentarily checked any further military aggression, but the wider issues relating to Iran’s destabilising foreign policy ambitions remain. It still wants to advance its sectarian regional influence by funding, training and arming paramilitaries and militias right across the middle east, it has already restarted its nuclear programme, and it shamelessly attempted to cover up the missile strike against flight 752. This weekend, as the Secretary of State has just confirmed, it breached the Vienna convention by arresting our own ambassador in Tehran. I believe that these irresponsible actions are out of sync with the views of the people of Iran, who have once again bravely taken to the streets to vent their fury against the regime, the failing economy and the regime’s international adventurism.

May I ask the Secretary of State to update the House on whether calls for full transparency in the crash investigation will be met? Will he also update us on the welfare and security of our ambassador, our diplomatic staff and their dependants in Tehran, and on how recent events will affect efforts to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

I commend the Prime Minister’s efforts and those of the Foreign Secretary not to lose sight of the nuclear deal, but, as the former Foreign Minister responsible for the area, I should say that the last deal failed because no international investment could head Tehran’s way due to the legacy sanctions connected to missile procurement, which prevented any bank, particularly those with US ties, from aiding economic reform. So Iran gained little from the deal, and the release of frozen assets worth $150 billion plus new oil revenues were used not to support the ailing economy but to advance Iran’s proxy wars. For a fresh deal to succeed, any new talks must cover missile sanctions and conditional economic reform.

Finally, may I ask what talks the UK has had with the US and other allies to ensure that we remain united and engaged? I believe that there is a leading role for the UK to play in resetting our middle east strategy towards Iran, first, by being more assertive in tackling proxy interference and weapons proliferation and, secondly, by being more proactive in offering conditional but genuine economic rehabilitation for Iran.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend makes a range of powerful points, and I pay tribute to him for his experience in this area. He is right to say that there is a pattern of behaviour by the regime in Iran, which is flouting the basic rules of international law and not living up to the kind of conduct we would expect from any Government who want to be a responsible member of the international community. We have seen that on the nuclear side and with the announcement in the first week of January of further non-compliance in relation to some centrifuges. We have seen it in the destabilising activity for which General Soleimani was in large part responsible when he was alive, and we have seen it in the treatment of dual nationals—in particular, but not limited to, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We have seen it not just in the treatment of our ambassador in Iran but, more importantly, in the downing of the Ukrainian flight.

There must be some accountability for that wrongdoing. We welcome Iran’s first step in acknowledging responsibility, but there must now be a full, thorough investigation into what happened, with an international component so that people can have faith and confidence in that process. At the same time, while we keep up the pressure and insist on accountability on the nuclear front and in relation to the airline, we also want to be clear that the diplomatic door is ajar. This is something that the US President and the French President have made clear, and this Government certainly fully support a diplomatic way through to de-escalating the tensions and seeking a long-term diplomatic resolution of all the outstanding issues.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Iran has now systematically failed to comply with the JCPOA. We are clear that we still support it. We have not signed up for the doctrine of maximum pressure. At the same time, the JCPOA has effectively been left a shell of an agreement because of systematic steps by Iran, taking it out of compliance. For it to be made to work, Iran must make a choice that it wants to come back to compliance and to the diplomatic negotiating table.

Finally, my right hon. Friend asked about the conversations we have had with our partners. I have spoken to Foreign Minister Zarif and I was in Brussels last week for meetings with the E3 and High Representative Josep Borrell. Indeed, I also saw them last night in Paris for further discussion. I was also in the US last week to talk to Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien. It is very important that we maintain transatlantic unity, because while we leave the diplomatic door ajar to the regime in Iran, we want to be absolutely crystal clear that the message it receives from the UK, the Europeans and the US is the same—namely, that there is a route forward for the Iranian Government and, most importantly, the Iranian people, if Iran takes steps to comply with the basic tenets of international law.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence)

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and may I congratulate Mr Ellwood on securing it?

The events in Iran and Iraq that have followed the assassination of General Soleimani have been utterly appalling. They include the missile attacks on US bases in Iraq; Iran’s decisions to remove all limits on uranium enrichment; the recent attacks, in the past few days, on protestors on the streets of Tehran; the detention, as has been mentioned, of our excellent ambassador, Rob Macaire; and, of course, the unforgivable shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner, killing 176 innocent civilians, including four Britons, all of whose deaths we mourn today.

These are sure signs not only that the hardliners in Tehran are firmly back in the ascendancy in the Iranian regime, but that their actions are out of control. Nothing and no one can excuse those acts of violence. Like all of us, I fear not just for the Iranian people and the stability of the region, but especially for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals who are languishing in Iranian jails. I hope that the Foreign Secretary can comment on their current health and safety. Like him, I will be raising those concerns when I meet the Iranian ambassador to London tomorrow.

The question we must all ask, and which I ask the Foreign Secretary today, is: where do we go from here? Ever since Donald Trump started to walk away from the Iran nuclear deal, we have been on a path to this point. With the strategy of engagement from the so-called moderates in Iran now discredited and abandoned, and with the hardliners firmly back in charge in Tehran and an equally unpredictable, trigger-happy President in the White House, we are just one more mistake or miscalculation away from brinkmanship tipping over into war. What action is the Foreign Secretary taking to ensure a permanent de-escalation of the tension, rather than an inexorable drift towards war?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman and welcome his condemnation of the conduct of the Government of Iran, including their non-compliance with the JCPOA and their treatment of our ambassador in Tehran. As I have said, it is important to maintain transatlantic unity and solidarity, and this House must also give the regime in Iran a very clear signal that we stand together on these important issues.

As I have said, I raised the issue of dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, with Foreign Minister Zarif when I spoke to him. They remain at the centre and forefront of our thinking on Iran. We constantly, consistently and at every level raise both their welfare and the need for them to be released without conditions. They should not be held. They should be back home with their families.

The hon. Gentleman asked the obvious exam question: where do we go from here? He is right to say that we need to try to defuse the situation. We have been working with our international partners in Europe, the US and, crucially, in the region, to emphasise the absolute importance of de-escalating the tensions, particularly to avoid military conflagration. That would only benefit Daesh and the other terrorist groups in the region, and I think there is consistency of agreement on that point. There must be accountability where there is wrongdoing, whether that relates to the treatment of foreign nationals or ensuring that the JCPOA is complied with, if the JCPOA is to be a credible means of dealing with the nuclear issue. We must work with all our international partners and show unity of purpose so that, given the political climate in Tehran that the hon. Gentleman described, there is no doubt about the international community’s approach to Iran’s current behaviour.

Notwithstanding all that, the diplomatic door must be left open, because the only way to de-escalate permanently, which I think was the phrase the hon. Gentleman used, is to find a diplomatic solution to all the issues, from nuclear activity to Iran’s destabilising actions in the region and, of course, the dual nationals and the many other bilateral issues. We have been clear and consistent that that choice is there for the Iranian regime to make. It can slip further into isolation, with all the ensuing consequences for the people of Iran, or it can choose to come through the diplomatic door and sit at the negotiating table, which is the only way that all the issues will be resolved over the long term.

Photo of Stephen Crabb Stephen Crabb Conservative, Preseli Pembrokeshire

When Iran faces a fork in the road, it chooses time and again not to take the opportunity to be a responsible member of the international community. Does my right hon. Friend agree that now is not the time to ease that pressure? One practical step that we can take here in the UK would be to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation, which is exactly what it is.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend speaks powerfully about the importance of ensuring that a consistent message is sent not just from London but from all our international partners about the wrongdoing that has been taking place in Iran, and of ensuring some accountability. While maintaining that pressure consistently and with all the means available to us—I am happy to consider his point about proscription—we must also be clear that the choice is Iran’s to make, that there is an alternative, and that we are not blindly seeking confrontation: quite the opposite. We seek de-escalation, and we want Iran to live up to the basic norms of the international community, and there is a diplomatic way through to a negotiated solution.

Photo of Alyn Smith Alyn Smith Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I commend Mr Ellwood for his question and the Foreign Secretary for his answers. There is a great deal of cross-party unity in the House, and he can rest assured of the SNP’s support, particularly for efforts towards co-operation in the E3 format, which must be encouraged and promoted. Will he update the House on his discussions with the US authorities, particularly with a view to encouraging dialogue to persuade them to lift their apparently still in force ban on the Iranian Foreign Minister getting to the United Nations for discussions?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support for our diplomatic efforts. I was in Washington last week and had various conversations with the National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Notwithstanding that we do not agree with the US on maximum pressure, for example, the US has always been clear that there is a diplomatic way forward and that the door remains open. President Trump has said that, President Macron has said it, and the Prime Minister has said it. Again, the choice is for Iran to make.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point about the visa. I understand that it was not refused but, in any event, it is important throughout the process to ensure that we keep open the opportunity for dialogue and a diplomatic path forward to a negotiated solution.

Photo of Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Geoffrey Clifton-Brown Conservative, The Cotswolds

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this moment marks the beginning of an opportunity, if Iran wishes to take it, for Iran to co-operate with the international community on the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines aircraft? Several nationalities were involved, including, unfortunately, a number of Britons and, indeed, many more Iranians. Will my right hon. Friend therefore tell the House precisely what discussions have been had about a proper international investigation into the downing of the aircraft, including the handing over of the flight recorders to proper international investigators?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. In fact, I was speaking with my Canadian counterpart in Montreal on Thursday. The Canadians suffered an appalling loss of life, and they are leading some work on visas and the repatriation of bodies. We are working together with them, all those affected and, indeed, our wider partners to ensure a credible, full and transparent investigation, because although we understand that Iran has accepted responsibility, we still do not know why the incident happened and all the details of how it happened. For the British victims, the Canadian victims, the Ukrainian victims and, above all, the Iranian victims, we deserve to know the answers to the questions and the truth behind why this appalling avoidable tragedy happened.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North

I have previously raised with Ministers in the House the harassment of BBC Persian staff and their families by the Iranian regime. I understand the regime is now citing BBC Persian Television’s alleged encouragement of unrest and violence in Iran as justification for further bullying. What is the Foreign Secretary doing to support the staff who work in this field, and their families in Iran, to make sure they are safe and secure?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work in this regard. It is important we send a clear message that BBC journalists—any journalists, and specifically British journalists—cannot be bullied in this way any more than our diplomatic staff. In fact, when I was in Canada with my Canadian opposite number, we launched a new award for those who champion and protect media freedom. Not only are we looking at this individual case, but there is an international campaign to make sure that we provide protection for journalists around the world who, in very difficult circumstances, are willing to speak truth to power.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Will my right hon. Friend work closely with Ministers from the other countries that lost citizens on Ukraine International Airlines flight 752? Will he perhaps attend the joint investigation group meeting in London on Thursday, which will be attended by the Ukrainian Foreign Minister? Does he agree it is essential that Iran not only allows full investigation of what happened but organises the repatriation of the bodies and pays full compensation to the families of those who were lost?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course we will be fully plugged in and, indeed, a driving force in the international effort to make sure we get the right answers in terms of the investigation. This point is even stronger now that the Government of Iran have accepted at least a measure of responsibility, but it is crucial that the investigation is fully independent and has an international component so that people can feel confidence in the outcome and the answers. We will work with all our international partners on all the issues he raises, and I certainly want to see justice for the incredible number of people who are still mourning and grieving this terrible loss.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Foreign Secretary will have seen reports of the demonstrations across Iran this weekend, illustrating the profound and widespread unhappiness among the people of Iran about the recent actions of their Government. That may in itself be the start of an opportunity to see a shift in Iran’s foreign policy, but if we are to maximise that opportunity, we need to engage those interlocutors in the Gulf and the wider middle east with whom we have good relations in order to see that shift executed in Iran.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that watching the change in the public mood in Tehran and more broadly in Iran is very striking. He is also right to say that we need to work with all our partners. In fact, I would go further and say that, beyond our partners in the middle east, we also need to work with China, Russia and those closest to them to enhance and reinforce the solidarity and clarity of the message that we are sending to the regime in Tehran.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

The malign influence of the IRGC extends from the strait of Hormuz through Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen and almost anywhere, and now into Europe. Is it not time that we sent a very strong signal by proscribing the IRGC, freezing its assets and saying, “We will give you an opportunity to unfreeze them once you restore proper, normal diplomatic actions and behaviours across the world”?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend makes a strong point about the pernicious behaviour of not just the IGRC but the Quds force, of which General Soleimani was the head. The Quds force is the element, the component or the wing of the regime that is responsible for working with the militias, the proxies and the terrorist groups from Lebanon through to Iraq and Syria. It is absolutely right to make that point. On proscription more generally, they are subject to sanctions, but we will obviously keep the issue under very careful review.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Labour, Hornsey and Wood Green

There is now a real sense of chaos, emergency and crisis in the region. What assessment has the Foreign and Commonwealth Office made of the increased risk from IS/Daesh, both in the region and here at home? What actions are being taken to counter any dangers?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The reality is that unless we can pursue a path to de-escalation, the risk of war would benefit the terrorist groups, particularly Daesh. We are keeping the risk assessment under constant review, although we do not talk about the operational side of that. One clear aspect of all this that we have in common, whether with our European partners and our American partners or with the Iranian Government, is the desire not to allow the hard-fought and hard-won gains against Daesh to be reversed. We are working with all our partners in the middle east to make sure that we do not lose the gains that we made, or indeed allow the actions and tensions in the middle east to fuel the fire of Daesh and other terrorist groups.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The Foreign Secretary will have seen pictures of the Israeli flag being tied to the British flag and both being set alight. That hardly speaks of de-escalation. How is the attempt at de-escalation working throughout the region? What particular factors are being taken into account to protect Israel?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We work closely with all our international partners and we are engaged with Israel on the issues that we have in common with it. On de-escalation so far, after the death of General Soleimani we saw an Iranian response that was dangerous and reckless, but none the less we have not seen any major military intervention from Iran since then. Our message to all sides in the region is that we need to take baby steps towards de-escalating over time, and then, gradually, as the situation defuses, think about what positive measures can be put in place to build up confidence in the region. Until we get on that train and on that track, it is difficult to see how the wider diplomatic initiatives can bear fruit.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that although any sensible person does not want the pressure on Iran to cease, nobody sensible wants another war in the middle east, either? He mentioned the door being slightly open; is it not a fact that if we want peace, we have to carry on speaking to the Iranians? All of us who have been campaigning for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the other prisoners believe that perhaps speaking at a level of faith, with an all-faith delegation going to Iran to speak to the faith leaders there, might help. I spoke to the Archbishop of Canterbury at a service only this time last week, and he seems to think that if the delegation was welcome—if Iran was open to a delegation—it could take place. Would the Secretary of State support such a delegation to visit Iran?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s premise: we need to keep the diplomatic lines of communication open. I have made it clear to Foreign Minister Zarif that for our part we wish to do that and to start to see how measures can be taken on all aspects, but particularly to see the Iranians come back to full compliance with the JCPOA. I sympathise very much with the spirit of the idea of an all-faith diplomatic initiative. The hon. Gentleman he will have seen that for the moment, through our Foreign Office travel advice, we advise against travel to Iran. That is probably the safest bet for the moment.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood for asking this urgent question and to the Secretary of State for his response.

The tensions in the region are clearly incredibly high at the moment, but one of the best ways for the Iranians to help would be for them to recommit to their 2015 commitments to the nuclear deal. What practical steps can the Government take to ensure that they can roll back from the position they are in now and de-escalate the situation?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We are looking very carefully at this. As someone said from the Opposition Benches, it is about balance. On the one hand, we need to have some accountability for the systematic non-compliance, which well predates the death of General Soleimani; on the other hand, we want to make sure it is very clear that there is always a diplomatic route back. We are looking at it very carefully. One reason why I was in Paris yesterday evening was to make sure that we are co-ordinating and engaging closely with our E3 partners as well as our American friends.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central

Given that the shooting down of flight 752 is, sadly, the latest instance of civilian airliners being shot down in regions of conflict apparently by mistake, may I urge the Foreign Secretary, with colleagues, to see what more might be done to enable defence forces properly to distinguish between civilian aircraft and potential military threats in order to ensure that such deaths are avoided in future?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. That is incredibly important. It is not clear to me whether that is what caused the shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner in this case, but I am very willing to hear his points on that and on any initiative related to it.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I welcome the efforts of my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in going to Amman this weekend to express condolences for the death of our partner and friend Sultan Qaboos. Does he agree that, reaching out through friends in the region, particularly Qatar, Kuwait and, of course, the new Sultan Haitham in Oman, would be a good avenue for making sure that Iran not only comes back into the fold and frees its people from this awful tyranny, but perhaps gives up the policy of hostage-taking that has taken not just Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe away from her daughter, but many, many others from their families, too?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Like my hon. Friend, I pay tribute to the Sultan of Oman for his incredible track record of service to his country, and we look forward to working with the new Sultan and the Government of Oman on all those issues. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to condemn the taking of dual nationals into detention. The taking of Nazanin and of all the UK dual nationals is groundless. Their treatment has been well below the standards that we would expect. Fundamentally, they should all be released without condition. This is part of the pattern of unlawful behaviour that Iran needs to correct if it wants to come in from the international cold.

Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work, Pensions and Inclusion)

In his conversations with his Iranian counterparts about the detention of the UK ambassador, what assurances has the Secretary of State sought about the rights of other peaceful protesters across Iran who do not have the luxury of diplomatic immunity to protect them?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She raises a very important point. The reality is that the international norms that reflect, recognise and call for the safeguarding of peaceful protest apply across the board. We do make those points to our Iranian partners, but, of course, there is a very clear obligation under the Vienna convention on diplomatic relations about the way that ambassadors and diplomatic staff are treated. This is crucial, not least because if we cannot have confidence that our diplomatic staff and missions are respected, we cannot engage in the kind of diplomacy that we need to charter a peaceful way forward.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

Sorry, I did not hear you, Mr Speaker. I will not give up that opportunity.

First, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood on securing this urgent question, and my right hon. Friend at the Dispatch Box on his calm and reassuring manner throughout this period? Notwithstanding that, I would like to ask a question. From the moment that we negotiated that deal and the west offered an olive branch to Iran, our expectations have never really been met. Iran shows the face that it wishes to show to the west, but underneath it, it has gone on not de-escalating, but escalating the violence. Whether it is in Syria, all the way down to the Houthis, it has done nothing else but use its money to provoke violence and escalate trouble and war. My question to my right hon. Friend is this: at which point do we really get the idea that this regime is not displaying a peaceful nature and is not going to give up on any of its opportunities and that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, like many others, is being held as a hostage? When do we decide that, actually, the people of Iran do not want this organisation any more and that we want to support them?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He makes a range of important points. The reality is that we still view the joint comprehensive plan of action as the best means of restraining those in the regime who wished to pursue a nuclear weapon, and that is a top priority—an overriding priority—for this Government. In relation to the wider nefarious conduct of the Government of Iran, I share all of his concerns and then some. The reality is that that is why we have always supported the Macron and Trump initiatives to try to bring Iran back to the diplomatic table and deal with all of those issues in the round—if there is a choice to be made by the regime. We will continue to hold Iran accountable for its actions, while leaving the diplomatic door ajar. Ultimately, this will have to be resolved through a negotiated diplomatic route. Who knows what will happen given the current constellation of factors and the change of circumstances in Iran, but, at some point, it will have to come to the negotiating table.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Conservative, New Forest East

Given the parallels between the ruthless and reckless behaviour of Iran, and the way in which the late and unlamented Soviet Union used to behave, does the Foreign Secretary accept that a policy of long-term containment, as worked in the one case, is probably most likely to work in the other? If he does accept that, is he satisfied that our American allies are now communicating with us to the extent that they need to so that our troops, who are their partners, are not unduly affected by sudden, dramatic initiatives without warning?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend makes a series of important points, including about close consultation with our American partners. Of course, I discuss these issues regularly with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. I am not entirely sure that the analogy with the Soviet Union is quite right. There is at least the semblance of regular elections in Iran.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

In fairness, not on the same level as in Iran. I think the question is the balance between containing the nefarious behaviour and ensuring—while holding Iran to account in the way in which my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members have mentioned—that there is still a route back to the negotiating table, and that is what we are seeking to pursue.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Conservative, Harlow

I concur with my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis; I also believe that Iran is the Soviet Union of the middle east, given what it does and the extent of its reach. My question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is simply this: the United Kingdom and the allies supported dissidents and pro-democracy protesters in the Soviet Union at that time, so what are we doing specifically to support democracy protesters and dissidents in Iran?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

We make it clear in international forums—we have done so in the UN, for example—that we support the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression in Iran. My right hon. Friend will know of the already febrile state in Tehran, which would point to interference in domestic affairs and attempts to usurp the regime. We track a careful balance between standing up for the norms, values and human rights that he and I share, and ensuring that we do not play into the hands of the hardliners. Ultimately, we want Tehran to make the choice to take responsibility for its actions, and we have seen at least a semblance of that with its acknowledgment that it was responsible for the downing of the airliner. We then want the country to take it a step further by reversing the path towards political and economic isolation, and that will only happen if Iran comes back to the negotiating table through the diplomatic channel.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

May I commend what the Secretary of State said about Sultan Qaboos, and indeed what my hon. Friend Tom Tugendhat—the other former Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee—said about the potential role of Oman in the future? During this crisis, it was the Iranian Supreme Leader who talked about the corrupting influence of American troops stationed in the region, but what has been revealed over the past few days is the corrupting influence of the IRG on Iran itself. It is holding in place a regime that is frankly illegitimate, as we have seen through the eyes of the demonstrators on the streets against it. Will we continue to de-escalate the violence, and to escalate the competition of values in which most Iranian people are on our side?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We can see the anger in Tehran and more generally about this state of affairs, which is why the transparency in relation to the downing of the airliner is so important—not just for the British individuals who lost their lives or the wider international victims, but also for the people of Iran, who were the biggest victims when that airliner went down. We need to ensure that there is transparency and answers to questions for all the reasons that my hon. Friend outlined.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Might my right hon. Friend, and his colleagues in the G7 and other countries, consider looking at freezing the assets of the children and families of ayatollahs and Government Ministers in Iran who put so much—billions of dollars—into the west? Could we not take some action in that regard?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

One of the things that we are doing and on which we will be collaborating with our international partners—indeed, I spoke to the US and the Canadians about this—is shortly introducing a new sanctions regime, following the Sergei Magnitsky model, which makes sure, as we leave the EU, that we have an autonomous sanctions regime that can impose asset freezes and visa bans for those responsible for gross human rights abuses.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his continual calls for de-escalation, for his support for the families of the victims of the aircraft, and for his standing up for British diplomats around the world? Given that the situation would be so much more challenging were Iran to have nuclear weapons, may I also thank him for his work with France and Germany to reboot the JCPOA? Given that Brexit will happen at the end of this month, can he confirm how he sees that relationship with the E3 continuing post 1 February?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right on the various points that she made. She poses a good question, but we are absolutely clear: we are leaving the EU; we are not leaving Europe. This is a good example of where we can engage just as intensively, if not more so, with our E3 partners. I know, having spoken to my French and German opposite numbers, and indeed to Josep Borrell, that that feeling is shared on all sides. So we plan to regularise the meetings that we have on the issue of Iran but also on the wider range of foreign policy challenges that we all share.

Photo of Shailesh Vara Shailesh Vara Conservative, North West Cambridgeshire

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House as to the assistance that is being given to the families of the victims of the Ukrainian International Airlines flight and give an assurance that the Government are doing all they possibly can to help and assist them?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our hearts go out to anyone who has come into this new year and has to face up to the loss of life of a close friend or member of their family. We are doing everything that we can, working with our international partners, to be able to repatriate the victims so that the families can have that solace of paying their last respects. We are also making sure that we work more generally to get an independent investigation with credibility, transparency and an international component so that those families get the answers to the questions that they must be going over in their heads over and over again.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

Following up on the point made by Hilary Benn, who is no longer in his place, is there a case for the Foreign Office to do some useful and valuable work on updating the Geneva conventions or, working with others, updating the rules around civilian airliners to do more to ensure that civilian airliners are not, on a semi-regular basis, being shot out of the sky using, often very improperly, poorly made Russian kit? We have had hundreds of people killed, including Britons but also from many other countries, in the past few years.

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I thank my hon. Friend, but the reality is that this not about a lack of clarity around the law. Targeting a civilian airliner is clearly unlawful. There is no absence or lack of legal basis for making that point; the question is compliance. The first thing we need, which is having Iran acknowledge responsibility for this, is to get the full details—the full facts—of how it could have happened. If it is being suggested that it is a mistake, we need to know how a mistake like that could have happened and then learn the appropriate lessons from it. That is what we are absolutely committed to.

Photo of David Jones David Jones Conservative, Clwyd West

The demonstrations on the streets of Tehran in which the British ambassador was inadvertently caught up follow a large amount of similar activity across the country towards the end of last year when several hundred Iranians lost their lives. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when considering with his international colleagues the proper response to the events of last week, he and they will be mindful of the fact that large numbers of the Iranian people deplore the actions of the regime under which they live and want nothing more than freedom and the facility to live in peace with their neighbours?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course the aftermath, with the scenes that we are seeing playing out in Tehran, is testament to that. What is important is that we allow the transparency for people to come to apply the pressure that they need to apply on the regime to change its course and to adopt a course that will lead the Government out of political and economic isolation. The first and foremost beneficiaries of that will be the people of Iran.

Photo of Rob Butler Rob Butler Conservative, Aylesbury

Does my right hon. Friend agree that an extremely serious issue we now face is the safety of our armed forces, who have been described quite disgracefully by a senior commander in the Quds force as potentially “collateral damage” in attacks on the US military?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

Yes, and it is good to see my hon. Friend in his place. I remember competing with him in an open primary in Esher back in 2009; I think I have aged more than he has over the last nine years in the last week. He is absolutely right. Crucially, our first priority is to ensure that UK personnel in the region are safe and that our diplomats are safe. We have changed our travel advice, because we need to protect the safety of our wider citizens too.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Conservative, Dudley South

There has been a pattern of misinformation campaigns coming from Iran to seek to subvert the extent of its actions in the past. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the conflicting accounts that have come out of Tehran about this and other recent incidents?

Photo of Dominic Raab Dominic Raab The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

The short and honest answer is that it is difficult to tell, but my hon. Friend asks the right question. There is clearly a range of different views, not only in Iranian society but in the Government and, indeed, around the senior leadership. As I said at the outset, there is clearly a choice, and I think Iranians are conscious of it: do they continue to contravene the basic principles of international law and the basic tenets that we expect respectable members of the international community to live up to, or do they take the path out of economic and political isolation, which would be in the best interests of the people of Iran, let alone the region and, indeed, the international community?