Middle East

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 31st March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 4:48 pm, 31st March 2004

My Lords, it is appropriate and timely that we should be discussing the Middle East; and not just one country in the region—Iraq—as we have done so often over the past two years, but taking a wider perspective. At no time in modern history have the prospects for that region been so cloudy; have the chances of achieving peace, prosperity and stability for all its peoples been so overcast by the deep shadows of war and terrorism; and have the optimists been so outnumbered by the pessimists. So the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, is to be warmly thanked for providing the House with this opportunity to stand back from the day-to-day news from Baghdad and Basra and to look at the region in the round.

It seems fashionable just now to speak about a vague entity known as the "wider Middle East". I have never heard it precisely defined: does it stop at Iran or Afghanistan or Pakistan in the East? Does it include Central Asia? How far does it go into Africa? It sounds all too much like one of those Washington speechwriter's constructs—"the axis of evil" was one—which cause more friction and trouble than they bring enlightenment, focus and precision. Let us hope that if the G8 summit this summer is to focus on the Middle East, it will do so with its feet planted firmly on the ground of reality, and will deal with the region as it is, and not as we might wish it to be.

Realism surely tells us that if we are to address the overall problems of the Middle East with any prospect of success, we must face squarely two inescapable challenges; the need to see Iraq through its present travails, and the need to return without delay and with determination to the search for a peaceful, two-state solution to the problem of Palestine and Israel. If we try to proceed without addressing those challenges, if we try to brush them aside or ignore them, any words that are written about the future of the Middle East will be written in sand.

The Iraqi challenge will not be easy to resolve, but it is not impossible. No one can watch the fortitude with which most Iraqis are facing up to the dangers and insecurity of their daily lives, no one can hear of the optimism with which they seem to be looking to the future, and of their joy at being rid of Saddam Hussein, without a feeling of admiration and a realisation that the course on which we are set, of bringing that country to a prosperous, democratic and stable future, is the right one, and one of which we must not tire. To leave Iraq to slip back into anarchy, perhaps to split up, or to fall back into the hands of another egregious dictator, would be unpardonable.

That is what makes the recent change of heart in Spain so worrying. It is not that the Spaniards do not have every right to change their government, and we every need to respect that change. But the proponents of withdrawal from Iraq are, like so many here in London, still fighting battles over last year's war, and they, like those who do so here, risk doing that at the expense of the future of Iraq. Certainly, the Spanish demand that the UN be established as a central player in the phase which will follow the return of Iraq's sovereignty, planned for 1 July, is an entirely legitimate one. Let us hope that it can be met. The failure to involve the UN at the heart of the political future of Iraq from the moment the war ended, as it was involved in Afghanistan, was, I believe, a major error, and one for which we and the UN too have paid dearly.

The sanguinary stand off between the Israelis and the Palestinians will be even more difficult to bring to an end, and is even more necessary to remedy. It will not be done by building walls on territory that international law says does not belong to Israel. It will not be done by extra-judicial killings, nor by suicide bombers. It may be helped by unilateral withdrawals, both of Israeli troops and settlers; but even that will not in itself amount to a solution. A solution will be found only by returning to the negotiating table, and doing so without giving the men of violence a veto on any such negotiating process, and without trying to pick and choose with whom one will negotiate. It is truly tragic to see the Israeli people, in whose predicament and suffering we would be wrong to lose interest or sympathy, being led into a dead end. It may be that a further major international effort to resume negotiations will now have to await the outcome of the US elections, but it is crucial that thereafter it should become the first order of business for whoever is elected. The British Government and the EU should surely set that as a key objective of our foreign policy.

So much for the two essential components of any broader approach that we may take towards the region. But what should we be working for in the Middle East? Last year's human rights report on the region was a salutary reminder of how much is wrong and how much needs to be righted. It was all the more salutary in that the report was written by Arabs, for Arabs, and about Arabs—that is a fundamental point. We should not be seeking to impose some Western, democratic template on the region. We will anyway not succeed, even if we try. Look what happened in Iran after the fall of the Shah: a reminder, if ever we needed one, of the law of unintended consequences. So we should be working for evolutionary change, not mighty upheavals, and we should be working for peaceful change, which will take time and patience, and which will need to be brought about by the peoples of the region, not by outsiders.

Nor should we ignore the security policy dimension of what has been for decades a singularly insecure region. There is, I would argue, a golden opportunity to remedy in the Gulf region the absence so far of any sub-regional security arrangements. So long as Saddam Hussein ruled in Baghdad, that was inconceivable. Now that he is gone, it should be possible to negotiate regional confidence-building measures and security guarantees based on the triangle of key players in the Gulf: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Later, if there were an Arab-Israel peace settlement, it should be possible to go wider, but we should not wait for that in the Gulf. Will the Minister say something about the Government's thinking and plans in that respect?

Iran needs a special and separate mention. It is not an Arab country, and in many ways its situation and problems require different prescriptions and a different perspective. Last month's elections were a setback for all those who hoped for a steady, democratic evolution there, but they did not mark the end of democracy in that country, nor the extinction of all hope for peaceful, democratic change. We should not therefore be too discouraged, nor should we be diverted from our policy of critical engagement, which I believe to be the right one. The indications in the press of yet another setback in attempts to get some sort of dialogue going between Iran and the United States are worrying. If the United States can have a dialogue with North Korea, and can contemplate giving that country security assurances, what is the insurmountable obstacle to their doing just those same things with Iran? Perhaps the Minister could tell the House about the Government's views on that matter.

The temptation to give way to pessimism when looking at the Middle East is often hard to resist. It is so easy to draw worst case scenarios and to sink into mutual recriminations over the events of last year. But we really cannot afford such an approach. The Middle East is on Europe's doorstep, and we will have to live with whatever occurs there, for better or for worse. If the terrorists get their way and propel the West into a confrontation with Muslim countries, it is the Europeans who will bear the brunt of the extensive damage that will ensue, whether from the activities of terrorists in our midst, or from an interruption in energy supplies. So we really do need to exert ourselves and to pursue a positive and constructive agenda. We will succeed only if the Europeans can put behind them the disagreements of last year. We will need to speak up with a single voice in Washington and to stand our ground there in the face of those neo-conservatives who would pursue policies which they may sincerely believe are in their interests but which are certainly not in ours.