My Lords, the Government remain committed to reopening the British embassy in Tehran once we have resolved the outstanding steps required to bring the embassy back to a functional level and conclude the arrangements for re-establishing a visa service in Tehran. We are in ongoing discussion with the Iranian Government to identify solutions for both sides.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that somewhat opaque reply. Do the Government agree that the case for establishing, on a continuing basis, a voice and a presence in Tehran is more compelling than it has ever been in the light of the ongoing negotiations on nuclear matters, whichever way they come out? Either they will be successful, in which case they will probably lead to a loosening of sanctions and considerable commercial opportunities for British businesses, with which they will need help, or Tehran will become the centre of one of the most dangerous world situations. We surely need to be there, raising our voice and reporting about what is going on.
My Lords, I entirely agree that Iran is an important country and an important player in the broader politics of the Middle East. However, the British embassy in Tehran was trashed extensively in 2011, much of the equipment was destroyed and a number of local employees were mistreated. There are a number of issues to get around before we go back there. Meanwhile, chargés d’affaires from both sides are spending extended periods visiting each other’s country, so we are already engaged in a dialogue, as far as we can.
My Lords, the UK Home Secretary is quite right to place an emphasis on visa overstayers being returned to their respective countries and, of course, embassies play a vital role in that. Can my noble friend say what the UK Government are doing to ensure that the Iranian embassy here can be fully opened so that it can help and support the Iranian visa overstayers to return to Iran?
My Lords, the problems of overstayers are not on the British side. It is much more a matter of the Iranian Government’s willingness to accept people back, in particular if they are being expelled from Britain and have overstayed their formal status here. There is a trade-off between opening a visa service in Tehran and the issue of overstayers in Britain. That is one of the issues that, unfortunately, has not yet been resolved.
My Lords, in the improved relationship that would be signified by the reopening of the embassy in Tehran, will the Government give emphasis to efforts to re-establish the British Council operations in Iran, which were flourishing and of massive use both to the relationships between our countries and to Iranians? That could signify a really important step forward in the building of constructive relationships.
As the noble Lord probably knows, discussions are already under way about the possibility of reopening the British Council operation in Tehran. I declare an interest in that my wife is an officer of the British Academy and the British Institute of Persian Studies also had to close. We have to recognise that there are some delicate issues at stake. There is the protection of British nationals when they are there and there is the problem with the human rights situation in Iran which we should not ignore.
My Lords, as the noble Lord has raised the question of human rights in Iran, will he undertake that the Government, if they do reopen the embassy, will start a discussion again on human rights in Iran and, very particularly, the hanging of underage young people?
My Lords, I am happy, on behalf of the Government, to give that complete assurance. The treatment of journalists, the number of executions and the treatment of women are all very substantial issues on which we will wish to maintain an active dialogue with the Iranian authorities.
My Lords, are the Government aware that the best way of maintaining that dialogue and controlling some of the abuses in Iran is by having a presence and by having students from Iran coming here and students from here going there? It is only through interactive relations that it will be possible to intervene from the inside in the terrible politics of Iran. Standing on the outside will not help.
My Lords, the Government are very well aware of that and we are anxious to reopen the embassy. However, we need some reassurances on the return of equipment to re-equip the embassy, the safety of employees and a number of other issues before we can finish the negotiations.
My Lords, Labour welcomes the appointment of the chargé d’affaires for Iran as a step towards the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations with the country. Can the Minister elaborate on what assurances the Iranian Government have given to the UK Government for the protection of British diplomatic staff and their ability to carry out work without hindrance if and when the embassy is opened?
My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that the Iranian Government are not simply a monolith. We negotiate on nuclear matters as well as on reopening the embassy with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There are other elements in the current Iranian regime which are not as easy to negotiate with or to gain assurances from as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
We will certainly talk about the treatment of children and also about the treatment of religious minorities. We are all aware of the treatment of the Bahai, in particular, in Iran who have suffered very grievously because the Iranian Government recognise only Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism as religions alongside Islam. Other sects are considered heretical and some Christians are also persecuted within Iran.