[Mr. Joe Benton in the Chair] — Global Security (Iran)

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 9th July 2009.

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[Relevant documents: Fifth Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee Session 2007-08 HC 142 and the Government's response Cm 7361.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Lyn Brown.)

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 2:30 pm, 9th July 2009

I am pleased to introduce this debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee report, "Global Security: Iran", which was published in February 2008, and the Government's response, which was published in May 2008. Although those documents were published some time ago, many of our conclusions are unfortunately still pertinent. This is a good opportunity for the House to have a three-hour debate on Iran. There was a debate on human rights yesterday, but I hope to go beyond human rights and to discuss the more complex issues of Iran's role in the world and its relationships with its neighbours.

I will begin by drawing out one of the most important conclusions of the Select Committee report:

"We conclude that Iran is a complex and diverse society at present governed by a theocratic regime. Iran's quasi-democratic political system is not fully closed and may lead to reform that will result in a more constructive approach on the nuclear issue. We recommend that the Government should be careful to avoid action that could be manipulated by the hardliners such as President Ahmadinejad to bolster their position against the more pragmatic and reformist elements ahead of his campaign for re-election in 2009."

The Government's response stated:

"The Government believes that Iran's internal political debates are for the Iranian people themselves to resolve."

It is quite clear that the election of 12 June was rigged. Despite huge support for the Opposition candidates, the incumbent, President Ahmadinejad, was apparently re-elected with 63 per cent. of the votes and with more than 100 per cent. of the votes cast in some districts.

The election was followed by massive protests. Three weeks ago, The Economist stated:

"In the three decades since the Islamic Republic was founded, Iran has not been rocked like this. Tehran is engulfed in huge marches every day. Women in chadors, bus conductors, shopkeepers and even turbanned clerics have joined the joyous show of people power. Nationwide strikes are planned."

Since then there has been massive, systematic, organised repression of the protestors. Thousands of people have disappeared or been arrested. It has been admitted that more than 200 people have been killed. There were scenes on the internet of a young woman being killed in the street. There are attacks on universities, raids on people's homes and knocks on doors in the night. The systematic, organised intimidation of the Opposition is such that anybody who speaks out is extremely courageous. Yet there are still people speaking out. People are using different ways to protest.

The regime has clearly decided that it will hold on to power at all costs. Robert Tait wrote in The Guardian:

"Legitimate election wins are generally not accompanied by mass arrests of opposition members, the blocking of mobile phone networks and a multitude of news websites, or the forced closure of other candidates' headquarters, to name but three highly irregular developments that have all the hallmarks of a coup d'état."

Iranian Opposition figures, some clerics, other people in Iran and people internationally are saying that a form of military coup d'état is happening in that complex country against elements within the clerical regime.

It is reported today that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has allowed his second son, Mojtaba, to take control of the Basij militia. He apparently has access to billions of dollars in other countries and it is rumoured that he is being groomed to take over and form a dynastic leadership in the future. We do not know whether that will happen, but there is a clear power struggle between the security, intelligence, military and clerical elements of the regime. We do not know what the outcome will be. The millions of Iranians who voted for change and have gone on to the streets to protest for change are not participants in the internal power struggle in the theocratic regime.

The Select Committee went on a fascinating visit to Iran. I am glad that other Select Committee members are present. They will no doubt add to what I say in their contributions. I was struck by how young and dynamic that society is. I was also struck by people's willingness and desire to talk to us. Young women outside the main mosque in Isfahan and traders in the bazaar in Tehran came up to us and wanted to engage with us openly. A man in the bazaar told us, "This Government are corrupt, incompetent and useless. We don't get any tourists or trade any more. It is really good that you are here." Our minder from the Iranian Foreign Ministry was standing next to us, but the trader did not care. He wanted to engage with us for 40 minutes and to tell us about his problems and how he wanted to have better relations with the rest of the world.

The Iranian regime is holding down a bubbling ferment of ideas and a wish to engage with the rest of the world. Iran is one of the oldest civilisations, with 3,000 years of history. Iranians of all kinds are proud of their history and culture. They wish to share it and to engage with other countries. However, while they are run by a holocaust-denying extremist and a regime that sponsors terrorism in other countries and is in breach of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the people of Iran will not be able to engage fully with the rest of the world in the way that they wish.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire

I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman on his observations so far. Does he agree that Iran is in breach of the UN convention on human rights, of which it is a signatory? Yesterday, we had a good debate on the plight of Baha'is and others who have sadly been persecuted in Iran, particularly in recent months. Does he agree that such desperate persecution contradicts the spirit and character of the Iranian people?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Yes, I do agree, but I also think that we need to be careful. The situation that the hon. Gentleman has described is appalling. Iran executes more people per head of population than any other country in the world, and carries out more executions than any country except China. People are still stoned to death and there is a criminal code that is used in a most brutal and repressive way—that was discussed in yesterday's debate, so I shall not go into it now. The regime has tried to portray the problems that it is now confronting as having somehow been created by international forces or by people internally who are in league with international forces. Ayatollah Khamenei has been quoted as saying:

"The diplomats who have talked to us with courtesy up to now have in the past few days taken the masks away from their faces and are showing their true image".

He has referred to western countries as "hungry wolves" and said:

"They are showing their true enmity towards the Iranian Islamic state and the most evil of them is the British government."

Britain's relations with Iran have a long history, and some have been quite difficult. Anyone who watched BBC4 over the weekend may have seen its four hours of programmes about Iran, which included some interesting stories about what was happening there in 1909, about the role of British oil companies and about the British Government's encouragement and support for the coup against the democratically elected Mosaddeq Government in the 1950s. But none of that excuses the systematic harassment of people who work for the British Government in Iran, or the arrests of nine locally employed Iranian members of the British embassy staff. None of it justifies the expulsion of two British diplomats, or the expulsion of the BBC correspondent in Iran.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

We know some of the Iranian nationals who have worked for the British embassy in Tehran because they looked after us so well on our visit. That highlights the responsibility that the British Government have not just to their own nationals but to foreign nationals who work for us. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I absolutely agree; we were very well looked after, not just by our diplomats but by the Iranians who worked in the British embassy. They worked tirelessly to make our visit in November 2007 such a success.

The one person who is still detained, and who has apparently been threatened with being put on trial for acting against national security, is a 44-year-old Iranian who is the British embassy's chief political analyst. His name has been in the public domain, so I shall use it—Hossein Rassam. We know him because he looked after us and went with us to Isfahan on a six-hour journey, during which we discussed Iranian culture, history and cookery. That was an absolutely fascinating journey—sitting with him in that vehicle and learning about his country and its culture. That man is potentially going to be put on trial by the regime, and it is an absolute outrage that any country anywhere in the world persecutes, harasses and imprisons people who work for our Government. It is a basic and fundamental right that people who work in foreign embassies should be allowed to do so without being persecuted or harassed. I call on the Iranian politicians whom we met—our equivalents in the Iranian Majlis—to do what they can to persuade whoever in the regime is holding that man to release him and to stop the harassment of people who work for our embassy in Iran.

I have discussed how the regime has been behaving, but let me discuss these issues more widely. The regime has been systematically trying to prevent the truth from coming out, but has found that rather difficult. In the age of the mobile phone and Twitter, people take photographs and send them around the world, and can describe very quickly to websites all over the world what is happening within Iran. The regime has tried to stop broadcasts and to intimidate the people who are engaged in those activities, but it has not been successful. Since January of this year, the BBC Persian television service has been an important voice for the Iranian people. I pay tribute to the people who work for that service, and to the people who work in other broadcast media, in difficult circumstances, for what they do.

I understand that following the election in Iran, from polling day onwards, the BBC television service, other BBC services and other broadcasters on the so-called HOT BIRD 6 satellite have been subject to deliberate interference. BBC Arabic television and various language services have also experienced transmission problems, including being taken off the air at certain times. There has been a deliberate attempt to prevent people who listen in Farsi or Arabic from getting the truth about what is going on in their country. The regime has tried to narrow the focus and to prevent news reports about what is really happening. I am pleased that the BBC has done what it can to counteract that, including extending the hours of its news programmes and radio broadcasts. It is clear that audiences in Iran—the Iranian people who are able to watch or listen to those BBC programmes and broadcasts—have been very positive about them.

Although BBC Persian's online services have been partially blocked since 2006, its website, BBCPersian.com, has had a huge growth in usage since the events of recent weeks. Compared to traffic in May, the number of daily page impressions has increased sevenfold to more than 3.6 million, and the number of visitors to the website has gone up fourfold. That is an indication of the interest not only in Iran, but in other parts of the world, and is clearly very important.

The Iranian Government have expelled the BBC correspondent, Jon Leyne, and have prevented his temporary replacement, Jeremy Bowen, from moving around the streets freely. That is an indication that they do not wish BBC broadcasters to know what is going on in their country or to meet independent voices, opposition figures or protestors to get the truth of what is happening. It is vital that we in this country ask why on earth, if the Iranian Government can have their propaganda organ Press TV broadcasting their propaganda in London and paying some people from this country, who should perhaps know better, to go on it, the Iranians do not allow unfettered broadcasting by the BBC and other British broadcasters in their country.

The Iranian leadership has also been targeting Britain for another reason. They seem to think that it is not wise politics, at this time, overtly to antagonise the United States of America. Since the election of President Obama, there has been a change in rhetoric from Washington and the possibility of an open hand being extended to Iran, rather than what was seen before as a closed fist.

I think the Iranians have decided that it is easier to vilify and traduce what they regard as the little Satan than to attack what they have called the big Satan.

However, I am pleased that, so far, there has not been a lack of support internationally for the British Government's robust response. President Sarkozy of France has expressed full solidarity with the British Government over these recent difficulties and the European Union, led by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on behalf of the Swedish presidency, has made some strong statements. I am very pleased that so far the European Union is working together in harmony on these matters. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on the discussions that have taken place in the past few days, and on the EU's preparedness to take action collectively if the Iranians decide to escalate the situation and up the ante by removing diplomatic status from people in Iran, or if they decide to put people on trial.

Photo of John Horam John Horam Conservative, Orpington

The hon. Gentleman is making an important point and a very good speech. I would also like to hear what the Minister has to say about the matter he has just raised, because we need a more unified approach in Europe than we appear to have so far. I have noticed that the Germans and Italians are not quite as strong in their condemnation as the French, to whom we should give credit. If we are to have an effect on the Iranian regime, we need a united European approach to what we say and the sanctions we operate.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I think the Minister has heard the hon. Gentleman's point.

Before I move on to one or two other matters, I would like to raise the question of how we get out of the current situation. It seems that calls for a recount of the election—although those have now been rejected—were, in any case, mistaken. The regime has clearly shown that it does not in any way wish to give up power, and what was regarded as a velvet coup by Ahmadinejad when he won in 2005 has become a violent and repressive coup to retain power. That raises questions about how the rest of the world should respond. The issue is difficult because we do not hold many levers against the Iranian regime directly; however, we do have some and we need to think about those.

There is, of course, the issue of information and the role of the BBC and others, but we also have to think about economic relations and trade, which relates to the remarks of Mr. Horam. Clearly, the Iranian regime is facing a crisis concerning the lack of economic modernisation and the growing population of young people. Iran desperately needs foreign investment to enable it to modernise its infrastructure, particularly its oil and gas industries. However, it also needs foreign technology if it is to develop in the way to which it aspires.

Effective, targeted sanctions such as those already in place from the European Union, the United States and others have already had an impact on the Iranian economy. However, in terms of international action, we also need to look at what goes on in places such as the Emirates in Dubai, where the Iranians have a very successful smuggling operation and pursue activities to bypass the international sanctions regime.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

I have tried to restrain myself on that issue, but I must point out that although the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, is correct to criticise other countries, the money laundering capital for the Iranian regime has been London. That has taken place with the full knowledge and consent of the United Kingdom regulatory authorities. That is the great criticism we should make. Her Majesty's Government have not denied that it is happening. I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate and the Government said that they have since altered the ground rules. However, the truth is that the purchasing of technologies by the regime, particularly in north America, has been done through London, under our very noses.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend. In fact, on finances, an article about Mojtaba Khamenei's international rule states:

"There are claims on Iranian dissident websites that the current anti-British campaign in Tehran is motivated in part by Britain's announcement on 18 June that it had frozen nearly £1bn in Iranian assets, in accordance with UN and EU sanctions. The frozen funds included a lot of Mojtaba's money, it is claimed."

Perhaps there is some connection between that and the rhetoric that we saw the same day, or a day later, from Mojtaba Khamenei's father and the other clerics. I agree that London is important in the context of global financial institutions and that we need to do whatever we can—not just in London, but elsewhere—to make sure that international sanctions are effective.

I am conscious of the time and that there are many Members here. I shall not delay them for too long, but there is one other area that I wish to highlight. No doubt other Members will talk about the Iranian role in the region, but clearly there has been a great deal of concern about the nuclear issue and the way in which Iran has been breaching its obligations under the International Atomic Energy Agency and the non-proliferation treaty. Our report was published in 2008 and much has happened since then. However, fortunately the Committee is very busy and, on 14 June, we published a major report entitled "Global Security: Non-Proliferation," in which we were able at least briefly to provide an update on what has been happening with that matter in Iran.

Developments in recent months have clearly shown that there is a growing concern within the IAEA that the Iranian regime is rapidly building centrifuges in order to develop enriched uranium. The Russians tried to bring in an international system whereby Iran could access that via an international facility, and there have been other suggestions about having some kind of fuel bank, including from our Prime Minister in his important speech at Lancaster House in March. I would be grateful if the Government said where we are on the implementation of alternatives, and whether Iran has indicated any kind of positive response. Frankly, as we have pointed out in previous reports, in the next few years Iran could be very close to having the breakout capability to possess a nuclear weapon, and because it has missile technology, that could pose a potential threat to southern Europe and a large number of countries in the middle east.

If Iran becomes a nuclear weapon state, it is not just the Israelis who will be very concerned. As we point out in our non-proliferation report, such a situation would also be a trigger for a number of Arab countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others, to get what could be regarded as a Sunni bomb in the middle east, as opposed to the Shi'a bomb that the Iranians might develop. Given that Pakistan already has a developed nuclear weapons capability and has tested nuclear weapons—as we know through the A.Q. Khan network, unfortunately, it has also been prepared to sell nuclear material and plans to other countries—there is a real danger that a cycle of nuclear weapon proliferation in the middle east could be triggered by Iranian actions in the next few weeks or months.

Photo of David Drew David Drew Labour, Stroud

That is the crux of the problem with Iran at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given all the other terrible things that are happening—we had a good debate yesterday on the human rights issues—until we can sort out the nuclear question with Iran, it will be a very dangerous regime? There must be some inducements that we can offer it to separate the nuclear energy programme from nuclear weaponry.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Iran's regime is dangerous because it feels under threat from its own people and is worried about its survival. It also has fears about the future and legitimacy of its revolution. An interesting question is whether the new US approach is more threatening to the regime than the old one. It could be argued that people in authoritarian, theocratic regimes would much prefer the rest of the world to cut them off rather than be open to them, because sheer openness will mean that the people of the country get more access to ideas and ways of behaving that challenge the orthodoxy and hierarchy of the society. My impression is that the Iranian people certainly have a thirst for contact and communication with the rest of the world, not a desire to be cut off from it.

That raises some interesting questions about how the US under the Obama presidency will behave. So far, there seem to be some interesting developments. Only this week, both President Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden said, in separate interviews, that despite the crackdown and repression, the US will not be deterred from seeking to engage in direct negotiations with Iran. That is the right approach, but we should have no illusions that engagement with people in the regime and with its leadership will, by itself, change the regime's behaviour. "Change in regime behaviour", which I believe is a phrase used by Condoleezza Rice in a different context, is not at all certain in a period when the regime is afraid that even a small opening up—a small movement—could result in a great crevice and then an outpouring in the country of forces it is afraid of and wishes to repress.

President Obama stated:

"We've got some fixed national security interests in Iran not developing nuclear weapons, in not exporting terrorism, and we have offered a pathway for Iran to rejoining the international community."

However, that requires the international community to maintain certain standards and values, and to continue to speak out against the repression and abuse of human rights taking place in Iran, and not to say that it would much rather concentrate solely on nuclear or trade issues. At the end of the day, there are international standards. Iran is a signatory to various international covenants and the non-proliferation treaty, and it must be held to those standards.

In conclusion, I believe there is potential for real change in Iran. I am not certain, however, that this period—this year—will see such change. The assumption that what will follow in Iran will be some form of colour revolution, such as that which took place in Georgia and Ukraine, fails to appreciate the complexities of that society. It is not right for us just to assume that that is likely to happen.

Our Government and Parliament need to have a sophisticated approach. Crude calls for regime change, or funding or supporting particular opposition groups, would play into the hands of the regime, which would say that it has proof of the British conspiracy against it. However, we should use all the channels that we have to continue to argue the case for positive engagement with the Iranian people, because they deserve far more than the Government who, sadly, are currently repressing them.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 3:05 pm, 9th July 2009

I congratulate the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mike Gapes, on a fine speech. I strongly echo the sentiments he expressed on human rights and the other issues that he covered. The debate is on a report that we published just over a year ago, but it could not be more timely, so I am glad that the Chairman has taken the opportunity to secure the debate for the House at this time.

I begin with the crux of the long-term issue between our country and most of the countries of the world and Iran: Iran's remorseless march, year by year, towards becoming a nuclear weapons state. That march seems to be going down two tracks. It is going down the highly enriched uranium track, and it may also be going down the plutonium track. Alongside its efforts to produce weapons-grade fissile material, Iran is substantially adding to its ballistic missile delivery capabilities.

On page 13 of our report, we reproduce a map showing the range of Iran's Shahab 3 Korean technology-based missile. It has a 1,300 km range, making it capable of striking Israel, Saudi Arabia, parts of southern Russia and nearly the whole of Turkey. A few weeks ago, on 20 May, the Iranians successfully launched their indigenous, longer range 2,000 km ballistic missile, the Sajil 2, which uses solid rather than liquid propellant, which dramatically reduces its launch time scale. That missile will be capable of reaching a significant area of western and southern Europe.

I noted a comment that was made in Jane's Intelligence Weekly on 1 June:

"Western analysts have largely described the Sajil-2 to the media as a technological achievement that represents a leap in Iran's ballistic missile capabilities."

There is no question but that if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon capability with its expanding ballistic missile delivery range, the consequences would be extremely serious. There would be the regional consequences of an impetus to proliferation, and, of course, the huge, unknown factor of the Israeli response.

The Committee visited Israel in March, at the time of the formation of the Netanyahu Government. We asked senior Israeli officials what the Israeli reaction would be if Iran became a nuclear weapons state. The answer we got—that all options are open—was fairly predictable. I believe that that is a correct statement: all options are open as far as Israel's Government are concerned, particularly the Netanyahu Government. That of course means that military pre-emptive action is among the options on the Israelis' list, and the consequences of that are incalculable and potentially extremely serious.

That brings us to the effectiveness or otherwise of the policy that is being pursued year by year by our Government, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council—a policy of trying to bring about a halt in Iran's remorseless march towards becoming a nuclear weapons state by peaceful means: pressure, coercion, inducement and enticement. On the evidence to date, that policy has been a complete failure. I regret having to say that, but that is what the factual evidence shows. The policy has been pursued year by year by year, and year by year by year Iran has marched remorselessly towards becoming a nuclear weapons state.

My question to the Minister, therefore, is whether he has any serious, significant grounds for believing that the passing of United Nations Security Council resolution 1803 and the greater use of sanctions for which that resolution provides will have any more effect on Iran than previous United Nations Security Council resolutions. Are other peaceful polices open to us that will stop Iran's relentless march? If the answer is no—I become increasingly fearful that it is—we are approaching an immensely dangerous situation in terms of nuclear proliferation, with the risk that the Israelis will feel that they have to do something by way of pre-emption. That is the burning policy question, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.

I will now move away from the possibilities and turn to a profoundly important and immediate issue—the actuality of Iranian involvement in military operations in Afghanistan. I draw hon. Members' attention to paragraph 77 of the Committee's report, which states:

"We conclude that the reports that Taliban insurgents are receiving support from Iran is a matter of very serious concern."

The Foreign Office's published response to our conclusion is illuminating. It states:

"However, we also have evidence of IRGC"—

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps

"Qods Force involvement in negative and destabilising activity in Afghanistan, including supplying arms and funding to the Taliban."

The Foreign Office, in that public document, goes on to say:

"We will...continue to support ISAF and Afghan security forces operations, with a view to intercepting further arms convoys coming from Iran".

I repeat:

"arms convoys coming from Iran."

The document continues:

"As for our analysis of the level of Iranian support, we wish to minimise the risks posed to our operations by public disclosure, and the Government will write to the Committee."

The Government did write to the Committee, and I reread last night the paper that they sent, for which we are grateful. Let us confine ourselves, however, to what is in the public domain.

The Foreign Office has acknowledged in public that the Iranians are supplying arms to the Taliban; it has referred in public to "arms convoys"; and it has said that the Iranians are also supplying funding to the Taliban. The Taliban are responsible for inflicting grievous loss of life on British service personnel and other allied personnel, as we have been profoundly shocked to see again this week, and they have been doing so for a considerable period.

I have a specific request to put to the Government. I trust that they will be relentless in putting into the public domain, in so far as that is compatible with their security obligations, such information as they can about what the Iranians are actually doing in delivering weapons, technology, training and funding to the Taliban. The people of this country and people around the world will then know precisely what the Iranian Government are doing to support those in Afghanistan—the Taliban—who offer nothing to the people of that country except religious tyranny and the total suppression of human rights, including the obliteration of human rights for women and girls.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

My right hon. Friend is making a fascinating speech, but my understanding is that the information held in the Foreign Office is out of date and has no bearing on the problem today. Does he agree?

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I am afraid that I cannot judge how up to date or out of date the information held by the Foreign Office is, because only the Foreign Office can do that. All that I can point to is what the Foreign Office chose to make public in its response to our report, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that in itself is profoundly disturbing.

The Chairman of the Committee highlighted the role of the BBC, and I want to give a very hearty metaphorical pat on the back not only to the BBC, but to the Government, who have funded the establishment of the BBC's Persian TV service through their grant in aid to the World Service. It was an excellent decision on the part of the Government to provide that funding, because it completes the important range of services that the BBC has now established in relation to Iran. The BBC's Persian radio service has a very long history, going back to the second world war—it is nearly 70 years old. In 2001, the BBC established its Persian online service, which has been very valuable; and in January this year, it established the BBC Persian TV service, as well.

It is a reflection of just how effective and valuable those services have been that the BBC has been singled out for condemnation and abuse by the Iranian Government. Indeed, when the Prime Minister was taking questions on the Floor of the House on 23 June, I said that we should regard the degree of abuse being heaped on this country and on the BBC as a considerable compliment, and I stand by that. That abuse reflects the effectiveness of what has been done.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle 3:35 pm, 9th July 2009

Order. For the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members, the sitting will be extended to allow for the break for the vote.

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

As I was saying, the BBC has made an excellent contribution through its Persian service on radio, online and on television. Given the crucial nature of the decision to expand the BBC's Persian language output, I trust that the Government will continue to give every possible support to the BBC in this area, financially, technically and in any other way that they can to assist it, to ensure that that output on radio, online and on television continues to be made available to as many people as possible in Iran.

I want to mention the extraordinarily brave people led by Mr. Mousavi who are fighting for what I regard as the new Iran—the millions who voted for Mr. Mousavi and the huge numbers who attended his rallies and went out into the streets until they were brutally suppressed. Those people are the real hope for Iran. They might even be the only hope for Iran. They are fighting for an Iran that has true democracy, real freedoms, human rights and equality for women, and is not a threat to its neighbours. As we found in some of our contacts during our visit to Iran, they are people of extraordinary bravery and courage. They are putting everything they have—their livelihoods, their freedoms and in some cases their lives—on the line to try to achieve a better, freer and genuinely democratic Iran. I pay the strongest tribute, as I am sure all hon. Members do, to their immense bravery and courage.

The burning policy issue for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is what degree of protection should be afforded to locally engaged staff in our overseas missions in countries such as Iran. I have looked closely at the relevant terms of the 1961 Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, and it is evident that article 38 contains provisions that divide locally engaged staff into two categories. Under paragraph 1, it is open to a foreign Government to designate all or some of their locally engaged staff as diplomatic agents. That at least gives them diplomatic immunity in respect of their official duties. For all the others, all that is left is paragraph 2, under which locally engaged staff get diplomatic immunity only in so far as it may be granted by the host country. One can safely assume that, in a place like Iran, there will be zero granting of diplomatic immunity to those who fall into that second category.

The House will appreciate that this is not the first time that locally engaged Foreign Office staff have come under political pressure, and worse, from overseas Governments. We have had a spate of that in Russia, and it is now happening in Iran. Another key point arose from a question that the hon. Member for Ilford, South asked the Foreign Secretary, who said that of the FCO's 16,000 diplomatic staff, 10,000—more than half—are locally engaged. That is a large number. I have looked at the Foreign Office's diplomatic service regulations and was able to access the 2006 version. Those regulations state:

"Diplomatic status may be conferred on non-Diplomatic Staff if their duties require it in order to meet the Post's objectives."

That sensible latitude is given to heads of mission to put such locally engaged staff as they think fit into the paragraph 1 category, so that they at least have diplomatic immunity for the performance of their official duties.

I have some specific questions for the Minister, and if he cannot answer them immediately, I hope that he will write to me. Were any of our locally engaged staff in our Tehran embassy elevated to the paragraph 1 category, so that they had diplomatic immunity covering their official duties before the recent events in Iran, and if not, why not? By any judgment, they were clearly at risk. Given the intolerable, unacceptable and outrageous treatment that the Iranian authorities handed out to nine of our locally engaged diplomatic staff, will the Foreign Office now review the risk to which such staff are exposed in Iran, Russia and other countries around the world, and give immediate and serious consideration to whether they should be moved from the article 38, paragraph 2 category to the paragraph 1 category, so that they at least have the protection of diplomatic immunity covering their official duties?

Those of us who are privileged to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee meet locally engaged staff in all the embassies and high commissions that we visit around the world. Without exception, we are very impressed by the quality of service that they provide and their loyalty and dedication to the British Government, despite being nationals of another country. I suggest to the Minister, and through him to the Secretary of State, that in return for that loyalty we must ensure that locally engaged Foreign Office staff around the world receive the maximum protection that we can provide under the Vienna convention.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South 3:44 pm, 9th July 2009

Mr. Benton, I apologise to you, the Minister and right hon. and hon. Members because I am between a rock and a hard place. The rock is my duty here, and the hard place is a meeting being held in my constituency because, as a constituent said in a letter to me, 18,000 houses are being dumped there. The House can imagine the outcry that that has caused. Consequently, I must leave early, so I beg your indulgence, Mr. Benton, and apologise sincerely.

I congratulate Mike Gapes on securing this important debate at an important time on an important subject. His speech opening the debate was immensely valuable and of the highest quality. It has been a pleasure to listen to him. It is also a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sir John Stanley, a man of great stature in the House, whose statements always have great credibility. I listened to him with rapt interest. He made some important points, which I am sure the Minister has noted.

I congratulate the Committee on an excellently constructed report. It was produced on 20 February, which impedes its import somewhat, but it contains much of which we must take account. I also congratulate the Government on their full response in May. All that is excellent, but it was blown out of the water on 12 June, when the situation in Iran changed dramatically within 24 hours. That is not to say that there is not massively important information in the report and the response, but we face a new situation in Iran, for which many of us had hoped for many years, but few of us believed would materialise in quite the way it did—in the number of people who came out on the streets following what appeared to be an election that did not quite comply with the rules that we try to apply in this country.

The situation is new, and we now know that there are two Irans. There is the elderly, rural Iran, which until now has in the main supported a mediaeval theocracy. That is the Iran that the Iranian propaganda machine tried to tell us was totally and fully supported by the nation's population. We now know that there is also a new, young, urban, modern Iran, which supports change. The people who came out on the streets showed immense courage in supporting change after an election that millions believed to be without credibility. I believe that the future lies with the latter Iran, and I am sure that we all pray that it does. It is vital for the security of the middle east and beyond that that is the case.

The question now is: how do we work to achieve that objective as peacefully as possible? The Government must pay attention to that, and although I cannot be here to listen to the Minister's response, I shall read it in Hansard with great interest. The truth is that we in this country have appeased the former and taken little heed of the latter over the past few years. We have been beguiled by the output of a state propaganda machine that told us that there was no real dissent, and that the only people who dissented were anoraks, idiots, radicals—call them what you will—who are anti the Almighty, but are not the majority of Iran's citizens. That propaganda has been blown apart, so we must rethink the situation. The report and the Government's response do not take that into account, nor could they. However, the events of 12 June tell us that appeasement is not the way forward. We have another view of what Iran is all about. It is that the younger, modern, thrusting element of society needs our help, support and understanding if Iran is to become the peaceful, democratic and free society that we all hope it will be.

Appeasement has a long record. The position was summed up on 1 February 2006 by the then Foreign Secretary. His statement, culled down, was that the People's Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran was proscribed at the behest of the mullahs as a sort of gift. We are seeing in a number of ways how wrong that was. I believe that the argument was based on Foreign Office information that was so dated as to be untrue.

I shall take a liberty now by referring to a letter that I will not ascribe, although I am willing to show it to the Minister if he feels that that would be useful, for his information only. Its content is very important and I shall quote two sentences from it. It is from a former Minister. Talking about Iran, he states:

"As time went by...I became less confident about the information with which I was provided. Some was too old to have realistic implications for the present. Some was sourced in ways that made checks on reliability extremely difficult or impossible."

He goes on to say in another paragraph:

"It is never easy for a former Government Minister—or indeed Governments—to acknowledge their analysis was wrong, however well motivated. But that is the case."

I am happy to show the Minister the letter privately, because I do not want him to think that I am trying to be misleading or clever in any way. The information has a real bearing on what we are talking about today and needs to be taken into account in a very serious way. Later, I shall talk about the evidence that I have to support its import.

We need to recognise that the analysis was wrong. We also need to recognise, as the Select Committee report itself hints, the ineffective nature of sanctions. They have not had the effect that we would want. Paragraph 13 of the conclusions and recommendations states:

"We conclude that although the sanctions currently in place against Iran act as a disincentive for its nuclear programme, they are not sufficiently robust to coax it into suspending its enrichment."

That supports the argument made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling when he said that appeasement had not done its job on the nuclear issue.

We have only to read another conclusion in the report to find out about the effectiveness of the E3 plus 3 diplomacy. Paragraph 4 of the conclusions and recommendations states that

"the E3+3's diplomacy over Iran's nuclear programme is currently a long way from successfully achieving all its goals."

The truth is that there are two great findings: the report's finding that our effort to appease the regime has failed and our sanctions have been ineffective, and the subsequent finding that there is a greater rising of the human spirit in Iran than was ever thought possible before. Whatever we say about the people who came on to the streets, they did us a great service through their courage and endeavours, because never again can it be said that there is no opposition to the regime internally. Of course there is opposition to the regime internally, and we need to take great note of it and encourage those people. If what we believe about freedom and democracy in this country means anything, the need to encourage those people must be paramount.

I am sure that that will be taken into account by the new Minister, whom I welcome to his position. He gives us considerable hope.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I hope not. I have great faith in the Minister's ability and approach to the whole business and I look forward to some encouraging words from him later, even though I cannot be here to listen to them.

Finally, there is the Government's attitude towards the PMOI. That organisation was proscribed by the UK Government. We know from my comments about a former Foreign Secretary why it was proscribed. In December 2006 the Court of First Instance ruled that the proscription was unlawful. The Minister will know all that has happened since then, up to the events involving the Court of Appeal and the European Courts. He will know that a statement was made that, if not unique, was pretty unusual in British judicial history. I am referring to the ruling of the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission, which stated that

"having carefully considered all the material before us, we have concluded that the decision" of the Secretary of State

"...is properly characterised as perverse."

The Foreign Office got it wrong, and got it wrong continually in that respect, so thank God we had 12 June, because there is a vital need to rethink in all sorts of ways.

The Select Committee report demands to know why the Government resisted the court decisions on the PMOI. At the time of the Government's initial response to the report, legal matters were still proceeding. I am sure that the Minister will now tell us why the Government continued to oppose court after court and decision after decision on that issue. I believe that my enemy's enemy is my friend—the Chinese are very wise. I am not saying that the PMOI has not in its history acted as a terrorist organisation within Iran. It has never done so against the interests of the west, I might add, but in Iran that is true.

I met Lord Malloch-Brown, a Foreign Office Minister, and Bill Rammell, who was also then a Foreign Office Minister, with a number of other people. When I asked why they still considered the PMOI to be a terrorist organisation, one of their senior aides said that that was because it was still involved in terrorist activities; it had never made a statement to the effect that it was not. In fact, statements have been made consistently and regularly since 2002 by the leader of that organisation—Mrs. Maryam Rajavi—and many others. They were public statements. It amazed me that the Foreign Office could make such a statement to me. That underlines again how out of touch the Foreign Office has been.

We face a new situation. We need the Foreign Office to think differently—to think anew about how we approach the matter. We do not have many weapons in our armoury. I recognise that the history of Iran tells us that we do not have the ability to make a great impact on that country. There is a whole cultural problem that dates from 1911 onwards and perhaps even earlier. I know that we did not have a great cultural heritage when we opposed the Mosaddeq Government in the early 1950s and that many people feel that we supported the Shah beyond what was reasonable, decent and fair, so I understand that our influence is limited, but it is still important, in terms of working in collaboration with other nations in the western world.

I ask the Minister to consider six ways in which we might react to the new situation. First, as I have already argued, we need to change the thinking in the Foreign Office. We need to ensure that our intelligence is up to date and that senior officials do not look as foolish as they did when making their statement at a meeting with me. It is vital that we have proper information—the Minister knows that he depends upon it—and I am sure that it will happen. I am happy to show him the letter that I quoted, but I ask that it be kept private, as it was sent to me under confidential cover. We need to change our thinking.

Secondly, we need to recognise that internal regime change is now a possibility. It was not on the cards to a great extent when the report was published. It is certainly on the cards now, and we need to take that into account.

Thirdly, we should end the appeasement of the mullahs. We seemed to believe that they were kindly vicars, attending tea parties and eating cucumber and cress sandwiches and dealing out compassion to their parishioners in a friendly and patrician way. That is not the case. We are talking about a fanatical Islamic society run by fanatical Islamic mullahs. They recognise only strength. They have shown that they do not understand appeasement; they think that it is weakness. We must become much stronger and more united in that respect.

Fourthly, we should demand an end to Ahmadinejad's defiance of United Nations resolutions, as recommended in the report. That goes without saying. Fifthly, we should strengthen specific sanctions against vital industrial and commercial sectors, and against vital people in the Iranian Government.

Sixthly, we should recognise the value of opposition in exile. I have made that point before. Some may not like the PMOI, but I am a supporter of the organisation, and I am pleased to say so. However, it has a massive ability to dispense information in Iran to the very people whom we are debating. It has the ability to gain information from Iran that ought to be of great use to the Government and the Foreign Office.

We should work hard for the UN's involvement in future elections in Iran. We must put proper pressure on the Iranians in every way possible and through every peaceful mechanism available to us. I do not advocate a physical attack on the nation; that would be counter-productive and dangerous for all. However, I do advocate that we take a consistently credible and strong approach to a regime that believes that it is only strength that counts, and which will believe that even more strongly now that it is under such pressure.

This debate is not only about Iran; it is not only about Iran and Israel; and it is not only about Iran and the middle east. As was stated so startlingly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling, it is about our children, our grandchildren and our great-grandchildren. It is about our country's well-being. It is about us acting in a free and democratic world. There is a real threat to that objective, but I am not willing to put up with it, for the sake of my children and grandchildren. That is why I speak so passionately. I look forward to reading the Minister's response.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 4:04 pm, 9th July 2009

I am pleased to follow my good friend Mr. Binley; I agree with every word that he uttered. I now turn to my left and to other colleagues and friends. My hon. Friend Mike Gapes and Sir John Stanley made important speeches, and I agree with some of what they said. I shall nevertheless draw upon their speeches, because I have reservations about some of their conclusions.

The real problem is illustrated by the United Kingdom's attitude to Iran. It shows the dysfunctional nature of the formulation of Government foreign policy in general. It is aggravated by the high turnover of Ministers in the Foreign Office. That is why, from a sedentary position and with a slight smile, I referred to my good friend—I have enjoyed his company and his wise counsel on a range of political issues—as "this week's Minister". I said that because there is a high turnover of Ministers, particularly at the junior level.

We suffer from the obsession of Prime Minister Blair and the current Prime Minister, who have played musical chairs with important ministerial portfolios. It does not matter how skilled, motivated or dedicated the incumbent Minister is—new Ministers often come from Departments totally unrelated to foreign affairs—it inevitably means that the mantra is handed down by officials whose judgment has been shown to be flawed time and again, particularly in relation to the UK's policy on Iran. To some extent, that was demonstrated by what the hon. Member for Northampton, South called their obsession; they have aggravated the PMOI and done everything that they can to disadvantage brave people in exile who stand up for human rights in their native land and who try to demonstrate to the rest of the world the pernicious nature of the Iranian regime.

In my view, not only was the Foreign Office wrong in its repetition of that attitude by successive Ministers there and at the Home Office; it was madness. I am delighted that I and other Members of both Houses, across the political spectrum, were able in the case of Lord Alton of Liverpool and others v. Secretary of State for the Home Department to demolish the Government's argument. The Register of Members' Interests mentions our involvement in that case. It was important because it humbled the Foreign Office and the Home office, showing their deficiencies of judgment, and because it sent an unusual but significant signal to the regime in Tehran that the British judiciary is proudly separate from the Executive and the Government, whose approach to foreign policy is seriously flawed.

I believe that the Foreign Office has too often been arrogant on Iran's dialogue with other key partners. I remember that the Russian Federation tried to explore, in a positive way, the question of Iran and other countries having civil nuclear energy, the full fuel cycle being facilitated at four or five key locations around the globe, which would allow many states, including Iran, to have nuclear energy. However, it would not be done in a way that caused nuclear proliferation or facilitated the preparation of nuclear weapons or warheads in a particular country. To my knowledge, that was dismissed by the Foreign Office. It does such things time and again as a result of its phobia and its attitude of dismissal to anything suggested by the Russian Federation. Latterly, that idea was picked up by the Foreign Office, but it was too late—it missed the window of political opportunity. So my criticism of the Foreign Office is justified because it totally and consistently misread the situation.

I said that I departed from some of my colleagues' conclusions, especially in relation to the recent so-called elections and candidates. I am amazed that people fall for the argument that the electorate exercised freedom and that the elections were simply rigged by the man who came out on top and his cohorts. Whoever won, the elections would not have had legitimacy. I am rather old fashioned and think that all citizens should be able to stand as candidates, but half the people of Iran—namely women—could not, so there was blatant gender discrimination. I am amazed that politicians, the Foreign Office, some good friends and colleagues, and the BBC have given such legitimacy to this flawed election. They would not do so anywhere else. If these elections had been held in Belarus or Russia, for instance, we would be hammering home time and again the fact that half the population was disfranchised from seeking elected office. Furthermore, the turnout was abysmally low, because hundreds of thousands of people did not want to give any credence or legitimacy to this flawed election.

Colleagues have praised the candidate Mousavi. I do not share this view at all. Although he seems to have been disadvantaged in this so-called election, he is wholly part of the main thrust of the regime. He signs up fully in his allegiance to the regime's constitution and the system under which the clerics decide who can seek election and how. I do not consider him to be a liberal or the great hope or leap forward for Iran. He is the same and equally to blame for the corrupt Iranian regime. The sooner we make it clear that we do not see him as the Archangel Gabriel, but as another one of the regime's thoroughgoing rotters, the better. There is the delusion that Mousavi is a goodie, when in fact he is a baddie. That is why I am disappointed with the BBC. Of course, in all the news agencies, and in particular the BBC, there are some extremely brave men and women who collect and report the news. However, I draw a distinction between them and the editorial nature of the BBC, which accepts and repeats the mantra that Mousavi is a good person. I think that the spin doctor is the Foreign Office. It is not only wrong in spinning that; it is deceiving nobody but itself and those who listen to the BBC in the UK. Most people know that the truth lies elsewhere.

I have told you, Mr. Benton, that I like the Minister and have known him for a long time, as you have. He has a very proud record of standing up for the state of Israel, which I wholeheartedly endorse. He has been very brave, but not uncritical, in supporting the state of Israel and its right to exist. I—and you, Mr. Benton, I suspect—also support that right. However, if the Minister was not a Minister but a humble Member of Parliament, he would be persona non grata in Iran. Those in the regime would not let him across the threshold. In fact, it remains to be seen whether they would let him go this very evening to Tehran. I doubt whether they would—and it would be personal, and because of his brave and consistent attitude in defending the state of Israel. They are that rotten! I would be very interested to see, if he is ever dispatched to Tehran, whether he is allowed in.

I was almost cheering the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling when he touched upon the Government's response. I, too, want to flag up the fact that arms, training and explosives are coming from Iran into Afghanistan and killing UK servicemen and women. No doubt the Minister's brief will read, "This is a sensitive area—skirt it if you can." It will not say that exactly, but it will be words to that effect. It will tell him to try to avoid responding to any points made about paragraph 20, page 7 of the Government's response, which states that

"we also have evidence of IRGCQods Force involvement in negative and destabilising activity in Afghanistan, including supplying arms and funding to the Taliban."

I have some issues with the Government, because this Parliament has never had a proper mandate to deploy our troops in Afghanistan, but we are there now and taking severe casualties. The Minister needs to tell us precisely what is in his briefing pack in relation to that point. If I am wrong, and it says nothing, why? It is not sufficient for him to write to Members; we need a wholehearted statement on how we can reconcile our recent courteousness to the regime with the fact that our armed forces are suffering and losing lives owing to the activities of the Iranian Government. How can the Government dismiss the charge, as they did yesterday in another debate, that we are appeasing this regime? Parliament is entitled to an explanation.

The Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office differ greatly on this matter. That has no doubt been aggravated by the fact that the Prime Minister considers the Secretary of State for Defence so unimportant that he is No. 23 in the Cabinet hierarchy. This is unacceptable. The former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Des Browne, occasionally admitted that he blamed Iran for some of the deaths of British soldiers, yet that issue has never been clarified by the Foreign Office. So what does the Foreign Office have to say about the fact that we are tolerating a regime that is facilitating the killing of our armed forces and service personnel?

The Government's response to the point about sanctions can only be described as pretty pathetic. They wrote:

"We judge that the sanctions introduced so far have sent a clear political signal to the Iranian regime."

A clear political signal—who is the Foreign Office kidding, especially given that, elsewhere in the response, it acknowledges that Iran is also facilitating the deaths of our armed forces personnel?

In an Adjournment debate this year, I described to the House of Commons how the UK had facilitated the transfer of funds from Iran, through London, to the United States to deceive the US regulatory authorities, so that the Iranian regime, under cloak and dagger, could purchase in north America technologies that it needed both to develop its nuclear side and—I believe—nuclear weapons, and to get around the existing US and EU sanctions regimes. The Government were seriously embarrassed. The particular perpetrator to which I am referring is Lloyds TSB, but other London-based banking institutions were also involved. Under the financial arrangement known as "stripping", there was a deliberate intent in London to deceive the US authorities. When I mentioned this to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, he did not argue that I was wrong, but said instead that the ground rules in London and the European Union had been altered. Again, that demonstrates the charge that we have been doing too little, too late; that we have appeased; that we have been asleep on the job. None the less, we have the audacity to say that other countries are not being resolute and strong in homing in on those who export terrorism and other things that involve loss of life around the world.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he specifically addresses the question of the export of weapons of terror to the Taliban and elsewhere. It is intolerable and unacceptable that this House should acquiesce in allowing the Government to put in a document, which is a year old, an acknowledgement that there is a problem but with no robust expression of outrage. I hope that the Minister will be much more discerning and critical of the advice furnished to him by officials. I hope he will stand up to Ministers more senior than him in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and No. 10 who, ridiculously, think they can buy off and placate the thoroughly rotten regime that exists in Tehran.

Presumably, in the Minister's brief there are references to Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf city. The residents are Iranian exiles who have been in Iraq for many years. After the collapse of Saddam's regime, they were given protected person status under the Geneva convention. To the credit of the United States of America, they have been safeguarded time and again, despite the Iranian regime putting increasing pressure on the fragile and wobbly Iraqi Government to expel them. In recent weeks and months, the harassment of those people has increased. The United States acknowledges that they have long since disarmed; none the less, there is a danger of their becoming the Cossacks of our generation. The Iranian regime could exert its disproportionate influence on the fragile Iraqi Government to ensure that those people are expelled back to Iran, where they would face the same consequences as the Cossacks faced in 1945 and 1946. The British Government have not shown the same resolution as the US military showed in recognising their moral, humanitarian and legal obligation to the people of Ashraf city. Will the Minister tell us what the latest position is on Ashraf, and recognise that we have obligations as signatories to the Geneva convention? We want to know that we are putting diplomatic and political pressure on the Iraqi Government to recognise their obligations under the fourth Geneva convention to safeguard the unarmed people of Ashraf city.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland) 4:25 pm, 9th July 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Andrew Mackinlay. I am speaking today both as an individual and chair of the British all-party group on Iran, which I have chaired for some three years. During that time, we have met with the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary, Ministers of State, members of the US State Department, Turkish and Syrian ambassadors, Members of the Iranian Government and Iranian clerics and academics, as well as other people who represent the interests of the area. In my short contribution, I should like to introduce some context to the matter, which has been missing right from the beginning.

The Iranian elections were, and are, a serious schism in the current problems that we face with the regime. I suppose that we could say that the lid has come off the pressure cooker. There was some bad reporting at the beginning. The BBC egos got off the plane in Iran and nudged out of the way the journalists who had been working very hard in the region for a long time, often when the rest of the world was not interested. When those egos stopped at the nearest polling station and saw women wearing lipstick, they assumed that there had already been an Iranian revolution. The expectations that came from the first reporting of the Iranian elections were unnaturally high. That explains why so many people attached themselves to Mousavi and pronounced him a great revolutionary reformist. They treated him as a "Hampstead liberal" and no doubt felt that if he was elected, everything would change. Most of the reports at the beginning came from north Tehran, which is the rich area where the Shahists and the elite of the regime used to live. They are the people who have suffered under the Ahmadinejad regime because of economic incompetence. So, we need to put that in perspective.

Next, we should consider the three candidates. Anyone who knew Mousavi when he was a Prime Minister would know that he is not campaigning for a completely European, liberal style democracy; he is a child of the regime. This election was predominantly about the competence of Ahmadinejad and not about whether he was a moderniser, a conservative or a reformer. General Rezaie, who was a founding member of Hezbollah and a senior general of the Revolutionary Guard, does not criticise the regimes of which he has been part lightly or easily.

What I found in Iran last year was that across the board, there was a coalition of people who felt that this President was not only destroying the country economically through his incompetence but damning the country to an isolation that would end up like that of North Korea. That anger at his incompetence built up during the election. When he did not even competently fix his own election, people felt that he had taken a step too far. It is possible that Ahmadinejad could have won the election. However, he would not have won it on a 60:40 basis, but he might have won it on a 51:49 basis. He might have had to go to a second round, but he could not even fix his own election. Last year, there was a debate in the Majlis in which he tried to install his son-in-law or brother-in-law as Minister of the Interior, but the Members blocked it, knowing what he was doing.

The three candidates were there to deliver change and hopefully to solve one of the west's real worries. As Iran is a non-party political state, it is very hard to do anything but deal with personalities, and personalities come and go in Iran. In the series "Iran and the West", the former Foreign Secretary, Mr. Straw dealt with the personalities in both the Iranian and American regimes. He had to hold the circle with a Bush Administration, which had to deal with Mr. Bolton on one day and General Powell on the next. There were personalities across the foreign policy divide, and it was very hard to get a settled foreign policy—it must have felt a bit like catching soap.

I would like to pay tribute to the European powers. The Foreign Office has been given a tough time throughout the debate, but it had to walk the line when no one knew whether the Americans were going to take the neo-con view of Mr. Bolton, or what view the Iranian regime, which swapped personalities in the same way, would take.

Interestingly, when we nearly got to a resolution on the nuclear issue, it fell apart on both sides of the table. The deputy Secretary of State of the United States left, and in came Mr. Bolton with his neo-con view of the world; off went Mr. Larijani and into the Iranian regime came someone of whom we had never heard.

Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

We met that somebody of whom the hon. Gentleman had never heard: his name is Jalili, and we had a very interesting, intense and frank discussion with him.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I was due to go to Iran last week before I was banned as part of the British conspiracy to overthrow the Government. I was due to meet the person of whom I had never heard, and it looks as though I will never get to hear of him.

The Foreign Office has done a good job of dealing with the problem I described, which has been exceptionally difficult, but we should also define what the terms moderniser, reformist and conservative mean in Iran. A conservative in Iran, by my reading, says that God will provide everything—God will provide democracy, and economic and social success. No one needs to do anything, because God will provide. The reformists that we talk about are not, I am sorry to say, Hampstead liberals. The reformists are people who say, "Let's follow China. Let's have an authoritarian state that will liberalise economically." That is the vast majority of people in the Iranian Government, and the vast majority of clerics and perhaps of the electorate. There are not many modernisers. Karroubi, the third presidential candidate, could perhaps be a moderniser because he shook hands with a woman once or twice and has different views.

We should also put in context the UK's role in this pantomime—that is what it is. Be under no illusion: Iran has a sort of twin track. People go through the motions. As the Chairman of the Committee will know, when one meets Iranians, their notebooks come out. Everyone copies everyone else's notes to ensure that no one can be accused of being a spy. That is the pantomime. It does not detract from the seriousness of some of Iran's measures, but Britain has a part in the pantomime. When a Danish newspaper published the cartoon insulting the Prophet Mohammed, Iranians did not get on a bus to the Danish embassy. The affair was seen as being the fault of the British, so they went down to the British embassy and stood outside, where they were given rocks to throw, and it was, "Let's pick on little Satan." We are that character in Iranian politics. We have something of a history and it is good to carry on exploiting that perception.

The BBC situation is quite interesting. The BBC Persian service sent the code words to trigger the 1953 coup to get rid of Mosaddeq, so it is perfectly understandable that those nasty parts of the regime who want to portray Britain as being part of the current situation use BBC Persia and say, "You see? They're at it again." We are the pantomime villain.

British embassy workers have been intimidated, bullied and arrested for years. Last year, the British Council was closed down and the British embassy was invaded— 150 people jumped over the fence and ran amok in the gardens. We did not hear about the invasion from the Foreign Office, mainly because it was trying its best to separate the hysteria and the pantomime from the reality. We should not forget that the UK has the role of pantomime villain. Sometimes we have to accept it, but sometimes we must draw a line.

We are not alone in the role. The second biggest enemy in Iran is not big Satan; historically, it is Russia.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that because of the pantomime he described, people make the great mistake of thinking that it is an irrational regime? We may not always understand it, but its actions are rational.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I agree, and that is one of the saddest things about this recent incident. People in the west underestimate Iran and vice versa.

We need to understand the Iranian people. There is great anger on the streets of Iran. When we were there, people perfectly openly criticised the regime. Just as the Chairman of the Committee said, people come up and say what they think. They say, "The man's a muppet and the regime shouldn't be allowed to do this or that." The Supreme Leader's brother criticised him last year and got beaten up, so people do break ranks, even if they do not necessarily do so in an organised manner. Because the political regime does not allow party politics, there is very little collective protection for people who want to espouse such views.

Iranian people are very suspicious of foreign intervention, and we have to be cautious in our solutions. Russia and Britain have form—the US's form is rather nouveau riches. We have to be cautious. Foreign intervention such as a big stamp of approval for Mr. Mousavi would do him and hope of reform no good whatever.

We must not underestimate the nationalistic nature of Iranian people. Iran is not like Iraq. It is not made up of Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd areas on a rather artificial map that was pretty much drawn up by the British not so long ago; it is a nation state that feels like a nation state, and it is predominantly dominated by Shi'ism. Whether Iranians are pro-Shah or conservative, we should not underestimate their strength of feeling for their country.

When we were in Iran last summer, we met some American Iranians who go over every summer to help the Iranian health service. They are Shahists and cannot stand the regime, but they do what they do because they feel that they will be contributing to their country. When considering the measures to take to deal with Iran and any extreme action, we should remember not to underestimate the national pride of Iranian people.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Thurrock and my hon. Friend Mr. Binley about the Mujahidin-e-Khalq or PMOI. None of the millions who protested in the streets was protesting for the restoration of the MEK, and no one wanted the PMOI to be allowed a role in Iranian politics. The Supreme Leader—the second President—was blown in half by the PMOI. It is a Marxist organisation. It has not been active because its people have been sitting in a camp after fighting for Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I do not want Her Majesty's Government to do business with such an organisation. As in Iraq, we must ask ourselves whether our enemy's enemy is our friend. Have we forgotten the lessons of history? We should be very careful with whom we do business.

Let us remember that the US re-proscribed the PMOI in February. We only have to read the evidence, which is submitted and published online, to realise that the US has not moved much on the PMOI.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

To make it clear, all I want is the PMOI to be able to put up candidates in elections. That is what is being denied to it. As with many organisations historically and in Europe and elsewhere, it is an umbrella organisation. The hon. Gentleman was wrong to say that the organisation is Marxist, but I do not want to labour the point. The PMOI contains clerics and secularists, and people of the left and of the right. All it wants is the right to seek election in a free, democratic Iran.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland)

As I understand it, there is a process that makes it open to former terrorists to join democratic processes, just like the process that we have been through with the IRA and Sinn Fein. However, I do not believe that the PMOI is the driver for reforming Iran. It is not credible in that way. People have long memories in Iran, and I do not believe that the PMOI is the tool or the vehicle for reform. If the hon. Gentleman's argument is that we should allow and encourage Iran to move to a freer, more democratic state, I agree with him. However, when he listed people who abuse human rights and resist democracy, he left out all the Arab states surrounding Iran. When are the elections, and where are the democratic accountability and human rights, in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Those countries are not only our foreign policy allies; we are selling arms to them.

Hypocrisy is a matter of fact in the middle east. I am happy to say, "Yes, I am a hypocrite," because I am a pragmatist, but let us not say, "Iran is absolutely evil because it doesn't respect human rights in the same way." It does not, and that is wrong—it needs to correct itself and be corrected by others—but neither do some of our allies, and we must face up to that and decide what our priorities are.

We need to contextualise the religious struggle in Iran. It is not new. It must be understood that Shi'ism plays a major role in the development and direction of Iran as a theocracy, and always has. Within Shi'ism is a debate that goes back about 200 years, if not longer, focusing on the phrase "velayat-e faqih". I cannot pronounce it particularly well; I will give Hansard the quote. It means, effectively, the balance between secular and religious. It is either the limited or absolute guardianship of the Islamic jurist in Shi'ism, which basically says, "While you wait for the 12th imam to appear, who runs the country?"

Some clerics believe that they run it in its entirety with the authority of the imam. Other clerics—not all the clerics are vicars, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South said—are reasoned, reforming people. Shi'ism is about reform. It is not like Wahabism, which is about going backwards; it is a long-held debate. Karroubi is an ayatollah. He is not agreed with, but he is a senior, learned cleric. One does not become a cleric in Iran by taking some correspondence course in Alabama and calling oneself right reverend. We should understand that ideological debate.

For me, the saddest day of the recent incident was the Friday three weeks ago when, during prayers, the Supreme Leader got off his independence view and pronounced that his views were effectively closer to those of reigning President Ahmadinejad than to others'. The "others" were really Rafsanjani. He was sending a coded message that he wanted to use his role to guide and run the country according to a religious view.

The people who disagree with that say, "No one can replicate the imams. Humans do what humans do, and clerics guide religion, but we're not going to interfere." The strong side of Shi'a politics is driven by that. One modern-day champion of it, ironically, was Ayatollah Khomeini, who wrote all about it in opposition. That is how he built a coalition for the revolution with Marxists, socialists and everybody else. Unfortunately, when he got to power—power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—he went from limited to absolute. That is the challenge, and we must recognise it. The problem is the ticking time bomb of the nuclear clock. Without the nuclear worry, we could let things play their course. We could take steps to ensure that terrorism was not exported and so on. Unfortunately, the nuclear issue creates urgency. We are in a serious and difficult place.

Ms Stuart said that the regime was a rational and calculating one. I believed that right up until the elections. We have heard a lot of criticism, but the question is what to do. A lot of people in this debate have said, "The Foreign Office is appalling," or "Iran is appalling." So what? What are we going to do about it? That is the question. The worry today, which basically explains the silence of the UK and the US, is assessment. Is the regime still ruling by consent, and is it capable of delivering anything in a negotiation anyway? Is the country split down the middle? Is the religious establishment split, and even some of the revolutionary guards?

My understanding is that the Ministries in the Whitehall of Tehran are split. The Ministry of the Interior is intimidating people; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs either has been left out in the cold or is not as engaged. If they are all over the place, that is the worry. Who are we going to sit around a table with, and if we do, can they deliver anyway? That is my fear about developing foreign policy for the next few months or years. It explains why both America and Britain have done their best to stay out of it: they need to assess it and work it out.

I have some fears. I do not understand why both the Foreign Affairs Committee's report and the Foreign Office's response contain no indication that what happened at the election was going to happen. Fixing an election is a pretty tough job. I did not see any indication. I never got any briefings saying, "We think this election will be rigged." No one saw it coming. Are we not putting enough resource into our intelligence community, or is it looking elsewhere? We need forewarning of such issues. We must ask ourselves what works.

Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock

Due to the unfortunate way that Parliament works, the reports are more than a year old. Also, the hon. Gentleman made the valid point that we were not given any warning about the elections. That is part of my point. The Foreign Office is flawed. It is the same Foreign Office that misread Mugabe's great success in 1979-80 and thought that the Greeks would approve the Annan plan because they were told by the Brits to do so. Now the Foreign Office has got it wrong by misreading the so-called Iranian election. The Foreign Office's judgment is flawed.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the British foreign policy track record is riven with failures, but it is also riven with successes. We do not always hear that. Also, we have to have a Foreign Office. There is no other solution. There is no such thing as do-it-yourself foreign policy.

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston

On the very day of the elections, a respected commentator said on the BBC, "The real difference between the Iranian elections and the Russian elections is that you can't tell in advance who's going to win the Iranian elections." If the Foreign Office got it wrong, so did everybody else. It was in good company.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I understand that, but the simple logistics of moving around ballot boxes and printing millions of ballot papers must have left some trace, especially in Tabriz, which is not friendly to Ahmadinejad. Maybe they all just got the ballot papers and went into a new room at counting central. I do not know. But it would have been useful if we had had some idea what was going to happen. Maybe the Foreign Office knew but kept it secret; maybe it was not for us to know until after the event.

We have heard sanctions mentioned as the option. I have a deep suspicion of sanctions, not because I do not think that they work—they do, in the right places—but because of Iran's trading partners, such as Japan, China and Russia. The challenge that Britain, America and France face is that no one else is playing ball. The missiles being fired and tested from Iran are potent not because they go up and down—North Korea does the up-and-down bit—but because of where they land. The guidance systems in the missiles are sold to the Iranians by the Chinese. The systems in the land missiles that could close down the straits of Hormuz and the missiles fired from Lebanon by Hezbollah that hit an Israeli frigate were Chinese. The Chinese have sold $7 billion worth of arms to Iran since 2000. People are not playing ball.

Russia just re-fitted two of Iran's submarines. Actually, they were not very good, so the Iranians sent them back to be done again. The Russians are trading with Iran, as are the Germans and Italians. A few months ago, the Italian Foreign Minister encouraged Italians to do more business with Iran. What the Iranians see in that is a split, weak European and western coalition that does not work. If sanctions do not work and the Supreme Leader believes that they are a good thing for maintaining the purity of the country—he has said so in many speeches—how much effect will they have on the regime?

If we could not prevent North Korea, Pakistan and other countries from developing the bomb, one must ask how effective we are and whether we are putting our effort in the right place. Should we not be rattling the stick at the other partners in the world to ensure that we have proper sanctions? Of course we are angry with the Iranian regime, but our resources should be spent on persuading China, Russia and the European Union to get on with it and stop sitting on the fence. The question of sanctions constantly undermines us.

Interestingly, Oman, one of Britain's partners in the gulf, recently signed a security pact with Iran. On one hand, Britain is about to sell two new frigates to Oman, but on the other, Oman has just signed a security pact with Iran. Where are we going? We need to ensure that we have a united voice and put a lot of effort into getting there. I do not believe in regime change through the MEK or terrorist organisations. That would take us to the wrong place, as the example of Iraq shows. Relying on intelligence is often unreliable.

There are challenges for us. We must send a message to the Iranians not to underestimate us. Just because they can capture a few sailors in a boat and break our sanctions, they should not underestimate the sleeping lion that is Britain. We should be funding our armed forces—our stick. We have a carrot and a stick. We have offered a lot of carrot, but our stick looks weak and underfunded. Our armed forces are being cut. We cannot tell Iran that we have a stick with any credibility when we do not have enough aeroplanes. We need to be strong in saying that we have a stick, but offer carrots to demonstrate that we understand how Iran works and not just how we want it to work.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 4:51 pm, 9th July 2009

It is a pleasure to follow Mr. Wallace, who has great expertise on this issue. I am sure that all hon. Members enjoyed his remarks. I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman on his introduction to the debate and on the work of his Committee in producing this well-researched and thorough report. It has led to an important and lively debate this afternoon. Unfortunately, it is almost 18 months since the report's publication. Although it might have been helpful to debate it earlier, sadly, many of the conclusions still apply.

Paragraph 109 illustrates the thrust of the report in the recommendation that there be a wholesale recasting of Iran's

"relationship with the international community, particularly with the United States and European Union."

We all felt a sense of elation when President Obama was elected. In his foreign policy moves thus far, he seems be pursuing a more positive path on the world stage and extending an open hand. The international community is therefore effectively following the Select Committee's recommendation, but the response has not been encouraging, to say the least. However, the international community is taking the correct approach and it must be given a chance to work. President Obama's and Joe Biden's recent restatement of that intention is welcome.

The most important recent event in Iran is the election. I agree with the Government's position that the will of the Iranian people should be upheld, as should be the case in any democratic election. I was just as critical of President Bush's first election victory, because I believed that the will of the American people had been usurped. There are serious questions over the Iranian election. Andrew Mackinlay rightly raised the problem that half of the population was ineligible to stand for the presidency. Such discrimination against women is not welcome in any country. Regardless of what we in the UK say about the election, many Iranians want answers. They are the people who matter the most, because they had the right to cast the votes and should be able to ensure that they were counted correctly.

We have all seen the protests on television and on YouTube. We have followed them online on various internet sites. Regardless of who won the election and what we think about it, the horrendous violence we have seen on our screens is cause for great concern. In a sense, it is wonderful that citizens have been empowered to report and communicate the news themselves through a variety of mobile technologies. At the same time, that has put many disturbing images into the public domain. In general, it is positive to see people anywhere in the world empowered by such new technology.

It is too early to say where we are in the post-election situation. It has been reported that there might be more protests today because it is the 10th anniversary of the crackdown on the student protests. Professor Ali Ansari, who gave evidence to the Select Committee, was quoted in The Times this week saying that the situation is nowhere near resolved. I suspect that he, as an esteemed expert on Iran, is right. It is difficult to predict what will happen, and we will have to watch as events unfold. The one exception is that when British nationals are held in Iran, we must make strong representations for them to be released. That is unacceptable and the Government are right to pursue such action with all possible haste.

I was taken by the analysis of the election by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. There has been a certain reaction in Britain to seeing protestors and people rallying around the reform cause. Because of the news story about the protests, there has not been much analysis of the policies of the presidential candidates. It is right that what we would perceive as reform is not what was on offer from Mousavi. There was not a great choice for reform. All the candidates had to be approved in advance by the existing structures in Iran. Whatever the outcome of the election, the nuclear issue would not have gone away because there was consensus on it among the candidates. Although we should watch the developments with the election, the bigger issues were always going to remain. The nuclear issue is one of the greatest foreign policy challenges faced by the world.

I agree with the analysis of Ms Stuart that the regime acts in a fairly rational way. If one puts oneself in the shoes of the Iranians, it is clear that there are many reasons why they should pursue a nuclear weapons capability. In the same region, Israel has nuclear arms and there is no love lost between the two states. There is also an issue of status and the desire to be seen as a world player. The threat has diminished with the Obama regime, but when Bush was in power there was a real prospect of an American invasion, especially considering what happened in Iraq. We need to recognise and understand that reality if we are to reduce the danger.

The Select Committee's subsequent report on non-proliferation is welcome. Worryingly, it states that there has been rapid progress in Iran towards further enrichment and the expansion of centrifuges. We do not know what stage the process is at, or how many months or years away the Iranians are from acquiring a nuclear capability. There is a danger that if that happened, it would have a domino effect in a region where there are already heightened tensions. The next steps after Iran obtains a nuclear weapon do not bear thinking about. The potential disasters are immense. Other middle eastern states might want to acquire nuclear weapons. Given that we want to stop nuclear proliferation and reduce nuclear capabilities across the globe, Iran's nuclear programme is very worrying. We have not done ourselves any favours by committing to replacing Trident when there was no need to do so, given the lifespan of the current submarines. Doing that just before going to the 2010 non-proliferation conference seems bizarre. Surely, we want to go to that conference being able to negotiate and say that our nuclear weapons are on the table.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want to give the impression internationally that there is an equivalence between British foreign policy in any respect and the actions of the Iranian Government. That would be extremely damaging and I am sure she is not trying to do that, but it is important to make that clear in this debate.

Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs)

I do not think for a second that I was making that link. I am saying that our position in non-proliferation talks around the world will surely be stronger if we are prepared to talk about reducing our nuclear weapons arsenal. That would give us much more power in negotiations. Surely, if it looks as though the main nuclear players are reducing their arsenals, that will reduce the pressure on countries such as Iran and others that are thinking of going nuclear to try to join the club, as it were. We have seen the success of such a strategy with President Obama's decision to put American nuclear weapons on the table in discussions with Russia. In a sense, the best possible and only positive way of using nuclear weapons is to use them to negotiate away other nuclear weapons.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked what we should do, and that question was well posed. We can discuss the problems and say what the difficulties are, but what are the real options? The Committee has said of the military option:

"We remain of the view that such a military strike would be unlikely to succeed and could provoke an extremely violent backlash across the region."

I strongly agree, because I think that that would be a dangerous road to go down. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has said that he is 100 per cent. behind the diplomatic track, although I note that the Government have not entirely ruled out the possibility of supporting a future US military strike. That would be dangerous territory and we should not go down that route: it would strengthen the position of the extremists and is not the right way forward.

So, we then look at the sanctions regime, which, as has been discussed, is not working well. A united approach from the E3 plus 3 is vital to that regime, but the approach is not as united as we might want, because of the loopholes that exist. We must continue and increase our efforts to encourage countries such as Russia and China to recognise the threat and to play ball—to borrow a phrase. As I have said, Obama's overtures to Russia are good news, such as his offer to scrap the "Son of Star Wars" project if the Russians help him in halting Iran's proliferation. Russia is a key player, and it would be great if we could get its help in getting Iran to negotiate, and in making progress. We have to accept that the UK's influence in this matter is not at its peak, given the current diplomatic situation, and that it might best be used in looking at what influence other countries can bring to bear.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, Sir John Stanley talked about the Government's analysis of the training and support being given to insurgents and the Taliban in Afghanistan by Iran in particular. That issue is cause for great concern. I note from the reports that there has been correspondence, in addition to what the Government have been able to discuss publicly, which could not be published in the public domain for understandable security reasons. I would be interested to hear whether the Committee is satisfied with the Government's responses on that aspect. It is rather difficult for those of us who have not seen that correspondence to judge. In general terms, I will say that there is a delicate balance to be struck, and that security concerns have to come first, but that it would be helpful if the Government tried as much as they could to put information in the public domain where possible.

I will touch on human rights only briefly because we had an excellent debate on that issue yesterday in this Chamber. The report concludes that Iran's human rights record is shocking, as we heard in detail yesterday in relation to religion and the treatment of the Baha'i, Christians and Jews. We also heard about the persecution of and discrimination against women for various perfectly reasonable behaviours, about the persecution of anyone who disagrees with the prevailing political views, and about the horrendous executions of minors by the state. Obviously, there is a range of human rights problems in Iran.

We did not have much time yesterday to go into detail about gay and lesbian Iranians being deported from the UK to Iran, and I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on that. In June 2008, the then Home Secretary said that there was no "real risk" to homosexuals who were deported to Iran if they behaved "discreetly". The suggestion that it is fine to deport someone to a place where they would have to hide such a key aspect of themselves to avoid being tortured does not fit with my judgment of what is appropriate. The Home Office guidance says that

"it is not accepted that there is systematic repression of gay men and lesbians" in Iran, but, since 1979 in Iran, there have been 4,000 state executions of people for being gay. If that is not systematic repression, I do not know what is.

I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments on these difficult and sensitive issues. Like everyone else, I await the outcome of the current unrest in Iran and wait to see what will happen there, but I should like to note the remarks made by hon. Members and by the academic Karim Sadjadpour in evidence to the Select Committee. Mr. Sadjadpour said that

"despite the fact that a seeming majority of Iranians favor a more tolerant, democratic system, there is little evidence to suggest that in the event of a sudden uprising it would be Iranian democrats who come to power."

We should all bear that in mind when we watch what is happening on our television screens. The future is clearly uncertain, with extreme dangers in relation to nuclear proliferation and the escalation of regional tensions, but I maintain, none the less, that the correct way forward must still be diplomacy and extending that open hand. I hope that that approach can be successful.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 5:07 pm, 9th July 2009

First, I congratulate the Select Committee on its report and couple with that my expression of hope that we can somehow reform parliamentary procedures so that Select Committee reports as important as this one can be debated in a more timely fashion. I encourage Mike Gapes and his colleagues to continue their inquiries into the role of Iran in international affairs, because its position in its region and in the debate on nuclear proliferation will continue to be a pressing foreign policy priority for the present and future British Governments.

Like the hon. Member for Ilford, South, I have found that a visit to Iran, with experiences such as taking tea under the bridges in Isfahan, going through the bazaars in Tehran, or discovering the phenomenon of blogging ayatollahs, quickly dispels the easy caricatures that are too often portrayed. Iran is a very complex country with an intriguing blend of modern and ancient elements. It has a system of government that even the most experienced academic and diplomatic experts find hard to penetrate and understand fully.

Like others, I shall not dwell at length on human rights in Iran, or on the debacle of the recent presidential election results, except to say to the Minister that as Iran is a party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, and given that it, as a member of the United Nations, will be subject to periodic reviews by the United Nations Human Rights Council, I hope that Ministers will continue to press, through the appropriate international forums, for Iran to be held to the treaties that it has signed and ratified.

I was very disappointed when, soon after the presidential election result was declared, I read that the UN Human Rights Council had decided not to hold a special session to inquire into the election. That will do damage to the reputation of the council as a new United Nations institution and I hope that the United Kingdom will try to gather support among other countries to reopen that particular issue at the UN.

My right hon. Friend Sir John Stanley spoke with great passion about the position of the British embassy staff in Tehran. Although I share the relief of all hon. Members that all but one staff member has been released, it is still utterly unacceptable that any members of our diplomatic staff in Tehran should remain under threat of prosecution. I am less sanguine than some about the position of our fellow member states of the European Union in relation to that and I hope the Minister will be able to provide some reassurance on that point.

When the presidency of the EU shifted from the Czech Republic to Sweden, there was a distinct cooling of ardour about putting in place firm diplomatic responses to the threat being made against our staff. Within 24 hours, once the Iranians had said that they were going to bring charges against the staff member who was still being kept in detention, the new presidency did start to take a tougher line—and I have a high regard for the experience and the diplomatic skill of Carl Bildt—but I very much hope that the British Government will not let up the pressure at all upon our European Union colleagues.

If the EU response to the detention of our staff is seen to be limp and if countries are looking for ways to avoid measures—for example, if we believe that the withdrawal of all EU ambassadors is necessary as a demonstration of how strongly we take the matter—that will not only make life more difficult for British embassy staff now and in the future, but the hardliners in Tehran will draw their own conclusions and life will become more risky for the representatives of other EU nations. That matter is important. I hope that the Minister will also take seriously the points that my right hon. Friend made about looking at the Geneva conventions and seeing whether we should be able to protect our locally engaged staff who are at risk by moving them into the category that he advocated, so that greater protection is provided under those conventions.

The truth is that whatever the outcome of the present crisis, it will be in the interests of the United Kingdom that we continue to engage with Iran. Whatever the outcome of the crisis in Tehran, we in Britain will have to engage with the reality of Iranian national interests and Iran's desire to assert itself as an important power within its region. My hon. Friend Mr. Wallace reminded us that it is simply wrong to view Mr. Mousavi as being in some way a western democrat who is committed to western liberal ideas. He is, indeed, a child of the revolution and his time in office as Prime Minister did not show the record of a man who was committed to liberal reforms in the way that they would be understood in Britain or elsewhere in the west. A Mousavi presidency would be committed to Iran's nuclear programme and to the assertion of Iranian national interest.

My hon. Friend was also right to warn us that demographic change, which is having an increasing effect upon society in Iran, does not necessarily mean a more liberal approach, particularly to foreign policy. I believe that young people in Iran will very much want to have a greater say in how their country is run, but the Chinese precedent suggests that aspirations on the part of a young generation for better standards of material well-being can be coupled with a fervent patriotism that shades at times into quite aggressive nationalism. We have seen that in relation to some of the young Han Chinese reactions to the disturbances in Tibet last year.

Our interest is not in Iran changing its regime—whatever we might think of it—but in trying to secure changes to Iran's behaviour, both domestically in terms of respect for human rights and, critically for this debate, in how Iran conducts its foreign policy within its region and more generally. Iran's nuclear programme must be at the centre of our concerns. Before this debate, I read through the most recent IAEA report, which was published on 5 June and was based on an inspection carried out on 19 May this year. The report demonstrated that Iran still refuses to co-operate fully with what the international inspectors require. In a letter of 3 May this year, Iran informed the agency that it would not permit "design information verifications" at the Iran nuclear research reactor. Iran refused to grant the IAEA access to reactor 40 for the Iranian Government's own reasons. The IAEA concluded that that

"could adversely impact the Agency's ability to carry out effective safeguards at that facility".

In addition, Iran made it difficult for the agency to report further on the construction of the reactor, despite that having been requested by the United Nations Security Council. I could go on to provide a significantly longer list of details from that report.

As with other countries who are signatories to the non-proliferation treaty, the NPT gives Iran the right to develop a civil nuclear programme. However, I want to be confident in a way that I am not at the moment that the international community can trust Iran to develop a civil nuclear energy programme and to observe all the requirements of the NPT. Iran's renunciation of the additional protocol and its refusal to co-operate with the international inspectors is set against the background of a nuclear programme that was begun and developed covertly, which is itself a breach of treaty requirements, and that will inevitably perpetuate mistrust.

If the Iranian programme goes ahead, hon. Members have talked about there being a threat of nuclear proliferation in the middle east and about Israel perceiving that there is an existential threat to its very survival. However, it is not only Iran's nuclear programme that should concern us. Today, we have debated Iran's role in Afghanistan—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling particularly talked about that. In many ways, it would seem odd for the Iranian Government to be seeking to help the Taliban. The Iranians originally gave some assistance to the coalition when action to overthrow the Taliban regime in Kabul was first taken in 2001. The Taliban are largely Sunni. Iran has had to face major problems from the narcotics trade and from the influx of refugees as a consequence of disorder and violence in Afghanistan.

I would be interested to hear the Minister's assessment of the motives for Iran's support of the Taliban. Do the British Government believe that Iran is still actively engaged in supplying munitions and other forms of help to the Taliban to fight coalition forces, including our own? What is Iran's current relationship with the Taliban?

Iran has also shown that it is capable of playing a malign role in other parts of the region such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf. Only a few months ago, there was an overt reference by a senior Iranian leader to Bahrain's being legitimately a province of Iran rather than an independent state. That statement understandably caused huge concern among all the Arab members of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

It seems that the objectives of British policy must be to try to secure a satisfactory outcome to the crisis over Iran's nuclear programme but also to try to bring about, through diplomatic means, a system of regional security and co-operation in which Iran is willing to play a constructive rather than a malign role, but a system in which Iran's genuine national interests are also recognised.

The problem that we have is one that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to, which is the limited number of policy options that, in reality, are available to the United Kingdom. Despite what has happened in the past few weeks, I still believe that President Obama's approach is the right one. There is an enormous prize to be won through engagement—that of deflecting Iran from a nuclear weapons programme—and it carries with it a prize for the Iranian people of engagement with the outside world and modernisation of their economy, and even a prize for the regime in the form of the end of regime change as a suspected objective of United States policy.

I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes, as some have argued, that the attacks on Britain—the use of slogans in recent weeks denouncing the little Satan rather than the great Satan—are actually a peculiar coded way of Iran's signalling to Washington that it still wishes to explore the possibilities of engagement. Or have the British Government made a more pessimistic assessment of what is happening?

On the nuclear issue, it seems that we need to persuade Iran, if we can, to accept suspension of its enrichment programme, although I think that that will be extraordinarily hard if not impossible to achieve, given the public statements made by so many Iranian leaders. If that fails, we may have to deal at some time in the next few years with the reality of an Islamic republic that has achieved control of the nuclear fuel cycle but which has perhaps stopped short of a weapons programme. If that is the world in which we find ourselves, would we be able to interpose between that stage and breakout to weaponisation some system of checks and warnings that would provide at least a measure of regional security?

Finally—this is the worst-case option—are the Foreign Office and other parts of the Government thinking about what to do if we wake up one day and find that we are confronted with an Iran that has nuclear weapons, in the way that North Korea and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons? It is not too early for policy makers in Britain, elsewhere in Europe and in America to be drawing up contingency plans and thinking through policy options in such circumstances.

For the time being, the main policy option, however imperfect, seems to be economic sanctions. I find it frustrating that the Prime Minister spoke well over a year ago in a Mansion house speech about new sanctions being imposed at European level on oil and gas investment and on export credit guarantees, but that they have still not been agreed by the EU. In fact, the converse is true: some two thirds of Iran's foreign trade is with EU countries.

There are more measures that we could take on finance, as Andrew Mackinlay suggested, and I would hope that in the wake of what happened in the presidential elections, we would also look at trade with Iran in information technology. I was disturbed to read reports that the software that was used to filter and monitor internet and mobile traffic within Iran after the elections, and to make life difficult for the demonstrators and the opposition, was supplied by Siemens. I do not know whether that is true, but it was reported in the US by quite serious sources. I hope that the EU will at least review its policy and see whether it needs to tighten up controls on that type of trade.

Looking further ahead, if President Obama's outstretched hand does not meet with the kind of response that we would hope for, if Iran continues to press forward with its nuclear programme, we will have to look at sanctions that go even further and which would have the effect of isolating Iran as completely as possible from the normal contacts of the global economy.

My final point is that if we are starting to think about how the international community would deal with an Iran that had obtained control of the nuclear fuel cycle or worse, we need to be looking also at very public security guarantees. They would be primarily from the US rather than European powers, but clear, unmistakable security guarantees, not just to Israel but to several Arab countries, would be essential to try to prevent nuclear proliferation in this fragile and tense region of the world, which I believe is the nightmare that we all wish to avoid.

Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 5:28 pm, 9th July 2009

I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on securing this debate and my hon. Friend Mike Gapes on his able, eloquent presentation of the content of the report. It is regrettable that it was published so long ago. Indeed, even the Foreign Office response is considerably in the past.

The debate has shown the House at its best. The quality of the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members has illustrated not only the importance of this issue to British strategic interests, but the fact that it is incredibly difficult to analyse. Mr. Wallace said, in a thoughtful speech, that the challenge for us is what we do—not how we pontificate or analyse, but what we actually do in the interests of this country, in the interests of stability in the middle east, and in the interests of the international community. That, frankly, is the responsibility that falls to people who hold office, and it is one that we must take very seriously indeed in the current climate.

As has been said, we are all trying to weigh up the implications of recent events in Iran, not only for Iran but for the wider international community. There is undoubtedly a widespread feeling that something has changed following the election, with the subsequent action of the people and, unfortunately, the violent clampdown on dissent that we saw on the streets of Tehran. If we are honest, it is far too early to say with any precision what the consequences will be and whether there will be significant changes in the direction or the posture of the Iranian Republic. However, this is an appropriate moment to reflect on what has happened and remind ourselves of the serious issues that we are faced with.

The eyes of the world have been on Iran in recent times. In the run-up to the elections, we were all struck by the passionate, vigorous debate that took place in that country. The future of the Republic was debated live on television, in the streets and across the internet. The choice may not have been as open as it should have been—my hon. Friend Andrew Mackinlay made that important point—but we have to acknowledge that it was a choice, none the less. The contrast between the period of relative openness preceding the elections and the violent clampdown that has followed is striking.

I cannot know who won the Iranian election; no right hon. or hon. Member here today can know that. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been clear from day one that the decision on who should be President of Iran is not one for the British Government: it is a matter for the Iranian people alone. We do know that the legitimacy of the result that was first announced on 13 June and later endorsed by the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council has been challenged extensively from within Iran. It has been challenged by a groundswell of feeling from Iranians who feel that their vote has not been counted and that their voice has not been heard. They are not a few lone figures calling from the sidelines, but hundreds of thousands of people right across Iran, supported on occasions by senior figures from within the leadership of that Republic.

It is difficult to get a clear picture of what happened, but the priority surely must be for the Iranian Government to restore the Iranian people's confidence in the electoral process by fully investigating the alleged irregularities. Whether confidence can be restored when the body in charge of investigating the elections announces that it is content to accept a turnout of more than 100 per cent. in 50 Iranian cities remains to be seen.

What of the authorities' response to the demonstrations that followed the election? I have been appalled by the violence used against peaceful protesters. Deaths of demonstrators are deplorable. We have seen the right to assemble and the right to free speech effectively removed through violence, intimidation and threat. The violent clampdown has undoubtedly affected Iran's standing in the eyes of the world. We should not forget that Iran frequently makes demands for respect on an equal basis from the international community. Those demands are undermined in any situation where a Government fail to respect the rights of their own people and fail to address their legitimate concerns.

Since the election, we have seen even further erosion and deterioration in the outlook for human rights in Iran, but, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, recent events must be set within a broader context. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me for briefly reiterating some of the specific points on human rights in Iran that were made in yesterday's debate. Iran's human rights record is well documented and is, to be frank, appalling. It has the highest execution rate per capita of any country worldwide and juvenile executions continue apace. Despite Iran's history of tolerance and the rich, diverse mix of religion and ethnic groups that make up Iranian society, religious and ethnic minorities are subject to persecution, intimidation, arbitrary detention and denial of education.

Even before the recent unrest began, the Iranian authorities had arrested large numbers of teachers, women's rights activists, students, trade unionists and ethnic minorities on the dubious, spurious charges of issuing "propaganda against the Islamic Republic", "acting against national security" and "organising illegal gatherings." As I said earlier, that clampdown has increased markedly in recent weeks. More than 1,000 demonstrators and several political and opposition leaders have been arrested. As right hon. and hon. Members know, nine of our own locally engaged staff have also been arrested. I will come to that in a moment.

Through those arrests and the unjustified expulsion of two of our diplomats, the UK has felt some of the force of the clampdown suffered by Iranian citizens. We need constantly to put on record that the British embassy in Tehran has played no role in the post-election demonstrations in Iran. The Iranian claims are absurd and entirely without foundation. In fact, they are a clear and obvious attempt to distract attention from what has clearly been an Iranian reaction to an Iranian internal issue.

My disappointment—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has described his own "cold anger"—is that what we face is not mere rhetoric from Iran. As hon. Members including my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South mentioned, nine hard-working, dedicated members of our embassy staff in Iran have been forced to endure intimidation, harassment and detention simply because of where they work. The Iranian authorities have taken action that is entirely unacceptable and completely without justification.

Rather than question the international community, we should thank and praise it for the solidarity that it has demonstrated alongside Britain in the face of that action by the Iranian authorities. I acknowledge here today the unified support and action that the European Union has given. Iran has seen that action against one EU member state will be treated as action against all. That is a good example of EU action and it should not be undermined. To date, we know that eight staff have been released and one remains in detention. Securing his release remains our top priority. We hope that that will happen soon.

I cannot answer the specific question asked by Sir John Stanley, who brings tremendous experience and gravitas to this debate, on whether the status of any of the staff was changed in advance of the election and the difficult period that we faced, but I will investigate and write to him. On the general risk assessment that has to be made, we have a clear priority duty to protect all the people who represent our country in any capacity in any part of the world. However, adjusting or readjusting individual status has to be based on risk assessment by the professionals at the appropriate time. We cannot get into sweeping generalisations about such judgments, but I will write to the right hon. Gentleman setting out exactly what action was taken.

We will continue to press Iran hard to give us assurances that our staff will not be charged at any time in future simply for carrying out their professional responsibilities, and that they will be able to return to work without fear of harassment or threat. We want a broad-based, constructive bilateral relationship with Iran, but it is for Iran to choose the relationship that it has with the UK. I hope that in future Iran chooses a different path from the one we have seen it pursue in recent weeks.

Any positive progress on the nuclear issue is likely to come through tough diplomacy, which can only proceed if Iran is prepared to accept, clearly and unequivocally, its international obligations. The UK and the wider international community remain deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme. Five United Nations Security Council resolutions require Iran to suspend enrichment, co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and answer outstanding questions about the nature of its programme. The Prime Minister made it clear on 17 March that Iran has a right to civil nuclear power, but to claim what is rightfully available to it, Iran must recognise and act on the obligations to which it has committed itself under the non-proliferation treaty. However, Iran continues to refuse to meet those obligations and is ignoring the Security Council.

As Mr. Lidington said, it is abundantly clear that Iran is not meeting its obligations, and the latest report from the director general of the IAEA also makes that clear. Iran is still not co-operating fully with the agency or granting the access that it seeks and is required. The IAEA made it clear that Iran is increasing its enrichment capabilities, which is totally contrary to the Security Council's requirements, and confirmed that Iran has still not answered questions about the possible military dimensions of its programme. We simply cannot have confidence in the intentions of a country that acts in that way.

The Foreign Affairs Committee's report, which was the trigger for today's debate, argued at the time for a significant change in US policy towards Iran. It is a visionary Committee, and we have now seen the change advocated by the report. I am sure that President Obama and his senior personnel pored over the report. The Select Committee urged the American Administration to adopt an entirely different position. President Obama's Administration have made it abundantly clear that they will engage directly with Iran, and play a full role in all diplomatic efforts. That has undoubtedly reinvigorated the E3 plus 3 diplomatic process. US involvement fundamentally changes what is available to Iran if it co-operates, but as yet, sadly and regrettably, Iran has made no positive response to the renewed E3 plus 3 invitation to enter into negotiations on the nuclear programme.

I emphasise three points. First, the onus is on Iran and now is the time to take positive steps towards taking up the E3 plus 3's offer. The E3 plus 3 have reaffirmed their commitment to the diplomatic process; the US has made it clear that it will play a full role in talks; and the international community has fully recognised Iran's right to civil nuclear power. We cannot and should not allow Iran to make the same old arguments to delay talks. Those historic arguments are simply no longer valid.

Secondly, the offer to negotiate will not be on the table indefinitely. The US has made it clear that the hand will not be outstretched for ever. We should not be prepared to wait and wait for an answer from Iran while it advances its nuclear plans. That is not acceptable.

Thirdly, Iran cannot expect a decision not to respond positively to the E3 plus 3 to be cost free. The implications of recent events for progress on the nuclear issue are not yet clear, but it is clear that we must see positive steps from Iran very soon. It is also clear that hard-headed diplomacy may be needed to reach the destination to which we remain 100 per cent. committed—a diplomatic resolution to the issue that assures us of Iran's intentions in its nuclear programme.

The regional consequences of Iran's actions are crucial to peace and stability in the middle east, which is why it is so important to UK interests. Iran seeks respect on the world stage and a position of influence in its region. It claims that it wants and is working for a secure and stable middle east. The UK believes that Iran does indeed have legitimate interests in the middle east, and we want a secure and prosperous Iran pursuing its legitimate interests in the region constructively and co-operatively, but its behaviour is often completely at odds with its professed intentions. Its means of attaining influence often entirely undermine its rhetoric and claims to respect.

For example, Iranian rhetoric claims that only Iran cares for the Palestinian people and for attaining a secure and peaceful future for them, but it directly undermines those claims by maintaining a policy to arm and support Hamas, Hezbollah and other Palestinian terrorist and rejectionist groups. That is what Iran believes is in the interests of its own regime security, but it is not in the interest of peace and security for the region. It is wrong. It is also wrong that the President of Iran engages in anti-Semitic comments and denial of the holocaust, and makes frequent statements suggesting that the state of Israel should be wiped off the map. That is inconsistent with Iran's claim to want stability and peace in the middle east.

Elsewhere, Iranian interference in the affairs of its neighbours can have a direct effect on British interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and other hon. Members mentioned Afghanistan. Iran is pursuing a dangerous dual strategy, supporting Afghanistan's legitimate leadership through capacity building and economic assistance, but undermining that with carefully calibrated support, weapons and training for the Taliban. In Iraq, Iran has provided support for militia groups. Iran believes that it can achieve its aims of regime security through those means. It cannot. We believe that in the past year Iran has continued in a limited way to arm and support the Taliban.

Within the constraints of national security and ensuring that in no circumstances will our troops be put at risk, I will see what level of information I can make available to right hon. and hon. Members on Afghanistan. I will also respond to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock about Camp Ashraf. The British ambassador called on the Iraqi human rights Minister on 13 April and reminded him of the Iraqi Government's earlier assurances about the treatment of Ashraf's residents—that no resident of Camp Ashraf will be forcibly transferred to a country where they have reason to fear persecution. We will constantly monitor the situation.

Recent events in Iran should be cause for even more concern than in the past.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(11)).