Iran’s Influence in the Middle East — [Mr David Nuttall in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 22nd March 2017.

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Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 9:30 am, 22nd March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Iran’s influence in the Middle East.

I believe that Iran is a leading sponsor of state terrorism, providing financial and material support to extremist Islamist terrorist groups across the middle east, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq. Iran actively sponsors international terror groups committed to the destruction of Israel, which act as proxies for the Islamic Republic. I place on record that the people of Iran are a fine collective, with a remarkable history in the region. However, the modern-day Iran, ruled by the mullahs, is a theocratic regime, based on the principle of rule of law by Islamic jurists.

Since the election of President Rouhani in 2013, Iran’s relations with the international community have slowly improved, but its domestic human rights abuses, nuclear programme and support for international terrorism continue unchecked. Although Iran’s president runs the economy and influences day-to-day decisions, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has the final say on most major issues, including national security and Iran’s nuclear programme. The country works not only with foreign states in promoting its ideological agenda, but also with proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah and Daesh.

First, I will discuss Syria. Iran views it as a valuable line of communication into Lebanon to support the militant Iranian proxy organisation, Hezbollah.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

As the hon. Gentleman moves on to the specifics, may I take him back to the general? Is it not the fact that being a vicious dictatorship at home, like so many such states in history, makes the state a menace to its neighbours as well? I hope that the hon. Gentleman will look first at the destabilisation in the middle east, but also at the incredible repression that is happening and whether we can do more to support the opposition to this vile regime.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I am going to focus purely on the influence within the region. If other hon. Members wish to concern themselves with conditions in Iran itself, that will be very welcome.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

To pick up on the previous intervention, something that links Iran’s international and the domestic activities is that it has passed a new counter-terrorism law to try to clean up the country. At least, that is what it claims—but it does not include Hezbollah and Hamas. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the most worrying sign of all?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

That certainly is a worrying sign. As I will go on to explain, those organisations are some of the recipients of significant amounts of resources that come from the Iranian regime.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Labour, Hyndburn

This is a really important debate. Following on from the intervention by my right hon. Friend Mr Spellar, would the hon. Gentleman also include Pyongyang and Yemen on his list of Iranian spheres of influence?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I will do; if I can get to my speech, I hope I will be able to elucidate some comments about the places that the hon. Gentleman mentions.

The Iranian leadership has cited Syria as being Iran’s 35th province, with President Assad’s Alawite minority-led regime being a crucial buffer between the influence of Saudi Arabia and the United States, so it can be of no surprise to any of us that Iran has chosen to involve itself in the conflict in Syria.

The response of the Syrian regime to the Arab spring was a brutal one. Since 2011, thousands of civilians and armed militia have been killed by Government forces in Syria. Such action has prompted many Syrian army officers to join the opposition movement and form the Free Syrian Army. With the armed resistance increasing and looking ever more likely to topple the Assad regime, the clerical regime in Iran began deploying its military capability in the country. The senior commander of the Rasoulallah division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Hamadani, was dispatched to Syria. That man was responsible for operations in the Iran-Iraq war, as well as for suppressing the 2009 uprising in Iran. He decided that the forces sent by Iran to Syria were primarily to be at command level, as evidenced by the capture of 48 IRGC commanders two months later. That meant that infantry were needed, and the creation of Daesh occurred as a result.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry is on the record as saying:

ISIS was created by Assad releasing 1,500 prisoners from jail and Maliki releasing 1,000 people in Iraq who were put together as a force of terror types.”

Photo of Daniel Poulter Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich

My hon. Friend has brought forward an important and timely subject for consideration today. He mentions the US—does he agree that many of us were disappointed with the Iran nuclear deal? It dealt with Iran’s nuclear capacity, but there was a missed opportunity to tackle some of the state-sponsored terrorism and other underlying causes of instability in the middle east. That is something that we will look to America to do now with a new President.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I hope to come on to that point, but I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s assertion. I believe that the Iranian nuclear deal was a missed opportunity. Not only did it not address issues surrounding terrorism, it also failed to consider human rights in Iran—something that is very important not only to myself and other hon. Members, but also to many of my constituents, some of whom are in the Public Gallery today.

The Iranian regime made use of its experience in suppression and control by working with the Syrian regime to achieve two objectives. The first was called the infiltration project, which was designed to instil division and dissent in the opposition; the second was the knapsack project, which was designed to bring about armed clashes between the groups and the tribes.

Although the IRGC’s Quds force remains the primary extraterritorial fighting force, and the primary force in Syria, IRGC ground forces, as well as those of the regular Iranian army, have also been employed in the conflict. In addition to those troops, more than 70,000 non-Iranian and Iranian forces have been deployed by the IRGC to fight in Syria. According to IRGC reports, that exceeds the 50,000 Syrian forces. That activity required money that became available at the right time—as my hon. Friend Dr Poulter said, through the nuclear deal.

One of my principal concerns about the Iranian nuclear deal was that it unfroze huge resources that allowed terror to be funded in the middle east region. It appears that that is what is occurring. Over the last five years, Tehran has budgeted about $100 billion for the conflict, under cover from Khamenei’s office. That money has been spent on the purchase of military weaponry and on Syria’s own military expenses—$1 billion is spent solely on the salaries of the forces affiliated with the IRGC, including military forces, militias and Shi’ite networks.

Turning to another area of conflict in the middle east, we can also see the influence of Iran in Yemen.

Photo of Graham Jones Graham Jones Labour, Hyndburn

The hon. Gentleman may have noticed that in January—I think it was on 17 January—the UN panel of experts reported an update on Yemen. One of the sections in that report is entitled the

“large-scale supply of weapons from the Islamic Republic of Iran to Yemen”.

Does the hon. Gentleman not think that Iran is now taking a larger and increasingly influential role in Yemen and affecting that conflict?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to go on to give some examples of where weaponry has gone into Yemen and how it is being used against allied forces—both the UK and the US.

Iran operates a complex network of weapon-smuggling routes throughout the region in defiance of four Security Council resolutions, which are resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803 and 1835. In October 2016, Reuters reported that Iran had significantly increased weapons transfers to the Houthis, the militia fighting the Saudi-backed Government in Yemen. US and western officials said that, based on intelligence they had seen, the frequency of arms transfers on known overland smuggling routes had increased notably.

According to sources, the transfers have included short-range missiles and small arms as well as anti-ship missiles, explosives, money and personnel. Much of the smuggling activity has been through Oman, which neighbours Yemen.

The US navy disclosed in April 2016 that it had confiscated an Iranian weapons cache headed to the Houthis in Yemen from a small fishing craft in the Arabian sea, seizing 1,500 Kalashnikov rifles, 200 rocket-propelled grenade launchers and 21 .50-caliber machine guns. That was the fourth such seizure by the US navy in the region since September 2015. US officials have said that they are looking into whether components of missiles used in attempted strikes by the Houthis against a US warship and a United Arab Emirates vessel might have benefited from Iranian parts or originated in Iran. General Joseph Votel, the commander of the US military command centre, said he suspected an Iranian role in arming the Houthis, and noted that Iran was one of the possible suppliers of the type of shore-based missile technology seen in Yemen.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there seems to have been a reluctance over the years from countries right across the world to deal with the core issue of Iran? Surely it is time we dealt with it, given that 28,000 to 30,000 people have died through terrorism.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I have a constituent who has spoken to me about this issue, and his view of the middle east in general is that, as a result of the Iraq conflict, Governments are loth to enter into any more conflicts. The Iranian regime can get away with its activities simply because the allied and US forces chose the wrong target.

According to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Iranian and Hezbollah leaders have been spotted in Yemen advising the Houthi troops and are likely to be responsible for training the Houthis to use the type of sophisticated guided missiles fired at the US navy. Like Yemen, Lebanon is being used as a proxy sparring ground by Iran and Saudi Arabia. The long leadership vacuum came to an end last autumn when the Parliament elected former general Michel Aoun as the country’s new President. The shortness of time prevents me from discussing political matters, so I will restrict my comments to military ones.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Labour, Warley

Before the hon. Gentleman moves away from Yemen, given all that he has correctly outlined, is it not extraordinary that that the Government are even considering ceasing supplies to countries in the Saudi-led and United Nations-endorsed and backed coalition, which is trying to repel the Iranian-backed Houthi rebellion? Such action would be not only detrimental to stability in that region but absolutely devastating for the British aerospace and defence industry.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I certainly have some sympathy with that view, but it is beyond my pay grade to discuss what the British Government do. I will leave that to the Minister. I am acutely aware of the consequences of the Houthis taking control in Yemen and the impact it would have on the region. I look forward to what the Minister has to say about that, particularly bearing in mind the views of other Members, who have said, particularly in the Chamber, that they do not support the Saudi Arabian Government’s position.

Iran supports not only Governments but other regimes, and it focuses its attention on non-state terrorist groups. Evidence has revealed that it has financed and equipped forces that have claimed the lives of UK special forces, including the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda in Iraq. Senior Afghan general Brigadier General Mohiyadeen Ghori, commander of the 205th Corps stationed in Helmand, said in 2007 that Iran was funding insurgents in Garmsir district of Helmand, where several British soldiers died in heavy fighting.

British special forces in Afghanistan intercepted an Iranian shipment of rockets to the Taliban in March 2011. It included 48 122 mm rockets, which sources described as “substantial weapons”, with a range of more than 12 miles—double the range of the usual Taliban weapons. One thousand rounds of ammunition were also found in the convoy. Technical and intelligence examination involving British specialists revealed that the rockets had been manufactured recently and doctored to look as if they came from a third party, but they were proved to be of Iranian origin. Markings had been removed from most of the rockets, and they had a green fuse plug, supposedly unique to Iranian-made rockets. Our then Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said that they were

“weapons clearly intended to provide the Taliban with the capability to kill Afghan and ISAF

—international security assistance force—

“soldiers from significant range…The detailed technical analysis, together with the circumstances of the seizure, leave us in no doubt that the weaponry recovered came from Iran.”

In March 2010, Afghan border officials reported that a wide range of material made in Iran, including mortars, plastic explosives, propaganda materials and mobile phones, was ending up in the hands of Taliban insurgents. The US accused Iran in 2007 of supplying arms to Taliban insurgents after armour-piercing bombs were found in a vehicle in the western Afghan province of Farah. Iran has historically provided weapons, training and funding to other groups, including Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups, such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command. Hamas is the Sunni Islamist organisation that is control of the Gaza strip. The UK designates its military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, as a terrorist organisation. The US, the EU, Australia, Canada, Jordan and Israel proscribe the entirety of the organisation—a move I have repeatedly asked the Government to make, and I do so again today. Hamas is a key terrorist proxy for Iran, and actively arms those groups via extensive smuggling routes throughout Africa and the middle east.

Diplomatic sources have informed Reuters that Iran gives Hamas a $250 million annual subsidy. Despite disagreements over Syria causing damage to the relationship, Iran continues to provide that funding. Hamas has publicly thanked Iran for the material and financial support. Mahmoud al-Zahar, Hamas’s co-founder, said:

“We have a right to take money and weapons from Iran. They give it to us for the sake of God, no conditions attached, and I am a witness to that.”

All that activity is possible because of the resources that have become available to the Iranian regime following the unfreezing of assets when the joint comprehensive plan of action was agreed. The lifting of sections released an estimated $100 billion and empowered Iran’s hard-liners to fund their regional hegemonic ambitions. There appear to be no mechanisms in place to stop the released funds from reaching Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and President Assad. Just a fraction of the $100 billion of sanction relief would be enough to triple the annual budget of terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

My view of the Iranian regime is shared by many others. In February 2007, President Trump’s Administration imposed sanctions on Iran following a ballistic missile test. President Trump tweeted:

“Iran is playing with fire—they don’t appreciate how ‘kind’ President Obama was to them. Not me!”

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. He mentioned the US Administration and the newly elected President Trump, but does he agree that we need to maximise security co-operation and share evidence and information between the US and the UK and right into Europe to try to prevent the travesty that he has outlined in relation to Iran?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

Once again, I agree with that point of view, but it is not for me to explain to the hon. Gentleman how that co-operation should occur; it is for the Government, who I believe are actively looking at such co-operation and seeking to keep our country safe.

John Smith, the acting sanctions chief of the US Treasury Department, said:

“Iran’s continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile programme poses a threat to the region, to our partners worldwide and to the United States.”

In January, our Prime Minister affirmed the UK’s priority to

“reduce Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East”.

In an address to the Republican party conference in the United States, the Prime Minister said that the UK will

“support our allies in the Gulf States to push back against Iran’s aggressive efforts to build an arc of influence from Tehran through to the Mediterranean.”

She assured members of the Gulf Co-operation Council in December 2016 that she is

“clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and the wider Middle East”.

She emphasised that

“we must also work together to push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions, whether in Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria or in the Gulf itself.”

In February, the Middle East Minister, who is here today, said:

“The Government remains concerned about Iran’s destabilising activity in the region;
we continue to encourage Iran to work constructively with its neighbours to resolve conflicts and promote stability.”

Also in February, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told delegates at the Munich security conference that Iran is the primary sponsor of international terror and the biggest threat to stability in the middle east. He said:

“Iran remains the single main sponsor of terrorism in the world. It’s determined to upend the order in the Middle East…until and unless Iran changes its behaviour it would be very difficult to deal with a country like this.”

He said that

“Iran is the only one in the Middle East that hasn’t been targeted by Islamic State and al-Qaeda,” implying that there is a relationship between the regime and terror groups. He also said that the Iranians took advantage of the good will of the other nations that had negotiated the nuclear deal in 2015. He said that

“they stepped up the tempo of their mischief” while the negotiations were taking place and continue to do so today. When the Israeli and Saudi Arabian Governments agree on something, I believe that the world should listen. The two countries are not renowned for agreeing on many things, but on Iran they certainly do.

There is no doubt about the malign role being played by the Iranian regime in the middle east. The failure of Barack Obama to take decisive action has emboldened the clerics. Now, this morning, is the time for us to renew our alliances and our interests with the US and others in the middle east to curtail that serpent.

Photo of David Nuttall David Nuttall Conservative, Bury North

As Members can clearly see, the debate is well subscribed, so with immediate effect, I am imposing a four-minute limit on speeches.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North 9:50 am, 22nd March 2017

Thank you, Mr Nuttall; I am pleased to be called to speak. I congratulate Dr Offord on securing such an important debate.

Whatever the merits of the nuclear deal concluded two years ago this summer, it has done nothing to satisfy Iran’s appetite to establish regional hegemony in the middle east. That is unsurprising. One of the great flaws of European and US efforts has been a willingness to overlook Iran’s destabilising influence, its support for terrorism and its appalling human rights record. Little demonstrates Iran’s pernicious influence more clearly than its role in the Syrian civil war.

Through unstinting support for the Assad regime and Hezbollah, Iran bears much responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe and loss of civilian life that has unfolded since 2011, the likes of which we have not seen in more than 70 years. Iran’s actions in Syria—what Dennis Ross has rightly described as its

“preference for sectarian policies…and politics”— fuelled the rise of IS. Whatever the eventual fate of Daesh, Iran’s behaviour will continue to stoke violent Sunni movements and jihadism throughout the region.

Iran’s apparent belief that international norms do not apply to it extends far beyond its nuclear ambitions and its actions in Syria. Iran continues to defy Security Council resolutions on conventional arms restrictions and ballistic missiles, testing missiles on a number of occasions since the implementation of the nuclear deal, most recently earlier this month. It has increased its support for the Taliban and it backed the Houthi effort to overthrow Yemen’s internationally recognised Government, helping to provoke another vicious civil war in the region. Through its proxies in Hezbollah, Iran seeks to destabilise Lebanon politically to fulfil its long-held aspiration to turn the country into a client state.

Iran’s game plan is clear. First, it is working to further its dominance by establishing a land corridor to the Mediterranean, one that cuts a swathe through Iraq, along the Syria-Turkey border, south to Homs and north again to the port of Latakia. Secondly, through Hezbollah, Iran aims to establish a second front in southern Syria with which to threaten Israel. In recent days Israel has been forced to take action against a number of targets near the Lebanon-Syria border.

Iran’s intentions towards Israel are utterly malign and unchanging. A decade ago Mahmoud Ahmadinejad described it as a “disgraceful blot” that should be

“wiped off the face of the earth”.

His supposedly reformist successor, Hassan Rouhani, called it

“a wound on the body of the Islamic world” that “should be removed.” The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, vowed that Israel would not live to see the end of “these 25 years”. Such repeated threats to annihilate a fellow member of the United Nations again show Iran’s refusal to live by the rules that govern international relations.

Those are not merely idle threats. Only last week, one of the deputy heads of the Iranian revolutionary guard boasted that it had established underground rocket factories in Lebanon that are under the full control of Hezbollah. Days before, Iran’s Defence Minister said that Hezbollah is now capable of producing rockets that can hit any part of Israel. Hezbollah is already estimated to have between 100,000 and 120,000 rockets hidden among the civilian population of southern Lebanon.

Iran’s belligerence and expansionism is not simply a threat to our friends in the region, but a direct threat to Europe. Europe should therefore stand up for itself and stand by Israel. It should ensure that the international repudiation of Iran’s repeated threats against Israel is unequivocal.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet 9:54 am, 22nd March 2017

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on his speech, which painted a terrifying picture of the activities of Iran in the middle east, so this is a timely debate. I would also like to mention my entry in the register of interests concerning a recent visit to Israel and the west bank. On that visit, almost everyone our group met commented on the real alarm felt in Israel about Iran’s increasingly assertive regional ambitions. As the debate has shown, that anxiety is by no means confined to one country; Iran and its proxies are now heavily involved in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

I agree with my hon. Friend that Iran is now the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, providing financial and material support to extremist Islamist terrorist groups throughout the middle east, including Hezbollah, Hamas and insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Iranian Government also enjoy a long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda, to which they provide travel assistance and, to some degree, safe haven—a number of AQ leaders are believed to be living in Iran. The country continues to be blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force, the global body charged with preventing money laundering and terror finance.

We have heard this morning that Hezbollah boasts of the funding it receives from Iran. It is believed to have amassed a stock of about 150,000 rockets, including hundreds of long-range Iranian-made missiles capable of striking civilian targets around the region. Clearly, too, Iran’s notorious al-Quds force and the special forces unit of the Iranian revolutionary guard are playing a key role in assisting President Assad in Syria.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Conservative, Halesowen and Rowley Regis

My right hon. Friend is giving a powerful analysis of Iran’s malign influence. Does she agree that part of the opportunity presented to Iran arises from the catastrophic failure of western policy, particularly in Syria and in not addressing issues over the past decade? That failure has tipped the balance of power and allowed Iran and Russia to operate with impunity in the middle east.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I certainly agree that part of the explanation for the situation is the failure of western policy in the middle east over recent years. Now people across the region are suffering the consequences.

Iran is thought to have about 10,000 operatives in Syria and to have spent several billion dollars supporting the Assad regime. Many throughout the middle east are suffering as a result of Iranian involvement in funding and arming hard-line and extremist groups, but the House should be in no doubt of the suffering that the Iranian Government inflict on their own people: the regime’s human rights record is appalling, and it is a matter of serious regret that the Iran nuclear deal includes nothing at all on human rights.

Apparently, nearly 700 people were put to death by the Iranian regime in a single six-month period in 2015, which is equivalent to more than three every day. According to Human Rights Watch, Iran leads the world in executing children. It is believed that at least 73 juvenile offenders were executed between 2005 and 2015. Members of minority faiths such as the Baha’is have been subjected to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment and unjustified executions, and of course women in Iran face systemic discrimination by a legal system that views them as inferior to men.

Women are required by law to obey their husbands; they have no rights to divorce; if their husband divorces them, their children can be taken from them; and the Office of the Supreme Leader has even issued a statement forbidding women from riding bicycles in public. In April last year the Iranian Government deployed 7,000 so-called morality agents, whose task was to punish women for wearing the hijab incorrectly and for other activities deemed to be un-Islamic and unlawful.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

I am slightly short of time, so I will not.

According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran, about 2,000 women a day are arrested for failing to comply with the compulsory dress code. In 2014 there was a spate of acid attacks against young Iranian women by people apparently motivated by what they viewed as an insufficiently rigorous approach to compliance with the rules on dress. The response of the regime was lacklustre, and those responsible have not been caught. Furthermore, the UN special rapporteur on Iran recently reported that women continue to be sentenced to death by stoning.

The nuclear deal means that our country’s relationship with Iran is somewhat less acrimonious than it has been in the past, but we should never forget that its regime is deeply repressive and brutalises much of its population. Iran’s pursuit of dominance in the region is a continuing source of instability and its support for terrorist groupings means that it is responsible for countless lives lost and families bereaved. I sincerely hope that one day the people of Iran will find a way to free themselves of the regime’s grip.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee 10:00 am, 22nd March 2017

I, too, congratulate Dr Offord on securing this important debate.

Iran has an appalling human rights record at home and is a dangerous promoter of international terrorism abroad. At home, dissent is not tolerated. Baha’is, Christians, Sunni Muslims and Sufis all face attack. Some 90 Baha’is, including seven national Baha’i leaders, are currently in prison for allegedly disturbing national security and committing so-called espionage. To mark International Women’s Day, a very effective event was held in this House to discuss Iran’s oppression of women.

Iran is intent on extending its influence across the region and beyond, to places such as Syria and Yemen, where it exacerbates conflict. Its funding of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, together with its base in Syria, makes achieving peace in the region even more problematic. Indeed, Iran does not want peace; it wants to foment conflict indefinitely.

Under the mullahs, Iran has a long record of linked anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Last year, the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei posed a holocaust denying video on his official website, and at a military parade last September, a banner proclaimed: “Step by step we are nearing the destruction of Israel and the salvation of al-Quds.” This very week, we heard from Iran a condemnation of so-called Zionist

“plots to destroy human community.”

There is overwhelming evidence that Iran is an oppressive regime, both at home and abroad.

Photo of Joan Ryan Joan Ryan Labour, Enfield North

We talk a lot about Iran, but does my hon. Friend believe that action should be taken against Iranian actors—I am thinking of Mahan Air—that aid and abet the Islamic Republic’s support for murder and terrorism? That airline is accused of ferrying fighters and weapons to Assad, and it flies in and out of Copenhagen, Paris and Milan.

Photo of Louise Ellman Louise Ellman Chair, Transport Committee

I agree. Indeed, the challenge of dealing with Iran is that, as well as taking direct action itself, it works through other organisations and groups. It is a wholly negative and destructive force. I hope that the Minister can tell us what action he is taking, as part of international forums and as a Minister of this country, to challenge Iran’s activities and ensure that it continues to be seen internationally not as a friend but as a pariah.

Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West 10:03 am, 22nd March 2017

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing this debate. It was well worth waiting two weeks to hear his splendid speech. I agree with every word he said. He made all the points that I wished to make, so I shall now speak for the sake of it.

This is a very well attended debate—there are representatives here from all political parties. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister, who is a splendid chap, that I have listened for years to the same tired Foreign Office line being trotted out. Governments come and go, but the line is always the same—it is always one of appeasement. Let us be frank—at the heart of this issue is oil. It would be wonderful to hear from the Minister something positive about what the Government intend to do. I hope that he will also reflect on the so-called achievements of the former Labour Prime Minister as middle east peace envoy—I would really like to hear about that—and tell us how he thinks former President Obama, whom colleagues mentioned, and defeated presidential candidate Mrs Clinton handled the situation. My hon. Friend Dr Poulter, who is not in his place, said that we hope for a different approach from the new President of America—although not through tweeting.

Iran’s influence in the middle east is dreadful. I will not repeat all the points that colleagues have made, but killing and torturing people is absolutely disgraceful. Mrs Ellman was absolutely spot on about the way Israel has been treated. Talking about wiping the state of Israel out of existence is absolutely disgraceful. I hope that the Minister will take seriously what Mrs Maryam Rajavi, the leader of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, said on 17 January 2017 about the Iranian regime.

Photo of Steve McCabe Steve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

I do not want to detain the hon. Gentleman, but is it not the case that we need to hear a change from the Government? They must give a clear signal that we are considering proscribing the revolutionary guards and that, as far as protecting our citizens, such as Nazanin Ratcliffe, is concerned, we will not negotiate but threaten sanctions unless Iran stops its illegal detention of innocent people.

Photo of David Amess David Amess Conservative, Southend West

The hon. Gentleman makes that point far better than I ever could, and I hope that the Minister, if we give him enough time, will comment on it.

I shall raise a constituency case. Mrs Ratcliffe, a charity worker accused of security offences, was detained while trying to leave Iran with her baby daughter after visiting relatives last year. She was accused of plotting to topple the Government in Tehran—an absolutely ridiculous claim—yet those charges were never made public. Her family denies that she broke any laws. Her two-year-old daughter has remained in Iran because the Government confiscated her passport, and in January this year a court in Iran rejected an appeal against the five-year prison sentence given to Mrs Ratcliffe. The regime does not recognise dual British and Iranian citizenship, meaning that she cannot be given consular assistance. I hope that the Minister will write to me about that case once his officials have looked at it.

It would be wonderful if we did not hear the same tired line of appeasement trotted out by the Foreign Office. At the heart of this is the Government’s worry that we will lose oil supply. Given that all political parties are represented in the Chamber and I doubt that anyone will stand up and say, “The Iranian regime is absolutely wonderful,” it would be good, at this extraordinary moment in the history of our country, to hear from the British Government that we intend to engage with like-minded countries and do something about the dreadful regime in Iran.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality) 10:08 am, 22nd March 2017

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate Dr Offord on securing it and clearly setting the scene for us all.

The US Defense Secretary recently awarded Iran the title that no right thinking nation should wish to have—that of being

“the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”.

That searing condemnation has been underlined by other world leaders. The Americans have taken steps to address this situation, and I urge the Minister to do the same.

The Minister knows about the deep respect that we all have for him and the time he takes to provide answers. We appreciate that, but I hope that he gauges the amount of angst among us as all at this time and that he will take further steps. Why has no action been taken? What has been the result of the decision to remove human rights aspects from negotiations and to lift sanctions from Iran? Iran is considered the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism and the world’s No. 1 executioner per capita. It is the epicentre of terrorism, religious fundamentalism and regional meddling, and it is ruled by a religious dictatorship. It murders people because it can.

I remind the Minister of my stance—it is shared by the hon. Member for Hendon—on Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles. In my opinion, that is not a step by Iran that is conducive with international sanctions and obligations. We know what I am referring to. The missile was built in Iran and it will be able to strike at ships in the Gulf delta, up to 180 miles away. Am I alone in my concern? I believe I am not. The Chamber is full of people who think likewise. The difference between the Americans and us at this moment is that we have said our eyes are open, but our hands, for some inexplicable reason, are tied. That is not the approach that any peacemaker should take. I say again to the Minister: at the very least, sanctions must be imposed upon the Iranians as an indicator of the fact that we in the House are aware of the situation and will oppose any further shows of strength that they deign to make.

Mrs Ellman mentioned the persecution of Baha’is, which is rampant, as is the persecution of those of the Jewish faith. As to Christians, 193 were arrested in Iran in 2016. Yaser Mosibzadeh, Saheb Fadayee and Mohammad Reza Omidi were arrested on 13 May, along with their pastor, Yousef Nadarkhani, as they were celebrating communion. They have all been charged with acting against national security and have had two hearings, but a verdict is still pending. Yaser, Saheb and Mohammad Reza were also charged with consumption of alcohol for drinking wine at communion and sentenced on 10 September to receive 80 lashes each. Can you believe that? I had communion at church on Sunday, and other hon. Members probably did as well. Imagine that afterwards every one of the 150 people in my church was given 80 lashes for taking communion. That happens in Iran on a daily basis.

We have softened our approach in the past two years, but the Iranians’ behaviour has been the opposite. They have flexed their muscles and tested the water—to find nothing of substance in opposition. I call, as the National Council of Resistance of Iran has done, for immediate eviction of the IRGC, to stop it sponsoring and spreading terrorism. Finally, I will quote Winston Churchill:

“One ought never to turn one’s back on a threatened danger and try to run away from it. If you do that, you will double the danger. But if you meet it promptly and without flinching you will reduce the danger by half.”

Let us learn from that and meet our international obligations with wisdom and strength.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East 10:12 am, 22nd March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall, and to follow Jim Shannon. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing the debate and on braving the Northern line to make sure that he got here.

I share my hon. Friend’s serious concerns about the destabilising effect of Iran on the middle east, and am delighted that there is concern in the United States; there has been for a long time. I am encouraged to hear that the new Trump Administration have initiated a review process whereby the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps could finally be listed as a foreign terrorist organisation. That is a welcome break from long-standing US and European policies that seemingly regarded the hard-line paramilitary organisation as a legitimate instrument of Iran’s national defence, despite the fact that it sponsors Hezbollah, Hamas and various other terrorist proxies throughout the middle east and across the world.

Prior to the change in approach, the State Department saw fit only to give a punitive designation to the special foreign operations wing of the IRGC, known as the Quds Force. Yet even that designation was somewhat anaemic, in that it saw fit to identify the Quds Force only as a “material supporter of terrorism”, and not as a fully-fledged terrorist entity. I argue that the IRGC as a whole unquestionably fits the legal criteria for designation as a terrorist organisation, given its proven involvement in terrorist attacks abroad.

If there were any question about the organisation’s terrorist intentions or capabilities, it should have been cleared up following new revelations about IRGC activities inside and outside Iran from the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which I am proud to support. Those new revelations added clarity to what most foreign policy analysts know about Iran’s theocratic regime: that it has spent years and resources on an effort to deepen sectarian divisions throughout the region. Clearly, widespread instability has resulted from those efforts, not the least aspect of which was the amplification of conditions leading to the rise of Islamic State. Not only did IRGC involvement contribute to the Syrian war; it saved Bashar al-Assad from the brink of being overthrown. It has attached religious significance to the intervention and encouraged the sectarian aspects of the conflict.

Similarly, Isil’s success in Iraq came only after Tehran encouraged a purge of Sunnis under the Government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The resulting conflict in Iraq has allowed IRGC-backed Shi’ite groups to take on ever more extensive roles in the country’s military efforts and, by extension, in its political affairs as well.

Photo of Natalie McGarry Natalie McGarry Independent, Glasgow East

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a huge concern for us all is the role of Iranian Shi’a militia in destabilising post-liberation Mosul in the vacuum after the removal of Daesh, and in creating the conditions for Iranian-sponsored instability and sectarianism in Mosul and the surrounding area?

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Clearly, that harmful aspect—the destabilising of the regime—amplifies the problems with what Iran does.

What I have been describing has diminished American and European influence and perpetuated today’s climate of division. It is undoubtedly harmful to our interests, and it benefits Tehran’s constitutionally mandated mission to extend the Islamic revolution beyond the borders of the Islamic Republic. It would be absurd to suggest that the IRGC’s proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen are not terrorist operatives in the same way as its proxies in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Nigeria are. Each of them is trained by similar means within the same Iranian network and serves the same foreign policy goals of the Islamic Republic, which are contrary to the interests of Europe, the UK and the United States.

The Obama Administration have rightly been criticised for appeasement, as has been mentioned. Despite the cherished nuclear agreement and associated side deals, there has been no sign, either that the human rights violations that routinely take place are being rectified, or of moderation in Iran’s anti-American and anti-western rhetoric or promotion of international terrorism. We should therefore understand that the theocracy ruling Iran will remain true to its hard-line roots, regardless of what we in this country, or beyond, attempt to do. There is little rational basis for further arguments in favour of conciliation and appeasement, especially given what the Prime Minister and the Trump Administration have said.

I want finally to ask the Minister whether he will follow the Trump Administration in reviewing policy, and proscribe the IRGC.

Photo of Seema Kennedy Seema Kennedy Conservative, South Ribble 10:17 am, 22nd March 2017

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Nuttall. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on obtaining such a timely debate, and managing to delay it so that it is now happening in the week of Nowruz. I wish everyone here a happy Persian new year.

I think that I am the only person taking part in the debate—although not the only person present in the Chamber—who has family members still living in Iran, and family members who have actually been in Evin prison. Iran is a massive country, five times the geographical size of Great Britain, with a population of 83 million. To understand its influence I think we have to look back in history. I have spoken in many debates on the middle east in the past two years, and we must always look back in history. As to its borders, from prehistory until the 18th and 19th centuries, when Russia and Britain began to contract the borders, the countries where Iran had influence were Turkey, Iraq, Russia, Afghanistan and India; it occupies the crossroads between the middle and near east.

The debate is about Iran’s influence, which, as is shown by the examples rightly given by right hon. and hon. Members, has been malign. However, to understand the Iranian psyche, it must be recognised that the country has been subjected to non-stop invasion by the Arabs, Mongols and Turks, then by Russia and England in the 19th century and the US in the 20th century. The Iranian character has endured. The language is the same as before, with an overlay of Arabic alphabet. Pre-Islamic culture, such as Nowruz, which we celebrate this week, has endured. It is the most important festival.

I am afraid to say that there is a feeling of superiority in Iran—that they are better than their neighbours. Hence the need for expansion. I am no apologist for the regime. My family’s home and business were taken and my relatives are scattered to the winds, but we cannot ignore Iran. It is a huge national player. If right hon. and hon. Members are saying that we need to go to war with Iran, that is a subject for another debate. What I think is that, ever since I was a little girl, there has been no engagement from the United States and there has been very little engagement from Britain or other European members. What does Iran have? It is still a country where women have to wear the hijab—although I would argue that they have more rights than in some of our Arab allies—and it is still a country with very high rates of execution. That is due to a lack of engagement. We need positive engagement from Britain and other partners. That will be better for the people of Iran and better for us.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 10:20 am, 22nd March 2017

I will not cover the points made by others about Iran’s being a sponsor of state terrorism, although I may refer to that in a moment. I will pick up on a point that was made in passing by my right hon. Friend Mrs Villiers about the Financial Action Task Force. In June 2016, the plenary and working group of the Financial Action Task Force—I shall call it FATF to try to speed things up—announced it would keep Iran on its blacklist, citing concerns over the risk of financing terrorism that Iran showed.

FATF is an intergovernmental organisation that sets global standards to combat money laundering and the financing of terrorism. It warned of the threat that Iran posed to the international financial system and advised the business community to conduct special due diligence exercises when considering business relationships and transactions with Iran. That is something we should all bear in mind. FATF has now suspended mandatory counter-measures on Iran for a year, based on the promises that Tehran would take steps to address deficiencies and implement the action plan that it had set up with the organisation.

The big point is that Iran has declined to abandon its continued support for Hezbollah, Hamas and other terror organisations. Iran has claimed it is making progress, as I mentioned in an intervention, by passing a counter-terrorism law last year that, it claims, will enable it to comply with FATF standards and will

“send a message of goodwill” to financial bodies worldwide over doing business with its banks. However, the terror organisations, Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply not subject to that law. Iran’s central bank deputy for anti-money laundering affairs recently said that

“liberation organizations”— which is what he calls Hezbollah and Hamas—

“are not subject to this law and the Supreme National Security Council decides who is a terrorist.”

Iran has given a familiar gesture to world organisations as to what it can do with FATF’s statements, and we should resist that.

Let me comment a bit on terrorism and Hezbollah, because I think that is one of the most dangerous examples of Iranian influence. Hon. Members do not have to believe me on that; a top Iranian general told a Kuwaiti newspaper that Iran has established rocket factories in Lebanon that are under the full control of Hezbollah. That indicates, in microcosm, the importance of the debate, which I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing, and the importance of the subject we are discussing.

Photo of David Burrowes David Burrowes Conservative, Enfield, Southgate 10:24 am, 22nd March 2017

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on clearly calling out Iran and its state-sponsored terrorism, its direct threat to Israel and its destabilisation of the wider region. We always say that debates are timely. Even if it was delayed, this one is indeed timely, not least, as my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy said—I commend her remarks—because of the Nowruz celebrations this week.

Nowruz is a time of holiday and celebration for the great Iranian diaspora in my constituency and elsewhere. We can join in their celebrations, but we are showing our solidarity with the Iranian people today; that is what we are doing. We are on their side, particularly as we look to their constitution, which has a respect for diversity and freedom—not least freedom of belief of religion. That is the issue I will focus on; it has been mentioned before but I will talk about it again.

In this festival week, past Iranian Governments have traditionally granted pardons to prisoners of conscience, which is why I particularly want to call them out on current prisoners of conscience. When President Rouhani was elected, there was optimism and hope. There were good words, and we thought that this was a new chapter. However, those hopes have been dashed—not least for those prisoners of conscience who simply want to go about their day and manifest their faith.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble referred to engagement. There has been engagement; it led to the comprehensive plan of action, which led to the opening of the British embassy, which led to international ties. However, that engagement has to be meaningful and conditional. The litmus test that we want is the condition of human rights—not least the fundamental human rights of freedom of belief. Last week, Mr Hadi Asgari and Mr Amin Naderi went on hunger strike to demand adequate medical care and attention. They had been detained for the crime of converting to Christianity, which, of course, is no crime.

These are not isolated cases, as Jim Shannon said. I also refer to the recent case from 20 February in Urmia, when revolutionary guards intelligence detained Anousheh Reza-bakhsh and her son Soheil Zagarzadeh Sani, who refer to themselves as Veronika and Augustine. They were arrested in their home and had had no previous contact at all with the authorities. They do not understand why they have been arrested. In fact, no one has had any further updates on their whereabouts and wellbeing since the date of their arrest. It is feared that they have been detained by the revolutionary guards intelligence, as happens in Urmia.

There are also others. Maryam Naghash Zargaran, a Christian convert, is serving a four-year sentence for the so-called charge of action against national security, simply for having a Christian faith. There is also Ebrahim Firouzi, a Christian convert who has been imprisoned since August 2013. The list goes on and on, and it is important that we speak out for those people with whom we act in solidarity today. There is a litany of human rights abuses, including multiple sessions of prolonged interrogation, coupled with physical and mental abuse and death threats.

In our engagement with Iran, is the Minister calling out those human rights abuses? During Nowruz, we are calling out to Iran to show that there is some good faith, which many have perhaps lost, that it will release those prisoners of conscience. That would give us at least some reassurance that Iran wants to pursue the proper freedoms and human rights that lead to proper engagement.

Photo of Caroline Ansell Caroline Ansell Conservative, Eastbourne 10:28 am, 22nd March 2017

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing this important debate. It is a privilege to take part in a debate in which my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy brings such extraordinary insight and makes that important distinction between the people and their leaders.

Since the signing of the nuclear deal in July 2015, Iran’s regional aggression has continued unabated, as has its deeply distressing human rights record so described by other hon. Members. It is reported that at least 14 ballistic missile launches have taken place, with each missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, yet apparently not technically in breach of the nuclear agreement. President Rouhani has warned that Iran is completely ready and able quickly to restore its nuclear programme if western powers do not keep to the terms of the deal, while Iran’s supreme leader continues to call for Israel’s destruction.

Should we not take heed of the concerns held by so many of Iran’s neighbours? In March last year, the Arab League announced that it considers Hezbollah a terrorist organisation, just weeks after the Gulf Co-operation Council made the very same designation. Concerns were raised at the time of the nuclear deal, so perhaps there is no surprise now at these very concerning developments.

However, there is one welcome, unexpected side development. Iran’s hegemonic influence in the middle east, allied to the threat of Daesh, has undoubtedly brought neighbouring countries closer together, perhaps most intriguingly leading to the alignment of interests between Israel and its Gulf neighbours. In recent months, unprecedented lines of communication have been opened with countries with which Israel shares no diplomatic ties, including some that refuse to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state but still recognise the importance of co-operation in the face of existential threat.

Reports emerged earlier this month that a US-organised summit took place between Israel, Jordan and Egypt. The parties discussed an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a strategy to encourage the Palestinians to return to direct peace talks. As our Foreign Secretary said just last week, the Gulf Co-operation Council and Arab countries “hold the key” to the peace process. At a time when Israel faces greater threats than ever before on both its northern and southern borders, from Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, the support of its neighbours is paramount. Allies such as the UK and the United States must stand firmly by our friend Israel in these turbulent times and do all we can to continue to support and facilitate regional dialogue, which may finally counter Iran’s influence in the middle east.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development) 10:31 am, 22nd March 2017

It is always a pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow member of the Procedure Committee, Mr Nuttall—that explains why everyone has been able to speak, in precisely the right amount of time. I congratulate Dr Offord on finally bringing us all together for this debate.

I want to start by condemning unreservedly human rights abuses in Iran. I have constituents who have fled Iran and have raised serious concerns with me about the activities of the IRGC. What assessment has the Minister made of the serious allegations of human rights abuses that we have heard from a number of Members in this debate? I have also heard points about the supply of arms, especially to Yemen. Again, I condemn unreservedly the illegal trade and supply of arms. I hope that Members and the Government will condemn the sale and use of UK-manufactured arms in the Saudi-led operations in Yemen, as reported by Amnesty International and others.

I want to focus on the role of the nuclear deal—the joint comprehensive plan of action—that was agreed in July 2015. Global circumstances have changed quite considerably since that time, but the deal came with an eight-year implementation horizon, starting in January last year. It must, by definition, be able to withstand changes of regime within the signatory parties. As the title of this debate suggests, the agreement is crucial for security and stability in the wider region. We are therefore at something of a crossroads: the agreement can either be seen as a beacon of diplomatic achievement or it can be weakened and undermined, with all the consequences for both the country and the region that that implies.

That is why continued constructive dialogue will be essential for the successful implementation of the agreement. The Scottish National party urges the UK Government to contribute fully to that international effort, both in the UN Security Council and by supporting Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for foreign affairs and security policy, in her role as joint co-ordinator of the Joint Commission, both pre and post exiting the European Union.

The agreement means that diplomatic relations with Iran are still better than they have been for over a generation, so we must look for opportunities to determine whether Iran’s regional influence—especially in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen—can be part of a negotiated resolution to the ongoing conflicts and humanitarian disasters in those areas.

The rhetoric towards Iran from the new Administration in the United States means that the responsibility of the UK, other EU Governments and the EU itself is greater than ever. Europe must take the lead in constructive engagement with all parties to preserve the nuclear agreement and to further stability across the region.

We have heard throughout the debate, from all Members who have spoken, about Iran’s influence and its links with key actors in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, including the Syrian and Iraqi Governments and Hezbollah. Military, intelligence and financial support is provided, but surely that indicates a need to maintain some kind of stability and continued diplomatic communication. If the nuclear deal can continue as the basis of relations, it ought to offer an example and prospect of similar diplomatic progress across the region. Equally, if relations break down, it risks spreading further instability across the region.

Presidential elections are due in Iran in May this year. President Rouhani, who of course is a graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University, is hoping for re-election. That would certainly provide some kind of continuity. We have also heard today about the rhetoric from the US Administration. I am not sure how productive ramping up rhetoric is. This is an important time for the UK to remain resolute, stick to the deal negotiated in 2015 and use its much-trumpeted relationship and influence with the US to encourage it to do likewise.

An important way for the regime to show some good faith is on prisoners of conscience, which a number of Members have raised, including the hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). We heard about the cases of UK citizens Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Kamal Foroughi in a recent Westminster Hall debate. Both have done nothing wrong and are being held in worrying conditions with little communication with their families or the outside world. That is of considerable concern to all our constituents.

I, like many other Members, have received a lot of correspondence on those cases. I recently met with my local Amnesty International group, and I pay tribute to all those campaigning for their release. I also had the privilege of meeting Kamran Foroughi, Kamal’s son, a couple of weeks ago. I pay particular tribute to him and his family and their determination to bring the man they call grandpa Kamal back home to see his granddaughters.

We are at something of a crossroads. The key point that the Minister has to address is how the UK will use its diplomatic influence in the region and with the United States, and what representations it continues to make regarding UK citizens detained in Iran.

Photo of Fabian Hamilton Fabian Hamilton Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Minister (Defence) 10:36 am, 22nd March 2017

I congratulate, as everybody else has, Dr Offord on eventually securing this debate, despite the setbacks of two weeks ago that were totally outside his control. In this week of Nowruz, the Iranian new year, it is very appropriate to hold a debate such as this.

The hon. Gentleman talked about Iran being the chief sponsor of terror in the region—something that is well known and well documented. He also made the very important point that Iran regards Syria as its 13th province. The policies of the Iranian Government have certainly shown that to be the case. He also mentioned, rather importantly, the lifting of sanctions following the Iran nuclear deal, which he claimed has released $100 billion to the Iranian Government—to be used, as he pointed out, largely for sponsoring some of the most appalling terror groups.

My right hon. Friend Joan Ryan, who has been very active on middle east issues, pointed out that the nuclear deal has done nothing to stop Iran’s destabilising influence in the region, as the hon. Member for Hendon said. My right hon. Friend also drew our attention to the underground rocket factories that are under the control of Hezbollah in Lebanon. It remains to be seen what other Governments in the region will do about that, if indeed they can do anything at all.

My hon. Friend Mrs Ellman, who has a reputation for being very forthright and involved in debates on the region, called Iran a dangerous promoter of terrorism overseas and of repression at home. We heard some months ago, in this very room, horrifying and hair-raising stories about the abuse of human rights in Iran, some of which have been mentioned today. Mrs Villiers drew our attention to them once again.

One of the most fascinating contributions this morning was from Seema Kennedy, who drew our attention to her own family members who are still in Iran. She rightly said that we cannot ignore Iran. That is clear to all of us, and that is why this debate has been so well subscribed.

As we have heard, Iran is increasingly exerting its power in the middle east, taking advantage of the economically and politically destabilised post-Arab spring middle east. With the collapse of so many national Arab identities and the growth of sectarian identification, Iran has found a new role in the middle east as a regional superpower. As was mentioned, much of that stems from the Sunni-Shi’a rift in Islam—a historical rift going back centuries that is rearing its head with a vengeance today.

Iran is playing, I believe, a long-term game by investing in the region. It penetrates weaker systems in the region so as to make itself indispensable to many parties and, of course, as a means to project its own power. As we have heard, it invests not only in hard power but in soft power, such as by establishing cultural and religious centres and financially supporting groups in other middle eastern countries.

Iran has the largest majority Shi’a population in the region—indeed, in the world—and is a self-declared defender and supporter of Shi’a minorities in other middle eastern countries; it often criticises other countries for mistreating their Shi’a minorities. We have heard today that Iran supports Hezbollah—the Lebanese Shi’ite militia that is the most powerful military force in Lebanon. Iran also supports President Assad of Syria; it is his closest ally, of course. Iran has come to dominate so many nations in the region, especially those that I have mentioned. As we heard, it is more clandestinely supporting the Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, and it has criticised Bahrain for mistreating its own Shi’a population.

The hon. Member for Hendon mentioned something that baffled me slightly; I do not know about other hon. Members. That was Iran’s support for ISIL or Daesh. I have not seen any evidence that suggests that Iran supports in any way the activities of Daesh, but if the hon. Member for Hendon has such evidence, I would be interested to see it.

Despite the sanctions, Iran is the second largest economy in the middle east and north Africa after Saudi Arabia. Its GDP in 2015 was $393.7 billion, according to the World Bank. I am sure that, once the sanctions have been fully lifted, its economy will grow much faster. Judging by the last time I was there, which was nearly 10 years ago, it certainly needs a lot of investment in its major infrastructure, because that is sadly lacking.

As we have heard, Iran’s political system is religious democracy—theocracy. It is a unique model in the world. I think the hon. Member for South Ribble said that its population is more than 80 million. According to World Bank statistics, the population was 78.8 million in 2015, but of course without a proper census, it is very hard to tell. According to the British Council in March 2016, Iran is a

“sophisticated, highly educated state…with a youthful population”.

The last statistic I saw was that two thirds of its population are under 35 years old. That is remarkable.

The United Kingdom, the United States and their allies in the Gulf Co-operation Council have stated that Iran engages in

“destabilising activities in the region”.

That is in the House of Common Library briefing paper of 2017. The Prime Minister stated on BBC radio in December that she was

“clear-eyed about the threat that Iran poses to the Gulf and the wider Middle East”.

The Gulf Co-operation Council views Iranian influence in the region as threatening and as a sign of Iran’s desire for regional hegemony.

Let me discuss Iran after the nuclear deal. The joint comprehensive plan of action, which was signed in July 2015 and came into force in 2016, has been called by President Trump

“the worst deal ever negotiated”.

Iran is using the nuclear agreement to ease its international isolation and reassert itself as a regional power and a regional energy and trade hub. It has placed in storage two thirds of its centrifuges for the creation of nuclear fissile material and dispensed with 98% of its stockpile of low-enriched uranium. Those facts were upheld when I visited the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna last November. A huge percentage of its inspectors are still in Iran. It is consuming most of the agency’s budget, Director General Amano told us at the time.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Equality)

So far, the hon. Gentleman has not commented on this issue, but I am sure that he will do so shortly. Does he agree that every opportunity should be used to express solidarity with Christians and other religious groups being persecuted regularly and systematically in Iran, and does he feel that the Minister should take every opportunity to bring the matter to the attention of the Iranian authorities?

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

The hon. Gentleman has a brilliant reputation in the House of Commons for standing up for the rights of persecuted Christians anywhere in the world. Of course I agree that we should always point out abuses of the human rights not only of Christians, but of the Baha’is, who have been mentioned. There is also still a small Jewish population in Iran, frightened that they might inadvertently mention the terrible word that is forbidden—Israel.

I will conclude, because we all want to hear from the Minister. Zvi Magen, of the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, said just last year:

“The Israeli security establishment believes that the main threat Israel is facing in Syria is in fact Iran and its local proxies like Hezbollah”,

which are being funded by the Iranian state. Israel feels threatened by a Shi’a axis within its neighbours. In 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan warned of a rising Shi’a crescent in the region. I was in Jordan just in January, when I heard in detail the Jordanian Government’s concerns about the rise of Iran.

Iran’s revolutionary Government since 1979 is in so many ways a real tragedy for the people of Iran. It is a country of such wonderful people. I have been there myself. I have met its only, and absolutely splendid, Nobel laureate, Shirin Ebadi, an extraordinary woman who is struggling to make her voice heard against the regime’s repression. Iran has made a huge contribution historically to human civilisation, human knowledge and culture, and Labour Members would love to see Iran do so again and see the Iranian people set free to once again take their rightful place in the world.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 10:46 am, 22nd March 2017

It is a pleasure to respond to this excellent, and frank and forthright, debate. On the way here, I was reading some of the headlines in the newspapers today as people, newspapers and the community judge the life of Martin McGuinness and the transition that he made from being a terrorist to the role that he played in our dealing with the terrorist movement and the problems that we faced in this country. That prompts the question that every Government must face. How do we deal with people in these difficult areas? Do we give them a chance, or are these things irreconcilable? Are they people we cannot do business with, so that we must go down a different avenue? That precedent is pertinent to this debate, because the nuclear deal has changed the environment; it is the prism through which we are looking at Iran for the moment. However, as the debate has illustrated, Iran continues to pursue actions that are not in line with what the international community would expect of a nation that we want to see be more responsible in a very important region.

Like others, I wish a very happy Nowruz to the large Iranian diaspora in this country and all those who recognise the Persian calendar. The profound speech by my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy reflected the fact that, to understand Iran—or, indeed, any country in the world—and its relationship with us and its engagement in its region, we must understand its history. Iran’s strategic position in the middle east and the huge influence that Iran—Persia—has had on the region for a long time is the context for some of the challenges that we face today. It remains a key regional player.

The way in which Iran chooses to use its influence, and the impact that it has on conflicts and tensions in the region and further afield, matters to all of us. We want to see Iran playing a more transparent and constructive role in regional affairs, especially in the face of shared threats, which have been mentioned, such as Daesh. However, I remain concerned that instead of using its influence to stabilise the region in a positive way, it is actually destabilising it and, indeed, threatening wider security. That needs to be addressed.

As usual in such debates, there is limited time for me to respond to everybody. As I customarily do, I will write to individuals with the answers to their questions. In addition to congratulating my hon. Friend Dr Offord, I will do my best to respond to his specific points. He mentioned the situation in Syria, which is, of course, a concern to all of us—a multi-sided conflict exacerbated by the interventions of key regional and wider powers as well as non-state actors. There remains an absence of consensus; indeed, some agendas are diametrically opposed.

I am glad Syria was touched on in the debate, because I want to take this opportunity to say again that in our desire to help shape the world and be a force for good, we had an opportunity in August 2013 to stand up to the tyranny of Assad, and we blinked. We must learn from that as parliamentarians. Red lines were crossed, and President Obama also chose to step back from seeking to be more involved in determining a peaceful and long-term solution in Syria. The consequence if responsible countries step back is that others that are less responsible fill the vacuum. That is exactly what we have seen in Syria. It may be that this Parliament was haunted by events and our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, but this Parliament and Government will face large challenges in the future, and we need to remember that moment. That is why I take this opportunity to stress that point.

For an illustration of how irresponsible actors are affecting what is happening in Syria, we can look at the events in Aleppo. We believe that the revolutionary guard and Iranian-backed militias, with Russian military support, were instrumental in the Aleppo campaign and must take responsibility for the suffering caused there. We will continue to hold those responsible to account. The Foreign Secretary summoned the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign Office in December, to express in the strongest possible terms the UK’s concerns about Iran’s involvement in Aleppo, and to encourage Iran to work towards peace in Syria.

My hon. Friend and others mentioned the nuclear deal, which I touched on as being an important opportunity to re-engage with Iran. Iran’s nuclear ambitions had serious implications for the region. Indeed, the Government believe that, had it acquired a nuclear weapon, that would have presented the single biggest threat to security in the region and posed a real global threat as well. We worked hard to deliver the joint comprehensive plan of action, which was the result of more than a decade of dedicated diplomacy; we remain absolutely committed to the success of that deal and its robust implementation. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to re-engage with an important part of the middle east.

A great example of where Iran can re-engage with the wider community is the challenge of Yemen—the proxy influence on what is happening there has been mentioned. In the Arabian peninsula, Iran is stoking tensions with the Gulf Co-operation Council, and may be seeking to exacerbate the conflict in Yemen by giving support to the Houthis. When I visited Tehran earlier this year I made the point that this is a great opportunity for Iran to be part of the solution and not part of the problem—to engage with us in getting all parties back to the table so that we can end that civil war, particularly given the very real onslaught of famine in that country.

A lot of comments have been made about the UK’s increased engagement with Iran. That is absolutely true—our embassy has reopened and there have been a number of visits, including my own. There has been parliamentary engagement and phone calls between the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary as well as bilaterals held in international forums. Many conversations are taking place behind the scenes; parliamentarians might want those to be more vocal, but I assure hon. Members that we do talk about the rights of minorities, the proxy influence, human rights and the death penalty, sanctions and missile procurement, and consular cases—I will write to my hon. Friend Sir David Amess in detail about the particular case he raised.

Photo of Oliver Dowden Oliver Dowden Conservative, Hertsmere

Mr Foroughi’s son is a constituent of mine. Many Members have raised his case, and I thank them for doing so. There is near unanimity among Members of this House that Mr Foroughi’s father should be released. Surely that would be a sign of Iran’s engagement with the international community, particularly given that he has already served more than half his sentence, and so according to its own laws should be released.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs

I commend my hon. Friend for the manner in which he supports his constituent. He knows that I have met the family on a number of occasions and raise this matter on a regular basis. He is absolutely right that we seek clemency from the Iranian Government to recognise that the length of sentence has already been fulfilled. We look forward, as a sign of good will between our two countries, to reuniting Mr Foroughi with his family.

Although we talk about individual aspects of Iranian activity, for me the core of this issue is the cold war that exists between the Sunni and Shi’ite worlds. That needs to be reconciled, and is something other GCC nations are also focused on. It is the backdrop against which a lot of other events take place, and it stands in the way of improving security in the region and prosperity as well. I have said before that those are now political banners that countries are using. There is no doctrinal difference between their theological approaches to the religion—they both believe in the absolute centrality of the Prophet Mohammed. There is a difference between them on who should be the first caliph—whether it be the father-in-law or the son-in-law—and there are turning points that have caused a difference in opinion, such as the battle of Karbala or Shah Ismail, who basically created Persia in the form we see today with its culture, religion and language. Other than that the difference is simply political and historical, and there is no reason why there cannot be a reconciliation and an end to the cold war that we see. That needs to be pushed forward and encouraged. Britain would absolutely want to play a role in that, but it is for the region itself to recognise the benefits of moving forward from the divide between the Shi’ite and Sunni faiths.

I want to leave a minute or so for my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon to conclude, so I will just say that Iran has long been influential in the middle east and remains a key player. It now has the opportunity, particularly following the nuclear deal, to engage more closely with the international community and to play a more positive role in the region’s future. Unfortunately its actions in Syria and elsewhere suggest that it is, for the moment at least, following a different path. The implications for the region and the world are very serious indeed, and that is why the Government believe that continued dialogue with Iran is vital. It is why I visited Tehran in January for discussions on a range of issues, as I mentioned, including international security. We will maintain pressure on Iran to meet its international obligations and to engage more constructively with its neighbours and the international community. Iran should use its considerable influence not to destabilise the region, but to stabilise it for the benefit of all. That is what the Government are working to achieve.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 10:58 am, 22nd March 2017

I thank the Minister for his comments. Sometimes he unfairly comes into the line of fire of criticism from myself and some of my colleagues, but it is certainly not him that we criticise—it is the issues that we discuss with him that we are critical of. I understand that his experience of terrorism is something that is not known to the rest of us; I deeply acknowledge that.

I thank everyone who has come to today’s debate. I apologise for my absence on a previous occasion, but I am grateful for the number of people who have come along. I am particularly grateful to you, Mr Nuttall, for advising me to give people enough opportunity to speak. I assure you that I could have spoken for longer, but I am grateful to have heard other people’s experiences. I also want to apologise to constituents of mine who are here today for some of my pronunciations.

Most of all, I thank Joan Ryan, who spoke about Israel; my right hon. Friend Mrs Villiers, who spoke about human rights in Iran; Mrs Ellman, who spoke about human rights; my hon. Friend Sir David Amess, who spoke about US influence; Jim Shannon, who shared his concerns and spoke about human rights; my hon. Friend Bob Blackman, who spoke about the relationship with the US; my hon. Friend John Howell, who spoke about terrorist funding; my hon. Friend Mr Burrowes, who not only suggested that I have this debate in the week of Nowruz but spoke about Christians in the country; and the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton). Finally, I thank my hon. Friend Seema Kennedy for all that she said; I certainly take it to heart and hope that one day she and myself can go to Iran.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).