British Prisoners in Iran

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:16 pm on 18th July 2017.

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Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development) 5:16 pm, 18th July 2017

No, because I want to leave time for the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn to speak at the end. I cannot possibly answer all the questions raised. All colleagues who have a question on the table will get an answer by letter, but I want to address as much as possible of what the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn said.

I want to assure all colleagues that we are doing everything we can for our detainees. Our strategy is based on decades of experience—both our own experience and that of international partners—of dealing with Iran. We judge that approach to be in the best interests of those detained, but we keep it under constant review. If our assessment of the right way to handle this is to change, we would consider any alternative courses of action, but for now we judge the approach we are taking to be the most constructive one.

Our ambassador raises the issue of our detainees with the Iranian authorities at every opportunity; he seeks to secure consular access and to ensure their welfare. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have raised all our consular cases with their counterparts and have stressed the importance of resolving them as quickly as possible. My predecessor, Mr Ellwood, discussed the issue with the Iranians on numerous occasions, both in London and Tehran. However, we must recognise that there are limitations on what we can do.

I turn now to some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn, starting with dual nationality. Nationality is a key factor. All the British nationals currently detained in Iran also hold Iranian nationality. Questions of nationality are for individual states to decide. Unlike the UK, Iran does not legally recognise dual nationality. It considers our detainees to be Iranian, which has implications for consular assistance, which are set out in the passports of those with dual nationality. Under international law, states are not obliged to grant consular access to dual nationals, which is why our passports state that the British Government are unable to assist dual nationals in the country of their other nationality.

Our travel advice for Iran reiterates that statement and highlights the additional potential risks for British-Iranian dual nationals travelling there. None the less, we try to help dual nationals in exceptional circumstances. In practice, that is often difficult, as we are finding in Iran. We have repeatedly asked the Iranian authorities to grant us consular access to our dual-national detainees. However, as Iran considers them to be Iranian, it does not recognise our right of access. We know that other countries face similar difficulties, but we will continue to press for consular access.

Let me turn to some other issues. On publicly calling for the release of the detainees, we are doing everything we can for them, including trying to secure access to them and to ensure their welfare. However, we do that in the way that we judge is in their best interests, and we assess that the approach we are currently taking is the most likely to be in the best interests of all our prisoners in Iran.

As has been stated, there are new opportunities with Iran’s opening up. Following the destruction of our own embassy there some years ago, a new embassy has opened and new relationships are opening up. It is a complex country with a complex power structure, as the hon. Member for Leeds North East made clear, but I am hoping to take the opportunity—and I am sure the Government are hoping to take it—to explore what this new chance of a relationship with Iran means, both for us and for them. That will take some time, but it provides the opportunity for contacts to be made in a different way from before. That will supplement the efforts already being made on a regular basis to raise the issue by our consular team and by Ministers at the highest level.

Raising the issue can mean a variety of different things, from just mentioning it at a particular time to, following the development of a relationship, an opportunity to go into the issue further. Some of the issues that we consider here are blindingly obvious, such as how a country is seen by others around the world. We understand that very well. Different aspects of the Iranian Government understand some of that, but not others. We want to make sure that they see an issue like this as we see it, so that they can take the steps that we need to see our nationals returned.

Human rights in Iran generally is another key part of the debate, but what do we do about them? The Government take human rights and the rule of law seriously, and the human rights situation in Iran remains dire. I am putting that on the record, so that we in this Chamber, and the Iranian Government and the Iranian ambassador, who will read the account of the debate, will see it and know exactly what we mean. The human rights situation in Iran remains dire, and we are determined to continue to hold the Iranian Government to account. We frequently release statements condemning the human rights situation in Iran and regularly take action with the international community.

For example, we designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions, helped to establish the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran and strongly support the human rights resolutions regarding Iran at the UN. We believe that continued engagement with Iran on economic development and openness are the best ways to develop our relationship and will give us better leverage to discuss other issues. We do not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights and the rule of law; they can be, and are, complementary.

We considered very carefully the invitation to visit Evin prison earlier this month. The decision to participate in the tour was taken because we felt it would provide an opportunity to engage directly with prison authorities regarding the dual-national detainees. We felt that taking this opportunity should be taken, in the best interests of all our detainees and their families. Our consul repeatedly asked to see the British-Iranian detainees but was denied access. The risk of not accepting the invitation was the Iranian authorities saying, “We gave you an opportunity to see the conditions. You didn’t take it. What do you expect?” There are occasions when we are trapped if we do and trapped if we don’t.

Everyone in the FCO who deals with this—the consular team, which has been in constant contact with the families—knows how hard people are being pressed, but the truth is that this is not a matter in the hands of the UK Government to resolve. If it is to be resolved, it has to be resolved by the Iranian regime, and we have to play a part in making sure that we have done everything we can to facilitate that and make it work. There are different approaches to that. There is a public approach, which people can see; it is right that this issue is brought up here and in the most direct way by the hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn and all hon. Members who represent those who have been detained, and it is right that this is carried worldwide. However, different groups have different responsibilities, and my responsibility is to do what the Foreign Secretary and I consider to be most effective to secure the return of the detainees to their families. As we can see, that means our having a different approach from that which people might like to see.

All I can say is that, so long as I have the conviction that everything we are doing is as appropriate as it can be and is best designed to get the result we all seek, I will continue to do it. If the Government need to change course, we will, but I will not put an artificial barrier in the way of our progress by doing something that I might subsequently regret. I assure colleagues that we are doing everything we can to seek the result that we all want, but we are doing it in the way that we consider—with our experience of Iran and the experience of those who have worked with Iran for a long time—to be the best way possible. That does not in any way deny the efforts of others to do things in their way and to make sure that the Iranian authorities know how we feel, how the public feel and how the world feels.

We must do the work that we can to ensure the best interests of those who have been detained. That is why we are doing what we are doing, and I pledge to colleagues that I will continue to do what I consider to be in the best interests of those detainees, but I will constantly listen to those with other ideas and to the families, so that we do as much for them as we possibly can.