Iran — [Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 7 June 2023.

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Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw 9:30, 7 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Government policy on Iran.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as always. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

I am grateful to have secured the time for this important debate. In a dangerous and complicated world, Iran presents one of the most immediate threats to the UK’s national interest and domestic security, but for too long the international community has taken a short-sighted and, I believe, misguided approach to the fundamentalist regime in Tehran. That has led to an emboldened Iran flagrantly violating the 2015 joint comprehensive plan of action nuclear deal, expanding its regional influence and support for terrorism, and committing human rights abuses against its own citizens with impunity.

The collective failure in policy on Iran over the past decade or so is exemplified by the Biden Administration’s ongoing efforts to separate Iran policy into different areas—human rights abuses, the nuclear programme, ballistic missiles and support for terrorism—regardless of how interlinked they all are. History has shown that those policy areas can only ever be dealt with as a whole, and it is my contention that the failed approach is no longer tenable, and that the UK should take the opportunity to pursue an independent Iran policy and steer our own ship.

We need to be frank about the nuclear programme: Iran has never been closer to developing a nuclear weapon, and the JCPOA has comprehensively failed to halt Iran’s nuclear advances. Iran has been overtly breaching the JCPOA since May 2019, and even produced uranium enriched to a purity of 83.7%, which is a small technical step from the 90% threshold required for a nuclear weapon.

The country has accumulated enough uranium enriched to 20% and 60% purity that it could produce at least two nuclear bombs within months. Those levels are grossly in excess of the 3.67% permitted by the JCPOA and the level required for a legitimate peaceful civil nuclear programme. The UK Government have rightly likened the JCPOA to a hollow shell, but the US-led diplomatic efforts seek a so-called partial nuclear deal, after the US abandoned its wishful desire to secure a longer, stronger JCPOA.

Reports suggest that the Biden Administration’s partial deal would permit Iran to enrich uranium to 60%. That is concerning enough, but it stands to be compounded by significant sanctions relief. The US and South Korea are understood to be discussing ways to release $7 billion in Iranian funds held by Seoul, and an additional $10 billion held in Iraq might be on the table. Not only would Iran face no penalty for breaching the agreement; it would be permitted to remain mere months from possessing a nuclear weapon. It would also enjoy the benefits of a desperately needed economic boost.

Many colleagues in the House will share my grave concern about those developments and recognise the implications for existing and future international agreements, which apparently can be violated without consequence. Will the Minister provide an update on what discussions he has had with the Biden Administration on their efforts to secure a partial nuclear deal? Will he explain how Iran’s status as a threshold nuclear state aligns with our long-standing and crucial policy of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon?

On sanctions, Iran’s systematic non-compliance necessitates a full snapback of sanctions in accordance with United Nations Security Council resolution 2231, which at this late stage is one of the few remaining diplomatic tools. It must be remembered that Iran has historically been acutely sensitive to sanctions. The UK must take a decisive, independent approach to secure the snapback. The UK has the power legitimately to trigger the snapback mechanism, and in doing so would demonstrate that when we sign agreements, they are worth more than the paper they are written on. Will the Minister explain the UK position on that, and say what steps we would take to initiate that last-resort mechanism?

Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile capability in the middle east. In defiance of UN resolutions it has continued to develop and test advanced missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload over thousands of miles. Iran is now openly using those weapons in conflict and has even killed a US national in recent years, yet the threshold for Iran’s use of force continues to drop due to an apparent lapse in western resolve.

In October this year the situation will become much worse as current restrictions placed on Iran’s development and transfer of missiles and missile tech will lapse in accordance with a sunsetting UN resolution and the JCPOA’s annex II. The mosaic of organisations set to be delisted covers the who’s who of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Al-Ghadir Missile Command and Aerospace Force, as well as Iran’s Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics.

Can we imagine a world where Iran is legally able to provide President Putin with ballistic missiles for his murderous attack on Ukraine? At a time when the UK and the EU are stepping up on drone sanctions and human rights sanctions, we risk taking our eye off a much more lethal threat. Again, the UK can play a decisive role here. Thanks to Brexit and our newly acquired autonomous sanctions capabilities, the UK has more room to act in this space than the EU. I call on the Government to ensure the UK leads the way by not delisting those entities, and by building a coalition with our allies in Europe to follow suit.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He touched on an important point about the flow of weapons going from Iran into Ukraine. We need to do more to plug that flow or we will undermine all our other efforts to support Ukraine. Swift action is needed. It is important to lead the way, as we have continuously done in terms of the war in Ukraine.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

I thank my right hon. Friend for his point. He has hit the nail on the head. There are knock-on effects as Iran’s missiles have the potential to interfere in other conflicts, and that is so damaging and undermines what we are all trying to do. This House has been very much united in supporting Ukraine, so he is right in what he says.

Iran’s egregious human rights abuses also necessitate a robust policy response. My constituents were disgusted by the graphic footage of regime forces brutally suppressing protesters seeking the sorts of basic freedoms that we all take for granted. The UK has responded well to Iran’s many abuses. I applaud the Foreign Secretary’s leadership in introducing comprehensive and ever-growing lists of sanctions against organisations and individuals responsible for the suffering of ordinary Iranians.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

Two Iranian grandmothers were recently sentenced to 10 years in prison simply for being Baha’is. They had not long ago already served 10 years for the same reason. Will my hon. Friend join me in standing firm in the UK’s opposition to such sentences, particularly the use of blasphemy and apostasy laws, which can involve the execution of individuals in Iran simply on account of what they believe?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

My hon. Friend is right. We must do everything we can, in Iran or elsewhere, to protect religious minorities and everyday citizens against appalling abuses. She gives a fine example of the kind of thing we are dealing with. She certainly has my full support and I thank her for her personal efforts; I know this is an issue that she is passionate about and works very hard on.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

The human rights abuses extend to women and girls and also the LGBT community. Since 1979, between 4,000 and 6,000 members of the LGBT community have been executed. Does my hon. Friend see that as a cause for concern?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

My hon. Friend is completely right. That is something that people in this and many other countries would be horrified by. The community has suffered for many years and Iran in particular has a disgraceful record this this respect. Not just in Iran but around the world the UK has an important role to play in promoting LGBT rights and ensuring that everybody enjoys the same rights that we enjoy in this country. There is still a long way to go, even in this country, in what we can do to support people, but in Iran there is a huge problem. I thank him for his point; he is spot on.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

We also hear of the death penalty being used to execute young people for crimes committed when they were below the age of 18. Will my hon. Friend join me in calling on the Iranian authorities to honour their international human rights obligations, and immediately halt all executions of juvenile offenders and commute all death sentences?

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in that call. Regardless of people’s views on the death penalty, everyone should have a free and fair trial and no civilised country can accept a minor found guilty of a crime being made to pay the ultimate penalty. We must also push against the treatment of citizens who have been subject to the death penalty without fair due process—a point to which I will return.

The regime’s appalling treatment of its own citizens speaks volumes. We must act, as an ongoing warning that the Republic cannot be trusted and must not be treated as an equal in any sort of negotiations. Lest we forget, the JCPOA’s failure to address Iran’s human rights abuses speaks to the failure of the compartmentalised approach to Iran policy from which we must break free. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is Iran’s foremost practitioner of human rights abuses, and it is deeply regrettable that we have not acted decisively against the organisation by proscribing it in its entirety. We must be unambiguous. All of Iran’s malign activity is underwritten by the IRGC and its elite Quds Force. It is directly instigating conflicts around the world through its funding, arming and training of countless terror groups, many of which are proscribed in the UK for very good reason.

The IRGC is also reaping great financial rewards from its deep involvement in the international drugs trade, with a particular presence in South America. The dangerous captagon drug trade—much of which is centred in Syria, thanks to Iran’s control of the country—is now entering Europe, posing a profound policy challenge to the entire continent; it is no longer possible to dismiss the IRGC as a distant threat. The people of Ukraine know better than anyone what happens when the Iranian regime is left unchecked. IRGC-supplied suicide drones have wrought terror across Ukraine and brought the Iranian threat into the heart of Europe, making Iran directly complicit in President Putin’s hideous war crimes.

The IRGC’s charge sheet for its publicly documented activities against the UK is grave and growing: 15 planned terror assassinations in the UK have been foiled by MI5 since 2022; British civilians have been killed around the world, as have UK armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan; an attempted bomb attack on British MPs in Paris a few years ago; the radicalising of British citizens in the UK using a network of religious centres, one of which is undergoing an active Charity Commission inquiry; the use of British crime gangs to gather information for terror attacks in the UK; attempted attacks on a London-based Iranian news channel, harming freedom of the press in this country; and cyber-attacks against UK critical national infrastructure and this place.

The House of Commons has already voted unanimously to call on the Government to ban the IRGC, so the question now is: what are we waiting for? In the vacuum, IRGC activities have expanded and concerns are growing across the UK. Back home, millions of Iranians are fighting the pernicious IRGC in their ongoing and life-threatening efforts to secure greater freedoms. But such efforts are by no means limited to Iran. Here in the UK, one man—Mr Vahid Beheshti—has exemplified the courage and commitment of Iranians in standing against the IRGC.

I commend the Vahid’s bravery in his extraordinary 72-day hunger strike outside the Foreign Office, which resulted in him having to spend two weeks in hospital due to ill health. I was heartened by Mr Beheshti’s release from hospital and applaud his strength as well as that of his wife, Councillor Mattie Heaven. Undeterred, the sitting by Vahid and his many supporters continues outside the Foreign Office and has now surpassed an extraordinary 100 days, but this remarkable self-sacrifice has only been necessitated by our inaction and failure to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety. During the hunger strike, Mr Beheshti’s campaign for proscription received an unprecedented volume of cross-party support, and it was an honour to join 125 of my colleagues from all corners of Parliament in writing to the Prime Minister in solidarity with Mr Beheshti. It is hard to think of an issue that has received such broad parliamentary support.

Sanctioning the IRGC in its entirety is a welcome step, but I am afraid it fails to adequately reflect the extent of the threat posed by the Islamic Republic’s brutal enforcers. Today, I reiterate the call of so many by again urging the Government to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety. Reports suggest that the UK has come under pressure from the Biden Administration over the question of proscription, which jars with their active decision not to delist the organisation from their own proscription list. The UK Government must pay no heed to these overtures and instead put our national security interests first.

The UK should show its commitment to rooting out Iran’s support for terrorism by proscribing the IRGC and leading essential international efforts to end its financing of terror surrogates. There is clearly support for this landmark step within Government, and I particularly applaud the Minister for Security, who has done so much to raise public awareness of the dangers of IRGC activity within the UK. I also note that the Prime Minister has previously said that IRGC proscription

“must now be on the table”,

and he vowed unequivocally in December last year that he would utilise

“the full range of tools at our disposal to protect UK citizens from the threat of the IRGC”.

It all begs the question, if not now, when?

This is by no means the first debate in this place on the urgent need to respond to Iran’s malign activities across the world, and I dare say it will not be the last. It is hard to escape the assessment that Iran, emboldened by the absence of IRGC proscription and a snapback of biting sanctions in response to its nuclear transgressions, has systematically escalated its deplorable efforts to export bloodshed and instability. The Iranian regime is ruthlessly holding the threat of terrorism and its expanding missile capabilities over our heads. There is a real risk that the UK and our western allies will become the agents of Iran’s deterrence here.

US-led policy towards Iran has been shown as ineffective and, in many cases, harmful to UK national interest. A clear-eyed analysis of Iran’s behaviour and activities means that the UK-Iran relationship cannot simply continue as business as usual. It is time we pursued a robust, independent approach. We have rightly led the way in defending Ukraine against unprovoked attacks, and I applaud the Government’s relentless commitment to sanctioning Russia. Now, let us take the same principled approach in our Iran policy and lead from the front.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

Order. Six Members have indicated that they would like to speak, which gives each of them about seven minutes. That is on a voluntary basis, but it would be helpful if Members followed that guideline.

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead 9:47, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate Brendan Clarke-Smith on securing this important and timely debate.

As we have heard many times in and outside the Chamber, the Iranian regime’s latest wave of homicidal attacks on its own people began in September last year after the murder of Mahsa Amini by the Iranian police. Since the crackdown against the subsequent protests began, more than 500 people have been killed, more than 50 people have been executed and at least 20,000 have been detained. Those are rough figures; they are probably an underestimate of what has actually happened, for obvious reasons.

At the apex of every brutal activity perpetrated by the Tehran regime is the IRGC, as the hon. Member said. It is a worldwide operation, and let us be clear what we are dealing with: the clerical fascists and homicidal maniacs who run Iran, and their monstrous servants in the IRGC, are effectively the modern-day version of the Nazis. If they had been around in 1939, they would have been advocating declaring war, but they would have been on the other side, not the side of the allies. They want to wipe Israel off the face of the planet, they want to murder Jewish people and gay men and women, and they want to take women as a whole back to the stone age. They are doing their best to do that not only in Iran, but elsewhere.

That repellent view of the world also applies to Tehran’s proxies. We are dealing not just with Hezbollah and Hamas, as bad as they are, but with the criminal gangs to which the hon. Member referred. They operate in this country, across Europe, in North America and elsewhere. That terrorist and criminal network poses a clear threat, way beyond Iran and the middle east.

I would have thought that the very least the Government—indeed, any democratic Government—could do is proscribe the IRGC in its entirety, as the hon. Member said. What perplexes me is that I and many other Members on both sides of the House have raised this issue repeatedly on the Floor of the House of Commons. I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but I have heard Minister after Minister expressing sympathy with full proscription at the Dispatch Box, and then nothing happens. That leads me and Members on both sides of the House to the conclusion that FCDO and Home Office Ministers sympathise with the idea of proscription, but that somebody in Downing Street, the FCDO or the Home Office is blocking it. I for one cannot see the rationale behind failing to proscribe the IRGC.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

Does the hon. Gentleman think that there are certain similarities with the reluctance to proscribe the political wing of Hezbollah? There is a lot of political will to make that proscription happen, but there seems to be a reluctance within the FCDO. Are there not parallels with the IRGC there?

Photo of John Cryer John Cryer Labour, Leyton and Wanstead

That is probably true. The rationale is normally that elements at the heart of Government say, “We still have to talk to these people.” Well, actually, they do not need to communicate with them. We are talking about Nazi terrorists, not a rational organisation. The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

I believe strongly that no Member of this House or of the House of Lords should have any relationship whatever with any arm of the Iranian state. Anybody who has been elected to the House of Commons or sits in the House of Lords and who has a relationship, particularly a pecuniary one, with Press TV—I think we all know what I am talking about—should look in the mirror and ask themselves why they are taking money from fascists.

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 9:52, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. As leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, I have a great deal of respect for the European Court of Human Rights and for the liberties—our liberties—that it defends, but those liberties continue to be fundamentally challenged in the dark authoritarian corners of our shared international community, and no more so than in Iran.

Iran’s human rights abuses are well documented, and we have discussed some of them. They make for disturbing reading. Never in the Islamic Republic’s 44-year brutal reign has it faced such widespread and far-reaching calls for freedom. The country has been rocked by the largest and most diverse protests yet. By December, an estimated 516 Iranian civilians had been killed by the regime as a result of egregious and brutal crackdowns on freedom of expression, contributing to the almost 600 executions that had been reported over 2022—the highest figure since 2015. Many were peaceful protesters killed with live ammunition and buried in unmarked graves without their families receiving notification. One particularly heinous tactic that the regime is using is chemical attacks, which it unleashed against a reported 91 girls’ schools from November 2022 to March 2023, leaving hundreds hospitalised. I ask the Minister what assessment has been made of those sickening attacks.

Iran’s state-endorsed summary executions and the ever-tightening screw on the rights of women and girls point to crimes against humanity. Tehran even recognises that its treatment of women and girls diverges significantly from the freedoms that women enjoy in the west, which Iran’s Supreme Leader declared in 2017 to be a

“Zionist plot to destroy human community”.

That would be laughable if it were not so horrific for the girls living there. What more can the Minister’s Department do to support the rights of Iranian women and children suffering under the tyranny of Tehran?

Iran’s suppression of the press is no less ruthless, leading to its being ranked 177th out of 179 nations in the 2023 world press freedom index. For their coverage of Amini’s brutal murder, two journalists, Elaheh Mohammadi and Niloofar Hamedi, have been accused of colluding with hostile powers, a charge that carries the death penalty under Iran’s Islamic law. In October, the IRGC accused the two of working for the CIA. Mohammadi’s lawyers have reportedly been denied the chance to defend her. We must call for their trials to be held in public, not behind closed doors where the regime has so often delivered corrupt verdicts with impunity.

Documents obtained from its official business registry show that in order to control its desperate population, Tehran has turned to Chinese face recognition surveillance technology. What steps can be taken to ensure that China does not export that technology to Iran? Will the Minister commit to providing ordinary Iranians with the software to gain internet access and protect journalistic autonomy? We must ensure that they do, whether overtly or covertly.

The treatment of Iran’s LGBT community is reprehensible, even entailing the risk of hanging sentences designed for maximum suffering and intimidation. Human rights groups claim that, since 1979, between 4,000 and 6,000 gay people have been executed. I am confident that the Minister will agree that the Government must do more to ensure that all people should be free to love who they wish, and that they will jointly inquire whether the LGBT rights organisations that the Government are empowering to assist in giving asylum to and strengthening Iran’s LGBT community can be strengthened even further.

The buck for all this stops with President Ebrahim Raisi and Supreme Leader Khamenei. What good are sanctions if the regime’s two most powerful despots are exempt? The Government must prove to ordinary Iranians that we are prepared to hold their tyrants accountable through targeted and personal sanctions. That is the only way we can fulfil our commitment to fundamental human rights, for the rule of law must be the ethos of a global Britain, unafraid to stand up for the individual and proud to lead our allies in the pursuit of justice.

Photo of Sarah Green Sarah Green Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales) 9:58, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank Brendan Clarke-Smith for securing this morning’s debate.

Like most people, I was appalled by the shocking death of Mahsa Amini last year at the hands of the Iranian authorities. The brutal crackdown that has followed, which has left hundreds dead, raises urgent questions about what more can be done to support the Iranian people. In recent months, my office has been contacted by countless constituents concerned about the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran. Among the issues that they have raised are the persecution of women, the right to freedom of religion or belief, and the continued detention of British citizens. Even before the terrible scenes last year, the British Government’s report on human rights and democracy found that women in Iran were

“unable to participate fully in society.”

The crackdown that followed the death of Mahsa Amini has seen brutality against women and girls taken to new levels, including the possible use of gas poisonings by the regime to intimidate female students and to force schools to shut. Members across the House welcomed the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori last year, but the regime continues to arbitrarily detain other British nationals, including Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof, and we should not forget the execution of dual British-Iranian Alireza Akbari earlier this year.

There are two areas that I would like the Minister to address. First, I called on the Government earlier this year to help to prevent the closure of BBC Persian Radio by providing emergency funding similar to the funding provided last year for the BBC World Service in Ukraine. Access to free and independent media is a vital tool for the Iranian people in helping to counter the disinformation of the regime, so my first ask is that the Government reconsider their position on BBC Persian Radio—or a version of it, given that it has now closed.

Secondly, I echo calls for the Government to stop prevaricating and proscribe the IRGC as the terrorist organisation that we all know it is. As the Foreign Affairs Committee has said, it would be a logical extension of the existing restrictions on IRGC members and would help to send an unequivocal message to the regime that the malign activities of the group will not be tolerated. These measures would strengthen UK policy towards Iran and help to challenge the actions of the regime at home and abroad.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 10:00, 7 June 2023

As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate Brendan Clarke-Smith on securing this crucial debate, because the Iranian regime represents a troubling international challenge that requires urgent attention from the United Kingdom. I am grateful that Members across the House are in attendance this morning and that we have the opportunity to press the Minister on these important matters.

I am concerned that for some years the UK’s policy towards Iran has been largely incoherent, with no clear strategy in place to address concerns on the international stage or, indeed, domestically in Iran. The sanctions on individuals involved in the violent crackdown on protesters following the death of Mahsa Amini in September last year have had a limited impact on the situation on the ground in Iran. As of June 2023, as my hon. Friend John Cryer said, more than 500 protesters have been killed and as many as 20,000 have been arrested, although those figures are likely to be underestimates.

The regime has largely been able to suppress protest through strict censorship, through the enforcement of internet blackouts and through police brutality, so my first question to the Minister is what assessment the Foreign Office has made of the impact of the sanctions currently in place. Is the Department now considering employing the UK’s Magnitsky-style sanctions, as my right hon. Friend Mr Lammy has called for?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

I applaud what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I wonder whether he has picked up on the role that Iran is playing in the dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia. We are moving to a conclusion of that in favour of both countries—a peaceful settlement—but Iran seems to be out to spoil it and to make a big play of the situation.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The problem is that Iran is a disruptive force in large parts of the globe; it seeks to destabilise and undermine political deals bringing countries together. He makes a very sound case about what is happening in that part of the world.

The picture internationally is no less grave. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of the Iranian military, has never been more powerful. Indeed, it is perhaps an understatement to refer to the IRGC as a branch; Reuters has called it an industrial empire, and it is estimated that anywhere between 10% and 50% of the Iranian economy is controlled through the IRGC’s subsidiaries and trusts. The IRGC has been linked to terror attacks, hostage takings, assassinations, human rights violations and the intimidation of journalists and critics across the globe, including here in the United Kingdom. From Yemen to Lebanon, from Iraq to Israel, and from Syria to Saudi Arabia, Iran has waged an ideological war against peace and stability—the very point that John Howell was making. The IRGC provides financial support to several terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and the Taliban.

Photo of James Morris James Morris Assistant Whip

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech. I have a lot of sympathy with him about the proscription of the IRGC; he is right to describe it as a global problem. Would he not contend that it would be a mistake to think that Iran is not a rational actor in the world? The regime is not an irrational actor in the world. I make that point because it is very important that we work with allies across Europe and around the world to deal with this problem, particularly around such things as the relationship between the IRGC and money laundering, and its financial reach around the globe.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman is right that we cannot do this alone: we have to work with allies and, because of the global reach of the IRGC, he is absolutely right that we must have a global approach as well. The point is that the involvement of the IRGC in other terrorist groups, particularly in the middle east, is to further Iranian foreign policy goals. It is a major barrier to peace across the middle east, including to a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The IRGC’s commander, General Hossein Salami, has stated his intention to erase Israel from the global political map, something that is particularly concerning given the creation of IRGC proxy-controlled territory in Syria and Lebanon. Despite calls across the House, and despite the serious threat that the IRGC poses domestically and internationally, the British Government have so far resisted calls to proscribe it as a terrorist organisation. I have raised the matter in the House on a number of occasions, and have been told time and again by the Foreign Secretary that the UK does not “discuss or speculate about future proscriptions”.

I hope that the Minister can provide more clarity today. I am not asking him to “discuss or speculate”, but to signal to us that the Government appreciate the concern of Members across the Chamber about this issue and will strongly consider the points raised here. It was reported in January that the Government planned to proscribe the IRGC imminently, but nothing materialised. This is a matter of urgency, and I cannot fathom why the Government are not acting more swiftly to proscribe this dangerous organisation in its entirety.

Over the past six months there have been several developments in the middle east region that strengthen the hand of the Iranian regime. They include rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the readmittance of its Syrian ally to the Arab League, which is all happening in parallel to the United States’ gradual withdrawal from the region. The Iranian regime is already one of the biggest supporters of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is one of the few countries in the world openly supporting Russia with attack drones.

Since 2015, the regime has almost entirely violated the terms of its nuclear arms deal, to which the United Kingdom is a signatory. Despite its responsibilities as a signatory, Britain has given no indication of how it plans to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the absence of a renewed deal. Of most concern is the fact that the provisions in the agreement restricting the development of Iran’s ballistic missile programme will expire in October. We must not allow these sanctions to lapse. Put simply, the threat is growing both regionally and across the globe, and the United Kingdom must develop a robust and coherent policy on Iran as a matter of the utmost urgency.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Scottish National Party, Glasgow North 10:09, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I warmly congratulate Brendan Clarke-Smith on securing the debate. It is always encouraging to see Government Back Benchers making use of Westminster Hall to hold Ministers to account. There was a very well attended debate on Iran in the Chamber in January scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee. This has been a useful opportunity, six months down the line, to review the situation. A clear consensus is emerging among Members from all sides of the House.

Many other emergencies and crises flare up around the world and demand our immediate attention. The situation in Sudan is a clear recent example. Just because other crises have dropped down the news agenda does not mean that they are any less critical or cause any less distress to those on the ground. That is particularly true of Iran, as we have heard today.

On a daily basis, the regime continues to persecute and oppress far too many of its citizens. John Howell spoke very powerfully about the oppression of the LGBT community, and women of course face an enforced dress code, the enforcement of the hijab, and restrictions on the right to work and their freedom of movement. The UN’s working group on arbitrary detention has concluded that there is a “systemic” problem with arbitrary detention in Iran that

“amounts to a serious violation of international law.”

At least seven people who participated in the anti-Government protests last year have been executed since January, including three last month.

Yet still the cry for “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”—women, life, freedom—rings out on the streets of Tehran and across the country. The determination of the protesters has been inspiring, as has the solidarity expressed by so many communities and individuals around the world, not least constituents in Glasgow North, who regularly contact me to express their concern about human rights in Iran and their support for people campaigning for democracy and change.

Some of those constituents, of course, are Iranian themselves and have come here seeking safety and refuge, while still heart-sick with worry about their friends and family who remain in Iran. They look to the UK Government for action, and sadly, in too many areas, they find it lacking. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps continues to act with impunity both within and outside Iran’s borders. There has been plenty of evidence—we have already heard some of it—of the IRGC operating on UK soil. Yet we still wait, as almost every hon. Member has said, for the UK Government to follow the United States in proscribing the group and declaring it a terrorist organisation. That action would allow law enforcement authorities to take action and ensure that no officials or individuals guilty of human rights violations through that group can evade justice.

The Government also need to step up their action on UK-Iranian dual nationals who have been arbitrarily detained in Iran. As others have said, the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after so many years was a joy and relief, but Morad Tahbaz, Mehran Raoof and others still remain in prison with uncertain futures.

The Government must work with international allies to address Iran’s growing determination to influence hostile activity in the wider region and, indeed, around the world. Iran provides weapons to groups that provoke conflict in the wider middle east and is now recognised by the US National Security Council as one of the top military backers of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It acts with increasing impunity on its nuclear programme—reports in recent days suggest that a new mountain storage facility is being created for its military arsenal—and the development of hypersonic missile systems that could bypass the existing air defences of other countries in the region.

Is it any wonder, therefore, that the regime’s behaviour towards its own citizens and the wider world results in so many people from Iran wanting to seek refuge elsewhere? And yes, they include thousands of people who have arrived here on small boats in recent of years, hundreds of whom have been referred for assessment under modern slavery legislation. But the Government want to make those people—men, women and children who are fleeing the oppression that we have heard about repeatedly in today’s debate and who are seeking to join friends or family, or perhaps speak English but not French or German—criminals. They want to tell them that they are not welcome; they want to deport them to Rwanda. Some hon. Members will have heard me say this yesterday, because that is also the Government’s attitude to people who arrive here from Afghanistan.

How can the Minister, or any Minister from this Government, get up in a debate such as this and condemn Iran’s or any other regime’s human rights record, when the UK Government want to criminalise people for seeking asylum, which is a fundamental human right? There is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker. If the UK Government want to stop people coming here on small boats from Iran, they need to establish safe and legal routes that would allow people to arrive by regular means and, more importantly, they need to promote the rights of women, life and freedom in Iran. They need to be prepared for the day when democracy begins to prevail, and ensure that, when that day comes, they are able to offer whatever help and support might be asked for. That probably means finding money from an already stretched aid budget and perhaps rethinking the cut from 0.7%.

There is no question about the solidarity among hon. Members in today’s debate or among our constituents with the protesters and ordinary folk in Iran who want to see freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. There are practical actions that the UK Government can take but have not yet. If and when they do, they will have our support; until then, debates such as this will continue to hold them to account.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Treasury) 10:14, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate Brendan Clarke-Smith on securing this important debate.

Many different communities have made their homes in my constituency of Richmond Park after escaping oppressive regimes. I am the proud parliamentary representative of a large Tamil community who came here from Sri Lanka several decades ago and, in the south-eastern corner of my constituency, New Malden hosts the largest community of North Koreans in Europe. More recently, we have been glad to welcome any Hongkongers.

However, when I looked at my constituency’s census data earlier this year, I was surprised by just how many Iranians I represent, and I wondered why they had not been as visible a community as others. I made it my businesses to reach out to my Iranian constituents and to better understand their concerns. Last week, I met a number of them in Diba, a Persian restaurant in central Richmond, to discuss the situation in Iran and the UK Government’s response. I pay tribute to the many British-Iranians working tirelessly to shine a light on the abuses being perpetrated by the regime and thank those constituents who took the time to share their concerns with me.

It is almost surreal to imagine the daily struggle that Iranian people face. Simple things that we take for granted in Britain are now distant memories to most Iranians. Young girls are being deprived of an education out of fear that they will be poisoned if they go to school. Journalists and lawyers are being thrown into jail and sentenced to lashings without fair trial. Thousands of people are executed every month for defending their freedom. Women are unable to dress as they wish, travel as they wish or spend their time as they wish; all the things that bring joy to life are being wiped from Iranian existence. I was particularly struck by one of my constituents who described the current regime as a “coup”—a sort of foreign entity that in no way represents the culture of values of the Iranian people but which has occupied their country and stolen their freedoms. It is a force that acts to suppress and control its citizens through fear.

The Iranian people have stood up and spoked out against the evil forces of the Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in particular. The IRGC not only exerts terror on the Iranian people but props up a network of terrorist groups across the middle east, spreading war and violence across the region. The Foreign Affairs Committee and hon. Members from across the House, within this debate and in other forums, have called for the IRGC to be finally designated as a terrorist organisation. The Liberal Democrats support that case.

In January this year, it was reported widely that the UK Government would review the case for proscription but, five months later, no progress has been made. The Prime Minister even said that there was a case for proscribing the IRGC during the Conservative leadership election last summer, as other Members have in this debate. Will the Minister update us on why it is taking such a long time? It is a crucial point that my constituents made to me.

We must remember that it is not just in Iran that people live in fear. The terror of the Iranian regime extends beyond the country’s borders and right to our doorstep here in the UK, a point that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw made most profoundly. I have heard at first hand from my constituents about physical threats made to British-Iranians residing in London. The UK Government simply cannot stand by and allow this to happen. Will the Minister take urgent action to protect the safety of British citizens and Iranian nationals based in the UK? In addition to proscribing the IRGC, we need more proactive investigations of individuals in the UK who may be connected to the Iranian regime, including family members of Iranian officials who we have sanctioned. Some are based in this country, living the high life on the back of stolen wealth like the Russian nationals we are familiar with already. I urge the Government to heed the call of Anoosheh Ashoori and ensure that our Magnitsky sanctions regime is properly deployed against those individuals.

Sanctions are a frequently pulled foreign policy lever, and I welcome those imposed by the UK Government on individuals connected to the Iranian regime, including members of the IRGC. However, sanctions imposed by other countries, including the United States, have had a significant impact on my constituents’ ability to access funds from their Iranian bank accounts. They are unable to send money to friends and relatives in Iran or to support Iranian non-governmental organisations carrying out vital humanitarian work as the Iranian economy collapses.

I have also spoken to several constituents who have had transactions blocked or their UK bank accounts closed down entirely without reason. One of my constituents has had all her bank accounts suspended by NatWest without any warning or explanation, leaving her entirely cut off from her money. I would welcome comment from the Minister on whether the Government can provide any support to British Iranians who are currently unable to access their funds.

The ongoing deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Iran has unsurprisingly led to an increase in Iranians seeking refuge outside their home country. I have been in touch with some of the asylum seekers who are currently living in a hotel in my constituency, around a third of whom have travelled here from Iran. Thanks to the continuing dysfunction in the Home Office, these Iranians could wait years for their applications to be processed. The Liberal Democrats call on the Government to work with international partners to set up safe and legal routes, particularly for Iranian women fleeing persecution. We simply cannot turn our backs on these vulnerable women.

It is high time that the UK Government took substantial action to support the Iranian people’s fight. Having spoken to my Iranian constituents, I now understand that more than any other group of people who have sought sanctuary in Britain, they continue to live in fear of the regime that they have fled from. Their voices have been suppressed by the activities of the IRGC in this country, which we must address urgently. The Iranian community here have so much to contribute to this country. They are highly educated, and have an extraordinary wealth of culture and heritage to share with us, but, like the women and girls residing in Iran, it is kept hidden away by this oppressive regime.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s contribution to this debate and I hope that it will provide some desperately needed answers. At the very least, we must support the British Iranian families in this country and listen to what they are urging us to do, which includes the proscription of the IRGC as well as putting an end to threats to individuals residing in our country by the Iranian regime.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chair, Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee, Chairman of the House of Commons Members' Fund

We now move on to the Front Benchers, who have 10 minutes each as a minimum, although there is a bit of flexibility. Then, whatever time is left at the end of their contributions will be extra time for the Minister to respond in, which I am sure he will welcome.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Scottish National Party, Dundee West 10:21, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I thank Brendan Clarke-Smith for securing this debate today. His contribution to it was eloquent, insightful and detailed, which I appreciated.

The UK and Iran have had a long, complex and often difficult relationship, stretching back over several centuries, let alone decades. As the 17th largest country in the world both by size and population, which is located at a strategic intersection between the Arab, Turkish, Russian and Indian worlds, Iran as a nation has always had significant influence beyond its borders, both regionally and throughout the wider world.

For the past 44 years, the Islamic Republic of Iran has operated a regime of oppression, internally and externally. As that oppression continues and even escalates, it is important that the UK Government proactively challenge the threat that Iran poses to universal human rights, as well as to regional and global stability. I begin my contribution today by stating that the Scottish National party stands in full solidarity with Iranian women, men and young people calling for democratic change. The bravery of Iranian citizens who stand up against brutality and dictatorship is beyond inspiring, and we in the SNP echo their rallying cry of “Zan, Zendegi, Azadi”— “Women, Life, Freedom”.

Last year, Iran catapulted to the top of international news cycles when mass anti-Government protests rocked the country. The springboard for the recent attention on Iran was the killing of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Iranian regime. Detained by Iran’s notorious “morality police” for allegedly wearing her hijab too loosely, she was beaten and tortured, which led to her falling into a coma in police custody and later dying in hospital. This was state-sanctioned femicide of a young Kurdish woman. Her brutal murder, carried out by the Iranian regime, sparked outrage and protest across Iran, resulting in the largest anti-Government protest movement in the country in years.

Tragically, the Iranian state has responded in a predictably vicious fashion. Iranian forces have been targeting women at anti-regime protests with shotgun fire to their faces, breasts and genitals, according to interviews with medics across the country. Just like the femicide of Mahsa Amini, which sparked the protests, these attacks could not be more gendered.

Over 500 people were killed during the protests, including 16-year-old Nika Shakarami, who was videoed while standing on and burning a headscarf as part of an anti-Government protest. She subsequently disappeared, having been chased by the police, and was eventually located in a mortuary 10 days after she went missing.

At least 19,000 protesters were detained, with the first death sentence imposed on one of them by an Iranian court coming in November 2022. The UN’s independent international fact-finding mission to Iran has cited reports of unfair proceedings and said that some of those who have been executed had been subject to torture or other forms of mistreatment. This year, conservative estimates suggest that Iran has executed 209 people, mostly for drug offences, although that number is probably far lower than the reality. Many of those executions have been public hangings using cranes. Indeed, some people have been punished by the removal of limbs or by being blinded.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said:

“The weaponisation of criminal procedures to punish people for exercising their basic rights—such as those participating in or organising demonstrations—amounts to state sanctioned killing.”

Sadly, those violent and appalling tactics are nothing new in Iran, and they have been in the oppression arsenal of the Iranian regime, security forces and police for many decades. The Islamic Republic of Iran was founded on murder and terror in 1979, and murder and terror have been used ever since to keep the regime and its barbaric leadership in place. In the five years following the revolution, up to 10,000 opponents of the new regime were executed, and in 1988, on the orders of Ayatollah Khomeini, thousands—probably tens of thousands—of political prisoners were executed without trial.

Protests are quelled through violence, murder and arrest, as happened during the 2009 Iranian presidential election protests and the 2019 Mahshahr massacre. Every day, the regime inflicts on its citizens arbitrary detention and killing, torture, denial of freedom of assembly and expression, gender-based violence, and discrimination against and persecution of minorities.

The Iranian regime and its security apparatus commit grave human rights violations daily, and that is not simply limited to the territory of Iran, because the wider Iranian regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps contribute to alarming security and human rights violations around the world, which every speaker in the debate has mentioned.

The preamble to the constitution of the Islamic Republic states that

“the Constitution provides the… basis for… the continuation of the Revolution at home and abroad.”

Iran has ambitions to be the dominant regional force in the middle east, and since the 1980s it has provided support for the Hezbollah armed group in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria. In recent decades, Iran has supported Shi’a militias in Iraq, especially following the 2003 US-led invasion, and has backed a Houthi group in the ongoing conflict in Yemen. The regime also has a history of providing missiles to Hamas in the Gaza strip.

Iran’s flagrant disregard for international law is also evident in its behaviour far beyond the region and its neighbours. As set out last year by Ken McCallum, the head of MI5, Iran’s aggressive intelligence services are a direct threat to people in the UK, and the Metropolitan police have reported 15 foiled plots since the start of last year either to kidnap or to kill UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the Iranian regime.

In February, independent television network Iran International—one of the most prominent providers of news from the recent wave of anti-Government protests in Iran—suspended its operations in the UK because of threats against its London-based journalists. Two British-Iranian journalists from the channel were warned by police of a possible risk to their lives, with the TV network stating that it had made the decision owing to

“a significant escalation in state-backed threats from Iran”.

The threats had grown to the point at which it was no longer thought possible to protect the channel’s staff. This is here in the UK, but still we have not yet proscribed.

Not only do the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure the safety of those living in the UK who are targeted by the Iranian regime; they must protect UK-Iranian dual nationals in Iran, and it is deeply worrying that the FCDO continues to fail those nationals who have been arbitrarily detained there. The shameful execution of Alireza Akbari in January should serve as an urgent wake-up call to the FCDO on the callous barbarism of the Iranian regime and the serious injustice and failings of the Iranian judicial system. The FCDO needs to do better to protect UK nationals.

In December, Iranian state media reported that seven people with links to the UK, including some with dual nationality, had been arrested for involvement in protests. The FCDO must urgently provide an update on the whereabouts and wellbeing of those individuals, as well as an update on the efforts being made to secure their release.

Dual UK-Iranian nationals Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof remain in arbitrary detention in Iran, and they have long been used as political tools by the Iranian regime. Their safe release and full pardon should be at the forefront of the FCDO’s work. We are well aware of the treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and other dual UK-Iranian nationals detained, and even tortured, in Iranian prisons.

The FCDO cannot make the same mistakes with currently detained dual nationals that it has made in the past. Given the significant and continued human rights abuses, and the security threat posed by the Iranian regime, both inside and outside Iran, the UK Government must take bold action, and action now, to safeguard Iranians globally and send a strong message against the regime’s tyranny. Just as the UK Government have done with the Russian Wagner Group, the SNP calls on the Government to formally proscribe, without hesitation, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organisation. The SNP wholeheartedly welcomes reports that the UK is set to formally proscribe the Russian mercenary Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation. Alongside that move, the time has come for the UK Government to finally proscribe the IRGC not only because it is in the national interest, but because it is morally the right thing to do, and there is unanimity in this Chamber for it. We have to do it in solidarity with those facing daily repression at the hands of the Iranian regime and in honour of the tens of thousands who have lost their lives to that group since 1979. We know the IRGC is operating on UK soil and is violating human rights on a daily basis in Iran. The United States formally proscribed it in 2019, and it is now time that the UK follows suit.

While the SNP welcomes the UK sanctioning of top Iranian security officials since the beginning of the regime’s clampdown on protesters in 2022, we call on the FCDO to consider sanctioning the highest echelons of Iranian political society, including the supreme leader, given the inexcusable continuation of state-sponsored violence and killings.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:31, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I thank Brendan Clarke-Smith for securing this timely and important debate. Many of us share his concern about the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I and others have visited Mr Beheshti, as I am sure he has, outside the FCDO on King Charles Street. My hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous and I have been to see Mr Beheshti, and we had lengthy conversations with him. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, has lent her considerable influence and weight to that debate as well.

We look in awe at the bravery of the protesters in Iran led by women and girls following the shocking death of Mahsa Amini and those women who continue to fight for “women, life, freedom” and the right to live their lives as they choose. We look in horror at the brutal repression carried out by the regime against those courageous women, men and children; at the breaches of freedom of religion or belief, as Fiona Bruce put on the record; at the suffering of the Baha’i community in particular, and at the crackdown on journalists and freedom of speech online.

In response to the protests, state repression has seen Iranian security forces unlawfully firing live ammunition and metal pellets at protesters, killing hundreds of men, women and children and injuring thousands. Thousands more have been arbitrarily detained and unfairly prosecuted solely for peacefully exercising their human rights. Women, LGBT+ people and ethnic and religious minorities have continued to be targeted by the regime, suffering discrimination and violence, enforced disappearances, torture and other ill treatment, including through the deliberate denial of medical care, which has been reported as widespread and systemic.

While street protests in Iran have lessened in recent months, the regime’s repression continues and state-sponsored brutality escalated again recently with the execution of three more protesters: Majid Kazemi, Saleh Mirhashemi and Saeed Yaghoubi. Sentenced to death in grossly unfair trials without evidence and amid serious allegations of torture, their executions were designed to strike fear into the hearts of ordinary Iranian people and to suppress dissent. As Members have mentioned, Volker Türk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said that it

“underlines our concerns that the Iranian authorities continue to have scant regard for international law”,

with the death penalty

“applied following judicial proceedings that failed to meet acceptable international standards of fair trial or due process.”

Indeed, the exact number of executions is unknown due to the lack of Government transparency and, sadly, that figure is likely to be much higher. Today, Amnesty International reports that at least 11 people sentenced to death are at grave risk of execution in connection with protests. We believe the international community has an important role to play and that the UK must stand unequivocally against the death penalty in all circumstances and wherever it is used in the world. I share concerns raised by human rights groups that the continued use of the death penalty in Iran demonstrates the limits of discrete diplomacy. What assessment has the Minister made of the spate of executions so far this year in Iran, and what concrete action are the UK Government taking with our international partners in response to the execution of three more protesters last month? With a further 11 people at grave risk of execution at the hands of the Iranian regime, what additional diplomatic pressure can be applied to ensure that the regime stops this horrific wave of execution?

As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw laid out in his opening remarks, Iran poses an increasing military threat at home and abroad. In Ukraine, Iranian-made Shahed drones have played a central role in Russia’s illegal war and its attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine. Last week, in response to Russian airstrikes attacking Kyiv, Ukraine introduced sanctions against the Iranian regime to stop Iranian goods transiting through Ukraine or using its airspace, as well as trade, financial and technology sanctions. Is there more that we can do here on sanctions? In the March refresh of the integrated review, the UK Government restated their aim to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but there are deep concerns that the failure to restore the joint comprehensive plan of action and the stalling of talks since September 2022 may mean that Iran soon makes irreversible nuclear progress, rendering previous commitments meaningless.

Looking at the middle east and Iran’s role in the region more widely, we continue to be concerned about the regime’s support for terror groups and militias, as seen in its threats against Israel and its continued military involvement in Syria and elsewhere. We have seen other developments in the region, such as the recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Would the Minister give us his assessment of that development?

Here in the UK, since the start of 2022, Iran has been responsible for at least 15 potential threats against British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime. In February this year, Iran International TV was forced to suspend its operations in London after state-backed threats were made against its journalists, in a deeply worrying attack on press freedom. Just last week in the IPU room here in Parliament, the well-known BBC Persian TV presenter Farnaz Ghazizadeh shared a platform with me and others, and she spoke movingly about her desire to see greater freedom of expression for Iranians and greater safety in the UK for her and her colleagues. Does the Minister believe enough is being done to protect Iranian diaspora members in the UK?

I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say on the wider calls from Members across the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), and from the Iranian diaspora community to formally proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, either by using existing terrorism legislation or by creating a new process of proscription for hostile state actors. There must be a way of doing that.

As I draw my remarks to a close, I would like to focus on one final area, and it is something this House has been all too aware of in recent times: Iran’s engagement in state hostage-taking, which the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has described as a “systematic problem.” Today, British dual nationals Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof remain incarcerated in Iran. We look back to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, her brave husband Richard, her wider family and the community. It was my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq who skilfully brought that case to this House, and my hon. Friend Janet Daby did the same with the case of Anoosheh Ashoori and Aras Amiri, who has spoken out this week about the ordeal she suffered in Evin prison. She wants to see other political prisoners—women like her, who are stuck in Evin—freed for good.

Last month, the Foreign Secretary told the House that the UK continues to

“make every effort to support British dual nationals incarcerated in Iran”—[Official Report, 14 March 2023;
Vol. 729, c. 692.]

and that this remains an “ongoing piece of work.” However, the Foreign Affairs Committee was critical of the FCDO and its approach to assisting British citizens incarcerated abroad under false pretences and has urged the Government to go further to strengthen abroad and in Whitehall our deterrence against arbitrary detention of British citizens. What assessment has the Minister made of the competence of the FCDO in that regard? Is it an effective response to widespread human rights abuses of imprisoned British nationals?

The courage of the Iranian protesters is extraordinary. What we say in this place matters, so we must continue to shine a light on the situation and share our collective revulsion at the regime’s human rights violations. That will spur us on to take brave actions, including giving serious consideration to proscribing the IRGC.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa) 10:40, 7 June 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, as all Members have made clear. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend Brendan Clarke-Smith for securing this important debate. Members across the House will agree that this has been an eloquent and sincere debate, and we have been united in our assessment of the Iranian threat not only in the United Kingdom but around the world. I am extremely grateful to the many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, who contributed, and I will try to respond to all the points that they made.

As the House knows, my noble Friend Lord Ahmad leads on these matters with great distinction. I will pick up some of the themes that he has set out in the past and has said are extremely important.

John Cryer, who often speaks on these matters, made a point, which was picked up by others, about the way in which the rights of girls and women—not, alas, only in Iran, but in many places in the world—are receding. I am grateful to him for underlining that point.

My hon. Friend John Howell, who is, of course, the leader of our mission to the Council of Europe, made a point that was picked up by Sarah Olney about schoolgirl poisonings, and I want to touch on that. The reports of schoolgirls being poisoned in Iran are deeply sinister, and we are continuing to monitor the situation closely. As the Minister for the middle east said,

“It is essential that girls are able to fully exercise their right to education without fear.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 March 2023;
Vol. 828, c. 889.]

The regime must hold those responsible to account.

Sarah Green made an important point about free media and the role of the BBC. I should stress to the House that the BBC is operationally and editorially independent from the Government, and decisions about how its services are delivered are a matter for it. Only a small fraction of the BBC’s Iranian audience receives BBC news solely via radio; the vast majority watch BBC Persian on TV and online, and both services will continue under the BBC’s current plans.

Andrew Gwynne talked about the effect of sanctions and the important opportunities presented to the House by the Magnitsky legislation, which he and I were heavily involved in promoting. The UK has imposed more than 70 new human rights sanctions since the protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September. Those sanctions send a clear message to the regime that we will seek to hold it to account for violent repression of its own people. We are obviously keeping those Magnitsky provisions under review, as we always should.

Patrick Grady also highlighted the attacks on the rights of women and raised the importance of getting back to 0.7% as soon as possible. I thank him for that. The hon. Member for Richmond Park spoke about the North Koreans, Tamils and Iranians in her constituency and underlined the fact that Britain has always sought to be generous in providing sanctuary for those fleeing persecution. She raised other points, some of which I will come to in a moment, but I want to thank her for her efforts on behalf of Iranians in her community. The UK maintains targeted sanctions against individuals and organisations responsible for human rights violations, nuclear escalation, regional destabilisation and other malign activity. Although I do not know the full details of the specific case that she has raised, our sanctions do not aim to target ordinary Iranians. If she wishes to take up with me the specific point that she made earlier about bank accounts, I will be happy to look into that for her.

Chris Law made an eloquent speech in which he charted Iran’s contribution to international civilisation in the past. That contribution has been perverted over the last decades and he set out an eloquent charge sheet against the regime. He also raised the issue of UK detainees. I want to emphasise that the safety of UK nationals remains a top priority. We do, however—the House will understand this—respect the wishes of individuals and their families regarding the specific details of the cases being shared in public, but I can assure the House that we are guided first and foremost by the best interests of those individuals and we work closely with the families whenever we can.

Turning to Catherine West, who speaks for the official Opposition, I will come on to the significant matter she raised in her speech, but I want to make a couple of points first. I recognise what she said about Nazanin and her husband Richard and all that went on. She spoke for everyone in the House when she made those points. She also raised the case of Mr Beheshti. He has met ministerial colleagues in both the Home Office and the Foreign Office, and I very much share the hopes for his ongoing good health, which was raised by others in this debate. I hope Mr Beheshti will be reassured by the fact that the Government will continue to protect our security and that of our partners in the region by holding Iran to account for its destabilising activities.

On the point that the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green and others have raised about consular detainees, we in the Government urge Iran to stop its practice of unfairly detaining British and other foreign nationals. We will continue to work with like-minded partners to hold the regime in Iran to account. It remains entirely within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained. We do not and will never accept our nationals being used for diplomatic leverage.

Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

The Minister is making an excellent response to all the Members here, which is appreciated across the House. On the criticisms in the FCDO report on how British nationals are treated by consular missions abroad, does he believe that those criticisms are correct? What does he think the FCDO needs to do to make good on the current arrangements?

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development), Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) (Minister for Development and Africa)

This is a very important area of work carried out by the Foreign Office. There is an inquiry into the consular approach in Sudan, to which I will give evidence shortly, but the hon. Lady is right. How we treat consular detainees and how the consular system works is a vital part of our work. We look very carefully at any suggestions from the House or the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on how that can be improved. It is extremely important to do so without fear or favour, and we take advice from all quarters on how such services can be made better.

I turn now to the current situation. I want to emphasise that Iran’s reprehensible behaviour has escalated in recent months. As has been pointed out throughout the debate, its human rights record is appalling, with surging use of the death penalty, increased restrictions on women, intensified persecution of religious minorities and the further erosion of media and civic freedoms. The regime has brutally cracked down on protesters and made repeated attempts to target people outside Iran. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw set out, since January 2022 we have identified more than 15 credible threats to the lives of UK-based individuals, orchestrated by the Iranian regime.

Iran’s supply of drones to Russia to support its illegal war in Ukraine is deplorable and a direct violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 2231. Those drones are being used to attack Ukrainian citizens, cities and critical infrastructure. Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities is threatening international peace and security, and undermining the global non-proliferation system.

We are working relentlessly across Government and with the international community to hold Iran to account for its unacceptable behaviour. In that context, I will look first at UK action. Let me begin by addressing Iran’s appalling human rights record. The executions of three more protesters in May is a shocking reminder of how the regime uses the death penalty to instil fear and suppress dissent. In 2022, Iran executed at least 576 people—nearly double the number the previous year. The death toll includes Iranians who were children at the time of their alleged offence, which is a flagrant breach of international law. The latest estimates indicate that the rate of executions continues to climb. One human rights group recorded at least 142 executions last month alone—a truly staggering number. Inside Iran, such killings have met with public outcry. The people of Iran have had enough of their Government’s impunity and violence, and they are rightly demanding a better future.

The UK will continue to seek to hold Iran to account for its behaviour. As the House will know, His Majesty’s Government strongly oppose the death penalty in all circumstances, and our ambassador in Tehran ensures that Iran’s leaders are left in no doubt about the political and diplomatic price they are paying for their brutality. Since last October we have sanctioned more than 70 individuals and entities for their human rights abuses, including the Prosecutor General, who is at the heart of Iran’s barbaric use of the death penalty.

I move now to the issue of state threats. Over the past 18 months, we have seen the regime orchestrate multiple credible threats to the lives of those living in the UK, including towards media organisations and journalists. We will always stand up to such behaviour from foreign nations, because our priority is the safety and security of the UK and those who live here. We have repeatedly made it clear to the Iranian regime that the threats are intolerable and will be met with a significant response. We are working tirelessly across Government and with our international partners to identify, deter and respond to such threats. It is time now—indeed, it is long past time—for the regime to listen. It must stop threatening the lives of ordinary people in Iran and elsewhere, including in this country.

I turn to an issue that was, I think, raised by everyone who spoke in the debate: the IRGC’s regional activity. We take very seriously the threatening behaviour of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not only have we sanctioned the organisation in its entirety, but we have sanctioned 29 individuals and entities affiliated with it since last October. That includes the Basij force—the arm of the IRGC that is mobilised to enforce brutal repression on the streets of Iran—and, most recently, four commanders under whose leadership IRGC forces have opened fire on arbitrarily detained and tortured protesters.

As has been repeatedly underlined in the House, the list of proscribed terrorist organisations is of course kept under review. As the House knows, and usually accepts, we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription, but the House may rest assured that across all parts of the Government, those matters are kept under the closest possible review and are looked at to assess the most effective way of proceeding in what everyone in the debate has made clear is an absolute priority.

The regime’s wider destabilising activity is rampant. It includes support for a number of militant groups, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria—as the hon. Member for Dundee West set out—militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen. HMS Lancaster, the UK’s permanent naval presence in the Gulf, has interdicted Iranian weapons transfers to the Houthis—further evidence of Iran’s destabilising activity in the region. We are working across Government and with our international allies to ensure that our collective response is robust, deters the regime from such malign activity and holds it to account wherever possible for threatening international security.

I return to the point I made earlier about Iran’s support for Russia. Iran is now one of Russia’s top military backers, supplying hundreds of drones that have been used to bombard Ukraine. Iran is testing its weapons in a new theatre through those sordid deals and, in return, Russia is offering military and technical support to the regime. We strongly condemn Iran’s actions in supporting Russia’s illegal war, and we have sanctioned 11 individuals and two manufacturers responsible for supplying drones. We will continue to call out that desperate alliance on the international stage and hold Russia and Iran to account.

Meanwhile, Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced. Iran refused to seize the critical opportunity to sign the revised joint comprehensive plan of action in August last year, making demands outside the scope of the agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency has repeatedly highlighted Iran’s lack of co-operation with long-running investigations into undeclared material. Iran’s malign activity has made the diplomatic context even more challenging, but we remain committed to ensuring that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon and are working closely with our partners to find a diplomatic solution.

We are working relentlessly across Government and with the international community to hold Iran to account for its unacceptable behaviour, its appalling treatment of its own people, its reprehensible support for Russia’s illegal war and its escalating nuclear activities. Just like the Iranian people, we want to see a more responsible Iran—one that respects the rights and freedoms of all its citizens and does not threaten international peace and security. We urge the country’s leaders to listen to their citizens as they demand a better future.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw 10:58, 7 June 2023

It has been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. It would be remiss of me not to congratulate Sheffield Wednesday on their promotion.

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw

Thank you, Mr Betts; that is much appreciated.

I thank the Minister for the update on what the Government are doing to address many of the concerns raised today, and I thank all Members present for their impassioned and eloquent speeches, which showed the very best of this House.

John Cryer made some excellent points, with which I agree entirely; his example of Press TV was a good one. My hon. Friend John Howell and Patrick Grady made excellent points about the worrying number of executions and the treatment of women, children and the LGBT community. I am sure the Government are bearing that in mind.

Sarah Green talked about British nationals and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. It is very important that we understand the Iranians currently living in the UK. Sarah Olney also mentioned her constituents. I thank her for those examples, which added a human touch to what we are discussing.

Andrew Gwynne discussed the treatment of protestors, which has been horrific, and the importance of internet access and a free press in addressing that. That was also touched on by Chris Law, who gave some excellent examples of the horrific treatment we have seen. I thank Catherine West for her remarks regarding Mr Beheshti and the brave people who speak out.

I hope the debate will encourage the Government to take further action and, ultimately, to fully proscribe the IRGC.

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