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Iran (UK Policy)

Volume 459: debated on Wednesday 25 April 2007

I welcome for several reasons the opportunity to raise the issue of policy options in respect of the United Kingdom’s relationship with Iran. In my view, the United Kingdom is not demonstrating a coherent strategy in our bilateral relations with Iran. Nor is it doing what I think would be appropriate—mobilising European Union opinion to deal with the issues in a way that neither appeases nor falls the other way into the danger of making a bad situation much worse. It is, after all, a dangerous world and I am talking about a dangerous region.

I am being generous in saying that at the very best the United Kingdom Government have been sending mixed messages. I am worried about that. Furthermore, I was disappointed at the official Opposition on 16 April when the Defence Secretary made his statement about the seizure of royal naval personnel in the waterways and their subsequent release. I thought that there should have been greater probing and I want to ask more questions about those events, particularly in view of the news in the past 24 hours that—I think that the phrase is “low level”—some of the inspections and boardings are being reinstated as of today.

I say that there have been mixed messages because the record shows that the Prime Minister has been pretty robust in criticising the Iranian regime as being made up of people who provide ordnance, arms and ammunition to insurgents in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. The regime is clearly exporting terror and encouraging suicide bombers in some of the terrible, tragic hotspots in its region. The Prime Minister has been fairly consistent. For example, one of his most recent utterances on the issue was made this month:

“the general picture, as I have said before, is that there are elements of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming and supporting terrorism in Iraq.”

My view is that with the full knowledge and consent of the Iranian regime, armaments, support and encouragement are coming from Iran to the insurgents, bringing tragedy and mayhem to the people of Iraq and elsewhere. Furthermore, our British service personnel are the victims of such weaponry.

On this matter I agree with the Prime Minister, yet some other Ministers such as the current Foreign Secretary and her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), say different things. They did not use quite the terms used by the Prime Minister. There is great danger in that. If the United Kingdom Government are going to accuse people, that needs to be forced, reinforced and emphasised right across that Government, but we are not doing that.

I also feel that we in the United Kingdom send mixed messages—to some extent, Parliament is to blame—when we afford dignities to the so-called President of Iran and the Parliament of Iran. It never ceases to amaze me how some of my colleagues in this House who rightly go on about gender issues cannot see that half the Iranian nation were prevented from standing for the office of President on grounds of gender. Never mind their politics—they were not allowed to stand for office because they were women. This House sends delegations to the so-called Majlis, the Parliament of Iran, and receives Iranian delegations.

That sends all the wrong messages. It is rather hypocritical, is it not? We do not, for example, send delegations to Belarus and we do not receive delegations from that country. We do not extend any honour or dignity to President Lukashenko, but somehow we extend them when it comes to Iran. That is because, as I recognise, Iran is a bigger player and certainly provides external threats. However, if we behave in such a way to bullying, powerful people, we are, in essence, appeasing. That is happening in respect of Iran and our response to it.

I will, but only briefly. I would be grateful if hon. Members gave me a bit of scope to develop my points. I imagine that one or two others will want to catch your eye and intervene, Mr. Cook.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way at this point. My only point about what he just said is that surely a show of strength against such a regime is what is needed rather than appeasement. Appeasement just gives the Iranian regime encouragement to try it on even more.

The hon. Gentleman makes the point more candidly and coherently than I. I totally agree that that is the problem. Furthermore, although our Foreign Office spends a great deal of time and energy every year producing a very good report on human rights abuses, it is not strong on the extensive human rights abuses in Iran. Through our silence and inactivity, we are to some extent acquiescing in those abuses, in contrast to our response to other bad countries in which human rights abuses are extensive. Sometimes we are more heavy on those countries, simply because they are not as big a player as Iran.

Those mixed messages concern me. However, the most serious point, which concerns hon. Members with an interest in Iran from right across the political spectrum, is the fact that the United Kingdom Government, who have encouraged the European Union on this matter, try to trade with the Tehran regime. They say, “If you do not go down the road of uranium enrichment and developing an atomic weapons programme, we will continue to proscribe and ipso facto persecute”—albeit at a fairly low level—“those people in exile who try to draw attention to the human rights abuses in Iran, want to bring democracy to it and are in exile around the world.”

I refer in particular to the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran, or the PMOI, which was proscribed at the insistence of the British Government in their attempt to trade good will with the Tehran regime. To its credit, the PMOI took the British Government to the European Court of First Instance, I think, in December. The court found in favour of the applicants, the PMOI. When the referee blows the whistle, a person normally leaves the pitch, but the British Government are playing cat and mouse. After the court had made a judgment that the proscription of the PMOI as a terrorist organisation was wrong, the British Government persuaded the Council of Ministers to reinstate that proscription, without any basis whatever.

The court made it clear that the PMOI has never been furnished with the information on why it is still regarded as a terrorist organisation; the PMOI might otherwise have had the opportunity to rebut it. I suspect that it has not been furnished because it does not exist. That is the first thing. Secondly, when the PMOI asserted to the court that it was not engaged in terrorism, the defendants—namely the Council of Ministers, at the instigation of the British Government—again refused to rebut the claim of innocence. That state of affairs is very unsatisfactory and grossly unfair and it sends the wrong signals to Tehran.

Is it not a fact that while seeking to appease the regime that was responsible for the abduction of British servicemen and women, Her Majesty’s Government continue to proscribe the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran, which is effectively the opposition to that pernicious regime? Is it not a fact that the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister have both said that the PMOI is a terrorist organisation? Will the hon. Gentleman—my hon. Friend, in this case—ask the Minister to state clearly on the record what shred of evidence the Government have to suggest that the PMOI is a terrorist organisation?

Indeed. I will go further. First, I want to know what is different now from when we were in opposition, when we used to welcome the PMOI to our Labour party conference. I suspect that it went to the Conservative party conference. Secondly, we have it in black and white that the EU3 stated in November 2004 that “If Iran complies”—with the demands of the EU for it to abate and to pull back from its pursuit of developing nuclear weapons—

“we would continue to regard the MEK”—

that is, the PMOI—

“as a terrorist organisation.”

That is quite shameful and disgraceful.

I hope that the Minister will reflect on that each time that his car goes to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and he sees those people who demonstrate day after day, in vigil, joined by Members of Parliament such as me and others who are in the Chamber today, to draw attention to the fact that the British Government are behaving disgracefully by not being candid or upfront and by not adhering to the views of the European Court of First Instance.

I will buttress that argument before I move on. It is not merely those in the Chamber today who take that view, but distinguished parliamentarians across the political spectrum, including Lord Archer of Sandwell, a former Solicitor-General of a Labour Government who the Prime Minister has appointed to carry out some inquiries—so he is held in high regard, unlike me, by the Prime Minister. He is one of the Prime Minister’s men, but he takes that view. So does Lord David Waddington, who was a Home Secretary under Margaret Thatcher and knows all about security, internal and external. So does Lord Fraser, a Scottish Law Officer, and many others, including Lord Slynn, an independent but a former High Court justice. They think that the British Government are wrong in terms of justice, and in persisting in the pretence that the PMOI is a terrorist organisation.

Although I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, could he share with the Chamber his view about why, given that all political parties in both Houses have supported a change in the British Government’s view of the PMOI, we have all failed? Does he have any suggestion of who might possibly influence the Government to change their view?

Of course, we have not heard from the Minister yet. Never mind what he might say working off the brief, we will have to read between the lines. I hope and suspect that he might be mindful of the fact that he—I do not want to embarrass him—has spoken to those people at various meetings and conferences. He is a courteous Minister, and he has done that. However, there needs to be at least a dialogue. Hon. Members should be able to take along some representatives to the Foreign Office to ask the Minister, or other Ministers, what is wrong, and what Ministers want those representatives to do to satisfy them that the PMOI is no longer a terrorist organisation, if—we are not conceding this—it ever was.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work in this area. It is well known, and we appreciate it. He has described the process by which the British Government have not only ignored a decision of the European Court of First Instance but actively led the fight against it. Is that purely due to ministerial incompetence, or is there more to the matter than meets the eye?

There are too many Carlton-Brownes in the FO still, and too many Sir Humphreys. I look to the Ministers who will say to those folk, “I hear what you say. Now, this is what we are going to do. We are going to listen to our parliamentary colleagues.”

I am anxious to move on to two points before I conclude. The first concerns events in the Shatt al-Arab waterway. In my view, on 16 April, the Defence Secretary did not satisfactorily—and the Opposition let him get away with it—answer one point. We were told that it was imperative in the interests of Iraq, the coalition and good enforcement of law that there should be boardings and inspections of craft in the location where our royal naval personnel were seized. That process stopped when they were seized. Today, we are told that it will be reinstated. I read the Defence Secretary’s statement carefully, and he implied that others—presumably other coalition partners—were filling the void. I want to know to what extent that happened, on how many occasions, with what frequency and whether it was in the same location as where our royal naval personnel were seized. Has that work been going on and which country has carried it out? We were told that the Iraqis do not have a navy that has been developed to that extent, so who else has been doing that in the interim?

My second point is that we have been told in the press releases today that the inspections will be reinstated today, starting at “a low level”. What does that mean? When will we be carrying them out to the same robustness and extent and in the same location as before the royal naval personnel were seized?

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the suspension of such operations is a signal of appalling weakness by the Government and that it aids and abets our enemies, particularly as it is a question not of suspending all operations but of asking other, apparently stronger, naval nations than us to do the job for us?

I agree. I wish the official Opposition had pressed that point on 16 April. We have to provide both the Government and the Opposition in this Parliament, it would seem, and I am trying to do that this morning.

The Defence Secretary referred to operational issues in his statement and said that he would be guided by Permanent Joint Headquarters. Of course, that is right. I am not insensitive to the need for operational considerations, but there are foreign policy ramifications, one of which is that if there was a period when there were no inspections or inadequate or low-level inspections, the contraband—the stuff we are trying to stop—would have been getting through. That endangers Iraq and our personnel, and that is not satisfactory. Tehran has been emboldened, too, by its success in preventing such actions.

The hon. Gentleman has been very generous with his time. We are rightly concerned in this debate with UK policy options on Iran, but does he share my concern over the implicit threat of military intervention by the United States, particularly in the context of remarks by Condoleezza Rice? Does he agree that any such military intervention is likely to be entirely counterproductive and to lead only to an escalation of conflict in the middle east?

I wholeheartedly agree, and I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has prompted me on that point. Those in the Iranian resistance in exile, with whom many Members in this Chamber meet and are pleased to be associated, emphasise as good, proud, patriotic Iranians that they do not want appeasement, but they certainly do not want their country to be invaded. They believe, as I do, that there is a third way, which is to send the right signals to the Iranian regime and to have robust engagement rather than appeasement. That is precisely what we have not been doing, for the reasons that I have tried to articulate this morning—the sending of mixed messages, the failure in respect of the inspections and boarding, and so on.

No doubt the Minister will say that he does not have a lot of time, but there is one thing that he might tell us. We have been told in the past 24 hours that the Council of Ministers met yesterday and was going to increase the European sanctions against individuals, freeze additional assets and enforce a total ban on arms. Who are the additional people who will face travel bans? What additional assets will be frozen? Can we be sure that no armaments from the EU or British Government will go to Tehran, including chemicals such as zirconium silicate, which was diligently held up by Bulgaria on the borders? It had been exported from the United Kingdom some months ago, but was allowed to go through at the prompting of the UK.

It seems to me, and I shall leave the Minister with this thought, that it would be stark, staring bonkers to have these new sanctions—as I say, I hope that he will tell us precisely what they are and how they will be enforced—and still to send parliamentary delegations to Iran. Presumably—I ask the question—that will stop.

First of all, I shall do my duty and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) on securing today’s debate. I was genuinely hoping that we could have a serious discussion about the intricate issues involved in Iran’s relationships with us and its multilateral and unilateral relationships. In his usual style, my hon. Friend has missed an opportunity to have that discussion. I will write to him on the specific questions that he asked, as I had no notice of them. As he rightly said, issues have arisen in the past few hours, and I do not want to mislead him or any other Member here. I will place a copy of the letter in the Library so that all Members can read it.

I reject totally my hon. Friend’s assertions that there is no coherent strategy and that we are failing to mobilise European and wider international opinion. Nor are we sending mixed messages. I agree with him and with other hon. Members—although their comments, sadly, have been somewhat politically partisan—that we need a coherent relationship with Iran. We support those in Iran who want a democratic, accountable country that operates to international norms and does not engage internally or externally in the abuse of human rights or the encouragement of terrorism through support, financing or the provision of hardware. We want to resolve peacefully issues of the use of nuclear power for military rather than civilian purposes.

We also want to see Iran play its part effectively in the international community. It is an important country and its people are important people. It must be seen to be embraced openly by the international community. It is therefore important, despite the difficulties, that we should have a bilateral relationship with Iran and work multilaterally with the international community to deal with many of those issues, some of which my hon. Friend mentioned in his speech and some of which I shall touch on generally.

I have only a few minutes to respond to the debate. I am not using that as an excuse not to cover the waterfront of Iran, but that would be impossible do to in a few minutes. If at the end of my reply I have not covered all aspects of the debate, I shall write my hon. Friend a detailed note and, again, put a copy in the Library for hon. Members.

Iran can play a more constructive role, particularly in relation to Iraq, about which it faces increased isolation, including among its colleagues in the region. It can take action to meet human rights commitments. Although it has signed up to them, it still imprisons its own people for demanding those rights. All those issues will determine the future shape of our relationship with Iran. We are committed to diplomacy and dialogue in our engagement with Iran, but that does not prevent us and the international community from maintaining pressure about legitimate concerns.

Let me put the question of military action to bed. On 6 February this year, our Prime Minister said:

“Nobody is preparing for military action and nobody wants military action.”

On 2 February this year, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates said:

“The President has made clear, the Secretary of State has made clear, I’ve made clear…we are not planning for a war with Iran.”

That was followed by a statement from the Israeli Foreign Minister saying that Israel would prefer issues with Iran to be resolved through diplomatic channels. It is not helpful to continue this story. It is a red herring. It does not help our multilateral or unilateral relationships. Neither we nor the international community are preparing for war with Iran.

During the past few years, international concerns have arisen about Iran’s nuclear programme. Iran’s uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities were secretly developed for 20 years, and questions put for the past four years by the International Atomic Energy Agency remain unanswered. Why is Iran’s military involved in a civilian programme? Why will it not explain its dealings with A.Q. Khan’s network, which helped North Korea and Libya with their secret nuclear weapons programmes? Why did it experiment with polonium-210, which has no use in electricity generation but can set off nuclear explosions?

As I said, we remain committed to taking the diplomatic route in relation to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Last summer’s generous proposals would give Iran everything that it needs to develop a modern civil nuclear power industry. This is where I take issue with my hon. Friend. The proposals were among a range of measures in which Britain has played its part multilaterally to promote engagement between Iran and the international community. We presented proposals that Iran could accept to resolve the issue effectively and sustain its own independent civil nuclear power industry, but it has chosen to reject that multilateral approach. We still need to work with Iran to gain active support for building, for example, new light-water power reactors, which would benefit Iran, not only technologically, but by moving it away from using nuclear power for military purposes.

On regional issues, many countries in the middle east feel threatened by Iran’s increasingly malign role in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. They wonder how much worse it would be if the President had a nuclear arsenal. If we sit by while Iran acquires a nuclear bomb, how many other countries will try to follow suit?

It is important to recognise that the Iranian Government, uniquely, opposes a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict—a two-state solution that this Government have worked in the heart of international diplomacy to promote, develop and secure, despite difficult circumstances. Iran’s President still queries the existence of the holocaust, in which 6 million lives were lost during the second world war.

Iran remains a key source of funds and arms for Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, using Iranian taxpayers’ money that would be better spent on providing housing, education and jobs closer to home. It is an ignominious regime that, while needing to provide 800,000 jobs each year to the talented young population from which it must secure support, spends and diverts that money to the promotion of terrorist activities. Iran is arming and funding extremists who are undermining security and stability not only in Iraq but throughout the region as a whole, and that should be ended.

I turn to human rights, which was raised by my hon. Friend in relation to the MEK or PMOI. My hon. Friend suggested that I had been meeting that organisation. I have no recollection of doing so, either as a Minister or as an individual member of the Labour party; I want to put that on the record. That does not mean that I never met somebody who belonged to it—people come up to me in their hundreds at party conferences, so I may well have done so. But I want to put on record the fact that I have never had discussions with that organisation about its activities.

I am certainly not suggesting that the Minister has had meetings with PMOI members as a Minister—I do not want to cause him any unfair embarrassment. However, I think that he has met them informally, as many people have. We will look to see whether there is advice on the matter for him, but I do not want to cause him embarrassment now.

It does not cause me embarrassment. Why should it? I just wanted to place on the record that I have not met that organisation in my professional capacity. As for whether, like many people, its members have come up to me at a party conference, that may well be the case. I do not know, but my point is that even that situation would not be meeting with them, nor have I had discussions with them.

I am grateful to the Minister. Briefly, in the time that he has left, could he address the curious decision to suspend boarding operations and then reimpose them?

The statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence was quite clear. It was the second occasion of setting out the processes and procedures. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked me about the operations. That was extremely unfair, although not to me.

First, because the Secretary of State gave an absolute commitment that an inquiry would take place and the findings would come before the House; and secondly, because he has instigated a second inquiry—the Hall inquiry—into other matters relating to the incident. We should wait for those reports, which will be available in May. Apart from that, it is critical, whether in the Gulf or any other theatre of operation, that we should be allowed the maximum ability not inadvertently to provide information to people who might want to trespass on our military operations. The military operation in the Gulf is under the direction of the United Nations as a multinational force, as hon. Members know, and nothing happening in relation to the inquiry has prevented, stopped or undermined that operation. It continues and will continue, today and beyond.

As for the lessons to be learned, my hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s report will be submitted some time in May, and will be debated in the House. The Select Committees on Foreign Affairs and on Defence might want to discuss it further, and that will be a matter of their choice, but let us be absolutely clear—

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.