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Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2010

11. What recent assessment he has made of the political situation in Iran; and if he will make a statement. (319393)

Iranian authorities continue to suppress legitimate protest, restrict civil liberties and threaten violence, even execution, to silence dissent, but the Iranian people continue to demand their fundamental rights. We urge the authorities to respect the right of their citizens to be heard.

Efforts for peaceful regime change seem to have stalled at the moment, but the Iranian President continues with his development of nuclear weapons and his hatred of Israel. Will the Minister tell the House what specific pressure is being put on the Iranian regime to improve its human rights record?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise the issue at this time. Amnesty International says that it is the worst human rights situation for 20 years. The way in which the Iranian authorities attempted to quell protests during the national day celebrations has rightly been described as

“a chilling campaign of threats and intimidation”.

We, in the context of the European Union and with our allies in the United Nations and the United States, constantly apply pressure to the Iranians about their human rights record and their nuclear file.

Frankly, we have reached out an olive branch to Iran. We have offered a diplomatic and political way forward but, instead of getting a positive response, we have seen a deterioration in internal human rights there. In addition, Iran has not co-operated in meeting its responsibilities under international obligations with regard to its nuclear weapons capacity. That is why we now believe that the only way forward is to consider tougher economic sanctions against Iran.

Has the Minister had any discussions with representatives from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which involves Russia, China, India and Pakistan among others, to see whether it can exert pressure on the Iranians to cease their nuclear installation programme?

We have had those discussions with Russia, but not with the Shanghai organisation to which my hon. Friend refers.

Is the Minister aware that on 14 February, in the presence of representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Iranian authorities transferred almost their total supply of low-enriched uranium from a deeply protected underground facility to a surface plant, for no obvious reason? Does the Foreign Office have a view about why that might have happened, particularly as it makes the country’s very valuable enriched uranium far more vulnerable to possible military action?

This has been discussed in the IAEA only this week. It is a serious escalation of the situation that should give the international community more cause for concern. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is fully aware, it is essential that we achieve international unity over the next stage, which is adopting economic sanctions, especially against the decision makers in the regime. We have seen no attempt by the Iranian authorities to respond positively to our requests for diplomatic and political solutions. The door remains open, but we have no choice now but to consider economic sanctions.

I thank the Minister for what he said about human rights in Iran and I agree with him on that. Will he look forward to the non-proliferation treaty review in May and extend efforts to create a nuclear-free middle east? That would help to defuse the situation and bring Israel into discussions about nuclear disarmament, which in turn would remove any arguments that could be used in favour of developing nuclear weapons in the region.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Every UN resolution on the question of Iran’s nuclear weapons capacity that has been proposed and passed talks about a middle east that is free of nuclear weapons. As a result, it is simply untrue for the Iranians to say, as they sometimes attempt to do, that we are not playing on a level playing field when it comes to our response to their nuclear weapons capacity. We should remember that this is not just about the threat to the stability of the middle east that would be posed by Iran developing nuclear weapons. The arms race that would be triggered in the region would be like nothing we have ever seen before, and that is why it is so crucial that we stop Iran developing nuclear weapons.

At the last Foreign Office questions, the Foreign Secretary assured the House that it would not take “several months” for new UN sanctions on Iran to be agreed. That was in January; it is now March, and the US Secretary of State has said that it may take up to two months more for those sanctions to be agreed. Does he need to modify in any way what Ministers have said about that, and should we not now be galvanised, for some of the reasons that the Minister has set out, into urgently adopting new sanctions? The latest IAEA report says that Iran has amassed a dangerous stockpile of enriched uranium, and that it may be working on a nuclear warhead and have secret nuclear sites.

Modifying statements made by the Foreign Secretary is not a good career move from my point of view—[Interruption.] Not everyone agrees, necessarily. I genuinely think that the right hon. Gentleman and I are in agreement on these issues. Of course speed is important, and it is urgent that we send the strongest possible message to the Iranians, but he would agree that unity matters too. If the Iranians spot any sense of division in the international community, that could undermine the power of our message. It is worth waiting those few extra weeks if it means that we can achieve the maximum international support that we need if we are to take the further economic sanctions that are so crucial.

It is of course vital to have that unity, but there must also be a necessary sense of urgency. Will the Minister set out what the British Government are doing diplomatically to ensure that other nations in Europe and around the world are ready to co-ordinate tighter sanctions, if necessary on top of and in addition to what is agreed eventually at the UN Security Council? That could include action against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as tough financial sanctions and targeted action against the Iranian leadership. Is it not time to step up our diplomatic efforts on this matter, if Iran is to take our resolve seriously?

We are leading the argument at the UN and in the EU. We are using our bilateral relations to encourage countries with influence over less supportive countries to move immediately to sanctions; we are using all those diplomatic channels, from the Prime Minister downwards. As I said, speed matters and the urgency of the message to the Iranian Government is important, but so is maximum international unity if they are to take that message seriously.

The regime is despicable, but why is it so troubling to the United Kingdom that Iran is going nuclear when so many other countries have already done so—for example, India, Pakistan and, of course, Israel? Does that not smack of double standards?

I have a massive amount of respect for my hon. Friend, but he does himself a disservice by sending that kind of message from the House to the Iranian Government. Let me make the position clear. Of course, Iran’s development of nuclear weapons is a threat to stability in the middle east, but it would also trigger an arms race the likes of which we have never seen before among Iran’s neighbours. In a year in which the world is seeking to make progress on non-proliferation in the review of the non-proliferation treaty, this is about the threat that Iran would pose to our national security and that of countries in the region, but it is also about the arms race that it would inevitably trigger.