Skip to main content

Middle East Peace Process/Syria and Iran

Volume 568: debated on Tuesday 8 October 2013

Mr Speaker, with permission I will make a statement on the middle east peace process, Syria and Iran. On all these matters there have been important diplomatic developments over the past few weeks, and I wanted to inform the House of them at the earliest opportunity.

It is impossible to overstate the challenges and the gravity of the threats in the region if current openings and opportunities are not brought to fruition. But on each of these subjects there has been some progress, and it is important that we build on that as rapidly and decisively as possible. As he is in his place, I want to pay tribute to the work on these issues of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) over the past three and a half years, and to welcome as Minister with responsibility for the middle east my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), who is also in his place.

Whatever the pressure of other issues, we must never lose sight of the importance and centrality of the middle east peace process to the lives of millions of Israelis and Palestinians and to international peace and security. I pay tribute to the leadership of Secretary John Kerry, Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas for the progress that has been made, including the resumption of negotiations in July. The United States has confirmed that there have been seven rounds of direct bilateral negotiations since then. Both sides have now agreed to intensify the pace of the discussions and increase American participation in them, with the goal of reaching a permanent status agreement within nine months.

During the UN General Assembly ministerial week in New York, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister met President Abbas, while I held talks with Israeli Minister of International Relations, Yuval Steinitz. We reiterated the United Kingdom’s unequivocal support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders with agreed land swaps, Jerusalem as the shared capital, and a just and agreed settlement for refugees. With our European Union partners we are ready to provide major practical support to both sides in taking the bold steps that are needed. This includes our bilateral assistance to the Palestinian economy and the institutions of the future state. The UK is one of the largest donors to the Palestinians, providing £349 million for Palestinian development over four years.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development attended the ad hoc liaison committee in New York established to oversee Palestinian state-building and development. She recommitted the UK to providing predictable, long-term assistance aligned with the priorities of the Palestinian National Authority: building strong institutions, promoting private sector growth and humanitarian aid. We are also supporting the Palestinian economic initiative that the United States and the Quartet are developing. DFID will shortly be launching a new £15 million Palestinian market development programme to help Palestinian small and medium-sized enterprises enter new markets and to help mobilise investment. Economic progress can never be a substitute for a political settlement, but it is vital that the Palestinian people see tangible improvements in their daily lives.

The situation in Syria remains catastrophic. More than 100,000 people have been killed, and the number of Syrian refugees has grown by more than 1.8 million in just 12 months, to over 2 million. We must always be clear that we will not have succeeded in our work until this violence has been brought to a stop, but nevertheless we were able to make some diplomatic progress in New York on our objectives—to prevent the further use of chemical weapons, to alleviate humanitarian suffering, and to promote a political settlement to the conflict.

On the first of those, I attended the meeting of the United Nations Security Council on 27 September, which adopted the first resolution on Syria in 17 months. Security Council resolution 2118 requires the full implementation of the near-simultaneous decision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which sets out how Syria’s chemical weapons must be verifiably eliminated within the first half of 2014. For the first time, the Security Council resolution imposes binding and enforceable obligations on the Syrian regime to comply, with the threat of action under chapter VII of the UN charter if it does not. It also stipulates that those responsible for any use of chemical weapons must be held accountable.

I announced in New York £2 million in funding to enable the OPCW to deploy to Syria last week. It has reported early progress in identifying and destroying chemical weapons. Under its supervision Syrian personnel have commenced the destruction or disabling of missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling equipment, and the OPCW is carrying out work to assess the accuracy and completeness of the information provided by the regime. British nationals who work for the OPCW are already deployed in Syria as part of the new destruction mission, and we stand ready to provide further support as necessary, such as personnel, technical expertise and information. The House should be in no doubt that the voluntary destruction of a deadly arsenal of weapons that until recently the Assad regime denied it possessed is an important step forward, and a vindication of the threat of military action by the United States of America.

Secondly, hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians continue to suffer atrociously from the regime’s use of conventional weapons. The UK is leading the way in alleviating desperate humanitarian suffering. In the UK’s annual address to the General Assembly, the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed an additional £100 million in UK assistance, bringing our total humanitarian contribution to date to £500 million, the largest ever British response to a single crisis.

The Prime Minister’s campaign, begun at the G20 and followed up by our embassies worldwide, has helped to secure more than $1 billion in new international pledges of humanitarian assistance since the start of September, and we look to other countries to do more to meet the level of suffering and instability caused by such an unprecedented number of people being in need.

Throughout the General Assembly, and particularly in the two meetings I had with the other permanent members of the Security Council, I pressed the case for a Security Council presidential statement urging the Syrian Government to allow unhindered access to people in need, including across borders, and calling on all parties to agree on humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow the delivery of aid. That statement was subsequently agreed on 2 October. With our encouragement, the UN Secretary-General has announced his intention to convene a new pledging conference in January 2014.

The House will know that the stability of Jordan and Lebanon is high among our priorities, and in that regard I attended, with the P5 Foreign Ministers, the creation of a new international support group for Lebanon during the General Assembly. The UK is now providing £69 million to help Lebanon cope with the refugee crisis. In addition, we are providing £11 million of non-lethal assistance to Lebanese armed forces, and we are helping Jordan with £87 million of UK aid for Syrian refugees and host communities.

Thirdly, on the political process, UN Security Council resolution 2118 also formally endorsed the Geneva communiqué of June last year for the first time, calling for the establishment of a transitional governing body exercising full executive powers, which could include members of the present Government and the opposition and other groups, formed on the basis of mutual consent. The resolution calls for the convening of an international conference on Syria to implement the Geneva communiqué. As P5 Foreign Ministers, we agreed with the UN Secretary-General that we should aim to convene the conference in Geneva by mid-November this year. An intensive period of preparation will be required, led by the UN and Arab League special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi.

I met the Syrian National Coalition President, Ahmed al-Jarba, in New York. He assured me that the coalition remains committed to an inclusive and democratic Syria, that it rejects extremism and that it is committed to the Geneva communiqué. There can be no peaceful and political settlement in Syria without the participation of the moderate opposition. That is why we are providing more than £20 million in non-lethal support to the moderate opposition and will do more in the coming months.

I discussed the conflict in Syria with Iran’s new Foreign Minister, whom I met twice in New York, including with the E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers, and with whom I had further discussions by telephone yesterday. It is clear that the new President and Ministers in Iran are presenting themselves and their country in a much more positive way than in the recent past. There is no doubt that the tone of meetings with them is different.

We have agreed to resume negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme in Geneva next week, on 15 and 16 October. We are looking forward to seeing serious proposals from Iran to follow up on its stated desire to make rapid progress with negotiations. It will be very important for Iran’s relations with the international community for the marked change of presentation and statements to be accompanied by concrete actions and a viable approach to negotiations.

We must not forget for one moment that, as things stand today, Iran remains in defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions and multiple resolutions of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors and that it is installing more centrifuges in its nuclear facilities. In the absence of change in those policies, we will continue to maintain strong sanctions. A substantial change in British or western policies will require a substantive change in Iran’s nuclear programme.

However, we must test the Iranian Government's sincerity to the full, and it is important that our channels of communication are open for that. Mr Zarif, the Foreign Minister, and I discussed how to improve the functioning of the UK-Iran bilateral relationship. Our diplomatic relations suffered a severe setback when our embassy compounds in Tehran were overrun in 2011 and the Vienna conventions flouted, and when the Iranian Majlis voted to downgrade relations with the UK.

It is understood on both sides that, given this history, progress in our bilateral relationship needs to proceed on a step-by-step and reciprocal basis. The Foreign Minister and I agreed that our officials would meet to discuss this. The first such meeting has already taken place and will be followed up by a further meeting in Geneva next week. This includes discussion of numbers of and conditions for locally engaged staff in the embassy premises of each country and visits to inspect these premises. I have made very clear to Mr Zarif that we are open to more direct contact and further improvements in our bilateral relationship.

We have therefore agreed that both our countries will now appoint a non-resident chargé d'affaires tasked with implementing the building of relations, including interim steps on the way towards eventual re-opening of both our embassies, as well as dialogue on other issues of mutual concern.

We must not underestimate the difficulties ahead. Iran has a complex power structure; there are voices in Iran who do not agree with their Government's stated desire to see progress on nuclear negotiations and a rapprochement with the west, and improvements in our bilateral relations will require confidence on both sides that those improvements can be sustained. But to be open to such improvements is consistent with our desire to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute and the fact that we have no quarrel with the people of Iran. The House will be conscious of the fact that on all these issues the coming months may be unusually significant and replete with dangers but also with opportunities. Her Majesty's Government will spare no effort to promote a peaceful resolution to each of these conflicts and crises, working closely with our allies at all times and taking full advantage of every diplomatic opening; never starry-eyed but always pursuing progress through resolute diplomacy.

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it? I would like to start by welcoming the newly appointed Minister for the middle east, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson). I know that Members on both sides will wish to join me in recognising his significant achievement in helping deliver the London Olympics and I am sure that he will continue to bring the same level of commitment and, indeed, skill to his new role in the Foreign Office.

May I also take a moment to pay tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? He is a man whose obvious talent, commitment and decency—qualities that are recognised and appreciated by many in this House—have not gone unnoticed by Members over recent years. He is a very significant loss to the Government and in all my dealings with him on the middle east I admired his skill, intellect and consistently courteous approach.

This month’s United Nations General Assembly was a moment where real progress needed to be made most urgently on the issue of Syria. Of course I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s call for further action on securing free and unfettered humanitarian access in the country and I welcome the Government’s announcement of an additional £100 million in humanitarian aid for Syria. But sadly, despite this significant additional UK contribution, the UN appeal after the UN General Assembly is still only 44 per cent. funded. Can the Foreign Secretary set out what steps the Government will take now to try to help to ensure that other donors turn unfulfilled pledges into cash commitments?

Since that General Assembly meeting last month, the destruction and disabling of missile warheads, aerial bombs and mixing and filling units within Syria has thankfully now begun. In particular, I want to commend the work of the British personnel working as part of the team carrying out this difficult and dangerous work on the ground in Syria.

Given that this is the first time that the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has been tasked with overseeing the destruction of chemical weapons armoury during a live conflict, can the Foreign Secretary provide any further details about how the mission is likely to proceed in the coming months? In particular can he offer the House any guidance with respect to negotiating access to sites currently within rebel-held areas of Syria?

On the middle east peace process, Secretary Kerry’s efforts to restart the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians deserve both our praise and our support. Delivering the necessary compromises from all sides will surely be a task aided by the active involvement of the United States. Can the Foreign Secretary clarify what role US special envoy Martin Indyk is playing in the substantive negotiations? When I recently met President Abbas, he emphasised the nine-month timeframe for these talks. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what progress would have to be made before March 2014 in order to justify a decision to continue negotiations beyond that allotted timetable?

Let me now turn to the issue of Iran. Back in August, I described the Government’s decision not to send ministerial representation to the inauguration of the new Iranian President as a misjudgment and a missed opportunity. At the start of September, I pressed the Foreign Secretary on the possibility of establishing a Syrian contact group, with Iran as a key member. Later last month, I pressed the Government on whether the Foreign Secretary would look to reopen the British embassy in Tehran as soon as it was practical and safe to do so. The Government appeared to give little consideration to these proposals when I first suggested them.

Today the Foreign Secretary cited his meeting with Foreign Minister Zarif and the letter dispatched by the Prime Minister to President Rouhani. While I welcome these recent decisions, I regret that it took so long for these important steps eventually to be taken. In recent months the Government appear to have misjudged their response to the signals emerging from Tehran, and as a result the UK risks being left behind by the absence of a clear strategy towards Iran. Disagreements not just over Iran’s nuclear ambitions but over domestic and international actions by the Iranian regime are profound, and cannot and should not be overlooked. However, it is vital that Iran continues to be encouraged to play a more constructive role, and the UK Government should be doing more to help to facilitate this change. In the light of this, I welcome today’s announcement of a chargé d’affaires having been appointed, but can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that this is an interim step on the way to establishing full diplomatic relations?

Labour remains of the view that the UK Government should maintain pressure on the Iranian regime to change its approach to nuclear enrichment. However, notwithstanding the decades-long difficulties in the bilateral relationship between Iran and the United States, it has, alas, been the American Administration, and not the British Government, who have better understood the signals and made the decisive advances towards improved relations with Iran. On Iran, it is time for the Government to catch up with our American allies.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s initial questions relating to Syria, I think it will be the view across the House that free and unfettered access is of huge importance. He is right to say that the UN appeal for funds is currently 44% funded. As the House heard from my statement, we have done a great deal to make sure that some of that 44% is in place, and we are making a huge contribution ourselves. Our embassies and the Department for International Development’s ministerial team are engaged in a non-stop effort to build up the contributions from other countries. There is now the commitment to a pledging conference, which we hope will take place in Kuwait in January and which is the major international event to work towards in gathering greater contributions for the future.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the OPCW and how it will proceed, all the known sites for the holding of chemical weapons in Syria are within regime-held territory. We are not aware of the opposition being in possession of chemical weapons, so of course this work is focused, revealingly, entirely on the regime-held areas. What is meant to happen now, according to the timetable that has been established, is that all sites should have been inspected by the 27th of this month; that the regime’s production and mixing and filling equipment in relation to chemical weapons should be destroyed in the next few weeks, by 1 November; and that the details of how to proceed with eliminating all the material and other equipment will be decided by 15 November, with a view to the whole programme being completed in the first half of next year. It is an immense task, but it is good that the OPCW has arrived in Syria and that at the weekend the destruction began of some of the munitions involved. Of course, we will continue to watch this closely, and that includes, as I say, standing ready to provide further expertise as necessary.

On the right hon. Gentleman’s questions about the peace process, obviously the United States has a central role in this, including the United States special envoy. Many of the meetings—the seven rounds of negotiations so far—have been taking place on a bilateral basis, but it is envisaged that there will be closer American participation in those meetings over the coming weeks.

The ambition is to resolve the issues, including the final status issues, within six to nine months. That is the timetable to which the parties are working. It is too early to respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about what happens after March 2014.

On Iran, I hope there are no differences across the House about the direction of policy. The right hon. Gentleman asked us to catch up with other countries, but perhaps it is time for him to catch up with what the Government have actually been doing. I assure him and the House that there is no difference of view or approach between the United States, the United Kingdom and, indeed, other western allies. We are in different positions on diplomatic relations because some European countries still have embassies in Tehran. Their embassies were not overrun as ours was in 2011. By contrast, as is well known, the United States has not been in that situation for a very long time—since 1979. Of course there are differences between different countries, but all of us are trying to encourage the opening up by Iran, which the Iranian Ministers are presenting. There is no lack of attention to that.

It has been a long time since any British Foreign Secretary—we would have to go back to the days of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), as we frequently do on these subjects—had as many discussions in the space of a few days with the Foreign Minister of Iran. It is vital that our work to improve the functioning of our bilateral relations takes place on a step-by-step and reciprocal basis. Recently, even getting unhindered access for locally engaged staff to inspect and check up on our embassy premises has remained a very difficult matter, so the House will understand that building up trust and co-operation will be necessary before it will be possible to open an embassy again. We are, therefore, doing that on a step-by-step, reciprocal basis. I do not believe it would be responsible to approach it in a different way. It has been welcomed so far by the Iranian Foreign Ministry, as evidenced by today’s agreement on appointing a non-resident chargé for both countries. That opens the way to further improvements, as I said in my statement, including a view in the future to the full reopening of both embassies, but that will depend on the mutual building of confidence, good co-operation and trust, which has, of course, been missing in the past.

I commend my right hon. Friend on his clever attempt to balance both optimism and realism in reviewing the remarkable events of the past few weeks, but may I press him on the issue of chemical weapons? The use of these weapons is a crime against humanity, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations has confirmed. What is my right hon. Friend’s assessment of the possibility of those responsible for their use in Syria—whether on the Government side or the opposition side—ever being brought to justice?

Accountability is very important. I make no secret of the fact that we would have preferred—as, I think, would most of this House—a UN resolution with more specific provisions for accountability, including reference to the International Criminal Court. It was very clear throughout all our talks in New York that no such resolution could be agreed with our Russian colleagues. Of course, it was important to pass a resolution on, and implement the destruction of, the chemical weapons, but we have had to do that without reference to the ICC. Future accountability will, therefore, depend on what happens more broadly with regard to the future of Syria and the determination of Syrians to hold those responsible to account in the future. I hope that they and all of us in the international community will be very clear that we wish to do that.

First, while congratulating the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson) on his appointment, may I underline the respect for and tribute made to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the brilliant way in which he conducted himself as a Minister? I hope the fact that he was held in as high regard by the Opposition as he was by those on the Government Benches did not contribute to the Prime Minister’s decision yesterday.

The Foreign Secretary is right to say that Iran has a complex power structure and that we must proceed step-by-step with reciprocity. Does he accept that another country that has a complex power structure is the United States? President Obama is almost as boxed in as President Rouhani on this issue, while the Foreign Secretary has much greater room for manoeuvre. Will he therefore bear it in mind that the British Government are in a position to take calculated risks and to seize the opportunity with respect to Iran, while the other two may not be? He may be able to take the initiative on Iran, while others may not be able to do so.

I will give a broad “yes” to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, but I ask him not to underestimate the focus on this issue in the United States or its readiness to deal directly with the new ministerial leaders in Iran. As he knows, President Obama had a telephone conversation with President Rouhani. Secretary Kerry attended the meeting of the E3 plus 3 Ministers with Mr Zarif, which was the first meeting between a US Secretary of State and an Iranian Foreign Minister for a very long time. The United States does have a complex power structure, but its National Security Council is very focused on this issue. It is important that the E3 plus 3 countries work cohesively on the nuclear issue, rather than emphasising different approaches. We must all in our different ways and using our different national strengths and perspectives on Iran encourage the progress in the nuclear negotiations that is so urgently needed.

Although I welcome the appointment of the chargé d’affaires, which is to the credit of the new Iranian regime as much as to that of the regime here in London, would it not be wise to judge President Rouhani on his actions, rather than on his words, and to ignore the calls to go faster than the situation merits?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are putting in place a step-by-step reciprocal approach to bilateral relations. It is important to proceed in that way for the reasons that I gave the House a few moments ago. I think that that approach will be the most comfortable one for the Iranian Ministers who are in favour of this process and the one that will be able to command the most support in Iran. For both countries, I think that this is the best way to proceed. It is important that the welcome tone and positive remarks of Iranian Ministers over recent months are matched by serious proposals in the nuclear negotiations and by concrete actions.

I support the Foreign Secretary in his efforts to build on the success on chemical weapons that has been achieved through negotiations by securing an early Geneva II conference. It is crucial to get the Russians, the Iranians and the Syrian Government there, along with our international allies and the moderate opposition. He may have to refuse to accept that recalcitrant, let alone jihadist, opposition groups can exercise a veto.

May I also ask the Foreign Secretary to schedule a full day’s debate on Syria on a substantive motion, because we have not had a chance to discuss Syria policy in detail, despite his admirably regular updates? A pre-agreed motion might afford the House an opportunity to unite around Syria policy, when in August we were divided on military action.

Personally, I am entirely open to such a debate. The Leader of the House is here. I do not know whether he is open to it, given all the pressures on him, but he will have heard the legitimate point that the right hon. Gentleman has made.

The progress that we have made in setting an ambition to convene the Geneva II peace conference has involved working closely with Russia. It is the product of the five permanent members of the Security Council working together during the General Assembly. That is an important and welcome step on Syria, given the history of the past two and a half years.

I discussed the participation of Iran in future talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister. I have asked the Iranians to accept the outcome of Geneva I as the basis for future discussions. After all, that is accepted by almost all other countries in the world. If that were the common baseline, it would make it easier to include the Iranians in future discussions. I look forward to their further consideration of that.

Would the Foreign Secretary like to praise Parliament for recommending diplomacy rather than war as the best means of tackling the difficult matter of chemical weapons in Syria? That policy seems to be working rather well. Does he agree that Parliament’s influence extended to the United States of America, where the President called our debate in aid as the reason for his change of approach towards consulting Congress and going for peace?

It has always been my habit to praise Parliament, even when I disagree with it, and I will continue to do so. I praise our Parliament and democracy all over the world, and I even hold up such instances as examples of our vibrant democracy. I hope, however, that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind that such progress on chemical weapons—we hope it is progress, provided it is maintained—could not have been made without the credible possibility and threat of military action. We particularly have to thank the United States for that in this connection.

While congratulating the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson), I add my voice to the tributes that have justifiably been paid to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He brought the same commitment to an individual constituency case as he did to matters of great international moment, and for that I and my constituents are grateful. I am equally grateful for the advances that have been made with regard to Syria, not least the west biting the bullet and including Iran. The Foreign Secretary referred to an increase in humanitarian aid, but he failed to detail whether any of that aid will actually be delivered to innocent civilians still trapped within the borders of Syria. Surely that is one area where even closer co-operation with Iran could bring real results.

On the specific question about whether the aid goes to those in Syria, British aid reaches into all 14 governorates of Syria. The international effort, which we support and help to finance, is of course hindered by the fighting, and has sometimes been hindered deliberately by the regime preventing supplies—including much-needed medical supplies—from reaching opposition-held areas. That is the importance of the presidential statement by the Security Council, backed by Russia and China, on improving humanitarian access, including cross-border supplies of aid, and meeting the request of Baroness Amos who leads for these matters at the United Nations. We will follow that up very much indeed, and I hope our ability to hold discussions with Iran will lead to improvements in the situation in Syria. That is another area where Iran will need to change its policies on the ground, which currently include supporting a regime that is murdering and oppressing its own people in huge numbers.

I welcome the good news that the Foreign Secretary has brought to the House, and strongly echo tributes to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), which are richly deserved. The Foreign Secretary said that the matters of mutual concern he is discussing with Iran include Syria, which is welcome. Does he agree, however, that talks are sometimes better without preconditions, and that it would be positive for all concerned if Iran could be drawn into the Geneva II peace process and talks on Syria?

Of course it is best to have the broadest base possible internationally for the Geneva II process, but, as I said to the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), it is important that that starts from a common assumption and that we are at least able to start from the same starting line. We agreed in Geneva I last year that there should be a transitional Government in Syria with full executive power, formed by mutual consent. That is the position of Russia, China, and all five permanent members of the Security Council. The regime is ready—it says it is ready—to appoint representatives for talks on that basis, and the opposition National Coalition is ready to take part in talks on that basis. It should be possible for Iran—and any other country that has doubts about this—to say that it supports talks on that basis, and that if it participates it would be on that basis. That is what we are looking to Iran to say.

I welcome the new Minister with responsibility for the middle east to his place, and like many others I pay tribute to his predecessor.

During the debate on Syria on 29 August I asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed that anybody using chemical weapons should face the law in either the International Criminal Court or a specially constituted tribunal. The Foreign Secretary said that Russia has blocked progress on that specific issue at this stage, but will he outline to the House how he will pursue the matter in the future? Surely nobody on any side should be able to use chemical weapons in any part of the world.

That is a very important issue, and it is important that it is pursued by this country and many others over the coming months and years. There is a reference to accountability in the resolution, but as I said to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), we would have preferred much more detail on reference to the International Criminal Court. It is something to which we will have to return, therefore, in the context of a settlement, if one can be arrived at, in the Geneva II process, and something to which the Syrian people will want to return.

In my view, there must be, in the future, either national or international accountability and justice in respect of crimes committed. Some of those relate to chemical weapons, of course, but terrible crimes have been committed with a whole range of weapons, including in the prisons and torture chambers of the Assad regime. Furthermore, of course, there are records of atrocities committed by opponents of the regime as well. Justice should be done for all these crimes, but it will have to be addressed in a peace settlement, given that we cannot agree on it at the Security Council.

Does my right hon. Friend recall that in August many people, not least the Government of Syria, refused to admit that the Syrian regime possessed chemical weapons, and does he agree that had it not been for the actions of the United States, the United Kingdom and others in making it clear that the use of chemical weapons was wholly unacceptable in international law and in putting forward a credible threat of military action, we would never have had UN resolution 2118, we would not now be seeing the inspection of chemical weapons in Syria and we would not be about to see the destruction of those chemical weapons—weapons that, amazingly, people did not think existed as recently as August?

My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we are now seeing the commencement of the destruction of weapons that we were told not long ago did not exist at all. That is certainly progress and reflects a major change in policy by Russia and the Syrian regime in Damascus, and there can be little doubt that those changes would not have come about had there not been a rigorous debate about military action in many other countries.

The Foreign Secretary rightly praised the US Secretary of State for his efforts to get the Palestinians and Israelis talking to each other again, but he did not refer to the continuing crisis in Gaza or the threats there of terrorist actions into Sinai, which have knock-on consequences in Egypt. Will he update the House on the implications of the problems that still exist in Gaza and the fact that we will not get a viable Palestinian state without unity of both parts of the Palestinian territory?

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the situation in Gaza. It is very important that greater access into Gaza be allowed by Israel and Egypt—in the current situation—so we call on both countries to do that. We are giving a lot of assistance: of the £122 million that the Department for International Development is providing over four years to help the Palestinian Authority, about 40% is spent in Gaza, I believe, so there is a lot of direct UK assistance there, but improved access from both directions is needed if the situation is to improve.

I join the generous and wholly proper tributes to the former Minister for the middle east, but from long association, I know that he could hardly have been replaced by a better successor than the new Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson).

With the extremely welcome progress and opportunity for further progress on weapons of mass destruction in Syria and Iran, will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will not lose focus on Egypt? Having been there three times since the beginning of July, I can assure him that the medium-term prognosis is utterly grim. It is an area to which we will have to give serious attention.

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we will not lose focus. I thought it was important to report to the House on these three areas—the middle east peace progress, Syria and Iran—but I do think we need the full day’s debate that others have been asking for to cover all the issues. The future of Egypt is a vital foreign policy issue. I held discussions in New York with the new Foreign Minister of Egypt, and of course we continue to press the Egyptian authorities to implement a successful and inclusive transition that can bring together, in a future democracy, people of a very wide range of views. We are in close touch with the Egyptian authorities and will continue to push them very hard on that.

I should like to add my thanks to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for all his work as a Minister and for his extraordinary courtesy towards the all-party parliamentary groups. I also welcome the new Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Hugh Robertson).

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement on the change of direction in relations with Iran, which represents a huge improvement. Does he recognise that Iran remains a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and that the last review conference envisaged a nuclear weapons-free zone across the whole middle east? A conference was due to be held in Finland but it did not take place. Obviously, such a conference would have to include Iran and all the other nations, including the only nuclear weapons state in the region—namely, Israel. Will he assure the House that he and the Foreign Office still have an aspiration to have such a conference and that they will seriously push for it to be held as soon as possible? In this new atmosphere, the chance of achieving a nuclear weapons-free zone is surely one that should not be lost.

That absolutely remains an aspiration of the Government but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it has been very difficult to bring about. Britain strongly supported the idea at the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in 2010, but it has not yet proved possible, despite the hard work of the Finnish facilitator, to bring together a conference on weapons of mass destruction in the middle east. However, we will continue our efforts to do so. If we make significant progress and achieve a breakthrough in the nuclear talks with Iran, that will greatly improve the atmosphere for bringing together such a conference.

I, too, would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the work that he has done. I would also like to congratulate the Foreign Secretary on pressing the reset button with President Rouhani, because Iran can play an important role in bringing peace to Syria. I also congratulate him on his initiative in trying to bring chemical weapons under control in Syria today. Notwithstanding that, there are serious concerns about crimes against humanity—some involving the use of chemical weapons, some not—and as the evidence becomes clear as a result of the United Nations’ work, will he ensure that such evidence is used to bring Bashar al-Assad and his brother Maher to justice?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for these initiatives. As I have said, the issues of justice and accountability, and of the gathering of evidence, remain vital. We have used British funds to train human rights journalists and others to document the crimes that have been committed, so that the evidence is there in the future, and we will continue to support that kind of work. I believe that the demand in Syria for justice and accountability will be overwhelming as the evidence from this conflict emerges over the coming months and years, and we need to be ready to support that across the whole world.

On the “Today” programme this morning, Lord Dannatt said that the diversion of interest into Iraq had allowed the Taliban to regroup in Afghanistan. What implications does the Foreign Secretary draw from that for any future UK military intervention in Syria?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are not proposing a UK military intervention in Syria. We are talking about three strands of British policy. One is to implement the UN resolution on chemical weapons, in which we are participating. The second is to continue to lead the world in alleviating human suffering. The third is to bring together a peace conference in Geneva. Those are the things that we are working on, rather than a military intervention.

I should like to associate myself with the words of the Foreign Secretary in paying tribute to the talent, decency and integrity of the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

The Foreign Secretary has rightly condemned the violence of the Syrian regime. He has also said that the violence is not confined to the regime, and that it is also being perpetrated by members of the opposition. Will he take this opportunity to condemn the sickening scenes involving the targeted slaughter of Syria’s Christian community, and make it clear that the people who engage in those acts are not the kind of people with whom we would ever wish to do business?

I totally agree. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to these crimes, which are utterly condemned by Her Majesty’s Government. I am pleased to say that such crimes are also condemned by the Syrian National Coalition, which is committed to a non-sectarian future for Syria and makes great efforts to ensure that it is broadly representative of different faiths, different communities and political persuasions in Syria. This again underlines the need to support moderate, not extremist, opposition in Syria and to bring about a political settlement in which Christians, along with all others, can live peacefully side by side in the country.

I declare a visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories with Labour Friends of Israel. I would like to thank the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his integrity in handling a complex and sensitive issue.

I very much welcome the work being undertaken to destroy weapons in Syria, but has the Foreign Secretary received any reports showing the transfer of weapons from Syria and Iran to Hezbollah, which could endanger the lives of the people of Lebanon, Syria and Israel?

I do not have any evidence of the transfer of chemical weapons to Hezbollah. Clearly, Hezbollah has received supplies of weapons over a long period, and such weapons have been maintained in Lebanon in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. We all have every right to suspect that those weapons have often come from Iran via Syria. On the issue of chemical weapons, however, I do not have any evidence of their transfer to any other nation or grouping in the region. I hope that the destruction of these weapons can take place verifiably—before there is any risk of that happening.

I, too, want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for the extraordinary patience, intelligence and careful understanding that he brought to his role.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on progress made in re-engaging with Iran and on his constructive engagement with the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. I encourage my right hon. Friend, however, to use the opportunity presented by Syria to lead a genuine global campaign against chemical weapons and to devote the resources and staff necessary to make the elimination of chemical weapons one of the key priorities of the British Government.

Britain has a strong history of working to prohibit chemical weapons and of encouraging other countries to sign the chemical weapons convention. Syria’s decision, if verifiably implemented, will of course be a major advance; as it could easily be the largest arsenal of chemical weapons in the world, its destruction would be a major advance. My hon. Friend is quite right that that should lead us only to redouble our efforts to make sure that other stocks of chemical weapons in the world are destroyed.

I pay tribute to the former Minister, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), particularly for the regular briefings he provided to Members of all parties; I hope his successor will continue that practice. I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement on Lebanon and the extra resources going into the international support group. Has he made any assessment, however, of the impact on the Palestinian refugees, currently living in Lebanon and elsewhere, who have suffered for many years, of the influx of so many Syrian refugees?

The impact on most people in Lebanon is difficult. As the hon. Lady knows, the influx of refugees into that country is proportionately huge, with more than 700,000 refugees living there—a large proportion of Lebanon’s population. The United Kingdom continues to give strong support for Palestinians in Lebanon, and a good deal of the help from the Department for International Development that goes through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency goes into supporting those Palestinians. We are very conscious of the problem; supporting these people is part of our approach to Lebanon.

No. We believe that the Assad regime has lost all legitimacy and credibility, not only in the eyes of many of its own people but in the eyes of the world, whereas we recognise members of the national coalition as legitimate representatives of the Syrian people. It would therefore not be right to say that we are strictly neutral. However, we do want to promote a political settlement in which a transitional Government, formed from regime and opposition, can be brought about.

My I add to the many tributes that have been paid to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? I am sure that he has received many letters—from me, and from many other Members—about his excellent work in relation to the middle east, and I am sure that he will be missed by Front Benchers.

I agreed with what the Foreign Secretary said about the catastrophic situation in Syria and the fact that more than 2 million refugees are fleeing from the country into the wider region, but what assessment has been made of the likelihood of the conflict’s spreading within the region as well? We know that there is already sectarian violence in Lebanon, but what is happening elsewhere, and what can we do about anything that is happening?

The conflict clearly presents a danger to the stability of Lebanon, Iraq, and, in a different way, Jordan, because of the pressures on its border. That is why we are placing such emphasis on our work in those countries, and particularly on what we can do to reinforce the stability of Lebanon and Jordan. We give them a lot of help, not only in the form of the humanitarian aid that goes through international agencies, but directly. We have given assistance to the Lebanese armed forces on their border; we have sent equipment to help the Jordanian armed forces to cope on their border. Ensuring that, during the period in which we cannot resolve the crisis, we at least help other countries to contain it, is a very important aspect of our policy.

Let me also pay a personal tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt). He responded on behalf of the Government to the debate during which I made my maiden speech, and my sadness at seeing him leave the Front Bench is matched only by my great pleasure at seeing him back here in the habitation of us lesser mortals.

Some time ago, I asked my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary how long the two-state solution had. He told me then that it had 18 months, but I cannot remember how long ago that was. Can he tell me how long the two-state solution now has before it becomes unviable?

It does not have long. It has many half-lives, I suppose. None of us ever wants to say that it is impossible and cannot be achieved, but I think that this is the last best chance. If we reach next year without having made the progress and achieved the breakthrough that so much hard work is going into now, that will clearly be an enormous setback, and many people will question very seriously whether a two-state solution could ever be arrived at. That has why it has been so important to get everyone together this year for the bilateral negotiations, and that is why we must do all that we can to help those negotiations to succeed.

In west Africa, Iran gives support to militias that have clashed with Government forces. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had about Iran’s interference in that important region?

As the hon. Gentleman will understand, we have not yet discussed the full range of global affairs during the meetings that we have had so far. Those meetings have concentrated on the nuclear issue, on Syria, and on bilateral relations. However, the appointment of the non-resident chargés that I have announced today will allow us to discuss with Iran a greater range of issues of mutual concern. Nothing is excluded from that, and what is happening in areas such as west Africa could well be legitimate topics for discussion.

I share the Foreign Secretary’s cautious optimism, given the not inconsiderable progress that has been achieved in the middle east since he last made a statement to the House. No little credit for that progress should be laid at the door of my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt).

Without being starry-eyed, as the Foreign Secretary put it, may I suggest that one area in which we can pursue issues of mutual concern, particularly with the ordinary people of Iran, is the hard-drugs trade? Many Iranians are now heroin addicts, and many have been killed at the hands of drug barons controlling drug paths in the north of the country. When I visited the country a few years ago, we had seconded to it Metropolitan police officers with expertise in drugs, who were doing some great work that was of mutual benefit. Is that not one of the routes through which we could open up an early relationship with Iran?

Yes, it is. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Combating that trade is in the interests of both countries. I hope that it will be one of the issues of mutual concern that we address at an early stage.

May I add my appreciation for the work of the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt)? I think that all Members with an interest in the middle east will acknowledge his complete mastery of his brief, even when they disagreed with the policy that he was defending, on which subject, whatever the Secretary of State is saying to the Israeli Government about withdrawal from the occupied territories, they are not listening. Senior Israeli Ministers said over the summer that they will never allow a Palestinian state, so will the Government take the small step of banning the import of goods from settlements, which the Secretary of State himself is clear are illegal under international law?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the voluntary guidelines on those imports were introduced by the previous Government and we have continued them and support them. All our efforts in the coming months will be directed at trying to make a success of the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, so I am not proposing to do anything that cuts across that. The Israelis in those discussions are discussing the creation of a Palestinian state. That is what it is all about—a two-state solution, which means a sovereign, viable Palestinian state and the resolution of the final status issues, including refugees and borders. Therefore, we must keep our eyes on that main prize and return to the many other issues if the talks do not succeed.

The Israeli perspective on Iran is that it is very close to completing its enrichment processes, that it has started the renewed dialogue with the west to provide diplomatic cover for a dash to the line, and that with its ballistic technology it can complete a nuclear weapon or weapons deliverable on Israel. To what extent does the Foreign Secretary share the Israeli analysis?

Israelis and others are right to be alarmed about the Iranian nuclear programme. It continues to increase its stockpile of near 20% enriched uranium. It has no credible civilian use for the significant quantities of enriched material that it has. It has continued to install more centrifuges and the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported that it has not provided access to the heavy water production plant at Arak, which is also a cause for serious concern. That underlines the importance of trying to resolve these issues peacefully, and the importance of maintaining the pressure on Iran and the pressure of the comprehensive sanctions introduced by the European Union, the United States and other countries, which I believe has now brought Iran to the negotiating table. Whether that will succeed remains to be seen.

The House needs to be aware just how restricted humanitarian access is in Syria. Two weeks ago in Amman, the World Food Programme told me that last month it sought to deliver food and other emergency supplies to 3 million people in Syria but was able to get it through only to 1.25 million people, fewer than half of those who needed it. What difference will the welcome October presidential statement from the Security Council make? How quickly will we see a change on the ground for the civilian victims of the tragedy in Syria?

That is a good question, to which we cannot be certain of the answer. The hon. Gentleman illustrates the extent of the problem very well. It is important that the Security Council has agreed such a statement, because that means that it has been agreed by Russia, among others, and it is Russia that has produced the decisive change in the regime’s attitude on chemical weapons. Therefore, we hope that our colleagues in the Russian Government will join us in demanding from the regime the necessary access on the back of the presidential statement. I will keep the House informed of progress on that.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for doing an outstanding job and, on a personal level, for always being courteous, helpful and understanding. I thank him for that.

It has been said that Iran is prepared to support a transition in Syria without President Assad—a transition between the regime and the opposition. Does the Foreign Secretary have an analysis of that and has he discussed that with the Foreign Minister of Iran?

Yes, I have discussed these issues with the Foreign Minister of Iran. As I said in answer to some earlier questions, I have put the case to the Iranians that they should be supporting the Geneva communiqué of last year that there should be a transitional Government in Syria drawn from regime and opposition by mutual consent. As I understand it, and as I have heard the Iranians talk about it, that is not currently their position, but they have not ruled out adopting that position. I will continue to encourage them to do so so that the international consensus around last year’s Geneva communiqué will be greatly strengthened.

The Secretary of State acknowledged that economic progress and a political settlement need to go hand in hand in the middle east peace process. What impact is the expansion of illegal settlements having on Palestinian economic development?

Of course the expansion of settlements on occupied land, which is illegal and which I think we are all clear about in this House, does not assist Palestinian economic development, as the hon. Lady’s question implies. This again underlines the importance of the talks now taking place to resolve final status issues—to resolve the issues of borders and security and refugees. Their success would mean these problems could be brought to an end. So the current position does not help Palestinian economic development. Finding new ways to assist that development, alongside these efforts on the peace process, is worthwhile, but success in the peace process will be needed for that to have a lasting tangible effect.

May I also thank the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his work at the Foreign Office and his professionalism and courtesy? I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on the appointment of the chargé in order to help build relations, but we should try to minimise the preconditions when talking to the Iranians, as they can often get in the way. There were no preconditions—or very few—when we were talking to Sinn Fein and the provisionals in Northern Ireland back in the 1980s. We need to talk to our enemies in order to make peace, not to our friends. May I also suggest that every opportunity should be taken to explore the other conflicts in the region in which Iran has its finger, because it will offer up many opportunities for progress in the region if we can at least go some way towards normalising relations?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. We have not set preconditions, as he can see from the number of discussions I have had with the Iranian Foreign Minister already, but we do want concrete actions to go along with words, and we do want to proceed on an agreed reciprocal basis in improving the functioning of bilateral relations. I hope that improved functioning can lead to discussion on a wider range of subjects, and my hon. Friend has mentioned some of those that could be included. We will be exploring that over the coming weeks.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s detailed statement, and his efforts to resolve numerous world conflicts. The experts face a year-long mission of unprecedented danger to destroy Syrian chemical weapons that the Syrian President said he never had. How can we trust any other promises the Syrian President may make?

These promises are very difficult to trust, of course. That is why it is so important that verification really takes place and that the OPCW is able to report any non-compliance to the Security Council, as provided for in the resolution, so that the Security Council can consider what action to take. Of course, we all have to approach this subject with a certain degree of scepticism given the previous behaviour of the regime and its use of chemical weapons—the chemical weapons that it denied having for such a long time. On the positive side, however, it has signed up to the chemical weapons convention. Russia has committed itself very strongly to this policy and therefore has a good deal riding on its success. That should give us some cause for optimism about the future.

Clearly, the best outcome of the peace conference planned for November would be an early resolution of the conflict in Syria. We should not give up all hope, but that is probably somewhat unrealistic and optimistic, and so we hope that a process will start to lead to that resolution. Given that, does the Foreign Secretary agree that it is essential that humanitarian access is also a major focus of that conference, so that even without a wider settlement coming into effect speedily, the international community provides the same pressure to ensure that the access required is given as soon as possible and is not left as part of a longer-term and wider process?

The hon. Gentleman is right to think of Geneva II as the start of a process, rather than a single event. It will be difficult, of course, to make it a success, but it is certainly not something that will be over in a few hours or a few days; it is the start of an important process, if it can be brought together. I see no reason why that should not address, at an early stage, humanitarian access, so that the suffering of the people of Syria can be alleviated. I entirely accept his point.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) for his kind, thoughtful and reflective replies and briefings on all issues to do with Foreign Office matters. May I also thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and ask him about refugees and the £100 million dedicated to humanitarian aid? What proportion of that money will go to help refugees, particularly those most in need and those with connections to the UK?

The £100 million will be added to the £400 million we have already committed; the great majority of this goes through the international agencies. We will make subsequent announcements about where exactly the recipients of that will be. I mentioned in my statement some of the totals before the £100 million—for Lebanon and for Jordan, where a great deal has gone. But, as I have also said, a good deal of this aid is getting inside Syria. It is not sent on any discriminatory basis—those connected to the UK or not connected to the UK. It is sent to help people in need. It is providing medicine, sanitation, water supplies, blankets, tents and so on to people, wherever we can get these things to them. I know that my colleagues in the Department for International Development will have more detail that they could give the hon. Lady, and I will ask them to write to her with that.

May I endorse the thanks from Members from across the House to the previous Minister and welcome the new Minister? As the Foreign Secretary may have seen, the chairman of the Charity Commission has said that money intended to ease the refugee crisis was “undoubtedly” going to extremist groups. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that in making these general comments the chairman of the Charity Commission needs to be very careful not to undermine the British people’s confidence in giving money to the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal? It is undertaking significant humanitarian aid with the £20 million already raised in supporting those refugees from Syria.

It is very important that we are able to continue to mobilise the immense British generosity we see in cases like this, where people are willing to give to these appeals. Clearly, we are one of the leading nations in this respect in what we provide from taxpayers’ resources, but many individuals and families also make a contribution, which helps to make a serious difference on the ground. I have not seen in detail the Charity Commission’s comments, but all of us will want to continue to urge people to give generously and responsibly to these appeals.

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary and to colleagues. I hope that the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) will proudly preserve his own copy of the Hansard report of today’s proceedings for many, many years to come.