[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, UK policy towards Iran, HC 547 and the Government response, Cm 8920]
The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and I are grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate. The hon. Gentleman and I are joint chairmen of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran. Flagged on today’s Order Paper is the report on Iran from the Foreign Affairs Committee, published in July. I know that the whole House will be grateful for that.
The debate comes at an important moment. In less than three weeks, on 24 November, the deadline for the current phase of the E3 plus 3 nuclear negotiations with Iran will be reached. Before I say more about those negotiations, let me put the debate in context. Here in the United Kingdom, too little is either known or understood about Iran. With a population of 77 million, it is second in size only to Egypt in the wider middle east, but it is much more prosperous than Egypt. It is “middle income” on the United Nations’ GDP measure, ahead of Bulgaria, which is a member of the European Union. Iran has a distinguished three-millennium civilisation, with as many connections, cultural and political, to Europe as to its southern and eastern neighbours. Its language is Indo-European. The words “Iran” and “Aryan” share the same root. Although it is Muslim, it is Muslim in its own singular way, through its practice of Shi’ism. It is a great mistake ever to suggest to an Iranian that Iranians are Arabs. It may sound counter-intuitive today, but traditionally lran’s strongest links in the region had been with the Jewish communities of the middle east.
Iran’s relationship with the United Kingdom has over many decades been close but difficult. “Behind every curtain you’ll find an Englishman,” goes one familiar saying in Farsi. From an Iranian perspective, one can appreciate why. From the late 19th century onwards we saw relations with Iran in mercantilist, neo-colonialist terms only. Iran was divided into spheres of influence by Russia under the Tsar and the United Kingdom. In the early part of the last century, highly preferential terms for the D’Arcy petroleum company, the forerunner of BP, were extorted from the then Government. Subsequently, we were instrumental in removing the Qajar dynasty, putting Reza Shah on the throne. We jointly occupied Iran with the Soviet Union for five years from 1941 to 1946. We and the United States then successfully conspired to remove the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953.
We then continued this rather dismal record by propping up the Shah even when there was every indication, if only we had recognised it, that he was heading a decadent and decaying regime which was highly likely to collapse. A year after the Islamic revolution came the Iran-Iraq war, in which by common consent Iraq was the aggressor and Iran the victim, but the west, including the UK, sided with the aggressor.
At the end of this week we have our Remembrance Sunday, when we remember the fallen who gave their lives for us in two world wars. Those wars are part of the definition of contemporary Britain. Similarly, we understand nothing about Iran if we do not understand the deep and still contemporary trauma that the Iran-Iraq war inflicted on Iranian society—the near-million killed and the sense of isolation which that war reinforced as one western nation after another, the UK included, unworthily supported Iraq. With that isolation came the sense that Iran could rely only upon itself.
Despite its complex and difficult relationship with the United Kingdom, the US and other western nations, Iran principally looks west, not east or south, for its future. Of course, there are those in the system who define themselves against the “Satans” of the west and who have a vested interest in the status quo, including in sanctions, but there are many, many more who want a normal relationship with the west. It was that demand that lay behind President Rouhani’s surprising victory in the presidential elections in June 2013, and there are, indeed, more American PhDs in President Rouhani’s Cabinet than in President Obama’s.
In the 1980s—and under the cover of mutually rebarbative, but carefully controlled, rhetoric—the one country from whom Iran gained some understanding, and very significant arms supplies, was Israel. David Menashri, of Tel Aviv university, one of Israel’s foremost experts on Iran, subsequently commented:
“Throughout the 1980s, no one in Israel said anything about an Iranian threat”
to Israel. He continued:
“The word wasn’t even uttered.”
That, however, was all in the days of the cold war.
I am listening intently and with great interest and I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. However, he will perhaps agree that it was not just a question of the election of President Rouhani; there have been attempts in the past by Iran to reach out. While accepting that mistakes have been made by both sides in this difficult relationship, one only has to think of immediately after 9/11 when the Iranians reached out, and the early days of Afghanistan when they tried to help and did, indeed, help, but were rebuffed by the “axis of evil” speech by President Bush, for example.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was heavily involved after President Khatami reached out to the United States in the moment of need. Iran provided significant practical help, without which it would have been far more difficult to remove the Taliban and to retake Kabul. Iran got no thanks for that, however. It was unnecessarily rebuffed by the United States at the time, as it was during the 2003-05 nuclear negotiations. It was also rebuffed when it sought a comprehensive bargain with the west. I am afraid that that prospect was greeted in parts of the United States with suspicion. In my view, there was a worry that if a deal was struck that resulted in the normalisation of relations with Iran, the part of the American system—and, indeed, the part of the Israeli system—that always likes to define itself against some kind of enemy would have had that enemy removed.
Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the metrics of the middle east have all changed. The view of the Netanyahu Government in Israel, which is echoed by many in the United States Congress, is that Iran now poses an existential threat to the state of Israel because of the doubts as to whether Iran’s nuclear programmes have a military purpose. Those programmes are the subject of the intensive negotiations that will, we hope, have reached a satisfactory conclusion by 24 November.
As it was I, along with my French and German counterparts, who began the original E3 negotiations with Iran in 2003, I offer the following observations. Iran is not an easy country to negotiate with. That is partly due to cultural and linguistic problems and partly for historical reasons, but fundamentally it is a product of Iran’s complex and opaque governmental system, in which the elected President has constantly to broker decisions with unelected elements, including those in the revolutionary guards and those in the Supreme Leader’s office.
Unlike North Korea, which pulled out of the non-proliferation treaty, or India, Pakistan and Israel—all nuclear weapons states which have never accepted the treaty’s obligations—Iran has stayed within it. The treaty protects
“the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.
However, the treaty is silent on the question—critical to the outcome of the negotiations—of the enrichment of uranium. The Iranians claim a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and I hope the whole House will support them in that. The interim agreement signed last November explicitly recognised that.
The last set of negotiations, which took place between 2003 and 2005 and in which I was directly involved, ran into the ground. The Bush Administration had undermined the Khatami Administration through the “axis of evil” speech, and they did so again by refusing to offer Iran any confidence-building measures until it was too late. By that time, conservative forces in Iran had re-gathered their strength, with President Ahmadinejad the result.
When parliamentary colleagues and I met Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran in January this year, he pointed out that when I had been negotiating with him in 2005, Iran had fewer than 200 centrifuges. After eight years of sanctions, it now has 18,800. We should be careful what we wish for. The good news about the current round of negotiations is that both sides have kept them confidential. However, it is no secret that the Iranian Government cannot do a deal unless it includes a continuation of enrichment for peaceful purposes, and unless the scale of the programme allowed does not involve the Government having to make significant numbers of its scientists redundant.
The negotiations are predicated on the basis that, because of Iran’s past failures to make full disclosures to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there remain unanswered questions about the true intent of Iran’s nuclear programmes. None of us outside the inner workings of the Iranian Government can know for certain what this is. My own instinct is that after the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran probably did begin work on a nuclear weapons system. More recently, however, a 2007 US national intelligence estimate—which has been reconfirmed by the White House in the past two years—concluded that Tehran had halted nuclear weaponisation work in 2003. If that is the case, there is no reason why, with some flexibility on both sides, a deal should not be concluded. If that happens, the gradual lifting of sanctions—which Iran so desperately needs—will help to bring Iran back fully as a partner in the international community.
I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s well-informed speech, and I am impressed by it. In 2004, Hassan Rouhani, who was then the chief nuclear negotiator, stated:
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan…by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work”.
Is not that an ominous warning for the current negotiations?
I have seen that quotation before. One of the truths about the Iranians is that they have a history of sticking to the letter of what is agreed while trying to make that agreement as accommodating to themselves as possible. They are not the only country to do that. However, it was Hassan Rouhani—now President Rouhani—sitting across the table and leading the negotiations, and I believed that he was a man with whom we could do a deal. I am glad that the present British Government self-evidently still think that; otherwise, they would not be sitting across the table from his representatives now. There is no evidence one way or the other that what was being installed at Isfahan was related to the weaponisation of the nuclear programme. I have seen no such evidence whatever, and Iran has a right to a nuclear power programme in the same way as any non-nuclear weapons state does.
My plea to the British Government is that they do not make the best the enemy of the good in these negotiations. Just as the world changed 25 years ago with the collapse of the Berlin wall, so it is changing again before our eyes, especially in the middle east. With chaos in Iraq and in Syria, many now see the potential of Iran to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. A deal that is good for both sides would have other benefits, not least for human rights. There cannot be anyone in the House who does not share the profound concern about aspects of Iran’s human rights record, including the recent incarcerations and executions.
One of the truths about Iran’s complex and opaque system of government is that the elected Government do not control the judiciary. There are other unacceptable elements of the regime. The more we are able to do a deal—of course on acceptable terms—the more it will empower the elected Government and the better able we will be to secure a resolution of the other concerns, including those on human rights. The reverse is also true.
Has there been any evidence from the right hon. Gentleman’s past negotiations with Iran, or prior to that point, that any “give” on the part of the west has done anything to improve the lot of the people in that country? In my view, there is little or no evidence of any movement in relation to Iran’s human rights record.
I think there is. For example, we can look at the human rights record under President Rafsanjani, and it got better under President Khatami. As long as President Khatami had power and authority in the extraordinary and very competitive power game that takes place in Tehran, he was able to do things. Moreover, the level of media freedom these days is infinitely greater than it was under Ahmadinejad. The licence to break the controls on the internet, including from President Rouhani himself, also illustrates that changes have taken place. There is a long way to go, however. I am certain that improvements in human rights will come about only through the empowerment of the forces for good in Iran and a diminution of those who are opposed to change. If there is no deal, the consequences are likely to be adverse not only for Iran but for the international community.
The right hon. Gentleman knows my views on this. I support exactly what he is trying to do, and I take the view that the Government must, if they can, move all this forward. Does he agree, however, that one of the most difficult things in dealing with Iran is that, rather like China and Russia, it has absolutely no regard for the rules, other than the rules it chooses to set itself. The complications for America are shown in the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) just now, in that it is impossible to know whether or not the Iranians are going to abide by the rules, and that makes it much more difficult to reach a conclusion.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I recognise the support he gives on this issue. I do not generalise between Russia and China; they have similarities, to the extent that they refuse to accept obligations, but they differ. These days we can see in China a real determination by many elements of its Government better to impose a rule of law. Going back to what I have said, those who have dealings, both diplomatic and business, with Iran say that the Iranians are very hard negotiators—and they are—but when, in the end, they have done a deal, they stick to it. It has to be said that there is no evidence that Iran has resiled from what it agreed on 24 November 2013; the IAEA reports that it has implemented what it has agreed.
If there is no deal and negotiations break down because of unacceptable red lines from some, but not all, of the six countries involved, over time the international consensus will break down. First China and then Russia will peel away, and then we are likely to see a reappraisal of policy within the European Union. That reappraisal will be fuelled in part by a belief that US sanctions against Iran have a greater effect extra-territorially, on European banks and trading entities, than they have within the domestic jurisdiction of the US itself. That belief is well founded, because the US authorities do provide greater certainty, and therefore greater protection from penalty, to US banks and entities trading with Iran than they do to similar banks and entities outside the US; I am talking about legal trade allowed under the sanctions regimes.
That may explain the curious irony about exports in recent years to Iran. Across the EU, such exports have slumped in the past 10 years, whereas in the US they are on a rising trend. Ten years ago, US exports to Iran were one ninth of ours, but now they are double. One reason for the fall in our exports, proportionately greater than any other western country’s, is that the UK is alone in maintaining a policy of not supporting any trade with Iran. I have heard no credible explanation for that, and I ask the Minister to have it revised.
I have to be brief, given the time, but the last matters I wish to raise are important and they relate to the reopening of the embassy. The Foreign Affairs Committee reported in July that the reopening was imminent, and indeed it was. As I understand it, that has fallen away not only for some practical reasons, but because of the Home Office’s refusal to accept the re-establishment of a visa regime without categorical undertakings from the Iranians about returns. Iran is difficult on the issue of returns of overstayers and illegals, but so are China, India, Nigeria and a long list of other countries. Iranians do not feature in the top 10 of foreign national prisoners here, or of returns. So I very much hope this is not an area where British foreign policy, and the importance of reopening the embassy fully, is being led not by King Charles street, but by 2 Marsham street, the headquarters of the Home Office. That would be an eccentricity which this House should not tolerate.
I have spoken for too long, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to have this important debate on Iran.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) for securing this debate. I was delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have disagreed over the years, although I have the highest regard for his intellect and his tone and approach to foreign affairs, started with the context in which we have to look at Iran, because that is incredibly important.
In a way, I see Iran almost as two nations, which are sometimes contradictory. Iranians are sophisticated and proud people—they do not want to be humiliated—and it is important to remember that they are Persians, not Arabs. Yet there is quite a strong liberal streak inside Iranian society. One very good example of that is the widespread acceptance of family planning. Iran has the most effective family planning regime in the world. In 1979, Khomeini wanted to expand the population of Iran to fight Iraq, but was told he did not have the infrastructure to support an expanding population. So a complete U-turn was done and Iran has stabilised its population growth, without any of the draconian methods that China, for example, has had to impose. Tehran university has more female undergraduates than male undergraduates at the moment, so there are indications that a young, youthful, well-educated society is on the way up, which may yet change the face of Iran. I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister was able to meet President Rouhani at the United Nations the other day and supported the conventional thinking that we need to keep the dialogue going. On the other hand, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn has said, Iran has the most appalling human rights record, with child executions, political prisoners, the presidential candidates from 2009 still under house arrest and almost non-existent press freedom.
Iran is a foreign policy nightmare: its support for President Assad in Syria, through Hezbollah funding and the positioning of the revolutionary guard in Syria, is causing immense difficulties; it is undermining the Government of Bahrain by support for the Shi’a minority there; it openly supports, and is funding, Hamas in its criticism of and aggression towards Israel; it is running a complex network of weapons-smuggling routes into Gaza, through Egypt, with the sole intention of attacking Israel—it is in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions on that; it has engaged in the funding of and support for attacks on Israeli diplomats around the world; and its antipathy towards Saudi Arabia is legendary, although this goes both ways. I will return to that point in a minute.
Iran’s nuclear ambitions have serious implications for a number of different factions and groupings around the country. For the EU and the west, there is an impact on our security if the Iranians have a nuclear capability. There will also be economic consequences, with a loss of stability in the middle east. Israel is rightly concerned about Iran’s ambitions. The regional consequences are also serious, with Saudi Arabia now developing its own nuclear research programmes, as is Jordan—surprisingly. That just shows the nervousness in the region.
Iran has a complex and cumbersome structure of government, and one often asks oneself, “Who is actually running the show?” The ultimate power lies with the Supreme Leader, who does not exercise his power in an authoritative, dictatorial way, but does so in a more consultative way, with occasional nudging, sometimes aggressively, as we have seen in the nuclear negotiations. Just to add to the complications, the Supreme Leader at the moment is ailing and, as he has to make difficult decisions about the negotiations, that is not helpful. On the other hand, we have the President, who is more the chief executive, but a strong one, and he is the head of the nuclear negotiations.
When President Rouhani was elected to office—to the surprise of many as he was the most moderate candidate—we all said that he was a man with whom we could do business. He is a moderate who suits the situation. But we must judge him by his actions, not his words, and reining in a few hotheads in the revolutionary guard is about all we have seen, and we are still waiting for the beef.
Is my right hon. Friend also aware that Ban Ki-moon’s annual report to the General Assembly in October highlighted the fact that President Rouhani was expected to be a very moderate leader, but in fact the number of executions, especially of juveniles, has increased? The expectation has not been borne out in his actions in the country.
Yes, I am aware of that comment. However, the interpretation that my hon. Friend puts on it may be slightly unfair to Rouhani who does not necessarily control the judicial system or the sentences that are being handed down. The question is: can we trust him?
I am listening with intent and interest to my right hon. Friend’s good speech. May I suggest to him that we should not look at this relationship just through the prism of executions and human rights? There are many of our allies in the region that have a similarly poor record, and yet that has not stopped us from calling them allies.
I have great regard for my hon. Friend’s views, but there are not many countries in the region that have a human rights record quite as bad as Iran’s. None the less, he makes a valid point, and it has to be taken into account. The question I was asking was: can we trust President Rouhani? The right hon. Member for Blackburn, who has known him for many years, suggests that we can, and I hope that he is right. The question is: what if he is wrong? That is the challenge we all face.
Rather worryingly, the Supreme Leader has been interfering in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with his call for industrial levels of centrifuges and nuclear material production, which caught the negotiators by surprise. When President Obama suggested enriching nuclear rods in the United States in 2009, the Supreme Leader pulled the rug from under that issue as well.
At the UN, President Rouhani suggested there should be a link between helping the west deal with the situation in Iraq and concessions in the nuclear negotiations. I have only one response to that, which is no, no, no. That cannot be the basis on which we proceed. To have a few more enrichment centrifuges for a bit of co-operation is exactly the wrong sort of deal.
Looking at the negotiations—the deadline is fast approaching—a number of deals have been suggested. Any settlement must have two main features. One is the break-out time. The Foreign Affairs Committee proposed a minimum of at least six months. The second is a verification programme that must be as robust as possible. That must be supported by a rigid inspections regime. It is critical that the International Atomic Energy Agency stays involved throughout the whole process and brings its professionalism to any verification and inspection. There is, in any settlement, a trade-off between reduction in capacity and the relaxation of trade sanctions as an incentive to encourage progress.
There is much talk about the number of centrifuges that can be used for peaceful production. I have been advised that the figure is somewhere in the region of 2,000 to 4,000, against the 18,000 currently in use. Obviously, the fewer centrifuges there are, the greater the time for break-out, and that has to be right at the centre of any negotiation settlement.
We also need to be satisfied that the objectives of the base at Arak, which is the home to the heavy water reactor, are peaceful. Iranians have yet to come up with a good explanation of those objectives. They argue that the facility is being used for medical research, but there is far too much capacity there for that, and no economic reason has been forthcoming.
I am listening with interest to my right hon. Friend’s hugely impressive speech, particularly to the bit about the lack of inspections. I believe that the Arak facility was last visited in August 2011 and, despite repeated requests from the IAEA, no further visits have been allowed since.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that goes to this question of trust. If visits are prevented, how can we trust people when they say what is going on there?
As we approach the deadline, there is little sign of a deal. There is still prevarication. The Foreign Office should be prepared to sign up to an extension of the deadline if that is what is needed. The time is on the west’s side at the moment: the sanctions have had an impact, even though they are a crude weapon; the oil price is falling; and the Iranian economy is shrinking fairly significantly. This is the right time to do the deal, but the window is narrow, as the situation has become more complicated by the mid-term election results in the United States. An increasingly confident Republican-controlled Congress is set to make life more and more difficult for President Obama as he reaches the end of his presidency. Rouhani’s time is also limited, as he is trying to fight off the hardliners. If there is no deal, Rouhani will be weakened, the hardliners will be back and they cannot wait for this deal to fail, and the hostility to the west will grow.
If Iran gets a bomb, the middle east arms race will accelerate, and the security situation will get worse. Russia has a role to play. There were reports yesterday that some processing may be done in Russia, which is a great idea if it is possible and achievable. As has been said about Ukraine over recent months, we must keep the lines of communication open with Russia, mainly because they are a key player in settling the deal in Iran.
Does my right hon. Friend agree —I tried to make this point to the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) —that, in the wider sense, the key to all this is confidence? In doing this transaction with the Russians, which is both sensible and welcome, we must ensure that, for the success of future negotiations, there is proper verification at all times and at every stage.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Trust and verification go hand in hand. Without good verification and trust, there will be no basis for a settlement.
I have spoken for far too long. We should not compromise on this matter because, at the end of the day, no deal is better than a bad deal.
May I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) for his exceptional service until recently as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran? I was asked to replace him when he submitted to the purdah of the Government Whips Office. It is only fitting in this particular debate to describe his departure thus, given the root of the word “purdah”, which is the Persian for veil or curtain. I do not expect to fill his shoes easily. He is a source of considerable knowledge and wisdom on this subject and is always worth listening to, as is the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), whom I am pleased to join as co-chair of the group.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, Iran is for many of us a land of which we know too little. To create through a revolution a state in which citizens are required to accept one supreme source of divinely inspired authority, which fuses together religious, legal, social and political obligations, and in which the Head of State acts both as the supreme political “guardian” over the people and also as a supreme spiritual leader, while assuming the supreme command of all armed forces and also appointing the Head of Government may seem rather strange to us, or, on the other hand, it may not.
The motto, under the coat of arms of our own sovereign, “Dieu et mon droit”, makes an unvarnished claim of the divine right to rule. The state prayers from the “Book of Common Prayer”, which we repeat each day in this House Commons, make precisely the same claim by referring to our Father as
“the only Ruler of princes”.
The mace, sitting in front of us, which symbolises the authority from our sovereign to sit, and without which we cannot sit, has above the crown a Christian cross, connoting the fusion of supreme political authority with our state religion. Thus the idea that Government should be run according to God’s laws should not be strange to us.
Indeed, when my co-chair, the right hon. Member for Blackburn, was the Lord Chancellor, one of his jobs was to administer the oath for bishops of the Anglican Church, in which they
“do hereby declare that Your Majesty is the only supreme governor of this your realm in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal”.
The oath continues:
“I acknowledge that I hold the said bishopric as well the spiritualities as the temporalities thereof only of Your Majesty and for the same temporalities I do my homage presently to Your Majesty”.
It is therefore more than possible to build a society whose foundational cornerstones for its constitutional arrangements are deeply embedded in a religious tradition, and where the fabric of the state and the fabric of that religious tradition are so intertwined that they form an inseparable tapestry, and do all of this while still creating a space for human flourishing and freedom. That is what we seek to do ourselves. I dare to hope that as the Islamic Republic of Iran continues on its journey, it will weave the future strands of that tapestry in ways that are consistent with its Islamic traditions, and which respect and do homage to those traditions, and meet the needs and desires of its people.
The last time the House held a debate on Iran in February 2012, the motion, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), called for a recognition
“that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons”. —[Official Report, 20 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 635.]
I think I am being fair to my hon. Friend when I say that he did not carry the House on that day. Indeed, among the many contributions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) said:
“I repeat that an attack is the least bad option”.—[Official Report, 20 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 668.]
My hon. Friend did not carry the House on that day, but I read his speech again last night, and it repays re-reading. It was an excellent contribution and stands the test of time.
At that time, the prospect of military action against Iran seemed very real. There was a considerable increase in the level of rhetoric against Iran, particularly by the United States. The foreign policy analyst Trita Parsi suggested in his book “A Single Roll of the Dice” that relations between Iran and the west, particularly between Iran and the United States, had become so polarised over 30 years that it was no longer merely an antagonistic relationship, but had become “institutionalised enmity”—a set of behaviours so entrenched on both sides that the participants could not find a way out. The then US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, predicted that Israel would launch an attack on Iran by April or June 2012. The then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), said at the time that an attack would not be wise and that it would have “enormous downsides”, but the option of military action was left firmly on the table.
I found all this rather puzzling. When I visited the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna later in the spring of 2012, I discovered that I was among fellow sceptics, including my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay. All the parliamentary colleagues on that visit—or at least, those who had been in Parliament at the time—had, as it happened, voted against military action in 2003 against Iraq. We met the nuclear inspectors who were visiting Iran, including Herman Nackaerts, the then deputy director general of the IAEA, who was quite explicit—while certainly also laying out a set of serious concerns—that
“We have no evidence of weapons grade material”.
Like the right hon. Member for Blackburn, I have serious concerns about Iran, including its approach to human rights. The right hon. Gentleman made the important point, as have others, that some of these issues are outside the control of Dr Rouhani, the President of the Islamic Republic. I believe than an Islamic Republic of Iran that felt more secure and respected, and less threatened and demonised, would also, in time, become a kinder Iran. My greatest single concern is that we do not lose the enormous opportunity that faces us. Unfortunately, there is form here.
The Iranian offer, which Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, carried to the United States in 2003 included an offer by the Iranians to end their support for Islamic jihad and Hamas and to pressure them to cease attacks on Israel; to support the disarmament of Hezbollah and to transform it into a purely political party; to put their nuclear programme under intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate fears about weaponisation; to provide full co-operation against all terrorist organisations; and perhaps most astonishingly of all, to accept the Beirut declaration of the Arab League—that is to say, the Saudi-sponsored peace plan from March 2002 in which all the Arab states offered collective peace, the normalising of relations with and diplomatic recognition of Israel, in return for Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories, an agreement to share Jerusalem, an equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee issue and the adoption of the two-state solution.
What an opportunity that was for the world. But just as Israel’s late foreign Minister, Abba Eban, used to say of the Palestinians that they
“never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity”,
so it took a very special combination of qualities in an American Administration to ignore such an offer. History produced just such a combination in Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush. The offer was spurned, and we have been living with the consequences.
Let us contrast that with the position today. As a distinguished group of diplomatists, including Javier Solana, Carl Bildt and Robert Cooper, suggest in The Guardian this morning, if a deal can be reached it could
“reshape the west’s engagement with Iran by opening new options for pursuing overlapping regional interests”.
As the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, if we do not get a deal, we will not simply go back to the status quo ante: as he pointed out, nine years of sanctions have produced a rise from 200 centrifuges to 18,000 centrifuges so, frankly, I do not think that sanctions have achieved their principal aim.
Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator who is now at Princeton university, made a similar point when he wrote:
“The best strategy is to pursue a broad engagement with Iran to ensure that the decision to pursue a nuclear breakout will never come about. Iran and the United States are already tacitly and indirectly cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State…A nuclear agreement would be a great boost to mutual trust and provide greater options for dealing not only with IS and the Syrian regime but also Afghanistan and Iraq—where both Washington and Tehran support the new governments in Kabul and Baghdad”.
As Christopher de Ballaigue, one of the most acute observers of Iran has noted:
“It is one of the perversities of modern politics that the west does not have a decent working relationship with the most important country in the Middle East.”
It is in all our interests that this should change.
It is a huge privilege to follow my hon. Friend and near neighbour, the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who speaks with huge expertise. It is a pleasure also to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and the incredibly distinguished former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).
We should not forget that our disengagement from Iran started with the dramatic events on 29 November 2011, when the embassy was ransacked and a number of staff had their lives put at risk. It was an appalling event, and we were obviously right to disengage from that moment onwards. Even now I pay tribute to the ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, and his staff for their bravery at the time, and for the incredibly dignified way in which they behaved in the face of this horrendous event. Since then, there have been some extraordinary changes.
I will focus my remarks on the reasons why we should re-engage with Iran. The first is the extraordinary changes taking place in that country. The right hon. Member for Blackburn spoke about our historical links with Iran and the importance of the diaspora in this country and elsewhere, for example in Switzerland and Canada. I have not visited Iran recently, but many of my friends have, and one of the observations I keep hearing is how much change there has been, even under the Ahmadinejad regime.
Huge amounts of petro-revenue are going into infrastructure, and not only in Tehran but in other cities such as Isfahan, Tabriz and Shiraz. Major investment on the ground, for example in social housing, is empowering a growing middle class. They want change, and they want better education. My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned higher education. Some 55% of school leavers in Iran now go into higher education. Indeed, Azad university now has more than 100 campuses. Ambitions and expectations are changing.
Were we to talk to our average constituent about Iran, we might find that they have a vision of a fanatically religious state in which public executions take place in every city, with people being hanged from cranes. That is an absolute parody of what is happening there, and it is hugely misleading. Religion in Iran is on the wane. The mosques, far from filling up with people on the key days of the week, are pushed to attract the congregations they once had.
I entirely accept that there is a long way to go on human rights. Yes, there has been a release of political prisoners, but like others, I was appalled by the case of Mohsen Amir-Aslani, who was sentenced to death for insulting the prophet Jonah; and we have heard about the case of Ghoncheh Ghavami, the young British-Iranian woman imprisoned for a year for attending a volleyball match. There is still a long way to go on human rights, but since the election of Hassan Rouhani—like the right hon. Member for Blackburn, I welcome his election—there has been a very significant change indeed.
The second reason we should re-engage, and perhaps the most important, is the progress being made on the nuclear programme. Rouhani has driven that process, which culminated in the interim agreement in Geneva on 13 November. That was an extraordinary breakthrough. Yes, there is still some way to go, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, who is an expert on the matter, went into great detail—I shall not try to match him—but the IAEA has given assurances that Iran has complied with the terms of the agreement.
There is obviously now a need for a permanent solution. I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said a moment ago about the need for trust and verification. That echoes the Foreign Secretary’s recent statement. There has been significant progress, and there is a need for patience. I certainly endorse the suggestion from my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South that the deadline needs to be extended. Linked to that is the reduction in the number of sanctions and the various reliefs announced by the P5 plus 1 on oil sales, frozen funds and humanitarian trade. Important and significant progress has obviously been made in that regard.
The third reason for the need to re-engage is what is happening elsewhere in the region. I will not go into too much detail, because we could spend all day talking about it, but I think that what is happening with ISIS/ISIL is incredibly worrying. That organisation’s desire to create a caliphate and step back into the dark ages threatens this country. We need only look at the number of jihadists going out there, the number who have been killed already and the number of radicalised youngsters who have gone there or may well go there in future. That affects Britain and other western countries. I think that we should give credit to Iran for the role it has played. It has been constructive in so far as it has helped to push out Maliki and bring in a new Prime Minister, Abadi.
Furthermore, I think that we should press Iran to play a role in trying to ensure that the different Shi’a militias are rolled up into the Iraqi security forces. Iran obviously has an important role to play in that regard, and we need to recognise and understand that role and be sensitive to it. We need to encourage it as much as possible, because Iran has a role to play in combating this wretched, vile, evil organisation—ISIS or IS.
The fourth reason we should re-engage—again, this is a regional point—relates to Afghanistan. We should look back and see how incredibly constructive Iran was about 10 years ago in a number of areas of our engagement with Afghanistan. We should now look to Iran to be a really positive voice in favour of national reconciliation in Afghanistan and to support the proposed peace settlement with the Taliban. The key point is that Iran can be a pragmatic and flexible actor in that process. I know that there are colleagues in the House who will say that Iran backed the insurgency that killed British troops and must therefore be condemned. Ultimately, we have to remember that Iran’s interests lie away from the Taliban in its present form and in favour of a stable and united Afghanistan, and we should bear that in mind.
The fifth reason we should re-engage is the need to look at the trade agenda. The prospects for the UK to do more trade with Iran are very significant indeed. We have to look after our interests in this world. It is very good news that our trade outside the EU has expanded and is expanding, but our balance of trade with Iran is, depressingly, about $200 million, despite very tight sanctions. The right hon. Member for Blackburn pointed out that US trade with Iran is about four times that figure.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn touched on another important reason why we need to engage with Iran: financial services. He did not mention Standard Chartered bank, but I shall mention it briefly. As the Minister will know, Standard Chartered was recently fined £670 million by the US authorities for breaching US domestic sanctions. I find that very worrying, because there is now a new investigation under way. The bank was punished for quite legally facilitating UK company trade with Iran. It did not break any UK or EU sanctions, or indeed any US sanctions, but it fell foul of some US domestic legislation. The issue, of course, was that a lot of those trades were denominated in dollars, which is the world’s reserve currency, and the US authorities latched on to that fact and threatened to withdraw the bank’s licence, which was quite outrageous. The bank—a world-class, British bank—decided to pay the fine. It is now under investigation again. I regard that as incredibly serious. It was basically threatened with financial blackmail.
What is the view of Her Majesty’s Government on that matter? Is the Minister aware that Andrew Bailey of the Bank of England warned of the consequences of such action? Is he aware that, at a time when we are trying to look proactively at re-engaging and increasing our financial trade with Iran, many companies will look at Standard Chartered’s experience and say, “We want to look at possible contracts in Iran, but we have to be financed by British institutions that will have dollar-denominated packages, so we could fall foul of US domestic sanctions as a result.” Will he look at that urgently? What discussions has the Foreign Office had with the Treasury on the matter? Can the Minister intervene to ensure that it is sorted out?
I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. He may not have noticed a news piece on the Al-Monitor website that was published on 4 November—only the day before yesterday—with the headline “Direct US-Iran banking channel could cement nuclear deal”. US and Iranian officials refused to comment on that piece, which says that the Americans are considering
“the creation of what is known as a ‘blessed channel’”
to facilitate further, easier financial transactions.
That is very interesting. On the one hand, this financial blackmail is taking place against various UK banks, but on the other, the US is trying to encourage and facilitate trade. This does need looking at, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it.
Order. May I help a little bit? We still have another debate to follow this, and a lot of Members to get in. I was hoping that I would not have to put on a time limit, but we are in danger of stretching that approach.
I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. So many points are being raised that I might not have time to cover them all.
My hon. Friend is aware that we are discouraging all trade with Iran because there is the bigger issue of trying to affect behaviour. That does not mean that we do not consider what trade can take place. Companies, including banks, are allowed to trade now within the confines of the sanctions that take place. I will certainly look at the banking issue, as he asks, but we are discouraging—
Order. I will not have the Minister give his speech now. Interventions have to be short. You are knocking your own time off, and I do not want that. We have to be considerate to all the other Members who wish to speak in this debate, and, quite rightly, I want to hear them. I do not understand why they must have a reduced amount of time because people are taking advantage.
I will therefore reduce my response to one sentence, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I was responsible for our relations with Sudan, we discouraged trade, but we also helped companies that had trading problems and looked at problems just like this one.
I conclude by saying that now is an ideal time for Britain to re-engage with a country with which we have historically had very close relations. I hope that by reopening our embassy we can look forward to a new era in those relations with an incredibly important country in the region.
I should like to use the opportunity of this debate to raise the case of my constituent, Ghoncheh Ghavami, who has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I think the case will be familiar to Members. A young woman—a British citizen— has been in prison in Tehran since the end of June for joining a group of women who wished to attend a volleyball match. I intend perhaps to be slightly less than forthright in speaking about this case because of its sensitivities. I will limit what I say to what is the public arena and to what I would like the Minister to respond to as regards the Foreign Office’s role.
As I say, I think the facts are relatively well known. Ms Ghavami was arrested on 20 June, released, and then rearrested 10 days later. She is charged with, and has now apparently been sentenced for, the offence of spreading propaganda against the system, but that arises out of the incident I described. She has been in solitary confinement. She has been on one hunger strike and is now on a second, more severe, hunger strike. There have been allegations of mistreatment against her during this period. She is a young woman of 25—a very bright law student with joint British-Iranian nationality who is resident, when she is the United Kingdom, in Shepherd’s Bush in my constituency with her brother. Her parents are resident in Tehran. A substantial amount of attention has been devoted to this case. The family, as one would expect, have acted in every possible way to try to secure her release, including lobbying the Iranian President in New York and lobbying and meeting members of the UK Government. Her family in Iran are doing the best they can. A petition calling for her release currently has more than 700,000 signatures.
I am not going to dwell too much on this aspect, but, for the record, I say to the Minister that I have not been impressed by the way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has dealt with the matter thus far. I think it uncharacteristic of the Minister to take three weeks to reply to a letter, to send that letter by post, and to say that because of the Data Protection Act he will not go into details without Ms Ghavami’s “express permission”. I am not quite sure how I was supposed to obtain Ms Ghavami’s express permission. However, during the course of this debate I have received a letter from the Foreign Secretary admitting that that was the wrong approach and saying that there will be full co-operation with my office, and with the family, from now on. I will therefore say no more about it. I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said to me in that letter. I do not intend to go into the detail of it.
I tried to catch the hon. Gentleman’s eye before the debate, and I am sorry that I was unable to do so. I am aware that we have had correspondence on this issue and that he is concerned about the latest correspondence I sent to him. If we can have a meeting about the case, I will be delighted to go into more detail.
I am grateful to the Minister.
I think it appropriate that the House’s attention be drawn to this matter. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has tabled an early-day motion on it. It is a serious matter, not just to me as a constituency issue, but in that a British citizen is being treated in this way abroad. These matters can be better dealt with. I welcome the fact that the Minister is prepared to meet me and the family—that would be the right way forward.
I conclude by putting it on the record that the family have been clear throughout that this is not a political issue but a humanitarian one. It should not be tied up with wider geopolitical negotiations between the two Governments. The only relevance of that is that the thaw in the relationship—the more constructive relationship —between the two Governments should perhaps provide the opportunity for the early release of Ms Ghavami so that she can return to her life in the UK.
It is pleasure to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about his constituent. Obviously, all of us in this House hope that the case can be resolved in a satisfactory way as soon as possible.
I have been hugely impressed by all the speeches I have been privileged to hear in the debate so far. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I am sure we will hear an excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) in due course.
What we have not heard, explicitly, is anyone saying that it would be completely unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. That is the position that I stand by. I think it would be unacceptable to this country, and to the world, for a dangerous regime such as that in Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I do not particularly want to cast aspersions, but I suspect that some Members of this House would actually be content for Iran to have a nuclear weapon; indeed, I have heard Members say that. That is a perfectly defensible position, but I have not heard it put forward today.
What we have also not heard today is the Israeli perspective. Iran, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, is a country of 77 million people, second only in the middle east to Egypt’s 85 million. If we stack that up against the Israeli state, with 8 million people, we can see that from the Israeli perspective Iran is the biggest bully in the playground.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex said, it all comes down to a question of trust. Why should we trust Iran? I very much respect the judgment of Members of this House who know far more about this subject than I do, especially former Foreign Secretaries and hon. Members who have been to Iran and know some of these individuals. However, if I were a citizen of Tel Aviv, despite the huge respect I would have for the right hon. Member for Blackburn, I would say to myself, “Well, this gentleman obviously speaks with a huge amount of experience, and he has spoken to Hassan Rouhani and others, but what if he is wrong? What if the regime in Tehran is mad enough and bad enough to want a nuclear weapon and to use it?”
We had a similar debate when China was developing nuclear weapons and Mao Tse-tung said, “What does it matter if we lose several million Chinese people? We can take out our enemies in one go.” It would be possible to take out most of Israel with one nuclear weapon. The holocaust was not really that long ago in strategic terms. Half the Jewish population of the world was wiped out in Europe, supposedly under the safety of a Christian civilisation, so if I were an Israeli citizen, although I might respect the right hon. Gentleman’s wise words, I would be saying to myself, “What if he’s wrong? Where’s my insurance?”
That is why this House has to wake up, smell the coffee and realise that there is simply no way on earth that Israel is going to allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb. It represents an existential threat to half the Jewish population of the world. It does not really matter what we in this Chamber think about that; Israel, quite rightly, will say, “We are not going to accept this.”
The Iranians are going about things in all the wrong ways. We have heard that there are cultural aspects to that. We are told, for example, that the Iranian way of approaching the world is different from that of the west; that there are complications of language and history; that the only rules they want to stick to are those that suit them; and that we should look at this through a diplomatic prism. At the end of the day, however, we are talking about 8 million Israeli citizens who fear for their lives. They fear that Iran will get enough nuclear material to stuff into one of its Fajr-5 rockets and launch it at Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
Iran is going about the negotiations in all the wrong ways, because it is doing all the bad things that none of us like. Iran is a major exporter of terror, not just to the middle east, but around the world. If it really wants to do a deal with the west, why has it not backed off from supporting Hamas or from stocking up an arsenal of 100,000 rockets in southern Lebanon? Another Israeli fear, of course, is not just nuclear weapons, but Hezbollah launching 100,000 rockets all in one go at the Israeli population. It does not matter how sophisticated Iron Dome is—it is not possible to take out 100,000 rockets launched in one go.
The exporter of this terror—its funder—is Tehran. These are not nice people. They might have gone to English universities and they might have an understanding with very senior Members of this House, but this regime is extremely unpleasant, not only to its own people, but to others in the region and further afield.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important things the right hon. Member for Blackburn said was that we should be careful what we wish for? I think that some people sometimes wish for something that cannot be delivered. I strongly support the line taken by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).
The hon. Gentleman and I both hope that the right hon. Member for Blackburn is right, but what if he is not? That would put Israel in a really serious situation.
The hon. Gentleman has said that the Iranians are not nice people. Does he think it is wise to characterise an entire nation, and even an entire regime, in that light? Even within the regime there are different factions. Is it helpful to talk about them in those terms?
The hon. Lady is quite right, to be fair. If I have implied that the Iranian people are not nice, I apologise. What I mean is that the regime is not pleasant. I perfectly understand that the Iranian people—the Persian people—are among the most sophisticated people in the middle east, and we have heard a lot about that in this debate. The hon. Lady is right to pick me up on that point. What I am saying is that the regime is extremely unpleasant and extremely bad and that some of its members are potentially mad. That is what worries the Israeli Government.
If I were an Iranian who wanted to impress the west with my intent and why I should be trusted, I would be keen to allow the nuclear weapons inspectors into my nuclear facilities. Despite repeated requests to access Natanz, Parchin and Fordow, inspectors have been either stopped or obstructed in undertaking their work.
Enrichment is also an issue. Iran has enough fissile material at 3.5% or 20% enrichment to be able to develop, if it has enough centrifuges, enough nuclear material at 90% enrichment for six nuclear bombs. That is the worry. The Supreme Leader has said recently that Iran has an absolute need for 190,000 centrifuges, which is 10 times the number it has at present. Any deal done on anything remotely like that basis would be a very bad one, because Iran would then have the ability to break out of any restrictions placed by any such treaty on developing the material for those six missiles. Of course, it already has the ballistic capability to deliver that material on to Israel or Saudi Arabia at very short notice.
The central question posed to all of us by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex is: can we trust the Iranians? My answer is that I have not seen enough evidence to suggest why we should trust them. Of course, the big problem is that, if we get the answer to that question wrong and if the Iranians really are not trustworthy, it is not so much us in the United Kingdom who will pay the price, although the situation will be bad for us. The people who will really be at peril are those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the middle east, and there will be a nuclear arms race that will add fuel to the flames in an already volatile region.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on Iran. If we look at the middle east today—which is at risk of conflagration from end to end, whether it be in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine or even Afghanistan—we will see that Iran is a key player. If we are to resolve some of the issues, Her Majesty’s Government and this House must take a nuanced and sophisticated approach to our relationship with Iran. It is not helpful to talk about Iran, or even its regime, as a monolith. As most of us should know, there are separate and distinct factions within the regime that are jostling for supremacy at any given time.
I do not wish to take away from the seriousness of the human rights issues in Iran. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has mentioned his constituent, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British resident who is subject to imprisonment, apparently for a year, for going to watch a men’s volleyball match. I think that any British person would be shocked at any regime that treated somebody in that fashion. As we have heard, she is on hunger strike for the second time in protest against her illegal detention, and her lawyer has seen court documents stating that she has been sentenced to a year in prison. The prosecutors, however, have not confirmed her sentence, so she is in limbo. That is an appalling way to treat a young woman. Although I think it is correct that this particular case should not form part of the issues relating to international relationships and so on, she is a British resident who is being treated extremely cruelly and unfairly. This is an humanitarian issue and I want Her Majesty’s Government to do more to help this British resident, who is subject to a cruel and unusual punishment for doing no more than going to watch a sporting match, which British women do every day of the week.
I apologise for missing the first part of the debate. I was part of the delegation to Iran, and I constantly raised issues of human rights and human rights concerns. Does my hon. Friend agree that as appalling as this case is, it is unfortunately not that unusual in Iran, and that any future relationship with Iran must include a tough human rights dialogue to insist that it signs up to and obeys all the human rights conventions and has a genuinely independent judicial system, so that such appalling travesties of justice cannot continue?
It is very important that any negotiations with Iran have a human rights component.
In any agreements that we reach with Iran, it is important that we make due speed before the effects of the mid-term elections in the USA work through, because those results risk jeopardising the success of the negotiations. There are people in the US Senate who are desperate to see Obama fail, and who are preparing additional sanctions against Iran. They have just made enormous gains in the mid-term elections, and are emboldened. I believe that additional sanctions will be a disaster. They will play into the hands of hardliners in Iran, who have a vested interest in the status quo and no interest in Iran having relations with the rest of the world. Additional sanctions will kill the negotiations. The big players who have sponsored the new sanctions Bill are Kirk and Menendez. They are strong supporters of the state of Israel and also want nothing more than to inflict lethal damage on the Obama presidency. It is important that we make due speed on negotiations with Iran before American domestic politics intervene and make such negotiations impossible.
As some Members have recognised, there is a reformist wing within the Iranian regime—Rouhani, Zarrafi and others—who despite a massive uphill battle are challenging the conservatives, and have promised the Iranian people that better diplomatic relations will end the sanctions. If the US and its allies are seen to backpedal, that will prove the reformists wrong in the eyes of the hardliners, and set the situation back. Her Majesty’s Government must ensure that that does not happen and that domestic US politics do not threaten what the rest of the world community has patiently created, and there should be a strong message to that effect.
We must also offer a carrot to the Iranians, and not just sticks that reinforce the idea that the UK is siding with the US as an imperialist aggressor. One long overdue carrot would be to reopen the British embassy in Tehran, as was said earlier. It would be illogical to try to have open and honest dialogue with a country, or even to criticise it, if there is no diplomatic presence. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not having a formal diplomatic presence, and we have left an open vacuum for Russia, China, India and the rest to fill. Furthermore, a British embassy is symbolic of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the people of Iran. As I have tried to say, one should not conflate the regime with the people, and we want at all times to make it clear that we as British people want a good relationship with the Iranian people.
My final point is one that was made earlier: the importance of dialogue and diplomatic relations. That is not just important for the nuclear deal, but it is in the UK’s national interest to have diplomatic and economic ties with Iran in terms of exports and our general economic interests. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, Iran has influence over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, and it might be key in defeating ISIS. It is probably the only player that can force Assad to compromise.
I am sorry to say this to hon. Members, but nothing is gained by simply regurgitating a cold-war narrative or realpolitik when it comes to “explaining” Iranian motivations in the middle east. It is one of the few countries in the region that has enjoyed a level of peace since the end of the Iran-Iraq war 25 years ago. It has developed into a nation comprised mostly of young people, with 80% being under 40, most of whom are urban—70% of Iranians live in cities—and far more progressive in relation to women than some of the regimes in the region to which we are allied, such as Saudi Arabia. For example, 60% of university enrolments in Iran are women.
While being clear and firm in its condemnation of human rights abuses in Iran, I urge the House to recognise that we are nearing an historic point. Sanctions have artificially stunted economic growth in Iran, and it would be a missed opportunity not to establish ties with it now. The regime is not a monolith, as I have said, and it has the second biggest reserves of gas in the world and the third largest oil reserves. It is in the interests of the British economy, British business and the British people, as well as of peace in the region, to try to establish a more sophisticated, nuanced and constructive ongoing diplomatic engagement with Iran than we have seen in the past.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who made a thoughtful speech. I associate myself with her comments, and those of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about his constituent, which I think the whole House will endorse.
This is another debate that highlights the importance of the Backbench Business Committee, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing it. As a Welsh non-conformist, however, I might be slightly more cynical about the concept of a state-sponsored religion—something that we dispensed with at the end of the first world war in a Welsh context.
This is an important debate, and we heard a superb contribution from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is no longer in his place. It is important that the context for this debate includes that Committee’s report, which was published in June, and I argue that it is essential reading for anybody who takes an interest in the middle east.
This is undoubtedly an interesting time in the middle east. It is a period of huge unrest in the region, and it is right for us to discuss the UK’s position on Iran. There is no doubt that the way the whole western world has been almost traumatised by the development of ISIS has led to a discussion about how Iran can be brought back into the fold. However, although we might see the possibilities of working with Iran in the context of what is happening in Iraq, the situation is much more complex than that. In Syria, Iran is supporting elements that the UK Government would not be keen to support, and our support for the democratic statelet of Kurdistan within Iraq can be contrasted with the way that the Kurdish minority in Iran is treated. The complexities of the situation must be understood. We should be aware of the dangers of starting to argue the case on the basis of the old saying, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is important not to fall into that trap because time and again, history has shown that such an approach to international politics never leads to a good result.
This debate has rightly highlighted the many concerns held by hon. Members about Iran’s human rights record. I accept entirely the point that the human rights records of many states in the middle east leave a lot to be desired, but two wrongs do not make a right. The fact that we deal with allies in the middle east that have atrocious human rights records does not mean that we should forgive or forget the human rights situation in Iran. The report by the Foreign Affairs Committee stated clearly:
“No concessions should be made on human rights in the interests of making progress in negotiations in other fields.”
The Committee is not arguing that there should be no progress in other fields, but we should not turn a blind eye to Iran’s human rights record.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) spoke passionately and correctly about concerns in Israel, not least about the support given by Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas. It is difficult to deny that the strategic threat to Israel is not only the development of a nuclear capacity in Iran, but the daily threat faced by Israel from southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip. Clearly, there has been a degree of breach between Iran and Hamas, but the support to Hezbollah continues to be a strong element of Iranian foreign policy, which should concern anyone who wants a long-term settlement in the middle east, not least a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian entity.
There are human rights concerns with the Iranian regime, but there are also concerns with the regime’s ability to destabilise part of the middle east and other parts of the world by sponsoring terrorism. From a UK perspective, we cannot deny that the question we need to ask is this: would it be in the UK’s national interest for Iran to develop nuclear capacity? We need to address that key question. It is currently difficult to argue that stability in the middle east would be enhanced by Iran’s ability to develop nuclear capacity. It is striking that political leaders and leaders in other middle east countries have accepted the claimed nuclear capacity of Israel—I say “claimed” with a smile on my face, because all hon. Members recognise that Israel has a nuclear capacity. Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for example, have not said that they need nuclear capacity because Israel has nuclear capacity, but those states have made the argument strongly that, if Iran develops nuclear capacity, they would need to have a nuclear warhead. We should take that seriously if we are trying to bring stability to such an unstable part of the world.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn made the important point that a sovereign country such as Iran has every right to develop a civilian nuclear strategy. I believe very strongly in the UK developing and investing once more in our civilian nuclear capacity. As a north Wales Member, I am keen for the development of a second power station in Anglesey. It is very difficult to argue with that case. However, my support for a nuclear power station in Anglesey would be somewhat tempered were Wales sitting on the second largest gas reserves behind Russia’s. If Iran has such large gas reserves, why is civilian nuclear capacity so important to it? I accept that the right hon. Gentleman’s point is a fair one—a sovereign country has that right. Therefore, as an international community, we need to ensure a settlement that allows that civilian capacity to be developed, but with assurances that it will not lead to a military capacity, which would further destabilise the middle east.
We must question seriously whether Iran has moved sufficiently towards giving assurances on whether its intentions are peaceful. The Foreign Affairs Committee, which has looked at the issue in detail, concluded:
“There is no convincing explanation for why Iran might need for civil purposes the stocks of enriched uranium which it held in January 2014. We believe that the primary reason for Iran’s decision to build such a capacity to enrich uranium and to amass stocks to current levels was to give itself the option to develop a nuclear military capability.”
The FAC is not renowned for highlighting dangers that are not reasonably identified. We should pause to consider those words when we think about how we deal with the negotiations that are supposed to conclude by 24 November.
In 2012, the Prime Minister highlighted the fact that the Iranian regime is currently flouting six UN resolutions —1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835 and 1929. His statement was clear:
“The regime’s claim that its nuclear programme is intended purely for civilian purposes is not remotely credible.”
In view of the developments of the past few months, do we believe that those words are not relevant? If they are relevant, it is imperative that any developments are considered carefully, and that we have assurances that concessions made to Iran do not allow the development of a nuclear military capacity.
As I have said, it is expected or hoped that the P5 plus 1 negotiations will conclude by the end of November. I accept that there is a possibility of a breakthrough, but certain things must be guaranteed in any deal. The British Government should be clear that, in any agreement, we need to ensure that Iran’s ability to develop a military nuclear capacity is not enhanced. We should consider the number of centrifuges—2,000 should be a maximum but, currently, there are 18,000, and Iran claims the need for 10 times more. We need clarity on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering highlighted that sources in the middle east have identified that the stockpiles of enriched material were sufficient for six nuclear warheads. The point has been strongly and passionately made that one warhead would be enough to wipe Israel off the map. Would hon. Members be comfortable with such a development? What will be done to ensure that Iran’s stocks of enriched material are dealt with?
On the Iranian enrichment programme, it is important that the 3.5% level is monitored. Despite the best efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are concerns over whether the Iranian regime is co-operating fully. I argue that there is a need for full and immediate compliance with the IAEA on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme. Inspectors should be given unfettered access to Iranian military installations because, if the aim or intention is for a sovereign state to develop a civilian nuclear capacity, one must ask why the regime would be reluctant to allow such an investigation. An investigation would give confidence to the UK and other states that the Iranian regime’s intentions are not in any way militaristic.
We also know that the Iranian military has the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead not only on Israel, but on a significant portion of Europe. We need to ensure that any agreement that allows the development of a civilian capacity takes into account steps to ensure that that ballistic missile capacity is not a threat to any part of the middle east or Europe.
We should grasp the opportunity to ensure that the sanction regime is monitored carefully as part of an overall package that allows the development of civilian nuclear energy capacity in Iran. The opportunities of trade with Iran that hon. Members have highlighted are also important. I agree that trading relationships often lead to better political relations. The opportunity is there, but it is important that the House sends a clear message that we are dealing with a regime that does not have a track record of good will. In any agreement, we need certainty that a compromise is not conceded without due care and attention.
The House is sometimes criticised for not passing enough legislation and because the Government have allocated days for Backbench Business Committee business. This is a great example of a debate in which hon. Members can discuss a subject that we would not ordinarily discuss.
On 24 November 2013, it emerged that a deal had been reached between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council—the UK, the US, France, China and Russia—plus Germany. The deal was the outcome of years of negotiations behind the scenes and a decade of public diplomacy following the revelations that there was a wide-scale uranium enrichment programme in Iran. The P5 plus 1 countries and Iran concluded an interim six-month agreement known as the joint plan of action, which was intended to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions.
On 26 February this year, I led a Westminster Hall debate and raised the concerns of many people about the P5 plus 1 tacitly recognising Iran’s right to enrich uranium, which has been rejected by many people over the years. Another concern was relaxing some of the Iran sanctions. As we anticipate the final deal at the end of the month, it is worth highlighting those concerns and the red lines that I believe need to be contained in any such deal.
The first issue is the length of time for which the deal will last, and the second is the basis on which agreement will be struck on Iran’s past nuclear capability. Only by adhering to strict limits on the nuclear programme for an extended period of time can Iran build up confidence that its nuclear activities will not be used for military purposes. The P5 plus 1 must seek an enduring deal that will last a considerable time—at least 20 years and possibly 30—to ensure a substantive change in Iran’s strategic conduct.
Reports already published indicate that Iran is pushing for a so-called “sunset clause”—for a deal to last only five years as an absolute maximum, after which it would expect to be treated as a normal signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. I have some concerns about that. Such a deal would probably cover only President Rouhani’s term of office, and the next President, or the next President’s successor, may have a completely different view of the subject, just as Ahmadinejad did. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister said in July 2014 that if Iran accepts a limit on its nuclear activities
“it will only be for a specific time frame, and temporary”.
Reports that the P5 plus 1 and Iran may settle on a duration as short as five to 10 years will do little to relieve my suspicions over Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions. It would be little more than a temporary reprieve of one of the world’s greatest security threats.
Iran must earn the right to be treated as a normal non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT through a tangible display of peaceful nuclear intentions for the duration of any long-term agreement. Indeed, the quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear programme, which is due imminently—perhaps even as early as tomorrow—is likely to say that Iran has still not provided the information it was supposed to have provided more than two months ago. Since Rouhani became President, Iran has promised to work with the IAEA, but it has failed to address specific areas of the agency’s inquiry. It has long been clear that the IAEA’s inquiry into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s programme will not be completed before the target date for a deal. I had hoped for more headway by that time. The deal would require a robust system of inspection of Iran’s future and past nuclear activities to verify that it would adhere to the terms of any agreement and not attempt to break out.
The need for strict verification mechanisms is a product of Iran’s nuclear programme having a clandestine history, and it warrants higher levels of accountability than would be acceptable for others. Only the verification of Iran’s nuclear-related activities and the apparatus to enforce it will determine the lasting success of any permanent nuclear agreement. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) said, without complete access to Iran’s full portfolio of declared and undeclared nuclear-related facilities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide the international community with true confidence that Iran does not possess a clandestine programme.
The second issue I wish to cover, which my hon. Friend also touched on, is the possible military dimension of a nuclear capability in Iran. One specific locale that is believed to be such a possible military dimension is the military base at Parchin, where the IAEA suspects Iran has attempted to develop a nuclear explosive device. IAEA inspectors have not been permitted to enter the site since 2005, but only a month ago a large explosion at the facility destroyed a number of buildings. The cause of the explosion is still not known. The IAEA has long suspected Iran of conducting tests there relating to the development of nuclear weapons, including on nuclear triggers and high explosives. In 2011, the organisation reported that
“such experiments would be strong indications of possible nuclear weapon development”.
Those suspicions have heightened in recent years, with satellite imagery indicating that Iran has undertaken a large-scale nuclear clean-up operation in the area—possible evidence of the removal of hazardous nuclear materials. Experts cite the removal of soil as recently as 2012 and subsequent asphalting of the specific place that the IAEA wants to inspect, as evidence of Iran’s efforts to hide potentially incriminating evidence of illicit nuclear-related experiments at Parchin.
Tehran rejects calls for access and claims it is a domestic military site that is used for research and development and the production of ammunition, rockets and high explosives. Even the White House acknowledges that Parchin is one of the issues Tehran has to address to achieve a comprehensive agreement. Despite such concern from around the world, Iranian officials have stated that they will only allow minimal and managed access to the site if and when Iran decides to accept the additional protocol.
This causes me two concerns. First, such resistance calls into question Iran’s claim that it is entering into these nuclear talks in good faith, and its overall acceptance of making its nuclear programme more transparent. Secondly, it raises concerns about a deal on Iran’s nuclear capabilities being adhered to and properly implemented. If there is no effective monitoring verification before a deal, how can we know if it is being complied with?
Finally, there are three points relating to the UK’s role in the process that I want to mention to the Minister. First, as a member of the P5 plus 1, the UK Government have played a leading role in the international community’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue and I commend them for that. Secondly, I congratulate the Government on pressing Iran to respond to international concerns over its nuclear activities, and even unilaterally imposing an unprecedented series of sanctions against Iran for its continued non-compliance. Thirdly, the UK Government now stand to play a decisive part in shaping the terms of a final nuclear agreement with Iran. We must ensure that any such deal is the right deal. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) said, it not just any deal we need, but the right deal.
Like the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), I believe that Iran having nuclear weapons would be a very difficult thing for most of western Europe and the United States. Most importantly, most of the middle east would also be horrified by it, and all of us should be wary of that.
I draw Members’ attention to the helpful briefing we have been sent, which makes it clear that a recent report by the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran noted a worsening of the situation regarding attacks against women. Those who have not seen the photographs of women disfigured by acid being thrown at them cannot believe for one minute that the Iranian authorities, in some way or other, were not involved in that treatment of those women. I would also like to congratulate and thank Maryam Rajavi, the president-elect of the Iranian Resistance, which continues to keep the deplorable human rights record of Iran in the forefront of our minds and the minds of others around the world.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) wrote a very interesting article in The Telegraph. He repeated a number of very important points today and the House listened very carefully. He said—I raised this point in an intervention—that we should be careful what we wish for when it comes to Iran. It is clear that the most active and supportive western-facing President and Foreign Secretary in Iran are not, at the end of the day, the people who will make any final decision. The Supreme Leader is coming to the end of his term of office, if we take the speculation about his health to be true, and will be replaced. Two of his potential replacements are extremely hard line and would make it extraordinarily difficult for anyone to take seriously whatever a President of Iran says about whatever deal is to be done, whether on the production of nuclear material for peaceful purposes, or the complete suspension of a nuclear programme. As other Members have said, the country is sitting on so many assets it does not really need nuclear power, but who are we to deny them that? As the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, every country has the right to it. However, we should be extraordinarily wary.
I would like to draw the attention of the House to two of my constituents. One was in Iran as recently as eight months ago. She is a young woman who was a professor at university in Tehran. She was subjected to the most appalling sexual attacks by the regime’s security officers in the university. Why was she subjected to that? She tried to prevent some of her young women students from being put through the sexual harassment and other related activities that the security system within the university was perpetrating against staff. When she spoke out, she was attacked. Luckily, she is now in this country, but there is no guarantee she will be granted the asylum she seeks. Anyone who speaks to somebody who has lived in Iran recently cannot help but be very concerned.
The second constituent was a young man who travelled halfway across Europe in the back of a lorry and came into the UK illegally, pleading for asylum. He was given temporary leave to make his application, but then detained. He was gay and had become a Christian, so he was under enormous pressure in Iran, and his life would have undoubtedly been taken had he been returned there or not left in the first place.
Those two experiences are of young, educated people living in Iran recently; they are not politicians such as those whom Members meet, but ordinary people whose lives have been dramatically and dangerously disrupted because they have chosen to speak out or to be different. It is an inexcusable situation. We are considering making friends with a regime that continues to execute people—the number is unknown because many are not announced by the Government—including children. Are we seriously saying that the UK is prepared to do business with these people and not take seriously their ongoing abuses of their own people? It will be a sad day, if and when the UK goes down that road. If we stand for anything, surely it is for protecting the human rights of people in countries that do not give the protection they deserve.
First, I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate and congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing it.
To suggest that our relationship with Iran has had a chequered history would be an understatement. Both sides have attempted to demonise each other and used heavy rhetoric, sanctions and so on, and no doubt this has resulted in a lack of progress on a range of issues of mutual interest and benefit. This journey has also been punctuated by a series of missed opportunities and mistakes by both sides. The election of President Rouhani provides a fresh opportunity that we must seize, as several Members have alluded to in this useful and informed debate. The emergence of Islamic State might also provide grounds for co-operation. We must seize the moment to improve relations with Iran. If we do not, we might miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and slip back to where we were only a couple of years ago, when the threat of military intervention was high.
The west, especially in Washington and London, has perhaps not done enough to understand the region in general and Iran in particular. There has been a dilution of skills within the FCO, with the closure, at one stage, of the language school and the prevalence of a management tick-box mentality rather than a desire to train diplomats fundamentally to understand a region and get their hands dirty. Some of those decisions have been reversed, but I would still argue that there has been a massive dilution of skills within the FCO, and that has partly been to blame for our failure to understand the region in general.
That has led directly to a series of errors. No one can now dispute that in 2003 we went to war on a false premise, but it does not stop there. We made a fundamental mistake in allowing the Afghan mission to morph into one of nation building in 2006, which we could not properly resource, while our intervention in Libya has proved a complete and utter disaster: an almighty civil war, massive casualties and the Libyan Parliament taking refuge on a Greek car ferry outside Tobruk. If it was any further east, it would be floating into Egyptian waters. It is farcical. Our position on Syria, over the course of just 15 months, has been totally incoherent. Only last year, we were talking, in effect, about intervening on behalf of the rebels, but now we are taking on elements of that very same rebel force. London and Washington must guard against adding Iran to that long list of sorry errors.
Various Members, particularly the right hon. Member for Blackburn and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, alluded to the missed opportunities on both sides. We tend to forget in this place that after 9/11 Iran extended the hand of friendship to the west and showed sympathy, and it was not just words: in the early phases of the Afghanistan mission, it actually helped to identify enemy sites, and what was its reward? It was lambasted by President Bush for being part of the axis of evil.
In this debate, we have heard that there have been lots of words but very little action, but Iran tried again. In the early phases of Iraq, it tried to be supportive—there was an alignment of interests—but again it was rebuffed. And we should not forget, by the way, on Afghanistan and 9/11, that at least partly because of the west’s robust rebuttal of Iran’s overtures the moderate President Khatami was removed and the hardliners again assumed the ascendency. I could go back further, but time does not allow. I could go back to the 1953 coup and the fact that we supported Iraq despite its having attacked Iran in a vicious civil war that cost a million lives—something that is imprinted on the DNA of Iranians.
With the nuclear talks ongoing and crucial moments approaching, let us please remember that confrontation has not worked in the past. The number of centrifuges has gone through the roof, despite all the sanctions. The Iranians will not be bullied; they are a proud nation. Anyone who has studied their history, or perhaps travelled or lived there briefly, will know them to be a proud nation that will not be bullied into submission. Our decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council in 2006 led directly to its withdrawing from the enhanced inspection regime, which actually it was entitled to do.
The IAEA report in November 2011, despite all the rhetoric from the west, had no smoking gun. The US intelligence services said there was no evidence that Iran had decided to go down the road of a nuclear weapons programme or that it was doing so. The evidence suggested that it wanted to get to the point of capability—of having the option of breaking out—as has been reinforced by well-respected people such as Peter Jenkins, the former UK representative to the IAEA, and Robert Kelly, a director of the governing body of that organisation. These people are not fools; they are people who have been at the centre and said the same thing.
That is why we must choose our words carefully on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Our words have been quoted in this debate. We did not say that Iran had decided to develop nuclear weapons or that it was doing so; we said it wanted to reach the point of having the option, and there is a world of difference in that sort of terminology. One is not being an apologist for Iran; one abhors the human rights issues and various other aspects, though I made the point that some of our regional allies also have similarly poor track records in this area. However, if we look at the map from Tehran, we can understand why the Iranians are nervous: they are surrounded by nuclear powers, whether it is Israel to the west, Pakistan to the east, the Russians to the north or the American fleet to the south. Having that option is logical—we are a country that retains an independent nuclear deterrent for very similar reasons.
I raised this issue two years ago, when things almost came to a head from a military point of view. Many Members here today participated in that debate as well, at a time when we were certainly rattling the sabre. Forces were gathering in the Persian gulf and the rhetoric was getting very heavy indeed. One made the point that we needed to try to go the extra diplomatic mile, rather than succumbing to what seemed at the time to be quite a slide into military intervention. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk was right to say that we lost in that debate—if I remember, the figures were something like 285 to six. To this day, I thank the six who joined me in the Lobby. It was another lonely experience, but at least it was shared across the House when it came to our military interventions.
Let us fast-forward two years. Where are we now? We now have a golden opportunity. We have the joint plan of action, which I hope we go the extra mile to bring to a successful conclusion. We really do need to explore the option of allowing the Iranians to enrich uranium, provided we have an enhanced inspection regime. There seems to be a dragging of feet on the embassy front. Yes, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) is absolutely right: the storming of an embassy is almost unforgivable. That said, of the three stated enemies of Iran—Israel, the US and the UK—only the UK has diplomatic relations with Iran, stretched though they may be, and we have got to make every effort to keep that door of diplomacy open. It goes without saying—it is a cliché, but it is true all the same—that we make peace with our enemies, not with our friends. We have to keep that door of diplomacy open; otherwise, there is no hope of peace.
We must remind ourselves of the costs of failure. Two years ago there was serious consideration of military intervention, at least by countries in the region. Why is all this important? Because when we refer to the lack of understanding of the region and Iran and to a dilution of skills in perhaps the FCO and in London and Washington generally, we have to try to understand that there is a complex structure in Iran, with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles. We need to try to influence that, rather than just giving credence to the hardliners by simply adopting a hard-line approach.
A military solution to this problem there cannot be, as ever. A recent US estimate suggests that any military intervention might set back the nuclear programme by only a year at most. We all know that knowledge cannot be eradicated and that if Iran is set on acquiring nuclear weapons, she will not be scared away. If she is not, perhaps any sort of military intervention would encourage her to do so. Looking at post-war history, we should also remember that interventions in countries have tended to embed hard-line views. It is no coincidence that communism, for example, survived longest in the countries where we intervened—we might think of China, Vietnam, North Korea or Cuba.
In conclusion, we have got to seize the moment. We have got to seize this opportunity to try to improve relations, because so much depends on a successful outcome. It could be the key to the resolution of so many issues in the region. We have to be realistic in how we approach this. I agree that we must be quite robust in how we negotiate with the Iranians, but there has to be an element of good will in trying to foster better relations.
I finish with this thought. When President Nixon flew to Beijing in 1972, at a time when US influence in the Pacific was on the wane, he did not deny the reality that China was in ascendancy; but despite being heavily criticised at the time, in retrospect and with the benefit of hindsight, it was recognised as a brilliant move. It opened up an era of better relations, at a time when things had been deteriorating fast. He was heavily criticised at the time. I would suggest to the House that we need something similar from our side to try to reach out and break the deadlock. We have a golden opportunity, with a moderate President, newly elected. We now have situations on the ground in the region that beg for mutual co-operation to our joint advantage. Let us seize the moment, because if we do not, I am afraid this will be yet another chapter in the sad history of a very poor relationship, punctuated by missed opportunities, and this time the costs of failure could be very dire indeed. That is what we have to appreciate; that is why we need to try and make it work this time.
I want to start by welcoming the debate and making it clear that I wish to seek a better relationship with Iran. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) not only on securing this debate with my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), but on making an outstanding opening speech. It really was superb. Anyone who read the article that the right hon. Gentleman wrote on 24 September in The Daily Telegraph can see the line of travel that he wishes us to take, and he set out his case extremely well. Similarly, the contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) underlined why we will miss both Gentlemen, from different sides of the House, very strongly when 2015 comes and they are no longer in this place.
I take the view that it is important to visit a country, if one can, before one tries to cast an opinion. I regret that I have not had the opportunity to visit Iran, although I have travelled extensively throughout the region, going to Beirut in Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan. However, it is good to speak almost last in the debate—obviously I await the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish)—because I have had a chance to listen. There are clearly differing views across the House. There are those who have grave concerns that we are being too generous to Iran and that we run the risk of making things more dangerous and difficult and appeasing a potentially very dangerous adversary. One cannot deny those risks, and the hon. Gentlemen who set those matters out do so legitimately and, in some cases, with good cause.
At the same time, however, as was set out fairly by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), the failure to act at this stage has its own significant downsides—that is an underestimation—and consequences. In this House and in Government, one often does too much, but often one does too little as well. I feel that this is a case where if we do too little, the opportunity will ebb and flow away, and we will not be in this place again for a very long time.
It is rare that I would want to quibble with comments from my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), who made the point in an earlier intervention—I summarise; this is the note I took of it—that it is tough if Iran does not abide by the rules. Of course one makes that point, and it is a fair point well made, by someone with every historical advantage that most of us do not have. However, at the same time, one must be realistic, in that, first, this is a negotiation, secondly, there is distrust on both sides and, thirdly, we have to work out what ultimate objective we seek to obtain, and it is inevitable that there will be difficulties, hurdles and obstructions along the way. I, for one, would wish our Government to push ahead, while accepting and making the fair point that this is not going to be a perfect ride along the way.
I was struck by how my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South set out that this is very much about two nations in conflict. Parts of Iran are genuinely liberal and generally progressive—he made the fair point that there are more women than men at the university in Tehran—but other parts we all find abhorrent, not least the difficulties in relation to Iran’s human rights record, but also its support for Assad and Hamas, its actions in Gaza, its opposition to Saudi Arabia and, frankly, the interventions it is pursuing in many countries.
We should not ignore the idea that Iran is a country that we can do business with. We have that opportunity now in a way that has not been possible for a considerable period of time. Although we need to look for a deal that is good for both sides, I take the view that the more we can move towards a deal, the more we empower the elected Government of Iran in what is obviously a power struggle over the country’s direction of travel.
Several Members have drawn attention to the interesting and complex political situation. The right hon. Member for Blackburn said that the elected Government do not control the judiciary. When I heard that, I nodded very wisely and thought that the point was particularly important, but our Government do not control the judiciary. It just so happens that the Iranian Government and the judiciary have slightly differing views of where the country should be going. In many cases, the judiciary has raised cases of great concern. We are all aware of constituency examples, to which the BBC and other organisations have rightly drawn attention. However, with a quasi-elected or appointed House of Lords, a coalition Government of parties that often move in different directions, and other interesting concepts—my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk and I had a rather esoteric discussion about what role the Privy Council genuinely took or might play in our country—the Iranians would probably look at us and say, “Well, this is also a slightly interesting political arrangement.”
The reality is that we surely cannot push Iran away. I want to talk about the 24 November deadline. It seems that we are all tremendously focused, and rightly so, on 24 November, but if the deal cannot be done within the period available and we need to extend the deadline, that is what diplomacy is about. It is no different from a contractual negotiation between two businesses. If both sides wish to make a deal, but for whatever reason they cannot reach an agreement, my view is that the deadline should be extended. I have no difficulty with that, and I would totally support the Government and the various parties to the deal if that is what they so wish.
It is absolutely paramount that everybody stays around the table in the long term, and ultimately that a deal is done. That will take—one must be realistic—concessions and a control of rhetoric on all sides. It will clearly not be easy for everybody to accept all parts of the equation. From some of the speeches today, it is clear that several organisations or interest groups are very sensitive about any particular deal. I want to make it clear that I have gone on a Conservative Friends of Israel trip to Israel and that I am a massive supporter of Israel, but that support does not prevent me from wanting progressive and better relationships with Iran.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk increased our linguistic awareness by explaining that “purdah” was originally a Persian word. As we all know, in UK politics, purdah means that the Government effectively cease to exist and cannot make decisions, and that no actions are taken. We are approaching purdah in several ways, not just in this country, but in the US with the changes following the mid-term elections. However, there is still a very large window up to—and potentially beyond—24 November in which to resolve these matters.
I completely endorse the points that several Members have made about the embassy, but the British Government must knock heads together to ensure that the embassy is reopened. I entirely accept that such things are not simple. We in this place, like many others, have often decried our Foreign Office’s failure to train and upgrade people to have sufficient ability to speak the language like a native or to have a genuine grasp of all aspects of the geopolitical situation in the country to which they are sent. However, if ever there was a need for diplomats in Iran, it is now. In my humble opinion, the prize post for diplomats of any shape or form should be a post in Iran in the next year or two. The capacity of such individuals to make a difference there, by working the traditional diplomatic routes, is patently obvious to all of us, but it needs to be grasped by the UK Government. Such diplomats clearly have a genuine and real job to do, and it is vital that they do it.
I support entirely all the comments that Members have made, and I praise the quality of their speeches. I endorse the direction of travel, and I urge the Government to do everything possible to do a deal so that we can take this matter forward.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman), who made good points about the quality of the debate and the views that have been put forward.
I, too, want to state clearly that I am a huge supporter of Israel. I have concerns about the direction in which Iran will eventually take us. Previous leaders of Iran have stated clearly that Israel should be wiped off the face of the map. If we had a neighbour like that, we would be somewhat concerned. The Israeli people or the Jewish people lost half their population in the 20th century. Do we want the rest of them to be wiped out in the 21st century? I think not. We therefore have to be careful.
The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was right to bring this matter forward and is very well informed about it. I will put forward some views that he might not agree with entirely, but which need to be said.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have spoken about Iran’s nuclear programme and the negotiations that are taking place in Vienna with the P5 plus 1. The ultimate aim of the negotiations must be a permanent and verifiable guarantee that Iran cannot escape all the restrictions on its nuclear programme, reach break-out capability and quickly produce a nuclear weapon.
In return, Iran seeks to have all sanctions lifted immediately and permanently once an agreement is reached. Many of the sanctions, once lifted, would be almost impossible to reinstate quickly enough to act as a deterrent against Iran’s transgressing on any agreement. The lifting of sanctions must be a gradual process to ensure that Iran keeps to its side of the agreement. Some argue that that will not be acceptable to Iran and is doomed to fail, and that we must therefore soften our negotiating stance.
The UK Government and their allies must ask the following questions. Can Iran be trusted to abide by international norms and agreements? Is President Rouhani genuine in his commitment to engage positively with the international community on Iran’s nuclear programme and other issues affecting the region? Even if President Rouhani is genuine, to what extent does that matter when it is the Supreme Leader who must ultimately approve any agreement and when the Iranian revolutionary guards, who are personally loyal to the Supreme Leader, run the nuclear programme and its sites?
I believe that a look at the terrible human rights abuses of the Islamic republic of Iran against its own people and at its role as a lead sponsor of terrorism across the world goes some way towards answering those questions. According to Amnesty International, Iran now leads the world in executions per capita—surpassing China. As of April 2014, more than 500 people had been executed under President Hassan Rouhani’s regime—206 in 2014 alone. That includes two Iranian men executed in August this year for the act of “consensual sodomy”. Article 110 of Iran’s Islamic penal code states:
“Punishment for sodomy is killing”.
Iran also continues to persecute religious minorities, including those of the Baha’i faith, whose origins are in Iran. The Baha’i community faces arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, is denied access to education and receives no protection of the law from religiously motivated violence from vigilante groups.
Some will argue that this is the work of the judiciary, who are appointed by the Supreme Leader and that President Rouhani is not to blame. However, it was President Rouhani who appointed Mostafa Pourmohammadi as Justice Minister. During his time as Deputy Intelligence Minister, he was implicated in the 1988 massacre of thousands of political prisoners. Despite his welcome words as a reformer and pragmatist, the President has yet to deliver on his promises—something that does not bode well for any future agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran’s role as a sponsor of terrorism is well documented, from Shi’a death squads in Iraq to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians and diplomats in India, Georgia and Thailand in 2012. In its support for sectarian terrorism, Iran has repeatedly shown itself to act not as a responsible member of the international community, but as a country whose foreign policy aims are ideologically motivated and will continue to propagate Khomeini’s bloody revolution. It is this record of support for terrorism and its treatment of its own people that the UK must have in its mind when considering its policy towards Iran.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and to participate in this debate, having had the opportunity to listen to some speeches that were extremely thoughtful and provocative in the best sense. In that regard, I pay particular tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) for his continuing considered interest in Iran, and to the debate’s other sponsor, the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon).
In its recent report on UK policy towards Iran, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee rightly said that it would be in the UK’s interest to have a mature and constructive relationship with Iran. In that context, the Government were right to take the in-principle decision to reopen the embassy in Tehran, and the Prime Minister was right to meet President Rouhani in September.
Despite these recent important steps, there are many reasons for considerable caution and care in our engagement with Iran, not least because the 24 November deadline for reaching a comprehensive deal that limits Iran’s nuclear programme is approaching fast. Scepticism about Iran’s motives and intentions for these negotiations is hardly surprising, given the country’s links to terrorist organisations, the routine failure of its politicians to recognise Israel’s right to exist, its support for the Assad regime and the widespread concern that it has in the past actively sought a nuclear weapons capability.
This debate, then, is a welcome opportunity to explore the progress that has been made in the nuclear negotiations, and to examine the progress—or the lack of it—on other aspects of our policy towards Iran, including its future role in the region and its attitude to its people and their rights.
Almost a year ago, my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary welcomed the efforts of the Government, and particularly those of Baroness Ashton, as part of the E3 plus 3 to conclude a thorough and detailed interim agreement in the nuclear negotiations with Iran. As others have said, that included a joint plan of action with a series of crucial commitments—commitments that, if implemented properly, would mean that the aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme that were thought to pose the greatest risk could not be developed further during the period of the interim agreement. In addition, some of the most disturbing parts of Iran’s nuclear programme to date would be significantly scaled back, including the eradication of around 200 kg of 20%-enriched uranium. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s assessment of the extent to which the commitments in this joint plan of action have been adhered to and can be built on.
That interim agreement also set out the elements of what a comprehensive agreement could look like: adherence to Iran’s obligations and rights under the non-proliferation treaty and IAEA safeguards; full resolution of concerns around the heavy water research reactor at Arak; agreed transparency and monitoring; and co-operation on Iran’s civilian nuclear programme. In return for confidence that Iran’s programme is solely peaceful, the plan of action suggests a mutually defined, enrichment-based programme, with agreed parameters and limits—but only as part of a comprehensive agreement. Sanctions would begin to be further lifted at that point.
Others close to the negotiations, notably in the US, have suggested that all the components of a plan for a long-term definitive agreement that should be acceptable to both sides are on the table. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary noted, it is the pressure of sanctions, albeit coupled with a readiness to negotiate, that has helped bring Iran to the negotiating table and helped to achieve the progress that has been made.
As the right hon. Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), who is the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and indeed the right hon. Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames), pointed out, one crucial test of Iran’s willingness to engage with the profound concerns about possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme surrounds the access given to the IAEA to its nuclear sites and staff. There remain concerns that IAEA inspectors still do not have full access to every one of Iran’s nuclear sites—for example, I understand that Iran has agreed only to limited inspections by the IAEA at its main enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz. IAEA inspectors still do not have access to the heavy water second reactor being built at Arak or to the Parchin military base, mentioned by the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord), where the IAEA and others suspect Iran has attempted to develop a nuclear explosive device in the past. Perhaps the Minister will outline how this critical issue of IAEA access for monitoring is being addressed in the negotiations.
I recognise the importance of reaching a deal, both in building a little more trust in Iran towards the west and in keeping the more reactionary forces in Iran at bay, but negotiations cannot be allowed simply to drag on and on. Can the Minister reassure us that the Iranian side is fully engaged in the negotiations and remains committed to the 24 November deadline? Also, what steps would be taken if agreement were not achieved? Would sanctions that were lifted when the interim agreement was concluded last November, for example, be re-imposed?
There has been little public discussion to date about the role Iran is playing or might play in the future in the international effort against ISIL. Some have suggested that the threat ISIL poses in the region should be a reason for more flexibility towards Iran in these nuclear negotiations. I have to say that I do not agree. If there were not a willingness by the Iranians to build the trust of the international community on the nuclear issue, we could be replacing one very difficult threat with the re-emergence of another very significant threat. I hope, instead, that these negotiations will help to build further the scope, if not for trust, at least for better communication on a wider range of issues where our interests are aligned, of which the threat ISIL poses is clearly the most significant at the moment.
There have been reports of Iranian troops on the ground in Iraq, although there has been no formal announcement. Will the Minister set out his assessment of Iran’s role in resisting ISIL both in Iraq and Syria? Iran continues to have a choice as to whether to be a force for stability in the region. Its record to date has been decidedly mixed. It has a history of supporting the Assad regime in Syria and supporting and supplying a series of highly divisive and terrorist groups in the region which pose a continued threat to our allies there, including, but not only, Israel. It would be useful to hear from the Minister about the efforts that he and other Ministers have made in encouraging Iran to take a different approach to regional stability.
Many Members have mentioned the reopening of the embassy, which is, as they have said, a potentially important step in expanding bilateral engagement with the Iranians. An embassy, and diplomatic representation, would help us to develop relationships and gather information, which is essential, over time, to the building of trust and the facilitation of constructive dialogue, and which—again, over time—could perhaps influence attitudes and events for the better. Will the Minister update the House on progress towards the reopening of the embassy? In particular, will he deal with the suggestion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn that concerns in the Home Office are holding up the issuing of a timetable? Will he also tell us what further action has been taken, or consideration given, to ensure that staff will be safe and secure at the embassy in the future, in the light of the events in 2011 to which the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) alluded?
As a number of Members have pointed out, Iran’s human rights record continues to be of deep concern. At the weekend it was reported that the British-Iranian women’s rights activist Ghoncheh Ghavami had been found guilty of spreading anti-regime propaganda and sentenced to a year in prison after being detained for trying to watch a men’s volleyball match. My hon. Friends the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) expressed the profound concern that I am sure we all feel about her imprisonment and sentencing. Amnesty International has described her as a prisoner of conscience, and has raised concerns that Ghoncheh and her fellow demonstrators were beaten by police officers when they were arrested.
There have been widespread reports of torture and ill treatment in Iranian prisons, including sexual violence, severe beatings, denial of medical treatment, and long periods of solitary confinement. The number of executions is up. Indeed, as we heard from the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), Iran has the highest execution rate per capita in the world. Reyhanah Jabbari was executed on 25 October for killing a former intelligence officer after she had alleged that he had attempted to rape her. Amnesty International has said that it believes the court’s impartiality may have been affected by the victim’s connections with the Ministry of Intelligence. In addition, human rights defenders, journalists and bloggers have been arrested and their work censored.
While in theory Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism are recognised alongside Islam, religious minorities continue to face discrimination, with converts particularly affected. That point was made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock). There have been reports of harassment, desecration of religious sites, restricted access to education and employment, and even arrest and torture. Members of the Baha’i faith, which is not recognised, have been especially discriminated against. The situation for lesbian and gay people is profoundly worrying. Homosexual acts are criminalised, gay people are executed simply for being gay, and many lesbian and gay people have reported that they have been denied access to education or dismissed from employment once their sexuality has become known. Last week, the Iranian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s periodic review of the human rights situation in Iran again appeared dismissive of concerns.
The hon. Gentleman has given us a list of what we must all agree are abhorrent examples, but are not such crimes also being committed by our allies in the region? We should not just view Iran through that particular prism.
The hon. Gentleman is right, but we are focusing on the particular issue of British policy on Iran, and it is right for us to draw attention to the dismal human rights record there.
I appreciate the difficulties that are involved in bringing about an improvement in human rights in Iran. Nevertheless, Ministers must continue to take whatever opportunities do arise. I trust that the Minister will tell us what efforts he and other Ministers have made in that regard.
The date of 24 November marks a critical point in our relationship with Iran. Given the profound international concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, its destabilising influence in the wider region and its human rights record, the successful completion of a comprehensive agreement could represent the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between our two countries. Labour has supported the Government’s work in building on the approach to the nuclear negotiations that was taken by the last Government, and continues to do so. I hope that Iran will take the opportunity presented by the negotiations to ease international concerns about its nuclear ambitions. It needs to.
I agree with the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) that this has been a genuinely thoughtful and provocative debate. The hon. Gentleman also reminded us of what the Labour Government have done in the past. I pay tribute to them for that work, and pay particular tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has lived and breathed this subject for many years. I know that he is departing the House at the next general election. He will be sorely missed, given the knowledge that he brings to debates on this issue.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing the debate. I welcome the contributions made by Members in all parts of the House, and will do my best to cover the main themes that arose. Both the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend observed that Iran is a land of which many of us know too little; I hope that the debate has partly rectified that.
The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), spoke of the duality of the country. There is youth and an educated nation there, but there is also the darker, proxy influence that Iran has on the region. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) raised a number of important issues, including the storming of the embassy, the importance of trade, and the problems encountered by Standard Chartered. I should explain that any bank that chooses to trade or work with Iran and trades in dollars will be subject to United States law, which is why Standard Chartered encountered those problems.
The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) referred to an important consular case which was mentioned by a number of other Members: that of Ms Ghoncheh Ghavami. I have discussed it with the hon. Gentleman. The Foreign Office is very much involved, and I should welcome the opportunity to meet him later in the week to talk about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) mentioned Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. We must consider its ability to create not just a nuclear weapon but the delivery platform for it. That must not be forgotten when the negotiations recommence.
The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) spoke of the importance of reopening our embassy. I recall that, during Foreign Office questions in July, I expressed a hope to go to Tehran and do that very thing. I remember the date that had been earmarked—12 August—because it was my birthday. Sadly, for reasons that I shall go into later, that did not happen, but we will persevere.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) drew attention to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which is greatly welcomed, and to the breach of serious United Nations resolutions. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) spoke of the importance of access for the IAEA at Parchin and various other sites, and the importance of striking the right deal. He emphasised that we must downsize or reach an accommodation, but must ensure that the deal is appropriate for the international community. The hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Mr Hancock) spoke about Iran’s human rights record, which was mentioned by a number of other Members, and about the power of the Supreme Leader in the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) placed the challenges faced in respect of Iran in the context of other recent international engagements, which he has mentioned once or twice in the Chamber before—he is certainly consistent in that—and my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) talked about empowering the elected Government and the complications of comparing them with our own Government here, and also the complexities of the power bases in Iran. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) posed the fundamental question: can Iran be trusted? That is what this debate is all about: what role does Iran wish to play within its own borders, in the region and, indeed, in the world?
I am sure my hon. Friends will agree that we face many daunting challenges in the middle east. There are those who say those challenges are shared by Iran, and that it is high time the international community put aside our differences and found ways to work with Iran to resolve them. There is, of course, much truth in this: it is not in Iran’s interests for sectarian tensions in the region to worsen, and we all face common threats from ISIL.
We should also not forget Iran’s history. It is a significant regional power with a proud and ancient culture, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn highlighted. Iran has been a significant regional power for over 3,000 years and has a deep, rich and diverse history going back to the birth of civilisation. The magnificence of Persepolis, the beauty of Isfahan, the Cyrus cylinder and the lyricism of its poetry are just a few of the many examples of Iran’s contribution to world heritage over the centuries, and Persian culture and thought have rightly had an enduring influence on the west, and we are very much the richer for it.
However, we would like to see Iran playing a more constructive role in the region, aligning its activities with the international community’s efforts to tackle ISIL and achieve a peaceful solution in Syria. We must also recognise that there remains great distrust in the region over Iran’s intentions, however, and that real progress will require a change in Iran’s behaviour. Genuine progress will require a transformation in the nature of Iran’s relationship with its neighbours and the world, and the key to that is a resolution to the nuclear issue.
The current Iranian Government recognise that it is in Iran’s interests to reach a nuclear agreement. It is for that reason that we have pursued nuclear negotiations over the past year with professionalism and in good faith, despite the many challenges. I very much hope that we will soon be able to say that nuclear negotiations have succeeded. We remain committed to reaching a comprehensive nuclear agreement. It is right that we should leave no stone unturned in the quest to do so, but we must not, and will not, do a bad deal. The stakes are too high.
I pay tribute to the commitment and expertise of the nuclear negotiators, both on the Iranian side and in the E3 plus 3. Without them, we would not have made the unprecedented progress that we have to date, but there is a long way still to go. Iran needs to recognise that it must take meaningful steps to roll back its nuclear programme, including reducing its enrichment capacity, in order to gain substantial sanctions relief. That is the trade-off at the core of the negotiations—negotiations which, I can tell the House, will begin in Oman next week.
A number of Members have mentioned the issue of the opening of the embassy. We announced in June our intention to reopen the British embassy in Tehran and have been engaging intensively with the Iranian authorities since then on the practicalities. We want to see the UK and Iran have functioning embassies in each other’s capitals. This does not mean that we suddenly agree on everything—there will continue to be areas where we sharply disagree—but reopened embassies will better equip us to address these challenges as well as the range of areas where our interests coincide, a point eloquently made by the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. Embassies are also vital in enabling greater links between the people of our two countries.
However, there are currently two outstanding issues that must be resolved before we can reopen our embassy: first, repairing the damage caused by the mob invasion of our embassy in November 2011; and, secondly, the issue of visa services.
Will the Minister also note that a great deal of damage was done to works of art? The fire did a huge amount of damage, and this is not just a question of repair; it is also a question of paying for all those works of art and other bits and pieces that were destroyed or damaged.
My hon. Friend is right to raise these matters. The mob that came through was essentially let through by the security guards who were supposed to protect the embassy. We must pursue both the security and the repayment issues before reopening the embassy.
The second issue is about visa services. We and the Iranian Government agree on the importance of visa services resuming in capitals as soon as possible after embassies reopen. Visas are an important issue for the large number of Iranian citizens who wish to visit the UK but who currently must travel to Abu Dhabi or Istanbul to obtain them. Restoring a visa service in Tehran is important both as a key component of normal embassy business and for the broader UK-Iran bilateral relationship. A future UK visa service in Tehran must be able to operate effectively and within the framework of Iranian law, while also meeting broader UK immigration objectives. In particular, we need to address the problem of individuals with no legal right to remain in the UK.
Both these issues are essential to the British embassy’s ability to function effectively in Tehran, and we hope we can reach agreement with the Iranian authorities soon, so that our plans for the embassy can progress.
As the Minister knows, I am absolutely with him and the Foreign Secretary on the issue of our being able to re-equip the embassy. On the visa service issue, however, does he understand the high suspicion that exists that our foreign policy is, to a degree, being blocked by the Home Office, and that what the Home Office is demanding is evidence of a greater willingness to allow returns than was the practice when we did have an embassy, and than is the practice in respect of other countries that are more difficult than Iran over the question of returns, including of foreign national prisoners?
I appreciate what the right hon. Gentleman says. The fact that there are other challenges with other countries in respect of these issues should not prevent us from trying to strike the appropriate deal when opening these embassies, but I take on board his point.
Both the issues I referred to earlier are essential to the British embassy’s ability to function effectively in Tehran, and we hope we can reach agreement with the Iranian authorities as soon as possible.
On the two points that have just been made, I would slightly question the line put forward that one cannot open an embassy until one has resolved on the one hand the visa arrangements, which surely are a matter of negotiation over a period of time, and on the other hand payment of reparations and past difficulties. I suggest that what is important is that the embassy reopens, while at the same time negotiations take place to resolve the two outstanding problems. The proposal at present is that those two problems would stop the matter proceeding, and without the embassy reopening, there will be problems.
If the visa situation were to be resolved, the embassy would still not open straight away. There are certain Vienna convention conditions that still need to be met. I cannot say more than that, but until that happens we will not be able to reopen our embassy.
On trade and sanctions, it is important to remember that economic pressure has been the key to bringing Iran back to the negotiating table, enabling us to pursue a peaceful solution to one of the most thorny national security challenges of our time. That pressure has been achieved through sanctions as well as through broader reductions in trade, driven by assessments made by companies and banks that trading with Iran carries risks. Weakening that economic pressure risks undermining prospects for a nuclear agreement, and that is why we do not currently encourage trade with Iran.
That is also why we support US sanctions, which are closely aligned with EU sanctions and form a core part of the international sanctions regime. US secondary sanctions, which influence companies’ commercial decisions over whether to trade with Iran, have had some of the highest impacts of all economic sanctions, particularly in reducing Iranian oil exports. I do not agree that such sanctions are designed to bolster US trade with Iran at the expense of UK and EU trade. In response to the right hon. Member for Blackburn’s point, EU trade with Iran at the moment is higher than that of the US—
I knew the right hon. Gentleman would want to come back on that. In certain areas, such as agriculture, there has been an increase, but the amount of EU trade with Iran is 40 times higher than that between the US and Iran.
The truth is that EU trade with Iran has more than halved overall, and ours has absolutely plummeted. Meanwhile, from a base of close to zero 10 years ago, the United States has been pushing up its trade in a straightforward, ruthless and mercantilist way. It has not allowed diplomatic niceties to get in the way when its trade is legal, but it has discouraged legal trade by UK entities.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point is well made. I note that a Europe-Iran trade forum took place here in London in October. Representatives of the Foreign Office attended it, but we did not endorse it as such. However, that shows that trade is taking place. As I mentioned in response to an intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Norfolk, we are trying to affect behaviour. If we continue to encourage trade before we have reached a nuclear deal, we will undermine our influence in that regard.
Would Her Majesty’s Government support the imposition of further US sanctions against Iran?
At the moment, our focus is on recommencing the nuclear negotiations. When we know their outcome, we will be in a better position to decide whether more sanctions should be introduced or whether they should be changed in response to what Iran does.
I shall turn now to Iranian regional activities and ISIL. Iran is an important actor in the middle east. We all, including Iran, face challenges from extremist forces across the region, including ISIL. Those forces are a direct threat to regional stability and to the UK. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we hope that Iran will choose this moment to engage constructively with the international community in the face of shared threats. We welcome the support that the Iranian Government have given to the new Government of Iraq and to their efforts to promote more inclusive governance for all Iraqis. A similar approach is needed in Syria, to promote a transition to a new Government capable of representing all Syrians. Nevertheless, there continue to be many areas of Iranian foreign policy on which we sharply disagree, particularly Iran’s ongoing support for the Assad regime and its ongoing support to militant groups in the region.
Human rights is a subject that many hon. Members have mentioned today. Iran’s human rights record remains a cause of great concern. The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and we are deeply concerned by the sharp increase in executions in Iran over the past year. There continues to be widespread discrimination against minority religious groups, as well as ongoing reports of the harassment, interrogation and detention of journalists and human rights defenders. Access to the internet and freedom of expression continue to be significantly restricted.
President Rouhani has said that he would like to implement a range of social reforms and to improve the rights of all Iranian citizens. We welcome that. We also welcome positive steps such as the release of 18 human rights defenders in September 2013. However, we are clear that much more needs to be done to ensure that all Iranians enjoy the rights and freedoms they are entitled to. We will continue to urge the Iranian Government to make the urgent reforms needed to meet their international human rights obligations.
I agree with the sentiments expressed in the House that we are at a moment of historic opportunity to resolve the Iranian nuclear question and for Iran to forge a more productive relationship with the international community. Iran is an important regional power with a proud history. It is a significant player in the middle east, which is a crucial region for UK interests. It is important that we have a relationship with Iran that allows us to discuss areas where our interests might overlap, as well as the numerous areas where we continue to disagree, including Iran’s ongoing support for the Assad regime in Syria, and human rights, about which we have serious concerns. Reopened embassies will be an important step on that road.
The importance of the nuclear issue means that it must stand on its own, distinct from other considerations, whether regionally or in our bilateral relationship. The UK is committed to exploring every opportunity to reach an agreement that meets our proliferation concerns. But success in the nuclear negotiations could open up the possibility of a transformed relationship between Iran and the rest of the world, which would have enormous benefits for security and prosperity in the middle east. Progress on all these fronts is therefore essential. The Government will continue to work creatively to find solutions, but we must do so with a clear eye on the UK national interest.
I wish to reinforce the thanks of all of us to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to this debate, and I thank all 15 Members who have spoken in this thoughtful and valuable debate.
There is common ground on the importance of Iran and on Israel’s entirely legitimate concerns, as a small and potentially vulnerable country in the region, to protect its own security—the difference lies in the approach we should adopt towards Iran. When I said we need to be careful what we wish for, I was drawing the attention of those who may take a different view from many of us in this House to the consequences of an antagonistic approach towards Iran. I simply ask those who do adopt that view not to look into the crystal ball but to examine the record of the past 50 years and, indeed, the past 10 years.
The hon. Members for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) referred to the offer of a grand bargain with the United States and the co-operation that was actively delivered to us—it was not just offered—by the Khatami Government in the wake of the 9/11 atrocities. It was actions and inactions by the west, particularly the United States, fanned by the right wing in Israel, that led to those offers by the reformists in Iran being rebuffed. The consequence was not that Iran disappeared or that the possibility of Iran building up a nuclear weapons capability disappeared, but that Iran became more difficult to deal with, more belligerent and disruptive in the region, and its 200 centrifuges increased to 18,800. So please let nobody here believe that if there is no deal because of pressure from parts of US and parts of the Israeli governmental elite, that would lead to a status quo or, madly, to attacks on Iran. What it will lead to, in the judgment of many of us here, is an increase in enrichment capabilities and an empowering of precisely those elements inside the governmental system of Iran whom we do not wish to see empowered. There will also be more difficulties on human rights.
I understand, of course, that there are risks on both sides, but I hope that the Minister, whom I thank for his thoughtful contribution, will take away from this debate the point that many of us who took part in it—both Government and Opposition Members—believe that there are risks worth taking in these negotiations, because the benefits of a respectful deal on this nuclear dossier will extend far beyond nuclear and will far outweigh the risks.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK foreign policy towards Iran.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the business of the House, but a story that amounts to a national scandal broke this morning in a public hearing of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. It has long been taken as a standard in this country that the relationship between a lawyer and a client is protected by privilege, and that communications between them are protected from intervention by the state. What has become clear this morning is not only that that is not case at the moment, but that each of the three agencies has policies for handling legally protected material, and in one case for deliberately withholding that material, even from secret courts and security-cleared special advocates. My question to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, is how do we deal with that? Have the Government approached you requesting to come to this House to explain precisely how this came about?
The right hon. Gentleman has made his point eloquently and decisively as ever. The House will be aware that it is not a matter for immediate action by the Chair, so I cannot give him advice except to say that I have had no notice of anyone wishing to come to the House to explain the matter further. The matter of privilege is one of very great importance to this House and to this Parliament, and I am sure that what the right hon. Gentleman has said will be noted by those who ought to note it.
Before we come to the next business, I reassure the House that the strange and unusual noises that interrupted some of the previous debate were due to some kind of building works, and that those who look after facilities in the House have now stopped the noises. I have made the House’s displeasure known to those who look after facilities. [Interruption.] I am grateful to the House for support in that matter.