I beg to move,
That this House has considered human rights in Iran.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am very pleased that this debate was selected. I am grateful to have the opportunity to discuss the alarming and deteriorating human rights situation in Iran, which has been overlooked recently. This is matter of great importance to many Members, and I am pleased that Members from all political parties in the United Kingdom are here this morning.
For the past two years, discussions about Iran have focused on the country’s clandestine nuclear programme and the international concern over its purpose. I regretted Her Majesty’s Government’s decision to decouple Iran’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism from the nuclear negotiations. I believe that that was a lost opportunity, and that doing so sent the wrong message to Iran.
Figures announced by Iran’s state media and verified by international non-governmental organisations reveal that more than 2,400 people, including many juveniles and women, have been executed in Iran under Rouhani’s three-year tenure. Last year alone there were 966 executions—the highest number in the past two decades. According to the UN special rapporteur for Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, the number of executions was roughly double that of 2010, and 10 times that of 2005.
In July 2015, the deputy director of Amnesty International’s middle east and north Africa programme, Mr Said Boumedouha, said:
“Iran’s staggering execution toll…paints a sinister picture of the machinery of the state carrying out premeditated, judicially-sanctioned killings on a mass scale.”
Almost one year later, the Iranian authorities have maintained a horrifying execution rate that is nothing but state-sanctioned murder. There were 73 executions, including many public hangings, across Iranian cities in May. It is clear that no change can be expected; we should expect this horrific trend to continue.
Those figures show that Iran is not only the world’s No. 1 executioner per capita, but, according to a recent Amnesty International report, one of the few countries that continues to execute juvenile offenders, in blatant violation of the prohibition of the use of the death penalty against people under the age of 18 at the time of their supposed crime. Repressions of these contraventions are enforced by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and its civic unit, the Basij force, with the active support and encouragement of the Rouhani Government. The law in Iran allows girls as young as nine to be executed for crimes or to be subjected to forced marriage to much older men. That is unacceptable by any international standard, and it is more worrying when one considers the barbaric punishments handed down by Iran’s judiciary. As Iran seeks greater integration with the international community, it is appropriate that we remember those harsh realities. Amnesty International said:
“The surge in executions reveals just how out of step Iran is with the rest of the world when it comes to the use of the death penalty—140 countries worldwide have now rejected its use in law or practice.”
Today, there are those who argue that those abuses are efforts by the hardliners in Iran who control the security organisations and the judiciary to undermine the moderate Rouhani’s reform-minded Government, who seek a more open relationship with the world. I reject that view. Such an assessment fails because it suggests that there are more powerful forces in Iran than the President, which, in turn, means that Rouhani’s position is merely symbolic and that he is thus incapable of initiating reforms. Most importantly, it ignores the fact that neither Rouhani nor his Government have ever publicly condemned and distanced themselves from executions and the use of public hanging. On the contrary, Rouhani has explicitly supported the use of the death penalty. In a speech in April 2004, he described executions as the enforcement of “God’s commandments” and
“laws of the parliament that belongs to the people.”
Those comments show that Rouhani’s views on executions and human rights abuses converge with those of the Supreme Leader and the judiciary. In addition, they expose the fact that there are no forces inside the current ruling theocracy that want to abolish the use of execution and arbitrary arrests. That comes as no surprise to many of us who recognise the real problems with Iran. One should remember that the notion of a moderate force emerging from within the regime is not a new phenomenon. That illusion emerged during the Khatami era in the late 1990s when a policy of appeasement with Tehran based on incentives and economic interests was proposed.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. What he is saying is backed up by what happened to Mr Mousavi in the green revolution. Although he was no great reformer, there were glimmers of hope, and they have been dashed. I think that that gentleman is still under house arrest.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. I pay tribute to the work that he undertakes on this important issue; he attends conferences in other parts of the country. He is correct to say that there have been people who were considered reformers, but whose efforts have been dashed and whose activities have been curtailed, and they have not been able to provide any kind of glimmer of hope. I will talk more about that later in my speech.
In the month after the nuclear deal, there was a wave of arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, union activists, dissidents, journalists and dual citizens on bogus national security changes, based on propaganda. I will highlight three cases in which the victims received long prison sentences and are under severe pressure by the Iranian authorities in prison. Mr Saleh Kohandel was arrested in 2007 and sentenced to 10 years in prison for supporting Iran’s democratic opposition, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. His crime was to support a vision of a free and democratic Iran, where torture and capital punishment is abolished. In a letter from the prison in May, Mr Kohandel wrote:
“My only crime, in their view, are my political activities, and for this reason I have on many occasions been transferred to the Ward run by the Intelligence Ministry and spent months under torture in solitary confinement.”
Another case of grave concern is that of Mr Jafar Azimzadeh, a labour activist who has been on hunger strike for nearly two months in Evin prison. He has been protesting against his unjust imprisonment and the suppression of ordinary workers, including the non-payment of their salaries. Mr Azimzadeh’s life is at serious risk, as his condition is deteriorating every day. Just last month, the judiciary in Iran sentenced the human rights defender, Ms Narges Mohammadi, to 16 years in prison. According to reports, she has been detained and denied her medication—a necessary treatment—as a means of torture.
Those three political prisoners and prisoners of conscience are at risk of losing their lives in prison if the international community does not intervene to secure their release. In fact, their condition is so serious that a group of UN human rights experts, including the UN special rapporteur on Iran, recently denounced the denial of adequate medical treatment to political prisoners as unacceptable. They said:
“The condition of several prisoners of conscience with serious health problems has been exacerbated by their continued detention and by repeated refusals to allow their access to the medical facilities and treatment they so urgently require.”
The hon. Gentleman is making a very measured but highly compelling case. He is absolutely right to highlight the position of those who are, as he puts it, prisoners of conscience and political activists. For many in Iran, it is not necessary to challenge the state, other than to hold one’s own beliefs. I bring to his attention the position of the Baha’i community in Iran. In Golestan province, something in the region of 32 Baha’is have been arrested and sentenced collectively to 238 years’ imprisonment.
I am very grateful for that intervention. I did not intend to cover that issue, but I am aware of it. I have received representations from the Baha’i community about the repression and human rights abuses that they face in Iran. I am covering a lot of issues as it is, so I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman put that on the record.
Those politically motivated arrests occurred in parallel with a series of arrests of women and youths for mal-veiling, posting indecent photographs on social media, and inciting and encouraging others to commit breaches of public decency. Such examples demonstrate the arbitrary character of charges against ordinary citizens in Iran, regardless of faith, which, together with the high number of executions, has no other purpose but to intimidate and to create an atmosphere of fear in society.
In January, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, who has had a great deal of interaction with Iran, spoke in Davos about that, the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, specifically, the effect on finance and resources of the lifting of sanctions:
“I think that some of it will end up in the hands of the IRGC or of other entities, some of which are labelled terrorists to some degree”.
The IRGC consists of the people who reinforce the law within the country, and many describe it as not only a revolutionary force but a direct arm of the state. That is of great concern, in particular given Rouhani’s remarks:
“The IRGC has always been a pioneer for solving the crises of the country. Today the IRGC is not only responsible for the country’s security, but also for the security of the countries that need Iran’s help, and it is courageously present in all those scenes”,
as I have described. Under the constitution, the IRGC and its various units are tasked with
“defending and exporting the Islamic Revolution”,
as defined by the ruling theocracy. Sadly, however, the IRGC is to be the main beneficiary of the billion dollars in sanctions relief promised to Tehran under last year’s nuclear deal.
On 8 May, in a speech to the members of the security forces, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei expressed fright about social discontent and the possibility of popular uprisings in the country, calling for further repressive measures—just as the IRGC were to receive more funds from the Rouhani Government under the current budget.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, and I pay tribute to his work in representing the Iranian community in north London.
Many of us were encouraged to support the lifting of sanctions in order to see a thaw in the repression of the regime. Given the acceleration in the use of the death penalty, the continued persecution of women and minorities, and the crushing of the opposition, however, does my hon. Friend agree that we have been duped?
I am cautious about responding, because I believe that the Minister and the Government sought a solution with the best intentions. The Iranian Government did not comply with the agreement or take part in the negotiations in the same spirit, so I am reluctant to condemn the actions of my hon. Friend the Minister, who has worked hard on this—
I certainly agree with that sentiment. As we have seen in previous negotiations with Mr Rouhani, he did not approach them in the same fashion as our own Government did.
Khamenei described security as a “high priority” for his country, saying that it demanded serious supervision by officials of the security forces, through the
“sound mind, acts and morals of the staff.”
“providing social and moral security”
for the people. Given such realities, the Supreme Leader’s call for more repressive measures should alarm the British Government into reconsidering its policy towards Iran, especially on human rights. Many Iranian experts and human rights activists believe that the domestic repression is an integral part of the ruling theocracy and its ability to secure its grip on power. I and many of my colleagues in all parties in this House share that assessment.
All politics are local and when the regime carries out appalling atrocities such as public hangings and floggings on a systematic basis, it only alienates and angers the citizens. Surely every Iranian leader understands the benefits of stopping the executions and the boost that such a decision would have for their image globally. Yet the Iranian leaders refrain from such a constructive move and even step up the appalling atrocities, risking an outcry of international condemnation. Iranian leaders, including Rouhani, are shooting themselves in the foot—not because they like it, but because the survival of their theocratic system depends on those actions.
The simple conclusion is that the survival of the ruling theocracy puts Iran’s President and leaders in diametric opposition to the interests of millions of Iranians and, in particular, the two thirds of the population who are under 30, trying to overcome repression and dreaming of a free and open society. Our Government’s policy on Iran cannot ignore or underestimate those realities, as we have so far under previous Governments. To do so would have severe consequences for the Iranian people, the region and, by extension, our own interest in the region and the wider middle east.
I therefore welcome the Government’s serious concerns about Iran’s use of the death penalty, as highlighted in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s corporate report on Iran, published earlier this year. I am encouraged by the fact that the Government recognise that the human rights situation continues to be dire since Rouhani took office, and is worsening in many areas, which is in line with the findings of the United Nations special rapporteur on Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed.
I am also delighted that the Government decided to support the latest resolution on Iran in the UN General Assembly’s third committee, which criticised the systematic human rights violations in the country. In November last year, Baroness Anelay, in a statement following the resolution, said:
“Significant concerns remain about Iran’s clampdown on some of the fundamental freedoms of its citizens, including freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, as well as the increasing number of executions.”
I have no doubt that the Government and the Minister will agree that the time for concrete and verifiable improvements in Iran, especially on human rights, is long overdue. We want to see such improvements achieved by the Iranian people, because they would be in our interest. On that issue, we are on the same page and, I suspect, many colleagues will concur with Baroness Anelay that it is time for words to be translated into actions. As such, the UK, given its permanent status on the UN Security Council and its strong voice at the UN Human Rights Council can and should take the lead on the international scene in order to secure the concrete actions called for by the FCO with regards to advancing and promoting human rights in Iran.
I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, in particular on the lifting of sanctions. Is it not the case, however, that in reflecting the obsession with nuclear arms, we have lifted sanctions against providing funding for the IRGC while gaining nothing in return on human rights? The western world has been made to look very stupid. There is a fine irony in providing funds for the IRGC while criticising and contesting the legitimate claims of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and of the People’s Mujahedin Organisation of Iran, both of which are working towards democracy.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with regard to this cause. As I said, I regret the decision of our Government and of overseas Governments, including that of the United States, to decouple the issues of human rights abuses and Iran’s support for terrorism from the nuclear negotiations. I remain concerned in particular about the funding of the IRGC and, indeed, where such funding is then heading. Many of us are aware of IRGC funding activities in support of terrorism in countries such as Syria and Lebanon. That remains a huge concern for the overall peace and security of the middle east. I very much concur with my hon. Friend. I have to say that the present President of the United States was keen to gain a nuclear deal at any cost. I also agree with the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, who said it would be better to have “no deal”, rather than “any deal”.
Another major concern for many Iranians and, in particular, for many of my constituents are the crimes committed against the residents of Camp Liberty—formerly Camp Ashraf—who have suffered seven deadly attacks. On 29 October 2015, Camp Liberty, north of Baghdad airport and the place of residence of Iranian refugees, was attacked by at least 80 missiles, launched by the Iranian regime’s agents. Twenty-four residents lost their lives, and a large section of the camp was destroyed. I am grateful to the Minister, and I wish to place my gratitude on the record: I contacted him after that outrage, and he reassured me that he would provide assistance wherever possible. Camp Liberty remains a great concern for many of my constituents, who have relatives and friends in the camp. The issue of the camp is tied to human rights abuses in Iran, and it is also an international tragedy. The international community should take more action.
In my conclusion, I would like to make the following recommendations to the Government—I look forward to hearing from the Minister on how we can help them to implement and promote policy recommendations. First, the UK should publicly name and shame those Iranian leaders who are known to be responsible for the ongoing atrocities and human rights abuses in Iran and impose punitive measures against those leaders and institutions, such as the IRGC and the Supreme Leader. Those people are committing and encouraging repressive policies.
Secondly, the UK should bring Iran’s appalling human rights dossier to the UN Security Council for a review so that Iranian leaders committing heinous atrocities can be prosecuted in international tribunals. That is particularly important, because that establishes justice for the millions of people who are victims of the regime’s repression in Iran and reminds the Iranian authorities that they cannot blatantly ignore the recommendations of the UN resolutions—their actions include banning the UN special rapporteur for Iran from visiting that country—without consequences.
Thirdly, the UK Government should make relations with Iran contingent on concrete and verifiable improvements on human rights in the country, including but not limited to an immediate halt of executions, torture and arbitrary arrests, and the release of all political prisoners. Fourthly, the safety and protection of Camp Liberty residents must be guaranteed until they all depart from Iraq, and there should be support for host countries—especially Albania—in making their relocation possible.
The message to the Iranian regime should be simple: the UK stands with the millions of Iranians who want their Government to act in a civilised manner, not to be a backward-striving theocracy that survives on repression, barbaric punishment and terrorism. I and many of my colleagues from both Houses of Parliament have on many occasions urged the Government to recognise and support Iranian dissidents and activists who are advocating a free and democratic Iran. Those individuals struggle against the current theocratic regime in Iran, despite enormous personal sacrifices and threats to their lives, to establish an Iran where capital punishment, torture and persecution are abolished and prohibited by law. I am grateful to those who have come to the Public Gallery to listen to the debate and who play an active part in that. I pay tribute to them.
Sir Edward, you have been—and I trust will be again—a distinguished member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, so you will know as I do that the People’s Mujahedin of Iran leader, Maryam Rajavi, has appeared at the Council of Europe on many occasions. At present, she is not allowed to meet here in London with FCO representatives. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be very helpful indeed if the FCO were to agree to meet Maryam Rajavi here in London, to hear what she has to say?
Sir Edward, you must think that this debate has been co-ordinated because some contributions from other Members have been on issues that I have not touched on but certainly agree with. I would welcome the FCO lifting the ban on Maryam Rajavi to enable her to come to this country, explain her position and illustrate what measures can be taken to promote peace and security in Iran.
In fact, I will go on to Maryam Rajavi’s 10-point plan and its benefits. As my hon. Friend said, Mrs Rajavi presented her plan at the Council of Europe in 2006, which is a time I am sure you will remember, Sir Edward. I would be surprised if any Member of this House or the other House could find any point that they would object to in that plan, which, most of all, includes supporting the commitment to abolish the death penalty, which we all agree with. It also supports complete gender equality in political and social rights and specifically a commitment to equal participation of women in political leadership. Any form of discrimination against women would be abolished and women would enjoy the right to choose their clothing freely. It also includes a modern legal system based on the principles of presumption of innocence, the right to defence and the right to be tried in a public court, the total independence of judges and the ending of cruel and degrading punishments.
Those are just three of the points in the 10-point plan and I will not test the patience of the House by going through them all, but I have no doubt that the Minister, and indeed the Government, want to see those values established and promoted in Iran and the wider middle east. Failure to put Iran’s human rights abuses and support for terrorism at the centre of our Iranian policy will only harm our interests in the region and destroy our reputation, simply because such a policy will project weakness and advance the terms dictated by the regime in Tehran. I hope that, following this debate on human rights, we will play our part in ensuring that we help and support the Iranian people to establish these democratic values and principles in their country sooner rather than later. I dare to say that such a policy that backs the Iranian people and their democratic aspirations will have strong support from both Houses, the Iranian people and the Iranian diaspora.
First, may I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on setting the scene comprehensively for us? As he rightly said, the interventions added to that. As Members would expect, I will speak about two particular groups, the Baha’is and Christians. The Minister will know my stance on these issues, but it is important that we make these points clear in this House.
Iran is the powerhouse and major player in the middle east. It is the leading power in the region, yet there is still systematic oppression of minorities, particularly the Baha’i community. Incitement to hatred has been one of the major tactics used to encourage violence against the Baha’is. The regime has attached extraordinary importance to the demonisation of the Baha’i and turning Iranians against their own compatriots.
The incitement occurs at the highest levels of the Government, including the direct participation of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The propaganda has become increasingly imaginative, weaving together a broad and often contradictory spectrum of inflammatory accusations in absurd combinations that attribute every conceivable evil to the Baha’is, including but not limited to espionage for Israel, promiscuity, armed rebellion, cult-like practices, opposition to the Government and animosity towards Islam.
An example of just how effective Government oppression has proved to be is the recent simple visit of Hashemi Rafsanjani’s daughter Ms Faezeh Hashemi to one of the seven Baha’i leaders, Ms Fariba Kamalabadi, who was on a five-day furlough. That visit generated controversy in Iran second to none. Such a simple, friendly gesture caused a high-ranking figure to describe friendly relations with Baha’is as treason against Islam and the revolution. He stated that
“consorting with Baha’is and friendship with them is against the teachings of Islam”.
We cannot and should not stand idly by and such comments happen anywhere in the world, let alone in such a powerful and influential state. We have members of the Baha’i community here today, and we want to make it clear to them that the House will speak as strongly as we can for them. For too long Iran has been let off the hook, but with a thaw in the heated relations with Iran, now is the time to precondition our relations with the state on the basis that it signs up to and implements values that the United Kingdom and the international community can accommodate.
Back on 21 April I asked the Leader of the House in business questions about the nuclear agreement with Iran, one condition of which was that human rights, including religious freedom, would be preserved and protected. It is clear that that has not been the case, and we will make that point in our contributions today. At that time we sought a statement or debate on the subject, and now we have a chance to have that debate. We look forward to the Minister’s response.
We need assurance that there will be religious freedom for all in Iran. Some 1,000 religious prisoners detained because of their faith or minority status are currently in prison in Iran on death row. The regime has gone as far as to appoint a death panel to expedite the implementation of death penalties for prisoners on death row, yet the world remains absolutely silent.
There are 475,000 Christians in Iran, which has a population of 80 million. Iran is No. 9 in the 2016 Open Doors world watchlist of the most oppressive regimes. Converting from Islam is punishable by death for men and life imprisonment for women. There are many people in the Public Gallery from Iran or who have Iranian history, with ancestors and family members out there, and we want to make the case for them on behalf of their and our brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ.
As I said, converting from Islam is punishable in Iran by death for men and life imprisonment for women. Those considered ethnic Christians, such as Armenians or Assyrians, are allowed to practise their faith among themselves, but ethnic Persians are defined as Muslim, and any Christian activity in the Persian language, Farsi, is illegal. Underground churches are increasingly monitored, which makes some people afraid to attend, and at least 108 Christians have been arrested in the past year. Interrogation methods in prison can be harsh and sexually abusive both to men and to women. Acid attacks on women are, at times, a weekly or daily occurrence. Such blatant, direct and indiscriminate attacks on Christians cannot go on. The UN resolution welcomed pledges by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on
“important human rights issues, particularly on eliminating discrimination against women and members of ethnic minorities, and on greater space for freedom of expression and opinion.”
However, we do not see that happening; indeed, we see the very opposite.
The alarmingly high frequency of use of the death penalty is often mentioned. Iran continues to execute minors, in violation of international conventions. It has also been noted that there have been juvenile executions for offences that are not considered the most serious crimes. There is clear and regular violation and discrimination against Baha’is, Christians and young people, so we cannot let things go on as they have.
The regime has at least 60 repressive institutions in the country, including several types of anti-riot agencies, several for torture and at least 12 others for filtering websites and controlling emails. Not only has the regime in Iran meddled in the affairs of Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza, but it has even interfered with the BBC Persian TV service, which experienced deliberate interference from within Iran from the first day of the 2009 Iranian presidential election.
Iran’s abhorrent record and contempt for human rights are not just confined to its own state. It exports those things and attempts to implement them beyond its borders. The evil regime in Iran tries to inflict its poisonous ideas on other countries not too far away. Globally, commentary and discourse on the nuclear deal suggests that Iran is joining the civilized world. That was the hope, but the reality is different. The evidence clearly stacks up to suggest the exact opposite. Iran may be seeing an improvement in its relations with the West, but it is not through commitment to human rights or an improvement in the regime’s conduct. We must remember that it is a regime, not a Government or a beacon of democracy. It is a regime that is still, in this day and age, oppressing people within and outside its borders.
Despite the election of a so-called moderate as President, the reality is that the regime remains in charge. Our ally the United States of America lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and Iran is a sworn enemy of Israel and has repeatedly and consistently ignored UN demands that it curtail the nuclear development needed to build weapons of mass destruction—lest we forget its capability in that regard. As the Prime Minister of our strong and indispensable ally Israel put it, the deal
“reduces the pressure on Iran without receiving anything tangible in return, and the Iranians who laughed all the way to the bank are themselves saying that this deal has saved them.”
It is with great dismay that we are having this debate and making such clear statements on behalf of Christians and Baha’is, and others who are oppressed in Iran. Our closest allies are worried; minorities in the region or anyone who dares to speak out live in fear; human rights are out the window; and power is all that the regime seems to have any regard for. We need to keep a much closer eye on Iran and put pressure on it. We need deals that are carried out, and we need to make sure that the commitment to human rights is carried out and that equality exists in Iran as it has not so far. We need to up the pressure on the regime for its inexcusable actions if we are we ever to be able to consider Iran a worthy partner within the international community.
I apologise to you, Sir Edward, and to the Minister and Shadow Minister, for the fact that I must attend a meeting of the Select Committee on Defence at a quarter past 10.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Sir Edward. I again congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate on the desperate human rights situation in Iran. Like him, I have attended the annual gatherings in Paris sponsored by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. At those meetings there are always many opportunities to talk to Iranian exiles from around the world. Perhaps 100,000 people go to those gatherings whose families have direct experience of human rights violations. All too often they have been denied the opportunity to communicate with family at home in Iran, for fear of repercussions; and, indeed, we meet people who have experienced persecution themselves.
The central charge made by all those who have spoken so far, and which will no doubt be made by those who speak later, is that the Tehran Government have completely failed to live up to international obligations on the most basic human rights. In 2013 Hassan Rouhani was elected—a supposed reformer. I use that word loosely, as I do the word “election”, because it is worth remembering that candidates are filtered by the Guardian Council. That was also the story of the 2016 parliamentary elections. They are not free, democratic elections as we know them. Despite the election of a supposed reformer, the situation has continued to deteriorate. According to Amnesty, nearly 1,000 people were hanged in Iran in 2015, as we have heard. That is the highest number of executions per capita in the world, and it has led Amnesty to describe the rate of executions as
“a horrific image of the planned state killing machine”.
The UN special rapporteur on Iran recently announced the rate of hangings as the highest for 27 years, exceeded only by the period immediately after the 1979 election and the removal of the Pahlavi dynasty.
A matter of particular concern—although everything we have heard is a matter of concern—is the breaches of the convention on the rights of the child, which was ratified by the Iranian authorities in July 1994. Yes, that was a welcome step at the time, if it meant anything; yet since that ratification there have been 81 identified cases—there is a strong, and I think firm, suspicion of many more—of people under the age of 18 being put to death. I reiterate the point about how the situation is escalating: 24 of those juvenile murders have happened since Rouhani came to power, including the case of Alireza Tajiki, who was arrested at the age of 15 and sentenced to death in 2013 on the basis of confessions obtained by torture in the notorious Evin prison. It was notorious under the Shah, but my goodness it is notorious under the present regime as well. Mercifully, through the actions of NGOs such as Amnesty the execution was postponed 24 hours before Alireza Tajiki was due to be hanged. Another instance was the case of Mohammad Reza Haddadi, sentenced for crimes that, again, he committed at the age of 15. He has spent 12 years on death row, and his execution has been postponed six times.
In the spirit of the belief that freedom of religion is the birthright of all of us, of all faiths, wherever we live, it is wholly appropriate to talk about the Baha’i community. As we have heard just now from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) the regime has a propensity to demonise, through the Government-controlled propaganda machine, the peaceable Baha’i community. In 2015 alone there were some 4,200 articles in the state-run media against the Baha’i community—12 to 13 articles demonising them every day. The unjustifiable sentences of 20 years in Evin prison given to seven Baha’i leaders are now in their eighth years. Their only crime was to be members of the Baha’i faith.
Jobs and business licences are denied to the Baha’i community; members are denied Government jobs in the civil service, and jobs in teaching and law. They are denied any position of influence. The security unit of the public places supervision office—a chilling description —decrees that Baha’is
“may not be issued work permits in a wide range of businesses, including hotels and tourism, the food industry, jewellery, publishing, and those related to computers and the Internet.”
In other words, they are left to wither at the bottom of an economic heap in that community.
This has not been an orchestrated debate—far from it—but I would like to highlight the cases mentioned by the hon. Member for Hendon. The imprisoned union activist Jafar Azimzadeh has been on hunger strike for nearly two months in Evin prison. His crime was that he wrote an open letter to the regime’s deputy Minister of Labour, expressing concerns about workers’ rights. We have heard about the families of the Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty, such as the political prisoner Saleh Kohandel, languishing in jail because of support for loved ones in the camp. That is a day-to-day reality for Iranians. I have been involved in campaigns for human rights in Iran over the past 11 years, and one of the sadnesses has been the extent to which the media in this country are not mindful of the issues and do not publicise them. There was a flurry of publicity when the green revolution supposedly was happening, which I alluded to in my intervention, but the world media are too quiet on these issues. They need to be highlighted.
The violations will be condemned by everybody in this Chamber. Every year, the United Nations General Assembly adopts a resolution condemning Tehran’s human rights abuses and making recommendations for improvement. Every year, those recommendations are routinely ignored by Tehran. There has been talk—indeed, more than talk; there is practical evidence—of Iran being brought in from the cold, but I urge the Minister to continue his work. This is nothing new; he has a sound record on championing human rights around the world, but he must continue to ensure that human rights abuses are discussed in the international arena. They should be discussed, as we have heard, at the UN Secretary Council. Those found responsible for the ongoing atrocities—there is a long list—should be referred to the International Criminal Court, to face justice. Will this Government make improvements in our relationship with Iran contingent on the end of well-catalogued human rights abuses, religious intolerance, executions and torture?
Our approach to Iran should include an active and direct dialogue with opposition groups committed to democratic change and the most basic human rights that should be common to any civilised society. The debate has moved on. I hope the Foreign Office is mindful of that; it should be. When I first came to this House, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran was a proscribed organisation. The Foreign Office justified that proscription. That proscription was lifted. It has been lifted throughout the world. People understand that the PMOI and Madam Rajavi are fighters for democratic change. That is what she has said, and it is reinforced by the 10-point programme we have heard about.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on that intervention. He is right. I have said in debates in the past that there is a grudging acceptance by the FCO that the proscription has been lifted. I deeply regret that there has been a reluctance from the Foreign Office to rise to the terms of that de-proscription. One way it could rise to that challenge would be, as we have heard, to allow President-elect Maryam Rajavi at least to come and talk to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It was rather strange when a few years ago, a Committee room was booked in the name of the former Crown Prince of Iran, who came and talked to some of us. We listened to what he had to say about his democratic message, and yet Maryam Rajavi—who has a big mandate from many Iranian people in the country and in exile—has been denied that opportunity. I hope the Minister will reflect on what the hon. Member for Hendon and others have called for, with regard to a visit in the future.
Iran was once labelled “the great civilisation” by one of its former leaders. Closer analysis showed that it was not a particularly great civilisation in the years preceding 1979. If it was not a great civilisation then, my goodness, it is not a great civilisation now. Its people are denied the most basic human rights, and that must change. I think we will have the consensus of this Chamber on that, and I hope that that includes the Minister.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate.
About three weeks ago, I led a debate here in Westminster Hall on human rights in Saudi Arabia. As I return to speak of the record of another middle eastern country, I am mindful that these past few weeks in British politics have not exactly been our finest moments. Present at that debate three weeks past was the late Member for Batley and Spen (Jo Cox), who was a fierce human rights advocate. I have no doubt that she would have joined us today. She and her family are very much in my thoughts.
Practically all political discourse at the moment is consumed with the implications of the vote to leave the European Union. Our place in the world is shifting and is in a period of redefinition. It is important that we do not just spend the next two years navel-gazing. As the United Kingdom—or some of it—exits the EU, it must do so with a clear vision of where it stands in the world and what influence it will be able to exert on other countries, particularly in the middle east. Preparing for this debate was a welcome diversion from Brexit and offered some real perspective on what has otherwise been a rather introspective national discussion.
Whatever issues people have with some sections of our media, we are fortunate to have a free press. The Scottish National party has real concerns that freedom of the press remains heavily curtailed in Iran. As a country, Iran ranks the seventh most censored in the world. It is also ranked 173rd out of 180 countries on the world press freedom index. According to the UN special rapporteur’s 2016 report, as of January this year at least 47 journalists and internet users have been imprisoned in Iran. According to reports from Freedom House, journalists are routinely arrested and imprisoned for propaganda against the state and acting against the Islamic republic.
Article 9 of the universal declaration of human rights states:
“No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
However, that appears to be exactly what is happening in Iran to those who disagree with authorities. Differing opinions are silenced, with incarceration used as a gag. I will stop short of mentioning specific cases today, but I hope that the Minister will inform us of what recent representations have been made to Iran regarding freedom of press and those who find themselves imprisoned for their journalism.
The troubling nature of Iran’s repressive policing of the press forms part of our wider concerns relating to human rights in general in Iran. The rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly are similarly inhibited. According to the October 2015 report of the UN special rapporteur on Iran,
“the judiciary continues to impose heavy prison sentences on individuals who peacefully exercise these rights.”
In a report earlier that year, the UN Secretary-General expressed concern at the shrinking space for human rights defenders, who continue to face harassment, intimidation, arrest and prosecution.
Freedoms are being oppressed not only on the streets but online. Amnesty International reports that the Iranian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has announced the second phase of intelligent filtering of websites deemed to have socially harmful consequences, and arrested and prosecuted those who used social media to express dissent. In June, a spokesperson for the judiciary said that the authorities had arrested five people for anti-revolutionary activities using social media and five others for acts against decency in cyberspace. Amnesty International also reported that three opposition leaders remained under house arrest without charge or trial, and that scores of prisoners of conscience continued to be detained or were serving prison sentences for peacefully exercising their human rights, including journalists, artists, writers, lawyers, trade unionists, students, activists for women’s and minority rights, human rights defenders and others.
According to the Amnesty International 2015-16 report, the Iranian Parliament had debated several draft laws that would further erode women’s rights, including a Bill to increase fertility rates and prevent population decline, which would block access to information about contraception and outlaw voluntary sterilisation. Even more worryingly, Amnesty reported that women and girls remained unprotected against sexual and other violence in Iran, including early and forced marriage.
The human rights situation in Iran continues to cause the Scottish National party deep concern. When our parliamentary delegation, led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), visited last December, it raised the issue of human rights at every opportunity and in every ministerial meeting with Iranian authorities. I will leave it to the Minister to give us more information today about similar recent efforts from the Foreign Office.
Now that Iran has taken small steps to return to the international community, it must address and take firm action on those grave human rights issues. That will not happen overnight, but only with constant effort and mature engagement and dialogue.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this important debate. Many of us will have had this issue drawn to our attention in our constituencies, and I thank the many individual Christians, church groups and members of the Baha’i faith in my constituency for bringing their concerns to the fore. Of course, some of the tireless campaigners we run into almost on a weekly basis here in the House of Commons are in the Public Gallery listening to the debate. They continue to highlight the issues that concern them about the treatment of people in Iran.
I am not going to go over all the grievances that have been highlighted today. Suffice it to say that we have heard about the range of human rights abuses by the Iranian regime not just against minorities but against the majority of the population. We have heard about the abuses and restrictions on women, the restrictions placed on people who hold religious views that the regime does not agree with, and the actions that are taken against those people. They include everything from systematic discrimination in work, employment, education and even their social activities to the increased use of the death penalty, and those of us who live in a society as free as ours find the idea of the public mutilation of individuals who happen to have fallen foul of the regime incomprehensible.
I do not want to go through the details of individual cases, many of which have been drawn to my attention by constituents, or the catalogue of cases that have been well documented in this debate, but I want to raise some issues with the Minister. Given the number of times he has answered questions on the matter in the House of Commons and the responses that we as constituency representatives have received from him, I have absolutely no doubt that the Government are committed to dealing with this issue. However, I am not so sure that that commitment has not sometimes been held back by political reticence, because of the impact that it may have on other dealings that they wish to have with the Iranian regime.
I note the terms used so many times in answers that the Minister has given in the House. They are things like “We have made the strength of our opinion known,” “We have made strong representations,” “We have made clear to Iran,” and “We have repeatedly called on the Iranian Government”. All that is fine, but one thing we must learn from dealings with the Iranian regime is that the only time that it really began to engage was when it was being hurt by sanctions and by actions that had an impact on it.
I therefore have a number of things to say to the Minister. By all means make representations and highlight abuses, because official reports from the Foreign Office and so on have an impact, and of course raise these issues in the international bodies of which we are members. Despite what has been said about the Brexit debate and everything else, we still have influence in the world and it is right to use it, but that influence will be effective only if words are accompanied by actions, and I would like to see our Government doing a number of things.
First, as has been mentioned, the human rights abuses are well known and the people behind them have been identified. Surely we ought to make sure that those individuals are named, brought before the international court and dealt with. Whether they are dealt with in their absence or by being brought before the court, a clear message should go out to them: “You cannot hide behind the cloak of the regime. You as individuals will be held responsible, and we will have no reluctance, regardless of how important you are in the regime and how much influence you have, to make sure that you are dealt with for the way in which you have treated people within your own country.”
Secondly, we know that sanctions hurt and are important in stopping the Iranian regime not only carrying out abuses in its own country but spreading its malign influence to other countries. The lifting of sanctions has given the Iranian regime the ability to carry out activities in Syria and other parts of the middle east. We therefore ought to make it clear that despite the nuclear deal, there are other issues that concern us. Just as sanctions were imposed because of Iran’s dealings and actions on the procurement of nuclear weapons, sanctions can be used if human rights abuses are not stopped. That clear message must go out when we warn Iran against actions such as it is engaged in at present.
Finally, a clearer message needs to be sent out to the Iranian regime that our Government are prepared to have the closest possible relationships with the opposition groups that we believe have the capability to generate internal opposition to the Iranian regime. We should learn from experience that trying to change a regime without building good relationships with those who may replace it in future can leave a vacuum, which is sometimes dangerous. Such relationships would be another clear message to the Iranian Government that regardless of how annoying or embarrassing it is to them, we will be prepared to work with, deal with and encourage those who are opposed to them. I would like to hear the Minister’s response to those points.
It is an honour to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing it because the subject really needs to be explored.
A lot of us—particularly those of us in Scotland—were very positive when Hassan Rouhani came to power in 2013, because he studied in Glasgow and we expected him to have a more balanced western approach. He pledged to improve human rights, and he probably contributed in that the nuclear deal was struck last year. Unfortunately, the human rights side has been bitterly disappointing and, if anything, things have got worse. As the hon. Member for Hendon mentioned, almost 1,000 people were executed last year, which suggests that the number is climbing, not decreasing. Two thirds of those executions were for drug offences, which—under international law—we would not consider to merit the death penalty.
I would particularly like to speak about the laws against women. If half the population are considered subhuman, as Ayatollah Khomeini defined women in 1979, there is no chance of having decent human rights for any other group. Women do not have equality. They are considered half the value of a man when it comes to inheritance and to giving witness. If a man murders a women, the victim’s family have to pay half the blood money. That is an incredible approach to women.
There are laws against women. If a women does not carry out her nuptial duties, her food, accommodation and money can be withheld. Her husband can stop her working and he can divorce her at will. It goes on and on. Thousands of women have been executed since 1979 and, as was touched on previously, Iran has no qualms about executing people under 18. A point that was not mentioned is that the legal age for executions is 15 for boys but just under nine for girls. That means that a girl approaching nine could be executed, so can be pushed into forced marriage. For boys, it is 15. It is appalling to allow the execution of anyone under 18—obviously, we believe that execution at all is ridiculous—but there is an imbalance.
As well as laws, there are day-to-day attacks on women. Wearing the hijab has been compulsory since 1979, and it is a daily removal of women’s choice. Family planning has not been funded since 2012 and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned earlier, there has been discussion of a law to forbid family planning, in order to increase the population.
In 2014, a law was passed to give impunity to vigilantes who attack women not considered to be wearing a suitable hijab. Shops, restaurants and taxis are advised to refuse those women service. It filters through women’s entire daily lives. They have no protection from domestic abuse or being battered by their husbands. When a women steps out in the street, she will be intimidated by the entire population. What chance do any smaller groups have?
I have challenged the Minister and the Government in the past on our relationship with Saudi Arabia, given that country’s behaviour—executing or mutilating people. We tend to admonish Saudi Arabia or express our discomfort and disquiet at such actions. We need much stronger action than that, particularly with Iran, or we will never get it to mould into or become a decent, balanced society as it comes to join the west. As part of stronger action, we must support the opposition and push for democracy in Iran.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, in a debate that is important, timely and takes us away from our own concerns about our future in the European Union to look at something that is, in many ways, much more profoundly important to millions of people suffering from such a brutal regime as that which exists in Iran today.
We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing the debate and I congratulate him on his opening speech. He reminded us that 2,400 people have been executed under President Rouhani’s regime since 2013, and that the numbers have doubled since 2010 and increased tenfold since 2005. That is an appalling record of state-sanctioned murder, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, makes Iran the world’s No. 1 executioner per capita. As Member after Member has pointed out, the record of execution of minors—people under 18, who we would regard as children under our legal and other legal systems in the west—is truly appalling and shocking.
Less than 10 years ago, I was privileged to meet Shirin Ebadi, the great Iranian Nobel laureate—a woman who stood up for her nation and who is an expert in not only legal systems, but the laws of her country, including sharia law. Indeed, she can out-argue many of the so-called sharia experts in her country on their own terms. Yet, because she is a woman, she was sacked in 1979, and she has been harassed many times by the regime for speaking her mind.
Shirin Ebadi told us—a group of MPs from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—the story of a young courting couple, who were aged over 18 and were caught holding hands in a park. They were unmarried and not related, so they were arrested. A few days after the arrest of their daughter, the parents of the young woman received a call and a visit from the police, saying, “Please come to collect the body of your daughter. She has, in shame for what she has done, committed suicide.” In fact, as was discovered through the post mortem, she had been brutally attacked by the prison guards. She was thrown to the floor, hit her head and died of a brain haemorrhage.
The young woman’s parents engaged Shirin Ebadi, as an expert lawyer, to try to argue the case that their daughter had been inadvertently murdered while in custody. Through their grief, they had to endure their lawyer being accused of all sorts of crimes. The regime brought up an ancient case of Shirin Ebadi not defending a man—an Iranian citizen—who had been refused a degree by a university in the UK. That was dragged up, although it was completely irrelevant to the case. The justice that those parents deserved for the death of their child in custody—for the crime of holding hands with a boy in a park—was never resolved. No justice was ever given.
I tell hon. Members that story because it is an example of the appalling abuse of human rights that Iranian citizens have suffered since the 1979 revolution. Many of us who are old enough to remember that revolution remember the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran—Pahlavi—and the way he abused and brutalised the population simply for speaking out. But is the current regime any better? In many ways, it is far worse than a regime that was condemned the world over for its brutality.
Iranians are some of the best educated people in the world. Given what the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) said about the treatment of women, it is an irony that women in Iran have some of the best higher education results in the world and some of the highest attendance rates and qualifications, yet they are treated as chattels and second-class citizens.
On my visits to Tehran and Isfahan, I came across many people who were dismissive and disdainful of the regime while living in fear of it, but also had a huge thirst for knowledge and education. To my amazement, they regularly listened to the BBC World Service even though that was perhaps illegal, and certainly frowned upon. Their knowledge of the English and French languages was gained from listening to the BBC World Service. Their thirst for talking to foreigners and people from the outside world was huge, as was their engagement. Iran could be a great ally of the rest of the world, and until recently it was one of the world’s most civilised countries—one of the world’s greatest nations—in terms of its culture, art, architecture and music. Iran is an extraordinary, uplifting and wonderful place, but it is spoiled by the appalling regime that its people have to endure.
Domestic oppression, as the hon. Member for Hendon said, is important for the ruling theocracy to keep Iran’s people under its thumb and to keep the Iranian revolution going. As he said, the UK needs to address human rights abuses in Iran. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) mentioned the lifting of sanctions, which has not delivered an improvement in human rights. We have done a great favour to the regime, but what do we receive in return?
I think it was the hon. Member for Hendon who suggested that we should prosecute the officials who have carried out such blatant human rights abuses, and the Labour party would certainly agree. Relations with Iran should be based on ending torture and executions. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is not able to be in his place, made a plea on behalf of Baha’is for us to have a closer eye on Iran and its equality and human rights records. He is a strong defender of religious freedom in other parts of the world, particularly where Christians and other minorities are persecuted for their beliefs, and long may he continue.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) made some important points. He told us, as we knew already, that elections in Iran are not free and democratic. Rouhani was not elected in a free and fair election because of the way that the candidates were filtered—certain individuals were prevented from standing because they do not stand up for the Iranian theocratic revolution. He said that breaches of the convention on the rights of the child have been legion. At least 81 children have been executed, which I hope the whole world will come together to decry. He said that freedom of religion is the birthright of all of us, but it clearly is not for the people of Iran. He asked whether the British Government will make our relationship with Iran contingent on an end to human rights abuses, as did the hon. Member for Hendon.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) for her thoughts on my close friend and neighbour, Jo Cox, who fought so hard for an end to human rights abuses and for equality for women throughout the world. The hon. Lady told us that Iran has the world’s most censored press, and we hear many stories of journalists being arrested and, worse, tortured and imprisoned simply for publishing criticism of the regime. Without a free media there can be no free society. We are all deeply shocked by the heavy prison sentences given to human rights defenders.
The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) made an excellent contribution. He said that he has no doubt that the British Government are committed to addressing the issue but that they are perhaps reticent about forging a strong new relationship with Iran in the hope that President Rouhani is somewhat more liberal than his predecessors, which has turned out not to be the case. The hon. Gentleman said that the regime has engaged only when it is hurt by sanctions. We should make it clear that individuals who perpetrate crimes against humanity will be prosecuted. Several speakers have said that we must ensure that those who have perpetrated such appalling human rights abuses are brought to justice under international law.
Will the Minister make it clear whether Her Majesty’s Government will amend their policy on sanctions against Iran? Having been to that country and having seen how sanctions can hurt ordinary people, I have no desire to see such sanctions maintained or reinstituted, but we can institute smart sanctions, as they are called, against those individuals whom we hold responsible for abusing human rights. Will he specifically look at Iran’s leadership? That leadership is not just the President; there are many centres of power in Iran that contest with each other for supremacy. Will he look at all of them? We have not debated this issue this morning, but it is important because it relates to human rights abuses in Iran—are the Government concerned that, despite Iran’s signing of the non-proliferation treaty and the promises that the Iranian Government have made to the rest of the world and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran continues to try to weaponise uranium rather than use it to generate peaceful civil nuclear power, as it is obliged under the non-proliferation treaty?
Does the Minister believe that the UK and our European allies—if we still have any—can address the appalling and barbaric human rights abuses that we have discussed today? It seems to the Labour party that we need concerted action from not only the UK Government but from the rest of the world to show Iran that we are deeply concerned about the abuse of human rights and the barbaric executions and punishments handed out in the name of Iran’s faith, which many Muslims would reject. Finally, will the Minister update us on the status of the British embassy in Tehran. We have a chargé d’affaires, but are there plans to reinstitute an ambassador?
Thank you very much, Sir Edward. I apologise for any confusion caused by the late changes that we had to make to our intended speakers.
In the interest of brevity, I will not give a full summing- up speech. I commend the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) for securing the debate, and particularly on making such positive suggestions about what we might do. It is easy to identify, criticise and condemn horrific human rights abuses in Iran, but much more difficult to come up with ideas that might start to make a difference, although perhaps not as quickly as we might like.
We should identify and target individuals who have clearly committed crimes against humanity, as the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said. We should also seek to maintain dialogue with anyone in a position of potential influence in Iran who we think is seeking to modernise and liberalise or can be persuaded to do so. I believe that President Rouhani is in the latter camp, but only just. His rhetoric to date has been encouraging, but his actions have been very discouraging. We need to keep up the diplomatic pressure, as well as the informal pressure that my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier) mentioned.
We must continue to remind ourselves of why we think we have the right and the responsibility to get involved at all. It is because we are talking about human rights—the rights of all humanity, regardless of where they live, who they are and what they do or do not believe. We have a responsibility to defend those rights wherever they are being abused, even in countries that spend billions of pounds buying weapons and arms from us and that might be developing the means to threaten us directly—some of the interventions in this debate were possibly pointing to that.
Simply because Iran no longer presents a direct nuclear threat to us, it does not mean that we can ignore the horrific abuses it continues to carry out against the rights of its citizens. Possibly the most chilling aspect of today’s debate has been the number of Members who have been able to speak about completely separate and barbaric abuses of the human rights of anyone who follows or converts to the wrong religion, who is born on the wrong side of the gender divide or who dares to express a political opinion. We would consider any one of those abuses to be an abomination in today’s society, yet they are all happening every day under the Iranian regime.
Finally, we must be careful about getting on too high a moral horse. Many of the human rights denials and violations in Iran that we are rightly condemning now were fairly common practice in these islands not so long ago. It is only 40 years since race and gender discrimination were made illegal, and neither have yet been abolished in our society. Women still cannot genuinely be regarded as being treated with full equality. In my lifetime, someone mentally incapable of understanding the impact of his actions has been executed for murder, and magazines have been prosecuted for blasphemously printing things thought by some Christians to be offensive. Within the lifetime of all of us here, it has been a criminal offence to have sexual relations with someone of the same gender. Although it is right for us to continue to condemn and keep pressure on the Iranian regime, we should do so from a point of view of humility, accepting that some things that we criticise in others were common practice in our own society within our own lifetime.
If anything, that should give us optimism that however bad things are in Iran just now, they can improve. Five years before the East German regime collapsed, I would never have believed that human rights would return to East Germany. There is optimism for Iran, and we should continue to work on it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing this debate, to which important contributions have been made by Members of all parties. It is a sign of the times that we continue to debate these important matters while keeping in tune with what is happening on the ground in Iran.
As usual, there is not enough time to answer all the detailed questions that I have been asked, as I have only 10 minutes. That is always a frustration for a Minister. However, as I have said in the past, I promise to write to hon. Members with more details on specific questions if I cannot cover them right now.
A couple of hon. Members have enjoyed, or perhaps mocked, the wider picture after last week’s events. I want to make it clear that Britain’s place in the world is undiminished. We are arguably still recognised as the most effective soft power in the world due to our commitment to international aid and our global legacy, not least in the neck of the woods that we are discussing. Our relationship with the Commonwealth is deep, and we are fully committed to NATO. We are the largest military force in NATO, the fifth largest economy and a member of the G7 and the G20. I want to make it clear that our resolve to participate in the world and influence it for the better continues, despite what happened last week.
Whatever negotiations take place—my views on that are clear—we will continue to work with the European Union on matters such as security and Iran. There were two ways of describing the discussions on the nuclear deal, for example: P5+1—the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including Britain, plus Iran—or E3+3. That reflects the fact that countries want to come together to effect change, and not just because they are part of one club or another. Let me make it clear that Britain’s commitment on the international stage, not least in the middle east, continues.
We should reflect on the fact that Iran is a proud and long-standing country with influence in the region. Arguably, it sits at the crossroads of Europe, Asia and the middle east, and it has been the location of successive civilisations. It was the stomping ground of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, with each civilisation learning from the next. Britain has its own relationship with Iran, developing from the great game and, more latterly, from the period after the first world war. We should remember the longevity of that relationship, as hon. Members have mentioned. There is a relationship to be had with the people of Persia—of Iran—that is different from the relationship with those in charge. That point is worth mentioning to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, who gave a powerful speech.
I see the nuclear deal as a generational opportunity to rebalance the relationship with Iran. It is up to us to decide whether to embrace that opportunity or say, “It’s business as usual. We do not trust the Iranians. We think they’re going to develop a nuclear weapon.” The problem has existed for decades, and this is an opportunity to re-engage with Iran. That is the fundamental point.
We are here to discuss human rights, and this debate has rightly painted a bleak picture of where things are in Iran. We will continue to work together, and I am aware that Iran will be listening to this debate.
The Minister mentions Iran listening. I urge him once again to ensure that the Iranian regime listens to the case of Mr Foroughi, a very old man detained on spurious charges, and that of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I know that he has made many representations, but I urge him to do so again.
I thank my hon. Friend for the work that he has done to allow me to meet the family so that we can do what we can, as we do with other difficult consular cases, four of which we are currently very concerned about. The trouble is that they are cases of dual nationals, and Iran does not recognise the dual nationality. That does not prevent us from engaging, thankfully, because our embassy has now reopened. The Prime Minister has written on behalf of my hon. Friend’s constituents, and phone calls have been made. There is now a dialogue, which did not exist before the deal, that allows us to pursue such consular matters with a vigour that we could not before.
To focus again on the human rights situation, Iran continues to be of grave concern. Freedom of religion and belief, freedom of expression, women’s rights and the justice system all need improvement. As has been said, the number of executions—almost 1,000 in the past 18 months alone—is at a record high, despite President Rouhani’s pledge in 2013 to improve the rights and freedoms of Iranian citizens. Unfortunately, progress has been slow, and in some areas things have gone backwards, as has been articulated in this debate. The UK has consistently pressed Iran to improve its human rights record.
Hon. Members rightly asked what we are doing about the issue. We have designated more than 80 Iranians responsible for human rights violations under EU sanctions and helped establish the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, who was mentioned by several hon. Members. We have lobbied at the UN for the adoption of human rights resolutions on Iran. We regularly raise human rights in our dialogue with the country, with Foreign Minister Zarif and President Rouhani. I assure hon. Members that they will also be a focus of our discussions with Iran when we reconvene at the UN General Assembly.
I believe that the approach is balanced. We need continued engagement with the Government of Iran, and developing our bilateral relationship is key to achieving change, but we do not lose sight of the fact that the proxy influence in Baghdad, Sana’a, Damascus, Beirut and Manama continues. That is not the direction of travel of a country that sees re-engaging with the international community as a worthy cause. We challenge it to recognise that if it wants to be seen as participating on the international stage, it must reconsider its involvement and interference in those countries.
Our embassy has been mentioned. It reopened last year and has facilitated visits not only by businesspeople but by the Foreign Secretary. That has enabled the development of stronger ties and candid conversations, whether about Camp Liberty or the Baha’i community. We can bring up such things far more regularly and have frank conversations, many of which are not necessarily always heard about or—I want to make this clear—mentioned in my written answers to questions.
Time is against me, so I will simply say in conclusion that the relationship with Iran, while not always easy, goes back a long way, but the nuclear deal provides a new opening. It is clear that Iran’s future security and prosperity are directly linked to its Government’s willingness to engage with the international community, but human rights are an essential part of that engagement. We acknowledge that progress will be slow, but it is progress worth pursuing. In step with international allies, we will continue to work with Iran to improve the human rights situation there. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon for securing this debate, and I hope that we will continue to discuss these matters in the House.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).