I beg to move,
That this House has considered relations between Britain and Iran.
It is a great pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson—it has been many times this week—to consider the relations of this great country with Iran. I have moved the motion because I am the first Member of this House to have Iranian heritage, although there are two Members of the House of Lords who are also from Iran.
Trading and cultural relations between Britain and Iran—or England and Persia, as they were then known—have existed since the early 17th century. The English vied with the French as some of the earliest translators of Farsi poetry into European languages; anybody who knows anything about Iranian culture knows the great cultural and symbolic nature of its poetry. In the 19th century Britain’s influence began to grow through acquiring trade concessions as a means of protecting the passage to India. At that time, there was great rivalry between Britain and Russia, with different spheres of influence in different parts of the country—Russian influence in the north, and British in the west. There were informal residencies in Iran from the mid and late 18th century until well into the 20th century, and what we now know as BP began life as the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1909.
There was a constitutional revolution in Iran in 1910, and at that time the revolutionaries actually took refuge in the British embassy gardens. There have been high and low points to the relationship between these two peoples throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Since 1979 and the Islamic revolution—in just that short period—full diplomatic relations between the two countries have been resumed and broken three times. That reflects the desire for contact, relationship and dialogue between the two nations, but also the great sense of distrust that remains on both sides.
I come to this debate today with my eyes open about the reality of life in Iran. I am only here today because my family was forced to flee following the Islamic revolution, and my father had his business and our home confiscated. Many hon. Members will rightly and reasonably raise the Iranian Government’s record on human rights, women, press regulation and the treatment of minorities. Those are points of difference between the two Governments, and I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will address them in his summing up. I want to speak instead about areas where the two nations can work together.
Last year, an historic nuclear deal was signed. I am sure that all hon. Members attending today’s debate—many of whom have spoken on the subject before—will know the background, but it is worth reiterating. From 2006 onwards a series of UN and EU sanctions was imposed on the country following the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report on Iran’s nuclear programme. The Iranian regime always claimed that its nuclear programme was entirely peaceful, but the international community was alarmed by the thought of the country having a nuclear weapon and imposed a series of sanctions in relation to the nuclear programme. By summer 2013 the sanctions were having a profound effect on the Iranian people and Hassan Rouhani, the presidential candidate, fought his campaign on having serious talks with the west and getting the sanctions lifted. On 14 July last year, China, the US, Russia, Britain, France, Germany—the P5+1—the EU and Iran announced the joint comprehensive plan of action, according to which Iran would reverse its progress towards a nuclear weapon in return for the lifting of economic sanctions.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the success of the negotiations with Iran was based around the economic impact on normal people? Does that therefore suggest that if a more military attack had taken place, it would have united people against the west, because the economic impact would have been far greater?
I think that jaw-jaw is always better than war-war, and we have to consider all options before we enter into any military action.
In January this year we reached implementation day, when it was agreed by the observing authorities that Iran had reduced its uranium stockpile, cut its capacity to enrich uranium and modified the heavy water reactor at Arak. At that point the nuclear sanctions were lifted. I will not address the rights and wrongs of the nuclear deal, as many other hon. Members can speak on that, but I contend that the deal has made the region safer.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and making a very good speech. Hon. Members have spoken about the success of the nuclear deal. Iran is reported to have launched up to nine ballistic missile tests, in defiance of UN Security Council resolution 2231, since the deal was agreed in July 2015. It is still the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism and is funding chaos, havoc and murder right across the region through its proxies. So what is my hon. Friend’s view of the success of the nuclear deal?
I would say to my hon. Friend that the deal was limited to Iran’s nuclear programme. I agree that there are many points of difference between our Governments and I am sure the Minister will address them in his summing up.
The deal made the region safer by reducing the possibility of a nuclear stand-off between regional rivals at such a volatile time. It was an example of diplomacy in a part of the world where there has been too little of it.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the nuclear agreements, there is still the issue in Iran of persecuted minorities, especially the Christian community. Surely it is time that was addressed, as well as the nuclear side of things.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, who always speaks very powerfully in defence of Christian minorities. As I said in my opening statement, I am not blind to what happens in Iran and the treatment of certain groups. I hope that when the Minister sums up he will address what steps Government are taking through the Foreign Office, and now through our full diplomatic relations, on that issue.
Will my hon. Friend remind the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) that in Iran the Majlis reserves places, not only for the Jewish community but for the Christian community, in the Majlis, so that they have a part in the legislative process. That is not well-known and is something that is rare in the middle east.
My hon. Friend has made the point, and I am sure the hon. Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) has heard it.
We cannot underestimate the wider implication of the nuclear deal for bringing Iran back into the international fold, and the joy with which the deal was greeted both on the streets of Tehran and in the wider diaspora of between 4 million and 5 million people. Shortly after that, in August, the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), visited Tehran, which is something of a feat knowing the weather at that time of year. Full diplomatic relations were resumed this September, and in the same month British Airways resumed flights to Tehran six days per week. Just a few weeks ago at the UN General Assembly, the Prime Minister met Iran’s President Rouhani, who called the joint comprehensive plan of action a basis for closer bilateral co-operation.
There are plenty of warm words between Britain and Iran, but not an awful lot has happened since implementation day. The deal promised so much to businesses in the UK that wanted to trade, and to the Iranian people who are crying out for jobs and a better standard of living. Those promises are yet to be fulfilled. Iran has great potential as a country with which to build even stronger trade and cultural links.
Literacy in Iran is 85%, and the figure rises to 97% in 18 to 24-year-olds. The country holds 10% of the world’s oil and natural gas reserves. Historically, it has suffered from low economic growth, sharp fluctuations in revenue and low productivity, which has typically led to an overdependence on oil. Of course, we see that all over the region, and I would contend that overdependence on oil is part of the region’s problem, with a restive cohort of young people who have relied far too much on hydrocarbons.
Iran is moving towards a reduced dependence on oil, as it now accounts for only 30% of Iran’s budget and, for the first time, there is a positive trade balance in non-oil goods amounting to $1 billion. The International Monetary Fund estimates that Iran’s GDP will grow by at least 4.5% over the next year, and the rial continues to strengthen. Iran is focused on reducing inflation, and has reduced the role of its central bank to facilitate that and to make exports more competitive. Inflation is down from the historic high of 59% in the mid-1990s to 8% this year.
Companies are reticent about investing in Iran even though it is a natural market for Britain to export to. There are opportunities for British trade not only in energy, but in infrastructure. Last week, the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company sold condensate to BP for the first time since implementation day. However, anyone who has travelled in Iran knows that its infrastructure is crying out for investment, and it is said that the country needs $50 billion every year to upgrade its infrastructure. There are other opportunities for exporting British goods and services, particularly training. Businesses have told me that there is a dearth of people trained in administration and management, so the country could benefit from British expertise.
The big stumbling block about which British and Iranian businesses complain—I have spoken to the Minister about this on numerous occasions—is the remaining pre-nuclear sanctions, especially those around access to finance when doing business with Iran. Any banks with United States links are banned from doing business with the country: they are rightly terrified after the $9 billion fine that was levied on BNP Paribas. Lenders are restricted to those with absolutely no dollar exposure, which is a very small pool. Will the Minister confirm what further conversations he has had with his US counterparts on reassuring US banks that they will not be subject to large fines from the US authorities?
UK Trade & Investment statements on Iran are optimistic. UKTI says:
“There is a positive outlook for UK-Iran trade relations”,
and that the UK Government
“fully supports expanding our trade relationship with Iran and we would encourage UK businesses to take advantage of the commercial opportunities that will arise”.
But the level of such trade remains unclear. Indeed, the European Union traded €6.5 billion to Iran in 2015 and imported €1.2 billion, but I was unable even to find UK-specific statistics.
On the size of cover allocated by UK Export Finance, it states that
“the total cover allocated for Iran will be under continuous review”.
Will the Minister tell us how much total cover is allocated for Iran and when will that be reviewed? Furthermore, will he confirm how much of the £50 million facility guaranteeing payments to UK professional advisory service providers advising the Government of Iran has been spent? There have been a lot of warm words but seemingly little progress on opening up the market to British businesses. How many, if any, business opportunities have been identified as a result of the memorandum of understanding signed between UKEF and the export guarantee fund of Iran?
France and Germany have led delegations to Iran, but Britain, even with the strong historical links that I outlined in my introduction, has lagged behind. I know that other hon. Members share my concerns about the effects of Brexit on Britain’s relationship with Iran.
Many of the smaller businesses that seek to trade with Iran are those run by members of the Iranian diaspora in the UK—a group of approximately 83,000 people. On behalf of that group, I pay tribute to the Minister for his role in saving Persian GCSEs and A-levels earlier this year. Knowledge of Farsi is crucial to preserving cultural heritage, and it eases the process of doing business between the two countries.
Members of the Iranian diaspora—who are, for the most part, dual nationals—are justifiably concerned about their status if they visit Iran, particularly in the fevered atmosphere leading up to next year’s presidential election and following the imprisonment of several dual nationals. Can the Minister give any guidance to dual British-Iranian nationals on their visits to Iran?
Soft power, it is always claimed, is key to British foreign policy. We are said to be the leader in soft power—[Interruption.] Somebody is laughing; I always wonder where we get these stats from as well. We should be exploiting our place in the world and our deep historical roots in the middle east to strengthen and encourage British trade with the region.
When it comes to soft power away from trade, there have always been cultural exchanges between universities, and art and cultural heritage groups. A series of exhibitions at the British Museum in 2009 were well attended and involved loans from museums in Iran. Those exchanges have continued and are an essential part of building understanding between the two peoples.
We cannot underestimate the power of cultural exchange and soft power, nor of symbolic gestures. Has the Minister’s Department considered the suggestion by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that the Government admit their role in the coup to overthrow Mosaddegh in exchange for an apology for the storming of the British embassy in 2011?
There is no doubt that many of our regional allies, especially members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, have been troubled by the UK’s renewed relationship with Iran, which they see as a threat to their relationship with us. However, it is not in the British national interest to see this as an either/or relationship, as that does not reflect the reality on the ground. Some 500,000 Iranians live in the United Arab Emirates, 80,000 in Kuwait, 173,000 in Bahrain and many in Saudi Arabia. The value of trade between Iran and the GCC is approximately $14.8 billion. Surely it is in the UK’s national interest to be part of that flourishing trade of people and ideas between Iran and the GCC. Is it not in our national interest to dampen down some of the fevered rhetoric between Iran and its Gulf neighbours, to unite in combating the evil death cult of Daesh and to work towards stability in the region?
Another area on which Britain and Iran have worked successfully together in the past is Afghanistan, in supporting the national unity Government and on counter-narcotics. What conversations has the Minister had with his Iranian counterparts on co-operating to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan?
In conclusion, relations between Britain and Iran are of long standing. They are complex and often immensely frustrating. I look forward to hearing the contributions of hon. Members on both sides of the House who bring great experience, expertise and passion to this important debate.
Order. From approximately 10.27, I intend to call each Front Bencher for a 10-minute contribution. A number of hon. Members are standing, and I hope that we can self-regulate our speaking arrangements accordingly.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. This is the first time that I have served under your chairmanship in Westminster Hall, Mr Hanson, and I wish you well. A short time ago I was involved in a debate under your chairmanship on a firearms issue, and it is good to see you here in that position. Well done to you.
I congratulate the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing this debate. I will take a singular approach, and Members will not be surprised that I will speak about the persecution of Christians. I am sure that, when the Minister saw me get to my feet, he said, “I know what the gentleman is going to speak about.” I told the hon. Lady this morning that I would speak about the persecution of Christians.
I have recently returned from the middle east, more specifically the country of Iraq, which borders Iran. Perhaps that has given me a fresh understanding of what is happening in these countries and the help that is needed. We are under no illusion as to the history of our relations. Britain has sought an alliance since the 13th century, yet no time has been rockier than the past decade. With the reopening of the embassy in London and the signal that a path to some form of better co-operation is on the cards, now is the time to raise these matters, which need to be addressed as diplomatically as possible.
I thank some of the people in the Public Gallery who have an interest in Iran, and specifically in the persecution of Christians. There will be no surprise that I am focusing on the persecution of Christians in that area. I understand that we do not have massive influence to effect change. I am simply highlighting pertinent issues to allow the Minister to have all the information so that any and all available influence may be exerted for Christians who face persecution.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, on the issue of the persecution of Christians in the middle east and Iran, it is important that we make the highest level of representations to the Iranian authorities and across the middle east? Not only persecution but displacement and a resolute pursuit of Christians are happening in the middle east, and greater tolerance is needed for those with differing religious views.
My hon. Friend clearly focuses attention on what I believe we all wish to happen.
Here are some facts about Iran. As converting from Islam is punishable by death for men and by life imprisonment for women, persecution in Iran is literally a matter of life and death. Although those who are considered ethnic Christians, such as Armenians and Assyrians, are allowed to practise their faith among themselves, ethnic Persians are defined as Muslim. Any Christian activity in the Persian language of Farsi is illegal. Islam is the official religion of Iran, and all laws there must match the requirements of sharia Islamic law. Only Armenians and Assyrians are allowed to be Christians, and even they are treated as second-class citizens. Those who try to reach out to Muslims have reported imprisonment, physical abuse and harassment. In a country of 80 million people, there are only 475,000 Christians.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (David Simpson) said, Christians are an ethnic and religious group under great pressure and they are not left in peace to live their life according to their faith. Being a Christian in Iran can clearly be a matter of life and death. A Muslim who leaves Islam is considered an apostate and is at risk of the death penalty. Muslims are not even meant to shake hands with Christians, touch them or eat their food. Muslim-background believers often meet in house churches, but these are frequently monitored and raided by secret police.
I have brought the issue of Christians being arrested in their house churches to the Minister’s attention on a number of occasions. At least 108 Christians were arrested or imprisoned in 2015, and in several cases they have been physically and mentally abused. Pastor Behnam Irani, who is serving a six-year prison sentence, says:
“Many of my cellmates in prison ask me why I don’t just deny my belief and go back to my wife and children? I then ask myself: what cost did…the Lord pay to save me? I have decided to keep my faith in our Lord and stay in prison.”
He has no human rights and his family have no redress. He must simply live a life that we would not allow a dog to live in this country. That is what is happening to a minister and pastor of a church. That is what is happening to Christians in Iran.
It is widely reported that there are negotiations to allow Iran exemptions on the nuclear agreement. I have not been supportive in any way of any relaxation of regulations on a nation that has not proven itself to be trustworthy with such weapons of mass destruction. The Minister will recall our debate in the Chamber on the nuclear agreement and the concerns that not only I but many Conservative Members raised that night about a deal that denied human rights to many ethnic groups, and to Christians in particular.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech. I agree with many of his sentiments. Does he agree that Open Doors is doing fantastic work in Iran and other countries to help persecuted Christians?
My hon. Friend highlights one of the key organisations. Open Doors is working hard, and it is launching its report on the middle east at half-past 2 this afternoon. I understand that invitations went out to all MPs, many of whom have replied. Many organisations are working in the middle east, including Relief International, the Barnabas Fund and Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
It is widely reported that there are negotiations to allow Iran exemptions on the nuclear agreement. If Iran is prepared to torture and kill Christians in their own country for practising what has been labelled a western religion that promotes a western lifestyle, what will it do against the hated western world with the power it will hold? Can we be secure? My answer is a definite no. I will continue to oppose any agreement that would give an unknown amount of power to an unknown foe.
We have highlighted the persecution of Christians, but followers of the Baha’i faith and many followers of the Jewish religion are also subject to unbelievable discrimination and specific debarment from education and employment. In March 2015 the all-party Christians in Parliament group and the all-party parliamentary group on international freedom of religion or belief published a joint report on the persecution of Christians in Iran. The executive summary sums up much of what needs to be said here today:
“The joint-APPG Inquiry into the persecution of Christians in Iran held two oral evidence sessions (hereafter called ‘Westminster hearings’) in December 2014, and took testimony from thirteen witnesses. Some witnesses gave their statements via video, while others were interviewed in person by the panel. The Inquiry also received statements from NGOs and experts that work in this field. The Inquiry heard that the persecution of Christians in Iran has not diminished since Hassan Rouhani took the presidential office, despite his pre-election promises of greater respect for human rights.”
The facts and evidence are there for the country to see. The summary continues:
“Christians continue to be arbitrarily arrested and interrogated because of their faith-related activities. They continue to be treated harshly, with some facing severe physical and psychological torture during periods of detention. The judiciary continues to construe legitimate Christian activities (such as meeting in private homes for prayer meeting and bible studies, or being in contact with Christians outside of Iran) as political activities that threaten the national security of Iran.”
What nonsense. The summary continues:
“Therefore Christians continue to be issued long prison sentences and/or corporal punishment. Churches continue to be pressured into ceasing all services or activities in the national language of Persian (Farsi), or are closed down.”
We have evidence of that happening, too. It continues:
“Property belonging to Christians has continued to be seized, and Christians continue to face discrimination in the workplace and in educational institutions.”
All those things are happening. It continues:
“There has been no substantive change in Iran’s human rights record since the election of President Rouhani; in fact by some indicators you could argue that things have gotten worse.”
That seems to be the case: things have gotten worse.
I will now conclude my speech, because I am conscious of the time. We must be able to exert some influence and diplomatic pressure. I look to the Minister to bring about change and to take the decisive step that is needed. Speak up and speak out for those who are prohibited from speaking for themselves, and put down a clear marker that such persecution cannot be allowed to continue behind closed doors in Iran.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing the debate; I know she is passionate about this subject. When I was elected to Parliament, I never expected that years later I would have the opportunity to introduce her to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr Zarif, as I did earlier this year, and that she would say “This is the happiest day since I was elected.”
It is hard to think of a subject on which there is more ignorance than Iran and our relations with it. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for whom I have a lot of respect, spoke articulately about the persecution of Christians. When I went to the World Against Violence and Extremism conference 18 months ago, which was organised by the President of the Republic, I was surprised to be the only British person there apart from my translator, who is British-Iranian and British-born but speaks Farsi. There was a former Prime Minister of Norway; the former President Zardari, the widower of Benazir, from Pakistan; and the former Anglican Bishop of Washington, a Catholic cardinal, a professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and various others from the United States. I said to our Iranian hosts, “You should target those in the United States Congress who speak out most against you and get them to come here and see what a normal country Iran actually is.”
I ended up becoming chair of the all-party group on Iran slightly by accident, when my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) became a member of the Government and asked me if I would do it. The reason I got involved in the group was that four years ago, in 2012, it was seriously said that this country might consider attacking Iran with bombs. I was a Member of Parliament in 2003 when we attacked Iraq, and I voted against it. The arguments made in 2012 sounded eerily familiar to me. I decided that I was not going to trust anyone else’s opinion, so I went to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, met the nuclear inspectors who were going to Iran, heard what they had to say and wrote it down in a hardback book, which I still have. They said, “We have no evidence of nuclear weapons-grade material.” It is also worth recalling that Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, which various other countries such as India, Pakistan and Israel are not.
The real ignorance, though, stems from something else. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble pointed out, our history with Iran goes back for several centuries. Relatively little of that history, particularly over the past 100 years, reflects well on this country. There are a lot of reasons, many of them good ones, why the Iranians have been very prickly towards us.
I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect on what he said about his attendance at the conference. I have no doubt whatever that it would be a good thing for more people to go to Iran and see what type of country it is. However, he said that Iran could be seen as a normal country.
Presumably he will take the opportunity to rectify that comment in the light of the litany of instances of persecution of Christians in that country.
No. There is persecution throughout the world. Many people think that abortion is a fundamental human right and that for a country to make it illegal is not normal. I happen to disagree with them, but the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Strangford represent constituencies in which abortion is still illegal. I think that is a decision for local people to make locally, but what constitutes “normal” is actually a very wide spectrum.
The key point that needs to be understood is that after 9/11, while much of the middle east was yodelling in the street at the destruction of the twin towers and the murder of many thousands of people, including many Muslims, Iran flew its flags at half mast, held candlelit vigils and offered the United States strategic and logistical help in the fight against the Taliban, which was accepted,.
I hope the hon. Member for Strangford, as a serious religious man, will listen carefully to this: what is least understood about all these imbroglios, and indeed about what is going on in Syria, is that to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and now Daesh, the first enemy is not the west and not Christians but the Shi’a. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Iranians are supporting the Shi’a in Syria, or that the Iranians were opposed to the Taliban who wanted to kill the Shi’a. It should come as no surprise that the Iranians were deeply opposed to al-Qaeda, which particularly attacks the Shi’a.
I do not disagree with the hon. Gentleman, but the point that my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I are trying to make is that 108 Christians were arrested and imprisoned last year. That is hardly an indication of a Government that is open and inclusive of Christianity. Pastor Behnam Irani is serving a six-year prison sentence because he is a Christian who refused to accept the Muslim religion and wanted to preach to his people. That is an example of what is taking place.
Did the hon. Gentleman say 108?
That is exactly the same number of people who were beheaded in Saudi Arabia last year. I know that that is equally irrelevant, but let me just point out—[Interruption.]
I will not give way at the moment. I have the floor, and I will not give way. This is a free Parliament and I will have my say, and what I want to say is that we will have better relations with Iran and more opportunities to influence it, including on questions of Christianity, if we talk to it.
After I went to the British embassy in Vienna and met the British ambassador, the diplomats dropped us off outside the door of the Iranian embassy, where Ambassador Soltanieh, Iran’s ambassador to the IAEA for many years, was still in residence. I was amazed that the British diplomats, who were paid for by our constituents’ taxes, said to us at the door of the embassy, “We’ll be leaving you here—we won’t be going in. We’re polite to them when we have to be, but we have as little to do with them as possible.” I remember being shocked and thinking, “Do you think it’s just possible that if you knew the names of Ambassador Soltanieh’s grandchildren, you might have a better relationship and get more engagement?”
Hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, have talked about commercial relations. I commend to them the speech made in this Chamber on 26 March 2014—at column 117WH of the Official Report—by the former Foreign Secretary and right hon. Member for Blackburn, Jack Straw, in which he talked about commercial trade between Iran and the United States. Despite there being no diplomatic relations, the US’s trade is going up at the same time that Iran is using commercial penalties to discriminate against other companies, particularly British companies—although I am pleased to say that Group Lotus, the largest private sector employer in my constituency, opened a car dealership in Tehran two weeks ago and sold 20 cars.
I will not concentrate on the geopolitics any more, because other Members will doubtless have things to say about that and I do not want to take up too much more time. In my remaining minutes, I will refer briefly to another matter. I have mentioned that it is hardly a surprise that Iran is involved in protecting the Shi’a. What is not known is that in 2003, through the Swiss ambassador, the Iranians made an offer to the United States that would have involved support for the Arab League’s 22-state Beirut declaration. It would have involved mutual recognition of Israel; an end to military support for Hezbollah and help with its conversion to a purely political party; and intrusive nuclear inspections. I very much regret to say that the United States rejected that offer and managed in the process to call Iran part of the “axis of evil”. It is hard to think of a more crass way to respond to such an offer. The direct consequence was the election of the hard-liner Ahmadinejad.
Iran is a very complex place. My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble said many insightful things, but one of the most insightful was that it is not either/or situation. It is complex and nuanced, and there are plenty of people in Iran who want the relationship to fail.
Five Iranian MPs came here last year for a very successful visit. We had quite a lot happening in Westminster and Whitehall, and we took them to see a professor of literature at Cambridge for what proved to be an extremely fruitful exchange. It was a low-key visit, partly because we understood from talking to the diplomats that the Iranians were concerned that any failure of the visit would strengthen the hand of the people back in Iran who wanted to point at them and say, “You see? We told you it wouldn’t work.” In fact, the reverse occurred.
You don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies. I do not think we should have enemies—we should try hard to work co-operatively with everyone. There is a huge amount to do on Iran. Let us not forget that, following the implementation of the joint comprehensive plan of action, the IAEA has said four times in four reports this year that Iran has met its obligations. It is not completely obvious whether we are meeting ours. I wrote to the Governor of the Bank of England about that recently, because at the moment British-Iranian registered banks that are UK-authorised and regulated are unable to do business in the UK or send and receive sterling payments. They cannot even easily pay their council tax. An Iran Air flight that lands at Heathrow has to have enough fuel to be able to take off again and land in Vienna, where it can fuel up and pay. Many other countries in Europe have managed to sort out such payments, so I hope that the Minister will address that. I know he thinks he will need the help of the Treasury, which is why I copied my letter to the Governor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
It is worth pointing out that on the Bank of England website, among its various roles in undertaking a wide range of policy and operational responsibilities that are vital to the functioning of a smooth economy, the Bank itself clearly states:
“It is also the role of the Banking Directorate”,
which is within the Bank of England,
“to respond to unpredictable and exceptional events in the financial system.”
I think we have an exceptional event in Iran. There is, in effect, an exceptional circumstance that requires an extraordinary solution.
No one pretends that this is easy or that we will solve all the problems overnight, but I invite Members to join the all-party group and support our endeavours for better relations. We have an interesting meeting coming up on 18 October with Sir William Patey, the former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia; Professor Ali Ansari from the University of St Andrews; Jack Straw himself; and Michael Stephens, a research fellow from the Royal United Services Institute. They will be talking about Iran-Saudi relations, which is the real fulcrum of the problem that we have in the middle east.
Order. Three hon. Members from the same party have risen to speak. We have approximately 16 minutes; the maths speaks for itself.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing the debate. I introduced a debate on human rights in Iran on 28 June. I do not intend to repeat all the issues that were raised then. Given the amount of time I have, I shall concentrate on two issues: the information that emerged over the summer about a massacre in 1988, and Iran’s regional aggression.
It has become known that, in 1988, the Iranian regime executed more than 30,000 people. Many of them were political prisoners held in jails. Some were people who had been released from jail, having served their sentence, but who were then summarily recalled and executed.
The majority were serving prison sentences for political activities or, as I said, had already finished their sentences. After a fatwa was issued by Ayatollah Khomeini, the wave of executions began in late July 1988 and continued for a few months. Many of those killed refused to repent their beliefs and as such were executed. What action is the Minister taking to ensure that the regime in Tehran not only acknowledges what happened but takes action to ensure that those responsible, many of whom are still in power, are brought to justice? Will the Minister ask the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Human Rights Council and the UN Security Council to order an investigation to achieve that?
I turn to some issues that have arisen in the past 15 months, since the nuclear deal was agreed. I was very much against the deal. I was disappointed that the issue of human rights was decoupled from the deal, because that was a missed opportunity to put pressure on the Iranian regime. I think it was a vainglorious attempt by President Obama to secure a legacy—a legacy that will not actually be achieved. We have seen that with the number of people that Iran has continued to execute over the past 15 months. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) talked about abortion and what is and what is not normal. It is not normal to execute nine-year-old girls.
I did not say it was.
I never suggested that my hon. Friend said it was, but I am saying that it is not normal to execute nine-year-old girls, or boys at the age of 15 or, indeed, to gouge out anyone’s eyes. It is not normal to execute people in the ways and numbers in which they are currently being executed in Iran. There has been much comment in the debate about the different sections of Iranian society that have been persecuted, including the Sunnis, the Kurds and the Baha’i. I received an email from the National Union of Journalists about its brothers and sisters in Iran who are not able to undertake their work as journalists and are not in a free civil society. I do not feel that that is normal either.
In July this year, the UK’s ambassador to the United Nations expressed his concern about Iran’s regional aggression, declaring that the ballistic missiles tested by Iran are designed to deliver nuclear weapons. In his speech to the UN Security Council, Ambassador Rycroft made it clear that Iran’s
“continued testing of ballistic missiles which are designed to be capable of carrying nuclear weapons is destabilising to regional security and inconsistent with Resolution 2231”,
as others have said already.
In the past 12 hours or so, there has been much comment in the media about the Foreign Secretary’s comments, in yesterday’s debate on Syria, about the role of Russia. But Russia is not the only game in town. Russia may have what we might call interests in—or may interfere in—Ukraine and Syria, but Iran interferes in and has much greater interests in other parts of the region. It interferes not only in Yemen, but in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. The tentacles from Tehran continue to spread. That has been allowed and achieved as a result of the nuclear deal unfreezing assets that the Revolutionary Guard and others are using to cause dissent in the region.
It is a great pleasure to serve under a fellow Liverpudlian, Mr Hanson.
I rise to speak in this debate because, for me, Iran represents a fork in the road for British foreign policy. Yesterday, we saw highlighted starkly the limits of the isolation and damnation until the point of intervention policy of the past 20 years. Given that we cannot afford, militarily, socially or financially, to do the same again, our approach to Iran is critical.
Before I continue, I acknowledge and reiterate the fact that, for our own safety and for that of the Iranians, we cannot waver on the question of Iran gaining nuclear weapons. It needs to understand that working with the P5+1 is vital, because it is far better to deal with us in a rule-bound international system than to chance its hand with other, perhaps more powerful, nations in the region. For our own part, we cannot allow the Iranians to trigger a proliferation race across the whole middle east and add layer upon layer to existing nuclear states’ deterrence calculations. That would be a recipe for disaster, especially in a region where civilian control over military arsenals is imperfect and the experience of safety issues is less developed.
Following the deal, it was pleasing to see the reopening of the embassy and the risks of a nuclear standoff far more remote than we had feared a few years earlier. I, too, remember the cover of The Economist in February 2012, and the headline “Bombing Iran”. It seems that sanctions worked in Iran, but it could be argued that we saw their limits. They arguably forced the end of the Ahmadinejad Government and brought forward a more conciliatory one in Rouhani’s Government, but it is unrealistic to expect the people to blame only their own Government for their hardship and it is imprudent to weaken the position of Rouhani versus hardliners.
From now on, perhaps we should attempt to build bridges to generate good will. We need to change the calculation of interests in Tehran so that the costs of a combative approach are seen as being far greater than those of a co-operative one. Yes, that signal should be sent with strength and not appeasement, but it does require us not to be openly hostile. Progress can be made, and it should be, not least because we know that our own western liberal culture is a kind of benign Japanese knotweed. It is invasive, and it starts in no better place than at the intellectual level, in academia. Although we are right to acknowledge the regime’s oppressive treatment of academics and disregard for the principles of free speech and free exchange that are so vital to academic debate, Iran still has a highly educated population, as others have pointed out—I gather it has 97% literacy among the young—and the potential to reach and surpass its previous achievements is there, if we engage.
Some promising moves are already under way in academia. For example, the School of Oriental and African Studies has just introduced the option of an exchange or visit to Iran as part of a course; the University of Cambridge has just signed a direct exchange agreement with the embassy; the British Institute of Persian Studies has a Tehran institute; and SOAS and the Universities of Edinburgh, Oxford and St Andrews all now offer Persian at degree level. Such trusses of co-operation can help to build and strengthen the bridge of understanding between the UK and Iran, which can only aid relationships at a political level.
More of the same would be positive. We should not forget that President Rouhani himself is a product of the University of Glasgow and does not have the same hostility towards the UK as his predecessor. He speaks English with a Scottish accent—or so I am told. This is cheap diplomacy, but it can build links among people in our societies that enhance the level of understanding among Governments. Business links, tourism and investment will surely follow. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) that we cannot allow the US to declare itself the world’s financial policeman. Our firms should not fear US sanctions for following UK law.
If we acknowledge that our diplomacy can gradually change Iran and its stance towards the world, we must acknowledge at the same time that Iran has enormous influence in the middle east. Given how deeply it is in our interests to see a stable and prosperous middle east, and how great the costs of failure are, as we are seeing, we cannot ignore the opportunity that engagement with Iran offers. Put simply, even if it seems to follow from our current configuration of alliances that we should be hostile, to be so would be to give in to “enemy of my enemy”, or rather “friend of my enemy is my enemy” thinking, in its crudest form.
Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am that many people seem to be surprised that Iran would wish to exercise influence in its region? That is what all countries do in relation to their neighbours.
It comes as no surprise to me, and of course it is reinforced by the hostile posture that the west has had thus far. Whenever we are hostile to countries—whether it is Russia or wherever—the first thing they do is turn inwards and look to their immediate region for defence. So it is no surprise that Iran has done the same.
As hon. Members have already said, Iran today is without doubt troublesome and destructive; some appalling things happen there. However, that will continue to happen and Iran will continue to be troublesome and destructive, even if we continue our tough line. Surely it cannot be in our interest to adopt an aggressive stance towards Iran at a time when there is an uncertain Saudi Arabian leadership transition, a worsening Syrian war and Russian aggression. The prize of a warmer relationship between Britain and Iran is too great not to try for it. The real prize is preventing Tehran’s alignment with Moscow from crystallising, and a de-escalation of the proxy fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has enflamed Syria, Iraq and Yemen. We should not take that alignment as set in stone, especially given that we have so much more to offer Iran than Russia or the Syrian Government do. We should try. Succeed, and the whole region starts to look very different and a less threatening place. One would not expect Saudi Arabia to be as confident without the west at its back. Détente between the two would beckon. Our relations with Lebanon would also improve. The resolve of Assad to win could diminish and with less backing for and more restraint of the Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, Israel, crucially, would be safer. That would be a great prize indeed, and a boon even if half-achieved.
Moving away from the arena of great power politics, however, one could also note that too much of the conversation about Iran today proceeds on the basis that the current Government are a temporary evil to be waited out. As in 2012, our rhetoric has failed to move on from Iraq, even if our belligerence has. We cannot expect Iran to trust us if we occasionally let slip that we would attack it if we felt sufficiently strong, brave or bored. In the Iranians’ calculation, the case for proliferation must look incredibly strong. In their position, we would do it, so we must change their position. Indeed, signalling, as the US did, that we have no intention of ever working with Iran was one of the most damaging errors the west has ever made, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk said. President Bush used absolutist language that had no place in state-to-state relations and, given our alignment with the US, we are implicated in that unhelpful position. That makes for a poor foundation for fruitful relations with a country of nearly 80 million people, most of whom hunger for engagement.
From the time of the revolution, Iran has been consistently portrayed as the regional “bad guy”; the west was even happy to excuse Saddam Hussein’s attacks upon it. However, as Lord Temple-Morris has noted in the other place, the bulk of ordinary Iranians want to be connected to the west and are not ideologically anti-American. They watch the BBC via illegal satellite dishes and I gather that in 2013 nearly 2 million of them voted by telephone in the Iranian version of “The X-Factor”, broadcast from the UK. The existence of this class—this plurality of voices—which we can help without over-offending the Government, steadily and carefully over the years to come can bring the change in Iran that the ayatollahs will find irresistible.
May I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) on making pretty much the speech that I was going to make? He has covered some important points. Equally, my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) made an excellent opening contribution, and I congratulate her on securing this debate. She said two important things: that jaw-jaw is better than war-war; and that it is not a black-and-white situation.
Let us think of the alternative. I remember standing in the House of Commons when the nuclear deal with Iran was announced, and there and then I asked the then Foreign Secretary what the alternative would have been. He was very clear—the alternative was that we would have gone to war. What debate would we be having in this House today if we were dropping bombs on Iran—bombs that would have done nothing, because we know from the inspectors that the targets were probably sunk in eight miles of mountainside? More importantly, and as my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble has pointed out, we are talking about an educated nation. As my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire said, we are talking about a nation that has a desire to grow, to move forward and to become middle-class, as a lot of the west already is. Nothing will unite a nation more, and encourage fighting back and proliferation more, than attacking it. We would do the same thing.
However, what we must make clear is that Iran is not a wonderful country that we should hold up as an example. Clearly, there are massive human rights abuses in Iran. Clearly, there is still funding of terrorism in the world and threats to other nations. We must bear that in mind. However, if we were to take the view that we will simply not engage with countries that do those things, as I am sure my hon. Friends from Northern Ireland will confirm, we would break off relationships with the USA, because of the amount by which it funded the IRA in the 1980s. Do we really want to turn our back on countries throughout the world because we do not agree with what they do? Are we not in this place to be diplomatic and to work on the international stage to bring about the changes that we need to bring about? Are we in this Chamber today, and in our other Chamber, approving of Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen? No, we are not; of course we are not. But will we achieve anything by just walking away from the table and saying to Saudi Arabia, “We no longer want to deal with you”? As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble said, these situations are not black and white.
However, there is a genuine concern about the actions that take place around Israel, and as a democratic state we have a duty to ensure that we support fellow democratic states that see terrorist organisations trying to undermine them. Also, we must accept that Iran at this stage may be putting more money into Hezbollah and Hamas, but that does not mean we walk away and say, “I’m sorry, Iran. We’ve decided that we’re going to bomb the backside out of you, like the rest of the middle east”, which, quite frankly, is going to hell in a handcart. How do we resolve the situation in Syria? Not easily, but Iran will be a major point of reference in that.
I will finish by simply saying, “Well done”, to my hon. Friends the Members for South Ribble and for North West Hampshire. They have made some excellent points. It is a complex situation, but my goodness—today’s debate is far better than the debate we would have been having if we were killing hundreds of thousands of innocent people.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hanson; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on securing this debate. She mentioned that she is the first person with Iranian heritage to be elected to the House; I am the first MP from the council estate of Castlemilk, but her heritage is perhaps slightly more exotic than mine.
At the outset, I must say that I thought the hon. Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) made an excellent speech. I did not buy all of it, but I thought he struck a very good balance. It is undoubtedly a good thing that we are now in a position to have these positive discussions with Iran. Indeed, I welcome the developments that have brought us to this point and I invite the House to reflect on a fact that I had hoped I could make mine, but it was stolen by the hon. Gentleman—namely, that the current President of Iran was educated at university in Glasgow. It was at Glasgow Caledonian University, as opposed to Glasgow University; I say that just to correct the record.
I have listened with interest to the contributions that have been made. Indeed, I share some of the optimism that some people feel that we are moving in the right direction, but I also think we have to pause for thought. The nuclear deal is to be celebrated; I observe that it has been one of the Government’s few foreign policy successes. In fact, I recall that, as a new Member, I attended the Foreign Office briefing for new MPs, when the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), who was then the Foreign Secretary, had just flown in from the talks about the nuclear deal. He then briefed us on his departmental responsibilities. However, progress is required in many other areas—some of which have already been outlined by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and other hon. Members—before we should be too enthusiastic about entering into a commercial embrace with Iran.
Members have stated correctly the need for consistency. Indeed, the hon. Member for Strangford and I have been consistent in speaking out against human rights abuses in countries such as Saudi Arabia, which has been mentioned several times this morning. That consistency requires us to do the same when it comes to Iran. Should we be so comfortable about embracing a country that is part of a tangled web of complex relationships that are causing so many problems around the world and in fact are working in direct opposition to our own foreign policy objectives? I am not suggesting we cut all ties and walk away, but the relationship has to be thought through and balanced.
We have to consider what Iran’s relationships with some of its proxies in the middle east mean for that strategy—its relationship with Hamas, Hezbollah and the Assad Government in Syria. What those relationships represent is not good for peace in the middle east. In fact, they undermine some of our own objectives in the middle east. If we get the strategy wrong, we risk a very dangerous outcome.
From my knowledge and interest in UK-Saudi affairs, I would say it is imperative that, before we embark on a full commercial relationship with the Iranian regime—let us not doubt for a moment that that many of these businesses will be closely linked to the Iranian deep state—we do not allow it to reach the stage that it has with Saudi Arabia, where commercial considerations trump good foreign policy making.
What of the human rights record in Iran, much of which was brilliantly outlined by the hon. Member for Strangford? Although in some respects it is not quite as medieval as Saudi Arabia, there are enormously alarming cases that should cause us to pause for thought, such as the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, which has been mentioned several times in the House. She is a British-Iranian citizen who has been subjected to 45 days of solitary confinement, denied legal representation and subsequently sentenced after a secret trial to five years in prison on unspecified national security charges. This is one of numerous cases of the Iranian authorities imprisoning dual nationals, which they do not even recognise, on unspecified charges.
I listened to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) with an open mind, and I listened with interest to his description of visiting Iran. Perhaps when he returns he can ask to visit the notorious Evin detention centre, which is well known for housing political prisoners, intellectuals and academics, many of whom we have celebrated here this morning.
The case of Salman Rushdie, a personal hero of mine and one of the world’s most celebrated essayists and novelists, is more widely known. He has spent a large chunk of his adult life in hiding in this country with a death sentence hanging over his head because the Iranian Government did not like some words he had written in “The Satanic Verses”. The hon. Member for South Ribble opened her remarks by talking about the importance of celebrating poetry and cultural links with Iran. Perhaps if we had had some of that at the time of the publication of his book, Mr Rushdie would have been a free man for longer than he has been allowed to be.
Members may have thought that the case of Mr Rushdie had almost died and gone away, but as recently as this year the Iranian state media added $600,000 dollars to the existing cash that was offered for the killing of Mr Rushdie, one of the finest advocates for free speech that this country has ever been home to.
I am pleased that our diplomatic relations have been upgraded, but that did not happen overnight. The Minister, his Department and several of our allies applied themselves over a long period of time, often when it seemed hopeless and when entrenched interests tried to veto progress, to achieve the circumstances that brought us the nuclear deal, resulting in the change in diplomatic relations. It shows what can be achieved when there is political will to achieve progress in relations with hitherto hostile states.
I appeal to the House—perhaps not the hon. Member for South Ribble who secured this debate, because of her own personal experience—not to be so naive and idealistic as to think that we have reached a point where trade relations can be normal with Iran. If a price is to be put on UK-Iranian relations, let it be calculated in progress on human rights and a foreign policy that does not continue to undermine our own interests in the middle east.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Hanson. I congratulate the hon. Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) on her excellent speech, and particularly her references to her own family. It is always a pleasure to hear about other Members’ backgrounds and their interests in Parliament. I want to put on the record my interest in Iran, not least because of my reading the novel “Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, which I am sure many Members know and which has been made into a lovely film. I hope many can watch that film and learn about Persia, its history and about the beautiful Farsi language.
We are so lucky to have room 52 at the British Museum just down the road, so that we can go and see all the beautiful cultural treasures from Cyrus the Great’s 6th-century Persian empire. We also have my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies. I am delighted to hear from other Members today that SOAS is offering trips to Iran as part of scholars’ interest in that wonderful country. One day I hope to visit Persepolis and see the wonderful marbles. Of course, Iran has 21 UNESCO world heritage sites.
I also want to put on the record my appreciation and that of Labour Members of the role of the European Union foreign team, including the excellent work that Cathy Ashton did, in developing the big step forward that was made in July 2015 in what is now called the Iranian nuclear deal. Sometimes we forget the important role that the European Union has played in foreign affairs.
I look forward to the Minister’s comments on Iran. I ask him whether we can anticipate what resources there will be in the Foreign Office in years to come, when we may be doing foreign affairs in a slightly different way following our Brexit negotiations. How many experts in the Foreign Office speak Farsi, for example? I am sure we have a couple with us today, but is there an argument for increased resource so that we can meet demand?
Members are right not to have too rosy a view of Iran. I was pleased that the hon. Members for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned the persecution of Christians and other minority groups. We know that many gay people have a very difficult time in Iran. We also know that the arbitrary imprisonment of human rights activists is a common occurrence, which many Members raise regularly at Foreign Office questions.
Following the question asked in the House of Lords in September 2016, will the Minister update us on the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Many constituents have written to Members about her case. It is great that we have so many constituents who are concerned about the position of women in Iran. I am sure the hon. Member for South Ribble also feels strongly about that, and I am sure she will raise that matter if she gets the opportunity, perhaps through her work on the all-party group when it visits Iran.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and the all-party group for the work that they do. It is slightly under-appreciated outside Parliament just how much cross-party work can be done. I understand that there was a trip in recent years when the former Member for Blackburn went to Iran with my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn). I do not know whether the hon. Member for South Norfolk was present on that trip, but there is a lot that can be done, with a cross-section of interests, to promote good relations and a positive side of foreign affairs. We all come from different constituencies and have different interests, but in the end we are trying to promote dialogue and a peaceful future in the middle east.
The hon. Gentleman was right to say that we have common interests with Iran, particularly with regard to the current conflict in the middle east and how we can tackle the long-term problem of al-Qaeda and Daesh. I wonder whether we could question the Foreign Office more on that cross-section of interests, including on how we as parliamentarians could push forward on those issues.
I want to emphasise a couple of points that have come up in my research. We are focusing very much on the positive today, but there is of course always unpredictability to our relations with Iran—I think particularly of the 2011 incident when a mob stormed the British Embassy, which it is important to put on record in a debate such as this. There have been cautious steps forward, but we must not forget the importance of our staff’s safety. That incident did lead to a slight step backwards.
The hon. Lady and other hon. Members have mentioned some dreadful incidents that have taken place in Iran. Would she accept that part of the argument about engaging with Iran is that we need to recognise that millions of Iranians will have been horrified at those events too? Millions of Iranians who saw the storming of the British Embassy will have held their hands up in horror at what was happening and the damage that it was wreaking to their relations with the rest of the world.
The hon. Gentleman is right to put on record how these incidents need to be regarded and to say that we need to move forward and not dwell on things, but it is equally correct to put it on record that sometimes it feels a bit like two steps forward, one step back. That is the case in any relationship—in the major foreign policy discussion that we are having at the moment around Brexit, day by day we move small inches forward and a couple of steps back. We need to be realistic about that process when talking about important, strategic places such as Iran.
I will come to a conclusion, as I am sure the Minister is keen to make his remarks. I press him on the question of providing further debating time for this important relationship; on how we can work together to strengthen our approach to tackling security concerns around al-Qaeda and Daesh, including by working with Iran at a cross-sectional interest level; and on how we can promote the understanding of cultural and language groups, through the all-party parliamentary group, our excellent universities such as SOAS and places such as the British Museum,. I was pleased to hear that the Minister had stepped in to save Farsi as a taught language. Along with Mandarin, Arabic, Turkish and Greek, Farsi needs to be on the curriculum much more regularly in our schools and universities, and I was pleased to hear of his interesting role in that. I look forward to his updating us not just on human rights concerns in Iran but on how we can work more cohesively and positively towards our relationship with that great country.
I thank all hon. Members who have participated in what has been an excellent debate. I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Seema Kennedy) for what I thought was a powerful and emotive, but very sober, reflection on Britain’s relationship with Iran. The duality of the situation that we face with Iran at this juncture was reflected in the contributions right across the field.
I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble began by highlighting the history and the context in which we find ourselves today. We sometimes rush into these debates, looking at the details, without first appreciating or reminding ourselves of that bond. It is perhaps more relevant in the countries in the middle east. To them, the bonds that existed in the past are very important—we perhaps gloss over them, and we should remind ourselves. I appreciate that my hon. Friend reminded us of what happened in the 1800s and before, as our English naval capability was strengthening its ties and its trade relationships with India, Iran and the Trucial agreement that took place with the Gulf nations—indeed, the role of Persia in the great game—were all part of the tapestry that created those bonds, which were furthered by the discovery of oil and the beginnings of what is today BP. There is a legacy and history that ties us together and of which we should be reminded, as we look to embark on a new relationship following the important, generational change and opportunity that Iran now has with the nuclear deal.
We were reminded of the size of the diaspora in this country, which is connected to what happened in the 1979 revolution—about 85,000 people are directly connected with Iran. We were also reminded of the 2016 elections. Without delving too much into domestic matters, I was buoyed by the outcome of those elections and the change in the approach and direction of travel in the Majlis and in the Assembly of Experts. We are seeing the country take positive steps.
My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) highlighted the very educated, very young population, who are as aware as anybody of what is happening in the rest of the world and are expressing a desire to have a good, solid, positive and responsible relationship within their own country, the region and the rest of the world. That is what the bulk of ordinary Iranians are asking for. The issue is—dare I say?—the old guard, who at the moment very much recognise a desire for change in their country, but are unsure of how to embark on the next steps and how to adapt to the change the people of their country are demanding of them.
Many hon. Members, but specifically my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—who I will call my honourable friend in this context and who has persistently and consistently raised the issue—spoke of the importance of the plight of Christians and other minorities such as the Baha’is. That shows the duality that we face here. There is an opportunity for trade, engagement and so on but there is still much work to do in other areas. We have to decide how we fit into that— how to balance that interest and opportunity while taking advantage of greater engagement and conversation to encourage change in those other critical areas.
As with other debates, I will write to my hon. Friends and hon. Members in reply to their specific questions, particularly where I do not have the answers right now. That is not a cop-out; it will allow me to give hon. Members answers in depth. I will focus the rest of my time on the questions posed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble, who began by talking about the trade opportunities that exist.
We should not ignore the fact that this is the biggest new market to open up in a decade. Trade is certainly growing. Since the nuclear deal and the relaxation of sanctions, our bilateral trade has increased. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister’s envoy, Lord Lamont, who has done a sterling job in bringing leaders, for instance Foreign Minister Zarif, to meet parliamentarians and business people. That helps to create the atmosphere where business can be conducted. Lord Lamont has taken delegations out to Tehran as well.
There are clearly huge areas of opportunity, not just in hydrocarbons and traditional areas. There has been little spending on infrastructure in Tehran for more than three decades. We have a role that we can play, if we choose, but as has been expressed across the board, there is a massive hindrance at the moment. There is a huge hurdle at the moment in the form of legacy sanctions and US sanctions connected to the banking sector, which prohibit US passport holders from being able to do business—or make them worried to do business—for fear of triggering US sanctions. I have had discussions with John Kerry—with the Americans and others—and we came close to having a meeting with the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which is the US Treasury committee that focuses on this issue. We were not successful in getting that meeting, but we will persevere to make that happen. John Kerry and the director of OFAC, John Smith, said that they do not stand in the way of business being permitted in the context of the joint comprehensive plan of action. However, businesses, including big British banks, have raised the cautionary concern that US passport holders do not feel confident at the moment to go and do business in Tehran. The Government understand that we need to resolve that issue urgently.
We are also offering financial support. The Bank of England’s role was mentioned, and we have other financial services. Given the experience of the City, we are offering Tehran advice and support on how it can introduce anti-money laundering programmes and counter the financing of terrorism. We want to ensure that those products are in place as its own financial services develop.
The Minister mentioned the Americans. It is comforting to everyone that he came close to securing a meeting with OFAC, but it would be even more comforting if he had actually secured it, so I hope he succeeds in doing so. Is he worried, as I am, that the United States, despite not having diplomatic relations with Iran, is acting in a way that secures its own commercial interests at the expense of other western partners? It is noticeable that Germany and France are both putting pressure on the United States and reminding it to lift the sanctions, as it is supposed to do in accordance with the JCPOA obligations.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. In fact, we discussed that matter in some of the forums we had with leaders who have come over from Iran. I am very much focused on going back to that committee. Unfortunately, the very people who wanted to attend felt that they might trigger the sanctions simply by being at the meeting to discuss this matter. That is the cautionary environment that we now face.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble mentioned the consequences of Brexit. Let me remind everyone that, although we are backing away from direct involvement in the European Union itself, Britain is not stepping back from trying to solve the problems of the day. Britain will step up to the plate, whether on Ebola in Sierra Leone or on trying to get a nuclear deal. Although we will not be part of the EU in the future, Britain will participate in those important matters because that is who we are and what we want to do. Outside or inside the EU, Britain has a role to play on the international stage, and we will continue to pursue striking international deals, as we did with Iran.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked whether our embassy has the capacity to grow and whether we have the capability. Absolutely, we do. As trade starts to develop, all embassies will make an assessment of where things are moving and where developments are taking place. We have now got an embassy with a full ambassador in place, so that is already happening.
Can the Minister tell me how many people speak Farsi in the Foreign Office in London?
I will certainly get the hon. Lady the details on that important question.
Our embassy is growing. I am pleased to say that ambassadors are now in place on both sides. There was some sniggering when soft power was mentioned, but I must stress that we are considered one of the world’s most important and influential soft powers. It is because we are a permanent member of the United Nations; we are committed, engaged and determined to understand the world around us; we have a hard-power capability and are the biggest military force in Europe; we have a history and a relationship with many countries around the world; and we remain committed, transparent and trusted. That all adds up to being an important soft power. That is why debates like this are important. Those things allow us to have more influence over other countries that do not have such relationships and simply shout from afar expecting change to happen.
I entirely agree with what the Minister said about the UK’s soft power in the world. He said that, after Brexit, we will continue to have a strong role on the world stage, in particular at the UN. I do not know whether the Minister is going to get to this point but, in relation to the nuclear deal, what is the UK’s response to Iran’s breach of UN resolution 2231 through ballistic testing and so on? What assessment has the Minister made of it? What are we doing at the UN about it?
I will come to that point in a second. The short answer is that the two issues are quite separate. The nuclear deal stands alone and is specifically to do with containment of the ability to create a nuclear weapon. Resolution 2231 is to do with ballistic missiles and the capability of launching an intercontinental or a nuclear weapon using that vehicle. The tests that are taking place are triggering further sanctions separate to the nuclear deal.
The next question that my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble asked was about dual nationals. That is a very sensitive issue, as hon. Members will be aware, because Iran does not recognise dual nationality, which causes problems and is a concern to anybody choosing to travel to Iran thinking that they will be supported by Britain in the way they would if they had sole British citizenship. That is the challenge that we face. We are working very hard on a number of consular cases, particularly those of Kamal Foroughi and Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Those are two of the most prominent cases, and hon. Members will have had many letters on those matters. They are dual nationals, and that is the challenge that we face. I encourage anybody with a dual nationality who is thinking of travelling to Iran to look carefully at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website before travelling so they are fully aware of the situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble also talked about Iran’s maturing stance following the nuclear deal. The deal allows a change in attitude towards Iran and further dialogue on the human rights issues that have been discussed, to which I am afraid I cannot do justice in the short time remaining.
Iran is at a crossroads. The nuclear deal that has been signed with the UK and the other E3+3 countries is an opportunity.
Will the Minister give way?
I cannot give way, because I have to allow a couple of minutes for the proposer of the motion to speak.
We must take a balanced approach. We must robustly enforce the nuclear deal and check the human rights concerns that have been raised in this debate, while promoting trade opportunities. We stand ready to help Iran at this juncture, but we expect it to check its proxy influence in the region around it and play a responsible role as it moves into the future.
I thank colleagues for their many thoughtful and interesting contributions to this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) spoke with great experience about the need for more knowledge and engagement. My hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse) put Iran in the wider context of Britain’s foreign policy. My hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) said rightly that it is good that we are not here having bombed Iran in 2012. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) always speaks powerfully and he put on the record his concerns about the treatment of women and religious minorities in Iran. I thank all hon. Members for their time. I thank the Minister for his response. I asked a number of technical questions, and I look forward to his responses to those he could not answer in his speech.
Iran is a middle east superpower and a vital key in the region’s security. All avenues of engagement and dialogue to build a bridge of understanding, to quote my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire, should be pursued. Debates in this House are a vital part of such bridge building, and I thank all hon. Members who attended.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered relations between Britain and Iran.