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Crisis in Iran

Volume 721: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if he will make a statement on the current crisis in Iran.

We have all been in awe of the bravery of the Iranian people since the death of Mahsa Amini over five weeks ago. The Iranian people have taken to the streets to express in no uncertain terms that the sustained repression of their rights by the Iranian regime must end. Women should no longer face detention and violence for what they wear or how they behave in public. The Iranian regime’s use of live ammunition and birdshot against protestors is barbaric. There have been reports of at least 23 children having died and non-governmental organisations suggest over 200 deaths during the protests.

Mass arrests of protestors and the restriction of internet access are sadly typical of this oppressive regime’s flagrant disregard for human rights. These are not the actions of a Government listening to the legitimate demands of their people for greater respect for their rights. It can be no surprise that the Iranian people have had enough. This year, 2022, has seen a sharp increase in the use of the death penalty, a sustained attack on the rights of women, intensified persecution of the Baha’i, and greater repression of freedom of expression and speech online.

The UK has been robust in joining the international community’s response to holding Iran accountable for its human rights violations. The Foreign Secretary summoned the most senior Iranian official in the UK on Monday 3 October to express our concern at the treatment of protesters. On Monday 10 October, the UK imposed sanctions on Iran’s so-called morality police and seven individuals responsible for serious human rights violations in Iran.

The UK has consistently raised the situation in Iran in the United Nations Human Rights Council and through other multilateral fora. On 13 October, the UK issued a joint statement with European partners condemning the death of Mahsa Amini and calling on Iran to stop the violence and listen to the concern of its people. On 20 October, the UK joined 33 other members of the Freedom Online Coalition in issuing a joint statement condemning internet shutdowns in Iran.

We continue to work with our international partners to explore all options for addressing Iran’s human rights violations. Through the UK’s action on sanctions and robust statements with international partners, we have sent a clear message. The Iranian authorities will be held accountable for their repression of women and girls and for the shocking violence that they have inflicted on the Iranian people.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Minister for her answer. I also thank the Foreign Secretary for his letter yesterday advising me that I have been sanctioned by the Iranian regime.

Since the brutal murder of Mahsa Jina Amini by the morality police, there has been a nationwide uprising in Iran. Contrary to what the Minister advised, the National Council of Resistance of Iran advised that more than 400 mainly female protesters have been murdered and that more than 20,000 have been arrested over the past 39 days of nationwide protests. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must issue the strongest condemnation of those killings and mass arrests? In order to do so, is it not right that we recall our ambassador from Tehran and even consider closing our embassy in Iran, to demonstrate that this is unacceptable?

Does the Minister also agree that we need to recognise the Iranian’s people right to self-defence and resistance in the face of the deadly crackdown, which particularly targets women and their right to establish a democratic republic? I note the sanctions that have been issued by our Government against particular individuals in Iran, but does she not agree that now would be completely the wrong time to renew the JCPOA—joint comprehensive plan of action—agreement and give Iran the capability to establish nuclear weapons? Does she also agree that it is now time to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and—I say this to the Secretary of State—its assets in the UK?

I thank my hon. Friend, and I probably ought to congratulate him on being sanctioned—that shows all the efforts that he and many colleagues in the House have made to call out the regime and the terrible actions that are taking place in Iran. The death of Mahsa Amini is a shocking reminder of the repression that women in Iran face.

We condemn the Iranian authorities and have taken very strong action. We condemn the crackdown on protesters, journalists and internet freedom. The use of violence in response to the expression of fundamental rights by women, or any other members of Iranian society, is wholly unjustifiable. We will continue to work, including with our international partners, to explore all options for addressing Iran’s human rights violations. However, as my hon. Friend knows, we will never be able to comment on possible future actions, sanctions or designations.

For the past six weeks, Iran has seen huge protests following the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of its brutal morality police. Ms Amini was violently beaten following her arrest for breaching strict hijab rules.

Iranians in huge numbers have bravely said that they will accept this no longer. Women and girls are putting their lives on the line to lead a mass movement calling for nothing more than basic human rights and civil liberties. Braving severe state repression, hundreds of thousands of Iranians have joined protests. Over 12,500 have been arrested and, sadly, over 250 people have died at the hands of the security forces. Britain must support all those who stand up for basic freedoms, including freedom of conscience and religion and the freedom to live one’s life as one chooses.

It is clear that the Iranian regime is restricting information in an attempt to quash the protests. Internet access has been periodically blocked in the country, meaning that details of human rights abuses cannot be shared and protesters cannot organise. Freedom of information is integral to the success of any political movement. The UK must and can play a strong role in supporting an independent press in Iran. Reporters Without Borders has declared Iran one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom: journalists routinely face harassment, detention and threats to their family. What are the UK Government doing to encourage press freedom in Iran? What pressure is the UK putting on Iran to support fundamental human rights and freedom of speech?

The UK can and should lead calls for the UN Human Rights Council to urgently establish an international investigative and accountability mechanism to collect, consolidate, preserve and analyse evidence of the most serious crimes in Iran under international law. Can the Minister assure me that the UK will do so?

There is much that we all agree on in this House, from our condemnation of what is happening in Iran to the actions we take and how we work with others. We are looking at all options to hold Iran to account for its human rights violations, and we are active participants at the UN Human Rights Council. On press freedom, last week we joined a statement of the Media Freedom Coalition condemning Iran’s repression of journalists. We will continue to do so, working with other countries and other groups to call out Iran, as well as taking firm steps, as I laid out in my statement.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this important UQ. What we are seeing in Iran is state industrialised femicide. We are also seeing Iran being increasingly aggressive abroad in support of terrorist states and terrorist organisations. Will we finally act to sanction the IRGC, which is sending surface-to-surface missiles to Russia, supporting proxies across the region and spreading harmful radicalising narratives online? Will the Minister also broaden our classification of terrorist content beyond Salafi-Takfiri extremist ideology to include Shi’a Islamist extremist materials? That is the only way in which we will protect our communities at home from their reach.

Yes. We have an assessment, which we have shared with my hon. Friend, of Iran and its support for regimes including Russia. We will continue to work with others to call out what is happening, and of course we condemn its support of anything to do with Russia’s war in Ukraine.

I am glad that you granted this urgent question today, Mr Speaker. I commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing it and the Minister for her answer. The SNP and all of us stand in solidarity with the brave protesters in Iran in their actions against a brutal regime. I grew up in Saudi Arabia; I struggle to sound rational about any morality police anywhere. I am familiar with these men, I am familiar with what they do, and I stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK Government in their efforts to hold them to account.

The protests were triggered by the femicide—to our mind—of Mahsa Amini. There is a clear gender aspect, as I think we can all agree. Writing in The Sunday Times, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has a greater familiarity than anyone with the Iranian regime’s brutality, put it best:

“Mahsa’s death is the latest blow to the people of a country long abused… Women in Iran are desperate. They are furious and restless. They cannot take it anymore.”

I commend the Minister for her statement, but what more can the UK Government do to ensure accountability for the perpetrators of femicide? Do His Majesty’s Government view the murder of Ms Amini as femicide? Further to the point that the hon. Member for Harrow East made about closing the UK mission, may I take another view and say that closing the mission would shut down dialogue when actually we need to continue those efforts in-country?

Yes, we need to continue efforts and dialogue in-country. That also holds for continued discussion on the nuclear deal, which has been mentioned. We will always continue to work with our like-minded partners to ensure that Iran is held to account, including via the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the UN General Assembly in New York. At its 51st session, our permanent representative to the UNHRC in Geneva, Ambassador Simon Manley, raised the death of Mahsa Amini and called on Iran

“to carry out independent, transparent investigations into her death and the excessive violence used against subsequent protests.”

We have joined 52 other countries in issuing a joint statement to the Human Rights Council, urging restraint and accountability in Iranian law enforcement. The European Union, Canada and the United States have also sanctioned the morality police and certain individuals, and we will continue to work with those like-minded countries, but we cannot of course comment on any future designations or sanctions.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the urgent question and on his being sanctioned, and I send a loud and clear message from this Parliament that we stand with the women and girls of Iran as they fight for their civil rights. However, it is not just in their own country that the Iranian regime is causing repression and havoc; it is also selling drones which are being used to attack civilians in Ukraine. Given that sanctions on Russia are working and its missiles are running out, may I urge the Minister, with the greatest urgency, to look very closely at how we can sanction those who are arming others who would do the Ukrainians harm?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to look at any possible measures that we can take. I think she understands that I cannot comment on any of them, but we are aware of these actions, and we are aware of Iran’s support for the Russian forces.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing the urgent question. I am delighted to join him in that select group whose members have obviously upset the regime by telling the truth about it.

I welcome the recent sanctions decisions, but I wonder whether there are any plans to extend them to other human rights abusers. Might the Minister consider the former technology Minister Mohammad-Javad Azari Jahromi and the IRGC commander Salar Abnoush, two people who would certainly merit being put on the sanctions list?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on also being sanctioned. That is, of course, because of the work that he and other Members are doing in calling out these actions, and calling for more action from the UK Government as well; but I think he understands that we cannot comment on some possible future actions, or on individuals.

Murder and brutal repression internally, sponsorship of terrorism overseas, selling deadly drones that target civilians to the invading Russian army—the list of the crimes of the Iranian regime is very long indeed, and when we look at all these activities, it is the role of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that comes up time and again. I do not expect the Minister to comment on specific sanctions measures, but will she at least pledge to the House that she will convey to the Foreign Secretary and her colleagues in the Foreign Office the message that it is the strong view of the House that the IRGC should be proscribed in full as a terrorist organisation?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being another of the seven individuals who have been sanctioned, and I thank him for raising these concerns again and again. We have made clear our own concerns about the IRGC’s continuing destabilising activity throughout the region, and the UK maintains a range of sanctions that work to constrain that activity. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review. I will take back that message, but, as I know my right hon. Friend is aware, we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription.

These brave women are inspirational, and how lucky we would be if they were able to get out of Iran and came here to obtain sanctuary. Is there any chance of a lifeboat scheme for them, should they be able to get out?

May I also ask about something very practical? The Minister will recall that earlier in the Ukraine-Russia conflict the BBC was given extra money to ensure that the World Service could broadcast in Ukrainian and also in Russian. Is there any chance that that could also apply to BBC Persian, which currently faces the chop?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question and I join her in commending the bravery of the women in Iran. It is very easy for us to sit here, but what they are doing every day takes incredible courage and they really are showing huge strength. On BBC Persia, the BBC is operationally and editorially independent but we do provide funding, and the FCDO is providing the BBC with more than £94 million over the next three years to support the World Service. On any future actions we may do, obviously we keep everything under constant review but we do not have anything yet to announce in this area.

Sanctions glisten but they also cast a shadow. I am deeply envious of hon. and right hon. colleagues who have been sanctioned and I can only hope that mine is in the post. Can the Minister assure us that there can be no possibility of progress on the JCPOA while Tehran continues to export weapons of terror, particularly drone technology, to Russia to aid Putin’s war in Ukraine? Can she also assure me that, when the ambassador was called into the Foreign Office, that was made crystal clear to him?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend’s letter could be in the post if he continues to raise his concerns so robustly. Iran’s nuclear programme has never been more advanced than it is today, and Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities is threatening international peace and security and undermining the global non-proliferation system. If a deal is not struck, the JCPOA will collapse. In this scenario, we will carefully consider all options in partnership with our allies, but the JCPOA, while not perfect, does represent a pathway for constraining Iran’s nuclear programme.

Like the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), I am a bit upset that I have not been sanctioned yet. I obviously need to try harder, so here goes. We are talking about a bunch of women-hating homicidal maniacs and clerical fascists. On that basis, surely it is now time to ban the IRGC. Some of us have been calling for it to be banned for some time; my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) and I called for it on one of the last sitting days in July. Now that the Government have had time to think about it, can they not just get on and ban it?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his attempt to join his colleagues, and I am sure he will continue with that. As I said earlier, we have been clear on our concerns about the IRGC’s continuing destabilising activity, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription. We will obviously maintain a range of sanctions that work to constrain the actions and some of the activities of the IRGC.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this urgent question and I thank you for granting it, Mr Speaker. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that Iran is now quite clearly a pariah state, which means that all our policy towards it must be directed on the basis that we cannot deal with it in the same way as any other state. It supplies Russia with weapons, it is now linked to China, it is developing nuclear weapons and the brutality that we have seen meted out to those who are peacefully protesting—as their human rights would allow them to do here—is appalling. Can I urge my hon. Friend, in response, no longer to continue with the JCPOA, because it is giving Iran succour while it is still developing nuclear weapons? Also, importantly, will the Government now proscribe the IRGC once and for all, to tell it that its behaviour will no longer be tolerated and that there are more sanctions to come?

We have always been clear that Iran’s nuclear escalation is unacceptable. It is threatening international peace and security and undermining the global non-proliferation scheme. As I said earlier to my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), while the JCPOA is not perfect, it does represent a pathway for constraining Iran’s nuclear programme. A restored deal could pave the way for further discussions on regional and security concerns, including in support of the non-proliferation regime. As I mentioned earlier in relation to the IRGC, we cannot comment on future sanctions, but we keep this constantly under review.

Of course we welcome the fact that the Government have sanctioned key senior officers of Iran’s brutal morality police and the revolutionary guard, as well as those involved in the supply of drones to Russia, but the sanctions are primarily focused on those based inside Iran. What are Ministers doing to ensure that those with links to the Iranian regime who have visas allowing them to be based here in the UK understand our strength of feeling about the Iranian regime’s unacceptable conduct towards its people, and towards women and girls in particular?

Even having these debates—this is the second one on this subject in the few weeks I have been in this job—is helpful, and we will continue to raise the pressure, to work with allies and to raise concerns via our participation on the Human Rights Council. We will constantly keep things under review.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East on securing this important urgent question. There is a large Iranian diaspora in Southampton, and the women and girls who have been to see me have been clear that we must call out the murder of Mahsa Amini as femicide. It is the women and girls of Iran who are bearing the brunt of the repression. I would like to echo the comments about the BBC. Knowledge and information are power, and too little is coming out of and going into Iran to support those brave individuals. Will the Minister please go and talk to colleagues at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport to ensure that there is sufficient funding for the World Service so that the important work of BBC Persia can continue?

I completely agree with my right hon. Friend about the bravery of the women in Iran, which I am sure those in the diaspora in her area are proud of. We will continue to work closely with our like-minded partners to ensure that Iran is held to account for the death of Mahsa Amini, including via the Human Rights Council in Geneva. As I mentioned earlier, the FCDO has put £94 million over the next three years towards supporting the BBC World Service, which is a vital lifeline for people both inside Iran and at home here.

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Harrow East on securing this urgent question. I know from the discussions I have had with the various opposition groups that lobby us here in Parliament that the profile that these questions give to the issues that concern them is important and heartening. I say to the Minister that it is clear that the Iranian regime not only tortures and abuses its own citizens but is now an exporter of terrorism across the world. I do not expect her to comment on what she is going to do in relation to proscription and sanctions against the likes of the IGRC, but what I think this House wants, rather than a statement about what she is going to do, is for her to just do it. We do not need her to tell us, and we do not need information about it—just do it!

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his instruction, gently delivered as always. Of course we keep everything under review, but as he has identified, it would not be appropriate to discuss any future actions at this Dispatch Box right now.

Could I ask the Minister to reassure the House that London will not become a place of safe refuge for the Iranian regime’s proponents? Can she assure me, for instance, that money from Iran that is funding pro-Iranian platforms in this country is closely looked at? There is also a substantial rumour that the families of the leaders in Iran are getting British passports, which is iniquitous.

I can assure my right hon. Friend that I will look into the questions that he has raised. Obviously we have our own rule of law here in the UK. I have not heard the rumours about passports, but I will certainly look into that and write to him.

If the Government’s sanctions are strong enough, surely we should be stopping travel to and from that country.

As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) points out, the price shows the popularity of the destination.

The brutal regime in Iran is being financed by up to $100 billion a year of sanctions relief, despite delivering almost no concrete action on nuclear non-proliferation. Will my hon. Friend press our international partners to ensure that such sanctions relief is tied to Iran’s delivering on its international obligations?

A viable deal was put on the table in March, which would have returned Iran to full compliance with its JCPOA commitments and returned the US to the deal. Iran has refused to seize a critical diplomatic opportunity to conclude that deal, with continued demands beyond the scope of the JCPOA. We are considering the next steps with our international partners but, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, we cannot comment on them at this point.

I put on record my support and admiration for those girls and women who are not only protesting, but putting their lives at risk on a daily basis. The violent crackdowns against civilians by the regime in recent days are a reminder of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s attitude towards dissent at home and abroad. Crackdowns against dissent are led by the regime’s ideological terror army, the IRGC. In light of the horrific state violence, both in recent days and in 2019, we have had multiple instances in this Chamber of both sides and all parties calling for the IRGC to be proscribed. When is it going to happen?

I am afraid I must refer the hon. Gentleman to my earlier answer: we keep things under review, but we cannot comment on any future actions.

I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend’s answers, but, considering that the IRGC finances and directs terror proxies across the whole middle east, including its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah, which has stockpiled more than 150,000 missiles on the Israel-Lebanon border, can she explain why we proscribe Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but not its financier and director the IRGC?

There is obviously great strength of feeling on this subject, which, as I have said, I will take back to the Foreign Secretary. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on why or whether an organisation is under consideration for proscription, or the thought process behind those that are proscribed.

I strongly support the sanctions the Government are imposing—indeed, I would like to see them go further—but will the Minister give a commitment that those sanctions will not have a negative impact on ordinary Iranian people?

That is an important question; when we consider sanctions we always consider not only what can work, but the impact it will have on people. Our sanctions impose restrictions on the morality police as a whole and senior security and political figures in Iran, and will ensure that the individuals designated cannot travel to the UK and that any of their assets held in the UK will be frozen.

The courage and bravery of those young women in standing up to the brutal and authoritarian regime in Iran is frankly incredible. They are superheroes and they deserve our full support and admiration. I am proud of what this country is doing to stand up for human rights in Ukraine, and we should be doing the same for those young women in Iran. I welcome the increased sanctions put in place last week on Iranian individuals and businesses responsible for supplying Russia with kamikaze drones used to bombard Ukraine. However, does my hon. Friend agree that as well as condemning the Iranian regime on human rights, we should also condemn its place on the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women? There can be no excuse for a regime that treats women with such contempt to sit on a commission that should be working to promote global gender equality and empowerment of women wherever they live.

Order. May I just remind hon. Members that these are meant to be questions, not speeches? It is an important point, but I need to get everybody in.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend, because there will be people watching this urgent question and hearing what we are saying, whether among the diaspora or in Iran, and I am sure it gives them a great deal of strength and courage to know the strength of feeling in this place. The protests also send a clear message that the Iranian people are not satisfied with the path their Government have taken, and we urge Iran to listen to its own people, to respect the right to peaceful assembly, to lift all restrictions, to stop unfairly detaining protesters and, most importantly, to ensure that women can play an equal role in society.

In the Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), she talked about sanctions against the elites, who often do not suffer the impact of broad-brush sanctions. What discussions has the Minister had with her counterparts in the Department for Education about removing study visas from the families of regime members, living here far from the restrictions in Iran, and particularly those imposed on women?

I want to make clear that in addition to the sanctions recently imposed on 10 October, there are almost 300 sanctions on various activities, people and organisations within Iran. We continue to keep those under review, but I cannot comment on any potential future actions that may be taken.

In recent months, the Iranian Government have systematically inflicted untold cruelties on the people of the Baha’i faith as the world looks on. As Baha’is across the world mark the twin holy days—I send them my best wishes—can the Minister tell me what precise steps the Government are taking to support and protect this important and targeted community?

That question is very important and was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate not long ago. We condemn any actions that restrict freedom of religious belief.

I send my solidarity and support to the women and girls of Iran fighting for their human rights. Does the Minister agree that, in the light of recent events and the attacks on human rights, the BBC’s decision to close down its Persian radio service is deeply unfortunate when so many rely on it as a lifeline? Will she undertake to speak to the BBC director-general to ask whether the closure can be reviewed and reversed?

BBC Persian is a legitimate journalistic operation, which is still operating and is editorially independent of the UK Government. However, I am shortly meeting with representatives from BBC World Service and I will discuss the matter further with them.

Security forces are demanding that teachers in Iran hand over the names of troublemakers, threatening arrest if they refuse. One teacher in Tehran has reportedly died trying to protect students. What support are the UK and our allies providing to protect teachers specifically from those terrifying abuses of their human rights?

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing to light the plight of teachers. Many protesters are bravely protesting, knowing that they are putting themselves in danger. That is why I welcome the opportunity to put on record our condemnation of all the actions the Iranian regime is taking.

I thank the Minister for her strong stance and her answers. It is encouraging to have time dedicated to this important situation, which is escalating at pace in Iran, but it is regrettable that many other groups face oppression from the Iranian state, and we must not forget them amid the ongoing crisis. Can she assure me and this House of her support for other religious and belief groups in Iran, particularly the Baha’i and Christians, who have long suffered at the hands of the Iranian regime and, with thousands of others, have had their freedom of religion and belief violated?

I believe the hon. Gentleman also took part in the Westminster Hall debate, as many of us did. I met a number of people after that debate who were delighted that hon. Members kept pushing their case, but urged us to keep the debate alive and active and to call out wrongdoing wherever we see it.