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Volume 722: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary to update the House on the current situation in Iran and the treatment of protesters.

The news on Sunday that the Iranian regime had sentenced a protester to death was tragic. It is an act that the UK Government utterly condemn, in the strongest possible terms. Sadly, this is yet another act of desperation on the part of a regime that clearly cares more about its own survival than about the human rights of its own citizens. This is not the first time we have seen the Iranian regime use barbaric methods to clamp down on those standing up for basic freedoms. Following the 2019 fuel protests, more than 300 people were tragically killed.

The latest violence levelled at protesters has been utterly appalling. We have seen over 14,000 people detained so far, and over 300 deaths, of which 43 were children. The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, but it is all the more abhorrent when those sentenced are being arrested for standing up for their rights. My fear—which I am sure my hon. Friend shares—is that the frequency of these death sentences is only likely to increase as the regime processes the thousands of arrests that have been made during the protests. The Iranian judicial system is notorious for its lack of transparency and process, and this barbarism is just one of many threatening and intimidating techniques that the regime has rolled out in response to the protests.

The repeated targeting of journalists and systematic constraining of media freedom, including restricting internet use, in Iran, which I know is important to the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), is yet another sign of the regime’s weakness in the face of grassroots protesters. These threats have extended to journalists residing in the United Kingdom, and on Friday the Foreign Secretary summoned Iran’s most senior representative in the UK to the Foreign Office to make it clear that this would not be tolerated and that the UK would always stand up to threats from other countries.

On Monday we announced a second round of human rights sanctions against 24 Iranian security officials for their part in the violent crackdown on protesters. That is on top of the sanctions we introduced last month on the morality police and seven other individuals, and we continue to keep our sanctions list under review. The Government are also driving efforts in multilateral forums to hold Iran to account. We firmly support a special session of the Human Rights Council that will press to mandate a UN investigation into the protests. We are working closely with the US and other international partners to remove Iran from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

What we are seeing in Iran is a grassroots movement from the people of Iran, who are showing outstanding bravery in the face of a brutal crackdown. Iran needs to stop trying to blame this on everyone but itself, take responsibility for its actions and instigate real change. That is what the Iranian people have been bravely calling for and it is what they rightly deserve.

I thank Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question, and I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for presiding over it. I thank the Under-Secretary for his response.

The House will be aware that, since the murder of Mahsa Amini, there have been nationwide protests in Iran over the past six to seven weeks. Contrary to the reports that the Minister mentioned, the reports I have are that more than 60,000 people have been arrested. These are men, women and children just protesting about the murder of one young lady. The individuals who have been arrested have been tortured, they have been denied legal representation, they have been denied medication and in most cases they have been denied bail as well. When bail was first introduced, huge sums were demanded from families who simply did not have the money. We should remember that the President of Iran, President Raisi, was responsible as the prosecutor in Iran for 30,000 executions of political prisoners in 1988, so the direction from the top is very clear. As my hon. Friend has mentioned, journalists in the UK have been threatened, and indeed the Foreign Secretary called in the chargé d’affaires on Friday about those threats. We are also aware that sentencing and executions are beginning in Iran, and that many thousands of people may end up being executed.

I have a series of questions for my hon. Friend the Minister. What representations have been made to Iran directly on the treatment of the protesters? What action has been taken at the United Nations to remove Iran from positions of responsibility? He has mentioned one position but there are many others that Iran shares. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is directly implicated in the torture of individuals in Iran. What more do we have to see before the IRGC in its entirety becomes a proscribed organisation in this country? President Macron has made it clear that progress on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiations is impossible during these events in Iran, so does my hon. Friend agree that making any progress on the so-called nuclear deal with Iran is impossible in these circumstances?

Finally, will my hon. Friend join me in wishing the England team every success in beating Iran on Monday?

I thank my hon. Friend for his insightful comments, as always, on this vital issue. I join him in wishing every success to the home nations—both England and Wales, of course—in all their matches. We always want to keep sport and foreign policy separate, because our concerns are not with the Iranian people, whom we absolutely support. Our concerns are with the Iranian regime, which my hon. Friend and many others have consistently and rightly called out.

My hon. Friend has made a number of important points. I reiterate that we are utterly appalled by the detention of what we calculate to be about 14,000 people. He has come up with a much bigger number, but whichever number it is, they are most often held without due process, and that is completely wrong when they are really just protesting courageously for basic human rights. He talked about the freedom of journalists. The Foreign Secretary has rightly made sure that the Iranian chargé d’affaires understood that we would not tolerate threats to journalists based in the UK, but we are also calling out and condemning the persecution of BBC Persian staff and will continue to do so.

My hon. Friend made an important point about where things stand with the JCPOA. Quite understandably the situation that we find ourselves in now, following Iran’s recent actions, has made progress even more difficult, but I can assure him that we are actively considering next steps with our international partners. He also asked about the IRGC. He is a dog on a bone with this subject, and I know that it means so much to him. As I have explained to him before in the Chamber, we are very concerned about the IRGC’s destabilising activity. The list of proscribed organisations is kept under constant review, but we do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription.

I think the last point my hon. Friend raised was about the United Nations. As I said earlier, we are pressing for support for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council and for a UN investigation. I know from Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office oral questions that there is concern about Iran’s presence on the UN Commission on the Status of Women, and we have joined the US to forcefully seek for it to be removed from that. I hope that he and all hon. Members understand that we are absolutely committed to the task of calling out these acts and taking the required action at this stage.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for bringing forward this urgent question. Iranians have been protesting in almost every town and city for several months, and these protests, led by women and girls, are demanding in a loud and clear voice the end to brutal repression under the Islamic Republic. Iranians are calling for human rights, for an end to state violence and for the right to live free from the Islamic Republic’s diktats on what women should wear and how they choose to live their lives.

This movement is going from strength to strength, but the regime’s crackdown has been brutal. More than 15,000 people have been detained, and 227 Iranian parliamentarians have supported calls for the detainees to face the harshest punishment—the death penalty—with only 63 voting against. Two brave protesters have now been sentenced to death, and human rights organisations have grave concerns about the fate of many more. The UK must stand unequivocally against the death penalty, which is a gross abuse of human rights. The vote by the Iranian Parliament represents an escalation in the brutality of the response to these protests. At home, the Met police have warned about threats—described as presenting an imminent, credible risk to life—against British Iranian journalists. The UK must act to ensure the safety of those journalists, whose work is vital to the success of protesters in Iran.

Will the Minister please tell the House what further sanctions will now be put in place on those linked to the regime, in response to this escalation? Can he tell me what steps the Government are taking to protect journalists and UK nationals who are critical of the regime? I acknowledge the steps being taken with the UN, but what other diplomatic steps are the Government taking to garner international opposition to the violence and human rights attacks by the Iranian regime on its own citizens?

As always, the hon. Gentleman asks thoughtful, thorough and relevant questions. He says these protests are grassroots in nature, which is why it is so important that Iran does not try to confuse them with international action. These are grassroots protests, which is why we stand by the Iranian people.

We absolutely condemn the use of the death penalty, particularly in these circumstances, and we continue to call it out in our interactions with the Iranian regime. We have taken steps to seek protection for journalists and for those on the ground in Iran with BBC Persian. Our sanctions are under constant review. As I said, we took further steps on Monday against 24 officials in the light of these horrific repressive activities by the Iranian regime, and it will be kept under constant review. We are working with international partners at the UN on the basis I have already talked about. We will work to broaden those coalitions in driving for action.

We are seeing further savage behaviour from a toxic regime against its own people, and the sparse coverage in our own media is a cause of disquiet at a time when politicians, the media and civic society should be united in giving moral support to the Iranian people as they seek basic human rights.

These abuses are not only happening in Iran. We know Iran has been sending drones to Russia, to oppress the people of Ukraine. We know Iran Air was used to transport those drones from Tehran to Russia. Why, as I have asked before, is Iran Air, an organ of the Iranian state, still operating daily flights out of Heathrow rather than being banned?

My right hon. Friend is a strong advocate on these matters, and I reassure him that we have taken urgent steps in response to Iranian activity in support of Russia’s military action in Ukraine. We have already put sanctions in place. I will take away his point about airlines and speak to Lord Ahmad, who covers this policy area. I will also raise it with the Foreign Secretary.

I warmly commend the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this urgent question. He is a long-standing advocate on these issues. I also commend the Minister for his measured response to an almost impossible situation.

The SNP, along with other colleagues, stands foursquare with the brave protesters of Iran, led by women and girls, against an oppressive, despotic regime. We have already seen 500 or so people killed, with two people, that we know of, being formally executed and thousands, if not tens of thousands, being at risk of execution in Iran’s jails, which are known for their opacity and lack of judicial standards.

The SNP supports the Minister in supporting the protesters, but we have three concrete questions. First, surely now is not the time to cut BBC World Service funding. It is the time to build up that funding. I appreciate that we will have a statement tomorrow, but, surely, is this not an open-and-shut case?

Secondly, on asylum rules, there is only so much we can do against the Iranian regime, but will the UK offer a safe haven to those fleeing damage and persecution? Thirdly, I always urge dialogue, however difficult, but I find it increasingly difficult to promote dialogue on the JCPOA with this regime at this time. Does the Minister think it is finished? If so, with what will we replace it?

We are grateful for the cross-party support on these issues, which sends a very clear message from across the United Kingdom.

BBC World Service is obviously going to be important. It has an independent editorial and operational approach, but we are actively supporting it by funding its work on disinformation and so on. All I will say is that there has been some misreporting about its radio content, as most people are moving to digital. There is a digital-first process, as most people who listen to BBC Persian do so via television or online. We are working on that dimension.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about sanctions, which we continue to monitor and push forward. I will gladly meet him after this urgent question to discuss the other issues.

There are reports that the Iranian authorities are using live ammunition to shoot at teenage girls. There are stories of young women being arrested, forced into marriage and raped. These children just want the most basic of rights, so it is good to hear from the Minister that the UK is working to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. Can he categorically confirm to the women and girls of Iran who may be listening that we will always stand on their side against oppression and that we will not stop until we have used every single tool in our diplomatic and sanctions toolbox?

My right hon. Friend is a terrific advocate for women, both in her amazing work at the FCDO and outside. The sad death of Mahsa Amini is a shocking reminder of the repression faced by women in Iran. We stand four-square with them. I am the father of two daughters, and we have to be ever-mindful of the rights of women, particularly in countries that have a brutal regime such as Iran’s. We will continue to stand four-square with them.

Sanctions are needed against those who commit abuses in Iran. Can the Minister explain what his Government are doing to ensure that the burden of sanctions does not fall on ordinary, innocent Iranians?

That is a good question. Our focus is on targeting sanctions against those who perpetrate the most heinous acts, but the sanctions are under constant review.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong statement of British values towards Iran and his strong statement of support for the brave women and girls who are protesting for their fundamental human rights. Our values and rights ought to dictate our policy. Will he comment on the slightly more difficult contrast with countries such as Egypt? Egypt has 60,000 political prisoners, including Alaa Abd el-Fattah, a British-Egyptian citizen about whom the Prime Minister made representations at the recent summit. We still do not have consular access to him.

Will my hon. Friend also comment on our policy towards Israel and the composition of its new Government? That must give very grave cause for concern, as must the fact that Israel has now been found guilty by the world’s three most distinguished human rights organisations of running an apartheid policy, and of being in gross violation of the fourth Geneva convention.

I reassure my hon. Friend that human rights are at the forefront of our conversations, dialogue and diplomatic activity, whether with Iran, Egypt—we have already talked about the case of Mr Fattah—or Israel. It is at the forefront of our work, particularly in the middle east.

I thank the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) for securing this urgent question, and I add the Liberal Democrats’ voice to the solidarity with the brave Iranian people, who deserve so much better.

May I press the Minister on giving safe haven to some of these brave protesters? They are patriots, and they clearly want their country to be a better place, but their being locked up and executed is not the way to ensure Iran’s future stability. Surely it would be better to offer them temporary safe haven in this country, so they can go back and rebuild. What consideration has he given to a resettlement scheme?

There may well be routes available for these individuals, and I will certainly bring it to Lord Ahmad’s attention.

It has been clear for many years that Iran is a rogue state, presided over by gangsters posing as clerics and seeking to maintain control through the actions of thugs posing as police officers and militia. It is clear that the regime is terrified of losing that control, which is why it is now resorting to executing its own citizens for confected crimes. Does my hon. Friend agree that now is the time for the United Kingdom to position itself on the right side of history by declaring unequivocally that it supports the demands of the brave people of Iran for regime change in that country? I understand that he will not comment on what proscription the Government may be considering, but will he take it from me that very many hon. Members would be delighted if they woke up tomorrow morning to discover that the IRGC had been proscribed today?

I understand the points that my right hon. Friend makes. The destabilising activity of the IRGC, be it in Yemen, Iraq, Lebanon or Syria, is very concerning, in the region and beyond. We are constantly keeping that proscription under review but, as he knows, I cannot comment at this stage.

What measures are the Government taking to curb the activities of agents of the regime attempting to operate in this country and elsewhere in Europe? In particular, what actions are being taking to ensure that Iranians with diplomatic status in this country are genuine diplomats?

Obviously, I cannot comment on the detail of these things, but I am sitting next to one of my esteemed colleagues at the Ministry of Defence, the Minister for Armed Forces, and all these issues are constantly monitored.

Lots of grim things are happening in the world, but many of us will be particularly troubled and disturbed by what has been happening in Iran recently. My heart goes out to everyone who is protesting, particularly the women and girls. I support the views expressed by many of my colleagues today, because I think that the IRGC should be listed as a terrorist organisation, but I would like to ask the Minister about the Christian community in Iran. Last Friday, I met a Christian who fled Iran and is now a key part of the local church in Ipswich. What steps are the Government taking to support the Christian community in Iran and the many people fleeing persecution?

That is a good question, and on a subject that I feel strongly about too—I note that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is in his place and he feels strongly about these issues too. We raise those issues about Christians and about other minorities in Iran, as we absolutely need to do.

We know that we have Iranian nationals here in the UK who have clear links to the regime. We also know that Iranian and, in particular, Iranian-heritage journalists based here in the UK have been subjected to incredibly serious harassment and threats. A recent report from MI5 said that up to 10 assassination attempts have been made on British residents this year. What is the Minister doing to work with his colleagues across Government to ensure that those speaking out against the regime who are based here in the UK are safe, and that those who are propping up the regime and living in the UK know that that is utterly unacceptable?

As I have said previously, in response to a very serious issue that has been raised, the Foreign Secretary asked the chargé d’affaires to come to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, where it was made clear to them, in no uncertain terms, that we do not allow or condone any of these intimidatory activities. We are constantly monitoring that situation and we will call that activity out.

Iran’s Human Rights Activists News Agency has reported that protestors have already been murdered and buried in unmarked graves. This is similar to activities that happened in 1988, when 30,000 people were killed—President Raisi was also involved with the organisation of that. My hon. Friend will know, as he has already listed these things, that the IRGC will orchestrate such behaviours—it did so for the bomb plot that targeted myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East. We do not want the Minister to comment on proscription, we simply want him, in the face of overwhelming evidence, to proscribe the IRGC in its entirety.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that issue and I completely understand, given the circumstances he and other colleagues found themselves in, why it is particularly poignant for them. However, as he says, it also has a much wider reach. I note that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in his place. He is very aware of these issues and we have had conversations about them, along with Lord Ahmad.

Women protestors in Iran are bravely protesting for their fundamental freedom to live their lives as they choose. The UK has a responsibility to support them. Will the Minister explain how the UK intends to do that?

As others have said, it is vital that we support these brave Iranian people; it is a grassroots-led protest movement. As I have highlighted, we have made sure that we are calling out this activity at every opportunity, we have put sanctions in place and we are undertaking multilateral activities, one of which, importantly, is working with the United States to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. We have already talked about that.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East and other right hon. and hon. Members in reiterating my call that the Government should proscribe the IRGC. It is impossible to separate the Iranian regime’s violent repression of its own civilian population from its broader ambitions for regional dominance and to develop a nuclear weapon. Today, the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors convenes for an important meeting to discuss Iran’s many nuclear transgressions. Will the Minister assure me that the UK will be leading efforts to call for a motion of censure in the light of Iran’s flagrant breaches of the imploding joint comprehensive plan of action nuclear agreement?

That is another important point. There are many dimensions to what is going on in Iran, but it is clear that Iran’s latest actions have made progress on tackling the Iranians’ nuclear activity much more difficult. As I have said, we are considering the next steps with our international partners, but it is vital that Iran co-operates with the IAEA.

More than 14,000 protestors have been arrested in Iran since September and now there is real concern that many of these brave women—journalists, activists, lawyers and educators—are soon to be executed by the regime. I am grateful to the Minister for his answers to the questions today, but perhaps he could give an answer as to how the UK Government are going to work with international partners to ensure the safety of these women and ensure that they do not face the death sentence.

As I have said, it is vital to make sure we call this out. The fact is that we have seen common cause and a common voice across the Chamber today in condemning these actions—not just the repression of these protests, but the death sentences that have been meted out. We will continue to do that, particularly in multilateral forums, as I have highlighted. We need to keep putting the pressure on this brutal regime.

I know that the Minister has been pressed on these issues already today, but it is important that he hears the strength of feeling across this House. As the violent enforcer of the supreme leader of Iran, the IRGC must be held accountable for its ongoing crimes against the Iranian people. As the principal financier and arms supplier of terror groups across the middle east, it is also responsible for targeting innocent civilians from Iraq and Israel through to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, and it has been linked to the deaths of more than 100 British military personnel. Does the Minister share my concerns, and those of others from across this House, that the IRGC is likely undertaking activities in the UK? Does he agree that the IRGC must be proscribed?

I completely understand why my hon. Friend has added his voice to those with concerns about the IRGC’s activities. We are concerned too, as its activities in country and in the region are incredibly destabilising. I cannot add anything to what I have said about proscription, but we monitor the IRGC’s activities and we will call it out and confront it.

The Minister is right when he says that there is universal condemnation across this House, where we have today talked powerfully about human rights abuses and the persecution of the people of Iran, particularly the women fighting for their most basic freedoms. Does he agree that if we are to learn the lessons from our suffragette foresisters about deeds not words, government needs to join up? Some 11,000 Iranians are making an application for asylum in the UK and only 98 such applications were granted last year. Iranians are the third largest group of people in the channel-crossing boats. In the previous urgent question today, people felt that the very same people whose persecution we are now talking about should be penalised. What discussions has the Minister had already with his Home Office counterparts about providing sanctuary to those people, who we recognise are being persecuted and do not wish to leave languishing in hotels?

As I have said, there are routes available. I will make sure that the hon. Lady’s points are raised with Lord Ahmad, who covers this policy area. Her words will also not be lost with the Foreign Secretary here.

Many constituents have contacted me in support of the brave women and girls and their allies protesting in Iran, and that was before the latest despicable attack on them. The death penalty is being given to who claim basic human rights. Next weekend, I, like many women, will be marching to reclaim the night. Such a protest attracting the death penalty would oppress and silence us all. What will the Minister do to ensure that every protest, every arrest, every act of torture and every threat of death receives global attention, and how does slashing the BBC Persian radio service contribute to that?

I have already responded to the point about BBC Persian. We recognise the bravery of the people the hon. Lady mentions, and we have put sanctions in place to call people out. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady talks about amplifying that message. One key step that we are taking is working to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women. That is a positive step forward in this context.

In the light of the unacceptable response to protests by the Iranian authorities, what are Ministers doing to ensure that Iran is removed from the UN Commission on the Status of Women, as women have borne the brunt of many of the abuses?

As I have said, we are working with our international partners, and we are working very closely with the United States on that specific point. The hon. Lady is right: it makes a difference, and we will push that matter forward.

I thank the Minister very much for his response to the questions and for his desire and determination to assist the protesters in their quest for democracy in Iran.

Iranian protesters are calling for a non-religious state, where the rights of women and religious minorities are protected—an issue on which both the Minister and I agree. A revolutionary court in Tehran has started sentencing protesters to death on charges that allegedly include “enmity against God” and “corruption on earth”. Those charges have a chilling effect on protesters and religious minorities and have led to fears of large-scale executions in Iran in the coming weeks. Does the Minister agree that, as a country, we must pursue every available measure to support Iranians asserting their fundamental human rights and sanction officials responsible for these violent crackdowns?

The hon. Gentleman always makes these points with conviction and real passion. I share his views. We want to support the Iranian people—women, girls and those of religious minorities—in their struggle. We will take every possible step forward that we can, and, with cross-party support here, we will have extra weight and clout in making those calls for action.