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Security Threat to UK-Based Journalists

Volume 728: debated on Monday 20 February 2023

I want to update the House on steps that the Home Secretary and I have been taking to address the concerning activities of the Iranian regime and its operatives in the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom is committed to defending our freedoms—values that define us and make us who we are—and none is more fundamental than freedom of the press. The Iranian regime’s violent oppression of its own citizens and repeated violations of human rights have shown us who the supreme leader and his enforcers really are. It has murdered its own people and made hostages of others, and the protests that began in September 2022 show that it does not have the support of the Iranian people.

In recent months, the Iranian regime has publicly called for the capture or killing of those holding it to account. That includes very real and specific threats towards UK-based journalists working for Iran International, a prominent Persian-language news channel, and their families. The Home Secretary and I absolutely condemn this outrageous violation of our sovereignty and the attempted violation of the human rights of those journalists. In response, we have put in place an extremely robust range of security measures, including armed policing. However, because of the severity of the threat and the particularities of the site, counter-terrorism policing have advised Iran International to move to a more secure location in the United Kingdom. Until its studio is ready, it has chosen to continue its broadcasting from existing studios in the United States—I assure the House that this measure will be temporary. Until then, I have asked officials to help find a temporary location for Iran International’s UK operations, and we will make sure that its permanent new studio in the United Kingdom is secure. I spoke to counter-terrorism policing this morning to confirm that.

Let me be clear: freedom of the press is at the heart of our freedoms. Tehran’s efforts to silence Iran International are a direct attack on our freedoms, and an attempt to undermine our sovereignty. They will fail. Democracy is as much about journalists and civic activists as it is about politicians. The media must be free to work without fear, which is why this Government have already set up the Defending Democracy Taskforce, and why we will be taking further action in response to these threats. I am not alone in saying this: earlier this afternoon, I spoke to my counterparts in France, Germany and the United States. They all agreed, and spoke of incidents that have targeted individuals in their own countries. When I spoke to Iran International over the weekend, it praised our police; it is right to do so, because only last week, the vigilance of our officers resulted in an individual being charged with a terrorism offence after being arrested near the broadcaster’s office.

None the less, this is clearly an appalling situation. The Government, police, agencies and our allies are working together to ensure that Iran International’s operations will resume, and these threats will not silence us, nor them. I know that this House will wish to express its support for that principle too.

As of last week, we had responded to 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime since the start of 2022. Between 2020 and 2022, Iran tried to collect intelligence on UK-based Israeli and Jewish individuals. We believe this information was a preparation for future lethal operations. In 2021, UK police asked partners to share information on Iran-based Mohammed Mehdi Mozayyani, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps who worked to conduct a lethal operation against Iranian dissidents here in the United Kingdom. We know that the Iranian intelligence services work with organised criminal gangs, and I can assure the House and the public that we will go after anyone working with them.

Our partners in Europe and the United States face similar threats, and we are working together to keep our people safe. My call this afternoon with other allies was about co-ordinating action that we will take to protect ourselves and ensure a unified response to these threats. We are strongest when we work with our allies around the world, and the Iranian regime should be in no doubt that we are absolutely united.

Let me be clear that this is a persistent threat. It is not carried out by rogue elements, but is a conscious strategy of the Iranian regime. Our Government will act. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has already summoned the Iranian chargé d’affaires, and we will be looking at further sanctions on those linked to the Iranian regime. We already have around 300 sanctions in place against Iran, including of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety.

Today, alongside international partners, eight further individuals were sanctioned, but our response will not end there. Today I have instructed the Home Office to lead work on countering Iranian state threats, making use of the full breadth and expertise of the Government and our extraordinary and courageous police, security and intelligence agencies. We will target the full spectrum of threats we see coming from Tehran. I will be asking our security agencies to explore what more we can do with our allies to tackle threats of violence, but we will also address the wider threat to economic security from illicit finance and the threat from malign interference in our democratic society.

At home, the Charity Commission will soon report on its statutory inquiry into the Islamic Centre of England, which is accused of having links to the Iranian regime. We must ensure that our police and intelligence agencies have the power to crack down on state threats such as those from Iran, which is why urge the House to back the National Security Bill, which is going through Parliament at the moment.

The relationship we have with Iran is not the one we want; it is not the one we chose. We have a deep respect for Iran’s rich history and for the Iranian people. From the “Shahnameh” to the works of Saadi, the wealth of the nation has been in the words of her people. They taught ethics and governance and the importance of law, but today the tyrants in Tehran have betrayed those great pillars of Persian civilisation and are trying to silence those words and their own people, but they will not be silenced. To the brave Iranian journalists and community here in the United Kingdom, I say that this country, this Government and this whole House stands in solidarity with you against the oppression that you face. Mr Deputy Speaker, let me directly address the Iranian regime, which is responsible for these heinous crimes. We will hold you to account for your blatant violation of our laws and values. We will expose your crimes against the British people and against the Iranian people. We will expose your actions around the world. We will work with our allies to hold you to account, personally. We will act to keep our country safe. I commend this statement to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. As he has already said, press freedom is fundamental to any liberal democracy, and it is a right that we are all committed to defending across this House. We should all be appalled that Iran International has felt the need to close its office here in the UK following police advice after a series of threats made against its brave journalists.

The UK has a proud history of supporting those who speak truth to power. Since 2017, Iran International has operated successfully here in the UK. In recent weeks, it has shone a spotlight on the Iranian regime’s violent repression of those protesting the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini and of those taking to the streets calling for civil liberties to be upheld. For that, they have been targeted by the regime, and, unbelievably, deemed to be a threat to Iran’s national security, with threats that agents of the organisation would be pursued.

As the Minister knows, in November’s annual threat assessment, the director general of MI5, Ken McCallum, stated that Iran had sought to murder or kidnap individuals in the UK on at least 10 occasions. Just this week, the head of Counter Terrorism Policing in the UK stated that there had been five more plots since then, saying that they had disrupted

“15 plots since the start of 2022 to either kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”

I know that across this House we are united in our outrage that any foreign Government would think that they could conduct activity in this way within the borders of another country. As a democracy, we have to send the strongest possible message that we, our policing and security services, and the British public, will not tolerate it. I have met with representatives from Iran International. As the Minister said, they have spoken highly of UK counter-terrorism policing and our security services. I want to put my thanks to them on the record for the work that they undertake every day.

However, I have asked the Government five times in this Chamber since October why we are not going further to deploy sanctions and proscription powers against those acting on behalf of Iran. In response to my question at the last Home Office questions earlier this month, the Minister spoke of his desire to see the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps proscribed, so why are they not, either through the use of existing terrorism powers or new state threats equivalent powers? He has not mentioned it at all in his statement today. That means the IRGC are still free to organise and establish support here in the UK. We have to put a stop to that.

There are people appointed to posts here in the UK who are representatives of the supreme leader himself. Why are they still here? The Minister talked of instructing his Department today to lead work. Although the threat from Iran has escalated, it has not come from out of the blue. Why have we found ourselves ill-prepared to respond to the threat? The United States proscribed the IRGC as a terrorist organisation in 2019. Activity from Iran has been a feature of the annual threat assessment for some years. There were warnings in the 2021 integrated review, as well as in the Intelligence and Security Committee report of March 2022, which said:

“There also exists a continuing threat of state-sponsored assassination, attacks and abductions of those perceived as dissidents.”

Again, in November of last year, we had the starkest warnings from the director general of MI5. The ISC’s annual report published last year said:

“In November 2021, the Committee announced that it will be undertaking an Inquiry into national security issues relating to Iran.”

I understand that the ISC still has not been able to progress that report, and so I would welcome an explanation from the Minister as to why requested information has not been forthcoming to Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, with an assurance that it is being addressed as a priority.

The UK must always be a safe place for journalists to speak truth to power. The rest of the world is watching. We cannot ever allow authoritarian tyranny to be exported to the UK and conducted on behalf of other hostile states within our borders. I ask the Minister: when will we see the sanctions? Can he provide us with a timeline? He has talked about co-ordinated responses, but those can be slow. When will we see proscription? We have to get this done. We are looking to table amendments to the National Security Bill; will the Minister support them? We very much stand ready to work with the Government in making this happen.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. She is absolutely right to press me on those issues, because it is absolutely true that this has been ongoing. She is also aware that proscription is a legal instrument, and that therefore there is a natural element of discussion. We do not comment on whether we are going to proscribe; we wait until we have the actions ready to do it. She will understand that we will wait until we have full advice.

What we need to be doing is exactly what we are doing, which is sanctioning individuals. I announced eight further sanctions today. We have spoken about various different actions we have taken, and I am grateful that the hon. Member has quite rightly praised the work of the police and the intelligence services, which have done a phenomenal job in keeping us safe. I am afraid that it is not true to say that nothing has happened since the IR. Since then, MI5, Counter Terrorism Policing and many other agencies of the state have been working tirelessly to keep this country safe, and to defend our values and freedoms.

I can confirm what is in the public domain, which is that the committee is undertaking a study of Iran and its security implications, and I will just say that I am cautiously optimistic that various causes of delay in the supply of evidence and the progress of that work are within sight of being overcome.

I would like to add my congratulations to the police and security authorities on the announced foiling of 15 credible threats. What I would like to know, without any prejudice to our future inquiries, is whether the Minister is in a position to tell us anything about the origins of the people making those 15 threats. Were they home-grown, or were they people who had come here from Iran? He does hint at the involvement of criminal gangs, which suggests a franchise. How are people able, in this country, to pose such threats? They know who they are, so it should not be difficult for him, either now or in a subsequent announcement, to give an analysis to this House.

I hope my right hon. Friend will invite me to his committee, where I will be able to answer these questions more fully. He will understand that I cannot address them on the Floor of the House. His reading of the question, however, is interesting and, as usual, very well informed.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it, as well as for the way in which he has approached this very serious issue this afternoon.

We in the SNP are alarmed and deeply disturbed by the serious threats to UK-based journalists by the Iranian regime, and we condemn in the strongest possible terms the horrifying threats to journalists, their family members and all others involved. We owe a great debt of gratitude to the brave independent Iranian journalists, particularly those from Iran International, who have shone a light on the recent protest movements and shown the world the continuous and shocking human rights abuses by the Iranian security forces and the Iranian regime. We commend their courage in continuing to do so in the face of threats that have come in a place where they should expect to feel safe.

It is very welcome that the Minister is talking about more sanctions today, and I appreciate what he said about not announcing the proscription of organisations such as the IRGC on the Floor of the House, but I would strongly urge him to consider doing so and to consider doing so quickly. This is the source of great uncertainty and great fear for many Iranians who are living in the UK, including those who have come to visit my surgeries, and he may remember that I raised the case of a constituent a few weeks ago. Those Iranians I have spoken to in Glasgow are scared. They do not know where they are safe, and that should not be the situation for anybody who has come to live in these islands. They should be able to go about their lives in Glasgow or anywhere else without fearing who might be coming to get them, and without having to look over their shoulder whether out in the streets or even in universities, where they do not feel as though they can be quite as safe as they should be.

Could I also ask the Minister what approach he is taking with colleagues in the Home Office to the issuing of visas for those who fear that if they return to Iran they will be persecuted, for those—perhaps if they are on a student visa that may run out—who are in limbo at the moment and are not certain as to what their future will be, and for visitors? What is the further approach to those who may actually pose a risk to people in the UK in getting visas for here?

I thank the hon. Member for the tone in which she has approached this. She is absolutely right, of course, that anybody in the United Kingdom—whether they are in Gloucester or in Glasgow—should be absolutely as safe as any UK citizen. She is right that, sadly, some are being targeted. While I hear her words on proscription, it is worth noting that the National Security Bill we have brought in does allow us to exercise almost all the powers of proscription against state threats, which will be enormously helpful. I know that she has in the past been very supportive of various elements of that, so I hope we will be able to continue enjoying the support of her and her party.

The hon. Member raises the question of visas, and she is absolutely right to do so. I will not comment on individual cases for obvious reasons, but as she knows, the UK Government and the British people have been exceptionally generous to those in need of sanctuary in the United Kingdom, and I am absolutely certain that that policy will continue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that Iran has one of the worst media freedom records in the world. When the Government press the Government of Iran over the outrageous threats made against Iran International, will they also raise the question of the continuing persecution of family members of BBC Persian service staff who are still living in Iran? Does my right hon. Friend also agree that the threats against Iran International in this country are a further demonstration of the need for the cross-Government National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, and will he continue to give that committee every support to ensure that media freedom in the UK is fully protected?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. When he was Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, he was exemplary in supporting media freedom around the world. I completely agree with his comments on BBC Persian, which offers an extraordinary window—not just for the Persian but for the Iranian people—into the truth that is quite rightly highlighted by their broadcasts, and allows those of us who are lucky enough to watch BBC Persian here in the UK to understand what is going on in Tehran and across Iran. I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend and I give that same commitment.

I thank the Minister for his statement and for his work to ensure that Iran International returns to the UK before too long. Until a few days ago, it was broadcasting from Chiswick business park in my constituency, and I visited last year. It is beyond contemptible that the Iranian Government have attempted to export their crackdown on free speech and the freedom of the press, and to endanger not only the journalists but the other workers in the business park and local people. Iran International and I are hugely grateful for the steps the Metropolitan police have taken to ensure the safety of journalists and the wider public, but what are the Government doing to ensure that journalists in my constituency and across the country are never again forced to leave their workplace to protect the rest of the public?

May I first pay tribute to the hon. Lady and her constituents for their work supporting Iran International? She will be aware of the site and its peculiarities, and therefore the nature of finding an alternative venue. That is exactly what we and the Metropolitan police are doing to ensure that the interregnum is as short as possible.

It is absolutely clear that we have more to do to protect journalists in this country, which is why the Prime Minister asked me to set up the defending democracy taskforce. The hon. Lady will understand that there has been only a slight moment between the taskforce being established and today, so we will be coming up with further options shortly.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. In a recent Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting, I heard from journalists working with the BBC Persian service that they have also been threatened, as have their families in Iran. This is totally unacceptable, as the freedom of the press is fundamental in this country. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is working closely with our security services to counter the threats and protect these brave journalists and their families in Iran?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that those in Iran deserve the same protection. It is absolutely wrong to target the families of journalists who happen to be still in that country, and for people to be punished for merely speaking the truth; it is quite a tragic violation not just of international norms, but of the culture that Iran gave us over many thousands of years. The words of Saadi that we are all banī ādam—all sons of Adam—and therefore all have the same rights, are in stark opposition to the actions of the vile regime in Tehran.

The UK must always act to ensure press freedom and the safety of journalists, who have played a pivotal role in publicising human rights abuses in Iran and across the globe. Our intelligence services do an extraordinary job, but in the light of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s recent complaints about the agencies not meeting their own deadlines, which has delayed the Committee’s inquiry into the security threats posed by Iran, what discussions has the Security Minister had with the heads of MI5, MI6 and GCHQ to ensure that there are no further delays to the Committee’s work?

I spoke to the head of MI5 only this afternoon; I will leave it to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs to answer for the other two agencies. It is incredibly important to make sure appropriate information is available quickly and in a timely fashion for the Intelligence and Security Committee, and I know it is conducting a very important inquiry—indeed I believe witnesses will be appearing before it in a week or two.

My right hon. Friend said: “We know that the Iranian intelligence services work with organised criminal gangs.” Mindful of the fact that Colonel Gaddafi’s terrorists used to work quite closely with the Provisional IRA, is my right hon. Friend able to say whether there are indications that such links are happening between Iranian terrorists and home-grown terrorists?

My right hon. Friend will understand that I would rather answer that question before the Committee on which he sits than comment on the Floor of the House, but he will be aware that there are, very sadly, many different connections between criminal enterprises and terrorist groups and indeed hostile states. That is why countering state threats is about not just defending ourselves against hostile adversaries but ensuring that we are free from fraud and the abuse of crime in our communities.

I thank the Minister for his statement and completely agree with the sentiments expressed by him and the shadow Minister with regard to the violation of our sovereignty: these are very serious matters indeed. I want to ask about a slightly wider but connected point: I understand that he will be limited in what he can say, but may I seek his assurance that his Department remains hypervigilant with respect to the activities of other states who may also seek to conduct operations against UK-based personnel?

Yes, is the answer. The reality is that state-based threats have increased in the last few years, and we know the obvious sources of such aggression—sadly, they have been written all too large on the global map. However, other states that are not so well-advertised have also been exploiting our freedoms and liberties to further their ends, and we will stop them.

Earlier this month I met with BBC Persian journalists to hear about the challenges they face in reporting on the Iranian regime’s horrific human rights abuses, and around the world journalists are increasingly under threat for seeking to tell the truth and it is shocking that this is now the case in the UK. Is the Minister satisfied that the steps he has outlined today will protect press freedoms so that this situation is not repeated and UK-based journalists such as Iran International are able to operate safely and freely? When does he expect his taskforce to report back on extra security measures to be put in place?

I welcome that question. No, I am not satisfied; the reality is that there is more to do. That is exactly why the Prime Minister asked me to set up the taskforce; the Prime Minister himself is not satisfied. We will be coming forward with a series of options in respect of the integrated review, and from there a decision will have to be taken by the Government, and it will be a wider call. But the hon. Gentleman can be assured that the entire Government—including the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary—are absolutely committed.

I send my solidarity and support to all BBC Persian journalists, who continue to speak truth to power in the face of adversity. The UK must act to ensure the safety of journalists, who have played a vital role in publicising human rights offences in Iran. The National Union of Journalists has called on police and Government to act swiftly and robustly, with assassination attempts and threats against UK-based journalists. What are the Government doing to protect press freedoms?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is more we can do, and I am very glad the NUJ is supporting this. The NUJ has formerly worked extremely closely with groups like Reporters Without Borders, which has done enormously important work in defending journalism around the world. This Government are absolutely committed not just to supporting journalists here at home, but to making sure journalists can be free around the world, which is why the Government, and in former years the Foreign Office, have supported various different projects for journalistic freedom around the world.

I thank the Minister for his statement and, as always, for his and our Government’s determination to maintain freedom and protect safety. I would be grateful if he assured us of the Government’s commitment, which I am sure they hold, to supporting a free press in countries where freedom of religion or belief is regularly and violently violated. We are seeing serious repercussions for those who speak out about injustice in countries where freedom of religion or belief is a concern, with Iran being a priority concern. The regime in Iran is violent, brutal, bloodthirsty and guilty of some of the worst crimes in the world. What assessment has the Minister made of the crackdown on media reporting and freedom of religion and belief?

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I answer for the Home Office, not the Foreign Office, so I will not give an assessment of Iran other than to say that that brutal regime has murdered LGBTQ communities. It has murdered Jews. It has murdered Muslims. It has murdered Christians. It has murdered Baha’is. It has murdered, frankly, pretty much anybody it can get its hands on. Tragically, it has conducted a regime of terror against women who refuse to be told what to wear. It is a regime that has violated so many principles not just of international law, as I said, but of Persian culture. It is an absolute abomination and this Government stand in full solidarity with those who are defending their human rights and we absolutely stand for freedom of religion and belief.

The Minister referred to the Charity Commission’s inquiry into the Islamic Centre of England and its links with the Iranian regime, but he will also be aware of wider concerns about other cultural centres across the UK, including in Manchester, allegedly having links to the regime and allegedly controlled by Khamenei. Would the Government consider a wider investigation of those outposts—those cultural centres—so that we can get to the bottom of this and get to the truth?

The hon. Member will understand that I am not going to list all those that are linked to the Khamenei authority, but he can be assured that the Islamic Centre of England is not the only one that I am aware of.