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House of Lords Hansard
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05 February 2009
Volume 707

Question

Asked By

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the new United States Administration on future policy towards Iran.

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My Lords, the Foreign Secretary met the new US Secretary of State on 3 February for detailed talks on Iran. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s political director took part yesterday in talks with his US opposite number and officials from China, France, Germany and Russia. FCO officials both here and in Washington have been in close touch with the new Administration. We will continue to work closely together on this issue.

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Is not the firm, pragmatic approach of President Obama exactly the policy that we should be fully supporting? Must not human rights always be central to our considerations, and what are the latest developments concerning the British Council? Does my noble friend agree that underlying economic and political weaknesses in Iran suggest that there may be more room for leverage in negotiations than is sometimes supposed? Is not our task to win Iran, with its great history, into playing a positive role in the region, rather than to humiliate it?

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My Lords, my noble friend raises a series of important interrelated points. President Obama has made it clear that he indeed wants fundamentally to revisit the US relationship with Iran, and I think he will be guided by exactly the pragmatism that my noble friend suggests. He said that it will take several months, and that is right, because we want to make sure that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater—and the baby is the very important E3+3 negotiation on the nuclear programme. Yes, we need to broaden the contacts and discussion with Iran, but we need to indicate that there is no backing off from our fundamental requirement that it does not proceed with a nuclear weapons programme, and, indeed, that we secure improvements on issues such as human rights. In that regard, the closing of the British Council office is a very sad setback.

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My Lords, we on these Benches must congratulate Her Majesty's Government on their success: the new American Secretary of State spoke to the British Foreign Minister just before she spoke to the German Foreign Minister. We understand how important these little questions of status are.

Does the Minister agree with those who say that the worst thing we could do to President Ahmadinejad and his hard-line regime is to open a dialogue and make it quite clear that we do not intend to work to overthrow the regime, as his regime thrives on confrontation and the belief that the whole world is against Iran; and that encouraging those in Iran who are not fully behind this rather nasty regime is exactly what we should be doing?

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My Lords, I say in a mischievous spirit similar to that of the noble Lord’s opening remarks that it takes a Liberal Democrat to notice these small points about pecking orders. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him for it. On his second point, he is correct in that any broader engagement with the regime in Iran must undermine that regime’s tendency to fall back on populist, nationalist arguments of isolation, yet the real challenge for the Obama Administration is to find credible interlocutors in Iran—not people who posture but those who will deliver real policy results from such a dialogue.

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My Lords, I should perhaps declare an interest in this topic. I re-established relations with Iran in 1986 after an interval of many years only to have those relations broken off two weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, by the issuing of the fatwa about the book published at that time. That indicates that the matter should be approached with considerable precaution. I remember a 1920s railway timetable for Chevening which disclosed in a list of embassies in London that then only three embassies represented Asian countries: Japan, China and Persia. Does that not underline the importance of trying to establish terms with that Government while warning against the hazards that lie ahead?

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My Lords, the noble and learned Lord offers wise advice. President Obama has indicated that it will take some months and a lot of consultation to arrive at any new policy initiative but that this revisiting of policy should not be mistaken as in some way going soft on the nuclear issue. It was again confirmed in the talks on 3 and 4 February to which I referred that the Americans want to move prudently to broaden the contact in a way that does not compromise the fundamental objectives which we continue to seek and which have remained constant from the previous Administration to this one.

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My Lords, has the Minister made any representations to the authorities in Iran about the virtual closure of the British Council’s operation in that country? What lessons does he draw from the launch of a new missile in Iran earlier this week?

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My Lords, on the first point, the Foreign Secretary is making, or has made, a Written Statement on this. The British Council was forced to close the office as a result of harassment of its staff. We have made it clear to the Iranians that we consider that to be utterly unacceptable and that we want the British Council to be able to restart its operations as soon as possible. The Iranians have said that they would be prepared to negotiate a new cultural co-operation agreement, which would allow the British Council to reopen, but they have not responded to our attempts to start a discussion on that. As to my noble friend’s second point, we are extremely concerned about the launch of the satellite. This kind of launch technology is potentially of a dual-use character and might therefore be capable of launching ballistic missiles as well.

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My Lords, I agree fully with the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Judd, but does the Minister believe that the success of our policy towards Iran will depend largely on its policy in relation to us? Secondly, does he believe that, with the forthcoming presidential elections, there is likely to be a better policy arrangement between us and Iran?

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My Lords, we have to see what the elections bring. We have all read the interesting reports of reform candidates regathering their courage and their organisational capacity to run, as they believe from opinion polls that they have support. That has been covered in the media. However, it is probably very imprudent to comment in this House on Iranian elections, as I suspect that we would handicap the horses that we would like to see win.

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My Lords, with regard to the other worthy policy objectives concerning our relations with Iran, will the noble Lord include an exhortation to the Iranian Head of State that he should no longer express the wish and desire that the State of Israel be expunged?

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My Lords, I think that the whole world has agreed that what he said is absolutely abhorrent; he has said it not just once but on many occasions. It goes back to my earlier point: however much we want to find a better dialogue with Iran, we have to find credible interlocutors. The President, in many of the things he says, raises doubts about whether he is such an interlocutor.