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Volume 722: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what further measures they will take in respect of Iran over human rights, nuclear developments, and its role in neighbouring countries.

My Lords, the fact that so many Members of your Lordships' House have put their names down to speak is testament to the importance of this topic. Iran's human rights record is among the worst in the world. It has been condemned 57 times by the United Nations. It is among the worst, and is worsening. Foreign Secretary Hague noted in June last year, on the anniversary of the stolen presidential election that he was,

“gravely disturbed by the deterioration in the human rights situation in Iran”,

since the presidential election, adding:

“The Government of Iran has further restricted freedom of expression and assembly, and protesters, journalists, students and human rights activists routinely face harassment and intimidation”,

with protesters denied due process in their trials.

The Islamic Republic of Iran, whose rulers pervert the true meaning and message of Islam, hangs more men, women and children than the rest of the world put together, bar China—savagery on an industrial scale. Women are stoned to death, amputations are carried out without anaesthetics and eyes are gouged out. This is a regime that is almost literally at war with its citizens. While the economy stagnates, millions of young well-educated Iranians are denied employment. The mullahs use the money from oil on missiles, on nuclear weapons development and on sponsoring terrorism abroad rather than on investing in the future of their citizens.

Our Government and others know that Iran supplies weapons to the Taliban in Afghanistan and finances Hamas and Hezbollah. It has supplied and smuggled roadside bombs to Iraq—and paid the people who did it—which has killed seven out of 10 of all UK, US and coalition troops who have been killed. It has plenty of money for mischief and murder; little to meet the needs of one of the best-educated populations in the region. The people of Iran deserve and demand better. They demand the right to protest and to enjoy human rights and free elections. That is why millions cry freedom, despite the brutality of the regime's response.

Iran’s meddling is at its height in Iraq. It pressures the compliant and fledgling al-Maliki Government to lay siege to 3,400 Iranian dissidents at Camp Ashraf, 60 miles north-east of Baghdad. These are members of the dissident PMOI. They were individually interviewed by US security agencies in 2004, renounced participation in or support for terrorism, rejected violence and undertook to obey the laws of Iraq and relevant UN mandates. In return, they were given indefinite protected persons status—I have here a photostat of the identity card given to one of the residents, which I shall leave with the Minister after this discussion—under the fourth Geneva convention, on behalf of the Multi-National Force—Iraq, by Major General Geoffrey Miller, its deputy-commander.

International law experts argue that that protection remains in operation all the while coalition forces are in Iraq, although I acknowledge that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office disputes that. What is unarguable is that the UK, like every other United Nations member, has a continuing responsibility to ensure that Iraq carries out its duties under international humanitarian law.

The US handed responsibility for the safety and security of Ashraf residents to Iraq last year after Iraq gave written undertakings to continue these protections. Not only has it not done so, but the Prime Minister set up a committee for the suppression of Ashraf in his office to meet agreements that he made with Iran to close Ashraf and remove its residents. In July last year, Iraqi security forces—some, strangely, speaking Farsi—attacked the unarmed residents, killing nine and wounding hundreds. Video shows troops using hand-held chains, wooden staves embedded with nails and scaffolding tubes in the attack, as well as a Humvee to run down protestors. The so-called Iraqi Ministry of Human Rights has still not released its report into these events, despite requests from the United Kingdom that it should do so. I hope that, when he comes to reply, the Minister will be able to say what the latest position is on this.

Since Iraq took over responsibility for the safety and security at Ashraf, there have been 70 recorded cases of harassment of residents by Iraqi forces, with 29 injured. Medical and other supplies are regularly refused entry to Ashraf, as are relatives and residents’ lawyers wishing to visit. Ashraf is under menacing siege in breach of international humanitarian law, let alone the fourth Geneva convention protections. However, that is not all. The latest pressure is to deny residents with terminal cancer access to the medical treatment that they need in Baghdad and elsewhere. I have a dossier here listing some of the cases and, again, I shall leave it for the Minister and his officials to study after this debate. Dozens of terminally ill cancer patients are refused the services of specialist doctors, and now, night and day, people using 120 loudspeakers around the perimeter of the camp chant threats to kill residents and destroy Camp Ashraf. This is psychological torture, in clear breach of international humanitarian law.

On 25 November, the European Parliament adopted a written declaration condemning Iraq’s failure to ensure the safety and security of Ashraf residents. It condemned the siege imposed upon the camp and urged the UN to provide urgent protection to Ashraf. For good measure, it urged the United States to follow the UK and EU lead in reviewing the continued naming of the PMOI among organisations concerned with terrorism. As your Lordships will remember, we did that in a court action in this country some years ago, and that was followed by the EU doing exactly the same.

Why is Ashraf important? It is important because its residents are a symbol of hope and inspiration to the millions across the border in their homeland who cry freedom. I believe we need to signal that we stand with those millions in their struggle for freedom against the undemocratic fundamentalists now ruling in Tehran. However, I make it immediately clear, not least in the light of WikiLeaks, that this does not imply or mean a call for military intervention. It does not. It is for the people of Iran to find their own way to freedom, and the PMOI offers a secular republic, respect for human rights and democracy, and an ending of the current nuclear weapons programme. That is what it wants to offer in free elections and it has undertaken to stand by the results of those elections, win or lose.

There is a growing and grave urgency surrounding the siege at Ashraf and words are no longer enough. Since the Americans handed over responsibility for safety and security, we know from experience that the Iraqis are not going to fulfil the undertakings which they gave the American forces or which they have given under international law. When the Minister responds to this debate, perhaps he will be kind enough to answer three questions.

As Iraq has demonstrated that its word cannot be relied upon, will he now ask British embassy staff in Baghdad to visit Ashraf and speak to terminally ill patients denied medical treatment in order better to assess the position at first hand? Secondly, will the UK encourage the UN, perhaps using US forces and help from the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, to ensure the proper protection of Ashraf residents by maintaining a continued presence around the perimeter of the camp and ending the siege and psychological torture brought about by loudspeakers and interference with essential supplies? Thirdly, will he facilitate a visit by an all-party group of Peers and MPs to Camp Ashraf so that they can talk to residents there, get a first-hand picture and report on the present position when they return?

The situation at Ashraf is headed for a humanitarian catastrophe. We cannot and must not stand by and wait for this to happen and then start to condemn it. The response last July was slow and bad enough, which the then Ministers were good enough subsequently to acknowledge. We do not want that to happen again. It must be made crystal clear to the Iraqis that the international community will not tolerate breaches of international humanitarian law at Camp Ashraf. I look to the Government to say that they support that position.

In view of the limited time available, I shall come straight to the subject of Camp Ashraf. When my noble friend the Minister answered a Question on 25 October, he said that pressure had to be brought to bear on Iraq to see that it behaved properly towards the people of Ashraf. We can surely take it from that that Her Majesty's Government are less than happy about the situation there. My noble friend says that officials from the British embassy have visited the camp. Can we take it that they saw the 120 or so loudspeakers outside the camp? Did they hear them being used to blare out threats of murder to the people inside? Can we take it that our embassy had some contact with the United Nations Assistance Mission when it was still at Ashraf and knows of the catalogue of complaints to the mission about dozens of desperately ill people being prevented from going to Baghdad for treatment? I can hardly believe that our embassy was closing its eyes to what the Iraqi prime ministerial committee for the suppression of Ashraf was up to. I hope that my noble friend will state clearly today that what Iraqi forces at Ashraf have been up to is quite unacceptable.

There is little doubt that the Iraqis are dancing to the mullahs’ tune, and it would be very surprising if the mullahs were not bent on getting rid of Ashraf and the people there for the very reason that was stated by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett: namely, that it is a beacon of hope for people in Iran.

Iraq is a sovereign country, but we are where we are as a result of the US/UK invasion in 2003. That surely means that if Iraq does not behave in a civilised fashion and breaches international law, we cannot wash our hands of the matter. Surely Iraq is now in breach of international law. At the very least, it is in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it is a party when it denies the people of Ashraf freedom of movement.

The people of Ashraf are entitled to be protected from harassment and attack. How can their safety be secured without the US retaking responsibility for the protection of the residents and the UN establishing a permanent monitoring team at Ashraf? That surely is what Her Majesty’s Government should be urging.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, for this opportunity. I shall talk about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its relationship with its neighbours, given the limited time. Our interests in the UK are engaged with Iran on numerous fronts. It is a neighbour of Afghanistan and Iraq, countries in which UK forces are deployed, and to Pakistan, where we have ongoing security interests.

Iran’s attempts to acquire a nuclear capability have been an ongoing concern for many years now, and rightly engage the international community. Until the present time, we have pursued a twin-track strategy; successive increases of sanctions against Iran have continued alongside the E3+3 talks. There have been ebbs and flows; there was a positive atmosphere in 2003, when Iran suspended its nuclear programme, but on the whole these days the optimism is gone and we know from successive IAEA inspections and public statements from the regime that Iran’s technological know-how is moving ahead towards highly enriched uranium. Whether that leads towards nuclear weapons capability is probably undisputed; the question remains as to how long that will take.

The question that remains for us is what we are to do. Many of us suspected that Israel was being restrained from launching an attack against Iran’s nuclear sites by the US, but we now hear from reports that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have been actively seeking a military strike against Iran in order, supposedly, to destroy her nuclear capability. I hope the Minister can impress on Israel that this would be a most unhelpful course of action, if that is what she seeks to do. Iranian rhetoric indeed threatens Israel, and President Ahmadinejad’s recurrent statements are deeply provocative. Iran’s support for Hezbollah must be deeply worrying, not least when amply demonstrated through President Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Lebanon. But airstrikes will not do away with any of that; indeed, they will aggravate tensions throughout the Middle East.

If we in the international community think that we can sanction strikes against Iran and expect no retaliation, we are naive at best. The Straits of Hormuz would be closed overnight, with worldwide oil prices spiking to unprecedented levels. A hard-won stability in Iraq would be immediately endangered and Iran’s significant influence in Afghanistan would be far from benign. Airstrikes would almost certainly not eradicate Iran’s programme, which is dispersed and well protected, as we understand from intelligence.

I turn to the threat that Iran supposedly poses to its neighbours in the wider Middle East. The 2010 report of the US Director of National Intelligence describes Iran foreign policy in his annual threat assessment, finding that:

“Iranian leaders undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence, as well as the international political and security environment, when making decisions about its nuclear program”.

That is not an unusual set of priorities for any sovereign Government.

In conclusion, while we abhor these actions, I hope the Minister will reassure us that we will continue to keep our eye on the prize of peace through dialogue and sanctions, rather than allowing the use of force, even if it is by proxy.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, for putting this debate on the agenda, and I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner, for the very sane statement that she made. In my three minutes, I shall make three points. First, you have to think what it feels like if you are Iranian and surrounded by nuclear powers, and in particular if your enemy is Israel, which has a proven track record of attacking Palestine, Lebanon and elsewhere. Iran from the 20th century onwards has a relatively clean record on attacks; it seems to be more sinned against than sinning.

I should like noble Lords to think about why Iran is influential in the neighbourhood. It was dead against the Taliban and co-operated in the West to allow the Taliban to be arrested and sent over, so why the volte face? Iran tried very hard to have amicable negotiations with the West and failed. When you find that there is no jaw-jaw, you go for war-war, which actually helps the Government. If the Government were under threat, Iranians across the board would help them. What is more, we need to think of how the Iranians treated the flood of refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan who came to Iran. They were well treated, housed in open camps and afforded education. It so happens that I know, for example, that one of the very few women MPs in Afghanistan was educated in Iran. It is hardly surprising that Iran is influential. As a matter of fact, I might tell your Lordships that Iran is working with both sides. It is helping the Taliban, just in case it wins; it is also helping the Government. We have to ask: what would Britain do in such a circumstance?

I conclude on the question of human rights. I absolutely support the 65th resolution of the General Assembly abhorring the human rights situation in Iran. If there were a statement in the name of human rights, your Lordships would have international Iranian support. On the other hand, the Mujahedin-e Khalq did not have a presence among all those who were killed and died for the cause of democracy in Iran, while Camp Ashraf was used by the mujaheddin to torture its own people. There is a long tradition of suffering there, and it has nothing to do with Iran.

My Lords, I, too, begin by thanking my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale for securing and introducing this debate. I am sure he will forgive me if I disagree with many of the things that he said. The Iranian regime has been guilty of violating human rights but it is not the only one in the neighbourhood or in the world. It has been guilty of ignoring basic democratic norms but, again, it is not the only one in the area or in the world. It has been interfering in the affairs of other countries; well, we have a long record of doing that for the past 70 years, so we are in no position to point the finger at the Iranians. We obviously have a duty to criticise and bring pressure to bear on Iran, but we should not engage in any kind of precipitate action that aborts its natural evolution into a secular, democratic society in the years to come.

Nuclear weapons are certainly a serious matter, but I am not sure how serious Iran’s interest is in developing those weapons. It could be a game of bluff or a negotiating counter, but let us assume that it is serious and embarks upon the programme of developing nuclear weapons. Why would it want to do that and what would it do with those nuclear weapons? It would annihilate Israel. It knows that is suicide because Israel has developed perhaps 200 nuclear warheads. It also knows that Israel would be supported by the United States. Is it a fear of its neighbours? It knows that if it were to embark upon nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would do the same thing, followed in due course by Egypt and eventually by Turkey. By turning to nuclear weapons for its own national security, it would be defeated by its own actions.

There are two basic concerns with Iran wanting to develop nuclear weapons. There is a sense of national pride. For all kinds of reasons, having nuclear weapons has become a badge of having arrived on the international scene and being taken seriously. In part, there is also the fear that the United States will interfere, as it has during the past 50-odd years, in the internal affairs of Iran. Therefore, we need to ask ourselves how we can normalise relations with Iran and allow its own internal dynamics to develop in a healthy direction when any kind of external pressure or interference will simply abort the process and create more problems for us.

We ought to reassure the Iranians that no one is going to interfere in their internal affairs, apply diplomatic pressure, and provide a carrot in the form of giving it a greater regional and global role and drawing it into global deliberations on a new kind of world order. More importantly, we ought to put pressure on its neighbours because we have been concentrating too much on Iran. We ought to make it clear to them that they ought to engage in establishing cordial relations with Iran, rather than turning to Uncle Sam every time there is trouble—in the hope that Uncle Sam will come down heavily on the Iranians—when no good relations are going to be created that way.

My final point is that Iran is going through a deep internal crisis: economic, political and cultural. If we allow that process to be uninterrupted by external pressure or internal panic, we might be able to create a more sensible order than we ended up creating in Iraq.

My Lords, Iran has secured constant headlines over the past few years because it has a dismal record on human rights, the capacity to produce nuclear weapons and a fragile democracy. These are matters of serious concern to the free world. This debate gives us the opportunity to probe the coalition Government’s stance on issues identified so far by many noble Lords. It is tempting to cite some revelations that emerged from WikiLeaks. I do not condone the unauthorised release of classified information. Governments cannot operate effectively if confidentiality in matters of security is leaked, but this is not the case with Iran, and diplomats ought to exercise care in the way in which information is communicated. Let me give the Committee an example. We are shocked that it took years of legal battles in this country and in Europe to formalise the status of the PMOI. Some of the information used by the Foreign Office at that time could not stand the scrutiny of the courts. It is here that our system of justice is supreme, and the PMOI has now been removed from the list of proscribed organisations.

Why are we afraid of organisations fighting for democracy and the civilised rule of law in Iran? The civilised world cannot accept the death penalty for more than 135 child offenders now on death row in Iran. In many cases, dissent against the regime is followed by systematic public hangings; 120,000 political prisoners have been executed since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Amputation, lashing and stoning seem to be the norm. Mobile communications, particularly mobile phones, have made it possible for the world to know how fragile the state of democracy is and how power seems to fluctuate between the politicians and the mullahs.

The nervousness of neighbouring Arab states is easy to understand. So far, tact and diplomacy have not yielded positive outcomes, and the process of uranium enrichment continues. We need to know more about what role the regime is playing in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, but the priority at this stage is to protect the life and liberty of those who are in Camp Ashraf, a point well made by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett. The world cannot stand by and allow the constant persecution of the residents there. The shift of power after the Iraq war between the Sunnis and the Shias has opened up a new front in which Iran exercises considerable influence in that region. It is no surprise that the unremitting violence against Camp Ashraf residents is the direct result of Iran's influence.

There are a number of questions that I need to put, but I shall stick with two. Will the Minister ensure that Mrs Maryam Rajavi is given a visa to travel to the United Kingdom so that we can learn how best to promote democratic changes in Iran, and will he facilitate a cross-party delegation of parliamentarians to visit Camp Ashraf?

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, for initiating today's debate. It comes at an opportune time, but also at a time of great danger and hardship for the people of Iran. Over the past 18 months, they have been protesting with increasing fervour inside Iran as they demand freedom and democracy from the mullahs’ regime. The Iranian regime responds to these protests through arrest, torture and execution. It targets individuals with links to Iran's largest opposition group, the People’s Mujahedin of Iran. It is now time that the PMOI leader, Mrs Rajavi, is welcomed to the United Kingdom and that the US accepts the legitimacy of the PMOI, as ruled by its own Supreme Court. I ask the Minister to address that specific issue when he replies.

The most obvious evidence of the mullahs' corrupting influence has been the persecution of the 3,400 members of the PMOI in Camp Ashraf in Iraq. The Iranian regime has demanded that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki destroy the camp and disperse the residents so that they can more easily be eliminated.

The European Parliament recently adopted a declaration calling on the EU’s foreign affairs chief, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, to urge the UN to provide urgent protection for Ashraf residents. It was mentioned in the declaration that relatives of Ashraf residents had been sentenced to death by the Iranian regime after returning from visits to their families in Ashraf. Will the Minister condemn those death sentences in the strongest terms? If fact, he should do more. The Government should seek to send a delegation from this House to visit Camp Ashraf—the Minister can immediately put me down for the 54-inch body armour that the MoD could not supply when I wanted to go to Afghanistan.

Last summer Iraqi security forces killed 11 residents in an attack on the camp. More recently, and at the Iranian regime’s request, their tactics have been to create unbearable living conditions, as has already been explained. A disgraceful and inhuman example of that persecution was when, on 10 November, Iraq prevented 44 year-old Ms Elham Fardipour from travelling to a Baghdad hospital to undergo treatment for thyroid cancer. How can we possibly justify the suffering and the sacrifice of our nation’s sons and daughters in bringing freedom to Iraq when the end result has been the installation of Nouri al-Maliki who, at the request of Iran’s theocratic dictatorship, denies refugees suffering from cancer the right to travel to hospital? Was that what we envisioned for Iraq?

I conclude by saying that we in the United Kingdom and our allies should be isolating the regime with comprehensive sanctions over both its unlawful nuclear weapons projects and its appalling human rights abuses. We should accept that millions in Iran—a majority in democratic terms—want an end to the mullahs’ regime. Only then will Khamenei, Ahmadinejad and the rest of the Iranian regime become nothing more than a dark stain on the proud history of the Iranian people.

I draw noble Lords’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests in that I am chairman of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce and director of a company with interests in Iran. I join the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, in utterly condemning human rights abuses in Iran, particularly after the elections, such as the show trials, the beatings by the Basij, the shootings of young people in the street and the mass rapes, as revealed by the cleric and presidential candidate, Mehdi Karroubi. As the late Ayatollah Montazeri said before his death, the Islamic republic is becoming neither Islamic nor a republic.

The Iranian regime at the moment is weak domestically but strong regionally. Regionally it is strong because of its militant opposition to Israel compared with the so-called moderate Arab regimes, but also because of its alliance with its proxies: Hezbollah, Hamas and the Medhi army. These alliances give Iran an asymmetric defence in depth if attacked. All the military hardware of the United States and Israel will be irrelevant compared with that lethal potential response.

I recently read the opinion of Peter Jenkins, our former ambassador to the IAEA, who somewhat unusually doubted whether Iran was developing nuclear weapons as opposed to reaching the technological capability that gave it the option of developing them further. He argued that Iran was not in breach of its legal obligations but that we could do nothing to stop it reaching the threshold. I am not saying that he was right on the former, but he might be right on the latter. I hope that sanctions will change Iran’s attitude, but we must recognise that there will be a greater source of illegal trade and more income for the military security conglomerate of the revolutionary guards. Sanctions are also an opportunity for the regime to blame its own economic failings on the enemy abroad. Lastly, sanctions provide the Government with a perfect alibi to crack down on opposition within the country.

There are obviously some out there who do not believe that sanctions will work. I refer to those behind the targeted assassination of Iranian scientists working on the nuclear programme. The day before yesterday, one scientist was murdered in Tehran and another wounded in car bomb attacks. Earlier this year, another nuclear scientist was murdered. I do not expect the Minister to comment on this, but I do not believe that these attacks are inspired by either of the two King Abdullahs. They are completely counterproductive and will not encourage Iranian public opinion to support a flexible approach.

The present carrot and stick approach has been tried many times before and I doubt that it will succeed again. There are three things that might put pressure on Iran and encourage it to stop trying to reach a nuclear threshold. First, as has already been mentioned, Iran has its own nuclear concerns. Regional nuclear disarmament, beginning with Israel, is important. Secondly, there is a need to settle the Palestinian issue and create a state that is acceptable to the Palestinians. This will undermine Iran’s regional position. I also believe that the BBC Persian service, Murdoch’s new Farsi channel, Facebook and Radio Liberty are very important in encouraging change in Iran. There is a rising tide of discontent within the country. Demography and the cosmopolitanism of the young people of Iran make it impossible for the present political framework to survive in the long run. We must make sure that our actions support rather than delay change.

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Corbett for initiating this debate. I do not suppose that any of us are wildly happy about the WikiLeak revelations, but in some ways they throw into sharp relief the true views of the Arab states on Iran. Like many other noble Lords, I have always been surprised by what I have heard Arab diplomats and politicians say in private behind closed doors compared with what they say in public. When talking about the dangers to their countries, they look to the threat from the East—in other words, Iran—rather than to that from the West—that is, Israel. They have one language for the street and another for diplomacy. On Iran, the leaks quote the King of Saudi Arabia as saying that the head must be cut off the snake; the King of Bahrain as saying:

“The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it”;

and about Ahmadinejad that he is “unbalanced, even crazy”.

The Iranians, of course, deny that they are building a nuclear weapons capability; they say that they are building nuclear power plants. Iran is a poor country. Could someone please explain to me why, as one of the world’s largest producers of gas and oil, it should need to build nuclear generators? It is laughable. I see the Iranian situation as a car crash waiting to happen, and it is all in tortuous slow motion. For years, we have known that the Iranian regime is wholly bad. Ever since the revolution, it has been a force for evil in this world. It destabilises Iraq and Afghanistan, and it is our soldiers who pay the price. It set up a state within a state in southern Lebanon, such that Hezbollah today is a major threat to Israel, armed to the teeth with more rocketry than it had in 2006, despite the United Nations trying to prevent it. It finances and arms many organisations that we deem to be terrorists and which are threats to our security. Now it is in bed with the North Koreans, who it seems are to supply it with medium-range missiles capable of hitting western Europe: talk about a marriage made in hell.

I am a firm supporter of the state of Israel. To Israelis, a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat. It sees Tel Aviv as target number one. Ahmadinejad has stated on many occasions—and who are we to disbelieve him?—that the Holocaust never happened and that Israel must be wiped off the face of the earth. So the man both denies the Holocaust and, at the same time, plans for the next one. He plays for time, stringing us all along while he zigzags from side to side. We threaten him but we always back off. We indulge him, hoping that he and his state will change their tune, but they do not. We apply sanctions, which are soft and meaningless, but he ignores them. All the time, the centrifuges keep spinning—at least, they would were it not for the Stuxnet virus.

My conclusion is that nothing will stop Iran in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, except crippling sanctions, and these should be implemented before it is too late.

My Lords, I hope that next week’s Geneva meeting will cover Iran’s refusal to co-operate with the UN’s official human rights mechanisms and its rejection of the specific recommendations under Iran’s UPR, to which attention was drawn by a consortium of NGOs led by Human Rights Watch, as well as by the UN Secretary-General in his September report to the General Assembly. In turn, it expressed deep concern at,

“serious ongoing and recurring human rights violations”,

including torture, the persecution of human rights defenders,

“pervasive gender inequality and violence against women”,

discrimination against minorities and a dramatic increase in executions. Many were in public, ignoring international standards, still used stoning and suspension strangulation, and included victims under 18. The human rights high commissioner added her voice to the chorus last week, concentrating on the vicious treatment of the human rights defender, Nasrin Sotoudeh, and everyone associated with Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi’s centre for human rights.

The NGO consortium under Human Rights Watch wants the UN’s thematic special procedures, such as the rapporteur on executions, to report periodically to the UN Human Rights Council on matters that fall within its mandate. Iran has escaped detailed scrutiny by the SPs simply by ignoring requests for an invitation. Philip Alston, the retiring executions rapporteur, merely records that a request to visit remains outstanding, without even saying when it was originally made. Again, that has been the practice for all the SPs.

Iran holds the world record, as has been said, for the number of communications on executions. During the year under review, Mr Alston sent 63 letters to Iran, which failed to respond to 37 of them. He suggests that when a country has persistently poor levels of co-operation or engagement with the communications process, the Human Rights Council should demand an explanation. I hope that the Government support that. Otherwise, he suggests, the procedure, despite its significant cost, is not being taken seriously as a means of responding to violations.

I shall return to the other proposals made by the special rapporteur in Thursday’s human rights debate, when I shall also comment on the Secretary-General’s comments on Iran’s treatment of its Baha’i, Sufi, Baluch and Kurdish communities. For today, what ideas do the Government have for improving the means of dealing with the particular case of Iran at the United Nations? Does he agree that at least the rapporteur should produce country reports on the most egregious human rights violators without waiting for an invitation to visit, as has been the practice hereto?

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale for initiating this debate. Like so many of your Lordships, I begin by saying something about human rights in Iran.

The punishments of political prisoners and those found guilty of criminal offences are truly appalling, from the 74 lashes received only a couple of weeks ago by a political prisoner in Gohardasht prison to the amputation of the hand of a 32 year-old man in front of other prisoners in the central city of Yazd. But what has outraged public opinion more than these harsh and terrible punishments is the treatment of child offenders and women. Amnesty International’s report of August this year says that 135 children are on death row in Iran. The country has signed the treaty on the rights of the child, which explicitly prohibits the execution of children under the age of 18, but I am sure that many of us have read the sickening accounts of the hanging of girls under the age of 18 for alleged sexual crimes and the attempts at public execution of underage boys.

The outcry about the 99 lashes received by a woman convicted of adultery, together with the initial sentence of death by stoning—now death by hanging—has outraged all parts of the world. Unabashed by this outcry of horror which those sentences have stirred up, the supreme court in Iran has now ordered a verdict of death by stoning of two further women in the past two months. Punishments of that nature are simply not acceptable, not in any country at any time or for any crime. What do Her Majesty’s Government say about the 135 young people on death row in Iran at the moment and what action are they taking to talk to the Iranians about the hanging or stoning sentences imposed on women for adultery?

On Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the possibility of its having some ability to produce a nuclear weapon through enriched uranium, and the warheads that it is believed to be developing, we have heard from WikiLeaks, which has already been referred to, that Israel believes that Iran will be equipped with a nuclear weapon within one to two years. Do the Government believe that that is a realistic assessment? If they do not, what can the Minister do about any timelines that he may be aware of?

Over the past 10 to 12 years, I have been sent on a number of visits to the Middle East for various purposes and for very confidential discussions. I must say that although the language of some of the leaks that we have been reading in the past couple of days is florid and undiplomatic, the content of the exchanges came as no surprise; nor do I believe that it came as any surprise to anyone who is acquainted with the region. The countries of the Gulf and the wider Middle East are genuinely concerned—more than concerned—about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. They and we need to think through the consequences of the use of these weapons in the region and the sheer enormity of what would follow. I do not expect the Minister to tell us in detail about the Government’s thinking on this—indeed, I hope he will not do so—but I would like an assurance from the Government that our allies within Europe, NATO and the Middle East and further afield in Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere are all thinking about this issue, are planning and are doing everything possible to ensure that our friends and allies have a clear and well understood strategy to deal with this unimaginable catastrophe, were it to happen in the region.

My Lords, in the brief time left after this series of brilliant vignettes and short speeches about the situation in Iran, it will not be open to me to do full justice to all the questions, and I shall try to contact noble Lords whose questions I do not answer adequately.

I shall begin at the end because the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, spoke with great strength about matters about which we all feel: the gross abuse of human rights in Iran and its appalling practices. She mentioned, in particular, the practice of executing juvenile offenders, which revolts the entire world, and I can tell her that the European Union continues to raise this again and again, with other death penalties, and my honourable friend Alistair Burt, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, discussed this with the Iranian ambassador when they met a few weeks ago, but those are words and our disgust must be expressed in much stronger words than that, and will continue to be.

The challenges posed to the international community by Iran’s behaviour in all its aspects are stark. I commend particularly the opening comments by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, who not only feels strongly but conveys the strength of his feeling about the behaviour of this grim regime. We have no doubt at all that a nuclear-armed Iran would be a disaster for the Middle East region and deeply damaging to the integrity of the international system for preventing nuclear proliferation. Several noble Lords referred to that, and I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mitchell, about the dangers and about how the habit of extending existential threats to other nations merely reinforces the whole atmosphere and makes the danger all the greater.

Iran’s treatment of its own people, its appalling record, to which I referred, and its support for terrorist groups in the Middle East demonstrate the true nature of the Iranian state. We have no doubt about that. It is confirmed by everything that has been said and there is, indeed, the malign shadow of Iran over the Middle East and over prospects for peace. Those prospects would be enhanced if Iran were no longer able to use, for instance, the Israeli-Palestine argument, debate, quarrel, differences and conflict somehow to champion every kind of hostile and difficult element in the region.

The international community has demonstrated unity and resolve. We have adopted a twin-track approach to Iran, referred to by your Lordships, of pressure and engagement. The aim is peaceful pressure, through sanctions, designed to persuade Iran to come to the negotiating table. In the past six months, we have secured tough new sanctions at the UN and at the European Union. The noble Baroness rightly asked whether we were bringing the allies along. Sanctions must be comprehensive. If they are undermined or weakened by various loopholes, the entire process becomes more difficult to conduct. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, that the sanctions will be tough. We are in high-level discussions with China on the need for it to support them. If trade routes are being undermined and investment in Iran continues from other quarters, our sanctions, particularly financial, are weakened.

We are running those sanctions in parallel with serious efforts to talk. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, speaking on behalf of the E3+3, has offered talks for next week, at the beginning of December. That is the latest in a long series of good-faith offers to talk. We do not know how Iran will respond, but we hope that it will do so quickly—the location is yet to be finally settled.

Many noble Lords referred to human rights. Iran’s record poses a direct challenge to the international community. Last year, the world witnessed via TV and YouTube brutal state suppression of the post-election protests in June. That rightly caused international outrage, which we fully shared. We have lobbied the Government of Iran to improve their human rights record and continue to do so. My colleagues and our team of Ministers in other departments regularly raise cases and issues of concern directly with the Iranian authorities. We have regularly lobbied the Iranian Government on the case, for instance—I am not sure whether it was mentioned in our discussion—of Mohammadi Ashtiani since her case came to light in June 2010. We were all revolted by the proposed method of her execution; it was a hideous case.

We are working all the time to get stronger international condemnation of Iran’s very bad human rights record. Last week, 80 countries from every continent voted in favour of a UN resolution—I think that it was raised by one of your Lordships— condemning Iran’s human rights record and calling on its Government to take urgent action. The resolution passed with the largest positive vote for eight years, indicating the breadth of international concern.

We will continue to push for the full implementation of UN resolutions calling for the disarmament of all armed groups supported by Iran and to give our full support to the UN sanctions committees that are pursuing and investigating sanctions violations. I do not want any doubt to be left about that.

I turn to the crucial questions about Camp Ashraf that were raised with such telling conviction by the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, my noble friend Lord Waddington, and others. I am not sure that anything I say will meet their full concern, because I can understand their strength of feeling. However, I have to say to them that, although we must act with as much power as we can, there are bound to be some limits to what we can do. Officials have visited Camp Ashraf four times in the past year, most recently in August. Noble Lords will know that Camp Ashraf is in a sovereign and democratic Iraq. We stress the need for the Iraqi authorities to deal with the residents of the camp in a way that meets international standards, and we will do so again and again.

Several noble Lords asked about seeking to facilitate a visit by noble Lords and Members of Parliament to Camp Ashraf. We would certainly try to do that. Whether one can guarantee that the Iranian authorities will provide the necessary facilities is another matter, but I am quite happy to say here and now that we would consider that possibility and see whether it could make a positive contribution to the situation.

I want to say one or two other things about Camp Ashraf, because I know that the feeling is so very strong and I ought to answer it absolutely fully in the last two minutes I have available—I can see the red light in front of me. On October 25—that is, just a month ago—the chargé d'affaires at our embassy in Baghdad went once again to the Iraqi Human Rights Minister and raised the matters there. Our embassy officials regularly discuss the situation with the Camp Ashraf special adviser in the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq, most recently on 21 October, and with EU colleagues and the Iraqi Government’s Ashraf committee. On 24 October, officials also spoke with the US about the latest developments at the camp. In addition, as I have already reiterated, officials have visited it four times in the past year. That is the situation now. It is not satisfactory. One’s heart as well as one’s head says that to see this continuing situation is a grim possibility that somehow must be headed off.

I have to conclude that Iran’s policies and behaviour towards the international community and its neighbours are matters of crucial concern. We will pursue honest engagement with Iran on the basis of offers we have made in good faith. Through sanctions, we will maintain pressure on the Iranian Government to engage over their nuclear programme. We will work closely with regional countries to combat Iran’s attempts to promote regional instability and continue to put pressure on the Iranian Government to treat their own people with dignity and respect, in line with international human obligations. There is much more to say but no time to say it. I am grateful once again to the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, for initiating this very important but short debate.

My Lords, do we not still have two minutes, according to my clock in front of me? Would the Minister be able to say something about the visit of Mrs Rajavi to this country?

My Lords, I must congratulate all noble Lords on their immaculate timekeeping, and adjourn the Committee until 4.30 pm.

Sitting suspended..