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Iran: Election

Volume 746: debated on Monday 17 June 2013


My Lords, with the permission of the House, I will repeat the Answer to an Urgent Question asked in the other place. The Answer is as follows.

“I congratulate the people of Iran on their participation in Friday’s elections, and Dr Rouhani on the result. He made some positive remarks during his election campaign about the need to improve economic and political conditions for the Iranian people and to resolve the nuclear issue. The Iranian people will no doubt look to their new president to make good on these promises.

The United Kingdom’s policy on Iran has been consistent under this Government and the last. We share international concern, documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran’s nuclear programme is not for purely peaceful purposes. We deplore Iran’s failure to co-operate fully with the IAEA, to uphold its responsibilities under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and to meet the demands placed on it by UN Security Council resolutions.

The Government hope that following Dr Rouhani’s election Iran will take up the opportunity of a new relationship with the international community by making every effort to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. If Iran is prepared to make that choice, we are ready to respond in good faith. Our commitment to a peaceful diplomatic settlement of this dispute is sincere.

I urge Iran to engage seriously with the E3+3 and urgently to take concrete steps to address international concerns. Iran should not doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, and to increase the pressure through international sanctions should its leaders choose not to take this path”.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Answer given in another place. The results of the Iranian presidential election are encouraging and we welcome any effort by the new president to promote greater engagement with the West. It is right that together we embrace this window of opportunity for progress, including, of course, on the nuclear issue. However, does the Minister agree that it is necessary for the Government to pursue a sort of twin-track approach; that is to say, positive engagement alongside continued and co-ordinated pressure on the Iranian Government? Has the noble Baroness or her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary had an opportunity to discuss the result of the election with my noble friend Lady Ashton and to discuss progress?

I thank the noble Baroness for her questions. The election of Dr Hassan Rouhani is an opportunity for Iran to be set on a different course. We welcome the fact that this provides an opportunity. The noble Baroness will be aware that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has been leading the E3+3 talks. The Foreign Secretary is in constant touch with the noble Baroness on these issues. I am not sure whether they have specifically spoken after the election. The noble Baroness will be aware that Dr Rouhani takes his position on 5 August. That will be an important moment for him to signal whether he will put into action what he has said he will. However, I agree that we are sincere in our engagement with the E3+3 process and we absolutely believe that a negotiated settlement is the way forward.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a bit unwise if we were too effusive about the outcome of this election but that nevertheless we should all say that we welcome that such a high proportion of the Iranian electorate turned out to vote, and that they voted for a candidate who was not the one recommended to them originally by the supreme leader? I have two questions. First, can the Minister confirm what I thought I heard that any willingness by Iran to resume the discussions with the E3+3 would be met by a warm welcome and would be unconditional—that no new conditions would be set for that? Secondly, do the Government feel that it would be helpful if the US Administration made it clear that they would be prepared to talk directly to the Iranians in addition to the E3+3 negotiations, if that was the wish of the new Government in Iran?

It would be wrong for me to speculate as to what offer may be made by the Iranians and how the US would respond in relation to that. However, I can assure the noble Lord that the E3+3 negotiations have been held in an open and frank manner. A number of matters are on the table. I am not sure what the current conditions are in relation to those negotiations so I cannot answer his question directly in relation to whether any further conditions will be set before further discussions take place. However, I welcome, with the noble Lord, that over 70% of the Iranian public took part in these elections, that Dr Rouhani was elected with over 50% of the vote, and that he described his win as a victory over extremism and unethical behaviour. This is a moment when Iran could choose an alternative course.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that while it would be naive to suppose that the issues still outstanding are not grave and serious, it would be very unfortunate if, in these early days of the new political reality in Iran, we were to give the impression that we were from the outset still negative? Is it not very important to be able to demonstrate a willingness to respond and to give credibility to the new leadership? Does she also agree that if he is trying to change gear on the crucial nuclear issue it makes it all the more important that the existing nuclear powers take seriously—transparently and demonstrably seriously—their commitment within the non-proliferation treaty to reduce their own stocks and nuclear capabilities?

I take the point made by the noble Lord. Of course we have to be positive about what could potentially flow from these election results. However, we must also remember that more than 600 candidates were disqualified during this process, of which 30 were women. We have to see this election in the context of the background against which it was held. Of course, it is right for us to respond positively to any further movements by the Iranians. That is why I said that this is a moment when Iran can choose an alternative course of action. However, there are still serious negotiations and questions on the table, and it is important for Iran seriously to engage with those E3+3 negotiations.

My Lords, is it not a matter almost for rejoicing that the Iranian people seem to have elected as their president someone who has indicated that he is at least prepared to open windows on the outside world? Should we not do everything to encourage him and the new Government, when they take office, to open the doors as well? Perhaps, following the wise words of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, this may be an opportunity for the United States to renew the approach that was made so splendidly some years ago by President Obama in his Cairo speech. Given the way in which the flawed—and much protested—election of Mr Ahmadinejad to the presidency was carried out last time, surely the lesson in this is that it is a great deal better to allow countries to sort out their own problems in their own way rather than wading in with either threats or unwise or unsustainable interventions.

I can assure the noble Lord that on this matter we certainly do not intend to wade in with threats. However, I think he will accept that there are serious issues in relation to the proliferation of nuclear weapons by Iran. Those are matters that need to be discussed and Iran needs seriously to engage with them. Of course, there are also issues in relation to the human rights situation in Iran and concerns in relation to its current role in Syria. Therefore, while this is of course an opportunity, we need to be cautious about how optimistic we are.

My Lords, what advice do the Government extend either to encourage or allow engagement with differing sectors or institutions in Iran? I ask this because yesterday I launched as creator and producer a 30 minute internet-based production in Farsi under the banner of, with the assistance of the Hansard Society, which sets out to explain how and why the United Kingdom Parliament operates in the way that it does.

That was a great plug for what the noble Viscount does. “Parliament Revealed” is an incredibly important programme. I have seen first-hand its impact in central Asia and it is certainly to be welcomed. If other countries can take advantage of that, we would support it. We can certainly say about Dr Hassan Rouhani, who has studied in the United Kingdom, that it will not be the unfamiliarity of how our system operates that will stop us from moving forwards.

My Lords, the power structure in Iran is very complex. The Revolutionary Guards remain in place and, as we have seen in Syria, the supreme leader is still there. We should not expect any abrupt changes. However, do we leave the initiative entirely with the new president when he is inaugurated in August? What initiatives are we thinking of at that time to try to normalise relations? Should we not, with our allies, consider carefully the level of representation at the inauguration of the new president?

The noble Lord is right in relation to the supreme leader’s position. He will be aware that Dr Rouhani has been one of the supreme leader’s personal representatives on Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for many years. We look forward to his actions when he is sworn in as president and whether he will show that he is willing and able to resolve Iran’s most pressing problems, including the international community’s concerns about the nuclear issue. As for whether we will step up our engagement, the noble Lord will be aware that, following the attack on our embassy in November 2011, we reduced our diplomatic relations to the lowest level, although we still have arrangements in place in each other’s capitals that allow communications between the UK and Iran. He may be aware that the Swedes and Omanis assist us in allowing those communications to take place. We must be assured, first and foremost, that our staff are secure and safe and that our mission will be allowed to carry out the full range of embassy functions before we can consider how we would step up this relationship.