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Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 10 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will re-establish full diplomatic relations with Iran to coincide with the inauguration of President Hassan Rouhani on 3 August.

My Lords, diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran are not severed, but they are at their lowest levels possible. Our respective embassies are closed, but Sweden looks after UK interests in Iran and Oman looks after Iranian interests in the UK. Until we can be confident that Iran will abide by its obligations to protect our staff and allow them to carry out their functions, we cannot have a diplomatic presence in Tehran.

I thank the Minister for that rather disappointing Answer and point out that President-elect Rouhani was not only elected by a clear majority on the first ballot of the Iranian people but had a majority of more than 12 million people over his nearest rival, the mayor of Tehran. In the past week, he has not only called for the clergy to cease to interfere in the private lives of Iranians and called upon Iranian state television and radio to address Iran’s problems much more honestly and fairly, but has also said that the young people of Iran will benefit from having clear access to the internet.

Given that, and also given that there are now thousands of young Iranians on the streets praising their new president, might we as a country not make at least some gesture, at the point at which he becomes the elected president on 3 August, which will re-open lines of contact more closely between Britain and Iran. France and other European nations are already establishing their willingness to work more closely with the new Government.

My noble friend has much more practical experience on this issue than I. Having visited the country on a number of occasions, she has seen the situation on the ground. I can assure her that we are open to an improvement in the relationship between the United Kingdom and Iran. I acknowledge that this was a predominantly peaceful election with a large turnout and that Mr Rouhani, who will be inaugurated as president in August, has described his win as “victory over extremism”.

Having said that, it is important that we see these words translated into action: there is a whole series of issues on which we want to see a positive approach from Iran. We also have to acknowledge and accept that, although the election was positive and decisive, a very large number of candidates—678—were disqualified, including all 30 of the women who wanted to stand.

The Minister’s caution is welcome to many of us in this House. In the 22 days up until 8 July—only two days ago—75 people were executed in Iran. One of those was only 15 at the time of their arrest and some of these executions were mass ones, with as many as 21 being executed at the same time. Surely the Government are right to exercise caution. The mullahs are still very much in charge, no matter who takes over as president in August.

Of course the noble Baroness is right. Supreme Leader Khamenei still has a huge amount of influence in many spheres of life in Iran. She is right to say that the human rights situation in Iran is dire. In 2012 there were reports of over 350 executions and 162 executions as of May this year. It has more journalists in prison than almost any other country. Opposition leaders remain detained in prison after two years. We have real human rights and other concerns in Iran. We are open to improving this relationship, and there have been opportunities when officials have met, such as during the E3+3 talks, but it is important, as the noble Baroness says, to remain cautious.

My Lords, would my noble friend not accept that it is precisely because of the permanent history of Iran and its human rights infractions that we should support the president just elected? He showed considerable courage in his election campaign and would be immensely supported in his undoubted wish to move away from the dark side of Iranian life if we were to restore diplomatic relations without preconditions.

I understand my noble friend’s points, but the one thing that I and most of us who have been involved in foreign policy realise is that the situation is never black or white. There are always many grey areas, as is the case here. The new president has made some positive remarks, but it is important that they are translated into action. However, I can assure my noble friend and other noble Lords that we have contact with the Iranians. For example, last year at the Heart of Asia conference, as part of the discussions on Afghanistan, the Foreign Secretary met Foreign Minister Salehi in the margins of the meeting. There are therefore opportunities for discussions to take place, even at the highest level. However, in terms of restarting diplomatic relations and having an embassy—which, let us not forget, was ransacked in 2011 and where our officials and staff came under attack—it is important that we do so cautiously.

My Lords, surely we need direct contact. Will the Government seek assurances from the Iranians that if we sent in a chargé d’affaires, he would be properly protected? Fuller representation can wait until later.

I think that we are proposing official-to-official contact, possibly even in a third country, beforehand. That would be the normal course of events, not just in the case of Iran.

My Lords, all of us hope that Rouhani will prove to be more reasonable and rational than Ahmadinejad. Is it not important that nobody should have any illusions; that we should make it absolutely clear that sanctions cannot be relaxed until there is real evidence, through inspections or otherwise, that Iran is not proceeding with a nuclear weapons programme; and that, in view of the lamentable record on human rights and other matters that the noble Baroness has just set out, we should reserve even symbolic concessions on our side until the Iranian regime makes some positive move forward?

Sanctions are there for a purpose. They are targeted. They are for a specific issue and we have been careful to note that humanitarian goods are protected. However, the noble Lord is right. We have to make progress on substantive issues, and nuclear is one of them.