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Iran and Syria

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 5 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Government of Iran regarding that country’s role in the current conflict in Syria.

My Lords, after that last question I am really looking forward to the debates in January. The Government have impressed on Iran the importance of it playing a constructive role in Syria—for example, in pressing for greater humanitarian access. However, its current actions are far from that. Iran continues to support the Assad regime financially and militarily. We are using the upgrading of our diplomatic relations to engage Iran on a range of issues, including Syria.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Bearing in mind the remarkable success of my noble friend Lady Ashton in chairing the nuclear talks, the importance of the links that have developed between Iranians and civil servants in the European Union and the western powers, and the effect of the international sanctions that have brought Iran to the table, is it not time to expand those contacts with Iran to try to use extra influence on them both against the Assad regime and with Hezbollah?

We are expanding our contacts with Iran. The noble Lord will be aware of the meetings between Foreign Minister Zarif and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and the telephone conversations between the Prime Minister and President Rouhani. He also will be aware of our decision to appoint the chargé d’affaires last month. I can inform the House that our chargé d’affaires, Mr Ajay Sharma, visited Iran this week on 3 December. We are hoping that the chargé d’affaires from Iran, Mohammad Hassan Habibollah-zadeh, will visit the United Kingdom this month.

Following on from the Minister’s helpful answer, could Her Majesty’s Government cease supporting with quite such pressure the fractured, and in some ways poisonous, opposition in Syria? Could they ask Iran, with its concessions already in the bag, to be at Geneva II with a guaranteed seat and a proper invitation?

The national coalition represents a broad range of Syrian opinion. We could not proceed with the Geneva II discussions without the views of the Syrian people being at the table in a wide and broad way, so possibly I disagree with my noble friend on that point. Any constructive role that Iran can play in relation to Geneva II is good. However, Iran must first and foremost say that it supports the communiqué that was agreed at Geneva I. It could not possibly be part of a process where it does not agree with the outcomes as detailed in the communiqué.

My Lords, in Her Majesty’s Government’s discussions with Iran, have the Government stressed the need for progress on regional co-operation, however difficult that might be to achieve? Do the Government have a view on how to lessen the distrust, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia and between Iran and the Gulf states, so that this level of distrust in regional geopolitics does not perpetuate the battles in Syria beyond the point that they are already at?

The noble Lord raises an important point. It was right that we communicated properly the discussions that we were having with Iran and the outcome of those discussions. We must bear in mind that this is an interim discussion relating specifically to Iran’s nuclear programme. I think that our partners, whatever their reservations, and they are right to have reservations in the light of Iran’s previous conduct, accept that an Iran with nuclear arms, which was where Iran was heading, was not the right way forward, and therefore to halt the programme and in some ways to unroll it must be the way forward. This is an interim agreement with a view to a final settlement agreement in due course.

My Lords, Iran was unable to accept the conclusions of the first Geneva conference. Can the noble Baroness assure the House that that is not a sufficient reason in itself for excluding Iran from Geneva II?

The noble Lord will be aware that that communiqué, among other things, reiterates the need for a transitional Government who have full executive powers and for that to be done with mutual consent. If Iran cannot agree with that statement, I am unsure what constructive role it could play by being at the table in Geneva. Iran can play a constructive role in advance of that—for example, by leveraging its influence in Syria to give us better humanitarian access. That is an early win that Iran could put on the table to show that its intent and actions supported its words.

I am sure that the House welcomes the dialogue taking place between Iran and Syria while they continue to supply Hezbollah with arms and training. During these cosy talks with this butcher who is the new President of Iran, could the Government ask him to spare a thought for the executions in Iran of its own people that take place almost daily?

My Lords, we feel that the discussions with Iran are constructive and that the intent that we have seen so far has been sincere. I take on board the noble Lord’s strong views but I also take the view that closer diplomatic relations mean that we can start to tackle the difficult issues around human rights, including the use of the death penalty, face to face.

My Lords, has the Minister been able to get any further with my recent Written Question about the mass graves discovered in Sadad in Syria and the links between the militia involved in the killings that took place there and both al-Qaeda and Iran?