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House of Lords Hansard

Iran and Saudi Arabia: Co-operation on Syria and Yemen

21 May 2018
Volume 791

    Question

    Asked by

  • To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage Iran and Saudi Arabia to work together to bring peaceful solutions to the conflicts in Syria and Yemen.

  • My Lords, Syria and Yemen are among the two worst humanitarian crises in the world. A stable Middle East is in every nation’s interest. We therefore continue to encourage both Saudi Arabia and Iran to work towards regional peace and stability. We also urge all countries in the region to support the UN-led peace processes in both Syria and Yemen. Only political solutions can end these terrible conflicts.

  • I thank the Minister for his reply. The UN humanitarian co-ordinator for the Syrian crisis is reported as saying that 2018 is the worst year in Syria, with more than 7 million displaced people and the Geneva process frozen. Meanwhile, more than 7 million people are starving in Yemen. This is a Muslim version of the Thirty Years’ War, between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider leading an EU peace mission to Yemen and Syria consisting of specialists with knowledge of the political, cultural and religious differences?

  • My Lords, the noble Lord raises a very important point and I concur with him. These conflicts are the worst kind of humanitarian crises we have seen and they continue unabated. The challenge has remained because there are other forces at work—regional disputes and rivalries are being played out in both Syria and Yemen. I say to the noble Lord that the Government remain committed to the UN processes in both regards. He is of course right that the process in Syria, in particular, has stalled. The reason it has stalled is primarily the Assad regime’s direct disengagement from the process. The noble Lord makes a practical suggestion and, while the UK Government remain committed to ensuring that the UN mechanisms are fully recognised, I would welcome any helpful thoughts and processes on encouraging greater dialogue between the different communities that constitute Syria and Yemen and further afield.

  • My Lords, does the Minister accept the continuing pressing need to improve religious literacy, not least concerning Sunni and Shia, within and without Whitehall if we in this country are properly to understand, let alone address, the problems to which reference has been made?

  • The right reverend Prelate makes an important point. There are many wise voices when it comes to the tragic conflict that we sometimes see being played out by different denominations within the context of Islam. I remind noble Lords that there are 73 different denominations in Islam, but Shia and Sunnis represent the majority. In this regard, any dialogue is positive. A few months back, as part of my responsibilities at the Foreign Office, I looked at the important issue of countering extremism. Together with the Vatican, we invited to Rome scholars from both the Sunni and Shia voices of Islam to give productive and practical suggestions on the way forward.

  • My Lords, the United Kingdom, with its European partners, is seeking to retain the Iran nuclear deal. Might this be a time to encourage Iran to be constructive in both Syria and Yemen, and to release dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe?

  • Taking the noble Baroness’s final point first, I can assure her and the House that we continue to raise consular cases with Iran at every opportunity. On the wider point of engagement, she is right that we that we have been working with our partners to ensure that the Iranian nuclear deal remains live and will continue to do so. In our most recent discussions, the Foreign Secretary had a conversation with Foreign Minister Zarif about the importance of also ensuring that Iran plays its role in, for example, ensuring the Assad regime comes to the table in Geneva so that we can get the kind of peace we are all seeking for the people of Syria.

  • My Lords, women and children have been forgotten in the concern about the Shia and Sunni discussions and yet it is they who suffer the brunt of the violence. Will the Government, please, concentrate on the plight of women and children, regardless of whether they are Sunni, Shia or anything else?

  • The noble Baroness is right. I assure her and the House that the Government are totally committed to this agenda and have been leading on the issues of women, peace and security in our national action plans across the world. I was in Turkey when we launched the next Syrian action plan, and subsequently in Iraq to launch the national action plan on women, peace and security. Women have to be at the heart and soul of conflict resolution. By excluding women—more than 50% of the population—no solution can be found. Perhaps I may say a final word to those so-called religionists who feel that by using a noble faith they can exclude religion: you are wrong. For every prophet of every faith, including the Prophet of Islam, women played a central and pivotal role in all decision-making, both internally and externally.

  • My Lords, given the impact that sectarianism can have in a global context, John Bew, in his excellent article in the New Statesman this week, has pointed out that old taboos are breaking down, with the Prime Minister of Israel going to Moscow and the Iranians going to China. In response, will the Government be clear about the need to speak to our allies to ensure that we are completely up to date with this moving situation, and that we work especially with our European allies to ensure that the necessary peace talks take place?

  • The noble Lord is right and he knows that I agree with his sentiment. That is why—returning to the question raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover—the United Kingdom, working together with our allies, has been pivotal in ensuring that the nuclear deal with Iran stays alive. The noble Lord will know that the Prime Minister, together with the President of France and the Chancellor of Germany, issued a joint statement. It is important that walls come down—for example, in Europe, it took a wall coming down for peace finally to be restored. Those who build walls achieve nothing. We are in the process of taking those walls down.

  • Underlining the question of the noble Lord, Lord Collins, does the Minister see a changing coalition of minds in the making—such as that of Saudi with Israel and, by extension the United States, and that of China and Russia with Iran—which, together with the European Union, might be planning to counter the effects of secondary sanctions? This brings us full circle as to which side the UK will take on this and the Question on the Order Paper.

  • I think the side the UK is taking is quite clear; we are taking a pragmatic stance. We are the closest allies of the United States, but when we disagree with them, we make those differences clear, as we did on the nuclear deal. On the importance of talks and ensuring that new alliances can be made, we are encouraged by the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the UK. One notable feature of his visit that greatly encouraged me was the fact that en route to London he stopped in Egypt, where he visited the Coptic Church, which was a first. That is to be encouraged.