Question for Short Debate
My Lords, as our proceedings on the Bill have already concluded, this Question for Short Debate becomes our last business. As a result, Back-Bench and Opposition speakers may take a little longer than as set out in today’s list and speak for up to six minutes, should they wish.
My Lords, I want to take this opportunity to discuss the British national hostages in Iran and refer briefly to the JCPOA. I had the privilege of meeting Richard, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, and Gabriella, their daughter. The length of her imprisonment is a shocking and heartbreaking story, made even worse by the fact that her appeal was turned down just two or three days ago. But of course, it is not just Nazanin but other British nationals who are in arbitrary detention in Iran. As far as I know, four British nationals remain in this detention: Nazanin-Zaghari Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof. There may be others. My first question is: why do the Government insist on keeping the names and numbers confidential? After all, the Iranians know perfectly well who they are holding in detention or some form of custody. So, what is the benefit of our not knowing how many there are altogether? The four I have mentioned may not be the total.
My second criticism of the Government is that there seems to be no strategy for the British prisoners there. They are being held as hostages. Do we have a certainty of getting them out or is the Foreign Office simply sitting there, saying, “Well, let us hope something turns up?” I do not think that would be good enough. These are heartbreaking stories of people innocent of the crimes of which they have been accused, held in detention or, in Nazanin’s case, long detention—she is now under house arrest. It is simply unacceptable that British citizens should be held in this position.
Surely, we should consider punishing the perpetrators. We talk about the Magnitsky sanctions; why do we not threaten to use them on those people in Iran who are holding our people in detention in that way? In addition, we need an independent investigation of the torture allegations. It is fairly clear that prisoners have been held in a situation where they have suffered torture. An independent investigation of that would surely help.
There is the vexed question of the £400 million we owe the Iranians. Having looked at the previous comments made by Ministers, the Government’s answer has been that they will investigate the full range of options, but the Government say they do not link the two—the prisoners and the £400 million. Surely, if we have said to the Iranians that we accept that we owe them the £400 million, I cannot see what is to be gained by then saying we will investigate the full range of options. It seems to me that if we owe them money, the least we should do is negotiate that money against the release of those prisoners. That seems clear, and I think the Iranians—I do not want to speak for them—will feel that they were promised the money and they have not got it. We should keep the promise and do it.
My next question is: are these people hostages in the eyes of the Government? The Minister talked in June about an early release of all hostages in Iran. Do we therefore recognise that they are hostages? Sometimes, Ministers tend to say something else and not to refer to them as hostages.
I understand other countries have got their prisoners out: Australia, Germany, Canada and the United States. I wonder if the Minister could throw some light on how that happened. How was it that other countries managed to get their prisoners out while we failed? Did we try hard enough? Is there something the other countries did that we did not do? The Minister should tell us.
Then, there is the issue of diplomatic protection, which was offered to Nazanin a year or two ago. What happens with this diplomatic protection? Is it in fact still there? Are we using it with full force? Have we extended that protection to the other British nationals I mentioned and, if not, why not? Are the Government saying it was just a token gesture and there is no benefit to it? If there is a benefit to it, we should make full use of the fact that we have given Nazanin diplomatic status, and act accordingly.
My next and related point is this. At Nazanin’s court hearing—not the recent one—there was no United Kingdom presence. The Government will argue they were not allowed in. The Germans sent their consular official to a trial of a German national. The official was not allowed in but he or she did manage to have a conversation with the judge, so there was something to be gained by doing that. I cannot understand why we are so reluctant to use our diplomatic presence in Iran to aid and bring comfort to the people we are talking about. I know that at one point Nazanin was not even visited by British consular officials and when her daughter sent a gift, it was brought over by a driver. The consular officials did not even take it over to give it personally. It seems that we are not doing very much; we could be doing a great deal more than we seem to have done.
Furthermore, negotiations on the JCPOA are now taking place or, at least, I think that, with the change of regime in Tehran, there is a pause. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that pause will soon be over. We should certainly press to ensure that Iran’s policy of taking hostages should be on the table as part of negotiations on the JCPOA. We are losing an opportunity, and we should use it, and the £400 million, as a way to put some pressure on the Iranians.
If we are talking about restoring the JCPOA—I understand that the Government are fully committed to doing that and to undoing the damage done under the Trump regime—but we cannot get the full JCPOA, can we at least argue for an interim arrangement where some of the benefits of the JCPOA will be on the table, in return for which there could be certain concessions from the Iranians? Rather than leave it as all or nothing on the JCPOA, it would be good if we could have a backstop position and seek an interim arrangement.
The Minister may not want to talk about that, because he may not wish to admit that the JCPOA may not work. Of course, we all fervently hope that it will and we can resume the position we had before President Trump got involved so mistakenly, but it would be nice to feel that we had a back-up position. In any case, it should surely be our policy to encourage some form of regional dialogue. Could we use our influence along with EU countries to try to achieve that?
Furthermore, would it not be possible for us to start engaging with Iran on both refugees from Afghanistan and the problem of drugs? We might well find some sympathy and the chance to have a proper, big conversation with the Iranian authorities, despite there being a new regime there, given that it is estimated—the Minister may correct this—that 700,000 refugees from Afghanistan have gone to Iran. More than a million have gone to Pakistan. That is quite a responsibility for the Iranians, and surely it would be worth our while talking to them about that. We are talking about nearly 2 million people who have gone to Pakistan and Iran altogether, so there is a real issue there on which we should engage with the Iranians. Then there is the question of drugs—the perennial problem of dangerous drugs being cultivated and produced in Afghanistan and then exported. The Iranian authorities might well have a joint interest with us in stemming that trade.
Then there is the question of international co-ordination. How much are we working with other countries to try to deal with the hostages? I think we joined the Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention in February, and James Cleverly said:
“We continue to work with G7 partners to enhance mechanisms to uphold international law, tackle human rights abuses and stand up for our shared values.”—[Official Report, Commons, 27/4/21; col. 234.]
My question is: how much effort are we putting into that international co-ordination? We would surely have a stronger hand to play if we worked closely with other countries, some of which also have hostages in Iran.
The danger for Nazanin, who is one of the four I mentioned who, I understand, are in house detention but not in prison, is that she might now be returned to prison. That will be a terrible thing to happen after all the years she has spent there but, given that her appeal has been refused, the prospects are not wonderful. How will the Government respond to the possibility that she might have to return to prison? The Government have been a bit coy on this issue in previous debates. “Coy” is rather a bland word; the Government have not been very forthcoming. Can they be more forthcoming? We need a far more robust approach—robust enough to put pressure on the Iranians—and we need to work with other countries to see whether we can bring out these unfortunate victims of Iranian injustice and give them the right to return to their homes.
My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the register of Members’ interests. I am the unpaid chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. I join the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, in condemning the cruel treatment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe; the extension of her sentence without even a court hearing was an absolute disgrace. I have seen through my work as a trade envoy that the Government are making huge efforts to get Nazanin released. I have been in many meetings where the subject has been put very forcefully to Iranian Ministers.
It is also shameful that Iran should attempt—or appears to be attempting—to link the fate of a young, innocent woman to the tank money owed to Iran by the UK. The two should never be linked, although I have to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, that many of us are puzzled by the Government’s failure to pay the debt and meet Iran’s claim, which, after all, has been upheld by the UK courts. If it is US sanctions that are preventing the UK Government resolving this issue, that would in itself be bizarre. I would be grateful if the Minister could give us a specific reason why this money cannot be paid.
I will concentrate mainly on the JCPOA and the arguments put by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. It would be a mistake to think of the JCPOA only as something helpful to Iran. It is immensely important to the rest of the world. That is why it would be a mistake to link the efforts to get Nazanin and others home to their families with any negotiations over the JCPOA. That agreement would have prevented Iran getting a nuclear weapon for 15 years. It was a good agreement and, I believe, extremely important.
The best way of ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon is for the United States to return to the agreement that it broke. Despite the confirmation from the International Atomic Energy Agency on 10 or 11 occasions that Iran was complying with the agreement, it was Donald Trump who, unilaterally and for no good reason, tore up the agreement and imposed punitive sanctions on Iran. This hit ordinary people extremely heavily and had the effect of undermining the political standing of the moderate President Rouhani, who favours engagement with the West. It confirmed the suspicions and accusations of hardliners in Tehran that the US and the West could not be trusted.
Those, like Mr Netanyahu, who claimed that President Rouhani was just some cynical PR front figure for hardliners ought to contemplate what is now happening in Tehran, where steps are being taken in the Iranian Parliament to put the former President on trial for having negotiated an agreement that has had such bad effects on Iran and Iran’s economy. The only way forward is for the US to rejoin the JCPOA and for Iran to return to the enrichment and centrifuge limits set in the agreement. Iran has indicated that all the recent steps it has taken to boost its enrichment and number of centrifuges are reversible—in other words, that it is establishing a negotiating position. To attempt new, additional demands on Iran, such as to agree a follow-up agreement on regional issues, would be totally counterproductive. Iran has not returned to the negotiating table. We need to get Iran back to that table but it will not return until the additional sanctions imposed by Trump have been removed.
I also strongly agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said about trying to find common ground with Iran—on areas where we have a mutual interest. Indeed, Afghanistan is one such area; the Taliban are very strong enemies of Iran. Before this situation, Iran had already taken 4 million refugees and, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, said, has probably had another 700,000 in the last few weeks. Fighting ISIS was another area of common ground where there was initially some co-operation, but it eventually broke down. Although there had been a certain amount of mutual understanding, it was at a distance.
Narcotics are another common interest. We used to have a Metropolitan Police presence in Afghanistan. I agree that the more we find common ground, the more we might find that we make progress on other issues, such as the dual citizens who are being held so wrongly.
As I said, I have been involved in some talks with Iranian Ministers. I have worked with the families of some of the other people—not of Nazanin herself—who have been in similar situations. I know that the Government are trying extremely hard on this. Let us keep that going, but we ought also to make it a major objective to get Iran back to the negotiating table on the JCPOA. Without the JCPOA, the Middle East is an even more dangerous place.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, with his considerable experience on this issue. I agree with his central argument on the benefit of returning to the discussions. It was depressing to read that the latest effort by the European Union envoy in meeting Iranian officials had a negative response on the return to discussions in Vienna. We hope very much that this stalling will not continue.
I shall return to that in a moment but, first, I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for his tireless work on this issue. I reread the Questions that he has asked and his contributions to debates in the House on this topic. The questions that he posed to the Minister are very valid, especially regarding the definitions of hostages and of torture. It is now incumbent on the Government to be clear as to whether they consider that international obligations on these key areas are now being breached by the Iranian officials.
After a number of years on the Front Bench, my noble friend Lady Northover has stood back as the Liberal Democrats spokesperson. I put on record my admiration for how she carried out her role. It is very relevant to refer to her work in this debate; I checked the Official Report and she has raised the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe in this House on 20 occasions through debates and Questions. Most recently, on 7 June, following a Question from the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, her supplementary question was very prescient as she asked about UK officials attending court cases and hearings. The Minister replied that
“we continue making the case to attend any hearings that we can”.—[Official Report, 07/6/21; col. 1190.]
However, the most depressing news about this, of course, was that the so-called appeal would not meet the international norms of good legal practice in fair and open appeal. It was held in secret, without any possibility of observation. Can the Minister confirm what representations the UK has made to Iranian officials during this process, which has now led to the intolerable position referred to—of Nazanin not knowing whether she will arbitrarily returned to prison?
With regard to the valid question on torture, the Islamic Republic of Iran has ratified the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. It is not a far stretch to suggest that Iran’s conduct in this case is in clear breach of this international convention as well as of the optional protocol and the ICCPR that Iran has signed up to. What are the Government doing? The Foreign Secretary said in her statement:
“We are doing all we can to help Nazanin get home ... and I will continue to press Iran.”
It is now incumbent on the Government to state exactly what they are doing and what levers they are seeking to pull. The Iranians will know that she is the fourth Foreign Secretary to have made similar comments about this. What will be different this time?
Turning to the wider issue of the JCPOA, I had the privilege of serving on the International Relations Committee. Its report on nuclear non-proliferation and the hearings we had specifically on the JCPOA were very clear that the UK Government were correct not to follow the path of the United States but to maintain their position and to work much more closely with the E3 within Europe and the other signatories to seek a way forward for the United States to recognise its responsibilities as a signatory; and also for Iran to be open and allow much greater access, the lack of which has frustrated international inspectors in recent months. In that regard, can the Minister outline the position of the Government regarding the lack of access on the inspection of certain facilities? I understand that the Iranians are using the drone attack as a pretext for saying that there was a breach of security and damage, and for preventing the continuation of international inspections. Do the Government agree with that position, and how are we seeking to persuade the Iranians to open up access?
As the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, indicated, this is a regional issue as well. There have been some welcome signs of dialogue between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Iran in recent months, looking at opening consular access and with slow but hopefully positive work towards full diplomatic relations being restored. There are a couple of areas still outstanding, which I should like the Minister to refer to. One was referred to by the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Lamont. How are the Government treating the debt issue? Do they believe that this is completely separate from the wider negotiations, or have they or the Iranians tabled this issue as part of the wider discussions with the UK and our partners on JCPOA? What is the Government’s understanding of the latest position of the United States regarding compatibility? The new US Secretary of State has made his public comments known. Do the Government agree with Antony Blinken on what Iran needs to do for restoration, or do we have a separate position? All these issues are valid and timely, and I commend the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for raising them.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I served on the International Relations and Defence Committee of your Lordships’ House. As the noble Lord has said, we came to the very clear conclusion that it was in Britain’s interest to sustain the JCPOA and t do everything possible to reverse the action taken by the Trump Administration. That was our clear position, and I think it was the right one.
Successive British Governments, as far back as when Jack Straw was Foreign Secretary, and of different parties, including the coalition, took the view that active diplomacy backed up by economic sanctions was the best way to head off the risk of Iran acquiring fissile material capable of arming a nuclear weapon. Those Governments sustained that policy even in the face of great pressure from the Trump Administration to renege on the JCPOA which had been agreed with Iran in 2015. I believe they were right to do so and are right now to continue doing so, in concert with the Biden Administration’s efforts to revive the JCPOA and to bring Iran back into conformity with its provisions.
Why so? Because alternative courses of action, including that chosen by President Trump of “maximum pressure,” showed no signs whatever of working and contained massive risks to the whole international community: the risk of an Iran either with nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery, or so close to that as to represent a credible threat to obtain them; a potential, indeed probable, nuclear arms race in a very volatile region; irreparable damage to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which is a cornerstone of international peace of security; and the possibility of another armed conflict in a region which has already seen too many of them. Frankly, that is quite a list of risks.
Of course, it takes two to tango in this attempt to revive the JCPOA. The hiatus in the Vienna talks following the Iranian presidential election leaves the diplomatic route hanging by a thread, exemplified by the visit to Tehran last week of the co-ordinator of the E3’s position. But the risks from the diplomatic route collapsing makes going the last mile worthwhile—indeed, necessary, I suggest—and I strongly support the Government’s policy of doing just that.
I also share the views expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Lamont, that we ought discreetly to look for ways in which our interests and those of Iran overlap, whether it be the future of Afghanistan, drugs or the handling of flows of refugees. I do hope that the Government will find some way of opening up channels of discussion—not linking it with any other issue but simply reflecting the fact that there is an overlap in our fundamental interests in these matters. Iran suffers as much as any country from the flow of drugs, suffers hugely from the flow of refugees, and will be a victim of any terrorist outbreaks based either on the activities of ISIS in Afghanistan or on the Taliban themselves—because they will be directed against Iran’s co-religionists, the Hazara.
In the long run, the best solution to tensions in the Gulf region remains agreement by all sides to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, to cease meddling in each other’s internal affairs, and to work together on economic co-operation, of which there could be a massive amount. But that will be a work of years, not of weeks or months. I just hope that we will not lose sight of it, because it is the only viable way forward in a region where we have considerable political, security and commercial interests. Until we can get to that position, we will be continually faced by these crises.
As to the cruel and unjustified treatment of British-Iranian dual nationals, exemplified by the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, no effort to bring that to an end should be spared by the Government. However, I have to say that linking it in any way to the nuclear issue is only too likely to prove counterproductive and unsuccessful.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Dubs for initiating this important and timely debate, and I join other noble Lords who paid tribute to him for his tireless work on this and other humanitarian issues. He is an admirable member of this House. I agree with everything said so far, I think, and it is a privilege and a challenge to follow such thoughtful and informed speeches. I will do my best.
Only three days ago, an Iranian court apparently upheld Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s sentence of another year in prison, prolonging her cruel and unjustified detention that began in 2016. The Government say they are doing all they can to get her home, but Iran has made it clear that her freedom and that of the other dual nationals has a price: the repayment of the debt owed since Iran bought tanks that were not delivered after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. On 7 June, in an Oral Question referring to Nazanin’s case, my noble friend Lord Dubs asked about the money owed by the UK. The Minister, in his Answer, said:
“On the long-standing debt, we continue to explore options to resolve this case, but I do not want to go into details here.”—[Official Report, 7/6/21; col. 1188.]
I will not ask him to go into details of plans, and in fact I will offer him a plan at some point in this speech.
On this issue, I agree with my honourable friend Tulip Siddiq, the Ratcliffe family’s MP. She said:
“It’s time for the UK government to pay the debt we owe to Iran, stand up to their despicable hostage-taking and finally get Nazanin home.”
In preparation for this debate, I asked my colleagues in the European Leadership Network—particularly a young man called Sahil Shah, who helped me enormously—who have been working since 2018 to preserve the JCPOA across Europe, Asia and the United States, to come up with a plan. I have a proposal. The speakers thus far have asked enough questions of the Minister; I will not ask him any questions, but will instead put to him a proposal that, if it can be made to work, may help both to secure Nazanin’s release and to unlock the stalemate of the JCPOA talks—without linking them together.
This week, the Iranian Foreign Minister explained to lawmakers in Tehran their policy of “action for action”. He said that the US must show good will and make a serious move before Iran returns to nuclear talks. Since Trump unilaterally abrogated the JCPOA, Europe, including the UK, has strongly opposed US secondary sanctions imposed under its “maximum pressure” campaign and, to keep the deal alive, has offered multi-sector economic engagement. However, because of fear of US sanctions, which are all-pervasive, it has failed to deliver any economic engagement—including, importantly, in the humanitarian sector. As a matter of fact—or a matter of law, I should say—sanctions on humanitarian trade are against both US domestic and international law. Contrary to expectations, the Biden Administration have essentially kept to this Trumpian strategy.
The need for increased Covid aid to Iran is dire. The Delta variant hit Iran hard: a recent study by BBC Persian found 200,000 excess deaths there, and many believe that to be a gross underestimate. Neither America nor Europe will ever be secure from the virus until the world, including Iran, is secure. We already have enough petri dishes allowing the virus to run riot and develop variants. We should be picking them off where we can; Iran is one that we can pick off. It is in our interests. We should ask the US to allow Iran to use its foreign exchange reserves, which are held in key countries, to aid its pandemic response. Doing so would ease humanitarian trade during a time when the pandemic has caused immense human suffering in a population already toiling under severe economic hardship from years of sanctions. The death toll in Iran is appalling.
The IMF estimates that, because of the maximum pressure sanctions, Iran has access to only around 10% of its total foreign reserves. Iran negotiated with South Korea, Japan, Germany and Iraq—countries where it maintains foreign reserves, but also where the US maintains strong bilateral relationships and exercises its muscle. Trump successfully discouraged all four from accommodating Iran, both directly and indirectly. The Biden Administration are now doing the same. I remind noble Lords that this all should be in contravention of US domestic and international law.
Instead—this is the plan—Biden could go beyond the escrow structure that has been used to facilitate the use of Iranian oil revenues for humanitarian trade.
Thank you. I have just a few sentences left, that is all.
On the condition that the reserves will not be transferred outside of the countries in which they are held, the US could recognise the authority of these four independent Governments to determine the scope of acceptable bilateral humanitarian trade with Iran. This approach could extend to the United Kingdom; we could use what we owe Iran to pay for the purchase of vaccines and other necessary medical supplies through INSTEX, which we set up with France and Germany but through which we have been unable to mobilise any trade. I commend this plan to the Minister and the Government.
My Lords, it is a pleasure and a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Browne. I congratulate him on the plan that he set out, which I am sure the Government will consider.
I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on securing this important debate. He is completely right to describe the kidnapping and plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe as heart-breaking; he is also completely right to say that the Government should examine whether Magnitsky sanctions could be used against the perpetrators. Our new Foreign Secretary was right to adopt a resolute and determined approach to securing the release of detained British citizens; she was also right to make this a high priority as soon as she was appointed.
We must be absolutely clear about the nature of this regime. This is not a democracy run by reasonable people with whom negotiation bears fruit. It is a brutal regime that executes its opponents, hangs gay men from cranes, denies women basic rights and even, as we have heard, kidnaps British citizens for use as political pawns. In the past few months, it has killed a British national and a British serviceperson in its attacks on ships in international waters. It equipped Hamas terrorists with the missiles that they rained down on civilians in Israel earlier this year, causing the terrible conflict that we saw in May. It has prolonged the brutal civil war in Syria and attacked allied forces in Iraq, while its support for Hezbollah terrorists led to last week’s carnage in Beirut and threatens another civil war.
I never accepted that relaxing sanctions on Iran would encourage the regime to behave more responsibly and reasonably, given that, under the previous sanctions regime, with its economy on its knees, the regime spent huge funds on sponsoring and supporting terrorism. It was always clear that, with sanctions relaxed and more funds at its disposal, the regime would increase the funds provided to terrorists such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
Iran has clearly broken the promises made in 2015. Experts estimate that it is now just two or three months away from acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon. It promised not to enrich uranium above 3.67% or stockpile enriched uranium higher than 3.67% for at least 15 years. However, according to the IAEA report in May, it had 62.8 kilograms of enriched uranium at 20%. At the start of September, the IAEA estimated that it had 84.3 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium, plus an additional 10 kilograms of nearly 60%-enriched uranium. Last weekend, Mohammad Eslami, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, announced that Iran had more than 120 kilograms of 20%-enriched uranium.
None of these actions—installing advanced centrifuges and obstructing IAEA inspectors, both before the US Administration withdrew from the JCPOA, while enriching uranium to 60% and producing uranium metal, which is a significant component of nuclear weapons—have any credible civilian applications. This is why Israel’s new Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, said this last week:
“The Iranian nuclear program is at its most advanced point ever … the Iranians are playing for time, and the centrifuges are spinning.”
Professor Eyal Zisser said:
“The only thing separating Iran from a nuclear weapon is a political decision from its leaders … Iran has enriched enough uranium to make a bomb, and even if it hasn’t done so yet and hasn’t developed the ability to launch one on a ballistic missile, this is still just a technical matter requiring just a few weeks of effort”.
Can the Minister tell us what steps will be taken to build a concerted multilateral push against Iran to address the nuclear issue and its destabilisation of the rest of the region? Is it now time to refer back to the UN Security Council and to consider the snap-back of prior sanctions, which were clearly pivotal in bringing Iran to the negotiating table in the first place? Will the Government ensure that any new deal must include Iran committing to unfettered IAEA access to the full extent of its declared—and undeclared—nuclear facilities?
Finally, given Iran’s use of its funding to sponsor terrorism across the region, what assessment have the Government made of the case for banning Hamas in its entirety? This is a genocidal terrorist organisation opposed to any peace agreement in the Middle East. It wants to wipe Israel off the map and murder the Jews who live there. I believe that it should be banned in its entirety in the UK to prevent it raising funds in this country.
My Lords, this short debate is a helpful opportunity to attempt to offer an insight into the complex world of Iran. Some are of the view that modern-day Iran, which is now pivoting towards the East, is of the West’s making. The corrupt leadership in Iran does not represent its people, who should not be punished with policy failures and requiring long-term planning.
At the core of this evening’s short debate is the strategy to resolve the JCPOA. What is the Government’s strategy to bring this all to an end? What is made of Iran’s increasing implied threat of going military on its nuclear programme unless the world does this or the other? Is the regime trusted in negotiating in good faith?
Although the Revolutionary Guard is loyal to the regime, in practical terms the regime is more reliant on the Revolutionary Guard than the Revolutionary Guard is on the leadership, who consequently have become more assertive. Iran is in reality a de facto military Government, with all key positions controlled by commanders. They are in full control of the running of the economy of the country. The Iranian people, the West and the world are hostage. How long is the West going to allow this behaviour to continue?
Worryingly, Iran will more increasingly negotiate through hostage diplomacy; China has provided evidence just recently that it can be turned to an advantage. This is a dangerous turn of events, with the potential to get out of hand globally. A crucial question is: how will the Government respond if Iran, or any other state, continues to follow a policy of hostage-taking to achieve its goals?
I fear that the raising of dual citizens might play more into the hands of Tehran as there is an association with the return of money that is legally due for return. While the regime believes that it has right on its side, it will do nothing. I sincerely hope that I am proved wrong. The UK not returning the tank money plays into the hands of the leadership as it is an easy message to explain that it is the UK that is not abiding by the rule of law.
There still remains the recognition by Iran of Israel. It should not be forgotten that Israel also owes money from the days of the Shah, giving credence to an international coalition against it. Some are of the singular view that there is only one state that has the means to bring about resolution to the situation in Iran and the region: Israel.
In today’s climate, we should forget regional negotiations with the US at the table. We are entering a cold-war phase, with Iran having cut a 25-year deal to give first rights to Russia and China on construction, intelligence and military matters. Where does this leave us? There is, however, one core fundamental: the language of power is all that is understood. When faced with credible condemnation pressure, the leadership buckles. Will the Minister set out before the House where the Government perceive the regime’s weak points are so that we can all join in to make for a better world with Iran at the table?
My Lords, as if the continued detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is not shocking enough, I want to draw attention also to the harassment, death threats, arrests and detention being suffered by the many dual nationals who work for the BBC Persian Service, based both in Iran and in London. I am hoping that the Minister can update the House this evening on what steps the Government can take to up the ante on their representations to the Iranian Government, because the problem simply has not eased up. It has escalated over the past three years, with many family members of BBC employees also now subject to interrogation and harassment.
Since 2017, the Iranian Government have pursued criminal investigations into BBC Persian staff, alleging that their work constitutes a crime against Iran’s national security. Some 152 named individuals, most of them dual nationals, are the subjects of an injunction to freeze their assets, preventing them buying or inheriting property in Iran. Recent testimonies from staff show that interrogation techniques have become more frightening and aggressive towards elderly parents, siblings and other family members. Some staff have been threatened with kidnapping. Female staff in London are being particularly targeted with online attacks, fake stories about rape and sexual harassment by male colleagues at the BBC, and fake pornographic pictures posted on social media. Staff have been unable to return to or visit Iran to see sick or dying elderly relatives, for fear of detention or worse.
The objective of the Iranian Government appears to be to coerce people to stop working for the BBC, and to undermine the independence and quality of the World Service journalism. Repeated reports, resolutions and appeals to and from the United Nations have got nowhere: indeed, some brave BBC Persian journalists who have provided testimony have been further victimised.
I am aware that the FCDO has raised concerns in bilateral discussions with Iran, and has pledged to continue to do so, but this just does not seem to be enough or achieve any change. The injunction remains in place; BBC Persian staff and their families continue to have their rights infringed, and journalists continue to be the subject of systematic and sustained attacks.
I really want to hear something more and new from the Minister on what our Government can and will do to defend the independence of the BBC Persian service and, most importantly, the lives, safety and welfare of the people who work for it, and their families.
My Lords, this has been a fascinating debate, but it has often seemed as if there have been two separate, entirely different countries that were being discussed. One showed Iran as a potential partner for peace, a potential future trading ally that has been wronged by the West and President Trump, and let down by the UK. The other, which I fear is closer to reality, is a country described in contributions by the noble Lords, Lord Austin and Lord Waverley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins: it is run by a military dictatorship that remains the biggest exporter of Islamist terror in the world and reaches into our own country in the way that the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, just set out and provides a real and credible threat to its neighbours in the region and, in the future, to our way of life.
I accept and agree with the arguments made by a number of erudite and experienced noble Lords for the resumption of the JCPOA. If the agreement is resumed, it must be effective. I would like to see it going wider than the nuclear parameters it has been set, but I fear that is unrealistic. Let us be under no illusion, however, that Iran is now breaking the agreement, forging forward towards being a nuclear power. I hope the Minister will reaffirm that the UK understands that there is no scenario in which this can be accepted and allowed to carry on.
When we talk about the inducements necessary to bring Iran back to the table, let us be clear that there is no scenario in which Iran can be allowed to become a nuclear power in the region. The G7 recently made that clear, as did the United States in its bilateral engagement with Israel a couple of weeks ago. The UK also needs to be clear that no one will allow this threshold to be reached. I hope that will be part of restoring a level of deterrence that can bring Iran back to the table effectively.
Surely deterring Iran from becoming a nuclear threat in the region and to the world and from continuing its disgraceful role as an exporter of Islamist terror is a wider issue than this sanctions/enrichment trade-off. It requires a more significant reappraisal of the West’s approach to its alliances, foreign policy and outlook in the world.
Capability is of course an issue, but the resolve to act is surely just as important. In recent years, Iran has shown what it can do with a fraction of the capability of our allies in the West. If we do not have the resolve to face down acts of aggression or the foresight to understand the scale of the threat to our liberal democracies and the rule of law in this environment, the threat Iran can pose with very little capability can spread. Look at Yemen. With a low level of resource, the Iranians have empowered an Islamist proxy to prolong a conflict that has not only caused untold suffering for Yemenis but weakened essential ties between the coalition formed against the Houthi Islamist terror group and against the Islamist expansionist terror which Iran has represented and championed since 1979.
The same currents applied in Lebanon and in Syria before that. Iran and Russia have exploited a relative lack of resolve and strategic common sense from the West, resulting in appalling misery for millions of Syrians, a refugee crisis that is further impacting on the West and the emboldening of those who would undermine our way of life.
This matters even more because of the emergence of China, which will in years ahead be able to bring world-class military capability and might to challenge any weakness in the West’s resolve. Basic hostility to our world view, plus military capability, plus ongoing weakness from the West to deter threats could pose an existential challenge to our way of life in the decades ahead. Let us hope that Iran’s acceptance into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is largely symbolic for the moment, but it is a symbol whose importance we must countenance.
The UK has shown its ability to think creatively with the recent strength of the AUKUS alliance. Our challenge should be to apply that scale of ambition, innovative thinking and strength of partnership to the Middle East, to restore that sense of deterrence.
My Lords, I start by paying tribute first to the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for bringing the issue of Iran and, in particular, concerns about dual nationals, especially Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, back to the Chamber, and secondly to my noble friend Lady Northover. As my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed pointed out, while she was our foreign affairs spokesperson in the Lords, she raised these issues on 20 occasions.
I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, for yet again bringing to the Chamber’s awareness the concerns of nationals in another country—people working as journalists for the BBC Persian service and people working to get the truth out, who are very often the interpreters on whose behalf she is speaking. It is very easy to think that we are focusing on just one or two very narrow issues. Understanding the difficulty of journalists in speaking truth to power and getting a message out in Persian is important. So although slightly beyond the remit of this debate on the JCPOA and dual nationals, those issues are important. Will the Minister say what support the Government are giving to the BBC Persian service?
From these Benches, I support the JCPOA, as did the opening speakers. Later in the debate, slight concerns were expressed, but at the beginning I thought every speaker was going to say almost the same thing: that the JCPOA was a very important agreement. Like my noble friend Lord Purvis, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, I was a member of the International Relations and Defence Committee when it looked at nuclear non-proliferation. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, pointed out, the JCPOA was not good just for Iran. It was good for security and non-proliferation. We heard from the noble Lord, Lord Austin, that Iran has breached the agreement. It has, but what signal did the United States under Donald Trump send by pulling out of the JCPOA? As the noble Lord, Lord Browne, pointed out, President Biden does not seem to have deviated very much from the actions of President Trump. Can the Minister tell us what conversations he, the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister have had with President Biden or with Blinken about the JCPOA and getting the United States back on board?
The rhetoric of candidate Biden, Senator Biden, when he ran for the presidency and what is happening how may not be as in sync as they might be. Given that the United Kingdom is so keen to have global reach, part of that surely has to be in our negotiations with the United States. If we want the JCPOA to function, the E3 are important, but ensuring that the United States is back at the table is crucial. I very strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, that the UK’s position has been about active diplomacy and sanctions. What sort of active diplomacy are the Government pursuing at present, not just to get the US back to the table, but to get Iran back to the table? In particular, what work is the new Foreign Secretary doing to ensure that the rights of dual nationals are being secured? As we have heard, we are now on the fourth Foreign Secretary who has been dealing with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. When he was Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister’s words were perhaps not always as diplomatic as they might have been. Can we hope that Liz Truss will do a better job?
It is vital that we understand that some of Iran’s actions, not just in uranium enrichment but in human rights and perhaps torture, need to be looked at so that we understand, and we would like the Government to show, that while it is important that we get Iran back to the table, we also should not be afraid to call it out when there are concerns on torture.
My final point picks up on the points from the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Lamont, at the start of this debate. If the UK has a debt of £400 million to Iran and we want to show it that we are serious about our commitments, surely we should look at resolving that debt so that we can say that we have done everything we should and we are now holding it to account to deliver on the JCPOA and on the rights of dual nationals.
My Lords, I add my thanks to my noble friend Lord Dubs for initiating this debate and for consistently raising these issues on a regular basis. I join the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, who is retiring from the Front Bench. She has assured me that although she is retiring from the Front Bench she will continue to come to this Chamber and raise these issues. No doubt we will see her in the very near future.
The noble Baroness mentioned the fact that we are now on the fourth Foreign Secretary. However, the Minister has an incredible record of longevity in this Government and I welcome him to his place. He continues to work in support of all noble Lords, particularly in these sorts of cases.
The Government of Iran are clear that they are not prepared to act in accordance with the global rules-based order. The UK and our allies must make it clear that their lawless actions carry costs. The Iranian attack on the merchant vessel earlier this year was a flagrant breach of international law and, when viewed alongside its continued detention of dual nationals, there is an evident need, as my noble friend Lord Dubs said, for a strategy with our allies to end this pattern of behaviour.
On the comprehensive plan of action, put simply, the Trump decision to abandon the plan has not worked. In the words of Roger McShane of the Economist, by the end of President Trump’s term, Iran was closer to holding the bomb than at the beginning. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that President Biden is right to open the possibility of reviving the agreement and the UK, as part of the E3, must consider how we can support that process should the opportunity arise in November. I hope the Minister will give us some indication of what he thinks the prospects of that will be.
We must also recognise that without an agreement in place Iran will continue to advance its nuclear development. Given that Tehran is now hampering inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, there can be no ignoring the fact that the opportunity for diplomatic agreement may not always exist.
On the debt issue, I agree with my noble friend and other noble Lords that we have to separate this issue. We cannot be complicit in it being used as a bargaining tool. If it is right that we return the money—and the courts have said so—we should hear from the Minister tonight what is hampering that process. I ask him to give us some very clear indication of what is going on.
On dual nationals, the ongoing detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, as well as of Anoosheh Ashoori and others, continues to be a political bargaining chip. Their imprisonment is creating an unimaginable ordeal for them and their families, and it is now obvious that the Government’s approach to securing their release has not worked. The latest developments in Nazanin’s case and her appeal at the weekend are a new setback. I hope that the Minister—and all Ministers in the FCDO—will reflect on her husband Richard’s comments that the Government are now simply engaged in “managed waiting”. The real issue here—the key question asked by my noble friend Lord Dubs—is how we are working with our allies, particularly the European Union, to ensure that we can secure their immediate and unconditional release. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, for once again raising the important issue of the situation of those arbitrarily detained in Iran, and the particular cases. I pay tribute to him for doing this consistently. I assure him, and indeed your Lordships’ House, that I remain, both in my capacity as Minister for Human Rights and as a member of the Government, fully committed to ensuring that we use every lever at our disposal to continue lobbying for the release of all the dual nationals in Iran.
The noble Lord asked, quite specifically, why we do not name every single individual in Iran who is subject to that detention. The simple answer is that we are engaging, quite regularly, with various members of the families of those detainees. In certain cases, it is at their request that we have not named parties publicly, but I assure the noble Lord that we continue to raise their cases, albeit at certain times quite discreetly.
I recognise the very insightful contributions by all noble Lords. If there is one natural conclusion I could reach from this debate, it is that I do not think there is anyone, wherever they sit in your Lordships’ House, who disagrees with the general thrust, both on the importance of the JCPOA and the need for Iran to act, do the right thing and release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other people the noble Lord named. I will come on to that in a moment or two.
I join the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lords, Lord Purvis and Lord Collins, in recognising the vital role, and the strength, of the relationship I had with the noble Baroness, Lady Northover. I pay tribute to her efforts and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is quite right that we will continue to hear valuable contributions from her. I think it is important to put it on record, that, together with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on a whole raft of issues we have enjoyed not just engaging directly and a real understanding of each other’s position, but, if it is appropriate for me to say so as a Minister of the Government, a sound friendship that helps us unravel some of the issues in a way that is extremely important when it comes to sensitive issues.
I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, to his place and look forward to engaging with him on a raft on issues. Of course, the continued role of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, on the Front Bench is vital. Also, since we have talked about longevity in office, I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has also sustained his position, certainly during my tenure as Minister of State.
Turning first to the JCPOA deal, the nuclear deal demonstrated between 2015 and 2019 that it did and can deliver results—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who has great insight on these matters. However, what is also clear, as the noble Lord, Lord Austin, reminded us, is that since July 2019 it is Iran that has incrementally stepped away from compliance with the deal. This point was also made by the noble Lord, Lord Walney. Since that stepping away, the IAEA has also further confirmed that Iran has continued to produce uranium, metal-enriched up to 20% for the first time and, as we learn, alarmingly, has significantly increased its capacity to produce uranium enriched up to 60%. I hear very clearly the warnings that were sounded by the noble Lords, Lord Austin and Lord Walney, in this respect.
To underscore the severity of Iran’s action, it is unprecedented for a state without a desire to develop nuclear weapons to enrich uranium to 60%, a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Iran has no credible civilian need for such capability, which constitutes a significant step towards developing a nuclear weapon. Iran has chosen irreversibly to upgrade its nuclear capability, and it remains in clear violation of its JCPOA commitments.
I will review the detailed suggestions from the noble Lord, Lord Browne, but I say to him and to my noble friend Lord Lamont that Iran has a rich history of culture, engagement and enlightenment. Our battle, our challenge, our dispute, is not with the Iranian people but with the Iranian Government, who are persisting on this particular, most tragic path. Simply put, Iran’s nuclear programme has never been so advanced, and of course it remains deeply concerning. However, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who speaks with great insight and experience, that it is even more important now for peace and security in the region that Iran return to negotiations. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, my noble friend Lord Lamont and other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, all emphasised that point.
As I have often said, the JCPOA is not perfect but it is the best framework we have to monitor and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme. The United Kingdom has rigorously abided by the terms of the agreement, and let me assure noble Lords that we remain committed to it. Iran stepped away from the negotiations in June; its reason was the election. However, it has not returned. At the UN we have seen not just the United Kingdom, the US, France and Germany but Russia and China adding their support to the need for Iran to return to the negotiations. Rather than return, it has continued advancing its nuclear programme, which is irreversibly reducing the real value of the JCPOA.
The noble Lords, Lord Walney, Lord Austin, and Lord Purvis, and my noble friend Lord Lamont, asked me specifically about the United Kingdom’s position. We align ourselves with the position that the offer on the table from the United States to lift sanctions which are inconsistent with the JCPOA in return for Iran returning to full compliance with its nuclear commitment is both fair and comprehensive, and we are working with our partners to secure that. France, Germany, Russia, China and the US have also, as I said, echoed calls for Iran to cease immediately its reckless behaviour, which is a danger to us all.
We are ready to restart negotiations. If we cannot resume talks and achieve a deal soon, we and our international partners will have to reconsider our approach. Various noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Austin, raised the issue of the global human rights sanctions regime. Of course, I cannot speculate, but we are engaging diplomatically as well. One of the first meetings that my right honourable friend the new Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, had during UNGA on 22 September was with the Foreign Minister of Iran. Let me assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that the Prime Minister has also raised the issues of the JCPOA and dual nationals directly with the President of Iran.
Let me pay tribute to the role played by the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, in respect of BBC Persia. We fully support BBC Persia, and she is aware of the representations we have made. She asked what more can be done. I will certainly take back this issue and reflect, but she is fully aware of our role as a leading voice on the Media Freedom Coalition. Perhaps there is further work we can scope in that respect, and I would be pleased to discuss further steps that can be taken in that regard.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, raised the issue of representation, of consular support and attending various hearings. Of course, the issue is that Iran does not recognise dual nationals, as he knows, but we have nevertheless been relentless in our pursuit of the release and safe return of British nationals detained or forced to remain in Iran. They include Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and of course Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who have been separated from their loved ones for far too long. We are engaging directly with the families in certain instances, and both the current and previous Foreign Secretaries have talked directly with Nazanin herself.
Although Iran does not recognise dual nationality and therefore continues to refuse our request for consular access, the UK Government have worked for the immediate return of detained dual British nationals at every opportunity. We have consistently raised the cases I have referred to, and indeed others, at the highest levels of the Iranian Government. Last month during the UN General Assembly, as I said, the Prime Minister discussed these very cases and their release—and with former President Rouhani at a previous UN General Assembly as well—while the Foreign Secretary pressed the issue with Foreign Minister Amir-Abdollahian.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, raised the issue of diplomatic protection. By exercising diplomatic protection in the case of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, we formally raised it to a state-to-state issue and we will take further action where we judge it will help secure her full and permanent release. Of course, what we have seen happen recently is tragic and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary issued a very strong statement on 16 October, condemning Iran’s decision to proceed with its baseless charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Her predecessor also engaged frequently on their cases with the then Foreign Minister Zarif. In Tehran, we are in touch with our ambassador, Simon Shercliff, who continues to raise these cases with Iranian interlocutors.
I take note, of course, of the wider regional issues. My noble friend Lord Lamont mentioned the situation with Afghanistan. In this respect, there has been a glimmer or degree of co-operation with the Iranian authorities on those seeking to leave Afghanistan, particularly those minorities who seek refuge within Iran. But frankly, turning back to the dual nationals, our lobbying continues at every opportunity; it helped secure the temporary release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe in March 2020 and the removal of her ankle tag in April this year. I assure noble Lords that we will not be satisfied until all these British nationals are returned home.
All noble Lords who contributed raised the issue of the IMS debt. In this respect, it is unhelpful, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, to connect wider bilateral issues with those arbitrarily detained in Iran. It remains in Iran’s gift to do the right thing. In terms of the debt itself, there was an adjournment of the April hearings at the request of Iran’s Ministry of Defence. A final decision on a new date has not been made but we continue, as I said, to work on this issue and explore options. It is a 40 year-old case that we need a resolution on.
I am conscious of our time limit and there are a number of other questions. The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, normally reserves questions for the end of his contributions. Most of his contribution, rightly, was made up of specific questions. I will of course write to him on those I have not able to answer.
Let me assure all noble Lords who have participated in this important debate that we continue to press Iran. We will work with our allies and press Iran to return to nuclear negotiations around the JCPOA in Vienna at the earliest opportunity, and to full compliance with its commitments under the JCPOA. The deal on the table, we believe, is balanced. It cannot remain there indefinitely; if we cannot reach agreement soon, we will have to reconsider our approach.
On the issue of detention and torture and Iran’s commitment to the ICT, I totally agree with the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that Iran is a signatory to that convention and needs to ensure that it upholds its obligations to it. We will explore how we can bring further focus to this important issue, including opportunities that arise, for example, within the Human Rights Council. I further and finally assure all noble Lords that the detention and treatment of British nationals in Iran remains, and will remain, a top priority for the new Foreign Secretary, for our Prime Minister and for the Government as a whole. Iran has subjected them to a cruel and inhumane ordeal over the last five years. I assure noble Lords that we will do all we can to continue to ensure and secure their release, so that they can once again be reunited with their families in the UK.
House adjourned at 8.40 pm.