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British-Iranian Relations

Volume 827: debated on Thursday 23 February 2023

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what their priorities are in respect of the conduct of British-Iranian relations.

My Lords, in thanking all noble Lords who are to speak today, I wish that more time was available for an extended parliamentary debate. I should also record for the sake of transparency that the noble Lord, Lord Polak, and I are both sanctioned by the Iranian regime.

Key issues that the Committee will want the Minister to address include Iran’s reported ability to have enriched uranium to levels just short of the threshold for making a nuclear bomb. We will want to hear about its supply of drones to Putin for his use in the illegal war in Ukraine and its support for regional proxies destabilising the region—not least for the Houthis in Yemen, where an estimated 150,000 people have been killed in the war, including 10,000 children. We will want to hear about the malign activities of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, inside and outside Iran, and the continued lamentable and dismal failure to proscribe it; about abductions and extrajudicial killings, including of UK citizens, and the increasing use of the death penalty; about the decision this week of the independent TV station Iran International to leave London because of threats to its staff, along with similar, systematic targeting of BBC Persian staff and their families; about the shocking ill-timed cuts to the BBC Persian services when widespread protests are sweeping the country, heroically initiated by defiant women, and when the need for the flow of reliable news rather than propaganda has never been greater. We will also hear about the systematic abuse of human rights, not least for political and religious beliefs, including those of Baha’is and Christians whose beliefs do not conform to those of Iran’s repressive theocratic regime.

I turn first to nuclear proliferation. The inspectors for the International Atomic Energy Agency say that levels of enriched uranium at Iran’s nuclear sites are now just 6% below the threshold for a nuclear weapon. In a week during which North Korea launched an intercontinental ballistic missile, it was disturbing to read that their brothers in arms in Iran are also developing comparable technology, with direct application to intermediate and intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

Back in 2021 in the integrated review, the United Kingdom asserted that with its allies it would

“hold Iran to account for its nuclear activity”.

I would be grateful if the Minister could tell us when the update of the review will be completed and explain what we mean by accountability, how we intend to respond to these most recent developments, and what it meant when we said we remain

“open to talks on a more comprehensive nuclear and regional deal”

—not least in the context of President Biden’s reported remarks that the JCPOA is dead.

In any event, why should we believe anything this regime says or promises? It told the world that its centrifuges could enrich uranium only to a 60% level of purity. As its total enrichment of uranium stockpiles now exceeds JCPOA limits by at least 18 times, it is patently clear that this is not a regime whose word counts for anything.

The risks to world peace, including an existential risk to the State of Israel, are obvious. On 12 September, Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz displayed a map depicting the Syrian location of 10

“production facilities for mid- and long-range, precise missiles and weapons”

that Iran had

“provided to Hezbollah and Iranian proxies.”

In commenting on that, can the Minister also tell us how we have responded to Iran’s provision of unmanned aerial vehicles, Mohajer-6 drones and Shahed 131 and 136 drones, which target civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, aiding and abetting Putin’s brutal war crimes, in which Iran is now implicated and complicit and for which it should be held to account and ultimately prosecuted?

An Iranian delegation was in Moscow last month discussing building a factory to mass-manufacture drones. Are we seized of the urgency in recognising the deepening military and economic ties between Russia, Iran and the PRC on everything from satellites to grain, drones and joint military exercises in the Gulf? As for the axis with Putin, it was reported in the Guardian last week that:

“The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has been at the forefront of the growing bond, with senior leaders, Khalil Mohammad Zadeh, Suleiman Hamidi and Ali Shamkhani, playing central roles in the drone exports to Russia.”

How effective does the Minister believe that the more than 50 sanctions designations imposed because of military support for Putin or as a consequence of human rights violations have been? Are we considering further sanctions? Beyond sanctions, is it correct that the FCDO has blocked a Home Office attempt to proscribe the IRGC? Is that because of German reluctance to do the same? As I asked in the House on 18 January following the execution of Alireza Akbari, what has to happen and what further evidence is needed before it is proscribed?

Such executions and death penalties are not new in Iran. It has long ranked among the world’s top executioners, often on the back of hasty sham trials. In 2021 it executed 314 people, 20% more than in 2020. Estimates differ for 2022, but dozens are facing protest-related executions. Perhaps the Minister can give us the FCDO estimates, including the numbers of children who have been executed. As for the sham trials and what passes for justice, Tara Sepehri Far of Human Rights Watch says:

“Defendants are systematically deprived of access to lawyers … are subjected to tortured and coerced confessions and then rushed to the gallows.”

Not that we should be surprised, given the role of President Ebrahim Raisi in 1988 in the massacre of 30,000 political prisoners, predominantly from Mrs Rajavi’s pro-democracy resistance.

Executions have been used to try to frighten people who have been protesting since the death in September of 22 year-old Mahsa Jina Amini while in the custody of the nation’s morality police—the spark that ignited a nationwide revolt against the theocratic regime, in many cases led by young women, turning on its head the stereotype about the nature of opposition within Iran. Mahsa had been arrested for “improperly” wearing her hijab and, according to her family and local media, severely beaten. She died three days later while still in police custody. Protests then erupted across Iran, led by women who tore off their hijabs, cut their hair and adopted a rallying cry of “Women, life, freedom”. How bitterly ironic that Iran, until it was expelled in December, had a place on the United Nations women’s committee. According to the UN human rights office, protesters are facing the so-called crime of “waging war against God” or “moharebeh” and “corruption on earth”.

Agnès Callamard of Amnesty International says:

“The Iranian authorities knowingly decided to harm or kill people who took to the streets to express their anger at decades of repression and injustice.”

She said that

“countless more face being killed, maimed, tortured, sexually assaulted, or thrown behind bars”

and that the international community

“needs to go beyond mere statements of condemnation”.

The sheer courage is striking. Reports of what happened to Mahsa Amini emerged in part thanks to reporters Niloofar Hamedi and Elahe Mohammadi, whom the Iranian regime then subsequently jailed. These brave young women could now themselves face the death penalty. But their journalism is not a crime. By the end of 2022, there were 363 known cases of detained journalists. Article 19 is abused every day in Iran; as it tops the world’s league of executioners, Iran also tops the league for jailing journalists.

That takes me to the BBC. I sometimes wonder whether Ministers truly understand the smart power of the BBC World Service. Certainly, the Iranian regime must do so, or it would not be threatening BBC journalists and their families. Following the debate that I secured on cuts to the BBC’s global news services, and a meeting along with the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, with the FCDO Minister David Rutley this week, I met Liliane Landor, the director of the BBC World Service. On each occasion, I raised my concerns about the despicable treatment of BBC Persian journalists, which is of a piece with the driving out of Iran International from London. I have also contested the FCDO’s shocking decision to cut the BBC Persian radio service. BBC services being cut does exactly what the regime wants the FCDO and the BBC to do and, in the scheme of things, it makes very small savings. I know that my noble friend Lady Coussins will return to that issue.

In summary, 1.6 million Iranians still get their news via radio, and dictators can far more easily close down internet services. Long-term funding of the BBC World Service must be addressed, but in the short term the Persian radio service should not be allowed to close. Its voice and the voices of those who want to see the emergence of a more just and democratic society based on the rule of law must not be silenced. In this debate, we must reiterate our support and raise our voices for the people of Iran.

My Lords, for many years I have been associated directly and indirectly with Iran. I have visited many Iranian cities and have a great affection and respect for the Iranian people. I am very keen to try to help them in getting them medicines, essential equipment and other humanitarian help. It is my understanding that the acute lack of essential food and health commodities in Iran is in great part due to the gap between the Iranian and international banking systems. This is reflected by Iran’s non-adherence to recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, which is one of the main obstacles preventing the Iranian banking system joining the global banking community.

As it appears unlikely that this problem can be resolved in the short term, the need seems obvious for an approved secure banking channel to be established for the uninterrupted supply of essential goods to the Iranian population, regardless of the international political environment. Multiple solutions have been proposed over recent years that have not gained much traction or success. However, I am aware of a Swiss proposal, initiated by a former senior United States oversight official in the Washington area and his Swiss-based colleague, which has received the preliminary blessing from the relevant US department that handles such issues. Would the Minister agree to sit down with me and the sponsors of the Swiss proposal to understand its merits? My understanding is that this proposal could easily incorporate other interested actors, such as Qatar, to which an invitation has already been extended to participate, and would be operational in a matter of days, provided that appropriate approvals are received. This could mean the possibility of delivering medicines and other essential goods during the Iranian new year period that starts next month, which would make an immediate and meaningful impact.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for this debate.

The United States Government classify the Islamic Republic of Iran as the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, alleging that Iran provides a range of support, including finance, training and equipment, to terrorist groups around the world. How else can we explain the use of Iranians drones in Ukraine or the security of some of the countries in the Middle East?

In recent days, we have seen a democratic revolution fully supported by the Iranian people. This is a revolution against the mullahs, the likes of which we have never seen before. More than 750 people have been killed, according to the Iranian opposition People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran. I have seen similar evidence of the attacks on resistance fighters in Camp Ashraf, where they had sought shelter. I have seen video evidence of the hanging of women and children on cranes in Tehran. There is one change in the protest marches that are now taking place: it is a revolution carried out mostly by Iranian women.

Democratic rule is perfectly possible in Iran. Mrs Maryam Rajavi leads the pro-democracy Iranian opposition coalition, which has produced a 10-point plan and has widespread support in both Houses of the UK Parliament, as well as in Parliaments in many parts of the world. She mentions the rule of law and proper fair elections as essentials. Briefly, she talks of establishing a democratic, secular and a non-nuclear republic. I make a plea to our Minister: invite Mrs Rajavi to London to meet our Government and Iranians living in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the people of Iran are entitled to have good relations with the people of the United Kingdom. However, I would argue that the current Government of Iran are absolutely not entitled to have good relations with His Majesty’s Government.

I commend my friend Hillel Neuer, who is the indefatigable executive director of UN Watch, a human rights NGO based in Geneva. He has been holding the Iranian regime to account; indeed, he headed the campaign to remove Iran from the UN Commission on the Status of Women in 2022. I thank my noble friend the Minister for taking such a strong lead on that issue. I hope he will forgive me for not having enough time to list all the reasons why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps should be proscribed as a terror group; perhaps I could just ask him in his response to furnish the Committee with the reasons why the Government have not done so.

Hillel is rightly campaigning for UN delegations to walk out in protest when the Iranian Foreign Minister addresses the UN Human Rights Council next Monday, on 27 February. Global figures have joined that campaign, including Masih Alinejad, the exiled Iranian women’s rights activist whom the regime attempted to assassinate in New York last summer. I urge my noble friend the Minister to lead once again and take a strong stance against a regime that tortures, kills and hangs its own people. If we stand for the protection of human rights as we say we do, my noble friend should stand up and leave the room when the Iranian Foreign Minister begins to speak.

My Lords, I also congratulate my noble friend Lord Alton on achieving this very important debate.

I will use the short time available to give a personal message from Christian Iranian asylum seekers based near my home in Witney, who have become friends. These are their words, not mine:

“Our Iranian friends are losing their lives for the simplest human rights of a person. At the risk of making their voice known to the world, they have come to the streets and they only protested. But the answer to their protest was gunshots, prison and execution. In the last four months, more than 1,000 people have been killed in Iran. Many of their bodies have not been handed over to their families; many have been executed and several hundred innocent children have died. Now, we have only one request to the British people: please help us so that the voice of the people of Iran is heard because, in our country, there is nothing but oppression, torture and imprisonment; the oppression of women; and shutting the mouths of young people. My country smells of blood—the smell of the blood of my brothers and sisters, who only wanted nothing but the cry of freedom in the street.”

These poignant words provide a painful, powerful endorsement of the purpose of this debate. I hope that the horrific persecution of minorities by the regime in Iran is something that the Minister can address in his reply.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for obtaining this debate, for his superb introductory talk and not least for his powerful call that we should oppose the persecution of Baha’is and Christians. I will raise just two issues in the few moments I have.

First, as we conduct British-Iranian relations, it is vital that we support loudly and clearly those who are demonstrating for their freedoms, in particular those who face the most opposition: the young and the women who are being opposed by their own Government. They are rightly demonstrating for freedom of speech and for their rights to an education and a job.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people have been caught up in the demonstrations although it is widely reported that, so far, between 600 and 800 protesters have been killed, more than 30,000 have been arrested and more than 40 have been executed. Those are probably very modest figures. I echo the question to the Minister from the noble Lord, Lord Alton: what attempts are being made to record the regime’s crimes so that they can be taken to the UN Security Council? What representations have His Majesty’s Government made to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran? Does the Minister agree that Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi should be held to account?

Secondly, I want to say just a few words about the vital importance of the BBC Persian service, to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred and which has a weekly estimated audience of 1.6 million people. The BBC Persian radio service costs only around £800,000 a year. It is appalling that BBC Persian staff, especially women journalists, are being targeted. Iranian journalists working here in the UK are finding that their families back in Iran are being threatened and sometimes arrested and interrogated.

Iran has a systematic programme of media censorship. It blocks Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, among other sites, and, at critical times, it shuts down the entire internet. So the only source of independent reporting comes via the radio. The official state media do not report on the demonstrations. If the BBC withdraws its service, as it is reported it will, the media will be delighted that one further voice has been removed. Surely this is the very time when we need to continue to support those who are beleaguered by their own state by ensuring the unbiased reporting of events in that country. Will the Minister make urgent representations on behalf of His Majesty’s Government to reverse this very unfortunate decision about the BBC Persian radio service?

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the right reverend Prelate and also talk about the matters he talked about. My noble friend Lord Alton’s welcome and timely debate invites us to address the issue of what the Government’s priorities for British-Iranian relations should be. I would have no hesitation in naming the reversal of the lamentable decision to close down the BBC Persian radio service as the short-term top priority.

Why so? First, it would be one of the few actions that our Government could take of their own volition to reach out to Iran’s citizens in a period when they are going through great stresses and difficulties and are deprived of fair and accurate information.

Secondly, although I have listened carefully to the BBC’s and the Government’s explanations justifying the closure of BBC Persian’s radio broadcasts, I find them totally unconvincing. It is true that the radio audience is smaller compared with that of other media channels but, when they are deprived of radio, what alternatives will that audience have that do not put them at increased risk and cost?

Thirdly, and most importantly, why on earth is a step being taken that will only give delight to those who oppress Iranian citizens and deprive them of objective information—a step that they will surely hail as a victory? I very much hope that the Minister will tell us that this regrettable closure will now not proceed and that the cost of maintaining the radio service will be met as an addition to the FCDO’s block grant to the BBC’s overseas services.

In conclusion, I will mention another long-standing priority: the currently stagnant negotiations over Iran’s nuclear programme aimed at reviving the JCPOA. In my view, the Government are to be congratulated on persevering with this effort, unpromising though the present circumstances are. To abandon the JCPOA would merely give pleasure to the hard-liners in Iran who have always sought to undermine it. To abandon it without any alternative course to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon would be folly.

This debate certainly should not pass without paying tribute to the courage and determination of those in Iran who continue to demonstrate their rejection of oppression. Can the Minister say why refugees fleeing Iran are not on the list of those receiving expedited treatment for asylum claims? Surely they should be, irrespective of how they get here.

My Lords, freedom is a precious commodity but nobody knows with any degree of certainty where and when the situation in Iran will finally end. However, its people have sent an indisputable message to the mullahs and the revolutionary guard that enough is enough and their time is up. The people must always come first; the indicators are that the wind is in their sails. Arabian and Middle Eastern near-neighbour states are already pushing back against regime change but now is the time for the Government in London to become more assertive and be on the right side of history by supporting root-and-branch change away from corruption, illegal imprisonment, capital punishment, the confiscation of homes and the pillaging of the wealth of the nation.

Since the regime controls the economy, joining the revolutionary guard is an assured way to advance in a difficult life exacerbated by crippling sanctions. A long-term necessity is that the conditions are such that the economy can be opened up, to the benefit of all. The new generation in the IRGC is far removed from the original purpose of the Islamic revolution; given the incentive to do so, lower ranks could come out as sympathetic to the uprising given that the regime is now recognised as being so unpopular. The flight of capital from the country by senior members of the Government is testament that the end could be near.

However, I make a note of caution: the Islamic Republic has a strong lobby outside Iran, most particularly in Washington. A certain leftist ex-Prime Minister is being groomed to take over the mantle and, if this ploy is successful, will serve as a puppet of the regime by implementing cosmetic change only. The “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement has not yet found a single voice. It should be encouraged to do so post-haste in the same manner as the way in which Khomeini orchestrated the uniting of disparate factions in 1979. There is a consensus in Iran that the West is not doing enough. However, I remain of the belief that the leadership will buckle when faced with continued condemnation and pressure. Frankly, everything hinges on the strategic support that the uprising receives from the United Kingdom Government and others.

I join others in saving my concluding remarks for matters relating to the pending BBC closure. I can do no better than join the dots with what I said the other day in the Chamber:

“Our foreign policy and strategy should deem this an entirely illogical move … closure will send conflicting messages about the support we have in this country for the uprising.”—[Official Report, 21/2/23; col. 1616.]

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Viscount. I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for securing this important debate.

Which of us can ever forget the inspiring inauguration of the first black President of the United States only 14 years ago or the soaring rhetoric of that momentous day when, in reference to the unalienable rights enshrined in the American constitution, he declared:

“Today we continue a never-ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing”?

How right he was, because passivity never pays. He also said that war does not need to be “perpetual”; again, he was absolutely right, of course. But surely, if the last 14 years teach us anything, it is that vigilance and resolve do need to be exactly that—perpetual—because appeasement always comes at a price, and what a price the world could be about to pay for the audacity to hope that diplomacy would work with a regime so disdainful of any values, any truths, other than what the ayatollahs decree. Whether it is terrorism abroad or even at home against its own people, as we have already heard, the threat to our values is real.

All eyes may be on Ukraine as the criminal invasion by Russia enters its second year on Friday, but the global destabilisation threat posed by Iran is potentially even more dangerous. As we have heard, Iranian nuclear breakout is imminent. That is the new reality of our time, which, sadly, no amount of rhetoric will bridge.

In conclusion, given that global security must be our number one priority, I hope my noble friend the Minister knows that he and the Government can count on the support of many noble Lords when appropriate military action to prevent that threat materialising is taken. For all our sakes, I hope it is taken swiftly.

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Alton is our moral compass in international affairs, and how fitting is his choice of subject today. This is a regime that has rewarded the attacker of Salman Rushdie and teaches its children to engage with martyrdom and the Islamic revolution and to call for the death of America and Israel.

But the gravest danger is its nuclear programme, in violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is not joint because the US withdrew; it is not comprehensive because there are loopholes and sunset clauses, such as only a 10-year limit on centrifuges; it is not a plan because there is no strategy to prevent the development of an Iranian bomb; and it is not action because the IAEA cannot monitor or obtain accurate intelligence about Iran’s nuclear activity. It has amounted to a waste of time because Iran has never given up on its plan to develop nuclear weapons, and it seems to us that it is not bound by that agreement. Uranium purified to 84% has reportedly been traced. Even at 60%, there is no peaceful use for that uranium.

If Israel is provoked into a strike, the consequences could be world-threatening. The Government should be insisting on snap-back sanctions, albeit that they too expire in 2025. Iran is in breach of UN Security Council Resolution 2231 by supplying Russia with drones used to attack Ukraine. It is the cause of destabilisation right across the Middle East, supporting Assad, the rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. How tragic that Syria appeals for assistance in the aftermath of the earthquake yet is funded for warfare by Iran to the tune of billions.

Unfortunately, snap-back sanctions would not hit Iran’s dealing in oil with China, but sanctions hitting the Iranian people may lead to the day when the Government are finally overthrown due to the miseries inflicted on their own people. Will our Government assure this Committee that the JCPOA is dead and that pre-JCPOA international arms restrictions should be restored? Will they downgrade diplomatic relations and close the Islamic Centre of England, which allegedly in effect represents Iran’s Supreme Leader?

My Lords, I endorse everything that my noble friend Lord Alton said in opening this debate about the treatment of protesters in Iran, especially women and girls. I shall use my time to support and re-emphasise what has already been said so forcefully by other noble Lords about the importance of preserving the BBC Persian radio service and the need to step up our intervention in order to stop the threats, persecution and violence being experienced by its staff in London and their families in Iran.

I know that the Minister has heard it all before—not least from me—but I make no apology for repeating a little of what I said in our debate on the World Service in December because, first, things have got significantly worse and, secondly, there is an immediate window of opportunity to do the right thing and reverse the decision to scrap the BBC Persian radio service on 26 March. I get the overall case for going digital but there are situations in which digital-only cannot be right, and surely this is one of them. The latest review of the BBC World Service asserted that it would

“serve audiences during moments of jeopardy”

and ensure

“access to vital news services, using appropriate broadcast and distribution platforms.”

Jeopardy in Iran includes the internet being restricted or blocked, so reliance on old-school radio may be the best or only way to provide access to those vital news services.

We know from the most recent data that 1.6 million people a week get their news from the Persian radio service—around 8% of its total audience. However, the impact of that service is far more significant than those superficially modest figures suggest because it is the morning radio output that feeds the TV and digital news content. Closing the radio service would mean BBC Persian TV not having any scheduled live news programming for 17 hours a day, creating the space for other, less balanced outlets with rather less palatable values and interests to fill the gap.

As others have asked, why hand the Iranian authorities a gift on a plate? Closing down BBC coverage of what is going on in Iran is exactly what they want. It would be a victory for them but the tragic loss of a lifeline of information and hope to the millions of Iranians who suffer under their regime—and all for the cost saving of only £800,000 a year. Will the Minister commit today to three clear actions: reversing the decision to close the radio service; funding the shortfall; and stepping up the diplomatic measures and the hard measures to protect Persian service staff in London and their families in Iran? This would give the Iranian resistance what they—and, ultimately, we—need and value.

My Lords, as always, it is a pleasure to follow my friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. I endorse all the points that she made and her specific request for information; I hope that the Minister will be able to respond clearly to them.

I commend the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this debate. As he and others have pointed out, we are debating the Government of Iran’s policy and practice of persecution, not the Iranian people—many of whom have humbled us all, including those women and girls who, as many noble Lords have said, have been extraordinarily brave in the face of such persecution. We have seen the death penalty and torture used as a policy of intimidation; that is obvious.

It is welcome that the UN Commission on the Status of Women expelled Iran. However, it was disappointing to see countries on which the UK relies in many aspects of trade and diplomacy abstain from that decision, including those that are part of the Abraham Accords and our Gulf allies. It is also welcome that Iran is now subject to a UN Human Rights Council investigation. Similarly, countries that this country considers close diplomatic allies abstained. What work are we doing with our Gulf allies to ensure that their abstentions become positive votes when it comes to sending signals on human rights and supporting women and girls?

It is also worrying to have heard about Iran’s policy on Russia now, with its drones and diplomacy on arms and fuel, and to have the BRICS countries cited. It is alarming to see the BRICS network becoming a de facto diplomatic network as a cover for Russia. We have seen this from Iran within the recent military exercises but we also saw it with the naval exercises of our allies in South Africa. I hope the Minister can give clarity as to what our diplomatic work is doing to ensure that Iran is isolated, as it should be.

As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, indicated, it is jarring to see Iranians excluded from the amnesty on irregular routes announced today. Why is this the case? Can the Minister state, in clear terms, what the safe route is for Iranian women to seek asylum in the UK? According to the Government, Iranians were the second highest nationality of those who sought asylum in 2021, with 9,652. What signal are we sending if we have not put in place safe routes for asylum for those who seek refuge in the UK?

Finally, on the point raised so well in the debate with regard to the BBC, on 12 October—over four months ago—I asked an Oral Question in the Chamber in which I sought urgent emergency funding, even if temporary, to secure the future of the BBC Persian radio service. This is now the time to ensure that the people of Iran understand, benefit from and can receive information from an independent, impartial and free media at exactly the time it is being denied to them by their own Government. I hope that our Government can at least provide emergency funding to ensure that that service is not stopped at the end of March.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Alton, on securing this timely debate when the spotlight is on British-Iranian relations. We are again seeing a further widespread wave of uprisings across Iran. My noble friend Lord Collins has spoken fervently on a number of occasions on the need for continuing support for the protesters and is sorry not to be here today, due to his role on the Bill currently in the main Chamber. This debate is about priorities for British-Iranian relations, and we have had a number of expert and very moving contributions from all noble Lords on those. I will underline four key issues.

First, the regime’s brutal crackdown against protesters has been an appalling response to extraordinary bravery. Viewed alongside Tehran’s military threat to our allies, through its proxies and arms sales, the UK Government must respond firmly and consistently. As we have heard, the flow of Iranian drones to Russia in support of its illegal war against Ukraine has been a stark warning about the regime’s threat beyond its borders. The continuing presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps demonstrates that security threat right here in the UK, along with the chilling MI5 evidence of threats by the Iranian regime to British individuals, including British-Iranian journalists, with at least 15 potential threats on British individuals in the last year alone.

The Intelligence and Security Committee has warned of state-sponsored assassination and is undertaking a report into Iran. Can the Minister confirm that that committee is urgently receiving all the information and support it needs from the Government? The IRGC needs to be a proscribed organisation in the UK, so why have the Government not yet done this?

Secondly, our policy towards Iran must be a reflection of our values, as well as the national interest, and standing up for human rights a priority for Britain’s diplomacy across the region, particularly by standing unequivocally against the death penalty in Iran and calling out the barbaric—and politically motivated—treatment and execution of protesters, including that of British national Alireza Akbari. We also stand with Iranian journalists on freedom of expression, including here in the UK. During questions on Tuesday’s Statement in the House, my noble friend Lord Coaker emphasised, in support of the Government’s Statement, that we must make the UK a safe place for journalists and others speaking the truth to power. We can never allow tyranny or authoritarianism to be exported to the UK. In the light of the summoning of the Iranian chargé d’affaires, can the Minister update us on the meetings and discussions held with Iranian officials and what has been said by Iranians as any possible explanation for their actions?

Thirdly, when the UK pays tribute to the brave protesters, we must also support their demands for the fundamental freedom to live their lives as they choose. My House of Commons colleagues have led the calls for the Government to bring forward extra sanctions against the regime and we welcome the new sanctions, announced earlier this week, in relation to the IRGC. Can the Minister confirm that the FCDO will continue to engage with international partners to ensure our sanctions reflect those of our closest allies?

Finally, on the potential for the JCPOA, I want quickly to stress our view that the Government are right to support a diplomatic solution to address Iran’s nuclear escalation. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, as others have, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and recognise his continued advocacy on important issues of human rights; Iran is no exception. While I recognise the different points raised, both on a personal level and as a Minister, including in my capacity as Minister for Human Rights, I assure all noble Lords, irrespective of their contributions, that the principles they have articulated are very clear to me. While I cannot speak in detail, my advocacy in my capacity as a Minister in private, internal discussions that are taking place will perhaps resonate with noble Lords. I assure noble Lords of my best efforts in this regard.

The debate today has shown that we all recognise, as my noble friend Lord Shinkwin reminded us, that Iran’s reprehensible and abhorrent behaviour has escalated in recent months. It is very clear. Since the start of 2022, there have been 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime. I recognise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, about the sanctioning perpetrated against both him and my noble friend Lord Polak. It is different now—in all my time as a Minister, I have never seen the need to brief all parliamentarians about the risks of the Iranian threat to us here in the United Kingdom. Most recently, we have seen the brazen behaviour of the regime in targeting journalists and their families in the UK.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, raised three important points, which I will come to. On the last of the three, also articulated by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, I can give that assurance. We work closely with the families of journalists. If noble Lords pick up particular instances or specific areas of concern, they should first be flagged to the police, but if they are also made known to us within government, while we cannot talk in detail, we will seek to ensure that appropriate protections and advice are provided.

Over the last six months, we have seen the regime’s brutal crackdown on protesters fighting for their basic freedoms; many noble Lords referred to this. At the same time, the regime continues to provide support to Russia in its appalling and brutal illegal war. I am sure I speak for all noble Lords in saying that I hope we shall see another vote at the UN General Assembly in favour of Ukraine later today. We have been lobbying hard to ensure that many countries across the region where Iran is based recognise the importance of Iran’s destabilising actions, not just in the region but right here in Europe. As noble Lords also articulated, Iran’s nuclear programme is now more advanced than ever; I will come to that in a moment.

The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, talked about Iranians in the UK; I recognise the points he made. We take a measured approach in engaging with both Iranian civil society and the diaspora in the UK. We are clear that the choice of Iran’s Government will ultimately be a matter for the Iranian people.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, was right to raise concerns about the Islamic Centre of England. On 14 November 2022, the Charity Commission approved and opened a statutory inquiry into the charity due to serious governance concerns that were raised. We are following that very closely. I note the points that the noble Baroness raised.

I will address the repeated threats to UK-based individuals. Over the past year we have seen credible threats, as I have alluded to. These include very real and specific threats towards UK-based journalists working for Iran International. While there has been much speculation, I assure noble Lords that we are working across government—and, as my right honourable friend said in the other place, together with Iran International —to ensure the protection of its activities here and the important work it does. This hostile behaviour is unacceptable and we will not tolerate attempts to threaten, intimidate or harm anyone in the UK. We will also not tolerate direct attacks on media freedom, which are threats to our fundamental values of freedom of expression and the media.

I turn to the BBC Persian service. As the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, said, I could articulate what I said before about our support for the broader service. I shall be very clear to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans, the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Purvis, and the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins. Indeed, more or less all the contributions today have focused on BBC Persian, which is right—and I recognise the valuable service that it provides. I also recognise that we are in a very different phase to where we were when certain decisions were taken, even six to 12 months ago. Therefore, I shall of course take note of the immense strength of feeling, although I cannot give the assurances that the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, seeks at this time. However, I shall take the issue back. As I said, I share many of the concerns that have been raised, and I recognise that, while radio is a small proportion of the service provided by BBC Persian, it is an important service, particularly in the current circumstances.

To turn to some specific actions, on 20 February, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary summoned the chargé, Iran’s most senior diplomat in London, to make a formal protest about Iran’s intolerable threats in the UK and to warn against any further activity. The noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, alluded to this. It shocks me. I have had various conversations with the chargé, and I put it very bluntly to him that they are actually killing their next generation. To put all other issues aside, given some of the people who have been executed, in terms of age and their contributions to Iran, it is shocking to see the regime acting in the way it does. What answer does Iran have? To share the answer, the answer is nothing. How can you respond to that?

I assure all noble Lords that we will continue to work closely with law enforcement to identify, deter and respond to emerging threats. As my right honourable friend the Security Minister made clear earlier this week, we will work closely with our allies in a unified response. The noble Baroness, Lady Wheeler, and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, also raised those issues. Of course, we are working hand in glove with our allies. This is a threat that is real not just for those in the region but across the world.

To turn to the protests in Iran, the noble Lord, Lord Alton, my noble friend Lord Polak, as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, and others, raised this issue. I have already alluded to how you deal with a regime that is so brutal to its own people—yet we shall stay focused and work with our allies in this respect. Holding the regime to account was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others. Five months have passed since the tragic incident and tragic death of Mahsa Amini, which we have discussed in your Lordships’ House, after she was arrested by Iran’s so-called morality police, which sparked protests in which we have seen brave Iranian people stand up for their basic rights and freedom.

The noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about specific records. Of course, it is difficult, but we have estimated that more than 500 people have now died and more than 18,000 people have been arrested, with 1,500 injured. Tragically, some of those numbers include about 65 children, if not more. Their demand is a simple one—for a better future—and we stand by that. It is clear that the Iranian people will no longer tolerate the violence and oppression of the regime, which is putting its own interests above theirs. The UK is working in international fora and directly on this issue. On Monday, we sanctioned eight individuals for horrific human rights violations, including the killing of children, and last month we sanctioned the Basij Resistance Force for its brutal repression on the streets of Iran.

My noble friend Lord Polak, rightly, along with the noble Baronesses, Lady Wheeler and Lady Deech, asked about the IRGC. The UK maintains sanctions on over 300 individuals and entities for their roles in Iran’s human rights violations. That includes the IRGC in its entirety. Of course, further sanctions have been imposed on key individuals. I am not going to speculate about our future response, but I have heard again very clearly where noble Lords stand on this. I can share with noble Lords that we are working very closely across government on the issues that noble Lords have raised, particularly in relation to proscription.

On the important issue of human rights more generally, I listened very carefully to the contribution of my noble friend Lord McColl. I reassure him that the sanctions that are imposed—indeed, any sanction imposed on the Iranian regime—have the appropriate carve-outs that allow us to provide that basic humanitarian and medical support that is needed. As we are increasing sanctions, they are being felt by the regime and having an impact. At the moment, it is not the right time to do anything that would seek to alleviate or recognise things beyond humanitarian or medical support.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, raised asylum seekers and pathways; I myself have been following this and asked that question. I assure noble Lords that I will follow this up directly with colleagues at the Home Office. Although it is a matter for them, I recognise that Iranians are eligible for the resettlement scheme, for example, which is a global scheme that started in March 2021. The need for safe routes for asylum is crucial; we need to remain focused on that.

The noble Lord, Lord Polak, talked about our human rights work. He will know about the action that we have taken at the CSW; I thank my noble friend in that respect. I assure all noble Lords that we will use the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council to make clear our views on Iran’s credibility on human rights issues.

In terms of Iran supporting Russia, the illegal war continues and Iran is profiteering from it. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, made an important point about BRICS. I assure him that we waste no opportunity in the context of our G7 representations to make clear to countries that perhaps do not share the same view the importance of acting together.

On wider destabilisation, I met the Foreign Minister of Yemen this week and was in the Gulf last week to align ourselves fully in strengthening our alliance against Iran’s destabilising influences. We will continue to work hand in glove.

The nuclear threat is ever increasing. I will write to noble Lords on where we have got to specifically but I assure them that we are watching this continuing threat. It is not in any way a comprehensive deal, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, said. The deal has been ready for signing for some months now but Iran has not moved. The challenge on the issue of nuclear enrichment is ever increasing; I particularly appreciate the valuable insights of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, on this. We will move forward carefully with our partners because the ultimate objective must be that we do not allow Iran to gain nuclear weapons. I will write in further detail on that important point to say exactly where we are.

I welcome this debate. Like the noble Lord, Lord Alton, I recognise that we cannot cover a subject of such gravity in one hour. I spoke to officials earlier today and before this debate; we will look to see whether we can arrange an appropriate briefing at the FCDO, perhaps including colleagues from the Home Office, so that we can give noble Lords a more detailed insight into our current work and, of course, listen to their valuable advice.

Committee adjourned at 3.58 pm.