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Iran: Prisoner Swap

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 20 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of the United States on the implications for United Kingdom and global security of the proposed prisoner swap deal between that government and the government of Iran.

My Lords, we welcome the end of the detainees’ horrific ordeal at the hands of the Iranian regime, including the UK-US-Iranian tri-national Mr Tahbaz and his family. The UK was not a party to the negotiations between the US and Iran, but we were in close touch with US authorities throughout. Iran’s use of detention for political gain must cease. We will continue to work with the US and other international partners to end Iran’s abhorrent detention practices.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. The released hostages and their families will of course cherish their freedom, but are the Government not concerned that the true cost may be much higher than the $6 billion now being made available to Iran? Does this not effectively reward the regime for hostage diplomacy and make it more likely that it will repeat its atrocities? Given Iran’s sophisticated network of front companies, how can there be genuine safeguards on preventing that cash being used by the IRGC to maintain and expand its regime of terror at home and abroad, where of course it is targeting UK nationals?

The noble Lord asks some very important questions. By seeking to use foreign nationals as bargaining chips, the regime’s leaders are fatally undermining Iran’s credibility on the world stage. It remains in Iran’s gift to release any foreign nationals who have been unfairly detained; we will continue to urge Iran and any country that arbitrarily detains people to release them immediately. The UK was not a party to negotiations between the US and Iran in this case, but the US maintains that the released funds will never enter Iran nor pass on to Iranian companies or entities but will be available only for humanitarian goods and transactions with non-Iranian-vetted third parties.

My Lords, the Foreign Affairs Committee in the other place produced an excellent report in the summer on hostage diplomacy and argued very strongly for the creation of an arbitrary and complex detentions director, organising cross-government action and cutting through the silos that we know exist, as the chair said. Alicia Kearns said that she was

“disappointed that there was a lack of meaningful engagement with this proposal”.—[Official Report, Commons, 6/7/23; col. 377WH.]

Will the Government think again and look seriously at this proposal?

I thank the noble Lord for his question and reference to the report. The Government were grateful to the Foreign Affairs Committee for its report and considered its recommendations in detail. We are committed to learning from the experiences of victims of arbitrary detention. The Government do not agree that we should establish a separate post of director for arbitrary and complex detentions. Our approach reflects the Foreign Secretary’s primacy within Cabinet as the Secretary of State with responsibility for foreign affairs, including consular affairs, with direct access to the Prime Minister. Our approach to the governance and leadership of complex cases also reflects the dual premium we place on country-specific expertise and consular best practice. Relevant senior geographic leaders may lead our diplomatic response to complex detentions, such as those in Iran, working with the director for consular services, who is responsible for consistency of approach. We regularly compare this approach with best practice in other countries.

My Lords, following on from the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, clearly, it is excellent that Morad Tahbaz has been released. He should have been released last year with the two others who were released then; that was what was expected. However, as in his case, the Government keep the families at arm’s length. I know this very well. There are very uninformative meetings about them, and the Government are very passive when it comes to demanding consular visits and the ability to attend trial hearings. In the light of the Minister’s answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, which is that he will not take forward that proposal, what action the Government are taking in relation to Mehran Raoof, who has been detained for three years in Iran, and Mr Abd el-Fattah, who has been detained in Egypt for almost four years?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. We are supporting the family of British-Iranian national, Mr Mehran Raoof, detained in Iran since October 2020. His health and welfare remain a top priority. It remains entirely within Iran’s gift to release any British national who has been unfairly detained. The Foreign Office and the consulate continue to support all families and are available 24/7. If the noble Baroness has a particular instance that she would like to raise, I will be more than happy to take that further with her after today.

My Lords, is not this the latest example of where the international community has accorded the ayatollahs the dignity of being a sovereign state and been repaid with the export of violence? Iran has continued to sponsor terrorist militias in central Asia, in Lebanon, in Gaza and in the Balkans, even striking as far afield as Buenos Aires. Would we not find it better policy to say that we never pay anyone Danegeld, no matter how trifling the cost, for the end of that game is oppression and shame and the nation that plays it is lost?

I thank my noble friend for his comments. The UK is committed to combating the abhorrent practice of using detained British citizens for diplomatic leverage. Our starting point is that any arbitrary detention of a foreign national for diplomatic leverage is unlawful and a grave abuse of human rights.

My Lords, I have long criticised the regime in Iran for its torture and killing of political opponents and its subjugation of women. However, does the Minister agree that its illegal detention of five American hostages is ethically no worse than America’s equally illegal detention of five Iranian hostages and the withholding of $6 billion of Iranian assets? In that context, will noble Lords applaud the example of Justin Trudeau in unequivocally stating that he puts the human rights of Canadian citizens before any shabby trade deals or considerations of strategic interest?

The UK was not a party to those negotiations between the US and Iran. We are in regular touch with US authorities and regularly engage the US Administration to co-ordinate our foreign policy approaches, including our response to Iran’s unjustifiable detention of our nationals. This is a shared priority of both the US and UK Governments.

My Lords, as President Raisi shamefully got to his feet to address the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, the world sat silently. Only Gilad Erdan, the Israeli ambassador, stood up holding a picture of Mahsa Amini, brutally murdered by the regime one year ago. Where is our moral compass? While the US handing billions of dollars to the regime is concerning, as the noble Lord, Lord Walney, said, at least the US has correctly proscribed the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. We proscribed Hezbollah, which is a state actor in Lebanon, so will my noble friend go back to the department and urge it to act immediately?

I thank my noble friend for his question, which I will certainly take back to the department. I will say, however, that we have already sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety. The separate list of terrorist organisation proscriptions is kept under review. We do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not under consideration for proscription. We have a range of tools at our disposal; this is about using the most effective measures to curb Iran’s destabilising activity.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the exemplary approach by the Foreign Office to these people who were tragically held in Iran. How does that stack up against the way in which it behaved when Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in jail for many years? We accepted that we owed the Iranians £400 million, which we refused to pay for many years, and the then Foreign Secretary made a complete mess of it by suggesting that her purpose in visiting her relatives in Iran was different. That was not in her best interests. Surely, the Foreign Office has a lot to answer for in how that was handled. I hope we have learned the lessons.

I thank the noble Lord for his question. Clearly, the Foreign Office continues to monitor situations and to learn lessons. As I said earlier, it is important for us to learn from best practice around the world and we will continue to do that. In the end, we want to make sure that British nationals and their families are looked after by the Foreign Office and our various consulates around the world.