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Iran and Israel

Volume 837: debated on Monday 15 April 2024


My Lords, I intend no inconvenience to the House and those taking part in the debate in coming to the Chamber at this time. I hope that it is understood that the position was agreed by the usual channels. I will repeat the Statement made by the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, before I start, I would like to express my deepest sympathy, and, I am sure, that of the whole House, on the death of your father. He was a true giant not just of this House but the other place too”.

I am not supposed to go aside from the Statement, but I think we would all agree with that.

“I also want to express my solidarity with our Australian friends after the horrific and senseless attacks in Sydney in recent days. Our thoughts are with all those affected.

On Saturday evening, Iran sought to plunge the Middle East into a new crisis. It launched a barrage of missiles and attack drones over Iraq and Jordan and towards Israel. The scale of the attack, and the fact that it was targeted directly at Israel, are without precedent. It was a reckless and dangerous escalation. If it had succeeded, the fallout for regional security and the toll on Israeli citizens would have been catastrophic. But it did not succeed.

In support of Israel’s own defensive action, the United Kingdom joined a US-led international effort, along with France and partners in the region, which intercepted almost all the missiles, saving lives in Israel and its neighbours. We had already sent additional RAF Typhoons to the region as part of our existing operations against Daesh in Iraq and Syria. I can confirm that our forces destroyed a number of Iranian drones. We also provided important intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support for our partners. Our pilots put themselves in harm’s way to protect the innocent and preserve peace and stability. I spoke to the RAF earlier today. They are the best of the best and I know the whole House will join me in expressing our gratitude.

With this attack, Iran has once again shown its true colours. It is intent on sowing chaos in its own backyard and on further destabilising the Middle East. Our aim is to support stability and security because it is right for the region and because, although the Middle East is thousands of miles away, it has a direct effect on our security and prosperity at home. We are working urgently with our allies to de-escalate the situation and prevent further bloodshed. We want to see calmer heads prevail, and we are directing all our diplomatic efforts to that end.

Yesterday I spoke to my fellow G7 leaders. We are united in our condemnation of this attack. We discussed further potential diplomatic measures, which we will be working together to co-ordinate in the coming days. I will also speak to Prime Minister Netanyahu later today to express our solidarity with Israel in the face of this attack, and to discuss how we can prevent further escalation. All sides must show restraint.

Our actions reflect our wider strategy in the Middle East, which I have set out in the House previously. I believe there are three vital steps to putting the region on to a better path. First, we must uphold regional security against hostile actors, including in the Red Sea, and we must ensure Israel’s security. That is non-negotiable and a fundamental condition for peace in the region. In the face of threats such as those we saw this weekend, Israel has our full support.

Secondly, we must invest more deeply in the two-state solution. That is what we have been doing over the past six months, including working closely with the Palestinian Authority, so that when the time comes, it can provide more effective governance for Gaza and the West Bank. It is significant that other regional partners actually helped to prevent a much worse attack over the weekend. It reminds us how important the attempts to normalise relations between Israel and its neighbours really are, and it holds out precious hope for the region.

Thirdly, the conflict in Gaza must end. Hamas, which is backed by Iran, started this war. It wanted not just to kill and murder but to destabilise the whole region. This weekend, it rejected the latest hostage deal, which offered a road to a ceasefire. It is Israel’s right, and its duty, to defeat the threat from Hamas terrorists and defend its security.

I want to be clear: nothing that has happened over the past 48 hours affects our position on Gaza. The appalling toll on civilians continues to grow: the hunger, the desperation and the loss of life on an awful scale. The whole country wants to see an end to the bloodshed, and to see more humanitarian support going in. The recent increase in aid flows is positive, but it is still not enough. We need to see new crossings open for longer to get in vital supplies.

I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the three British aid workers who were killed in Gaza: John Chapman, James Kirby and James Henderson. They were heroes. The children of Gaza whom they were risking their lives to feed need a humanitarian pause immediately, leading to a long-term sustainable ceasefire. That is the fastest way to get hostages out and aid in, and to stop the fighting. Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve to live in peace, dignity and security, and so do people across the entire region.

In conclusion, Saturday’s attack was the act not of a people but of a despotic regime, and it is emblematic of the dangers that we face today. The links between such regimes are growing. Tel Aviv was not the only target of Iranian drones on Saturday; Putin was also launching them at Kyiv and Kharkiv. Which was the sole voice speaking up for Iran yesterday, seeking to justify its actions? Russia.

The threats to stability are growing, not just in the Middle East but everywhere, and we are meeting those threats, time after time, with British forces at the forefront. It is why our pilots were in action this weekend. It is why they have been policing the skies above Iraq and Syria for a decade. It is why our sailors are defending freedom of navigation in the Red Sea against the reckless attacks of the Iran-backed Houthi militia. It is why our soldiers are on the ground in Kosovo, Estonia, Poland and elsewhere, and it is why we have led the way in backing Ukraine, and we will continue to back it for as long as it takes. When adversaries such as Russia or Iran threaten peace and prosperity, we will always stand in their way, ready to defend our values and our interests, shoulder to shoulder with our friends and our allies. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Lord Privy Seal for repeating what is a very important Statement.

At the outset, we associate ourselves with and thank the Prime Minister and the Lord Privy Seal for their genuine sympathy on the passing of our colleague from these Benches, Lord Doug Hoyle. His was a long life, well lived, and we join in the condolences of the Lord Speaker to his family. I hope noble Lords will accept that on these Benches today we also mourn the loss of another Labour colleague, Lord Richard Rosser, who served on our Front Bench for many years, including as a shadow Defence Minister. We also associate these Benches with the Prime Minister’s comments on the terrible attacks in Sydney.

The Prime Minister rightly described the British aid workers, John Chapman, James Kirby and James Henderson, who were killed in Gaza, as heroes. They lost their lives when all they wanted to do was to help others.

Iran’s actions over the weekend have, as Keir Starmer said in the other place,

“left the world a more dangerous place”.

There was clear intent to destabilise the region and fuel further tensions. Innocent civilians were targeted. It is right that these actions were swiftly condemned by the Prime Minister, the leader of the Opposition and much of the international community. We endorse the Prime Minister’s calls for restraint.

We also acknowledge the professionalism and bravery of our Armed Forces, both for their contribution to the weekend’s combined defensive action and for their ongoing work in the region. Given recent events, we welcome the decision to send additional RAF jets and refuelling tankers to bolster Operation Shader, the existing counter-Daesh operation in Iraq and Syria.

The repelling of Iran’s attack against Israel is important for several reasons. First, lives were saved, as 99% of the drones and missiles were intercepted. The attack failed. Secondly, Israel acted with strength and courage. Thirdly, the success of that defensive action gives hope that, with political will from the relevant parties, and with diplomatic support from partners, escalation can be avoided. The Foreign Secretary commented earlier that Israel should be

“smart as well as tough”.

The strength and courage that we have seen should now be harnessed to try to de-escalate action and tensions in the region.

Britain is resolute in our support for the collective security of Israel, Jordan and other partners in the region, and we urge every nation to proceed with restraint. The Prime Minister’s Statement is clear that, although the Middle East is thousands of miles away, it has a direct impact here at home, and we want to do all we can to prevent further bloodshed and conflict.

In the Statement, the Prime Minister said he had spoken to other G7 leaders and that “further potential diplomatic measures” had been discussed. Diplomacy is key to urging restraint, so we welcome those discussions. I do not know if the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal can today say more about what actions might be expected in the coming days, given the urgency of the situation now faced. Can he confirm that the Government agree that, as a matter of principle, diplomatic premises must not be targeted and attacked?

With the Iranian regime sponsoring terrorism across the region and beyond, repressing its own population and supporting Putin’s war in Ukraine, are additional sanctions being planned? If so, how will they be enforced and their impact monitored?

Are the Government now considering proscribing the IRGC? What additional steps are being taken to limit the revolutionary guard’s ability to glorify terrorism here in the UK? I would be grateful, and it would be helpful to the House, if the Lord Privy Seal could say whether that is now being looked at.

Given Iran’s use of drones in the attack against Israel, what steps are we and our international partners taking to prevent the regime accessing western-made components?

We do not accept that there is justification at all for Iran’s attack on Israel, but we acknowledge the role that the ongoing war in Gaza has in driving regional tensions. We are now more than six months on from the dreadful Hamas terror attack, yet hostages remain separated from their families and thousands of innocent Palestinians have been killed or wounded. Many more have been displaced and more than a million people are on the brink of famine.

Over the recess period, there were some positive signs in relation to the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. I do not know whether the Lord Privy Seal is in a position to give us any current figures or an update on that, but could he outline what additional diplomatic and practical steps the Foreign Secretary and others are taking to ensure a continued scaling up of aid provision? He will be aware of the logistical challenges in getting aid to where it is desperately needed. UNRWA has the expertise and capability to do that, and Japan has now joined Canada and Australia in resuming payments. Can he say more about the Government’s intentions on aid distribution?

It is right that we condemn Iran’s actions and it is essential that we work with others to defend our allies in the region. It is right that we unite and seek the end of the conflict in Gaza to create a route to a sustainable peace through a two-state solution. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have spoken of support to the Palestinian Authority. Can the Lord Privy Seal outline what form that is likely to take and what co-operation we would expect and get from our allies? While we do these things, we must show restraint and urge others to do so as well. This is essential if we are to prevent greater violence, conflict, death and destruction.

My Lords, I too thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. I join the condolences that have been expressed to the family and friends of Lord Hoyle and Lord Rosser, both of whom were great servants of Parliament and this House. I also associate these Benches with the expression of solidarity that the Government gave to our Australian friends after the horrific attacks in Sydney.

Since the appalling attack on 7 October, one of the ever-present fears has been that the conflict would spread beyond Gaza to involve the wider region. Sadly, that is exactly what happened, from Hezbollah in Lebanon to the Houthis in the Red Sea, and now the first direct attack by the Iranian regime.

On last Saturday’s attack, we join the Prime Minister in expressing our gratitude to the RAF personnel who performed their role, as usual, so professionally and successfully. We support the Government in their work, in co-operation with international partners, to stand up for Israel’s security. We also support the Government’s priority, at this point, of seeking to de-escalate the situation and prevent further bloodshed. There is nothing to be gained by further retaliation on either side. We must hope that the pressure exerted by the UK, the US, EU member states and others on the Israeli Government and on Iran results in calmer heads prevailing.

The Government are right to seek to uphold regional security, including, as the Statement points out, in the Red Sea. Can the Minister inform the House about recent activity there? Has there been any increase in Houthi attacks in parallel with the Iranian strikes on Saturday? More generally, what has been the level of Houthi attacks on naval vessels and civilian shipping in the recent weeks since we last discussed the issue in your Lordships’ House?

It is of course right to seek a two-state solution for the benefit of both the Palestinian and Israeli people, but also for the stability that it would help bring to the wider region. In that respect, the Statement rather intriguingly refers to the involvement of “regional partners”, which it says

“helped prevent a much worse attack over the weekend”.

I realise that he may be unable to do so, but can the Leader of the House say anything further about what this actually involved?

It is depressing that it has so far proved impossible to negotiate a ceasefire in Gaza. Of course, we support all attempts to do so. In the meantime, the threat of famine continues to increase. Food shipments are also increasing, but at nowhere near a level to meet needs. Will the Government keep up the pressure to open up the additional routes by land and via Ashdod which the Israeli Government have promised, but which have so far failed to materialise, so that the threat of famine can finally be lifted?

The Statement rightly points out that Iranian drones were in action over the weekend not only in the Middle East but in Ukraine. The position there is desperately worrying and getting more so. Can the Minister update the House on the Government’s assessment of the likelihood of resumed military support from the US to Ukraine at a significant stage, particularly in the light of the Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to the United States?

There are a limited number of unilateral actions which the UK could take against Iran, but we could finally proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard—a sponsor of terrorism across the region—as a terrorist organisation. Will the Government now do so?

It is clear that there is a large measure of agreement across the House about the nature of the crisis in Israel, Gaza and the wider Middle East, and about the broad approach needed to resolve it. Whether it is about strikes against the Houthi or the Royal Air Force’s action at the weekend, the convention that Parliament should have the opportunity—albeit retrospectively—to express its view formally when the UK takes military action has not been followed. We therefore urge the Government to have a debate, with a Commons vote, not least so that all the actors in the Middle East are absolutely clear about British resolve on this issue.

After Saturday’s attack, the prospect of a lasting peace in the Middle East looks further away than ever. For the UK, this must simply mean that our efforts to try to reach one are redoubled. The Government will have our full support in this endeavour.

My Lords, I thank both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their responses. I will not be able to deal with specifics on some of the points they raised. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, conceded, there are certain sensitivities over who does what in particular places and times, including—obviously—particular details of our own operational activities.

I thank both parties opposite and, by the way, I must add my own and our side’s sympathy for the loss of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser. I have indicated this privately to the noble Baroness opposite. He will be greatly missed on all Benches of this House. He was the ultimate exemplar of a courteous servant of your Lordships’ House.

The noble Baroness was quite right to say that one of the few encouraging aspects thus far is that it is clear that the Iranian action, unjustified as it was, was a failure. This does not mean that its gravity can be in any way underestimated—and nobody has suggested that. I echo the Prime Minister and others in calling for restraint on all sides. This is a grim and difficult situation, where all wish to avoid further escalation. It must not be forgotten that this whole grievous episode started with a merciless lack of restraint by the Hamas terrorists who burst into the homes of civilians and murdered women, children and old people in the most brutal and despicable manner. However much we deplore and rightly express concern about ongoing developments, we must never lose sight of the real naked horror of Hamas terrorism.

Both responses asked about sanctions, specifically on the IRGC. The Prime Minister touched a little on this in his Statement in the other place. I have said before, and it is true, that we have already sanctioned more than 400 Iranian individuals and entities, including the IRGC in its entirety for roles in weapons proliferation. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, rightly referred to the very disturbing evidence—there is a good deal of it—of co-operation between Iran and Russia in the deployment of weapons in the Ukrainian theatre.

The IRGC has been involved in fomenting regional conflicts, violating human rights and terrorism. We have introduced a new Iran sanctions regime to give us more extensive power to designate, and the National Security Act—I was asked about domestic security, which we take extraordinarily seriously—implements new measures to protect the British public, including new offences for espionage and foreign interference, and tougher powers to arrest and detain people suspected of involvement in state threats.

The option of proscription of the IRGC obviously remains open to us, but the British Government’s position remains that it is not helpful to speculate on whether a group is being considered for proscription. We recognise the threat from Iran. The police, security services and courts have all the tools they need to sanction, prosecute and mitigate those threats and, as I said, the IRGC is sanctioned in its entirety.

On sanctions more generally, following the welcome convening of the G7 by the Italian Government, for which we are grateful, it was agreed in the communiqué that

“we demand that Iran and its proxies cease their attacks, and we stand ready to take further measures now and in response to further destabilizing initiatives”.

Obviously, the most effective actions are those taken on an international basis.

I was asked about diplomatic activity. There has been a great deal of diplomatic activity, including the Prime Minister speaking to G7 leaders on Sunday when, as I just said, Iran’s attack was unequivocally condemned. We have expressed our full solidarity and support to Israel and its people, and the G7 reaffirmed its commitment to its security.

I recognise the other points made—the other side of the coin, as it were. We will also strengthen our co-operation to seek to end the crisis in Gaza, working towards an immediate and sustainable ceasefire, the release of hostages by Hamas—something it refuses to do—and increased humanitarian aid to Palestinians in need. Yesterday, the Foreign Secretary spoke to his Israeli and Iranian counterparts, expressing continued support to Israel and condemning the Iranian attack, making it clear that Iran must take immediate action to de-escalate. We will continue to make those efforts.

Humanitarian aid is vital. The UK’s humanitarian support this financial year stands at over £100 million and we are working with our international partners to develop that further. As the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, Israel has committed to significant steps to increase the amount of aid getting to Gaza, including delivery of aid through the Port of Ashdod and the Erez checkpoint, increasing the number of aid trucks to at least 500 a day, increasing capacity through the Jordan land corridor, extending the opening hours of the Kerem Shalom crossing and approving more types of aid, including fuel to enable more bakeries to open and hospitals to function.

The UK has urged Israel to take these steps for a long time and they are welcome, but, although these commitments represent significant progress, I agree with the noble Lord that we must see further action to ensure more aid actually gets over the border, as the noble Baroness emphasised. The UK is calling on Israel to make progress on the following additional action: a major change in the conduct of hostilities to protect civilians and reform of the deconfliction mechanism to ensure the safety of aid workers. The situation in Gaza is dire. The entire population faces famine.

The Houthi attacks have continued, but shipping continues to go through the Red Sea and we will continue to protect that.

As far as Ukraine is concerned, I have little time to respond—I apologise for that—but the MoD remains fully engaged with industry allies and partners to ensure continuation of supply to Ukraine. If I have the opportunity, I will write to noble Lords setting out in detail some of the actions we are taking there.

I thank both parties opposite, and I urge restraint on all in this very difficult and dangerous situation.

My Lords, the air defences were spectacularly successful and, for once, they rebutted that old air power adage, “The bomber will always get through”. However, will His Majesty’s Government heed the stark lesson for the air defences of the United Kingdom? Many weapons might be fired overnight by an aggressor, from land or sea, at the United Kingdom. What steps have the Government taken to protect London and the rest of the United Kingdom, to deter any serious attack, to retain our own air supremacy, and, indeed, to avoid facing defeat in a second Battle of Britain?

I thank the noble and gallant Lord for his remarks and I repeat what I said about the role of the Royal Air Force. The defence of the realm remains, obviously, one of the prime duties and responsibilities of His Majesty’s Government. Defence spending has been increased substantially in the various reviews since 2020, and I can certainly assure the noble and gallant Lord that the most careful consideration has been given to the continuing air defence, of all types, of our United Kingdom.

My Lords, on Saturday night, I experienced three emotions: fear, pride and hope—fear, because I have close family in Israel and I was worried for them and about them; pride, when I heard that our planes, with their brave pilots, had taken part in protecting Israel from Iranian attacks; and hope, when I heard that the royal air force of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan had also participated. Does my noble friend agree with me that that last point is absolutely key? If we want to see peace in the Middle East, which we all pray for and work for, we should be supporting those bilateral alliances between Israel and Jordan and Israel and Egypt, and multilateral groupings such as the Abraham accords, because that is the way, in the long run, to bring peace to this region. -

My Lords, I certainly sympathise with my noble friend. I do not have the direct engagement that he does, but it so happens that, because of family reasons—some Members of the House will know that I have connections in Egypt—a number of members of my family are in the Middle East at the moment, so I do understand those personal feelings.

The fundamental point that my noble friend makes is absolutely right: ultimately, this great region of the world, the cradle of human culture and so much of our spiritual and historic strength, needs peace. It needs people who wish for peace, and the vast majority in that part of the world crave peace. The evil people who wish to unleash violence are in a minority—and, unfortunately, in powerful positions in some places. But I wholly agree with him that the evidence of growing understanding and friendship between Israel and partner nations in the Middle East is a great sign of hope in these times.

My Lords, de-escalation is clearly in everyone’s interests, but that might well not happen. Last week, we saw the Iranians take down a neutral ship in the Strait of Hormuz. Basically, two of the world’s key maritime choke points are under threat. Have we discussed with the Americans deployment of the UK carrier? They are very stretched and have only one carrier in the region at the moment, and we need to cover both these choke points to be able to respond to the Houthis. Then, should things not de-escalate, we will have forces in place to assist in ensuring that shipping can move in that region.

My Lords, again I will not comment on specific discussions as to deployment or strategic deployment. Obviously, we are already involved in the protective operations in the Red Sea. I know that the noble Lord loves to talk about the deployment or non-deployment of UK aircraft carriers. I am very proud of the world-leading Royal Navy, which remains a great service and hopefully will be an even greater service as we go forward. I am not going to discuss the potential deployment of HMS “Prince of Wales” in any particular place, but the aircraft carrier, as he knows, will be a part of combined exercises involving NATO forces in Steadfast Defender. Obviously, its availability is obvious, but deployment is a matter for another day.

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Craig of Radley, has already talked about the brave pilots as part of Operation Shader and asked whether the United Kingdom is sufficiently defended. However, linked to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, there is also a question about how much more naval deployment we might need in the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz. Our own service personnel have done a fantastic job, and we must pay them a great tribute. However, as we look to what is happening in the Middle East, do we not need to think about ensuring that we are increasing our defence positions to support trade continuing and to support our allies in the Middle East? I need to declare that I was in Israel as part of a parliamentary delegation just before Easter.

I thank the noble Baroness. The Royal Navy is one of the top five in the world. Of course there is a need to defend our country and act co-operatively with other nations. The overall Ministry of Defence equipment plan for the next decade is £288 billion, including £41.5 billion for the Royal Navy. That will include a Dreadnought, Astute and AUKUS submarines, fleet support ships, ocean surveillance capability and Type 26, Type 31 and Type 32 frigates. As far as the RAF is concerned, the plan is that it should become increasingly a digitally empowered force. The future combat air system will provide us with sixth-generation fighter jet capability, building on what is currently provided by typhoons and the F35. We are in a close partnership with the Italian and Japanese Governments in relation to future fighter capacity.

My Lords, I would like the Minister to take the long view on this. First, in relation to Gaza, it must not be forgotten that this is happening against a history of nearly two millennia of persecution. There is no other people in the world who have been persecuted for so long and against whom there is a constant existential threat. Therefore, the priority in Gaza must be for Hamas to come out of the tunnels and hospitals and release the hostages if they have them, and then you get your ceasefire.

Secondly, with Iran—taking the long view—we seem to have forgotten the nuclear plan, the JCPOA. We have taken our eye off that. Iran is within minutes of getting nuclear capability and is mad enough to use it. We must return to sanctions. If the Government are not going to ban the IRGC, then at the very least visas should not be granted to those so-called clerics that go forwards and backwards between Tehran and London and foment trouble in London. So, please, let us remember the priorities in Gaza and, secondly, stop the flow of malevolent individuals into this country.

My Lords, there is much to be desired in what the noble Baroness says. As a historian and someone with a sensitivity to all the genius of human culture, of course I understand what she says about the experience of the Jewish people. It is clear that Hamas cannot remain in charge in Gaza: the British Government have made that clear, and the Foreign Secretary has said that it is a requirement.

On her important remarks on Iranian nuclear ambitions—if there be such, and the objective observer suggests that there might be—there is no credible civilian justification for enrichment at the levels that the IAEA has reported in Iran. The British Government remain determined that Iran must never develop a nuclear weapon. We are considering next steps with our international partners and we are committed to using all diplomatic tools available to ensure Iran never develops a nuclear weapon, including using the snapback mechanism if necessary. These matters, as I said earlier, must be carried forward in co-operation with our international allies, and that is our diplomatic objective.

My Lords, I am sure that no one in your Lordships’ House would advocate escalation, but I wonder whether protesting against the idea of escalation does not come a bit too easily to the lips of Israel’s allies. Should the Government not reflect that, if you were in Tehran today, you might be quite pleased that the immediate reaction of the western allies is to call for Israel to restrain itself, when Israel is not the problem. Is it not the case that we would not think in this way about an attack on any other country in the world? It would not be our immediate response to aggression against another country that we would urge the victim to do nothing.

My Lords, that is a slight elision of what I have said from this Dispatch Box; indeed, I said that one must not forget where this whole matter began with the most atrocious eruption by terrorists into private and peaceful civilian life. The Government are absolutely clear that threats to destroy what some term the Zionist entity, the State of Israel, are wholly unacceptable and unforgivable, and can be no basis for any way of going forward to a long-term peaceful solution. We express our full solidarity and support to Israel and its people. We have reaffirmed our commitment to its security, and we condemn the Iranian action. But every human part of us would wish that somehow a road can be found to peace—and a road to peace must ultimately come from restraint and forgiveness. May all those involved see that.

My Lords, I refer the House to my registered interest as president of Conservative Friends of Israel. I join the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby; I have countless times called for the proscription of the IRGC. All I can say to the Lord Privy Seal is: if not now, when?

A Jewish Chronicle investigation by journalist David Rose revealed that academics at a dozen UK universities were working alongside Iranian counterparts on drone research. As a result, on 23 June 2023—10 months ago—the Prime Minister announced an inquiry into these allegations that scientists at British universities have been helping Iran develop technology that could be used to upgrade its suicide drone programme. In light of the appalling Iranian attack on Israel, can I ask the Lord Privy Seal to write to me urgently with an update on this inquiry?

Yes, I will do so. On my noble friend’s initial point about proscription, I did tell the House that the IRGC is sanctioned in its entirety. Also, if he looks at Hansard, he will see that I did say words about the consideration that is being given in international fora as to what further action might or might not be taken.

On UK universities, it is true that it appears that there has been co-operation on drone technology. My noble friend is right to say that the UK Government launched an investigation into such allegations. No universities were singled out when the investigation was announced.

We will not accept collaborations that compromise our national security. We have made our systems more robust, expanded the scope of the academic technology approval scheme to protect research from ever-changing global threats and refused applications where we have had concerns. We look at all allegations of suspected breaches of our sanctions policy. Under the new UAV trade prohibitions, it is illegal for a UK business, UK national or anyone in the UK not just to export UAVs and their components but to provide technical assistance, financial services, funds and brokering services. So I give my noble friend the assurance that this matter is being taken very seriously indeed.

My Lords, while the Government are absolutely right to condemn the attack on Israel by Iran and to place their emphasis on avoiding escalation of the conflict, I noted that the Lord Privy Seal referred to intensifying diplomatic efforts and that the Governments of Belgium, France and Germany summoned Iranian ambassadors to their places of work, so to speak. I therefore ask the Lord Privy Seal what consideration has been given by the UK Government to having immediate discussions with the Iranian ambassador in the UK to de-escalate tensions and get back to a situation in which we can forge peace, prosperity and an end to violence, particularly in Gaza. There is need for access of aid to the people there and, above all, to end all forms of conflict.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary spoke yesterday to both the Israeli and Iranian Foreign Secretaries. He expressed to both the United Kingdom’s continuing support for Israel and condemnation of the Iranian attack. The UK Government have already summoned the chargé d’affaires of the Iranian embassy to the Foreign Office to make it clear to the Iranian authorities that they must take meaningful action to halt their reckless behaviour. They have been left in no doubt as to where we stand.

My Lords, given the situation in Gaza that the Minister mentioned, where we have had lots of assurances that aid will be allowed in but very little action, and given that this is fuelling instability in the region, made worse by attacks on Palestinian villages in the West Bank, could the UK Government perhaps make some conditions on their unequivocal support for Israel? A lasting peace will happen only if both sides are willing to discuss it. At the moment, the already inflammatory situation and worsening, so would the UK consider making conditions on its support for Israel? The situation seems to be growing out of control and the humanitarian situation will make things even worse in Gaza if there is a famine and people are starving.

My Lords, I have referred to the importance that we attach to humanitarian aid and said something of what we have discussed with the Israeli Government. However, the fundamental truth is that the Israeli Government have sought to deconflict wherever possible in relation to civilians, which is very hard in this brutal situation. It is the position of the British Government that Israel has every right to defend itself against the kinds of attacks that it has had and the further attack it had at the weekend.

Of course we wish to see restraint, but one simple step could be taken: Hamas could lay down its arms, drop its evil propaganda calling for the destruction of Israel and the killing of Jews, get out of Gaza and let the Palestinian people get on with their lives.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I was in Israel a couple of weeks ago, and we actually saw the RAF flight that dropped aid over northern Gaza. One of the things, as the Lord Privy Seal has mentioned, is the ability to distribute the aid that is going in. We saw that it is going in, and there is some responsibility on Hamas to allow that aid to be properly distributed. Will the noble Lord assure the House that we are taking steps such that the aid that is going in should be recognised and that the conditions of hostage release have to be associated with any negotiations of a ceasefire and further support going in?

I agree with the noble Baroness on the continued holding of hostages. It is never justifiable to take or hold hostages. I repeat that Hamas can end this by taking a whole series of actions. Interfering with, and indeed seeking to abscond with, aid is equally unacceptable. Obviously, we make every effort through our counterparties to ensure that that does not happen, but Hamas’ activities do not make the delivery of humanitarian aid easy.

My Lords, I try to think of how I would feel about being told to exercise restraint, if I were living in Israel at the present time and had been subject to this attack, knowing that this evil regime, which has now come out into the light, supported these vile groups that were responsible for 7 October and other attacks. Of course, restraint is important. But I would also be worried that this evil regime is developing a nuclear capability. I very much welcome what my noble friend said—that efforts will be made internationally to deal with that—because no one in Israel can sleep safe in their bed at night knowing that this regime might have the capability of developing nuclear weapons. I think, with hindsight, that we have perhaps been a little less determined to deal with this problem, through sanctions and other matters, than we could have been.

I warmly welcome my noble friend’s Statement, which has exactly the right kind of balance and sensitivity that we have come to expect from him. But I think the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Moore, and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, are very important.

My Lords, I fully understand that, and can sympathise with that. I sympathise with it deeply. There is a wound there which cannot be removed, but ultimately we have to find a way for wounds to heal. They cannot heal while the kinds of actions being taken by Iran continue.

Dealing with Iran is a matter for international agreement. The question of how to deal with it has been going on since the original discussions between President Obama and the Iranian Government. Attempts were made under the present US Administration to table viable deals in relation to the Iranian nuclear programme in 2022, which would have returned Iran to full compliance with its commitments and returned the US to the deal. But Iran refused to seize that diplomatic opportunity in August 2022 to conclude such a deal, and although we remain committed to a diplomatic solution, I have to say that Iran’s actions over the past months have made the prospect of progress much more difficult, which informs the other comments I made earlier.

My Lords, for highlighting the development of a nuclear capability in Iran and calling for the proscription of the IRGC, the Minister’s noble friend Lord Polak and I were sanctioned by the Iranian regime; therefore, it is not passing strange that we would press again about the proscription of the IRGC. However, can I ask specifically, first, about the 25 attempts over the past two years to kill British nationals or Iranians dissidents in this country, as recently as last month, leading to an Iranian dissident journalist bleeding on the streets of London and his three assailants able simply to leave this country immediately afterwards? How could that happen? Secondly, on the question of sanctions, companies that are making Shahed drones that are going to Moscow and then being used against Ukrainian civilians have western links. What are we doing to ensure that they are sanctioned? We look as though we are doing far too little in the face of a country that has aligned itself with North Korea, China and Russia in an axis that threatens the democracy and freedoms that we enjoy.

My Lords, I agree with much that the noble Lord said. Indeed, he is right to say that since January 2022 we have identified at least 15 threats towards the lives of UK-based individuals. We are stepping up our response to Iranian regime activities. Last December, my noble friend Lord Cameron summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat to the Foreign Office in relation to reports of Iranian plots to kill two Iran International employees. We will not tolerate these kinds of threats. The Foreign Secretary reiterated to the Iranian Foreign Minister that these threats are unacceptable and must stop.

So far as drones and Russia and Ukraine are concerned, we have sanctioned 18 Iranian individuals and three entities for their involvement in the manufacture and transfer of drones used in Ukraine, as referred to briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, adding to our existing sanctions on the Iranian drone programme. I referred to the illegality of assisting with these threats to our national security. At the Wassenaar Arrangement meeting in October last year, we called out Iran and Russia’s unacceptable collaboration in proliferating weapons, and as recently as last December we held Iran and Russia to account at the Security Council for this unacceptable collaboration, sharing evidence of the drones that Iran has provided to Russia to other Security Council members, and in meetings on Resolution 2231. We will continue to expose this rather desperate and, frankly, despicable alliance and to press this issue at the United Nations and elsewhere.

My Lords, I refer to my interests in the register. I am grateful to the Lord Privy Seal for the comments that he has made. He has praised the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy and, no doubt, he will get round to mentioning the Army in a moment. Is he not aware of the widespread feeling of disappointment that there was in our armed services about the failure to increase the defence budget in the recent financial statement? In the context of widening international tensions, not just in the Middle East but in Europe itself, and China’s threats against Taiwan, is he really satisfied that we are doing enough to prepare for some of the threats that might happen in terms of international relations? A specific point has been made about drones. Three years ago, I looked at the capacity of this country to respond to drone incursions. There was some good work being done, but it was still fairly narrow. What has been done in the intervening three years? Would we as a nation be able to deal with 300 incoming drones?

My Lords, I am slightly saddened by the normally delightful noble Lord’s slightly jaundiced question. I referred to the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force because I was asked about them, first by the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, and then by the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Stirrup. Of course, this Government support all the armed services. What the noble Lord left out of account is that in the spending review 2020, the MoD received an uplift of £24 billion in cash terms over four years, which was the biggest defence investment since the end of the Cold War. In 2023, we confirmed an additional £5 billion to the Ministry of Defence over two years and further funding has been cited.

We also expect, if you take into account the use of reserve funds, a further increase in spending on defence in 2024-25 over 2023-24. Some of the comparisons here are not actually comparing like for like. This Government remain committed to the long-term objective of spending at least 2.5% of GDP on defence, and the figure actually spent has been well over 2% in recent years.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will recall that an Iranian woman, Narges Mohammadi, received the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her efforts to fight for democracy and human rights in Iran. There has been a huge, brave effort on the part of many people in Iran—particularly women—to resist the misogynist, autocratic and theocratic regime. Will the Government seek to refer to the Iranian regime or the Iranian Government, rather than just using the word “Iran”, acknowledging the difference between the Iranian people and the Iranian Government or regime when speaking against their vicious attack on Israel and other actions?

Secondly, the Statement makes no reference to the Israeli attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria. That is unfortunate. Can the noble Lord reassure me that the Government are stressing to Israel the need to avoid escalatory actions, given the perilous current state of the region?

My Lords, it was not actually an attack on the Iranian embassy in Syria. I am not sure whether that embassy is the embassy of the Iranian Government or the Iranian people, but the people who were caught in Syria, in whatever way we would like to describe it, were involved actively in warlike activities against the State of Israel and were encouraging terrorism.

However, I agree with what the noble Baroness said about the courage and heroism of the people in Iran, and particularly many Iranian women. One’s heart stirs when one sees the enormous courage of those people. I am often struck by how little opportunity we are given to see Iranian women when we see the serried ranks of the IRGC and others saluting the members of the Iranian regime who have been responsible for these deplorable events in the last few days.