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Countering Iran’s Hostile Activities

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 8 May 2024

[Gordon Henderson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of countering hostile activities by Iran.

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairship, Mr Henderson. I am particularly grateful to the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for co-sponsoring the debate. My thanks also go to Redress and Labour Friends of Israel for the briefings that they have provided. Our focus is on the active role that Britain is wittingly or unwittingly playing in supporting Iran and its agents as they pursue their violent, repressive and hostile activities here in the UK and across the world. We have some practical asks of the Government, to which I hope the Minister will respond when she replies to the debate.

It is now almost a month since we woke up to the news that Iran had launched 300 drones and missiles at Israel, following Israel’s attack on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders in Damascus. That was the first direct attack by Iranians on Israel’s soil in the horrendous conflict that is taking place in the middle east, but it sits within a wider context of the threat that Iran poses not just to Israel, but to Britain and to our western allies. Iran is listed alongside Russia and China by our security services as a hostile state, and yet, in the words of the commissioner at the Commission for Countering Extremism, Robin Simcox,

“what is underappreciated is the scale of Iranian-backed activity in this country; and the extent to which Iran attempts to stoke extremism here.”

Mostly, Iran works through its agents. At their heart is the IRGC, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. We all remember the protests in Iran following the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, arrested simply for refusing to wear a hijab. The widespread protests that followed her death, with women removing their headscarves and chanting, “Women, life, freedom”, were violently crushed by the IRGC. More than 500 protesters were killed, more than 19,400 individuals were arrested and at least 27 protesters have been given a death sentence, of whom seven have been executed.

In Iran, the IRGC is renowned for its brutality and violence, for undermining human rights and democracy, and for being a terrorist paramilitary organisation that acts as the ideological custodian of the Islamic Republic. But its influence extends to Britain and to our allies. Since the fatwa against Salman Rushdie in 1989, the IRGC has targeted British nationals and Iranian opposition activists living in exile here on our soil. In 2022, the head of MI5, Ken McCallum, warned that Iran’s intelligence services had made at least 15 credible threats to kidnap or even kill individuals living here in Britain. Such actions pose a significant threat to our national security.

Attacks on journalists who seek to hold the Iranian regime to public account are particularly horrific. Those journalists have been described by Iran as “enemies of the state”. We had the terrifying attack on Pouria Zeraati, who worked as a journalist for Iran International, a Persian-language opposition TV channel, and was stabbed in the leg outside his home in Wimbledon. We learned about the threat and harassment meted out to BBC journalists working for BBC Persian. For example, Rana Rahimpour, who worked for the BBC for 15 years, had her car broken into, a listening device installed in it and her phone tapped, and the conversations were misleadingly edited and broadcast in Iran to suggest that she supported the regime. That led to attacks on her from those who oppose the regime. In the end, she quit her job because of the pressure on her and her family, saying:

“They don’t want fair, trusted or impartial news to reach the shores of my homeland.”

A recent report by Reporters Without Borders says that London has become a “hot spot” for transnational repression. Iran also seeks to influence public opinion by spreading propaganda. There are concerning ties between the IRGC and local Islamic centres in cities such London, Manchester and Glasgow. According to Policy Exchange, the Islamic Centre of England, which is located in a converted cinema in Maida Vale, is the centre of Iranian influences in the UK. The head of the centre is directly appointed by Ayatollah Khamenei. Senior clerical figures travelled freely from Iran to the centre in the UK to voice their repressive ideology, while at the same time Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was languishing in a prison in Iran.

Similarly, the Kanoon Towhid Islamic centre in west London is used as a meeting place for the Islamic Students Association of Britain. There, IRCG commanders lecture students on the evils of Israel and its western allies. “Death to Israel,” proclaimed one IRCG commander, who also claimed the holocaust was

“a lie and a fake”.

Another claimed that they are engaged in

“an apocalyptic war that will end the lives of Jews”.

All that is going on within our shores, in our communities and places of worship in Britain. That is just a small part of the nefarious activities in which Iran is engaged, which also include providing weapons to Russia in Ukraine, and to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis in the middle east. Even worse, our financial institutions are facilitating Iran’s wrongdoing.

The right hon. Lady is making an excellent speech to which I am listening carefully. I would press slightly on one other issue. It is quite clear, through links that I will set out later, that the Hamas attacks were organised by the IRGC. That came at a time when Russia had been under pressure in Ukraine. Iran has links to the Russians and this has taken the pressure off them, as most of the focus has gone to Gaza. Does the right hon. Lady agree that, on a wider front, this is an absolute threat to us all?

I absolutely take that point. My attempts to condense everything I wanted to say in the time available did not allow me to give more time to that very important link.

Our financial institutions are helping Iran and its agents to pursue their evil objectives. Two banks—Bank Saderat and Melli Bank—sanctioned by the USA for supporting the IRGC and other military-related activities, have active subsidiaries in London. They operate out of the heart of London in Lothbury and Kensington High Street, funnelling funds from Iran to the state-controlled agencies in the UK.

In February, the Financial Times revealed that two of the UK’s largest banks—Santander and Lloyd’s—had provided accounts for firms connected to Iran’s state-controlled Petrochemical Commercial Company. US officials believe that that company has funnelled hundreds of millions of dollars to the IRGC, and that it has worked with Russian intelligence agencies to raise money for the Iranian proxy militia. Money in the hands of rogue states and terrorists is a deadly weapon. There is a real risk of the UK becoming a safe haven for Iranian perpetrators of human rights violations and international crimes. Those bad actors must not be permitted to seek shelter, threaten UK citizens and residents or accumulate funds and other resources to support their actions.

I am afraid that our response so far does not match the scale of the threat we face. We are working with our allies to counter Iran’s hostile activities, but the Government must do more at home to target both the IRGC and its enablers. There are three key levers that I urge the Minister to consider. First, I call on the Government to act firmly and proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist group. Action against what is clearly a hostile state-sponsored threat is long overdue.

Secondly, the Government must ramp up their efforts to impose sanctions on the members of the IRGC. I recognise that significant strides have been made in sanctioning the IRGC as an entity and several of its commanders. Indeed, the Government’s new Iran sanctions regime gives us the enhanced powers we need to target those involved in supporting the Iranian regime’s human rights violations across the world. That includes those who finance or are associated with Iran’s hostile activities, as well as any entities involved in the production and export of Iranian weapons. Imposing sanctions on IRGC agents, or other associated entities, would allow us to freeze their UK assets, deport those without UK citizenship, and prevent any UK persons from dealing with them. We must make full use of those powers and target a far broader range of agents, including networks of individuals and companies associated with the IRGC.

Thirdly, we must ensure full transparency over who owns or controls UK companies, properties and trusts so that all the assets and individuals associated with the IRGC can be appropriately referred to the enforcement authorities. Any UK companies or individuals dealing with the Iranian Government or the IRGC, by facilitating transactions on their behalf or by supplying them with military equipment or other resources, is likely to be in breach of the existing UK sanctions regime. Entities regulated by the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority, such as Bank Saderat and Melli Bank, could be referred to the FCA for failures in their sanctions screening and failures in customer due diligence checks.

Those measures would send a message to Iran, to the IRGC, and to other hostile state-sponsored threats: the UK will not serve as a conduit for the financing of conflict and terror. The UK will not stand by as foreign agents intimidate and threaten people on our soil. Finally, the UK will not stand as a safe haven for perpetrators of human rights violations and international crimes.

It is always a privilege to speak with you in the Chair, Mr Henderson. I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) —my right hon. Friend, in this particular case—on her powerful and important speech. Today is about trying to recognise that there is a moment when attempts to be reasonable and engage in a normal, diplomatic and democratic way finally fail because the people we are trying to deal with are themselves utterly opposed to all of that. Today’s debate should take into consideration all that has happened and all that has gone before.

I want to make a point very quickly before I get into the issue of the IRGC’s work in the UK. As the right hon. Lady said earlier, we must recognise Iran’s appalling behaviour to its own citizens in recent years, such as that towards campaigners following the appalling murder that took place over the wearing of a headscarf or hijab, which has literally been pushed on people against their will. That has subsequently become a sort of democracy campaign. As the right hon. Lady said, thousands have been arrested and many have been tortured, and we know that a significant number have been executed for that simple display—for something that we, in a normal society, would consider to be the expression of their human rights to change events. I reference that as a backstop, because we are dealing with a regime that brooks absolutely no dissent and no discussion with anybody in Iran, except for with those who are part of its brutal Administration. The sight of those people being arrested and rounded up, never to be heard of again—this, by the way, under the cover of all that is going on in Gaza at the moment—has accelerated the internal process of repression, and of execution and torture.

I return to the essence of the debate, which is looking at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and how they work and proselytise here in the UK. That should be of considerable concern to us and should result in a change of policy. Beyond immediate threats to UK residents and their family members in Iran, recent media reports show that Iran is using UK-based institutions to spread propaganda and assert its influence. We have already touched on that point, but it bears emphasising.

In November 2023, The Times reported:

“Supporters of the Iranian regime have attended pro-Palestine marches in London, handing out leaflets citing the supreme leader’s calls”—

the calls of Ayatollah Khamenei—

“for the eradication of Israel.”

The regime has never been other than utterly clear that it sees Israel, and Jews, as legitimate targets because it considers them to be appalling and therefore it wants to rid the world of them. He has been very clear about it and everybody else has been very clear about it—and there is his support of Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hezbollah’s leader, in response to Iran, has also clarified the chant, “From the river to the sea.” I have heard some people say, “Well, that just means freeing oppressed peoples.” It is not that; it means clearing Israel—the Jews—out of Palestine completely. That message is, in those people’s minds, absolute, so when others chant it, they need to recognise that that is essentially what they are saying. That is all to do with the propaganda used by the IRGC here in the UK.

As was mentioned earlier, there are concerns over links between the Islamic Centre of England in London, Manchester and Glasgow, and Iran’s IRGC and the office of the Supreme Leader. As the right hon. Member for Barking pointed out, the head of the IRGC is appointed by the Ayatollah Khamenei himself, and therefore it is always going to be somebody who is completely on side with the IRGC and the authorities in Iran.

All the other entities exist within the Islamic Centre’s network, reportedly including the Islamic Students Association of Britain, based in Hammersmith, which is owned by Al-Tawheed Charitable Trust. In August 2023, it was reported that the students association held online meetings where IRGC commanders had addressed students. We have seen videos, including some on the BBC, where people have been clearly lecturing while using the language that the right hon. Lady cited—about death to Jews and the eradication of Israel—and whipping up meetings to become more extreme than they might have been without such interventions. That should be a matter of real concern to my colleagues in Her Majesty’s Government; they should be concerned that, at a time when the whole political atmosphere with regards to the middle east is so fraught, we see these people trying to pitch others in a singular direction—a violent one, at that.

The BBC report in 2024 into the students association named former IRGC commander, Ezzatollah Zarghami—who is sanctioned in the UK, by the way—as having been advertised as speaking to the student group. It was interesting that the BBC concluded that the students association, along with the Kanoon Towhid centre, had been used as platforms by IRGC agents in the UK to promote extremist antisemitic propaganda and incite violence against dissidents from the regime.

I want to come to the links with the City, which the right hon. Lady touched on, but I first want to say something very important. There is a distinct difference between sanctioning—the Government always say they sanction individuals—and proscribing, which means that if anybody here in the UK is involved in that organisation, they will be committing a criminal offence. Sanctioning is all well and good as far as it goes, but there are many people who operate, never get spotted and do not get sanctioned. The point of proscribing is to catch those who are busy fomenting violence and antisemitic tropes.

Rather than taking forceful action against the Islamic Republic and its associates, the UK Government seem content to allow those responsible for providing financial support for the activities of Iranian entities to operate freely in the UK. We have already cracked down on a number of banks and individuals as a result of the brutal Russian invasion of Ukraine—there is more to be done there, by the way. We should have learnt a lesson by now. We were far too open in that regard, and remain too open when it comes to Iran.

We have long known that the Saderat and Melli banks—Iranian commercial banks subject to US sanctions for supporting Iran’s IRGC and other military-related Iranian entities—have active subsidiaries, as mentioned earlier, in London. In October 2023 it was reported that both banks maintain links to Hamas and the IRGC’s Quds Force. They are operating here in London. I cannot stress that enough. In plain view, in open sight, we have Iranian banks providing money to those who wish nothing but harm to Jews here in the UK, to any representative of Israel, to the UK state itself and all those here in Parliament who believe in human rights and the rule of law. That is what is getting financed.

The state-owned National Iranian Oil Company, which was sanctioned in the US, is an affiliate of the IRGC and was in a building opposite us here. The UK financial services sector has also reported the failure to enforce UK financial sanctions on Iran. According to a February 2024 report by the Financial Times, Lloyds Bank and Santander UK participated in a sanctions evasion scheme backed by Tehran’s intelligence services. That is absolutely astonishing. The banks are accused of providing accounts to British front companies secretly owned by a sanctioned Iranian petrochemical company based near Buckingham Palace, which the US believes has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the IRGC Quds Force, working with Russian intelligence agencies to raise money for Iranian proxy militias.

The UK, together with its partners, must consider all forms of pressure, including targeted financial sanctions, to challenge Iran’s hostile activities in the UK and abroad. If no such action is taken, I am sorry to say that the UK Government risk not only undermining the reputation of the City of London, but signalling to Iranian communities worldwide that the Government prioritise economic interests over safety and security. I do not believe that that is a principle running through the Government, but when it comes to Iran we have only to read what is happening to reach that conclusion. I hope that the Minister will explain to us how swiftly we are going to bring that to an end and change any sense that the UK Government care more about money than about lives.

Iran is a key ally of Putin and Russia. I have long believed—I made a speech in Washington about this quite recently—that we are watching a new axis of totalitarian states growing right in front of us. China is at the heart of it along with North Korea and Russia, and right in the middle of it is Iran. You can see the co-ordinated activity. Iran, as I said earlier in an intervention, is implicated in the co-ordinated attack by Hamas, which engendered a response resulting in the US focus being on that area, and not on Ukraine as it was before. That has led to a cooling off that mean Russia was able to go on the offensive, and it is looking very difficult for Ukraine. We can see that all of that has helped the axis. Right now we are watching Iran do all of that and still carry on here in the UK without hindrance.

Economically, Iran has the most robust sanctions evasion network, constantly cultivated over decades. What is of particular interest is Iran’s ability to export petrochemicals through its dark tanker fleet and various shell organisations. Of course, that is hugely helpful to Russia, providing it with the wherewithal to buy many of the weapons that it needs.

Staggeringly, the total value of trade between Russia and Iran increased from $1.4 billion in 2020 to more than $3 billion in 2021. Over the summer of 2022, Tehran and Moscow held talks about using Iran as a backdoor for Russian oil. A 2022 cache of transaction data between Iranian clearing houses and foreign-registered front companies controlled by the regime, reviewed by Politico, suggests quite clearly that the volume of sanctions-evading transactions handled by the network is at least in the tens of billions of dollars annually—tens of billions of dollars! That money is going to support the whole concept of war in Ukraine, to the fomenting of appalling terrorist groups in the middle east, and to the long reach of Iran through countries such as Syria and beyond.

Militarily, Iran also provides the key support for Russia. We know that—Iran’s diverse drone and loitering munitions fleet has become integral to Russian strategy. Russia uses Iranian loitering munitions to bombard Ukrainian infrastructure and civilians. Iran has also sent technical advisers, who again are likely to come from the IRGC force, to train Russian operatives in Crimea. In addition, Iran provided Russia with 300,000 artillery shells and 1 million ammunition rounds between November 2022 and July 2023.

We can draw breath for a second, because it isn’t over. The reality is that that is the scale of it so far, and it just gets a lot worse. We now know that Iran will expand its support for Russia’s war in Ukraine to an even greater extent. Having already transferred drones to Russia, Iran is likely soon to begin transfers to the Kremlin of advanced ballistic missiles. In October 2023, under the joint comprehensive plan of action, or JCPOA, sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile exports will lapse, making such transfers legal under international law. Again, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to deal with that issue when she responds to the debate.

Iran’s nuclear advancement and its military assistance to Russia increase the odds that President Putin, with the right incentives, will seek advantage in assisting Iran with nuclear breakout, transferring advanced military technology and supporting Iranian intelligence activity in Europe and the UK. We know what Iran is planning to do. We know that it is planning to have nuclear weapons; it is only a matter of when. It links with Russia will provide it with much of the technology that it needs, such as miniaturisation to allow nuclear weapons to be put on missiles. Such technologies are more often held in the developed nations that have nuclear weapons themselves, but these sorts of things are more open to Iran now. They can use them and we believe that that is very much the case.

I have talked about the new axis. As a long-standing ally of China, Iranian-Chinese trade has skyrocketed since the start of the Ukrainian war, as China takes advantage of illicit Iranian and trans-shipped Russian oil. Rebadged, that oil is going to China; they cannot buy enough of it. China has also expanded its economic footprint in Iran and its strategic footprint in east Africa. Interestingly, China imported 89% of Iranian oil in February 2024. Iran ships oil to China using dark-fleet tankers and receives payments through small Chinese banks. The dark-fleet tankers operate without transponders to avoid detection. Once oil shipments reach China, they are rebranded as Malaysian or middle eastern oil, and bought by small, independent refineries in China.

Just this week in the press, I noticed a story that suggested that some of the dark oil that the right hon. Gentleman referred to is being shipped in unsafe boats and ships; they leak, they have engine problems and so on. That particular type of movement of oil is dangerous not only because of the finance it generates but because it is environmentally dangerous for the rest of the world.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about that, but I have to tell him that this is going on all the time. All the points he made are correct, but the reality is that the oil is still going there, and I do not see any action at all being taken by the western powers to stop it. Perhaps they are fearful of upsetting China, but that is another issue altogether, by which I will not be sidetracked; this debate is not about that, but it is certainly a key element in why we seem not to do a huge amount to stop these things.

It is also worth pointing out that, in 2022, Iran bought $2.12 billion-worth of machinery from China, as well as $1.43 billion-worth of electronics. That tight exchange between these totalitarian states is being cemented and expanded as we speak. We also know that China’s involvement in many countries across the middle east, many of which are totalitarian, is growing, along with its influence throughout the region. That is very much the case.

I will conclude with recommendations, which I offer to the Government in their interest as much as in mine and in everybody else’s. The right hon. Member for Barking said this earlier on. I want to repeat it, and I make no apology for repeating many of these things because we are in agreement on this matter.

My first recommendation is to proscribe the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, which would make it a criminal offence for any UK citizen to deal with it. During the Prime Minister’s campaign to be leader, he stated back in August ’22 that the IRGC proscription

“must now be on the table”,

and in December 2022, he vowed unequivocally that he and the Home Secretary would utilise

“the full range of tools at our disposal to protect UK citizens from the threat of the IRGC”.

Hear, hear. He referenced the important actions of his predecessors, who proscribed Hamas and Hezbollah, and he indicated that IRGC proscription would be the very next step. Well, if it is to be the next step, we have been hovering on one leg for some considerable time. It is not a great place to be, it is physically difficult and it is also looks rather ridiculous.

My second recommendation to my hon. Friend the Minister is to use the breadth of the sanctions regimes to target the wide range of actors involved in human rights violations and other hostile activities committed by the Iranian regime, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and their agents in the UK and internationally. As I said earlier, proscribing is different from sanctioning. It affects the whole organisation; any activity associated with it becomes a criminal offence in the UK. That is why it has to be done, because to mop up these smaller actors that are running around the place proselytising this foul idea and ideology is important, and we need to put them beyond any further involvement with the UK.

My third recommendation is to encourage the prompt and effective investigation of any individuals or entities involved in human rights violations where there is a link in the UK, and highlight the legal pathways available to target those persons and confiscate any assets illegally obtained. My final recommendation is to increase resources for the UK’s enforcement agencies to allow them to build capacity for investigating and prosecuting entities involved in the commission of international human rights violations, as well as violations of UK sanctions against Iran and the link between the two.

When my hon. Friend the Minister responds to the debate, I do hope she is not going to say a few things that I have heard from various Foreign Office officials and the occasional Minister, including, first: “The reason why we won’t proscribe them is that it is important for us to be able to pick up the telephone and speak to the Foreign Minister in Iran”. I agree that it is important for dialogue, but dialogue with the deaf changes nothing, so that is not dialogue.

The second thing I often hear is this: “The United States needs a backchannel to get to Iran. We offer a backchannel.” Honestly, if America really wants to get in touch with Iran and needs the UK to be a backchannel, something has gone fundamentally wrong with America. We need to deal with policy that affects us and act for our citizens, rather than worrying about the Americans wanting to have a backchannel. Please, let us not hear any more about backchannels.

I have a huge amount of respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden, and she knows that. She is a sanctionee of China, along with me and others, so I simply say that it is genuinely time for the UK to give a lead on this because many other countries in Europe would follow us. I have been in contact with many of them, as she knows, and many said, “Our Governments will move the moment the UK moves.” Some countries have already proscribed. I am convinced that the big countries like the UK that have capacity for this will move with us. That will have a huge effect on Iran and shockwaves would run right back to China as well.

It is long overdue that we call time on the proxy actor that sits in the middle east with the support of other totalitarian regimes such as Russia and China—on its behaviour, activities and foul funding of the most awful terrorist organisations we have ever seen, which absolutely devastate their own economies. Imagine how much the money that has been given to Hamas by various entities, including Iran, could have benefited the people in Gaza needing hospital treatment, roads and proper sewerage by now had it not been used for weapons, tunnel building and attacks on others. That is what we need to stop, and proscription is exactly how we have to do it.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Henderson. I will start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on securing this important debate. They both gave very powerful opening speeches.

Very often, when the case is made for why the IRGC must be proscribed, we focus on the havoc it has wreaked across the middle east in Gaza, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and elsewhere. That is particularly understandable in light of the events of the last few months, as Gaza, Israel and southern Lebanon have become the scene of death and destruction, in large part due to Iran and its proxies. The case for proscribing the IRGC as a terror group is made plain by its support for terror groups across the middle east. However, it also poses a growing threat to us here in the UK, as we heard in the opening speeches—a threat that transforms proscription into an urgent policy need to undermine terrorist and extremist activity in our own country.

In recent years, the Iranian regime has increasingly exploited the free and open society we all seek to defend here in the UK in order to pursue its own ends. Matt Jukes, the head of counter-terror policing, has made it clear that no fewer than 15 Iranian plots to kill or kidnap people on British soil have been uncovered in just the past two years. Meanwhile, MI5 has reported that Iran’s “aggressive intelligence services”, including the IRGC, have

“ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.”

Again and again, the Foreign Secretary and his predecessors have made formal representations to the Iranian regime that that behaviour is unacceptable, but again and again, that has not worked, and the IRGC continues to operate in our country.

Last February, the opposition news network, Iran International, was temporarily forced to relocate its headquarters from London to Washington—that is not Washington in my constituency, just for clarity—in response to threats from the Iranian Government against journalists based in our country. Scotland Yard was shamefully forced to warn staff that it could not safeguard them from Tehran-backed assassins or kidnappers on UK soil. As recently as March this year, the Iranian journalist Pouria Zeraati, who works for Iran International, was stabbed by three men on a residential street in Wimbledon.

Equally troubling is the fact that the IRGC and other Iranian agents are known to exercise soft power on behalf of the Iranian regime. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking mentioned, the Charity Commission has in recent years investigated the Islamic Centre of England in Maida Vale, giving it an official warning in 2022. That followed two events held at the charity’s premises in 2020 that eulogised Major General Qasem Soleimani, who was subject to UK sanctions, and that may have placed individuals present in breach of the Terrorism Act. We have also seen reports of IRGC commanders speaking to British students to encourage and incite antisemitic attacks. At least eight IRGC leaders have addressed British student audiences since early 2020. One commander who spoke said the holocaust was “fake”, boasted of training al-Qaeda terrorists and urged his audience to join

“the beautiful list of soldiers”

who would fight and kill Jews in the incoming apocalyptic war. Another IRGC commander invited to speak by the Islamic Students Association of Britain claimed Jews “created homosexuality” and that students should see themselves as “holy warriors”, promising that the “era of the Jews” would soon be at an end.

Just this year, a BBC report on the same organisation found that a former IRGC commander, Ezzatollah Zarghami, had spoken to students. He is reported to have previously

“boasted of training Hamas in Gaza prior to the 7 October attacks”,

and in an interview on Iranian state TV, he described how

“he had provided Hamas with missiles.”

Evidence of the IRGC’s support for terrorism across the middle east is abundant and undisputed. Indeed, it has been painfully clear since 7 October. Now we have growing evidence of the IRGC operating in our own country, under the Government’s nose and seemingly at will. Today, the IRGC is a source, supporter and funder of terrorism, not just in Gaza and Beirut but increasingly in our very own Wimbledon and Maida Vale. If the Government have a strategy intended to deter that activity, it is just not working. We have had years of the Government refusing to proscribe the IRGC for one reason or another. However, it is increasingly clear to everyone else what needs to happen.

If it looks like a terrorist organisation, acts like a terrorist organisation and operates like a terrorist organisation, it is hard to understand why the Government, in the words of the current Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), on 23 March 2024—indeed, I think all Ministers use the same quote—

“do not routinely comment on whether an organisation is or is not being considered for proscription.”

Thankfully, we in the Labour party—I hope I hear this from my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) on the Front Bench—are a Government in waiting and we stand ready to do what this Government seemingly will not do, which is to finally proscribe the IRGC.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairship, Mr Henderson. I thank the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for her passion, which she quite clearly shows in the Chamber and today in Westminster Hall, for what is right in holding Government to account for the steps taken to secure this nation. Indeed, not just to secure this nation but to speak up for those in other countries, such as Iran, where people do not have the freedom that we have here. The right hon. Lady has done that exceptionally, and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) has done similarly. Further, the hon. Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson)—the other Washington, that is—clearly illustrated her point.

I look forward to the contributions from the shadow Ministers, the hon. Members for Caerphilly (Wayne David) and for Dundee West (Chris Law), as well as that of the Minister. If she had the authority, I would love for her to proscribe the IRGC today. That is the ultimate demand that we all seek. The IRGC is an evil and wicked organisation, truly focused on one thing, which is to bring havoc, murder and mayhem across the world. It is instrumental for many terrorist organisations across the world, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green, so that has to be done.

On 13 April 2024, Iran launched some 330 drones and missiles against Israel in a retaliation for an attack on what it said was a consulate. I was in Israel the week after Easter and had some talks with the Israel Defence Forces. That building in Syria was not a consulate; it was a terrorist organisation base where attacks across the whole of the Middle East were planned. What Israel did was destroy a terrorist building and those in it, and they were right to do so. By taking out terrorist organisations, such as the IRGC, it ultimately stops attacks on innocent people.

The Israeli Defence Forces say that 99% of drones were intercepted and that minimal damage was inflicted. One Israeli civilian was severely injured by falling debris. Let us not allow the fact that the Iron Dome and Israeli defences were successful in preventing greater loss of life distract from the fact that the message from Iran is clear: its evil intention is to destroy, maim and kill. It is not simply backing terrorist Hamas; it is involved, and as such our response must be clear.

I put on the record my thanks to our world-class Royal Air Force and armed forces for their reaction to the attack, but that, in tandem with a strongly worded UN memo, cannot and must not be the extent of the actions taken by the Government to address that unacceptable act—one among many—by Iran. Fortunately, the NATO forces, the United States of America and the Israeli Iron Dome protection scheme seemed to take out most of the drone and missile attacks.

I read with great interest an article by the right hon. Member for Barking about the banking institutions. The right hon. Lady set out that scene so well today, and others have and will refer to it. There are banking regimes that seem to be above the law, and working outside of the law quite blatantly, and the right hon. Lady was right to set that scene. We have failed to do all we can to sanction Iran for its continued and blatant disregard for its international obligations. This is a country that does not care about anything: it does not care how many people it kills or what mayhem it causes. I believe the day is coming when the international community in the west will have to consider Iran’s position.

Melli Bank has been cited in American sanctions for allegedly supporting the activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, while Bank Saderat Iran has been targeted by Washington over claims that it has provided financial services for Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. Both banks were also found liable by the US federal court in 2021 for a Hamas terrorist attack in Israel in 2015 that left two people dead. These are not just banks but centres of terrorism operated by Hamas, Iran and others whose intentions are pure evil.

A judge ruled that the finance houses had been used by the Quds Force, an offshoot of the IRGC created to liaise with and fund Tehran’s proxy militias and to pass funds to terror groups—they can move money around the world to where it needs to be—yet those banks continue to trade unopposed within the borders of this country. It absolutely astounds me that two banks with clear links to the Tehran military are operating in London at this time. It is clear that this is only one of the multiple ways in which we have not exercised our obligation to ensure that those who make money and profit in the UK have cognisance of their international obligations. There are rules and regulations that cannot be ignored, and our Government need to enforce them, as the right hon. Members for Barking and for Chingford and Woodford Green asked.

The report by the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, which was released just last month, clearly warned MPs and, by extension, the Government, that Iran was using financial assets abroad to advance its interests. I am minded of how the police eventually got Al Capone. They did not get him because of all the murders he committed; they got him on tax evasion. Iran needs to be brought to task for how it is able to move money around the world. We may not get Iran for all the other things it has done, but if we do that we can stop it operating. It is important that action is taken.

We call for stronger enforcement of existing sanctions to deter rogue regimes. I add my voice to those calls, and not simply in respect of the two banks that are in clear view and getting away with it. Something needs to be done. I look to the Minister and ask her to take on board what the APPG has highlighted and called for: not words but actions. We need to see actions so that Iran understands that it is not above international law, so that Hamas are not emboldened to continue their evil acts of terrorism, and so that the world understands that the UN and NATO are not simply note-takers but action-takers.

I make this point as chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief: Iran suppresses human rights and religious freedom to such an extent in that country. I speak up for those with Christian faith, those with other faith and those with no faith. There are some 1.2 million Christians in Iran, and their human rights are suppressed, as is their religious worship. There are restrictions with threats of arrests, beatings and murder, and mass arrests are probably taking place even as we sit here discussing this matter. Overall, the situation is risky. I am a Christian. I believe in a great God and a good God who is over all and who continues to grow his Church. We in this world also have a physical role to do, so I call on the Minister and the Government to take this matter on board and ensure that human rights and religious freedom are protected and spoken up for. I know the Minister will do that, as she always does, and we will not be found wanting.

I often speak for the Baha’is, because they are the most gentle people I have met in all my life, and I am greatly encouraged whenever I speak to them because they are just the most lovely people. They are intentionally and severely deprived of their fundamental rights. The IRGC and authorities have deliberately arrested, prosecuted and persecuted Baha’i members by preventing education, health opportunities, employment opportunities, the ownership of property and dignified burials. They even destroy the very graveyards belonging to the Baha’is—it is beyond all belief. Some 200 Baha’is have been murdered in the last few years and thousands more have been imprisoned and tortured. The hon. Member for Dundee West, who speaks for the SNP, and I are on the same page and, without reading his script, I know he will speak about that.

Women and girls have had their very right to exist taken from them. They have been denied education and employment, and there have been physical attacks and acid attacks on women just because they are not wearing the clothes that the IRGC wants them to, and just because they want equal opportunities. Come on guys: this is a country that suppresses their very right to live. I find that incredible. They have been beaten and sexually abused, and Iran should not be allowed away with it. The IRGC needs to be proscribed and it needs to be removed.

Iran supports world terrorism. Although others have referred to it, it is important that I say this for the record: Iran is the country that supports the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. It has given Russia drones by the thousand to use in its battles against Ukraine. All those things indicate that Iran is the centre of the evil axis that also involves China, Russia and North Korea. It is the engine room of international terrorism and therefore must be sorted out.

I will conclude as I am conscious of the time. We need action to remind Israel that it is not to be left alone as it was in the six-day war, or at other times in the past when surrounding nations have attempted to wipe it from the face of the earth. We need action simply to do the right thing—that is what is required and what we ask for today. I ask for all those things. I commend the right hon. Member for Barking and look forward to the other contributions, especially the Minister’s response.

Before I call the SNP spokesperson, I should point out that there are likely to be votes soon. I will have to suspend the sitting then, but will ensure that Members get their full time.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I thank the right hon. Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) for what has been a really important, detailed and excellent debate so far. May I say, before I begin, that it looks like we are all going to break out in a cross-party consensus here? I am looking forward to the cross-party response that we are all hoping to hear.

Since the revolution in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran has repressed the human rights of its own people, often in the most brutal and barbaric ways possible. The regime has continuously sought to destabilise its immediate neighbours and those in the surrounding region through both direct military action and its well-funded and well-armed proxy militias. It has exported terrorism throughout the world and repeatedly shown a blatant disregard for international law. Those are things we have heard from every single speaker so far.

Iranians Governments over the past 45 years have made no secret of their desire to spread the revolution and of their hostility to states that they perceive as their enemies, with the USA and Israel singled out in particular and referred to as the great Satan and the little Satan by the revolution’s leader Ayatollah Khomeini. At this critical point in history, with enhanced regional and global instability, it is therefore no surprise to see Iran become increasingly involved through its proxies and its own forces.

In countering Iran’s hostilities, the UK has two essential responsibilities. First, it must ensure that the escalating situation in the middle east is brought to an end. Secondly, it must ensure that Iran does not have the capability to fund, train and equip those who pose a threat to the rules-based order and global security.

Order. Sorry to interrupt, but the sitting is suspended for 15 minutes for a Division in the House. I will allow 10 minutes for each subsequent Division.

Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.

On resuming

Thank you for giving us time so that we could all vote, Mr Henderson.

As we are discussing Iran, I will turn to regional escalation. I last spoke about Iran in June last year, and it cannot be denied that events in the middle east since October have changed the context completely; they simply cannot be ignored or discounted. Since November, Iran-aligned Houthis have launched repeated drone and missile attacks on ships in the crucial shipping channels of the Red sea, the Bab al-Mandab strait and the gulf of Aden in what they say is a campaign of solidarity with Palestinians against Israel’s assault on Gaza. This has forced shipping firms to reroute cargo on longer, more expensive journeys around southern Africa, and has stoked fears that the Israeli war in Gaza could spread and destabilise the region. This week, the Houthis in Yemen confirmed that they will continue to target ships heading to Israeli ports anywhere within their range, and cited the looming “aggressive military operation” in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than 1.5 million Palestinians are now sheltering, as a reason behind the group’s decision.

Significantly, last month, Iran launched hundreds of drones and missiles at Israel in retaliation for a deadly Israeli strike on the Iranian consulate in Damascus, Syria. The Iranian Government said they considered the issue “concluded”, but warned that their next action will be “much stronger” if Israel retaliates.

The Iranian regime is looking to exploit the suffering of the Palestinian people. It has no interest in helping them. The cynical agenda in Tehran is to bring about as much instability in the middle east as possible. Our response, and our collective resolve, must ensure that that does not happen. Let us be clear: there will not be a military solution to the conflict in the middle east; there will be only a political and diplomatic solution. What is required now is the same thing that has been required since October: a regional de-escalation of tensions and conflict, and a sustained effort by the international community to bring some stability across the entire middle east.

No one wins from an endless cycle of violence or finger pointing over who started what. We simply cannot pick and choose our collective condemnation for those responsible for the regional escalation of this conflict, be that the bombing of Gaza, missile attacks on Israel, or the targeted killing of diplomats. All parties now need to prioritise de-escalation, to abide by UN Security Council resolutions, and to implement an immediate ceasefire. We in the SNP condemn all acts of violence and breaches of international law, and are steadfast in the opinion that there cannot be a military solution to the continuing and generations-deep—

Order. I am sorry to stop the hon. Gentleman in full flow, but we are supposed to be talking about Iran, not the conflict in Gaza.

Okay. As mentioned, one of the most important elements of Iran’s regional and international power projection is its deployment of militias in the region. Over decades, and with only limited effective pushback from regional states or the international community, Tehran has assembled an adaptive, layered network of regional militias with discrete organisational structures and leadership and overlapping interests and ties to Iran’s security and religious establishments.

Furthermore, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is responsible for funding and developing terror cells, as well as plotting and participating in terrorist attacks in the near east, Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. It has been responsible for sea piracy, hostage taking, assassinations, kidnapping, the downing of a civilian airliner in 2020 in which its own citizens, as well as Canadian, Ukrainian, Swedish, Afghan and British citizens, were killed, as well as gross violations of human rights and acts that may be regarded as crimes against humanity.

As all Members present have said, the UK Government must take tangible action and proscribe the IRGC as a first step in countering its ability to support hostile actors in the region, and Iran’s ability to act in a hostile manner in the region. Proscription would be a tangible step by the UK Government to stand up for the values of freedom and democracy. The UK Government have stated that Iran was involved in plans to kill journalists on British soil, with the Foreign Secretary recently stating that,

“The Iranian regime and the criminal gangs who operate on its behalf pose an unacceptable threat to the UK’s security.”

In January 2023, a Foreign Office Minister said that Britain was actively considering proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation, but had not reached a final decision. Here we are, nearly a year and a half on, and no further action has been taken. Will the Minister update us today on the decision-making process on the proscription of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation?

With proscription, section 3 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which criminalises terrorist financing and makes it an offence to raise funds for the purpose of terrorism, would see any individual in the UK who is accused of fundraising for the IRGC dealt with using the full power of the law. The UK Government need to commit to that, and to the continuation of sanctions against Iran.

Since May 2019, Iran has continued to violate the terms of the joint comprehensive plan of action agreement, following President Trump withdrawing the US from the agreement in 2018. In retaliation for that, and for deadly attacks on prominent Iranians in 2020, including one by the US, Iran resumed its nuclear activities. Iran has lifted the cap on its stockpile of uranium, which is now 18 times the permitted level. The International Atomic Energy Agency has been prevented from satisfactorily monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities since February 2021, and UN inspectors reported in early 2023 that Iran had enriched trace amounts of uranium to nearly weapons-grade levels, sparking international alarm, as we have heard this afternoon.

President Biden has said that the United States would return to the JCPOA if Iran came back to compliance, but after more than two years of stop-and-go talks, the countries are nowhere near a compromise, and as of late 2023, provisions of the agreement have started to expire. Transition day—a day to mark the eighth anniversary of the JCPOA’s adoption and the date on which the sanctions were due to expire—was 18 October last year, but the UK, France and Germany have said that Iran’s

“consistent and severe non-compliance with its JCPoA commitments”

warranted the retention of sanctions.

The SNP is committed to the continuation of the sanctions, and urges the UK Government to be proactive in a concerted effort to tighten sanctions on companies to stop the export from the UK to Iran of dual-use materials that could be made into weapons.

In addition, we have all seen the devastating use of Iran’s weaponry on European soil by Russia in Ukraine. The lifting of restrictions related to Iran’s ballistic missile programme could allow Iran to “legally” increase its support for Russia in Ukraine, including the provision of Iranian short-range ballistic missiles. The UK Government should continue to urge Iran not to sell weapons to Russia to be used in the war in Ukraine, but that must be accompanied by a serious reconsideration of their own arms sales to Israel, which are also being used against innocent civilians in Gaza—a fundamental breach of international humanitarian law.

Finally, we should not forget the ordinary people of Iran, who suffer daily at the hands of the Iranian regime. We all condemn the ongoing flagrant violations of human rights in Iran, including the use of arbitrary detention and the death penalty, the suppression of the rights of women and girls, and restrictions of freedom of religion or belief. The international community must take every opportunity to bolster access to civil and political rights for all Iranians, including through access to international legal mechanisms and monitoring bodies, to ensure that perpetrators of crimes are held accountable and not granted impunity. We must not turn a blind eye to the systematic violations of international law and the denial of universal human liberties in Iran and throughout the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mr Henderson.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) on securing the debate, which she introduced in a customarily eloquent and forceful manner. I also thank the other hon. Members who have contributed: the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), my hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and the hon. Member for Dundee West (Chris Law), the SNP spokesperson, who talked about the danger of consensus breaking out. I think that there is a consensus breaking out, and that is very positive. The starting point for us all is surely the realisation that the Iranian regime is a brutal and repressive one.

I am sure that we all remember the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in September 2022. She died in police custody after being arrested for not complying with a strict Islamic dress code. Following her death, there were widespread protests across Iran for a number of months. They were cruelly repressed by the regime, but it is important that we remember those protests and pay tribute to the many thousands of women and girls who were brave enough to take part.

The protesters were subjected to appalling brutality. It has been estimated that at least 20,000 people, including many children, were detained by the authorities, more than 500 people were killed and many more were seriously injured. The repression did not come to an end with the end of the protests, and a large number of people have been arrested and detained for supporting the protests. We heard only last month that, appallingly, an Iranian rapper, Toomaj Salehi, has been sentenced to death following his first arrest in October 2022. According to Amnesty International, 853 people in Iran were executed in 2023 alone—an increase of 48% compared with 2022.

The hon. Member for Strangford accurately pointed out that the repression extends deep into society and that the lack of any kind of real religious freedom is a cause for concern. Christians and Baha’is are subject to persecution, as are those of other faiths.

As we have heard, if the Iranian regime is repressive at home in Iran, it is guilty of aggression abroad. In fact, Iran is among the world’s foremost state sponsors of terrorism. Iran, through its so-called proxies, is guilty of helping to initiate violence across much of the middle east. Iran has supplied huge support to Hamas in Gaza. It has supplied and supported Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it still does. In Iraq, including in Kurdistan, and in Syria, Iran-sponsored militants have attacked US bases.

Last month, of course, Iran launched an attack on Israel. According to the BBC, the attack included 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and at least 110 ballistic missiles. Thankfully, we are told that 99% of the incoming barrage was intercepted either outside Israeli airspace or over the country itself. There was successful co-operation between a number of states, and I am pleased that British armed forces were able to play their part in reducing the risk to life. The threat continues, however, and there is a need for a more detailed strategy from the United Kingdom and her allies to deal with Iran, especially as Iran is very close to developing nuclear weapons.

As we all know, the Houthis, who, again, are closely linked to the Iranian regime, have conducted missile and drone attacks on international shipping in the Red sea. Further afield, the Iranian regime has developed close links with Russia and has supplied a large number of drones that are being used in Ukraine. Co-operation is developing apace, as the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green pointed out. There is absolutely no doubt about the Iranian regime’s malign influence across the middle east and, indeed, across the world.

We are also aware that Iranian activity in this country is increasing and is a cause of great concern. My right hon. Friend the Member for Barking pointed out that the head of MI5 referred to potential threats by Iran in relation to the kidnapping or death of British or UK-based people. In 2015, police discovered an Iranian-linked bomb factory in London. Since the beginning of 2022, Iranians have been responsible for at least 15 potential threats to British or UK-based individuals. Again, the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green gave a number of examples of how there is malign and malicious Iranian activity targeting British citizens in this country, especially in our capital city.

A couple of weeks ago, the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union organised an important event, chaired by the BBC security correspondent, Frank Gardner. A number of contributors highlighted how the Iranian authorities have been systematically targeting BBC News Persian staff and their families in Iran. BBC News Persia operates only from outside of Iran and the harassment is all too evident, sadly, on the streets of London. Only the other day we heard about the stabbing of a journalist, which was probably linked to the IRGC.

There are plenty of examples of the IRGC being active in a malicious way throughout the country. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking and a number of Members stated, it is important that we are aware of that. In particular, my right hon. Friend should be praised for highlighting the influence of the IRGC and other Iranian forces generally, as well as the Iranian influence in the City of London.

Many Members might find it very surprising that Britain, one of the financial centres of the world, actually allows that kind of activity to take place. Two banks have been cited in particular. I would very much like to hear the Government’s response because I believe that they should set out a clear plan of action as far as this issue is concerned. Also, the Financial Conduct Authority should be encouraged to fulfil what I consider to be its duty to ensure that the activities of those banks, with regard to their influence and involvement with Iran, are scrutinised and then curtailed. However, as important as that issue is regarding institutions, we also need to take further action against a number of well-known individuals.

Moreover, the question is: what do we do about the IRGC? I am of the view that legislation should be introduced so that the IRGC is proscribed. The legislation that we have was drawn up some 20 years ago to address terrorist threats, such as al-Qaeda, and if we are serious about addressing the problem of the IRGC, that legislation needs to be revised. The IRGC is a state-sponsored organisation and a new legislative base is required if we are to take action. Our bottom line must be about keeping this country safe, which is why the Opposition have proposed new security legislation to deal effectively with the operations of organisations and bring about the proscription of the IRGC. I am sorry to say that the Government have resisted our representations. That is unfortunate, because I believe, as this debate has shown, that there is a high degree of consensus in the House about the kind of action that is required.

I will be honest: at one time, I was sympathetic to the arguments being put forward by the Foreign Office. There was indeed a strong argument in favour of ensuring that channels of dialogue were kept open—at one time, that was certainly the Americans’ point of view—but things have changed and we have to respond to the situation as we see it here and now. That is why it is very important that the Government respond positively to our overtures. We are more than happy to work together to ensure that we come forward with something that commands the consensus of the House. I believe that the starting point has to be that we proscribe the IRGC, and we need to work together to ensure that we find the best way to do that.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Henderson. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) for securing this important debate and to the debate’s co-sponsor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). They both know that I respect them hugely, and as has been mentioned by other Members today, there is very little on which we disagree.

I am grateful to the hon. Members for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), for Dundee West (Chris Law) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for their very thoughtful and accurate descriptions of Iran’s regime, including its violence at home and its malign influence overseas. I will respond as best I can, but obviously, if I miss any points, I will respond in writing. I want to show how we are working to deter and respond to the threats alongside our international partners, and, of course, we will never be complacent.

As the right hon. Member for Barking mentioned, Iran’s attack on Israel on 13 April was just outrageous. It was dangerous, unacceptable and the latest example of Iran’s destabilising activity in the region. Almost all the missiles were intercepted, saving lives in Israel and the region, thanks to a co-ordinated international effort that included the UK. Yet we should be clear: this was a reckless escalation by Iran, and had this attack been successful, it is hard to overstate just how serious the fallout for regional stability might have been.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary both condemned the attack in the strongest terms. The Foreign Secretary also communicated directly to his Iranian counterpart that the destabilising activity must stop. In the aftermath of the attack, we imposed sanctions targeting key parts of Iran’s military, as well as individuals and companies in Iran’s drone and missile industries. We have also announced plans to introduce further bans on the export to Iran of components that could be used in drone and missile production.

Many contributions talked about the regional instability fuelled by Iran. Iran has been fuelling regional escalation through its military, financial and political support to its proxies and partners, including Hamas, Hezbollah and militia groups in Iraq and Syria. We are clear that Iran must cease that support and use its influence to prevent further attacks. That includes in the Red sea, where Iran has provided intelligence and weapons that have enabled the Houthis to target vessels. The UK is committed to working with the international community to support regional security, addressing weapons proliferation to non-state actors, safeguarding maritime security and maintaining a permanent defence presence in the region.

Many contributions referred to the link between Iran, Russia and China, which were all reflected on in the integrated review. We know that Iran’s hostile activities stretch far beyond the middle east, and as the Minister responsible for Europe, a lot of my time is spent working on Russia and, of course, defending Ukraine. Iran is now one of Russia’s top military backers and this has prolonged armed conflict in Ukraine, adding to the suffering of the Ukrainian people. In response, we have made 24 sanctions designations in respect of Iran’s drone supply to Russia. That is in addition to our wider efforts on the Iranian missile and drone programme. At the UN Security Council, we have held both sides to account for their unacceptable collaboration, including sharing evidence with other members.

On the question of ballistic missile transfers, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green raised, let me be clear that this would be a significant escalation and a turning point in Iran’s relations with Europe. That is something we have told Iran directly. Should Iran proceed with providing ballistic missiles or related technology, the UK is prepared to respond swiftly and in co-ordination with G7 allies.

There has been discussion around Iran’s nuclear capability. Iran’s continued escalation of its nuclear activities is threatening international security—that was highlighted perfectly earlier—and undermining global systems of non-proliferation. There is no credible civilian justification for the current state of its nuclear programme. It goes far beyond the limits set out in the JCPOA nuclear deal and we have made it clear to Iran directly that it must de-escalate. In October 2023, the UK and EU maintained nuclear sanctions on Iran that were due to lift under the JCPOA. That was a direct and calibrated response to Iran’s non-compliance. We are committed to using all diplomatic options to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, including triggering the UN snapback if necessary.

There was a thoughtful and accurate reflection on Iran’s threats in the UK. Since January 2022, we have identified at least 15 threats backed by Iran towards the lives of individuals based in the UK. The FCDO is working closely with the Home Office and law enforcement partners to actively disrupt and respond to such threats. The Foreign Secretary has made it clear to his Iranian counterparts that the threats are unacceptable and must stop. He summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat to the UK in December in response to an ITV News report detailing plots to kill employees of Iran International.

In late 2023, we introduced a new Iran sanctions regime, which gives us more extensive powers to designate Iran-backed people and entities who threaten us and our allies. We have already used that to sanction members of organised crime networks and Iranian officials responsible for Iranian plots overseas. The National Security Act 2023 also gives us new powers to protect the British public, including new offences for espionage and foreign interference.

We have sanctioned more than 400 people and entities, including—as the right hon. Member for Barking will want to know—60 IRGC members. Sanctions have an immediate impact. They freeze and clamp down on economic activity, and they are very clear. The sanctions team within the FCDO spends a considerable amount of time looking at that particular country and its network.

On the point of proscription and the IRGC, I have been on record with where I stand on that issue, and that is already in Hansard for people to read. I recognise the strength of feeling displayed by hon. Members on the question of proscription, because they know where I stand on that issue. It is a long-standing position—as it should be, because these are very serious decisions—that we do not comment on any potential decisions. Yet as the Foreign Secretary outlined to the Lords Select Committee on International Relations and Defence last week, we recognise the malign threat posed by the IRGC and we are taking significant measures to counter it at home and around the world.

As I mentioned, we have already sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety and designated more than 60 IRGC officers and affiliated entities under our sanctions regime. That is not a point at which we stop; obviously, we gather evidence constantly to see how much further we can go. We are confident that we have the tools that we need to sanction, prosecute and mitigate the threats from Iran.

We have all laid out clearly the escalation that has been supported by Israel over the past seven or eight months, particularly around the middle eastern conflict. The Minister might not be able to tell us in detail, but what is the red line beyond which we will all understand that proscription will kick in? Each day that passes, the escalation gets greater. I understand her views on proscription, which we largely share, but what is the red line beyond which the UK Government will say, “Enough is enough, we’re now going to take action,” even if she cannot give us the date?

The power—the decision—to proscribe sits with the Home Office and the Home Secretary, so I do not want to speak without authority and without being absolutely accurate. I took care of the sanctions regime in the Department for Business and Trade, and I know that we had to meet an incredibly high evidence threshold within that framework. I assume that the same applies here. I accept that so many circumstances have taken place recently, but I cannot go any further in explaining where we are, because those decisions are taken internally. For us to speculate on who may or may not be proscribed does not help the discussion, but I fully appreciate the strength of feeling in the Chamber. I will see what more information I can provide in writing to the right hon. Member for Barking, who secured the debate.

I do not want to embarrass the Minister unduly, but it is commonly said that the Home Office is in favour of proscription, while the Foreign Office is not, so there are two conflicting opinions. Would the Minister care to comment on that? If indeed there is a conflict of opinions, how will that be resolved?

I can only be honest and say that that is not my experience of the Home Office, so no doubt that is just further speculation. We need to focus on the powers that we have and how we apply them appropriately.

Those powers are in the sanctions regime, and more than 400 Iranian individuals and entities have been sanctioned already. The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation also has a role on behalf of the Treasury. OFSI does not comment on specific cases, but every instance of non-compliance with financial sanctions is taken very seriously. To touch on the issue of banks, UK businesses, including banks, are expected to perform due diligence checks on all customers and clients to ensure compliance with UK sanctions regulations. However, firms need to consider their own risk exposure. The Government are committed to ensuring that our sanctions are robustly enforced, potential breaches investigated and appropriate action taken.

I was surprised to hear, in two contributions, about reporting in the Financial Times referencing, in particular, Santander and Lloyds Bank. It was absolutely appropriate to then reference the Financial Conduct Authority and ensuring that those concerns are raised with it to see whether it needs to explore any further. I took on board the other two banks that were mentioned, Bank Saderat and Melli Bank. The evidence presented in this debate is incredibly concerning, and I urge colleagues to raise it with the appropriate authorities.

I am pleased with the Minister’s remarks about the banks. Will she or her Department also ensure that the FCDO and other enforcement agencies are made aware of what is happening and what was said in the debate?

I am not sure what the process is, but because the right hon. Lady raised the issue with me and I am responding in the debate, I will ensure that correspondence is sent to tell the FCA what was said today, and that we would like a response to the issues raised, which are concerning.

I have a few more points to make, which I think are the most important. We have talked about some of the major macro issues, but there are other issues that Iranians have to deal with day in, day out—in particular the human rights abuses that are mostly meted out to women and young girls. The case of Mahsa Amini was raised earlier. She was 22 years old and was arrested simply for refusing to wear a hijab. In the widespread protests that followed her death, women removed their headscarves and chanted, “Women, life, freedom.” The protests were crushed violently by the IRGC. I am a Muslim woman myself, and it should not be a privilege to choose to show my hair or life-threatening for me not to cover it up, but unfortunately that is the case for many women in Iran.

In any debate on Iran, we have to take into account its terrible human rights abuses at home—the repression of women and girls; the uninhibited use of the death penalty; violent crackdowns on dissenting voices—which will not go unchallenged. Just last week, we saw more reports of the regime’s appalling treatment of protesters, journalists and those expressing their right to freedom of expression, including the fearless artist Toomaj Salehi.

I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend in her flow, but I want to check something. As I understand it, Iran is not specified as a threat in the integrated review; I think it is described as a “persistent destabilising” influence in the middle east. Does she agree with that?

I assume that my right hon. Friend was reading exactly from the integrated review. Obviously, I would agree with the exact words of the integrated review, or the integrated review refresh.


We were horrified to read the recent reporting surrounding the death of Nika Shakarami, who joins a long list of young women and girls who have lost their lives in the custody of the Iranian authorities. We express our deepest condolences to Nika’s family and all the families who have lost a loved one during the crackdown on the Women, Life, Freedom movement.

At the recent 55th UN Human Rights Council session, the UK was in the core group for the Iran human rights resolution, which renewed the mandates of both the special rapporteur and the independent fact-finding mission on Iran. Those mandates are essential for continuing to hold Iran to account for its human rights violations. Since the protests began in September 2022, we have sanctioned 94 individuals and entities for human rights violations, including decision makers responsible for Iran’s hijab laws and political and security officials involved in the crackdown on protesters.

In the two minutes I have left, I want to reflect on the points raised about universities. Interference in UK academia is unacceptable. That is why the Government have brought in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 and the National Security Act 2023. Solid points were made about Islamic centres and the Charity Commission. The commission is conducting statutory inquiries into both the Islamic Centre of England and the Al-Tawheed Charitable Trust, and we welcome its robust action in taking on those inquiries. On the point raised by the chair of the APPG for international freedom of religion or belief, the hon. Member for Strangford, he knows that I was with him in the Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief Bill Committee when we talked about making sure that the envoy has the resources to continue its work for as long as it is needed.

I could go on, Mr Henderson, but I know that I need to leave some time for a response. We fully understand that a better relationship with Iran depends on the Iranian regime changing its actions. There will be no improvement in our relationship until the regime takes action to reduce its malign influence and activity at home and abroad. We will do everything we can with the powers we have to continue to deter and disrupt the full range of threats Iran imposes on us regionally and internationally. We will continue to take action across Government and with the international community, and we will continue to stand up for our values and for human rights.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of countering hostile activities by Iran.