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Volume 831: debated on Thursday 6 July 2023


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in the other place on the threat that Iran poses to the United Kingdom and the actions that the Government are taking to counter it. The Statement is as follows:

“Since protests began in Iran last September, the Iranian regime has dramatically increased its attempts to silence dissent, which have never been confined to Iranian territory. While our police, intelligence and security agencies have been confronting these threats for many years, their seriousness and intensity have increased in recent months. In the last 18 months, there have been at least 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British nationals and others living in the United Kingdom by the Iranian regime.

We have evidence that Farsi-language media outlets operating out of the United Kingdom and the individuals who work for them have also been targeted. One such company is Iran International. As my right honourable friend the Security Minister told the House on 20 February, Iran International’s employees have been threatened with kidnap and murder, and they have been subjected to a debilitating campaign of aggressive online harassment. Such threats are a direct attack on press and media freedom, and a direct attack on public safety. This Government will never tolerate such threats on British soil or on the territory of our friends and allies.

We know from working closely with our international partners that these Iranian menaces extend beyond the UK to the rest of Europe and the wider world. In March this year, an Iranian-orchestrated plot was stopped in Athens. We have seen similar attempts in the United States, Türkiye, France and Denmark. Such brazen activity is unacceptable. These actions demonstrate the Iranian regime’s increasing desperation in the face of its unpopularity at home and isolation abroad.

The first duty of His Majesty’s Government is to protect the British people and those who have made their home here in the United Kingdom. Whenever necessary, the Government will not hesitate to defend the freedom of the press. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary leads our work on countering Iranian state threats. Our police, security and intelligence agencies are working together around the clock to identify, deter and prevent Iranian threats to our national security. My right honourable friend the Security Minister leads work to protect the integrity of our democracy in the UK from foreign interference through the Government’s Defending Democracy Taskforce.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office leads our work on sanctions. We have designated more than 350 individuals and organisations linked to the Iranian regime, covering its military, security and judiciary. We have sanctioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. Our diplomatic network is co-ordinating with our friends and allies around the world to reinforce our response, including the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union.

The cowardly attacks planned by the Iranian regime on British soil violate the most elementary rules of diplomatic relations between states. I have twice summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat in London to explain his Government’s activities, most recently following Iran International’s decision to temporarily relocate its broadcasting service. It is intolerable that any media outlet should be forced to leave the United Kingdom because the Iranian regime is threatening to kidnap and murder its journalists.

I am in no doubt that every part of this House will share my sense of outrage. There is clear evidence that the Iranian regime continues to prepare operations against individuals in Europe and beyond. We have made representations to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. We emphasised, in no uncertain terms, our determination to pursue any Iranian agent who would harm the UK or our allies. We will also continue to work with our international partners to identify, expose and counter the threats made against us.

The UK is clear that we need to go further, so today I am announcing to the House further measures that constitute a toolkit I would prefer not to use, but the decision on whether I do so is firmly in the hands of the Iranian regime. First, we will establish a new Iran sanctions regime. This will be the first wholly new geographic autonomous sanctions regime that the United Kingdom has created since leaving the European Union. It will give us new and enhanced powers to counter Iran’s hostile and destabilising activities in the UK and around the world, allowing us to impose asset freezes and travel bans on more of Iran’s decision-makers and those doing its bidding.

In particular, we will have broader powers to target those involved in the regime’s efforts: to undermine peace, stability and security in the region and internationally; to proliferate arms or weapons technology from Iran; to undermine democracy, respect for the rule of law and good governance; and to carry out other hostile activities towards the UK and our partners, including threats to our people, property or national security. We expect to bring the necessary legislation to Parliament later this year.

Secondly, I can tell that House that today we have designated a further 13 individuals and entities responsible for serious human rights violations inside Iran. This package of sanctions includes: five senior officials from Iran’s notorious prison system, which is rife with torture and abuse of prisoners; further measures targeting the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, as the organisation that enforces social and cultural norms that oppress Iranian citizens; and six key actors responsible for suppressing freedom of expression online, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ cyber defence command and the Supreme Council of Cyberspace.

Our actions are a direct response to the escalation of Iran’s reprehensible behaviour in the United Kingdom. We are not seeking to escalate; our aim is to prevent and deter hostile Iranian activity on British soil and on the territory of our partners and allies. Iran is selling drones to Russia. It attacks its neighbours and even attacks its own people when they stand up for human rights and the most basic freedoms. It is my fervent hope that there will be brighter days ahead for the relationship between our two countries, but we cannot take any steps in that direction until the regime ceases its deplorable activities. Until that day comes, we remain steadfast in our efforts to stop Iranian aggression and protect the United Kingdom. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Foreign Secretary’s Statement. The recent actions of the Government of Iran since the protests began are another signal that they are acting outside the rules-based order that the international system relies on. As I warned during previous debates in recent years, in response to the detention of prisoners, the attacks on merchant vessels and the flagrant human rights violations, we must show that these actions have consequences. However, we also have a responsibility to protect the United Kingdom and British nationals, and to respond to the continuing threats of violence by the Iranian regime. I therefore begin by asking the Minister to briefly comment on how the FCDO is working with the Home Office, and whether he has considered proposals for a state threats cell to co-ordinate the response. We have just been talking about the actions of the Chinese Government and the Chinese Communist Party, and it would be good to have a clearer response in relation to the Iranian regime.

Unfortunately, these threats are not confined to the United Kingdom; as the Minister points out, the threats we face are being replicated against nationals of our allies, in Europe and across the world. Having assumed the presidency of the UN Security Council, the UK is in a unique position to co-ordinate the response to the behaviour of this rogue Government, and I urge the Minister to see that as a responsibility, not just an opportunity. So although I welcome the commitment to work with the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the EU, I begin by asking how the United Kingdom will broaden our response to include other international counterparts.

I turn to the Minister’s main announcement, the new sanctions regime. He will know that I have previously welcomed the designations of more than 350 individuals and organisations, and I very much welcome today’s announcement of the new designations, as well as the new regime. However, I hope the Minister can clarify just how it will operate.

First, will he comment on what form the legislation will take? Will we have primary or secondary legislation, and how quickly can we expect it to be implemented? I noted that he said it will be brought forward later in the year. Will it be in the current or the next Parliament? Speed is absolutely of the essence, because we are responding to events that happen very quickly. Secondly, given that the Minister refers to the new regime as autonomous, does he remain committed to the principle —I know that he does—that these sanctions are effective only if they are implemented in conjunction with the action of our allies? How can we ensure that this is embedded in the statutory framework and how will we ensure a co-ordinated response? Finally, I know the Minister agrees that this must be a constantly evolving document to respond to the nature of the threat, and I know he is committed to engaging with Parliament and civil society organisations to extend designations when possible. Sanctions are one of the most effective tools at our disposal but, where necessary, we must be prepared to pair them with other action.

The Minister specifically referred to the sanctioning of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I turn to the issue—I know he will expect this question—of updating us on the proscription of the IRGC, as a terrorist organisation, and whether the Government are still working on a legislative solution to this. I heard the Foreign Secretary in the other place this afternoon suggest that we should not worry about proscription because many of the actions covered by such a measure are included in the sanctions regime. But if our allies are proscribing the IRGC, why are we not doing so? Why are we not working in concert? I know that there are similar actions, but I think it is important that we act in complete solidarity with our allies in addressing these concerns.

I end by returning to how the UK has a responsibility and an opportunity to take a leading role on Iran at the UN. While our first duty will always be our national security, we must also stand by the people of Iran who have faced a brutal crackdown since September. I repeat the call of my right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary for the UK to ask the UN Human Rights Council to investigate urgently Iran’s crackdown on protesters. I ask the Minister also to update the House on the UK’s contribution at the UN in monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, in order to hold the Iranian regime to account.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and, from these Benches, we welcome it; there is clearly cross-party agreement on this, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, made clear.

As the Foreign Secretary said in the other place today, our quarrel is not with the Iranian people but with their present leadership and the revolutionary guard, which has carried out so many major human rights abuses. It is appalling to see the increased oppression that has occurred over recent times, especially of women. Those who are standing up for rights and freedoms in Iran are exceptionally brave, and many have suffered unbearable consequences. Clearly, the Iranian regime is, as we have heard, reaching out beyond its territories in the attempt to stifle dissent. It is chilling to hear that, since the start of 2022, there have been more than 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British or UK-based individuals by the Iranian regime.

Iran is not the only regime to seek to do so, as we know, but I have a number of questions to raise. Can the Minister spell out the extent to which we are moving in lockstep with the EU and other partners? I would expect nothing less from him. The Minister always and rightly makes clear that sanctions are most effective when they are implemented jointly with others. Can he spell out more details, and are there areas of difference? The Government are putting in place a further sanctions regime and not proscribing the revolutionary guard, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, has just pointed out. Is this because that could limit any engagement with it? We agree, after all, that it is the driving force in Iran, in particular in relation to the crackdown on human rights.

As the noble Lord, Lord Collins, did, I ask about the JCPOA. The UK and the EU rightly and hugely regretted the decision by President Trump to pull out of the JCPOA on the grounds that the good was not the best, opting as a result for the worst. What progress are we making to restore some effective control over Iran’s nuclear ambitions? Predictably, by pulling out, Iran took that as an opportunity to develop its programme further.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Collins, I would like to ask about others who are oppressed as a result of Iran’s actions, and I would like to ask about the dual nationals in particular. I expect the Minister will have heard Richard Ratcliffe, who battled so long and hard, and eventually successfully, for Nazanin’s release. Of course, many of us here raised her case. Richard has said that the Government have not put the cases of the dual nationals high enough in their list of priorities. It is therefore very concerning to hear the Foreign Secretary in the other place—and I also heard him this afternoon—say that his last contact in this regard with relevant Iranian Ministers or others was in 2021. That hardly shows that these cases are a high priority for the Government.

The Foreign Secretary did mention that the Minister has been in more recent contact, so could he please update us? And could he please update us particularly in relation to Morad Tahbaz, who it was assumed would be released much earlier with the other dual nationals and whose health is now very poor?

We know about the extreme pressure on the BBC’s Persian service, and the Statement mentions press freedom. What can the Minister tell us about how the BBC’s Persian service can best be supported and defended? It is not enough simply to urge the BBC to continue, which is what the Foreign Secretary seemed to indicate this afternoon. What assistance can the Government give?

The Minister will know that, in recent times, there was the surprising slight rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia brought about by Chinese diplomatic intervention. The hope has been that this will help bring forward a reduction of conflict in, for example, Yemen. But what effect does the Minister see in terms of the position of the Iranian Government more generally as a result of this? In the Statement, the Government seem not to be optimistic, since the new sanctions will be addressing Iranian efforts to undermine peace, stability and security in the region and internationally. We know that Iran is supplying drones to Russia and possibly also to regimes in various African countries. Again, the new sanctions regime, generally speaking, addresses this.

We know of rumours of oil going out via various routes, despite sanctions. The Minister will be aware, I am sure, of Iranian actions that have interrupted commercial traffic, including tankers in the Gulf. What action are the Government taking with international partners on this? The United States has said that its navy intervened to prevent Iran seizing two commercial tankers in the Gulf of Oman on Wednesday. This matters, because about a fifth of the world’s supply of seaborne crude oil and oil products passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

The Minister will be acutely aware of the tinderbox that is this region and the actions of the various players within it. The Iranian people have shown great courage in seeking to stand up to the human rights abuses from which they are suffering. It had been hoped that the JCPOA would pave the way for better relations with Iran, for mutual benefit, yet even this is fast reaching a crisis point. At this key time, I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, and the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, for their support for the actions that the Government have taken. Both raised the issue, understandably, of the IRGC proscription. As both noble Lords will know, we have sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety. The separate list of terrorist organisation proscriptions is kept under review. I cannot comment further than this. What I can say to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, directly, though, is that of course we co-ordinate with our key allies on the actions we are taking. Indeed, on the actions we have taken today, we have worked very closely with our key colleagues across the European Union and the US. Recently, we shared in advance the actions we would be taking.

The issue of state threats is quite specific. It has ratcheted up the challenge that we face. Also, as the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, said, on the direct security threat, we have witnessed for a long time the destabilising efforts of Iran within the region. However, this is not just about Iran. We have seen the suppression of its own population, which the noble Baroness referred to. We have seen the suppression and continuing instability through proxies, particularly in the Yemen conflict, which I will come on to in a moment. We have also seen further action on non-compliance on the JCPOA, which the noble Baroness mentioned. We have kept it on the table. I appreciate and thank the noble Baroness for recognising, even when the previous US Administration pulled back, that we kept it on the table. This is still the live agreement. It has been there for the Iranians to sign since autumn 2022. It is not perfect, as we all know. It does not cover everything—for example, ballistic missiles—but it is there.

Linked to that, we have been engaging with key European partners, the US and key regional partners on the importance of Iran returning to some semblance of ensuring compliance with this important issue in fulfilment of the key objective that Iran does not proceed to an enrichment which allows it to produce nuclear weapons. That must remain a fundamental priority for all of us.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the issue of the legislation and whether we will bring this forward at the earliest opportunity. He is right, of course, that we must do this as soon as possible. We have certainly been the leaders on this in terms of country designation, which the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, asked about. Sharing what we are doing with our key allies ensures co-ordination. The instruments that we will use will be secondary legislation. Statutory instruments will be introduced in this respect. I will keep both Front Benches informed—not just in the Chamber—of progress in this regard.

I take on board the importance of a state threat cell, which the noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about. We work very closely with the Home Office in co-ordinating our work with it and with other key departments. That continues to be the case. There are different committee structures already set up and the concept which the noble Lord proposes is already ingrained and embellished in some of the work that we are doing. I assure noble Lords that we do talk to each other across government departments.

On the issue of the UN, I have just checked with the Box. Our United Kingdom ambassador to the UN is currently live, talking about Resolution 2231 and on the broader debate on the role of Iran. It qualifies what the noble Baroness said about the ongoing and growing instability caused through the use of drones in Russia’s war on Ukraine. We are taking leadership on that as presidents of the UN Security Council. I am sure that noble Lords noticed that this was debated yesterday at the Human Rights Council. I issued a statement thereafter about the appalling and abhorrent practice that Iran has undertaken in terms of executions of its own people and the continuing suppression. We have called that out with about 56 countries that supported the statement in that respect. These actions are co-ordinated. In answer to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, in this respect we will continue to work as we have done.

On the issue of dual nationals and access, I am engaging directly but also, if the noble Baroness will excuse me, at times quite discreetly on these important issues with key allies. She will be reassured to know that I take this as a personal priority on my patch. Yes, I did hear the brave and courageous Richard Ratcliffe. I gave evidence to that inquiry on detainees—or hostage taking, as it was termed by the Foreign Affairs Committee. It must be a priority of any Minister and any Government to ensure that we are fully aware of and engaged with the families supporting them. I have recently engaged with them, including those in the case of Mr Tahbaz. I continue to engage frequently with his key family members. This morning, in another part of the world, I spoke with the mother of Mr Alaa el-Fattah, from Egypt. It is important that these meetings are held at ministerial level, to show that there is direct access. It not only supports the families but sends a very strong message to the Governments, some of whom are our partners and others who we have a direct challenge with, that this is not just about a family being on their own.

We will of course take very seriously the findings of the Foreign Affairs Committee review on this. I will never say we are doing the perfect job, and there are always things we can do. Finally, as I said right at the start, I will continue to update noble Lords—the Front Benches in particular—on further steps we may be taking.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to my register of interests entry, particularly as the trade envoy to Iran. I very strongly support what the Minister and the Government have said. Does the Minister agree that this is an appalling throwback to the way Iran behaved immediately after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when there were a lot of attacks and assassinations in European countries, particularly France? It is utterly intolerable that a state that calls itself a legitimate Government should seek to attack people within their own country, on British soil.

The Minister referred to the new measures as a toolkit. Can he say precisely in what way this differs in its scope, and not just in the number of entities, from the regime of sanctions that we have had in the past? Can he also say something about the role of the E3? Does the E3, including France and Germany, which played an important part in developing our negotiations, particularly over the nuclear deal, still exist? Or, now that we are outside the EU, has that fallen by the wayside and we have to co-ordinate with the EU more generally?

Can the Minister also tell me whether the Charity Commission has been looking at some of the Iranian cultural and religious institutions in this country, to make sure that they comply strictly to their charitable objectives and are not supporting any of these utterly deplorable acts and threats that we have seen in this country?

Lastly, on the JCPOA, the Minister described it as being alive. He will know, as will other Members of the House, that there have been a lot of reports that America is trying to develop an alternative to the JCPOA—a more informal, less detailed agreement, but one that would freeze the present position. I wonder whether he can comment on that, though I have my doubts that he will be able to or want to.

My Lords, I will take each of the issues in turn. First, on the governance and the announcement made today, this is a new Iran-specific sanctions regime, which is, in terms of the geography, the first autonomous one. We have had rollovers of what we did with the European Union, but this is specific to Iran. When we have previously sanctioned, we have done so under the so-called Magnitsky-style sanctions for human rights violations. That is why the Foreign Secretary was able to announce a further 13 designations under that governance structure of the human rights sanctions regime.

On the issue of charities, we of course work very closely with the Charity Commission. Without going into further details, there is an ongoing review of all organisations that operate to ensure that they adhere to the rules of the Charity Commission. On the suppression of communities within Iran, it is startling and abhorrent that in 2022 Iran executed at least 576 people. That is a minimum figure and is nearly double the previous year. The latest assessments in 2023 indicate that the rate of executions continues to climb, I think to circa 300 already this year. A lot of these executions have what can only be described as a fragile basis. Our long-standing view on the death penalty is very clear: we oppose it. Equally, it is shocking to see that these are young people, often men, who have committed nothing but protest. Even some who have brought glory to Iran are now subject to this most abhorrent of measures.

I referred to the JCPOA as a live deal in as much as it is the one on the table. E3 co-operation continues. As I said, we continue to engage at official level. There is much speculation about, but I will resist the temptation to comment on it; my noble friend will appreciate that. Its primary objective must be non-proliferation and that Iran does not progress on to acquiring nuclear weapons. The JCPOA provides those provisions. As I said, it still awaits a key signature: that of Iran.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. The House will support and understand the measures that have been announced. The Statement refers to

“other hostile activities towards the UK and our partners”.

Can the Minister confirm that this includes cyberattacks and cyberwarfare conducted from within Iran, whether the actors are state actors or bad actors operating from within Iran?

I can answer that: yes, we have recognised, both privately and publicly, that there are state actors and others who seek to target the United Kingdom and our key allies. Technology is a new tool, and we need to be very vigilant on mitigation to ensure that the private sector and our public sector services are fully protected.

The UK Government rightly proscribed Hezbollah in 2019 and Hamas in 2021, both of which receive material support from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Can the Minister say whether there are circumstances in which proscription of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps would be contemplated? If so, what are they?

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and I have said, on whether the IRGC is sanctioned in its completeness, we take any issue of proscribing organisations seriously. It is very much a decision for the Home Office, as the noble Lord will be aware, but we co-ordinate our activities extensively. Any decision we take in the future remains an option for us to consider, but I do not want to go further than that, nor would noble Lords expect me to.

My Lords, I join the general welcome for the government actions reported in the Statement and pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, about the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which is reportedly mediated by China and is reflected in the meeting between their Oil Ministers yesterday on the sidelines of the OPEC conference in Vienna. Can the Minister tell me whether the Government are reconsidering UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the light of these relationships, given that arms sales totalled, in an official declaration, £7.9 billion since the bombing of Yemen started in March 2015? The Campaign Against Arms Trade estimates that the total is £23 billion.

In that context—the actions of the Iranian state that have provoked this reaction by the British Government—what impact does the Minister see on the war in Yemen and the terrible humanitarian conditions there, given that it is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises? It is also an enormous environmental threat, in the light of the sadly misnamed tanker, the “Safer”, off Sanaa. I do not know whether the Minister can update me, either now or in writing, because the latest information I could find was talk of a UN mission to pump the 1.1 million barrels of oil out of the “Safer”. At the end of May it was reported that this was about to start, but there has been no report since then. How is the behaviour of the Iranian regime, and indeed of the Saudis, likely to impact on attempts to defuse this environmental time bomb?

My Lords, yes, I acknowledge that. The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, also asked about the Saudis and the new deal that was signed between the Saudis and Iran. I was in Saudi Arabia recently, in Riyadh, and met some of the key people involved in the direct negotiations with the Houthis. What I can share with the noble Baroness is that since that deal has been signed, which I asked directly of the Saudi Minister who visited on Monday, a month on, he smiled and said, “We will wait and see how stabilisation works in the region”. Thankfully, we have seen, through some of the work done directly by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a fragile peace that has been sustained in Yemen. I have had extensive meetings with various representatives of the Yemeni Government, including, this week, the Prime Minister. We have also met various leaders, including the Foreign Minister. When I was in Saudi Arabia, I met the Saudi Arabian ambassador, Mohammed bin Jaber, who is leading the direct engagement with the Houthis and the other parties within Yemen.

While the noble Baroness is correct and we stand by our strong humanitarian support for Yemen, the situation is improving and we are playing our part, directly and through the UN, to ensure that the UN-mandated process is further strengthened by the Saudis in this respect. While I hear what the noble Baroness says about support for its arms industry and our defence sales, those are carried out under a rigorous programme and practice. But it is important to recognise where there is progress. In what is a challenging situation of fragility across the Middle East and Yemen, we are seeing progress on the ground in accessibility and reconstruction, led primarily by some of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s efforts.

If I may just pick up the point raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, about the US and the interventions, our militaries work very closely. Earlier this year, regrettably and tragically, we again saw the shipment of arms from Iran through the Gulf to supply the Houthi machine, but we were able to intercept and we have been able to share information with key Gulf partners on the interceptions that we have made and to make the case for the importance of ensuring that we can stop this arms flow from Iran.

On the FSO “Safer”—which is an Arabic word that translates in an Anglicised way—we want to make the “Safer” safer. The first step was very much about money, and that money has now been gathered. The UN, using British expertise and that of other nations, is working on ensuring that the environmental catastrophe that would happen if the tanker’s load was shed across the Gulf is being directly dealt with. A lot of work is being done in stabilising the vessel before any operations can begin. While I am not going to tempt fate and say there is good news, there has been some real progress and the first thing was about ensuring the financing was in place, which I can assure the noble Baroness is very much now in situ.