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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that those of us involved in the friends of the Baha'is all-party group have concerns about apparent persecution endured by the Baha'is? May I through you, Mr. Speaker, put on record the willingness of myself and others to have a constructive dialogue with the authorities representing Iran in this country to determine whether there is anything that we can do to help constructively the plight of those who regard themselves as Baha'is in Iran?

Sir Teddy Taylor rose—

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con) rose—

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Sir Teddy Taylor: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Luff: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because my intervention is directly relevant to the last point. Is he aware that a week ago today the Third Committee of the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution on the human rights situation in Iran that cited:

Does he agree that international recognition of the serious problems facing the Baha'is in Iran is most welcome?

Sir Teddy Taylor: I certainly understand that the Baha'is have a problem and that we must do everything possible to help them. However, bearing in mind the public's view of Iran, it is important for us to make it clear that there is freedom of religious expression for Jews and Christians. While we appreciate that, we should do everything in our power to persuade the Iranian authorities that all things should be done to secure freedom of religious expression for all religions and, certainly, that the Baha'is are not trouble makers in any sense, because the religion is responsible and respectable. I hope that progress will be made.

I hope that the Government will say something about law and order, crime and the prison population in Iran. I visited a prison in Tehran in which people were detained for lengthy periods. In fact, a few had been involved in terrorist attacks. I was rather surprised to find out that there was a policy of letting prisoners out for one day a week on the basis that lengthy sentences could create problems for people who had no hope or expectation of seeing the outside world. Such a policy might create nightmares in the United Kingdom if we tried it, but it was certainly most interesting.

As I thought that there was a possibility that I was being misled, I asked whether I could take a prisoner who had been sentenced to 31 years' imprisonment for a meal. I was told that there was no problem with that, and we had a most interesting discussion about terrorism in Iran. It was also interesting for me to have a meal with the prisoner in a restaurant in which most of the tables were taken up by families. I gained the impression, on the basis of that limited experience, that family commitments in Iran were an important part of life. The children appeared to be relaxed and well behaved with a positive attitude.

Of course there is always a danger of being misled when visiting controversial foreign countries. I can only say that I spent my time wandering around freely and talking to as many people as I could with the help of amateur interpreters who were not part of the Government machine. I gained the impression that Iran had many positive aspects that were not internationally recognised or accepted.

The prisoner told me that every prisoner had a room of his own and received a newspaper each morning. I wish I could say the same about Britain. In fairness, the general impression I got, apart from the prison, which
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may have been unusual, was that crime and disorder was very limited and that, by and large, criminal behaviour was very limited indeed. I may be wrong, and I would greatly appreciate the Government's general assessment of the situation.

My fourth point is that perhaps the Government will think it justified to suggest to our American allies that they should take a more positive attitude to Iran. I am well aware of the points that I made when I said that Iran suffered hugely when it was invaded by Saddam Hussein some years ago during the appalling eight years' war. As I mentioned in the debate on our intervention in Iraq, it is abundantly clear from the Reagle report published by the American Senate that the Americans gave full support to Saddam Hussein at that time and provided him with a vast quantity of weapons of mass destruction, which were used against the Iranians.

America has now changed its attitude to Saddam Hussein, but I think there could be merit in the Americans simply saying sorry for the most appalling and mass killings that were inflicted on the Iranian people by Saddam Hussein, who was then America's particular friend in the middle east. I also know that a plane from Iran with many women and children on board was shot down and blown to pieces by an American plane during the Gulf war. I feel that on the basis of America's commitment to the Christian faith such events should cause us to express regret and understanding, and I am in no doubt that such a commitment would make a major difference in America's relations with countries such as Iran in the middle east. So I would be most grateful if the Government could persuade America to say sorry.

The final point is on trade with Iran. As more than half the population is under 30, the Iranians have major problems with unemployment, and to that extent the growth of industry and commerce and of trade is desperately important. I wonder whether the Government have encountered any problems in encouraging economic development in Iran. I had the pleasure last week of attending a dinner with the Iranian Industry Minister and the British ambassador to Iran. There is clearly a major problem in trying to promote economic development in Iran, and I wonder whether the Government foresee the possibility of making more progress on that.

In conclusion, although in my 40 years here I have been critical of Departments and of some of the policies pursued by Governments of both parties, I feel that it is desperately important that I express my appreciation to the Foreign Office for its genuine endeavours to improve relations with Iran. Our Foreign Secretary has visited the country on five occasions and has endeavoured to deal with some of the obvious differences between our two communities on the basis of history and the management of our affairs.Of course it would be easier for him and the Government to take a negative and unconstructive view as it might make relations with some of our friends easier. However, the Government have gone out of their way to solve the problems, and if that policy was followed by our friends in the western world we would not have the nightmares in the middle east that we have now.
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The best way of solving the problems in the middle east is to encourage the nations there to take a positive and constructive attitude. To achieve this we need to treat them with dignity and respect. The Foreign Office has done that and I should like to give the simple assessment of their policy as "well done".

7.18 pm

The Minister for Trade and Investment (Mr. Douglas Alexander):

I thank the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) for his favourable assessment of the Government's policy towards Iran. His warm and generous words are greatly appreciated.

The hon. Gentleman is right about Iran's importance and its potential. Iran is both one of the world's oldest civilisations and, today, a country of young and well-educated people. Its economy is starting to open and diversify. It has a vital role to play in tackling some of the most important issues that we face: the fight against terrorism; the challenge of building strong, stable democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan; the effort to combat trafficking in drugs and other international crime; and, of course, how to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. We want genuinely to work with an Iran that is addressing these challenges. That is why, along with our EU partners, we have pursued a policy of engagement. However, I emphasise that this engagement is conditional. Further development of relations with Iran depends on its progress in the areas of concern to us: notably, efforts to protect the rights and freedoms of its citizens, to support the emergence of a democratic Iraq, to work with us to reduce illegal immigration and—at the forefront of our minds at the moment—to address international concerns over its nuclear programme.

I turn to the last area of concern, which is Iran's nuclear programme. We do not question Iran's, or any other country's, right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. However, under the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, it is unacceptable for non-nuclear weapons states to seek to acquire nuclear weapons. Over the past two years, the International Atomic Energy Agency has consistently reported shortcomings by Iran in its duty to abide by its safeguards obligations and to be fully transparent with the agency. This has led to widespread international concern about whether Iran's nuclear ambitions are indeed solely peaceful.

Although there is much further to go, the dialogue that we, with France and Germany—the EU 3 partners—have pursued with Iran has had significant results. It has encouraged Iran both to co-operate with the IAEA and to agree steps that will, when implemented, help build international confidence that its nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. So I welcome Iran's decision on 15 November to support the agreement with the UK, France and Germany and to put in place a full, sustained suspension of all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities. It is important that this agreement be fully implemented, and I look forward to hearing that that has happened. For now, I hope that the IAEA inspectors will be able to confirm at the IAEA board of governors' meeting starting tomorrow that the full suspension is in place. I hope also that the board will achieve consensus on a sensible way forward.
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As the agreement makes clear, we are at the beginning rather than the end of a process. If Iran's suspension is sustained and verified, we can look forward to discussions with Iran that are aimed at agreeing long-term arrangements. These will provide objective guarantees that Iran's nuclear programme is exclusively for peaceful purposes. The issues are complex and challenging, and will not be resolved overnight. We will do out utmost to make rapid progress. At the same time, and to support the work being done on the nuclear side, we intend to take forward discussions with Iran on political and security issues, and on co-operation in other areas. On these issues, too, I hope that we will see early progress.

In the same context, I welcome the November European Council's decision that, once suspension is verified, negotiations should resume on a trade and co-operation agreement between Iran and the EU. Iran wants to develop a stronger and more diverse economy with more opportunities for its millions of highly qualified graduates. We want to help it to do so, including by supporting economic reform and agreeing measures to protect foreign investment. I stress again that progress in our relations with Iran needs to be accompanied by efforts to address our areas of concern.

One of those concerns is human rights. Like so many other Members, I was very disappointed at the mass disqualification of candidates for the parliamentary elections this February. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman enjoyed his visit to Iran and glad that he came away with such a favourable impression, but it would be wrong to ignore the significant human rights problems that continue to exist there. Iran remains a country where freedom of expression is under threat, where barbarous forms of execution still take place and where non-Muslim communities face widespread violations of their rights.

It is true that Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism are recognised under Iran's constitution, but we continue to hear reports detailing the surveillance and persecution of these minorities. We have additional concerns about the situation of the Baha'i, a religious community not recognised under Iran's constitution. We have received reports that they face increased discrimination, including arbitrary arrest and detention, denial of free worship and disregard of their property rights.
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I assure the House that we regularly discuss these issues with the Iranian authorities, including through the EU-Iran human rights dialogue, and have urged them to respect and protect the rights of all Iranian citizens. Last week, we and other EU countries co-sponsored a resolution on human rights in Iran at the UN General Assembly, which was tabled by Canada. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall remain vigilant and active over this issue of our relations.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq. I welcome his strong condemnation of it. As he said, it has little support in Iran and deservedly so, given its history of involvement in brutal terrorist violence. The Government have proscribed it under the Terrorism Act 2000 and I assure him that we continue to regard it as a matter of high concern.

We also recognise the feeling in Iran about Camp Ashraf in Iraq. Responsibility for the camp has passed from the Americans to the Iraqi Interim Government, although, at the request of the Iraqi authorities, the United States continues to provide security. We will continue to support the efforts of the Iraqi Interim Government, the US authorities and others with an interest to find an effective and durable solution for the future of the camp and its residents.

We expect and encourage Iran to play a full role in the wider fight against terrorism. We have urged it to ensure that terrorists operating outside Iran cannot draw material or political support from inside Iran. I welcome statements by Iran's leaders condemning all terrorism in principle. We hope to see those words put into action and vigorous efforts made to combat all terrorist groups.

The hon. Gentleman and I have covered many important points in the course of the debate. I hope that I have conveyed the Government's genuine and strong commitment to engaging positively with Iran and that I have underlined the fact that our engagement is conditional and depends on progress by Iran in our areas of concern. I believe that this policy carries with it the greatest chance of bringing Iran into the international community and making it a positive influence in the middle east.

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