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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 1 February 2006

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Iran (Nuclear Programme)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Gillian Merron.]

9.30 am

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to initiate this timely debate on what is an important matter. It is timely because the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany met earlier this week and agreed on a specific course of action, and because the board of the International Atomic Energy Agency meets tomorrow to discuss what action needs to be taken. It is important because of the nature of the Iranian regime and the steps it has taken to acquire nuclear weapons. That is a threat to the entire world, and particularly the middle east. Of course, if there is one country that is most concerned, it is Israel. In that context, I should declare that I recently travelled to Israel, courtesy of the Conservative Friends of Israel.

We must understand the nature of the Iranian regime. Its human rights record is truly appalling. It has been censored 52 times by various organs of the United Nations. It has treated minorities—such as religious minorities, homosexuals and women—appallingly. In the interests of time, I will not dwell on specific examples, but, if necessary, one could recount many tales of minors being executed, women being stoned to death for committing the crime of adultery, and many politically motivated executions. If hon. Members wish to find specific examples, I recommend the website www.abfiran.org, which is a memorial to more than 9,000 people killed by the regime.

Iran also has an appalling record of exporting terror. It has committed many assassinations overseas, including three in London in 1987. It was behind the bombing in Argentina that killed 85 people in 1994. The revolutionary guards were believed to have been involved in an attempted coup in Bahrain in 1996. In Afghanistan, there is evidence of the revolutionary guards forming a fifth column, which has attempted to undermine Hamid Karzai. They also worked closely with the Afghan warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has also attempted to destabilise the Karzai regime. In Iraq, there is widespread concern that Iran has been backing elements of the insurgency, and there is evidence that Iranian technology, including roadside bombs, has been used to kill British soldiers. Unfortunately, there have been two tragic examples of that this week, and I pay tribute to the brave troops who are out in the Gulf.

There are conflicting messages about the relationship with al-Qaeda. There are al-Qaeda sympathisers who are in jail in Iran, but there is also evidence of some degree of collusion; it is an uncomfortable relationship, but there is evidence of that. The clearest relationship with a terrorist group is with Hezbollah—effectively a
 
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proxy organisation of the Iranian regime which has caused enormous difficulty in Lebanon, and continues to this day to launch rocket attacks on northern Israel. On my recent visit to Israel, we met members of the Israel Defence Forces who could recount tales of that. There is concern regarding Hezbollah terrorist raids into northern Israel in attempts to kidnap Israeli soldiers. However, there is not just Hezbollah in that part of the world. In the west bank and Gaza, Iran has developed relationships with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and it has given support through funding, helping the families of suicide bombers and providing extensive training.

It is notable that a Shi'ite regime is working so closely with Sunni extremists, but they are united by a hatred of Israel. The attitude of the Iranian Government—particularly in recent months, but also going back many years—is truly horrifying. The entire world has been shocked by the comments of President Ahmadinejad about his intention to wipe Israel off the map and his calling of the holocaust as nothing more than a myth, but he is not alone. The supposedly moderate Ali Rafsanjani has contrasted the "devastation" of Israel by a nuclear bomb with the mere "damage" that would be inflicted if there was a response from Israel against the Islamic world, given the far greater population of the Islamic world. Supreme leader Khamenei has stated that the only way to solve the middle east crisis is to "destroy the Zionist regime", which he describes as a "cancerous tumour". In 2002, the Israeli Government produced a dossier of public statements by Iranian officials that identified 150 threats to the very existence of Israel. The strategy of the Iranian regime—given that it represents a Shi'ite nation, and therefore a minority in the wider Muslim world—is to advance its cause as the lead state in the Muslim world by being the most vociferous opponent of Israel. That makes it all the more dangerous for Iran to have a nuclear bomb.

We must also remember that it is not just Israel that the Iranian regime hates; it hates the west as a whole. President Ahmadinejad has talked of a world

and of the world of Islam being in the process—I emphasise that phrase—of an historical war with the world of arrogance, by which he means the west.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this timely debate. He is giving us a real tour de force description of the evils of this abhorrent regime. Does he agree that although the international community has come together quickly to condemn recent developments in Iran, we should be doing far more to encourage internal opposition to the Iranian regime?

Mr. Gauke : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend, and I will return to that point.

Given the nature of the Iranian regime, its enormous hostility to the west, and the clear instability of the Iranian leadership—mental instability, I mean—the thought of the Iranians acquiring nuclear weapons is terrifying. I have no doubt that that is what the regime is attempting to do, despite its repeated denials and claims that its nuclear programme is purely for the generation of electricity. The case for that is overwhelming. First,
 
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there is the secrecy of the programme. Until 2002, we knew very little about the Iranian programme. Then the Iranian resistance revealed the existence of the nuclear enrichment site at Natanz and the heavy water plant at Arak. When the Lavizan-Shian site was exposed in the spring of 2004, the entire site, including the top soil, was removed. That is not the action of an innocent state merely wishing to develop civilian nuclear energy. It is also the case that Iran has one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world. Therefore, why would it seek to develop nuclear power, which is relatively expensive? The IAEA visits have been highly restricted, and more evidence of that came out only yesterday. The nuclear programme is under the control of the revolutionary guards—not some department of energy—partly because that conceals the programme from the IAEA, and partly because the revolutionary guards are the most hard-line and extreme organisation within the Iranian leadership.

We also know that Iran has been in contact with A. Q. Khan, the renegade Pakistani scientist who was heavily involved in the nuclear programmes in North Korea and Libya. Evidence of highly enriched uranium has been found on centrifuges in Iran—too enriched to be necessary for nuclear power, but appropriate for nuclear weapons. The Arak 40 MW reactor is designed to produce plutonium, but most experts believe that the quantities it will produce are too small to generate electricity and too big for purely scientific or experimental purposes.

There is evidence of attempts to develop internally, or to smuggle a large range of material or equipment necessary to create, a nuclear bomb. That includes: nuclear warheads; gyroscopes and guiding devices; polonium 210, which is used as bomb detonator; tritium, which is used to increase the explosive power of a bomb; maraging steel and ceramic matrix composites, both used for encasing nuclear warheads; and beryllium, which reduces the amount of enriched uranium or plutonium required in a nuclear bomb.

There has been enormous expenditure on missile technology and on various classes of the Shahab missile, which is capable of travelling to not only Israel but much of southern Europe. Just this morning, we learned from an interim report by the IAEA that Iran has obtained designs for building the core of a nuclear weapon. Rightly, the international community has dismissed any idea that Iran is purely seeking to acquire nuclear energy.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): My hon. Friend rightly describes a complete pariah state, but we have to recognise the reality: some major players in the region do not see Iran in that way. Iran exports 420,000 barrels of oil a day to China, and a number of us from the Conservative Parliamentary Friends of India had a meeting with the Minister of Power in India, who made it clear that India needed to be engaged with Iran in order to access gas and oil supplies for India. He said, in terms, that India would not oppose Iran, because it could see that it would be hypocritical of India, which is developing an expansionist civil nuclear power scheme, to oppose a neighbouring country that was seeking to do
 
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the same. Although we all see Iran as a pariah state, within Asia the picture is much more complex, and we will have to address that.

Mr. Gauke : I agree. The Chinese, the Indians and, indeed, the Russians have been much more reluctant to take action against the Iranian regime than we would like. There is perhaps some movement in the right direction, but there is no doubt that the world community has been very restrained in the action that it has taken, for reasons that have been outlined. I acknowledge that, and will perhaps return to those points.

It behoves this country, and the international community as a whole, to take strong action against the Iranian regime, simply because of the consequences of Iran having a nuclear bomb. There are a number of reasons to think like that. First, and most obviously, given President Ahmadinejad's nature and his recent comments about the coming of the 12th imam, it is just possible that he would use the bomb. It would be the first time that nuclear weapons were in the hands of somebody just crazy enough to use them. It is very difficult to see how the concept of mutually assured destruction would work with someone such as President Ahmadinejad.

Even if the bomb is not used, if it is acquired by the Iranian regime it will undoubtedly help to raise its prestige both internally and externally. It will strengthen its position within Iran so that it can continue to abuse the human rights of its people, and it will also assist Iran in becoming a lead state in the middle east.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware of reports coming from the United States this week that the Iranian regime has offered to arm other Arab states if it obtains nuclear weapons, thereby arming the whole middle east with weapons of mass destruction?

Mr. Gauke : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. His description of events confirms my concern about Iran becoming a lead state within the middle east. Of course, any country armed by Iran will owe it a degree of allegiance; it will not act in such a way unless there is benefit to its own regime. That would further strengthen its position and further weaken the security of the middle east.

Even if Iran does not arm other states in the middle east, there has to be some concern that its actions will result in proliferation. Certainly, if Iran had nuclear weapons, I have no doubt that the Saudi Arabian regime would seek to acquire nuclear weapons. That in itself causes concern, not so much because of the current regime in Saudi Arabia, but because, given the instability of the house of Saud, one would be concerned about who might ultimately get their hands on those nuclear weapons.

Also, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will be seen as an act of defiance against the west—it will be seen as sticking two fingers up to the Americans and Europeans. I have no doubt that such an act of defiance would encourage further acts of defiance of significant proportions against the west. It would also act as a deterrent to western involvement in the middle east. Not
 
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everybody supports the engagement in Iraq, but nearly everybody supported the involvement in Kuwait. However, it would be very difficult for the west to take any action in the middle east once Iran had nuclear weapons.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): That is particularly worrying at this moment, given that we are proposing to send a significant deployment to Afghanistan, a neighbouring country. We know that Iran is interfering and supplying improvised explosive devices in Iraq, causing the death of civilians and members of our armed forces. Given the picture that my hon. Friend paints of Iran's interference overseas, it is worrying that it may well do likewise in Afghanistan.

Mr. Gauke : That is an excellent point. The concern about Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is that it may pass them on, not simply to other states, but to terrorist organisations—I outlined Iran's links with such organisations earlier—and so further destabilise much of the middle east. We talk about missile technology, but given the unconventional means by which certain middle eastern terrorist groups act, the concern is not purely about missiles. If nuclear weapons get into the hands of proxy groups such as Hezbollah, perhaps the concern will be more that a nuclear weapon may be held in a container ship arriving at Tel Aviv or—who knows?—Felixstowe. We have to be desperately concerned about that.

That brings me to the response of the west. After the exposure of the nuclear programme in 2002, the lead was taken by the EU3—France, Germany and the UK. The exposure of the nuclear programme coincided with a policy of greater engagement and dialogue with Iran. There was a time when the EU3's approach was seen as a success; on 3 February 2005 the Foreign Secretary used the engagement of Iran as an example of the advantages of the EU working together on foreign affairs. However, in reality, the period of negotiation with the EU3 simply allowed Iran to proceed, albeit disrupted, to develop its nuclear programme.

Two deals have been made with the EU3, one in late 2003 and one in late 2004. In October 2003, Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment activities. In June 2004, however, it reneged on that deal and renewed construction of its uranium conversion facility in Isfahan and, probably, of its enrichment facilities. In November 2004, Iran again agreed to suspend enrichment processes. The suspension agreement was not very comprehensive. For example, it did not include construction of the Arak research reactor. Between June and November 2004, there are claims that some 37 tonnes of uranium yellow cake were converted into gas at Isfahan, despite the fact that Iran was required not to do so in October 2003. Indeed, Iranian officials have been boasting about how, during that period, they were able to develop their nuclear programme.

Iran has consistently evaded or delayed meeting its obligations and, despite doing so consistently, it blamed the EU for failing to meet its obligations. Given that during that period Iran's nuclear programme continued to develop, and that the Iranian Government have become more hard-line, the EU3's policy of engagement cannot be judged a success, to put it mildly.
 
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The EU, along with the US, has for some time called for Iran to be referred to the UN Security Council. On Monday night, the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, agreed that the IAEA should report Iran when it meets tomorrow, although no action will be taken until the IAEA report is completed on 6 March. That is a step in the right direction, but we cannot be overly optimistic that any action will be taken. As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, China and Russia have been reluctant to support action against Iran, and even the agreement on Monday has merely meant reporting Iran, rather than making a referral, which is more likely to lead to sanctions. We have a month's delay, without any great likelihood of any action at the end of it. At best, this is a small step in the right direction, but after three years of diplomatic failure, the Government are being hopelessly complacent if they believe that the softly-softly approach in itself will bring results.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope that simple diplomacy is enough, but it is unlikely, in all honesty, to resolve the problem. The Iranian regime has not negotiated in good faith and it will not do so. The next step, presumably, should be sanctions, although, as we have heard, there will be resistance to that. We have heard of the enormous commercial relationships with China, India and Russia that may prevent us from making our position as clear as we would want.

It must also be accepted that the effect of sanctions can be unpredictable. Will they cause disillusionment with the regime among the Iranian people, or will they rally behind their leadership? Will sanctions be enforced? Our experience in Iraq is that sanctions do not always prove effective and are often evaded. However, that is the right next step, because it would be a clear signal of the world's disapproval of the Iranian regime.

Even so, we need to go further. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) referred to assistance to the internal opposition within Iran. One example, in the face of the Iranian regime, has been the treatment of the mullah's internal resistance. In 2001, the People's Mujaheddin of Iran was proscribed. Many serious and distinguished lawyers, such as Lord Slynn of Hadley, have concluded that that organisation does not belong on the list because it has never attacked the west or its interests and has not undertaken any violent activity since 2001. It is hard not to reach the conclusion that the PMOI is on the list in part to please the Iranian regime. The de-listing of the PMOI would send a clear signal that we are on the side not of the Iranian Government, but of the Iranian people.

There is growing unrest in Iran. In 2004, according to Iranian Government figures, there were 1,300 demonstrations during the entire year. The number of demonstrations that took place in November and December 2005 alone almost reached that figure. We must do what we can to encourage the internal opposition to the Iranian regime, not discourage it by prohibiting the one organisation that can provide an alternative voice.

I am under no illusions about the enormous undesirability of ever taking military action in Iran. There are enormous practical difficulties. This is not Iraq; the nature of the terrain and internal organisation is such that there is no comparison whatsoever. There are great practical concerns about a surgical strike
 
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succeeding in destroying Iran's nuclear programme. Indeed, as we speak, there are reports of Russian-made anti-aircraft defences being installed in Iran. Having said that, however, as a last resort we should not dismiss military action.

In this context, people often talk about Israel. Having met many officials and politicians in Israel recently, I know that there is no desire to take military action. There is certainly no desire to take symbolic military action. However, Israel faces an enormous threat, with nuclear weapons potentially pointing in their direction. With Iran under a leader who has pledged to wipe Israel off the face of the map, Israel may decide to take action. If it does, I have no doubt that much of the world will condemn it in the most forthright terms. I have no doubt that most Governments will condemn it strongly, that many hon. Members will do so, too, and that Kofi Annan will be very concerned. However, Iran poses an enormous threat to the Israelis and were they to take action, we should be slow to condemn them, given the extraordinary circumstances that they face. Having said that, I do not think that the world should try to leave the problem to Israel.

If Israel, rather than anybody else, acts, it would make the matter much worse because it would damage the middle east peace process and to some extent inflame the Arab street—although sometimes predictions on that can prove unreliable. It would, undoubtedly, worsen the position of Israel. It would be a catastrophe were Israel to act on this. Unfortunately, however, there may be a bigger catastrophe if it does not act. We should show some understanding to the Israelis on the matter.

Mr. David Jones (Clwyd, West) (Con): Is not the difficulty that in order for Israel to attack Iran, it would be necessary for Israeli planes to fly over either Iraq or Turkey, which would necessarily imply that the United States would have to be at least aware of the attack? That being the case, is it not more appropriate for NATO to get involved, rather than to leave it to Israel to carry out that work?

Mr. Gauke : My hon. Friend makes an essential point. I agree that it should not be left to Israel. Indeed, should Israel act, the entire west would be implicated. The responsibility rests on the entire world. Israel's bombing the Osirak nuclear site in Iraq in 1981 was condemned by most of the world, but most of the world has benefited enormously as a consequence. None the less, we should not rely on, and should not expect, Israel to have to take that action.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): My hon. Friend is making a balanced speech and is approaching the issue with sensitivity and understanding. Does he feel that the world community has something to learn from the action that Israel had to take against Iraq in the 1980s, and that looking at that lesson should galvanise the world community in ensuring that Israel does not, on this occasion, have to come forward to rescue the region?

Mr. Gauke : My hon. Friend makes his point well. There is a lesson to be learned from what Israel did
 
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in 1981. Such action should be a last resort, but under some circumstances we reach the last resort. We did in 1981 and we may well do so again, soon.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): We do Israel and the concept of world peace a total disservice if we create the situation in which it thinks that it needs to take action because we are not doing so. That creates a great danger in the middle east which we all need to recognise and face up to more positively than we have done to date.

Mr. Gauke : My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Israel will take desperate measures if it is in a desperate circumstance. The west should not allow Israel to find itself in such desperate circumstances.

The Foreign Secretary has described military action as "inconceivable". He has said that that is not on the table and is not something that we should think about. That is hopelessly naive. We need to maintain the leverage—as John McCain referred to it—of having that option available to us. It is an appalling action to take, but it may be the least worst alternative and we should continue to consider that as a possibility.

Time is running out to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. If we think we have a problem now, how much greater will it be when Iran acquires nuclear weapons? There have been occasions when this Government have been bold and courageous in taking action in the belief that they were stopping a rogue state acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The Prime Minister has shown great leadership on this type of issue in the past, although that is, perhaps, an unpopular view, at least in his own party. None the less, it is time that this Government recovered some of that courage and prepared to take bold action to defend our interests and those of the world community as a whole. We face an enormous challenge. I hope that the Government show that they are up to that challenge.

10 am

Mr. Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): I should like to point out to the Chamber my position as chairman of Labour Friends of Israel.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on securing this debate on a vital, extremely timely and fast-moving issue. I was pleased to have been able to hear his contribution to the debate on Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories a couple of weeks ago. He spoke with experience and wisdom about the security threat facing Israel, and did the same again today, with astute analysis and thoughtfulness.

This is the most profound and important issue affecting international relations today. It has an impact not only in the immediate region, but throughout the world. It affects relations between and with the European Union, the United States, China, Russia and India—a subject that I shall come back to, if I may.

The internal nature of Iran is not particularly encouraging. By and large, since 1979, religious extremism has been at the top of the Iranian Government, interpreting Islamic teachings as anti-western, anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic. The election of
 
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian President in June 2005 fortified decisively the position of the extremist clerical elite at the heart of Iranian Government policy.

Thus, as the hon. Gentleman said, we see a denial that the holocaust ever took place: last month, Iran announced its intention to sponsor a conference to examine the scientific evidence supporting the holocaust. There have been calls for the death of the western world. Soon after he became President, Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying:

As the hon. Gentleman also said, there is a direct threat to the existence of another state; the comments last year about wishing to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth were both offensive and disturbing. Only last week, the Iranian Defence Minister was quoted as saying:

I find it absolutely astonishing that one member of the United Nations should be permitted to express a wish to obliterate another. That cannot be tolerated. It is therefore vital that all of us—particularly the Foreign Office and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—should support the work this week by the international community to ask the International Atomic Energy Agency to report Iran to the UN Security Council.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Iran's expansionist and aggressive foreign policy, which has been backed up by Iranian support for terrorist groups. As he pointed out, Iran has strong links with groups associated with violence and terrorism, such as Hezbollah, that wish to undermine the middle east peace process. Iran supports Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the attack at Hadera in Israel in October 2005.

Given that context—a demagogic religious extremist President, support for terrorist groups and a wish to wipe out Israel—it appears likely that Iran is attempting to back up its foreign policy through an acceleration of its nuclear programme. That would completely derail the middle east peace process, increase tension in the region to crisis point and have profound repercussions throughout the world.

As I mentioned earlier, the Iranian nuclear issue is affecting, and will continue to make its mark on, relations between EU states and with the United States. The attitude of the emerging economic superpowers of the world—China, India, Russia—to the Iran nuclear question could shape global politics for decades. For example, Iran provides about 15 per cent. of China's oil needs, a percentage that is becoming ever higher and more lucrative, given the expansion of the Chinese economy. For its part, Russia is building a nuclear power station for Iran. Both nations are very dependent on Iran, so their support for the United States and the EU3 on reporting Iran's nuclear programme to the Security Council this week is welcome.
 
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I disagree slightly with the hon. Gentleman's interpretation of that support. I think it a sign of greater decisive action that shows an encouraging element of almost universal support from the international community in requesting that Iran complies with its non-proliferation treaty obligations.

It is extremely important that negotiations go well when Russia meets with Iran on 16 February to discuss the Russian proposal to enrich uranium outside Iran.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the relationship between Iran and Russia. Russia provides a   lot of the uranium used by Iran and could be in a pivotal position to slow—indeed, stop—any nuclear advancement on the part of Iran. Russia should be taking bolder steps. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Mr. Wright : I agree to some extent. Russia's meeting with Iran on 16 February will be vital. There are not many grounds for optimism at the moment, but that meeting is a chink of light that I hope will expand.

It is difficult to be hugely optimistic at the moment. Iran has deceived the rest of the world about its nuclear research for close to 20 years. Its posturing President seems hell-bent on securing nuclear weapons to assert domination in the region and threaten the security of Israel. Yet I should like to end on a positive note. I am convinced that Iran has a vibrant and positive role to play in the international community. Its vast oil reserves will ensure that it becomes a major economic player with a strong say in international politics; the country would be able to play a role on the world stage without recourse to aggression.

Its demographic pattern—there is a young, large and increasing population—gives Iran huge potential in economic, social and cultural matters in future decades. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire said that we should be extraordinarily critical about the Iranian Government but not the Iranian people, and that was very valid. A moderate Iranian nation would be strong, proud and able to fulfil its potential both internally and internationally. There is hope, but it is vital that the international community should stay together in its condemnation of Iran's leaders.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to express our views at such a timely moment—the next few days and weeks are of huge importance. I sincerely hope, and think it essential, that the United Nations should show real leadership when the issue is reported to it.

10.7 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) for securing this debate on an extremely important subject, and I am privileged to follow the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright). Many of the points made have shown that all parties feel that the issue is the most serious that we have faced during the past several years.

I should like to draw attention to two pieces of rhetoric that everybody in the Chamber will have heard and that contrast starkly with some words on the "Today" programme this morning. First, we heard
 
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President Ahmadinejad spewing forth a series of appalling, irrational statements of hatred and loathing that emphasise the point made by both my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire and the hon. Member for Hartlepool: our argument must be with Iran's Government and not with its people. Secondly, President Bush recently talked in his state of the nation address about the serious view that he takes of the situation. However, both those pieces of rhetoric contrast starkly with the words of Mrs. Spicer on the radio this morning. She talked about her young son Leon, who was killed outside Basra just before Christmas.

I am sure that many hon. Members remember the BBC documentary "Last Night Another Soldier" from the 1980s, about the steady drip of military casualties in Northern Ireland. Let us spare a thought this morning for the parents of Lance Corporal Allan Douglas of the Highlanders and Corporal Gordon Pritchard of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Two families in Scotland have been shattered by events in Iraq which are directly related to what is going on in Iran. Anyone who doubts that the technology that killed those soldiers came from anywhere other than Iran needs to consider carefully the words of the free press in the west, the less-than-free press in the east, our ambassador in Baghdad and our general officer commanding Multinational Division (South East). They all make it clear that wherever this kit is coming from, it is destined to destabilise, kill and distract the west from Iran's nuclear programme.

My hon. Friend said that it was possible that destabilisation by Iran had already started or that it would start in the near future in Afghanistan. Precisely the same sorts of weapons—exactly the same manufacture and design—that have been used to kill our soldiers in southern Iraq are appearing on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. It does not take a rocket scientist—that might be a bad pun—to work out where this stuff is coming from. It is instructive to see how the pernicious influence of terrorism spreads from Tehran through Pakistan, to the border of Afghanistan and through to Iraq. Precisely those same routes will be followed in the event of Iran gaining a nuclear weapon.

It is worth bearing in mind the exact Iranian position. We have no need to emphasise the fact that Iran's support to Shi'a extremists via the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah has killed, and continues to kill, people throughout the middle east. Iran plays host to a powerful group of al-Qaeda operatives. As far as we aware, those people are confined; they are contained somewhere in Tehran. The influence that comes from the fact that those men exist, albeit under Iranian civil and police control, continues to allow powerful groups of Sunni extremists to operate inside the borders of Iran.

The conflict between Sunni and Shi'a inside Iran does not need to be emphasised, but we should not underestimate the influence on President Ahmadinejad of those particular strengths and feelings in his country. He is trying to balance Shi'a against Sunni and is having to play host to the world's most dangerous terrorist organisation. People such as Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi
 
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are using their influence through Iran to operate inside Iraq and Afghanistan. Anyone who underestimates the pressure on Iran at the moment is clearly wrong.

We would all condemn the continued support of Palestinian terrorists by Iran. There is no doubt that the fingerprints of the IRGC and of Lebanese Hezbollah are seen every day in the middle east. Any moves that Iran is likely to make can serve only further to destabilise the middle east peace process. If we allow Iran further to develop its ability to produce nuclear weapons, albeit under the umbrella of nuclear power, and if we allow the Government in Iran further to exercise their stranglehold on the people of Iran, we will have only ourselves to blame.

Anyone who cannot see the comparison between the situation in Iran and the situation in Iraq more than 10 years ago, and who does not feel the same lurch in his or her stomach when we discuss this subject, is blind to the lessons of the past three or four years in Iraq. If the west wishes to avoid another situation like the one that we face today, which is killing our soldiers day on day, we must understand that this is the most serious threat that we have faced for some years.

I despair when I read that the Secretary of State for Defence has said:

Here is the rub, however, because he continued:

What words are those to try to salve the consciences of the families of dead soldiers? What words are those to go forward to oppose the dangerous Government in Iran? We need less empty rhetoric and more action by the Government to ensure that we provide the right gestures, not just the right words.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): May I ask for short speeches? I would like to start the wind-ups at about half-past 10.

10.14 am

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I am sensitive to the fact that we are time-limited, Mr Martlew. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and I look forward to hearing the views of other Labour Back-Bench Members, so we must make time for them. It should not be left just to us to support the Government on this occasion.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): On that point—

Andrew Mackinlay : If the hon. Gentleman will restrain himself, I might say some other things that will prompt him to ask me to give way.

I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on securing the debate. Although I know that it tends to become a matter of rubric to congratulate people, he does need to be congratulated on that, on the way he prosecuted the case and on how he illustrated the concerns of many
 
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Back-Bench Members across the political spectrum about the situation and how we have reached it in terms of our international diplomacy.

I share concerns about the gravity of the international situation. I do not think that it has been so grave since the fall of the Berlin wall. What surprises me is that that has not been picked up by some of our colleagues in Parliament or by the media. Put in a nutshell, we know that Israel cannot, and will not, tolerate Iran getting anywhere near having the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon. The clock is ticking.

The situation requires the maximum amount of international agreement, particularly among the five permanent members of the Security Council, and all our diplomatic skills to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons. Otherwise, even the most moderate Israeli Government will feel compelled to intervene. As Israeli Governments have repeatedly reminded us since the founding of the Israeli state, Israel cannot afford to lose one war. For that reason, the situation is extraordinarily grave.

I take heart from the fact that the Russian Federation and China have joined the other permanent members of the Security Council at least in contemplating reporting Iran to the Security Council. That is significant, because although reference has been made to Russia's commercial interest in Iran and to Iran's aspirations to have nuclear energy and/or a nuclear weapon, both the Russian Federation and China probably recognise the gravity of the situation. They realise that the potential for a major conflict or a conflagration is consequent on Iran's approach to nuclear power and nuclear weapons, which, if not arrested, would have consequences that are in no one's interests. Moscow and Beijing now realise how serious the international situation is in relation to the Tehran regime.

I am surprised that the Minister for Europe is present, because it seems as if a different Minister responds on these issues each time. I am not sure whether he is the jobbing Minister or the Minister who has responsibility for this matter. I do not say that sarcastically—I would like to know the answer. There seems to be a shifting of the sands, which is indicative of how our Foreign Office works—I deliberately say "Foreign Office" and not "Ministers".

I do not think that the Foreign Office has been very skilled in relation to Iran, and that eventually permeates through to the ministerial team, whose sincerity and diligence on this matter I do not question. Disappointing advice and counsel has been given by our diplomatic professionals and that has worked its way through to the ministerial team over a number of years. That is shown by the three wasted years when the EU3, with the best of motives, pandered to, and appeased, the Tehran regime. They have nothing to show for it. History shows us that when we take the advice and counsel of the Foreign Office and follow appeasement, we pay a heavy price later.

As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the previous Parliament, I remember how we were coaxed and encouraged by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to visit Tehran. I refused to go. My colleagues were well motivated, but the visit bolstered the regime. It sent all the wrong signals. The visit was made under the encouragement, advice and counsel of the Foreign
 
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Office. I say in all seriousness to the Minister that the Government need to listen more to Back Benchers. On some occasions, their prudence and wisdom might surpass that of the mandarins at the Foreign Office. If they listen to Back Benchers, especially across the political spectrum, it might occur to them that perhaps there has been a misread in the Foreign Office about the nature of the regime in Tehran and its intentions.

Reference has been made to people, both in Iran and in painful exile, who are boldly standing in resistance to the regime in Tehran. We must recognise that those who have given the west the greatest indication of the full nature of the threat of developments in Iran and the technologies that it is pursuing in its nuclear programme are members of the Iranian resistance, yet we treat them as pariahs. That is not only unacceptable, it is bad politics.

Many of us consider that the constituent organisation of the national council's resistance, the PMOI, has been listed with a terror tag to placate and appease the dreadful people in the regime in Tehran. That must stop as a matter of justice. It must also stop out of our naked self-interest. We need to send a signal that we stand by people who stand for freedom. We have a rich tradition. In 1940, some people thought that we should not recognise Charles de Gaulle. Whatever we might think of him, he was a brave man and also a correct man. As Churchill said, "Here is the constable of France." He was the flame flickering. There were some who would have tallied and bargained with the Vichy regime. It now comes round full circle. The Minister needs to take account of those who support freedom, and who will also helping him to find out what is really happening in Iran.

Mr. David Jones : The hon. Gentleman mentions the important continued proscription of the People's Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran. I have no doubt that he is aware that, next week, there is a hearing in the European Court of Justice at which the continued proscription of the PMOI will be considered. Does he share my feeling of utter shame that the only Government of a European Union nation who have intervened in those proceedings to retain the proscription are the British Government?

Andrew Mackinlay : That is a good point. My feeling is not one of shame, but one of dismay. The British Government do not read the tea leaves properly. They do not understand, first, that they will ultimately lose in the courts and, secondly, that they are sending all the wrong signals to Tehran. Going to court to resist the legitimate attempts of the PMOI and others to get the terror tag lifted is sending all the wrong signals. The Minister might find my remarks irritating, but if he pauses and reflects on matters, he might find a scintilla of truth in what I say. He might go back to the guys in the Foreign Office and say, "Well, perhaps Mackinlay has a remote point", and that might alter the course of history.

The United Kingdom representative of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, Ms Dowlat Nowrouzi, announced in January that the Iranian regime has successfully procured two types of equipment—the hot isostatic press and the hot press—to shape enriched uranium as part of nuclear weapons production at the
 
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materials and energy research centre near Karaj, 40 km west of the Iranian capital. Both machines are banned. That the National Council of Resistance of Iran is helpfully giving more information to the west is indicative of what happened as recently as a week ago and is a pattern of how it is revealing the true nature of what is happening in Iran. On behalf of hon. Members across the political spectrum, I make the case that for that reason plus others, the Government should reassess their position in respect of the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the PMOI.

Separately from that, I have tabled parliamentary questions about the EU's export licence regime. By inference, some criticism has been made of Russia when dealing with Tehran, but we in the European Union and the United Kingdom still do not have a sufficiently rigorous regime to stop exporting materials to Iran which have a dual use.

I have tabled a series of questions about zirconium silicate. It is used in ceramics production, but it has a dual use. To their eternal credit, the Bulgarian authorities recently intercepted a lorry load of zirconium silicate in transit from the United Kingdom to Iran, but eventually had to let it go through because of a bureaucratic and not up-to-date European Union schedule on dual-use exports. I hope that the Minister will consider such matters.

Many of us want to tell the Minister that, thanks to the negotiations with Europe, the Iranian regime gained another year in which to complete its project in Isfahan. It needed 12 months to complete the work on the centrifuges. Although I have described that in my own words, I am referring to the words of the chairman of the Iranian supreme national security council's foreign policy committee. He bragged that the negotiations with the EU3 bought it more time. An Iranian daily Government organ stated that Tehran had benefited greatly from the talks with the EU3 in advancing its nuclear programme. I am describing the pattern of our failing to send the right signals early enough to potential adversaries so that we make it clear that we will not tolerate and continue such a course of appeasement.

The Foreign Office Minister has been questioned about the Lovers of Martyrdom Garrison, which has been encouraged by the acolytes of the so-called President of Iran. The regime is encouraging young men and women to prepare themselves for martyrdom not in Iran, but abroad, where they should go as the ultimate export of terrorism, to sacrifice their lives in the cause of the regime. Yet again, there has been an embarrassing silence from the United Kingdom Government and the European Union in the face of the declaration by the Tehran regime that it is encouraging young men and women to prepare themselves for the ultimate martyrdom.

Colleagues throughout the House will wish to draw to the attention of the Government that 430 Members of Parliament and peers have now requested them to revisit their attitude to the National Council of Resistance of Iran and the PMOI. Yesterday, 2,000 distinguished lawyers signed a similar declaration. Those involved are not fringe people; they are not made up of the hon. Member for Thurrock. They have had stewardship in this country of both justice and national security. Lord
 
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Waddington, who was Home Secretary, is among them, as is Lord Archer of Sandwell, Harold Wilson's Solicitor-General. People from throughout the political spectrum in large numbers are urging the Government desperately to rethink their attitude as a matter both of justice and of plain common sense.

In the interests of the United Kingdom, we should recognise those who are bravely resisting the terrible regime that denies human rights, persecutes people internally, and exports terrorism, as the Prime Minister alluded to a few weeks ago when the deaths occurred of coalition soldiers in Iraq, which have been mentioned. Again, on that occasion we received confusing signals. The Prime Minister, to his credit, was robust, the Foreign Secretary said something similar, but slightly different, and the Secretary of State for Defence said something different again. We need a coherent indictment from our ministerial leaders about Iran's role in funding, facilitating and giving equipment to the irregulars in Iraq who are trying to attack the coalition forces and undermine its work and that of the Iraqi Government.

Mr. Vaizey : rose—

Andrew Mackinlay : I would like to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but there is no time, so I shall conclude my peroration by saying that I hope that the Minister will make a name for himself by saying that the Government will reflect on what has been said.

10.31 am

Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I will be brief, because I know that there is enthusiasm in all parts of the Chamber to hear the Minister's response to what has been an interesting debate. We owe a debt to the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) for securing this opportunity to discuss such an important subject.

There is a widespread consensus about the nature of the problem, although there may be somewhat less of a consensus about the solution. We should start by acknowledging that our disagreement is not with the Iranian people. I know that that sounds like a general point that is almost not worth making, but it is important, because the Iranian regime is keen to portray the British Government and the British Parliament—and for that matter the British people—the Americans and others as innately hostile to Iran, its people and its way of life. We must be sure to reject that and say emphatically that our argument is not with the people. I have been to Iran on a number of occasions and can recommend it on many levels to others who might wish to visit. The people there have a great appetite for many of the points of common humanity that we would recognise and share with them.

Another important point, which has not been made—or at least not at length—is that we should try to understand the mindset of people in the middle ground in Iran, rather than that of the most extreme people. To take the view of an Iranian person, on the west is Iraq, which is occupied predominantly by the United States but by the United Kingdom as well, while on the east is Afghanistan, which is also subject in large parts to, as an Iranian might see it, occupation by the United States,
 
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the United Kingdom and other countries that might not be entirely sympathetic to Iran. Further east are India and Pakistan, which have been discouraged from developing nuclear weapons, but appear not to have paid any great price for having done so. In fact, to the contrary: Pakistan's unelected leader and India's elected leader both seem to enjoy pretty good relationships with the United States, the United Kingdom and others.

I would therefore urge caution to hon. Members who think that people in Iran are unaware of how absurd their regime is being. A lot of them are more open-eyed about the situation and have come to a more rational decision. After all, the President of Iran was elected, albeit in an imperfect election, which caused complications for people who wished to argue that everybody had been hoodwinked. In fact, the Iranian people were more clear about the choices that confronted them than we sometimes give them credit for. That makes the problem more complex than we in Parliament would wish.

Despite that, the backdrop to the development of Iran's nuclear capacity is extremely worrying. Iran has a deeply repressive state that by any liberal standards is one of the worst in the world, with routine restrictions on speech, the media and religious expression, and foreign policy statements from its President that lurch between the alarming and the deranged. Nobody should be in any doubt that the threat is a great one. The Government are therefore right to be pleased that the matter has been reported to the United Nations. That is an important step and we should not be dismissive of it. The threat of sanctions and other activity ought be real. Iran needs to realise that there are economic, political and cultural consequences to being isolated.

When it comes down to it, most people can accept most of those points; but what happens if Iran does not respond to those promptings, however energetic and however firm the consensus among leading world powers? That is the big question that the Minister needs to address. I do not detect any enthusiasm for conflict, and the hon. Gentleman rightly pointed out that, leaving aside the political considerations, there are enormous practical and military questions that lie between where we are now and intervention of that sort. However, we need to realise the seriousness of the situation and make it emphatically clear to the Iranian regime that it needs to think through the full political and other consequences of the action that it is taking. The Iranian Government have to be extremely careful about brinkmanship and seeing how far they can push the good will and tolerance of western countries, or for that matter of countries around the world.

As in any negotiations, we perhaps also need to recognise that the Iranian Government need to be able to tell their people that they have reached a politically manageable solution, in terms of Iran's internal dynamic. However, as has been said before, ultimately, no Government can afford to rule out any option altogether. I will be interested to hear the Minister expand on what consequences he thinks will follow if the United Nations route does not prove to be successful, as we all hope it will be.

10.37 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on introducing this
 
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important debate on Iran's nuclear programme. Like him and other hon. Members, one has the sense that this is a serious moment and that the next few months and years will be important not only for the international community but for Britain. As somebody who is by nature a reasonably sunny personality—at least politically—I am pessimistic not only about the situation in Iran but about the connected situation in Afghanistan.

Hon. Members have spoken passionately and I should like to congratulate Labour and Conservative Friends of Israel on some most effective lobbying. Perhaps one day, when the regime has changed, we shall have a debate in which Labour and Conservative friends of Iran will be represented.

The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) seemed to speak on behalf of a number of my colleagues who were unable to get in. He is, of course, the voice of Lady Thatcher, in that when she was Prime Minister she believed that the Foreign Office existed to represent the interests of foreigners inside the United Kingdom. As a shadow Foreign Office Minister, I am not here to defend the Foreign Office—I am sure that the Minister will do that—but I should like to point out a factual error that the hon. Gentleman made. The most malign advice that Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was given did not come from a Foreign Office official. Sir Horace Wilson was of course from the Treasury, and we should all know where our real enemies lie in Whitehall.

Our policy is simple. We welcome Monday's decision by the five permanent members of the Security Council to report Iran in March. We recognise that we must work hard to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, for all the reasons that have been succinctly argued by colleagues. However, like other colleagues, I have a number of concerns. It seems that Iran has had numerous opportunities to change course and address international concern about its nuclear intentions, yet the seven resolutions that the International Atomic Energy Agency has passed on Iran since 2003 represent a litany of Iran's failures to declare its activities and the deficiencies in its co-operation with the agency.

After more than three years of inquiries, the IAEA has not been able to establish the details of the full genesis of Iran's programme. Iran has failed to provide transparency and has followed a deliberate policy of concealment. In early January, it removed IAEA seals from its nuclear installations and made preparations to begin enrichment. It has violated its safeguard agreements and there is a long litany of its saying one thing and doing the exact opposite. That is a difficulty for both the Foreign Office and the international community. They are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. There is no guarantee that any commitment made by Iran, whether individually to the United Kingdom or to the international community, will ever be carried out.

A number of hon. Friends and colleagues, including my hon. Friend, put forward the dilemma for any democratic country and the international community. That is what happens when every element of diplomacy has been used, an attempt has been made to bring pressure to bear and sanctions have ultimately been introduced but the country at the receiving end has failed to respond. That leaves a great chasm and some form of military action may then be inevitable.
 
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A number of hon. Friends and colleagues pointed out their concern that if Iran fails to respond and the international community fails to persuade it, Israel might ultimately decide to take military action. If I follow the logic of the arguments of my hon. Friends and colleagues, that puts even greater emphasis on the international community to think about taking the full rack of sanctions. As we know from the United Nations charter, that does not rule out the international community's use of some form of military action.

I want to flag up for the Minister a number of the Conservative party's concerns. We are worried that we seem already to have moved away from the outcome that our Government, the United States and our allies were seeking—an early referral to the UN Security Council. The Government's original response to the Iranian ending of suspension was, rightly, very strong, but are we able to deliver on our threat? Have the Government received assurances from Russia and China that they will support tougher action if necessary and if Iran continues its course of intransigence and confrontation? To my mind, Russia and China are the key. If they decide to sit on their hands and not go the full course, I greatly fear that someone—I am sure that the Government are attempting to point this out to them—will take what most of us would consider to be unacceptable action, which would ultimately be the military option.

Mr. Harper : Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Simpson : I will not give way because I shall be only one more minute and other hon. Members, rightly, want to hear the Minister.

We are also concerned that in expressing interest in Russia's compromise proposals and then reportedly offering access to the Lavizan site in Iran, the Iranian Government are employing delaying tactics by doing the absolute minimum to give the impression that they are interested in compromise. That has been their track record over the past five or six years. What is the Minister's assessment of the Russian proposal and Iran's commitment to exploring it?

Finally and crucially, the Foreign Secretary said—this has been touched on by a number of colleagues—that military action against Iran is not an option. The Prime Minister said that all options are on the table. What is the Government's real position on the calls from some quarters to contemplate military action against Iran? I hasten to say that I am not advocating the use of military action, but I do not believe that in any international dispute, either now or in the past, when faced with an intransigent Government, the international community or a nation state can exclude the use of military action. That must always ultimately be in the background and available under not only the UN charter but international law. The Iranian Government should be only too well aware that ultimately that is an option. No one in this Chamber, and certainly not the Government, wants that option to be exercised, but the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary need to come up with a form of words to encompass that. If we do not
 
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persuade the Iranians that we in the international community are serious, they will develop nuclear weapons and sooner rather than later one country in the middle east will actively intervene to prevent them. The consequence of that is too horrendous to contemplate.

10.45 am

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander) : I congratulate the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on securing the debate. I have, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) urged me to do, listened carefully to the contributions from hon. Members on both Back Benches, which included a number of powerful speeches, and from the Front-Bench spokespeople for the principal Opposition parties who offered considered and measured contributions to this important debate.

In his characteristically mild, supportive and gentle way, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock asked on what basis I, as the Minister for Europe, was appearing before the Chamber this morning. Perhaps I might clarify that the Minister for the Middle East is meeting Ministers from the region who are in London attending the Afghan conference, and the Foreign Secretary is meeting the Iranian Foreign Minister this very morning, so I speak on behalf of my Foreign Office colleagues.

There have been a number of powerful and measured contributions from both sides. However, perhaps not for the first time in recent days, Labour is not as well represented as the Opposition. That was a source of concern until I heard the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, which made me revise my view on whether more contributions from the Labour Back Benches would be entirely helpful to the Government.

I acknowledge at the outset, as did the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, that the debate is exceptionally timely. Before I explain the significance of that, I must echo the tributes that have been paid, and the sentiments that have been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, to the families of the service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq in recent days.

The debate is timely because tomorrow the International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors will meet in special session in Vienna. For the board's 35 members, there will be just one agenda item: Iran's challenge to the international non-proliferation system and how to respond to it.

I have a certain sympathy with the contribution of the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne), who acknowledged that there is a fairly broad consensus among the parties on the nature of the problem facing us. However, with the greatest of respect to hon. Members, I struggled to find clarity in their contributions of the details of the prescription, as distinct from the description, in the face of the problem. I shall try to set out for the record the Government's position and how we will take matters forward.

Let me explain why the Government, with France and Germany, as part of the EU3 process and supported by the European Union, believe that the time has come to involve the UN Security Council, to which a number of hon. Members referred. Two and a half years ago, Iran
 
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was forced to admit to the IAEA that it was building secret installations to enrich uranium and to produce plutonium which could be used to produce material for nuclear weapons. Iran was and still is building missiles that could carry nuclear warheads. Subsequent investigations showed that, in the IAEA's words,

A series of IAEA reports identified serious grounds for concern that Iran's nuclear programme might not be, as Iranian leaders claim, solely for peaceful purposes. Then, and now, our aim has been to persuade Iran by building broad international support—that relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) about Russia and China—and working through multilateral bodies in order to take steps to guarantee that its nuclear programme will not be used for military ends. Under the IAEA's statute, Iran should have been reported to the Security Council two years ago. The UK, with France and Germany, decided to look for a way forward, through negotiation. The IAEA board agreed to delay involving the Security Council to give that initiative a chance.

At the heart of our initiative was a proposal that Iran should suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities that could be used to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon while we discussed mutually acceptable long-term arrangements. The IAEA board adopted successive resolutions asking Iran to suspend those activities. In November 2004, Iran finally agreed to move ahead on that basis. The Paris agreement set out the framework for talks and offered the prospect of not just a long-term solution to the nuclear issue, but a stronger relationship between Europe and Iran, including co-operation on political and security issues and in economic and scientific fields. We have pursued the process in good faith, but Iran has rejected all constructive attempts to find a solution.

Last August, Iran unilaterally restarted uranium conversion at its plant in Isfahan, in violation of the Paris agreement and contrary to IAEA board resolutions. The same month, without serious consideration, it rejected our detailed proposals for long-term arrangements. Those were the most far-reaching ideas for relations between Iran and Europe that have been presented since the 1979 Iranian revolution and they offered the possibility of an improved relationship based on co-operation.

The IAEA board confirmed the legal basis for involving the Security Council under articles XII.C and III.B.4 of the IAEA's statute. However, at the request of our partners, we agreed to propose that the board again delay involving the Security Council, to enable more time for diplomacy. In December, European and Iranian officials met to explore whether we could find a basis for resuming talks. We made it clear that it would be essential for Iran not to resume further the suspended activities. With our support, Russia also sought a way forward by proposing that, as part of a final agreement, Iran might have a financial-only stake in an enrichment joint venture based in Russia. Such an agreement would have helped to assure Iran that it could rely on a supply of fuel for its nuclear reactors without acquiring technologies that could be used to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The Russians also made it clear that Iran would need to continue suspension of
 
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all enrichment-related activities if such ideas were to be discussed further. We were prepared to endorse that idea, as long as no enrichment took place inside Iran. We understand that the Russians presented it in those terms as well.

Since then, the Iranian position has been contradictory and deliberately confusing. At its request, European political directors agreed to meet one of its negotiators, Javad Vaidi, in Brussels on 30 January—this past Monday—but Vaidi indicated no room for flexibility.

Iran's resumption of uranium enrichment-related activity three weeks ago was a clear rejection of European and Russian efforts to get back to talks. Its actions have shown no respect for IAEA resolutions or for the commitments that it made to us and to Russia. Iran has portrayed its activities as harmless research, but they involve the development of technologies that would enable it to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. What Iran claims is a small step is, in fact, fundamental.

Therefore, the backdrop to tomorrow's IAEA board meeting involves not just Iran's 18-year history of concealment, to which several hon. Members referred, and its failure to take steps that would give us confidence about its nuclear intentions, but also its policy towards Israel and Iraq, its attitude towards terrorism and its human rights record. I echo some of the sentiments that have been expressed. We have all been appalled by the comments of President Ahmadinejad, his denial of the holocaust and his calls for the destruction of the state of Israel, which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who has not received universal support in this debate, described as sickening, horrific hostility to the Israeli people. In Damascus just 10 days ago, President Ahmadinejad met leaders of Islamic Jihad while its bombs were killing and injuring civilians in Israel.

The consequences of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are unthinkable. Central Asia and the middle east—two of the world's most volatile areas—would be destabilised. Other states might seek to enhance their own capabilities, prompting a regional arms race. The non-proliferation treaty—the very bedrock of international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons—would be badly damaged, as would the goal of creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the middle east, a cause to which we are committed. Iran's latest actions are a challenge to the multilateral non-proliferation system and a rejection of the diplomatic track. We must respond firmly.

On Monday, Foreign Ministers from the UK, France and Germany, together with their counterparts from the United States, Russia and China, agreed that in Vienna tomorrow we should work with the IAEA board, which should

I welcome that decision. There is strong emerging consensus that it is time for the Security Council to become involved.

Several hon. Members asked whether it had been appropriate to follow the diplomatic track. The efforts have not been in vain, as we are closer to securing genuine international consensus than we have been at
 
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any point in the preceding two years. For some of the reasons that have been outlined, it is vital that we secure such agreement. The Iranian regime fears genuine international consensus. What would be more to its advantage is a position from which it would be able to divide and seek to exploit the international community, thereby guaranteeing the continued potential for developing nuclear weapons.

Mr. Ellwood : There is an irony in what happened with Iraq—IAEA representatives made it clear that they did not believe that there was a threat, yet we still ended up going to war—and in today's situation with Iran, which IAEA representatives have not been allowed to visit and which definitely involves a threat. I am concerned that, as a result of what was learned from Iraq, the Government and the international community may be more wary of dealing with the situation in Iran. They may go too softly and appease the country. Our approach must be more robust.

Mr. Alexander : I listened carefully to that point and would argue respectfully that reporting to the Security Council is a necessary step, given where we are now. In that sense, notwithstanding some of the direct queries made by hon. Members, I would not wish to prejudge the outcome of the report to the Security Council. Further steps can be taken thereafter, but it is important at this stage to support the IAEA's efforts, and to sustain and uphold the importance of the IAEA board in dealing with the issue. We have reached the point at which it is necessary for a report to go to the Security Council.

The agreement of the six countries to which I referred—and, indeed, many others—will send a powerful signal of the consensus that is emerging in the international community. The debate echoed the fact that international concern about Iranian activities has grown during the past two years of diplomatic discussion, and I fully accept that. The process led by European countries has done much to increase awareness of the problem and to build international consensus that Iran must take steps to build confidence.
 
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Regrettably, Iran's actions preclude the diplomatic solution wanted by the international community. It is now necessary to involve the Security Council to increase the political pressure on Iran to respect the wishes of the IAEA board.

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): I call Mr. Amess.

10.57 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): You have taken me by surprise, Mr. Martlew.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on the splendid debate. I concur with all the speeches, but I take a different opinion on many things that the Minister said. A lot of hon. Members are defence experts and could put the case more eloquently than I can. Unlike some people who purport to be Churchillian figures, I am one of the few Members of the House who have consistently raised the subject. If only we had been listened to much earlier.

The Minister completely ignored the point about the People's Mojaheddin Organisation of Iran and what was said about the disgraceful thing that will happen shortly. The Minister owes the House the courtesy of addressing that. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and I feel so strongly about how the gentleman who calls himself the President of Iran is conducting himself that a few weeks ago we addressed a crowd of 30,000 people outside the United Nations headquarters in New York.

Mr. Alexander : I would not wish the House to believe that I intended any discourtesy by that omission, which the hon. Gentleman rightly identified. With the forbearance of hon. Members, I shall write to him about the PMOI.

Mr. Amess : That would be very useful. Many hon. Members and I are in favour of jaw-jaw rather than war-war, but we are angry because there has been too much seduction of the present regime. I listened carefully to the state of union address last night—what a sad figure I am, I stayed up for it—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order.
 
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