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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 February 2006

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—


3. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to help restore democracy in Burma. [49000]

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): The Government are working closely with our European and international partners to promote political reform in Burma. We have consistently made it clear to the regime that it must release Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners as a first step to restoring democracy.

Julie Morgan: I thank the Minister for his reply. In view of the continuing human rights violations, the drug trafficking, the outflow of refugees and the continuing house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi, what can he do to work towards a binding resolution by the United Nations Security Council to ensure democracy in Burma? Members of the National League for Democracy are being imprisoned and harassed. Is there not something more that he could do to get a resolution at the Security Council?

Ian Pearson: My hon. Friend is right to point to the human rights abuses that are going on daily in Burma. She will be aware that the UN Security Council met on 16 December and that Burma was discussed at that meeting. At present, there is no consensus within the Security Council even to put Burma on the agenda, let alone to secure a resolution, but I assure her of the Government's commitment to do all that they can to press for further progress. I am pleased to be able to note the progress that has been made through some of our lobbying efforts with the Association of South East Asian Nations. She will be aware perhaps that, just before Christmas, ASEAN put out a statement. The fact that ASEAN is showing concern about the political situation in Burma and is perhaps prepared to do something about it is welcome.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Will the Minister pay tribute to the Thai Government for their actions and help for internally displaced people from Burma? Will
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he press the Thai Government to go further and to issue identification documents to all those displaced people from Burma?

Ian Pearson: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary met the Thai Deputy Prime Minister last week. We certainly acknowledge the work of the Thai Government in making a welcome home for those fleeing from persecution in Burma. The Foreign Office has a project working with the Thai authorities to assist in that process. It is a difficult issue. More and more people are fleeing the country because of the despicable nature of the regime, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will take what appropriate action we can to help the situation.

Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): I have every reason to believe that ASEAN's move was largely due to pressure from the British Government. I compliment my hon. Friend on that. May I ask him about the EU common position on Burma, which I am sure he agrees is one of low impact—arguably, of no impact? The sanctions against the regime are patchy, weak and of no practical consequence and very little symbolic consequence. We hoped that change would come during the EU presidency, but now the common position is due to be renegotiated. Will he do his level best to ensure that the EU adopts real, significant, biting sanctions against that abysmal regime?

Ian Pearson: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her words of welcome about the UK's lobbying efforts. Not just the UK but many other countries have been talking to ASEAN about the need to do more on Burma.

The EU common position is due for renewal in April this year. We believe that there have been no improvements in the situation in Burma over the past 12 months and therefore there is no case for weakening the sanctions, but let us be clear. Our policy of sanctions is deliberately targeted on the Burma regime and its cronies. We do not believe that economic sanctions that would harm the Burmese people are appropriate. They are already suffering enough as a result of that despicable regime and sanctions that affected their livelihoods would be inappropriate.


4. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): What assessment he has made of Iran's support for terrorist groups; and if he will make a statement. [49002]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): We remain very concerned about Iran's approach to terrorism and the nature of its relationship with Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. We also continue to investigate Iran's links to extremist groups in Iraq. We have repeatedly pressed Iran to renounce all support for groups using terror and violence. I raise these concerns whenever I have the opportunity to do so, most recently in my meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister in London last week.

There are of course even wider anxieties about Iran's current behaviour, above all in respect of its nuclear programme. Last Saturday, the International Atomic
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Energy Agency's board of governors decided to report Iran to the Security Council for non-compliance with its obligations but to allow a further month before any action was to be taken by the Council. That resolution attracted wide support, including from Russia, China, India, Egypt, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Yemen, which I hope will underline to the Iranian leadership the strength of feeling internationally on this matter and encourage them to take the opportunities offered by the resolution.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of Iran's support for terrorist insurgency groups in Afghanistan's Helmand province?

Mr. Straw: I have seen no evidence of Iranian support for insurgent groups in that province. As is often the case, Iran's record can vary very much, in apparently contradictory ways. Overall, Iran has worked responsibly in respect of its relations with Afghanistan. Iran has good reason for doing so and suffers grievously from the trade in opium; it has been suggested that there are more than 2 million heroin addicts in Iran, fuelled by drugs from Afghanistan. For the time being, on the issue of drugs and in its relationships with Afghanistan, Iran's interests are the same as ours. However, in respect of other terrorist groups to the west of the country, the picture is a different one.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the Foreign Secretary take this opportunity to reaffirm the United Kingdom's support for the Iranian resistance people in Camp Ashraf in Iraq, bearing in mind that they have protected person status under the Geneva conventions? Will he confirm that he will resist any attempt by the Iranian Government to make the coalition or the United Kingdom falter upon that commitment?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend but the answer is an emphatic no. The MEK/MKO organisation is a terrorist organisation that is proscribed in this country following a decision that I made as Home Secretary in 2000, which was endorsed by Parliament. We have a consistent position on terrorist organisations. As I repeatedly make clear to my Iranian counterparts, it is they who have a contradictory position. They ask us to take a firm position in respect of terrorist groups that threaten Iran, and we do; at the same time, Iran is supporting terrorist organisations that threaten Israel. That is unacceptable.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): On the basis of his answer, will the Foreign Secretary give examples of where the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran and its allied bodies have taken any terrorist action against western interests in actual terms?

Mr. Straw: I would need notice of that question. However, like any other organisation similarly proscribed, the MEK/MKO has had every opportunity to make strong representations to the Proscribed Organisations Appeal Commission. As it was subsequent to my leaving the Home Office, I cannot remember whether it has done so. If it has, its objections have been overruled. The decision was made by this House on the basis of my recommendation, endorsed by my successors.
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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Iran supports terrorism, wants to see the extermination of every Jew from the face of the earth in its region and soon will possess a nuclear bomb. My right hon. Friend has tried with might and main to find a diplomatic solution, but we are on a glide path to a serious confrontation. In that regard, 35 years ago the main enemy of the United States—it had an ideology that America opposed and supported action that America opposed—was China but, in a great diplomatic coup, President Nixon went to China, recognised China and world history was turned. Does my right hon. Friend think that the time has come for the United States to offer diplomatic recognition to Iran—a personal opinion, please?

Mr. Speaker: Order. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will be more brief than the questioner.

Mr. Straw: I think that that is a matter for the United States, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): In considering what a long-term solution might be to the relationship between the outside world and Iran, does the Foreign Secretary believe that there is a case for some form of security assurance for Iran? Of course, such an assurance was one component in the draft agreement between the United States and North Korea in September 2005. If he does believe that, can he confirm what reflections the EU3 have made on what such a security assurance might look like, and what discussions he has had with his opposite numbers in Washington on that point?

Mr. Straw: On the first question, yes, I do, and what is frustrating, to say the least, is that security assurances—I point out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) that they could have led, over time, to a normalisation of relations with the whole of the international community, including the United States—and all other such issues were on the agenda following the decisions and agreements that we reached in Geneva at the end of last May. They were included in the detailed document that we submitted to the Iranians, on time, in early August, but, infuriatingly, the Iranian Government decided on 2 August to reject whatever we said before they even saw it. That is the cause of the current difficulties.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary accept the Opposition's strong support for the work that has been done to achieve a united position among the permanent members of the UN Security Council, including China and Russia, on reporting Iran to the Security Council? In the event that Iran does decide to reconsider Russia's nuclear proposal in the coming weeks, is the Foreign Secretary confident that that scheme, which the British Government have endorsed, will be robust enough to prevent Iran from pursuing a covert nuclear weapons programme while appearing to co-operate with Russia?

Mr. Straw: First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his endorsement of our work; the fact that there is broad all-party consensus on this issue helps our hand
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when we negotiate within the EU3 and with international colleagues. Our being able to get agreement last Monday from Russia and China on the next and most difficult step—a report to the Security Council—has been very important. As I said earlier, I hope that that gives the Iranian leadership pause for thought.

The Russians have made it clear that their proposal, by which they would enrich uranium, is not an addition to uranium being enriched at the Natanz operation in Iran but an alternative to it. If that happens, and the IAEA is able to continue with the kind of inspection regime that the additional protocol provides for, I believe that we could be pretty certain that Iran was not doing anything of a covert nature. But in the absence of those two conditions, it is very difficult to accept such a move.

Mr. Hague: If Iran does not pursue the Russian offer, how does the Foreign Secretary see the situation developing in Security Council discussions over the next few months? Will it be possible, for instance, to propose an end to all exports of military technology and hardware from other countries to Iran, and to achieve such a position in the coming months? If it will not, what genuine hope is there of applying real and concerted pressure on the Iranian Government in the future?

Mr. Straw: First, we hope that the Iranian leadership—notwithstanding their rhetoric, which has been extreme—will think carefully in the next three to four weeks about where they are taking their country, because if they take this path they are heading toward international isolation, which is not the direction in which they ought to be travelling.

Secondly, if we end up with a report to the Security Council and its considering the matter, the first stage will be a Security Council resolution exerting its authority in support of IAEA processes. There are people who say, "If you do that and nothing else, you won't be able to achieve anything." I do not agree with that. We can see from the experience with Syria in the past 18 months that although international pressure and the authority of the Security Council—without sanctions—has not achieved everything, it has achieved a great deal. But if those steps fail, extensive discussions will have to take place with our partners on whether article 41 measures would be appropriate. The right hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not anticipate those, but I make the obvious point that what we can agree in the Security Council will depend above all on the consensus that we can secure among the permanent five members.

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