Previous Section Index Home Page

27 Feb 2007 : Column 215WH—continued

27 Feb 2007 : Column 216WH

Mark Pritchard: I am aware that there are differing views in Europe, and indeed in this House. I have my view, my hon. Friend has his and there is mutual respect for both those views.

Cyrus said that

The current President of Iran might wish to consider that quotation. In the past few days, he has said that he is ready for war. This morning, I would like to ask whether he is ready for peace.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): A large number of Members have indicated that they wish to speak and even more are standing. I wish to begin the Front-Bench speeches at midday, which means speeches of less than five minutes, please, if everyone is to get in.

11.25 am

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I will take five minutes and no more, I hope.

When the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) spoke, he said a great deal about the history of Iran, which was interesting to a point, but highly selective. He did not say anything about the more recent record of the west’s relationship with Iran, such as the coup of 1952, which was promoted by Britain and the United States and which removed an elected Government and brought the Shah into power. Eventually that gave way to the Islamic revolution of 1979. He should be very cautious about direct interference in Iranian affairs, which he appeared to call for throughout his speech.

I am not here to defend the human rights record of Iran since 1979, or during the Shah’s period. There are many things going on in Iran that are truly appalling, such as the treatment of religious minorities and trade unionists, and many other issues. All those points should be addressed in a spirit of solidarity with the people who are suffering such human rights abuses. The hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge, however, that there is a widespread unity of opinion among the Iranian exiled community around the world, which is large and diverse. In my constituency, there are Iranian asylum seekers who have sought asylum from every Iranian regime since the late 1950s. Nevertheless, they are, generally speaking, united in their condemnation of the overt and covert threats being made to Iran by the United States and the west, which encourage the belief that somehow or other the west can go to war in Iran and all the problems will be sorted out.

There is no realisation of the two effects that those threats have in Iran. First, they allow Ahmadinejad and his friends to ramp up their power and their wish for strong armament for Iran, and secondly, they frighten the Iranian people very much. Surely it is time to recognise that there is a need for dialogue and peace and a need to cut down the threats against Iran.

The question of Iranian nuclear armament and nuclear power is the kernel of the argument. I shall put my cards on the table: I am not a supporter of nuclear power in any form. It is a dangerous, polluting form of energy generation, but I recognise that it is not illegal under international law for any state to develop its own
27 Feb 2007 : Column 217WH
nuclear power. There is no question about it—it is a legal thing to do. If Iran wishes to develop nuclear power, it can do so in much the same way as any other country. I wish that it were not doing that, but it has a right to do so.

There have been allegations that Iran is also developing nuclear weapons. The evidence has been added up to suggest that it is trying to import centrifuges and enrich uranium, automatically leading to the development of plutonium and then to the development of nuclear weapons. The non-proliferation treaty, to which Iran is a signatory, requires all member states to allow inspections to take place. For the most part, those are pre-notified inspections and, under the voluntary protocol, unnotified inspections. Iran has not resigned from the NPT; it has withdrawn from the additional voluntary protocol, and we need to keep a sense of proportion about that. In its obsession with attacking Iran, the United States forced a vote for the first time ever at the UN International Atomic Energy Agency to bring about a resolution that went to the Security Council, which led to sanctions against Iran. I see that as a build-up, in exactly the same way as we were told an awful lot of nonsense about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, to create sufficient hype for an attack against Iran.

Let us think through the consequences of an attack on Iran. If there is a war or if bombing takes place against Iran by the United States, Israel or anybody else, two things will happen. First, if nuclear establishments are bombed, be they for civil nuclear power or anything else, the danger of fallout will be enormous. Europe has still not got over the fallout of Chernobyl in 1985. Secondly, with Iran active on all fronts, the danger that a war will spread across the whole region into Afghanistan and Iraq will be enormous. I caution hon. Members to be a little more careful in their use of language and think through the consequences of the demands that they are making.

We have been through the disasters of the war in Iraq, and we are still going through them. The war continues in Afghanistan—indeed, following yesterday’s statements, Britain’s involvement is likely to be much greater. Surely we need to promote peace and dialogue in the region. As if 500,000 and more Iraqi dead were not enough, goodness knows how many would die if we started a war with Iran. Perhaps we should be promoting a nuclear-free middle east, including Israel, which would involve nuclear disarmament and everybody signing up to the NPT. Going to war in Iran would be catastrophic for the entire region and for us as well. I urge caution and a real process of engagement with Iran in order both to prevent a war from taking place and to do something to support those people who quite reasonably demand human rights and justice in their society.

11.31 am

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this timely and topical debate. I want to make a brief contribution.

I was a member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation that went to Iran last June—the first such
27 Feb 2007 : Column 218WH
delegation for 30 years—which was a real eye-opener. Like all hon. Members present, I am concerned by the escalation towards some form of direct action in Iran, be it by America or other western nations, or a proxy action by Israel. I am also concerned about the recent actions of President Ahmadinejad, such as the provocative rocket launches, his reckless comments about wiping Israel off the map and the holding of the holocaust conference, which brought together a bizarre ragbag, including the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, Jews United Against Zionism and various other oddballs. I am also concerned by the clampdown on students and trade unionists in recent demonstrations, in which, as my hon. Friend said, the cry was, “The people want bread, not the bomb!”, and by the persecution of the Baha’i and other religious minorities. Ahmadinejad has claimed to be against terrorism, yet the street by the British embassy was recently renamed Bobby Sands street. The regime has a poor record on human rights, with the execution of minors, although we found no evidence for the stoning of women for some time when we were there, which is another claim that has been made.

The country is also becoming militarised, with an army of 350,000 troops and an air force that is an ideological force, bound to the Islamic revolution and the President himself. I understand why Iran may feel threatened. On one side it has Iraq, and on another side it has Pakistan and Afghanistan, which are all supported by western countries. To the north is Turkey, a member of NATO, and former Soviet states that are increasingly pro-west. One can therefore appreciate the feeling of isolation. However, I should like to make some observations about what we saw there.

Wherever we went, the people in Iran were at pains to point out that they were not the Iranian Government, which is a point that my hon. Friend made. Iran is a young country—26 per cent. of the population are under the age of 15, and are forward looking. They do not look back to the conservatism of the regime that came in back in 1979. They are westernised and highly educated, and 62 per cent. of the student population are women.

Let us remember that Ahmadinejad was in many respects created by the ayatollahs, and has become something of a Frankenstein’s monster. He is a very clever politician and a charismatic figure, but has presided over and contributed towards a bust economy. At a time of record oil prices, we expected to see major capital projects all over the place, but there were none. At a time when oil prices are so high, unemployment is probably well over 20 per cent., realistically speaking. Inflation is well into double figures. Iran is having to import $5 billion worth of refined petrol, and oil production is a third of what it was under the Shah. The Iranian economy is bust, yet as the Chatham House newsletter has pointed out, Ahmadinejad’s budget for last year

27 Feb 2007 : Column 219WH

The economy is therefore not being helped for the people who need it most of all. There is also a big drug problem, as we have heard.

One also needs to understand—as I did not understand before I went there—the cult of the martyr in that country. The Iran-Iraq war, which went on for eight years, still weighs heavily on the consciousness of the people of Iran. Hundreds of thousands were killed or injured, and some still suffer from the effects of poison gas. They harbour some resentment against the west, which provided the Iraqis with the components for the weapons that gave rise to those poisonings. We must remember that the cult of the martyr weighs heavily on the Iranians, but we must not play into the hands of Ahmadinejad. What he needs more than anything is a common enemy. Iran was united against Saddam, but he is no longer the common enemy.

Let us not allow the United States, the United Kingdom or the west to become the common enemy, which could unite the Iranian people behind Ahmadinejad. If military action were taken, it could be counter-productive. Wherever we went in Iran, people asked us why it was that the UK Government seemed to be acting as a poodle of the United States in foreign policy, when this country has a great culture, and a heritage and history of involvement in the middle east, which we could bring to bear in an independent and more benign way than we have up to now.

In conclusion, why do we appear to be rushing headlong into action within Iran? Diplomacy has much further to go. The Iranian economy is bust, and we need to take advantage of that. Sanctions are likely to reinforce the Iranian Government’s isolation from the electorate and build up pressure on Iranian diplomats. There must be a lot more mileage that we can get there. Just 18 months after the election of Ahmadinejad, his party won less than 20 per cent. in recent municipal elections, while the reformists, under Rafsanjani and others, took 70 per cent. of the votes nationwide. Good things are happening. Diplomacy still has a lot further to run. We need to understand what makes the Iranian people tick. We need to side with them and to isolate President Ahmadinejad. Rushing headlong into a bellicose threat of action is not necessarily the right way to achieve that.

11.38 am

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I thank the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing this debate and for allowing some of us to piggyback on to his initiative. Having said that, I disagree with a number of things that he said, which I shall address in a moment.

I reiterate the view that was expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who reflected the common denominator among Iranian resistance groups in exile. Whatever their differences, they do not want the contemplation of any invasion or military strike against Iran, as is being canvassed by the United States. Those exiles are proud patriots and they love their country. Not only do they not want it invaded or attacked militarily, but they share the view of the majority of hon. Members that
27 Feb 2007 : Column 220WH
such a course of action would be counter-productive and exacerbate a worrying situation in an enormously dangerous region, in a fragile world. If nothing else, we should acknowledge that the people in exile, who are suffering the denial of both access to their country and democracy in that land, do not want a military strike.

The situation is grave. The backdrop of this morning’s discussion is the export of terrorism from Tehran—that is generally acknowledged to be a fact; indeed, it is boasted of—and the growing encouragement of suicide brigades to create destruction, mayhem and death in various parts of the region. Iran has snubbed the views of the international community, particularly UNICEF, on how it handles juveniles. Furthermore, human rights abuses continue, whether in respect of a person’s sexual orientation, their religious belief, as has been referred to, or, indeed, whether they are secular. Of course, anybody who wants to create a pluralistic society is clearly unacceptable to the regime. All that comes in addition to its determination to enrich uranium—for military purposes, I believe.

The situation is very threatening. My concern is that the United Kingdom sends mixed messages to Tehran. I acknowledge that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who went on the IPU delegation, has approached this issue in a very dilatory—diligent, I mean—manner. However, what was dilatory was our letting him go, because such visits send all the wrong signals. I invite him to consider this: we would not send an IPU delegation to Belarus. They are all pretty bad on the league table of rotters, but we would not send a delegation to Belarus, where, for example, there are no executions today, certainly not by the state. Sometimes, we genuflect to some pretty wretched regimes and we are not consistent.

The biggest problem of mixed messages comes from Her Majesty’s Government. The Prime Minister talked robustly two or three months ago at the lord mayor’s banquet. I could read what he said into the record, but time is short. Basically, he made it clear that, as the Prime Minister, he considers that Iran is exporting terror. On other occasions, he has implied that ordnance and weaponry from Iran, with the regime’s fingerprints on it, are being used against British forces around the world.

Those are the views of the Prime Minister—pretty strong stuff. Yet I invite this Minister to consider that Ministers—not only him, but others—send different messages. They are much more appeasing. The Leader of the House is one, as is the Home Secretary. They were singing from a different song sheet. We will probably hear more of that this morning in the 15 minutes allocated to the Minister. If nothing else emerges from this debate, there should be a consistent approach by Government spokespersons when they are dealing with Iran, because their utterances are read in Tehran.

The hon. Member for The Wrekin referred to resistance around the world. He referred to the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran, or PMOI, as a military wing. His view might be different from mine, but it is a matter of fact that the PMOI has not embarked on any military action since 2001. That is recognised by Her Majesty’s Government. So the PMOI is no more a military or terrorist organisation
27 Feb 2007 : Column 221WH
than Sinn Fein or the IRA, with whom sensibly—albeit reluctantly—we have had to have dialogue.

The PMOI cannot with any legitimacy be charged with being a military or terrorist organisation. It is simply not true, and the British Government acknowledge that. What is perverse is that the British Government, along with other EU countries, are still resisting taking the organisation off the terror list. They have done that cynically. It is in the public domain that the EU3, which includes the United Kingdom Government, said in November 2004, as an offer to the Tehran regime:

that is, the PMOI—“as a terrorist organisation”.

That is cynical and dishonest and diminishes our case. I should have thought that those of us who are peace loving would want to encourage peaceful resistance as a proud weapon. We know that some of the most effective resisters around the world are people who have abandoned terrorism, often in the face of serious physical attack both at home and abroad. There ought to be rewards for the PMOI and similar groups if and when they abandon their armed action. That is why I ask the British Government to reflect again. When challenged, the hon. Member for The Wrekin overlooked that unfair, unjust and imprudent terror tag. There is an old-fashioned virtue called the rule of law. In that sense, courts are above Governments. They sit in judgment, and the court that has determined the issue says that it is unlawful and unfair for the PMOI to be on the terror list.

It is time that the British Government reflected. First, they should send much more consistent messages to Tehran, rather than variable ones from different Ministers—the more junior they get, the more variable they are. Secondly, they should stand by the decision of an independent court that has found them to have made a wrong judgment. We should stress that we look to the British Government to do everything that they can to resist armed conflict in that land, but also to find the distinction between appeasement, which has been the pattern so far, and sensible, prudent and robust dialogue.

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): If hon. Members keep their remarks to three minutes, everybody should be able to get in.

11.46 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has demonstrated the inability of the Government to agree on a line to take, even after 10 years. I suspect that that is due not to junior Ministers, but to the fact that the Prime Minister runs a parallel foreign office at No. 10.

What we require is not regime change, but behaviour change. It has not been made sufficiently clear in this debate that the European Union and others have made an offer to Iran, made clear by an article in The Economist on 10 February:

It is worth reminding ourselves that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty allows access to civilian nuclear technology. Iran failed because of its complete lack of candour to the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. That damaged confidence in our belief in Iran’s willingness to comply with its treaty obligations. We ought consistently to make it clear to Iran that the treaty allows it to have access to civilian nuclear energy, but on certain conditions, and that we are looking for behaviour change, not regime change.

Next Section Index Home Page