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27 Feb 2007 : Column 222WH—continued

11.47 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on his splendid speech. He was far better than I would have been at pronouncing those difficult words.

I and others have long been concerned about the situation in Iran. The House of Commons has woken up to the facts only in the past two or three years. We made a terrible mistake in going to war with Iraq, and I am one of those responsible for it. I listened to experts when I should have followed my own judgment. I know that the Minister, who has been attacked and praised at the same time, is a fair man who is committed to justice.

When the Leader of the House, a splendid parliamentarian, was Foreign Secretary, his approach to Iran was wrong. Perhaps, unwittingly, he gave some sort of encouragement. When my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) and I addressed a crowd of more than 10,000—I recommend it to all colleagues—at a rally outside the UN in New York two years ago, it was somewhat surprising that in the building were very important representatives from the United States of America and the British Government applauding the President. Now, two or three years on, the House has woken up to the fact that the President is evil and wicked.

In conclusion, I do not want the House to fall into the same folly as it did in respect of the war with Iraq. I want peaceful regime change. I agree with the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South that, in light of the recent judgment by the European Court of Justice, we should support the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran. It is about time that the Government demonstrated a real commitment to peace and justice for the people of Iran.

11.50 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. As always, he made an eloquent speech. He is, of course, elegant as well.

I am extremely concerned by Iranian statements that it wishes to wipe Israel off the face of the map. We all believe that such statements are totally unacceptable, and our solidarity, of course, is with Israel. However, I
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recently attended a meeting with a former Prime Minister of Israel, Mr. Netanyahu, when he came to address Members of this Parliament. Basically, I believe that the Israelis are trying to soften us up for the possibility of unilateral action and a strike on nuclear facilities in Iran. I remember the tremendous outcry and outrage in the Muslim community when Osirak was destroyed by unilateral Israeli strikes in 1981, and I very much hope that the Minister will urge caution on our Israeli friends. The problem must be resolved in the United Nations. I am genuinely concerned that our troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan could suffer from a huge retaliation because of the outrage that such unilateral action by Israel might cause.

I also have considerable concerns about the attitude of Russia, which is selling nuclear capability to Iran. In fact, when President Bush was interviewed recently at a press conference, he made the obvious statement that, regrettably, financial contracts and business far outweigh political concerns among certain countries. I hope that the Minister will use his good offices and his influence with our Russian allies to explain that, if Russia wishes to be part of and a responsible member of the G8, and a responsible member of the UN Security Council, it must for the first time put aside its financial interests, as we and others are doing, and use its influence with the Iranian regime to ask it to back down.

I would like to reiterate some of the comments about President Ahmadinejad. He was elected, but there were serious fraud allegations and discrepancies at the time of his election, and, as has been said, the Opposition party—the reformists—secured a massive victory in the recent local council elections. We stand in solidarity with those people, who realise the dangerous way in which their President is leading their country. We hope that the Opposition parties will continue to grow.

My last comment is about the strait of Hormuz, that tiny channel of water between Iran and Oman. I am particularly concerned about Iran’s statements that it may block the strait in the event of difficulties that it may suffer because of UN Security Council decisions. The Minister will know that more than 40 per cent. of the oil flows through that narrow gap, and I hope that he will assure me that he and his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are working with our NATO allies and doing everything possible to ensure that the vital strait of Hormuz is kept open.

11.54 am

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate. He made a couple of points that I need to take up with him in the bar—no doubt we will do that later.

I had meant to speak about the failed policy of appeasement pursued by the EU3. It is clear that the regime has no intention of halting uranium enrichment, limiting its nuclear programme or, as we saw yesterday, stopping its work on delivery vehicles. I wanted to talk about the escalating crisis in the middle
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east and the part that the Iranians have played in it, to our detriment, and I wanted to talk about human rights.

My main message is that appeasement has not worked, yet we are proscribing the National Council of Resistance of Iran and, through it, the People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran, which have done much to expose the threat in Iran, are the principal source of information for many western Governments throughout the world, have stated that they do not pursue acts of terrorism—we have agreed with that—do not hold weapons and are totally committed to democracy. The NCRI leader, Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, is equally committed to what she calls the third option: no military intervention in Iran and no appeasement, but de-proscription of all those Iranians who have come together in exile to work against the present regime, which has proved so harmful to the Iranian people themselves and which is a threat to world peace.

As I said earlier, the European Court of First Instance annulled the proscription that our Government agreed to in December 2005, but our Government are spearheading a campaign to avoid that annulment and legal decision. What a disgrace it is that our country should try to get out of a properly taken legal decision through treaties that we have properly signed up to. We should be ashamed of ourselves—I certainly am.

I want to ask the Minister three questions. Why are we not recognising the court’s decision, and why are we failing democracy and the legal process in that way? When might we eventually recognise the court’s decision? Finally, why do the Government continue to give comfort to the mullahs, and continue to send messages that are in total opposition to all that we need to achieve in the middle east?

11.57 am

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): The point has been well made that we have seen in Iraq the disastrous results of armed intervention and regime change. I believe that most of us would now agree, however we voted at that time, that if there is to be regime change in Iran, it must be brought about internally. If that is the case, is it not perverse that many of those who might seek to bring about such change are proscribed?

The facts have been stated, but let us get them absolutely clear. The People’s Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran ceased internal operations in Iran in 2001, although it was proscribed in 2000. The United Kingdom Government have recognised that it has never made any threat to the UK or the people of this country, or attacked any property in the UK. It has handed over its weapons to the multinational force and is now a democratic organisation.

The UK Government properly have recognised progress in Northern Ireland, where we now deal with people who 15 or 20 years ago we would not have entertained, in diplomatic terms. The game moves on. The European Court of Justice stated in terms that the PMOI’s assets should not be frozen. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) is absolutely right to be ashamed that this country is leading the charge to maintain proscription of the PMOI.

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I have only one question for the Minister: how and when will the UK Government remove the proscription of the PMOI and allow the people of Iran to move towards internal change?

Miss Anne Begg (in the Chair): Thanks to the self-discipline of hon. Members, I have managed to get everyone in. I am grateful for that.

11.59 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for securing this timely debate. It is particularly timely given the meeting yesterday of the United Nations Security Council members and Germany to discuss the possibility of further sanctions against Iran. The 60-day limit on Security Council resolution 1737 expired last week, and Iran has yet to comply with that resolution and resolution 1696 to stop all uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, and all work on heavy water projects. In fact, it is expanding the scale of its enrichment programme. Indeed, the Iranian Government are still insisting that their activities are not aggressive and that they have the right to create a system of nuclear energy that does not rely on outside co-operation. As we are all aware, however, Iran’s past record of concealment and lack of co-operation with the IAEA inspectors paints a worrying picture and supports the UN’s decision to call for Iran to cease all enrichment activities and to accept full IAEA inspections.

The development of nuclear technology could, of course, lead to further nuclear proliferation. If other regional players, such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey, feel that Iran is arming itself with nuclear weaponry, they might feel the need to respond in kind. Iran’s action in refusing to co-operate with the IAEA inspectors and to allow them unrestricted access to this volatile region at this time is not only wrong but incredibly irresponsible. Further nuclear proliferation must be stopped, and we should all do what we can to discourage such a move.

Jeremy Corbyn: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s point on proliferation. Does he have any comment on Israel’s development of a nuclear arsenal and on the treatment of India and Pakistan, both of which have developed nuclear weapons and are being rewarded with large amounts of western aid and technology, even though they would both have been in breach of the non-proliferation treaty had they been signatories to it?

Mark Hunter: I would love to be able to spend more time discussing the hon. Gentleman’s valid points about nuclear proliferation in other countries, but he will understand if I restrict my comments to Iran, as we are restricted for time and as I want to get through quite a bit of information that is pertinent to the debate.

Iran should not be in any doubt that if it continues to break UN Security Council resolutions and agreements with the IAEA, tough sanctions will be imposed. It needs to be aware of the full political, economic and cultural consequences of isolating itself by ignoring the IAEA and the UN. It is, however,
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important that any actions the UK Government employ are backed by the UN, have international support and are built on international law. The UK and US Governments should not take any actions that are not supported by the UN, and they should follow its lead on sanctions. The UK and the US cannot afford further to damage their international reputations by acting without the support of the UN and the international community, as we did in the case of Iraq.

In particular, there is no role for military sanctions against Iran. Military action would serve only to strengthen the position of hard-line conservative factions and would fan nationalism in Iran, undermining the prospects for change. It would further destabilise the region by provoking retaliation throughout the middle east, creating even more bad feeling towards America and the west and further increasing the east-west divide.

Military conflict would also place coalition forces at risk. UK armed forces cannot be stretched further considering the current action in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it would be irresponsible to enter into another conflict. The recent US arrests of Iranian officials in Iraq have raised speculation that military conflict could be triggered not only by non-compliance over the nuclear issue, but by what the US perceives to be Iran’s destabilising activities in Iraq.

Already, reports are emerging that the Pentagon has been given instructions to draw up plans for a bombing campaign for Iran that could be launched at 24 hours’ notice, while Condoleezza Rice has refused to rule out the use of force in resolving the issues that the US has with Iran. The UK Government must make it clear that military action is unthinkable and should apply the greatest possible pressure on Washington to avoid such an option at all costs. Continuing threats from the US and elsewhere on the prospects of military action are counter-productive. They serve only to reinforce the position of hard-liners in Iran, and they could lead to Iranian withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty.

We need to ensure that we continue to engage with Iran rather than isolating it. Iran has offered to open unconditional talks with the west, but the US has insisted that before such talks take place Iran must stop its enrichment programme. I cannot place too much emphasis on the point that Iran should be persuaded in the strongest possible language, through diplomacy and through economic and political sanctions, to stop its enrichment programme and to open its facilities to inspectors. At this point we need to re-engage with Iran rather than enter into further conflict with it.

Iran’s past relationship with Iraq gives it significant power there—many of Iraq’s Shi’a politicians have long-standing ties to Iran from their time in exile during the Saddam Hussein era, and Iran has provided military and political support for Shi’ite militias and for Shi’a parties. However, Iran has recently shown signs that it is willing to engage in talks over a peaceful and stable settlement for Iraq.

The US and UK Governments appear to be stalling on involving Syria and Iran in vital discussions on the future of Iraq. I am not for a moment trying to play down the difficulties of such involvement, especially considering the current tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme, but negotiations with Iran are key to stabilising Iraq and the wider middle east region. The
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devastating effects of the conflict in Lebanon last summer, the ongoing bloodshed in Iraq and the fear of nuclear escalation, if nothing else, show us the vital importance of getting the middle east countries around the negotiating table. That must happen, and it must happen sooner rather than later.

12.6 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) for introducing the debate, and for his demonstration of a classical education. At one stage, I thought of a variation on the old Monty Python joke: if only I had had the Persian, I too could have been a Tory Back-Bench MP. He has shown a knowledge of history, and he rightly emphasised the fact that the Iranian people are a proud and sophisticated people with a long history.

All Members from all parties have addressed the core element of the debate: how we can involve Iran in the international community, recognise its right to develop nuclear energy if it wishes and make it comply with the resolutions of the United Nations, and not only those of the United States of America, Israel and the United Kingdom, that it should not develop nuclear weapons. That is not easy. For some time now, I have taken the view that the bulk of the Iranian people in Iran, and maybe even the bulk of Iranian exiles, believe that Iran has a right to develop nuclear weapons. It is not only the regime that believes that.

We also need to think about what will happen if the Iranian regime manages, by dividing the members of the UN Security Council and by prevarication, to reach a stage at which one or more powers—hon. Members have fearfully pointed this out—decide that the UN’s route has failed and that they will take unilateral military action, as they are entitled to do if they believe that their security is threatened. Do we have a plan B to deal with such a situation? Do we have a plan to deal with circumstances in which that had not occurred but Iran had merely obtained nuclear weapons? If that were to occur, we would have to consider a number of factors, not least the fact that if the Israeli Government decide not to use the military option, they will certainly, if they have not done so already, develop a second strike capability. We know already that many other regional powers have intimated that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons they too will go down that path, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and others. That will cause a vast escalation of the problem, and I do not think that the Iranian Government has thought that through. There are no particularly easy answers to the question. However, although I, too, do not wish to emphasise the bellicose military threat against the Iranian regime, neither should we say that it is an impossibility.

The line that successive Labour and Conservative Governments took during the cold war—they never talked about the use of military force of any kind against the Warsaw pact, but it was always known to be an option—is a powerful diplomatic tool that must remain on the table. We should remember that however much we do not wish it to occur—and it might not do so—the United Nations, through the Security Council,
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can ultimately authorise military force. We should bear that in mind when it comes to the signals that we wish to send to the United Nations.

There is no doubt that over the past two or three years the Iranian Government have defied the UN. I am not saying that they have defied the United States of America, Israel or the United Kingdom, but they have defied the UN in such a way that countries such as Russia and China, which tended to be sympathetic to Iran’s position, have been driven in anger and fury into supporting the sort of proposals put forward by other members of the UN.

We should take a robust line through the United Nations, one that does not rule out the possibility that the Iranian Government would have to face a military option under the UN. It should be done in such a way that it persuades the Iranian Government that they are defying world opinion, as many hon. Members have said. Indeed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) said, we should think of changing the behaviour rather than the regime. UN sanctions should be aimed at bringing pressure to bear upon the regime rather than on the bulk of the Iranian people.

One specific area that I wish to emphasise to the Minister is that disinvestment will have an almost immediate effect on the Iranian regime. The USA has started disinvestment in a limited way, as have we. For example, I understand that the governor of California has put pressure on international banks by threatening to withdraw Californian investments from those involved with financial support of the Iranian regime. California’s withdrawing its investments is an attention grabber. I believe that, in the short term, that is the best way to grab the attention of the Iranian regime. My question to the Minister is: what specific measures are the Government taking, and what pressure are we bringing to bear on member states of the European Union? There is no doubt that certain EU countries with investments in Iran are not taking such action. If they want to prevent us from going down the more military line, they should take that very much to heart.

This has been a useful debate, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s reply.

12.13 pm

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing today’s debate. He could not have chosen a timelier subject. I congratulate him on the way in which he presented his case—he did so very well.

As we have heard from a number of hon. Members, Iran is challenging—I use that word carefully—the United Nations Security Council over its nuclear programme. Iran is also providing destabilising support to extremists in Iraq and Lebanon, issuing dire threats to wipe Israel off the face of the map and, as we have heard, denying fundamental freedoms to its people. Addressing Iranian policies in those areas is rightly at the top of our foreign policy agenda. I shall take them in turn and deal with some of the questions that have been raised this morning.

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