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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 23 May 2007

[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Iran (External Involvement)

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

9.30 am

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. O’Hara, and I thank you for indulging this subject. The Minister and I have debated a similar subject in the past, and I hope that he does not think that we are simply revisiting old ground. The majority of what we will discuss will be new, and I hope that he will be able to answer some pretty pointed questions.

Everyone is familiar with the problem that we face with Iran, particularly her aspirations for nuclear power, nuclear weapons and a nuclear programme generally. I do not intend to dwell upon UN resolution 1747, on uranium enrichment, or to talk in any great detail about the eye-catching events of the past few weeks, such as the debacle in the waterway off the Shatt al-Arab, and whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq and perhaps expose himself to the threat from Iranian weapons.

I shall concentrate on the issue of the day: the fact that on a minute-to-minute basis, we are losing soldiers, primarily, and other members of our security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan because of weaponry that is being imported, I believe, over the Iranian border, and because of expertise that is being taught to insurgents in several different theatres and being used to lethal effect against our men and women.

Recently, we rightly rejoiced at the release of 15 ratings and Royal Marines, but I remind the Minister that within days of their release, a number of soldiers were eviscerated by explosively formed projectiles in and around Basra. That is the real face of Iranian aggression: those weapons are killing our men daily. We have an opportunity, with the change of Prime Minister, to confront Iran, to gain from her explanations for that behaviour and to put in place a series of measures that might get her to climb down and, I hope, save the lives of our servicemen.

It has been difficult to prove conclusively that that sort of weaponry has been used, but I have one or two pieces of evidence that show me, beyond any doubt, that Iranian weaponry is being used in those theatres. First, in September 2006, United States’ forces discovered a cache of explosives, all of which were labelled as being from Iranian factories and ordnance production centres. For several years—more than 48 months—factory grade explosively formed projectiles have been used against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In February 2007, US forces proved conclusively—to their satisfaction, at least—that Shi’ite militias were being trained in the use of those weapons. Last month, more than 40 explosively formed projectiles were used in Maysan province against a patrol of the Queen’s Royal Lancers. They said that it was like being in the
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middle of Guy Fawkes night when the weapons went off. We believe that it took the enemy more than 24 hours to establish that kit. The fact that we had only two fatalities was remarkable and merciful in the circumstances.

Similarly, at the end of last month, six Canadians were killed in action in Afghanistan. They were inside a vehicle with reactive armour that was none the less pierced by that kind of weaponry. I do not want to be too technical, but armour-piercing weapons of Soviet design and Iranian production, such as the RPG-29, have now pierced at least two of our Challenger main battle tanks. A number of weapons found in a cache near to Baghdad in January were traced to Iran.

As the papers reported yesterday, UK commanders in Afghanistan claim that Iranian Strela missiles are being used against our air transport there, and I have it on good authority that medium-range rockets are being used in Helmand every night of a pattern that characteristically come from Iran. A former regimental colleague of mine described to me, in an e-mail from Helmand, that we are in the middle of an undeclared war against Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-backed Taliban in Helmand province.

The numbers of casualties are stark. April was one of the bloodiest months for British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the seven weeks leading up to the US army’s surge in Iraq, there were 29 fatalities. In the seven weeks after the start of the surge, there have been 53 fatalities. As I have already mentioned, armoured fighting vehicles in Afghanistan are regularly being penetrated.

The International Journal of Epidemiology has produced some frightening and stark figures. It says that it would previously have expected 128 improvised explosive device fatalities in a 105-day period in Iraq. With the troop surge, it expected that number to rise to about 146, but the reality is that 188 allied servicemen and women have been killed by those devices since the beginning of the US surge in Iraq. There is no doubt that there has been a serious spike in enemy activity and a concerted effort to use weaponry with a sophistication and determination with which we are becoming horribly familiar.

It is worth considering Iran’s foreign operations. We have already discussed Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is common knowledge that Iran supports Palestinian militant groups. We are familiar with the sayings of President Ahmadinejad and with Mr. Khamenei’s description of Israel as a “cancerous tumour”. We are also familiar with the operations of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and, of course, Hezbollah. There is little doubt that they are all supported by Iran.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): The vile regime in Iran has no regard for its innocent citizens, who want no part in what is going on, and it continues to meddle in other countries’ affairs and to threaten the very existence of other countries. Does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come when measures must be taken to show that the rest of the world cannot and will not put up with those actions?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; as usual, he makes a very good and articulate point. He
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underlines the fact that when we talk about this vile regime, as he described it, we must remember that it does not represent the majority of people in Iran—far from it. It is wrong to view Iran as one power block that is united in its efforts to destroy democracy and to impose its values on the world.

I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on Iran’s tolerance or otherwise of an al-Qaeda presence in its country. I am sure that he is aware that for the past several years, a Shura of al-Qaeda, including one of bin Laden’s sons, has been present inside Tehran. The Iranian regime will claim that those people are under close supervision—perhaps, indeed, in prison—and some will say that they are under house arrest. Others will say that they are free to come and go as they wish.

Clearly, the correlation of an alliance between al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime is an extraordinary one; the same applies to the Taliban. None the less, I would be interested to hear why, at the Senate foreign relations committee, the Under-Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, accused Iran of breaching security resolutions 1267 and 1373, which demand that information on al-Qaeda be shared across international boundaries. What does the Minister have to say on that?

At a symposium yesterday, Mr. Claude Moniquet, a director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre in Brussels, made an extraordinarily chilling claim, which the Minister has probably seen in this morning’s papers. He suggested that in the event of attacks on Iran and on her nuclear facilities in particular, it was highly likely that Iranian agents—he may describe them as he wishes—would attack European and British nuclear facilities inside this country. That rumour has been heard for some time—it is certainly not the first time that it has reached my ears—but for it to be stated so publicly is worrying. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister agrees or disagrees with it.

In July 2006, I asked the Foreign Secretary how likely it was that this country’s streets would, or could, be visited by Iranian terrorism. She replied:

I was surprised to receive that reply, because I had expected something much blander. I shall press the Minister to explain what he believes the threat to this country is from Iranian terrorists.

As I have explained, we now have the opportunity, provided by a new Prime Minister, of a clean sweep through which foreign policy can be redesigned to a greater or lesser extent. I implore the Minister to ask the Government to cease the inconsistency that we have had to endure for the past couple of years. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister is fully aware of the dangers that we face. He has said that

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Yet when the previous Foreign Secretary was asked about the possibility of any form of military action to confront what Iran is doing, he said something extraordinary:

He expands on that, and this is something with which the Minister is familiar.

Nobody in their right mind can expect a full-scale military intervention against Iran—of course not. But what do we do about this? Do we say to Iran, “Carry on hitting us. Carry on killing our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, because any sort of military action is clearly unacceptable according to Britain’s Foreign Secretary”? We are involved today in military confrontation with Iran whether we like it or not. I cite the officer from my regiment who said that we are in an undeclared war with that country. Shying away from this and eroding the words of our Prime Minister is dangerous. It also sends very mixed messages to a dangerous regime.

I have made this point to the Minister already, but I repeat that I simply could not understand Ministry of Defence and Government policy on issues such as boarding and not boarding foreign ships after the debacle off the Shatt al-Arab that took place about a month ago. If we are there under the terms of a United Nations resolution and we are told to board ships, we should continue to board them; we should not suspend operations and, when the dust has settled—that is a bad analogy at sea—decide that we will continue to board them. Such an approach sends out the wrong messages.

Irrespective of whether the decision on whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq was right or wrong, by golly, it gave a tremendous public relations victory to our enemies. [Interruption.]

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I saw the Minister shaking his head in confusion at that last point, so will my hon. Friend expand on it?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention. The messages that this country sent out were extraordinary. We sent the extremely powerful message that at the end of a dirty, lethal and extremely unpopular campaign, a member of the royal family was willing to risk his neck alongside the humblest private soldier or trooper from his regiment. The fact that that was then rescinded and that we went public on the decision-making process was a disgrace, and I find it extremely difficult to understand how, yet again, we fell into a well-organised and sophisticated public relations ambush. I hope that that answer proves helpful.

Why do we send delegations to Iran? Why do we treat Iran as if she is a friendly nation? We are content to stand up to nations such as Belarus; we do not send delegations there or receive its delegations. To underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), why do we continue to be ambivalent with Iran about her human rights records? Why do we tolerate the way in which gender issues are handled inside Iran?

How can we begin to understand some of the EU’s statements about the MEK or People’s Mujaheddin of
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Iran—a point recently made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)? However one regards that organisation, we must deal with it even-handedly. The EU3 stated in November 2004 that if Iran were to comply with the demands of the EU and pull back from its apparent development of nuclear weapons,

—that is, the PMOI—

What is the PMOI? Is it a terrorist organisation or not? Can it be used as a pawn on this particular board? Do we treat the people involved as human beings? Why do we proscribe that organisation, whereas Hizb ut-Tahrir continues to be non-proscribed more than 18 months after the Prime Minister said that he would proscribe it? There is a terrible inconsistency, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear how he and the Government intend to deal with it.

Mr. Jenkin: May I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the fact that the US Administration are also split on the question of the MEK? The State Department is in favour of proscribing it, whereas the Defence Department is in favour of lifting the sanction against it. Does this situation not need to be sorted out urgently?

Patrick Mercer: As usual, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree with what he says, and that was exactly the point that I was making about consistency. If we allow our enemies to see that the superpower in the west is taking one approach and we are taking another, and we allow the shameful and disgraceful statement that we have heard from the EU to gain popular appeal, what sort of message does that send? I ask the Minister to be clear with me about how we intend to deal with PMOI/MEK in the near future. It is a proscribed organisation, but do the Government intend that to be the case in the future?

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Following our debate in this Chamber on 25 April, the Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who presided, in reply to some of the questions that I had raised. The question that was not addressed in that letter relates to the point that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is making. It concerned the offer by the EU, with which the United Kingdom was complicit, that the PMOI would continue to be proscribed if there was compliance on the nuclear issue. In his letter, the Minister failed to respond to that point, so I hope that he will do so later this morning. Alternatively, if he writes to you, Mr. O’Hara, I hope that the position of the Foreign Office will be revealed, because on the issue that the hon. Member for Newark has just raised, the Minister fails to respond.

Patrick Mercer rose—

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I do not normally intervene, but I must put something on the record. The letter that I sent via the Chair of that debate was to all hon. Members who were present. I wanted to ensure that they all got it. It responded to the points that I had been unable to answer because of time constraints. The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), was
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answered in the debate. He did not like the answer that I gave, but it is in Hansard. I also intervened on him on this very subject, because he was again making untrue and unfounded allegations about my connection to this organisation.

Patrick Mercer: I should say to the hon. Member for Thurrock that the debate in which he, the Minister and I took part was indeed very limited by time. I make no bones about the fact that I have taken up the hon. Gentleman’s point so that we can get a proper answer. I do not know where I stand on this issue. I have not yet decided, so I want the Government to guide me and to give precise directions on where they are going, particularly vis- -vis the United States Government, so that Iranian opposition groups can have it clearly in their minds where their future lies. We must have an answer to that point, and I am grateful to the Minister for intervening.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Earlier in his speech, my hon. Friend said that many millions of ordinary, decent people in Iran are oppressed by a terrible regime, and he is absolutely right. Does he agree that the policy of appeasement—that is what it is—in Iran has failed? It has failed to control the development of nuclear weapons and failed to assist the people who want freedom and democracy in their country. Does he also agree that it is perhaps time to recognise that the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran and the National Council of Resistance of Iran are not part of the problem, as Her Majesty’s Government seem to believe, but part of the solution, and that if they were given the chance to play their part we might have a peaceful solution in Iran, rather than what lies ahead?

Patrick Mercer: I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s intervention, and I agree with him entirely. That is precisely the point that I am trying to make. I need some guidelines from the Government on where we are going with Mujaheddin-e-Khalq and PMOI. I believe that we have the possibility of pulling a peaceful solution from the current morass, but let us not forget that whatever threats we see daily over the hill, our soldiers, sailors and airmen are being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by Iranian weapons and Iranian evil.

What are the solutions? This will sound deeply counter-intuitive, but one reason why our troops are so exposed, particularly in Iraq, is because there are so few of them. The game is up, and there is no doubt that we intend to withdraw substantially in the near future. I guess that the Americans are thinking along similar lines, but they have taken a pragmatic military decision, which may or may not work: that if they are to withdraw in good order, they must do so from a position of strength. The situation is dangerous, and our enemies intend to make the summer even more dangerous, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we continue to run down the number of troops, fewer of them will have to cover larger areas in increasingly contained forms of transport: helicopters, armoured vehicles and so on. That means that they will be more vulnerable.

I shall not go through the technical arguments again, but if even our heaviest armoured fighting vehicles are vulnerable to weapons, that can only mean that fewer troops will result in proportionately higher casualties. I know that that is counter-intuitive, but would the Minister please assure me that in the dying days—a
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distasteful comment—of the Iraq campaign we will have enough troops left there to protect those who are trying to withdraw? I shall be extremely interested to hear his argument.

Can the Minister also make it clear how we intend to continue with the sanctions regime? Nineteen months after Iran was referred to the Security Council and 10 months after the Security Council decided that Iran’s nuclear programme

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