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23 May 2007 : Column 441WH—continued

10.23 am

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on initiating this debate. It is hugely important. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was absolutely right to say how important the issue is and that it needs to be elevated. I do not think that a more important external issue faces this country, for four reasons.

The first is the Iranian nuclear programme. It is important, as was mentioned, because of the likelihood that it will result in much wider proliferation throughout the middle east. Also, given the nature of the Iranian regime, it is just possible that Iran will use its nuclear weapons. We cannot necessarily dismiss all the talk about wiping Israel off the map, for example, as mere rhetoric.

The second reason why Iran is so important is related; it has to do with the wider impact in the middle east. Again, I do not think that Iran’s importance in the events in Lebanon last summer should be underestimated, as it frequently is. Hezbollah is largely a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime. My hon. Friend made the point that the capture of British
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sailors in Shatt al-Arab was a distraction. The same point could be made about the events in Lebanon—they could be seen as a distraction from what the Iranian regime is up to with its nuclear programme.

The third reason why Iran, this debate and the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark are so important is the question of what is happening to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend eloquently described the case and how significant the threat is. It is surely outrageous, and this House should acknowledge it more often, that another Government are essentially killing our troops. That basic fact seems so astonishing that it should be causing outrage. It should be causing regular debates in this House and marches in the streets, yet we generally let it go as one of those things—“It’s all a bit of a mess,” “Lots of people say we shouldn’t be out there anyway” and “It’s all our fault.” We rather dismiss it, and that is utterly wrong. It is a major issue.

The fourth important point, which was also made by my hon. Friend, deals with the threat in the United Kingdom. In considering external theatres, we tend to concentrate on the middle east, but the Iranian regime has been responsible for the murder of some 80 people in Buenos Aires, and the capability for terrorist action in the UK cannot be dismissed.

Why is the matter not debated more or discussed as much as it might be? Two reasons spring to mind. The first is perhaps that it is so big and so difficult that it is easier to ignore than address. Secondly—I speak as someone who initiated one of these debates 16 months ago—it is easier to identify problems than solutions, although my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised a number of important points.

In the time available, I do not have an opportunity to expand on that, but I have two points to make. The policy of engagement by the EU3, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, failed. It gave the Iranian regime time to develop its nuclear programme. This is a slightly personal point, but whatever the qualities of the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)—and they are considerable—he is closely associated with that policy of engagement. At the moment it is, if not likely, a distinct possibility that he might return to the Foreign Office as Foreign Secretary. On this issue, that would be the wrong signal to send the Iranian regime. I think that it would be a mistake, and I hope that the Chancellor, if he reads the report of this debate, will bear that in mind.

To reiterate points made earlier, I cannot understand the Government’s policy on the PMOI. There may be something about the PMOI that I do not know, but the evidence that I have seen suggests that it is not and has not been for many years a terrorist organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made clear, it has never undertaken any activity that has damaged the UK or the west. The only explanation that I can see for why the Government are reluctant to de-proscribe the PMOI seems to be that it would upset the Iranian regime—the hon. Member for Thurrock made that point earlier. That is simply not good enough. It is not an acceptable reason, and if the Government cannot come up with a better one, it is time that they de-proscribed the PMOI.

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We face an enormous threat. What we have presented to the Iranian regime time and time again has been weakness, whether it be in the policy of engagement, in dancing to the Iranian regime’s tune as far as anti-regime movements are concerned or in military action in the middle east. I do not think that the whole Shattal-Arab affair was the finest hour for this country, by any means. It is time for us to send some firm signals to the Iranian regime. Others have given concrete examples of what should be done. I hope the Minister is listening, as it is about time that the Government took action.

10.30 am

Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (LD): I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for securing the debate, especially in the context of the upcoming US-Iranian talks about Iraq later this month. His views have been interesting and enlightening, particularly in the light of his personal experience with and contribution to our armed forces.

Iran’s conduct in the wider middle east has alarmed many countries, and rightly so. Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reported that US officials believe that Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaeda elements and the Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces, with the endgame of further pressure on the US Congress to vote for withdrawal from Iraq. Although that report might or might not be true, it shows the level of fear that Iran’s recent actions in the middle east have engendered.

I do not for one moment play down the destabilising effect that Iran might be having on the fragile situation in Iraq, but some of the rhetoric used in the debate is unhelpful. Calling any negotiation with Iran appeasement is, I think, particularly divisive. Not only is it untrue, but it seems deliberately to play on the historical context of that word in the UK. Dialogue does not mean appeasement, and it would be wrong to caricature it in that way. It is clear that the evidence seems to point towards Iran’s encouraging the movement of both men and arms into Iraq and financing and training Iraqi insurgents. Iran is also known to have significant links to Shi’a groups in Afghanistan as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the west bank. Iran’s actions and its encouragement of insurgents and terrorists show that it is failing to use its significant influence in that arena to help to stabilise the region.

Any actions that endanger British lives are, of course, of the utmost concern. It is entirely right that any such action should be criticised by the international community in the strongest possible language and be met with a firm response from the UK Government. Endangering the lives of British servicemen and women should always have the gravest consequences.

Military action or the threat of military action is not the answer to the problem, however. The use of military force is not only unlikely to be successful, but would give succour and support to the hardliners in Iran and help to marginalise those internal forces—they do exist—that are sympathetic to the west. Furthermore, it would create chaos in the region. We
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would almost certainly see retaliation from groups supportive of Iran, and the escalation of violence in Iraq and the west bank, which would place UK and allied troops in even greater danger. East-west relations would crumble and the chance for peace in the region would disintegrate with them.

Whatever the provocation, military action against Iran would be counter-productive and could leave the UK and USA without the support of the UN and the wider international community.

Patrick Mercer: I absolutely take the hon. Gentleman’s point and follow the direction from which his rhetoric comes. Does he not agree, however, that we have gone beyond that point? It is easy to talk about no military confrontation, but the fact remains that we are already in daily military confrontation with Iran, albeit at a low level. How does he square that with his earlier comments?

Mark Hunter: If the hon. Gentleman hears the rest of my argument, he will realise that I do not accept the current situation or that there is nothing much to be done about it. Clearly, there is a need for more urgent action, but as I have said before in this place, I do not believe that military intervention will help in any way, shape or form. It would also leave our country in questionable territory when it came to international law. I hope to develop the point, if he will bear with me.

The UK and the United States cannot afford to damage further their international reputations by acting without support from such sources. As I have said in past debates on Iran in this Chamber, such action would be irresponsible. Will the Minister reaffirm that our Government have ruled out that option and that they will place the greatest possible pressure on the United States to ensure that it is off the table?

To develop a foreign policy for the middle east that has a chance of success, we must accept certain facts. Iran is undoubtedly a major regional power; its influence over the area has spread so far that it has become almost impossible to envisage a resolution in Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east without Iranian involvement. The west’s policy of Iranian containment has failed, as the actions of the past years show. We need to re-think our strategy towards Iran, to encourage it to use its influence for peace in the middle east and to ensure that it fully understands that ever tougher diplomatic sanctions and isolation will follow if it fails to engage constructively.

America’s meeting with Iran later this month on Iraq indicates that it has accepted Iran’s influence in the region, but there is a danger that those talks will not go far enough. Comprehensive talks need to take place that deal not only with Iraq, but with the wider political, social and economic issues that divide east and west. It would not be the first time that the west has taken such action; the US adopted similar policies with both China and Russia, as we know.

Iran is at a critical turning point. Presidential and parliamentary polls will be held next year and, as we know from media reports, President Ahmadinejad’s term of office has been cut short by the Iranian legislature. Importantly, we have also seen from Iranian politicians and religious leaders published comments
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that were critical of the President’s combative relationship with the west, and which acknowledged that his approach was harmful to the Iranian national interest. The current Iranian Government therefore do not speak for all Iran; there are voices that we need to encourage. The next few years will be a critical juncture in Iranian internal politics. The UK Government need to do all they can to encourage those groups that see the value and the sense of a positive relationship with the west. Does the Minister agree that dialogue and a new relationship with the west would help the pragmatists in Iran to tip the balance of power in their favour and sideline the radicals? We need to play the long game.

The UK has a critical role to play. The UK Government are in a position to influence the US and encourage it to engage positively with Iran. In return, Iran has influence in the region that the US lacks in many cases. If the US and Iran were to engage in open and frank dialogue, not only could negotiations on Iran’s negative involvement in Iraq continue more successfully, but, in the longer term, Iran could be encouraged to use its influence to stabilise the region. Both sides need to come to the realisation that the only viable option left to them is that of dialogue, without the irresponsible quasi-religious rhetoric that is so often employed by both parties, which serves only to create mutual hostility.

Andrew Mackinlay: I am impatient to know how and at what stage the hon. Gentleman intends to demonstrate some criticism of the Iranian regime. I assume that he speaks for the Liberal party on the issue. We have listened to him for four or five minutes and he dismissed the charge of appeasement. What has he got in his armoury to demonstrate some disgust at the human rights outrages and gender discrimination in politics? What will he do—bang on the door with a wet sponge?

Mark Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He is well aware from the comments that my colleagues and I have made on previous occasions that the Liberal Democrats bow to no man in condemning the human rights abuses and the horrific regime in Iran. I am simply trying to make the point in the limited time available that there are forces within Iran that ought to be encouraged and that see the value of a positive relationship with the west. I was on my final point, but I am more than happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman on the matter on a future occasion.

For the US and Iran to work together in the region, they will both need to be willing to compromise, recognise each other’s concerns and limit their expectations accordingly. They will also need to come to the negotiating table without any pre requisites and in the knowledge that negotiation is in the national interests of all parties.

10.40 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr. O’Hara, for the opportunity to reply on behalf of my party. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on introducing the debate with his central theme—that Iranian weaponry is helping to kill and injure British service personnel in
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Iraq and Afghanistan now, as shown by the quotation from a serving lieutenant-colonel that we are in an undeclared war with Iran.

The debate has been short but useful, and parliamentary colleagues have either kept to my hon. Friend’s theme or gone off at tangents. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) spoke passionately about his belief that the British Government need to recognise or not, one way or the other, the role of the PMOI and highlight the lack of any real civil liberties in Iran.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) spoke eloquently about the fact that we frequently address the Iranian problem in a completely unsophisticated way. We should recognise that Iran is a large regional power and that we need to use a wide range of diplomatic as well as economic and military levers if we are to have any hope of persuading Iran not to go down the path that it is currently on. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) identified a series of issues connected with Iran, not least its threat to the wider region.

In the limited time available to me, I wish first to ask what we know about Iran, addressing the central question that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark put. I shall give three short quotations. The first is from John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, on 11 January 2007. His view, and that of the United States Government, was that

The Foreign Secretary, at Foreign Office questions on 20 March, said:

Finally, the Prime Minister, in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee on 8 February 2005—two years ago—said that Iran

That is clearly the view of the United States and British Governments. That is fine, but the question must surely then be what we are going to do about it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked—it may be unfair that the question is being asked of a Foreign Office Minister, as it should be put to a Defence Minister—what has the Ministry of Defence done about force protection in Iraq and Afghanistan? By that I mean how does it stop indirect Iranian attacks upon not just British but Iraqi and Afghan troops, which are the troops of the legitimate Governments? My second point should also be made to an MOD Minister. Under successive Governments, we have failed to put enough money into protecting our military personnel and their vehicles against the munitions that come in, as other countries, both America and Israel, have done.

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But what do we not know? That is the Rumsfeld question. We are never absolutely sure who in Iran is directing policy at any given stage. My own conclusion is that we are dealing with a regime rather like the French revolutionary regime in the early 1790s—a complex series of coalitions of one kind or another. It sometimes suits them that we in the west, and for that matter their own neighbours, are never 100 per cent. sure how to deal with them.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said in their presentation yesterday, we need to up our game in dealing with Iran. I do not believe that it is an either/or; it is perfectly legitimate for us to have discussions and conversations with regimes that we do not like. Ultimately, if they are a threat to international security and our security, we can end all diplomatic relations, which can lead to all kinds of other things. We have not reached that stage yet, but we need to up our game through a combination of incentives and penalties. The Iranians play hard-ball international politics, and I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that, in information policy, the United States of America and ourselves, who are supposed to have such a sophisticated approach, have all too often been caught on the back foot.

We should also bear in mind that the Iranian regime has not liked being placed in the international dock. It never believed that its nuclear programme would get as far as the Security Council position that has been taken in the past few months. The Iranian Government are capable of making the most horrendous mistakes. After all, the Russians have bent over backwards to help the Iranians at every possible opportunity. Usually, the Iranians have been stupid enough to spurn the Russians, so the Russians have finally fallen in behind the United Nations. We now need to link the attitude of the Iranians to their nuclear programme with their sponsorship of terrorism. The Government must not only make it clear to them that we are taking the matter very seriously and intend to publicise every possible detail of their links with terrorism, but work even harder to persuade our allies, particularly in the European Union, that the issue is of outstanding importance.

There is no quick fix and no final military solution, but I disagree with the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear, we can never take the military option off the table in international diplomacy, because it is something that can ultimately be done through the United Nations. We should not remove that option, and the Iranians should be made well aware that, if they continue to defy the international community and a series of sanctions and UN resolutions are gone through, the international community might ultimately decide to institute a series of military options. That might not happen, but we should not say that we will take the option off the table. No sovereign country will ever say, in dealing with another country, that there is not a military option if it feels that there is a threat. That is not to say that we advocate it, but we must make it clear to the Iranians
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that a range of diplomatic and military tools are available and that they are in the dock and we are not.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newark for introducing the debate, and, as always, I look forward with pleasure to the Minister’s response. I am happy that he is still in his place during this sensitive time of regime change. Like the Roman empire, we have an emperor of the east and an emperor of the west, and the Minister may or may not survive. Perhaps the Department for Work and Pensions will beckon in a month’s time. I look forward to hearing his reply.

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