Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40-52)


28 FEBRUARY 2007

  Q40  Mr. Moss: Perhaps I can return to the question a little bit more specifically. Is there any real evidence, from military or other intelligence, of movements of armaments across the Iran-Iraq border, whereby the Iranians are arming some of the insurgents in Iraq?

  Mr. McDonald: We believe that there is evidence. That is part of our dialogue with Tehran, and representations have been made in Tehran and London. Our approach has been somewhat different from the American approach. We have not had press conferences. We are trying to change Iranian behaviour. That is a central feature of our dialogue with Tehran.

  I have to say that the American policy is evolving. Yesterday, Secretary Rice announced that the US will take part in a meeting in Baghdad next month that will include the Iranians. We have always had dialogue with Tehran; the Americans have not, but on the issue of Iraq, they are reconsidering that.

  Q41  Chairman: Do you interpret that to mean that the American Administration are now accepting the Iraq Study Group's recommendations without saying so?

  Mr. McDonald: Yes.

  Q42  Mr. Keetch: This comes back to Mr. Purchase's point. It is remarkable that we will talk to the Iranian Government, even though they want to obliterate the state of Israel and are probably acting to get weapons into southern Iraq to attack British troops, but we will not talk to Hamas. Many might construe that to be a not very concise position.

  I want to be specific about the point that Malcolm Moss talked about. Is it your belief that weapons and technology, such as the improvised explosive devices that are being used in southern Iraq, are coming across the border with the tacit agreement of the Iranian regime, or is it more likely that Revolutionary Guard units are doing it on an ad hoc basis? Is Tehran is saying yes to it, or is it being played out by elements of the Iranian military?

  Mr. McDonald: If I may so, Mr. Moss gave us a very helpful quotation. The Prime Minister was very clear, and for good reason. We do not know precisely. We see evidence of the weapons coming across—that is a fact—but the motivation and the authorisation are not clear to us. That is why the Prime Minister spoke with such precision.

  Q43  Mr. Keetch: And have we got our Royal Marine boat back from the Iranians?

  Dr. Gooderham: Not to my knowledge.

  Mr. McDonald: No.

  Q44  Sir John Stanley: Did the U-turn on American policy to which you have just referred owe anything to the British Government?

  Mr. McDonald: I would not characterise it as a U-turn, because the Americans and the Iranians have already had some contact, including in the Iraq context. In November 2004, there was a meeting in Sharm El-Sheikh, which brought together Iraq's neighbours and the G8. In a meeting in New York in September last year to discuss the compact, Secretary Rice and Foreign Minister Mottaki were sitting in the same room, so there is a process in place. It is significant that the Americans are making something of it—it has been part of our dialogue with them—but there was more than one pressure. I do not think that we can claim credit.

  Q45  Sir John Stanley: Could you tell us what the British Government are seeking from the Syrian Government?

  Mr. McDonald: In relation to?

  Sir John Stanley: In relation to Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.

  Mr. McDonald: I shall deal with Iraq. There is still an ongoing problem between Syria and Iraq, with links between Damascus and ex-Ba'athist rejectionist elements, so that is an issue between us. There is also an issue of militants infiltrating the Syria-Iraq border. Those are the two main things on our minds.

  Dr. Gooderham: With respect to the Palestinians, we are looking to Syria for co-operation on Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, both of which are housed in Damascus. We have long felt that the Syrian Government have considerable influence over both organisations. We would like to see them use that influence in a constructive way to bring about the kind of Government that would allow for a resumption of negotiations leading to a two-state solution. That is very much what we would like to see them do on that front.

    On the Lebanon front, if we were doing a scorecard, this would be the one on which we would have to give the lowest marks to the Syrians. We have not seen the kind of evidence that we were hoping to see in the wake of the war last summer that would suggest to us that Syria is playing a constructive role in respect of the very fragile situation in Lebanon. The international community is working very hard to support the democratically elected Government in Lebanon, which has been in crisis for some months. We believe that Syria is contributing to that crisis, and we would like to see it play a much more positive role in bringing the Ministers who have left the Government back into the Government and allowing that Government then to govern as normal.

  Q46  Sir John Stanley: Do you consider that the Syrian Government has ruled out the possibility of a return of Syrian military forces into the Lebanon?

  Dr. Gooderham: I would not want to use the words "ruled out". One would like to think that, after leaving Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri, that that is it—they are not planning to return again. We have not seen any evidence to suggest that they are planning a return; it would clearly be a very negative step if they were to do that.

  Q47  Mr. Purchase: Turning to Egypt—long a major player in the Middle East and a helpful player in terms of Palestine and Israel—recent developments have made life more difficult. Hamas is now in control in Gaza and the strip to Egypt and there are traditional links between Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is Egypt's belief, view and evidence that an inhibiting factor to its becoming an increasingly democratic state is the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its activities. Given all of that, is the relationship with Hamas and Egypt under a great deal of stress? Is there any prospect of continuing discussion there, if nowhere else? They have some mutually dependent activities, particularly in relation to Gaza. How do you see that developing over the next few months?

  Dr. Gooderham: You have characterised it very well. Egypt enjoys a difficult relationship with Hamas. The Egyptians have been for some time, and continue to be, active behind the scenes in trying to get a grip, as it were, on the security situation, particularly in Gaza. They are certainly very active as a member of the so-called Arab quartet to that end. There was a recent Quartet meeting in Berlin last week. One of the agreements that came out of the trilateral meetings between Rice, Abbas and Olmert is that the quadrilateral committee, which involves the three plus Egypt, should reconvene to try to tackle the growing problem of the smuggling of arms from Egypt into Gaza, which all concerned, including President Abbas, are very worried about. That is precisely the sort of area where Egypt can play a very positive role.

  Q48  Mr. Purchase: Just to develop things a little from there, as we mentioned earlier, Egypt has played a key and helpful role in the Israel-Palestine conflict for many years. Given the situation that we have been referring to—Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood—do you believe that Egypt can still be seen as a key diplomatic broker in those circumstances between Palestine and Israel?

  Dr. Gooderham: Very much. It is hard to imagine that an Israel-Palestine political process would get very far without the active support of the Egyptian Government. That is why we are so pleased to see them as actively engaged as they are. It seems to us that they are a central player.

  Q49  Mr. Horam: Looking at this in context, do you regard this period as a bad one for the resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli problems? Is it particularly bad because of the weakness of the respective Governments—the Palestinian authority and the Israeli side—and something that we have to live with for a bit longer, or what?

  Dr. Gooderham: We would not want to conclude that we just have to live with it. That is a counsel of despair, and we would not want to conclude thus. However, clearly, in historical terms, the last few years have not been good. As I said earlier, if you regard the effort made by President Clinton leading up to Camp David in 2000 as the point at which we got closest to the establishment of a Palestinian state, we have been going backwards since then. Simon referred earlier to Prime Minister Olmert's commitment to disengagement. Clearly, Israel has got out of Gaza, at least in the sense that the settlements have been removed and there is no permanent military presence in Gaza. Our hope since then has been that we can get back to a situation at which the next stage in the process can resume. We believe that the way to achieve that is through direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, involving the United States and others as necessary.

  Q50  Mr. Horam: Is there not a vicious circle in the sense that the difficulties that we now face in Palestine and Israel are hitting back on Iraq and on Lebanon and so on?

  Dr. Gooderham: It is certainly true to say that all of those issues are linked. That is the argument of many who follow developments in the region, and we would agree with it. The Israel-Palestine issue is so central to the future of the region in general that it is widely accepted that, if we could resolve it, although that would not resolve all the other issues in the region—it would be naive to suppose that—it would have a very positive impact. Conversely, if we are not able to resolve it, it will remain the cancer in the region that is responsible for so much anger and hostility.  That is why we are not alone in believing that we have to do everything that we can to try to resolve the issue.

  Q51  Chairman: Can I finally ask you how much you think the Sunni-Shi'a conflict in Iraq and, potentially, in Lebanon could damage the wider prospects for a political solution in the region? Obviously, the Gulf Co-operation Council states are very nervous about Iran. You referred to the Arab quartet. The interesting thing is that all those countries are Sunni. Is there a hidden Sunni agenda on the wider concerns in the Arab world about not just Iranian influence, but internal Sunni-Shi'a conflicts in some of the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia and on what is happening in Iraq and Lebanon?

  Dr. Gooderham: Simon will want to say something, I am sure, about Iraq specifically. On the region in general, yes, of course everybody who has an interest in stability and prosperity is worried about the prospect of sectarian conflict breaking out, whether just in individual spots or, worse still, across the whole region. I am sure that that is a strong motivation for the Arab Governments that we have been discussing to want to get on top of issues such as Palestine, Lebanon and, indeed, Iraq.

  Mr. McDonald: Clearly, there are severe problems between the Sunni and the Shi'a in Iraq. However, it is essential that the situation should not break down into a Sunni-Shi'a civil war. I do not think that we are there yet. A key feature of the Baghdad security plan that is now under way is that the Government of Iraq as a whole—Sunni-Shi'a—are implementing that plan in an even-handed way against militants in both Shi'a and Sunni communities. They are not targeting only one group. So the Government as a whole are coping with their problems.

  Today, I have just come from lunch with Speaker al-Mashhadani, who is a Sunni, and he is leading a delegation of Iraqi MPs—Members of the Council of Representatives—and they come from all confessional backgrounds. A woman was also part of the delegation. Over lunch, they had a regular old ding-dong, but these people from different backgrounds are now prepared to debate and discuss matters. That is what we have to work with and work on, so that they cope with the differences through debate, not through violence.

  Q52  Richard Younger-Ross: You used the term "civil war", although it is not a civil war. How would we know when it was a civil war? How would you define that?

  Mr. McDonald: I would define a civil war as rival centres of power competing—as with the Wars of the Roses in England, or the religious wars in Germany in the 17th century—but this is still fighting within one polity. I do not think that the battle lines are drawn between bits of territory within Iraq. It is still a unitary country. There is still a Government with all confessions represented, and that is the focus. There is no rival Government that is out there and seeking to topple this legitimately elected Government.

  Chairman: Thank you. No doubt, we will have many opportunities to come back on that issue and the other issues that we have touched on. Mr. McDonald and Dr. Gooderham, thank you very much for coming today. We will now adjourn for a couple of minutes, to allow our other witnesses to come to the front. Anybody who wishes to leave, please leave now—that will save us a lot of time.

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