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12 Nov 2007 : Column 441

I would like the Secretary of State to answer some questions. Was he told and consulted in full about this decision before it was taken? What was his response? Was Lord Drayson, the former excellent Minister for Defence Equipment and Support, consulted? I rather think that he was not, given that he has since left the Government. The point about DESO was that it was an extremely efficient, effective and vigorous promoter of its operations, quite unlike the dud organisation into which it has now been shunted.

I understand that the Prime Minister decided to do this to appease someone called Baroness Vadera, who I am sorry to report to the House is apparently a Minister responsible for promoting Britain’s interests overseas. One can only conclude of her determination to get rid of DESO that she must fashionably dislike this country and its institutions, and that she is clearly careless of our national interest. I suggest that the House keep a careful eye on her. Perhaps she should return to her bank in the City.

It is hard to believe that the Government could have taken so bovine a decision. Wilfully undermining one of the most successful agencies in Government, breaking it up and removing it from the Ministry of Defence is a foolish thing to do, and this Government will come to regret it.

6.2 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): The opening remarks by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs painted a rosy picture of the alleged successes in Iraq and of what is happening now. I would like to put a slightly different slant on things. We should remind ourselves that US troops are in Iraq only because of a presidential veto of two votes of both Houses of the US Congress to withdraw them all and that Congress is now locked in a debate about how much money should be spent on the continuing deployment of forces in Iraq. We should also record that some 500,000 Iraqis have died during this war, that 2 million have gone into internal exile in Iraq because they can no longer live safely in their own homes and that 1.7 million have gone into exile in neighbouring countries, particularly Jordan and Syria, where they obviously put an enormous strain on local resources and facilities.

We should ask ourselves serious questions about how we got ourselves into this situation in Iraq, how much it has cost us and how it has cost the lives of so many people in Iraq and of so many American and British servicepeople. We must ensure that we do not repeat the same mistake by building up to another war in Iran or anywhere else in the region. I am concerned that so much of the debate seems to be about a notion of security involving building up greater armaments and preparing ourselves for yet another disastrous conflict in that region. I agree with the call made by the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram): it is time for the small number of remaining British forces to come home from Iraq because their presence is doing nothing other than make the situation worse.

We went into the war in Iraq because we believed the allegation that there were weapons of mass destruction there and because we chose to follow US foreign policy. The war has done immense damage to this country and
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to the USA, and it has not reduced terrorism or extremism—indeed, it has probably had exactly the opposite effect throughout the region and in the wider world. We should look a bit more seriously at how we can withdraw from Iraq and help to promote a long-term peace process in the whole region.

The Secretary of State did not say much about this, but I am concerned about the continuing conflict in Afghanistan which, again, is presented as one of continuing success. I understand, however, that the Ministry of Defence now talks openly about a 30-year deployment—three further decades—of British troops there. What on earth do the Government expect to achieve in 30 years’ continuing occupation of that country other than the probable build-up of enormous opposition to them and the instability that would then be engendered in neighbouring countries? We might wish to defeat what is termed “extremism” and to defeat a perverted form of Islam, but I am not convinced that bombs, guns and huge deployments of western forces is the way to do it. They are more likely, in the long run, to increase the danger of that particular development.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) pointed out in an intervention that despite the presence of a significant number of NATO forces, including British forces and US special forces, in Afghanistan, drug production is at record levels and rising, and is unlikely to reduce in the near future. We should take a slightly more sanguine view of our role in the region.

Iran has been called the bad boy of the region. I am not here to defend the Iranian regime’s human rights record, or its record on trade unions or anything else, but I ask the House to recognise that the vast majority of people in Iran, of all political and religious persuasions, are not in favour of bombing raids by the United States, Israel or anybody else, or of a land invasion of Iran. Such an approach will create a sense of unity in Iran that probably did not exist before. I intervened on the shadow Foreign Secretary earlier, and my point is that we should have a greater understanding of the power structures and social structures in Iran and seek to engage with all sections of Iranian society.

Iran is still a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty, unlike Israel or other countries in the region; it has not acceded to the supplementary voluntary protocol, but it is still a signatory. Surely that is worth hanging on to. We should continue to hang on to it through a process of dialogue rather than one of overt threat, which is what we appear to be developing. A war with Iran would be even worse than a war with Iraq. The casualties of such a war would be greater and the long-term consequences probably more dangerous and more serious for the whole region and for the rest of the world.

We are watching the playing out of the situation in Pakistan. The west has given considerable support to President Musharraf over a number of years, and he has now declared a coup almost against himself. Today I received an email from a Pakistani friend of mine who used to live in London. I will not give his name because I fear that he could be in danger if I did so. I shall just read a small part of what he wrote to me. He said:

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A report that he sent on to me states:

That is what is happening in Pakistan.

A large demonstration by ordinary Pakistani people took place in Whitehall on Saturday. It called for us at least to condemn, as I believe we are doing, the state of emergency and to recognise that the chances of having free and fair elections during a state of emergency and while so much of the media has been suspended are non-existent. We have to recognise that the defence policies pursued by the west, especially the US, have not done much to conquer poverty or encourage civil society, but have bolstered the political power of the military, and Musharraf is now showing how much he is prepared to flex his muscles in that respect.

My final points are on Palestine. I intervened on the Secretary of State on the situation there, and I have had the good fortune to visit Palestine and Israel on five occasions over the past few years. I am constantly shocked by the poverty of the Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, and their sense of isolation, hopelessness and disillusion that the peace process will mean anything for them. Consistently, Israel has continued, through settlements, construction of the wall and imprisonment of elected Palestinian parliamentarians and lawmakers, to reduce living standards and the opportunities for political discourse in Palestine.

A solution based on the separation of the west bank and Gaza is no solution. Some cosy deal cooked up in Annapolis is not the solution. Too much of the western strategy is based on pumping money into the Fatah-led Government on the west bank and ignoring the needs of the people of Gaza. I have today received a lengthy statement from the Palestinian-International Campaign to End the Siege on Gaza, which talks about the way in which Israel prevents normal commodities from getting into Gaza; the problems of access to health care and education; and the sense of anger and bitterness felt by the ordinary people there.

If we are to bring about some kind of long-term peace, justice and security for everyone who lives in the region, we need to listen to those voices in the Israeli opposition and the peace movement who say that the current policy is unsustainable. We also need to listen to independent voices in Palestine who want recognition and support, and we need the west to be serious about putting an end to the siege. The sense of anger in the whole region, and in Palestinian youth, is the cause of some of our problems in this world. Through the Balfour declaration and many other acts of colonial control, Britain is partly responsible for the history of the region, and we therefore have a role to play in not allowing any unsustainable, cosy deal cooked up in Annapolis, but in pursuing a solution based on the withdrawal of the settlements, an end to the construction of the wall, the release of the 4,000 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and, above all, recognition of the rights of Palestinian people. That will make life safer and more secure for people living in Israel as well as those living in Palestine.
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The continuation of the conflict through the build-up of arms and separation barriers is not a solution and it will not help us to bring about peace. We have a role to play in that and I hope that we will do so, but I have not been encouraged by what I have heard so far today.

6.13 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) made a thoughtful contribution. He knows that we share much common ground on the issue of Iraq and, from what he said today, on the situation in Iran.

I am grateful for the chance to speak in the debate and I intend to confine my remarks to one of the most significant challenges facing British foreign policy today—Iran. I am concerned that the US’s approach is an impediment to a peaceful solution. By opting for confrontation and the rhetoric of regime change, President Bush is playing into the hands of President Ahmadinejad and the hardliners in Tehran. That can only make matters worse. I urge the Government to use their influence to get the US to change tack or at least soften its tone.

We understand that President Bush is seriously considering a military strike. If he is even coming close to doing so, we risk sleepwalking into yet another foreign policy disaster, the scale of which might surpass even the shambles of Iraq. For one thing, it is not even certain that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, a view shared by Sir John Thomson, a former UK ambassador to the United Nations. It may be true that Iran is pressing ahead with uranium enrichment, and that that uranium could be used to build a bomb, but I suggest that Tehran’s nuclear programme has always been as much about status as it has been about security. There is a possibility that Iran, like Japan, wants the prestige of having nuclear know-how without actually wanting to develop a bomb. Indeed, if we look at the region from Iran’s point of view, it is surrounded by nuclear powers, be they China, Russia, Israel, Pakistan or, to the south, the US navy, so status is important.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency has been unable to uncover any concrete evidence of a nuclear weapons programme and Tehran has consistently denied any intention of building one. We saw in Iraq what problems can follow when evidence is not properly scrutinised by this place. The situation requires subtlety of understanding and action. That is where President Bush’s rhetoric becomes very important. Talk of an “axis of evil” or regime change is not helpful. Iran can have no meaningful incentive to co-operate on nuclear power if it believes that the US ultimately wants regime change. In fact, it makes the nuclear option more attractive. Regime change is unlikely to happen anyway, as Iranians are already broadly supportive of the political system, even if many are not in favour of President Ahmadinejad. Indeed, the current confrontational approach, through rhetoric and the implied threat of military action, plays into Ahmadinejad’s hands. It gives him the enemy he needs to unite Iran and harness anti-American feeling across the middle east. It helps the hardliners to secure their position at a time when economic difficulties are getting worse.

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The subtlety of our approach should recognise the election timetable in Iran. Parliamentary elections are due next March and presidential elections in 2009. Both Iranian elections will affect the course that that country eventually takes. One could argue that confrontation is not working anyway. Iran is still enriching uranium and does not feel especially vulnerable, believing the US to be weak and essentially bogged down in Iraq.

The risk is that we underestimate how seriously President Bush is contemplating a military strike. For him, the timetable of dealing with Iran is shortened by his own imminent departure from office. He does not want to leave a nuclear Iran as his legacy and he seems prepared to sacrifice the long game for his short-term needs. However, a military strike by the US or Israel would be wholly unwise. The one thing guaranteed to push Iran into continuing uranium enrichment and developing a nuclear weapon would be a unilateral military strike. National pride, as well as strategic wisdom, would require that. Iran would probably also drop out of the non-proliferation treaty and end all co-operation with the IAEA, as the hon. Member for Islington, North suggested.

Support for the current hardliners in Iran would probably increase as a result of a strike, just as the Iran-Iraq war boosted patriotic support for the regime and helped to cement the revolution. In the same way, Iranians responded to Bush’s talk of an axis of evil in 2002 by going on to remove the reformist President Khatami. Air strikes would not do much damage to the nuclear programme anyway. We do not know for sure where the sites are; some are deeply embedded in mountains. Air strikes would, however, further inflame western and Islamic viewpoints.

Instead of confrontation, there should be more constructive dialogue from the US and the west in general. We need a cessation of US calls for regime change, and an end of talk about an axis of evil. I suggest that we need to offer implicit recognition of Iran’s new status as a major power in the region—a status that we created through the removal of Iran’s rivals in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a precedent for recognising new status: in the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power.

We need a gradual normalisation of diplomatic relations. Without that, discussions on Iraq, the nuclear issue and the middle east peace process will become more difficult. There is no doubt about it: some diplomatic efforts have already been made by the E3 plus 3, but more could be done. The west underestimates the opportunity to influence Iran and to steer the country towards a more moderate and reformist future by appealing over the head of President Ahmadinejad to the country’s population and its middle classes. Iran is a state in transition, with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles. The challenge for the west is to influence those struggles. Crude appeals for regime change undermine local proponents of reform by making them look like imperialist lackeys. Offering Iran a new relationship with the US could strengthen the pragmatists at the expense of the hard-liners. The pragmatists believe that Iran has a better chance of achieving regional prestige through negotiation.

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We must not forget the opportunities that engagement presents. Like Washington, Tehran is eager to avoid civil war in Iraq, with the instability and refugee movements that that could involve, and is eager to maintain Iraq’s unity, albeit with Shi’ite predominance. Instead of bemoaning Iran’s influence in Iraq, President Bush should seek to embrace that power and try to use it constructively, difficult though that may be. Tehran and the west also have a shared interest in tackling poppy production in Afghanistan—a point that was raised earlier. Iran has a real problem with heroin addiction, and co-operation with Britain might hold the key to reducing supply.

Situations of great complexity are often played out at different levels, and Iran is no exception. For example, Germany, one of Iran’s biggest business partners, is under US pressure for its companies to cut exports, and for export credit guarantees to be reduced. The German Chancellor has responded by saying that any sanctions must be negotiated in the UN. Berlin has evidence of US companies doing undisclosed business with Iran via shadow companies in the middle east. We know that the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently made a surprise visit to Tehran to put pressure on the regime to meet the IAEA deadline regarding uranium enrichment. Apparently the key reason is that the Kremlin sees an Iranian climb-down as the perfect way to prevent the US from setting up its planned missile radar intercept sites in eastern Europe. As President Bush insists that the stations are targeted at Iran, not Russia, he would not need them if the Iranian threat disappeared.

Whichever level holds sway, and whatever argument wins through, politicians of all types need to remember that military action should always be the action of last resort; Remembrance weekend was a poignant reminder of that. Once military action is sanctioned by politicians, the way is laid open for uncertainty and unforeseen consequences. Those unwelcome visitors always come knocking at the door of even the best laid plans. That is why military action should be taken only when all other avenues have been exhausted.

I believe that we can and should go that extra mile for peace. The US needs a subtlety of approach that recognises the complexities of the issue, and Britain should use her influence in the US to get President Bush to acknowledge that. We need a policy of genuine engagement to undermine President Ahmadinejad and reassure Iran that her interests need not be threatened by working with the west. While keeping all other options on the table, we need to renounce the option of a military strike in the short term. The nuclear issue is yet to be decided. A peaceful solution is possible if we can succeed in getting the US to change its policy, but time is becoming short, if only because of the presidential election timetable.

6.24 pm

Mr. David Crausby (Bolton, North-East) (Lab): The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have required commitments beyond the call of duty on the part of Britain’s armed forces. Disagreement and political point-scoring about whether our forces are stretched or overstretched are, for me, academic in the face of the performance of our armed forces. Whatever the appropriate form of words—whatever side of stretch
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or overstretch we come down on—our troops are certainly at the edge of their capability, and that simply cannot be allowed to continue.

Matters will only get worse unless there is a significant increase in defence resources, or a significant reduction in our commitments. In any event, further involvement in other operations at this time is out of the question. In some respects, that might well be a good thing, but for Britain to be in such a situation for any length of time threatens our security, and the issue must be addressed. A country with wealth and resources as extensive as ours should never be unable to defend itself effectively against a new and unexpected threat. We should always have a significant cushion between our operational commitments and our security needs. That is one reason why supporting the Americans in Iraq, when we were already greatly committed in Afghanistan, was not only a political mistake, but a dangerous tactical security error. We should thank God that those events coincided with a reduction in our commitment in Northern Ireland, because without the peace dividend that political agreement has delivered our forces would by now be in meltdown.

Even the Americans, with their enormous defence base, are feeling the strain, and the tactical mistake that George Bush made in Iraq has clearly emboldened the Iranians, to the detriment of world peace. We must remember that British troops are the finest pound-for-pound military forces in the world not simply because they are British. They perform to such a high standard because we, as a nation, have traditionally trained and resourced our Army, Navy and Air Force to a much higher level than many other countries. In addition, a successful mix of operations and training experience has left our armed forces with an expertise that is second to none. However, if we put our forces under too much operational pressure, without giving them the time to refresh and retrain, their standards will inevitably slip and our security will be threatened.

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman rightly praises our armed forces, but does he not agree that if our reconstruction efforts had been correct, and if, in the short window of opportunity that we had in 2003 and 2004, work had been done to bring the country, or indeed the region, up to par, our armed forces would not today face the pressure that they do?

Mr. Crausby: It is clear that the Americans did not have the plan for peace of which they boasted, but I do not believe that our efforts in Iraq were ever as deliverable as the hon. Gentleman makes out.

Mr. Ellwood: I am sorry to pursue the point, but I feel that I must, because Basra was, and remains, a British responsibility. The task was never up to the Americans; it was up to us. We were designated that area. It was up to us to work out the package of support and reconstruction, and that did not happen. We cannot blame the Americans, and we cannot even blame the Sunnis. The operation in Basra was very different, and that is why we call for an inquiry that will answer some very difficult questions.

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