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9 July 2009 : Column 326WH—continued

If Iran becomes a nuclear weapon state, it is not just the Israelis who will be very concerned. As we point out in our non-proliferation report, such a situation would
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also be a trigger for a number of Arab countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others, to get what could be regarded as a Sunni bomb in the middle east, as opposed to the Shi’a bomb that the Iranians might develop. Given that Pakistan already has a developed nuclear weapons capability and has tested nuclear weapons—as we know through the A.Q. Khan network, unfortunately, it has also been prepared to sell nuclear material and plans to other countries—there is a real danger that a cycle of nuclear weapon proliferation in the middle east could be triggered by Iranian actions in the next few weeks or months.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): That is the crux of the problem with Iran at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given all the other terrible things that are happening—we had a good debate yesterday on the human rights issues—until we can sort out the nuclear question with Iran, it will be a very dangerous regime? There must be some inducements that we can offer it to separate the nuclear energy programme from nuclear weaponry.

Mike Gapes: Iran’s regime is dangerous because it feels under threat from its own people and is worried about its survival. It also has fears about the future and legitimacy of its revolution. An interesting question is whether the new US approach is more threatening to the regime than the old one. It could be argued that people in authoritarian, theocratic regimes would much prefer the rest of the world to cut them off rather than be open to them, because sheer openness will mean that the people of the country get more access to ideas and ways of behaving that challenge the orthodoxy and hierarchy of the society. My impression is that the Iranian people certainly have a thirst for contact and communication with the rest of the world, not a desire to be cut off from it.

That raises some interesting questions about how the US under the Obama presidency will behave. So far, there seem to be some interesting developments. Only this week, both President Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden said, in separate interviews, that despite the crackdown and repression, the US will not be deterred from seeking to engage in direct negotiations with Iran. That is the right approach, but we should have no illusions that engagement with people in the regime and with its leadership will, by itself, change the regime’s behaviour. “Change in regime behaviour”, which I believe is a phrase used by Condoleezza Rice in a different context, is not at all certain in a period when the regime is afraid that even a small opening up—a small movement—could result in a great crevice and then an outpouring in the country of forces it is afraid of and wishes to repress.

President Obama stated:

However, that requires the international community to maintain certain standards and values, and to continue to speak out against the repression and abuse of human rights taking place in Iran, and not to say that it would
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much rather concentrate solely on nuclear or trade issues. At the end of the day, there are international standards. Iran is a signatory to various international covenants and the non-proliferation treaty, and it must be held to those standards.

In conclusion, I believe there is potential for real change in Iran. I am not certain, however, that this period—this year—will see such change. The assumption that what will follow in Iran will be some form of colour revolution, such as that which took place in Georgia and Ukraine, fails to appreciate the complexities of that society. It is not right for us just to assume that that is likely to happen.

Our Government and Parliament need to have a sophisticated approach. Crude calls for regime change, or funding or supporting particular opposition groups, would play into the hands of the regime, which would say that it has proof of the British conspiracy against it. However, we should use all the channels that we have to continue to argue the case for positive engagement with the Iranian people, because they deserve far more than the Government who, sadly, are currently repressing them.

3.5 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I congratulate the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), on a fine speech. I strongly echo the sentiments he expressed on human rights and the other issues that he covered. The debate is on a report that we published just over a year ago, but it could not be more timely, so I am glad that the Chairman has taken the opportunity to secure the debate for the House at this time.

I begin with the crux of the long-term issue between our country and most of the countries of the world and Iran: Iran’s remorseless march, year by year, towards becoming a nuclear weapons state. That march seems to be going down two tracks. It is going down the highly enriched uranium track, and it may also be going down the plutonium track. Alongside its efforts to produce weapons-grade fissile material, Iran is substantially adding to its ballistic missile delivery capabilities.

On page 13 of our report, we reproduce a map showing the range of Iran’s Shahab 3 Korean technology-based missile. It has a 1,300 km range, making it capable of striking Israel, Saudi Arabia, parts of southern Russia and nearly the whole of Turkey. A few weeks ago, on 20 May, the Iranians successfully launched their indigenous, longer range 2,000 km ballistic missile, the Sajil 2, which uses solid rather than liquid propellant, which dramatically reduces its launch time scale. That missile will be capable of reaching a significant area of western and southern Europe.

I noted a comment that was made in Jane’s Intelligence Weekly on 1 June:

There is no question but that if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon capability with its expanding ballistic missile delivery range, the consequences would be extremely serious. There would be the regional consequences of an impetus to proliferation, and, of course, the huge, unknown factor of the Israeli response.

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The Committee visited Israel in March, at the time of the formation of the Netanyahu Government. We asked senior Israeli officials what the Israeli reaction would be if Iran became a nuclear weapons state. The answer we got—that all options are open—was fairly predictable. I believe that that is a correct statement: all options are open as far as Israel’s Government are concerned, particularly the Netanyahu Government. That of course means that military pre-emptive action is among the options on the Israelis’ list, and the consequences of that are incalculable and potentially extremely serious.

That brings us to the effectiveness or otherwise of the policy that is being pursued year by year by our Government, the European Union and the United Nations Security Council—a policy of trying to bring about a halt in Iran’s remorseless march towards becoming a nuclear weapons state by peaceful means: pressure, coercion, inducement and enticement. On the evidence to date, that policy has been a complete failure. I regret having to say that, but that is what the factual evidence shows. The policy has been pursued year by year by year, and year by year by year Iran has marched remorselessly towards becoming a nuclear weapons state.

My question to the Minister, therefore, is whether he has any serious, significant grounds for believing that the passing of United Nations Security Council resolution 1803 and the greater use of sanctions for which that resolution provides will have any more effect on Iran than previous United Nations Security Council resolutions. Are other peaceful polices open to us that will stop Iran’s relentless march? If the answer is no—I become increasingly fearful that it is—we are approaching an immensely dangerous situation in terms of nuclear proliferation, with the risk that the Israelis will feel that they have to do something by way of pre-emption. That is the burning policy question, and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in response.

I will now move away from the possibilities and turn to a profoundly important and immediate issue—the actuality of Iranian involvement in military operations in Afghanistan. I draw hon. Members’ attention to paragraph 77 of the Committee’s report, which states:

The Foreign Office’s published response to our conclusion is illuminating. It states:

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps—

The Foreign Office, in that public document, goes on to say:

I repeat:

The document continues:

The Government did write to the Committee, and I reread last night the paper that they sent, for which we are grateful. Let us confine ourselves, however, to what is in the public domain.

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The Foreign Office has acknowledged in public that the Iranians are supplying arms to the Taliban; it has referred in public to “arms convoys”; and it has said that the Iranians are also supplying funding to the Taliban. The Taliban are responsible for inflicting grievous loss of life on British service personnel and other allied personnel, as we have been profoundly shocked to see again this week, and they have been doing so for a considerable period.

I have a specific request to put to the Government. I trust that they will be relentless in putting into the public domain, in so far as that is compatible with their security obligations, such information as they can about what the Iranians are actually doing in delivering weapons, technology, training and funding to the Taliban. The people of this country and people around the world will then know precisely what the Iranian Government are doing to support those in Afghanistan—the Taliban—who offer nothing to the people of that country except religious tyranny and the total suppression of human rights, including the obliteration of human rights for women and girls.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): My right hon. Friend is making a fascinating speech, but my understanding is that the information held in the Foreign Office is out of date and has no bearing on the problem today. Does he agree?

Sir John Stanley: I am afraid that I cannot judge how up to date or out of date the information held by the Foreign Office is, because only the Foreign Office can do that. All that I can point to is what the Foreign Office chose to make public in its response to our report, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that that in itself is profoundly disturbing.

The Chairman of the Committee highlighted the role of the BBC, and I want to give a very hearty metaphorical pat on the back not only to the BBC, but to the Government, who have funded the establishment of the BBC’s Persian TV service through their grant in aid to the World Service. It was an excellent decision on the part of the Government to provide that funding, because it completes the important range of services that the BBC has now established in relation to Iran. The BBC’s Persian radio service has a very long history, going back to the second world war—it is nearly 70 years old. In 2001, the BBC established its Persian online service, which has been very valuable; and in January this year, it established the BBC Persian TV service, as well.

It is a reflection of just how effective and valuable those services have been that the BBC has been singled out for condemnation and abuse by the Iranian Government. Indeed, when the Prime Minister was taking questions on the Floor of the House on 23 June, I said that we should regard the degree of abuse being heaped on this country and on the BBC as a considerable compliment, and I stand by that. That abuse reflects the effectiveness of what has been done.

3.19 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3.35 pm

On resuming

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Mr. Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. For the benefit of right hon. and hon. Members, the sitting will be extended to allow for the break for the vote.

Sir John Stanley: As I was saying, the BBC has made an excellent contribution through its Persian service on radio, online and on television. Given the crucial nature of the decision to expand the BBC’s Persian language output, I trust that the Government will continue to give every possible support to the BBC in this area, financially, technically and in any other way that they can to assist it, to ensure that that output on radio, online and on television continues to be made available to as many people as possible in Iran.

I want to mention the extraordinarily brave people led by Mr. Mousavi who are fighting for what I regard as the new Iran—the millions who voted for Mr. Mousavi and the huge numbers who attended his rallies and went out into the streets until they were brutally suppressed. Those people are the real hope for Iran. They might even be the only hope for Iran. They are fighting for an Iran that has true democracy, real freedoms, human rights and equality for women, and is not a threat to its neighbours. As we found in some of our contacts during our visit to Iran, they are people of extraordinary bravery and courage. They are putting everything they have—their livelihoods, their freedoms and in some cases their lives—on the line to try to achieve a better, freer and genuinely democratic Iran. I pay the strongest tribute, as I am sure all hon. Members do, to their immense bravery and courage.

The burning policy issue for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is what degree of protection should be afforded to locally engaged staff in our overseas missions in countries such as Iran. I have looked closely at the relevant terms of the 1961 Vienna convention on diplomatic relations, and it is evident that article 38 contains provisions that divide locally engaged staff into two categories. Under paragraph 1, it is open to a foreign Government to designate all or some of their locally engaged staff as diplomatic agents. That at least gives them diplomatic immunity in respect of their official duties. For all the others, all that is left is paragraph 2, under which locally engaged staff get diplomatic immunity only in so far as it may be granted by the host country. One can safely assume that, in a place like Iran, there will be zero granting of diplomatic immunity to those who fall into that second category.

The House will appreciate that this is not the first time that locally engaged Foreign Office staff have come under political pressure, and worse, from overseas Governments. We have had a spate of that in Russia, and it is now happening in Iran. Another key point arose from a question that the hon. Member for Ilford, South asked the Foreign Secretary, who said that of the FCO’s 16,000 diplomatic staff, 10,000—more than half—are locally engaged. That is a large number. I have looked at the Foreign Office’s diplomatic service regulations and was able to access the 2006 version. Those regulations state:

That sensible latitude is given to heads of mission to put such locally engaged staff as they think fit into the paragraph 1 category, so that they at least have diplomatic immunity for the performance of their official duties.

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I have some specific questions for the Minister, and if he cannot answer them immediately, I hope that he will write to me. Were any of our locally engaged staff in our Tehran embassy elevated to the paragraph 1 category, so that they had diplomatic immunity covering their official duties before the recent events in Iran, and if not, why not? By any judgment, they were clearly at risk. Given the intolerable, unacceptable and outrageous treatment that the Iranian authorities handed out to nine of our locally engaged diplomatic staff, will the Foreign Office now review the risk to which such staff are exposed in Iran, Russia and other countries around the world, and give immediate and serious consideration to whether they should be moved from the article 38, paragraph 2 category to the paragraph 1 category, so that they at least have the protection of diplomatic immunity covering their official duties?

Those of us who are privileged to serve on the Foreign Affairs Committee meet locally engaged staff in all the embassies and high commissions that we visit around the world. Without exception, we are very impressed by the quality of service that they provide and their loyalty and dedication to the British Government, despite being nationals of another country. I suggest to the Minister, and through him to the Secretary of State, that in return for that loyalty we must ensure that locally engaged Foreign Office staff around the world receive the maximum protection that we can provide under the Vienna convention.

3.44 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Mr. Benton, I apologise to you, the Minister and right hon. and hon. Members because I am between a rock and a hard place. The rock is my duty here, and the hard place is a meeting being held in my constituency because, as a constituent said in a letter to me, 18,000 houses are being dumped there. The House can imagine the outcry that that has caused. Consequently, I must leave early, so I beg your indulgence, Mr. Benton, and apologise sincerely.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on securing this important debate at an important time on an important subject. His speech opening the debate was immensely valuable and of the highest quality. It has been a pleasure to listen to him. It is also a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), a man of great stature in the House, whose statements always have great credibility. I listened to him with rapt interest. He made some important points, which I am sure the Minister has noted.

I congratulate the Committee on an excellently constructed report. It was produced on 20 February, which impedes its import somewhat, but it contains much of which we must take account. I also congratulate the Government on their full response in May. All that is excellent, but it was blown out of the water on 12 June, when the situation in Iran changed dramatically within 24 hours. That is not to say that there is not massively important information in the report and the response, but we face a new situation in Iran, for which many of us had hoped for many years, but few of us believed would materialise in quite the way it did—in the number of people who came out on the streets following what appeared to be an election that did not quite comply with the rules that we try to apply in this country.

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