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9 July 2009 : Column 339WH—continued

A clear political signal—who is the Foreign Office kidding, especially given that, elsewhere in the response, it acknowledges that Iran is also facilitating the deaths of our armed forces personnel?

In an Adjournment debate this year, I described to the House of Commons how the UK had facilitated the transfer of funds from Iran, through London, to the United States to deceive the US regulatory authorities, so that the Iranian regime, under cloak and dagger, could purchase in north America technologies that it needed both to develop its nuclear side and—I believe—nuclear weapons, and to get around the existing US and EU sanctions regimes. The Government were seriously embarrassed. The particular perpetrator to which I am referring is Lloyds TSB, but other London-based banking institutions were also involved. Under the financial arrangement known as “stripping”, there was a deliberate intent in London to deceive the US authorities. When I mentioned this to my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary, he did not argue that I was wrong, but said instead that the ground rules in London and the European Union had been altered. Again, that demonstrates the charge that we have been doing too little, too late; that we have appeased; that we have been asleep on the job. None the less, we have the audacity to say that other countries are not being resolute and strong in homing in on those who export terrorism and other things that involve loss of life around the world.

When the Minister responds, I hope that he specifically addresses the question of the export of weapons of terror to the Taliban and elsewhere. It is intolerable and unacceptable that this House should acquiesce in allowing the Government to put in a document, which is a year old, an acknowledgement that there is a problem but with no robust expression of outrage. I hope that the Minister will be much more discerning and critical of the advice furnished to him by officials. I hope he will stand up to Ministers more senior than him in the Foreign Office, the Ministry of Defence and No. 10 who, ridiculously, think they can buy off and placate the thoroughly rotten regime that exists in Tehran.

Presumably, in the Minister’s brief there are references to Camp Ashraf, or Ashraf city. The residents are Iranian exiles who have been in Iraq for many years. After the collapse of Saddam’s regime, they were given protected person status under the Geneva convention. To the credit of the United States of America, they have been safeguarded time and again, despite the Iranian regime putting increasing pressure on the fragile and wobbly Iraqi Government to expel them. In recent weeks and months, the harassment of those people has increased. The United States acknowledges that they have long since disarmed; none the less, there is a
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danger of their becoming the Cossacks of our generation. The Iranian regime could exert its disproportionate influence on the fragile Iraqi Government to ensure that those people are expelled back to Iran, where they would face the same consequences as the Cossacks faced in 1945 and 1946. The British Government have not shown the same resolution as the US military showed in recognising their moral, humanitarian and legal obligation to the people of Ashraf city. Will the Minister tell us what the latest position is on Ashraf, and recognise that we have obligations as signatories to the Geneva convention? We want to know that we are putting diplomatic and political pressure on the Iraqi Government to recognise their obligations under the fourth Geneva convention to safeguard the unarmed people of Ashraf city.

4.25 pm

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). I am speaking today both as an individual and chair of the British all-party group on Iran, which I have chaired for some three years. During that time, we have met with the Secretary of State, the Foreign Secretary, Ministers of State, members of the US State Department, Turkish and Syrian ambassadors, Members of the Iranian Government and Iranian clerics and academics, as well as other people who represent the interests of the area. In my short contribution, I should like to introduce some context to the matter, which has been missing right from the beginning.

The Iranian elections were, and are, a serious schism in the current problems that we face with the regime. I suppose that we could say that the lid has come off the pressure cooker. There was some bad reporting at the beginning. The BBC egos got off the plane in Iran and nudged out of the way the journalists who had been working very hard in the region for a long time, often when the rest of the world was not interested. When those egos stopped at the nearest polling station and saw women wearing lipstick, they assumed that there had already been an Iranian revolution. The expectations that came from the first reporting of the Iranian elections were unnaturally high. That explains why so many people attached themselves to Mousavi and pronounced him a great revolutionary reformist. They treated him as a “Hampstead liberal” and no doubt felt that if he was elected, everything would change. Most of the reports at the beginning came from north Tehran, which is the rich area where the Shahists and the elite of the regime used to live. They are the people who have suffered under the Ahmadinejad regime because of economic incompetence. So, we need to put that in perspective.

Next, we should consider the three candidates. Anyone who knew Mousavi when he was a Prime Minister would know that he is not campaigning for a completely European, liberal style democracy; he is a child of the regime. This election was predominantly about the competence of Ahmadinejad and not about whether he was a moderniser, a conservative or a reformer. General Rezaie, who was a founding member of Hezbollah and a senior general of the Revolutionary Guard, does not criticise the regimes of which he has been part lightly or easily.

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What I found in Iran last year was that across the board, there was a coalition of people who felt that this President was not only destroying the country economically through his incompetence but damning the country to an isolation that would end up like that of North Korea. That anger at his incompetence built up during the election. When he did not even competently fix his own election, people felt that he had taken a step too far. It is possible that Ahmadinejad could have won the election. However, he would not have won it on a 60:40 basis, but he might have won it on a 51:49 basis. He might have had to go to a second round, but he could not even fix his own election. Last year, there was a debate in the Majlis in which he tried to install his son-in-law or brother-in-law as Minister of the Interior, but the Members blocked it, knowing what he was doing.

The three candidates were there to deliver change and hopefully to solve one of the west’s real worries. As Iran is a non-party political state, it is very hard to do anything but deal with personalities, and personalities come and go in Iran. In the series “Iran and the West”, the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) dealt with the personalities in both the Iranian and American regimes. He had to hold the circle with a Bush Administration, which had to deal with Mr. Bolton on one day and General Powell on the next. There were personalities across the foreign policy divide, and it was very hard to get a settled foreign policy—it must have felt a bit like catching soap.

I would like to pay tribute to the European powers. The Foreign Office has been given a tough time throughout the debate, but it had to walk the line when no one knew whether the Americans were going to take the neo-con view of Mr. Bolton, or what view the Iranian regime, which swapped personalities in the same way, would take.

Interestingly, when we nearly got to a resolution on the nuclear issue, it fell apart on both sides of the table. The deputy Secretary of State of the United States left, and in came Mr. Bolton with his neo-con view of the world; off went Mr. Larijani and into the Iranian regime came someone of whom we had never heard.

Mike Gapes: We met that somebody of whom the hon. Gentleman had never heard: his name is Jalili, and we had a very interesting, intense and frank discussion with him.

Mr. Wallace: I was due to go to Iran last week before I was banned as part of the British conspiracy to overthrow the Government. I was due to meet the person of whom I had never heard, and it looks as though I will never get to hear of him.

The Foreign Office has done a good job of dealing with the problem I described, which has been exceptionally difficult, but we should also define what the terms moderniser, reformist and conservative mean in Iran. A conservative in Iran, by my reading, says that God will provide everything—God will provide democracy, and economic and social success. No one needs to do anything, because God will provide. The reformists that we talk about are not, I am sorry to say, Hampstead liberals. The reformists are people who say, “Let’s follow China. Let’s have an authoritarian state that will liberalise economically.” That is the vast majority of people in the
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Iranian Government, and the vast majority of clerics and perhaps of the electorate. There are not many modernisers. Karroubi, the third presidential candidate, could perhaps be a moderniser because he shook hands with a woman once or twice and has different views.

We should also put in context the UK’s role in this pantomime—that is what it is. Be under no illusion: Iran has a sort of twin track. People go through the motions. As the Chairman of the Committee will know, when one meets Iranians, their notebooks come out. Everyone copies everyone else’s notes to ensure that no one can be accused of being a spy. That is the pantomime. It does not detract from the seriousness of some of Iran’s measures, but Britain has a part in the pantomime. When a Danish newspaper published the cartoon insulting the Prophet Mohammed, Iranians did not get on a bus to the Danish embassy. The affair was seen as being the fault of the British, so they went down to the British embassy and stood outside, where they were given rocks to throw, and it was, “Let’s pick on little Satan.” We are that character in Iranian politics. We have something of a history and it is good to carry on exploiting that perception.

The BBC situation is quite interesting. The BBC Persian service sent the code words to trigger the 1953 coup to get rid of Mosaddeq, so it is perfectly understandable that those nasty parts of the regime who want to portray Britain as being part of the current situation use BBC Persia and say, “You see? They’re at it again.” We are the pantomime villain.

British embassy workers have been intimidated, bullied and arrested for years. Last year, the British Council was closed down and the British embassy was invaded— 150 people jumped over the fence and ran amok in the gardens. We did not hear about the invasion from the Foreign Office, mainly because it was trying its best to separate the hysteria and the pantomime from the reality. We should not forget that the UK has the role of pantomime villain. Sometimes we have to accept it, but sometimes we must draw a line.

We are not alone in the role. The second biggest enemy in Iran is not big Satan; historically, it is Russia.

Ms Gisela Stuart: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that because of the pantomime he described, people make the great mistake of thinking that it is an irrational regime? We may not always understand it, but its actions are rational.

Mr. Wallace: I agree, and that is one of the saddest things about this recent incident. People in the west underestimate Iran and vice versa.

We need to understand the Iranian people. There is great anger on the streets of Iran. When we were there, people perfectly openly criticised the regime. Just as the Chairman of the Committee said, people come up and say what they think. They say, “The man’s a muppet and the regime shouldn’t be allowed to do this or that.” The Supreme Leader’s brother criticised him last year and got beaten up, so people do break ranks, even if they do not necessarily do so in an organised manner. Because the political regime does not allow party politics, there is very little collective protection for people who want to espouse such views.

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Iranian people are very suspicious of foreign intervention, and we have to be cautious in our solutions. Russia and Britain have form—the US’s form is rather nouveau riches. We have to be cautious. Foreign intervention such as a big stamp of approval for Mr. Mousavi would do him and hope of reform no good whatever.

We must not underestimate the nationalistic nature of Iranian people. Iran is not like Iraq. It is not made up of Shi’a, Sunni and Kurd areas on a rather artificial map that was pretty much drawn up by the British not so long ago; it is a nation state that feels like a nation state, and it is predominantly dominated by Shi’ism. Whether Iranians are pro-Shah or conservative, we should not underestimate their strength of feeling for their country.

When we were in Iran last summer, we met some American Iranians who go over every summer to help the Iranian health service. They are Shahists and cannot stand the regime, but they do what they do because they feel that they will be contributing to their country. When considering the measures to take to deal with Iran and any extreme action, we should remember not to underestimate the national pride of Iranian people.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Thurrock and my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) about the Mujahidin-e-Khalq or PMOI. None of the millions who protested in the streets was protesting for the restoration of the MEK, and no one wanted the PMOI to be allowed a role in Iranian politics. The Supreme Leader—the second President—was blown in half by the PMOI. It is a Marxist organisation. It has not been active because its people have been sitting in a camp after fighting for Saddam Hussein in Iraq. I do not want Her Majesty’s Government to do business with such an organisation. As in Iraq, we must ask ourselves whether our enemy’s enemy is our friend. Have we forgotten the lessons of history? We should be very careful with whom we do business.

Let us remember that the US re-proscribed the PMOI in February. We only have to read the evidence, which is submitted and published online, to realise that the US has not moved much on the PMOI.

Andrew Mackinlay: To make it clear, all I want is the PMOI to be able to put up candidates in elections. That is what is being denied to it. As with many organisations historically and in Europe and elsewhere, it is an umbrella organisation. The hon. Gentleman was wrong to say that the organisation is Marxist, but I do not want to labour the point. The PMOI contains clerics and secularists, and people of the left and of the right. All it wants is the right to seek election in a free, democratic Iran.

Mr. Wallace: As I understand it, there is a process that makes it open to former terrorists to join democratic processes, just like the process that we have been through with the IRA and Sinn Fein. However, I do not believe that the PMOI is the driver for reforming Iran. It is not credible in that way. People have long memories in Iran, and I do not believe that the PMOI is the tool or the vehicle for reform. If the hon. Gentleman’s argument is that we should allow and encourage Iran to move to a freer, more democratic state, I agree with him. However, when he listed people who abuse human rights and
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resist democracy, he left out all the Arab states surrounding Iran. When are the elections, and where are the democratic accountability and human rights, in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt? Those countries are not only our foreign policy allies; we are selling arms to them.

Hypocrisy is a matter of fact in the middle east. I am happy to say, “Yes, I am a hypocrite,” because I am a pragmatist, but let us not say, “Iran is absolutely evil because it doesn’t respect human rights in the same way.” It does not, and that is wrong—it needs to correct itself and be corrected by others—but neither do some of our allies, and we must face up to that and decide what our priorities are.

We need to contextualise the religious struggle in Iran. It is not new. It must be understood that Shi’ism plays a major role in the development and direction of Iran as a theocracy, and always has. Within Shi’ism is a debate that goes back about 200 years, if not longer, focusing on the phrase “velayat-e faqih”. I cannot pronounce it particularly well; I will give Hansard the quote. It means, effectively, the balance between secular and religious. It is either the limited or absolute guardianship of the Islamic jurist in Shi’ism, which basically says, “While you wait for the 12th imam to appear, who runs the country?”

Some clerics believe that they run it in its entirety with the authority of the imam. Other clerics—not all the clerics are vicars, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South said—are reasoned, reforming people. Shi’ism is about reform. It is not like Wahabism, which is about going backwards; it is a long-held debate. Karroubi is an ayatollah. He is not agreed with, but he is a senior, learned cleric. One does not become a cleric in Iran by taking some correspondence course in Alabama and calling oneself right reverend. We should understand that ideological debate.

For me, the saddest day of the recent incident was the Friday three weeks ago when, during prayers, the Supreme Leader got off his independence view and pronounced that his views were effectively closer to those of reigning President Ahmadinejad than to others’. The “others” were really Rafsanjani. He was sending a coded message that he wanted to use his role to guide and run the country according to a religious view.

The people who disagree with that say, “No one can replicate the imams. Humans do what humans do, and clerics guide religion, but we’re not going to interfere.” The strong side of Shi’a politics is driven by that. One modern-day champion of it, ironically, was Ayatollah Khomeini, who wrote all about it in opposition. That is how he built a coalition for the revolution with Marxists, socialists and everybody else. Unfortunately, when he got to power—power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—he went from limited to absolute. That is the challenge, and we must recognise it. The problem is the ticking time bomb of the nuclear clock. Without the nuclear worry, we could let things play their course. We could take steps to ensure that terrorism was not exported and so on. Unfortunately, the nuclear issue creates urgency. We are in a serious and difficult place.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said that the regime was a rational and calculating one. I believed that right up until the elections. We have heard a lot of criticism, but the question is what to do. A lot of people in this debate have said,
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“The Foreign Office is appalling,” or “Iran is appalling.” So what? What are we going to do about it? That is the question. The worry today, which basically explains the silence of the UK and the US, is assessment. Is the regime still ruling by consent, and is it capable of delivering anything in a negotiation anyway? Is the country split down the middle? Is the religious establishment split, and even some of the revolutionary guards?

My understanding is that the Ministries in the Whitehall of Tehran are split. The Ministry of the Interior is intimidating people; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs either has been left out in the cold or is not as engaged. If they are all over the place, that is the worry. Who are we going to sit around a table with, and if we do, can they deliver anyway? That is my fear about developing foreign policy for the next few months or years. It explains why both America and Britain have done their best to stay out of it: they need to assess it and work it out.

I have some fears. I do not understand why both the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report and the Foreign Office’s response contain no indication that what happened at the election was going to happen. Fixing an election is a pretty tough job. I did not see any indication. I never got any briefings saying, “We think this election will be rigged.” No one saw it coming. Are we not putting enough resource into our intelligence community, or is it looking elsewhere? We need forewarning of such issues. We must ask ourselves what works.

Andrew Mackinlay: Due to the unfortunate way that Parliament works, the reports are more than a year old. Also, the hon. Gentleman made the valid point that we were not given any warning about the elections. That is part of my point. The Foreign Office is flawed. It is the same Foreign Office that misread Mugabe’s great success in 1979-80 and thought that the Greeks would approve the Annan plan because they were told by the Brits to do so. Now the Foreign Office has got it wrong by misreading the so-called Iranian election. The Foreign Office’s judgment is flawed.

Mr. Wallace: The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the British foreign policy track record is riven with failures, but it is also riven with successes. We do not always hear that. Also, we have to have a Foreign Office. There is no other solution. There is no such thing as do-it-yourself foreign policy.

Ms Gisela Stuart: On the very day of the elections, a respected commentator said on the BBC, “The real difference between the Iranian elections and the Russian elections is that you can’t tell in advance who’s going to win the Iranian elections.” If the Foreign Office got it wrong, so did everybody else. It was in good company.

Mr. Wallace: I understand that, but the simple logistics of moving around ballot boxes and printing millions of ballot papers must have left some trace, especially in Tabriz, which is not friendly to Ahmadinejad. Maybe they all just got the ballot papers and went into a new room at counting central. I do not know. But it would have been useful if we had had some idea what was going to happen. Maybe the Foreign Office knew but kept it secret; maybe it was not for us to know until after the event.

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