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9 July 2009 : Column 345WH—continued

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We have heard sanctions mentioned as the option. I have a deep suspicion of sanctions, not because I do not think that they work—they do, in the right places—but because of Iran’s trading partners, such as Japan, China and Russia. The challenge that Britain, America and France face is that no one else is playing ball. The missiles being fired and tested from Iran are potent not because they go up and down—North Korea does the up-and-down bit—but because of where they land. The guidance systems in the missiles are sold to the Iranians by the Chinese. The systems in the land missiles that could close down the straits of Hormuz and the missiles fired from Lebanon by Hezbollah that hit an Israeli frigate were Chinese. The Chinese have sold $7 billion worth of arms to Iran since 2000. People are not playing ball.

Russia just re-fitted two of Iran’s submarines. Actually, they were not very good, so the Iranians sent them back to be done again. The Russians are trading with Iran, as are the Germans and Italians. A few months ago, the Italian Foreign Minister encouraged Italians to do more business with Iran. What the Iranians see in that is a split, weak European and western coalition that does not work. If sanctions do not work and the Supreme Leader believes that they are a good thing for maintaining the purity of the country—he has said so in many speeches—how much effect will they have on the regime?

If we could not prevent North Korea, Pakistan and other countries from developing the bomb, one must ask how effective we are and whether we are putting our effort in the right place. Should we not be rattling the stick at the other partners in the world to ensure that we have proper sanctions? Of course we are angry with the Iranian regime, but our resources should be spent on persuading China, Russia and the European Union to get on with it and stop sitting on the fence. The question of sanctions constantly undermines us.

Interestingly, Oman, one of Britain’s partners in the gulf, recently signed a security pact with Iran. On one hand, Britain is about to sell two new frigates to Oman, but on the other, Oman has just signed a security pact with Iran. Where are we going? We need to ensure that we have a united voice and put a lot of effort into getting there. I do not believe in regime change through the MEK or terrorist organisations. That would take us to the wrong place, as the example of Iraq shows. Relying on intelligence is often unreliable.

There are challenges for us. We must send a message to the Iranians not to underestimate us. Just because they can capture a few sailors in a boat and break our sanctions, they should not underestimate the sleeping lion that is Britain. We should be funding our armed forces—our stick. We have a carrot and a stick. We have offered a lot of carrot, but our stick looks weak and underfunded. Our armed forces are being cut. We cannot tell Iran that we have a stick with any credibility when we do not have enough aeroplanes. We need to be strong in saying that we have a stick, but offer carrots to demonstrate that we understand how Iran works and not just how we want it to work.

4.51 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace), who has great expertise on this issue. I
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am sure that all hon. Members enjoyed his remarks. I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman on his introduction to the debate and on the work of his Committee in producing this well-researched and thorough report. It has led to an important and lively debate this afternoon. Unfortunately, it is almost 18 months since the report’s publication. Although it might have been helpful to debate it earlier, sadly, many of the conclusions still apply.

Paragraph 109 illustrates the thrust of the report in the recommendation that there be a wholesale recasting of Iran’s

We all felt a sense of elation when President Obama was elected. In his foreign policy moves thus far, he seems be pursuing a more positive path on the world stage and extending an open hand. The international community is therefore effectively following the Select Committee’s recommendation, but the response has not been encouraging, to say the least. However, the international community is taking the correct approach and it must be given a chance to work. President Obama’s and Joe Biden’s recent restatement of that intention is welcome.

The most important recent event in Iran is the election. I agree with the Government’s position that the will of the Iranian people should be upheld, as should be the case in any democratic election. I was just as critical of President Bush’s first election victory, because I believed that the will of the American people had been usurped. There are serious questions over the Iranian election. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) rightly raised the problem that half of the population was ineligible to stand for the presidency. Such discrimination against women is not welcome in any country. Regardless of what we in the UK say about the election, many Iranians want answers. They are the people who matter the most, because they had the right to cast the votes and should be able to ensure that they were counted correctly.

We have all seen the protests on television and on YouTube. We have followed them online on various internet sites. Regardless of who won the election and what we think about it, the horrendous violence we have seen on our screens is cause for great concern. In a sense, it is wonderful that citizens have been empowered to report and communicate the news themselves through a variety of mobile technologies. At the same time, that has put many disturbing images into the public domain. In general, it is positive to see people anywhere in the world empowered by such new technology.

It is too early to say where we are in the post-election situation. It has been reported that there might be more protests today because it is the 10th anniversary of the crackdown on the student protests. Professor Ali Ansari, who gave evidence to the Select Committee, was quoted in The Times this week saying that the situation is nowhere near resolved. I suspect that he, as an esteemed expert on Iran, is right. It is difficult to predict what will happen, and we will have to watch as events unfold. The one exception is that when British nationals are held in Iran, we must make strong representations for them to be released. That is unacceptable and the Government are right to pursue such action with all possible haste.

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I was taken by the analysis of the election by the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre. There has been a certain reaction in Britain to seeing protestors and people rallying around the reform cause. Because of the news story about the protests, there has not been much analysis of the policies of the presidential candidates. It is right that what we would perceive as reform is not what was on offer from Mousavi. There was not a great choice for reform. All the candidates had to be approved in advance by the existing structures in Iran. Whatever the outcome of the election, the nuclear issue would not have gone away because there was consensus on it among the candidates. Although we should watch the developments with the election, the bigger issues were always going to remain. The nuclear issue is one of the greatest foreign policy challenges faced by the world.

I agree with the analysis of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that the regime acts in a fairly rational way. If one puts oneself in the shoes of the Iranians, it is clear that there are many reasons why they should pursue a nuclear weapons capability. In the same region, Israel has nuclear arms and there is no love lost between the two states. There is also an issue of status and the desire to be seen as a world player. The threat has diminished with the Obama regime, but when Bush was in power there was a real prospect of an American invasion, especially considering what happened in Iraq. We need to recognise and understand that reality if we are to reduce the danger.

The Select Committee’s subsequent report on non-proliferation is welcome. Worryingly, it states that there has been rapid progress in Iran towards further enrichment and the expansion of centrifuges. We do not know what stage the process is at, or how many months or years away the Iranians are from acquiring a nuclear capability. There is a danger that if that happened, it would have a domino effect in a region where there are already heightened tensions. The next steps after Iran obtains a nuclear weapon do not bear thinking about. The potential disasters are immense. Other middle eastern states might want to acquire nuclear weapons. Given that we want to stop nuclear proliferation and reduce nuclear capabilities across the globe, Iran’s nuclear programme is very worrying. We have not done ourselves any favours by committing to replacing Trident when there was no need to do so, given the lifespan of the current submarines. Doing that just before going to the 2010 non-proliferation conference seems bizarre. Surely, we want to go to that conference being able to negotiate and say that our nuclear weapons are on the table.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I am sure that the hon. Lady would not want to give the impression internationally that there is an equivalence between British foreign policy in any respect and the actions of the Iranian Government. That would be extremely damaging and I am sure she is not trying to do that, but it is important to make that clear in this debate.

Jo Swinson: I do not think for a second that I was making that link. I am saying that our position in non-proliferation talks around the world will surely be stronger if we are prepared to talk about reducing our nuclear weapons arsenal. That would give us much more power in negotiations. Surely, if it looks as though
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the main nuclear players are reducing their arsenals, that will reduce the pressure on countries such as Iran and others that are thinking of going nuclear to try to join the club, as it were. We have seen the success of such a strategy with President Obama’s decision to put American nuclear weapons on the table in discussions with Russia. In a sense, the best possible and only positive way of using nuclear weapons is to use them to negotiate away other nuclear weapons.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre asked what we should do, and that question was well posed. We can discuss the problems and say what the difficulties are, but what are the real options? The Committee has said of the military option:

I strongly agree, because I think that that would be a dangerous road to go down. I am pleased that the Foreign Secretary has said that he is 100 per cent. behind the diplomatic track, although I note that the Government have not entirely ruled out the possibility of supporting a future US military strike. That would be dangerous territory and we should not go down that route: it would strengthen the position of the extremists and is not the right way forward.

So, we then look at the sanctions regime, which, as has been discussed, is not working well. A united approach from the E3 plus 3 is vital to that regime, but the approach is not as united as we might want, because of the loopholes that exist. We must continue and increase our efforts to encourage countries such as Russia and China to recognise the threat and to play ball—to borrow a phrase. As I have said, Obama’s overtures to Russia are good news, such as his offer to scrap the “Son of Star Wars” project if the Russians help him in halting Iran’s proliferation. Russia is a key player, and it would be great if we could get its help in getting Iran to negotiate, and in making progress. We have to accept that the UK’s influence in this matter is not at its peak, given the current diplomatic situation, and that it might best be used in looking at what influence other countries can bring to bear.

On Iraq and Afghanistan, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) talked about the Government’s analysis of the training and support being given to insurgents and the Taliban in Afghanistan by Iran in particular. That issue is cause for great concern. I note from the reports that there has been correspondence, in addition to what the Government have been able to discuss publicly, which could not be published in the public domain for understandable security reasons. I would be interested to hear whether the Committee is satisfied with the Government’s responses on that aspect. It is rather difficult for those of us who have not seen that correspondence to judge. In general terms, I will say that there is a delicate balance to be struck, and that security concerns have to come first, but that it would be helpful if the Government tried as much as they could to put information in the public domain where possible.

I will touch on human rights only briefly because we had an excellent debate on that issue yesterday in this Chamber. The report concludes that Iran’s human rights record is shocking, as we heard in detail yesterday in relation to religion and the treatment of the Baha’i,
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Christians and Jews. We also heard about the persecution of and discrimination against women for various perfectly reasonable behaviours, about the persecution of anyone who disagrees with the prevailing political views, and about the horrendous executions of minors by the state. Obviously, there is a range of human rights problems in Iran.

We did not have much time yesterday to go into detail about gay and lesbian Iranians being deported from the UK to Iran, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that. In June 2008, the then Home Secretary said that there was no “real risk” to homosexuals who were deported to Iran if they behaved “discreetly”. The suggestion that it is fine to deport someone to a place where they would have to hide such a key aspect of themselves to avoid being tortured does not fit with my judgment of what is appropriate. The Home Office guidance says that

in Iran, but, since 1979 in Iran, there have been 4,000 state executions of people for being gay. If that is not systematic repression, I do not know what is.

I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments on these difficult and sensitive issues. Like everyone else, I await the outcome of the current unrest in Iran and wait to see what will happen there, but I should like to note the remarks made by hon. Members and by the academic Karim Sadjadpour in evidence to the Select Committee. Mr. Sadjadpour said that

We should all bear that in mind when we watch what is happening on our television screens. The future is clearly uncertain, with extreme dangers in relation to nuclear proliferation and the escalation of regional tensions, but I maintain, none the less, that the correct way forward must still be diplomacy and extending that open hand. I hope that that approach can be successful.

5.7 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): First, I congratulate the Select Committee on its report and couple with that my expression of hope that we can somehow reform parliamentary procedures so that Select Committee reports as important as this one can be debated in a more timely fashion. I encourage the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) and his colleagues to continue their inquiries into the role of Iran in international affairs, because its position in its region and in the debate on nuclear proliferation will continue to be a pressing foreign policy priority for the present and future British Governments.

Like the hon. Member for Ilford, South, I have found that a visit to Iran, with experiences such as taking tea under the bridges in Isfahan, going through the bazaars in Tehran, or discovering the phenomenon of blogging ayatollahs, quickly dispels the easy caricatures that are too often portrayed. Iran is a very complex country with an intriguing blend of modern and ancient elements. It has a system of government that even the most experienced academic and diplomatic experts find hard to penetrate and understand fully.

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Like others, I shall not dwell at length on human rights in Iran, or on the debacle of the recent presidential election results, except to say to the Minister that as Iran is a party to the international covenant on civil and political rights, and given that it, as a member of the United Nations, will be subject to periodic reviews by the United Nations Human Rights Council, I hope that Ministers will continue to press, through the appropriate international forums, for Iran to be held to the treaties that it has signed and ratified.

I was very disappointed when, soon after the presidential election result was declared, I read that the UN Human Rights Council had decided not to hold a special session to inquire into the election. That will do damage to the reputation of the council as a new United Nations institution and I hope that the United Kingdom will try to gather support among other countries to reopen that particular issue at the UN.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) spoke with great passion about the position of the British embassy staff in Tehran. Although I share the relief of all hon. Members that all but one staff member has been released, it is still utterly unacceptable that any members of our diplomatic staff in Tehran should remain under threat of prosecution. I am less sanguine than some about the position of our fellow member states of the European Union in relation to that and I hope the Minister will be able to provide some reassurance on that point.

When the presidency of the EU shifted from the Czech Republic to Sweden, there was a distinct cooling of ardour about putting in place firm diplomatic responses to the threat being made against our staff. Within 24 hours, once the Iranians had said that they were going to bring charges against the staff member who was still being kept in detention, the new presidency did start to take a tougher line—and I have a high regard for the experience and the diplomatic skill of Carl Bildt—but I very much hope that the British Government will not let up the pressure at all upon our European Union colleagues.

If the EU response to the detention of our staff is seen to be limp and if countries are looking for ways to avoid measures—for example, if we believe that the withdrawal of all EU ambassadors is necessary as a demonstration of how strongly we take the matter—that will not only make life more difficult for British embassy staff now and in the future, but the hardliners in Tehran will draw their own conclusions and life will become more risky for the representatives of other EU nations. That matter is important. I hope that the Minister will also take seriously the points that my right hon. Friend made about looking at the Geneva conventions and seeing whether we should be able to protect our locally engaged staff who are at risk by moving them into the category that he advocated, so that greater protection is provided under those conventions.

The truth is that whatever the outcome of the present crisis, it will be in the interests of the United Kingdom that we continue to engage with Iran. Whatever the outcome of the crisis in Tehran, we in Britain will have to engage with the reality of Iranian national interests and Iran’s desire to assert itself as an important power within its region. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) reminded us that it is
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simply wrong to view Mr. Mousavi as being in some way a western democrat who is committed to western liberal ideas. He is, indeed, a child of the revolution and his time in office as Prime Minister did not show the record of a man who was committed to liberal reforms in the way that they would be understood in Britain or elsewhere in the west. A Mousavi presidency would be committed to Iran’s nuclear programme and to the assertion of Iranian national interest.

My hon. Friend was also right to warn us that demographic change, which is having an increasing effect upon society in Iran, does not necessarily mean a more liberal approach, particularly to foreign policy. I believe that young people in Iran will very much want to have a greater say in how their country is run, but the Chinese precedent suggests that aspirations on the part of a young generation for better standards of material well-being can be coupled with a fervent patriotism that shades at times into quite aggressive nationalism. We have seen that in relation to some of the young Han Chinese reactions to the disturbances in Tibet last year.

Our interest is not in Iran changing its regime—whatever we might think of it—but in trying to secure changes to Iran’s behaviour, both domestically in terms of respect for human rights and, critically for this debate, in how Iran conducts its foreign policy within its region and more generally. Iran’s nuclear programme must be at the centre of our concerns. Before this debate, I read through the most recent IAEA report, which was published on 5 June and was based on an inspection carried out on 19 May this year. The report demonstrated that Iran still refuses to co-operate fully with what the international inspectors require. In a letter of 3 May this year, Iran informed the agency that it would not permit “design information verifications” at the Iran nuclear research reactor. Iran refused to grant the IAEA access to reactor 40 for the Iranian Government’s own reasons. The IAEA concluded that that

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