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9 July 2009 : Column 352WH—continued

In addition, Iran made it difficult for the agency to report further on the construction of the reactor, despite that having been requested by the United Nations Security Council. I could go on to provide a significantly longer list of details from that report.

As with other countries who are signatories to the non-proliferation treaty, the NPT gives Iran the right to develop a civil nuclear programme. However, I want to be confident in a way that I am not at the moment that the international community can trust Iran to develop a civil nuclear energy programme and to observe all the requirements of the NPT. Iran’s renunciation of the additional protocol and its refusal to co-operate with the international inspectors is set against the background of a nuclear programme that was begun and developed covertly, which is itself a breach of treaty requirements, and that will inevitably perpetuate mistrust.

If the Iranian programme goes ahead, hon. Members have talked about there being a threat of nuclear proliferation in the middle east and about Israel perceiving that there is an existential threat to its very survival. However, it is not only Iran’s nuclear programme that should concern us. Today, we have debated Iran’s role in Afghanistan—my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling particularly talked about that. In many ways, it would seem odd for the Iranian
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Government to be seeking to help the Taliban. The Iranians originally gave some assistance to the coalition when action to overthrow the Taliban regime in Kabul was first taken in 2001. The Taliban are largely Sunni. Iran has had to face major problems from the narcotics trade and from the influx of refugees as a consequence of disorder and violence in Afghanistan.

I would be interested to hear the Minister’s assessment of the motives for Iran’s support of the Taliban. Do the British Government believe that Iran is still actively engaged in supplying munitions and other forms of help to the Taliban to fight coalition forces, including our own? What is Iran’s current relationship with the Taliban?

Iran has also shown that it is capable of playing a malign role in other parts of the region such as Iraq, Lebanon and the Gulf. Only a few months ago, there was an overt reference by a senior Iranian leader to Bahrain’s being legitimately a province of Iran rather than an independent state. That statement understandably caused huge concern among all the Arab members of the Gulf Co-operation Council.

It seems that the objectives of British policy must be to try to secure a satisfactory outcome to the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme but also to try to bring about, through diplomatic means, a system of regional security and co-operation in which Iran is willing to play a constructive rather than a malign role, but a system in which Iran’s genuine national interests are also recognised.

The problem that we have is one that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre referred to, which is the limited number of policy options that, in reality, are available to the United Kingdom. Despite what has happened in the past few weeks, I still believe that President Obama’s approach is the right one. There is an enormous prize to be won through engagement—that of deflecting Iran from a nuclear weapons programme—and it carries with it a prize for the Iranian people of engagement with the outside world and modernisation of their economy, and even a prize for the regime in the form of the end of regime change as a suspected objective of United States policy.

I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes, as some have argued, that the attacks on Britain—the use of slogans in recent weeks denouncing the little Satan rather than the great Satan—are actually a peculiar coded way of Iran’s signalling to Washington that it still wishes to explore the possibilities of engagement. Or have the British Government made a more pessimistic assessment of what is happening?

On the nuclear issue, it seems that we need to persuade Iran, if we can, to accept suspension of its enrichment programme, although I think that that will be extraordinarily hard if not impossible to achieve, given the public statements made by so many Iranian leaders. If that fails, we may have to deal at some time in the next few years with the reality of an Islamic republic that has achieved control of the nuclear fuel cycle but which has perhaps stopped short of a weapons programme. If that is the world in which we find ourselves, would we be able to interpose between that stage and breakout to weaponisation some system of checks and warnings that would provide at least a measure of regional security?

Finally—this is the worst-case option—are the Foreign Office and other parts of the Government thinking about what to do if we wake up one day and find that
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we are confronted with an Iran that has nuclear weapons, in the way that North Korea and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons? It is not too early for policy makers in Britain, elsewhere in Europe and in America to be drawing up contingency plans and thinking through policy options in such circumstances.

For the time being, the main policy option, however imperfect, seems to be economic sanctions. I find it frustrating that the Prime Minister spoke well over a year ago in a Mansion house speech about new sanctions being imposed at European level on oil and gas investment and on export credit guarantees, but that they have still not been agreed by the EU. In fact, the converse is true: some two thirds of Iran’s foreign trade is with EU countries.

There are more measures that we could take on finance, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) suggested, and I would hope that in the wake of what happened in the presidential elections, we would also look at trade with Iran in information technology. I was disturbed to read reports that the software that was used to filter and monitor internet and mobile traffic within Iran after the elections, and to make life difficult for the demonstrators and the opposition, was supplied by Siemens. I do not know whether that is true, but it was reported in the US by quite serious sources. I hope that the EU will at least review its policy and see whether it needs to tighten up controls on that type of trade.

Looking further ahead, if President Obama’s outstretched hand does not meet with the kind of response that we would hope for, if Iran continues to press forward with its nuclear programme, we will have to look at sanctions that go even further and which would have the effect of isolating Iran as completely as possible from the normal contacts of the global economy.

My final point is that if we are starting to think about how the international community would deal with an Iran that had obtained control of the nuclear fuel cycle or worse, we need to be looking also at very public security guarantees. They would be primarily from the US rather than European powers, but clear, unmistakable security guarantees, not just to Israel but to several Arab countries, would be essential to try to prevent nuclear proliferation in this fragile and tense region of the world, which I believe is the nightmare that we all wish to avoid.

5.28 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Ivan Lewis): I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on securing this debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on his able, eloquent presentation of the content of the report. It is regrettable that it was published so long ago. Indeed, even the Foreign Office response is considerably in the past.

The debate has shown the House at its best. The quality of the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members has illustrated not only the importance of this issue to British strategic interests, but the fact that it is incredibly difficult to analyse. The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) said, in a thoughtful speech, that the challenge for us is what we do—not how we pontificate or analyse, but what we actually do
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in the interests of this country, in the interests of stability in the middle east, and in the interests of the international community. That, frankly, is the responsibility that falls to people who hold office, and it is one that we must take very seriously indeed in the current climate.

As has been said, we are all trying to weigh up the implications of recent events in Iran, not only for Iran but for the wider international community. There is undoubtedly a widespread feeling that something has changed following the election, with the subsequent action of the people and, unfortunately, the violent clampdown on dissent that we saw on the streets of Tehran. If we are honest, it is far too early to say with any precision what the consequences will be and whether there will be significant changes in the direction or the posture of the Iranian Republic. However, this is an appropriate moment to reflect on what has happened and remind ourselves of the serious issues that we are faced with.

The eyes of the world have been on Iran in recent times. In the run-up to the elections, we were all struck by the passionate, vigorous debate that took place in that country. The future of the Republic was debated live on television, in the streets and across the internet. The choice may not have been as open as it should have been—my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made that important point—but we have to acknowledge that it was a choice, none the less. The contrast between the period of relative openness preceding the elections and the violent clampdown that has followed is striking.

I cannot know who won the Iranian election; no right hon. or hon. Member here today can know that. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have been clear from day one that the decision on who should be President of Iran is not one for the British Government: it is a matter for the Iranian people alone. We do know that the legitimacy of the result that was first announced on 13 June and later endorsed by the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council has been challenged extensively from within Iran. It has been challenged by a groundswell of feeling from Iranians who feel that their vote has not been counted and that their voice has not been heard. They are not a few lone figures calling from the sidelines, but hundreds of thousands of people right across Iran, supported on occasions by senior figures from within the leadership of that Republic.

It is difficult to get a clear picture of what happened, but the priority surely must be for the Iranian Government to restore the Iranian people’s confidence in the electoral process by fully investigating the alleged irregularities. Whether confidence can be restored when the body in charge of investigating the elections announces that it is content to accept a turnout of more than 100 per cent. in 50 Iranian cities remains to be seen.

What of the authorities’ response to the demonstrations that followed the election? I have been appalled by the violence used against peaceful protesters. Deaths of demonstrators are deplorable. We have seen the right to assemble and the right to free speech effectively removed through violence, intimidation and threat. The violent clampdown has undoubtedly affected Iran’s standing in the eyes of the world. We should not forget that Iran frequently makes demands for respect on an equal basis
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from the international community. Those demands are undermined in any situation where a Government fail to respect the rights of their own people and fail to address their legitimate concerns.

Since the election, we have seen even further erosion and deterioration in the outlook for human rights in Iran, but, as the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre said, recent events must be set within a broader context. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me for briefly reiterating some of the specific points on human rights in Iran that were made in yesterday’s debate. Iran’s human rights record is well documented and is, to be frank, appalling. It has the highest execution rate per capita of any country worldwide and juvenile executions continue apace. Despite Iran’s history of tolerance and the rich, diverse mix of religion and ethnic groups that make up Iranian society, religious and ethnic minorities are subject to persecution, intimidation, arbitrary detention and denial of education.

Even before the recent unrest began, the Iranian authorities had arrested large numbers of teachers, women’s rights activists, students, trade unionists and ethnic minorities on the dubious, spurious charges of issuing “propaganda against the Islamic Republic”, “acting against national security” and “organising illegal gatherings.” As I said earlier, that clampdown has increased markedly in recent weeks. More than 1,000 demonstrators and several political and opposition leaders have been arrested. As right hon. and hon. Members know, nine of our own locally engaged staff have also been arrested. I will come to that in a moment.

Through those arrests and the unjustified expulsion of two of our diplomats, the UK has felt some of the force of the clampdown suffered by Iranian citizens. We need constantly to put on record that the British embassy in Tehran has played no role in the post-election demonstrations in Iran. The Iranian claims are absurd and entirely without foundation. In fact, they are a clear and obvious attempt to distract attention from what has clearly been an Iranian reaction to an Iranian internal issue.

My disappointment—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has described his own “cold anger”—is that what we face is not mere rhetoric from Iran. As hon. Members including my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South mentioned, nine hard-working, dedicated members of our embassy staff in Iran have been forced to endure intimidation, harassment and detention simply because of where they work. The Iranian authorities have taken action that is entirely unacceptable and completely without justification.

Rather than question the international community, we should thank and praise it for the solidarity that it has demonstrated alongside Britain in the face of that action by the Iranian authorities. I acknowledge here today the unified support and action that the European Union has given. Iran has seen that action against one EU member state will be treated as action against all. That is a good example of EU action and it should not be undermined. To date, we know that eight staff have been released and one remains in detention. Securing his release remains our top priority. We hope that that will happen soon.

I cannot answer the specific question asked by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), who brings tremendous experience and gravitas
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to this debate, on whether the status of any of the staff was changed in advance of the election and the difficult period that we faced, but I will investigate and write to him. On the general risk assessment that has to be made, we have a clear priority duty to protect all the people who represent our country in any capacity in any part of the world. However, adjusting or readjusting individual status has to be based on risk assessment by the professionals at the appropriate time. We cannot get into sweeping generalisations about such judgments, but I will write to the right hon. Gentleman setting out exactly what action was taken.

We will continue to press Iran hard to give us assurances that our staff will not be charged at any time in future simply for carrying out their professional responsibilities, and that they will be able to return to work without fear of harassment or threat. We want a broad-based, constructive bilateral relationship with Iran, but it is for Iran to choose the relationship that it has with the UK. I hope that in future Iran chooses a different path from the one we have seen it pursue in recent weeks.

Any positive progress on the nuclear issue is likely to come through tough diplomacy, which can only proceed if Iran is prepared to accept, clearly and unequivocally, its international obligations. The UK and the wider international community remain deeply concerned about the Iranian nuclear programme. Five United Nations Security Council resolutions require Iran to suspend enrichment, co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, and answer outstanding questions about the nature of its programme. The Prime Minister made it clear on 17 March that Iran has a right to civil nuclear power, but to claim what is rightfully available to it, Iran must recognise and act on the obligations to which it has committed itself under the non-proliferation treaty. However, Iran continues to refuse to meet those obligations and is ignoring the Security Council.

As the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) said, it is abundantly clear that Iran is not meeting its obligations, and the latest report from the director general of the IAEA also makes that clear. Iran is still not co-operating fully with the agency or granting the access that it seeks and is required. The IAEA made it clear that Iran is increasing its enrichment capabilities, which is totally contrary to the Security Council’s requirements, and confirmed that Iran has still not answered questions about the possible military dimensions of its programme. We simply cannot have confidence in the intentions of a country that acts in that way.

The Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, which was the trigger for today’s debate, argued at the time for a significant change in US policy towards Iran. It is a visionary Committee, and we have now seen the change advocated by the report. I am sure that President Obama and his senior personnel pored over the report. The Select Committee urged the American Administration to adopt an entirely different position. President Obama’s Administration have made it abundantly clear that they will engage directly with Iran, and play a full role in all diplomatic efforts. That has undoubtedly reinvigorated the E3 plus 3 diplomatic process. US involvement fundamentally changes what is available to Iran if it co-operates, but as yet, sadly and regrettably, Iran has made no positive response to the renewed E3 plus 3 invitation to enter into negotiations on the nuclear programme.

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I emphasise three points. First, the onus is on Iran and now is the time to take positive steps towards taking up the E3 plus 3's offer. The E3 plus 3 have reaffirmed their commitment to the diplomatic process; the US has made it clear that it will play a full role in talks; and the international community has fully recognised Iran's right to civil nuclear power. We cannot and should not allow Iran to make the same old arguments to delay talks. Those historic arguments are simply no longer valid.

Secondly, the offer to negotiate will not be on the table indefinitely. The US has made it clear that the hand will not be outstretched for ever. We should not be prepared to wait and wait for an answer from Iran while it advances its nuclear plans. That is not acceptable.

Thirdly, Iran cannot expect a decision not to respond positively to the E3 plus 3 to be cost free. The implications of recent events for progress on the nuclear issue are not yet clear, but it is clear that we must see positive steps from Iran very soon. It is also clear that hard-headed diplomacy may be needed to reach the destination to which we remain 100 per cent. committed—a diplomatic resolution to the issue that assures us of Iran's intentions in its nuclear programme.

The regional consequences of Iran’s actions are crucial to peace and stability in the middle east, which is why it is so important to UK interests. Iran seeks respect on the world stage and a position of influence in its region. It claims that it wants and is working for a secure and stable middle east. The UK believes that Iran does indeed have legitimate interests in the middle east, and we want a secure and prosperous Iran pursuing its legitimate interests in the region constructively and co-operatively, but its behaviour is often completely at odds with its professed intentions. Its means of attaining influence often entirely undermine its rhetoric and claims to respect.

For example, Iranian rhetoric claims that only Iran cares for the Palestinian people and for attaining a secure and peaceful future for them, but it directly undermines those claims by maintaining a policy to arm and support Hamas, Hezbollah and other Palestinian terrorist and rejectionist groups. That is what Iran believes is in the interests of its own regime security, but it is not in the interest of peace and security for the region. It is wrong. It is also wrong that the President of Iran engages in anti-Semitic comments and denial of the holocaust, and makes frequent statements suggesting that the state of Israel should be wiped off the map. That is inconsistent with Iran’s claim to want stability and peace in the middle east.

Elsewhere, Iranian interference in the affairs of its neighbours can have a direct effect on British interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and other hon. Members mentioned Afghanistan. Iran is pursuing a dangerous dual strategy, supporting Afghanistan's legitimate leadership through capacity building and economic assistance, but undermining that with carefully calibrated support, weapons and training for the Taliban. In Iraq, Iran has provided support for militia groups. Iran believes that it can achieve its aims of regime security through those means. It cannot. We believe that in the past year Iran has continued in a limited way to arm and support the Taliban.

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