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The blockade of Gaza must end so that all necessary humanitarian and reconstruction assistance can get through. However, in line with resolution 1860, this will happen only is there is tangible action to prevent the trafficking of weapons and weapons parts into Gaza. To that end, we welcome Tony Blair's efforts to secure
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progress, which-as I am sure all hon. Members accept-is now urgent. We want to see the Quartet and the Arab League working with all parties to come up with a credible plan that meets these two objectives within weeks, not months. Rocket attacks on Israel must stop. Gilad Shalit should be released by Hamas without precondition. His capture and continued detention are unacceptable.

With regard to recent events off the coast of Gaza, all sides have rightly condemned the tragic loss of life. We welcome today's inquiry announced by Israel and the involvement of David Trimble and Ken Watkin. However, we will be watching closely to ensure that the tests of independence and transparency that we have set are met in the way in which the inquiry is conducted.

The message that we should send from the House today is that the clock is ticking and time is running out for peace and stability in the middle east. A lack of political progress will not sustain an uneasy calm, but will lead to a resumption of violence and the strengthening of those whose purpose and interest are served by perpetual conflict. It is true that political leaders should be wary of getting too far ahead of their electorate, but it is equally true that history teaches us that great leaders are willing to deliver difficult messages to their own people.

The time has come for Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to prove their critics wrong. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to show that he truly understands and believes that there is no viable alternative to a just two-state solution and President Abbas needs to show the strength and credibility to deliver the Palestinian state which is long overdue.

Two states for two peoples will not bring to an end to al-Qaeda's fundamentalist terrorism or bring the Iranian regime from the margins to the mainstream. Al-Qaeda's support for the Palestinians is a tactic, not the pursuit of a just cause. But two states would undermine their selective narrative about the west's foreign policy goals, weaken their recruitment tools and strengthen the voice and hand of the mainstream majority in the Muslim world who deplore both violence and the politicisation of faith.

On Iran, we on this side of the House strongly support the new package of sanctions agreed by the United Nations Security Council last week. We reiterate our hope that Iran will chose the path of dialogue and diplomacy. Iran is a proud country which would have an important and influential role if it chose to rejoin the mainstream of the international community, but the regime must understand that the world will not stand by as it develops a nuclear weapons programme in clear contravention of its non-proliferation treaty obligations. That is not only because of the direct threat to Israel and the Arab states, but because a nuclear Iran would almost certainly trigger a new nuclear arms race, with some Arab states feeling an obligation to develop their own nuclear programme. That would be catastrophic at a time when the recent NPT review conference sought to take some tentative steps towards a world free of nuclear weapons.

As the Minister said, the people of Iran are courageous, as they demonstrated through their peaceful post-election protests. They should know that Britain seeks to be a friend of Iran and wants to resolve our differences though negotiation. Equally, the regime should know
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that, with our international partners, we will remain unwavering in our determination to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons and in our revulsion at its President's holocaust denial.

Irrespective of different views on the war in Iraq, we should always remember the brave British servicemen and women who risked and in some cases sacrificed their lives freeing Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. Just before Christmas last year, I was privileged to visit Iraq and see for myself the excellent work being done by our Royal Navy in training the Iraqi navy to protect its coastal waters. Significant progress has been made in Iraq but the new Iraqi Government must seek maximum consensus to consolidate security, improve the effectiveness of Government and push forward with economic and social reform. They should seek to improve human rights, including for minorities, women and trade unionists. Britain has a duty to play a positive role in the development of a new Iraq, and it is important that the British Government work with the Iraqis to identify how we can add the most value and make the most difference on a sustainable basis.

Dr William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman said that the world would not stand by and let Iran develop nuclear weapons. What would the world actually do? Would it pass a resolution of condemnation or what?

Mr Lewis: I do not think that it is responsible to enter into a running commentary on the situation in Iran. We moved from an historic offer of dialogue from President Obama, which received no positive response, to toughening our economic sanctions-ensuring that those sanctions are targeted at the regime. We must hope that the Iranian regime understands that there is significant international consensus and concern about the concept of Iran developing nuclear weapons. It is important that there is a unity of message and purpose throughout the international community so that Iran does not see any weakening or division in our determination to ensure that it does not breach its responsibilities under the NPT. We should remember that Iran is a signatory to that treaty but has continually failed to live up to its obligations.

Finally, on Yemen, it is important that the international community learns the lesson of Afghanistan. We must ensure that the commitments made at the London meeting in January are delivered. The President of Yemen should be expected to lead a programme of change that addresses security and political, economic and social reform, including authentic internal political reconciliation. However, that will be successful only if the aid promised primarily by Gulf states is delivered and spent effectively alongside a fast-tracked IMF programme that supports economic reform.

As I found on my visit earlier this year, Yemen feels a new sense of friendship and warmth towards Britain. I hope that the Minister, when he visits, will focus on how we can use our innovative joined-up approach-combining the best of the Department for International Development, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office-to achieve tangible results.

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As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) often rightly states, Yemen is not a failed state, but it is most definitely a fragile state and we must do everything that we can to tackle the poverty and social disorder that are the breeding ground for al-Qaeda. Effective action now will prevent the far more serious interventions that would be necessary in the future if the Government of Yemen were to fail.

I do not have time in this debate to do justice to all the challenges that face the middle east, which include the implications of a newly assertive Turkey, the serious threat to stability posed by a re-armed Hezbollah in contravention of UN resolutions, or our approach to engagement with Syria which, although very important, has not yet led to any serious move by Syria to take a step-let alone make the leap-from the margins to the mainstream of the international community.

Sceptical friends in the region often say, "But you must understand: this is the middle east," as they raise their eyebrows at talk of yet another peace initiative. My response is simple. In my lifetime, I have seen the Berlin wall fall and the Soviet Union crumble; Nelson Mandela released from prison and elected President of a democratic South Africa; peace come to Northern Ireland, with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness serving in the same Government; an African-American elected President of the United States-events that are now facts of history, but which would once have been viewed as the naive dreams of romantic idealists.

The middle east needs a combination of realism and idealism. Most of all, it needs great leaders with the courage and vision to make the hard choices and take the difficult decisions. There will never be a shared narrative about the past, but there can be a shared determination to build a better future. I hope that the new Government will ensure that Britain remains at the heart of supporting a peaceful and just future for all the people of the middle east.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. This is an important debate, and a large number of right hon. and hon. Members have put their names down to speak. Mr Speaker has therefore imposed an eight-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches, although if colleagues take less than eight minutes, we can probably get further down the list.

6.21 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): I congratulate you on your appointment, Mr Deputy Speaker. I also commend my hon. Friend the Minister and the shadow Minister for what were two powerful and profound speeches on an important matter.

The subject of the debate is the middle east. One might therefore expect it to be concentrated on the views of the Arab world, as well as on those of Israel, yet one of the great ironies is that the three most important countries involved in the region-in the sense of being engaged in proactive action at this moment-are Israel, Iran and Turkey, none of which is an Arab state. Part of the difficulty that we face has been the inability, for various reasons, of most of the Arab world to take the kind of proactive role that might have been expected.

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In the time available, I want to concentrate on Iran. I want to ask a number of questions, but I want also to offer possible answers to some of them, including to the point raised by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) in an intervention a few moments ago. The first question is: are we right to single out Iran for its almost-certain nuclear arms programme? Often we are told, "Well, there are other nuclear weapons states. Why should Iran be singled out in this way?" I believe that the answer to my question is that we are right to do so, and we are right for two reasons. Compared with the existing nuclear weapons states, Iran-or, more particularly, its President-has gone out of the way to be bellicose in his language, to be threatening to at least one other country in the region and to have aspirations for the aggrandisement of his country, with a willingness to use weapons for that purpose.

However, linked to that is the undoubted fact that, unlike in the case of previous nuclear weapons developments, undesirable though they might have been, if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it is painfully obvious not that it will use them directly, but that a consequence will be a destabilisation of the region and the almost near certainty of countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey feeling it necessary to go in the same direction. Therefore, the middle east as a whole would become a region with a significant number of nuclear weapons states, with all the awful consequences that that could imply.

That is the first question. The second question is, therefore: is current policy working? Manifestly it is not. We all know that it was meant to be based on carrot and stick. What better carrot could there have been than President Obama's offer of a grand dialogue with Iran and the normalisation of relations? Instead, that was thrown in his face. There were not even failed negotiations; the negotiations never began, because Iran rejected that possibility. We know also that sanctions-important though they are, and much as we welcome the latest decision by the United Nations Security Council-will not by themselves achieve a change of heart in Tehran.

I therefore come to the third question: is it possible that a policy of diplomacy and pressure could work? Is there a scenario in which it might work? The answer, I believe, is yes, if two conditions are satisfied. First, Russia and China are crucial, because although they supported the resolution last week, we know that their support is grudging. We also know that they have consistently taken on board their short-term considerations-in particular, their trade relationships with Iran and other aspects of their foreign policy-rather than standing four-square with the rest of the Security Council. Russia in particular, as a neighbour of the middle east and Iran, and with a large Muslim minority in its own territory, has as much to be concerned about by a nuclear-armed Iran as any country in the west, as does China, because of its particular position. Russia and China, therefore, if they look to their self-interest, ought to be able to share the position of the United Kingdom, the United States and others on the need for a total uniformity of view on the question of pressing Iran.

However, it is not just Russia and China; it is also the Arab states that I mentioned earlier. Anyone who goes to any of the countries of the region-and I have been
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to most of them-will find that, in private, people will say that they are as horrified as we are at the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. But try getting them to put their heads above the parapet-try getting them to support publicly what the United States and the Security Council are trying to do-and all sorts of reasons are given as to why it is too difficult, why it would be unpopular in their countries and why it all depends on what Israel does, along with various other excuses.

That would not worry me but for the consequence of that resistance to coming out and sharing people's real views, which is that Ahmadinejad is able to say to the world, "This isn't the international community versus Iran; this is simply the United States and its closest allies." What we need is not a coalition of the willing, but a coalition of the relevant. We need those countries of the region to join the west-and, I hope, Russia and China-to take a common position on the issue. That is what happened in the first Gulf war, when Kuwait was being liberated. Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia publicly supported-with troops, as well as through diplomacy-what the United States-led coalition was doing. Pressure could work, therefore, but until that change takes place, it is less likely to do so.

The main point that I want to concentrate on in the time left is if the methods that I have described do not work-I refer now to the intervention of a few minutes ago-what then do we do? Do we simply say, "Well, that's too bad. There's nothing we can do"? There is the question of the military option. People have rightly pointed out that the downside is a pretty dreadful downside. If military action is taken by either the United States or Israel, it will almost certainly lead to Iran enabling Hamas or Hezbollah to become even more proactive and attack Israel, as well as fomenting mischief in Iraq, with the price of oil going sky high and the straits of Hormuz perhaps being closed.

All that is true, and I cannot say that it would not be likely to happen. However-and this is an important "however"-all those things would be relatively short-term events, and I stress "relatively". They would last a few days or a few weeks, or perhaps two or three months. An Iran with a nuclear weapon, however, would be around for years to come-for ever. Therefore, it is not good enough simply to say, "There is a downside. Therefore, the military option cannot be considered at any stage." We have to come to a judgment on the balance of advantage. Is the balance of advantage to accept major problems if military action was taken, if-and this is an important "if"-it would remove the nuclear threat from Iran?

However, everything that I have said on this issue depends on whether the military option is a real option. Would it actually deliver? That is the fundamental question that Britain, America, Israel and the wider international community have to consider. I do not have time to go into the detail, but I make the point that the objective must be to come to an honest judgment. If diplomacy fails, if sanctions do not work and if there is no peaceful alternative, then we will have to come to an honest view on whether the military option-whether by the United States or Israel-would destroy Iran's nuclear capacity or, even if it did not, so degrade it as to make Iran unable to have nuclear weapons for a good few years to come.

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I conclude by simply saying this. In this rather imperfect world in which we live, it is not good enough to ask, "What is the perfect solution to this dilemma?" The real question that we have to ask-or at least that Governments have to ask-is what is the least bad option? If the military advice was that we could either remove Iran's nuclear capacity or degrade it for a long period, Iran must realise that, at some stage, that might be what happens. It would not be an ideal solution, but it might still be better than the alternatives.

6.29 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Although we are discussing a grave subject, may I say what a pleasure it is to speak in the House with you sitting in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker?

The Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, once dismissed an opponent's speech as consisting of "clitch after clitch after clitch". I do not believe that there is any future in debating this subject by relying on clich├ęs. If any other country had behaved as Israel is behaving towards the Palestinians in the occupied territories, international action would have been taken long ago. The international community is, as the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pointed out, rightly concerned about Iran. Yes, Iran's regime is detestable and it is important to do all we can to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, but it does not have them at present and it has never invaded another country. Israel does possess nuclear weapons; it is said to have 200 warheads. It has refused to sign the non-proliferation treaty and it recently refused to attend President Obama's conference on nuclear weapons divestment. Israel has invaded Lebanon three times. It facilitated the Sabra and Shatila massacres. It also conducted Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza blockade and the attack on the Gaza flotilla.

Let us also dispose of the distractions that impede action. It makes no difference whether the inquiry into the attack on the flotilla is conducted internally by Israel or internationally. Even an international inquiry would not change Israeli policy. The Goldstone inquiry into Operation Cast Lead had no influence at all, and Goldstone was vilified as a Jewish anti-Semite and a self-hating Jew. We have heard mention this afternoon of the dreadful situation involving Gilad Shalit, the young man who was taken into captivity four years ago this week. I feel great sorrow for his family, but he was a soldier on military duty. About 15 members of the Palestine National Council are being held without charge by the Israelis, and about 300 children are being held in prisons by the Israeli Government. It is a distraction to propose, as Tony Blair and Baroness Ashton have done, to change the terms of the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Neither of them has challenged the principle of the blockade, yet it is that principle that contravenes the Geneva convention.

Mrs Ellman: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Sir Gerald Kaufman: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I will give way if I have time before I finish.

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