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Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As someone who supports what the Home Secretary is trying to do to get better control over our borders and a risk-based approach, may I ask her what explanation she has been offered of the failure of some officials to accept ministerial instructions? There is no point in having Ministers and Parliament if officials ignore everything that they tell them.

Mrs May: Sadly, the chief inspector describes in the report poor communication and poor managerial oversight in the Border Fore. He makes it clear that the information systems within the UKBA and the UK Border Force were not being used properly to enable proper assessments to be made of the proposals that were being made.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): May I take it from what the Home Secretary has said that she agrees with my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary that the number of those refused entry is 100 lower than she claimed, rather than higher? Will she say briefly what she thinks she has learned in the past 18 months about how she manages her Department?

Mrs May: I did not say in November that the overall number of refusals was higher. The report does indeed say that the number of refusals was lower, which was a result of the chief inspector’s investigation of what was happening at the border. We reported to Parliament about certain numbers of individuals who were stopped and about numbers of drug seizures.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It is clear from the Vine report that some immigration checks have been suspended since at least 2007 and that they were abandoned without ministerial authority. However, is not the important point that the country and our constituents do not want to hear a lot of huff and puff from Opposition Front Benchers trying to score points but to know that Ministers are now taking action to make our borders more secure? Will my right hon. Friend reiterate to the House, so that the information does not get lost, the new action that she is taking to make sure that our borders are more secure than they have been in the past?

Mrs May: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right that the public want to know that we are dealing with these issues. That is why I have appointed the chief constable of Wiltshire police to be the interim head of the Border Force and why the Border Force will be separated from UKBA. We will put a much greater focus on the Border Force as a control body that is securing our borders and has a greater emphasis on law enforcement. At the same time, we have made a number of changes to the way in which UKBA operates—for example, we have taken policy away so that there is a greater concentration on operations.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary is to implement all the recommendations by John Vine. This is about a root and branch reform of a very troubled organisation. She was right not to personalise the matter, because it is a cultural problem to do with the way in which UKBA operates. Only last week, as Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, I wrote to the chief executive to ask for certain information, which he refused to give. It is very important, not only for UKBA but for the new

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organisation that she is creating, that there should be proper parliamentary scrutiny of the agencies. I warn her that if she does not reform the organisation, it will come back and bite her and other Ministers in future. I therefore welcome her proposals.

Mrs May: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the serious and constructive way in which he has engaged in his comments. As I said, he and the Home Affairs Committee have consistently, over a number of years, pointed out the problems at UKBA. Through the Vine report, we see in depth the problems that were occurring, particularly in the Border Force. He is absolutely right that this is about a change of culture within the organisation. That is why we have separated the Border Force from UKBA, and we have a new chief executive at UKBA who has already made a number of changes that are starting to change the culture. We will have a new interim head of the Border Force, which will be separate from UKBA, and that can be the start of the culture change, but it does take time to change a culture.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Will the Home Secretary set out what regular performance assessment of UKBA there will be to ensure that it does not fall back into the ad-hoc, events-driven approach to border security and management that was so prevalent under the previous Government?

Mrs May: We will issue the UK Border Force with a new operating mandate that makes absolutely clear the circumstances in which certain discretion may be applied and which checks should be mandatory at our borders. We are already receiving more detailed reports on what is happening in relation to the Border Force and UKBA. UKBA’s task will be to deliver the Government’s immigration policy, and I am very pleased to say that we intend to deliver that policy by the next general election.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Does the Home Secretary agree with the report that it is imperative that the language used by ministers is absolutely clear and unambiguous? If so, does she agree that her key terms were not clearly defined because the pilot was interpreted and operated in different ways in different ports—or will she just blame the officials again?

Mrs May: I assure the hon. Lady that we have looked in detail at every criticism made in the report, and that where it is necessary for changes to take place in the Home Office, they will take place.

Nicola Blackwood (Oxford West and Abingdon) (Con): The Home Affairs Committee report found that one primary reason the problem continued for so long undetected was that the chain of communication from Ministers to senior managers to front-line staff at UKBA had become convoluted and fragmented. Today we hear that the Vine report finds that Border Force senior managers felt themselves unaccountable to Ministers. What does the Home Secretary intend to do to put an end to that culture once and for all?

Mrs May: That is one of the issues with how the UKBA was originally set up—it was one of those so-called arm’s length agencies. Separating the Border

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Force from UKBA and making it part of the Home Office—the director general will be within the Home Office—means that it will be directly accountable to Ministers.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): When the scandal broke last year, it was reported that checks were suspended at Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Prestwick airports. In her previous statement, the Home Secretary said she would be happy to speak to Scottish Ministers about that. What discussions has she had with Scottish Ministers and what discussions did John Vine have with the authorities in Scotland? More importantly, what will the impact of a new Border Force, with its own operational command, be for border and port security in Scotland?

Mrs May: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the impact on Scotland. We will discuss the impact of the report with Scottish Government Ministers and my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister will write to them today about the implications. We will obviously take up more detailed discussions on the precise operations at official level—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. I appeal to the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) to calm himself. Perhaps he should take up yoga. It is only Monday, and I know that he will want to hang on every word of the Home Secretary—[ Interruption. ] I do not know what he is chuntering about with such good nature from a sedentary position, but it cannot be as interesting as what the Home Secretary has to say.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): Having heard the bluster from the shadow Home Secretary, will the Home Secretary confirm to the House one thing: that the Vine report entirely vindicates what she and the Immigration Minister said last November, and that all the suspended checks that she told the House about in November occurred without ministerial authorisation?

Mrs May: The report makes it clear that the suspension of checks outside the limited pilot that had been approved took place without ministerial authorisation. The shadow Home Secretary raised an issue in her opening remarks about my hon. Friend the Immigration Minister. He and I have made it clear that his comments on the proposed pilot early last year were provisional; that, crucially, no new operating instructions were issued to staff as a result; that there was no change to policy as a result; that secure ID checks were suspended before January last year until May; and that, sadly, despite my explicit instruction that the checks should not be suspended after May, they continued to be suspended.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Vine report include any criticism of, or comment on, the behaviour of Ministers?

Mrs May: The Vine report goes through the facts of what happened over a period in relation to the potential suspension of checks. It makes it clear that, sadly, the UK Border Force was undertaking checks without ministerial authorisation, and that it withheld information from Ministers and gave inaccurate information to them.

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Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that because the previous Labour Government were so uninterested in protecting our borders, they allowed the bizarre culture of ignoring ministerial direction to embed itself at the head of the UKBA? Will she assure the House that that culture will not be allowed to continue following this Government’s measures and the Vine report?

Mrs May: The precise reason for separating the UK Border Force from UKBA is to give the UK Border Force a much clearer focus on its key job of maintaining security and conducting controls at our borders. However, I am bound to comment to my hon. Friend that, as he knows well, this Government have a proper immigration policy and are doing our best to control it.

Alun Michael (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Home Secretary understand one of the points made by the Home Affairs Committee, which is that the Border Agency, of which the Border Force is a part, is not a separate agency but an integral part of the Home Office, for which she is responsible? Does she accept that communications within the Home Office, including that agency, were poor and sometimes shambolic, which is why officials frequently thought that Ministers knew what Ministers should have known? Will she now publish, alongside the Vine report, the document on which she relied in giving evidence but which she has denied so far to the Home Affairs Committee? Can we have it all out in the open?

Mrs May: I am interested in the comments that the right hon. Gentleman makes about the relationship between Ministers and the UK Border Agency and the UK Border Force. I return to the point I have made previously that of course what we saw was decisions being taken within UK Border Force that were contrary to ministerial authorisation, not just under this Government but under the previous Government as well.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. There is pressure on time. I am keen to accommodate all colleagues, but to do so I require brevity, to be exemplified by Mr Robert Halfon.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the suspension of border checks had nothing to do with budget cuts and began under the previous Government when budgets were rising and our immigration system was in a shambles?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. The suspension of checks did start under the previous Government. As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), this Government have a proper immigration policy and intend to control immigration. We also need to ensure that UK Border Force is the law enforcement agency with control at our borders that we all want it to be.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): When the Home Secretary made her statement to the House on 7 November, there was some initial confusion about whether Manchester airport was included in the pilot. Can she now confirm how many passengers

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passed through Manchester airport without biometric or fingerprint checks during the period of the pilot that was authorised by Ministers?

Mrs May: I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that Manchester airport was indeed part of the pilot scheme, but one of the problems—as shown in the report by the chief inspector—is that some of the record-keeping at ports was not complete in relation to the operation of the pilot and the suspension of checks, and that records were kept on a different basis between different ports. While the chief inspector has put the figures into his report as far as he is able, it is not possible to get the complete picture of the operation of the pilot precisely because the records are incomplete.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. As part of the culture change to which she refers, will she ask the management of the successor bodies whether they will use English of a type that is understandable to the rest of the English-speaking world?

Mrs May: I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I know that this is a campaign that he pursues at every opportunity. Indeed, when I appeared before the Home Affairs Committee he raised the issue of the language that was being used. We will make every effort to do what he requests.

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): On occasions such as this, when Opposition Back Benchers have not seen the report that is the subject of the statement, we depend on a comprehensive and non-partisan presentation of the report by the Minister responsible. The Home Secretary has given us the impression that the report is in no way critical of Ministers, but we have heard suggestions that the report does contain criticism of a lack of clarity in the language used by Ministers in their instructions to the Border Agency. Is there criticism in the report, and if so will she apologise for her Department’s failings?

Mrs May: In a number of aspects, the report does indeed refer to the need for greater clarity in communications of all sorts that were taking place in relation to what was happening at the border. That is part of the work that will be done by the Home Office and the UK Border Agency.

Kris Hopkins (Keighley) (Con): The failure of the previous Government to manage our borders and even know how many immigrants had come into the country was rightly punished by the electorate at the election. Does the Home Secretary agree that, unlike Labour, this Government will not tolerate failure by the Border Agency?

Mrs May: Indeed, that is why we are responding fully to the recommendations of the Vine report. Furthermore, as I have made clear to the House, we are changing the structure of the UKBA and the UK Border Force so that we can focus more on the need for the Border Force to secure our borders. That is what people want it to do, and it is what we want it to do.

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Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Given the Home Secretary’s decision to split the Border Force from the UKBA, can we expect a corresponding reduction in the salary of the UKBA’s chief executive to reflect his reduced responsibilities, or will this end up costing us more and adding to the complexity of a situation that Ministers are already struggling to control?

Mrs May: I am happy to remind the hon. Gentleman—I am sure that he is already aware of this—that the current chief executive is paid significantly less than was his predecessor, who was appointed by the previous Labour Government.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Apart from the political posturing and point-scoring attempted by the shadow Home Secretary last November, will my right hon. Friend remind me when the Opposition Front-Bench team last took the slightest interest in immigration and border control?

Mrs May: I understand that the last time there was an immigration debate in the House, not a single speech was made from the Labour Back Benches.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): One of the Government’s first acts was to abolish plans to put fingerprints in British passports. We now hear that the Immigration Minister gave the impression to officials that it was okay to implement the suspension of secure identity checks. Does he have the Home Secretary’s full confidence?

Mrs May: Absolutely, and I have already answered the points about the Immigration Minister’s comments. The hon. Lady needs to recognise that secure identity checks were suspended before January/February 2011, that they were suspended until May, and sadly, despite the fact that I explicitly said that they should not be suspended in May, they remained suspended. That was without ministerial authorisation. It is high time that she and her right hon. and hon. Friends recognised what was happening without ministerial authorisation.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): The establishment of a new operational command for the UK Border Force and the appointment of its interim head sound like positive and constructive steps forward, but they come just five months before the London Olympics. Will the Home Secretary ensure that the interim head has all the resources he needs to cope with the increased number of visitors that this country can expect?

Mrs May: I can assure my hon. Friend that the UK Border Force has already undertaken a great deal of work within the UKBA, and will continue to undertake it, to ensure that we can accommodate people coming to London and other parts of the country for the Olympics and Paralympics. We are doing a great deal of work, including, crucially, with the airport operators.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): A couple of months ago, I toured the border controls at Dover. I would like to make the Home Secretary and the excellent Immigration Minister aware of the following: first, the problems at Calais are the result not of budget cuts but of coaches

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queuing back on to the motorway, causing the police to put pressure on the UKBA to hurry people through; secondly, the previous Government also did nothing about eye scanners that did not work properly; and, thirdly the previous Government supplied laptops that did not work properly and took too long to load up. While she is addressing the problems of the past, will she take an interest in those things too?

Mrs May: My hon. Friend, given his constituency, takes a particular interest in border matters. He is assiduous in dealing with these issues, in liaising with those at Dover port responsible for such matters and in taking up any issues with Ministers. He raised several matters. I am happy to say that despite this weekend being the busiest weekend for returning school coach parties—the thoughts of the House must be with those affected by the terrible school coach accident in France—the UKBA, by working with the French authorities and putting in place mitigating measures, achieved a greater throughput than was achieved previously. There were also fewer problems with coaches on the motorway.

Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): I welcome the Home Secretary’s announcement of the separation of the UK Border Force as a separate entity, but it is clear that the organisation urgently requires a period of stability. In order to provide it, will she say when she envisages a permanent head being appointed?

Mrs May: We will, of course, be holding an open competition for people to apply for that post. I hesitate to give my hon. Friend a date, because we have to be cognisant of the fact that, with the Olympics and Paralympics coming up, we need to ensure minimum disruption to the Border Force. It is with that in mind that an appointment will be made, at an appropriate time.

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Points of Order

4.55 pm

Mr Speaker: On a point of order relating to the Code of Conduct, on which no further points of order may arise, I call Mr Mark Simmonds.

Mark Simmonds (Boston and Skegness) (Con): It has been brought to my attention that on 31 January and 16 March 2011, I inadvertently omitted to draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to strategic advice that I provide to a social enterprise health care provider. I would like to take this opportunity both to correct the record and to apologise.

Mr Speaker: We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You may have seen reports last week that while on a conference in India an official from the Office for Nuclear Regulation lost a memory stick containing information and plans relating to Hartlepool nuclear power station. I have yet to be informed of this by the Government. Going back many years, Ministers faced with data loss have come to this House to answer questions and explain their actions. Given that precedent and the paramount importance of securing and safeguarding our civil nuclear industry, is it in order that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change has chosen not to inform me or to come to this House? What powers do you have, Sir, to ensure that I can receive notification and provide reassurance to my constituents on this important breach of data?

Mr Speaker: It is a matter for Ministers to make statements as and when they judge appropriate, if policy options or announcements are due. From what the hon. Gentleman has said so far, it is not immediately obvious to me that there is any matter of order on which the Chair need rule, but his words are on the record, and I shall take particular pleasure in observing them for a second time when I read the Official Report. If I have any further thoughts on the matter at that point, he will be the first to hear; meanwhile his constituents will know of what he has said.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will be aware, the Scotland Bill is still making its way through Parliament. Last week the Prime Minister made a visit to Scotland, where he announced that he is now in favour of more devolution and that his proposal is “on the table”. Given that the UK Government repeatedly say that a lack of detail about constitutional change causes uncertainty, will you confirm whether Ministers have sought to make a statement about any changes to the Scotland Bill?

Mr Speaker: I can confirm that they have not, and if I were a more cynical fellow than I am, I might be tempted to conclude that the hon. Gentleman was seeking to dress up in the language of constitutionalism an important point—a fundamental point; and, for him, an urgent point—that was nevertheless overwhelmingly a political point. But as I am not so cynical, I will not so conclude.

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Backbench Business

[Un-allotted Day]


Mr Speaker: Because of the level of interest in speaking in this debate, I have imposed an eight-minute limit on most Back-Bench contributions. That does not apply to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who is opening the debate. He will be aware of his time limit, to which I know he will faithfully adhere.

4.59 pm

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House believes that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons; and calls upon the Government to rule out the use of force against Iran and reduce tensions by redoubling diplomatic efforts.

May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for supporting my application to debate this subject today? Statements by the Government allow opportunities to ask a question, but rarely allow a thorough examination of the issue. I also thank those Members who supported me in calling for this debate. Many did not agree with the motion, but all felt that such a debate was long overdue, as is borne out by the number of people who have put in to speak this evening.

The debate is urgently required. With tough new sanctions in place and further ones threatened by Iran, with naval forces mustering in the Persian gulf and with state-sponsored terrorism ongoing inside and outside Iran, this might be the only opportunity for Back Benchers to discuss the topic before hostilities begin. Israel is contemplating an air strike, and we could be on the brink of a regional war. I called for today’s debate because I believe that we need a fresh approach. The sanctions and the sabre-rattling are yesterday’s failed policies, and the fact that we are once again on the brink of military conflict is testament to that failure. My motion calls on the Government—and, by implication, the west—to rule out the use of force in order to reduce tensions and bring us back from the brink of war and military conflict, and to redouble diplomatic efforts. That would give us time to reflect on some of the inconvenient truths that the west chooses to ignore, and on the need for a fresh approach.

I shall start by outlining some of the inconvenient truths. The catalyst for the latest round of condemnation was the report published by the International Atomic Energy Agency last November. The United States and the United Kingdom chose to see the report as evidence that Iran was building nuclear weapons, and further financial sanctions followed, which led directly to the storming of the British embassy in Tehran, inexcusable though that was. We should be careful about accepting such reports at face value, however. Close reading of the report reveals no smoking gun: there is no evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons, or of a decision to do so.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Will my hon. Friend give way?

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Mr Baron: I want to make some progress, then I will try to accommodate all colleagues who wish to intervene.

The fact that there is no evidence of attempts to produce nuclear weapons or of a decision to do so was confirmed by Peter Jenkins, the UK’s former permanent representative to the IAEA. Robert Kelley, a former director of the agency, highlighted the fact that the report contained only three items that referred to developments after 2004—the year in which the American intelligence services concluded that Iran had ceased its nuclear programme. Indeed, the agency spends 96% of a 14-page annexe reprising what was already known. I therefore ask the Foreign Secretary to highlight for the House today the paragraphs in the report that provide evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. He has referred to this matter many times, but I can see no such evidence in the report. Is he willing to highlight those paragraphs for the benefit of the House now? I am willing to take an intervention from him.

Robert Halfon: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Baron: I shall just wait for the Foreign Secretary. His silence speaks volumes. I shall therefore take an intervention from my hon. Friend.

Robert Halfon: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way—

Mr Speaker: Order. We cannot have two Members standing up at the same time. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) is perfectly tall enough. We can see him; he has nothing to worry about.

Robert Halfon: I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Is he aware that paragraph 43 of the IAEA report states that Iran worked

“on the development of an indigenous design of a nuclear weapon including the testing of components”?

Mr Baron: Yes, I am aware of that, but it is not concrete evidence; it is circumstantial—

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD) rose

Mr Baron: I will take and answer one intervention at a time, if I may.

We need to be careful when considering the report. Much has been made of the circumstantial evidence and of western intelligence reports, but Iraq should have taught us to be careful about basing our foreign policy decisions on secret intelligence and circumstantial evidence. That is a lesson that we should have learned from Iraq.

Martin Horwood: Another section of the report talks about the

“acquisition of nuclear weapons development information and documentation from a clandestine nuclear supply network”.

It concludes that:

“While some of the activities identified in the Annex have civilian as well as military applications, others are specific to nuclear weapons.”

How else are we to interpret that?

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Mr Baron: That does not answer the actual question. That is circumstantial evidence; it is not concrete evidence of a nuclear weapons programme. It is as straightforward as that. I challenge the hon. Gentleman who asked the question: if he could point to concrete evidence, it would be useful for the House.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Con): Will my hon. Friend outline when in his view circumstantial evidence becomes actual evidence—is it when the bomb has dropped, for example?

Mr Baron: It is very straightforward. There has to be evidence of nuclear weapons. We were told, for example, that there was no shortage of circumstantial evidence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but it turned out that there were no WMD there. That shows how careful we need to be and how clear we need to be about the difference between circumstantial evidence and concrete evidence.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any IAEA evidence on Israel’s nuclear weapons programme?

Mr Baron: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. In certain quarters in the middle east, it is felt that double standards are being applied in that Israel has developed nuclear weapons and the west does not seem to worry about them. [Interruption.] My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) suggests that the evidence is circumstantial, and I am willing to grant him that point.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Can my hon. Friend name any experts in the field who would explain how enrichment to a 20% threshold, currently being undertaken by the Iranian regime, could plausibly be for civilian and not military use?

Mr Baron: My hon. Friend makes a fair point, which I will address later in my speech, but I say to him now that there is a world of difference between nuclear capability and actually having nuclear weapons. I am sure that the House would accept that difference.

A second inconvenient truth relates to the usual depiction of Iran as intransigent and for ever chauvinistic in her foreign policy. Western Governments, I suggest, too easily forget that Iran is not totally at fault here. There have been opportunities to better relations between Iran and the west, but the west has spurned those opportunities. We forget, for example, that following 9/11, Iran—unlike many in the middle east street—expressed solidarity with the US. We forget also that attempts were made to develop contacts during the early stages of the Afghan war. What was Iran’s reward? It was to be labelled or declared part of the “axis of evil” by President Bush, which led directly to the removal of the reformist and moderate President Khatami. Despite that, there were further attempts at co-operation in the run-up to the Iraq war, but those efforts were similarly rebuffed.

Again, I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he is prepared to deny that the west has made mistakes in its dealings with Iran and has missed opportunities to better relations. I would genuinely like to hear his views on that and would welcome an intervention.

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Mike Gapes (Ilford South) (Lab/Co-op) rose

Mr Baron: If I am not going to get an intervention from the Foreign Secretary, I shall take one from the Labour Back Benches.

Mike Gapes: I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman refers to lost opportunities. Does he agree that the Iranian regime was at fault in rejecting President Obama’s initiative when he first came to office? Is that not a sign that the regime in Tehran is afraid of international engagement and is pursuing this course relentlessly?

Mr Baron: I am the first to agree that Iran was completely wrong on President Obama’s offer. Let me make it clear that I am not an apologist for Iran. No one can agree with its human rights record, its sponsoring of state terrorism or the storming of our embassy—all are terribly wrong—but they are not arguments for military intervention; they do not justify war. Rather, I suggest that no one’s hands are clean in this region, including our own, particularly after the invasion of Iraq on what turned out to be a false premise. Opportunities have been missed on both sides. I would have thought there can be little doubt about that.

Let us get to the nub of the issue and think the unthinkable. Let us assume, despite the lack of substantive evidence, that Iran is moving towards the option of nuclear capability. Hon. Members will be fully aware that there is a world of difference between nuclear capability and possessing nuclear weapons. This is perhaps understandable. We in the west underestimate the extent to which status is important in that part of the world. The reason Saddam Hussein did not deny possessing weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that he did not have them, was that it was in his interest not to deny it. He had, after all, failed in his invasion of Iran. Iran’s insecurity is also understandable. Those who view the map from Tehran’s point of view will see that she is surrounded by nuclear powers: Russia, Pakistan, a United States naval presence, and Israel. All those powers contribute to Iran’s feeling of encirclement.

I am very conscious, as the House will be, of the argument that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, that will lead to a nuclear arms race in the region but without the safety mechanisms that existed during the cold war, which in itself could lead to a nuclear escalation. However, I do not accept that argument. There is no reason why the theory of nuclear deterrence to which the west adheres should not be equally valid in other parts and regions of the world. Paul Pillar, the CIA’s national intelligence officer for the middle east between 2000 and 2005, recently wrote that there was

“nothing in the record of behavior by the Islamic Republic that suggests irrationality”.

That view was reinforced by Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, last year.

India and Pakistan have fought wars, yet both have shown nuclear restraint. As the House is well aware, only one country has ever used nuclear weapons in anger. Furthermore, the view that an Iranian nuclear capability would start a nuclear arms race in the region does not take into account the possibility that regional allies of the west will opt to shelter under a US nuclear umbrella. That happens in Japan and in South Korea.

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Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): I am afraid that this is sounding terribly like an appeasement argument. If the hon. Gentleman does not wish his position to be characterised as such, will he say something about what the western powers should do to support legitimate protest in Iran by the people who are pushing for regime change, whom we have supported in other countries and whom we should support in this instance?

Mr Baron: I ask the hon. Gentleman to be patient. I promise to deal directly with that later in my speech.

At this point, many invoke President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the face of the map. Surely, they say, that is proof of irrationality; surely that is evidence that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. However, a careful examination of the translation suggests that President Ahmadinejad was badly misquoted. Even The New York Times, one of the first outlets to misquote Ahmadinejad, now accepts that the word “map” was never used. A more accurate translation offers

“the regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time”.

Given that Ahmadinejad compared his desired option—the elimination of “the regime occupying Jerusalem”—with the fall of the Shah’s regime in Iran, it is quite clear that he was talking about regime change and not about the destruction of Israel itself, just as he did not want the end of Iran in his comparison. The pedantry over the translation is important. Some Members may scoff, but this is a terribly important point. The immediate reaction to Ahmadinejad’s speech in 2005 was the then Israeli Prime Minister’s call for Iran to be expelled from the United Nations, and the US urging its allies to “get tougher” on Iran.

That mistranslation is used to this day, even by former Foreign Secretaries outside the House. I wonder why the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has not provided more clarity on the point. I hope that it is not to do with a hidden agenda. Perhaps it is to do with a shortage of properly qualified Farsi speakers, but we would appreciate clarity from the Foreign Secretary in due course. I ask him to tell us whether he denies at least the possibility that President Ahmadinejad was misquoted.

Mrs Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): If the hon. Gentleman is so dismissive of Iran’s statement that Israel should be wiped off the face of the earth, can he explain why, in February 2011, Ayatollah Khamenei repeated the statement that Israel was a “cancerous tumour” that must be removed?

Mr Baron: If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I must say that we need to examine these statements very carefully, because that translation too is open to dispute. It is all very well coming to the House with these translations, but Farsi is a complex language, as she will know, and we have to make sure that we get them right. Many scholars outside this place verify that President Ahmadinejad’s original statement was misquoted—theses have been written about it—which is why I ask the Foreign Secretary to clarify the situation. We need to get this quote clarified.

There can be little doubt that the west’s policy of sabre-rattling and sanctions has failed; the Iranians are not going to back down on their nuclear programme.

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Mr Mousavi, the unofficial leader of the green movement and one of the great hopes of the west, said during the 2009 presidential campaign that any backtracking on the nuclear issue would be tantamount to surrender. Iran’s statement that it is introducing an oil embargo for certain countries shows that it is impervious to sabre-rattling, yet we in the west still pursue that policy when confronting Iran. Indeed it is considered “naive”—I have heard that word used a lot—to rule out the use of force. We are told that all options must be left on the table. Some people go further: there seems to be a hairshirt auction among Republican candidates for the presidential nomination in America as to who can be toughest on Iran, with Mitt Romney openly advocating war over the nuclear issue. I would counter that by saying that what is naive is pursuing a policy that has clearly failed. Sanctions and sabre-rattling are yesterday’s policies and they have brought us to the brink of a military conflict, which is hardly the sign of success.

What compounds the error of that approach is that most agree that a military strike would be counter-productive to the point of being calamitous. It would reinforce the position of the hard-liners at the expense of the pragmatists within Iran, just as the Iran-Iraq war boosted patriotic support for the regime and helped to cement the revolution. Military intervention would not work; the US Defence Secretary judges that it would delay the Iranians for only a year at most. Knowledge cannot be eradicated by military intervention, and such intervention will only delay the inevitable. If Iran is set on acquiring nuclear weapons, she will not be scared away; and if she is not, a military strike would encourage her to do so. We even hear voices from within Israel against a strike. Meir Dagan, the hard-line former chief of Mossad—nobody could accuse him of being a pussycat—has referred to an attack on Iran as “a stupid idea.”

I ask hon. Members to reflect on a wider historical point. It is perhaps relevant to reflect more generally that military action often has an embedding effect: it reinforces the position of the existing regime. For example, communism has lasted longest in those countries where the west intervened militarily—North Korea, China, Cuba and Vietnam.

Mr Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about the verdict of history. Is the verdict of history not also that when dealing with tyrannies it is unwise to rule out force in defence, and that sometimes it is wise to keep tyrannies guessing as to one’s intentions?

Mr Baron: Yes, although I suggest an exception: keeping an option on the table that heightens tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely is less worthy, and we have to examine that position.

Alec Shelbrooke: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Baron: No, I am going to make a little progress.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. May I remind Mr Baron that he has already taken 20 minutes? This is an over-subscribed debate, and we will impose an eight-minute limit on speeches after the Front-Bench contributions. He would be generous to his colleagues if he began to draw his remarks to close.

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Mr Baron: I very much take that on board, Mr Deputy Speaker. If hon. Members will forgive me, I will not accept any more interventions.

A strike by Israel or the west would unite Iran in fury and perhaps trigger a regional war, and it would certainly encourage the hard-liners to push for a bomb. Despite that, the present policy is to refuse to rule out the use of force. Such a policy is not only naive, but illogical: we are keeping an option that we all know would be a disaster, against a country that chooses to ignore it, yet that option heightens tensions and makes a peaceful outcome less likely. That is nonsense.

A fresh approach is required. Israel will not attack Iran if Washington objects. Now is the time for the US to make it clear to Israel that force should not be used. Ruling out the use of force would have the immediate effect of reducing tensions and making conflict less likely. That would lessen the chance of another accident like the shooting down of Iran Air 655, which could spark conflict. Such a policy in the longer term would give diplomacy a greater chance of success. Iran will not be persuaded to give up her pursuit of nuclear technology. We need to understand and engage better with Iran, and offer the prospect of implicit recognition of Iran’s status as a major power in the region—a status we created ourselves through our misguided invasion of Iraq, which fundamentally altered the balance of power in the region.

There is a precedent for recognising that new status. In the 1960s, when the US presence in Asia was waning and China was beginning to flex her muscles, Nixon did not respond by denying the reality of Chinese power. His visit to China in 1972 took everyone by surprise, but it was the right decision—it was a defining moment. I suggest that the US needs to realise that this is one of those defining moments, which needs to be seized.

Israel and Iran are two proud nations but they are perhaps uncertain about the best course of action. The US needs to put behind it the underlying antagonism towards Iran that defines this crisis. That will not be easy, but speaking as an ally of the US, I suggest that too often in the past the US approach has been to overwhelm an issue rather than to solve it. This is not one of those occasions.

In conclusion, the US needs to adopt a wider perspective: it needs to make it clear that an Israeli attack would be unacceptable, and then to engage better with Iran. That would be in Israel’s long-term interests. No one is suggesting it is an easy option, particularly given the presidential elections in both countries, but without it discussions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and a host of other issues will remain needlessly difficult. The west underestimates the opportunity to influence Iran. She is a state in transition, with multiple centres of authority and constant power struggles. The challenge for the west is to influence those internal debates and struggles. Crude threats of military intervention and sanctions, along with talk of regime change, only reinforce the hard-liners’ position.

We need a better understanding of what makes Iran tick. We need to better understand the culture, the people, the history, the religion—the British Museum’s current Hajj exhibition is a well worth a visit. We need to renounce the option of a military strike and go the extra mile for peace. War should always, I remind the House, be the measure of last resort, to be used when all

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other avenues have been exhausted. We have not reached that point with Iran. As such, it is my intention to test the will of Parliament by dividing the House on the motion tonight.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. Will hon. Members resume their seats? I will explain the procedure to be applied so the House can follow what is going on. I will call an Opposition Member next. The Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of Sir Malcolm Rifkind, whom I will call after the first speaker from the Opposition side. I will then call another Opposition Back-Bench Member, then we go to both Front Benches. The time limit will then be formally applied. I say to those Members whom I call before that if they exceed eight minutes, plus two minutes for interventions taken, I will cough loudly. I may become even more explicit than that. I call Michael McCann.

5.24 pm

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): I welcome the procurement of the debate by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), but I fear that many of the Members who contribute to it will not support the position that he outlined. I will support the amendment.

I should start by declaring that my sister is married to an Iranian and that I have strong links with the Iranian community in the west of Scotland. I have taken the community’s temperature on this issue.

We know that every Government face challenges, foreign and domestic, during their period in office. The longer the Government are in power, the more likely that challenges will come along and that their frequency will increase. The foreign challenges that we face focus public attention, at times, on making decisions or considering military options that will put our people in harm’s way. Sadly, over the past decade or so, we have seen many challenges in foreign lands—Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, the coalition Government deployed UK forces in Libya.

On each occasion each Member of the House has had to come to a view on where they stand on the issues. Some will always adopt a pacifist approach. Others will weigh up other factors. The pacifists among us will always have respect and legitimacy for the principled position that they hold, but they must also recognise that their position lacks remedies in the harsh territory—

Mr Baron: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr McCann: I shall make progress. The hon. Gentleman has just had the opportunity to move the motion. He should not try to come in again so swiftly.

The pacifists among us do not always recognise that their position lacks remedies in the harsh territory of international conflict and that at times it can be seen as a white flag in the face of tyranny. What is more difficult to absorb are those non-pacifists who disagree with a particular decision and then seek to stand astride the moral high ground after the event and lecture us about how they did not support the action in the first place.

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Iraq is the most obvious recent controversy. I have often mused about what would have happened in March 2003 had the French and Russians put their vested interests aside and supported a united final UN resolution. Would Saddam have capitulated? We will never know. I have no issue with those who seek to post-rationalise events, but I do have an issue with those who seek to do so in a manner which neglects to mention that they did not have a feasible proposition to resolve the original problem—in the Iraq context, Saddam’s refusal to abide by the will of the international community. Now we look to Iran.

I do not support the motion; I support the amendment. In reaching that decision I have examined the actions of the Iranians thus far, and in particular the prospects for a negotiated settlement of the issues. What actions have the Iranians taken thus far? The International Atomic Energy Agency stated on 8 November 2011 that Iran had sought to design a nuclear warhead, that Iran was continuing its atomic weapons programme research, that it could have a nuclear bomb in months and that preparations to install a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile were taking place.

To this I add the Iranians’ rhetoric that the holocaust did not take place and President Ahmadinejad’s declaration that Israel should be wiped off the map; I refer to the comments of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay. If that declaration was somehow misinterpreted, were the Iranians also misinterpreted when they said that the holocaust did not take place? We must also question the Iranians’ close relationship with Syria.

Alec Shelbrooke: It appears that President Ahmadinejad likes to cherry-pick his arguments. Clearly, he is an anti-Semite who is intent on getting rid of the Jewish people by denying the holocaust. He also talks about getting rid of the occupation of Jerusalem, but that is just looking at the past hour’s news. Look at the years before that, when the Jews were there before the Muslims. When President Ahmadinejad makes such statements, his intent towards the Jewish people is clear.

Mr McCann: Absolutely. The question is the degree to which President Ahmadinejad is an anti-Semite rather than whether he is an anti-Semite in the first place.

The close relationship with Syria is headline news at the moment, and there is also state sponsorship of terrorism.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr McCann: I will make some progress and then I will be happy to give way.

At home in Iran—this is important for Iranian communities throughout the United Kingdom—there is the suppression of Iranian citizens, with 650 people executed in 2010 alone, and the violent suppression of democracy protests across the region that we in this House have championed.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend add to the list of crimes committed by the Iranian regime the horrific way in which the Ahwazi Arabs have been treated for many years? Many of them have been tortured to death and many have been prevented from

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taking part in all the ordinary political discourse that we would expect in any other country. Does he agree that that is consistent with the anti-Semitism that we have seen in many of the public pronouncements of the regime?

Mr McCann: Sadly, it is a consistency that runs through the regime, like lettering through a stick of rock, alongside all the actions of the Iranian Government and the Iranian leadership. What it tells me about the leadership that we are dealing with is that we must consider all possible measures to determine how to move forward.

Do I believe, as the motion suggests, that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counter-productive? I do not know the precise answer to that question, but what I do know is that ruling it out would be counter-productive. It would say to an extreme set of people that their tactics have paid off, and the willingness of the Iranian regime to ignore the international community and six UN Security Council resolutions, and to repress the Iranian people’s rights, tells me that diplomacy and sanctions should not be our only options. The Foreign Secretary pointed out on television yesterday, quite properly, the complex nature of the threat, and for those reasons, nothing should be ruled out.

I appreciate that many wish to speak, so I will finish on this point. Two weeks ago at a local high school in my constituency, I listened to a gentleman named Harry Bibring, who, as a 12-year-old in March 1938, witnessed Nazi troops march into Vienna. Days later, the persecution of the Jews started in that city. In that same year, the Peace Pledge Union, a British pacifist organisation, asked people to make this pledge:

“I renounce war, and am therefore determined not to support any kind of war. I am also determined to work for the removal of all causes of war.”

I am sure that all would agree that those are laudable aims and that all of us would be prepared to sign up to that pledge to remove all causes of war. But I am also acutely aware of Edmund Burke’s quote:

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

That is why I oppose the motion and will support the amendment.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Thank you for your self-restraint. I am sure that Sir Malcolm will do likewise.

5.33 pm

Sir Malcolm Rifkind (Kensington) (Con): I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add,

‘supports the Government’s efforts to reach a peaceful, negotiated solution to the Iranian nuclear issue through a combination of pressure in the form of robust sanctions, and engagement led by the E3+3 comprising the UK, US, France, Germany, China and Russia; and recognises the value of making clear to Iran that all options for addressing the issue remain on the table.’.

I have a genuine respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron). It is courageous sometimes to put forward a view that may have very little support, but as I listened to his speech, I could not but irresistibly be reminded of the remark that was made about a Minister in the 1930s, who had

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the reputation of being very logical. It was said of him that starting from a false premise he had moved inexorably to the wrong conclusion. I say to my hon. Friend in all honesty that I feel that he is in that situation.

Of course, we all want to see a peaceful resolution of this dispute by negotiation. I agree with my hon. Friend that there is a powerful case to see if we can have a normalisation of relations between the United States and Iran, but it takes the two to have such a negotiation, and, as he himself conceded, when President Obama put forward such a proposal, it was rejected in Tehran. There is no evidence that Tehran has changed its position. If it has changed it, it would be very easy for it to say so.

I want to go straight to the question raised in the motion rather than to the wider issues involved, and that is whether there is a powerful or persuasive argument at this moment in time for renouncing the use of force. I presume my hon. Friend means not by the United Kingdom, but by the west—the international community in general. I believe he is profoundly wrong for three reasons. First, if the United States—the key country in this regard—the west and the international community renounced the use of force at this stage, I believe that Israel would be more likely to decide to act unilaterally. The Israelis know perfectly well that their military capability is far less than that of the United States and that the Americans, with their cruise missiles, bunker-busting bombs and other capabilities, stand a much better chance of destroying or severely degrading Iran’s nuclear capability. As long as the United States has not ruled out that option, the Israelis are under much greater pressure to allow the negotiations the best possible opportunity to produce the desired result. If that option is removed from the table, particularly by the United States, the Israelis will say, “We are sorry, but sanctions are not working and the negotiations are going nowhere. Every week that passes creates a more dangerous Iran. If no one else will act, we will.” I say to my hon. Friend that, for anyone who understands the Israeli position, this is not scaremongering, but the most likely consequence.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): If the Israelis do act unilaterally, what sanctions should be applied to them?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: The Israelis acted unilaterally against Iraq when they removed the Osirak reactor, and both the western world and the Arab world breathed a huge sign of relief. It would ultimately depend on how successful the Israelis could be, and that is a separate question.

Secondly, this is inevitably an extraordinarily complex period of diplomacy and, as other hon. Members have noted, diplomacy requires maximum pressure. It requires carrots and sticks. To reduce unnecessarily the pressure we can apply would be to act fundamentally against our own interests. There are circumstances—very limited circumstances—when it is right to rule out the use of force in advance. Let me give an example, because it is a question of disproportionate responses. When Argentina occupied the Falkland Islands, some rather foolish people said, “The United Kingdom has a nuclear weapon, so why does it not just threaten Argentina that it will use it if it does not withdraw from the Falkland Islands?”

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The Government at the time rightly said that under no circumstances was that an option, because it would have been an incredibly disproportionate response, and that was of course the right position to take.

However, we are not in such a situation. When a country is contemplating acquiring nuclear weapons, as the rest of the world believes Iran is, even if my hon. Friend does not, and when we know that that would dramatically alter the geopolitical balance of power in the Gulf—the capability of producing a nuclear weapon in a few weeks is as serious as actually having one—that is a huge threat. We can debate whether it is a legitimate threat, but the possibility of using conventional force to destroy that capability in order to prevent the emergence of such a nuclear weapon state is not inherently unreasonable, extreme or irrational.

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Is it not in Israel’s gift to de-escalate the situation and move away from a nuclear arms race by declaring its own nuclear capability?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: That might be an option, but the political reality is that Israel has had nuclear weapons for 30 years and that has not led to Arab countries threatening seriously to develop their own nuclear capability. The reason the Saudis and others have reacted in such a hostile way to Iran is that they know that Iran is intent on geopolitical dominance in the Gulf region by being the only country of the Muslim world, other than Pakistan, to have nuclear weapons capability or the reality of it. I believe that we cannot rule out a military response because the potential for such a response must be part of the equation.

Paul Flynn: Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: I do not want to accept too many interventions, for the reasons you have mentioned, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Thirdly, the use of force will never be a desirable response, but it might be the least bad one if all else fails. In considering that, let me put to the House what I think is a very important point. Many commentators have drawn attention to all the downsides of a military response. They suggest that an attack by the United States—let us concentrate on the United States at the moment—would lead to a hike in the oil price, which is correct. They suggest that it might lead to increased terrorist support by Iran for Hezbollah or Hamas and to attempts to block the strait of Hormuz and all that that would entail, and they are right. There are various other downsides, too. But, when we think about it, we find that almost all the examples—the correct examples that have been given—of the adverse consequences of a military strike by the United States are relatively temporary. They are short to medium-term: they might last a few days, weeks or possibly even months, but they would gradually cease to have any impact.

The alternative, however, of an Iran with nuclear weapons capability is not temporary; it is permanent. Therefore, we have to come to—we cannot avoid coming to—a judgment. If diplomacy fails, if negotiations go nowhere and if sanctions do not deliver, we will at some stage still have to come to an honest judgment: whether

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the downside, which I do not deny exists, nevertheless has to be borne if the long-term objective is either to destroy or seriously to degrade Iran’s nuclear capability.

That brings us to a crucial question: would such action in fact do so? Do the Americans have the capability? That is ultimately a military question, and we are not privy to the military advice that the President may be receiving. If the advice is, “No, it wouldn’t,” it is not worth considering the option, but, if the advice is that we could either destroy or seriously degrade Iranian nuclear capability so that it is pushed back five or 10 years, that is a different argument.

Mr Baron: I am listening very carefully to my right hon. and learned Friend, but does he not accept that even the US Defence Secretary admits that a successful military strike would only delay the programme for about a year—those are his words, not mine—and that what my right hon. and learned Friend ignores is the possibility that a strike could actually do much worse and inflame a regional war?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: Panetta was probably referring to the consequences of an Israeli attempt to damage Iranian nuclear capability which, because the Israelis do not have cruise missiles or bunker-busting bombs, would clearly have a much more limiting effect, even if it had some limited success.

In the interests of time, I shall share my final point with the House. Sometimes the inference of those who argue against even the option of a military response is that the world would be a much more peaceful, happy and gentle place if only we renounced the use of force, even as an option, in resolving this dispute. I say to my hon. Friend, however, that we have to contemplate— for a very brief moment, Mr Deputy Speaker—the consequences of Iran becoming a nuclear weapon state. There is not just the one response, to which my hon. Friend referred—whereby the Saudis themselves, pretty certainly, feel obliged to become a nuclear weapon state, Egypt and Turkey perhaps follow them and, therefore, the middle east, which is already the most dangerous part of the world, becomes incredibly volatile for all the perfectly obvious reasons that I do not have to go into. The only alternative, which my hon. Friend touched on, is that in order to discourage any Saudi, Egyptian or Turkish response of going nuclear the United States would have to give a nuclear umbrella guarantee to the Arab and Gulf states of the region, just as it has to NATO members, to Japan and to South Korea. In each case, when the United States gives such a guarantee, however, the guarantee is not credible unless the United States has bases in the area, as it has had in western Europe and has in the far east.

My hon. Friend’s view leads to the point that, if Iran became a nuclear weapon state, to have any prospect of discouraging the Saudis and others from becoming nuclear powers themselves, we would have to envisage not just for a few weeks, a few months or the odd year or so, but for the indefinite future, the middle east as a region where the United States, far from disengaging, became more committed and involved than it ever has—committed by guarantee not just to go to war, but if necessary to use its nuclear weapons in the defence of what would then be its allies, in the sense that NATO is an alliance, alongside the need for bases in the region,

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with all the inflammatory consequences of American troops in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf on a permanent basis.

The stakes are very high, and my hon. Friend cannot just sleep quietly, saying, “I don’t think we should have the military option, and everything would be peaceful if only people accepted the judgment that I have come to.” It has to be an option. We must hope that it never comes to that, but it cannot be ruled out at this stage. It is no one’s interests that it should, and therefore I commend the amendment to the House.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): I call Mr Jack Straw. The same unofficial time guidelines still apply.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): Do I understand you correctly that the time limit is now on, Mr Deputy Speaker?

Mr Deputy Speaker: It is not yet official.

5.44 pm

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Lab): First, I declare that I co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on Iran, along with the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace). I congratulate the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing this important debate. I was one of the people who supported him in obtaining the debate, although it will be noted that I have not signed his motion. If there is a vote, as I suspect there will be, I will vote for the amendment in the names of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) and many other right hon. and hon. Members.

I will first offer the House briefly my experiences of negotiating with the Iranians as Foreign Secretary. I visited Tehran on five occasions and I am the only Foreign Secretary who has visited Tehran since the Iranian revolution in 1979. I will also offer a brief assessment of where we are today.

I want to make it clear to the House that in supporting the amendment, I do not for a moment believe that we are anywhere near reaching the bar for military action. I am sure that I speak for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench in saying that none of us is giving the Foreign Secretary carte-blanche approval for military action, and I am sure that he would not see it that way. The other side of the coin—I say this to the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay—is that I do not think it reasonable to ask the British Foreign Secretary, on behalf of the British Government and Parliament, to negotiate on this difficult issue, but to remove one option that may, in distant circumstances, be necessary.

Some may ask how I square that position with the statement that I made in November 2004, when I was asked on the BBC whether I thought that Israel or the United States would go in for the bombing of Iran. I said:

“Not only is that inconceivable but I think the prospect of it happening is inconceivable.”

That was my judgment at the time. The fact that it has not happened in the intervening seven and a half years may suggest that I was not far off the mark. The more important point is why I made that intervention as stridently as I did. One reason was that we were engaged

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in two wars, as was the United States. It was inconceivable at that time, given the difficulties in both theatres, that the United States would wish to engage in a further military action even if it had the capability, which I doubt it did. The second reason was that we were making progress in negotiations with the reformist regime in Iran.

I accept what the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay said about there having been a number of missed opportunities in dealing with Iran. Tony Blair asked me to go to Tehran as a positive response to President Khatami’s reaching out to the west straight after 9/11. Mr Blair took a risk there. He responded in a positive way by sending me. We had the support of the US Department of State. I am sad to say that our efforts were partly undermined by the line in President Bush’s speech at the end of January 2003 and by other efforts to undermine the strategy, although not by the State Department. That said, we made progress with Khatami. After an extraordinary and tense negotiation in October 2003, when Joschka Fischer, Dominique de Villepin and I came very close to walking out altogether, we got the Iranians to agree to a series of measures, including effectively abandoning their work on a nuclear programme and signing an additional protocol under the non-proliferation treaty. The effectiveness of that agreement is shown by the US national intelligence estimate from four years later, which stated:

“We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program”.

Mr John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): On reflection, does the right hon. Gentleman think that the war in Iraq increased the stability or the instability of the middle east?

Mr Straw: I hope the right hon. Gentleman will allow me not to go down that particular rabbit hole. I have given endless evidence to the inquiry into Iraq, and I do not resile from my support for that military action, not least for the reasons that my hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr McCann) gave. We can have that debate on another occasion, but it is incontrovertible, as the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay showed, that the Iraq war changed the balance of power in the region. We knew that it was going to do that, but that provides still more reason for us to use better our relations with the US.

Progress was made, but for a variety of reasons, including errors by the US, the reformists lost out and President Ahmadinejad came to office in the summer of 2005. Since then, there has been a gradual deterioration in relations with Iran, despite, in my judgment, the best efforts of successive British Governments and many others. I wish that I shared the view of the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay about whether it will be possible to achieve a shift by the current Administration without any pressure. I have literally sat across a table from President Ahmadinejad trying to negotiate with him—an interesting situation that did not lead to any great progress. Since 2009 and the disgraceful attitude of the Iranian authorities towards the elections, and then following their reaction to the Arab spring, things have got worse, not better.

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Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): We have yet to hear whether the right hon. Gentleman is going to support the amendment or the motion—[Hon. Members: “The amendment.”] I beg his pardon. Were the implicit military threat to be taken off the table, with whom in the current regime would we negotiate? Is that not a matter of considerable complexity? I am all in favour of negotiation, but with whom should we negotiate? Is that not part of the problem?

Mr Straw: I have had a serious problem in my right ear since 1981, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is a very good consultant just across the river at St Thomas’s, on the NHS. I have been treated there for 30 years. I think it was within the hearing of the House and Hansard when, within about my first two sentences, I spelled out that I would support the amendment moved by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington. I apologise if it did not quite get as far as the bubble in which the hon. Gentleman sits.

Paul Flynn: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the current situation is very similar to the prelude to the war in Iraq? Does he really think that going to war on the basis of what proved to be non-existent weapons of mass destruction was worth the loss of 179 British lives?

Mr Straw: The two are very different, and in any case I have already said that I do not regard us as being remotely close to the bar for military action at present. It is important that Members, particularly those who support the amendment, are cautious and do not get themselves into a lather, as some but not all did in respect of Iraq and other issues. It is very important to acknowledge the evidence.

If the House refers to paragraph 53 of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s report of November, it will see that it states:

“The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.”

However, it continues that information

“indicates that prior to the end of 2003, these activities took place under a structured programme, and that some activities may still be ongoing.”

The truth is that—until recently, we think—the major part of the programme stopped in 2003. It is my judgment, but no more than conjecture, that Iran’s aim has been to build up a nuclear weapons capability on paper, but not to turn it into a nuclear weapons programme. With respect to the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington, there is a big difference between the two.

Finally, I urge caution. I hope that we hear less of the suggestion that were Iran to get a nuclear weapons capability, there would automatically be an arms race in the middle east. I do not believe that. A senior Saudi diplomat said to me, “I know what we’re saying publicly, but do you really think that having told people that there is no need for us to make any direct response to Israel holding nuclear weapons, we could seriously make a case for developing a nuclear weapons capability to deal with another Muslim country?”

This is a complicated issue, and we need a resolution to it. We need to ensure that the Foreign Secretary does not go into negotiations without options open to him,

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but I also believe that with sensible negotiations, and working with the United States, Europe and other allies, we can ensure that there is a peaceful solution.

5.56 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) on securing the debate and welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s policy towards Iran. I pay tribute to two distinguished predecessors of mine who have just spoken with the benefit of their enormous experience. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) made a compelling, almost unanswerable, case for his amendment and against the motion tabled by my hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), to whom I have often paid tribute in the House for his efforts to reach a rapprochement with Iran—I do so again today—spoke with his great experience of the difficulty of trying to arrive at an accommodation. I did not agree with quite everything he said, but he said many wise words about the current situation.

Iranian nuclear proliferation risks one of the most serious crises in foreign policy that the international community has faced in many years. As Iran moves closer to acquiring the capability to build and deliver a nuclear weapon, and as it continues its confrontational policies elsewhere in the world, that crisis is coming steadily down the track. Three years after Iran’s secret nuclear site at Qom first came to the attention of the world, it is expanding its uranium enrichment programme in defiance of the United Nations Security Council, and it is enriching uranium to 20% on a scale greater than that needed for a civil nuclear power programme. It remains in breach of its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions and it is not meeting the requirements of IAEA resolutions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay asked me to read the relevant extracts from the IAEA report of November. The right hon. Member for Blackburn has already referred to one of them. Paragraph 53 states:

“The Agency has serious concerns regarding possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme. After assessing carefully and critically the extensive information available to it, the Agency finds the information to be, overall, credible. The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

The report goes on to make the points to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Paul Flynn: Does not the right hon. Gentleman see the danger that increasing tension between the west and Iran might well persuade it to expel the IAEA inspectors from its land, meaning that the transparency that we have now will end?

Mr Hague: First, it is of course not the IAEA’s view that Iran has been fully transparent. Indeed, it states in paragraph 52 of that report that

“the Agency is unable to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran, and therefore to conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities”.

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I hope the hon. Gentleman listened to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington, who pointed out that it could very well be argued that adopting the policy prescribed in the motion would increase tension and the likelihood of military conflict in the near term. I certainly hold to that view.

Another part of the IAEA report says that

“in 2005, a senior official in SADAT”—

that is, the Section for Advanced Development Applications and Technologies—

“solicited assistance from Shahid Behesti University in connection with complex calculations relating to the state of criticality of a solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives.”

A solid sphere of uranium being compressed by high explosives can be found only in the core of a nuclear weapon.

Mr Bob Ainsworth (Coventry North East) (Lab): I am a signatory to the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), but I was very concerned about his belief that an American military attack would have only temporary consequences. I am not suggesting that it be taken off the table, but would the Foreign Secretary care to give us his own thoughts on the consequences if we were to face a situation in which the Americans intervened militarily in order to stop the programme?

Mr Hague: It will be clear from my remarks that that is not what I am calling for, although I will shortly come to some of the arguments about it. It is very difficult to speculate about what the actual physical impact of a military strike would be, as it would depend on who did it, what they did it with, and exactly which facilities were struck. However, it is not something that we are advocating, as will be clear from my speech.

Mr Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): Would my right hon. Friend like to disabuse the House of the notion that were it not for 9/11 there would have been a rapprochement with the Iranian regime, given that well before that period Iran was the leading state sponsor of international terrorism, as we have seen most recently in Azerbaijan and Bangkok?

Mr Hague: I am about to come to that point, so I will make some more progress in doing so.

It is our assessment and that of our allies that Iran is keeping open the option to develop nuclear weapons—that is in line with what the right hon. Member for Blackburn said—and is steadily developing the capability to produce such weapons should it choose to do so. A nuclear-armed Iran would have devastating consequences for the middle east and could shatter the non-proliferation treaty. On that point, I differ from the right hon. Gentleman, because I believe, given everything that I have seen and heard in the region as Foreign Secretary so far, that if Iran set about the development of nuclear weapons, other nations in the middle east would do so as well, and that there would be a nuclear arms race in the region.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) suggests, our well-founded concerns that Iran’s intentions may not be purely peaceful are heightened by its policies in other areas. It is a regime that recently conspicuously failed to prevent the sacking of our embassy premises in Iran; that conspired to assassinate

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the Saudi ambassador to the United States on American soil; that only last week was accused of planning and carrying out attacks against Israeli diplomats; that is providing assistance to the Syrian Government’s violent campaign against their own people; and that supports armed proxy groups including Hezbollah and Hamas. Taken together with Iran’s nuclear activities, this behaviour threatens international peace and security. That is why Iran is one of the very top priorities in foreign affairs for this Government, just as it was for the last Government.

Mr Frank Roy (Motherwell and Wishaw) (Lab): On the taking over of the UK embassy in Tehran, has the Foreign Secretary’s office or the Iranian Foreign Minister’s office made any approaches towards meeting one another since the day when the attack took place?

Mr Hague: The Iranian Foreign Minister and I spoke twice during and after those events, so we were in touch at the time and immediately afterwards. We are now in direct touch with the Iranians at official level to clarify with each other the arrangements for protecting our embassies in each country. Of course, we continue to be able to discuss matters with Iran in multilateral forums, as well as bilaterally should we choose to do so. We have not broken diplomatic relations with Iran.

Mr Roy rose

Mr Hague: I had better continue, because the embassy is a bit of a side point.

Our quarrel emphatically is not with the Iranian people: we want them to enjoy the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as we do and to live dignified lives in a prosperous society. Today, they labour under a repressive political system that attempts to stifle all opposition and has incarcerated more journalists and bloggers than any other country in the world, on top of its appalling wider record on human rights. Let there be no doubt that the Iranian Government’s current policies endanger the interests of the Iranian people themselves, as well as undermining global security.

Mr Baron: One does not condone the human rights record of Iran; there are many regimes around the world that have abysmal human rights. May I bring my right hon. Friend back to the report? Does he agree that there is a world of difference between moving to the option of capability and what we have sometimes heard about evidence suggesting a nuclear weapons programme or a decision to develop one? He has still failed to present the House with proof that nuclear weapons are being developed or that a decision has been made to do so.

Mr Hague: I read out some quite interesting paragraphs from the IAEA report. My hon. Friend should also consider the evidence that is now coming out of Iran saying that it will use its expanding stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium to make fuel for the Tehran research reactor. That reactor is designed to produce medical isotopes, but its capacity is being expanded to produce near-20% enriched uranium to levels far beyond what would be required for that purpose. On that basis, one would have to be extraordinarily trusting and innocent

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in world affairs to believe that this programme had entirely peaceful purposes and that no possible provision was being made for the development of nuclear weapons. My hon. Friend must remember, too, that the regime deliberately concealed—we do not know for how long, because western nations revealed it—the construction of the secret underground facilities at Qom. It has a strong track record of deliberately concealing aspects of the nuclear programme, and that might lead him to be just a little bit suspicious about its purposes.

Mike Gapes: Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the Iranian people that we are opposed not to Iran having nuclear technology but to the breach of the non-proliferation treaty? The regime could have accepted the Russian proposal on Bushehr, for example, which would have resolved these issues.

Mr Hague: The hon. Gentleman is right. I will make that clear when I come to that point.

Mr Redwood: Given the amount of blood and treasure that we have shed in the middle east in recent years, does my right hon. Friend agree that in this difficult and potentially dangerous situation we should look to the considerable regional powers to take the lead, in consultation with the United States of America, and not rush in ourselves?

Mr Hague: Of course we need to work on this with all the regional powers. My right hon. Friend can be assured that the regional powers are extremely concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme. However, we also have our responsibilities as a member of the United Nations Security Council, and we must live up to those responsibilities on this, as on all other occasions.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP) rose

Mr Hague: I will give way later, but I must have regard to the number of hon. Members who wish to speak.

Our Government’s objective is simple. It is shared by the international community as a whole and, I believe, by this House and by our country. We wish to see a peaceful, negotiated diplomatic settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis by which Iran gives the world confidence that it is not developing, and will not develop, nuclear weapons. All our efforts are devoted towards such a peaceful resolution.

Our strategy to achieve this and to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon coming about has two elements: first, diplomacy and engagement with Iran; and, secondly, pressure on Iran in the form of peaceful and legitimate sanctions.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab) rose—

Mr Hague: I think that I must carry on with my argument for a few minutes.

This strategy of diplomacy and pressure has been reflected in six consecutive United Nations Security Council resolutions backed by all its permanent members including Russia and China, which work alongside

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Britain, the United States, France and Germany as the E3 plus 3 to negotiate with Iran on behalf of the international community. These resolutions have shown that the world is united in opposing Iranian nuclear proliferation and in supporting a diplomatic solution. The UN sanctions target companies and individuals associated with Iran’s nuclear activities and ballistic missile programmes. On top of this, European Union member states have adopted successive rounds of sanctions, including, most recently, an embargo on Iranian oil exports into the EU that will come to effect on 1 July.

Sajid Javid: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr Hague: I am going to carry on for a few minutes.

Those are unprecedented sanctions and we have been at the forefront of bringing them about. Members will be aware that Iran announced this weekend that it would end oil exports to the UK and France. Given that we are already imposing an oil embargo, that will have no impact on Britain’s energy security or supplies. Britain has also adopted stringent sanctions against Iran’s financial sector, severing all links between British banks and Iran, alongside similar measures taken by the US and Canada.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Hague: I shall finish the argument on sanctions before I give way again.

Sanctions are designed to show the Iranian Government that there is a considerable price attached to their current policies and to urge them to change course. The sanctions have a practical impact, slowing Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapons capability. They are also necessary to uphold the authority of the UN and the IAEA, which have called on Iran to suspend its enrichment programme—demands that Iran would otherwise flout with impunity. The Iranian Government can act to bring sanctions to an end.

Sanctions, however, are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Our ultimate goal is a return to negotiations that addresses all the issues of concern about Iran’s nuclear programme and the successful conclusion of the negotiations. The door of negotiations has been open to Iran at every stage over the past eight years and it remains open today.

Mr Tom Clarke: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr Hague: I will give way in a moment—I want to conclude this point.

To help bring Iran to negotiations, the E3 plus 3 has offered it help to develop civil nuclear power stations—a point that was just made—and its economy in the form of economic and agricultural assistance, provided Iran satisfies the concerns of the international community about its nuclear programme. That offer was most recently put to Iran again at talks in Istanbul in January last year. It remains on the table and we urge Iran to respond to it in good faith.

Several hon. Members rose

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Mr Hague: I will give way a couple more times, first of all to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil).

Mr MacNeil: The right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), a former Foreign Secretary, has said that he reckons the bar for military action is quite far away. Does the current Foreign Secretary agree with his analysis?

Mr Hague: I will come to that point. As I made clear in interviews over the weekend, we are not calling for or advocating military action, although we do not agree with the terms of the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (LD): Thus far, our debate has concentrated on the political and the pragmatic, but does the Foreign Secretary feel reinforced in the attitude he has just expressed from the Dispatch Box by the fact that, under customary international law, there is an obligation to exhaust all possible political and diplomatic alternatives before embarking on military action? Is that not what we are engaged in?

Mr Hague: Absolutely—force is a last resort in any situation, and it is not what we are calling for now.

Mr Tom Clarke: As one who supports the amendment, I welcome the tone of the Foreign Secretary’s remarks in the past few minutes, as I believe engagement is important. He might recall that some years ago four hon. Members of the House, including me, were asked to go to Iran to meet the leaders and negotiate on the release of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. I am saying not that it was a pleasant experience or that we succeeded immediately, but that we made a contribution to an improved situation and their release. As somebody much better than I once said, jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

Mr Hague: That is very much what we want. This may be an opportune moment for me to update the House on where we are now on negotiations.

On 21 October last year, Baroness Ashton, who chairs the E3 plus 3 in her capacity as EU High Representative, wrote to Iran to ask it to set a time and place to resume meaningful negotiations. In the last few days, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Mr Jalili, has finally responded to that letter. Mr Jalili states in his letter that Iran is willing to resume negotiations with the E3 plus 3 on the nuclear issue. We are studying the letter in consultation with our American, French, Russian, German and Chinese counterparts to assess whether it amounts to serious intention by Iran to negotiate with the international community, which would permit talks to resume. As the Prime Minster has said:

“If there is going to be dialogue then Iranians need to enter it in a new spirit and recognise they are taking a different path.”

We hope the Iranians do so in respect of any such negotiations as we study that response.

We will continue to intensify our diplomacy and the peaceful, legitimate pressure on Iran. There is still time for peaceful diplomacy to succeed. That remains the best course available to achieve the goal of an Iran without nuclear weapons and to avert the risk of any military conflict.

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Sajid Javid: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr Hague: I shall speak for a few minutes before I give way again; otherwise I will take too much time.

That is why the Government are not seeking, advocating or calling for military action against Iran. One hundred per cent. of our efforts is devoted to the path of diplomacy and peaceful economic pressure. Our strategy is designed precisely to increase the pressure for a peaceful settlement, not to lead to any conflict. I am on record in this House as saying that although Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would be a calamity, the consequences of military action might well be calamitous themselves. As the Prime Minister has stated in this House,

“nobody wants military action, by Israel or anyone else, to take place”.—[Official Report, 28 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 580.]

That is our position, and the effort we have put into negotiating, securing and implementing sanctions on Iran is testament to our determination to pursue robust diplomacy, which we are pursuing daily. We are in regular contact with our E3 plus 3 partners about Iran, and I discuss the issue frequently—daily—with other Foreign Ministers from around the world. An entire unit—one of the largest in the Foreign Office—is devoted to finding a diplomatic way forward with Iran. We confirmed our commitment to engagement by not completely breaking off diplomatic relations with Iran even after the outrageous provocation of the attacks on our embassy compounds, which made it necessary to withdraw our diplomats.

We also play a leading role at the IAEA and support its efforts to work with Iran to address the concerns about the military dimensions of its programme. Senior IAEA officials are visiting Iran today and tomorrow. They are seeking co-operation from Iran in addressing the agency’s findings about the “military dimensions” of the programme, including access to a sensitive site at Parchin. We urge Iran to co-operate with the IAEA and to permit access to that site. The House will join me in paying tribute to the dogged and painstaking work of the IAEA in Vienna and on the ground in Iran, under very difficult circumstances, and we look forward to the next meeting of the IAEA board on 5 March, at which Iran will be discussed.

All those efforts will continue, and diplomacy remains the driving force of our policy towards Iran, but the motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay calls for the Government to take a course that no responsible Administration could take on this issue, namely unilaterally to rule out the use of force.

Sajid Javid rose

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con) rose

Mr Hague: I will discuss that before concluding my remarks, but I will give way to each of my hon. Friends.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: Given all that my right hon. Friend has said, especially on the unanimity on the six UN resolutions, was he as disturbed as I was at reports in today’s press that some of our friends and allies are engaging in barter deals to weaken the unprecedented sanctions to which he and the E3 plus 3 have agreed?

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Mr Hague: I would be very disappointed if that took place, but I believe the sanctions will be well upheld across the EU. Some countries have difficulties because of the extent of their supplies from Iran, which is why we have phased in those measures. The sanctions will also be well supported by many nations outside the EU. Other major consumers of Iranian oil have indicated that they will reduce their purchases or that they have already done so. My hon. Friend may have seen press reports this morning that Iran is currently having difficulty selling a large part of its oil production.

Sajid Javid: My right hon. Friend’s approach on sanctions is to be warmly welcomed, but I wanted to follow up directly on the previous intervention, and particularly on press reports that Iran is speaking to China and India. We clearly and rightly have warm relations with India. As he knows, we have a large aid programme in India and rightly support its desire to be a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Can we use our warm relationship with India to put pressure on it as our ally not to help Iran with its sanctions-busting programme?

Mr Hague: We have made and will make that point to India, as we have to many other nations. My hon. Friend mentions China, which, perhaps for other reasons, has substantially reduced its purchases of oil from Iran in the past two months. We will energetically make the argument that he calls on us to make.

Chris Bryant: I wholly support everything that the Foreign Secretary has said about diplomatic efforts and I want to achieve the same outcome as every other hon. Member, but my anxiety is that diplomatic language, by moving from forceful to robust to pugnacious to belligerent, can sometimes have a ratchet effect that makes the use of violent force almost inevitable. I hope that he will stick with forceful and assertive, and move no further.

Mr Hague: It is certainly our approach to be forceful and assertive without being belligerent, and I hope that we will be able to continue with that posture. We have had many occasions to be forceful in our language about Iranian behaviour over recent months.

Our policy is that while we remain unswervingly committed to diplomacy, it is important to emphasise to Iran that all options remain on the table. This policy is not new. It was the position of the previous Government, and it is the position of our closest allies not to rule out the use of military force while emphasising that peaceful diplomacy is the way forward that we all wish to see.

No United States President has made a more powerful appeal to Iran peacefully to negotiate an end to its differences with the international community than President Obama, and yet as he said in his State of the Union address last month,

“America is determined to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and I will take no options off the table to achieve that goal.”

That is the approach of our Government, and it was also the approach of the previous Government. The former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), said when asked in July 2007 if he would rule out a military strike against Iran:

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“I firmly believe that the sanctions policy that we are pursuing will work, but I’m not one who’s going forward to say that we rule out any particular form of action”.

It is also the position of France and Germany, and I believe that on this issue we and our key allies should stand united together.

Iran has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the middle east, some of which are deemed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iranian revolutionary guard corps commanders have repeatedly hinted at their ability and willingness to strike at their opponents overseas. Iranian officials have threatened to use military force to close the strait of Hormuz, one of the world’s most vital trading corridors, including for the passage of oil supplies.

Under these circumstances, no prudent Government, despite what the motion implies, could rule out any use of force in the future. Let me be clear that ruling out other options would be irresponsible given the serious nature of our concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and the consequences of Iran developing a nuclear weapon. We should not relieve Iran of any of the pressure it is currently facing. If we rule out military action, Iran might perceive that it can get away with aggressive actions. Taking other options off the table might cause Iran to respond by stepping up its aggressive and destabilising activity in the region. Taking options off the table would also have implications for the positions of several nations in the Gulf and potentially undermine their security. This adds up to a compelling case to keep the policy that we have.

Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): The Foreign Secretary is making a brilliant speech, and I agree with every word he has said. Can he shed light on Ahmadinejad’s standing with his own people? Does Ahmadinejad’s belligerence command the backing of the Iranian people, or are we simply talking about the Iranian regime?

Mr Hague: That is a hard thing to determine in a country in which opposition is not free to operate in the way it should. Just last week we commemorated the one year under house arrest and effective imprisonment of both main opposition leaders. It is not easy to assess the state of democratic opinion in such a country. We know that there are many divisions in the regime and that there is much discontent about many issues in Iranian society. I doubt that support for the policies of the President overall is universal.

Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con): I am deeply heartened by much of what my right hon. Friend says, but my understanding of article 2 of the United Nations charter and the Kellogg-Briand pact, which I understand is still in force, is that the United Kingdom is not entitled to hold military force as an option on the table and that we long since delegated that power to the United Nations—[ Interruption. ]

Mr Hague: Not all international law is in the charter, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), with all his legal experience, says. It is the view of many of the leading nations in the United Nations that we are fully entitled to retain that position.

If we were to adopt the course of action proposed by my hon. Friend in his motion today, we would break with longstanding British policy, abandon the position

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of our allies and create the appearance of division and uncertainty between leading members of the international community. We would send the wrong signal to our allies in the region, and we would weaken the diplomatic pressure on the Iranian regime at the time when our efforts to persuade Iran to return to negotiations are more vital than ever, giving the impression that our determination to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons is waning, and possibly emboldening those within the regime who favour a more aggressive approach. This would be the wrong course of action for this country and for all those who wish to see a peaceful resolution of the crisis. Far better is the approach that the Government are taking with our allies of diplomatic engagement combined with robust pressure pursued with will, energy and determination. That strategy is the world’s best hope of averting any military confrontation with Iran, with all the very serious risks and consequences that that might bring.

Today the message that this House should send out is to call on Iran to suspend its nuclear enrichment activity; to comply with the resolutions of the United Nations and the IAEA; peacefully to negotiate a settlement to its differences with us and with the international community; to abandon any intent to acquire nuclear weapons now or in the future; to turn away from confrontation; to stop support for violence and terrorism; and to allow the Iranian people the full benefits that would flow from their nation enjoying its rightful place in its region and the world at large. To send this message to Iran with one voice today there is no course for this House but to reject the motion and vote in support of the amendment.

6.26 pm

Mr Douglas Alexander (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (Lab): I commend the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing this debate and welcome the timely opportunity for the House to debate the subject of Iran. Like the Foreign Secretary, I will urge hon. Members to support the amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind).

I shall start with the broader regional context of the issues before the House this evening. Iran stands more isolated today than it has for many years. As several hon. Members have suggested, in recent years Iran has sought to build its influence across the middle east, supporting groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah and backing repressive regimes that could help to enhance Iran’s network of influence in the region, most notably that of Assad in Syria. Today, however, the regional balance of power has shifted away from Tehran. Recent events in Syria leave Iran further isolated, and in time Iran will lose this vital state ally in the Arab world and its main proxy for the arming of Hezbollah. Iran’s hold on the region is slipping, and even previously reluctant players, such as the Saudis, have now publicly condemned Iran and given their support to the EU oil boycott by promising to fill the gap in Europe’s energy demands. Sanctions today, unlike those in the past, are showing signs of having an impact and the Iranian regime seems to be struggling to contain their effect.

The Iranian regime’s response to declining domestic legitimacy and increasing international isolation has been to channel discontent towards external enemies beyond its own borders. The regime continues to support

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terrorist groups across the region, and by its sponsorship of terrorism threatens the lives of British service personnel today in Afghanistan. In particular, members of the regime have directed their hatred towards Israel, from their denial of the holocaust to the continued threats to the people and state of Israel, and for those statements and threats they deserve our clear and unequivocal condemnation. Israel should know that the international community is united in condemnation of this violent and abhorrent rhetoric and the world view that it reveals—there can be no excuse and no defence for such outrageous and inflammatory language about any member of the international community, and it should be condemned without qualification—but Israel should also understand that its friends in the international community see Iran acquiring nuclear weapons as affecting not only Israel’s security alone, but the security of the broader region and indeed the world.

The non-proliferation treaty is clear: Iran can have civilian nuclear power, but it must not have nuclear weapons. If Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon, its capacity to destabilise the middle east would be enhanced. It is disconcerting to be at odds with a distinguished former Foreign Secretary on my own Benches, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), but I believe that the potential response from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others would put at risk the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. In so unstable a region, the chance of a nuclear weapon being used again would significantly increase.

Several Members have mentioned the IAEA’s latest report, issued last November, which sent the clearest warning yet that Iran had carried out tests

“relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device”.

As this debate takes place, IAEA representatives are in Iran having talks aimed at clarifying the possible military aspects of its nuclear programme. Everyone in the House is aware of the decades of failed negotiations, despite the best efforts of some Members present today, and the numerous Iranian breaches of the terms of the NPT. Iran is a signatory of the treaty and so is under obligations to comply with its terms, but despite that, Iran hid an enrichment programme for nearly 18 years. As a result, the Security Council has rightly decreed that until Iran’s peaceful intentions can be established it should stop all enrichment, and has imposed seven rounds of UN sanctions in the face of continued Iranian defiance.

The IAEA report sets out clearly that Iran is not complying with its international obligations and therefore the intentions behind its nuclear activities cannot be accounted for. Alongside the deception, secrecy and concealment that have characterised Iran’s relationship with the IAEA, the report for the first time highlights evidence to suggest that Iran is undertaking activities that could indicate a military dimension to its nuclear programme. To quote directly from the report:

“The information indicates that Iran has carried out the following activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.”

Following the publication of that most recent report, the IAEA board of governors passed a resolution expressing “deep and increasing concern” over the possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme and said it was

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“essential” that Iran provide additional information and access to the IAEA. We are right to heed the IAEA’s warnings.

Mr Baron: Can the right hon. Gentleman provide any evidence that the theory of nuclear deterrence would not be effective in this region, as it has been in others? India and Pakistan have fought wars and shown nuclear restraint. The evidence suggests that Iran is no more irrational than any other country. Can he provide the evidence to counter that assertion?

Mr Alexander: The environment in the middle east—the sectarian divides, the history of tension and its multifaceted nature—surpasses even that of India and Pakistan in its potential threat not just to regional security but to global security. It would be a very brave or very naive individual who, in the absence of the sorts of communication that were the foundation of our capacity to maintain peace over the 50 years of the cold war, presumed that we could feel confident that, whether intentionally or inadvertently, there would not be a heightened risk of nuclear conflict in the region. That is why it is right that the House try today to speak with one voice in urging on the Iranians a different course from the one implicit in the scenario that the hon. Gentleman depicted, which is the development of nuclear weapons.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind: My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) has twice mentioned nuclear deterrence, but would the right hon. Gentleman agree that nuclear deterrence requires a threat from a nuclear armed state to deter another country with a nuclear weapon? Other than the Saudis and other Arab states themselves becoming nuclear weapon states, that would require an American nuclear umbrella guarantee, with all its implications, including American bases in the region, for the indefinite future.

Mr Alexander: I listened with great care to the point that the distinguished former Foreign Secretary made about the American security guarantee and the potential for basing within the Gulf and elsewhere. I would also suggest, though, that given the financing of A. Q. Khan in the past, one would also need at least to countenance the possibility that, rather than rely on an American nuclear umbrella, other states in the region might take matters into their own hands. Although it might take 10 or 15 years for the development of nuclear technology, it could spur the acquisition of nuclear weapons by other means, principally financial, rather than through research. We should work extremely hard to avoid any of those scenarios in these circumstances.

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there would be not only a scramble among other nations in the middle east to get hold of nuclear weapons to balance things out, but a danger that some of the weapons would fall into the hands of terrorists and so be even more difficult to control?

Mr Alexander: We must do everything in our power to avoid nuclear weapons first proliferating and secondly falling into the hands of non-state actors. When we reflect even for a moment, as the Foreign Secretary did

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for the elucidation of the House, on the track record of the regime in Tehran in supporting non-state actors and their violent methods, even in recent days, we should redouble our efforts to avoid a scenario in which Tehran would have that choice. That would be a deeply worrying prospect not only for its immediate neighbours but for global security more generally.

Mr Stewart Jackson: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be foolish to take any options off the table, given that many foreign policy specialists believe that President Ahmadinejad is under severe threat, that he and his supporters might be removed from the parliamentary elections in 2012, and that he might be excluded from the presidency in 2013 and replaced by revolutionary guard-supported politicians and a more theocratic, militarist, jihadist regime?

Mr Alexander: For the reasons that I have outlined and will continue to outline, I believe that it would be wrong to take those options off the table. When calibrating the way forward, one has to factor in the potential for change within the Iranian regime, given the prospect of elections next month. We are facing some critical months in terms of judgments to be reached in Tehran and elsewhere. That is why the responsible course at this juncture is to advance the twin-track approach that has characterised the attitude of the international community.

Paul Flynn: Does my right hon. Friend think that, although the Foreign Secretary rightly condemned what were probably terrorist attacks by Iran, he failed to attack incidents involving major explosions in Tehran, a cyber-attack against Tehran and the murder of four of Iran’s scientists? If we are to be taken as honest brokers, is it not right that we attack terrorism on both sides and insist on transparency not only in Iran but in Israel?

Mr Alexander: There is surely consensus on both sides of the House on the desire for a peaceful resolution to this crisis. That is why I argue that the strengthening of the sanctions regime to an unprecedented level is a necessary response to the growing tensions. All of us have an interest in a peaceful resolution.

Sir Menzies Campbell: I do not want to embark on a theological discussion about deterrence, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the effectiveness of deterrence depends on the party against which nuclear weapons might be used being unwilling to accept the consequences of using them? To base the whole issue of non-proliferation in the middle east on something so uncertain—the regime is renowned for its uncertainty—would be very dangerous.

Mr Alexander: I have some sympathy with that view. I will argue that there have been instances where the regime in Tehran has come to judge where its own self-interest lies, and the continued pursuit of sanctions reflects that reality. That said, I sympathise with the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s broader point about what is implicit within a relationship of deterrence. That is why, despite my appearance on the “Murnaghan” show on Sky television yesterday morning, I was rather restrained in my mild rebuke to the Foreign Secretary over his cold war analogy. He was more accurate in describing the potential risk of an arms race, but I would

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not say that the cold war is the perfect historical parallel. First, it involved a global struggle for supremacy, and it mischaracterises the threat that we are confronting in the middle east to suggest that there is a perfect parallel with a global struggle for supremacy. Secondly, it is fair to say that mechanisms were developed during the cold war that allowed for a peaceful resolution. In that sense, it was in some ways a prospect more favourable than that which we are facing now, unless we find a resolution as I have described.

I have been generous in taking a number of interventions. I would now like to make a little progress. What would I, on behalf of the Opposition, argue is the way forward? In my view, there has been too much discussion in recent days of possible military action and too little discussion of how diplomacy can still succeed. As one of my colleagues suggested, we must avoid talk of the possibility of military action becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our efforts must focus on how we can use all the diplomatic tools available to force the Iranian Government to change course. In the past, Iranian leaders have adjusted their behaviour in the face of international pressures—ending the war with Iraq in 1988 and stopping assassinations of Iranian dissidents in the 1990s are just some of the most significant examples.

Evidence is now accumulating that the sanctions are beginning to put unparalleled pressure on the Iranian regime. Sanctions in place for many years now on exporting materials relevant to the development of nuclear weapons have slowed Iran’s nuclear programme and directly hindered its ability to develop next-generation centrifuges. The combined effect of international sanctions on the Iranian financial sector, including steps taken by the Government last year, has triggered an enormous currency devaluation, which the regime is struggling to contain. The Iranian Government can no longer access reputable sources of international credit, insurance for its merchant fleets or investors for its state-led infrastructure programs. Crucially, Iran is struggling to find investors to revitalise its dilapidated energy infrastructure, which requires billions in new investment if production levels are to be maintained. Alongside that, the oil embargo, of which we have already heard a little, is increasing the strain on the Iranian regime even before the EU embargo comes into full force on 1 July.

Despite rejecting offers of talks in past years, Iran has now signalled that it is willing to resume talks with the E3 plus 3, and reports suggest that Iran’s supreme national security council replied last week to a letter from Cathy Ashton, on behalf of the European Union, inviting Iran to resume those talks without preconditions. Those are encouraging signs, but let me be clear that we must remain vigilant against the prospect of Iran seeking to draw out talks while continuing its nuclear programme unabated. The Opposition welcome the diplomatic steps that the international community has so far taken: the United Nations Security Council has passed seven resolutions on Iran in less than six years, and the EU, the US, and the UK Government and others have all taken important steps in recent months to increase further the pressure on Iran. However, despite those efforts, we have seen too little progress. What is needed now is a more concerted and co-ordinated international response. At this crucial time, it is vital that we remain focused on pursuing the twin-track approach, which remains our best route to resolving the crisis.

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As we have heard, sanctions are not designed to punish the Iranian people. They are intended to increase pressure on the regime, and those pressures now seem to be mounting. This month, the Iranian Parliament voted to hold a special session to force President Ahmadinejad to account for some of the dire economic and social indicators in Iran today. Unemployment is high, growth is low and anger is mounting. The Iranian regime is beginning to show signs of doubt as to whether international isolation is simply too great a price to pay. Alongside that, parliamentary elections to elect new members of Islamic consultative assembly are due to be held in Iran on 2 March. They may offer yet another opportunity for the regime to change course and for a new leadership to steer Iran away from the brink of international isolation. The Iranian political calendar, the internal political dynamics, and the domestic economic and social pressures all imply that the next few months could be crucial.

The motion focuses on the use of military action, which has rightly been the subject of much debate in the House today. The risks facing the region are real, but I believe we must make it clear to our friends in Israel that now is not the time for a pre-emptive strike. However, notwithstanding our view that pre-emptive action should not be taken now, we are firm in our view that all options must remain on the table. That is because the prospects for a diplomatic resolution are enhanced, not undermined, by all options remaining on the table at the present time. Leaving all options on the table actually strengthens the international community’s hand in negotiations and therefore increases the likelihood of achieving a peaceful resolution, to which I believe the whole House is committed.

Mr Leigh: Wars often start because of an element of uncertainty, so let us be quite clear: notwithstanding the fact that the Opposition favour negotiations at this point, is it the Labour party’s position that we must not tolerate Iran being nuclear-armed?

Mr Alexander: I have said on the record previously that the cost of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is too high. I could not be clearer that this is an issue not simply for Iran’s immediate regional neighbours, but for the whole international community. That is why I am grateful for the Foreign Secretary’s gracious acknowledgment that the position being advanced by the British Government today is entirely consistent with the position that was advanced when Labour was in office.

Michael Ellis (Northampton North) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman has been gracious in most of his remarks about the Foreign Secretary, but as he has said, he did not agree with the cold war analogy. Will he clarify the Labour party’s position on that? Is it not the case that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) pointed out, we are talking about the difference between a hot war—a fiery and more immediate conflagration—and a cold war-type scenario, where Iran has a nuclear device, with all the hostilities and the fractious situation that would evolve from that, potentially over the very long term? The analogy with the cold war is therefore quite accurate in the circumstances.

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Mr Alexander: I remain unconvinced. I listened with care to the explanation of his remarks in The Daily Telegraph that the Foreign Secretary offered on the Andrew Marr programme yesterday morning, but it is really up to him to elucidate the analogy he chose to set before the public. My view is clear: this is a point at which we need clear minds and cool heads. We need to ensure that the language we use is consistent with the approach, which I welcome, that the Foreign Secretary set out before the House today: that there should be a 100% focus on finding a diplomatic resolution.

In line with the arguments that I have put to the House, the Opposition support the amendment, which is supported by two former Foreign Secretaries as well as by Members from across the House. In the spirit of that amendment, we agree that the Government should focus their efforts on finding a negotiated solution to the nuclear issue and recognise the value of making it clear to Iran that all options remain on the table, but the threat of military action must not be allowed to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now is not the time for a pre-emptive strike on Iran. Now is the time for redoubling our diplomatic efforts to capitalise on the progress that is being made.

Let no one doubt that Iran presents a real and urgent threat. We should be doing all we can to dissuade Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. With Iran feeling the pressure from co-ordinated international sanctions, I believe that the prospects for finding a diplomatic resolution have been enhanced, not diminished. The coming months are crucial. To digress, deviate or dither at this crucial stage would be to undermine the months and, indeed, years of diplomatic and co-ordinated efforts to increase pressure on the regime and promote dialogue as the path to a peaceful resolution of this issue.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans): Order. The eight-minute limit now comes into effect, with the usual injury time for interventions.

6.48 pm

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), who is a valued member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, on securing this debate. He is at least consistent: he voted against the intervention in Iraq, the intervention in Libya and the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Afghanistan, and now he wants to rule out an attack on Iran. I respect his point of view, but I believe that he is underestimating the challenge facing the western world and the civilised world.