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Lord Avebury: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for allowing me to intervene. Can he explain why, if the revolutionary guards were responsible for the injuries and destruction of property which took place in Khorramabad in August of last year, the deputy minister of the interior--who is supposed to be responsible for the arrangements for the elections due to be held on 8th June--has now been arrested in respect of those events?

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I shall be perfectly frank and say to my noble friend and colleague that I do not know the answer to that specific question. However, I shall find out and communicate with him further.

Student organisations are thriving and active, although both they and, of course, the Majlis, are under sustained pressure. There is no denying that and we have heard of that tonight. The battle for the soul of Iran is real and harsh. It is difficult for those who have not recently been to Iran to recognise, from this distance, the sheer buoyancy and indefatigability of life and debate in Iran. The right reverend Prelate referred to that when recounting the visit of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester.

Despite all the woeful and sometimes wicked attempts to suppress free debate, despite the continuing extensive human rights abuses--although the more brutal aspects of them seem significantly to be on the decline (I, too, have been in touch with Amnesty on this point) the Iranians will not be stopped from conducting public debate and from putting over their point of view.

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I warrant that everything said in the House today will have been said and will be reflected endlessly by Iranians themselves in towns, cities, villages, squares and universities. They will not be prevented from pursuing the democratic debate that is now unstoppable.

I say this not because of any complacency--there is no room for that. The struggle for the soul of that remarkable country is still being fought out. To ensure the successful outcome of that struggle, it is essential that we here do not misconstrue what is happening there; do not fall prey to defeatism; do not simply concentrate on the failings; do not underestimate the courage, vigour and persistence of the Iranians themselves, particularly among the young. This is a real 21st-century Pilgrim's Progress.

At the end of November, President Khatami addressed a huge students' rally in which he, inter alia, criticised the press violations and stated that, as the constitution stands, he did not have enough power to intervene where and when he should. He also urged the students, none the less, not to become demoralised; not to give way to despair. That theme has been persistently taken up and pursued by the student leaders themselves because they know that giving way to despair and losing patience will play into the hands of the reactionary clique.

In the same month, President Khatami made a similar critique to a special commission set up to monitor implementation of the Iranian constitution, the chairman of which also issued a hard-hitting report attacking the press laws and their implementation. The point, however, as the BBC reported at the end of last year, is that everyone on the reformist side--and it is much the biggest side, as the presidential, city council and Majlis elections made abundantly clear--realises that the clerical provocations and judicial assaults to which reformists have been subjected, particularly over the past year, must not be met by extremism or violence. It is in this context that President Khatami's cat-and-mouse tactic of holding up the announcement of his own candidature for the 8th June presidential elections must be assessed.

I now turn to the constitution of Iran. It is easy, with our centuries old constitutional evolution, to underestimate the turbulence which inevitably has gone with a switch from thousands of years of autocracy--often bloody autocracy--via a bloody civil war, to democracy in a mere 21 years. The constitution itself, in my view, is overburdened with checks and balances. Certainly it has far too many lacunas and ambiguities to avoid the uncertainties and the possibilities of reactionary interpretation which Iran is experiencing now.

There are unresolved conflicts as to the division of powers between the Supreme Religious Leader and the elected President, and between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians. There is a body of experts--rather aptly called the Expediency Council--which has the task of adjudicating on disputes between the Parliament and the Council of Guardians. There is a body of clergy--a clergy court--established in very

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uncertain constitutional circumstances in 1987, and there are various revolutionary entities in place, usually hostile to any laicisation of Iranian life.

Certain it is that, as Mr Copithorne correctly diagnosed, a dangerous amount of scope is given within the constitution to repressive action on the part of the state which we would consider contrary to normal freedoms by reason of its laws on dissemination of false news, insulting of religion, incitement of public opinion, propaganda against the state and actions likely to weaken the state, as well as blasphemy and defamation laws. Those areas of law are, to our view, unacceptably wide and unacceptably susceptible to reactionary interpretation.

Having said that, there has been some sign recently of an awareness on all sides, including the reactionary clerics, of the need to mollify frictions between the different power centres. Even the hardliners have to have regard to the messages at the polls and the pressing need for foreign investment.

One of the things that we must do our best to encourage--and I mean encourage rather than simply denounce--is the evolution of the judiciary in Iran so as to buttress the independence of judges and make for a better separation of powers than is presently the case. I also believe that the independence of lawyers is a crucial issue in Iran. The independence of its bar is also vital. At present, the head of the bar is appointed by the judiciary. That is plainly unacceptable.

Indeed, the question of vetting generally--ostensibly to ensure compliance with the constitution--is far too easily an instrument of subversion of true democracy and is used as an instrument of reactionary conformity. That aspect of the candidacy for the Majlis is well known.

I must say in passing that there are a number of Iranian lawyers who have shown heroic independence and courage in upholding the law and due process. Some of the grisly tales that we have heard today have attached to them brave lawyers, who do their duty at great risk to themselves.

We need--I am running swiftly out of time--to have regard, none the less, to our own status in Iran. We are viewed in a mixed way. Sometimes as lackeys of an incurably hostile USA; sometimes as the basest of hypocrites. I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, that the recent missile attack on the MKO/MeK bases in Baghdad are rather similar to the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah bases in the occupied territories.

The MKO/MeK/NCRI, which provides much of the information--although much of it is not true information--to Members of this and other Houses, is a Marxist/Leninist organisation paid for by Saddam Hussein, quartered outside Baghdad and used ruthlessly by him as an instrument of general nuisance making, particularly in the light of his grappling with Iran in that atrocious eight-year war which ended only the year before he occupied Kuwait. The difference was that whereas we got on a mighty high horse over Kuwait, when he attacked Iran we did nothing except supply him with his arms, including chemical weapons.

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Despite all this, the Majlis has since last May, when it was elected, passed laws or resolutions to lower the voting age, to allow single women to study abroad, to instigate an independent inquiry into the national prison system, to protect newspapers, to limit vetting of parliamentary candidates, to prevent security forces entering university campuses and clerics' houses, to give MPs immunity from arrest and to reduce the funds available to the state-controlled media. Much of this, of course, remains blocked by the Council of Guardians, but the struggle continues. The presidential election on 8th June--Khatami or not--will deliver another resounding verdict for change. These are the real straws in the Iranian wind.

The ground is shifting irreversibly under the feet of the conservatives. The future is with the young and the young are the future. Whether that is within a theocratic state is for the Iranians to decide, just as it is for the Israelis in terms of their theocratic state.

Our problem in looking at Iran is to realise and accept, as the right reverend Prelate made clear, that it has a profoundly different history, different culture, different religion. It is a proud nation; it will not be patronised. Iran will, in the cliche, do it its way. Indeed, given the ineffectiveness of many constitutional transplants, vividly illustrated from virtually every continent in the world, we ought in this House to understand and support Iran's own gradualist, painful, agonising evolution of democracy and the rule of law.

Ultimately, what is at stake in this debate is not whether there are human rights abuses in Iran--there are; many of them are atrocious and there is no defending them--but whether this is the moment to bale out; whether this is the moment to abandon the vast majority in Iran who want reform and progress. I believe that it is precisely because, as Mr Copithorne said, the ground is irreversibly moving that we must remain firm in our support for the reformist forces; we must remain in contact; we must persevere along with the Iranian people themselves.

7.19 p.m.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, we have listened to a number of highly expert speeches. As a newcomer to the subject, I admit to being befuddled. I am very clear in my mind that things are appalling in Iran--frightful things are happening--but are they going to get better? Having heard these experts, I am afraid that I cannot make up my mind. No doubt the Minister will straighten it out when she responds.

Leaving that aside, I wish to explain my excuse for speaking. It is partly, of course, because when the noble Lord opens a debate I feel bound to toe the line. The future of the House depends on people like him and on the gifted Minister who is to reply. That is a minor excuse. My main excuse for taking part in the debate is that I have recently acquired a new friend, a good Muslim who served with distinction for nine years in the Iranian navy. For a number of years he has run a very successful car agency which I use several

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times a week. Most of his drivers are also good Muslims. I have many talks with them about Iranian affairs as seen from a Muslim point of view.

My friend served under the Shah and has both good and bad things to say about him. The regime under the Shah was a great deal better than the present one. After serving under the present regime for a number of years, my friend came to this country. He could no longer bear what he calls the awful injustices--which in his view have not diminished. I am open to the argument that matters are slightly better, but I do not find it easy to believe. My friend tells me what the present regime is like from his point of view.


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