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Lord Temple-Morris: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, for giving us the chance to debate Iran at a very topical and relevant time. I congratulate him on the way he has introduced the debate, and I shall be referring to many of his points as I go along. He is aware of my long-time interest in Iran, and I am only too well aware of the balanced and knowledgeable way that he dealt with Iran, often in difficult times, when he was Foreign Secretary.

First, by way of a declaration of interest, I have never had, and do not have, any financial interests in Iran. There is a personal interest, however, in that I have been married, if not to the country, to one of its former citizens for 41 years. I am the president, and have been for some years, of the Iran Society. I was an officer, mainly chairman, of the British-Iranian All-Party Parliamentary Group in this building for 31 years; I resigned from that office, while in this House, together with a number of other offices to do with Iran—keeping the Iran Society, which is purely cultural and non-political—because of my deep reluctance to have anything officially to do, as a Back-Bench volunteer, with the present regime in Iran.

By way of background—the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, has touched on this—we are dealing with an old civilisation and a very fine people who have been grossly abused by various rulers and invaders. Over a couple of thousand years, they have developed a psyche of weathering the storm, and absorbing the ways of the invader. That has led, in order to survive, to their wanting to be told what to do, and even an
 
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expectation that others will do it for them. That gave us the vulnerability which led to the tragic Iranian revolution of 1979. The net result of that revolution, and the psyche of the people, was that the only two organised elements at the time took control: the mosques and the secular Left. I mention this because it is relevant to what we do in the future.

After the revolution, there was a particularly vicious and nasty civil war between 1979 and 1983. The secular Left, in the form of an organisation that exists now—the People's Mujaheddin of Iran—lost out and eventually left the country in 1983. Before, during and after the war, it suffered persecution of monumental and extremely unpleasant proportions, which extended to its female as well as its male members.

The United States took the wrong approach to the present situation. It tried to isolate Iran from an early stage, which made the situation worse. It failed to support elements in Iran which could have made more of a difference then than perhaps they can now. It is a sad precedent that when a country such as America, much as we love it, is expelled from a country—for example, Cuba—it finds it difficult to forgive.

Europe is just about as united as it can be over Iran, but we are for ever in commercial competition within Iran and we are not strong enough on our own, without the United States, to make a real difference. Russia is heavily involved commercially in Iran, particularly in its nuclear industry. It will, I think, play it both ways and end up profiting out of Iran. China, which is on the wings, has made a speciality of getting into many countries with which the West is in difficulty or is leaving. In such cases, it does not, I am afraid, care very much about the nature of the regime. Finally, let us not forget India. India has an awful lot to gain from Iran. Its outlook, subject to international public opinion, will be commercial.

Internally, Iran is in a mess; it is in an economic and political mess. It has more than 60 million people. It cannot provide jobs for its youth. It has an Islamic government. Nobody is really in power—a different answer here, a different answer there, but with one important exception: internal security. It is completely dependent on its oil, gas and natural resources. It has a bad infrastructure. Its aeroplanes crash; its lifts do not work. I could continue in that vein. Its non-oil exports are minimal. Tragically, it has made a mess even of its caviar industry. It is dependent on the West for consumer goods. Noble Lords will perhaps have a different view, but the East will not be able to replace the West in a country which has always leant towards the West and will continue to do so. It is nonsense to think that the West needs it more than it needs us. We need its oil, but it needs the money with which we pay for it.

Iran presents certain problems for us, the first of which is the nuclear issue. I am convinced—the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, has already mentioned it—that it is going for a nuclear bomb, and I am equally convinced that it cannot be trusted with it. This leads to the seriousness underlying this debate, as has been said.
 
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Terrorism has largely been limited so far to Arab-Israel, to Hezbollah and to Hamas, but some serious meddling in Iraq does not augur well for the future. British lives have been lost because of it. So it is a serious situation. If there was a military strike in whole or in part on Iran, the potential terrorism that would come out of Iran would dwarf anything that is happening in Iraq, however ghastly that might be.

We need to strike a balance between pressure and maximum sanctions and isolation. Isolation is dangerous and unpredictable, but pressure remains relevant. People will argue for dialogue. I have spent 26 years since the Iranian revolution indulging in dialogue with Iran. I am quite convinced as a result that it will not genuinely engage and that it will play for time. I have already mentioned its vulnerabilities: the economy, infrastructure and population. We must support dissidents within and outside Iran. They expect it and they want a lead on it. Secondly, we must continually expose—and not just in a little resolution in some UN committee—its atrocious human rights violations. We must support protestors within the country all the time. A recent strike by bus drivers in Tehran and its repression was largely ignored by western media in spite of appeals—particularly to trades unions—to help. That is an example of something we should take action on.

Finally, one thing will really hurt and will illustrate where the Government stand. I have thought a lot about it, and I have never advocated this before. I dealt earlier with the civil war in Iran after the revolution. To de-proscribe the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran—which has never been a terrorist organisation as far as this country is concerned and has a perfectly respectable political wing—as a terrorist organisation would be the biggest signal that could be sent. Dialogue is no longer a priority; action and pressure are. In bringing action and pressure, we have to encourage the Iranian people, not the administration, because, at the end of the day, only they can do it.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, may I remind noble Lords that this is a timed debate? Each noble Lord has seven minutes and if he goes beyond seven minutes on the clock, he is into his eighth minute. Every minute we go above detracts from the time that the Minister has to respond.

12.01 pm

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I shall keep that remark in mind. It pays to put our relationship with Iran in some perspective. As has been said already, the Iranians are a very proud people. Through their history, they trace themselves directly to the ancient Persian empire. Indeed, they tell me that the collapse of the Persian empire, following its defeat by Alexander the Great, still grieves them to this day, some several thousand years later. So the injustices that the Iranians suffered at the hands of the United States and us over 50 years ago are as fresh and disturbing to Iranians as if they happened yesterday. Iranians remember well that in the 1950s, the United Kingdom introduced a two-year embargo on Iranian oil exports as a response to
 
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Mossadeq's socialist government nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They remember well that the United Kingdom, again in league with the United States, orchestrated the overthrow of their Prime Minister and the reinstallation of the Shah to counter the threat of Iranian oil and gas fields falling under the influence of Russia.

When I visited Iran, I was amazed to find that it is one of the few countries in the world where the BBC is intensely distrusted. Iranians believe that BBC World Service announcements to Iran facilitated the regime change of Mossadeq. Again, they believe that the 20 million demonstrators who took to the streets against the Shah, which led to his fall, were mobilised through the BBC. That is what Iranians believe, and today they are still deeply suspicious of the United Kingdom instigating regime change from outside.

Iranians look around and see the US and UK military presence in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Gulf states. They are more or less surrounded. It is hardly surprising if Iranians consider that the pursuit of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack is the logical course. So how should we react? Clearly, threats of military reprisal could well be counter-productive. They could reinforce the inherent distrust and the hold that the regime has on the Iranian people through fear. They could encourage conservatives in the Iranian regime to pursue nuclear weapons development with all possible haste.

Our intelligence services and other intelligence sources conclude that Iran is pursuing a twin-track programme: the legal development of nuclear-fuelled power generation as a substitute for gas and oil and the illegal development of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons—illegal because Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Intelligence sources have concluded that Iran is aiming to reach a stage when it can switch from civil nuclear power to include nuclear weaponry development in the shortest time possible. Iran's scientists and engineers are thought to be about five years away from producing Iran's first thermonuclear weapon.

Clearly the West has to react, but surely not by attempting to repeat the type of regime change carried out in Iraq. Intervention must be under the aegis and through the authority and legitimacy of the United Nations. Any other route would surely lead to ever-greater and possibly catastrophic instability throughout the region.

As a first step, the UN Security Council could condemn Iranian failure to comply with the undertakings that were given to the IAEA and demand compliance. The United Nations could follow up by authorising a number of actions to reinforce that compliance. It could, for example, seek UN oil sanctions. As has been mentioned, oil comprises 80 per cent of Iranian exports. It is unlikely to be easy to achieve this. China, for example, takes about a quarter of Iran's oil exports, and her burgeoning economy has a huge appetite for oil. Russia, too, is likely to object, and India, as has been mentioned, as well as Japan, South Korea, France and Italy are all major customers for Iranian oil.
 
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We could seek energy equipment sanctions through a United Nations Security Council prohibition of the transfer or sale of oil and gas technology to Iran. That is a smart sanction, and could be a significant move that affected the regime more than the Iranian people. Again, however, it could be difficult to get agreement, given Russia's energy interests. Are military strikes a contender? Under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, the UNSC could authorise a strike against military targets, but that is extremely unlikely. Military strikes by the United States, possibly backed by Israel, are perhaps more likely, but given the scale of the nuclear development facilities at Esfahan, it would need to go far beyond the concept of mere surgical or pinpoint strikes to be effective.

The inevitable outcome of that would surely be a large number of civilian deaths, and Iranian military conventional retaliation against Israel and US and United Kingdom assets in the region. Are we ready for that? It could also mean the destruction of the ancient capital of Esfahan, founded by Shah Abbas the Great in the 16th century. A world heritage site sits on the crossroads of the ancient silk caravan routes. Are we prepared to commit that destruction?

There needs to be a change in the political climate in Iran to encourage policies and initiatives that are not based on the presumptions of external threats and duplicity. In that context, the use of external agents to instigate internal regime change is clearly a non-starter. The Iranian regime is under internal pressure to change. The population has more than doubled since the revolution. The young people are vastly in the majority, and they are pressing for greater social freedom and economic opportunity, but external threats, implied or direct, allow the Iranian Government to suppress the call for change by prioritising the need to defend Iran from external attack. While the Iranian regime can mobilise public support in defence against threats from the West and thus justify harsh restrictions on civil liberties, reform will be slow.

Finally, there needs to be a clear demonstration from the United States and us that, through compliance with the IAEA, Iran need not be under military threat. We could start with a security guarantee to Iran from the United States and continue with a commitment in the longer term to the creation of a nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East as an extension to a successful peace process in which Iran could play a prominent role. I fear, however, that that is a long haul indeed.

12.08 pm


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