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We remain concerned about the role of Syria and Iran in Lebanon and their support, in terms of weapons and funds, for Hezbollah. At a meeting with Prime Minister Siniora last weekend, the Foreign Secretary made clear that the United Kingdom fully supported the constitutional and elected Government of Lebanon and urged a peaceful resolution to the present dispute. We have long sought to draw Syria and Iran into being part of the solution for peace in the Middle East, rather than the problem. If the Syrian authorities are ready to play a constructive role in the region, we have made it clear that we are ready to work with them.

The same strategic choice faces Iran. For three years we, with France and Germany, have led diplomatic efforts urging Iran to address international concerns about its nuclear programme. We have built and maintained wide support for that approach. In June, for the first time, the United States, China and Russia explicitly endorsed the generous proposals to Iran which would give Iran everything it needs to develop a peaceful nuclear energy programme, while meeting international concerns, and open up opportunities for higher relationships with the EU and the wider international community. Instead, the Iranian regime has continued its activities in contravention of the IAEA board’s and the UN Security Council’s requirements. We have agreed with our partners, therefore, that we have no alternative but to consult on a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions. But even while our officials work in New York, our proposals remain on the table. Should Iran choose to respect its international obligations, they are the way forward.

The Iranian regime also has a choice about its respect for human rights and political freedoms. Many candidates who wished to stand in next week’s local elections have been barred from doing so. Others have been deterred by the vetting process from putting their names forward. The Iranian people deserve a free and fair choice about their country’s future, and the chance to elect representatives with a wide range of views, not just those picked for them.

While Syria and Iran remain reluctant to engage with the wider international community, the Gulf states and, increasingly, the countries of north Africa are embracing change. In the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar the process of modernisation is under way. Algeria’s President Bouteflika has led a successful programme on national reconciliation. Morocco is firmly committed to strengthening the rule of law, safeguarding human rights and developing a multi-party

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political system. Libya is gradually opening up. Egypt is moving—somewhat slowly—towards greater political pluralism. The influence of civil society is growing right across north Africa. We need to build strong alliances with these countries, whose example can stimulate desirable changes elsewhere.

As the director-general of the Security Service has pointed out so chillingly, the threat to the United Kingdom’s security from al-Qaeda and sponsored terrorist activity is growing. The longer that conflict and sectarian violence persist, whether—and it is essential to note this—between Israel and the Palestinians, or in Iraq, or in Afghanistan, the easier it will be for al-Qaeda to exploit human misery and attract misguided recruits to its destructive cause. If we back away, the victory is theirs. We have to show that our will is stronger than the terrorists’. That is why the United Kingdom and all our international partners must stay engaged in every part of the Middle East, not only now, but for the long term.

Moved, That this House takes note of developments in the Middle East and Afghanistan.—(Lord Triesman.)

3.27 pm

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, we are all very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, for setting out how the Government see the situation in the Middle East and Afghanistan. However, it may not be entirely the way the rest of us now see it. It is, as the Minister says, one of great danger. He speaks of “a critical juncture”, which is, indeed, the point we have reached. Iraq is, again in the Minister’s words, “riven by violence”. The situation is fast-changing and the world is looking for new approaches. The question now is whether we the British, our Government and our allies, have the resilience to offer that new approach.

Frankly, there is widespread feeling in this country that our foreign policy has begun to lose its way. As I said in the debate on the gracious Speech and now reaffirm, the direction and purpose of our national policy in this dangerous world now seem, through no fault of the Minister, to be in limbo. The Prime Minister has called for a “whole Middle East” strategy and the Minister repeated that call, but what is the content of that strategy? It seems that we are condemned to wait. We must wait for the Congress of the United States, through its Iraq Study Group, chaired by James Baker III, to declare what that means. It will do so very shortly, maybe even tomorrow. Meanwhile, we wait and listen, while in Iraq that brave claim of “mission accomplished” has, as everyone now recognises, become “mission in chaos”. That is unsatisfactory. The Prime Minister has given evidence to this congressional inquiry by videolink. It is worrying that our own Parliament should apparently be barred, for the moment, from asking the same questions. No one wants in any way to disturb or undermine the bravery and courage of our troops, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or anywhere else, but questions need to be asked and issues need to be examined. It is interesting that the Congress of the United States apparently feels ready to do that, so why don’t we?

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The time has come for bold, independent and creative thinking about the next steps in the Middle East—we all know that. Our allies and friends, with whom, together, we can make the biggest contribution, should be not just the great American republic, much as we admire America, and not just our European neighbours, but also our true and real friends in the Commonwealth and Asia. There, power and influence are growing—this seems not to be recognised as it should be—while, sadly, pax Americana slithers into tragic decline. If that sounds like a party preposition or deliberate criticism from the Opposition, let me say that I am very much fortified in these views by, for example, the recent speech of my noble and learned friend Lord Howe of Aberavon. The other day in Cardiff, he said that,

I may not share even my noble and learned friend’s complete faith in the capacity of the united European Union to solve all these problems, but I know that when someone like my noble and learned friend Lord Howe—one of our most thoughtful Foreign Secretaries of modern times—speaks like that, it really is time even for the Prime Minister and his colleagues to stop, listen and think about changing course.

In a way, the elements of this “whole Middle East” strategy, which we are all searching for, are becoming easier to set out as the situation worsens—I shall try to do so in a moment—although it is very far from easy to take forward. What are they? First, a federal Iraq, with a carefully phased withdrawal of foreign troops, including the American armoured brigades, is, of course, something that people want. Perhaps it should begin next year—perhaps the Iraq Survey Group will recommend it and it will take place province by province—in the hope that there will be an Iraqi Government and authority strong enough to replace it.

We should hang on to that concept because a united Iraq remains totally in the interests of all the neighbouring powers and not just the western ones—not just the United States and Britain but Turkey, Iran, Syria and Jordan. Indeed, that is why we have to bring those countries together with ourselves. Frankly—this needs to be said—that will not be done by threats. I heard the words of the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, and I heard the Prime Minister the other day, and it seems to me that the tone is wrong. When we are not in a strong position or are not the victors—there has been no victory—we will not get these countries to co-operate unless it is done in the proper way. That is the first requirement of the new whole-strategy.

Secondly, obviously we want a fully independent Palestine with—I know that this is a long shot—world-backed security guarantees as far as possible for the Israeli people. My impression is that an increasing number of people in Israel see that this is the only future, even if some people in Washington do

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not yet see that. Perhaps there will be a change, and that is the ray of light to which the Minister referred.

Thirdly, there has to be some kind of nuclear bargain which includes letting Iran have its civil nuclear power, which it is well on the way to getting, and faces the difficult issue of persuading Israel—again, in exchange for guarantees—to give up its nuclear weapons and Iran to hold back from its drive for full nuclear military weaponry. It may be that here, too, new thinking is required and that the proposals for building on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty with a concept of an international nuclear fuel bank—an idea being developed by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which I visited the other day—are the way forward. I do not know, but certainly new thinking is required, which the UN and the IAEA seem to recognise.

Iran really wants the respect that it feels should be accorded to a major regional power. It has a common interest, along with the rest of us, in wanting Iraq to stay in one piece. So does Syria, whose current regime also, understandably, wants some guarantee of its own continued existence. As we all know, it operates through a minority inside Syria. That is all right, but unfortunately Syria also wants to re-establish its dominance of Lebanon. The noble Lord did not mention that, but I fear that that is where the whole idea of a grand bargain or a successful regional conference could begin to unravel, because that dominance is the one thing that Syria cannot have.

At the moment it is straining every sinew to disrupt Lebanon. I do not know whether it was implicated in the latest assassination, the murder of Pierre Gemayel—none of us knows the murky reality behind that—but Syria is at the moment organising ersatz rallies with heavy payments to rent-a-crowd, flag-waving attendees, largely imported by bus every day from Syria. The ever-gullible BBC duly reports those gatherings as bigger and livelier than that of the quiet Christian crowds the other day at Gemayel’s funeral—hardly surprising given that it was a funeral.

I raise that because it is in little Lebanon that all the attempts to bring the Middle East nations to their common senses and achieve some unity of approach could fail; that could be the spark. As someone said the other day, if it is possible to compare a country to a canary in a mineshaft, that is it. We see all the signs of a possibly far greater conflagration throughout the area, with several civil wars breaking out at once. If Hezbollah is allowed to satisfy its power lust through street violence and demonstrations and to extend the sway of its paymasters, Iran and Syria, then stability, sanity and justice will have lost out in the Middle East and every remaining nation will be directly threatened, from Jordan to Saudi Arabia and from the Gulf states to Egypt.

That is why we need more than rhetoric to back the Siniora Government, whom the Minister mentioned. That should come not just from the West but also from the new great powers, Russia, India, China and Japan. There is everything to be said for American policy taking a back seat in these matters, which is why we must be very careful about poking at Russia with constant criticism, tempting as it is with all the

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funny goings-on about which we have been reading in London and the talk of spying. I urge those who would listen that we must not allow that to dominate our thinking about our relations with Russia. Mr Putin is not an enemy of the West. A responsible Russia is an essential part of the equation in stopping the whole Middle East region from slipping into anarchy. We have to keep that in mind.

I have said very little about the other aspect of the debate, Afghanistan. At the end of the debate my noble friend Lady Rawlings will have many more detailed observations to make on the challenges there. Suffice it to note that I believe that things in Afghanistan are probably not nearly as bad as the media tell us. We also have to remember that Afghanistan is a collection of tribes rather than a nation, as it always has been. Anyone who reads the first five pages of any book on Afghanistan, from Lord Roberts onwards down the decades, will know that perfectly well.

A choice must be made by the outside powers, including NATO, either to deploy an infinitely greater military and politically intricate effort than anything we have seen so far, including skills to deal with the tribes, as well as the ceaseless incursions from Pakistan and the support of the Pashtun. Incidentally, we used to have those skills but we seem to have lost them. It is either that, a much bigger commitment, or a military exit. There is no middle solution and we know that perfectly well. Like the Russians before us, and our forefathers, we all know that perfectly well and have painfully discovered it. There must now be that degree of reality.

We are coming to a critical juncture in our relations with the rest of the world. I have my own solutions on choosing allies and friends in the days ahead, and how to radically reduce our dependence on the dangerous Middle East for oil and energy, but I shall not weary the House with those now; we can debate them another time. We all know perfectly well that the present policies have failed and that new dynamism and imaginative vigour are required in our approach to the eternally complex Middle East and its neighbours if the present slide to worse chaos is to be checked. Of that vigour and imagination I see very little sign in Her Majesty’s Government.

3.41 pm

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, I welcome the debate. I particularly welcome the large number of speakers from the Cross Benches. One of the many positive effects of the partial reform of the House of Lords, which we have undertaken in the past eight years, has been a much more active and expert contribution from the Cross Benches, which we used to have when I first came to the Chamber. We benefit from that particularly in debates on foreign affairs.

Our main focus in this debate must be on the linked crises in the Middle East, on the British, European and NATO engagement with those crises, on the parallel NATO commitment to Afghanistan, and the strain that those operations place on Britain’s Armed Forces. My noble friend Lord Garden will deal later with

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military overstretch, and my noble friend Lady Williams will say rather more on Afghanistan. I want to focus primarily on the Middle East and on the appropriate balance to be struck between British, European, transatlantic and UN engagement in British diplomacy over the coming months.

Nevertheless, I have to say something first about how we reached the situation in which we find ourselves. As the Irishman said to the traveller, “We wouldn’t have started from here”. British policy, following the ideologically driven mistakes of the Bush Administration’s policy, has contributed to chaos in Iraq, a loss of six years in attempts to bring together the two sides in the Israel-Palestine conflict, and the spillover of that conflict into Lebanon. In the United States, the voters have just exercised their rights to disapprove of the mess that their Administration has led them into, and their disapproval of President Bush in particular.

It is extraordinary that President Bush’s closest supporter in the attempt to impose democracy by force on Iraq, Tony Blair, is still in office. It is almost as extraordinary that he has managed to avoid effective parliamentary scrutiny of the deceptions that led the UK into war in Iraq, the commitment of Britain to follow US policy, and the failure to exert any significant influence over that policy. I welcome the Minister’s repeated emphasis in his opening speech on the sovereign and independent quality of the decisions that Her Majesty’s Government are now making. I understand why he feels it necessary to stress that point against the record of the past four years.

Fifty years ago, a British Prime Minister committed this country to intervention in the Middle East on falsely presented evidence, without the full support of his Cabinet, and after deliberately misleading Parliament about the purpose of the operation. After an initial patriotic wobble, the Labour Party recognised that this was a betrayal of Britain’s values and interests, and led the demands for Eden’s resignation. Four years ago, it was a Labour Prime Minister who led the country into war in the Middle East on false premises, committing Britain to support an American operation over which we had no influence and which was intended to reshape first Iraq and then the greater Middle East as a whole to fit a neo-conservative design.

An initial patriotic and party-loyalty wobble in support of the Prime Minister was understandable, but I cannot see how the traditional values of the Labour movement—internationalism, open diplomacy, the promotion of a peaceful world order—are compatible with the drift of the Labour Government’s Middle East policy over the past four years. We have bumped along behind a misjudged American occupation, deliberately excluded from influence over that occupation, while sharing with the United States the opprobrium of the Arab and Muslim world which the Iraq war and subsequent occupation have attracted. Yet the Labour Benches have remained almost silent and the Prime Minister is still there. I am proud that my party has stood firm in support of progressive international values while the Labour Government have forgotten them.

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But we are where we are and the focus of this debate must be on what direction we should now take. The King of Jordan last week reminded us of the dangers of our current situation: that the Middle East could face three linked civil wars in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine, unless Governments within the region and states outside work together to avert them.

The British Government have least influence over the situation in Iraq. Central Iraq is now close to open civil war in four of the 18 provinces, as the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, points out, but with nearly half of Iraq’s population. Inter-communal killings have been rising. The Iraqi army is struggling to defend a Government who have only a very limited legitimacy. In the southern, British sector violence has also risen, including attacks on British forces. The occupation itself has now become as much a provocation as a protection against civil conflict. We do not yet know whether the Bush Administration will choose to raise the number of troops in a final attempt to impose a degree of order, or reduce them in the hope that the Iraqi army can now cope. But we should not simply follow whatever line emerges from Washington after the publication of the Iraq Study Group report. We should be putting the future of Iraq on to the agenda of a regional Middle East conference, drawing in all of Iraq’s neighbours and co-ordinating the gradual withdrawal of British forces with their advice and assistance in preventing internal conflict from spreading further.

Iran is one of Iraq’s most important neighbours. It is also one of Afghanistan’s most important neighbours. I am struck, as I follow the appallingly misunderstood quality of the debate in Washington, by the absence of historical context and understanding. I read a few weeks ago an official in Washington quoted as saying that they have to resist Iran trying to establish itself as a regional power in the Middle East. Iran was a regional power in the Middle East long before the Pilgrim Fathers reached Massachusetts. Trying to prevent that seems to me to be a little idiotic.

The current regime in Tehran is authoritarian and nationalist. Its anti-western turn reflects, in part, the mistakes of American policy over the past 25 years—supporting Iraq in its war with Iran; shooting down an Iranian airliner; cutting off direct contacts; and finally, labelling Iran as part of the “axis of evil”. It is difficult to persuade the Iranian regime to abandon the enrichment of uranium when it is surrounded by American forces in the Gulf and in states to the east, west and north, with Washington rhetoric still talking about bombing raids. We on these Benches have supported the efforts of the British, French and German Foreign Ministers to keep contacts open with Tehran. We cannot exclude Iran from negotiations, either on the future of Iraq or on Afghanistan. We need their co-operation and we gain already some co-operation towards both countries. Iranian influence over movements within Lebanon and Palestine also makes it a player there. In spite of the many unpleasant characteristics of that regime, our Government should continue their effort to build bridges to it, together with our European partners.

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The same logic applies to Syria, a nasty regime in many ways, but a necessary player in any effort to resolve current conflicts in Iraq, Lebanon and Israel-Palestine. Syrian intervention in Lebanese politics reflects its assumption and its recollection that the Lebanon was historically part of greater Syria. But we should not forget that the Israelis, Americans, French and others have also claimed intervention rights of different sorts within Lebanon. Our party has also supported our Government’s attempts to engage with Syria, while recognising that Britain’s image in Damascus as the messenger-boy of Washington does not make engagement easy.

On all sides, however, it is recognised that the Israel-Palestine conflict is at the heart of the regional disorder, and of the alienation of Arab and Muslim opinion from the West. The Bush Administration invaded Iraq, after all, partly because of the widespread belief in Washington that,

that removal of Saddam Hussein, ideally followed by regime change forced in Tehran, would enable the Israelis to dictate their preferred settlement to the occupied Palestinians. Chaos in Iraq has strengthened Iran instead—and weakened Israel’s position, so increasing Israeli anxiety. Israeli and American refusal to talk to a Palestinian Administration led by Hamas, like the refusal to talk to Iran and Syria, has made the situation worse rather than better. The blockade of Palestinian territory and the blocking of financial transfers have led to a humanitarian crisis, which is likely to breed further despair-ridden terrorism, rather than to create the conditions for constructive dialogue. We may hope that last week’s tentative ceasefire between Israel and Palestine will hold, but we should recognise that it will not hold without active external pressure on both sides.

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