HC Deb 14 July 1999 vol 335 cc321-40

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jane Kennedy.]

9.33 am
Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise matters concerning our current approach to relations with Iran. I realise that other hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall not speak for overlong.

My own interest in events in Iran really began in the early 1980s, when I got to know some young Iranians who had come to the United Kingdom to pursue their academic studies, but suddenly found themselves trapped, unable to return to their home. Many of them were unsure of what was happening to their friends and relatives. I do not think that I need dwell on the horrors that took place in the aftermath of Iran's revolution—suffice it to say that there has been much suffering, which has continued now for more than 20 years.

My question is whether things are really improving in Iran, and whether we should adopt a more relaxed approach to President Muhammad Khatami. When Khatami came to power, there were high hopes in some quarters; but I contend that Iran is still a rogue state. It is a state with no respect for human rights and no respect for other religions, but it is prepared to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction. It is a state that demonstrates outright hostility to women and rejects the basic tenets of democracy.

Iran's record in human rights is a disgrace. It is a regime that glories in public executions—420 since Khatami came to power; and goodness knows how many more executions in private. It is a regime that delights in stoning people to death, even girls as young as 13. It is a regime in which, in a two-week period, more than 20 people might have their hands cut off. It is a regime that could easily rival General Pinochet's Chile in the number of people who mysteriously disappear.

Recently, we witnessed the spectacle of members of Iran's Jewish community being arrested on trumped-up spying charges. We await guarantees of their safety, the protection of their religious beliefs, and their right to a fair trial. Today, can the Minister offer any assurances that those people will receive a fair trial, and that international observers will be allowed to oversee that trial?

In April 1999, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights passed a motion of censure on Iran: the 44th such censure of the mullahs. Where, therefore, is the evidence of a new approach by the new regime?

We have been told that there have been concessions on the fatwa threatening the life of the author Salman Rushdie. Can the Minister say what those concessions are? Is he aware that, on 24 September 1997, the mullahs' Foreign Minister, Mr. Kamal Kharrazi, told CNN: The death decree against Rushdie will never be rescinded"? Is it true—as Mr. Ansari, the chargé d'affaires in London said in October 1998—that the fatwa cannot be revoked, and that the British Government have accepted that? Is it true that, as far as Mr. Khatami is concerned, Salman Rushdie's life is just as much at risk as ever?

One argument used to support Mr. Khatami's regime was that terrorism, and support for terrorism, would subside once he was in power. Why, then, have 35 Iranian dissidents, in countries around the world, been murdered by Iranian Government-sponsored hit squads during the reign of Mr. Khatami? When will Mr. Khatami's Government respond positively to requests from various Governments for information on the murders of Professor Rajavi, in Switzerland; of Mohammed Hossein Naghdi, in Italy; and of Zahra Rajabi, in Turkey?

Why, on 10 June 1999, did the Iranian Government launch a Scud B missile attack, in violation of United Nations Security Council resolution 598, on an Iranian resistance camp?

When Iraq acquires and threatens us with weapons of mass destruction, we take action to control that threat. Yet, in Iran, we have a regime that has already successfully test-fired the Shahab 3 missile, which could hit every major city in the region. They are a Government who are working to perfect intercontinental missiles.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and congratulate him on raising such an important subject at such a crucial time. Those of us who were on the 1988 delegation seeking the release of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan at least got the impression that—despite what my hon. Friend absolutely rightly desrcibes in his excellent analysis of what is still happening in Iran—a small candle was still burning, and that there was still an opportunity to move towards pluralism. Does he agree that the new president would be well advised to consider what the students are trying to say, to take on board their message, and not to give the impression that there is the possibility of another Tiananmen square?

Madam Speaker

Order. I was just going to inform the right hon. Gentleman that his intervention was an enormously long one.

Mr. Clarke

I apologise, Madam Speaker.

Mr. McCabe

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I agree with my right hon. Friend's comments and certainly agree that we should be concerned about what is happening with regard to students at the present time.

In Iran we have a regime that has successfully tested the Shahab 3 missile. The Iranian Government are working to perfect intercontinental missiles that are capable of hitting European capitals. They have devoted $1.5 billion to missile development over a 10-year period—nearly $300 million in the past financial year. There is reason to believe that the regime also has a stockpile of chemical and biological weapons.

Is it right that we should ignore the use of Scud missiles by the Iranian Government? Why should they have any immunity when they launch an unprovoked attack on the sovereign territory of a neighbouring country? When Libya stands accused of sponsoring terrorism, we break off diplomatic ties and impose sanctions. Why are similar standards not applied to Iran? How confident can my hon. Friend the Minister be that the Iranian Government are not engaged in acts of terrorism, in sponsoring terrorism and in the acquisition and production of weapons of mass destruction?

Why do the British Government believe that Mr. Khatami is worth supporting? Does the Minister accept that Mr. Khatami draws his political strength from the clerics? Is he not a son of the theocracy? Is there anything in his words or deeds to suggest that he is not about preserving that tradition and that corrupt, rigid interpretation of Islamic law which suppresses his people and subjects some 70 million people to the obsessions and fantasies of the clerics?

Mr. Khatami has yet to show any respect for democracy. He could, for example, allow free elections under universal suffrage. Instead, what we saw under his much vaunted city council elections was democracy Khatami style. Only supporters of the mullahs are accepted as candidates. In his version of democracy, there is no room for dissidents, different religions, agnostics or political opponents.

Many Members of the House support the Iranian resistance movement. In February of this year, some 330 Members showed that support by condemning the lack of publishing freedoms in Iran and supporting the right to form political parties in Iran. There was a time when the resistance could quite clearly number the British Labour party among its friends and allies. What now is the attitude of the Foreign Office to the National Council of Resistance of Iran?

I make it clear that under no circumstances would I be willing to support a terrorist movement. However, I do not regard the Iranian resistance as a terrorist group. I believe it to be a broadly based coalition, whose public statements and publications eschew terrorism and violent attacks on innocent civilians.

Like many resistance movements, the national council does, of course, have an armed wing. In this country, we usually support freedom fighters. That is presumably why we have supported the KLA, the mujaheddin in Afghanistan and, of course, Nelson Mandela's African National Congress. I ask you, Madam Speaker, to consider what our relations with South Africa would be like today if we had heeded the advice of those who put trade before principle and sought to end our support for the ANC.

The freedom fighters of the Iranian resistance do carry out attacks on military targets and centres of repression. They freely admit that they attack the revolutionary guards and the perpetrators of murder and torture, but they do not set off bombs in residential areas. They do not blow up buses and kill and maim innocent civilians, as do the henchmen armed and financed by Khatami's regime.

The National Council of Resistance of Iran has a history of condemning attacks on innocent civilians. It spoke out against the February 1996 bombings in Jerusalem, the 1995 Oklahoma bombing and the 1998 Pan Am bombing over Lockerbie.

The NCRI has made clear its willingness to participate in free and fair elections.

Now is not the time for us to desert our friends, especially as what we may be witnessing in the current demonstrations in Iran and the violent response to them by the authorities may well be the death throes of a corrupt, violent and profoundly anti-democratic regime.

On May day, tens of thousands of Iranian workers defied the regime and held protests and marches in Tehran, Isfahan, Khorramabad and several other cities. Fifty thousand people protested in Sanandaj, the provincial capital of Kurdistan, in February 1999. The regime responded by attacking them with helicopter gunships.

Even as I speak, large-scale demonstrations are taking place throughout the country. This may have started with students at Tehran university objecting to media restrictions, but the attack by the revolutionary guards on the student residences and the violent murder of innocent students have ensured that this is now much larger and is now a confrontation with the clerics—not just factions, not support for Khatami and his alleged reforms, but an all-out attack on the whole system.

Our Labour Government have rightly called for an ethical dimension and respect for human rights to be part of our foreign policy. The United Nations special representative on human rights, the General Assembly of the United Nations, Amnesty International and the International Human Rights League have all expressed their concern at events in Iran, yet the Foreign Office has argued that under Khatami there have been significant changes. What are those changes?

It is true that Khatami has worked hard to have the NCRI labelled a terrorist movement. That manoeuvre is part of an older and sordid affair, which has its origins in the secret negotiations with the Americans leading to the Iran-Contra affair. Can we really today want to be part of such politics? Do not ethics demand that we ask much more of Mr. Khatami?

Why do we want to trade with, and have improved relations with, a regime that may well be on the verge of collapse? There is a real danger that we may be about to repeat the mistakes that occurred in the last days of the Shah. Just as Prime Minister Bhakteyar's promises and concessions were too little, too late to save the Shah, so too are Mr. Khatami's smiles and promises. He has had two years to show us his liberal credentials. If he is still unable to do so now, why should we continue to help him to shore up his crumbling regime when our real friends and the real representatives of the Iranian people may be only weeks or months away from assuming power?

The mullahs have demonstrated over 20 years, irrespective of leadership, that they support violence, murder and terror. They have a complete disregard for democracy and human rights.

I believe sincerely that it is time for the Foreign Office to change tack and to adopt a policy which judges Mr. Khatami and his supporters by their deeds, not just their words. It is time to adopt a policy that makes abundantly clear our outright rejection of state-sponsored terrorism and our total commitment to the right of the Iranian people to participate in free and fair elections, and to enjoy a Government who respect human rights and religious diversity and support a pluralistic society.

The resistance movement offers a much better prospect for such an outcome than does the present regime. It deserves much greater support than is currently on offer from the British Government.

9.50 am
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) for his choice of subject this morning. He spelled out the violence that exists in Iran, and my contribution to the debate can be all the briefer as I do not have to echo all the statistics that the hon. Gentleman gave.

I remind the House that, under Mr. Khatami's regime, there is continued violation of human rights on an unparalleled scale. More than 400 executions have taken place, including four people hanged for the offence of being insulting to the leader. There have been at least 10 cases of stoning to death in public, and the House will know that, last March, 13 members of Iran's Jewish community were arrested on charges of espionage. Sadly, terrorism is a characteristic of the Khatami regime. Yesterday's events—when the students demonstrated in favour of democracy—are just another case of the brutal actions of the regime.

The hon. Member for Hall Green told us about 44 United Nations and other international organisation resolutions condemning Iran. There is no evidence of moderation. We all want to promote trade wherever we can—that is in the interests of both parties. However, if an ethical foreign policy means anything, it is not seeking closer ties with Iran, given the present regime there.

I had an opportunity to speak briefly to the Minister a little time ago, and he readily agreed to see me. We are now trying to arrange a time. However, I want to put on record my deep concern about Iran Aid, a charity whose London office is in my constituency. I am told that the charity has been able to help up to 15,000 Iranian children, mostly children whose parents have, in one way or another, suffered at the hands of the brutal regime.

I am concerned that there seems to have been a persistent attempt to disrcedit Iran Aid. The Minister may know of information that I do not have, but I understand that some people have accused Iran Aid of links with terrorism. More certainly, Iran Aid has been subject to a inquiry by the Charity Commissioners, and a receiver manager was put in. It is worth reminding the House that this is the second inquiry by the commissioners, and that Iran Aid was cleared following the first inquiry in 1996.

There is a deep feeling among some of my constituents that the Charity Commissioners have intervened only because of trumped-up allegations by two ex-volunteers of the organisation. Have the people making the allegations to the Foreign Office, the Home Office and the commissioners been checked out for probity?

The Iranian Government treat the relatives and children of so-called dissidents as infidels—they are being shut out of Iranian society, abused and even killed. I have a great fear that the information that Iran Aid holds about those children may be passed to the Iranian authorities. Action could then be taken against them and their families. I am anxious that information gleaned by the Charity Commissioners should not be passed on to the Iranian regime. That would have tragic consequences—indeed, there is evidence that it has had such consequences already.

I realise that there are things that the Minister may prefer not to say on Iran Aid this morning, but I hope that he will be prepared to say them to me when we have our hoped-for meeting

9.55 am
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

As we speak this morning, the reality, rather than the rhetoric, of the regime in Iran is clear. Students and others are demonstrating in their thousands in Tehran and several other cities for the freedom and democracy that they have been denied, and which have been stolen from them, for the past 20 years, in the face of the brutality and organised thuggery of the mullahs, who are so fearful of change. That is the background to this short debate.

When human rights were discussed in the other place on 22 June, my noble Friend Baroness Symons said: It is important to note that some important changes have already taken place under the reformist government of President Khatami. That government remain committed to building a civil society based on respect for the rule of law. That claim now lies in tatters, smashed by the so-called reformist president who, around midnight last Thursday, sent security forces to attack students in their dormitories at Tehran university, injuring at least 1,000 and killing at least one. So much for the rule of law. How little has changed since January 1962, when the Shah did exactly the same thing to trigger his demise.

The president is a claimed reformer whose Government hanged four people—as the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) said—for insulting the leader. His is a reformist Government, who have allowed 420 executions, 10 public stonings and the organised murder of 47 opponents of the regime at home and 35 abroad. That speaks volumes about being committed to building a civil society". In the debate, my noble Friend the Under-Secretary made more claims: Progress with that commitment is most evident in the unprecedented freedom of expression which the press now enjoys."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 June 1999; Vol. 602, c. 866.] This is a regime that has just banned the daily newspaper Salam, after it published a report that hardliners were planning new restrictions on the press. This is a Government whose Parliament only last Wednesday approved new press laws which severely restrict the freedom of expression of an already circumsrcibed press. Never have the claims of a Minister turned to tears so quickly, as this president has shown himself to be more mullah than moderate.

Meanwhile, my hon. Friend the Minister of State—whom I am pleased to see here this morning—was telling readers of The Guardian on 1 July: Thanks to British action, the ILO has passed an emergency resolution penalising Burma for its record on forced labour…We have persuaded the UN to pass a series of resolutions slamming Burma's human rights record. We have suspended government support for British companies doing trade with Burma. Congratulations. Will the Minister now tell us whether he will do the same in the case of Iran? Will he withdraw the support of his Department, and that of the Department of Trade and Industry, for the 25th Tehran international trade fair, from 1 to 9 October, or will that still go ahead, despite current events in Iran? Whoever in the Foreign Office wrote the document on the trade fair deserves a medal, as it is headed, "New Optimism in Iran."

I hope that the Minister will not argue that somehow Burma's human rights record is worse than that of Iran, so that we can, in effect, turn a blind eye to what the mullahs are doing and go ahead with participation in this international trade fair. I hope, too, that the Department of Trade and Industry will withdraw its support for a chamber of commerce mission from Northampton to Iran later this year.

Earlier this year, 330 Members of Parliament—half plus one—signed a statement on Iran which said: For Britain to change its policy now over Iran, without evidence to support claims of greater freedom of expression and better human rights, is to run the risk of repeating the mistakes in the last days of the Shah. The events of the past six days in Iran give me no reason to change that view. There is no evidence of change by Tehran, or willingness to change.

I am grateful that my noble Friend at least seemed to retract the view that the National Council of Resistance of Iran is a terrorist organisation. It is no such thing. It represents a coalition of interests determined to offer the people of Iran a democratic, secular state that respects human rights and the equality of every citizen. The armed MKO with which it is associated is there precisely because there is no other democratic way in which the mullahs' regime can be opposed. It claims the support of the universal declaration of human rights for the right to rebellion against tyranny and oppression. I hope that the Government will recall our ambassador to Tehran and follow the lead of the United States in issuing a statement like that of State Department spokesman James Foley, who said: The rule of law cannot be achieved through repression of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, association and assembly. That is surely the least that we can offer to the people of Iran as they reach out for freedom and human rights.

10.1 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe). Not even he can have realised how topical this debate would be when he applied for it. This is an especially opportune moment to be discussing Iran.

There was some optimism when President Khatami was elected about two years ago, and a feeling that at last there would be a shift in the dynamics of Iran, with a move towards greater democracy. I join others who have spoken in questioning whether that has happened. Has there been increasing democracy? To understand the level of democracy in Iran, one must realise that parties in favour of secular government were not allowed to stand for election, so the country was already committed to the prevailing mullahism. In Iran there could be no Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat party.

Has there been an increase in openness and freedom of expression? The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) has already shown that there has not. The press legislation was passed in the Majlis by 125 of the 215 members. What view is taken of independent journalists? Ayatollah Khamenei says that they are mercenaries who defend the position of the enemies of Islam and the Islamic revolution.

There is no press freedom in Iran. The decision of the clerical court on 9 July to ban Salam clearly shows what is happening. It was banned for violating Islamic principles, endangering national security and disturbing public opinion, even though it was an organ produced by reformist clerics who were seen as allies of President Khatami.

Is there increasing liberality? The fatwa against Salman Rushdie has been mentioned, but the position of the 15 Khordad foundation—a Government-organised nongovernmental organisation that has recently increased the bounty on Rushdie's head—has not. We have heard about the suppression and oppression of groups such as the Bahais and the Jewish community, but not about the position of women and the repression that they still suffer in Iranian society.

What is the right level of engagement with the current Government of Iran? What can we do economically, culturally or diplomatically to promote human rights and influence Iran in the right direction without providing succour to a regime that has not shown the degree of liberality for which we had hoped?

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The hon. Gentleman makes thoughtful speeches and is a careful man. What evidence does he have of the repression of women in Iranian society?

Mr. Heath

There is a considerable amount of evidence, not least from those women who are in exile from Iran purely because they cannot live under the regime. I know that the hon. Gentleman has great experience of the region and understands well the differences between the Islamic fundamentalist way of doing things and the western way. I appreciate that there are many ways in which we can be misled about the repression of women by overt symbolism rather than the genuine condition, but I believe that there is abundant evidence that Iranian society represses women.

We must recognise Iran's precarious geopolitical position. It sees itself as surrounded by enemies. Iraq is an ever present threat on its borders. I hope very much that the Government of Iraq will not take the present troubles in Iran as an opportunity to renew hostilities. Iran sees a Turkish-Azeri-Turkmen axis developing on its northern border and regards it as potentially hostile. It is also worried about Afghanistan.

Even taking all that into account, we must ask whether our Government's policy of constructive engagement is yielding the desired results. Are there ways in which we can encourage the small moves towards greater liberality without giving sustenance to the conservative elements in Iranian society?

I do not agree with the hon. Member for Erdington when he says that we should recall our ambassador. I think that Nicholas Browne has an important job to do and I welcome the fact that he is there. At this moment above all, we need a British presence in Tehran to express our view about liberalisation and human rights. I do not by any means underestimate his task; he has an extremely difficult job, especially in the current circumstances.

There was a cartoon in Le Monde last week of President Khatami with one foot on a minaret and the other on a demonstrator's placard. That shows the position that he is attempting to adopt. It is a precarious and unsustainable position. The Government of Iran must decide where their future lies and whether they want to maintain a policy of suppression guided by the reactionary impulses of the mullahs or to embrace greater liberalism and democracy.

The test for our Government is whether the current policy is yielding results. That is always the test of constructive engagement. We now have annual human rights reports so that we can see the effects of our policies. The test for the Minister in replying to this debate is to show that we are getting results in Iran, and I suspect that he may find it difficult to do so.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) made an important point about the position of Iran Aid, and I have had constituents write to me about that. At first sight, it is a puzzling situation. I would like it to be pure coincidence that, on 20 July, the Minister's predecessor announced a crackdown on Iranian dissident groups and three days later we had the action of the Charity Commissioners in the case of Iran Aid. Many people find it puzzling that, almost a year to the day later, there have been no replies from the Charity Commissioners about the alleged problems.

I hope that the Minister will be able to shed some light on the position of Iran Aid, because many people feel that something is not right about its treatment. It may be that the Minister cannot do that in the context of this debate, but I hope that he will find a way of letting the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet know the true position.

10.11 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

I am out of tune with virtually all that has been said in this debate and I had better present my credentials for saying that. Eighteen months ago, my wife and I went to Iran on holiday. In the circumstances, I should say bluntly that I accepted not a penny from the Iranian Government. The trip was organised by the British museum travel company. The deputy head of the western asiatic department of the museum was the guide to the party, and there were other Parsee speakers.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the position of women. My wife had to wear the chador the whole time, but the Iranians are a warm and hospitable people and we were able to speak to many women. It is an oversimplification to say that women are repressed in Iran. They are emerging quickly to positions of much responsibility, both in business and the public service, besides teaching. If comparisons are to be made with Pakistan, for example, it is clear that Iran is a very different society.

We must be careful about blanket condemnation of the mullahs. Terrible things may have happened in the past, and I do not doubt that recent events have been heart-rending. I can report to the House only my personal experience. I was involved in long conversations in the holy city of Qum with the mullahs. Some of them spoke English and we had translators for the others. Their attitude can be summed up in what one of them said to me. He said, "We love your Virgin Mary and we respect your Jesus Christ. It is only the British Government that we do not trust." That is a result of unfortunate relations between the countries that go back to the time of Dr. Mussadeq and the whole history of relations between Iran and the west.

Some of us hoped that there had been a great improvement. Since his name has been mentioned, I pay tribute to Mr. Ansari for the work that he has done in trying to bring about better relations, which have received approval in various Foreign Office statements. The Minister will know from his briefings that the late Derek Fatchett was becoming optimistic about relations with Iran.

I do not want to say that everything that my colleagues have said is wrong, but I will put one point to them. Iran has enormous problems. It is a very young society, with more than half the population under 15. On recent events in Iran, I just reflect that it is one enormous megalopolis. Given the heat in sweltering July—it is one of hottest Julys that they have experienced—one can understand why tempers are tinder-dry. That does not justify everything that may or may not have happened, but it behoves us to show some understanding.

I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome that the last thing we should do is withdraw our excellent former chargé d'affaires, now the ambassador in Tehran. I was on a private visit and did not meet our diplomatic staff, but their reputation among the non-political people we met in Iran is extremely good. The Foreign Office deserves all credit in that respect.

I say "in Iran" because we should be careful about distinguishing Tehran from the rest of Iran. Isfahan, Sharaz, Hamadan, Kashan and Tabriz are totally different from the capital city. It is a huge country and we should be careful about generalisations.

I have one request that may seem trivial in the face of the events reported today, but it is important. Iran contains some of the greatest remnants of ancient civilisations in the world. We had the good fortune to visit Persepolis and Passagardae in the south and Sulamaniyah in the north, and, because it was a cultural visit, we saw many of the old mosques. They are in a serious condition and anything that Britain can do to help to save them from road and pollution problems would be welcome. One of the tragedies of the awful Iran-Iraq war was that the oil refineries near the Iraq border had to be hastily moved to an area between Sharaz and Isfahan. The result was that Persepolis had never known pollution like it. In those circumstances, technical help from the west is urgently needed to save part of the history of Persia and of the world

10.18 am
Mr. David Atkinson (Bournemouth, East)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on initiating this debate on Iran, which is timely in view of the student revolt taking place in Tehran, which may—as he suggested—prove to be a defining moment for that country. This debate enables me to refer to a parliamentary visit I made to Iran nearly four years ago. The conclusions I reached then are, I believe, even more correct today in the light of what is taking, and has taken, place in Iran.

My conclusions, like those of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), are different from the negative approach that the hon. Member for Hall Green and others have adopted to our response to the political situation in Iran.

Like other hon. Members, my interest in Iran has been longstanding and was motivated by the appalling atrocities perpetrated by the ayatollahs' regime which overthrew the Shah, by its promotion of Islamic fundamentalism, its support for international terrorism, its intolerance of other religions and, especially, by its failure to protect its Christian citizens. In particular, I have been appalled by the testimonies of the members of the Bahai community, including some of my constituents who have sought my help over the years in obtaining visas for their families to be reunited in this country.

Because of my involvement with the Christian human rights organisation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide—it is well known to many right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Coatbridge and Chryston (Mr. Clarke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess)—I was approached four years ago by the then Iranian chargé d'affaires, Mr. Ansari, who has already been mentioned and is now the ambassador, when he told me that I should be aware that the regime was moderating its policies. I told him that I wanted an all-party group to go and see the situation for itself. He arranged for us to receive an invitation from the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament.

In the end, only two of us went. Others were warned off by the MKO, although our visit was welcomed by the Foreign Office. Our charge in Tehran accompanied us to most of the meetings, to which he would not otherwise have had access.

Our programme was as we had requested. We wanted to pursue issues including human rights, women's rights, protection of Christians, the persecution of the Bahais, the Salman Rushdie affair, support for international terrorism, and so on. We met political Ministers, religious leaders, women's leaders, representatives in the Majlis, people from the media and business, and many others.

We did not mince our words with the regime. We said that as long as the Majlis was subject to srcutiny and veto under the law of shariah, as interpreted by the council of guardians, there could be no tolerance, freedom or democracy in Iran.

We were also surprised to find that embryonic party groups had established themselves in the Majlis, and that there existed an organisation for defending victims of violence and prisoners of conscience. There was a growing role for women in all walks of life, including the legal profession and the judiciary. There was also a tolerance—within limits—of Armenian Orthodox Christians, who make up the largest Christian community and who are part of Iranian heritage and tradition.

I concluded that what we found had the potential and momentum for considerable progress to be made, given the right climate. Although we perceived no tolerance for the Bahais, we obtained invitations for CSW and other human rights organisations to make fact-finding visits similar to ours, and for Amnesty International to investigate internally the veracity of its reports on behalf of the MKO.

Everyone we met in connection with the issues that were of importance to us emphasised that dialogue and contact were more conducive to change than is international isolation. That is why I urge support and encouragement for those internal forces pressing for reform in Iran.

I also wish to press for a visit by the all-party British-Iranian parliamentary group, which I believe is chaired by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris), to develop contacts with the Majlis. I found that there was an interest among the Majlis in establishing an Iranian-British parliamentary group. I also urge support for fact-finding visits to be undertaken by CSW and Amnesty International on their own terms, as I was promised.

Moreover, minorities such as the Armenians, Roman Catholics and the evangelical Christians need to be supported and shown that they are not forgotten. Personal contact in Iran and in Britain is the best way to achieve that. Visits for religious conferences, for example, should be classified as acceptable for the issuing of visas to Britain. However, I agree that, as long as Iran disrciminates against and persecutes the Bahais and those who convert from Islam to Christianity, it cannot be fully accepted into the international community.

Since my visit four years ago, there has been some encouraging progress, most notably that achieved since the election of President Khatami, who promised to make Iran a more democratic and pleasant place. He has used his popular support cautiously to test the limits of the clergy's tolerance, although regrettable problems still arise—the mayor of Tehran was imprisoned, there was a clampdown on the Bahai institute of higher education—an organisation similar to our Open university—the leading liberal newspaper Salam was closed, and recently there have been arrests of Iranian Jews.

I have signed early-day motion 712 on the Jewish community in Iran, but it would be wrong to make judgments until all the facts and evidence are known. In any case, I do not consider that the continuing pressure for reform in Iran and for the introduction of liberalisation—to which I believe President Khatami is genuinely and courageously committed—will be better served by boycott, sanction, isolation and support for the MKO-NCRI.

We should encourage Iran to expand its economy, increase its trade and open up to the real world. That will allow prosperity to grow and will extend the western influence so long denied by the Ayatollah's regime. I urge the hon. Member for Hall Green and those who have supported him in the debate to go to Iran. They will then see for themselves that although the country that they desrcibe remains unacceptable in many ways, it is moving in the right direction. Such visits can only add to the momentum for change.

10.25 am
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West)

I seem to have won the booby prize in this debate, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) is a very great friend of mine. We did not compare notes beforehand, and it is clear that our views are rather different. However, I recognise that he is an expert on the question of human rights, and I shall certainly not dismiss what he has said.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on securing this debate. I offer him my sincere praise for his splendid and brave speech, and I agree with every word that he uttered. I also thought that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) made a splendid speech: he and I had the privilege some weeks ago of addressing a conference on these matters.

I do not want to get involved in the politics of the matter, but the new Labour Government flagged up—in a most immodest way—the notion that their foreign policy would be different from that conducted in the 18 dreadful years of Conservative Government. The new Government said that they would adopt an ethical foreign policy, and although the Minister of State is fairly new to his job and may make some barbed comments about policies that I have supported, I seek from him a defence of the Government's approach.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) disputed the suppression of women in Iran, but how can the Government's foreign policy be considered ethical in the light of what it condones in Iran? We are approaching the millennium, but in the four years of President Khatami's rule there have been 420 executions and 10 public stonings. Women are suppressed and religious minorities persecuted. There have been 47 political killings, in Iran and abroad. In crackdowns on Tehran university students, several have been killed and thousands wounded, while 1,000 have been arrested. In the past month, the number of fingers cut off men amounted to 21.

What has any of that disgraceful story got to do with the Government's ethical foreign policy? I am sure that the Minister of State will argue that the new regime should be encouraged, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East suggested, but I do not accept that.

I hope that the Minister will explain why the Labour party has changed its view on the matter. There is no dispute that the Labour party formerly practically recognised the National Council of Resistance as the democratic alternative to the clerical regime. In 1984, the NCRI' s representatives were official guests of the Labour party. The council's president, Massoud Rajavi, visited the UK at the invitation of the then leader of the Labour party, Mr. Neil Kinnock. In 1985, Mrs. Rajavi was officially invited to the Labour party conference, where the Labour leader declared the party's support for the NCRI, and specifically lauded Mrs. Rajavi's efforts towards the establishment of democracy. That cannot be disputed. It happened, and although there was a huge intake of new Labour Members at the general election, many of those involved in those events are still Members.

Relations continued until 1997; that, too, is indisputable, because the Labour conference adopted a resolution that condemned the Iranian regime and Khatami and supported the Iranian people's resistance. The Foreign Secretary was in the chair when the resolution was discussed, and it was later endorsed by Labour's national executive committee. Given the Government's style, I cannot believe that they had not carefully thought through what the NCRI was all about. The Foreign Secretary, at least, must have known.

What has changed since Labour came to power? I am puzzled. I am perhaps lowering the tone of the debate by saying all this—

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

indicated assent.

Mr. Amess

The Minister seems to think so, but why should I not lower the tone? The Labour Government support an ethical foreign policy, but there is nothing ethical about events in Iran over the past four years, and nor is Labour's change of policy ethical.

We are told how splendid it is that political parties, including the Servants of Construction and the Islamic Iran Participation party, were licensed in 1998. But my research shows that those parties are factions of the ruling regime. To wheel them out as examples of improved democracy is a load of garbage. We are told that the Islamic Council's elections are a sign of change in Iran. The Government peddle the official line that the first local elections are due this month to put power in the hands of the people. But there is plenty of evidence to confirm that the elections are not free, and they cannot be construed as restoring freedom or transferring power to the people.

I fully accept all that my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East said, and he and I may discuss these matters privately. However, regardless of what hon. Members may wish, the situation on the ground demonstrates that the Iranian Government are unstable. The hon. Member for Hall Green did not know when he asked for this debate that the current events would be happening in Iran, and he has given the Minister a wonderful opportunity to put his feelings on the record. It would be a mistake to believe that our support for Khatami will save or moderate the Iranian regime. That approach would merely tarnish our relations with the Iranian people and drive them towards more anti-western radicalism.

Some of my critics may say that my highly partisan contribution has lowered the tone of our debate, but I am glad to have put on record the paradox that the Government who believe in an ethical foreign policy are not pursuing one in Iran. For the sake of decency, will the Minister say something supportive about the resistance movement?

10.34 am
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) on obtaining this debate. He speaks from the heart, and I can take something from his speech, and from all the others that we have heard, even if I do not agree with all that has been said. The hon. Gentleman has given the Minister of State a golden opportunity to set out the Government's attitude to current events in Iran. On the press wires this morning, I read that the United States of America has called on the Iranian Government to protect the student demonstrators against repression, and I hope the Minister can tell us what action our Government are taking in response to the alarming reports and frightening pictures of the past 48 hours.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) spoke briefly but powerfully about Iran Aid, the charity based in his constituency which helps children. The attempt to disrcedit it is well known, and I hope that the Minister will tell us what he knows about that. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) also spoke forcefully about what he sees as a lack of progress in Iran, particularly the retrograde step of legislating to curb the press that has resulted from recent events. Will the Minister comment on our Government's attitude towards that legislation?

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) makes a measured and thoughtful speech in every debate in which he participates. He speaks from great personal experience; unlike him, I have not travelled to Iran. I always listen carefully to him, but he and I must part company on the subject of women. I had some ministerial responsibility for women during the previous Government, and I know from my extensive reading that the treatment of women in Iran is reprehensible. Adultery is still punished by stoning. In a court of law, the testimony of a man is automatically taken over that of a woman. It takes two women to challenge the statement of a man. That cannot be right in a modern society in the modern world.

I should like to know whether in his visits to Iran the hon. Gentleman saw separate entrances for men and women to government institutions, universities and airports. Women are often searched for cosmetics, and it would be interesting to hear whether the hon. Gentleman can confirm what I have read. If those things happen, they must be condemned out of hand. I could give many more examples.

Unlike some hon. Members, I believe that there is much reason for hope in Iran. Two years after his election victory, President Khatami has indicated that he would like to move towards the tolerance and political liberalisation which could form the bedrock for transition to an Islamic democracy. There is much room for progress, although the hon. Member for Linlithgow was right to say that women have moved into senior managerial positions and that the doors have been opened a little, if not yet enough. That is a glimmer of hope.

The United Kingdom has improved its bilateral relations with Iran, not least because of the progress made in the holding of elections and in the regime's move from confrontation towards international tolerance and reconciliation. Relations with Saudi Arabia have been rebuilt, which amounts to a striking difference from the policy of previous regimes. The fatwa imposed on Salman Rushdie was a major stumbling block for the UK, but its lifting resulted, rightly, in a symbolic upgrading of diplomatic relations to ambassadorial level.

I would however like the Minister to comment on the points that hon. Members have raised about the fatwa on Salman Rushdie. President Khatami has certainly tried to change direction, not least because he recognises the need for foreign investment and the fact that it will not be forthcoming unless there is radical change. There has been some increase in press freedom, despite recent events, and certain powers have been decentralised in the President's attempt to reposition Iran both regionally and internationally.

Therefore, on the whole, I want to be optimistic; but I certainly do not want to be less than realistic about the barriers that still exist and which hon. Members have touched on today.

Iran Han has huge assets of oil, gas and other minerals, a reasonable education system and a significant business and industrial base. However, as the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, Iran is a young nation. The population has doubled in 20 years and to improve the standard of living for Iranians will require some drastic economic reforms and ambitious targets.

There have been some moves towards privatisation—the buy-back contracts for oil and gas, for example—but the process is not far advanced and will certainly need to be progressed to attract investors. I want the Minister to tell us how he sees the economic future for Iran and the trading possibilities for this country with Iran.

Despite the progress that I have mentioned, there are still some dramatic questions about Iran, not least major human rights issues. An article by a journalist called Adam Indikt last week started with the recollection of a conversation that he had had with an Amnesty International worker. When he asked for the most recent report on human rights in Iran, the worker replied, "What human rights?"

One of the most prominent cases has been the arrest of the 13 Jews from Shiraz and Isfahan in southern Iran, who were accused of spying for the Zionist regime and world arrogance. I want to know what the Minister has done about those arrests. What representations has he made to the Iranian Government? Benjamin Netanyahu, in association with Prime Minister Barak, has contacted the Prime Minister on the issue, but I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us what progress our Government have made in making representations about the arrests, and whether the Prime Minister has made any representations to the President of Iran.

Obviously, there are questions concerning the outcome of any trial, but the Minister is on record as saying: Clearly, if they"— those Jews— are…put on trial we and other members of the international community will be monitoring that trial very carefully. If possible, I want the Minister to say today how he anticipates such monitoring taking place and how he will make strong representations on behalf of those detainees and their families, as he and the Prime Minister have been requested to do.

In my constituency I have a community of Bahais. The attitude of the Iranian authorities towards the Bahais is no secret. Hon. Members mentioned that today—not least my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson), who made an excellent speech that was both optimistic but critical and realistic, and my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess). The Bahais are a gentle people. They do no harm to anyone. They are good people and yet they suffer the most amazing oppression and are harassed solely on religious grounds. Again, I hope that the Minister will tell us what progress he has made with representations on behalf of Bahais who are so concerned about their relations in Iran.

There is an awful lot for the Minister to pick up and I am conscious that time is moving on. Although I would like to mention weapons of mass destruction, the development of the nuclear programme and the security of the region, I want to give the hon. Gentleman time to respond to the various questions from both sides of the Chamber.

I expect the Government to pursue all avenues that are of interest to British citizens and are in the interests of this country. However, I hope that the Government will not lightly dismiss the serious issues of human rights, the proliferation of weapons in the region, and the freedom of information and speech; and that they will have the courage to speak out whenever necessary, using their new-found diplomatic status with Iran. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us the comfort that we have all sought in this debate.

10.45 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) for this opportunity to discuss the Government's policy towards Iran and I congratulate both him on the topicality of his choice and other hon. Members on their contributions.

The Government pursue a twin-track policy towards Iran, in line with our European Union partners, encouraging the reforms under way there while maintaining significant pressure on areas of concern. We believe that it is right to pursue a better relationship with Iran, but recognise that there will be obstacles to be overcome.

Events overnight give further cause for concern and we will continue to monitor the situation closely. Notwithstanding those concerns, there have been positive developments in Iran in the past two years. The Iranian Government under President Khatami have undertaken a programme of significant change—enforcement of the rule of law, facilitation of freedom of expression and a more open and co-operative foreign policy.

The Iranian Government have made significant progress with that programme. The effort to establish a civil society based on the rule of law has also made progress. Democracy has been extended. The first local elections took place on 26 February and showed overwhelming popular support for the reforms that are taking place. The Iranian Government are steadily improving their relations with their neighbours, in particular in the Gulf, which is an especially welcome development. Iranian co-operation is vital for future stability in that region.

The views of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) notwithstanding, real progress is being made towards freedom of expression. I hope that he will accept that that is exemplified by the profusion of hundreds of new publications dealing with a range of previously sensitive subjects. About 200 new publications opened between May 1997 and December 1998. There has been a significant increase in their circulation and the clear majority support reform.

Mr. Tom Clarke

When I last spoke with the late Derek Fatchett, I got the impression that he had the possibility of a ministerial visit in mind. Has my hon. Friend had the chance to think about that possibility?

Mr. Hoon

That possibility is still in mind and we will consider it carefully, depending on the circumstances and when appropriate dates can be arranged.

The trend towards more open press discussion is apparently irreversible. My hon. Friend the Member for Erdington mentioned the closure of certain publications, but many of those reopened under a different name, so a vigorous debate is taking place in the press. Any examination of those publications demonstrates that previous issues, including human rights, which could not have been discussed are now openly discussed in a vigorous and lively way.

Reference has been made to the local elections and I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Erdington was rather disparaging about them. The reality was that they were vigorously contested. There were real candidates on both sides and male and female candidates participated, offering a lively political debate to the Iranian people.

Mrs. Gillan

Before the Minister moves from the subject of the press, will he comment on the reasons for the court closing the liberal Salam newspaper on 7 July and the new legislation that has been introduced to curb Iran's free press? That is a retrograde step and I want to know the attitude of the Minister and our Government to it before he leaves his passage on the media:

Mr. Hoon

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those observations. I will not pretend—nor will the Government—that all developments take the same direction. Some developments are positive, but I realise that, in a fast-moving situation—especially recently—there are retrograde steps, as the hon. Lady says. However, there is also progress; I want to get that message across.

There is a debate. Candidates were elected because they represented reformist views and because they stood against candidates who represented more conservative views. The political parties established in Iran will not be of the kind that we are used to in this country, but that does not mean that there is not a vigorous debate between those who want greater reform and those who take a more conservative approach. Reformist candidates won about 70 per cent. of the votes in the local elections.

A matter of great symbolic significance is the arrest last year of a number of officials from the Ministry of Intelligence for the alleged murder of some intellectuals. The Minister of Intelligence was dismissed, and a senior police officer was tried on allegations of torture. That demonstrates that the Iranian Government will not tolerate extra-judicial murder or activity outside the framework of the law. It is right to mention those matters because their symbolic significance cannot be overestimated. In recent weeks, the Iranian Government have again stressed the importance of building solid political and civil institutions to underpin their domestic reform agenda.

Several hon. Members have rightly expressed concern about the demonstrations in Iran during recent days. Pro-reform demonstrations led by students began in Tehran last week, and spread to other cities in Iran. Attacks on those largely peaceful demonstrations were condemned by the Iranian Government at the time. However, tension has increased and, overnight, there has apparently been a regrettable increase in violence.

I hope that hon. Members will accept that it would not be wise or sensible of me to comment on those fast-moving and complex events. I emphasise that it is primarily a matter for the Iranian people to resolve within Iran. However, we urge all groups in Iran to refrain from violence. Today, I have been in touch with our embassy in Tehran, and we have been kept informed of events as they developed. The picture is far from clear, but the Foreign Office will be issuing updated travel advice for Tehran.

That is one side of the picture. I accept that outstanding concerns remain about Iran' s human rights record. The Government believe that human rights are an important component of our foreign policy. Our policy towards Iran takes full account of the human rights situation there. Both in our bilateral dealings and in the EU' s dialogue with Iran, we support and encourage change and, whenever appropriate, take up particular human rights issues.

Most recently, we have been anxious about the detention of several members of the Jewish community on espionage charges. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State told the House on 5 July, we and our EU partners have raised those concerns with the Iranian authorities. Before that news broke on 7 June, the German EU presidency, on a visit to Tehran on 20 May, had already expressed the concern of all EU member states over those detentions. That was followed up by a formal EU representation in Tehran on 30 June. On 10 June, I made a statement expressing the Government's concern about the detainees. On 1 July, I invited in the Iranian ambassador, and pressed for a fair trial, access for visitors, and legal representation. I understand that visits have now been allowed.

Many of our EU partners have taken similar action. Our ambassador in Tehran has also raised our concerns bilaterally with the Iranian authorities. We welcome the Iranian Government's recent confirmation, following those arrests, that they are responsible for individuals of every religious persuasion in Iran—specifically including the Jewish community—and for guaranteeing a fair trial. We shall continue to monitor the situation, and will take further action as necessary. Our priority will be action that is most likely to help those who have been detained.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) raised the position of the Bahais. Persecution of the Bahai community in Iran has been of serious concern for some time; I assure him that that remains true. We and our EU partners have raised those questions with the Iranian authorities on many occasions. Persecution of individuals on religious grounds is totally unacceptable. The EU-sponsored United Nations Commission on Human Rights resolution on Iran, adopted on 23 April, once again reaffirmed international concern about the plight of the Bahais.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the Christian community in Iran. Like the Jewish and Zoroastrian communities, that community is recognised under the Iranian constitution and represented in the Iranian Parliament by a dedicated deputy. Christians are free to practise their religion. However, they have faced persecution in the past, and we and our EU partners continue to monitor developments.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) mentioned the position of women—as did the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). There have been some important developments for women in Iran. Despite some legal constraints on the jobs that women can undertake, they play an increasingly visible and active role in Iranian politics and society. Over the past two years, we have seen the appointment of Iran's first four women judges and the first woman vice-President. Female candidates were particularly successful in the local elections on 26 February; in Tehran, two women won the third and fourth largest number of votes—recording more than 700,000 votes. There has been some progress. Women were also elected in several other cities.

However, it is important to emphasise that much work remains to be done. We and our EU partners will continue to encourage ban to resume co-operation with human rights mechanisms, especially through the UN. We are keen that the visits of the UN special representative, Maurice Copithorne, should be resumed. We shall continue to maintain pressure on ban through UN resolutions, where appropriate. Such resolutions record progress, but they also point out abuses.

Mr. Corbett

Will my hon. Friend comment on the point that I made in relation to his Department's support for the 25th international trade fair in Tehran, given his magnificent withdrawal of support for trade between this country and Burma?

Mr. Hoon

My hon. Friend is too experienced a Member of the House to believe that it is possible to make neat comparisons between different countries. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham raised the question of trade, so this is an appropriate time to deal with it.

Iran is already an important market for many UK companies, especially those involved in the manufacture of capital goods. There are substantial exports and a considerable interest in trade with Iran; several outward trade missions and exhibitions will take place during this financial year. That benefits UK companies, and will go a long way towards rehabilitating the UK-Iran relationship.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green and others have spoken of Salman Rushdie. Last September, the Iranian Foreign Minister made an unequivocal statement of the Iranian Government's position on the threat to Salman Rushdie, and made it clear that his Government will take no action whatever to threaten the life of Salman Rushdie or anyone associated with his work; nor will they assist or encourage anyone else to do so.

The hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) raised the subject of Iran Aid. That is a matter for the Charity Commission, which has been conducting a statutory inquiry into the charity. Although it is not a matter for Ministers, I shall of course be delighted to discuss it in more detail with the hon. Gentleman.

The Government remain committed to the development of our relations with Iran, and we find encouragement in the reformist policies of the Government of President Khatami. We will continue to encourage those reforms, while pressing for improvements in those Iranian policies that cause us particular concern. We believe that policy to be right, and intend to continue to develop our relationship, to the benefit of both nations.

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