HL Deb 03 March 1994 vol 552 cc1183-204

6.48 p.m.

Viscount Brentford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what is their policy with regard to recent developments in Iran.

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I take this opportunity first of thanking all those who are going to participate in this debate. I am looking forward to their contributions. We had a debate on Sudan not very long ago. At that time we had the benefit of the views of Members of your Lordships' House who had been in Sudan. We do not have that advantage this evening regarding Iran; but I am looking forward to hearing about the different aspects of the subject which noble Lords will bring to the debate. I have spoken to a number of right reverend Prelates and although they expressed support for this debate, I am disappointed that none was able to rearrange his commitments in order to participate.

The prime motive for this debate is the murder of the reverend Haik Hovsepian-Mehr who was both chairman of the Council of Protestant Churches in Iran and superintendent of the Assemblies of God. He was often called a bishop. I should have liked one of our right reverend Prelates to have participated in this debate tonight.

However, I shall be particularly looking forward to the response of my noble friend the Minister to the questions which I am sure that a number of us will be raising as well as for his statement as regards the Government's general policy today.

Reverting to the murder, I have seen in the media no evidence of a wholehearted investigation into its cause or to find out who actually committed it. Can my noble friend tell us whether he has any knowledge of an investigation or whether any genuine effort is being made to uncover the murder? It is a very strange coincidence that the murder occurred a very few days after the release of Mehdi Dibaj which was largely the result of the work of the man subsequently assassinated. He was one of the last great voices in Iran who was fearless in promulgating the truth of what was going on in that country at that time.

First, perhaps I may make a few remarks about the background. I hope that my facts are accurate, but they are not always easy to elicit. The last execution of a Christian pastor in Iran took place in December 1990. It is now some 15 years since the revolution, and I have seen it alleged that the government have executed some 95,000 of their political opponents during those 15 years. While that has not occurred at regular intervals, according to my calculations that is an average of more than 17 per day, which seems quite a high figure. However, let us put that into context. That figure is very small in comparison with what Hitler did; and with certain new films around, we are thinking again of the Holocaust and the 6 million who were murdered by Hitler in a much shorter period of time.

In quoting that figure of 95,000— obviously, it is not an official figure— I should like to put another aspect into context. I refer to the persecution of the Christian minority in Iran. A great deal more is done in terms of breaches of human rights against those who are opponents of the regime in Iran than to those who are just Christians. We need to put those different aspects into context.

I should like to make a few hesitant remarks about the question of the death penalty in Iran which is exacted for what Iran chooses to call apostasy— for changing one's religion from Islam to Christianity. As I understand it from the books that I have read by Islamic authors, the Koran does not decree the death penalty in this life although it says that there will be extreme punishment in the life hereafter. I have also read that the prophet Mohammed never put apostates to death, but there are plenty of ancient documents containing arguments for exacting the death penalty.

We need to understand the situation in Iran because it is right outside our ken here in England. Because of the inter-relationship of the government and the Islamic religion, to change one's religion from Islam is disloyalty to both the nation and the Islamic religion. That is something beyond our understanding. England is not a theocracy, as I believe that one might argue that Iran is. We need to have some understanding of the different situation there and to look with some measure of sympathy on the way in which Iran considers things.

Having said that, because Iran's 1979 constitution prescribes freedom of religion, I do not believe that a wholehearted dedication to freedom of religion would allow the way in which the courts there exact the death penalty on Moslems who change their religion to the Christian or another faith.

There are probably some 350,000 people who would call themselves Christians in Iran. That is quite a sizeable number; but the vast majority of them are members of the Armenian and Assyrian Churches, which conduct their services in their own languages. Because those languages are not spoken by the normal Iranian, they do not provide the same threat to the Iranian Government as the Protestant Churches, the services of which are conducted in Farsi, the natural language of the Iranians. Those Protestant Churches, of which the bishop was the chairman, are therefore much more open for Moslems to join. That is a threat to the Iranian authorities. Many people in Iran are calling for the death penalty for all those who started life as Moslems but have now become Christians or members of other faiths.

I turn secondly to certain current episodes and incidents. First, in 1989 the Bible Society, which had been functioning in Tehran since 1816, was closed. That was approximately four years ago. The society had been in Iran for almost two centuries. The effect of its closure was not only to hurt Christians, but to hurt Jews also because they used to obtain their own scriptures from the society which was the one organ which imported bibles for Christians and scriptures for Jews. Bibles cannot now be imported into Iran. Can my noble friend the Minister inform us why the Bible Society was closed and whether representations are continually being made by Her Majesty's Government and the European Union to apply pressure on Iran to permit the Bible Society to re-open its store in that country?

In 1993— just last year— the restrictions on non-Moslems were increased; for example, their faith has now to be noted on their identity cards, which are greatly used. Non-Moslem shopkeepers have to put a notice on their shop stating their religious affiliation. There are also increasingly strong prohibitions on evangelising Moslems. Threats, arrests, prison and torture are common not only for Christians, but for opponents of the regime. I emphasise that my understanding is that the Christians there are not opponents of the government. As commanded in the Bible, they pray for the government and are not in opposition to them. They are not trying to attack the government. They wish to exercise their right under the constitution to freedom of religion and to be allowed to conduct themselves in that way without hostility to the government.

Thirdly, looking at the future, can my noble friend tell us what further steps the UN special envoy, Professor Reynaldo Galindo-Pohl, is going to take about the situation in Iran? He made a damning report in November 1993 which hurt the Iranian Government. Will Her Majesty's Government ask him to enter the country and to investigate the allegations of torture and murder that are currently being made there? Will my noble friend try to check on whether the Iranian Government actually treat their opponents with justice and fairness?

As I draw to a conclusion, I should like to quote a couple of paragraphs from an article by Bernard Levin in The Times on 15th February, which illustrates a certain amount of what I have been saying. He writes: how insubstantial must the grasp on a religion be, if it has to be propped up by hangings and woundings and beatings and murderings? True, in centuries gone by, our forebears burnt heretics at the stake, or stretched them on the rack, or threw them into dungeons for the rest of their lives, all for the faith. But that is the point, surely? We are not in centuries gone by, but in this century, and very shortly we shall be in the next; how many more centuries have to pass for the mullahs of Iran to believe their own religion? I come to this topic as a Christian with humility and repentance for the wrong things that have been done by those who profess to be Christians, both in the past and in the present. I believe that we as Christians are by no means guiltless; but we need to press for justice where we can in every nation.

In the same article Bernard Levin refers to the death of Bishop Haik and states: Nevertheless, this evil satrapy of Iran should be called to account over the murder of the bishop, even though such denunciation would be ignored by the country's rulers". These are important issues. To those in the Judaeo/Christian religion, all people, whatever their religion or faith, are respected because they are made in the image of God; all are part of the common humanity. But that was not the attitude of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who published a book vilifying all non-Moslems in a way that I find totally unacceptable. We are to love our neighbours and to pray for those in authority that they should exercise justice and bring peace.1 pray that that will happen in Iran. I look forward to hearing my noble friend's response as regards the Government's policy.

7 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I greatly welcome the fact that the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, decided to introduce this Question and I appreciate the way in which he did so. Without doubt, Iran is one of the most repressive regimes in the world. Much of that was stated by the noble Viscount, perhaps in a more interrogatory way than I intend doing.

I too wish to comment on the case of Bishop Haik. It was a terrible case not just because he was a Christian but because of all the circumstances. He was the superintendent of the Assemblies of God Church in [ran and disappeared while on the way to the airport to pick someone up. On the morning of Sunday,30th January,11 days after his disappearance, the Tehran Office of Police Intelligence asked the family of Reverend Haik Hovsepian Mehr to report to the station in order to identify his body.

As Chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers in Iran, the Reverend Haik Hovsepian Mehr had spoken out courageously against the persecution of Iranian Christians and the closure of the Iranian Bible Society, as well as a number of churches across Iran. Despite government pressure, he had refused to sign an undertaking promising not to allow Moslems into Assemblies of God churches— thank heavens he refused — and he also refused to sign a letter stating that the Assemblies of God enjoyed full constitutional rights as Christians in Iran. He had been campaigning for the release of Reverend Mehdi Dibaj, who, after nine years of imprisonment, had been sentenced to death for apostasy. As a result of international pressure, Reverend Mehdi Dibaj was released on 17th January. Only two days later Bishop Haik went missing.

There is, of course, widespread suspicion that the Iranian authorities were responsible for the death of Bishop Haik. I agree with the noble Viscount that there should be a thorough inquiry. I hope that the Minister will tell us that the Government have been active in making representations. During the past week I have written many letters to the Chargé in London and to Ministers and officials in Iran making my own protest against what has been done.

But, as the noble Viscount said, it is not just a question of the oppression of Christians. I wish to congratulate the all-party Parliamentary Human Rights Group on a report that it published yesterday entitled The Tehran Murder Machine, an account of terrorist assassinations by Iranian agents. It reminds us of the resolution passed on 17th August 1993 by the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. It strongly condemned: the continuing flagrant human rights violations of the Islamic Republic of Iran, including … the continuing execution of political prisoners and the assassination of opponents abroad". The UN Special Representative on Iran, Professor Galindo Pohl, who was referred to by the noble Viscount, reporting on 8th November 1993, detailed: assassinations and attempts on the lives of Iranians living abroad, remarking that 'in the absence of conclusive data, the Special Representative has included in this analysis only those cases in which the participation of Iranian agents has been noted by competent judicial or administrative authorities, or by parliamentary bodies'". The noble Viscount said that he had seen estimates showing that 95,000 Iranians had been killed in recent years. I have seen higher estimates but others have seen lower ones. If representatives of international organisations, such as the UN Special Representative on Iran and Amnesty International, were allowed to make inquiries we should know something of the truth of what goes on behind the closed doors and in the prisons in Iran.

The report of the all-party Parliamentary Human Rights Group deals especially with more than 100 assassination attempts made on the lives of Iranian dissidents living abroad. That is almost unprecedented. I know of no other country which on such a massive scale and with such organisation has assassinated people on the streets of foreign countries. Nearly 300 people have been killed or injured in such attacks, which are totally in breach of the law.

As chairman of the parliamentary group, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, was greatly involved with the report and I hope that he will say a little more about it. I propose to concentrate on the way in which Britain can best use its influence to bring about change for the better. Of course, diplomatic initiatives are important in Tehran, in the UN, in association with our fellow members of the European Union, with the United States, and so forth. However, I wish to look a little more deeply into the matter. Since Ayatollah Khomeini's regime took power in Iran our policy towards Iran has been conciliatory. Following Khomeini's death, there were wide expectations in the West that Iran, under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, might adopt a more moderate attitude. Five years on, such hopes are seen to be largely illusory. The violation of human rights in Iran has continued unabated. The religious dictatorship has adopted a more active role in sponsoring international terrorism. I hope that the Minister will comment on that aspect of the regime. The decree to murder Salman Rushdie, the fatwa, has been renewed and the bounty for his head has been increased. Instead of it being withdrawn it has recently been re-emphasised.

At the same time, the Iranian regime has been actively trying to acquire nuclear weapons and long-range ballistic missiles as well as accumulating chemical arms. In addition, the Iranian regime is strongly against the Middle East peace process, which is experiencing enough difficulty as it is. But here we have a constant, deliberate attempt to undermine the initiative. The Iranian Government consider themselves committed to destroy that process by helping extremist groups. Islamic fundamentalism is on the rise on a global scale. Sudan is already in the hands of the fundamentalists and has become a platform for the support of terrorism in the region. Algeria and Egypt are increasingly facing the same problem. There is no question that the rise of fundamentalism in those countries has an objective base but it would be naive to neglect Iran's considerable provocative role in this respect. It would be equally naive to think that this evil problem will go away on its own.

There is a difficulty in adopting a balanced policy which would not be misinterpreted as opposition against Islam. This would be a terrible thing for our country to be involved in. We have always enjoyed good relations with Islamic countries, and many of us have great respect for Islam and what it preaches. We would naturally wish to maintain those good relations. However, we should appreciate that the circumstances have entirely changed. Islamic fundamentalism is a strategic and real threat to friendly countries in the Islamic world, and we cannot come to a compromise with that.

I strongly believe that our policy towards Iran is at the heart of the problem. Experience has proved that our conciliatory approach has often been counter-productive in the past. Therefore, in my view we should adopt a decisive stance. It is not sufficient merely to condemn Iran's violations of human rights in the United Nations Human Rights Commission or in the United Nations General Assembly — a very small step. I believe that Britain must take firmer practical steps in that respect.

It so happens that, not knowing that this Unstarred Question was going to be on the Order Paper today, I went last week to Paris to meet Mrs. Maryam Rajavi, who was unanimously elected last October by the Iranian National Council of Resistance, a 350-member opposition parliament, as the future president of Iran. I found the meeting extremely illuminating and very reassuring. At a time when Iranian women are the prime victims of severe repression in Iran, the very fact that Mrs. Rajavi has been elected to the highest leading role in Iran is a reassuring factor, as it is clear that the opposition is a democratic alternative. I was very impressed with the people I met, with the constitution they have prepared, with the plans that are ready for the time, which we hope will not be too far off, when this disastrous and oppressive regime will fall by one means or another. Certainly, there is a great deal of dissent inside Iran, and it is growing.

It is not our job to interfere in internal affairs, but I believe that it is our job to understand and have contact with oppositions. I understand that there are certain countries that recognise the Labour Party as being the opposition in the United Kingdom and they freely come and talk to us. I know the circumstances are different, but I believe that we should recognise the value of a democratic alternative ready to take power if and when the circumstances arise, and that it is a democratic alternative which places great respect on the rights of women and those of religious and ethnic minorities, in addition to committing itself to conducting free elections not later than six months after the downfall of the clerical regime.

I believe that an active dialogue with the resistance, with its popular and religious roots in Iran, is the most serious step in confronting fanaticism and fundamental-ism and that that should form an inseparable part of our foreign policy. That will create the necessary balance in our relations with the present regime in Iran. If they know that we recognise the nature of the opposition and the constitutional role that it would play, I think it would be a healthy warning to the Government of Iran that in this moving world those who defy international human rights rules must expect that they will be challenged. We should therefore take the initiative and, concurrent with a more decisive stance against Rafsanjani's government, improve our relations with the National Council of Resistance for Iran. I believe that that is a constructive way forward.

There are other circumstances in which we should do the same thing. For instance, I have recommended that we should have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama and those who represent Tibet from outside, because there is a similar situation of total oppression in Tibet. I think it is healthy that the governments concerned should understand that governments such as our own are prepared to have not a formal but an informal and useful constructive relationship with those who stand in opposition. The governments concerned, the Chinese and the Iranian Governments, will not like it, but that is not our worry. They cannot expect to like it if they breach all the rules of civil conduct in the world coming towards the turn of the century. Those who breach human rights must expect others to recognise a constructive alternative. I hope that the British Government will consider this seriously.

7.15 p.m.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I too should like warmly to welcome the debate which has been initiated by the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, and to thank him for giving us this rare And useful opportunity of looking at Britain's policy on [ran and at the possibilities which the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, mentioned of getting back on to a more amicable basis with them. I am very much in favour of closer links with the Iranian people, with whom we have historical ties of friendship and of mutual interest, although I think that, while this regime lasts, that is going to be very difficult, if not impossible.

The noble Viscount talked particularly about the persecution of religious minorities and the atrocious murder of Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr, on which I have written to the Government, as has the noble Lord, Lord Ennals. I hope, as he does, that they are going to press for the fullest possible inquiry. But let me say first that I have no quarrel with the religion of the Iranian regime. I have no quarrel with fundamentalism as such. If people wish to believe that every word in the Bible or in the Koran is literally true that is their privilege. What I do not like, and what we must resist with all the strength at our command, is the use of fundamentalist doctrines for terrorist purposes against either the people of Iran or against those who oppose the Iranian regime abroad.

When you look at the murder of Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr in the context of all the other murders of dissidents against the Iranian regime abroad and the 92,000 executions which are being carried out by the regime, as the noble Viscount reminded us, you can reach but one conclusion; that is that the Government in Tehran have adopted a deliberate policy of using murder to eradicate their political opponents, not just at home but in every country where the victims of their persecution have sought exile. That is the conclusion of the report by the Parliamentary Human Rights Group which the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, was kind enough to mention. I shall go into that in a little more detail later on.

First, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, that I entirely agree with him on cultivating better relationships both with the Iranian and the Tibetan opposition in exile, but I think this policy has to be generalised. I believe that the Foreign Office must devise mechanisms for doing that, as the United States is beginning to do with their Track Two diplomacy through the United Nations Institute of Peace. I wish that the Foreign Office would have a look at that experience in the United States to see whether parallel mechanisms could be devised here which would enable us, without committing the Government, to enter into dialogues with opposition bodies that are in resistance against dictatorships and regimes such as that in Iran.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that another interesting case is the Kurds in Northern Iraq with whom it seems to me the British Government have at least a speaking relationship?

Lord Avebury

My Lords, that is an interesting case. I agree with the noble Lord that it provides us with something of a precedent. One can think of many others such as the Southern Sudan resistance movement, the SPLA and the Kashmiris who have been involved with the dialogue started by the United States Institute of Peace.

The noble Lord, Lord Ennals, also mentioned some of the comments that have been made by the United Nations Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities and the United Nations Special Representative on Iran, Professor Galindo-Pohl. That supports the case that has been made in this report for saying that the Iranian regime is indulging in a campaign of systematic murder.

The Iranian Representative at the UN in his statement to the Third Committee in December 1993 complained about those references, but the Special Representative, in his more recent report of 2nd February 1994, said that he, cannot but mention cases in which there are statements by judicial, political or administrative authorities containing specific indications of the involvement of Iranian agents". Perhaps I may mention one other authority. The Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, M. Bacre Waly Ndiaye, reported in December 1993 that, extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions continue to occur on a large scale in … Iran". He says that he, received numerous reports concerning attacks against members of the political opposition to the Government outside … Iran. It has been alleged that those responsible are agents with links to the Iranian security forces". I agree with the noble Viscount that we should ask professor Galindo-Pohl to follow up those allegations to see whether he can produce further evidence.

As we point out in our report, human rights violations are seldom provable to the standard that would be required in a court of law. In a letter to me, Mr. Douglas Hogg, says: It would be a very serious matter indeed if the Iranian government were shown to be behind these murders". I submit that the volume of evidence is sufficient for us to conclude that they are. I should like to know what the Government's attitude is going to be and what policy they believe we should adopt when it is proved, as we believe it is, that the Iranians have been adopting a consistent and deliberate policy of using murder as an instrument of policy.

We show that over the past 15 years over 100 assassination attempts have been made on the lives of Iranian dissidents living abroad in 18 countries. Nearly 300 people have been killed or injured in those attacks, half of which have occurred during the four-and-a-half years of Rafsanjani's rule, which gives the lie to those who claim that there has been some liberalisation since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini. The operations of the state terrorists sent out by Tehran have not been limited to Iranian citizens. The fatwa against Mr. Salman Rushdie has been reiterated by President Rafsanjani himself as recently as 2nd February 1993, and the reward offered for his murder increased to 2 million dollars, plus an unspecified additional sum if the person who commits the murder is engaged in arrangements for Mr. Rushdie's travels.

The Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Mr. Ali Akbar Nateq-Nouri, said on the fifth anniversary of the fatwa that: every Moslem is religiously duty bound to kill him whenever and wherever he is able". The British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union received an invitation from that gentleman to send a delegation to Tehran, although I understand that they very wisely pigeon-holed it. Several of the translators and publishers of his book have been subjected to terrorist attacks. The Japanese translator of the Satanic Verses was murdered in 1991; the Italian translator escaped an attempt on his life, as did the Norwegian publisher, and an arson attack was made on the hotel where the Turkish translator was staying in 1993.

The use of terrorism as an adjunct to foreign policy has developed into an organised and professional activity over the past 15 years. It has been used as a lever to gain advantages from western countries or to exert more pressure on surviving opponents of the regime. Many of Iran's diplomats have a record of previous service with the Guards Corps and other security organs. Hossein Sheik-ol-Eslam, Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Mohammadi Ehraari-Mostafavi, Secretary-General of the Foreign Ministry, and Maalck, former ambassador to Switzerland and now a senior official at the Foreign Ministry, all played leading roles in the occupation of the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979. The UK refused Mr. Maalck as chargé d'affaires for that reason.

The Iranian regime has close links with organisations in other parts of the Middle East and north Africa which are themselves using terrorism to promote their political objectives. Among those are Front Islamique de Salut (FIS) in Algeria, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (General Command) in Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon, all of which are financed by Iran. There is also co-operation with the regime of General Omar El-Beshir in Sudan, which promotes terrorism in north Africa and is spreading subversion in Egypt, Eritrea and Ethiopia.

It is important to understand that the doctrine of Velayat-e-Faghieh, or guardianship of religious jurisprudence, on which the regime is based, places Tehran above all earthly laws and rules in its own eyes. The regime claims authority from God, and this divine sanction justifies any activity which is considered to uphold the law of God, as they interpret it. Hassan Rohani, Secretary of the Supreme Security Council, says that Iran would not hesitate to destroy its opponents' centres of activity and assembly abroad, and adds that to do so would not in his opinion contravene international laws and human rights. This is not a personal view but a logical deduction from Velayat-e-Faghieh, accepted by the Iranian Government as a whole.

Therefore, we have a member state of the United Nations that is dedicated to subverting international law and carrying the infection of its own brand of religious terrorism into the four quarters of the globe. The inference of the Special Rapporteur's comments and of the General Assembly resolution which followed is that the Iranian Government are indeed organising an international murder machine. The United Nations has so far developed no mechanism for dealing with a member state which deliberately and systematically carries its violations of the right to life into other countries where its exiles have sought refuge, or where people write and translate a book that state dislikes. If the case against Iran is supported by that evidence, the task of countering the infection has to be addressed without delay.

Time prevents me from giving details of the cases in our report where evidence of Iranian state involvement exists, and I can only ask that the Government look at all the circumstances and draw their own conclusions. I also ask them to consult with our allies, particularly the Twelve, to ensure if possible that we agree on a far more robust stand against Iranian state terrorism than we have taken so far.

At the end of 1993, the French authorities controversially handed over to Iran two suspected assassins of Dr. Kazem Rajavi, an action they claimed was justified as necessary to protect their national interests. The German Government took steps in October to prevent the federal prosecutor from arresting Mr. Ali Fallahian, the Iranian intelligence minister, believed to be the mastermind responsible for several murders, including that of Dr. Sharafkandi. The pattern of assassinations described in the report, in which opponents of the Iranian regime were killed by terrorists, provides the strongest imaginable grounds for believing that those appalling crimes are planned in Tehran, and many well-informed sources directly accuse the regime; yet the international community has yet to present a solid and united front against those who threaten to spread their rule of the gun and the knife across the whole world.

Repeatedly the work of investigators is frustrated by the cowardice of western governments. They fear terrorist reprisals, such as those perpetrated in France in 1986, or, even more ignoble, they allow the murderers to escape lest their prosecution and conviction might damage their commercial interests. In the long run, this is a dangerously short-sighted attitude, since it has the effect of encouraging the Iranian regime to believe they will suffer no real penalties for the export of terrorism. The epidemic of killings of moderate intellectuals in north Africa, the use of explosives against passenger aircraft and the repeated public threats against the life of Mr. Salman Rushdie all show that international terrorism not only undermines law and order but endangers freedom of expression. The need for the utmost firmness against the terrorists and their sponsors is obvious.

The international community must now take firm and decisive action against Iranian terrorism, as they have done against Libya on far less evidence. The UN Security Council should demand that Iran hand over the two alleged killers of Dr. Kazem Rajavi, so that they can be brought to trial in Switzerland. The trials of those who killed Dr. Shapour Bakhtiar in France and Dr. Sharafkandi in Germany should be completed as soon as possible and Iran should be called to account for the role of her agents in those and other crimes. The Security Council must make it clear to Iran that acts of terrorism will not be tolerated and that both the criminals themselves and their masters will face the penalties they deserve.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, first, I wish to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, for drawing the attention of your Lordships' House to recent developments in Iran. Apart from his sensitive and informative speech, we have heard two contributions which I found extremely interesting. I wish to add my concern at the abuse of human rights of Christians in that country.

The treatment of the Reverend Mehdi Dibaj— this was referred to by the noble Viscount— his imprisonment for nine years before being brought to trial, and his solitary confinement for two of those years in an unlit cell measuring only three feet by three feet, was a serious breach of human rights. The sentence of death on someone whose only so-called crime was to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour— he did that 45 years ago— was completely unjustified.

Any joy at his release was shortlived, being dispelled a few days later by the disappearance of the Reverend Haik Hovsepian-Mehr and his subsequent presumed murder. In December he had, as Chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers and General Secretary of the Assemblies of God, met with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance for Minorities to protest that the rights of Christians had not been protected under the 1979 constitution. This action prompted the ministry to require all Christian denominations to sign declarations stating that they enjoy full constitutional rights as Christians in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some churches, under coercion, signed the declaration but not the Assemblies of God and one brethren Church.

Copies of the declaration were faxed by the ministry to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva in an attempt to show that Iran's religious minorities enjoy full protection and fair treatment. The Reverend Haik then issued an invitation to either Professor Reynaldo Pohl, the UN special envoy, or a delegation of the UN Human Rights Commission to come and see for themselves. But now the Reverend Haik is dead.

These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg. The persecution of Protestants in Iran has been increasing for many months. Arrests, imprisonments, torture and church closures are becoming more frequent. Moslems have been forbidden to enter churches and Church services are not allowed to be conducted in Farsi. This affects all Protestant Churches which in Iran are largely composed of converts from Islam for whom it is natural to worship in Farsi.

Other restrictions introduced recently include the following. In May 1993 non-Moslem shopkeepers were ordered to put up notices announcing their religious affiliation. That brings back shades of Nazi Germany. In June 1993 all Christians were ordered to sign a statement declaring that they would not evangelise Moslems. In October 1993 religious affiliation had to be stated on identity cards which are essential for doing any business. Since 1988 six Churches have been closed down and another one has been closed except for one meeting per week. As we have heard, four years ago the Bible Society in Iran was closed down.

These decrees are moderate in comparison with demands from fanatic elements in Iran who are seeking the execution of all converts to Christianity who refuse to return to Islam. Islamic law— Shari' ah law— states that all male apostates should be killed. There are estimated to be at least 10,000 Moslem converts in Iran. Given that approximately 95,000 political prisoners have been executed since the revolution in 1979, the Protestant Churches take this threat seriously. It adds up to a dreadful picture. Human rights— especially that of freedom of religion which is a basic right recognised as such by Article I of the United Nations Charter— are being ruthlessly trampled on.

I hope that when the Minister replies to this Question, he will be able to say that Her Majesty's Government are doing all they can in the international community to get Iran to recognise its responsibilities to members of all religions. In particular, I would suggest that the Government should encourage the United Nations special envoy or a delegation of the UN Commission on Human Rights to go to Iran to find out the position of religious minorities there. As a test of the Iranian Government's good will, I believe that our Government should approach them to ask whether the Bible Society can recommence its activities in Iran. That would be a litmus paper as regards sounding out the attitude of the Iranian Government.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, for tabling this Question this evening and for giving us an opportunity to discuss these mainly distressing matters.

In Iran it remains an offence to sell the Bible. The offices of the Iranian Bible Society were closed in 1990 by the state authorities, as the noble Viscount mentioned in his cogently argued opening address. Churches are also being forced to close by the state and three churches were closed in 1993, in Kerman, Ahwaz and Gorgan. In June 1993, the Iranian Government issued ultimatums, requiring churches to sign statements declaring that they will not evangelise Moslems. This was to include refusing entry to Moslems who wished to sit in on church services. The Assemblies of God were one of the few denominations which refused to comply and have since faced an escalating wave of intimidation from the Iranian authorities.

The superintendent of the Assemblies of God church in Iran and chairman of the Council of Protestant Ministers, Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, was brutally murdered in January this year. He was an outspoken advocate of religious freedom and was murdered only a few days after he successfully campaigned for Reverend Mehdi Dibaj, a Moslem convert to Christianity, who had been sentenced to death for apostasy. Mehdi Dibaj has since been released on the condition that he be available for further investigation if required. He had spent nine years in prison for apostasy, two of which had been in solitary confinement and he had had to endure a number of mock executions.

Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr was not the first Iranian Christian to die for his faith in recent times. In December 1989, Reverend Hossein Soodmand, a Moslem convert to Christianity, was executed for apostasy. He left a blind wife and four children. Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr had declared before his death that there was no religious freedom in Iran and had urged the United Nations Human Rights Commission to send a delegation to investigate the situation of the church there. The Jubilee Campaign reports that there is strong and widespread suspicion that Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr was murdered by the Iranian authorities because of his outspoken advocacy of religious liberty. When the Jubilee Campaign went to see the Chargé d'Affaires at the Iranian Embassy, Mr. Gholamreza Ansari, they were told that a villager had found the body of Hovsepian-Mehr but for about 10 days was to afraid to report it to the police. This contradicts the explanation given by the Government in Tehran, who claim that the police found the murdered bishop's body but for several days were unable to identify it. Where does the truth of the matter lie?

The Iranian Chargé d'Affaires also told the Jubilee Campaign that, with the exception of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Iran, Mr. Galindo Pohl, there would be no problem in having anyone else from the United Nations Human Rights Commission visiting Iran to investigate the murder of Bishop Hovsepian-Mehr and the situation of the church in that country. However, this appears to be contradicted by the fact that the present United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, Mr. Abdelfattah Amor, made a request to the Iranian Government last summer, asking for permission to visit that country to carry out his investigations, but he has yet to receive any reply from the Iranian authorities and he has mentioned this matter in his recent report on religious intolerance.

In conclusion, I ask Her Majesty's Government to encourage the Government of Iran to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance to their country to enable him to carry out his mandate, which should include an investigation into the Iranian church with regard to religious freedom and the murder of Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr.

7.40 p.m.

Lord McNair

My Lords, I apologise for speaking in the break. I did not put my name down to speak because I was not sure whether I would be able to be here in time. I shall be brief, but I felt that it was important that someone should speak up on behalf of the members of the Baha'i faith in Iran who, since the Iranian revolution in 1979, have faced with enormous bravery the most terrible persecution and oppression.

The Baha'i faith arose out of the religion of Islam and now has adherents in more than 100 countries. A list of major tenets of the Baha'i faith reads like a prescription for the most civilised, tolerant and enlightened society one could imagine. Tenets such as the harmony of religion and science and equality of education for men and women are wholly unexceptionable, indeed laudable, to us. How is it, then, that such people have to endure such a degree and intensity of persecution?

Beliefs such as I have described are, of course, the very antithesis of the policies and attitudes of the Iranian Government, but not, I would imagine, of the religion of Islam itself. Can one imagine a situation in a civilised country in which people who kidnap and murder someone would escape the full penalty of the law because of the religion of the murdered person? That is what happened after the murder of Ruhu'llah Ghedami, a member of the Baha'i faith.

I hope that Her Majesty's Government will make clear in representations to the Iranian Government that they are keeping a close watch on the treatment of all groups of non-Moslems.

I shall finish by quoting from a letter from Mr. Adamson, the Secretary General of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United Kingdom, to an official of Her Majesty's Government dated November 1993: The fact remains that Baha'is in Iran are persecuted solely on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Indeed, the Iranian Government's intention, as clearly stated in the Iranian Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council … document of 25 February 1991 … is to strangulate and uproot the Iranian Baha'i community. This has not changed. The situation of Bah'i will remain precarious until the [Iranian] Government recognises the right of the Baha'i community to exist as a distinct entity and allows the re-establishment of the Baha'i administration in Iran. The dissolution of Baha'i administrative institutions, as was ordered by the Government in 1983, is equivalent to uprooting cardinals, bishops, and parish priests in Christian communities".

7.42 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I hope that those of your Lordships who were anticipating at this stage an intervention by my noble friend Lady Blackstone (who unhappily cannot be present) will forgive me for not being my noble friend.

The House will be grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Brentford, for according us this opportunity to discuss the situation in Iran and especially the tragic death of Bishop Haik Mehr, and for expressing so movingly what many Christians, and members of other faiths, in this country would have liked to hear said on their behalf.

I invite your Lordships for a moment to consider two aspects of the context against which this Question arises. Iran is undergoing an economic crisis. Oil revenues provide some 85 per cent. of the country's exchange earnings. Last year those revenues fell short by about 20 per cent. of what had been expected. The total international debt is the equivalent of about £ 20 billion, at a time when the regime is still ordering warships. Two consequences domestically follow from that external position. First, the spending boom, which has kept the more materialistic sections of the population happy, is endangered. Secondly, prices and unemployment are rising at an alarming rate.

Iran needs urgently to reschedule her external debts. But that may depend upon edging her way back into the mainstream of the international community. That requires some reversal of the impression which the regime has given over the past 15 years of being totally indifferent to how the rest of the world views its behaviour. It means revising its policies on human rights, its behaviour towards its neighbours and the position referred to by my noble friend Lord Ennals and the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, which it seems formerly to have relished as a centre for international terrorism.

So we have seen, for example, the re-establishment, amid eulogies to traditional good relations between Britain and Iran, of the Iranian embassy in London which was closed in such unattractive circumstances in 1980.

I referred to two aspects of the context. The second is that the regime is concerned to secure its own position domestically. There is talk of a possible takeover by the military. There is speculation about revolution centred on one or more of the groups in exile. A number of us hear from time to lime with gratitude from the National Council of Resistance, and its publications are an important source of our information about what is happening in Iran.

Furthermore, about a third of the population of the country are Azeris who, understandably, have some affinity with Azeris in Azerbaijan. There are Azeris in Azerbaijan who would like to enter Iran as refugees from the conflict there.

Fifteen years ago virtually every grouping within the country was looking for change. Peasants were suspicious of industrialisation, which had depopulated the countryside, drawn population into the cities, imposed a new, brash, western culture and destroyed the traditional certainties. They wanted to see the country purged of western corruption and the restoration of religion and purity. On the other hand, those who wanted to see Iran brought into the 20th century were tired of the repression and despotic rule.

John Simpson, in the Guardian of 1st February, wrote of a millenialism which swept the country with the return of Ayatollah Khomeini. He was virtually identified with the 9th century Imam Muhammed-al-Mehdi, whose return is foretold in traditional folklore, bringing righteousness and judgment. Unlike the majority of revolutions, that one was spared the need to bring about an immediate rise in material prosperity. It was welcomed because it promised something for which to offer service and sacrifice.

That ecstatic sense of a parousia has evaporated. Mr. Simpson describes how the chanting fundamentalist mobs are not typical of the population. Most people want simply to share in the material benefits of the modern world and to partake of normal enjoyments. The poor and dispossessed, who were promised a new respect, are tired of the unemployment arid perpetually rising prices. Those who cherish their religious faith have lost their respect for the majority of mullahs. Everyone is tired of the corruption. There is a widespread sense of disillusion, and of course half the population is too young to remember anything about the revolution.

Therefore the regime has to walk a tightrope between presenting a more attractive face to the rest of the world and preserving its position at home. Perhaps, on reflection, that is the wrong metaphor. A tightrope usually proceeds in a straight line. A crooked tightrope is outside the experience of most of us. But there are two complications. One is that if Iran cannot present the rest of the world with a picture sufficiently attractive to induce extensions of credit, that will exacerbate the government's internal problems. Secondly, its domestic population is not homogeneous. Those who incline to Islamic fundamentalism are unlikely to be attracted by measures designed to please the less puritanical elements in the population.

One can feel a flutter of sympathy with President Rafsanjani's dilemma. Normally, from this Bench, I would be encouraging the Government to respond to those advances. It would be good for Iran to be received again into civilised circles which might act as an encouragement to behave accordingly. If there were benefits for Britain's trade with Iran, that would be an additional argument.

However, that would be too simple a reaction. I agree with noble Lords who say that it ought not to be too easy for a regime with a record of being a bad neighbour externally, and with a reign of terror internally, to be accepted as a civilised member of the international community. History is compelling us all to concentrate on making the world a safer place. In the past few years we have had to address our minds to peace-keeping and to international action against terrorism, not only out of compassion for the immediate victims, but in our own interests. Uncivilised behaviour anywhere tends to export itself and to spread infection elsewhere. Amnesty International has recently issued a publication on human rights and peace-keeping making the case that there is no hard and fast distinction between the two. If Iran wishes to be received into full membership of the international community, it should be required to establish its qualifications for that privilege.

The most recent information we have on human rights, as a number of noble Lords have remarked today, suggests that the situation may be deteriorating rather than improving. That information is far from complete. When I was active in Amnesty, there were many regimes which would try to mislead investigators and to ensure a more favourable report than the facts would merit. But there were very few, however repressive, which refused access to Amnesty representatives. Iran is one of the few regimes which since 1991 has closed its door to Amnesty representatives either for discussions with officials or to observe Government trials.

It is fair to say that after what appears to have been years of delay designed to ensure that its record was not discussed in the United Nations Human Rights Committee, Iran submitted its periodic report in 1992. The committee considered that report and in July 1993 made its comments. It stated that it, deplores the lack of respect for due process of law, particularly before the Revolutionary Courts, where trials in camera tend to be the rule and where apparently no real possibility is provided to the accused to prepare a defence". The committee stated that all complaints of torture and ill treatment should be properly investigated. It commented on, the extent of the limitations and restrictions on the freedom of religion and belief', noting particularly that conversion from Islam, as has been mentioned by many noble Lords, is punishable as a special offence of apostasy— to which we could add the persecution of the Baha'i community. The committee deplored the extremely high number of death sentences. It referred to the, punishment and harassment of women who do not conform with a strict dress code". It recommended investigation into the many cases of what prima facie are simply extrajudicial executions, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, my noble friend Lord Ennals and other noble Lords. It referred to the threat to Salman Rushdie. That is a truly appalling record and there is no time in this debate to refer to the individual cases set out by Amnesty International in its paper of November of last year.

However, as recently as 31st January, The Times referred to the murder of Bishop Haik Mehr which has been referred to by many of your Lordships. How he died is still not clear. Christian Solidarity International learned from his son that he had simply been summoned to attend the coroner's office to identify his father's body. He was not shown the body; he was shown a photograph. As the noble Lord, Lord Ashbourne, mentioned, there are conflicting reports of the 10 day delay before his family were informed. His offences appear to have consisted, first, in making representations against the impending execution for apostasy of the Reverend Mehdi Dibaj; and, secondly, in declining to subscribe to the public relations statement— it was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson— required by the regime from all the non-Moslem religious groups to the effect that they are not suffering any form of oppression. His justification for refusing to sign seems to have been amply demonstrated by his own fate. I echo what was said by my noble friend Lord Ennals and others.

We shall all be interested to learn from the noble Viscount, on behalf of the Government, how they view the situation; and in particular what view they take as to the prospect of the Government entering into a dialogue with those who are clearly in the position of an official Opposition. I wish to seize the opportunity of indicating from these Benches that there would be no great criticism if the Government were cautious in according to Iran full membership of the club, membership of which should carry with it some certificate of acceptability to the civilised world.

7.55 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, we owe a considerable debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Brentford for raising this extremely important topic today. As a number of your Lordships have recognised, Iran is an important country with a significant role to play in areas of interest to the United Kingdom. It has long commanded international attention for its position on the Persian Gulf and on routes to India and China. Now it does so again as a gateway to the newly independent republics of Central Asia. I certainly have found that in the course of my own travels before taking the Queen's shilling.

Persian culture and Shi'a Islam— especially after the 1979 Islamic Revolution— have left their mark far beyond the confines of modern Iran. It is also a country with which we have important commercial and cultural ties, established over many centuries, and a political dialogue which, though not easy, is essential. I should like to return to that point. It will come as no surprise to noble Lords when I say that relations between the United Kingdom and Iran have their difficulties. The long history of foreign intervention in Iranian affairs has left an understandable legacy of suspicion in Iran. But the era is long gone when this country would wish to interfere in the internal affairs of Iran. The fate of Iran is for the Iranian people themselves to determine.

As many noble Lords have pointed out, the country has suffered much in recent years. I refer to the turmoil of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and an eight-year war with Iraq. The challenges of economic reconstruction, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, referred during the course of his most interesting remarks, have imposed many strains and much suffering on the Iranian people. Despite that, in some matters they have shown that traditional Iranian hospitality is alive and well. They have taken a leading role in providing refuge for those fleeing from conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. That is a testament to the generosity of the Iranian people. Recently they have added to that burden by helping refugees from the fighting across their northern border in Azerbaijan, a matter to which the noble and learned Lord referred.

As noble Lords are obviously more than well aware, there remain a number of aspects of Iran's behaviour which are of more than concern to the United Kingdom and to the wider international community. Iran's poor human rights record has been highlighted by successive resolutions at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, as noble Lords have pointed out today, and at the United Nations General Assembly. I wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, in his concern — it is an anxiety of more direct relevance to the United Kingdom—with regard to the wholly illegal death threat to Salman Rushdie, a United Kingdom subject. It is a threat which I suspect is more redolent of the savagery of the Dark Ages in Europe than the behaviour of a people who have, given the world some of its greatest literature, painting and architecture. As noble Lords have pointed out, the reality of that threat was underlined by the recent attack on his Norwegian publisher. The reports of Iranian involvement in terrorism overseas, again referred to this evening by many noble Lords. only serve to reinforce our concerns on the point.

We understand and accept Iran's right to defend itself, as enshrined in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. After all, who can forget the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war and the neighbouring invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, a little later? Nevertheless, we are concerned that Iran's arms build-up should not threaten regional stability. Here I very much take the point of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. Her Majesty's Government view with considerable concern the acquisition of Kilo class submarines by Iran. We are in touch with other countries in the Gulf area on regional security issues, including the threat that that Government pose.

It seems to us that some of the weapons that Iran has bought recently appear to go far beyond the legitimate demands of self-defence. We and our European partners have made crystal clear to the Iranian Government that the extent to which closer relations with Iran can be developed— a point which a number of noble Lords made this evening— will be determined by improvements in Iranian behaviour in such areas of concern.

Perhaps I may turn to the particular points which noble Lords made during the course of this most interesting debate. I begin with a general point about human rights and Islam. It seems to me as a non-Islamic that what the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, said about his respect for Islam is widely shared in your Lordships' House. It is one of the great religions, one of the Religions of the Book. I wholly agree with what the noble Lord said about the desirability of having good relations with Islamic countries and the good record that we have for that.

It is worth pointing out that international standards of human rights and fundamental freedoms are enshrined in the universal declaration and codified in the two international human rights covenants. Those rights are universal. They transcend national, religious, cultural and ideological differences. I believe that the great religion of Islam should and does subscribe to that general proposition.

Therefore, the general abuse of human rights to which all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate — my noble friends Lord Brentford and Lord Ashbourne and the noble Lords, Lord Robertson, Lord Avebury and Lord McNair— have drawn attention deeply concerns all of us, including Her Majesty's Government. I hope that noble Lords are aware that we have made our anxieties extremely clear to the Iranian authorities on many occasions in the past and we shall continue to do so, both bilaterally and with our European partners. That adds strength to our efforts.

We believe that action through the human rights machinery of the United Nations is an effective way of keeping up the pressure on Iran and we and our European partners, with that in mind, co-sponsored a resolution critical of Iran's record which was adopted at the 1993 United Nations Commission on Human Rights. We are taking an equally robust line at this year's Commission on Human Rights and fully expect this year's resolution to reflect our anxieties at all aspects of Iran's human rights record, including its treatment of religious minorities. I shall return to that in a minute.

I was particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, for letting me have copies of two iterations of the remarkable document to which a number of noble Lords referred this evening. I read it with the greatest of interest and anxiety. I wish to make one point about the remarks that come out of it. The choice of an individual special representative is a matter exclusively for the Commission on Human Rights, through its bureau. In our view, it is out of the question for Iran to influence the choice. If the Iranians are so concerned at the information used by Mr. Galindo-Pohl, they should let him visit Iran to see for himself. I am delighted to hear expressions of approval from noble Lords of that view which we will endeavour to maintain at every possible opportunity.

In terms of the Christian persecutions to which noble Lords have referred, both we and our European partners repeatedly underline to the Iran Government the importance we attach to their record on religious minorities. Like many noble Lords, we have received several reports about the position of Christians in Iran from Christian groups in the United Kingdom and from the United Nations Special Representative. Our embassy in Tehran also monitors the situation. That is one of the benefits of re-establishing some form of diplomatic relations in the country.

Of course we are concerned about the recent reports of persecution, especially of the members of the Assemblies of God Church. The European Union, with our full support, expressed its concern to the Iranian authorities at the reported death sentence on the Reverend Mehdi Diaji. We understand that Mehdi Diaji was subsequently released pending further investigation of the court, and that accords with the understanding of many of your Lordships. We and our European partners have also told the Iranian authorities that we were more than disturbed at the circumstances surrounding the recent death of Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr. The Iranians have told us that Bishop Haik's death is still being investigated and we shall continue to monitor the situation extremely closely. I am sure that noble Lords will be pleased to hear that Foreign Office officials attended the memorial service in London for Bishop Haik and that messages of condolence were read out on behalf of both my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and my noble friend Lady Chalker at the ceremony.

I cannot let this evening pass without reference to the Baha'is. The noble Lord, Lord McNair, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, both referred to that and I am well aware of the outstanding record of the noble Lord, Lord Ennals, on the subject. As regards the Baha'is, we and our European partners have made a number of representations to the Iranian authorities, as I am sure your Lordships know. Most recently there were representations about the death sentences passed on two members of that faith, Messrs. Mithaqi and Khalayabadi. We are monitoring the situation extremely closely. I am sure that noble Lords are aware of the concern of the 1993 United Nations Commission on Human Rights on the subject.

Many noble Lords have also referred to the question of executions. I can only concur with your Lordships that the continuing high number of executions in Iran is extraordinarily disturbing. As noble Lords will be aware, this was also highlighted in the recent report by the United Nations Special Representative.

I turn my attention now to terrorism. I have already referred to the author Salman Rushdie, a British subject, and our anxiety about him. We have also noted with concern the recent indictment in Germany of an Iranian secret agent in connection with the killing of four Kurdish opposition leaders in Berlin last September and the reports of Iranian Government involvement in the 1991 murder of a close friend of mine, the former Prime Minister, Dr. Bakhtiar, in Paris. It would be a very serious matter if the Iranian Government were proved to have been involved, as my right honourable friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office observed. But I add that we have good reason to be suspicious. We must await the outcome of the trial in Germany of those alleged to be involved in the Mykonos murders in Berlin and of the French investigation into the murder of the former Prime Minister, Dr. Bakhtiar. There is no proof as yet beyond reasonable doubt that the Iranian Government is involved in the murders of Iranian dissidents. Of course we would not like to compromise our own standards in this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, also referred to the question of German-Iranian relations. We have made known to the German Government our views on the visit to Germany last year of the Iranian intelligence Minister and our concern at the apparent involvement of the Iranian Government in the murder of the four Kurdish opposition members to whom I have just referred. It is equally worth saying to the noble Lord that we understand Switzerland's concern at France's decision to return to Iran two Iranians whose extradition had been requested by the Swiss in connection with the murder of an Iranian opposition figure in 1990. We have indeed— I am sure that noble Lords would expect us to do no less— made our views known to the French Government.

Iran is and will remain a major regional power, as I have already said, with an important role to play in contributing to security and stability. Iran's policies on major issues of the day are important to the international community, for example the Middle East peace process, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Nagorno Karabakh and Afghanistan. The United Kingdom also has direct interests to pursue through its relations with Iran: a resolution of the Rushdie issue, improved human rights compliance and a commercial relationship which is of growing importance to both countries. In these circumstances— I hope that the noble Lords, Lord Avebury and Lord Ennals, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, in particular will agree— it is absolutely right to attempt to maintain a dialogue with the Iranian Government: our outstanding problems with Iran can much more easily be resolved if we talk to each other on something other than a basis of a dialogue of death. We and our European partners have said that this must be a critical dialogue with the aim of achieving a real improvement in Iranian behaviour across the board. As always in these matters, it does take two to tango. It is vital that the Iranian Government understand that if they are to benefit fully from membership of the international community, both politically and economically, then they must show by their deeds that they respect their international obligations. If I may say so, I suspect that this debate and its contents and contributions will have been read with considerable interest and approval in many quarters this evening.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I did not expect the Minister to answer the main purport of my speech, which was a dialogue with others than the Government. I think it would be sensible for me to write a letter to the Foreign Secretary following my meetings in Paris, and that I propose to do.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. All that I can say is that I listened to his suggestion— and indeed the suggestions of other noble Lords— about this subject. I would greatly encourage him to write to my right honourable friend along the lines that he suggested.