HL Deb 21 April 1999 vol 599 cc1153-5
Viscount Waverley

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In so doing, I declare that I am chairman of the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce.

The Question was as follows:

To ask her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to exchange ambassadors with Iran, as agreed between foreign ministers in September 1998 in New York.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary committed Her Majesty's Government to exchange ambassadors with Iran when he met his Iranian counterpart Dr. Kharrazi in New York last September. We expect that the exchange will take place in the next few weeks.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, by far the largest cross-section of both countries will welcome that response, and I wish both ambassadors and the process well.

Is the Minister aware that a statement critical of UK government policy was circulated in both Houses of this Parliament in February of this year? If so, will the noble Baroness comment on her reaction to that statement?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am aware of the statement. The noble Viscount will not be surprised to know that Her Majesty's Government do not agree with the statement that the regime in Iran is incapable of change. Both the November UN resolution on human rights in Iran, and the most recent report by the United Nations special representative, Maurice Copithorne, noted important improvements brought about by the present Government there. We prefer our analysis to be based on these internationally respected sources rather than on the propaganda of the National Council for the Resistance of Iran, which is mentioned in the statement and which appears largely to have inspired it. The NCRI is dominated by a terrorist organisation, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, and the MKO is still on the US State Department proscribed list of terrorist organisations.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, when he is appointed, will the ambassador work for the admission of Mr. Maurice Copithorne, the UN rapporteur, to carry out his mandate in Iran? In particular, will the Government arrange for further inquiries to be made about the trial which was supposed to be held of Ministry of Intelligence operatives who were arrested for the assassination of dissidents but who have been held in custody for some months now without any sign of the trial emerging?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I assume that the noble Lord. Lord Avebury, is referring to the United Kingdom ambassador in Iran rather than the ambassador from Iran in this country.

We have consistently argued with the Iranians that Mr. Maurice Copithorne, the UN special representative, be allowed to visit Iran. We believe that his reports are a vital source of independent information. The November EU sponsored United Nations resolution on human rights called on Iran to resume its co-operation with the special representative. A number of different individuals have been subjected to trials—some to the extremes of the law in Iran—in respect of whom Her Majesty's Government have made a number of representations, as I have had occasion to discuss with the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, fairly recently.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, what action have the Government taken to stop Russia supplying missile technology to Iran in the light of the Foreign Secretary's promise last year to, put in place the tightest net we can to stop Iran from getting the weapons it wants"? What progress has been made recently by the missile technology control regime, and what steps have the Government taken, together with our European Union partners, to prevent Iran from getting hold of the sort of materials that could help it build ballistic missiles, or chemical and biological weapons?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am pleased to tell the noble Lord that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and several European leaders, including President Chirac, have raised their concern about Russian technical assistance to Iran's ballistic missile programme directly with their Russian counterparts. Russia introduced new legislation and other measures in January 1998 which were later elaborated in May 1998. Those measures are designed to strengthen export control implementation and to prevent Russian missile technology leaking by means of personal contacts.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I recognise the importance of restraining any development of weapons, in particular missile technology, in Iran, but will the Minister confirm that it is very much in the interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union to encourage the steps towards democracy that Iran is now taking under its new Government, and to recognise the success of recent local government elections as a first step in that procedure?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with what the noble Baroness says. It has been most encouraging to see local elections in Iran and to see the election of women as a result. The United Kingdom looks on the positive side of the changes in Iran. We believe that the election of President Khatami marked a change in that country's attitude to a number of different issues.

Of course, we are frank about the fact that there remain concerns. We and the EU want a positive movement to be made by the Iranians in some areas of long-standing concern. Indeed, we have recently discussed weapons of mass destruction. However, we also wish to pursue with Iran its support on some aspects of terrorism and its human rights record which, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, reminded us, is so important.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, the Minister mentioned some improvements in human rights brought about by the current Iranian Government. Do they include correct treatment for minorities, notably the Christian and Baha'i minorities in Iran?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we continue to have serious concerns about the Baha'i community in Iran. Iran is aware of the Government's worries on that front. The persecution of individuals on religious grounds is totally unacceptable. The EU-sponsored United Nations resolution on human rights in Iran was passed last year, thereby reaffirming the EU's concern about the situation. Therefore, we have continued to press those legitimate human rights concerns with the Iranians.

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