HL Deb 10 October 2002 vol 639 cc407-10

3.30 p.m.

Lord Avebury asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whom the Foreign Secretary is meeting in Tehran, and what subjects he is discussing with them.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary met President Khatami, the Foreign Minister Dr Kharrazi and Mr Hassan Rouhani, the secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council. Discussion focused on regional issues, including the threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which have, in the past, been used against Iran.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, I hope that the Foreign Secretary managed to get a word in edgeways, given the tirade to which, according to various reports of the meeting, he was subjected. Did he raise the possibility, which has been mooted, of a British-Iranian human rights dialogue? Such a dialogue would encompass all the concerns that we have, from time to time, expressed, including, in particular, the crackdown on the free media and the detention and torture of dissidents, such as Manouchehr Mohammadi, the student leader, who was taken into custody and severely mistreated, following the disturbances at the university in 1999.

Did the Foreign Secretary also take up with his counterparts the essential condition that the Iranians should admit the instruments of the Commission on Human Rights, so that they could investigate violations of human rights and report back to the international community? There is a particular need for that to be done at the moment, considering that the human rights commission has discontinued the work of the special rapporteur on Iran.

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, will be aware that we raise human rights issues in all our engagements with Iran. There are proposals for an EU-Iran human rights dialogue, and it is likely that that will go ahead. There had been concerns that pre-conditions would be asked for, but no pre-conditions would be made on either side. For example, it would not be ruled out that a resolution might be put before the UN General Assembly.

The Commission on Human Rights is separate from the UN General Assembly. The noble Lord will know that the resolution on Iran was narrowly lost, which is why the rapporteur on Iran was lost. We will have to return to that matter at the next meeting of the commission. Even if a resolution is proposed and passed at the General Assembly, that is not linked with having a rapporteur going into the country.

Baroness Rawlings

My Lords, we welcome the appointment of the new British ambassador to Iran. Iran could be an important ally in the coalition against Saddam's terror and his programme for weapons of mass destruction. At this sensitive time, could the Minister tell the House when the new ambassador will take up his position?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, he accompanied my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary on his recent visit. He will take up his appointment early next year.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the British Committee on Iran Freedom. Can the Minister say more about the attitude of the United Kingdom Government to the tabling of a resolution at the United Nations condemning the mullahs' regime in Tehran for the brutal acts and the human rights abuses committed against the population? Five young men were hanged in public from the end of cranes the day before a delegation from the European Union arrived in Tehran.

Will the Minister assure the House that, in yesterday's discussions, there was no question of the United Kingdom's biting its lip over those human rights abuses, in exchange for any form of support from that regime for possible action in Iraq?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I made it clear that, in our discussions with the Iranians, we raised the issue of human rights. We recognise that there has been a recent deterioration in the human rights situation in Iran. As we know, that is partly the result of the political stand-off involving the reformers and their conservative opponents.

We will continue our policy of constructive dialogue with Iran. There have been areas in which Iran has been helpful, but that does not mean that we do not put across tough messages—not just about human rights, but about the Middle East peace process—when we need to do it.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, has the Minister seen the information that was published by the Iranian authorities showing that 292 people have already been executed this year in Iran? That is twice as many as the figure for the same period last year. The Minister is right to recognise that there has been a deterioration in the human rights record of that regime. We must keep such things at the heart of our dealings with Iraq.

Will the Minister also tell us why we have come to a different conclusion about the way in which we should deal with the regime from that reached by the American State Department?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, we have a different analysis of the way to encourage change for the better in Iran. Our view on that differs from that of the Americans. We are not reluctant to say that. As noble Lords know, we share many of the United States' concerns about Iran's support for terrorist groups and the reports of its development of weapons of mass destruction.

We will continue to raise those issues. I do not know how I can say that in any other way to the House. Human rights abuses and the support that the Iranian regime gives to certain organisations are the substance of robust discussions between this country and Iran.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords—

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

My Lords—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, it is the turn of the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, the Minister must be aware of conflicting reports about Iran's policy towards Afghanistan, both towards Al'Qaeda fugitives and towards the western areas in Afghanistan around Herat. Can the Government enlighten us as to what Iranian policy is?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, it is not for me to enlighten the House as to what Iranian policy is. I am aware that there have been conflicting reports, but we have had good co-operation with Iran on several regional issues, including the transitional government in Afghanistan. That is one of the areas where we have been working with the Iranians over a period of several months.