HL Deb 06 February 2003 vol 644 cc368-71

3.22 p.m.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as chairman of the British Committee on Iran Freedom.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government for what purpose the Prime Minister met Mr Kamal Kharrazi, the Foreign Minister of Iran, in London this week.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Dr Kamal Kharrazi, today had meetings with my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. In addition to the crisis over Iraq, the discussion covered other regional issues and the developing bilateral relationship, including the importance of maintaining frank dialogue on outstanding issues of concern.

Lord Corbett of Castle Vale

My Lords, I thank my noble and learned friend for that response, but is it not morally offensive for the UK to seek or accept assistance about Iraq from a regime that uses terror at home, sponsors it abroad and is developing nuclear and chemical weapons? Does my noble and learned friend share the revulsion of a majority of Members of both Houses at the mullahs' use of public executions, stonings and amputations against those demanding freedom and human rights?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I entirely endorse my noble friend's concluding remarks. The British Government have publicly, on several occasions, expressed their abhorrence at those practices.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I understand that the question of Iran's civil nuclear programme is one that Mr Kharrazi hoped to raise while he was in London. We all hope to avoid any further nuclear proliferation. Was the subject discussed; and has it been made clear that the IAEA must have an active role in supervising the civil nuclear programme as it develops?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot give a categoric answer to that question—the reason being that the meetings took place this morning and had not entirely concluded by the time I came to this House. If it is of assistance, and I am sure it will be, I will research the matter, write to the noble Lord and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, did my right honourable friend and the Prime Minister seize the opportunity to clarify the attitude of the regime to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie? Did Mr Kharrazi confirm that the regime is now opposed to the organising of murder in the territory of other countries?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, when my right honourable friend the President of the Council was Foreign Secretary, several years ago, he obtained a public declaration on the Iranian Government's attitude to the unlawful, wholly unacceptable fatwa issued against a British subject.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is not the most careful balance required? On the one hand, we surely do not want to be seen to be endorsing some of the revolting practices to which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett, has drawn attention, which have continued under the present clerical regime in Iran; on the other hand, we need the support of Iran both in Afghanistan and in the developing situation in Iraq. Will the noble and learned Lord ensure that in the present discussions and any future discussions, his colleagues bear in mind the need for that most careful balance?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. All that we are doing, particularly in the EU context, about trade and co-operation with Iran has been on the specific basis that binding commitments must be made by the Republic of Iran on various elements. We have made it absolutely plain that the practices referred to are simply not acceptable and should not be tolerated. We have made it plain that, if there are not binding agreements—for instance, on counter-terrorism—no trade and co-operation agreement will be entered into. I can assure the House and the noble Lord on that point. It is not quite a case of "across the wire the electric message came", but the diligence of the officials, as always, means that I do not need to write to the noble Lord. The matter was on the agenda for discussion.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, what response, if any, has been received from the Iranian Government to representations from the British Government?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is a continuing dialogue. I return to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. We have an interest in the modernisation and reform of the regime in Iran. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, implied, we cannot close our eyes to the matters that we find deeply objectionable. There are in some ways quite modest, encouraging signs of a degree of liberalisation within certain sections of the Iranian Government.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford

My Lords, was the question of the Kurds on the agenda this morning? In an interview on television about 10 or 15 minutes ago, Mr Kharrazi said that what concerned Iran as a neighbouring country was the territorial integrity of Iraq. One can understand that concern, because there is a Kurdish population in Iraq pressing for a greater degree of autonomy, as there is in Iran. That clearly affects not only the Kurds but the stability of the whole area.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the security of the whole area was under discussion. I remind the House that the Prime Minister's Statement that I repeated in this House earlier this week referred to the territorial integrity of Iraq.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, is the noble and learned Lord aware that many people are anxious about the fact that, although we have had what has been described as a constructive dialogue on human rights with Iran for some time, there is never any feedback about what the Iranian regime has undertaken to do? Should we not be using the reports of the Special Rapporteur on Iran, and those of the thematic rapporteurs such as the rapporteur on religious intolerance, to measure whether Iran has made any progress in meeting its human rights obligations?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

Yes, my Lords, we ought to use all reliable material to further the balance of judgment referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howell. In some instances there has been progress. For instance, it is generally recognised that there is significantly enhanced freedom of press criticism in Iran compared with five or 10 years ago. I do not pretend that the Government do not remain deeply concerned about these matters, as I hope I have made plain.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead

My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware of the demonstration by Iranian citizens in this country that took place this morning? Will he comment on the remarks made during the demonstration that a number of people coming to London from other parts of Europe had been detained at Dover in the public interest, and that phone calls were being made to the people across the road from here explaining that they thought they were being prevented from attending a peaceful and democratic demonstration?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sorry that, for the reasons I gave the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, I have no knowledge of the demonstration. If I can find out anything useful, of course I will write to my noble friend and put a copy in the Library. But I stress that, having been to Cabinet, I came over here to do other work.

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