HL Deb 10 February 2004 vol 656 cc1040-3

3 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they are co-operating with Iran to support its democratic evolution.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we seek to support reform in Iran while maintaining a critical dialogue on areas of concern, such as Iran's approach to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, human rights, the fight on terrorism and the Middle East peace process. We are concerned about reports that the final candidate list for Iran's parliamentary elections on 20 February is likely to exclude a large number of candidates. Our concerns are widely shared in the European Union and elsewhere.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that reply. I am sure that most noble Lords feel alarm at the blocking of reformist candidates. Does the Government agree that Iran, besides being in the early stages of its democratic development and being a theocratic state, also has a constitution of Byzantine complexity? If the Minister agrees, do we have any basis on which to influence the Iranians so that in future the Guardian Council will not have the power it currently exercises to block reformist candidates?

As a member of the Government, does my noble friend accept that there must be a serious governmental balance struck between the dialogue to which she has referred, which many of us have advocated for many years—be that dialogue constructive or be it critical—and perceived support which, given at the wrong time, can be seriously conunterproductive?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with much of what my noble friend has said. I shall be meeting the Iranian Ambassador later this week. I shall ensure that I give him a copy of the exchanges that have taken place in your Lordships' House. Perhaps I may make one point to my noble friend. As he said, the original list of candidates barred was some 3,600. That has been reviewed. Although it is not enormously improved, the number is now lowered to some 2,300. Furthermore, although there were a greater number of the current deputies barred, the number now is 70 out of the 290 deputies currently sitting.

There has been a marginal improvement. I just say that for the record. But the fact is that that makes no difference to the fundamental point made by my noble friend Lord Temple-Morris, which is that this is not the way to improve Iran's democratic credentials.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, given that true democracies are very rare in the world—the vast majority of countries are not true democracies by any calculation—could the Minister tell us on what criteria the Government decide which emerging democracies they choose to support and influence as opposed to all the others?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course there are many different standards of what one regards as democratic. I am sure that there are people all over the world who will look even at your Lordships' House and raise various questions. As I have already pointed out to some of my interlocutors on this point, the fact is that in this instance there are 70 individuals who, as of today, are able to sit in the Majlis in Iran who will be excluded from the elections on 20 February. That is not going forward in democratic terms. Alas, it appears to be going backwards.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a regime condemned yet again by the last General Assembly of the United Nations for practising torture, amputations and blindings is not even pretending to evolve towards democracy? Can my noble friend assure the House that, so far as concerns, the United Kingdom, Iranians found in Iraq will not be returned to the clutches of the torturers and murderers from whom they are trying to escape?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course, we will have to look very carefully at any individuals who are claimed by countries that practise torture, amputations and various forms of capital punishment. I accept what my noble and learned friend has said. There is an enormous amount of ground to work on with the Iranians in relation to human rights. There is progress, albeit very slow. For example, we have been able to work on an announcement by the Supreme Administrative Court that the practice of stoning has been suspended.

I recognise that that may seem a marginal point to some of your Lordships. We are calling for a moratorium on all the hideous forms of amputation that are practised as a means of discipline, as a means of a legal system. But there is a great deal of work to do in that respect. We certainly do not shirk from undertaking it.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, does the Minister agree that there are signs that the Iranian Government want to have closer links with the West and to play a more responsible global role? In particular, the young people of Iran seem to be strongly pro-West and many of them want to live in the United States. As this exchange has confirmed, there is not much democratic evolution going on in Iran at the moment, with those 2,000 candidates banned from the elections next week.

Would those who have contact with Iran, including this Government, keep reminding the Iranians that if they want closer and better relations, free elections are better than building nuclear weapons? They would provide a much better basis for the close relations which are needed. In some ways, that is evidenced by the very warm reception that Prince Charles has had on his visit to Iran where he took our sincere condolences to the people of Iran for the horrific slaughter in the town of Bam.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords, of course. On that last point, I am sure that we all welcome the visit of His Royal Highness to Bam, which he undertook in his role as patron of the Red Cross. I am sure that he was able to bring comfort to that city in its dreadful plight. Of course the noble Lord is right. We want to see free elections. I would not wish your Lordships to take away an entirely gloomy picture of what is happening in our relationship with Iran.

As I indicated in my initial response to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, we are supporting reform in Iran. We believe that we are working with the grain of the reformists in Iran. We should not forget that there are elected deputies and elected people in positions of power in Iran. As I think your Lordships have been able to discuss, the problem arises with the role of the Guardian Council. Of course we are engaged in very important discussions; for example, on the whole issue of weapons of mass destruction. We should not throw away what is good, what is working in the relationship, where we believe that we can work with reforming influences because there is still a very bad record on human rights and there also appears to be a rather less full approach to the elections on 20 February than we would wish.