HC Deb 17 September 2003 vol 410 cc295-302WH 3.44 pm
Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

I hope that it will not be regarded as condescending if I welcome the Minister to the debate and say that I have always regarded him as one of the small band of sincere and committed MPs with independence and integrity. I was genuinely surprised when he was appointed to his position because I know that Governments of all parties do not like that kind of person in their outfit.

The Minister has a particularly difficult job, as he knows, because the situation in the Foreign Office now seems to be rather like that in Iran, where power is divided between a supreme leader and an elected President. We now seem to have two Foreign Offices: one in Whitehall and one in Downing street. I appreciate that the policy on Iran seems to have been changed in July by Downing street and that, for that reason, the Minister will probably be unable to give a very helpful reply to my arguments. My hope is that he will think carefully about the issues that I raise.

There is certainly no doubt about the change that has taken place. I could cite a multitude of reports of the Foreign Office's positive attitude to Iran. I have the report of a lovely speech by the present Leader of the House, which was made when he was a Foreign Office Minister, in which very positive things were said. However, things have changed and we must accept that.

I am very upset about the change because, given the many and complex problems over the war with Iraq, it must be obvious to the Government and the United States of America that we should be doing everything in our power to show encouragement and understanding to the more responsible, sensible and constructive nations in the middle east. The Minister will be aware that I was one of the small minority who did not support the policy in Iraq, for reasons that I explained in a debate on 18 March. We are in danger of making another huge error in our relations with Iran.

In the case of Iraq there was the 45-minute threat from the weapons of mass destruction. We have now placed a 45-day demand on Iran over its nuclear programme through the International Atomic Energy Agency following the surprise initiative with Australia, Canada and Japan. The demand has caused huge resentment in Iran, particularly as the Government there had been co-operating with the IAEA and had gained the impression that progress was being made. Of course, those could be treated as the pathetic arguments of a guilty nation. However, to my great surprise, I came across a document that had been handed out to the board of governors by the director general of that international authority. I read it through carefully and it mentions some of the problems and some of the ensuing issues. I could quote all kinds of positive things. The document was issued not last year, not two years ago, but on 26 August.

I will simply quote the last paragraph, although many things in the document are positive and encouraging. The last paragraph states: "Since my last report was issued Iran has demonstrated an increased degree of co-operation in relation to the amount and detail of information provided to the Agency and in allowing access requested by the Agency to additional locations and the taking of associated environmental samples. The decision by Iran to start the negotiations with the Agency for the conclusion of an additional protocol is also a positive step". The report indicates that, although there are and have been problems, Iran has been trying to help and to make things positive. The director general said that he would report further at the November meeting or earlier.

The report contains a huge number of positive and encouraging statements about Iran. For me, the fascinating one was in paragraph 25 where the board appeared to accept the Iranian argument that depleted uranium particles, which have caused so much concern, could have originated from the imported containers. When one looks at the report and considers what we have done in giving an instruction to Iran—the 45-day rule—it seems foolish and almost arrogant to upset, and cause unnecessary conflict with, a country that, if we dealt with it in the right way, could play a really positive role.

The whole business has caused huge anger in Iran, and my greatest fear is that its result will be seen in the parliamentary elections in March 2004. It is no secret that since democracy returned to Iran there has been a huge dispute between those referred to as the modernisers and those referred to as the traditionalists or conservatives. The Parliament and the President are both liberal in attitude, but the manner in which we are dealing with Iran seems almost designed to promote the strength of the negative fundamentalists. The Parliament is at present controlled by the modernisers and the President is very much a moderniser, but if we carry on in this way we are simply undermining good will. That will lead to more stone-throwing, shooting and the rest of it.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

Notwithstanding what the hon. Gentleman has said, I wonder whether he shares the concern of members of the Baha'i faith about the fact that, since the commission on human rights decided to suspend international monitoring in Iran in April 2002, there has been a marked increase in persecution of members of the Baha'i faith in that country.

Sir Teddy Taylor

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point. I have met and talked to members of the Baha'i faith and people from Iran. I am told by the representative of the Iranian Government that members of the Baha'i faith are entitled to move in and out of the country without difficulty. There is a problem with attendance at university, which seems to relate to whether we regard the Baha'i as a faith or a sect. That type of problem will have to be resolved. I certainly hope that it can be, because when all religions, and branches of religions, are treated fairly it makes for a stronger country. I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that my impression is that, overall, religious tolerance is better in Iran than in many of the surrounding countries, but I fully accept that his point is important and significant. I hope that the Minister will raise the issue with the Iranian authorities if he is allowed to meet them or speak to them.

I have referred to my concerns about the 45-day notice, but there are a number of other issues that I hope the Minister will consider. First, there is the basic issue of whether we should show some humility in our dealings with Iran. Britain and the USA appear almost obsessed with arguing that we are fighting for the creation of democracy in the middle east. For example, we go around Iraq saying, "We want to make you free again and give you democracy." However, if I were Iranian, I would recall how only a few years ago Britain and its allies gave total and complete support to the hereditary Shah of Iran, who was elected by nobody and who was totally in charge of Iran. It seems that we only support democracy when it suits us.

When the Shah was replaced in the great revolution, the western powers, including Britain, appeared so concerned that we financed and armed an evil military despot in Iraq called Saddam Hussein so that he could invade Iran. There was a frightful war in which Iran survived only because of the determination of its people. There is no doubt about the weapons of mass destruction that were supplied to Saddam Hussein, because they are listed in the Reigle report, produced in America by the Senate. Of course, that is now rather difficult to get hold of, because circulation of such documents is not encouraged at present. However, the list is there, and it is clear and precise. The supply of those arms was in breach of the biological and toxic weapons convention, but I am told that such conventions are not meant to be applied to the nations of the west—according to the United States, anyway.

Then there was the dreadful destruction of the plane above the Persian gulf, which had 270 Iranians on it, almost all women and children. Not even an apology was given for that disaster. I make those points to explain that kindness and consideration has not always been shown to Iran, and we should bear that in mind when making fresh demands on the country.

What is the situation in Iran? There is no doubt that since the time of the Shah, Iran has introduced a form of democracy that enables the people to express their opinions in elections for their President and Parliament. In fairness, the power is shared to some degree between the supreme leadership and the President, but it is clear from all the recent elections that people are on the side of the liberal elements in society. Clearly, we should be encouraging them; instead we seem to be going out of our way to be negative in our dealings with Iran, thereby undermining the moderate and positive elements of Iranian society.

Has Iran helped or hindered in the battle against terrorism? We hear many reports about links with organisations, but we know that Iran was more than helpful in arguing for the release of persons detained in Lebanon and elsewhere, including Terry Waite. It was also helpful in the battle against the Taliban in Afghanistan. I understand that Iran would be glad to help in the battle against al-Qaeda, and it would be helpful if we could do something about those in Iraq who are causing troubles for Iran.

One of the recent, huge problems in Iraq, which the Prime Minister referred to at Question Time, is the shortage of public services. One such shortage, mentioned by the Prime Minister today, was that of electricity. Is it the case that the UK asked Iran to help with the provision of electricity to Iraq and that Iran gave a positive answer?

What are the Minister's views on Iran's attitude to women? Many of us have concerns about the extremists in the middle east and elsewhere who deprive women of their proper place in society and give them no rights or opportunities. Is it true that Iranian women are given greater opportunities and rights, and that more than half of the students in Iranian universities are women?

How do we respond? We still apply sanctions against Iran because of what we regard as defence matters—of course, the USA has more comprehensive sanctions. I am told that Iran's commercial and domestic airliners are terribly out of date and that there are huge safety problems as a consequence; will the Minister say whether that is right? The US declined to supply Iran with replacement aircraft, and I am told that negotiations for a fleet of Airbuses were suddenly and abruptly stopped. Is this the way to make friends? Do we treat Iran with dignity? It was reported in The Guardian on 4 September that the President of Iran had sent a letter to our Prime Minister assuring him that Iran was willing to meet its non-proliferation treaty obligations following a demand from the Government. However, the newspaper stated that no reply had been received.

Likewise, I would like an explanation from the Government on an issue that has caused huge concern in Iran: the arrest of Hade Soleimanpour—who was at one time Iran's ambassador in Argentina—at Durham university, where he was studying. The fact that he was an ambassador at the time of the alleged crime appeared to indicate that his arrest would be contrary to the Vienna convention. However, leaving that aside, it is known that he was not in Argentina at the time of the crime. As the Minister knows, the case was considered in court on 12 September and the High Court judge stated that there was no evidence that he was involved in the bomb attack nine years ago. In view of the fact that the whole business has caused huge concern in Iran, will the Government say why and how they acted as they did? Clearly there must be an explanation, and I would like to know what it is.

I could go on and on, but the one thing that most worries me is that there seem to be two separate foreign policies on Iran, as with so many other issues these days: one from the Foreign Office and one from No.10. The Foreign Office has shown some positive responses to Iran in the past and they were appreciated and produced results. However, it appears that since the July meeting, people have said that the Prime Minister has changed his mind and is now going to be negative towards Iran and that there has been a change of policy. I am not suggesting that some nations are perfect and others are disaster areas. I know that in Iran there are many problems, one of which, affecting the Baha'i, was referred to. However, I believe that Iran is a nation with a great history, which has sought to play a positive and meaningful role in the world, particularly in the middle east. Instead of trying to encourage and help it in its task, we seem now to be treating it with mere contempt.

My fear is that if we do not show a positive attitude to Iran, we shall probably be throwing away an opportunity to help to resolve the problems that exist in the middle east and which threaten the safety and security of the world. The Minister will know from contacts, from speaking to people and from listening to those in Iraq that the impression is that in the Arab world we are regarded, along with the Americans, as the enemies of Islam, and as killers and invaders. Although such allegations may be terribly untrue, we must get friends in the Arab world if we are to win that battle. We must look for people who can help and be positive, so that we can show that we are not on our own and that our particular interests are worth while.

I am not an expert on this subject—I have never been to the country—but I hope that the Government and the Minister will consider these issues. I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman and, although I know that he is restricted in what he can say as a Minister, I hope that he will make a positive contribution.

4 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Chris Mullin)

I thank the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor) for his kind words about me. Integrity and independence are two words that I also associate with him. My elevation to Government might bode well for him in some future—distant future, I hope—Conservative Government.

I will jump straight in at the deep end. The hon. Gentleman has raised several issues. He asked whether we recognise the importance of Iran and of treating it with respect, and whether we understand that it is not a totalitarian dictatorship and that it has made great progress in some areas. He specifically raised Iran's nuclear programme; co-operation with it over Iraq and terrorism; human rights, including women's issues; our embargo on arms-related sales to Iran; the recent correspondence between President Khatami and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister; and the case of Mr. Soleimanpour. I will try to deal with those points in order.

We are in no doubt that Iran is a country of growing international importance. Its size, population, key strategic position and natural resources are plain for all to see, and we have a strong national interest in the policies pursued by its Government. We can and do co-operate with the Iranian Government on questions where we share a common interest. There are respects in which we have a strong interest in encouraging the reformist tendencies that are active in many areas of Iranian life. There are other areas where we continue to have considerable concerns about the policies that the Iranian Government are pursuing. Together with our partners in the EU, it is our policy to pursue a constructive—and, where necessary, critical—engagement. The areas of common interest on which we engage with Iran include the fight against drugs—which is a great concern for many of our constituents and a major problem in Iran—international support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan, and the effort to stabilise Iraq.

For many years, Iran has hosted more than 2 million refugees from both Afghanistan and Iraq. We have provided a great deal of support for that—we have given more than £4.3 million in the past three years for refugee programmes in Iran, and we have also agreed to fund several projects involving United Nations agencies and non-governmental organisations.

We regularly discuss Iraq with our Iranian counterparts, including the possibilities for practical co-operation. Like the UK, Iran is committed to the maintenance of Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its borders. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has visited Iran four times in the past year and he maintains an active dialogue from week to week with his Iranian opposite number, Dr. Kharrazi. Our relationship with Iran allows us to support reform while maintaining a robust dialogue on areas of mutual concern. This has been made possible only by the changes that have taken place in Iran since President Khatami was first elected in May 1997.

That brings me to the hon. Gentleman's third point, which is whether we understand that Iran is not a totalitarian dictatorship. We support President Khatami's objective of bringing about an Islamic civil society based on the rule of law. We welcomed his re-election in June 2001 with an increased share of the vote, which demonstrated the Iranian people's clear will for reform and gave him a strong mandate. However, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the complex political situation in Iran has created many obstacles to the President's efforts to pursue his policies of political and economic reform. We hope he succeeds and we wish him well with those.

Those are positive developments. It would, however, be wrong of me not to take this opportunity to set out for the record the areas of Iranian policy that concern us most. We are worried by Iran's human rights record and by continuing Iranian support for terrorist groups, including those involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict. We are particularly worried by reports that Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction and about the uncertainties surrounding its nuclear programme. I shall return to that subject in a few moments.

We welcome the efforts of the Iranian Government and Parliament to improve the human rights situation and the position of women. I acknowledge, as the hon. Gentleman asked me to, that the position of women in Iran is a great deal more advanced than in many other middle eastern societies. However, we regret that because of the political stand-off between reformers and their conservative opponents, including some members of the judiciary, there is still a long way to go.

We take every opportunity to press Iran on its approach to the middle east peace process—peace there is in everyone's interests, including those of Iran. We believe that the attitude of the Iranians to the peace process should be more constructive and that they should support efforts to resolve the differences between those involved. We are concerned about Iranian resources being used by Palestinian groups that carry out atrocious and unacceptable attacks on civilians in Israel. We might argue about the definition of terrorism, but attacks on civilians can never be justified, whether in Israel or Palestine, or by terrorist groups in Iran. On wider anti-terrorism co-operation, Iran has told us that it has arrested al-Qaeda figures and that it will cooperate with us against international terrorism. We are pressing Iran to do so.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions on United States Government policy on Iran, including on sanctions. I hope he will forgive me if I say that it would probably be better if those were addressed to the Government of the United States. He was correct to state that there remains in place a national UK embargo on the sale of all military-listed items to Iran, including some dual-use items, but that does not affect the provision of medical supplies.

I should also like to reassure the hon. Gentleman that all letters from President Khatami to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister are treated with due respect. Replies are not necessarily sent according to a fixed time, but are sent after full consideration of both their content and the surrounding circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether, as a diplomat, Mr. Soleimanpour should have been immune from detention. The short answer is that he is not accredited as a diplomat here. He is a student at Durham university, and as such he enjoys no immunity in this country. The extradition process is currently a matter for the judicial authorities and I am sure that he will understand that the Government cannot interfere with that. It is therefore a matter of regret that some in Iran have consistently misrepresented the nature of the case and the role of the British Government. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot comment further on a case that is now before the courts. However, I have something to say about some of the non-legal ramifications of that case.

I regret to say that on 14 September there was a further shooting incident outside one of the compounds of Her Majesty's embassy at Tehran. That was certainly the third, and perhaps the fourth, such shooting since the beginning of this month. We have protested strongly to the Iranian Government and have urged them to take the necessary measures to deal with the perpetrators to acknowledge that such systematic intimidation of an embassy is wrong, against Iranian law and will be met with the full force of the law, whoever is involved. We have also pressed them to ensure the full protection of our embassy, and we will continue to make these points strongly to the Iranian authorities. It is difficult to enjoy good relations with a country when some of its citizens are shooting at our embassy with apparent impunity.

I mentioned earlier that one of our particular concerns is Iran's nuclear programme. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the IAEA's governing board met in Vienna last week, and adopted by consensus a resolution setting specific steps that Iran should take to help restore international confidence in its nuclear intentions. We regret that ahead of that resolution Iran walked out of the meeting. The aim of the resolution was to set out a way for Iran to resolve outstanding issues with the IAEA, and walking out will not help achieve that. We call on Iran to comply with all the provisions of that resolution; doing so will provide the clearest possible demonstration of Iran's stated commitment to transparency and co-operation in this field.

In case there should be any misunderstanding, and as EU partners have repeatedly made clear, we recognise Iran's right to generate electricity by means of nuclear power, subject, of course, to the necessary international safeguards. However, ceasing to develop facilities by means of which fissile material could be produced indigenously, together with rapid implementation of an additional protocol to Iran's existing comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA, would be key confidence-building steps.

The requirements set out in the resolution are no more than would be expected of any country that was a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and about whose nuclear programmes there was continued uncertainty. The intention is to enable Iran to resolve its outstanding difficulties identified by the IAEA. I therefore welcome Iran's statement to the IAEA general conference on 16 September, reaffirming Iran's commitment to the non-proliferation treaty and to its safeguards agreement and its commitment to negotiate an additional protocol.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of Iran. I know that he has a long-standing interest in this area. It is timely that he should have secured the debate now, given the events of the past few days—I do not suppose that they were on his mind when he requested the debate. I assure him and other hon. Members that the Foreign Office and the Government take Iran very seriously. There is the closest possible consultation between my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. The Government are united in supporting a tough policy against terrorism and nuclear proliferation wherever it occurs, and we, together with our EU partners, will continue to do all we can to support the process of reform in Iran, launched by President Khatami in 1997. Engagement is a two-way process and we look forward to Iran's co-operation on the issues of concern that I have outlined.

Sir Teddy Taylor

Might we perhaps have some positive outcome from today's debate if the Minister and the Government agreed to try to co-operate to see whether we could sell Iran some Airbuses to replace the local aircraft that are falling apart? That would bring money and jobs to Europe and good will to Iran and might help to solve all the problems. Would that not be a sensible thing to do? Will the Minister discuss that with his colleagues?

Mr. Mullin

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will not expect me to clinch a deal in the closing minutes of the debate, but I assure him that I shall take his point away and ensure that it is heard in appropriate quarters.

Mr. Lepper

The Minister referred to the human rights situation in Iran, and I referred in my intervention to the persecution of the Baha'i. Can the Minister tell us whether, when such issues are drawn to the attention of Ministers, they are raised with counterparts in the Iranian Government, either face to face or through the European Union's human rights dialogue with that Government?

Mr. Mullin

Yes, I can confirm that the issue of the treatment of the Baha'i, and of Christian minorities, has been raised repeatedly with the Iranian Government, who are well aware of our views on the subject. The Iranians are fully aware that we believe that the persecution of individuals on the grounds of their religious beliefs is completely unacceptable. While that situation carries on, they will continue to hear from us about it.