Iran General NewsBritish Parliament debates Iran policy - Part 1

British Parliament debates Iran policy – Part 1

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Iran Focus, London, Feb. 10 – The following is part one of the text of a debate on Britain’s Iran policy in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords on February 9: Iran Focus, London, Feb. 10 – The following is part one of the text of a debate on Britain’s Iran policy in the United Kingdom’s House of Lords on February 9:

Part one of the text can be found here: British Parliament debates Iran policy – Part 2

Part two of the text can be found here: British Parliament debates Iran policy – Part 3

House of Lords, United Kingdom
09 February 2006

Lord Hurd of Westwell rose to call attention to the situation in Iran; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am most grateful for the opportunity to start a discussion among your Lordships about Iran, which I think is timely and of great importance. What happens in Iran is linked with events in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, and to some extent we cannot make sense of this situation unless we look at the whole. An observer 10 years ago, trying to look forward, might have guessed that the Palestine dispute would remain unsettled. But I do not think that even in a nightmare he or she would have supposed that Britain would have 8,000 troops deployed in southern Iraq and be sending 4,000 troops to southern Afghanistan for three years. Both are dangerous missions in disorderly places, with troops in both cases in danger, not primarily from foreign invaders but from those Afghans and Iraqis who resent our presence as a foreign occupation. Nor would the observer have guessed that while extending ourselves in those two places we would be locked in a tense argument with a powerful country lying between those two deployments, because of well-founded fears that Iran has an ambition to copy Israel and Pakistan by becoming the third nuclear military power in the region.

My first point is this. I wish I felt confident that the planners in Whitehall, the Chiefs of Staff and, above all, the Cabinet sometimes looked at these linked issues as a whole. Of course they come from different backgrounds. We find ourselves in these situations—originally I had written “wandered into these situations”—for different reasons, but the situations are related. My worry, based on some experience, is that the more difficult the issues in each case, the more short-term will be the consideration of those issues. That is the first point on which I would like some reassurance.

It is easy to oversimplify—we all do it all the time—by trying to fit all these situations into one category. Some talk about them as part of the war against terror, the struggle for energy, the battle against tyranny and in favour of democracy, or the clash of civilisations or religions. All of those are elements. Just as the countries and situations are geographically linked, so are the elements within them. But we can only conclude, I believe, that we find ourselves in a thoroughly dangerous situation. It is dangerous for British troops, dangerous for British interests and dangerous for the peace of the world.

The handling of that situation, looked at as a whole for a moment, will require exceptional skill from the Government. It will involve disposing our Armed Forces, which are second to none in skill and, where necessary, cunning, and diplomatic and intelligence services, which have a high and deserved reputation. But all that depends on skilled, clear leadership from the Government. I hope that the Government and all of us will not be ashamed to learn from some mistakes of the recent past. Above all, I urge that this time, across the whole range of linked issues, we get our facts straight and put them plainly to Parliament and the public.

I have a special reason for making that last point. It is very hard, even for those of us who try to follow these matters, to follow them successfully and to discover what is happening on the ground in any of these areas, but particularly in Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. The media—this is entirely understandable and many of us have discussed it with journalists—are hugely concerned partly with the expense but overwhelmingly with the danger of sending people to cover these situations. That is particularly true in Iraq. It may well become true in Afghanistan, and there are different difficulties in Iraq.

The result is that there is no continuous thread of reporting in our newspapers. I find that I have to read the Herald Tribune or the Wall Street Journal—American newspapers—to get anything like a continuous thread of reporting. It is as if we are passengers in a vehicle driven by Ministers, as is right, but we are to some extent blindfolded. We therefore rely, more so than in other issues, on Ministers to see clearly and to have our confidence won as passengers by what they tell us. That is a big responsibility on government and it applies in these situations even more than usual.

On Iran, it seems to me that the Government must be right in opposing further proliferation in principle, and in this case in particular, and that they are right to distrust the assurances of a regime which is undemocratic, oppressive, unreliable and a friend to terrorism. They have also been right to build up pressure on that regime through mobilising diplomacy, and they have been right in their tactics. They have been right to join our European partners; the Foreign Secretary has been right to take the initiative with his colleagues in France and Germany; they have been right to get the approval of the European Union as a whole; and they have been right to set off down a diplomatic path. I believe that that will increasingly be the pattern for the future—for example, in our relationships with Russia.

We have a choice as Europeans. There is no compulsion and no treaty obligation but there are shared analyses and shared interests, which I believe increasingly will lead us, as in this case, not to squabble and fly off in different directions, as we did over Iraq, but to come together and work together.

The other big difference over the handling of Iraq is that this European effort is in partnership with the United States. European diplomacy was first accepted rather sceptically and grudgingly but then warmly welcomed by the United States, and it is now part of that country’s policy. This is the United States in the second term of President Bush. The rhetoric and the speeches are broadly the same—there is a continuity—but the practice is different. I have seen it described in one newspaper today as “neo-realism”, following the neo-conservatives. It is the rediscovery of diplomacy, and perhaps it is the State Department reasserting its control over foreign policy.

The first phase of this diplomacy, based on the IAEA, ended without agreement. That is not particularly surprising because I believe that we are in for a very long haul. But the achievements have occurred through the IAEA conclusions about the concealment and non-compliance practised by Iran. Those conclusions, and the endorsement of them by a wide range of the international community and, now, the acceptance that there needs to be a transfer of the discussion to the Security Council and acceptance even by Russia and China, are important, although limited, achievements. Now there is a pause until March and then the Security Council will discuss the matter. Again, there is a big difference between what one might call Bush 1 and Bush 2. There is no longer scorn of the Security Council but a reliance on it.

The pressures build on Iran, but I believe that they will take a long time to build effectively. Can the Minister tell us something about the status of the Russian proposal to enrich uranium for Iran in Russia? Is that acceptable to us or to the United States? What are the prospects for it, and what is Iran saying about it?

I should mention sanctions because that issue is in the background of both this debate and the Security Council debate. I shall not press the Minister for details, but I hope that the Government will be calculating what might do some good, what might increase the pressure and what the traffic in the Security Council is likely to bear. The United States already applies extensive sanctions to Iran because of history. What would therefore be involved is the Europeans, Russia, India, China and so on joining in some of those sanctions to help build up the pressure.

Perhaps I may say a word about the use of force. There are always bellicose journalists who urge us to bring on the bombers. But I think that everybody, including those in Washington, is fully aware of the grave risks involved. It may be tempting to speculate on a focused attack just on nuclear installations. However, we know from Iraq that there is no such thing as an attack that is so focused that no innocent people are killed. Any such attack involves killing considerable numbers of innocent people. I am not qualified to comment on the technical possibilities of a focused attack on nuclear installations, but such an attack would leave an untouched, angry and revengeful government in Tehran with probably a united people behind them. That would be true whether the United States or Israel launched the attack. An attack by Israel would be regarded—accurately, to a large extent—as a joint effort with the United States.

I have not seen the next point made before. However, Britain would be vulnerable in the above situation. We have chosen to station our troops, in modest numbers, whether in southern Iraq or southern Afghanistan, where we are uniquely vulnerable to this kind of retaliation from nearby Iran. We cannot realistically and for ever rule out the use of force. If the regime in Iran or its successor moved from words and piled up an unmistakable danger, I do not think that we could entirely rule out the use of force. But we should not deceive ourselves that we can have some sort of strike without a war, or some sort of war that does not involve huge dangers and damage and many, many thousands of casualties, our own and Iranian.

I should say something about democracy and the attitude and appeal of the President of the United States. In a way his appeal to the Iranian people was similar to the appeal to the Iraqi people. But there is a difference. Saddam Hussein and his family were corrupt and self-seeking and built palaces as part of the parade of power. In Iran we are dealing with puritanism as well as patriotism. President Ahmadinejad appeals to the poor, dresses simply and behaves simply. He has the same sort of appeal as Hamas on the West Bank and in Gaza and as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. We should not neglect the importance of the puritan appeal in an area of the world that is marked by such glaring inequalities.

Patriotism is also important. Iran is an ancient country with a huge history of which it is very conscious. This is more than simply a platitude for after-dinner speeches; it is a relevant political fact. We have forgotten so much of our history and, in a way, the Iranians remember too much of theirs. They remember past glory; they remember humiliation—at our hands, Russian hands and American hands; and the coup of 1953 against Mossadeq—things which we never knew or have forgotten. Out of this comes a deep reluctance to be told by other people how they should behave.

I will not deal with the question of exiles and the rights of the PMOI because other noble Lords will make that point. They may be right in urging the deregistration of that organisation from the terror list. But I do not believe that we can say that exiles from abroad hold the keys to the future of Iran. We made that mistake in Iraq and I do not think that we should repeat it, however admirable and brave these people should be.

We need to build up the pressures, but also to indicate the rewards. An Iran which accepted to forswear military power; recognised the need for peace with Israel, as all the Arab governments do, and had decent respect for human rights—that Iran—should have a notable part in deciding the future of the Middle East and the security of the Gulf. Arab countries are already beginning to talk about the possibility of observer status for that sort of Iran. We should say this now so that it clearly sees both the pressures building against it if its increasing isolation continues, but also the rewards available if it takes the other course. The pressures are inevitable, and we should build them up, but the rewards should be evident. That requires patience. And patience, in the rather hectic, media-driven world in which we live, is often mistaken for weakness. I am clear, however, that patient strength is the only way in which to see our way through these great dangers. I beg to move for Papers.

Lord Temple-Morris: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, for giving us the chance to debate Iran at a very topical and relevant time. I congratulate him on the way he has introduced the debate, and I shall be referring to many of his points as I go along. He is aware of my long-time interest in Iran, and I am only too well aware of the balanced and knowledgeable way that he dealt with Iran, often in difficult times, when he was Foreign Secretary.

First, by way of a declaration of interest, I have never had, and do not have, any financial interests in Iran. There is a personal interest, however, in that I have been married, if not to the country, to one of its former citizens for 41 years. I am the President, and have been for some years, of the Iran Society. I was an officer, mainly chairman, of the British-Iranian All-Party Parliamentary Group in this building for 31 years; I resigned from that office, while in this House, together with a number of other offices to do with Iran—keeping the Iran Society, which is purely cultural and non-political—because of my deep reluctance to have anything officially to do, as a backbench volunteer, with the present regime in Iran.

By way of background—the noble Lord, Lord Hurd of Westwell, has touched on this—we are dealing with an old civilisation and a very fine people who have been grossly abused by various rulers and invaders. Over a couple of thousand years, they have developed a psyche of weathering the storm, and absorbing the ways of the invader. That has led, in order to survive, to their wanting to be told what to do, and even an expectation that others will do it for them. That gave us the vulnerability which led to the tragic Iranian revolution of 1979. The net result of that revolution, and the psyche of the people, was that the only two organised elements at the time took control: the mosques and the secular Left. I mention this because it is relevant to what we do in the future.

After the revolution, there was a particularly vicious and nasty civil war between 1979 and 1983. The secular Left, in the form of an organisation that exists now—the People’s Mujaheddin of Iran—lost out and eventually left the country in 1983. Before, during and after the war, it suffered persecution of monumental and extremely unpleasant proportions, which extended to its female as well to as its male members.

The United States took the wrong approach to the present situation. It tried to isolate Iran from an early stage, which made the situation worse. It failed to support elements in Iran which could have made more of a difference then than perhaps they can now. It is a sad precedent that when a country such as America, much as we love it, is expelled from a country—for example, Cuba—it finds it difficult to forgive.

Europe is just about as united as it can be over Iran, but we are for ever in commercial competition within Iran and we are not strong enough on our own, without the United States, to make a real difference. Russia is heavily involved commercially in Iran, particularly in its nuclear industry. It will, I think, play it both ways and end up profiting out of Iran. China, which is on the wings, has made a speciality of getting into many countries with which the West is in difficulty or is leaving. In such cases, it does not, I am afraid, care very much about the nature of the regime. Finally, let us not forget India. India has an awful lot to gain from Iran. Its outlook, subject to international public opinion, will be commercial.

Internally, Iran is in a mess; it is in an economic and political mess. It has more than 60 million people. It cannot provide jobs for its youth. It has an Islamic government. Nobody is really in power—a different answer here, a different answer there, but with one important exception: internal security. It is completely dependent on its oil, gas and natural resources. It has a bad infrastructure. Its aeroplanes crash; its lifts do not work. I could continue in that vein. Its non-oil exports are minimal. Tragically, it has made a mess even of its caviar industry. It is dependent on the West for consumer goods. Noble Lords will perhaps have a different view, but the East will not be able to replace the West in a country which has always leant towards the West and will continue to do so. It is nonsense to think that the West needs it more than it needs us. We need its oil, but it needs the money with which we pay for it.

Iran presents certain problems for us, the first of which is the nuclear issue. I am convinced—the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, has already mentioned it—that it is going for a nuclear bomb, and I am equally convinced that it cannot be trusted with it. This leads to the seriousness underlying this debate, as has been said.

Terrorism has largely been limited so far to Arab-Israel, to Hezbollah and to Hamas, but some serious meddling in Iraq does not augur well for the future. British lives have been lost because of it. So it is a serious situation. If there was a military strike in whole or in part on Iran, the potential terrorism that would come out of Iran would dwarf anything that is happening in Iraq, however ghastly that might be.

We need to strike a balance between pressure and maximum sanctions and isolation. Isolation is dangerous and unpredictable, but pressure remains relevant. People will argue for dialogue. I have spent 26 years since the Iranian revolution indulging in dialogue with Iran. I am quite convinced as a result that it will not genuinely engage and that it will play for time. I have already mentioned its vulnerabilities: the economy, infrastructure and population. We must support dissidents within and outside Iran. They expect it and they want a lead on it. Secondly, we must continually expose—and not just in a little resolution in some UN committee—its atrocious human rights violations. We must support protestors within the country all the time. A recent strike by bus drivers in Tehran and their repression was largely ignored by western media in spite of appeals—particularly to trades unions—to help. That is an example of something we should take action on.

Finally, one thing will really hurt and will illustrate where the Government stand. I have thought a lot about it, and I have never advocated this before. I dealt earlier with the civil war in Iran after the revolution. To de-proscribe the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran—which has never been a terrorist organisation as far as this country is concerned and has a perfectly respectable political wing—as a terrorist organisation would be the biggest signal that could be sent. Dialogue is no longer a priority, action and pressure are. In bringing action and pressure, we have to encourage the Iranian people, not the administration, because, at the end of the day, only they can do it.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon: My Lords, may I remind noble Lords that this is a timed debate? Each noble Lord has seven minutes and if he goes beyond seven minutes on the clock, he is into his eighth minute. Every minute we go above detracts from the time that the Minister has to respond.

Lord Chidgey: My Lords, I shall keep that remark in mind. It pays to put our relationship with Iran in some perspective. As has been said already, the Iranians are a very proud people. Through their history, they themselves directly to the ancient Persian empire. Indeed, they tell me that the collapse of the Persian Empire, following its defeat by Alexander the Great, still grieves them to this day, some several thousand years later. So the injustices that the Iranians suffered at the hands of the United States and us over 50 years ago are as fresh and disturbing to Iranians as if they happened yesterday. Iranians remember well that in 1950s, the United Kingdom introduced a two-year embargo on Iranian oil exports as a response to Mossadeq’s socialist government nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. They remember well that the United Kingdom, again in league with the United States, orchestrated the overthrow of their Prime Minister and the reinstallation of the Shah to counter the threat of Iranian oil and gas fields falling under influence of Russia.

When I visited Iran, I was amazed to find that it is one of the few countries in the world where the BBC is intensely distrusted. Iranians believe that BBC World Service announcements to Iran facilitated the regime change of Mossadeq. Again, they believe that the 20 million demonstrators who took to the streets against the Shah, which led to his fall, were mobilised through the BBC. That is what Iranians believe, and today they are still deeply suspicious of the United Kingdom instigating regime change from outside.

Iranians look around and see the US and UK military presence in Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan and the Gulf states. They are more or less surrounded. It is hardly surprising if Iranians consider that the pursuit of nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attack is the logical course. So how should we react? Clearly, threats of military reprisal could well be counter-productive. They could reinforce the inherent distrust and the hold that the regime has on the Iranian people through fear. They could encourage conservatives in the Iranian regime to pursue nuclear weapons development with all possible haste.

Our intelligence and other intelligence sources conclude that Iran is pursuing a twin-track programme: the legal development of nuclear-fuelled power generation, as a substitute for gas and oil and the illegal development of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons—illegal because Iran is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Intelligence sources have concluded that Iran is aiming to reach a stage when it can switch from civil nuclear power to include nuclear weaponry development in the shortest time possible. Iran’s scientists and engineers are thought to be about five years away from producing Iran’s first thermonuclear weapon.

Clearly the West has to react, but surely not by attempting to repeat the type of regime change carried out in Iraq. Intervention must be under the aegis and through the authority and legitimacy of the United Nations. Any other route would surely lead to ever greater and possibly catastrophic instability throughout the region.

As a first step, the UN Security Council could condemn Iranian failure to comply with the undertakings that were given to the IAEA, and demand compliance. The United Nations could follow up by authorising a number of actions to reinforce that compliance. It could, for example, seek UN oil sanctions. As has been mentioned, oil comprises 80 per cent of Iranian exports. It is unlikely to be easy to achieve this. China, for example, takes about a quarter of Iran’s oil exports, and her burgeoning economy has a huge appetite for oil. Russia, too, is likely to object, and India, as has been mentioned, as well as Japan, South Korea, France and Italy are all major customers for Iranian oil.

We could seek energy equipment sanctions through a United Nations Security Council prohibition of the transfer or sale of oil and gas technology to Iran. That is a smart sanction, and could be a significant move that affected the regime more than the Iranian people. Again, however, it could be difficult to get agreement, given Russia’s energy interests. Are military strikes a contender? Under Chapter 7 of the UN charter, the UNSC could authorise a strike against military targets, but that is extremely unlikely. Military strikes by the United States, possibly backed by Israel, are perhaps more likely, but given the extent of the scale of the nuclear development facilities at Esfahan, it would need to go far beyond the concept of mere surgical or pinpoint strikes to be effective.

The inevitable outcomes of that would surely be a large number of civilian deaths, and the Iranian military conventional retaliation against Israel and US and United Kingdom assets in the region. Are we ready for that? It could also mean the destruction of the ancient capital of Esfahan, founded by Shah Abbas the Great in the 16th century. A world heritage site sits on the crossroads of the ancient silk caravan routes. Are we prepared to commit that destruction?

There needs to be a change in the political climate in Iran to encourage policies and initiatives that are not based on the presumptions of external threats and duplicity. In that context, the use of external agents to instigate internal regime change is clearly a non-starter. The Iranian regime is under internal pressure to change. The population has more than doubled since the revolution. The young people are vastly in the majority, and they are pressing for greater social freedom and economic opportunity, but external threats, implied or direct, allow the Iranian Government to suppress the call for change by prioritising the need to defend Iran from external attack. While the Iranian regime can mobilise public support in defence against threats from the West and thus justify harsh restrictions on civil liberties, reform will be slow.

Finally, there needs to be a clear demonstration from the United States and us that, through compliance with the IAEA, Iran need not be under military threat. We could start with a security guarantee to Iran from the United States, and continue with a commitment in the longer term to the creation of a nuclear-free zone throughout the Middle East as an extension to a successful peace process in which Iran could play a prominent role. I fear, however, that that is a long haul indeed.

The Lord Bishop of Rochester: My Lords, in the debate today, many will rightly focus on the political situation in Iran—some have done so already—and on its implications for the region and for the world. Iran’s relations with her neighbours, the confrontational situation with Israel and international unease about Iran’s nuclear ambitions are all causes of significant concern.

A number of people in this Chamber can address these concerns better than I can. I am sure that they will do so. Indeed, they have done so. I wish, however, to draw your Lordships’ attention to some features of the situation which should not be forgotten. The first is that Iran is not only a revolutionary Islamic republic. As has been said, it is the bearer of an ancient and dynamic civilisation which predates the coming not only of Islam but of Christianity. It has also had a hugely creative relationship with Judaism. The remaining Jews in Iran are a legacy from the time of Queen Esther.

This civilisation has its own sense of history, its own literature—historical, poetical, scientific and theological—and its own culture. Nor have the people of Iran always been victims of invaders. They have sometimes been conquerors of other parts of the world themselves. The relationship of that complex heritage to Shi’a Islam is not always straightforward. It is largely awareness of that civilisation that distinguishes Iran from its Arab neighbours. As a factor in the national consciousness, it should never be underestimated. It would certainly play an important role in the cultural and spiritual renewal of the Irani people.

Secondly, there is a great deal of ferment in Iran; that has been hinted at already. There is a spiritual hunger and thirst that is not being quenched and that continues to seek freedom for the spiritual quest. Young people, who are by far the majority, are dissatisfied with the artificial constraints imposed on their access to knowledge, entertainment and current affairs. They wish to be treated as adults in terms of their relationships, and are looking for trust not for repression. It is difficult to see how any regime can indefinitely hold back the tide for change.

Thirdly, the ulema or the fuquha, the religious scholars themselves, or at least some of them, are opening up to the outside world. In Tehran, Qorn and Meshed, they are studying, translating and commenting on contemporary philosophical, literary and theological movements and works. There are projects for translating the works of western theologians, for instance—people of other faiths—and there are regular programmes for inter-faith dialogue. In the past week we have seen the dangers of caricature all too clearly. We must not succumb to that tendency but evaluate carefully where such intellectual activity is leading and what impact it will have in the long run on that nation’s life.

Music, poetry and film continue to flourish even in post-revolutionary Iran and are often the vehicles for social comment and political criticism. Any policy of exchange will need to support the recovery of Iran’s ancient heritage. The work of the British Institute of Persian Studies has been second to none in that respect and I hope it can continue. The young need to be encouraged and the religious scholars supported in their wish to widen their horizons. Whatever happens politically, we must make every effort to continue and increase academic, cultural and religious contacts.

I make a final observation: the United Nations and other monitoring agencies have consistently singled out the parlous state of Iran’s religious and ethnic minorities. Their freedom is in many cases significantly restricted. Their properties have been confiscated and they live in constant fear of being reported to the Basiji, or revolutionary guard. Their survival and welfare should be in our minds when we consider the political options.

We pray that Iran will, once again, attain greatness not on the basis of its military power but because of the sensitivity of its people, the scope of its art and literature and the sweetness of its language. We pray that it will be once more a respected member of the international community and that it will make its own special contribution. As an Iranian poet has said,

“Iran Khudaya bar zamin, dar har Zaman azad bad
Kuh o dar o dastish hami, az rachmata abad bad”.

He says,

“Oh God may Iran be free in every age, its hills plains and forests flourish by your grace”.

I am sure we can all say “Amen” to that.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, for initiating the debate and for providing the opportunity to consider the position of human rights in Iran and the inclusion of the PMOI on the terrorist list.

It is just about a year ago since I spoke at a symposium of parliamentarians and jurists calling for the removal of the PMOI from the terrorist list. I said then that I hoped that the following year would be the year in which a dark and brutal chapter in Iran’s proud history would close and a new dawn would begin. But what is the reality? What has happened since? As we speak, Nazanin, an 18 year-old Iranian girl, languishes in solitary confinement in a Tehran gaol, counting down the last days of her short life. Nazanin has been sentenced to death by one of Iran’s Islamic courts. She was accused of killing the man trying to rape her in a park in Tehran when she was just 17 years-old. A weeping Nazanin told the religious judge that she and her 16 year-old niece were attacked by three men who wanted to rape them. The judge accepted her account but nevertheless condemned her to death. This is the regime we are talking about.

Nazanin’s story is not an isolated one. Earlier this month, another girl, Delara Darabi, was sentenced to death for a crime she allegedly committed as a minor—a crime she absolutely denies. A particularly repugnant case is that of 16 year-old Atefeh Rajabi who, in August 2004, was hanged in public for what the religious judge described as “acts incompatible with chastity”. He then personally put the rope around her neck.

Since the new president assumed office—undemocratically elected by only 10 per cent of the population—150 men and women have been hanged in public in Iran. The total number of political executions in the past 26 years is believed to exceed 120,000, many of whom have been minors. Iran has one of the most deplorable records of human rights violations in the world. There have been no fewer than 54 UN resolutions condemning the ruling mullahs for their continuing grave violations of human rights. As has been widely reported by international human rights organisations, the government of the radical Islamic president has been stepping up international repression. Executions, arbitrary arrests and violent suppression of anti-government protests and strikes are on the rise.

The nuclear danger can never be underestimated; it has to be one of our major concerns. But that does not mean that we should lose sight of the fact that millions of Iranians are living under this repressive and theocratic regime. From the onset, the president’s policies have exhibited a volatile mixture of nationalism and radical Islamic social engineering. His language has been one of contempt for the international community and for religious and ethnic minorities; there has been xenophobia, anti-Semitism and an absolute rejection of compromise, so clearly illustrated by his vow to defy referral to the Security Council of his suspected nuclear ambitions.

As is so often the case, women are the first victims of the renewed crackdown by the ultra-Islamic radicals. Earlier this month, the president’s adviser said that plans to enforce gender segregation on Iran’s pedestrian walkways were well underway. The official said that this was part of a government plan called “Enhancing the hijab”—that is the veil—”culture and female chastity”. When the president was the mayor of Tehran, he ordered all buildings belonging to the municipality to have separate lifts for men and women. I assume those lifts were actually working.

In Iran, violence against women has been legalised and institutionalised by the state. A recent study conducted by the National Welfare Organisation found that two-thirds of Iranian women are victims of domestic violence. Iran remains one of the only countries in the world where women are stoned to death. Last year, the UN Special Rapporteur for Violence Against Women, Professor Ertürk, chastised Iran over what she said were abuses and discrimination built into the Islamic republic’s laws. She wrote in her report:

“Iran’s laws do not provide protection for victims of domestic violence and make it difficult to escape violence through divorce”.

She also said that suffering wives face time-consuming judicial procedures and stigmatisation.

At the same time as condemning the Iranian regime, we should be offering our support to Mrs Maryam Rajavi, as did my noble friend Lord Temple-Morris, and the Iranian resistance for staying true to their goal of standing up for the basic rights of the Iranian people. As well as revealing to the world the mullahs’ nuclear weapons programme, their terrorist atrocities carried out in various parts of the world and their interference in Iraq, the PMOI and the NCRI have been fundamentally the primary source of information concerning the Iranian regime. As the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, said, getting information is difficult.

It is therefore a grave injustice that the PMOI should find itself proscribed and have restrictions placed on its activities. The placing of the illegitimate terror tag on the PMOI was an undeserved gift to the mullahs, as has been the policy of appeasement which only strengthens the mullahs in their abuse of human rights. It is about time that we stopped appeasing the mullahs. It is about time that we de-proscribed the PMOI. The proscription of the PMOI does not have the support of many hundreds of parliamentarians, British jurists or the British public. I believe that Britain is in a unique position to take the lead in launching a new policy initiative on Iran and forging a transatlantic consensus that will through a robust, creative and firm diplomacy prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. I ask my noble friend the Minister whether the Government are prepared to take up that challenge.

I end by doing something I never believed I would ever do—quote from an editorial in the Sun. It says:

“Meanwhile, the EU has stupidly labelled the only effective internal opposition, the PMOI, as terrorists.

The PMOI has never targeted the West. It publicly ceased attacks on the Iranian military in 2001.

Foreign Secretary Jack Straw must today demand EU action to lift this crazy ban.

And stop appeasing a regime that aims to hold the Arab and Western world at nuclear gunpoint”.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, I, too, agree with the Sun on this occasion. I thank my noble friend Lord Hurd of Westwell for having initiated this debate. I am well aware, when listening to someone with his experience, how much I have to learn.

I start with some facts known to us all. Few doubt that Iran is a sponsor of terrorism, retaining close links with the most notorious terrorist groups in the Middle East. Few doubt that it has been making trouble in Iraq. Few question that with the intensification of its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, it is a threat to world peace. Few doubt that the regime is an evil dictatorship with a complete contempt for human rights. But after the experience of Iraq, I doubt whether anyone yearns for a war launched by the US, Britain or anyone else to topple the regime. Most people want to see change—peaceful change, if possible—brought about by the people of Iran themselves. One would like to see the West pursuing policies which make such change more rather than less possible.

I frankly admit that it is only comparatively recently that I have come to study these matters, and I repeat that I am no expert. Noble Lords will also appreciate that I am not automatically attracted to organisations with marxist leanings. But I have come to the same conclusion as the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, and many others on all sides of the House. It is clear that the PMOI is a member party of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which is an alliance of a number of parties, individuals and groups, acting as a Parliament in exile, calling for an end to the present regime, calling for free elections and a democratic state. As for the PMOI itself, it appears to be by far the largest and most active opposition movement in Iran, and before being banned by the regime in 1981, had half a million members.

The US Congressional Research Service describes the organisation as,

“a major opponent of the regime in Tehran, advocating democracy, human rights protection and free-market economics for Iran”.

Right now, the PMOI is active within Iran carrying out propaganda and political campaigns and it has proved itself the best source of intelligence about what is going on there. In 2002, it was the first to reveal Iran’s secret nuclear sites.

I pay close attention to the words of my noble friend Lord Hurd who doubts whether the exiles have the capacity to bring about change, but nobody has told me of any organisation other than the PMOI which offers any hope of bringing democracy to Iran. Nobody has told me of another organisation which also has broad support and which is also in a position to tap the huge discontent and yearning for change in Iranian society evidenced by the boycotting of the last presidential election.

Back in 1997, America put the PMOI on its list of terrorist organisations. There is reason to think that that was not so much out of concern for the organisation’s activities as to further a policy of rapprochement with the regime. The Clinton administration made what a senior US official described as,

“a goodwill gesture to the new Iranian President Muhammad Khatami”,

and in March 2001, Britain followed suit, including the PMOI in a list of 21 organisations proscribed under the Terrorism Act 2000. I can well understand why that happened at that time, but the trouble is that by our actions against an organisation which has certainly never attacked western or British interests, we have been helping no one but the mullahs. By attaching the terrorist tag to the only organisation capable of opposing them, we have been legitimising their rule. We have enabled them to argue that, faced with what the West apparently recognises is a terrorist threat, they have been entitled within Iran to take stern, even brutal measures. And of course, proscription has certainly weakened gravely the ability of the PMOI to present its case in America and Europe. It has stopped it engaging in political activity to gather support and build up opposition to the regime.

In those circumstances, I ask the Government to consider whether the time has come to take the lead in de-proscribing the PMOI. I do not accept that the PMOI was a terrorist organisation within the meaning of the 2001 Act. Its operations were carried out against the military targets of a tyrannical regime. In a sense, all that is beside the point, as one can see from reading the debate in 2001. On that occasion, the Home Secretary was at pains to point out that, even after having come to the conclusion that a particular organisation is concerned in terrorism within the meaning of Section 3 of the Act, he had a discretion whether to list it or not. One can see why. If the powers in the Act had existed in 1938 and the British government of that day had sought to use them to proscribe an organisation bent on using violent means to rid Germany of the Nazis, I like to think that the government would have been condemned by every decent citizen.

The parallel is obvious. So long as we continue to proscribe the PMOI, we undermine and weaken the principal opposition to a regime whose continued existence is certainly not in our interests. We make it easy for the regime to brush aside the so-called reformers in its own ranks and enable them to give the impression to their own people that the West, if not on the side of the regime, is against those who oppose it. We are helping to prop up a tyrannical regime with a complete contempt for human rights. If on the other hand we de-proscribe the PMOI, we will be signalling support for the democratic change in Iran which we surely all desire.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I do not propose to follow the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, by talking a great deal about the PMOI, partly because I think it is a difficult problem. I issue one note of warning: after our experience in Iraq with Mr Chalabi and his associates, one should be careful about treating the evidence of exiles as full proof of the position that they hold. There are often people with strong interests, not least in Iran, in retaining what was, in the past under the Shah, a pretty feudal regime. One has to bear that in mind in deciding whether to support a particular group of people who are essentially associated with the families that for so long ran Iran.

The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, was wise to say that there is a certain appeal, not least in the Middle East, to people who exercise a puritanical attitude towards their own enrichment. In a world where corruption is profoundly known, it is important to notice that somebody will attract support simply because they live in an austere way and appear to be still a man of the people. While I in no way condone the terrible human rights abuses that have occurred in Iran—the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, was absolutely right in what she said, not least about the dreadful position of women in the country—we have to be careful in simply dismissing the appeal that the president and those around him may have at the present time to many Iranians who over the years have felt profoundly exploited and maltreated by the West.

In that context, I add one thing to what the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, said, because it is often easy for us to forget these things. There was Mossadeq, there was the Shah himself who to a great extent was imposed upon the country, but we should not forget that the most dreadful war of recent times in terms of the loss of young men was the Iran-Iraq war. The level of casualties in that war was equivalent to the First World War in Britain or France; it was the sacrifice of a generation. That generation was mostly sacrificed to arms and weapons provided to Iraq by the West, particularly by the United States, in order to defeat and weaken Iran. That is not long ago, it is a recent memory and feeds deeply into Iranian paranoia about the West—a paranoia which is not, alas, entirely a fantasy.

There are a couple of things about the approach that we might now take, by way of one other observation. The West has supported the whole architecture of nuclear non-proliferation with its words, but not, alas, with its deeds. As recently as last spring, there was an attempt to reject the comprehensive test ban treaty, specifically because there was an attempt by the first Bush administration—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, that the second administration has learnt both patience and wisdom—to escape from the treaty, to talk about bunker busters and a new generation of nuclear weapons, and to flatly refuse to carry out the responsibilities of the nuclear powers towards sustaining the non-proliferation treaty. We ourselves have gone a long way to undermine the strength of that architecture. We have to answer in part to ourselves for the way we in which we weakened the non-proliferation treaties.

Colleagues in this House may recall that as recently as 19 January of this year, President Chirac has this to say at the appropriately named Finistère base of the French armed forces:

“in the face of the concerns of the present and the uncertainties of the future, nuclear deterrence remains the fundamental guarantee of our security”.

It is phrases and thoughts like that that clearly feed the Iranian belief that they too should protect their security, surrounded as they are by many hostile states. It is worth adding that they have noticed that both India and Pakistan, after a great deal of world furore as they reached the point of becoming nuclear powers, became quite acceptable to the international community having become nuclear powers—in the teeth of the IAEA and of the UN regimes to prevent proliferation.

What might be done about all this? I echo the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, in asking about the Russian proposal to deal with the enriching of uranium and to then supply Iran. I understand that the first reaction to that was one of rejection by the government of Iran, but it is the one show in town that may have some life in it. The fact that Russia has a $1 billion development contract with Iran to develop the Shahab nuclear missiles—the missiles are not currently nuclear but could become so—is serious, but it gives Russia a disproportionate amount of influence. India also has great influence, and has so far not been brought into the discussion about Iran’s position.

Lastly, what early hints were there in the beginning of the diplomatic minuet with Iran that there might be some possibility of discussing a non-aggression pact in the Middle East? There is a problem; Israel is a nuclear power at the present time. In looking more widely at the position of the region, as did the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, in introducing this fascinating debate, there is a real possibility that a non-aggression pact linked to a slow down and, eventually, to a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East might get us somewhere.

Iran has to be persuaded that she is not going to be attacked out of the blue in the way that Iraq was, and she has to be persuaded that a response to that by either sanctions or, worse, the loosing of terrorist forces over the whole of the region would present the whole world with a catastrophe, and one that would exact a colossal price from us all.

To conclude, one line that we might pursue was eloquently and beautifully expressed by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester. We should stop to think for a moment whether Iran might be at least as well approached by an attempt to build up an inter-faith dialogue, given that its council of guardians are the people who actually run the place, than by the conventional methods of politics. I agree with what the right reverend Prelate hinted at: that through theology and culture we may begin to establish the kind of links with Iran that one day may bring about the change that all of us want to see—the enlightenment in that remarkable civilisation.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, it is well over two years since this House debated, through an Unstarred Question that I put on the Order Paper, the question of Iran’s relationship with the international community. It is thus timely that, on the initiative of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, we should return to the subject now—all the more so because the relationship has not evolved positively, as was then hoped; quite the contrary.

The EU3’s efforts to agree with Iran the objective criteria necessary to alleviate legitimate concerns about that country’s nuclear programme have met with a frustrating combination of prevarication, evasion and the reversal of commitments to suspend all work on uranium enrichment. At the same time, the new president of Iran has fuelled international concern with a series of bellicose statements, in particular about the state of Israel, which would be unacceptable in the mouth of any head of government but which are all the more alarming coming from one whose country’s nuclear programme cannot yet be demonstrated by the IAEA to be exclusively peaceful in nature, and which possesses a sophisticated missile capability. It seems entirely appropriate that this matter should now be reported to the UN Security Council, and quite unreasonable that Iran should consider such a report as being in some way a hostile act for which it is not wholly responsible.

What is the course of action in the Security Council most likely to secure the objective we all share—including, purportedly, the government of Iran—of certainty that Iran’s nuclear programme is and will remain exclusively civilian? As a first step, I suggest that the Security Council should clearly set out what is required of Iran to achieve that objective and what is needed to avoid a situation in which the further pursuit of Iran’s nuclear programme might be considered a threat to international peace and security.

A complete cessation of all enrichment activities, whether research or production, is surely an essential part of this, not because it is a legal requirement under the non-proliferation treaty—it is not—but because Iran’s longstanding clandestine activities in this field, including the purchase of technology from Pakistan, taken together with the better understanding that we have now of the scope that uranium enrichment production capacity provides for a country to switch to a military programme, makes it essential. Similarly, Iran’s continued acceptance of the inspection regime provided for in the Additional Protocol will be essential. In return, Iran has the right to get absolute guarantees, but no obstacles will be put in the way of the development of a bona fide civil nuclear programme. In the short term that may best be achieved by the Russian offer of enrichment services; in the medium and longer term, and to counter Iran’s claims that it is being treated discriminatorily, I would believe that we need a general system of international guarantees of enrichment services operating through the IAEA. This proposal was put forward by the UN Secretary-General last year on the recommendation of the high-level panel, and it seems to be gaining a wider degree of international support. I would be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether the Government are yet ready publicly to throw their weight behind it—and, if not, why not.

There is much talk of sanctions against Iran, and it may come to that; but it should surely do so only if Iran refuses to co-operate or endlessly prevaricates over fulfilling what the Security Council states is essential, or if it continues to reverse its policy of full co-operation with the IAEA. The most effective sanction is the unity of the international community. The Government have done well to secure the agreement of the five permanent members of the Security Council on the need for the IAEA to report on this matter to the Security Council. It will be of the greatest importance to maintain that unity. Of course, if the price of unity is inaction in the face of Iranian refusal to co-operate, that would be too high a price to pay. But patience and perseverance are more likely to produce results than pressure for immediate action on sanctions.

I also believe that we have to look wider than the nuclear issue in isolation, if the drift away from diplomacy and towards coercion is to be halted. Iran does have legitimate security concerns and, while it is not legitimate for it to develop nuclear weapons in response, it has a right to expect those concerns to be taken seriously. It is surely high time to begin exploring more actively whether the establishment of some regional security institutions, based on co-operation between the three main powers in the Gulf sub-region—Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia—could provide part of the response to those concerns.

It is also an inescapable fact that Iran has security concerns about the intentions of the United States. While I welcome the much strengthened US support for the efforts of the EU3, I cannot see how those concerns can be addressed or dissipated without some direct contact between Iran and the United States. If the US can talk to the North Koreans and discuss its security concerns, why is it so inconceivable that it should do so to the Iranians? If bilateral contact is unacceptable, perhaps a group of which the United States could be a member could take up a dialogue.

It is clear that we are going to have to live through a considerable period of heightened tension between Iran and the international community. It is important that the EU3 continues to pursue a coherent and flexible strategy—one that combines firmness over the nuclear issue with a willingness to look beyond that to a prospect of enhanced co-operation. So far as Iran’s internal politics are concerned, recent developments cannot but be a serious discouragement to all who want to see a fully democratic Iran, in which sectarian and ultra-nationalist views no longer determine Iranian foreign policy. But it is for Iranians themselves, and not for us, to seek to bring that about. Loose talk about regime change is liable to be counter-productive, merely strengthening the hand of those in power and encouraging the very policy options that we are seeking to avoid—just as bad as public discussions of military options. Of course these do exist; it would be na-ve in the extreme to suppose otherwise. But it is surely right to make it clear at every stage and to every interlocutor that the policies that we are pursuing are to be achieved by diplomacy and peaceful means and not by the threats of force.

Finally, I make a plea from someone who began his diplomatic career 45 years ago in Tehran. We must really try to put ourselves in the shoes of the Iranians and to understand their thinking. It would be quite wrong to suppose that this is exclusively conditioned by religious extremism. Some of the things that President Ahmadinejad says could just as well have been said—indeed, they were said—by Prime Minister Mossadeq in the 1950s. Iran’s experience of being pushed around and manipulated by the great powers is a long and bitter one. We need to appeal to the pragmatic instincts, which exist in every Iranian whom I have ever known—and also to avoid playing to those memories of earlier defeats and humiliations. To coin a phrase, we need to show them respect, even when we disagree with them.

Lord Anderson of Swansea: My Lords, I follow and adopt the wise and measured words of the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and particularly the appeal to see ourselves as the Iranians see us. I also congratulate, as have other noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, on his initiation of this debate and on drawing attention to the grave and in some ways urgent nature of the Question. It is a test for us all of the limits of the limits of soft power and hard power.

When the Foreign Affairs Committee in another place published its report on Iran in March 2004, we began by stressing the geo-strategic significance of the country, surrounded by volatile neighbours, and with substantial oil and gas reserves and a large population, as well as the positive contribution Iran could make to vital UK interests—the Middle East peace process, the war on terror, Iraq, and the drug supply, on which we have co-operated very closely with Iran. Our conclusions appear today somewhat optimistic in the light of wild rhetoric of President Ahmadinejad and Iran’s conduct on the nuclear issue. But our broad conclusions remain valid. Iran is a powerful country. The balance of regional power, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, has swung decisively in its favour. It makes sense to co-operate in areas of mutual interest such as drug control. Now, however, the nuclear problem puts all others in the shade.

Dealing with that issue requires an understanding of the history of Iran, the motivation of its leaders and the complex dynamics of the parallel power structures. In particular, we should ponder where each step that we take along the road may lead, what is our end game and the attendant dangers to regional and indeed world peace. The deal brokered by the EU3 in autumn 2003 was hailed at the time as a triumph of EU diplomacy. Indeed, members of the Foreign Affairs Committee were there at the time of the deal. It certainly bought time in which other key countries, such as Russia and China, came to recognise the dangers. The question remains whether it has been wholly played out or whether parts, such as security guarantees—the attempt to address the real security concerns of an encircled Iran—can profitably be revived.

The US for historical reasons has been more sceptical, and its rhetoric, such as “axis of evil”, and even the later State of the Union message on encouraging internal opposition, has been shrill and counter productive. Ultimately, however, historians may conclude that the West was indeed deluded and that Iran’s aim has been consistent—the development of military nuclear capability. This aim has been fuelled in part by recognition that if Iraq had nuclear weapons the coalition would not have invaded it, and by perceived double standards in the West. Now Iran is emboldened, made more confident by the problems of the coalition in Iraq, by the rise in oil prices which has bought new dependencies from other major countries—new friends in India, China and Russia—and by technical help from Venezuela and missiles from North Korea.

What is the evidence of its intention of developing a military nuclear capability? There is the 18 years’ history of Iran’s duplicity; the fact that oil and gas-rich Iran does not need civil nuclear power and the discovery of weapons-grade uranium traces at Natanz with implausible explanations on the Iranians’ part. There is the hampering of IAEA investigations and the rejection, so far, of the Russian offer to enrich uranium in Russia, under Russian supervision. What is the current status of the IAEA initiative for an international fuel bank, under its management, to guarantee supply to countries like Iran? What is the Government’s best estimate of when Iran is likely to have enough material to make a nuclear bomb, and how dangerous would it be if Iran obtained nuclear capability?

The rhetoric of their president is alarming, with the intent—and, potentially, the capability—to destroy Israel, together with links with terrorists groups that could lead to those groups obtaining dirty bombs. That would destabilise the wider region, including Saudi Arabia, and undermine the non-proliferation treaty with no consensus for replacement. The key questions are: what is to be done next, and where would different responses lead? The military option—that is, selective strikes on nuclear sites—has been raised. Potentially, that could be technically feasible in the short term. Yet the recipes and research scientists are there, and it would be realised at considerable political cost.

Is there any life left in the diplomatic track? It is certainly vital to follow solely the UN route and to keep Russia and China on board. It has been a miracle of diplomacy that they have indeed joined the international consensus. Are there incentives such as security guarantees which could even now divert Iran, which sees itself as surrounded by US forces?

Clearly, and to conclude, we need a twin track. We should continue to explore whether there is any realistic prospect of a deal including security guarantees and with enhanced technical and commercial co-operation as rewards. As other noble Lords have said, Russia is the best hope of providing a deus ex machina, the way out of such problems in classical tragedy. At the same time, while recognising the difficulties of reaching a consensus on sanctions—those that we mentioned as being mostly relatively ineffective, such as football sanctions—we should make clear to Iran that there is indeed a price to pay if it fails to respond and that penalties would increase incrementally to international isolation.

I conclude that the task is formidably difficult and that we may fail, with frightening consequences for regional and world security.

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