Iran

I made a major speech in Parliament this afternoon on the situation in Iran when I introduced a three hour debate on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report Global security:Iran.

The text of my speech is as follows.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): I am pleased to introduce this debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee report, Global Security: Iran, which was published in February 2008, and the Government’s response, which was published in May 2008. Although those documents were published some time ago, many of our conclusions are unfortunately still pertinent. This is a good opportunity for the House to have a three-hour debate on Iran. There was a debate on human rights yesterday, but I hope to go beyond human rights and to discuss the more complex issues of Iran’s role in the world and its relationships with its neighbours.

I will begin by drawing out one of the most important conclusions of the Select Committee report:

      We conclude that Iran is a complex and diverse society at present governed by a theocratic regime. Iran’s quasi-democratic political system is not fully closed and may lead to reform that will result in a more constructive approach on the nuclear issue. We recommend that the Government should be careful to avoid action that could be manipulated by the hardliners such as President Ahmadinejad to bolster their position against the more pragmatic and reformist elements ahead of his campaign for re-election in 2009.

The Government’s response stated:

      The Government believes that Iran’s internal political debates are for the Iranian people themselves to resolve.

It is quite clear that the election of 12 June was rigged. Despite huge support for the Opposition candidates, the incumbent, President Ahmadinejad, was apparently re-elected with 63 per cent. of the votes and with more than 100 per cent. of the votes cast in some districts.

The election was followed by massive protests. Three weeks ago, The Economist stated:

      In the three decades since the Islamic Republic was founded, Iran has not been rocked like this. Tehran is engulfed in huge marches every day. Women in chadors, bus conductors, shopkeepers and even turbanned clerics have joined the joyous show of people power. Nationwide strikes are planned.

Since then there has been massive, systematic, organised repression of the protestors. Thousands of people have disappeared or been arrested. It has been admitted that more than 200 people have been killed. There were scenes on the internet of a young woman being killed in the street. There are attacks on universities, raids on people’s homes and knocks on doors in the night. The systematic, organised intimidation of the Opposition is such that anybody who speaks out is extremely courageous. Yet there are still people speaking out. People are using different ways to protest.

The regime has clearly decided that it will hold on to power at all costs. Robert Tait wrote in The Guardian:

      Legitimate election wins are generally not accompanied by mass arrests of opposition members, the blocking of mobile phone networks and a multitude of news websites, or the forced closure of other candidates’ headquarters, to name but three highly irregular developments that have all the hallmarks of a coup d’état

Iranian Opposition figures, some clerics, other people in Iran and people internationally are saying that a form of military coup d’état is happening in that complex country against elements within the clerical regime.

It is reported today that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has allowed his second son, Mojtaba, to take control of the Basij militia. He apparently has access to billions of dollars in other countries and it is rumoured that he is being groomed to take over and form a dynastic leadership in the future. We do not know whether that will happen, but there is a clear power struggle between the security, intelligence, military and clerical elements of the regime. We do not know what the outcome will be. The millions of Iranians who voted for change and have gone on to the streets to protest for change are not participants in the internal power struggle in the theocratic regime.

The Select Committee went on a fascinating visit to Iran. I am glad that other Select Committee members are present. They will no doubt add to what I say in their contributions. I was struck by how young and dynamic that society is. I was also struck by people’s willingness and desire to talk to us. Young women outside the main mosque in Isfahan and traders in the bazaar in Tehran came up to us and wanted to engage with us openly. A man in the bazaar told us, "This Government are corrupt, incompetent and useless. We don’t get any tourists or trade any more. It is really good that you are here. Our minder from the Iranian Foreign Ministry was standing next to us, but the trader did not care. He wanted to engage with us for 40 minutes and to tell us about his problems and how he wanted to have better relations with the rest of the world.

The Iranian regime is holding down a bubbling ferment of ideas and a wish to engage with the rest of the world. Iran is one of the oldest civilisations, with 3,000 years of history. Iranians of all kinds are proud of their history and culture. They wish to share it and to engage with other countries. However, while they are run by a holocaust-denying extremist and a regime that sponsors terrorism in other countries and is in breach of its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the people of Iran will not be able to engage fully with the rest of the world in the way that they wish.


Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I congratulate the Select Committee Chairman on his observations so far. Does he agree that Iran is in breach of the UN convention on human rights, of which it is a signatory? Yesterday, we had a good debate on the plight of Baha’is and others who have sadly been persecuted in Iran, particularly in recent months. Does he agree that such desperate persecution contradicts the spirit and character of the Iranian people?


Mike Gapes: Yes, I do agree, but I also think that we need to be careful. The situation that the hon. Gentleman has described is appalling. Iran executes more people per head of population than any other country in the world, and carries out more executions than any country except China. People are still stoned to death and there is a criminal code that is used in a most brutal and repressive way—that was discussed in yesterday’s debate, so I shall not go into it now. The regime has tried to portray the problems that it is now confronting as having somehow been created by international forces or by people internally who are in league with international forces. Ayatollah Khamenei has been quoted as saying:

      The diplomats who have talked to us with courtesy up to now have in the past few days taken the masks away from their faces and are showing their true image.

He has referred to western countries as "hungry wolves" and said:

      They are showing their true enmity towards the Iranian Islamic state and the most evil of them is the British government.

Britain’s relations with Iran have a long history, and some have been quite difficult. Anyone who watched BBC4 over the weekend may have seen its four hours of programmes about Iran, which included some interesting stories about what was happening there in 1909, about the role of British oil companies and about the British Government’s encouragement and support for the coup against the democratically elected Mossaddeq Government in the 1950s. But none of that excuses the systematic harassment of people who work for the British Government in Iran, or the arrests of nine locally employed Iranian members of the British embassy staff. None of it justifies the expulsion of two British diplomats, or the expulsion of the BBC correspondent in Iran.


Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): We know some of the Iranian nationals who have worked for the British embassy in Tehran because they looked after us so well on our visit. That highlights the responsibility that the British Government have not just to their own nationals but to foreign nationals who work for us. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Mike Gapes: I absolutely agree; we were very well looked after, not just by our diplomats but by the Iranians who worked in the British embassy. They worked tirelessly to make our visit in November 2007 such a success.

The one person who is still detained, and who has apparently been threatened with being put on trial for acting against national security is a 44-year-old Iranian who is the British embassy’s chief political analyst. His name has been in the public domain, so I shall use it, Hossein Rassam. We know him because he looked after us and went with us to Isfahan on a six-hour journey, during which we discussed Iranian culture, history and cookery. That was an absolutely fascinating journey sitting with him in that vehicle and learning about his country and its culture. That man is potentially going to be put on trial by the regime, and it is an absolute outrage that any country anywhere in the world persecutes, harasses and imprisons people who work for our Government. It is a basic and fundamental right that people who work in foreign embassies should be allowed to do so without being persecuted or harassed. I call on the Iranian politicians whom we met our equivalents in the Iranian Majlisto do what they can to persuade whoever in the regime is holding that man to release him and to stop the harassment of people who work for our embassy in Iran.

I have discussed how the regime has been behaving, but let me discuss these issues more widely. The regime has been systematically trying to prevent the truth from coming out, but has found that rather difficult. In the age of the mobile phone and Twitter, people take photographs and send them around the world, and can describe very quickly to websites all over the world what is happening within Iran. The regime has tried to stop broadcasts and to intimidate the people who are engaged in those activities, but it has not been successful. Since January of this year, the BBC Persian television service has been an important voice for the Iranian people. I pay tribute to the people who work for that service, and to the people who work in other broadcast media, in difficult circumstances, for what they do.

I understand that following the election in Iran, from polling day onwards, the BBC television service, other BBC services and other broadcasters on the so-called HOT BIRD 6 satellite have been subject to deliberate interference. BBC Arabic television and various language services have also experienced transmission problems, including being taken off the air at certain times. There has been a deliberate attempt to prevent people who listen in Farsi or Arabic from getting the truth about what is going on in their country. The regime has tried to narrow the focus and to prevent news reports about what is really happening. I am pleased that the BBC has done what it can to counteract that, including extending the hours of its news programmes and radio broadcasts. It is clear that audiences in Iran - the Iranian people who are able to watch or listen to those BBC programmes and broadcasts - have been very positive about them.

Although BBC Persian’s online services have been partially blocked since 2006, its website, BBCPersian.com, has had a huge growth in usage since the events of recent weeks. Compared to traffic in May, the number of daily page impressions has increased sevenfold to more than 3.6 million, and the number of visitors to the website has gone up fourfold. That is an indication of the interest not only in Iran, but in other parts of the world, and is clearly very important.

The Iranian Government have expelled the BBC correspondent, Jon Leyne, and have prevented his temporary replacement, Jeremy Bowen, from moving around the streets freely. That is an indication that they do not wish BBC broadcasters to know what is going on in their country or to meet independent voices, opposition figures or protestors to get the truth of what is happening. It is vital that we in this country ask why on earth, if the Iranian Government can have their propaganda organ Press TV broadcasting their propaganda in London and paying some people from this country, who should perhaps know better, to go on it, the Iranians do not allow unfettered broadcasting by the BBC and other British broadcasters in their country.

The Iranian leadership has also been targeting Britain for another reason. They seem to think that it is not wise politics, at this time, overtly to antagonise the United States of America. Since the election of President Obama, there has been a change in rhetoric from Washington and the possibility of an open hand being extended to Iran, rather than what was seen before as a closed fist.

I think the Iranians have decided that it is easier to vilify and traduce what they regard as the little Satan than to attack what they have called the big Satan.

However, I am pleased that, so far, there has not been a lack of support internationally for the British Government’s robust response. President Sarkozy of France has expressed full solidarity with the British Government over these recent difficulties and the European Union, led by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt on behalf of the Swedish presidency, has made some strong statements. I am very pleased that so far the European Union is working together in harmony on these matters. I would be grateful if the Minister updated us on the discussions that have taken place in the past few days, and on the EU’s preparedness to take action collectively if the Iranians decide to escalate the situation and up the ante by removing diplomatic status from people in Iran, or if they decide to put people on trial.


Mr. John Horam (Orpington) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is making an important point and a very good speech. I would also like to hear what the Minister has to say about the matter he has just raised, because we need a more unified approach in Europe than we appear to have so far. I have noticed that the Germans and Italians are not quite as strong in their condemnation as the French, to whom we should give credit. If we are to have an effect on the Iranian regime, we need a united European approach to what we say and the sanctions we operate.


Mike Gapes: I think the Minister has heard the hon. Gentleman’s point.

Before I move on to one or two other matters, I would like to raise the question of how we get out of the current situation. It seems that calls for a recount of the election - although those have now been rejected - were, in any case, mistaken. The regime has clearly shown that it does not in any way wish to give up power, and what was regarded as a velvet coup by Ahmadinejad when he won in 2005 has become a violent and repressive coup to retain power. That raises questions about how the rest of the world should respond. The issue is difficult because we do not hold many levers against the Iranian regime directly; however, we do have some and we need to think about those.

There is, of course, the issue of information and the role of the BBC and others, but we also have to think about economic relations and trade, which relates to the remarks of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam). Clearly, the Iranian regime is facing a crisis concerning the lack of economic modernisation and the growing population of young people. Iran desperately needs foreign investment to enable it to modernise its infrastructure, particularly its oil and gas industries. However, it also needs foreign technology if it is to develop in the way to which it aspires.

Effective, targeted sanctions such as those already in place from the European Union, the United States and others have already had an impact on the Iranian economy. However, in terms of international action, we also need to look at what goes on in places such as the Emirates in Dubai, where the Iranians have a very successful smuggling operation and pursue activities to bypass the international sanctions regime.


Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I have tried to restrain myself on that issue, but I must point out that although the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), is correct to criticise other countries, the money laundering capital for the Iranian regime has been London. That has taken place with the full knowledge and consent of the United Kingdom regulatory authorities. That is the great criticism we should make. Her Majesty’s Government have not denied that it is happening. I raised the issue in an Adjournment debate and the Government said that they have since altered the ground rules. However, the truth is that the purchasing of technologies by the regime, particularly in north America, has been done through London, under our very noses.


Mike Gapes: I have some sympathy with my hon. Friend. In fact, on finances, an article about Mojtaba Khamenei’s international rule states:

      There are claims on Iranian dissident websites that the current anti-British campaign in Tehran is motivated in part by Britain’s announcement on 18 June that it had frozen nearly £1bn in Iranian assets, in accordance with UN and EU sanctions. The frozen funds included a lot of Mojtaba’s money, it is claimed.

Perhaps there is some connection between that and the rhetoric that we saw the same day, or a day later, from Mojtaba Khamenei’s father and the other clerics. I agree that London is important in the context of global financial institutions and that we need to do whatever we can - not just in London, but elsewhere - to make sure that international sanctions are effective.

I am conscious of time and that there are many Members here. I shall not delay them for too long, but there is one other area that I wish to highlight. No doubt other Members will talk about the Iranian role in the region, but clearly there has been a great deal of concern about the nuclear issue and the way in which Iran has been breaching its obligations under the International Atomic Energy Agency and the non-proliferation treaty. Our report was published in 2008 and much has happened since then. However, fortunately the Committee is very busy and, on 14 June, we published a major report entitled "Global Security: Non-Proliferation", in which we were able at least briefly to provide an update on what has been happening with that matter in Iran.

Developments in recent months have clearly shown that there is a growing concern within the IAEA that the Iranian regime is rapidly building centrifuges in order to develop enriched uranium. The Russians tried to bring in an international system whereby Iran could access that via an international facility, and there have been other suggestions about having some kind of fuel bank, including from our Prime Minister in his important speech at Lancaster House in March. I would be grateful if the Government said where we are on the implementation of alternatives, and whether Iran has indicated any kind of positive response. Frankly, as we have pointed out in previous reports, in the next few years Iran could be very close to having the breakout capability to possess a nuclear weapon, and because it has missile technology, that could pose a potential threat to southern Europe and a large number of countries in the middle east.

If Iran becomes a nuclear weapon state, it is not just the Israelis who will be very concerned. As we point out in our non-proliferation report, such a situation would also be a trigger for a number of Arab countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and others, to get what could be regarded as a Sunni bomb in the middle east, as opposed to the Shi’a bomb that the Iranians might develop. Given that Pakistan already has a developed nuclear weapons capability and has tested nuclear weapons—as we know through the A.Q. Khan network, unfortunately, it has also been prepared to sell nuclear material and plans to other countries—there is a real danger that a cycle of nuclear weapon proliferation in the middle east could be triggered by Iranian actions in the next few weeks or months.


Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): That is the crux of the problem with Iran at the moment. Does my hon. Friend agree that, given all the other terrible things that are happening—we had a good debate yesterday on the human rights issues—until we can sort out the nuclear question with Iran, it will be a very dangerous regime? There must be some inducements that we can offer it to separate the nuclear energy programme from nuclear weaponry.


Mike Gapes
: Iran’s regime is dangerous because it feels under threat from its own people and is worried about its survival. It also has fears about the future and legitimacy of its revolution. An interesting question is whether the new US approach is more threatening to the regime than the old one. It could be argued that people in authoritarian, theocratic regimes would much prefer the rest of the world to cut them off rather than be open to them, because sheer openness will mean that the people of the country get more access to ideas and ways of behaving that challenge the orthodoxy and hierarchy of the society. My impression is that the Iranian people certainly have a thirst for contact and communication with the rest of the world, not a desire to be cut off from it.

That raises some interesting questions about how the US under the Obama presidency will behave. So far, there seem to be some interesting developments. Only this week, both President Obama and Vice-President Joseph Biden said, in separate interviews, that despite the crackdown and repression, the US will not be deterred from seeking to engage in direct negotiations with Iran. That is the right approach, but we should have no illusions that engagement with people in the regime and with its leadership will, by itself, change the regime’s behaviour. “Change in regime behaviour”, which I believe is a phrase used by Condoleezza Rice in a different context, is not at all certain in a period when the regime is afraid that even a small opening up—a small movement—could result in a great crevice and then an outpouring in the country of forces it is afraid of and wishes to repress.

President Obama stated:

      We’ve got some fixed national security interests in Iran not developing nuclear weapons, in not exporting terrorism, and we have offered a pathway for Iran to rejoining the international community.

However, that requires the international community to maintain certain standards and values, and to continue to speak out against the repression and abuse of human rights taking place in Iran, and not to say that it would
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much rather concentrate solely on nuclear or trade issues. At the end of the day, there are international standards. Iran is a signatory to various international covenants and the non-proliferation treaty, and it must be held to those standards.

In conclusion, I believe there is potential for real change in Iran. I am not certain, however, that this period this year will see such change. The assumption that what will follow in Iran will be some form of colour revolution, such as that which took place in Georgia and Ukraine, fails to appreciate the complexities of that society. It is not right for us just to assume that that is likely to happen.

Our Government and Parliament need to have a sophisticated approach. Crude calls for regime change, or funding or supporting particular opposition groups, would play into the hands of the regime, which would say that it has proof of the British conspiracy against it. However, we should use all the channels that we have to continue to argue the case for positive engagement with the Iranian people, because they deserve far more than the Government who, sadly, are currently repressing them.


Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I congratulate the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), on a fine speech. I strongly echo the sentiments he expressed on human rights and the other issues that he covered. The debate is on a report that we published just over a year ago, but it could not be more timely, so I am glad that the Chairman has taken the opportunity to secure the debate for the House at this time.

...


You can read the rest of the debate on Parliament's website.

 

 

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