[Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to the normal practice in order to support the new call list system and to ensure that social distancing can be respected. Members must arrive at the start of the debate and are expected to remain for the winding-up speeches if there is space to do so. Members are also asked to respect the one-way system around the room and to please exit by the door on the left.

Before Members use their microphones, they should sanitise them using the cleaning materials provided and dispose of the cleaning materials in the bin by the door as they leave the room. Members can use the seats in the Public Gallery, as they are being used to ensure we have enough space for people to be able to join this very well-subscribed debate. I now ask John Howell to move the motion.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered Government policy on Iran.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I will concentrate on two issues: the nuclear issue in Iran and state-sponsored terrorism. That will leave the field open to others to consider matters such as human rights. For many years, colleagues from across the House have raised concerns over Iran’s malign activities and their impact on the UK’s interests in the region and beyond. The recent expiration of the UN arms embargo and the election of President-elect Joe Biden offer us an invaluable opportunity to review events in the region and consider the UK’s policy towards Iran. It is a policy that I believe requires urgent reassessment and that would benefit from a clear-sighted assessment of Iran and the challenges it poses to the UK and its allies.

Ever since the Islamic revolution altered the course of Iran’s hitherto great history, its fundamentalist leaders have been driven by a central goal: expanding Iranian hegemony in the region and exporting the revolution. The founding father of the Islamic Republic spoke clearly of his vision for the new Iran:

“The Iranian people’s revolution is only a point in the start of the revolution of the great world of Islam.”

That is a mantra that Tehran’s leaders have ruthlessly and violently pursued ever since.

The radicalisation at the heart of that ideology has led to untold suffering in Iran, throughout the region and far beyond. Iran’s support for international terrorism is perhaps the best documented means of exporting its fundamentalist concept of Islamic revolution. It is why Iran is often referred to as the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism. It certainly explains why, to this day, Iran’s leaders ensure that vast sums are invested in its terrorist proxies, even amidst a devastating pandemic and economic crisis, to the detriment of its long-suffering citizens.

Iran’s operation of an ever-expanding nuclear programme presents the international community with an historic challenge. The joint comprehensive plan of action nuclear agreement has not restrained Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and certainly has not made it reassess its harmful trajectory, as many wishfully advocated at the time of its signing. The JCPOA was signed in 2015 and was heralded as an historic moment in non-proliferation. Sadly, events have shown that that was far from the truth. Although the deal included extensive verification mechanisms to allow the international community a line of sight into aspects of Iran’s nuclear work, it has fallen short of the necessary safeguards in many areas.

Mindful of the time we have for this debate, I will provide a brief overview of the most concerning aspects. First, much of Iran’s advanced nuclear infrastructure was merely mothballed, instead of being dismantled. That has enabled Iran rapidly to bring enrichment equipment online in recent months, after it decided to breach the terms of the JCPOA and enrich uranium, not only at a higher purity, closer to that required for weapons grade, but in higher quantities. By the International Atomic Energy Agency’s own estimation, Iran now has 12 times the permitted amount of enriched uranium. That far exceeds the amount required for a peaceful domestic nuclear programme and is reportedly sufficient to produce two nuclear warheads. Much of the advanced enrichment work has even taken place deep underground in new production halls at the controversial Natanz nuclear facility.

Secondly, Iran’s historic nuclear activities—especially those with possible military dimensions—were inexplicably left unaddressed by the JCPOA. It emerged in 2018 that Iran entered the 2015 nuclear deal on false pretences, after an Israeli intelligence operation found documents proving that Iran had conducted more advanced testing related to nuclear weapons development than it had declared.

Thirdly, the deal failed entirely to address the pressing problem of Iran’s support for international terrorism. The failure to pursue a broad deal and the segregation of core issues from Iran’s nuclear activities was a costly strategic mistake. Iran has shown no inclination to open those activities to negotiation following the JCPOA’s signing. Why would it? It achieved invaluable sanctions relief at a critical moment in the country’s economic life; and, besides, the export of terrorism is the very cornerstone of exporting revolution.

Fourthly, the JCPOA failed to address Iran’s ballistic missile programme, which we must not forget is the primary means for delivering a nuclear warhead. While the UN sanctions in effect may relate to that programme, that has not for one second given Iran cause to pause its test launching and construction of advanced missiles capable of delivering explosive material thousands of miles from Iran.

Fifthly, human rights abuses were not even discussed in the negotiations, despite Iran’s having one of the worst human rights records in the world. The manner in which any country treats the lives of its own citizens sends an unmistakeable message about its integrity. I am a member of the Council of Europe, the foremost human rights organisation in Europe, and it is an embarrassment having such a pariah on our own doorsteps.

Last, and by no means least, by lifting all nuclear-related sanctions with immediate effect the P5+1 lost any leverage it retained to prevent Iran from subsequently breaching the terms of the nuclear deal.

It should be little surprise that our Prime Minister said earlier this year that this was “a bad deal”. While the deal itself was unquestionably bad, I fear that the P5+1 has further undermined its collective efforts in the implementation of the deal. This year, despite many breaches, there have been no tangible consequences for Iran. Just this week, the UK joined its E3 partners in speaking of their efforts to preserve the JCPOA, and Iran’s egregious breaches warrant nothing more than the expression of deep worry.

I wholeheartedly supported the UK’s triggering of the dispute resolution mechanism at the beginning of the year. That stood to be an important moment in restraining Iran’s actions. Conversely, it appears that the E3 has allowed the process to become an interminable period for dialogue, without any tangible action or sense of authority, despite the fact that the IAEA has provided extensive evidence of increased Iranian non-compliance. Will the Minister please outline the strategy of Her Majesty’s Government in the administration of the dispute mechanism and say whether, in his assessment, it has any impact on Iran’s nuclear activities? In addition, what outcome is the E3 working towards with the dispute mechanism?

The snapback of sanctions was an important failsafe measure enshrined in the JCPOA—a measure that has not been initiated by the P5+1 signatories, with the exception of the United States—so will the Minister please outline how the Government’s position on the reimposition of sanctions on Iran as a result of its non-compliance is going to work out? Have the Government notified Iran at any stage of the possibility of sanctions being re-enforced? What message does the Minister think it sends to Iran when we condemn its nuclear non-compliance but do not enforce the consequences agreed in UN Security Council resolution 2231 and repeatedly state our commitment to preserving the JCPOA?

The expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran was problematically mishandled this year. By this point, Iran was in full defiance of the JCPOA. Allowing the embargo to expire without extension sends a regrettable signal to Iran that its actions elicit no consequences, regardless of how flagrant they are. That is particularly relevant, given that a further set of embargoes, including on missiles, is set to expire in 2023. The depth of concern felt on the Conservative Benches about the expiration was seen clearly in October when more than 80 Conservative parliamentarians signed a letter to the Prime Minister, co-ordinated by Conservative Friends of Israel.

Earlier this year, Ministers stated that the UK was

“working…to address the planned expiry”,

but we ultimately abstained on a US-led UN Security Council resolution to extend the embargo to August. I regret to say that the UK’s assessment at the time that the motion would not have passed anyway so we should not support it seems illogical. I am sure it is not UK Government policy to abstain on votes purely on the basis that they are unlikely to pass.

It should cause additional alarm to Her Majesty’s Government that our P5+1 partners Russia and China opted to enable the resumption of advanced weapons sales to Iran, which will further Tehran’s dangerous regional activities. China is reportedly negotiating a $400 billion deal with Iran to increase military co-operation. I fear that history will not favourably judge our inability to bridge the divide between the United States and our European allies by ultimately abstaining.

What is the Minister’s assessment of the growing divergence within the P5+1 and its implications for any future attempts, first, to bring Iran back into compliance with the JCPOA and, secondly, to negotiate a broader framework with it? Although an EU arms embargo is set to remain in force until 2023, does the Minister accept that concerns are centred around Iran’s ability to procure advanced weaponry from states outside the EU?

Iran seeks nuclear weapons as a protective umbrella for its dangerous activities throughout the middle east, which is why combating its support for terrorism abroad should be part and parcel of our Iran policy. In Lebanon alone, Iran has armed the Hezbollah terror organisation with an estimated arsenal of up to 150,000 rockets—more than 10 times more than it had in the 2006 war. I welcomed the UK’s proscription of Hezbollah last year, and it has been reassuring that several other countries have followed suit, but there is much work still to be done.

Iran is reportedly distributing almost $20 billion per year to its proxies throughout Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and Yemen, and it is backing President Assad in Syria. The sanctions relief windfall that Iran received from the JCPOA would have directly facilitated such extensive financial support. The consequences of Iran’s investments need no explanation. As the Defence Secretary said, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force is one of the foremost architects of Iran’s malign activity. Yet although the IRGC is believed to be responsible for the deaths of dozens of British servicemen and women, and IRGC-linked terrorist activity in Europe is well documented, the UK does not proscribe the group as a terrorist organisation. The US proscribed the IRGC last year—a significant step in the fight against international terrorism.

The UK Treasury lists the IRGC, the IRGC Aerospace Force and the IRGC Quds Force as being subject to UK terrorism and terrorism-financing sanctions, so they should surely meet the criteria for full proscription. I am aware that the Government do not comment on such matters, but perhaps the Minister can highlight that discrepancy with cross-departmental colleagues. The US includes non-nuclear Iranian targets in its sanctions regime. Does the Minister agree that our new Magnitsky-style sanctions regime should be used to keep the pressure on Iran on non-nuclear issues?

It is of great regret that the UK’s policy towards Iran in recent years has failed to curtail its wider regional aggression. Iran has shown no desire to come in from the cold, and continues to subvert regional peace and stability. That stands in ever more stark contrast with the push for peace in the region that we have seen between Israel and its Arab neighbours. Not only is it in the UK’s interest to curtail Iran’s regional aggression, but it is quite simply the right thing to do. It is incumbent on the UK to work with our international partners to formulate a new strategy to combat the Iranian threat. The acceptance that Iran’s war by proxy and nuclear programme are not mutually exclusive must be at the heart of our new programme.

There are some who say we should keep the JCPOA on life support indefinitely, as it is the only deal on the table. In reality, that deal has been dead for some time, and we must accept that in order to make progress. As we all know, the US withdrew from the agreement in 2018, but President-elect Biden has expressed willingness to return to the deal as an interim step, if Iran complies with its terms. If, in due course, Iran begins to indicate a preparedness to return to the JCPOA, it will be critical that sanctions relief is not given prematurely. The UK, along with its P5+1 partners, must ensure that Iran reaches a number of verifiable technical milestones, proving it is committed to compliance before sanctions are lifted. Specifically, it must remove its stockpile of enriched uranium and end enrichment beyond the permitted JCPOA limit. Beyond that, the only way forward is a new comprehensive agreement, addressing all of these concerns. What steps has the Minister taken alongside our international partners in working towards that?

Iran’s actions over the last year are of concern to many in this place, as witnessed by the number of hon. Members who have turned up for this debate. I hope that the Government will take this opportunity to adopt a clear-sighted approach to Iran. Unless we begin rolling back Tehran’s harmful activities, UK interests and the much-desired peace and security of the middle east will be jeopardised.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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Before I call the next speaker, I remind colleagues that they cannot contribute from the seats in the Gallery. Perhaps others can make space to allow people to move forward as and when. This is a heavily subscribed debate, so I suggest a three-minute informal time limit to try to get everybody in. I will be calling Front-Bench speakers at 3.28 pm.

Ian Paisley Portrait Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP)
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It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller.

The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) outlined the issues to do with the nuclear threat, and I will not touch on that, to give hon. Members time on other issues. He was right to say that Iran is one of the world’s most malevolent pariah states. It is a destabilising influence across the middle east, and it now stretches its extremist statecraft across Europe.

Iran backs terrorism. In 2018, Members from this House were caught up in an event in Paris; some people in this room attended it. One of Iran’s front people tried to murder people at that protest by way of a bomb. Many Members were moments from death. The person who was accredited with carrying out that bombing was an Iranian diplomat who is now using his diplomatic immunity to avoid prosecution.

Iran sponsors direct links between Hezbollah and the Real IRA. Its radicalism drives via the Muslim Brotherhood to radicalise people in this country. The UK has a choice to make to now—to urgently take action against the Muslim Brotherhood. It is a surrogate for Iran and for extremist ideology in this country.

We have quite rightly proscribed Hezbollah, which was funded by Iran. I believe that Iran uses other surrogates—al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood, Daesh and the Real IRA—and I call on the UK Government to signal that they are now going to tackle the terrorism and extremism sponsored by the Muslim Brotherhood seriously by signalling that they intend to proscribe that organisation as urgently as possible. The Muslim Brotherhood is a cesspit for extremist ideology and for training young people in this country to hate this country. We should be taking actions to pull them away from that.

Today, I have left in the House of Commons Library a very important report by Cornerstone into the Fakhrizadeh assassination, which links some of the activities in the Gulf with Qatar and Iran, and with the Muslim Brotherhood. Some of the reading in that report is very worrying indeed. For example, it indicates that the USA—our partner—no longer shares information that has military intelligence associated with it with Doha, because of its concerns over the proximity that Qatar has to Iran. I know there is going to be a debate in the House on Qatar tomorrow, but these things do not stand alone, and I urge Her Majesty’s Government to use their power, authority and influence to influence Qatar to influence Iran to pull itself away from some of these things. At the moment, we in the UK buy something like 31% of all our gas from Qatar, which is astounding, and yet that country is playing a role in Iran, which is influencing extremists in this country also. We really have to stand up for the Arab quartet—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates—and help those countries stand up against the extremism sponsored by Iran.

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti (Filton and Bradley Stoke) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate my dear Friend the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate. Forgive me if I repeat some of the points that he touched on.

Iran is a malign and malevolent influence in the Gulf region and more widely, and has been since the Islamic revolution in 1979. Its actions greatly concern us in the UK, as a P5+1 member, a signatory of the joint comprehensive plan of action—the Iranian nuclear deal—and a nation with a long history of vital strategic interests in the region. Despite recent moves by other Gulf states to promote a more peaceful neighbourhood, such as Israel signing a peace deal with the UAE, Iran continues to promote terrorism and instability throughout the Gulf and the wider middle east. It is supporting the Houthi militia in the civil war in Yemen; it is supporting Hezbollah and other proxies to prolong the “no war, no peace” struggle against Israel; it has undertaken attacks on shipping in the Gulf; it continues to work towards developing a nuclear weapons capability, despite the 2015 nuclear deal; and it uses hostage diplomacy. The terrible case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a very obvious example. In all these matters Iran has shown consistent bad faith, and demonstrated its destructive and aggressive policy towards its neighbours and us in the west.

Janet Daby Portrait Janet Daby (Lewisham East) (Lab)
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My constituent, Mr Anoosheh Ashoori, was captured some three years ago while visiting his sick mother in Tehran, and has since been held in prison under really brutal conditions, which have included solitary confinement and physical torture. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that British citizens such as Mr Ashoori who are subject to unjust trial are being held as hostages due to their dual nationality, and that the UK Government must acknowledge them as such?

Jack Lopresti Portrait Jack Lopresti
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I completely agree with the hon. Lady: something must be done. These terrible acts, which are clearly politically motivated, need to be sorted by HMG.

Just yesterday, the UK and our French and German allies warned Iran that its plans to expand its atomic energy programme risked the collapse of the international agreement put in place in 2015—the JCPOA. Last week, the Iranian Parliament voted to end UN inspections of its nuclear facilities and boost its uranium enrichment. Many lawmakers reportedly chanted “Death to America” and “Death to Israel” following the vote. I am sure that in his summing up, the Minister will join me in condemning those actions and deeds. Tehran is enriching uranium to a higher fissile purity than is permitted under the nuclear deal, and putting itself on a trajectory that brings it closer to possessing weapons-grade enriched uranium.

As I do not have much time left, I will go straight to my conclusion: our policy towards Iran should be based on considerations of our security, our values and our vital strategic interests. Our policy should mirror that of the US and Israel, our allies, in saying that the Iranians must never be allowed to develop a nuclear weapons capability.

Steve McCabe Portrait Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) both on securing this debate and on an excellent speech. I found himself in agreement with most of what he said.

My view is simple: not only does Iran support terrorist groups and foment unrest across the middle east, but its strategic aim is an arc of influence from Tehran to the Mediterranean sea and the border with Israel. It is currently fitting global positioning systems to its Zelzal-2 missiles for that purpose. Iran recently showed on state television pictures of one of its missiles, with the words along the side in Hebrew: “Israel must be wiped out.” Iran is absolutely clear about its objective. Its supreme leader said in 2015 that it was his intention that Israel be destroyed within 25 years, with or without a nuclear agreement. Iran’s ideology is simply riddled with a hatred of Jews.

Iran is not content with suppression at home or turning the middle east into a cauldron. We have heard, as the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, that Iran’s agents are active across Europe. I think that it was last year that our own security services found a Hezbollah bomb-making factory in north London. And in Belgium at the moment, we are witnessing scenes that could come from a John le Carré novel, with Asadollah Asadi, a diplomat from Iran’s embassy in Austria, on trial for both planning and facilitating an attack on an opposition rally in Paris. Apparently, when questioned, he threatened reprisals from the regime if there was any attempt to take action against him. Also, of course, Foreign Minister Zarif has recently conceded that Iran is interested in prisoner swaps, which possibly explains why innocent dual nationals are being seized; they may be insurance against further terrorist attacks.

This is a regime that I say we cannot negotiate with. If there is any attempt to negotiate with it, President-elect Biden should not go back to the joint comprehensive plan of action. And if we have any influence on the President-elect, I hope that the Minister will say that we must stick with what the President-elect himself said during the primaries—that we need a stronger and longer arrangement, which must include Iran’s terrorist activities and ballistic missile programme. And we should certainly proscribe the IRGC, because it is a terrorist organisation and should not be allowed to operate anywhere in Europe, let alone in this country.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this debate and agree with everything that he said. I am now, unfortunately, in my fourth decade of saying negative things about the Iranian regime; it would be good to still be here in Parliament when I can say something positive about it. However, I was not best pleased when I read in the newspapers recently that when I was leading a delegation at a rally in Paris in 2018 I was, together with one or two colleagues who are present in this Chamber today, the target of a terrorist attack.

As we take the presidency of the G7 next year, the United Kingdom will be at the centre of the world stage, with increased opportunities to influence international policy. Even though it was agreed last year at the G7 summit in France that we would foster peace and stability in the middle east, and ensure that Iran never acquires nuclear weapons, that message needs to be reiterated and taken further. I was very encouraged by the words of my right hon. Friend the Minister, but it has not always been the case that the Government have taken that view. Nevertheless, I thought that what he said was splendid and I very much hope that he will take it even further when he responds to the debate.

In November 2019, the Iranian regime killed at least 304 people and injured thousands more at peaceful protests, using lethal force and institutional violence. However, the death count may be much higher than that, as Government forces confiscated the bodies of the dead protesters to hide the true casualty count.

Last week, the Iranian Parliament voted to end the UN’s inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities and to boost Iran’s uranium enrichment. I hope that the Minister’s Department is working carefully with our close allies to create a more robust deal that particularly focuses on deterring Iran’s human rights abuses. Of course we have all received countless emails about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is a constituent of the hon. Member for Lewisham East (Janet Daby), as the hon. Lady mentioned. I went to see Nazanin’s husband when he was on hunger strike last year, and I very much hope that we will continue to build on the pressure created by that action.

Iran’s global terrorism reach has infiltrated Europe and, as I have said, it has transpired that at a rally in 2018 Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, decided to launch a terrorist attack; some people may be disappointed that it was unsuccessful, but I am very pleased.

In conclusion, we must address the regime’s diplomatic blackmail and acts of terrorism in Europe and hold those responsible to account by imposing sanctions on the regime’s leaders and officials. I know that oil is very important, but we must be firm on this. We must include a halt to the regime’s ballistic missile programme and uranium enrichment programme. We must make any future diplomatic and economic relations contingent upon an end to the regime’s state terrorism. By doing that and supporting the National Council of Resistance of Iran, we can help to bring peace and stability to Iran. And we should do more to support Mrs Maryam Rajavi.

Stephen Crabb Portrait Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this debate. I will not repeat the points that he made.

At a time when the United Kingdom needs to be really clear-sighted about our strategic priorities and international objectives, our policy on Iran risks appearing—forgive me for saying this—confused and unclear. We are caught between, on the one hand, a desire for rapprochement and normalisation of relations with Iran, and on the other hand, the certain knowledge that Iran’s posture on the international stage is a negative one. Its activities across the middle east are deeply harmful to the region and are a direct threat to global peace, our own interests and those of our closest allies.

The desire for normalisation was enshrined in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Iran in 2015. The hope at the time was that—we were in government, Mrs Miller—that would herald the beginning of a new, brighter phase of UK-Iran relations, and that the UK would somehow play a role in helping Iran find its way back into the mainstream of the international community. The truth is that the hopes that we had at the time were not well founded. Although it might still say on the gov.uk website that we believe the outlook for UK-Iran trade is positive, and that we want to see greater engagement between UK businesses and Iran, reflecting a desire for normalisation, what is the reality? This year, 2020, has demonstrated what the reality is.

The year started on 11 January in Tehran with the illegal arrest of our ambassador by the Iranian regime, in a complete violation of international law. We said at the time that Iran was at a crossroads moment, and that it faced a choice whether to continue its march towards pariah status. We warned that there would be consequences if it chose that path, and that is exactly what it has chosen. It has spent the year openly, belligerently and defiantly breaching its obligations, breaking international law and breaking its commitments under the JCPOA, and it is not clear to me what the Government’s response has been.

I do not understand, for example, why—I am sorry to say this—we sat on our hands at the United Nations in August and did not support our closest allies, the Americans, in voting for an extension of the arms embargo on Iran. I do not understand why we continue to try to keep the JCPOA on life support when it is clear that there were huge failings in that agreement.

I will finish shortly to allow others to speak. I know the Minister understands these issues thoroughly; we have discussed them previously. I urge him: I want to see the UK Government playing a really strategic role between the EU and the new American Administration and looking towards a new agreement that does not just narrowly focus on nuclear-related obligations, but deals with Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its support for terror, its human rights abuses and its systematic undermining of democracy all across the region. That would be the clear-sighted, positive role that the United Kingdom could play.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is nice to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am pleased that my good friend, the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), has led the debate. It is a pleasure to be alongside him again.

I declare an interest as chair of the all-party group for international freedom of religion or belief, but I want to speak about one specific group of people whom I have spoken about before. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman and I have both spoken about the Baháʼí faith in Iran. It will be no surprise to anyone in this Chamber that I am going to use this opportunity to highlight a religious group that is under massive pressure in Iran: those of the Baháʼí faith. I have spoken about them many times. Not only they are subject to persecution, discrimination and violence, but Christian groups are as well. Women in Iran are subject to many things: acid attacks, violence, imprisonment, job losses and so on.

Baháʼís continue to be denied access to higher education in Iran, and most are excluded by national entrance examinations, when their files are returned as “incomplete”, as they are not from one of the four constitutionally recognised religions. A small number of Baháʼís are admitted to university, but often face interrogation about their religious beliefs—that happens all the time. They have the choice to recant their faith or face expulsion. There is a real focus of discrimination on them. Those practices align with the provisions of the 1991 secret memorandum on “the Baháʼí question”, which stipulated that Bahá’ís must

“be expelled from universities, either in the admission process or during the course of their studies, once it becomes known that they are Bahá’ís.”

At every stage, from entering universities to studying there, Bahá’ís are discriminated against.

A number of Bahá’ís pursue degree-level studies through the volunteer-run Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, but they, too, face repression for seeking an education. On 22 May 2020, one Bahá’í student had her sentence of six years’ imprisonment extended to seven years and was made subject to a two-year ban on working in public sector jobs through the tazir law provisions. That is further discrimination. The student, the mother of an infant child, was charged with propaganda against the regime and membership of opposition groups. Fortunately, she obtained her university degree through the BIEHA. Her degree was probably better than those from other universities.

Since Dr Hassan Rouhani assumed the presidency in August 2013, more than 283 Bahá’ís have been arrested and thousands barred access to education, and there have been least 645 acts of economic oppression, including the intimidation of Bahá’í business professionals and the closure and prevention of Bahá’í businesses. I read a briefing that said that it is vital that the United Nations, Governments and Parliaments around the world continue to hold Iran accountable for its violations of the rights of its own citizens, including the innocent Bahá’í community. They are a lovely people, as those who have met them will know.

During this time of global crisis owing to the covid-19 pandemic, the long-standing persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran has increased. That has been evident in the number of arrests and imprisonments in that community, as well as changes to legislation and the penal code, and arbitrary punishments against Bahá’ís on the grounds of their religious belief. I believe that the Government have a responsibility to highlight and support the Bahá’í faith, ensuring that any policy on Iran must help the Bahá’í community and exert veritable diplomatic pressure on Iran to deal fairly and appropriately with the Bahá’í community.

Robert Largan Portrait Robert Largan (High Peak) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate. While the world’s attention has quite rightly been on coronavirus, Iran has continued to violate the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal without facing significant consequence. Those violations have already been clearly set out already, so I will not repeat them.

The UK was right to trigger the dispute-resolution mechanism alongside France and Germany in January, sending a strong—if overdue—signal that Iran’s non-compliance would no longer be tolerated. The terms of the nuclear deal clearly state that if the issue had not been resolved by the Joint Commission within 15 days following the triggering of the DRM, and if the complaining participant felt that the issue constituted “significant non-performance”, they could refer it to the UN Security Council for a vote on a resolution to continue lifting sanctions. Back in August, seven months on from the triggering of the DRM, the E3 identified

“systematic Iranian non-compliance with its…obligations”.

In the light of that, it is reasonable to ask why the issue has not, so far, been referred to the UN Security Council.

The most troubling outcome of that inaction was the expiry of the UN conventional arms embargo on Iran in October. The E3 said that it had

“serious concerns regarding the implications for regional security of the scheduled expiry…particularly given Iran’s destabilising activities, which continue unabated.”

Why, then, given Iran’s continued non-compliance, was the embargo permitted to expire? Iran is now free to acquire advanced weaponry from Russia and China, having signed a reported $400 billion strategic deal with the latter. I look forward to the Minister’s response to those points.

Non-compliance with the nuclear deal is not all that should concern us about the Iranian regime’s actions. We have seen Iran emerge as a leading state sponsor of terrorism in the middle east and beyond. It provided funds and weapons to terrorists in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has used the Quds Force and proxies such as Hezbollah to carry out espionage and terror attacks globally. Colleagues have set out how Iran’s regional ambitions have a malign and destabilising effect on the middle east, but it is essential to note that its actions have a global reach, including here in the United Kingdom.

Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, has been active here since the 1980s. Just five years ago, a Hezbollah cell in north-west London was caught stockpiling 3 metric tonnes of ammonium nitrate. Let us be under no illusion: Iranian-inspired extremism is a serious security threat to the UK, and plays an active role in disrupting social cohesion and community relations in this country and across Europe.

We have seen this hate spill over onto the streets of our capital—a good example is the al-Quds day march, where we have seen Hezbollah flags being waved. Hezbollah’s official television station, Al-Manar, is spreading antisemitic hate speech and conspiracy theories, glorifying terror and violence, including a 29-part drama based on the antisemitic text, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.

In conclusion, spreading misinformation and radicalising people is part and parcel of Tehran’s agenda; it is our responsibility to be vigilant against this, and to robustly protect minority communities in this country, as well as to stand firm with our allies against Iran’s malign activities in the middle east. The stakes are high and a failure of statecraft would have untold consequences. A major rethink is needed.

Chris Clarkson Portrait Chris Clarkson (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)
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May I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for securing this debate.

Iran is a part of the world steeped in history, culture, art, and religion, from the Seleucids to the Parthians and the Sassanids to the Rashidun caliphate and beyond. This is a part of the world that I greatly admire, so what follows is not a criticism of the Iranian people but, rather, of the regime which controls their country and has set back thousands of years of progress.

Iran is a bad actor on the world stage. We are not dealing with a country that has much interest in the international rule of law or standards of human rights and transparency, which we and our partners would consider the baseline for a country’s conduct in the wider world. Tehran is enriching uranium to a higher fissile purity than is permitted under the JCPOA, and is on track to possess weapons-grade enriched uranium. This is not a clandestine activity by a secretive state; it is a flagrant and belligerent provocation by a thugocracy. Iran continues brazenly to violate the terms of the JCPOA, and it has failed to engage in constructive dialogue. I would urge Ministers to consider what the next steps are.

Iran’s malfeasance is not limited to its nuclear ambitions. In January, I had an opportunity to visit the Golan heights in Israel. Just a short distance from where I stood, a bloody, brutal civil war is raging. “Civil” is, in all honesty, a terrible misnomer for what is happening in Syria—it is the systemic suppression of that country’s people by a despot. Iran has invested millions in military assistance for Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah controls the country’s southern border with Israel and acts with the impunity of a terrorist state, regularly staging attacks on its neighbour. The common thread, again, is substantial financing by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard. It has become a prolific and notorious state sponsor of terror; its tentacles are wrapped around each of its regional neighbours, and it cannot be treated separately from its proxy.

Our Israeli friends have an expression: “Ve’im lo achshav aymatai”—“And if not now, when?” In recent months, Israel has agreed landmark peace deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan, and those outstanding achievements are evidence of a new direction of travel for a more peaceful and prosperous middle east. The normalisation of Israel’s relations with its regional neighbours is underscored by a shared common concern about both Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its sponsorship of terror through its proxies.

The Arab world should be commended on how far it has been willing to come in such a short time, and on or the statesmanship of its leaders in setting aside old and bitter rivalries with the region’s only democracy. To quote a common Arabic phrase, “Eljyaat ahsan men elrayhat”—“What is coming is better than what has been”. Iran is looking increasingly like the outlier in the middle east.

In closing, I would urge colleagues in the Government to redouble our efforts to bring the Iranian regime to account. We owe it to the people here at home; we owe it to our friends in the middle east, and we owe it to the Iranian people. There will come a day when Iran is a free nation again, loosened from the dogmatic and extreme regime that grips it, but that will not be an easy process.

There is a Persian expression: “Baa yek dast nemitunaan do hendhuneh bardaasht”—“You can’t lift two watermelons with one hand”. It means that one should always get some help. The Iranian people need a hand, and we should be willing to reach out.

Imran Ahmad Khan Portrait Imran Ahmad Khan (Wakefield) (Con)
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Iran boasts a long and rich history that has played a crucial role in influencing culture, art, poetry, science and philosophy across the globe. Not only is Iran home to one of the oldest civilisations, which began with the creation of Elamite kingdoms in 3300 BC, but it is also home to the Cyrus cylinder, the first historically recognised universal charter of human rights, created in 534 BC, pre-dating the Magna Carta by well over a millennium.

Regrettably, the Minister will be aware that the Iran we know today is very different from the one we look back to and admire. Today’s Iran is one of the world’s biggest state sponsors of terrorism and home to one of the deadliest dictatorships in the world. Human rights abuses are rife. Hundreds of Iranian civilians have been killed by their own Government. Protesters have been brutally repressed and religious minorities such as the Bahá'í face persecution.

On the international stage, Iran’s stratagem threatens the regional balance of power, our interests in the region and our own national security. Tehran openly supports the terrorist group Hezbollah, providing it with financial aid, weapons, munitions and military training. One attack orchestrated by Hezbollah, fortunately followed by MI5, was against targets in our own capital, London. In 2017, Iran reportedly carried out a cyber-attack on the UK Parliament and against email accounts belonging to Cabinet Ministers and our Prime Minister.

Allowing Iran to continue these attacks affronts, insults and diminishes our position in the eyes of the world. Releasing the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1 was nothing short of a national embarrassment and undermined our image as a reliable ally that does not buckle under pressure. If we wish to better secure our national security and bolster our reputation in the eyes of our allies, a much stronger stance must be taken against Iran. Now is an excellent opportunity to demonstrate our willingness to stand up to the tyrants of Tehran, whether for breaching the joint comprehensive plan of action, their flagrant disregard of fundamental human rights or their financing of terrorism.

The UN arms embargo on Iran expired in October, which now provides Iran with a chance freely to purchase deadly weaponry. We have an opportunity to campaign for the reinstatement of the embargo and even to unilaterally establish our own embargoes. Other measures must be considered, such as further trade sanctions for failure to adhere to the articles of the joint comprehensive plan of action. The use of Magnitsky-style sanctions against key targets in the Iranian regime that propagate human rights abuses would send a strong message to the opposition and to Iran’s Government.

In the post-Brexit era, the United Kingdom no longer has the obligation to side with Brussels in our policy on Iran—a policy that has too often been based on appeasement. We should work instead with our strongest friends and allies, notably the United States, to become a true champion of freedom and an opponent of those in Iran who effectively hold their own people hostage.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate. I shall begin by talking about sanctions relief and how that has helped to shape the challenges we face today; I think we may have made the same mistake twice.

Prior to the JCPOA, the international community had constructed one of the most stringent and far-reaching sanctions regimes of modern times. It was the result of strong global co-operation and had the necessary impact of bringing Iran to the negotiating table. As part of the JCPOA, many of those sanctions were lifted almost immediately. We must be cautious in removing them and proceed slowly; as the old proverb goes, we must “trust but verify”.

The sanctions relief brought billions of dollars to Iran. We know that, far from curtailing its activities since the JCPOA came into force, Iran has stepped up its proxy activities, as we have heard today, using terrorism as a form of foreign policy. It has increased its investment in violence, openly seeking to extend its Hezbollah franchise into southern Syria and even replicating that approach in Iraq.

We made a similar mistake when we failed to extend the UN arms embargo. That has now given Iran’s future defence contracts the undesirable cover of legitimacy. As a result, regional neighbours of Iran will undoubtedly feel compelled to strengthen their own defence capabilities and we will need to stand ready to support them in doing that, including by encouraging further steps towards peace between the Gulf nations and Israel.

We also need to think carefully about the steps that China is taking with Iran. Our own relationship with China has changed in recent years and will no doubt continue to do so. We should of course work together on our shared challenges, but with a clear eye on the strategic issues, because China is using all the tools at its disposal to influence activity, including not just foreign policy, but economic and security policy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley said, reports indicate that China is advancing a strategic agreement with Iran— a 25-year deal worth $400 billion. Already Iran’s largest trading partner, the deal will see massive injections of Chinese investment into areas such as energy, infrastructure, and telecoms, as well as defence.  The potential of joint Iranian-Chinese training exercises, intelligence sharing, military research and development and more poses a clear challenge to UK interests in the region and beyond. Further plans would also see China establish a strategic foothold in the Persian gulf: a vantage point on a globally important shipping lane, and a listening post covering the middle east. We know the importance of that region and should remember that it was only months ago that we had to arrange Royal Navy escorts for vessels passing through. I urge the Minister and the Government to reflect on some of these emerging strategic challenges as the Government proceed with the integrated review.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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Before I call the next speaker, may I say that for the last two speakers, unfortunately, it will be two minutes so that we finish on time? There will be a full three minutes, however, for Brendan Clarke-Smith.

Brendan Clarke-Smith Portrait Brendan Clarke-Smith (Bassetlaw) (Con)
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Thank you, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate today. At the time of the JCPOA signing in 2015, proponents of the agreement argued that it would encourage Iran to moderate its behaviour and reduce its systematic human rights abuses. However, since the deal was signed, human rights abuses have escalated—from unlawful executions and arrests to torture, forced confessions, unfair trials without due process, repression of the press, and discrimination against women and minorities. Women are punished for poor wearing of the hijab, which is mandatory, while homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.

Although many hailed Iran’s President Rouhani as a moderate, the indisputable fact is that oppression and the use of the death penalty have soared under his leadership. At least 251 people were executed in Iran in 2019, the second highest figure in the world after China. Iran ignored pleas from the international community to spare the life of 27-year-old national wrestling champion Navid Afkari, who was reportedly tortured into confessing to murder. Mr Afkari was executed by hanging in September this year. In November 2019, at least 304 people were killed by the Iranian regime, and thousands were injured when lethal force was used to crush nationwide economic protests. Iran’s press freedom has been all but eliminated, with dozens of journalists, bloggers and cartoonists jailed for issuing material deemed contrary to the Islamic Republic’s values and principles. It is unsurprising that Iran ranked 173 out of 180 nations in the world press freedom index this year—down from 170 last year.

What is permitted and, in fact, celebrated, is holocaust denial. Tehran launched its third holocaust denial cartoon contest in September this year, which also urged entrants to paint as traitors any nations that made peace with Israel. The disgraceful event is a project of the art zone division of Iran’s Islamic propagation organisation, which reports directly to the regime’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. The supreme leader himself has repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel, and the ultimate target of Iran’s nuclear activities and regional terrorism is self-evident.

We are all aware of the plight of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian mother held hostage by Iran; the appalling treatment she has faced is further evidence that Iran has not come in from the cold since the nuclear agreement was signed. Hon. Members will remember that our ambassador to Iran was arrested at a vigil for victims after Iran shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane in January. In separating Iran’s nuclear programme from its other destructive and repressive actions, the JCPOA failed adequately to hold Iran to account. The human rights situation has deteriorated significantly, and a reset on the UK’s policy towards Iran should urgently address that fact.

Christian Wakeford Portrait Christian Wakeford (Bury South) (Con)
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For the sake of brevity, I shall skip to the point. This debate provides a timely opportunity to highlight the issues regarding Iran’s activity globally and, more specifically, here in the UK. The Iranian regime has a long history of propagating antisemitism, often including holocaust denial, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Brendan Clarke-Smith) has just outlined.

In a speech on 22 March this year in response to a coronavirus outbreak, the ayatollah himself, in an attempt to blame the USA, claimed that Jews were experts at sorcery and were creating relationships with demons. He previously called the holocaust a myth. In recent years, there have been at least two high-profile international holocaust cartoon competitions held in Iran, with Government support. The most recent competition was held in 2016 and, according to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, included 150 entries.

Iran has been designated a state sponsor of terrorism since 1984 by the US State Department, which considers it to be the world’s worst state sponsor of terrorism. Iran’s support for terrorism is a global threat, particularly for the Jewish community, which has been repeatedly targeted. The most noticeable example is the 1994 Hezbollah bombing of the AMIA building, a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires, killing 85 and injuring hundreds. In doing so, the bombing ripped the heart out of the community.

This continued threat is a major reason why Jewish communities around the world, including in the UK, require security at schools, synagogues, community centres and events. I would like to pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Community Security Trust, in keeping not just the Jewish community but my constituents safe, as they go about their daily life.

In 2012 alone, Iran or Hezbollah were connected to incidents targeting Jewish communities or Israeli interest groups in India, Georgia, Thailand, Singapore, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria and Kenya. Those incidents need to stop. I will conclude by echoing—and I will refer to him this way—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) in calling for the IRGC to be proscribed by the Government.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this timely and important debate. Since the signing of the nuclear deal in July 2015, Iran’s regional aggression has continued unabated, as has its deeply troubling human rights record, which remains one of the worst in the world. The Islamic Republic is still a leading sponsor of state terrorism, providing financial and material support to extremist Islamist terrorist groups across the middle east, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.

Iran not only supports acts of terrorism, it seeks to form militias in parallel to national armies throughout the region, in order to bolster its influence. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is tasked with exporting Iranian revolution, with its infamous Quds Force establishing pro-Iranian proxy militias in other countries. Those forces are created using the IRGC’s effective blueprint, which includes the creation of social welfare projects financed by Iran, in order to take advantage of power vacuums and gain support in local communities for the militias.

As we have heard, Hezbollah has amassed an arsenal of up to 150,000 rockets on Lebanon’s border with Israel, and currently has an estimated 45,000 fighters, many of whom have extensive battle experience from their time in Syria, where Iran is deeply engaged in supporting Assad’s regime. In May this year, Iran’s supreme leader compared Zionism with a virus and a cancerous tumour, and said that Israel must be eliminated as soon as possible. Hamas, meanwhile, has fully restored its military strength to levels before the 2014 Operation Protective Edge conflict in Gaza, including its rocket arsenal, military infrastructure and attack tunnels infiltrating Israeli territory.

Last year, the US designated the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation, the first time a part of another Government has been named an FTO. The US said that that underscored the fact that Iran’s actions were fundamentally different from those of other Governments. The US was right to state that the IRGC was the Iranian Government’s primary means for directing and implementing its global terrorist campaign. I urge the Minister to encourage governmental colleagues to examine the IRGC for proscription, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) has already outlined, following the welcome move to proscribe Hezbollah in its entirety.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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We now move on to contributions from the Front Bench. Please leave two minutes at the end for John Howell to wind up.

Alyn Smith Portrait Alyn Smith (Stirling) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on bringing this important debate to the Chamber and on his impressive speech, with which I agreed entirely. I can be brief this afternoon because a number of excellent points have already been made. Iran is a complicated place; the middle east itself is complicated. Everything is connected to everything else and Iran is behind many of the region’s problems.

We should not turn a blind eye to rights abuses anywhere, whether in Israel, Gaza, Yemen, Saudi or, indeed, Iran, whose actions in fomenting terrorism abroad and developing nuclear weapons, and oppressing opposition and minorities at home, must have consequences. All that said, I would always tend towards dialogue. Although I fully agree with the misgivings on the failings of the JCPOA that we have heard today, I believe that there is an opportunity for a reset with an incoming American Administration that has a different tone towards Iran. I would be grateful if the Minister could give his assessment of the opportunity for a reset.

In parallel with that aspiration, however far in the future, Iran’s actions must have consequences. One thing that I am surprised has not been mentioned thus far is Magnitsky sanctions. We have an appropriate toolkit for targeting sanctions on individuals in the regime. There has already been movement in that direction, and I would be grateful if the Minister can comment on the scope for further targeted sanctions against those regime individuals. Our problem is not with the Iranian people; Iran has a proud history and hopefully a bright future. It is a complicated place, and there are forces of progress, however weak, within Iranian politics, which we can strengthen. However, the Iranian Government policy has to change. I agree with a number of the points that right hon. and hon. Members have made, and if the Minister works in that direction, he can rest assured of the SNP’s support.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)
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It is a delight to contribute to this important debate under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller.

I want to highlight the immense suffering of the Iranian people during covid. Iran has been particularly badly affected due to its broken economy and its high level of disease. We must always bear in mind in foreign policy discussions that there are human beings there who suffer enormously because of politics that goes wrong.

In foreign policy terms—that is the essay question for today—Iran has remained a significant challenge for all of us in western countries for many years with its woeful human rights record, the low role of women in society, the proxy wars in the region, the nuclear programme and the high-profile hostage diplomacy. I have a constituent who is currently in Evin prison with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

Obviously, the past four years, with President Trump in the White House, have been rather unpredictable, and the question is whether it has helped the dialogue that needs to happen on Iran. We know that the recent assassinations of the military general Qasem Soleimani and the nuclear expert Mohsen Fakhrizadeh—excuse my pronunciation; I believe that we have a Farsi speaker among us—have been subject to high-profile reporting in Iran, and I believe that has made it a little more difficult to enter into dialogue.

The US’s 2018 withdrawal from the joint comprehensive plan of action, which was carefully crafted by Baroness Ashton in the other place as our EU high representative back then, has increased tensions between the US and Iran, and I believe has undermined progress on the nuclear programme. The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned the important deadline that we have on deterrence in 2023. I hope that the International Atomic Energy Agency verification process can step up, and that there can be more international observers so that we know exactly what is happening in terms of proliferation.

Obviously, the issue of US sanctions and the Magnitsky question are very much for the Minister. I look forward to hearing what his position on that is and what the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is currently thinking about the scope. The Magnitsky tools are new for us in the UK, but they provide an opportunity to clamp down on a small number of very dangerous individuals. I look forward to hearing whether much progress has been made within the FCDO on that question.

I also want to highlight the excitement that perhaps Mr Biden will bring a fresh change. Many hon. Members have questioned whether the JCPOA is a bit tired. It is always hard to have to reinvent things that were the thing in 2015. Hon. Members who were here in 2015 will remember that the then Member for Runnymede and Weybridge came and spoke to the House, and we could hear a pin drop because it was such an important moment. That is hard to recreate, so we need some very creative experts in the FCDO to bring us another solution. Hopefully, it can bring dialogue so that we can talk about human rights, non-proliferation and eventually some form of good, high-quality economic involvement in the future.

I also want to touch on the crucial dialogue with Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi with the aim of reducing tensions in the region and laying the foundations for future co-operation. Hon. Members have mentioned the role that the G7 will play in the coming 12 months. I wonder whether our leadership of COP and the climate challenge provides another work stream that we could introduce into any future dialogue.

I want to highlight the ongoing harassment and persecution of the staff and journalists of the BBC Persian service. The Iranian authorities have been systematically targeting BBC Persian journalists, who are mainly based in the UK, and their families in Iran since the service launched on satellite TV in 2009. That is a form of terror. Intimidation of BBC Persian staff’s family members in Iran is a regular occurrence and has increased in the past three years. We have a duty to stand up for the free press. I urge the Minister to highlight the support that the Government are providing to the BBC and to clarify whether such attacks and occurrences have been brought up in engagement with the Government.

I have about one minute—

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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Take as much time as you wish.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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Lovely. I have enjoyed the debate and hearing the many contributions from the different regions and parts of our Parliament. I hope that the Minister can bring us an exciting new alternative to what appears to be a dangerous situation, with the human rights of so many affected and so many suffering—particularly the diaspora. Many of us have people who come to our advice surgeries to tell us of the pain and suffering in Iran. I also hope that he will bring some solace for those of us who are worried about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and all the others still in prison in Evin and other places for no good reason except that they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. That hostage diplomacy must stop—we all agree on that across the aisle. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution and clarification on those questions.

James Cleverly Portrait The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for bringing forward this important debate, which is clearly of interest to right hon. and hon. Members from every part of the House. I am grateful for their informed and passionate contributions.

Getting our approach to Iran right is of incredible importance, and it is clear from how well attended today’s debate is that there is a strong feeling on this issue right across the House. Those feelings have been expressed today. Before I address as many of the points raised as I can, it is right that, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, our criticism—unfortunately, criticism will come—is not of the Iranian people. These are a people—indeed, Iran is a country—with a fantastic history, a marvellous heritage and a tradition in the arts and the sciences. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said he has spoken in critical terms about Iran for four decades and hopes that, in the near future, he will be able to speak in positive terms about Iran. I echo that. There is so much about Iran that could be spoken of in positive terms, but unfortunately today we find we are more critical than speaking in praise. It saddens me that that is the case, but nevertheless that is the situation we find ourselves in.

The Government’s priorities with regard to Iran are to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, to promote stability and security in the region and to secure the permanent release of all detained British dual nationals. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has consistently made it clear that we favour a diplomatic solution that addresses the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and, in parallel, seeks to address both its destabilising behaviour in the region and its behaviour to its own people within its borders.

President-elect Biden has said that if Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, the US will re-enter the agreement and seek both to strengthen and to extend it. This is an important opportunity to restart the engagement between Iran and the United States of America and to realise the full set of objectives set out in the joint comprehensive plan of action, which we support.

In the meantime, we remain clear that Iran must reverse its systematic non-compliance with the nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. We are deeply concerned by Iran’s actions and, in particular, its research and development and stockpiling of low-enriched uranium, which is in breach of the terms of the nuclear deal. If Iran is serious about the JCPOA, it must not implement the recent law passed by the Iranian Parliament to take further steps in violation of the JCPOA. That would undermine the important opportunity to return to diplomacy that the incoming US Administration have offered. Iran has a choice, and we strongly urge it to take the sensible, pragmatic choice of moving back towards diplomacy.

Our objectives remain to use the structures set out under the deal to address Iranian non-compliance and to reopen the door for re-engagement with the United States. We have not yet exhausted the dispute procedures set out in the JCPOA. To advance the discussions, the joint committee of the JCPOA will be held on 16 December at official level and followed shortly afterwards by a ministerial meeting of the JCPOA participants. Iran must engage on a route back to compliance through the joint commission as an essential step to rebuild confidence in Iran’s commitment to preserving the deal. Alongside our E3 partners, France and Germany, we have worked hard to preserve the deal. It currently remains the only way to monitor and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned snapback. We maintain the ability to snap back UN sanctions on Iran and we have made it clear to Iran that it must remain in compliance in order to preserve the deal. We will continue to support the deal for as long as it provides the benefits that I have mentioned. We will engage with the incoming Biden Administration to see whether we can strengthen and extend the deal further, to address the non-nuclear malign activity that Iran undertakes against its regional neighbours, because I share their concerns and the concerns expressed today about the continued risk of escalation in the region. Conflict is in none of our interests.

We continue to urge Iran to show restraint and to avoid any actions that might escalate tension in the region, and we echo those calls to its regional neighbours. We have long been clear about our concerns over Iran’s destabilising activity in the region, including, as has been mentioned this afternoon, its political, financial and military support to a number of militant and proscribed organisations and groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Syria, militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.

Catherine West Portrait Catherine West
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I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very generous. Does he see a possible role for Magnitsky sanctions in relation to any financial facilitation perhaps assisting those sorts of groups external to Iran, so that we can use the might of the City of London to clamp down on any illegal facilitation of that kind of activity?

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Let us be crystal clear: Iranian support for those groups contravenes UN Security Council resolutions and breaches international law. We currently hold Iran to account through a list of over 200 EU sanctions that are currently in place, including those against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety.

The hon. Lady mentioned our new autonomous Magnitsky-style sanctions, as did other right hon. and hon. Members. We have heard those calls. Right hon. and hon. Members will understand that we never discuss future designations under our autonomous sanction regimes, to prevent the risk of individuals removing assets that we might seek to freeze, but the calls for us to review the actions of members of the Iranian regime, in light of the sanction regime, have been heard and noticed.

We continue to support the enforcement of UN prohibitions on the proliferation of weapons to non-state actors in the region. We are committed to work with regional partners, the E3 and the US to find a solution to Iranian proliferation in the region.

Our concerns are not limited to Iran’s nuclear programme or regional behaviour. A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), highlighted Iran’s actions towards its own people and its minority communities. Iran’s heavy-handed response to protests, its restrictions on freedom of expression, belief and religion, its use of the death penalty and its continued use of arbitrary detention, including to British dual nationals, remain of deep concern to the UK, and we remain opposed to them.

We continue to make clear to the Iranians our concern and opposition to their repeated, persistent violation of human rights. As has been mentioned by a number of Members, I can assure the House that the safety and good treatment of all British dual nationals in detention in Iran remains a top priority for the UK Government. We will continue to lobby at all levels for the immediate and permanent release of all British dual nationals in arbitrary detention, so that they can return home to the safety of their country and the embrace of their loved ones.

The Foreign Secretary recently summoned the Iranian ambassador to hand over a letter from E3 Foreign Ministers, expressing our concern about the grave human rights violations in Iran, including the arbitrary detention of dual nationals. We are deeply concerned that Iran has issued new charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. These are indefensible, unacceptable and unjustifiable. We have been consistently clear that she must not return to prison. The UK Government, from the Prime Minister downwards, remain committed to doing everything we can for her and the other British dual nationals held in detention.

We want to see a peaceful and prosperous Iran, that is famous for its art, culture and history, not for its destabilising influence in the region and the world. We want to see an Iran that does not pose a threat to the UK, or to our friends and allies.

Christian Wakeford Portrait Christian Wakeford
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Many colleagues mentioned the need to proscribe the IRGC. Will my right hon. Friend commit to working across Government, and across parties, to make sure that that sensible, credible plan is adopted moving forward?

James Cleverly Portrait James Cleverly
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I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I cannot give him clarity on that in today’s debate, but I recognise that those calls have come from every corner of the House and that there is cross-party support for that. Again, it will be noted, and I genuinely take his and other Members’ position on this seriously.

Clearly, we want to see Iran abandon its intentions to develop nuclear weapons, but we also want to see it act as a good neighbour and a responsible regional power. We want to see it end arbitrary detention and improve its domestic human rights record, and the United Kingdom Government will continue to engage with international partners and directly with the Government of Iran to bring that about.

We have to understand that our approach needs to be based on a number of elements, including engagement and incentives, but also pressure, delivered bilaterally, through partners, and multilaterally. The future relationship between the UK and Iran, and between Iran and its regional partners, could be infinitely better than what we see at the moment, but ultimately it is in the gift of the leadership in Tehran to make that happen. I urge them in the strongest terms to take the actions to do so.

John Howell Portrait John Howell
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I thank all hon. and right hon. Members for their contributions to what has been an excellent debate. It is quite reassuring to me that everyone who has stood up to speak has agreed with what I said. I take that not as a compliment to me, but as a united effort to give to the Minister, whom I thank for his response, which covered much of the ground. I think he understands that the strength of feeling on this issue is clear and that Iran’s actions harm our interests as well as those of a number of our allies.

As the new Biden Administration take office, the UK has an important role in ensuring that it waits until Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA before giving any sanctions relief prematurely. As colleagues have mentioned, a comprehensive deal that addresses Iran’s ballistic missile programme, support for terrorism and human rights abuses is the only way forward. In the meantime, I urge the Minister to look at Magnitsky sanctions for those who are abusing human rights in the area. Once again, I thank all Members for their contributions to this debate.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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On a point of order, Mrs Miller. I would like to convey to you, and perhaps you can convey it to those responsible, that Westminster Hall has become a cold house for many people, not because people are not allowed in here, but because the heater over there, and I suspect others, is blowing cold air, and the heaters behind us do not work. I do not want to make a complaint, but really—I say this respectfully—there are ladies here. I say this because yesterday there were ladies coming into Westminster Hall and they took their scarves and overcoats off, but after half an hour in here, their scarves and overcoats were back on and their collars were turned up. Really, we need to do something. Can I perhaps ask you, Mrs Miller, to please do that? Thank you.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (in the Chair)
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I am sure that many hon. and right hon. Members will be very thankful to the hon. Member for putting that on the record. I can assure him that his comments will be relayed back to the Chair of Ways and Means to see whether we can get some action on that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered Government policy on Iran.

Sitting suspended.