Debate on U.K. Involvement With Iran

U.K. Westminster Hall Debates
May 23, 2007

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile
  • Military

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned. [Tony Cunningham]

Mr. Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): It is a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr. O'Hara, and I thank you for indulging this subject. The Minister and I have debated a similar subject in the past, and I hope that he does not think that we are simply revisiting old ground. The majority of what we will discuss will be new, and I hope that he will be able to answer some pretty pointed questions.

Everyone is familiar with the problem that we face with Iran, particularly her aspirations for nuclear power, nuclear weapons and a nuclear programme generally. I do not intend to dwell upon UN resolution 1747, on uranium enrichment, or to talk in any great detail about the eye-catching events of the past few weeks, such as the debacle in the waterway off the Shatt al-Arab, and whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq and perhaps expose himself to the threat from Iranian weapons.

I shall concentrate on the issue of the day: the fact that on a minute-to-minute basis, we are losing soldiers, primarily, and other members of our security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan because of weaponry that is being imported, I believe, over the Iranian border, and because of expertise that is being taught to insurgents in several different theatres and being used to lethal effect against our men and women.

Recently, we rightly rejoiced at the release of 15 ratings and Royal Marines, but I remind the Minister that within days of their release, a number of soldiers were eviscerated by explosively formed projectiles in and around Basra. That is the real face of Iranian aggression: those weapons are killing our men daily. We have an opportunity, with the change of Prime Minister, to confront Iran, to gain from her explanations for that behaviour and to put in place a series of measures that might get her to climb down and, I hope, save the lives of our servicemen.

It has been difficult to prove conclusively that that sort of weaponry has been used, but I have one or two pieces of evidence that show me, beyond any doubt, that Iranian weaponry is being used in those theatres. First, in September 2006, United States' forces discovered a cache of explosives, all of which were labelled as being from Iranian factories and ordnance production centres. For several years-more than 48 months-factory grade explosively formed projectiles have been used against our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In February 2007, US forces proved conclusively-to their satisfaction, at least-that Shi'ite militias were being trained in the use of those weapons. Last month, more than 40 explosively formed projectiles were used in Maysan province against a patrol of the Queen's Royal Lancers. They said that it was like being in the middle of Guy Fawkes night when the weapons went off. We believe that it took the enemy more than 24 hours to establish that kit. The fact that we had only two fatalities was remarkable and merciful in the circumstances.

Similarly, at the end of last month, six Canadians were killed in action in Afghanistan. They were inside a vehicle with reactive armour that was none the less pierced by that kind of weaponry. I do not want to be too technical, but armoured piercing weapons of Soviet design and Iranian production, such as the RPG-29, have now pierced at least two of our Challenger main battle tanks. A number of weapons found in a cache near to Baghdad in January were traced to Iran.

As the papers reported yesterday, UK commanders in Afghanistan claim that Iranian Strela missiles are being used against our air transport there, and I have it on good authority that medium-range rockets are being used in Helmand every night of a pattern that characteristically come from Iran. A former regimental colleague of mine described to me, in an e-mail from Helmand, that we are in the middle of an undeclared war against Iranian-backed militias and Iranian-backed Taliban in Helmand province.

The numbers of casualties are stark. April was one of the bloodiest months for British forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the seven weeks leading up to the US army's surge in Iraq, there were 29 fatalities. In the seven weeks after the start of the surge, there have been 53 fatalities. As I have already mentioned, armoured fighting vehicles in Afghanistan are regularly being penetrated.

The International Journal of Epidemiology has produced some frightening and stark figures. It says that it would previously have expected 128 improvised explosive device fatalities in a 105-day period in Iraq. With the troop surge, it expected that number to rise to about 146, but the reality is that 188 allied servicemen and women have been killed by those devices since the beginning of the US surge in Iraq. There is no doubt that there has been a serious spike in enemy activity and a concerted effort to use weaponry with a sophistication and determination with which we are becoming horribly familiar.

It is worth considering Iran's foreign operations. We have already discussed Afghanistan and Iraq, and it is common knowledge that Iran supports Palestinian militant groups. We are familiar with the sayings of President Ahmadinejad and with Mr. Khamenei's description of Israel as a "cancerous tumour". We are also familiar with the operations of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and, of course, Hezbollah. There is little doubt that they are all supported by Iran.

Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford North) (Con): The vile regime in Iran has no regard for its innocent citizens, who want no part in what is going on, and it continues to meddle in other countries' affairs and to threaten the very existence of other countries. Does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come when measures must be taken to show that the rest of the world cannot and will not put up with those actions?

Mr. Mercer: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; as usual, he makes a very good and articulate point. He underlines the fact that when we talk about this vile regime, as he described it, we must remember that it does not represent the majority of people in Iran-far from it. It is wrong to view Iran as one power block that is united in its efforts to destroy democracy and to impose its values on the world.

I would be interested to hear the Minister's views on Iran's tolerance or otherwise of an al-Qaeda presence in its country. I am sure that he is aware that for the past several years, a Shura of al-Qaeda, including one of bin Laden's sons, has been present inside Tehran. The Iranian regime will claim that those people are under close supervision-perhaps, indeed, in prison-and some will say that they are under house arrest. Others will say that they are free to come and go as they wish.

Clearly, the correlation of an alliance between al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime is an extraordinary one; the same applies to the Taliban. None the less, I would be interested to hear why, at the Senate foreign relations committee, the Under-Secretary of State, Nicholas Burns, accused Iran of breaching security resolutions 1267 and 1373, which demand that information on al-Qaeda be shared across international boundaries. What does the Minister have to say on that?

At a symposium yesterday, Mr. Claude Moniquet, a director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Centre in Brussels, made an extraordinarily chilling claim, which the Minister has probably seen in this morning's papers. He suggested that in the event of attacks on Iran and on her nuclear facilities in particular, it was highly likely that Iranian agents-he may describe them as he wishes-would attack European and British nuclear facilities inside this country. That rumour has been heard for some time-it is certainly not the first time that it has reached my ears-but for it to be stated so publicly is worrying. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister agrees or disagrees with it.

In July 2006, I asked the Foreign Secretary how likely it was that this country's streets would, or could, be visited by Iranian terrorism. She replied:

"As the hon. Gentleman says, there are indeed concerns about the scale and nature of terrorism in this country, and about whether some of that is inspired or funded in any way by forces in and around Iran."-[Official Report, 20 July 2006; Vol. 449,c. 518.]

I was surprised to receive that reply, because I had expected something much blander. I shall press the Minister to explain what he believes the threat to this country is from Iranian terrorists.

As I have explained, we now have the opportunity, provided by a new Prime Minister, of a clean sweep through which foreign policy can be redesigned to a greater or lesser extent. I implore the Minister to ask the Government to cease the inconsistency that we have had to endure for the past couple of years. I have no doubt that the Prime Minister is fully aware of the dangers that we face. He has said that

"there are elements...of the Iranian regime that are backing, financing, arming, supporting terrorism in Iraq".

Yet when the previous Foreign Secretary was asked about the possibility of any form of military action to confront what Iran is doing, he said something extraordinary:

"but in the real world in which we are living...we are trying to resolve this issue, I do not see that there is a place for military action."-[Official Report, 14 March 2006; Vol. 443, c. 1282.]

He expands on that, and this is something with which the Minister is familiar.

Nobody in their right mind can expect a full-scale military intervention against Iran-of course not. But what do we do about this? Do we say to Iran, "Carry on hitting us. Carry on killing our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines, because any sort of military action is clearly unacceptable according to Britain's Foreign Secretary"? We are involved today in military confrontation with Iran whether we like it or not. I cite the officer from my regiment who said that we are in an undeclared war with that country. Shying away from this and eroding the words of our Prime Minister is dangerous. It also sends very mixed messages to a dangerous regime.

I have made this point to the Minister already, but I repeat that I simply could not understand Ministry of Defence and Government policy on issues such as boarding and not boarding foreign ships after the debacle off the Shatt al-Arab that took place about a month ago. If we are there under the terms of a United Nations resolution and we are told to board ships, we should continue to board them; we should not suspend operations and, when the dust has settled-that is a bad analogy at sea-decide that we will continue to board them. Such an approach sends out the wrong messages.

Irrespective of whether the decision on whether Prince Harry should serve in Iraq was right or wrong, by golly, it gave a tremendous public relations victory to our enemies. [Interruption.]

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): I saw the Minister shaking his head in confusion at that last point, so will my hon. Friend expand on it?

Mr. Mercer: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. The messages that this country sent out were extraordinary. We sent the extremely powerful message that at the end of a dirty, lethal and extremely unpopular campaign, a member of the royal family was willing to risk his neck alongside the humblest private soldier or trooper from his regiment. The fact that that was then rescinded and that we went public on the decision-making process was a disgrace, and I find it extremely difficult to understand how, yet again, we fell into a well-organised and sophisticated public relations ambush. I hope that that answer proves helpful.

Why do we send delegations to Iran? Why do we treat Iran as if she is a friendly nation? We are content to stand up to nations such as Belarus; we do not send delegations there or receive its delegations. To underline the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, North (Mr. Scott), why do we continue to be ambivalent with Iran about her human right records? Why do we tolerate the way in which gender issues are handled inside Iran?

How can we begin to understand some of the EU's statements about the MEK or People's Mujaheddin of Iran-a point recently made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay)? However one regards that organisation, we must deal with it even-handedly. The EU3 stated in November 2004 that if Iran were to comply with the demands of the EU and pull back from its apparent development of nuclear weapons,

"we would continue to regard the MEK"

-that is, the PMOI-

"as a terrorist organisation."

What is the PMOI? Is it a terrorist organisation or not? Can it be used as a pawn on this particular board? Do we treat the people involved as human beings? Why do we proscribe that organisation, whereas Hizb ut-Tahrir continues to be non-proscribed more than 18 months after the Prime Minister said that he would proscribe it? There is a terrible inconsistency, and I hope that the Minister will make it clear how he and the Government intend to deal with it.

Mr. Jenkin: May I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that the US Administration are also split on the question of the MEK? The State Department is in favour of proscribing it, whereas the Defence Department is in favour of lifting the sanction against it. Does this situation not need to be sorted out urgently?

Mr. Mercer: As usual, I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree with what he says, and that was exactly the point that I was making about consistency. If we allow our enemies to see that the superpower in the west is taking one approach and we are taking another, and we allow the shameful and disgraceful statement that we have heard from the EU to gain popular appeal, what sort of message does that send? I ask the Minister to be clear with me about how we intend to deal with PMOI/MEK in the near future? It is a proscribed organisation, but do the Government intend that to be the case in the future?

Mr. Andrew MacKinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Following our debate in this Chamber on 25 April, the Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook), who presided, in reply to some of the questions that I had raised. The question that was not addressed in that letter relates to point that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) is making. It concerned the offer by the EU, with which the United Kingdom was complicit, that the PMOI would continue to be proscribed if there was compliance on the nuclear issue. In his letter, the Minister failed to respond to that point, so I hope that he will do so later this morning. Alternatively, if he writes to you, Mr. O'Hara, I hope that the position of the Foreign Office will be revealed, because on the issue that the hon. Member for Newark has just raised, the Minister fails to respond.

Mr. Mercer: rose-

Minister of State, Trade & Investment, Department of Trade and Industry (Ian McCartney): I do not normally intervene, but I must put something on the record. The letter that I sent via the Chair of that debate was to all hon. Members who were present. I wanted to ensure that they all got it. It responded to the points that I had been unable to answer because of time constraints. The issue raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock was answered in the debate. He did not like the answer that I gave, but it is in Hansard. I also intervened on him on this very subject, because he was again making untrue and unfounded allegations about my connection to this organisation.

Mr. Mercer: I should say to the hon. Member for Thurrock that the debate in which he, the Minister and I took part was indeed very limited by time. I make no bones about the fact that I have taken up the hon. Gentleman's point so that we can get a proper answer. I do not know where I stand on this issue. I have not yet decided, so I want the Government to guide me and to give precise directions on where they are going, particularly vis-à-vis the United States Government, so that Iranian opposition groups can have it clearly in their minds where their future lies. We must have an answer to that point, and I am grateful to the Minister for intervening.

Mr. Roger Gale: (North Thanet) (Con): Earlier in his speech, my hon. Friend said that many millions of ordinary, decent people in Iran are oppressed by a terrible regime, and he is absolutely right. Does he agree that the policy of appeasement-that is what it is-in Iran has failed? It has failed to control the development of nuclear weapons and failed to assist the people who want freedom and democracy in their country. Does he also agree that it is perhaps time to recognise that the People's Mujaheddin of Iran and the National Council of Resistance of Iran are not part of the problem, as Her Majesty's Government seem to believe, but part of the solution, and that if they were given the chance to play their part we might have a peaceful solution in Iran, rather than what lies ahead?

Mr. Mercer: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, and I agree with him entirely. That is precisely the point that I am trying to make. I need some guidelines from the Government on where we are going with Mujaheddin-e-Khalq and PMOI. I believe that we have the possibility of pulling a peaceful solution from the current morass, but let us not forget that whatever threats we see daily over the hill, our soldiers, sailors and airmen and being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by Iranian weapons and Iranian evil.

What are the solutions? This will sound deeply counter-intuitive, but one reason why our troops are so exposed, particularly in Iraq, is because there are so few of them. The game is up, and there is no doubt that we intend to withdraw substantially in the near future. I guess that the Americans are thinking along similar lines, but they have taken a pragmatic military decision, which may or may not work: that if they are to withdraw in good order, they must do so from a position of strength. The situation is dangerous, and our enemies intend to make the summer even more dangerous, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we continue to run down the number of troops, fewer of them will have to cover larger areas in increasingly contained forms of transport: helicopters, armoured vehicles and so on. That means that they will be more vulnerable.

I shall not go through the technical arguments again, but if even our heaviest armoured fighting vehicles are vulnerable to weapons, that can only mean that fewer troops will result in proportionately higher casualties. I know that that is counter-intuitive, but would the Minister please assure me that in the dying days-a distasteful comment-of the Iraq campaign we will have enough troops left there to protect those who are trying to withdraw? I shall be extremely interested to hear his argument.

Can the Minister also make it clear how we intend to continue with the sanctions regime? Nineteen months after Iran was referred to the Security Council and10 months after the Security Council decided that Iran's nuclear programme

"is a threat to international peace and security",

United Nations sanctions have not imposed much of a penalty on Iran. Similarly, the Security Council's resolutions are very limited. There are few concrete restrictions. They call for vigilance and restraint, but make no demands on Iran for which it can be held to account.

The United States' actions must be followed by the European Union and properly supported. In a moment, I shall go through one or two of the actions that we could impose. Above and beyond everything else, we must act as a sovereign nation to encourage dialogue between the United States and Iran. However, without Iranian compliance, we should be looking to impose much stronger United Nations penalties on Iran if she will not co-operate. When the UN meets to consider its next resolution on Iran in the last week of May and early June, the Security Council should either impose or raise the prospect of a number of different measures, such as a travel ban on individuals involved in Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programme; a formal ban on the training of Iranians in nuclear disciplines; the designation of Bank Saderat Iran, which is said to be used by Iran to transfer money to terrorist groups; and adding leaders of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which controls Iran's ballistic missile programme and is though to orchestrate violence in Iraq, to the travel ban and assets freeze list. I could go on, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) will add to that list.

I have spoken for long enough, Mr. O'Hara, but while we are mesmerised by such eye-catching events as we have seen over the past two or three weeks and while we agonise over the potential development of nuclear weapons in Iran, our servicemen are being eviscerated by weaponry that comes from Iran to both Iraq and Afghanistan. We cannot allow that to continue. It is an undeclared act of war. Unless we seize this opportunity to harden Government policy, to propose concerted, orchestrated and coherent actions across the alliance, I suggest that the next few months will be bloody, hot and lethal for our troops who are trying to serve this country with all their courage.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley South) (Lab): Order. I remind hon. Members that the Front-Bench contributions should start not later than 10.30.

Mr. MacKinlay: I welcome this debate because during a half-hour debate in this Chamber on 25 April there were, as has been demonstrated, some unanswered questions, certainly from my perspective. I hope to explore those today, but I want to thank and congratulate the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this longer debate because it allows us to examine more forensically the position of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Her Majesty's Government's inconsistent approach to our bilateral relations with Iran.

The Minister is somewhat testy and irritable, and obviously thinks I am unfair or unreasonable in my criticisms, but that is against the backdrop of Her Majesty's Government saying different things at ministerial level, and not being consistent in demonstrating their distaste for Iran's human rights record and the hon. Gentleman's central charge this morning that weaponry and ordnance are coming from Iran with the knowledge and acquiescence of the regime, which is obviously working against our interests both in Iraq and Afghanistan and putting our service personnel in peril.

That is broadly the charge and, as the hon. Gentleman effectively said, we are acquiescing, through our silence and inaction, in outrages outside Iran but emanating from there, and human rights violations in Iran to which we have an entirely different response from that to other regimes in other parts the world that perpetrate the same actions.

Belarus is a pretty awful regime, but it does not export terror. Yet we do not entertain officials from Belarus and our relations are in deep freeze. As far as I am aware, we do not welcome to the United Kingdom formal delegations from the Belarus Parliament, although individuals may come, which is correct and appropriate. Yet we welcome parliamentary delegations from the Majlis and we send delegations there, which is absurd. Was there a recent visit by members of the Majlis with the acceptance and approval of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? If so, it was done sneakily, and that does not make it legitimate.

Why do I say that Her Majesty's Government are sending inconsistent signals? If we look at what the Prime Minister has said as recently as 9 May in the House, we can see why. He said:

"What is happening in Iraq is essentially that al-Qaeda on the one hand and elements of the Iranian regime on the other are backing terrorism".

It is the Prime Minister who said that

"elements of the Iranian regime...are backing terrorism".-[Official Report, 9 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 154.]

I did not say that; the Prime Minister said it. Yet, we have the kind of response that we had on 25 April, and which I believe we are likely to get today, implying that we must go softly on the Iranian regime. If the Minister says, "The hon. Member for Thurrock is wrong. We are not going soft with the Iranian regime," why do we continue to allow exports that have dual use?

Following our Westminster Hall debate, the Minister wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North (Frank Cook) on 18 May and referred to the EU agreed "Common Position" relating to

"restrictions on the supply of arms to Iran as set out in Resolution 1747".

The Minister went on to state that it

"covers all items on an agreed Military List",

but he then wrote that that

"does not include dual use chemicals such as zirconium silicate, which will continue to be"

available under export licences. I cannot understand why we do that. It seems to me to be bonkers to allow the export to that regime of things that are demonstrably of value in the development of nuclear energy or weapons. Zirconium silicate can contribute to many parts of the process. I use zirconium silicate only to indicate and illustrate our silliness.

The list of people who are not allowed-frankly, not made welcome-in the UK and the EU is not really effective. As I indicated, we host so-called parliamentarians-they are anointed by the regime rather than popularly elected-here in London. That sends a confused signal. On the one hand, the Prime Minister talks frankly and candidly, and I believe correctly, but in another part of the Government, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office takes, in my view, a completely different approach and, if I may say so, seriously misreads the gravity of the situation.

To buttress my case and that of the hon. Member for Newark, I noticed that a Lieutenant Colonel Simon Browne, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion the Royal Anglian Regiment, told The Sunday Telegraph:

"I'm sure there is outside influence here and it is from Iran. It is clear the insurgents are getting supplied from somewhere. I would believe it comes from Iran, or at least comes from Iranian sources".

He was talking about the weapons that were putting his troops in peril in Iraq.

Reference has also been made to the fact that in a previous debate I put forward the proposition that the People's Mujaheddin of Iran should not be proscribed. Perhaps I have approached the matter in the wrong way. May I use this occasion to ask Her Majesty's Government to say what more the PMOI can do, or what they would like it to do, to demonstrate beyond doubt that it is not involved in terrorism either in the United Kingdom, the European Union or anywhere? What more can or should the PMOI do?

The Government have moved the goalposts. They know that the PMOI is not a terrorist organisation, but they are frightened of the consequences of taking it off a proscribed list because of our bilateral relations with Iran. That is the truth. It is not sufficient for the Minister to scoff or dismiss what I am saying. It would be fair both to the PMOI and to Parliament if the Minister or another member of the Government-either this morning or on a piece of paper-were to list the PMOI's deficiencies and failings in demonstrating its goodwill and that it is terrorist-free.

Mr. Gale: Is it not the case that the PMOI and its associated organisations have never participated in any terrorist activity in or against the interests of the United Kingdom? Is it not a fact that the PMOI and its adherents in Iraq are providing succour, at great risk to themselves, to the allied forces in Iraq, and providing both the Americans and the British with intelligence that is being used by our forces in the cause for which we are present? Is it not shameful that the Government should lead the call in Europe for the maintenance of the proscription of the PMOI?

Mr. MacKinlay: I subscribe to those views. It is also interesting that the American commanders of the coalition forces that have jurisdiction over the part of Iraq in which PMOI members have been disarmed, Camp Ashraf or Ashraf city, have given the organisation consistently, on paper, a clean bill of health. We are talking about the United States of America, whose commanders are in Iraq. They have indicated clearly that the PMOI members in Ashraf city are not acting as terrorists. They are allowed bank accounts. One is bewildered as to why Her Majesty's Government maintain the proscription. I say that I am bewildered, but the only logical conclusion is that which I and the hon. Gentleman have come to: they do so to placate the Iranian regime. That is wrong and shameful.

In the letter sent to my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, the Minister more or less says that I have misread the situation and the PMOI has been on a terrorist list for much longer than our negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue have been going on. That is true, but I believe that it buttresses my view. The PMOI has demonstrably been disarmed since 2001, but nobody, including the Government, has produced one instance of a breach of the disarmament. The Government are frightened to alter the existing arrangements, because they have a fear of offending Iran.

In his letter to my hon. Friend, the Minister did not address the fact that the EU has subsequently said that it will continue to proscribe the PMOI if the UK collaborates. We will see that tomorrow in the Official Report because the hon. Member for Newark read out the offer. The Minister needs to deal with that issue, which I raised on 25 April, and which the hon. Member for Newark raised this morning, rather than the history of the matter.

The other issue that needs to be raised this morning is the fact that the PMOI has used the European Court of First Instance to secure some remedy. The Court challenged the European Union and, implicitly, the United Kingdom, to produce evidence of terrorism, but it has failed to do so. Neither Parliament, nor the European Court of First Instance have seen any evidence. The matter is becoming increasingly embarrassing and unfair, and it compounds the mixed signals that we are sending to Iran.

Many Members want to contribute to the debate, so I shall conclude by saying that I hope that the Minister recognises that he cannot be selective. When he sends a letter to you, Mr. O'Hara, or to your fellow Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, North, he must answer all the points raised in a debate, not just some of them.

Mr. Jenkin: I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on securing this timely debate. It is extraordinary that the issue of Iran, its role in Iraq and the causes of that role have been so underreported.

For the record, after I first visited Iraq as shadow Secretary of State for Defence, shortly after the invasion in 2003, one of the key issues that I raised with the then Secretary of State for Defence, both on and off the record, was the role that Iran was already evidently playing in Iraqi politics and in the violence in that country. The Government and the coalition as a whole have been asleep at the switch on the issue. They have completely failed to confront the problem, which has resulted in the loss of perhaps many more lives than we should have lost.

The external involvement of Iran cannot be separated from its internal politics. I beg for a much deeper, more three-dimensional understanding of that amazing country, Iran. It was an extremely powerful and influential country, with its own empire. It has many diverse and proud traditions, and there is no reason why its strand of Islam should not be peacefully expressed, but Iran has suffered historic decline over the past 200 years.

I am afraid that the western powers have played a shameful role in the decline and humiliation of Iran over the past century, not least through some duplicitous treaty-making by our country and the overthrow of the flowering of democracy in Iran in the early years of the cold war. It was the western powers that installed the corrupt regime of the Shah of Iran, which led directly to the Iranian revolution, which has led directly to the situation that we face today. Not only that, but when the Shah was overthrown, we tacitly supported Saddam, in the containment of what we regarded then as a hostile power.

I am afraid that our record is deeply inconsistent and nothing to be proud of. We may find excuses for it, but we must recognise our failings in our engagement with Iran. It is hardly surprising that an irresponsible leadership in Iran can capitalise on the deep suspicions that many Iranian people feel about the role of the United States and the United Kingdom in their decline and misfortunes. Finally on that point, what interest does Iran have in stabilising Iraq, when it is in Iran's national interest, as the Iranians perceive it, to keep the United Kingdom and the United States in particular bogged down, instead of targeting this other member of the axis of evil? I believe that the Iranian regime is indeed part of an axis of evil, but that is the regime, not the people.

That relates to my second point, which is that we must understand the nature of Iran. As my hon. Friend pointed out, we are not dealing with the equivalent of Nazi Germany or with the monocultural police state that we overthrew in Iraq. We are dealing with a very much more diverse and relatively liberal society, where many strands of opinion are capable of being expressed and where there is even a semblance or pretence of democracy and elections. There are dissident movements operating in Iran with which we should be actively engaged, although I shall not revisit the PMOI/MEK issue, which is a subject for a whole debate. Our inconsistency in dealing with those questions underlines the immaturity of our policy and discussion.

Ahmadinejad is not just a deranged madman in charge of a whole country; he is part of a machinery. The religious leaders in Iran may not even have intended him to win his election, but it is important to see him as part of a machinery, rather than a rogue leader operating on his own. To underline that point, look at the sophistication with which the Iranian regime plays the international media and the way in which the British hostages were paraded in front of the cameras and encouraged to thank their captor for his munificence. Look at the timing of that operation, which skilfully removed from the public agenda the issue of UN sanctions, which should have preoccupied us over that period. That operation paralysed the international campaign of sanctions, stole a victory in the United Nations from the west and gave an unparalleled propaganda victory to Ahmadinejad and his regime at such a crucial moment.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, Prince Harry's deployment has unfortunately turned into another such debacle. I fail to understand why Ministers did not realise that the deployment a member of the royal family was fundamentally a political issue. How they could ever have understood it to be merely a military decision beats me. The episode demonstrates that the Government have no understanding of the complexity and breadth of the campaign that they have to fight against Ahmadinejad's regime. That campaign has to be fought on every front. We are not just fighting a diplomatic battle, a counter-insurgency battle or a military battle in Iraq and Afghanistan; we are fighting a propaganda war. We are fighting for the hearts and minds of the Arab street, but at every turn we deliver Ahmadinejad and his regime the propaganda victory that he needs to be seen as the champion of the Islamic world against the perfidy of the western powers.

To underline that point, we need to acknowledge the failure of current diplomatic efforts. There was a period when the EU3 was given its head by the Americans to take the soft power approach towards Iran, as opposed to having the United States holding the big stick. However, neither the soft power approach nor the big stick can possibly work separately. The idea that the European powers could be Mr. Nice Guy or do a good cop, bad cop routine against a country as sophisticated as Iran was always moonshine. We must have a seamless policy with the US and the EU, involving all the other senior powers in the United Nations. We have been moving towards that, but my goodness it has been slow, because we are not treating the issue as the top international issue that it should be seen as. Even the outcome in Iraq is now of secondary importance to the outcomes that we face in Iran.

To conclude, Iran is the test case. If weapons proliferation succeeds in Iran, there will be a domino effect throughout the entire middle east. Every Gulf state will say, "Well, I will need one, too." Already we know that Israel has nuclear weapons. The Gulf states are prepared to tolerate that, but they will not be prepared to tolerate a rogue regime in Iran possessing nuclear weapons, while they remain defenceless. Furthermore, if we cannot confront this terrorism-exporting regime as forcefully as we did Iraq, we are inviting Hezbollah to become active in Europe and the west, in the same way that al-Qaeda is already.

My hon. Friend referred to the possible identity of interests between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. We have already seen how incredibly effective and sophisticated Hezbollah has been in Lebanon. It is not widely known, but Hezbollah used unmanned aerial vehicles in its war against Israeli forces in Lebanon. We are dealing not with unsophisticated, ill-educated people but with serious forces.

To succeed in our diplomacy in Iran, not least in order to deal with the externalities, we must change the emphasis of our rhetoric. First, we must elevate the issue in our domestic politics and in European and American politics, so that people begin to understand its urgency. Secondly, we must emphasise our good intentions toward the people of Iran. We must talk about the shameful human rights record of the Iranian regime-I do not have time to elaborate on it now, but it is a subject that will connect with the vast majority of Iranians. As Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher raised the issue of the Soviet Union's human rights record in the 1980s to undermine support for that regime, we must do the same with regard to Iran. It will legitimise our campaign to contain Iran's terrorist activities and encourage Iran to expose its weapons development programmes.

There is no doubt that Iran seeks to obtain a weapons programme, but I emphasise again that a change of rhetoric might be helpful. We should acknowledge that if Iran wants an enrichment programme, albeit at utterly ludicrous expense to itself-if it really wants a domestic power generation programme with uranium enrichment on its own soil-we do not object in principle so long as it complies with the non-proliferation treaty to which it remains a signatory and accepts the comprehensive verification and surveillance necessary. It is demonstrably necessary, as the regime has clearly lied and lied and concealed and concealed what it is doing.

I commend to the Government the statement made earlier this week by my right hon. Friends the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Foreign Secretary. They laid out a seriously thought out, comprehensive approach that the Government should be willing to adopt. I find it distressing that the Minister has sat through this debate without taking a single note; I fear that he will read out a text prepared for him by his officials. I hope that he will engage with the points raised, and that he will press his colleagues in Government to hold a full day's debate on Iran. We have held full-day debates on Iraq, and it is time that we had one on Iran. Otherwise, we cannot demonstrate that our Government are treating the matter seriously enough.

Mr. David Gauke (South West Hertfordshire) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on initiating this debate. It is hugely important. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) was absolutely right to say how important the issue is and that it needs to be elevated. I do not think that a more important external issue faces this country, for four reasons.

The first is the Iranian nuclear programme. It is important, as was mentioned, because of the likelihood that it will result in much wider proliferation throughout the middle east. Also, given the nature of the Iranian regime, it is just possible that Iran will use its nuclear weapons. We cannot necessarily dismiss all the talk about wiping Israel off the map, for example, as mere rhetoric.

The second reason why Iran is so important is related; it has to do with the wider impact in the middle east. Again, I do not think that Iran's importance in the events in Lebanon last summer should be underestimated, as it frequently is. Hezbollah is largely a wholly owned subsidiary of the Iranian regime. My hon. Friend made the point that the capture of British sailors in Shatt al-Arab was a distraction. The same point could be made about the events in Lebanon-they could be seen as a distraction from what the Iranian regime is up to with its nuclear programme.

The third reason why Iran, this debate and the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark are so important is the question of what is happening to our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. My hon. Friend eloquently described the case and how significant the threat is. It is surely outrageous, and this House should acknowledge it more often, that another Government are essentially killing our troops. That basic fact seems so astonishing that it should be causing outrage. It should be causing regular debates in this House and marches in the streets, yet we generally let it go as one of those things-"It's all a bit of a mess," "Lots of people say we shouldn't be out there anyway" and "It's all our fault." We rather dismiss it, and that is utterly wrong. It is a major issue.

The fourth important point, which was also made by my hon. Friend, deals with the threat in the United Kingdom. In considering external theatres, we tend to concentrate on the middle east, but the Iranian regime has been responsible for the murder of some 80 people in Buenos Aires, and the capability for terrorist action in the UK cannot be dismissed.

Why is the matter not debated more or discussed as much as it might be? Two reasons spring to mind. The first is perhaps that it is so big and so difficult that it is easier to ignore than address. Secondly-I speak as someone who initiated one of these debates 16 months ago-it is easier to identify problems than solutions, although my hon. Friend the Member for Newark and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) raised a number of important points.

In the time available, I do not have an opportunity to expand on that, but I have two points to make. The policy of engagement by the EU3, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for North Essex, failed. It gave the Iranian regime time to develop its nuclear programme. This is a slightly personal point, but whatever the qualities of the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw)-and they are considerable-he is closely associated with that policy of engagement. At the moment it is, if not likely, a distinct possibility that he might return to the Foreign Office as Foreign Secretary. On this issue, that would be the wrong signal to send the Iranian regime. I think that it would be a mistake, and I hope that the Chancellor, if he reads the report of this debate, will bear that in mind.

To reiterate points made earlier, I cannot understand the Government's policy on the PMOI. There may be something about the PMOI that I do not know, but the evidence that I have seen suggests that it is not and has not been for many years a terrorist organisation. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) made clear, it has never undertaken any activity that has damaged the UK or the west. The only explanation that I can see for why the Government are reluctant to de-proscribe the PMOI seems to be that it would upset the Iranian regime-the hon. Member for Thurrock made that point earlier. That is simply not good enough. It is not an acceptable reason, and if the Government cannot come up with a better one, it is time that they de-proscribed the PMOI.

We face an enormous threat. What we have presented to the Iranian regime time and time again has been weakness, whether it be in the policy of engagement, in dancing to the Iranian regime's tune as far as anti-regime movements are concerned or in military action in the middle east. I do not think that the whole Shatt-al-Arab affair was the finest hour for this country, by any means. It is time for us to send some firm signals to the Iranian regime. Others have given concrete examples of what should be done. I hope the Minister is listening, as it is about time that the Government took action.

Mr. Mark Hunter (Cheadle) (Lib Dem): I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for securing the debate, especially in the context of the upcoming US-Iranian talks about Iraq later this month. His views have been interesting and enlightening, particularly in the light of his personal experience with and contribution to our armed forces.

Iran's conduct in the wider middle east has alarmed many countries, and rightly so. Just yesterday, an article in The Guardian reported that US officials believe that Iran is secretly forging ties with al-Qaeda elements and the Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces, with the endgame of further pressure on the US Congress to vote for withdrawal from Iraq. Although that report might or might not be true, it shows the level of fear that Iran's recent actions in the middle east have engendered.

I do not for one moment play down the destabilising effect that Iran might be having on the fragile situation in Iraq, but some of the rhetoric used in the debate is unhelpful. Calling any negotiation with Iran appeasement is, I think, particularly divisive. Not only is it untrue, but it seems deliberately to play on the historical context of that word in the UK. Dialogue does not mean appeasement, and it would be wrong to caricature it in that way. It is clear that the evidence seems to point towards Iran's encouraging the movement of both men and arms into Iraq and financing and training Iraqi insurgents. Iran is also known to have significant links to Shi'a groups in Afghanistan as well as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the west bank. Iran's actions and its encouragement of insurgents and terrorists show that it is failing to use its significant influence in that arena to help to stabilise the region.

Any actions that endanger British lives are, of course, of the utmost concern. It is entirely right that any such action should be criticised by the international community in the strongest possible language and be met with a firm response from the UK Government. Endangering the lives of British servicemen and women should always have the gravest consequences.

Military action or the threat of military action is not the answer to the problem, however. The use of military force is not only unlikely to be successful, but would give succour and support to the hardliners in Iran and help to marginalise those internal forces-they do exist-that are sympathetic to the west. Furthermore, it would create chaos in the region. We would almost certainly see retaliation from groups supportive of Iran, and the escalation of violence in Iraq and the west bank, which would place UK and allied troops in even greater danger. East-west relations would crumble and the chance for peace in the region would disintegrate with them.

Whatever the provocation, military action against Iran would be counter-productive and could leave the UK and USA without the support of the UN and the wider international community.

Mr. Mercer: I absolutely take the hon. Gentleman's point and follow the direction from which his rhetoric comes. Does he not agree, however, that we have gone beyond that point? It is easy to talk about no military confrontation, but the fact remains that we already in daily military confrontation with Iran, albeit at a low level. How does he square that with his earlier comments?

Mr. Hunter: If the hon. Gentleman hears the rest of my argument, he will realise that I do not accept the current situation or that there is nothing much to be done about it. Clearly, there is a need for more urgent action, but as I have said before in this place, I do not believe that military intervention will help in any way, shape or form. It would also leave our country in questionable territory when it came to international law. I hope to develop the point, if he will bear with me.

The UK and the United States cannot afford to damage further their international reputations by acting without support from such sources. As I have said in past debates on Iran in this Chamber, such action would be irresponsible. Will the Minister reaffirm that our Government have ruled out that option and that they will place the greatest possible pressure on the United States to ensure that it is off the table?

To develop a foreign policy for the middle east that has a chance of success, we must accept certain facts. Iran is undoubtedly a major regional power; its influence over the area has spread so far that it has become almost impossible to envisage a resolution in Iraq, Afghanistan and the middle east without Iranian involvement. The west's policy of Iranian containment has failed, as the actions of the past years show. We need to re-think our strategy towards Iran, to encourage it to use its influence for peace in the middle east and to ensure that it fully understands that ever tougher diplomatic sanctions and isolation will follow if it fails to engage constructively.

America's meeting with Iran later this month on Iraq indicates that it has accepted Iran's influence in the region, but there is a danger that those talks will not go far enough. Comprehensive talks need to take place that deal not only with Iraq, but with the wider political, social and economic issues that divide east and west. It would not be the first time that the west has taken such action; the US adopted similar policies with both China and Russia, as we know.

Iran is at a critical turning point. Presidential and parliamentary polls will be held next year and, as we know from media reports, President Ahmadinejad's term of office has been cut short by the Iranian legislature. Importantly, we have also seen from Iranian politicians and religious leaders published comments that were critical of the President's combative relationship with the west, and which acknowledged that his approach was harmful to the Iranian national interest. The current Iranian Government therefore do not speak for all Iran; there are voices that we need to encourage. The next few years will be a critical juncture in Iranian internal politics. The UK Government need to do all they can to encourage those groups that see the value and the sense of a positive relationship with the west. Does the Minister agree that dialogue and a new relationship with the west would help the pragmatists in Iran to tip the balance of power in their favour and sideline the radicals? We need to play the long game.

The UK has a critical role to play. The UK Government are in a position to influence the US and encourage it to engage positively with Iran. In return, Iran has influence in the region that the US lacks in many cases. If the US and Iran were to engage in open and frank dialogue, not only could negotiations on Iran's negative involvement in Iraq continue more successfully, but, in the longer term, Iran could be encouraged to use its influence to stabilise the region. Both sides need to come to the realisation that the only viable option left to them is that of dialogue, without the irresponsible quasi-religious rhetoric that is so often employed by both parties, which serves only to create mutual hostility.

Mr. MacKinlay: I am impatient to know how and at what stage the hon. Gentleman intends to demonstrate some criticism of the Iranian regime. I assume that he speaks for the Liberal party on the issue. We have listened to him for four or five minutes and he dismissed the charge of appeasement. What has he got in his armoury to demonstrate some disgust at the human rights outrages and gender discrimination in politics? What will he do-bang on the door with a wet sponge?

Mr. Hunter: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that helpful intervention. He is well aware from the comments that my colleagues and I have made on previous occasions that the Liberal Democrats bow to no man in condemning the human rights abuses and the horrific regime in Iran. I am simply trying to make the point in the limited time available that there are forces within Iran that ought to be encouraged and that see the value of a positive relationship with the west. I was on my final point, but I am more than happy to engage with the hon. Gentleman on the matter on a future occasion.

For the US and Iran to work together in the region, they will both need to be willing to compromise, recognise each other's concerns and limit their expectations accordingly. They will also need to come to the negotiating table without any pre-requisites and in the knowledge that negotiation is in the national interests of all parties.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid Norfolk) (Con): Thank you very much, Mr. O'Hara, for the opportunity to reply on behalf of my party. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) on introducing the debate with his central theme-that Iranian weaponry is helping to kill and injure British service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan now, as shown by the quotation from a serving lieutenant-colonel that we are in an undeclared war with Iran.

The debate has been short but useful, and parliamentary colleagues have either kept to my hon. Friend's theme or gone off at tangents. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) spoke passionately about his belief that the British Government need to recognise or not, one way or the other, the role of the PMOI and highlight the lack of any real civil liberties in Iran.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) spoke eloquently about the fact that we frequently address the Iranian problem in a completely unsophisticated way. We should recognise that Iran is a large regional power and that we need to use a wide range of diplomatic as well as economic and military levers if we are to have any hope of persuading Iran not to go down the path that it is currently on. My hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) identified a series of issues connected with Iran, not least its threat to the wider region.

In the limited time available to me, I wish first to ask what we know about Iran, addressing the central question that my hon. Friend the Member for Newark put. I shall give three short quotations. The first is from John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, on 11 January 2007. His view, and that of the United States Government, was that

"Iran regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its national security strategy: it considers this capability as helping to safeguard the regime by deterring U.S. or Israeli attacks, distracting and weakening Israel, enhancing Iran's regional influence through intimidation, and helping to drive the U.S. from the region."

The Foreign Secretary, at Foreign Office questions on 20 March, said:

"We have long-standing concerns about Iran's support for terrorism. We assess that Iran continues to fund and arm extremist groups engaged in violence in Iraq. It remains a leading supplier of military and financial assistance to Lebanese Hezbollah, and it funds and retains close links to Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas."-[Official Report, 20 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 663.]

Finally, the Prime Minister, in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee on 8 February 2005-two years ago-said that Iran

"certainly does sponsor terrorism, there's no doubt about that at all."

That is clearly the view of the United States and British Governments. That is fine, but the question must surely then be what we are going to do about it.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Newark asked-it may be unfair that the question is being asked of a Foreign Office Minister, as it should be put to a Defence Minister-what has the Ministry of Defence done about force protection in Iraq and Afghanistan? By that I mean how does it stop indirect Iranian attacks upon not just British but Iraqi and Afghan troops, which are the troops of the legitimate Governments? My second point should also be made to an MOD Minister. Under successive Governments, we have failed to put enough money into protecting our military personnel and their vehicles against the munitions that come in, as other countries, both America and Israel, have done.

But what do we not know? That is the Rumsfeld question. We are never absolutely sure who in Iran is directing policy at any given stage. My own conclusion is that we are dealing with a regime rather like the French revolutionary regime in the early 1790s-a complex series of coalitions of one kind or another. It sometimes suits them that we in the west, and for that matter their own neighbours, are never 100 per cent. sure how to deal with them.

As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), the Shadow Foreign Secretary, said in their presentation yesterday, we need to up our game in dealing with Iran. I do not believe that it is an either/or; it is perfectly legitimate for us to have discussions and conversations with regimes that we do not like. Ultimately, if they are a threat to international security and our security, we can end all diplomatic relations, which can lead to all kinds of other things. We have not reached that stage yet, but we need to up our game through a combination of incentives and penalties. The Iranians play hard-ball international politics, and I agree with my hon. Friends who have said that, in information policy, the United States of America and ourselves, who are supposed to have such a sophisticated approach, have all too often been caught on the back foot.

We should also bear in mind that the Iranian regime has not liked being placed in the international dock. It never believed that its nuclear programme would get as far as the Security Council position that has been taken in the past few months. The Iranian Government are capable of making the most horrendous mistakes. After all, the Russians have bent over backwards to help the Iranians at every possible opportunity. Usually, the Iranians have been stupid enough to spurn the Russians, so the Russians have finally fallen in behind the United Nations. We now need to link the attitude of the Iranians to their nuclear programme with their sponsorship of terrorism. The Government must not only make it clear to them that we are taking the matter very seriously and intend to publicise every possible detail of their links with terrorism, but work even harder to persuade our allies, particularly in the European Union, that the issue is of outstanding importance.

There is no quick fix and no final military solution, but I disagree with the hon. Member for Cheadle (Mark Hunter). As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made clear, we can never take the military option off the table in international diplomacy, because it is something that can ultimately be done through the United Nations. We should not remove that option, and the Iranians should be made well aware that, if they continue to defy the international community and a series of sanctions and UN resolutions are gone through, the international community might ultimately decide to institute a series of military options. That might not happen, but we should not say that we will take the option off the table. No sovereign country will ever say, in dealing with another country, that there is not a military option if it feels that there is a threat. That is not to say that we advocate it, but we must make it clear to the Iranians that a range of diplomatic and military tools are available and that they are in the dock and we are not.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Newark for introducing the debate, and, as always, I look forward with pleasure to the Minister's response. I am happy that he is still in his place during this sensitive time of regime change. Like the Roman empire, we have an emperor of the east and an emperor of the west, and the Minister may or may not survive. Perhaps the Department for Work and Pensions will beckon in a month's time. I look forward to hearing his reply.

Mr. McCartney: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Hara. We had a debate on 25 April-my birthday, so there was at least one thing to cheer me that day-when much of the ground was covered, but today's debate has been more extensive and Members have been better able to make their points. I welcome this debate.

I want to put on the record the apologies of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Middle East, who would have taken this debate if his return from discussions in Pakistan and Afghanistan had not been delayed. As I always do with debates, whether on this or other issues, I shall carefully read Hansard tomorrow, and if there is a need to give further explanation or to take up a point that I do not deal with or do not deal with as adequately as I should, I shall write to all Members in attendance through you, Mr. O'Hara, and place a copy of the letter in the Library.

I thank the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) for the way in which he introduced the debate. I know that he has a great interest in the subject-it is not something that he dips in and out of-and although we may not agree on some issues or use the same language, I fully accept where he is coming from and the genuineness of his case.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), the hon. Members for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) and for Cheadle (Mark Hunter), and my good friend-if I may say that-the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), who is the Conservative spokesman. I am not sure what will happen in six weeks' time, other than that there will still be a Labour Government and a Labour Prime Minister. As to my going to the Department for Work and Pensions, I have been there and done that. However, one never knows one's luck in politics. All people know is that they never know how long they will be a Minister. It is the only profession in Britain in which one does not have to be qualified to get a job. All they have to do is be on the same side as the Prime Minister on the day of the reshuffle, so who knows? We will have to wait and see.

Hon. Members may be aware from the previous debate, from parliamentary questions and from comments by my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Defence and the Foreign Secretary, that the Government constantly review their overall bilateral policy towards Iran in the light of the recent detention of Royal Navy personnel, the continued concerns that the international community has over the behaviour of the Iranian regime and the comments of hon. Members on each occasion, whatever the language used. In the end, we come to the same conclusion: there is a need for dialogue and for finding ways to continue the dialogue bilaterally and multilaterally, and for taking the international community with us at each stage of that dialogue. It was dialogue and the support of the international community that led to the personnel whom Iran had illegally seized being given back, with no deal and no apology from us. That happened because the international community stood four-square with us in the dialogue that took place. That is the way forward.

The hon. Member for Cheadle was right on that issue. I have heard him speak in other debates-he takes part in most debates on human rights issues. I am not known always to defend Liberal Democrats, but, in making his case this morning, he did not excuse the Iranians. He made an important intellectual point: there must be dialogue in the region's forums. He did not put that case in support of me as the Minister but took a common-sense approach. As he said, with international relations as complex and difficult as they are, there are no easy answers, but if we are to get the right answers, we will do it only through persistent bilateral dialogue with the regime itself and with those around it, and through multilateral dialogue.

Two things underpin our policy: first, our commitment to engagement, through diplomacy and dialogue, in encouraging Iran to play a constructive role on the international stage; and secondly, our work with international partners to maintain a strong line against unacceptable Iranian behaviour, including its support for terrorism and violence in the region. Those elements are important and complementary.

Engagement is not the same as appeasement. We will continue to put pressure on Iran to modify its behaviour. Colleagues who use the word "appeasement" are wrong to do so. We must co-operate on the matter, both internally in the United Kingdom and bilaterally and multilaterally with the international community. We must continue to put pressure on Iran to modify its behaviour, and we must continue to work with international partners to ensure that we send a clear and consistent message about the costs to Iran of its continuing poor behaviour.

A couple of days ago, the Leader of the Opposition called for the Government to take robust action on Iran because of its nuclear ambitions. Indeed, in his speech, the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) exactly described our policy of a twin-track approach that holds out the possibility of greater engagement but also includes co-ordinated international pressure to encourage Iran to modify its behaviour, and international action if it does not. That is precisely the description of what we continue to do. I welcome the fact that the Leader of the Opposition made such a speech.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary argued the case for incrementally increasing the pressure on Iran and giving it a clear choice between complying with the international community or facing further consequences. We would like Iran to play a positive role in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, and it could take that path if it chose to do so. That path would lead to Iran's greater engagement with the international community, which would benefit its people.

Instead, Iran is doing its best to reduce security, prevent reconciliation and undermine democracy not just in Iraq, but throughout the whole region. Many countries in the middle east already feel threatened by its increasingly malign role in Iraq, Lebanon and the occupied Palestinian territories. The hon. Member for Newark set that out in detail in his introduction, and I agreed with what he said. Continuation of such behaviour will lead only to increased isolation for the regime and greater economic difficulty for the Iranian people.

Iran is arming, funding and training extremists who are undermining security and stability in Iraq. That is totally unacceptable in all circumstances. There is evidence to show that armed groups in the south are using sophisticated weaponry and technology of Iranian origin, including in attacks on British servicemen in and around Basra. Iran is backing some of the groups that are conducting those attacks. We condemn such interference. There can be no justification, under any circumstances, for any country to encourage violence against our forces in Iraq, as they are there under a UN mandate. I cannot underline that any more than the hon. Gentleman did in his introduction to the debate. There are no circumstances whatsoever in which Iran should carry out such activities.

Furthermore, in addition to causing casualties among the multinational force and international security forces, Iranian support fuels sectarian violence in Iraq, which undermines attempts by the Iraqis and the international community to build the stable, representative and democratic Iraq that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis want.

Support for sectarian violence in Iraq is also against the interests of the Iranian people. After all, Iran has more to gain than most from the establishment of a stable, secure Iraq and a stable, secure region. It is vital that Iraq's neighbours support the Iraqi Government in their efforts to improve security and the economy, and to promote reconciliation. Prime Minister Maliki has made it clear that the Iranian region must stop its support for terrorists and armed groups.

We are committed to supporting the Government of Iraq, and we will continue to take steps to tackle anyone who undermines or attacks the legitimate Iraqi authorities. Furthermore, we are working to build the capacity of Iraqi authorities to tackle such groups themselves. I repeat that Iran could choose to play an important and constructive role in Iraq, but, instead, it chooses to carry on supporting terrorism and destabilising the region.

I shall write to hon. Members in detail. I will keep hon. Members and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock informed about the matter that he raised. There is a court case pending. As soon as that is concluded, I shall write in detail about the issue. I shall ensure that, in the next day or two, hon. Members get a full reply to their questions and the general points that have been raised today. I apologise once again that I am unable to give the time necessary to cover each separate point, but I hope that what I have said provides clarity on what our relationship should be with Iran and on why Iran should desist from supporting terrorism in the region, particularly in Iraq.


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