Minutes of Oral Evidence with Jack Straw, Secretary of Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Taken Before the Foreign Affairs Committee (Excerpts)

December 2, 2003

Related Country: 

  • Afghanistan
  • Iraq

Members present

Donald Anderson, in the Chair

Mr David Chidgey

Mr Fabian Hamilton

Mr Eric Illsley

Mr John Maples

Mr Bill Olner

Richard Ottaway

Sir John Stanley


Memorandum submitted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Examination of Witnesses

Witnesses: RT HON JACK STRAW, a Member of the House, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, MR EDWARD CHAPLIN OBE, Director, Middle East and North Africa Directorate, MR JOHN SAWERS CMG, Director-General, Political; and MR EDWARD OAKDEN CMG, Director, International Security, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, examined.

Chairman: Foreign Secretary, may I welcome you again to this meeting of the Committee. We welcome also your colleagues from left to right, Mr John Sawers, Edward Chaplin, and Mr Edward Oakden. Unusually on this occasion we are seeking to question you in relation to two reports which the Committee hopes to publish: the first in relation to bilateral relations with Iran, the second in relation to yet a further chapter of the Committee's work on the war against terrorism, which will focus on this occasion mainly on Iraq and the Middle East peace process. I would like to turn first perhaps for twenty minutes, Foreign Secretary, to Iran. As you know, the Committee were in Iran during your flying visits with your two colleagues, Mr de Villepin and Joschka Fisher where you emerged with this remarkable deal which we hope will stick in relation to the nuclear programme. We certainly recognise that Iran is a country of great geostrategic significance, and your visit clearly also had a certain symbolism in terms of European co-operation. Turning first to Iran, Mr Olner?

Q1 Mr Olner: Foreign Secretary, we all know how supportive in a way Iran has been to try and bring some lasting piece to Afghanistan. Could you tell us what role Iran is playing with Iraq? There have been reports in the papers over the weekend that there have been some incursions made by troops into chasing people into Iraq.

Mr Straw: I am on record as saying that, in general, we are grateful to the Iranian government for the co-operation we have received in respect of the Iraq situation, and when I was in Iraq itself last week on Tuesday and Wednesday there were a few complaints that I received about the position of the Iranian government, so that is the position. There is a need for a continuing dialogue with the Iranians, particularly on their side that we want to see co-operation which has been there but enhanced co-operation on the handover of terrorist suspects. The Iranians will say on the other side that they have a continuing problem with the MEK camp that is in Iraq and, although the practicalities of that are complicated, I certainly understand their point of view because MEK is a terrorist organisation and one which I banned as Home Secretary two and a half years ago, which ban was endorsed by the House of Commons.

Q2 Mr Olner: Does Iran have positive links with terrorist organisations in Iraq?

Mr Straw: Not to my knowledge, certainly not. The terrorism that is taking place in Iraq is coming principally from what are described by the acronyms either of FRLs or FREs - Former Regime Elements or Former Regime Loyalists, Saddamists --

Q3 Mr Olner: Did you say "loyalists" or "lawyers"?

Mr Straw: "Loyalists". You do not want to utter any calumnies against lawyers, Mr Olner, I am sure! As is very well known there is only enmity between the Saddamists and the Iranian government, so there is no suggestion of that.

Q4 Chairman: Is there any evidence that Iran is seeking to influence Shiite elements within Iraq? For example, the proposal, the timetable, for the next political steps, the transition and the change of sovereignty in June proposed by the Americans has been opposed by Ayatollah Sistani. Is there any suggestion that he is doing so in part as a result of pressure from Iran?

Mr Straw: I see no suggestion about that and, indeed, the general view is that Ayatollah Sistani is very independent. Although I have no direct information, it is highly probable that the Iranian government are talking, as they are fully entitled to, to those in Iran who wish to talk to them. There is reasonable ease of travel; when I saw Jalal Talabani, who was until two days ago the President of the Governing Council, and his colleagues when I was in Iraq last Wednesday, he and his colleagues had just come back from a visit to Tehran and he was applauding the level of co-operation which they had received in Tehran and was very pleased about that, so of course there is a lot of discussion but our best information is that Ayatollah Sistani is independent, he makes his own decisions on the basis of, as it were, his own community and his own branch of Islam.

Q5 Mr Illsley: Coming back to the agreement you and your European colleagues reached with Iran in October during your visit on nuclear enrichment, the Iranians accepted on 10 November that they were to suspend any further enrichment of uranium. How happy are you with that agreement, that the Iranians will stick to it and that that suspension will continue, and do you have any fears of Iran reverting back to a nuclear enrichment programme and, if so, is there any proposal between the three of you and your European counterparts if that happens?

Mr Straw: What I say on this is, "So far so good". In the resolution of the IAEA board, which was passed on 26 November, operative paragraph 3 noted the statement by the Director General of the IAEA that "Iran has taken the specific actions deemed essential and urgent and requested of it in paragraph 4 of the resolution adopted by the Board on 12 September", which was the one that laid down various requirements on Iran in respect of suspension of enrichment-related activities and also of reprocessing activities. But there are two other points in resolution: one is in paragraph 5 which says it endorses the view of the Director General that in order to achieve this, which is what is set out in paragraph 4, all necessary steps to confirm the information provided by Iran on its past and present nuclear activities is correct and complete as well as to resolve issues that remain outstanding, the resolution says in paragraph 5 that the agency must have a particularly robust verification system in place and additional protocol coupled with a policy of full transparency and openness on the part of Iran is indispensable. It then goes on in operative paragraph 8 that, should any further serious Iranian failures come to light, the board of governors will meet immediately to consider, in the light of the circumstances and of advice from the Director General, all options at its disposal in accordance with the IAEA statute and Iran's safeguards agreement. So going back to the summer, you first of all had the concerns about a lack of compliance with the safeguards agreement by Iran which led to a very tough resolution by the board on 12 September, consensus resolution; you then had a period of intensive diplomatic activity which culminated in the visit I made in the company of Dominic de Villepin and Joschka Fisher on 20 October and the agreement we reached with the Iranian government, and that then ran into the report from Dr ElBaradei which came out on 10 November when it was published leading to the resolution. As I say, so far so good, and I expect and hope that there will be full co-operation as the Iranians have promised and undertaken and as Dr ElBaradei has recorded has now happened in respect of the obligations placed on them on 12 September. If that is not forthcoming, which I do not expect but if it is not forthcoming, then obviously the full weight of paragraph 8 of that resolution would come into play.

Q6 Mr Illsley: Given that the Americans, and in particular I refer to a statement made by John Bolton, one of the Under-Secretaries in the Pentagon, have expressed some concern at what the International Atomic Energy Agency has said in the past - I think he described as "unbelievable" the original statement by the IAEA - have you reached a consensus with the United States over the resolution of 26 November? Is the United States happy with that situation, or is there still a fear within the US that perhaps the Iranians are not complying?

Mr Straw: Allow me to say that I answer for myself and the British government and I never provide a running commentary on what other people in other administrations say. There has been over the years a lot of discussion with the United States' government, as there has been obviously with European governments and others as well as the IAEA, about the text of the resolution. I have not discussed it in any detail since its passage - it was after all only a week ago - and in the intervening period I have been in Iraq and in Naples. I will ask Mr Sawers whether he has anything to add on this because he has been involved in a lot of the detail, but I was just turning up what the US Ambassador in Vienna said in terms of his comments on the resolution once it had been passed. They were couched in careful terms and the simple fact of the matter is that this resolution had a consensus behind it - the whole of the international community represented in the IAEA board voted for it, as they had on 26 September - and I and my French and German counterparts were extremely anxious that that is what we should achieve, and is one of the reasons why we embarked down this road, beginning with the letter which we sent on 4 August.

Mr Sawers: I have two points: the first is that the United States voted in favour of this resolution. It was unanimously adopted. There was an extensive discussion and negotiation over its terms but our goal was to maintain the unanimity of the board and all members of the board of Governors of the IAEA supported this particular resolution. Secondly, implicit in your question was that this is an on-going process. The verification which the Iranians have now accepted on their nuclear activities enables the IAEA to report with a greater degree of detail and a greater degree of confidence about what is happening inside Iran on nuclear issues, and that in turn gives us a great deal more confidence about the activities in question. Now, there are some on both sides of the Atlantic who are yet to be convinced that everything has been revealed that has to be. Well, we shall see, and, as the Foreign Secretary has identified in the resolution, there are provisions in that resolution in the event that more breaches or failures come to light, but we are proceeding on the basis that the Iranians have made a clean breast of their past failures and are willing to enter into wider discussions which will provide us all with the confidence on which a civil nuclear power programme can go ahead on the basis of full assurances which satisfy all the main countries involved.

Q7 Sir John Stanley: Following the line of questioning that Mr Illsley has been pursuing, is it not the case, though, that the US Secretary of State has stated publicly that the resolution should have had some form of "trigger mechanism", which was the phrase he used, that would bring some form of sanctions to bear on Iran if there continued to be breaches, and that this was resisted by yourself and your French and German opposite numbers?

Mr Straw: I am not directly aware of such a public comment. What is the case, Sir John, is that there was a process of discussion with all partners in the IAEA board, and as is normal in these situations we arrived at language which met our concerns but also met other partners' concerns which is why we all voted for it, and the arrangements specified in paragraph 8 to which Mr Sawers has just drawn attention I think are satisfactory and make very clear what would be the consequences if it turned out that Iran was not meeting its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement and under the terms of various resolutions.

Q8 Mr Hamilton: As you know, Foreign Secretary, the US State Department has called the Islamic republic of Iran the world's most active state sponsor of terrorism. What I wanted to ask you was whether you felt that Iran's attitude towards terrorist organisations has shifted since 11 September 2001 and, perhaps, especially in the last 12 months? Do you think that Iran's sponsorship or past sponsorship of terrorism continues to remain a substantial aspect of its defence and security policy?

Mr Straw: I first visited Iran just two or three weeks after September 11 - I think it was September 25, 2001. Iran will say, and I am sure that the Iranian government said this to those of you who were on the FAC delegation that they have signed up to all international instruments against terrorism and they are tough on terrorism, and with one very important caveat that is true, and as I have often discussed with them their view of the MEK organisation and our view is the same. MEK is a terrorist organisation and that applies to other terrorist organisations, and I answered a question from Mr Illsley about whether there was any evidence of any association between the terrorism that is going on in Iraq at the moment and the Iranian government and the answer is "No", and I do not expect there to be because their interests are very different and Iran has a clear interest in a restored, representative government and an Iraq which is not controlled by the Saddamists. The caveat is in respect of Iran's support for rejectionist terrorist organisations operating in Israel and Occupied Territories.

Q9 Mr Hamilton: I was going on come on to that in a minute.

Mr Straw: What Iran says is that they do not regard those organisations whom they support principally - Hezbollah but to a degree one or two others - as terrorist organisations; these are freedom fighter organisations. My argument back to them has always been, "Well, thank you for applauding my banning of MEK when I was Home Secretary but bear in mind that, in the same list, I also banned the military means of Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. We therefore believe on the basis of objective evidence and various international instruments that these are all terrorist organisations. Also, Iran had taken the formal view of a "single state solution" to the Israel/Palestine conflict, although what I have detected is an understanding that, since the two-state solution is one which has now been endorsed by the international community, there is a greater willingness by the Iranian government to accept that as reality and to work within it.

Q10 Mr Hamilton: So can you say a little bit more about how much influence you think Iran still has in Palestinian circles?

Mr Straw: The answer is I do not know. They obviously have considerable influence. Query: How much with Hezbollah, for all sorts of historical reasons.

Mr Chaplin: It is a pretty murky area but they certainly have a degree of influence through the assistance and training and other sorts of support they provide to Hezbollah, Hamas and perhaps Islamic Jihad, and that is one of the key concerns that not just we but the other EU governments have in the political dialogue we conduct with them, and the EU has made very clear that there will be no progress on the negotiation of a Trade and Co-operation Agreement unless Iran demonstrates progress on those issues of key concern.

Q11 Mr Hamilton: Given what the Foreign Secretary has just said about Iran supporting a one-state solution, is there any evidence now that given the United Nations resolutions, given the international pressure for support for a road map for a two-state solution, Iran is now coming round to this way of thinking?

Mr Straw:In informal discussions I have detected a shift by the Iranians. They no longer are saying dogmatically that the only solution right for the Palestinians is a one-state solution. The way it has been put to me, but informally, is, "We have a one-state solution as our policy, but we are willing to recognise that if the Palestinians move from a one to two state solution" - which is indeed where they are - "we may have to accept that or will accept that as reality". I was asked earlier about co-operation with Iran. I should just, Mr Chairman, perhaps say a word about co-operation in respect of al Qaeda terrorism which is important and geographically sited in terms of transit. That has been the subject of continuing discussions with the Iranian government. They have now I think detained fifty al Qaeda suspects, and what we look forward to is a further and more enhanced degree of co-operation with the Iranian government.

Q12 Mr Chidgey: Foreign Secretary, can I move on to our interest in human rights in Iran? You are, of course, aware that it is the EU's policy to forge closer trade and co-operation links with Iran, links with improvements in human rights standards in Iran, but the latest report I have seen from the EU General Affairs Council of 30 October says that there are still serious violations of human rights continuing to occur in Iran, and from our work and visits to Tehran we I think could provide a list as long as your arm on areas that were of concern to us, but I just give you a couple. For example, political representation. The ability for groups to approve their own parliamentary candidates without them being first approved by the Guardian Council; children's rights and women's rights - and we all know the work of Dr Badida(?); religious freedom - and this is a particular area of concern that the Baha'is are treated as non-citizens because of their faiths. I would like to know from you, Foreign Secretary, where the United Kingdom stands in this issue. How far up your agenda is this in our relations with Iran?

Mr Straw: It is very important in our agenda and we played a leading role - I personally played a leading role - in ensuring there is conditionality in the relationship between the European Union and Iran in respect not least of the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, so in the letter that Joschka Fisher, Dominique de Villepin and I wrote to the Iranian government, which they received on 4 August, we were able to talk about the fact we wanted to see progress made on trade and co-operation with Iran but that had to take place in the context of progress obviously on the nuclear dossier but also on these other issues, which is why we have also encouraged the human rights dialogue between the EU and Iran and we have made our own important contribution to that. The situation so far as representative government is not satisfactory, and it is well known and no doubt, Mr Chairman, you picked this up when you were there - that there has been this on-going argument between President Khatami and the religious authorities about whether it is right for the religious authorities to be able to decide who should or should not be endorsed as a candidate in elections and other controls over what we would see as a normal operation of a normal democracy. There is a big choice before the Iranians in this respect because their current arrangements are not fully satisfactory. There are elections, as we know; they produced a reformist government in 1997, and the position was further endorsed by the electorate a couple of years ago. At the same time too much of what happens in the country is not controlled by the elected government, and faith in the democratic processes has declined so much that people are expressing that opinion more by abstention, by failing to vote, and the last turnouts in the elections were derisory, and less by positive democratic --

Q13 Mr Chidgey: Those were local elections, though, were they not?

Mr Straw:Yes, but even by British standards they were low!

Q14 Mr Chidgey: Foreign Secretary, I think you touched on this in your first answer but perhaps you could be clear for our benefit: does the European Union intend to reward Iran for its co-operation over a nuclear issue by easing the pressures relating to human rights, or are those two issues completely unconnected? In your answer you alluded to co-operation on the EU nuclear issues and easing the pressure. I want to get very clearly in my mind what the position is.

Mr Straw:What you are talking about here is a process which is either going to go forward or back, and I cannot give you an arithmetical answer to this. We want to see progress made on the nuclear dossier particularly, for reasons which will be obvious, but also in terms of human rights, because that is part of the condition attached to the Trade and Co-operation Agreement process. Now, at any one time we have to make a judgment about whether the progress on either or both has been sufficient to warrant further action on the Trade and Co-operation Agreement and on trade and co-operation generally, and this is an iterative process and at each stage we make a judgment.

Q15 Mr Hamilton: Can I very briefly come back to some of the points that David Chidgey was making about human rights, and my question relates particularly to religious freedom. We know that in the Islamic Republic people are allowed to be members of other faiths, and that is tolerated. What I understand is not tolerated is conversion to, for example, Christianity, and I wondered if you had any information, or were able to comment, on the position of those that have converted from Islam especially to evangelising Christianity, and whether they are still treated as apostates and therefore executed?

Mr Straw: I have no personal information.

Mr Chaplin: I am not aware of a recent case. It is certainly true that they are against any activities that seem to convert Muslims to other faiths. I am not aware of any particular persecution of anyone in that position but we can check.

Mr Hamilton: If you have information I would certainly be grateful.

Q16 Chairman: Finally, on Iran, Mr Chidgey mentioned rewards to Iran from the European Union because of its co-operation on the nuclear issue. Was anything said during your discussions about provision of help on the nuclear side to Iran from the European Union if it complied with the Nuclear Agreement?

Mr Straw: The answer to that is that it has always been, as it were, in the room that, if there were co-operation by Iran in respect of outstanding questions about a nuclear programme which could lead to a development of nuclear weapons and they would fully comply with the Safeguards Agreement and with IAEA resolutions, Europeans for our part would look favourably on their access to modern technology in respect of their areas of industrial activity which were lawful and consistent within their international obligations, and that includes civil nuclear power.

Chairman: Thank you.


This is an uncorrected transcript of evidence taken in public and reported to the House. The transcript has been placed on the internet on the authority of the Committee, and copies have been made available by the Vote Office for the use of Members and others.

Any public use of, or reference to, the contents should make clear that neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of these proceedings.


Parliamentary material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO on behalf of Parliament.