UK Foreign Policy- Iran

06 Nov 2014
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): 

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on Iran. If we look at the middle east today—which is at risk of conflagration from end to end, whether it be in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine or even Afghanistan—we will see that Iran is a key player. If we are to resolve some of the issues, Her Majesty’s Government and this House must take a nuanced and sophisticated approach to our relationship with Iran. It is not helpful to talk about Iran, or even its regime, as a monolith. As most of us should know, there are separate and distinct factions within the regime that are jostling for supremacy at any given time.

I do not wish to take away from the seriousness of the human rights issues in Iran. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has mentioned his constituent, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British resident who is subject to imprisonment, apparently for a year, for going to watch a men’s volleyball match. I think that any British person would be shocked at any regime that would treat somebody in that fashion. As we have heard, she is on hunger strike for the second time in protest against her illegal detention, and her lawyer has seen court documents stating that she has been sentenced to a year in prison. The prosecutors, however, have not confirmed her sentence, so she is in limbo. That is an appalling way to treat a young woman. Although I think it is correct that this particular case should not form part of the issues relating to international relationships and so on, she is a British resident who is being treated extremely cruelly and unfairly. This is an humanitarian issue and I want Her Majesty’s Government to do more to help this British resident, who is subject to a cruel and unusual punishment for doing no more than going to watch a sporting match, which British women do every day of the week.

It is very important that any negotiations with Iran have a human rights component.In any agreements that we reach with Iran, it is important that we make due speed before the effects of the mid-term elections in the USA work through, because those results risk jeopardising the success of the negotiations. There are people in the US Senate who are desperate to see Obama fail, and who are preparing additional sanctions against Iran. They have just made enormous gains in the mid-term elections, and are emboldened. I believe that additional sanctions will be a disaster. They will play into the hands of hardliners in Iran, who have a vested interest in the status quo and no interest in Iran having relations with the rest of the world. Additional sanctions will kill the negotiations. The big players who have sponsored the new sanctions Bill are Kirk and Menendez. They are strong supporters of the state of Israel and also want nothing more than to inflict lethal damage on the Obama presidency. It is important that we make due speed on negotiations with Iran before American domestic politics intervene and make such negotiations impossible.

As some Members have recognised, there is a reformist wing within the Iranian regime—Rouhani, Zarrafi and others—who despite a massive uphill battle are challenging the conservatives, and have promised the Iranian people that better diplomatic relations will end the sanctions. If the US and its allies are seen to back-peddle, that will prove the reformists wrong in the eyes of the hardliners, and set the situation back. Her Majesty’s Government must ensure that that does not happen and that domestic US politics do not threaten what the rest of the world community has patiently created, and there should be a strong message to that effect.

We must also offer a carrot to the Iranians, and not just sticks that reinforce the idea that the UK is siding with the US as an imperious aggressor. One long overdue carrot would be to reopen the British embassy in Tehran, as was said earlier. It would be illogical to try to have open and honest dialogue with a country, or even to criticise it, if there is no diplomatic presence. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not having a formal diplomatic presence, and we have left an open vacuum for Russia, China, India and the rest to fill. Furthermore, a British embassy is symbolic of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the people of Iran. As I have tried to say, one should not conflate the regime with the people, and we want at all times to make it clear that we as British people want a good relationship with the Iranian people.

My final point is one that was made earlier: the importance of dialogue and diplomatic relations. That is not just important for the nuclear deal, but it is in the UK’s national interest to have diplomatic and economic ties with Iran in terms of exports and our general economic interests. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, Iran has influence over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, and it might be key in defeating ISIS. It is probably the only player that can force Assad to compromise.

I am sorry to say this to hon. Members, but nothing is gained by simply regurgitating a cold-war narrative or realpolitik when it comes to “explaining” Iranian motivations in the middle east. It is one of the few countries in the region that has enjoyed a level of peace since the end of the Iran-Iraq war 25 years ago. It has developed into a nation comprised mostly of young people, with 80% being under 40, most of whom are urban—70% of Iranians live in cities—and far more progressive in relation to women than some of the regimes in the region to which we are allied, such as Saudi Arabia. For example, 60% of university enrolments in Iran are women.

While being clear and firm in its condemnation of human rights abuses in Iran, I urge the House to recognise that we are nearing an historic point. Sanctions have artificially stunted economic growth in Iran, and it would be a missed opportunity not to establish ties with it now. The regime is not a monolith, as I have said, and it has the second biggest reserves of gas in the world and the third largest oil reserves. It is in the interest of the British economy, British business and the British people, as well as of peace in the region, to try to establish a more sophisticated, nuanced and constructive ongoing diplomatic engagement with Iran than we have seen in the past.

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