Mark discusses Iran's relationship with the UK

May 23, 2007 10:00 AM
By Mark Hunter

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.

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.

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.

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