Debate on Iran


Hansard text for 25th April, 2001.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I should be grateful if the noble Earl would give way. I simply want to ask whether he is in any way correct in relying on one person’s statement that the human rights circumstances under the Shah were better than they are under the present regime. I travelled in Iran during the time of the Shah and was arrested three times by SAVAK, his brutal secret police. They had a reputation of which the noble Earl may not be aware. Is he sure of his ground in making that statement?

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I am pretty sure of my ground. I have a friend, a distinguished man who did good work under the Shah and under the present regime, and who found the present regime intolerable and decided to leave Iran. That is fact. There is no further argument. He is a successful and reliable man who is much admired in this country, and that is his testimony. If I may say so, it is even more reliable than the always reliable testimony of the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. Leaving aside the personal issue, I rely on what my friend says. The present Muslim regime in Iran is one of extreme religious fanaticism.

Fanaticism has its merits. We usually call the Reverend Ian Paisley a fanatic. Nevertheless, he called for a prayer in Parliament the other day. I wish that I had been there when he was last elected. I should have voted for him. But the Reverend Ian Paisley is not like one of the mullahs. He once gave me a little book on the Epistle to the Romans. No one could think that he would be a cruel man or that he would do anything harsh like the mullahs.

As I said, according to my friend, the present regime is one of extreme religious fanaticism. He is not my only Iranian friend; most of his drivers come from Iran and they say the same: that the present regime goes altogether too far. It is not based on sound Muslim teaching.

That brings me to the important speech made by the right reverend Prelate. It was far more important than anything I can say. He said so many things so well that I can do little more than say, “Ditto”. I am sure that we must approach the question as though it were in large measure one of religious fanaticism. The situation is not the same as it is in Iraq, where there is a military dictator; it is not the same trouble as under the Communists; it is a religious question. The right reverend Prelate explained it very well.I have little more to say save that we are dealing with a religious problem. I look to religious leaders, including the right reverend Prelate, to show us the way forward.

Lord Ahmed: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for initiating this important and timely debate. I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford for his generous words about Islam and for his reference to the Koran.

Your Lordships will be aware that I have spoken on human rights in Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya, the Balkans and in northern African and Middle Eastern countries. At the outset, I remind the House that human rights were first established in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad–peace be upon him–in his famous Mount Arafat sermon 1,400 years ago. Rights were given to men, women, children, prisoners and refugees, and even environmental rules were established.

One must never confuse that with the political situation in Islamic countries where things appear to be done in the name of Islam and yet have no relevance to Islam. Of course, Islamic rules are interpreted by different governments and institutions. However, in Iran we have seen considerable improvements in legislation, human rights and the education of women. Reference has been made to the resolution passed last week by the United Nations Human Rights Commission welcoming the report of the special representatives on human rights. In relation to the areas I mentioned earlier the report noted that,

    “certain foundational improvements have taken place”.

The report refers to the efforts of the Sixth Majlis to improve the status of women and girls, in particular the project of a Bill aiming to raise the marriage age and a Bill to remove the existing ban on unmarried women studying abroad. However, the report expresses concern at the delay on the part of the Council of Guardians.While no one can defend the abuse of human rights, I should like to draw attention to the tremendous changes that have taken place in the Islamic republic of Iran in the past five years. Despite strong resistance from the hard-liners and the conservative element, President Khatami and the Majlis have opened up Iran to the outside world. I had the pleasure of visiting Tehran 18 months ago. I spoke with many young graduates, including young women students, who were staunch supporters of change and supporters of President Khatami.

It is absolutely imperative that we understand the complex nature of the struggle that is taking place within Iran between the moderates and the conservatives. In this debate we should not provide any reason for the hard-liners to criticise the reformers for not securing any support from the West. Here I should like to point out, as was mentioned earlier, that one organisation based in Iraq claims that it is fighting for a change inside Iran; however, I saw no evidence for supporting that organisation. It is most hated for its terrorist activities inside Iran. It is seen as an instrument of Saddam Hussein rather than as a legitimate opposition group. Even the British ambassador in Iran told me that the popular support in Iran was for the modernisers and for Mr Khatami, and that there is no support for any external organisation.

I am also deeply concerned about the banning of many newspapers and journals by the judiciary, as mentioned earlier. Your Lordships will understand that this is part of a power struggle and I am pleased to announce that two-thirds of all newspapers are still pro-democracy and pro-modernisation. Iran’s intelligence services have also gone through some change. As your Lordships will no doubt be aware, two years ago the head of operations was arrested for ordering the killing of dissidents and later committed suicide in prison. Although reformers have the backing of the majority of the population, unfortunately since last year’s elections hard-liners have reasserted their grip on the judiciary and on other institutions–a point made by almost every speaker.

I congratulate the BBC and the World Service for providing an excellent news service to the Iranian people, with balanced news and views. The BBC World Service radio (Persian language) has a regular following in Iran, including the president, politicians, decision makers, young people and intellectuals. The BBC has made an enormous contribution to the process of democracy in Iran. I congratulate the Foreign Secretary, the right honourable Robin Cook, and our Government for the strong stance they have taken with the Government of Iran regarding women’s rights, minority rights and human rights, including the resumption of diplomatic relations at ambassador level.

Therefore, I do not believe that condemnation from the House will help the democracy and change that is taking place in Iran today. We should follow the lead of the UN Human Rights Commission and acknowledge that a change is taking place in Iran. In the words of the executive summary of the United Nations Human Rights Commission report:

    “Certainly every shade of opinion seems to make itself heard, despite the massive repression of the reformist press. Democracy in the form of popular elections continues to make progress. Some argue that the point of self-sustaining take off has been reached”.

I am pleased to hear that positive steps have been taken regarding the situation of the Baha’is in Iran. I call upon all those in powerful positions inside Iran to ensure that minority rights, women’s rights and children’s rights are safeguarded in accordance with the UN declaration of human rights and other international human rights agreements.

Finally, as the oldest parliament in the world, we have an opportunity to help in the process of change that is taking place in Iran by having a serious dialogue with the elected Iranian representatives and exchanging visits rather than condemning and strengthening the hands of the conservatives. Iran has a strategic position in the region, with Afghanistan in the north-east, Iraq to the west, and the largest natural resources in the region. Iran is also an influential and active member of the OIC, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

When the presidential elections are only six weeks away, we cannot afford to isolate Iran at this crucial time by condemning the growing democratisation that is taking place. We should continue to encourage democracy and progress in Iran where over 50 per cent of the population is under the age of 20 and 52 per cent of university students are female. Such a country has a vast potential.

Baroness Williams of Crosby: My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for introducing this important debate from which I believe many of us have benefited a great deal. We have heard some extraordinarily interesting and perceptive speeches. Like the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, I should like to associate myself with the condemnations made of human rights abuses in Iran. It is perhaps particularly difficult for a woman–or, for that matter, for a Baha’i or a Christian–to accept some of the dreadful things that have happened to women and to minorities in Iran. I defer to no one in agreeing that such matters must be condemned. We must persuade the regime in Iran that the road to a civilised modern world lies through respect for human rights. All of us, from whatever country or part of the world that we come, recognise that fact. It is interesting that the next topic for debate tonight is precisely the issue of human rights and discrimination on religious, racial and gender grounds.

I suppose that this debate has turned in many ways not on any question about the outrage of human rights abuses in Iran but on whether our view about the Khatami experiment is an optimistic or a pessimistic one. I believe that that division has run through the speeches made from all Benches in the debate tonight. The arguments for the pessimists are unquestionably strong. In 1997, when President Khatami was elected, there seemed to be a real opportunity for rapid development in Iran towards a democratic state. Although the election of the president was not completely clear of doubt, it was conducted in a pretty transparent and acceptable manner. The more recent election of the Majlis, which led to a clear majority of moderate reformers, appeared, again, to be a most encouraging step forward.

However, in the past few months, the closing of reformist newspapers and journals and, above all, the detention and imprisonment–indeed, in some cases, torture–of scores of dissident reformers has filled many of us with some discouragement. The essential question is: what line should we take? Despite the fact that the sky has clouded since that bright dawn of 1997, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and the right reverend Prelate that there are some real signs of hope.

One of those signs of hope is the sheer courage of the reform element both within the Majlis and outside it in the universities, and elsewhere. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, and my noble friend Lord Phillips both referred to the very courageous statement made by the 150 members of the Majlis only a few weeks ago about the detention of the members of the freedom movement. Since then–indeed, only today–there has, again, been an extraordinarily courageous manifestation with 109 university professors signing a letter to their president drawing his attention to the effect on universities and on the intellectual climate of the detention of dissidents who, at no point, have ever turned to violence as a way of expressing their opposition.

Therefore, the first hopeful point is one that I believe the whole House should express; namely, our profound respect for members of the reform movement in Iran, who, at huge risk to themselves–risks that most of us, thank God, have never had to contemplate–have continued to bear witness to the need for democratisation in Iran.

The second sign of hope was the one mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed: half of the population of Iran is aged under 20. The evidence, which is overwhelming, shows that the younger elements in the population of the country strongly support President Khatami and the movement towards a more democratic regime. In short, as time passes, the situation should inevitably improve not worsen. However, it is also important to point out that 40 per cent of those same people of Iran live in either abject or extreme relative poverty. Relative poverty is not the best seedbed into which to plant the seeds of democracy.

That brings me to my third point, which is one that needs to be most clearly made. The present condition of Iran has made possible the establishment of an illiberal and totalitarian theocracy. I should add that we, too, remember theocracies in our history that behaved little better in their own day and in their own time. However, that theocracy is, in part, a reaction to the intervention by Western powers who established a Shah, against what was clearly strong, popular feeling in Iran. Those powers supported him in what was a cruel policy; namely, of literally seizing and confiscating a large number of small peasant holdings in Iran in order to sell them to large agro-businesses, with no compensation whatever in many cases to those who had owned, admittedly, infertile and rocky land. However, it was land which belonged to them and which underpinned a powerful conservative view in Iran. The regime forbade the worship of Islam, and did so to such an extent that it actually detained people who had a copy of the Koran in their homes.

I saw evidence of this in 1970s when I travelled around Iran, during the time of the Shah. Those powers subsequently provided weapons and support to Iraq in the most cynical way for one of the most dreadful and painful civil wars that we have seen since our own Second World War, and which led to deaths on a scale equivalent to that experienced in the First World War in Europe. Perhaps we Europeans, Americans and other Western powers ought to make it plain that we accept some responsibility for a reaction back to medieval values, given how hypocritical and, in many ways, self-interested modern politics must have looked to many Iranian citizens.

The fourth point I want to make, which has not been touched upon so far, concerns the reasons why the West sometimes changes its attitude towards a particular Islamic state. Even now the Energy Committee under Vice-President Cheney in the United States is discussing the possibility of lifting the present economic sanctions on Iran. So far as we know President Bush has said that the time is not ripe. However, we should not pretend to ourselves that one of the major reasons for even considering the lifting of sanctions is directly connected to the huge recent oil discoveries in the Caspian Sea and to the possibility of pipelines passing through Iran or, alternatively, through Georgia and Turkey. We should not be too noble in not regarding our own economic involvement with Middle Eastern and Islamic states when we consider issues of human rights. Let me make it plain that that in no way forgives for a moment abuses of human rights, but it does at least recognise that we have been complicit in some of the abuses of human rights in other Middle Eastern countries.

My final point relates to what we might do now. We have heard some constructive suggestions. The noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, suggested–I am sure that he is right–that there should be closer interchanges and relations with the Iranian Majlis, which badly needs the support and encouragement of old democracies such as those of the United Kingdom, Germany and others. I believe that such exchanges could strengthen and increase respect for the Majlis. I am sure that the right reverend Prelate is right to suggest that there is room for a deeper and more profound interchange of religious views and values between Christianity, Judaism and Islam. I defer to his knowledge which is infinitely greater than mine in that regard. I too have come across in Malaysia, Pakistan and elsewhere the profound divisions with regard to the interpretation of Islamic holy writ between the more modern members of the faith and those who are wedded to more ancient and traditional attitudes. As a Roman Catholic, who am I to suggest that there are not similar tensions and differences among Christian religions, as anyone who is familiar with Vatican Two and its aftermath is bound to accept?

We must try to meet the huge challenge of how we live with Islam not by reverting to the view that this is a clash of civilisations which will lead to a kind of new crusade, but rather by recognising that on every possible level we need to encourage the more liberal, modern minded, tolerant and, in the widest sense, religiously credible members of Islam, Judaism and Christianity to develop many dialogues between ourselves in which we all accept that the recognition of human rights is a fundamental element that binds us all together. We should hesitate just a little before condemning a whole people and rather recognise that there is a real opportunity that out of Iran may grow a regime with which we can live much more comfortably than with the theocracy of today.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, your Lordships’ House clearly owes a singular debt to the noble Lord, Lord Alton, for promoting the debate and raising issues at a very appropriate time given that the Iranian presidential elections will take place on 8th June. I assume that that will occur the day after our general election. He initiates the debate at a time when great changes are afoot in the whole Gulf area and in American foreign policy. However, we are obviously concerned centrally with the question of human rights.

I propose to confine my remarks to four subjects: first, whether reform is or is not going forward, which constitutes the central theme of the debate; secondly, our interests in relation to Iran in its present state; thirdly, the specific question of human rights abuse to which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred and to what extent that remains an internal matter; and, fourthly, what, if anything, we can do about it all.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, rightly said, with her usual accuracy and eloquence, there has run through the whole discussion the central question of whether the Khatami regime is a reforming regime. Are things getting better or has nothing much changed at all? Are we talking about the same people who were previously involved in the most hideous atrocities and are still presiding over a country in which atrocities continue but who are using slightly different words?

As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, it is impossible for most of us to reach a judgment on the matter. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, speaks on the matter with great authority. If one listens to him or to the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, one hears an unqualifiedly grim tale of atrocities carried out in a sinister and sick country. However, if one listens to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, or to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, it appears that the situation, although difficult, is getting better. On listening to the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, I had the familiar feeling that I wished to Heaven I was as certain of anything on these matters as he seems to be of everything. I cannot reach a judgment on whether his confidence is soundly based and how one weighs that against the evidence of the most hideous things that are still happening. The layman must have grave doubts about the matter.

A ministerial statement from the British Government to Iranian Ministers contained a phrase about respecting each other’s cultural identities. One has to ask oneself what kind of culture is reflected in conducting mass hangings, stoning people to death, amputating limbs and imposing extrajudicial death sentences, let alone, on a lesser scale, in the suppression of the media or in other acts of cynicism and hatred and certain police action. Just as our views and the opinions expressed in the debate differ, so Iran itself is a country with deep divisions of view and with a completely dual power structure. There is the power structure of President Khatami, the police and the official state forces and that of the revolutionary courts, the Council of Guardians and its guards, who hold people under arrest without trial and conduct their separate system of law, hate and violence. Against that background, to reach a judgment as to whether the situation in the country is improving or going backwards is even more difficult.

My instinct is that some progress is being made if one looks very hard. However, there is also clear evidence that even in the past few months, and perhaps even while we speak, horrific things are happening which cannot be condoned by any stretch of the imagination in any context, Islamic or any other. To turn a blind eye to those events is not to serve the cause of democracy and stability, let alone to support the values that we do support and try to include in our relations with the rest of the world as we should. As I say, perhaps matters are improving a little, but it is hard to tell. There are certainly some evil and bad elements in Iran and among those who govern it at present.

I shall discuss human rights abuses in a moment. As regards our broad interests in this matter, as a responsible power we want to see stability and security in the Gulf region. We are uneasy about regimes which spend much money–however, all kinds of regimes do this–on the development of new missiles–we have to ask why they need those missiles–and which trade in the dark world of the arms markets and which perhaps dabble in weapons of mass destruction. We have an open fear about Iraq in that regard, but we are also fearful about Iran’s intentions. Those countries appear to be unreliable. One is not sure whom they will bite next. However, we must have security in the Gulf. Some 65 per cent of the world’s oil reserves are to be found in the Gulf region, whatever may be found in the Caspian Sea. But I say with respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, that I understand that it is not nearly as plentiful as was thought. Vast reserves are to be found in the Gulf region which will dominate world oil markets for years to come.

It must be true, too, that it is in our interests to see a prosperous Near Asia and Middle East. If only Iraq could develop a democratic regime, and if only Iran could develop a democratic, prosperous regime, what wonderful prospects there would be for the entire Middle East. Here are two sets of people–the Iranians, in particular, are brilliant people, with a fantastic history, and full of talent: think what the possibilities would be if it could open out as a free, lively and vigorous society.

We are right to long for that and to want to use our policy leverage, such as it is, to break open this sad little world. As the Financial Times reminded us in an article yesterday, 40 per cent of those living in Iran are in absolute or relative poverty. That is a colossal percentage. It demonstrates what a miserable and sick society it is.

Then there is the question of the Middle East peace process and the role of the Hezbollah. If there are to be better relations with Iran, if there is to be business with Iran, it must be accompanied by efforts by Iran to play its part in the peace process far more than it has been prepared to do so far. If people say that the Israelis go over the top and attack when the existence of their country is threatened, the same criticism has to be applied to the Hezbollah, the so-called “army of god”, and some of its atrocities and attacks. There must be give and take in that area; and there is little sign of any give whatsoever in condoning the actions of the Hezbollah terrorist groups.

Then we come to the real focus of the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, wanted us to consider the human rights issue. There used to be a time when the argument that these were internal issues was the end of the matter. One was told not to interfere. Just as the Chinese Government tell us that we must not comment on many of their affairs and self deceptions as they are internal matters, so we are constantly told by the mullahs that how they govern their country is an internal matter. But that is no longer the world in which we live. We now live in a world in which human rights issues are taken into the heart of nation states. The concern with human rights is linked directly with the stability of the globe. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, quoted Mary Robinson saying that,

    “Today’s human rights abuses are the cause of tomorrow’s conflicts”. 

     

The Foreign Secretary reminded us of that in his speech on 28th March. It was in some ways a strange speech. It did not mention Iran or Iraq, which I found a little strange. It mentioned Burma and other countries. But that is the new order of things: that today we feel justified in carrying concern for human rights right inside nation states. In doing so, one must realise an even greater responsibility in commenting on these issues and a greater need for accuracy and transparency than has existed in the past.The fourth matter involves what to do. Whatever we have heard about the horrors of Iran, the way it is governed today and has been governed in the past–there may have been unqualified horrors–it is, as always, a matter of light and shade. The Iranian nation has had to contend with an appalling refugee problem: 1.4 million Afghans have been driven out by the maniacal Taliban–in many ways it committed the same kind of atrocities, or worse; we do not really know–and have come into Iran. There are half a million refugees from Saddam and his hideous activities, and many other refugee problems. My impression from past experience with the Iranians is that they have been dealing with these refugee problems with great care and competence, and deserve some support, which in a substantial way the British Government and other governments have sought to give them. So one must understand that in making judgments from far away.

What do we do? Do we encourage closer links? Do we let businesses, which are always looking for ways to get into areas, become more closely involved? My judgment is that a general policy of isolation, having nothing to do with Iran, is probably wrong. I think that one has carefully and gingerly to see whether some contacts can be opened and maintained. If the Americans aim to remove their sanctions–I agree with those who suggest that they do–I think that that is probably the right way forward. They will have to keep a close watch on the armaments trade. But I do not think that the sanctions have been very effective. And the Bush administration is an energy administration. They are all energy men; they think entirely in terms of oil. They note that America now imports 60 per cent of its oil supplies. When I had some responsibility for these matters 20 years ago, it was 20 or 30 per cent. That makes America very vulnerable. They are concerned about all aspects of oil, and that will drive their policy in the Gulf and the Middle East, as it will drive their policy elsewhere.

I do not agree with a total cut-off: that no businessman, even if he knew the risks, could go in. When applied by this Government to Burma–they tried to pressurise Premier Oil to get out of Burma–that policy was totally wrong. It is pathetically misplaced and misunderstands the way in which openness and democracy are helped.

What do we do about the declared opponents of the theocratic tyranny–the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq–which has been made a proscribed organisation, to its great indignation? I appreciate that it is a difficult issue for the Government to decide. We cannot provide a nest for terrorist, violent organisations. But we can provide, and have often provided in our history, a home for exiled governments pleading for freedom to return to their land. So the judgment has to be made; and I appreciate that it is very difficult.

My heart does not go along with the broader proposition that somehow we can excuse the mass hangings, killing of children, murder of the Baha’is, and so on, because it is all part of understanding Islam and seeing issues in an Islamic context. I listened with as much sympathy as I could to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I note the point he makes: that we have to see things through Islamic eyes and that we must understand Islam. But let us understand the right kind of Islam. Let us think back to Islam and Christianity, which lived together in the early centuries after Christ, up to the 1500s and later. The gentle Islam is a wonderful thing. Christians, Islam and Mohameddans lived in peace and worshipped in each others’ churches in syncretic symbiosis. That went on; it can go on again today. But not if we are dealing with this extreme, horror-filled, tyrannous theocracy which does things in the name of Islam and I think insults the name of Islam in doing so.

My plea would be that we should understand the right kind of Islam and not this sick mutation of it; that we should look hard for signs of opening up in Iran and work with and respond to them. But we should not let out of our minds for one moment some of the facts which the noble Lord, Lord Alton, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, and others have placed before us. They should be constantly in our minds in dealing with this once great country–as I hope that it will again be one day.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, perhaps I may say how grateful I am to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for initiating this debate and to all noble Lords who have participated in it. I thank the noble Lord for the far too generous, fine compliments he so graciously paid me; and for the compliments paid me by my noble friend Lord Longford.

Her Majesty’s Government share many of the concerns which all noble Lords have rightly expressed about the human rights situation in Iran. As so often, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams put her finger on the issue with skill and elegance. The balance is between the optimists and those who are pessimistic about the future for Iran. The noble Baroness also reminded us of the risks faced by all those who are committed to democracy in Iran. I cannot but agree with her on that.

With the cautious acknowledgement of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that some progress is being made and that it would be wrong to withdraw, the balance of the debate has tipped slightly in favour of those who are cautiously optimistic about change, lodged as it is in the hopes and aspirations of the young people of Iran and the reformers.

I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we do not and will never put commerce before human rights. That is why only last week we and our EU partners put the resolution of the Commission on Human Rights to the vote–and won. We have consistently co-sponsored that resolution and the annual United Nations General Assembly resolution on the human rights situation in Iran, the last of which was adopted on 4th December last year. Those resolutions underline the continuing international concern about certain Iranian human rights policies. A significant part of the process of improving UK-Iranian relations is to raise our concerns over such issues. Ongoing EU-Iran dialogue also contains a substantial human rights element.

We remain particularly concerned about the discrimination practised against some religious minorities, most notably the Baha’is, who are still unrecognised by the Iranian constitution. They were mentioned by a number of noble Lords. The harsh prison sentences handed down at the trial on espionage charges of a number of Iranians, including 13 members of the Iranian Jewish community, are also a cause of concern. We continue to urge the Iranian judiciary to show clemency in that case. The sentencing of 10 representatives of the academic and intellectual community in Iran for attending a conference in Berlin in April 2000 was another affront to human rights.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, rightly referred to the conviction on 27th January of 15 intelligence officers for their involvement in the serial murders of liberal intellectuals in 1998. That represented a significant victory for President Khatami. It was the first time since the revolution that officials of the system had been tried and prosecuted for extra-judicial killings. However, as noted in the Commission on Human Rights resolution passed in Geneva on 20th April, we regret that all the circumstances surrounding the killings are not fully clarified. The resolution urges the Government of Iran to continue the process of investigation and to bring the alleged perpetrators to justice in accordance with the due process of law.

The violations of the legal rights of prisoners and the high number of executions remain important issues. There is also continuing discrimination against women in the courts and in society generally. We regularly raise a broad range of human rights concerns, including those on specific cases. Only last week, the permanent under-secretary raised such issues vigorously with the Iranian Foreign Minister and his officials. We and our EU partners have also demarched the Iranian authorities on a number of specific cases, including the trial of the Shiraz Jews and the sentencing of those who attended a conference in Berlin. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Alton, that we continue to be vigorous on such issues.

The use of capital punishment has been referred to several times. As I am sure your Lordships are aware, we are implacably opposed to the use of the death penalty and we shall continue to lobby with vigour in all forums with all our partners to have that form of punishment expunged from the systems and statute books of the world. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, that the Government wholeheartedly share the distaste that he so graphically demonstrated.

However, it is important to recognise that since the election of President Khatami in May 1997 there have been a number of significant improvements in Iran’s human rights record, as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, and, most potently, my noble friend Lord Ahmed said. We welcome the Iranian Government’s commitment to developing an Islamic civil society based on respect for the rule of law. Engagement with the outside world will help to speed up the process of change and democratisation. In February 1999, local elections were held for the first time in Iran’s history. They put local power in the hands of the people. The mass participation in those elections reaffirmed the Iranian people’s support for the reform process.

The subsequent Majlis parliamentary elections in February and May 2000, in which 190 of the 290 seats were won by reformers, were further evidence of a more open and vigorous electoral system, as a number of noble Lords have said.

There have also been some modest improvements in the situation of women, notably with the appointment of Iran’s first four women judges and its first woman vice-president. The efforts of the Iranian president and other senior figures in the executive to press for a change in attitude towards women and women’s issues are particularly welcome and have been recognised by the UN special representative on human rights, Maurice Copithorne.

An increasing number of Iranian women now take part in politics and go on to higher education. More than 50 per cent of the university intake in Tehran is now female. That is a positive development that has been commented on tonight. One of the changes brought about by the Islamic revolution in 1979 was better education for women. Many of the women who have received that education now work and expect to do so as a right.

None the less, there is still strong evidence of continuing discrimination against women in the courts and in society generally in Iran. Recent UN resolutions on human rights in Iran sponsored by the EU have called on Iran to take further measures to eliminate discrimination against women.

We also welcome President Khatami’s affirmation last year that Iran’s constitution forbids any pressure on any person for their ideological convictions and grants all citizens their rights. We also welcome his comments that, as a president elected by the people, he is committed to defending the rights of all citizens as nationals of Iran. We hope that that will extend to all groups in Iran, including minority religious groups such as the Baha’is, mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford. I greatly welcomed his sensitive and balanced approach and wholeheartedly agree that such sensitivity is needed.

Of course, Iran could do more. We continue to urge the Iranians to allow the special representative of the Commission on Human Rights, Maurice Copithorne, to visit Iran soon. In his latest report, published in January 2001, he welcomed some progress, but regretted that it had been overshadowed by regression in other areas, notably freedom of expression. It is right that noble Lords have noted the range of negative developments that he noted in his latest report. We share those concerns. That is why we have supported his work in its entirety.

Maurice Copithorne gave a clear welcome to the progress made in other areas, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. He has assured us that he believes that we should remain engaged with the Iranian authorities. I agree with the exhortation and caution of my noble friend Lord Ahmed and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, among others, about the need not to give negative indications to those who wish to diminish the importance of the reformers in Iran. We believe that those issues can best be addressed within a policy of constructive critical engagement and dialogue. Face-to-face discussion of those difficult issues has real value. We would be loath to abandon them at the first sign of difficulty.

The recent arrests of religious nationalists provoked passionate debate in the Iranian parliament. The security and foreign policy committee summoned the intelligence Minister to answer questions about the arrests. He stated that his ministry had not been involved. Nevertheless, clearly there remain in Iran forces which are resisting democratisation and the development of an Islamic civil society.

However, we should also recognise that there exists in Iran a strong movement for change and democracy. We agree with noble Lords who, during the debate, have made that plain. President Khatami has spoken of the importance of that. He said:

    “There is no threat more serious to our popular system than a situation in which the rulers of the country cannot justify their conduct to the people”.

Of course, the arrests show the limitations on the freedom of speech. But the extent of the debate and controversy which the arrests provoked demonstrate that legitimate opposition is possible in Iran. We know that the MeK claims that the resort to arms is the only option. It issued the following statement:

    “First, the viper never gives birth to a dove and the Mullahs’ regime lacks the capacity for reform. Second, the only language the criminal Mullahs understand is the language of armed resistance”.

That is clearly not true.While perhaps not yet as far reaching as we might hope, change for the better is taking place in Iran through debate and discussion led by people who have chosen to stay in their own country rather than by those who have based themselves abroad and resorted to armed attacks and terrorism.

That process has met with many difficulties and setbacks. The proliferation of the press and the relative freedom of expression in recent years were seen as major developments in Iran’s efforts to reintegrate itself into the international community. Therefore, it is all the more regrettable that over 30 newspapers and other publications have been closed in recent months and that a number of journalists and editors have been arrested. However, there is still a wide range of newspapers and critical commentary, and new publications still appear on the streets.

As did my noble friend Lord Ahmed, I pay tribute to the sterling work carried out by the BBC World Service. It not only has journalists posted in Iran but also has expert analyst teams based in Bush House, some of whom have played an incredibly important part in the wider debate. Some of them were also mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.

I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Alton, asked about the jamming of the TV station. We understand that SIMA TV is currently under investigation by the Independent Television Commission for broadcasting incitement to violence and for biased reporting of the situation in Iran. Therefore, it is not quite as straightforward as it might appear at first blush. I cannot but agree with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that the overall picture in relation to such journalistic activity is not entirely bleak.

The result of the presidential elections in June will be important in determining the direction of progress in Iran, including that in relation to human rights. Many challenges still lie ahead. Some people claim that the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran–also known as the MeK–is fighting for freedom in Iran. Although the MeK claims to be seeking to advance a legitimate struggle for democracy, such a claim is difficult to reconcile with its history of violence and authoritarian nature.

The group alienated the Iranian people and lost any popular support it may have had in Iran when it sided with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. It maintains a standing army of several thousand fighters in Iraq, supported and armed by the Iraqi regime, from where it launches cross-border attacks into Iran, including terrorist attacks.

Despite claims that it attacks only “legitimate targets”, the indiscriminate nature of some attacks means that civilians have been killed or put at risk. In February last year, a mortar attack on government offices in Tehran killed one person and injured five others. The MeK has assassinated senior Iranian officials and launched mortar attacks against government buildings in Tehran and elsewhere. Over the past year, the group has claimed responsibility for a series of mortar bomb attacks in central Tehran and other Iranian towns, such as Karaj and Ilam, resulting in death and injury to both civilians and servicemen.

We understand that the Iranians have launched attacks against MeK camps inside Iraq, as referred to by my noble friend Lord Clarke and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. We note, too, that Iran describes those attacks as limited and defensive operations aimed at halting MeK terrorist activity inside Iran. Iran claims that they are in accordance with Clause 51 of the UN Charter. I believe that that leads us to another debate as to where the rights and wrongs of that situation lie. However, those are the claims that have been made by the respective parties.

The MeK and the National Council of Resistance in Iran, of which the MeK is the dominant group, have a very effective publicity machine. They are also aware of the bad image of Iran created in the West by the country’s poor human rights record. However, that does not mean that the MeK or NCRI would improve the situation in Iran. The MeK has called for new elections to be held under the auspices of the UN. That ignores the fact that the majority of Iranians voted for the present government. We may question some aspects of the process, but the Iranian people elected President Khatami, who was not the favoured candidate, and later elected a parliament in which the majority of the members are reformists who are willing to challenge what is going on in Iran.

The MeK had their roots in times of repression. At that time, its campaigns of violence may have seemed the only solution. But the political situation in Iran has moved on. The election in 1997 of President Khatami marked the beginning of this change in direction. We should respect the wishes of the Iranian people.

The situation is fluid. It is right that we should keep it constantly under review. However, there is hope that out of Iran may emerge a well-run, diversified and dynamic market economy, fully integrated into the global economy, which will be capable of contributing to a healthy bilateral economic relationship. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, was right to refer to the noble and good history that Iran had in the past and to say that this is a joint aspiration for Iran’s future.

I know that all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate wish there to be a peaceful transition and the emergence of a full democracy in Iran with a civil society based on the rule of law. At present, it appears that those aspirations are shared by President Khatami and–much more importantly–by the vast majority of the Iranian people who elected him. Iranians have hope. Their courage has already been commended, and I join those who commend the courage of the reformers.

At present, it appears that the aspirations are also shared by others outside who might strengthen them. The evidence thus far suggests that the president and his government remain genuinely committed to this course. President Khatami has stated his commitment to an Islamic republic. We hope that he will honour that commitment and the commitment to a civil society based on the rule of law. If he does so, he will satisfy the wishes of the vast majority of the Iranian people.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, this has been a well informed debate in which every speaker who has contributed has done so from the basis of knowledge and conviction. I am extremely indebted to everyone who has participated.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, described the fault line that has run through the debate as a difference between optimists and pessimists. That remark was echoed by the Minister. It was once suggested to me that a pessimist is an optimist with a sense of history. Those of us who put perhaps too much faith in people who caricature themselves as reformists are sometimes bitterly disappointed in the end. One figure that should cause us at least some concern is that last year there was a 300 per cent increase in the number of refugees from Iran seeking asylum in this country. There was a similar trend throughout the rest of Europe. That is an interesting insight into the way in which Iranians perceive the situation in their country.

We in this place are extraordinarily fortunate to have the opportunity to speak freely about human rights questions and our liberties and freedoms. It is right that we discussed the questions that we raised today. We should remember that those who have been suffering acutely–whether in prisons, by being stoned to death or being subjected to the most terrible privations–will be grateful to us for having done so.

I say to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford that those who have been suffering are Muslims, too. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Ahmed, who sensitively drew out an understanding of Islam. That must not cloud, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, our over-riding concern for the universality of human rights. Those rights must be applied to all, whatever their state or denomination. We in this place have a duty to work towards that objective. My Lords, I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.