The United Kingdom Parliament

Lords Hansard  27 March 2001

7.8 p.m.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, first, I largely agree with the points made by my noble friend Lord McNally and with the remarks that have just been made. There is a great deal of concern on this side of the House as to the procedures by which this measure has been brought forward.

Secondly, nothing in my remarks should be taken as in any way indicting indifference to human rights issues, which I absolutely accept are in many particulars parlous in Iran. They are far from being as we would wish them to be--although I point out the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, that executions are not a prerogative of Iran. About the same number of executions take place in the United States and they are semi-public.

My interest in Iran derives from nothing more than having been to that country. As a student, I spent six weeks there in 1961. I spent some time as a guest of SAVAK, the Shah's secret police, in Shiraz gaol. None the less, I learnt a great deal and admired a great deal in that extraordinary country. I returned to Iran in 1978, before the fall of the Shah, and again in 1997, when I spent two weeks back-packing with my son around the country on public transport. It may surprise some of your Lordships, having heard the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, that the people of Iran are in no way cowed or afraid of giving their opinion. In fact, their opinion was so readily and vigorously given that at times we had to retreat from those who wanted to bend our ear. I returned to Iran in 1999, with the first all-party delegation since before the fall of the Shah and I am presently secretary of the British-Iranian All-Party Parliamentary Group.

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Those noble Lords who are unaware of the background of the Mujaheddin e Khalk (MeK)--or as it is sometimes called, the MKO--and the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), which supports the MeK, should understand that the organisations have a Marxist-Leninist Islamic root. Although they took part in the revolution which overthrew the Shah and were indeed one of the most extreme organisations in that bloody revolution, they and their leader, Massoud Rajavi, lost out in the post-revolution struggle between the different groups concerned, despite being hard-line anti-American. They were expelled from France in 1986 and then de-camped to Iraq where they have remained ever since. Their finances and their arms come from Saddam Hussein. They supported Saddam Hussein during his grab for Iranian territory in the early 1980s which was only successfully resisted by Iran after an appalling war in which the Iranians lost over 1 million people. It is not to our credit, or that of America, that we supplied Saddam with his arms on that occasion.

The MKO is still based in Iraq. Against that background, the assertion regularly made by the MeK and its supporters--that they have widespread popular support in Iran--is not credible. The MeK and related organisations have been formally designated as foreign terrorist organisations by the United States for many years, and were redesignated as such in October 1999.

On 24th March last year, when answering press questions, Secretary of State James Rubin made clear that the Americans viewed the NCRI,

"as an alias for the MeK".

He made clear that the Americans viewed the MeK as an organisation through which Saddam Hussein sponsors terrorism. He also said that,

"this is a satellite photograph of a new headquarters complex that Saddam Hussein has built for the MeK"--

that is, a complex situated at Falluja, which is about 40 kilometres from Baghdad--

"when it becomes operational, in our judgment, it will be used to co-ordinate MeK terrorist activities and to plan attacks against targets in Iran and elsewhere".

To judge Iran by the democratic standards of western Europe is both unfair and unreal. It has its own very different history. Like most, if not all, countries in that part of the world, democracy has not been its tradition. Islamic influence has been and remains its dominant force. It is still a theocratic state. Its ways, as in other Muslim states, are cruel to our way of thinking in many respects. But that is still their predominant culture. Having said that, Iran has made real and vital strides towards fully-fledged democracy. In 1997, it held a presidential election in which the favourites of the reactionary mullahs--and not all mullahs are reactionary--Nataq Nourri, was unexpectedly trounced by Mr Khatami. Well over 80 per cent of the electorate turned out, which is something we might envy.

In last year's elections for the Majlis, their parliament, again, about 80 per cent of the people of Iran turned out to vote. That election was rubbished

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up hill and down dale by NCRI and its supporters, the MeK, and company. They attempted to say that the polling booths were empty and that it was a fraud. I spoke to someone at the British Embassy about the situation. Those concerned took the trouble to send their staff to polling stations far and wide. They reported that it was a real election, an enthusiastic election, and unfrightened election, and one they found credible. More importantly, of 290 members of the Majlis returned, 190 were progressives, 50 were independent and only 50 were rightist reactionary mullah-dominated candidates.

That election was not perfect by our standards. Ten per cent of the candidates--over 6,000 of them--were rejected by the Islamic vetting procedure that is part of their complex, theocratic constitution. None the less, it was a free and open election that has delivered to Iran a parliament which, in my view, will ensure that reform and progress continue.

When speaking to the Majlis, as recently as the 11th of this month, President Khatami said that,

"governing and staying in power at any price does not make sense. But so long as I know I can move forward despite all the difficulties I will be willing to serve".

He was referring to the forthcoming presidential election on 8th June, for which he has not yet declared his candidacy. The "difficulties" to which he referred are the battle going on for the soul of Iran between the conservative mullahs and the bulk of the Iranian population, especially young Iranians. A huge proportion of the population are under the age of 25, 15 per cent of whom are university educated with women representing half that number. However, it is just not realistic--indeed, in a way, it would be arrogant--to expect that that advance will go forward at a pace that we should like, or towards a destination that we should necessarily agree with in all particulars.

As I said, there are many blemishes on Iran. There is still torture. Newspapers have been closed--35 of them in the past year. However, when I spoke to someone at the Foreign Office recently, he came back to me with the fact that there are still 25 daily newspapers circulating in Teheran alone, with a circulation of over 100,000 each. They say that more than two thirds of those are reformist. Therefore, the notion of some benighted, oppressed state with a citizenry afraid to say or read anything that does not have the approval of the reactionary mullahs is simply nonsense.

People are still killed and threatened. There is corruption in high places. But, again, for the first time in Iran's history, there were recent convictions of state officials responsible for murdering progressive politicians two or three years ago. Trials are now taking place of policemen who fermented the student demonstrations just before we arrived in Teheran in 1999.

To view all of this outside the context of Iran's own history, outside the context of its region--it is the only stable state in the whole of the region--and outside the context of the undoubted progress that it has made, is self-defeating. The NCRI organised an advertisement

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in yesterday's Guardian, utilising the crest of the House of Commons rather cheekily. It is full of exaggeration, half truth and worse. Unfortunately, unless he was misquoted, the noble Lord, Lord Clarke of Hampstead, was mentioned as saying that,

"the Mojahedin's military arm acts in the framework of international convention and has never attacked civilian targets".

The noble Lord should try telling that to Amnesty, which, in its latest human rights "Watch", says that the Iraq-based armed opposition group MeK continues to carry out attacks against targets inside Iran and that, although the organisation claims to be targeting officials, several civilians were killed or injured in incidents such as a mortar attack on the presidential office in downtown Teheran in February. I know that there have been two more rocket attacks on court houses this month.

Unfortunately, I must also quote from the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Again, he may have been misquoted in the advertisement to which I referred, but he is mentioned as saying that,

"the people of Iran have made it absolutely clear that they want to put an end to this dictatorship. The solution for Iran is democratisation".

That is exactly what they are doing--painfully, fitfully and both forward and back. What is the noble Lord, Lord Alton, doing saying that this is a dictatorship with no democracy?

Anyone who goes to Iran and talks to the people will realise that it is unrecognisable today from the Iran of even 10 years ago. I have a number of Iranian friends who left Iran during the time of the Shah because they could not stand the regime. They returned during the revolution, but left again because they could not stand the oppression. Several of them have returned to Iran in the past three years. I have visited them and talked to them at length. Having left the country several times in the past, they tell me that they could never have contemplated the progress that Iran has made today. We must realise that that is all relative.

The notion to which the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, gives credence--namely, that the situation in Iran will be improved by the violent military means of the Mujaheddin in seeking to de-stabilise and overthrow the present regime--seems to me fanciful at best. I hope that noble Lords will support what have been sensible and constructive policies pursued by the present Government and the present Foreign Secretary, reinforced by the upbeat recent visit made to the country by Cabinet Minister Mo Mowlam. She found a country struggling desperately to control the drugs flowing across it from Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, would actually encourage civil war. It is misconceived, both as to its analysis of the whole circumstances in Iran and as to the true nature of the MeK. The amendment betrays its own purpose, to achieve more democracy, more freedom and better justice. Iran's painful but real development will not be accelerated by encouraging civil war which would

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throw it into savage reverse, opening the floodgates, not to enlightenment but to a long, dark night when that admirable people are just seeing some light.

7.20 p.m.

Lord Marsh: My Lords, I start by reassuring my noble friend that in my view the one thing I am absolutely sure about--I think that it is a significant part of the debate--is that no organisation on this list will fail to be informed of how to appeal. I go further and say that the likelihood of the Home Secretary losing a number of those appeals is in my view almost equally certain. I am in the market for a bet on either of those propositions. It is possible to lose sight of the fact that there is an elaborate appeals procedure and that that procedure will be available to organisations which have both the wealth and the sophistication to make the fullest use of it.

I was deeply cheered by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. Listening to the debate--I know that there are differences between us, and some of us have known each other for a long time and are not surprised at those differences--I find it difficult to believe that we are actually seeking to reduce the ability of terrorists to kill and maim perfectly innocent people. There is an enormous amount of self-delusion in this area. All history demonstrates that, by the very nature of the environment in which they work and the causes they seek to support, terrorists, even if they wished, cannot confine the mayhem to senior army officers and members of the ruling party. Civil war and the overthrow of governments are not like that.

I find the views of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, worrying. He accepts in principle the Act and its purposes, but then begins to embark upon a categorisation of the different types of terrorism. He draws a distinction between democratic countries where it would not be acceptable and, by implication, as I understand it, non-democratic countries, which comprise the vast bulk of the world, where it can be seen as regrettable but virtually inevitable. I find that extraordinary because the people who usually get hurt are not the leaders or the generals; on the whole they tend to be the "PBI", the simple people. By definition, the senior people in those countries are very well protected. They know that someone might want to kill them and they spare no expense in ensuring that that is avoided. As has been said, Iran has not been a real democracy for any considerable length of time during its history.