“I am not yet convinced that a change in Iran’s human rights agenda will come with the Rouhani presidency, because critical decisions continue to be made by the Supreme National Security Council. This remains populated by a cohort of people who spent much of their careers in the military and security services.”
On 24th October 2013, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, the Rt Revd John Packer, took part in a short debate led by Baroness Afshar to ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the recent elections in Iran, what steps they are taking to facilitate closer commercial and educational ties with that country. The Bishop asked what the Government considered a normalisation of relations between Iran and the UK to look like. He also raised concerns about human rights abuses in Iran and the importance of the respect of religious freedom and noted the need for strengthening of relations between UK and Iranian Churches.
The Lord Bishop of Ripon and Leeds: My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Afshar, for initiating this debate and for introducing it so comprehensively. I am aware, through contacts, of Iranian students in Leeds and of some of the difficulties of which noble Lords have been speaking in terms of their education and the way that that has developed, and of the struggle to keep them at Leeds University.
Like others, I have been heartened by the change of political rhetoric following the elections in Iran, and share the high expectations that a more pragmatic stance from Tehran will see progress made on a range of issues, not least the nuclear issues. In view of the speed of recent diplomatic developments and the ambitious timetable set at this month’s talks in Geneva—the six to nine months to which a number of noble Lords have already referred—it would be helpful to have some idea from the Minister as to what she understands to be the end game. What would a normalisation of relations look like? What might be the trade-offs that each party might be required to make? That seems to be at the heart of the question that the noble Baroness has put before us today.
I will take up the references that have been made to issues of human rights in Iran. I want to see progress on the nuclear issue, but I am conscious that in any trade-off we could see a weakening of the Government’s commitment to secure progress on other fronts, particularly that of human rights. Iran appears to be preparing a receptive response to inquiries from international oil and gas companies, in the expectation of the lifting of EU sanctions. That may well be right, and it may well be the direction in which we ought to go. However, it seems premature until we have more in the way of assurances and evidence that human rights will be more respected in Iran than they have been.
I am not yet convinced that a change in Iran’s human rights agenda will come with the Rouhani presidency, because critical decisions continue to be made by the Supreme National Security Council. This remains populated by a cohort of people who spent much of their careers in the military and security services. I listened hard to the arguments, both in this debate and earlier, that Iran has no regional ambitions, and about its place in the funding of rejectionist Palestinian entities. I am not yet convinced by these arguments. For me, there needs to be much clearer evidence of a new Iranian policy in the whole area, as well as new developments at home.
Has the Minister seen any change in the vulnerability experienced by religious and ethnic minorities in Iran, whether by Kurds in Iranian Kurdistan and in Iran, or by people of minority religions? From my own contacts with Iranians in Leeds, particularly those who have fled from Iran, I know that they certainly remain highly on edge as to exactly what the future will hold, for their families back in Iran as well as for themselves.
I am also concerned about the continued fate of the members of the Iranian resistance at Camp Ashraf and the misnamed Camp Liberty in Iraq. What evidence is there of any concern from the Iranian Government for those refugees? Whatever we make of responsibility for last month’s massacre at Camp Ashraf, what are the Government doing to provide for the safety and security of the women, men and children in those camps, whether by means of UN forces or otherwise?
I was grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her challenge on the relationships between the Christian churches here—perhaps the Church of England in particular—and Iranian religious leaders. I will take that back and see how we can develop some of those relationships. I absolutely agree with her that it is in discussions, and in deepening religious as well as academic and educational links, that we shall come to understand one another better. We would then be able to move in the sorts of directions that we have been talking about this afternoon.
I hope that the Government will give us a clearer idea of their strategy for balancing the range of competing concerns, so that we can make progress on the nuclear issue without losing sight of the wider picture. I look forward to developments as the discussions go on, especially in our concern for the upholding of human rights.