Lord Dubs (Lab)
My Lords, I want to take this opportunity to discuss the British national hostages in Iran and refer briefly to the JCPOA. I had the privilege of meeting Richard, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband, and Gabriella, their daughter. The length of her imprisonment is a shocking and heartbreaking story, made even worse by the fact that her appeal was turned down just two or three days ago. But of course, it is not just Nazanin but other British nationals who are in arbitrary detention in Iran. As far as I know, four British nationals remain in this detention: Nazanin-Zaghari Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori, Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof. There may be others. My first question is: why do the Government insist on keeping the names and numbers confidential? After all, the Iranians know perfectly well who they are holding in detention or some form of custody. So, what is the benefit of our not knowing how many there are altogether? The four I have mentioned may not be the total.
My second criticism of the Government is that there seems to be no strategy for the British prisoners there. They are being held as hostages. Do we have a certainty of getting them out or is the Foreign Office simply sitting there, saying, “Well, let us hope something turns up?” I do not think that would be good enough. These are heartbreaking stories of people innocent of the crimes of which they have been accused, held in detention or, in Nazanin’s case, long detention—she is now under house arrest. It is simply unacceptable that British citizens should be held in this position.
Surely, we should consider punishing the perpetrators. We talk about the Magnitsky sanctions; why do we not threaten to use them on those people in Iran who are holding our people in detention in that way? In addition, we need an independent investigation of the torture allegations. It is fairly clear that prisoners have been held in a situation where they have suffered torture. An independent investigation of that would surely help.
There is the vexed question of the £400 million we owe the Iranians. Having looked at the previous comments made by Ministers, the Government’s answer has been that they will investigate the full range of options, but the Government say they do not link the two—the prisoners and the £400 million. Surely, if we have said to the Iranians that we accept that we owe them the £400 million, I cannot see what is to be gained by then saying we will investigate the full range of options. It seems to me that if we owe them money, the least we should do is negotiate that money against the release of those prisoners. That seems clear, and I think the Iranians—I do not want to speak for them—will feel that they were promised the money and they have not got it. We should keep the promise and do it.
My next question is: are these people hostages in the eyes of the Government? The Minister talked in June about an early release of all hostages in Iran. Do we therefore recognise that they are hostages? Sometimes, Ministers tend to say something else and not to refer to them as hostages.
I understand other countries have got their prisoners out: Australia, Germany, Canada and the United States. I wonder if the Minister could throw some light on how that happened. How was it that other countries managed to get their prisoners out while we failed? Did we try hard enough? Is there something the other countries did that we did not do? The Minister should tell us.
Then, there is the issue of diplomatic protection, which was offered to Nazanin a year or two ago. What happens with this diplomatic protection? Is it in fact still there? Are we using it with full force? Have we extended that protection to the other British nationals I mentioned and, if not, why not? Are the Government saying it was just a token gesture and there is no benefit to it? If there is a benefit to it, we should make full use of the fact that we have given Nazanin diplomatic status, and act accordingly.
My next and related point is this. At Nazanin’s court hearing—not the recent one—there was no United Kingdom presence. The Government will argue they were not allowed in. The Germans sent their consular official to a trial of a German national. The official was not allowed in but he or she did manage to have a conversation with the judge, so there was something to be gained by doing that. I cannot understand why we are so reluctant to use our diplomatic presence in Iran to aid and bring comfort to the people we are talking about. I know that at one point Nazanin was not even visited by British consular officials and when her daughter sent a gift, it was brought over by a driver. The consular officials did not even take it over to give it personally. It seems that we are not doing very much; we could be doing a great deal more than we seem to have done.
Furthermore, negotiations on the JCPOA are now taking place or, at least, I think that, with the change of regime in Tehran, there is a pause. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that pause will soon be over. We should certainly press to ensure that Iran’s policy of taking hostages should be on the table as part of negotiations on the JCPOA. We are losing an opportunity, and we should use it, and the £400 million, as a way to put some pressure on the Iranians.
If we are talking about restoring the JCPOA—I understand that the Government are fully committed to doing that and to undoing the damage done under the Trump regime—but we cannot get the full JCPOA, can we at least argue for an interim arrangement where some of the benefits of the JCPOA will be on the table, in return for which there could be certain concessions from the Iranians? Rather than leave it as all or nothing on the JCPOA, it would be good if we could have a backstop position and seek an interim arrangement.
The Minister may not want to talk about that, because he may not wish to admit that the JCPOA may not work. Of course, we all fervently hope that it will and we can resume the position we had before President Trump got involved so mistakenly, but it would be nice to feel that we had a back-up position. In any case, it should surely be our policy to encourage some form of regional dialogue. Could we use our influence along with EU countries to try to achieve that?
Furthermore, would it not be possible for us to start engaging with Iran on both refugees from Afghanistan and the problem of drugs? We might well find some sympathy and the chance to have a proper, big conversation with the Iranian authorities, despite there being a new regime there, given that it is estimated—the Minister may correct this—that 700,000 refugees from Afghanistan have gone to Iran. More than a million have gone to Pakistan. That is quite a responsibility for the Iranians, and surely it would be worth our while talking to them about that. We are talking about nearly 2 million people who have gone to Pakistan and Iran altogether, so there is a real issue there on which we should engage with the Iranians. Then there is the question of drugs—the perennial problem of dangerous drugs being cultivated and produced in Afghanistan and then exported. The Iranian authorities might well have a joint interest with us in stemming that trade.
Then there is the question of international co-ordination. How much are we working with other countries to try to deal with the hostages? I think we joined the Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention in February, and James Cleverly said:
“We continue to work with G7 partners to enhance mechanisms to uphold international law, tackle human rights abuses and stand up for our shared values.”—[Official Report, Commons, 27/4/21; col. 234.]
My question is: how much effort are we putting into that international co-ordination? We would surely have a stronger hand to play if we worked closely with other countries, some of which also have hostages in Iran.
The danger for Nazanin, who is one of the four I mentioned who, I understand, are in house detention but not in prison, is that she might now be returned to prison. That will be a terrible thing to happen after all the years she has spent there but, given that her appeal has been refused, the prospects are not wonderful. How will the Government respond to the possibility that she might have to return to prison? The Government have been a bit coy on this issue in previous debates. “Coy” is rather a bland word; the Government have not been very forthcoming. Can they be more forthcoming? We need a far more robust approach—robust enough to put pressure on the Iranians—and we need to work with other countries to see whether we can bring out these unfortunate victims of Iranian injustice and give them the right to return to their homes.