Foreign Secretary James Cleverly makes a statement to the House of Commons on the threat that Iran poses to the United Kingdom and outlines the actions that the Government is taking to counter it.
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement on the threat that Iran poses to the United Kingdom and the actions that His Majesty’s Government are taking to counter it.
Since protests began in Iran in September last year, the Iranian regime has dramatically increased its attempts to silence dissent, which have never been confined to Iranian territory. While our police, intelligence and security agencies have been confronting these threats for many years, their seriousness and intensity have increased in recent months. In the last 18 months, there have been at least 15 credible threats to kill or kidnap British nationals and others living in the UK by the Iranian regime.
We have evidence that Farsi-language media outlets operating out of the United Kingdom and the individuals who work for them have also been targeted. One such company is Iran International. As the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), told the House on 20 February, Iran International’s employees have been threatened with kidnap and murder. They have also been subjected to a debilitating campaign of aggressive online harassment. Such threats are a direct attack on press and media freedom, and they are a direct attack on public safety. This Government will never tolerate such threats on British soil or on the territory of our friends and allies.
We know from working closely with our international partners that these Iranian menaces extend beyond the UK to the rest of Europe and the wider world. In March 2023, an Iranian-orchestrated plot was stopped in Athens. We have seen similar attempts in the United States of America, Türkiye, France and Denmark. Such brazen activity is unacceptable. These actions demonstrate the Iranian regime’s increasing desperation in the face of its unpopularity at home and isolation abroad.
The first duty of His Majesty’s Government is to protect the British people and those who have made their home here in the United Kingdom. Whenever necessary, the Government will not hesitate to defend the freedom of the press. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary leads our work on countering Iranian state threats. Our police, security and intelligence agencies are working together around the clock to identify, deter and prevent Iranian threats to our national security. My right hon. Friend the Security Minister leads work to protect the integrity of our democracy from foreign interference through the Government’s defending democracy taskforce.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office leads our work on sanctions. We have already designated more than 350 individuals and organisations linked to the Iranian regime, covering its military, security and judiciary. We have sanctioned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. Our diplomatic network is co-ordinating with our friends and allies around the world, including the United States of America, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the European Union, to reinforce our response.
The cowardly attacks planned by the Iranian regime on British soil violate the most elementary rules of diplomatic relations between states. I have twice summoned Iran’s most senior diplomat in London to explain his Government’s activities, most recently following Iran International’s decision temporarily to relocate its broadcasting services. It is intolerable that any media outlet should be forced to leave the United Kingdom because the Iranian regime is threatening to kidnap or murder its journalists.
I have no doubt that the whole House will share my outrage. There is clear evidence that the Iranian regime continues to prepare operations against individuals in Europe and beyond. We have made representations to the Iranian Foreign Ministry. We emphasise, in no uncertain terms, our determination to pursue any Iranian agent who would harm the UK or our allies. We will also continue to work with our international partners to identify, expose and counter the threats made against us.
The UK is clear that we need to go further, so today I am announcing further measures that constitute a toolkit I would prefer not to use, but the decision on whether I do so is firmly in the hands of the Iranian regime.
First, we will establish a new Iran sanctions regime. This will be the first wholly geographic autonomous sanctions regime that the UK has created since leaving the European Union. It will give us new and enhanced powers to counter Iran’s hostile and destabilising activities in the UK and around the world, allowing us to impose asset freezes and travel bans on more of Iran’s decision makers, and on those doing its bidding.
In particular, we will have broader powers to target those involved in the regime’s efforts: to undermine peace, stability and security in the region and internationally; to proliferate arms or weapons technology from Iran; to undermine democracy, respect for the rule of law and good governance; and to carry out other hostile activities towards the UK and our partners, including threats to our people, property or national security. We expect to introduce the necessary legislation in Parliament later this year.
Secondly, today we have designated a further 13 individuals and entities responsible for serious human rights violations inside Iran. This package of sanctions includes: five senior officials from Iran’s notorious prison system, which is rife with torture and abuse of prisoners; further measures targeting the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, as the organisation that enforces social and cultural norms that oppress Iranian citizens; and six key actors responsible for suppressing freedom of expression online, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ cyber defence command and the Supreme Council for Cyberspace.
Our actions are a direct response to the escalation of Iran’s reprehensible behaviour in the UK. We are not seeking to escalate; our aim is to prevent and deter hostile Iranian activity on British soil and on the territory of our partners and allies. Let us remind ourselves that Iran is selling drones to Russia, attacking its neighbours and even attacking its own people when they stand up for human rights and the most basic freedoms.
It is my fervent hope that there will be brighter days ahead for the relationship between our two countries, but we cannot take any steps in that direction until the regime ceases its deplorable activities. Until that day comes, we will remain steadfast in our efforts to stop Iranian aggression and to protect the United Kingdom.
I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving me advance sight and notice of his statement.
In the last year, the charge sheet against the Government of Iran has grown and grown. They have funded violent militias across the middle east. They have supplied drones to Russia that menace Ukraine’s cities, kill civilians and destroy infrastructure. They have continued to pursue their nuclear programme, in breach of international commitments. They have brutally suppressed the protests of young Iranians who dared to demand a better future. In the last 12 months, they have executed more people than almost any other country in the world. They continue to detain UK-Iranian dual nationals, including Morad Tahbaz and Mehran Raoof. And they continue to harass and threaten dissidents, even those who have made their home here in the United Kingdom.
That the security services have foiled 15 plots against British-based individuals shows the scale of this hostile activity. This worsening extraterritorial threat must be met with strong and clear action. We cannot tolerate efforts to harass, silence or threaten the welfare of regime critics here in the United Kingdom, and we must ensure that Iranian and British journalists can operate without fear or intimidation.
At the end of last year, I called for the United Nations Human Rights Council to urgently investigate Iran’s crackdown on protestors and for the Government to bring forward stronger sanctions against the Iranian regime. Labour has also called for a new joint FCDO and Home Office state threats cell to co-ordinate this action in government. So we welcome the measures that the Foreign Secretary has announced today.
The Government will be aware of the long-standing strength of feeling in many parts of the House and from members of the Iranian diaspora on the question of proscription of the IRGC. Labour proposed a new mechanism for proscription for state-linked actors in the National Security Bill, but the Government, unfortunately, did not support it. I understand, of course, that there are diplomatic dimensions to this question, but I am sure the House would welcome an update from the Foreign Secretary on this issue.
I also want to ask the Foreign Secretary about the fate of UK- Iranian dual nationals. Labour has for a long time called for a new legal right for consular assistance, to help protect British nationals, but the Government have rejected that. In April, the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs put forward proposals to overhaul the way the Foreign Office tries to secure the release of British nationals overseas. Today, the Government have largely rejected those ideas too. Is the Foreign Office complacent on this issue? What steps will it take to bring British nationals detained in Iran and elsewhere home?
Finally, I wanted to ask about the future of the joint comprehensive plan of action. We supported the nuclear agreement as the best approach to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. We remain determined and committed to that vital non-proliferation goal. However, there is a clear and ongoing pattern of Iran breaching the JCPOA’s terms, preventing monitoring and verification, and enriching uranium past the point of any civilian justification. It has also continued to violate UN Security Council resolution 2231, including in its ballistic missile activities. The UK has a responsibility as one of the signatories of the JCPOA to take a leading role in containing Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its related activities. So may I ask the Foreign Secretary about the prospects of negotiations on what some are calling a “less for less” deal?
Iran is a country with an extraordinary and ancient history. Its courageous people, who have risked their lives over the past year in pursuit of freedom, deserve a Government who respect their rights. Until that day, Labour will continue to support action to hold the Iranian regime to account.
I echo the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about the Iranian people. I have said it before, but I will say it again: our quarrel is not with them. As he says, Iran is a country with a huge and fabulous history, and a sophisticated people, but, sadly, they are being let down badly by those in positions of leadership.
The right hon. Gentleman asks us to update our position on proscription. I have discussed it at the Dispatch Box before: we will always keep under review the response to Iranian state threats and other threats, some of which I have set out in my statement. The IRGC is sanctioned in its entirety and certain individuals within it are individually sanctioned as well. As I say, we do not regularly comment on future proscriptions or designations, but we always keep our options under review.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a point about the nature of our consular support. The Government’s position is that we do not need a law for us to do right by British people overseas, and we extend consular assistance to British nationals without the need for legislation instructing us to do so. We do so even when the House’s attention is not focused on those individuals. There are many cases where we have had very successful consular outcomes for individuals who have never come into the consciousness of this House. We seek to do that work always with the best interests of those British nationals at our heart.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that in certain circumstances it is particularly difficult for us to discharge our duty and responsibility for consular services in respect of Iran, particularly for British dual nationals, as Iran does not recognise dual national status. Nevertheless, we will always seek to do right by those people who are incarcerated around the world, including those who are still in custody and incarcerated in Iran.
The right hon. Gentleman speaks of the JCPOA and is absolutely right to say that the UK is focused on ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons technologies or capabilities. We work in close co-ordination with our friends in the E3 and the United States of America on that. It is a regular subject of conversation that I have with Foreign Minister colleagues from across the Quad, and I can reassure him and the House that preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons technology will remain the priority in our Iran strategy. We will continue to explore ways of deterring Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapon and preventing this from happening.
I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
I welcome this new geographically autonomous sanctions regime, which is an important step in demonstrating that defence is not an escalation and we will be strong at home. I also welcome the referral yesterday of Iran to the International Court of Justice as a result of the shooting down of the Ukrainian aircraft in 2020, which the UK is doing with our allies. Again, that is a good step. As the right hon. Gentleman said, this morning we did release the response to our report on hostage taking. I urge the Foreign Secretary to update us on Morad Tahbaz, because it matters that his name is heard time and again, particularly given how ill he is.
Finally, given that we have now created an autonomous regime, may I urge my right hon. Friend to consider a regime in respect of the Chinese communist party? It has sanctioned those in this House, it continually perpetrates transnational oppression and this week alone it has put bounties on the heads of three individuals who have sought refuge in this country. May I also ask him to haul in the Chinese ambassador to state how unacceptable that is and how obscene and in breach of international law it is?
My hon. Friend raises important points, and I welcome her comments on the structures we have put in place today and will be putting forward, with legislation, to the House in due course. We recognise that no one element of our response on its own will resolve all these issues, but the effect is cumulative. I assure her that we continue to work in close co-ordination with our international allies to maximise the impact of our sanctions response and to ensure that Iran recognises, as she said, that this is a response to its actions. If it does not like this response, it should change its actions.
As for sanctions on other nations, my hon. Friend will know that we do not routinely speculate on sanctions that we may bring forward, but the House and the Department have heard the point she has made. I assure her that whenever I have interactions with representatives of the Chinese Government, I raise the issues of Hong Kong, the sanctioning of British parliamentarians and our fundamental disagreement with the actions of that Government in relation to the Uyghur Muslims at every opportunity.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for prior sight of his statement. Let me begin by putting on the record the Scottish National party’s broad support for this wide-ranging package of measures to be taken against the regime in Tehran. He was absolutely right when he said that the exporting of international terrorism by Iran cannot and will not be tolerated. Much of what is in the statement is what we on these Benches, and indeed this entire House, have been calling for, for some time. May I helpfully suggest that the legislation that will come before the end of the year needs to come as quickly as possible? If he could put even a rough date on when that might happen, it would be helpful.
I am pleased that action is being taken against those who are complicit in doing this brutal regime’s bidding, be they military, security or judiciary. I welcome the news that five of the most senior officials from that barbaric prison system have been sanctioned, particularly those in the notorious Evin prison, where Nazanin Zaghari- Ratcliffe was held. Such prisons have been used as a brutal tool of repression against those many brave young women who recently stood up against the regime; they have been held, tortured and murdered within that system.
Will the Foreign Secretary explain why the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been sanctioned and not proscribed? We were told six months ago by the Minister for Security, the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), that the IRGC was to be proscribed as a terrorist organisation. Many of us, on seeing the statement being heralded, would have thought that would have been a part of it. Will the Foreign Secretary explain the difference between a sanctioned organisation and a proscribed organisation?
Finally, in the light of Iran’s continued support for Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine, why has his Department not tightened up further the Iran-specific export controls and sanctions on dual-use companies, to stop the export of materials to Iran from the UK that can subsequently be made into weapons?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the measures that we have taken. He asks once again about proscription. He will have heard my earlier response that we always keep options available.
Within his question, he outlines one of the key issues, when he says that his party is calling on the UK Government to proscribe the IRGC, and goes on to ask for an explanation of the difference between proscription and sanction. I recognise that people see proscription as the most desired outcome, without necessarily understanding that much of what they suspect they want to see from what they believe will be the outcome of proscription is actually already in place, such as asset freezes and travel bans.
As I say, the suite of responses is kept constantly under review, but I can assure him that, as we have set out in the statement today, we will always take actions that we believe are in the best interests of protecting British nationals, both here and overseas, and those Iranians who have made their home in the UK.
He asks about the timetabling for legislation. The House will understand that I will need to discuss that with the Leader of the House and the business managers, but I assure him that we regard our response to Iran as a priority and will seek to bring that legislation forward with as much expediency as we are able.
A constituent of mine has repeatedly raised serious concerns about connections between the Islamic Centre of England, the IRGC and the Office of the Supreme Leader. He also believes there could be such connections between the Supreme Leader and an Islamic centre in Manchester. What are the Government doing to ensure that UK-based charities such as those two centres can never be a threat in any way to the security of Iranian dissidents in the United Kingdom?
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. My Department has discussed that with the Home Office. Indeed, I have discussed it with the Minister for Security, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat). I reassure her and the House that he takes the actions of the organisations that she has mentioned very seriously indeed. We wish to ensure that the Charity Commission also full discharges its duty to ensure that any organisation under its remit is not used to harass or persecute foreign nationals, or indeed British people, here in the UK.
Issues faced by Iranian citizens, especially women, are raised with me frequently by constituents in Putney, Southfields and Roehampton. I have been stopped in the street many times to talk about this issue. British-Iranian dual national Morad Tahbaz has already been mentioned in the statement. He remains arbitrarily detained in terrible conditions in Iran, almost four years after he was sentenced in 2019. Could the Foreign Secretary say more to the House about the last time he raised Morad’s case with his Iranian counterparts? What strategy is in place to secure his release, difficult though that is?
The last time I had face-to-face contact with a representative of a Minister of the Iranian regime was in 2021, but my officials regularly raise consular issues, including detainees, with our Iranian counterparts. I can assure her and the House that this remains a priority. I have met Morad Tahbaz’s family on a number of occasions and the Minister for the region, Lord Ahmad, met them very recently—I think within the last few weeks. This remains a priority for us, and I can assure the hon. Lady that we will continue to work with the United States of America, as he is a trinational, to bring about his permanent release and ability to come home and rejoin his family.
In welcoming these sanctions, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to look at Iran’s activities elsewhere? He has already mentioned the provision of Russian drones. I hear rumours that Iran has also provided drones to the Polisario in southern Algeria, which could destabilise a very fragile peace with the Moroccans in Western Sahara—a space that is governed by the UN. Indeed, it is perfectly credible that the Iranians are also involved in places such as Tigray and South Sudan, destabilising a whole continent as a lever of political power.
My hon. Friend, who knows the continent of Africa and its politics incredibly well, is absolutely right to highlight the fact that Iranian malign activity is not restricted to its own near neighbourhood or, indeed, the United Kingdom. We look very carefully at the credible reporting of the support through military equipment not just to Russia in its attack against Ukraine, but to militia groups and other military groups in the region and across Africa. I can reassure him that we will take that into consideration when it comes to any future sanctions response that we have towards the Iranian regime.
I welcome the statement and look forward to supporting the legislation so that it can pass as quickly as possible. We are all anxious to do whatever we can to support the people of Iran. Mahsa Amini was an inspiration to women not just in her own country, but across the world. The fact that the people who did this to her—the IRGC—have not been held to account is itself a tragedy.
Will the Foreign Secretary back the campaign to rename the street of the Iranian embassy after her, so that every business card, every email, every piece of post that they have to receive and send has her name on it? It worked for South Africa and Nelson Mandela. I think the time is right to do it for her now.
The hon. Lady makes an important point about the courage of Iranian women—courage that is genuinely beyond measure. I have seen open-source footage of Iranian women, and actually Iranian men, standing up against the so-called morality police and others. She will know that the naming of thoroughfares is a decision not for central Government, but for local government. None the less, she makes an incredibly important point. Perhaps the planning committee of the local council might take her suggestion on board.
Earlier this year, the British group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union hosted an event for BBC Persian where we heard incredibly powerful testimony from the journalists who were reporting on the very instant to which the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) referred—those women’s protests. The freedom of those journalists to report is under great threat from the Iranian regime, so I welcome very much what my right hon. Friend has announced today, but can he confirm the Government’s support both for the continuation of the BBC Persian service and that Iran International will be able to return to the UK?
My right hon. Friend echoes the Government’s strength of feeling about media freedom. I can reassure her and the House that, in my conversations with the very senior leadership of the BBC, I made a specific point about the importance of BBC Persian as part of the wider, positive influence on the world that the BBC World Service has had. We came to a funding arrangement with the BBC World Service to ensure that, certainly for the life of this Parliament, no language services will be closed. I recognise that, in times of disinformation and oppression, the voices of truth and freedom, as personified by the hard-working colleagues in the BBC Persian service, are more important than ever.
I am slightly puzzled that the Foreign Secretary just told the Liberal Democrat spokesperson that foreign policy decisions can be passed to local authorities—I do not know what the Levelling Up Secretary would say about that. I am concerned very much by what the Foreign Secretary said a few moments ago in relation to my constituent Alireza Akbari who, as he knows, was executed earlier this year. The Foreign Secretary said he had not had any contact with the Iranian regime for two years, and I know that the family wanted him to do that. People such as Morad Tahbaz remain in custody in Tehran. Does he not think that he should be doing more to try to get them released, and that talking to the regime may be necessary?
I know the hon. Gentleman had a long career in local government before coming to this House, so perhaps he will understand that street naming is not a foreign policy issue.
It is in this case.
It really is not.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we do have regular and senior contact with representatives of the Iranian Government. The Iranian regime, through their own actions, have made it harder for me to engage with them. However, that is not a blanket ban on engagement. I can assure him that the plight of detainees, and our desire to have them released and returned home, is a very high priority in all the conversations that we have at all levels with representatives of the Iranian Government.
I welcome the action that my right hon. Friend has announced to the House this afternoon. I think it is important that the House should remain united and clear-sighted about the need to confront Iran’s behaviour. He mentioned Russia’s use of Iranian drone technology in Ukraine, and we understand that Putin is seeking to acquire Iranian ballistic weapons technology as well. It is my understanding that a sunset clause in the joint comprehensive plan of action, if activated by the UK and the EU, would allow that to happen from October. Can the Foreign Secretary give a strong assurance to the House that he will work in lockstep with our colleagues in the EU to make sure that that does not happen?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point with regard to our policy towards Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Working to ensure that Russia is not supported through military equipment exports is one of our priority functions, and that is particularly true with regard to Iranian technologies, whether drone technologies or others. I take the point that he makes about the sunset clauses in the JCPOA; we are very alive to that and it is a conversation I regularly have with my E3 and United States counterparts. I can reassure him that preventing that brutal technology from falling into the hands of Russia or indeed anyone else remains a priority for the Government.
Iran has made no secret of its efforts to arm, fund and train Palestinian terror groups in the west bank. The leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad has even said that its terrorists depend on Iranian-supplied weaponry. That is the very same group that has turned Jenin into a city of terror. I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that we should condemn this destabilising activity. Does he also agree that such horrendous examples doubly underline the need for the very welcome toolkit of measures he has announced this afternoon—the need not just to have them in our arsenal, but to use them?
I commend my hon. Friend on the passion and consistency with which he champions this issue. I completely agree that that support for violence and terrorism, not just in the west bank but more broadly across the middle east, is completely wrong and we will always stand up against it. The sad truth is that the Palestinian people suffer because of the export of Iranian violence into the region. We continue to work, as a cornerstone of our foreign policy, to bring about peace between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. That is not helped by the violent interference of Iran, and we will continue to take action to deter and prevent it.
I very much welcome this package of strengthened sanctions. Last week, I attended the Free Iran Global Summit, which was attended by a range of former Prime Ministers, former Vice Presidents, former Foreign Ministers, representatives from 52 Parliaments and around 10 Members and former Members from across this place, which, of course, roundly condemns the gross violations of human rights in Iran, particularly the 300 uses of the death penalty and the oppression of women, but also the killing of 70 innocent children through shooting and poisoning. The conference discussed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. I heard what my right hon. Friend said about proscription of the IRGC in its entirety, but will he assure me that he will keep that step under very close review?
I can assure my hon. Friend that we take a thoughtful but firm and decisive approach to our posture with regard to Iran. I will always keep all options under review. We will always act in what we believe is the best interest not just of our own security, but of the safety and security of our friends in the region, and, indeed, of the Iranian people who find themselves brutalised by their own Government, as she said. When I say that we keep these things under review, I genuinely mean it. In terms of our response, nothing will be put permanently off the table or beyond use. The announcements that I made today, added to the pre-existing sanctions packages, give us a powerful tool of deterrence for Iranian behaviour that we intend to utilise fully if Iran’s behaviour does not change.
I will finish on this point. The power is in Iran’s hands. Were it to change its behaviour, stop funding terrorism and militia groups in the area, stop pursuing nuclear weapons and stop brutalising its people, we would be able to change our posture towards it. The power is in its hands.