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Parliamentary links support full restoration of UK-Iran relations

BGIPU, in close collaboration with Co-Chairs of the Iran All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), Rt Hon Jack Straw MP and Mr Richard Bacon MP, hosted a parliamentary delegation from the Islamic Republic of Iran from 9 to 13 March 2015 in return for a successful visit undertaken by the APPG to Tehran with BGIPU support in January 2014.

The delegation was led by Dr Abass Ali Mansouri Arani, Chairman of the Iran-Britain Friendship Group of the Islamic Parliament of Iran (Majles Shoraye Eslami). Other participating parliamentary counterparts included Mr Abass Gaead Rahmat, Mr Hojatollah Darvishpour, Mr Shokrehkhoda Mousavi and Mr Hamidreza Azizi Farsiyani. The delegation was accompanied by Mr Mohammad Javad Tayefi, the Director of Inter-Parliamentary Relation and Friendship Groups of the Majles and Mr Ramin Zare, the UK Desk Officer at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Iran.

Welcomed on arrival at the Palace of Westminster on 9 March by the Rt Hon Lindsay Hoyle MP, Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, the delegation were given an overview of the rich history of Westminster Hall. The delegation then commenced a formal programme with an introductory meeting with the Co-Chairs of the Iran APPG and the Clerk of the Overseas Office of the House of Commons, Mr Crispin Poyser, who provided an overview and answered questions on the functioning and structure of the UK Parliament.

A formal welcome lunch in Speaker’s House was hosted by the Speaker of the House of Commons, the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, where the delegation was welcomed as undertaking an important visit at a time when relations between both countries were at a pivotal stage.  Mr Speaker noted the 2014 agreement to re-opening our respective Embassies and complementary efforts to move the relationship forward after relations were downgraded in November 2011 and the UK Embassy in Tehran was closed after it was attacked by protesters. Engaging in a detailed discussion of areas of common interest between both countries, Mr Speaker noted that while both countries would not always agree on every issue, scope for robust dialogue and cooperation should certainly be encouraged.  Dr Mansouri said the Islamic Parliament of Iran was grateful for the hospitality being extended to his delegation and looked forward to further building strong inter-parliamentary links between both countries.

After observing the Speaker’s procession, the delegation met at their request with Muslim parliamentarians, Baroness Warsi and Ms Yasmin Qureshi MP, to discuss how they, as parliamentarians, work to advance the interest of Muslim communities in the UK. They also noted the importance of Parliament engaging closely with the full range of faith communities, including Muslims, on matters of Government policy, including foreign policy issues. The UK parliamentarians noted the importance to the UK’s Muslim community of issues like the Middle East Peace Process, including last summer’s events in Gaza, and the efforts of regional countries to tackle the rise of extremism including the crimes committed by Da’ish. Perspectives on regional issues and conflicts affecting the Middle East was also discussed with the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Sir Richard Ottaway MP, in addition to the state of bilateral relations and prospects for the nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (US, Russia, China, France, UK, and Germany).

The delegation also had a meeting with the Acting Clerk of the House of Commons, Mr David Natzler, on key administrative issues and challenges facing the UK Parliament, including the need for a comprehensive works program to preserve the historic Palace of Westminster. The delegation ended a very busy initial day in the UK Parliament with a welcome Reception hosted by the BGIPU Chair, the Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, who observed the importance of both sides opening a window on the perspectives of the other through broad-based and open dialogue, building on areas of commonality while also better appreciating any differences. Dr Mansouri responded by noting the viral internet sensation of the week over the white-gold/blue-black evening dress saying it was important to understand that sometimes there will always be arguments about perceptions but the important thing was to maintain a frank and robust dialogue rather than declaring the other side to be wrong or demanding they must change their views. The Co-Chairs of the Iran APPG also hosted a welcome dinner for the visiting delegation with both events attended by a wide range of UK parliamentarians from both Houses.

The delegation enjoyed an extensive tour of the UK Parliament hosted by BGIPU Executive Committee member, Mr Tim Loughton MP, on Tuesday morning prior to departing to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where they met with Rt Hon Phillip Hammond MP, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Mr Tobias Ellwood MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. The meeting was very constructive with the Foreign Secretary reassuring the delegation that the UK was making no explicit linkages between re-opening Embassies in both countries and progress on Iran’s nuclear talks with the P5+1. Both Ministers expressed strong support for working to improve bilateral relations between the UK and Iran as an objective in itself, underscoring the opportunities to work together constructively in facing global and regional challenges. Iran’s influential role and active engagement in international affairs provided ample scope for areas of possible cooperation and there was a strong basis for rebuilding people-to-people links to bolster bilateral relations. In this regard, the working lunch following this meeting, hosted by Iran APPG Co-Chair, Mr Richard Bacon MP, looked at the importance of Education and Cultural Relations, including highlighting a current British Council exhibition celebrating Nowruz (Iranian New Year).

A subsequent meeting at the British-Iranian Chamber of Commerce, chaired by Rt Hon the Lord Lamont of Lerwick, discussed the opportunities for rebuilding bilateral trade and business links in the context of seeking a broad-based and mutually beneficial relationship. To this end, the normalisation of relations was key to encourage the lifting of sanctions preventing various types of commercial exchange. Meetings later in the afternoon with Mr Rory Stewart OBE MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee and the Rt Hon Douglas Alexander MP, Shadow Foreign Secretary and Mr Gareth Thomas MP, Shadow Minister for Foreign and Commonwealth Office also reaffirmed areas of common interest in both countries regarding developments in the Middle East region and confirmed bipartisan party support for all appropriate efforts to rebuild and strengthen relations. The evening ended with a dinner hosted by the Chargé d Affaires. Mr Habibollahzadeh at the Iranian Embassy Residence attended by a number of members of the House of Commons and Peers.

On Wednesday 11 March, the delegation participated in a roundtable discussion with a wide range of UK parliamentarians encompassing the membership of both the Iran All Party Parliamentary Group and members of the British Group IPU. The roundtable was chaired by APPG Co-Chair, Rt Hon Jack Straw MP, and the BGIPU Chair, Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP, was also in attendance. A key focus of the discussion was the importance of renewing bilateral relations in an open and constructive manner, avoiding the pitfalls of the past where both sides has developed stereotypical and inaccurate conceptions of each other. The delegation said while obviously the past could not be ignored but we needed to move beyond it to create a relationship for the future. Both sides acknowledged that frank and regular inter-parliamentary engagement would be valuable in preventing such misunderstandings in the future and both sides committed to encouraging their respective governments to resolve whatever obstacles remained in the way of re-opening Embassies in both capitals as soon as possible. The Iranian delegation confirmed that it would be keen to host a UK delegation under IPU auspices to Tehran later this year after the UK General Elections.

In discussing key foreign policy issues, both sides agreed that the UK and Iran has a common interest in a stable and prosperous Middle East region and this goal could be advanced by the UK and Iran working more closely including in addressing the rising influence of extremist groups, such as Da’ish. The need for a peaceful solution in Syria and stabilisation of the situation in Libya were seen as key to removing some of the conditions conducive for the rise of such negative ideologies. It was also agreed that concluding a fair outcome in the current Iran nuclear talks would be an important step in providing a stable relationship between Iran and the West, including the UK, noting that Iran’s access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses was not in question. Unilateral actions by the US Congress were noted as being unhelpful to this process and Iran said the impact of sanctions, overall, was greatly damaging to the reputation of the West in the eyes of ordinary Iranians. Restrictions on medicines and aircraft parts were the most obvious examples where this led to suffering on the Iranian side and more should be done to redress these impacts.

A number of UK parliamentarians raised questions about human rights in Iran, including the treatment of Christians. The Iranian delegation confirmed that religious freedom was protected under law in Iran and they rejected claims of any systematic abuse, saying such claims often originated from activists working to a particular ideological agenda. When asked why Iran would not allow the UN Special Rapporteur to enter to look into such allegations, the delegation said there were problems of bias with this particular individual but someone else would be welcome to visit. They also noted the death penalty was a key part in Iran’s efforts to deal with rampant drug trafficking emanating from Afghanistan and the needs to protect Iran’s youth from the suffering of drug addiction was a key driving factor. The UK side very much appreciated the candour and directness of the Iranian delegation’s responses on all the issues raised.

After observing Prime Minister’s Question time and a working lunch in the Peers Dining room hosted by Rt Hon the Lord Lamont of Lerwick, the delegation ended the Westminster programme with a meeting with Sir Tony Baldry MP on the role of the Church of England.  The delegation then paid a formal courtesy call on the Lord Speaker, Rt Hon the Baroness D’Souza CMG, in the River Room of the House of Lords where she encouraged greater inter-parliamentary engagement between the two countries as a good mechanism for increased understanding and cooperation, including in education and cultural areas.

At the delegation’s request, reflecting strong interest in education and cultural links between both countries, the delegation travelled to Cambridge University on 12 March accompanied by the Co-Chairs of the Iran APPG. The programme included visiting the Professor of Persian History, Professor Charles Melville, in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge. This very constructive meeting, where both sides explored their respective deep appreciation of Persian literature and culture, culminated in a very useful meeting with British students undertaking Persian studies. The delegation was pleased to see the interest shown by the students in learning more about Iran’s rich literary and cultural traditions.

Speaking to the students in Farsi, Dr Mansouri said he was impressed by the students’ commitment to understand Iranian culture, language and history better, giving great hope for future people to people links between both countries. Noting visa difficulties the students faced in visiting Iran, the delegation undertook to do what they could on return to Tehran to ease any impediments to resumption of academic exchanges and study visits from the UK. Both sides agreed this would be a good initiative in moving forward restoration and strengthening of bilateral relations. Following a lunch hosted in Pembroke College, the delegation were very impressed by an exhibition of Persian manuscripts prepared specially for them at Cambridge Library. Before returning to London, the delegation participated in a highly informative session at Trinity College’s Cambridge Science Park hosted by Managing Director, Mr Patrick Horsley, on academic research and business innovation.

BGIPU and the Iran APPG were very grateful to the Non-resident Chargé d Affaires to the United Kingdom, Mr Mohammad Hassan Habibollahzadeh and his Legal Counsellor, Mr Seyed Ali Mousavi who accompanied the delegation throughout their visit and provided invaluable assistance in setting up visit arrangements. BGIPU were also grateful to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for facilitation of this historic visit.