Sir Liam Fox MP:
I begin by paying tribute to all of our armed forces personnel who have been involved in action in the Red sea. They always rise to any challenge asked of them with professionalism and courage, and are a great example of the fact that our armed forces are so much more than the hardware we invest in.
I accept the point that the Secretary of State for Defence made at the outset of the debate—there is no direct link between the conflict in Gaza and the Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red sea—but we would be wrong not to accept that there is interconnectivity between the tensions in different parts of the middle east today, and we need to understand the context of those tensions.
Back in 2020, the Trump Administration brokered the Abraham accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and then Morocco. It was a great exercise in leadership to bring reconciliation to a part of the world that had seen too much conflict for too long. It has resulted in a big improvement: both economically, in terms of business and trade between the countries involved, and in people-to-people relationships. For example, around half a million Israelis visited Dubai in the past few years, something that would have been unthinkable just a decade ago.
However, there was always one country that did not want the Abraham accords to succeed: Iran. It did not want those accords to succeed because it did not believe in a two-state solution, because it did not believe that Israel should exist. Ayatollah Khamenei has been tremendously consistent in his views about the purity of the Islamic revolution, his detestation of the west, and his contempt for the existence of the state of Israel. Anyone who is interested should read the book “Reading Khamenei” by Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Iran was never going to want to see peace between the Arab states and Israel, because that threatened Iran’s hegemony—as it saw it—over the Islamic parts of the middle east.
The big question was always: what would Saudi Arabia do? It is a major player in the security of both the Red sea and the Gulf. When I saw the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia on Fox News saying that every day he believed Saudi Arabia was closer to peace and reconciliation with Israel, my first reaction was that Iran would react against it, whether through its proxies: Hamas in Gaza, funded and armed by Iran; Hezbollah in Lebanon, funded and armed by Iran; or the Houthis in Yemen, funded and armed by Iran. In fact, it turns out that we now see all three being active, and we need to understand that that “axis of resistance” against the west, as Iran calls it, is something it will keep going as long as it possibly can. It will not seek peace; it will resist peace at all times.
In the Red sea, we are absolutely right to say—as many Members have done, and I do not want to go over that territory again—that the Houthi threat is a specific one that we must deal with. Some 95% of UK exports and imports go by sea, and in the whole global trading environment, 15% of all global trade passes through the Bab al-Mandab strait. As many Members have said, not to act would leave international maritime law in tatters, and having no deterrence there whatsoever would risk a bout of global inflation. We saw what the disruption from the conflict in Ukraine could do, and the same would be true were there to be permanent disruption in the Red sea. We would have disruption of vital supply chains, including food and the medicines that so many people depend on. So we were right to take action.
However, we need to come back to understanding the role of Iran in this and other processes. We have seen Iran develop drones that are sent to Russia by Iran Air to oppress the people of Ukraine, yet Iran Air still flies out of Heathrow airport in the United Kingdom. Why is it tolerated? We have seen the money moved around the global financial system by Iran to fund its proxies, but we still have two Iranian banks trading in the City of London within a stone’s throw of the Bank of England. Why is that happening? As the Chair of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns), said, we have videos of antisemitic speeches by IRGC generals being investigated by the Charity Commission. The regulator is looking at footage of “Death to Israel” chants on an Islamic charity’s UK premises. Two of the videos show talks by IRGC leaders about an apocalyptic war on the Jews. Again as my hon. Friend said, the IRGC actually took responsibility this week for a military attack on a foreign territory, which is something they have not had the audacity to do before.
So I ask again: why is the IRGC not a proscribed organisation in this country? It is clearly involved in a wide range of activity that is dangerous to Britain’s national interests and our security. I have never once, when I have raised this issue in the House, been given a clear answer from those on the Front Branch about why we will not ban Iran Air, why we will not stop Iranian banks in the City and why we will not proscribe the IRGC. I live in a little bit of extra hope that we may get an answer tonight.
Bob Seely MP:
The answer that the Government have so far given on the IRGC is that it is an arm of the state, and it is very difficult to proscribe an arm of the state. I am not saying I agree with that answer, but that is the answer given. Is there a way around it?
Sir Liam Fox MP:
It is an answer, but it is not a very convincing one. I hope we will get a better answer from the Minister of State at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who I know is well capable of giving us answers in greater detail than that.
We face a choice in the Red sea and beyond: we are either going to deal with the political problems we face or, rather than the rosy future that the Abraham accords offered, we can go back to 1971, with a radicalised generation in the middle east and return to all the problems of hijacks, Munich and all the things we thought we had left behind us.
We need to drive a solution. As the Prime Minister said earlier this week, there must be a commitment to a two-state solution, and it is not acceptable for anyone to put a political block on that. We need security guarantees to be given for Israel and the Israeli people, who have a right to live in peace, and for any future Palestinian state. That will require an international peace agreement. It will require the United States, Saudi Arabia and others all to be willing to commit to that peace. It will require a new way of looking at politics in the region, and it is right that Hamas cannot be part of that if there is to be any way forward, and there will need to be massive economic reconstruction in the area.
In conclusion, let me say what I have said before in the House: when we look at the whole region, we see that peace is not just the absence of war or conflict, but the freedom from the fear of conflict, oppression or terror. It comes with concepts of rights that have to apply to all people—not just rights and dignity, but enforceable rights and dignity. Only when all the people of the middle east and the wider region have access to all those things will we have any chance of achieving the peace that is not just part of their security, but part of our security.