Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has told the JC that Labour has not changed its position on Iran, despite party figures repeatedly suggesting Britain should “reach out” to officials in Tehran.
He said the party remained committed to a “twin-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy”.
Mr Alexander was seeking to clarify comments he and other senior Labour politicians made in Parliament last week in which they encouraged the government to lay foundations for warmer relations with Iran.
Those comments were ridiculed in Westminster and by Israeli officials, who dismissed the idea as “far-fetched” and said they were “not reading too much into” what appeared to be a new Labour position.
But Mr Alexander said on Wednesday that including Iranian regime officials in a contact group aimed at kick-starting Syrian peace talks would “not alter the approach that the UK has taken to the Iranian nuclear issue”.
“Labour remains of the view that the government should maintain pressure on the Iranian regime to change its approach to nuclear enrichment, and seek opportunities to engage the new Iranian president to encourage urgent progress on this issue,” he said. “The international community must remain resolute in its commitment to the twin-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy. A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a real threat both to the region and to international security.”
Mr Alexander, leader Ed Miliband and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw were among the Labour MPs who appeared to recommend closer engagement – despite Iran’s support for Hizbollah, its antagonism towards Israel and the storming of the British embassy in Tehran in 2011.
Mr Straw asked Foreign Secretary William Hague whether he would “accept that the chances of success of any peace conference will be greatly enhanced if Iran is involved”, and highlighted the election of president Hassan Rouhani as an opportunity for Britain to “reach out”.
Britain would be “prepared to talk” to the Iranian regime, Mr Hague said, but only if President Rouhani and the ayatollahs changed their past positions.
But Mr Hague added: “We must remember that Iran has, from all the evidence presented, been actively supporting the Syrian regime, including in the killing of so many innocent people in Syria. It has not played a constructive role so far.”
During last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Miliband acknowledged Iran’s role in “fuelling this conflict”, but again asked whether the government would consider “talking to those with whom we profoundly disagree”.
David Cameron said that while Mr Hague would meet his Iranian counterpart at the United Nations, Britain should “not forget what Iran has done to our embassy and to our country” and that any discussions on improved relations should be approached “very cautiously”.
Mr Cameron responded to Labour backbenchers’ further questions about the possibility of “urgently” improving relations by suggesting that adopting a different posture would not be a “very good decision”.
Israeli sources in London rejected the Labour suggestions and said the international community was “waiting to see” whether President Rouhani would take a different approach to that of his predecessors.
“We judge Iran by its actions, not its words, and our allies are doing the same,” said one Israeli diplomat.
Some Labour supporters in Westminster suggested Mr Miliband and his colleagues had merely been “thinking out loud” about how a political solution to the Syrian crisis could be reached.
Others thought the statements were rhetoric aimed at appeasing backbench MPs.
Insiders said there was “a lot of confusion across the Commons on Syria generally” following the earlier rejection of possible British military action.
Pressure has also been exerted by Conservative backbenchers for a different approach to Iran. All three major parties have, however, continued to back the sanctions programme.
Jewish Leadership Council chief executive Jeremy Newmark said: “We must be wary of rushing back in to full diplomatic relations with Iran when the country still has many internal issues to address.
“Rouhani was one of the founders of Iran’s nuclear programme which now threatens the stability of the entire Middle East. Any relaxation of sanctions must only come about when it is absolutely clear that Iran is not proceeding with a nuclear weapons programme.”