Alistair Burt is MP for North East Bedfordshire and is a former Foreign Office Minister
It has been a not bad few days for the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. The decision to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting was difficult but right, and vindicated by the media coverage of David Cameron’s visit to the north of Sri Lanka, the first foreign leader to so do since 1948, and his determination to speak truth to the power that is the Rajapaska family. Though it may be surprising to say so, this has been the easy bit. It will be harder, but even more important, to work with friends of Sri Lanka to demonstrate why a positive response from that country, driving forward the recommendations of its own Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission and tackling accountability for the past, does not denigrate ending the appalling terrorism of the Tamil Tigers but lays the base for the only serious chance of reconciliation in the future. It would help if Sri Lanka and its representatives actually listened to what was being said by so many, rather than offer knee-jerk defensive responses.
David Cameron’s gesture in picking up the phone to the Iranian President on the eve of the Geneva talks between Iran and most of the rest of the world about the nuclear issue is another important signal. But whilst resolving concerns about nuclear ambition and capability is incredibly important in itself, the charge sheet against the Iranians does not stop there. Their willingness to sponsor terrorism, their political and religious persecution, coupled with grotesque public execution methods and their support in terms of troops, arms and money for the bloody regime in Damascus leads many watchers of the talks to some unease – and not just Israel.
A good deal, which freezes or turns back Iran’s nuclear ambitions would indeed be good for all, and the E3+3 are right to search for it. But since the true intentions of Iran remain unclear, the jury will remain very sceptical about Tehran until we also see some progress on the other issues. The most immediate would be some sign that pressure is being applied to Damascus to allow urgent humanitarian supplies to reach the Syrian people being butchered by the Assad regime every day, coupled with public pressure from Iran for an end to the conflict via their agreement to the Geneva 1 and 2 process.
There should be no “with one bound we are all free” with Iran. The West needs to listen to those who live much closer to Iran than we do to fully understand their concerns, and work with them towards resolution.