Kim Howells: 'Iran is only going down the path of nuclear enrichment to make a bomb'

The Monday Interview: Minister of State (Middle East) Foreign Office By Anne Penketh
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The Independent Online

"Would you like green tea?" The question from the Labour MP for Pontypridd is unexpected. But green tea has become Kim Howells' beverage of choice since he took over as minister of state responsible for the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia last year. "I used to drink gallons of black tea," he admits, gripping his trademark mug.

Kim Howells knows all about hot water. He lands in it frequently. Most recently, he made the headlines by admitting that he was the minister who had allowed a registered sex offender to work as a PE teacher, amid the political furore swirling around Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary.

He courted controversy when he was consumer affairs minister in 2001 by describing the Royal Family as "a bit bonkers" and he dismissed the Turner Prize entries as "conceptual bullshit" during his time as culture minister in 2002.

Now, as Foreign Office minister, he has turned on critics of the Government's policy of returning terror suspects from Britain to countries in the Middle East with a record of torture.

He admits he was previously "a great sceptic". Now, he advocates the pursuit of "no-torture" agreements with states such as Libya and Jordan with all the fervour of a convert.

He is particularly incensed by "a very well known human rights organisation in this country" which approached a Jordanian human rights group contacted by Britain to help monitor individual cases. "It was incomprehensible really. It's as if they don't want us to succeed in this and they'll use any tactic to prevent us from doing it," he says.

Claudio Cordone, Amnesty International's senior legal policy adviser, said his organisation had invited a Jordanian non-governmental organisation to a meeting of human rights groups in Beirut last month which agreed that "flawed deals on detainee transfers should be rejected". Mr Cordone said British government policy put local groups in an invidious position. "Everybody had very strong views against this, including NGOs who had been approached by the UK and declined. We share their concern that the focus is not on systemic changes, but on an ad hoc arrangements for a limited number of detainees coming from the UK."

Although Mr Howells has the reputation of being a man who speaks his mind, he is discreet on the debate over sex offenders in schools. Asked why he waited so long before volunteering that he was the duty minister who had cleared Paul Reeve, he just repeats the terms of the official statement he issued last month.

He is the key minister reporting to Jack Straw on the "hot-button" foreign policy issues of the day. He does Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Palestinians. He does Afghanistan. He does counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism and counter-proliferation. He does Britain's relations with the Muslim community - on Thursday, he will be in Manchester as part of the Foreign Office's outreach policy, helping to try to extinguish the flames ignited by the Danish cartoons satirising the Prophet Mohamed. Last - and probably least - he does the UN.

Right now, his mind is on Afghanistan after taking part in an international conference in London last week which raised $10.5bn (£6bn) from donors for reconstructing the country over the next five years. He passionately believes in assisting President Hamid Karzai to create a "new Afghanistan" and defends the deployment in May of more than 3,000 British troops in the southern province of Helmand.

He denies suggestions that Britain faces a "second Iraq" in Afghanistan, where troops are likely to face fierce resistance from the resurgent forces of the Taliban, al-Qa'ida and the drugs barons. Suicide bombings have been on the increase and the biggest battle in months between US and Afghan forces against unsurgents erupted in Helmand last week. "I don't think this is Basra or southern Iraq. I think there's been a tremendous amount of predeployment hype about what it's like." So how has a 59-year old former Communist from the Welsh valleys become a convert to the "war on terror"? First of all, he "wasn't very good for the Communist Party," he says ruefully. But: "I'm not sure I was ever any different really. I'm somebody who thinks that you should stand up for democratic values."

He appears to have espoused the view, expressed by Tony Blair, that the "rules of the game" have changed since the July terrorist attacks in London last year.

He explains that he was impressed by something President Hamid Karzai said to him last year in Kabul, shortly after he became a Foreign Office minister.

"President Karzai said, 'sooner or later everybody's going to wake up to the fact that we have to stand up against this wave of reaction.' I said, 'what do you mean?' "He said, 'there are forces at work that are trying to turn us back into a 14th-century hierarchical theocracy and that's not what the people of Afghanistan want. The West shouldn't try to patronise us by believing that's what we all believe.' And it's really stuck with me and it's resonated with everything that I was brought up to believe."

Mr Howells does not minimise the risks to British troops in Helmand, which he last visited in December. "It depends who you talk to: some people say it depends where you go and put the stick into the hornets' nest, and whether you shake it about a lot." The main purpose of the British troops, he says, will be to back up the initiatives of the Afghan government, helping with intelligence and security, and providing aid workers with protection. But he admits to the "possibility" that the foreign troops in Afghanistan, once considered as liberators in 2001, may be seen as occupiers.

"I suppose that is a possibility but it's only one of a whole range of possibilities," he says.

What about Hamas, the suicide bombers who are now about to form a government in the Palestinian territories? "The election of Hamas is an entirely democratic and legitimate phenomenon. Then you have to have a look at whether we talk to them or not and that's where politics comes in. I think it's perfectly valid for us to say to them, you're not some outfit out there shooting people persuading young people to blow themselves up, killing innocent Israelis and Muslims any more, you're now the elected government. Start behaving like one."

That reminds him of Iran, which announced immediate retaliation after being referred to the UN Security Council on Saturday for its continued refusal to curb its nuclear ambitions. "They want to start behaving like a great nation with a great history. Stop this brinkmanship which isn't doing anyone any good," he says.

But what about the danger that the West may have forced the Iranians into a corner? "On the contrary," he retorts. "For the past two-and-a-half years we gave the Iranians every opportunity to explain to the rest of the world exactly what they were doing, after a decade and a half of duplicity."

Mr Howells has no doubt that Iran intends to build a bomb, given its insistence on its right to uranium enrichment. The Russians are helping Iran build a light-water reactor at Bushehr. "They haven't got a reactor yet. Why do they want to go down the extraordinarily expensive path of nuclear enrichment? It can only be for one thing and that's to make a bomb."

The walls of Mr Howells' office are decorated with a dozen of his own oil paintings of Alpine mountain scenes. There can be no mistaking the dark and menacing peaks. Did he visit the Turner Prize exhibition this year won by an artist who built The Shed? He shakes his head. "I think they're all a bunch of ... people in charcoal grey shirts," he mutters. "It's all crap."

The CV

* Born: 27 November 1946.

* Educated: Mountain Ash Grammar, Hornsey College of Art, Cambridge College of Art, and Warwick University.

* Elected MP for Pontypridd in 1989. Served as minister at Department of Transport; Department of Education and Skills; Transport; Culture, Media and Sport; and Department for Trade and Industry.

* Appointed minister for the Middle East, Afghanistan and South Asia, counter-narcotics, counter-proliferation, counter-terrorism, UN and UN reform in May 2005.