'Iran Is Only Going Down the Path of Nuclear Enrichment to Make a Bomb' ; the Monday Interview Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East) Foreign Office

By Penketh, Anne | The Independent (London, England), February 6, 2006 | Go to article overview
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'Iran Is Only Going Down the Path of Nuclear Enrichment to Make a Bomb' ; the Monday Interview Kim Howells Minister of State (Middle East) Foreign Office


Penketh, Anne, The Independent (London, England)


"Would you like green tea?" The question from the Labour MP for Pontypridd is unexpected. But green tea has become Kim Howels' 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 Kely, 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 (pounds 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 un-surgents 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.

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