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Iranian Nuclear Programme

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2008

Iran continues to enrich uranium and carry out heavy water-related projects in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions requesting it to stop. We urge Iran to co-operate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to implement the additional protocol that it has signed with the agency, to respond to the serious questions that the agency has put to Iran on weaponisation, and of course to comply with UN Security Council resolutions. On 2 May, I chaired a meeting of my E3 plus 3 colleagues to agree a refreshed offer to Iran as part of our dual track strategy to persuade Iran to comply with its international obligations. That will soon be transmitted to the Government of Iran.

Much of the west’s knowledge of the Iranian nuclear programme is the product of information passed to it by the People’s Mujahedeen Organisation of Iran, most recently in respect of the nuclear warhead facility at Khojir. Given the historic helpfulness of the PMOI to the west and given also the trenchantly expressed judgment of the Court of Appeal last week, can the Foreign Secretary please say when the Government will make a statement to the House as to the continued proscription of the organisation under the Terrorism Act 2000? [Interruption.]

We were deeply disappointed by the result, given the well documented history of terrorist attacks involving the MEK. I am happy to give details. It explicitly claimed responsibility for a number of serious acts of terrorism on Iranian interests for a number of years. [Interruption.] It has never publicly given up violence and gave up its arms only in the face of overwhelming military might in Iraq in 2003. [Interruption.] None the less, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) will be pleased to hear that we will of course abide by the ruling of the court, and I understand that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will lay an order before Parliament in the next few weeks to take forward that judgment.

The Foreign Secretary is aware that the Foreign Affairs Committee published a report a few months ago on the situation on Iran. In that report we expressed concern that the current strategy to prevent the Iranian regime from developing a nuclear weapon is not very successful. Does the Foreign Secretary share the Committee’s view that on present trends Iran could have such a breakout capability in about seven or eight years? What will the Government, with their international partners, do over the coming months and years to make sure that that does not happen?

I am obviously not going to comment on intelligence—ours or others’—in respect of the timeline for the Iranian nuclear programme. However, the sense of importance that came through in the Foreign Affairs Committee report is shared by the Government and by our partners as well. Not only the three European countries and the United States, but Russia and China are part of a coalition that sees the dangers of a nuclear arms race in the middle east, which all sane people would see as a danger.

Our quarrel is not with the people of Iran, which is a country of huge civilisation and education; in the end, our quarrel is not with Iran’s rights under the non-proliferation regime, which ultimately include the right to civilian nuclear power. Our quarrel is with the responsibilities, or the lack of responsibility, exercised by the regime. That is why it is important that we take forward at each stage the dual track strategy. There is the offer to Iran of economic, scientific and cultural co-operation, but if it refuses to co-operate with the international community, it is right that sanctions be in place.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that last year’s United States national intelligence estimate that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003 was deeply misleading, because it referred only to warhead production? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the real threat is from the uranium enrichment programme, which, far from slowing down, has been accelerated by the Iranians in recent months? Will he do all in his power to ensure that that point is fully understood, both by public opinion in this country and at the United Nations?

I do not know whether the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quoting from my article in the Financial Times that appeared after the national intelligence estimate came out, but I certainly echo entirely what he has said. A very important confusion was created by the national intelligence estimate report about the difference between, on the one hand, weaponisation, and on the other, the three processes—above all, the uranium enrichment process—that are important for building a nuclear weapon.

It is precisely the dangers of the expanded uranium enrichment programme that have motivated successive United Nations Security Council resolutions that have demanded the suspension of that programme. Last year, the E3 plus 3 put forward a proposal for a “freeze for freeze”—a freeze on sanctions in response to a freeze on the uranium enrichment programme. We are refreshing our offer, but are absolutely clear that underlying it is a determination to ensure that Iran fulfils its responsibilities as well as exerts its rights under the NPT.

What is the best estimate available to my right hon. Friend on the number of centrifuges available to the Iranians for uranium enrichment at present? Where are those centrifuges coming from?

I am not going to comment on our estimate of the number of centrifuges. My hon. Friend will have seen President Ahmadinejad’s claim—I repeat that it is a claim—that 3,000 centrifuges have been increased to 6,000 centrifuges. As I say, that is his claim. I am afraid that I am not able to go into any details on their origins, but obviously we are working across all parts of the international community to staunch the flow not only of equipment, but of personnel and ideas.

Following on from the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether he sets more store by the United States intelligence community’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear capability, to which he has referred, or by the very much more bullish assessment made by Israeli intelligence, on which he had a report this week?

What is bullish and what is bearish in this context I will not go into. What I rely on are British intelligence estimates. That is the right basis for policy—[Interruption.] I am very, very surprised to see Opposition Members querying the exceptional quality of British intelligence. [Interruption.] I might expect the Liberal Democrats to denigrate the work of public servants, but I will not do that. What is important is that the international community is united in recognising that the problem is serious and that it is not a question of pursuing a vendetta against the people of Iran, or even the regime of Iran. We are seeking a change in behaviour, not a change in the regime. It is right that we devote ourselves diplomatically to achieving that end.

The centrifuges are based on a design stolen by A.Q. Khan; that is how the Iranians acquired them. May I clarify something with my right hon. Friend? Are the use of the centrifuges or the lack of inspection agreements at the core of the problem? How is he proposing to change the inspection regime to ensure that although Iran can continue with a nuclear power programme if it wants to, nuclear weapons conventions will be protected?

There are three charges against the Iranian regime: first, in relation to its refusal to comply with UN Security Council resolutions in respect of uranium enrichment; secondly, in respect of IAEA demands for full information on previous programmes, not just the P1 but the P2 programme—I apologise for going into the detail—and thirdly, there is the question of the additional protocol, which the IAEA has demanded that Iran lives up to. These are not my demands; they are demands that have been made by the international community, unanimously on successive occasions, and by the International Atomic Energy Authority—[Hon. Members: “Agency.”] I am sorry; I am grateful for the correction. Living within the bounds of UN and IAEA requirements is what we ask of the Government of Iran. I should also add that we are asking nothing more of them than to live within boundaries that are set for every other country; that is a point that we can all do well to remind people of, in Iran and more widely.

Can the Foreign Secretary give us a clear assurance that if Iran were now to reject the new offer that he has described to the House, the sanctions against Iranian oil and gas, which the Prime Minister promised as long ago as last November, will finally be imposed? Does he agree, too, that with Lebanese Ministers alleging that Iranian republican guards have been deployed and are fighting on the streets of Beirut, the need for effective pressure on the Iranian regime really is urgent?

I certainly reaffirm our commitment to take this up at European level. We said that we would pursue these actions at the European level, because that is the right place to do it, and we will certainly continue to do so. It is worth reporting to the House that the latest figures for the UK’s action alone show that £513 million of Iranian assets have been frozen, and EU trade with Iran is down 34 per cent. in the year to March 2007.

In respect of the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, which takes us into new territory, all I can say is that I spoke to the Prime Minister of Lebanon on Friday, discussed the very serious situation there, and expressed my total support for his Government in seeking to maintain the integrity and democratic legitimacy of the Government of Lebanon. I hope that in topical questions I may be able to say more about last night’s phone call of the Friends of Lebanon group, which involves 12 countries around the world, mainly from the region. I will be happy to report on that to the House.