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EU Sanctions (Iran)

Volume 539: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2012

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on EU sanctions relating to Iran and the threat from Iran to close the strait of Hormuz.

Yesterday I attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels, where member states agreed a new and unprecedented set of sanctions against Iran. These include a phased oil embargo, a partial asset freeze of the central bank of Iran, measures against Iran’s petrochemical sector and a ban on Iranian transactions involving gold. This is a major increase in the peaceful, legitimate pressure on Iran to return to negotiations over its nuclear programme. It follows the financial measures that the United Kingdom imposed on 21 November and the widening of EU measures on 1 December. Sanction measures, often close to those of the EU, have been adopted by the United States, Canada, South Korea, Norway, Switzerland and Japan. These are in addition to the sanctions imposed by the United Nations Security Council. At our joint press conference this morning, the Australian Foreign Minister announced that his country will replicate these new EU sanctions, and we will urge other nations to do the same.

Iran is in defiance of six United Nations Security Council resolutions, which call on it to suspend its uranium enrichment programme and to enter negotiations. Its recent decision to enrich uranium to 20% at an underground site in Qom demonstrates the urgent need to intensify diplomatic pressure on Iran to return to negotiations. The programme has no plausible civilian use, and Iran tried to keep it secret.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has expressed serious concerns about the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme, and Iran is now in breach of 11 resolutions of the IAEA board of governors.

Sanctions are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Our objective remains a diplomatic solution that gives the world the confidence that Iran’s nuclear programme is for purely peaceful purposes. We are ready to talk at any point if Iran puts aside its preconditions and returns to negotiations.

Iranian Vice-President Rahimi was reported as saying in December:

“If sanctions are adopted against Iranian oil, not a drop of oil will pass through the Strait of Hormuz.”

It must be borne in mind, however, that 95% of Iran’s oil exports, representing more than 80% of its foreign earnings, transit the strait of Hormuz, so it is very much against Iran’s interests to close the strait to oil exports.

Britain maintains a constant presence in the region as part of our enduring contribution to Gulf security, and the Royal Navy has been conducting such patrols since 1980. At the weekend, HMS Argyll and a French vessel joined a United States carrier group transiting through the strait of Hormuz. This was a routine movement, but it underlined the unwavering international commitment to maintaining rights of passage under international law. Any attempt by Iran to block the strait would be both illegal and unsuccessful.

We call on Iran to answer the questions raised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, to adhere to the UN’s Security Council resolutions, to suspend its enrichment programme and to return to the negotiations that are the only way of reaching a peaceful and long-term settlement in its dispute with the international community.

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and to the Foreign Secretary.

Iran is at crisis point. It is the new Soviet Union, of the middle east. It supports terrorism, undermines democracy and is trying to stop the Arab spring in Syria, but now we are threatened by an Iranian nuclear bomb, which risks the security of the Gulf states, Israel and the whole region.

Two weeks ago, Iran admitted that it had begun enriching high-grade uranium, and the regime is now threatening to close the strait of Hormuz, which deals with more than 20% of internationally traded oil. The UK Government could not have done more to try to contain the problem, with unprecedented action to isolate Iran’s financial sector by the Chancellor, and the extra EU sanctions imposed this week by the Foreign Secretary, but the question must now be asked: are we facing the prospect of a nuclear dictatorship in the middle east?

In the past, nuclear deterrents worked because of mutually assured destruction, but for MAD to work one has to be sane, and the Iranians have said that they would be happy to use nuclear weapons. Will my right hon. Friend set out to the House what military action Britain and the allies are planning in the strait of Hormuz? Will he explain what will happen if the latest economic sanctions do not work? What more is being done to bring Russia and China to the UN table?

Most people would accept that Britain has shouldered its fair share of the burden in tackling dictators, but it seems clear that the free world must send a message to Iran that, if it continues with its nuclear plans, it will lead to military action. No one wants war, but tragically it is looking increasingly possible. As The Times says today:

“One of the greatest civilisations in history has been superseded for a generation by an extremist regime perpetrating repression at home and aggression beyond its borders.”

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who pointed out at the beginning of his contribution that there are many grounds for quarrels with the Iranian Government, although I stress that this is not a quarrel with the Iranian people. The human rights record and much of the international behaviour of the Iranian Government, such as the recent plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington—in addition to the nuclear programme—give grave cause for concern to the international community. But it is because there is a very serious danger of the wider proliferation of nuclear weapons across the middle east if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons capability, that this issue must be confronted and that we and our European partners, and so many other allies, take the strong stance that we do. I stress that we do so very much in the interests of avoiding conflict; this set of actions is not designed to lead to conflict, but to lead us away from it by increasing the pressure for a peaceful settlement of these disputes.

I say to my hon. Friend that we have contingency plans for many contingencies—including, as my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary said at our press conference this morning, for sending any further naval forces to that area. But we are not planning to take military action in the Gulf. We call on Iran to return to the negotiations that are, at all times, available to it.

May we welcome the Foreign Secretary’s comments? I apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State, who is in Brussels today. We also welcome the extensive international engagement in this policy—not only from our European partners but, as the Foreign Secretary said, from our long-standing friends and allies from Australia, whose Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, and Foreign Minister, Kevin Rudd, are in town today to show their support.

Will the Foreign Secretary outline the reaction from the main oil consuming countries in Asia, which have a higher dependence on Iranian oil, to the policy of a ban on crude oil imports from Iran and, equally importantly, on the export of refined products back to Iran? Given the effect that these necessary sanctions will have on already vulnerable economies in southern Europe, will he indicate what measures are being taken to protect those economies?

In the wider context, will the Foreign Secretary outline how much support this policy has managed to garner at international level—particularly from Russia, China, India and Japan? The ban by Russia and China on supplying military equipment, as well as training and maintenance, is most welcome, but what assurances are they giving that that will be continued and what influence are they exerting on Tehran to ensure a more responsible attitude from the regime?

In that context, on the diplomatic front we have seen reports that, at a meeting in Moscow on 18 January, Russian officials presented the Iranians with a proposed framework for negotiations with the P5 plus one, possibly based on Russian proposals made in August. Will the Foreign Secretary report to us any feedback that he has had from the Russians?

The right hon. Gentleman rightly stressed that we have no quarrel with the Iranian people. Before the Arab spring, there was the green movement in Iran, where we saw huge numbers on the streets of Tehran and other Iranian cities seeking reform. Although it was barbarically repressed, it showed the very considerable public alienation from the regime. What assessment has he made of the state of public opinion in Iran and of divisions in the political elite?

What weight do the Government give to the threat by Iran to attempt to close the strait of Hormuz? Do they intend to participate in any international naval taskforce to keep the strait open? Given the defence cuts, can the right hon. Gentleman guarantee that vessels could be made available? What agreement have the Government obtained from other P5 countries for such action, as well as from those in the Gulf?

Finally, although we support the steps being taken to bring pressure to bear on the Iranian regime, all of us recognise the fragility of growth in the European economy at the moment. Given the importance of oil imports to that growth, will the Foreign Secretary assure us that the economic impact of the steps taken have been discussed with the Chancellor and that contingency plans are in place?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his supportive remarks and welcome for the broader international engagement and endorsement of our policy. He is right to draw attention to the visit of the Australian Foreign and Defence Ministers, which, as in so many ways, has been very helpful in this regard.

I shall not necessarily take the right hon. Gentleman’s questions in the order in which he asked them. On the question about the political situation in Iran, of course that can sometimes be difficult to interpret from the outside. There are many reports of deep divisions within the Iranian Administration—sometimes, of such divisions between the supreme leader and the President, although not necessarily about this issue. As the right hon. Gentleman said, at the time of the last presidential elections in Iran, we saw signs of deep discontent among the ordinary people of Iran. Sadly, such is the repression and the appalling human rights record of the Iranian Government that the people of Iran do not have much opportunity to voice their discontent. The principal opposition leaders are under house arrest. Iran, alongside China, conducts one of the largest numbers of executions in the world, with 50 executions already so far this year. It is an appalling human rights record that does not help anybody in giving voice to their real opinions.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about Asian countries. Japan has indicated over the past few weeks that it would not increase its oil imports from Iran and has mirrored some of the sanctions that the European Union has taken before. China has expressed its concern about recent developments within Iran, including during Premier Wen’s visit to the Gulf in recent days. In Qatar, he particularly remarked on China’s growing concern when he said that it

“adamantly opposes Iran developing and possessing nuclear weapons.”

Indeed, last month China approximately halved its oil imports from Iran, although I must point out that that is not because China necessarily agrees with this approach. Moreover, given its dispute with Iran about credit terms, it is expected to continue its halving of oil imports through February. In general, the demand for Iranian oil from the main Asian economies is down over recent weeks and is not replacing revenue that Iran will lose from the European Union.

On vulnerable economies, it is largely because of Greek concerns and Greece’s importation of large quantities of oil that we are phasing in this embargo, which will come into full effect on 1 July. We and many other countries would have preferred an earlier date, but we were happy to settle for that to give Greece time to adjust. If there are any difficulties for Greece and its energy supplies after that, we will of course all try to assist.

Russia has been promoting what it calls a “step-by-step” approach to negotiation. It is true that it has been pushing Iran hard to return to talks. Like the rest of the E3 plus 3 countries, Russia wants a diplomatic breakthrough. In discussion with us—also one of the E3 plus 3—it has not been able to confirm that Iran is serious about negotiations, but I am sure that Russia and China will continue to press Iran, in a different way from us, to return to negotiations. In the meantime, we, like so many nations of Europe, the United States and, as I have pointed out, many other parts of the world will increase the pressure on Iran to do so.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend would have no difficulty in agreeing that the environment of the strait of Hormuz is potentially extremely dangerous. Having regard to the nature of our relations with Iran at the moment, what steps has he been taking to enlist the support of countries that have better relations with Iran than ourselves to ensure that it exercises restraint in the strait of Hormuz and does not, to put it rather dramatically, cause a conflagration?

We certainly talk a great deal to countries that have excellent relations with us and better relations with Iran than we have. That is one of the ways we try to understand the Iranians’ position and to make clear to them our position and our resolve on these issues. We do that with countries such as Oman and, in particular, Turkey. I discussed the situation at length with the Turkish Foreign Minister last week. All those countries use their good offices on Iran to say that it should exercise restraint, and I know that they will continue to do so. Moreover, all common sense goes in the direction of exercising restraint because, as I have pointed out, 95% of Iran’s oil exports go through the strait of Hormuz, and it has to factor that into any calculation that it makes about what to do there.

I chair the all-party group on Iran with the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace).

While I understand the decisions that have been made by the European Union, may I press the Foreign Secretary on what action he is taking to reinvigorate the E3 plus 3 formation, which was absolutely critical in getting the six Security Council resolutions to which he refers? My anxiety about these sanctions is that without China and Russia on board there will be the most substantial leakages.

Secondly, I want to press the Foreign Secretary on the issue of military action. We know that there are strong demands in parts of the Israeli Administration for unilateral action, and that is running into the United States’ presidential election. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the United Kingdom has to set out a policy on this matter? Does he also agree that we should not in any way, including through Diego Garcia, participate in any kind of military action without the clearest legal basis from the Security Council?

The E3 plus 3 is indeed the basis on which to take forward negotiations and it is still available to do so. Last year, there were negotiations between Baroness Ashton, the EU High Representative, on behalf of the E3 plus 3, and Iranian representatives. Those did not get anywhere because of the preconditions that Iran attaches to any discussion of these matters, which amount to the dropping of all sanctions at the beginning and the recognition of Iran’s right to enrichment at the beginning. That is not much of a basis on which to negotiate about those things. It has not been possible, despite the best efforts of all six countries and the European Union, to have a successful negotiation. The door remains entirely open to that, as Baroness Ashton stressed again and as I stressed yesterday. That remains the framework in which we would like to have these discussions. China and Russia are continuing, rightly, to press Iran on this. That process remains very much alive. It does not require reinvigoration, but it does require Iranian engagement.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about military action. I stress that we are not calling for, or advocating, military action. It is the job of our armed forces to prepare for many contingencies, but we are not calling for that. We have successfully called for and introduced what I hope will be effective sanctions because we do not want a military conflict. He knows that when we became engaged in a conflict under a UN resolution in Libya last year, we came to the House of Commons for the authority to do so. That is how we will approach any conflict anywhere in the world.

Order. Accommodating the level of interest in this matter will require brevity, which will be exemplified, I am sure, by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s approach. The challenge is how to tighten our grip on the Iranian economy without damaging our own. Has he received assurances from other oil producers, such as Saudi Arabia, that they can up production to replace the oil that will not be coming to Europe?

No. It is a matter for each country to decide whether to change its oil production. This and many other factors affect the oil market. The price of oil is very similar today to what it has been over the past few months. Yesterday, the main benchmark price was $110 per barrel. That is a couple of dollars different from the price in December, which covers the period in which the discussion about sanctions and the strait of Hormuz has been going on. Many other factors affect the oil market. Some countries are increasing their oil production anyway. Iraq is planning huge increases in oil production and some Libyan oil production is coming back on stream. There are many forces at work, both positive and negative, in the oil market. We should not, therefore, exaggerate the effect of this measure.

I fully support what the Foreign Secretary has said today. When he last addressed the House on this question, I asked about the effect of this diplomatic crisis on the 75,000 British Iranians who live in this country and on those who wish to visit them from Iran. He said that he would name a third country to which applications could be made. What is the name of that third country?

That issue remains a concern. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that an unwanted side effect of the Iranian invasion of our embassy compound, the closing of our embassy there and the consequent closing of the Iranian embassy here is that it is harder for Iranians to visit this country and to get a visa to visit this country. Of course, British nationals in Iran can seek assistance from other EU embassies in Iran. We do propose to name a third country. We have identified that country and it has, in turn, approached Iran for permission to act. However, Iran has not yet given that country permission to act on behalf of the United Kingdom. The delay is with Tehran, not with London.

Given the recent international behaviour of the Iranian Government, is not one of the sad truths that we cannot trust any of the undertakings that they give? We therefore need two things from them—not simply an unconditional return to negotiations but preparedness to give unfettered access to International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to go wherever in Iran they want to. That would give them the competence to find out whether Iran was complying with whatever it told the international community it was doing.

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The verification of any agreement with Iran would be very important, and the presence of IAEA inspectors there is crucial. I referred earlier to the enrichment of uranium to 20% at the underground facility that Iran has built in Qom, which my hon. Friend will remember Iran kept secret for a long time. It was exposed by western nations including the United Kingdom, and if that had not happened, Iran would probably have kept it secret to this day. The level of trust is not very high.

Iran remains a member of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and the last review conference called for a nuclear-free middle east. There is, however, one nation in the middle east that does have nuclear weapons, and that is Israel. Does the Foreign Secretary not think that it would be useful if we took up the suggestion of the NPT review conference to convene a denuclearisation conference of all nations in the region, in order that there could be direct talks? Iran would then be in a position to give assurances that it had no intention or wish to develop nuclear weapons.

Indeed, the commitment to have such a conference in 2012 was given at the NPT review conference in 2010, and plans are going ahead for that conference. Of course, it does not help anyone trying to persuade Israel not to have nuclear weapons if Iran continues a nuclear weapons programme that would have the effect, if it were brought to fruition, of many other nations in the middle east pursuing a nuclear weapons programme. That is absolutely the wrong way to go about trying to persuade Israel to adhere to the non-proliferation treaty.

I, too, declare that I am a co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran.

If an ordinary Iranian looks out from the inside, he will see that he is surrounded by Israel, Pakistan and India, all countries that developed a nuclear weapon illegally without any UN checks and still refuse to sign any UN undertaking. What message does the Foreign Secretary have for ordinary Iranians that the reason for what we are doing is that something different is going on in this case and that the rewards and the outcome are worth it?

That is a very important question. The reason something different is happening is partly because of one of the factors to which I was just referring—we can be fairly confident that if Iran develops a nuclear weapons capability, other nations will seek to do so. That will not help the security of the people of Iran; it will simply mean that the world’s most unstable region starts to have a large number of the world’s most destructive weapons. That is not in the interests of the people of any of the countries there. Secondly, Iran’s record of concealment, which we have just discussed, and statements by the President of Iran that have included his saying at one stage that Iran would like to wipe Israel off the map, create a focus of attention on Iran’s nuclear plans to an even greater degree than on those of any other country.

The Foreign Secretary referred to our oldest D-class frigate, which was in the flotilla that just went through the strait of Hormuz and displaces less than 5,000 tonnes, but without aircraft carrier power Britain can have no maritime power projection. I wish our Foreign Secretary well, and I do not want him to go into the conference chamber naked, so will he talk to Brazil, Argentina and Thailand, which have had the good sense to keep their aircraft carriers, and see whether we can borrow or sub-let one while the crisis unfolds?

Our frigate sailed through the strait of Hormuz in the company of the USS Abraham Lincoln, one of the most powerful aircraft carriers on earth.

Given that Iran is a state in transition, with multiple centres of authority, I suggest to the Foreign Secretary that the west’s policy of sabre rattling and sanctions has not only been unsuccessful, but serves to reinforce the hardliners in the country at the expense of ordinary Iranians. Has the time not come for a fundamental reappraisal of our relationship with Iran, similar to what President Nixon did with China when he recognised that country’s new status in the 1960s?

If there were a reasonable hope of any such policy succeeding, of course there would be a case for it. In the Foreign Office, I regularly review our overall policy and the alternatives to it. However, at every stage, I and my colleagues on the National Security Council reached the view that this is the right policy—as have the Governments, as my hon. Friend can gather from what I am saying, of the entire western world. We have come to that conclusion because Iran has resisted or rebuffed efforts to create a better relationship. We offered substantive and serious help with the development of civil nuclear power in Iran, provided there was no nuclear weapons programme. I often point out that one of my predecessors, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), made heroic efforts to improve relations with Iran on several visits there, and attempted the rapprochement for which my hon. Friend calls. None of that has worked, despite the best efforts of all involved. The policy choices are whether to do what I have set out to increase the peaceful pressure on Iran, to leave a situation in which military conflict is more likely, or to do nothing. The latter two options are not very attractive.

What steps are being taken to prevent third countries from trading on behalf of Iran, thereby circumventing sanctions?

As the hon. Lady can gather, many nations are joining in the measures and similar measures. Of course, we will talk to other nations around the world about their own policies. For instance, we have discussions with the Gulf states, which are also deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme. It is also worth pointing out that the United States Congress has adopted sanctions with extra-territorial effect. They have a major effect on transactions from the financial institutions of other nations and trading in oil by other nations.

Although we all want diplomacy to work, the nuclear clock is ticking, and if sanctions do not work will the Foreign Secretary put it on the record that all options remain open to stop Iran becoming a nuclear-weaponised state?

Yes, I repeat what I and previous Governments have said: all options remain on the table. However, I also stress that the policy is important and that we are pursuing it because we do not want Iran to be armed with nuclear weapons and nuclear proliferation in the middle east, but we also do not want military conflict over that or any other issue in that region. We are pursuing that policy, but of course all options remain on the table for the future.

It seems likely that ordinary Iranian citizens will suffer from the sanctions, but far less clear that the regime itself will suffer. Indeed, some analysis suggests that sanctions will strengthen the regime. What assessment has been done of the impact of sanctions on ordinary Iranian people? What efforts have been made to ascertain their views?

We are not in a position to conduct a referendum in Iran on the measures. I wish that there could be an open consultation with the people of Iran, or even that the Iranian Government would consult them on domestic issues. As I said earlier, free expression of opinion is not easily permitted in that country. Clearly, it is not possible to consult the Iranian people.

For a long time, the measures that we imposed were directed at the financing of the nuclear programme and the finances of the Iranian state. Of course, the measures that we are discussing are unprecedented and wide ranging, and can have a wider effect. However, I would argue that that is better than the alternatives of doing nothing or making a military conflict more likely. I think that they greatly concern the Iranian regime, and that is why we hear statements such as that from Vice-President Rahimi on 27 December, and why we have seen any flexibility about negotiations from Iran in the past 12 months only on each occasion when we are on the point of imposing additional sanctions. We have been through that several times and learned not to be deterred from imposing additional sanctions. The Iranian Government will now have to try to deal with the situation.

I welcome the European Council’s robust stance, and the confirmation by the Council and the Foreign Secretary of the peaceful objectives of the process—the resumption of talks about the nuclear programme—but what active steps are the British Government or the European Union taking to facilitate the start of the talks and the de-escalation of this dangerous crisis?

We are taking very active steps to facilitate that. Baroness Ashton wrote, I believe, from memory, in October—three months ago—to the Iranian negotiator Mr Jalili setting out the terms of a new round of negotiations and inviting Iran to them. The EU has not received a formal reply. The opportunity has been clearly set out on behalf of the E3 plus 3 and it will remain.

Will the Foreign Secretary give an assurance that he will report to the House before there is any escalation of the conflict—armed or otherwise—with Iran, especially in the strait?

Yes. I stress that the Government are not seeking an escalation of any conflict—we are seeking a resolution—but I will of course come back to the House as necessary.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that more aircraft carrier capacity is not a huge priority in an area with plenty of available land bases? Much more important is the potential threat of terrorists sowing mines along the shallow waters of the western Gulf using fishing vessels, for which Britain’s naval contribution of mine-clearing vessels is pre-eminently central.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, our principal military contribution in the Gulf is the minehunters based in Bahrain. They are enormously respected in the region and are extremely expert in what they do. They are a very important part of our presence there.

There have been reports and allegations that covert military operations have already taken place in Iran, with bombings and assassinations. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the UK Government and the UK are not involved in the operations and that they do not support such intervention by foreign forces?

We are not involved in, and we do not support, assassinations. Beyond that I do not comment on intelligence matters.

As Iran begins to feel the squeeze, it may not be capable of closing the strait of Hormuz, but it is very good at using proxies to destabilise its neighbours—the fragile democracy in Baghdad and the Kurdish region. What steps are we taking to support those institutions and those parties that are working to bolster rather than break up that democracy?

We very much support democracy in Iraq. It is certainly right that Iran can often be a malign influence there. We also want stability in Lebanon and a resolution to the appalling situation in Syria. In all those situations, Iran has become a malign influence. Our direct leverage to alter events in Iraq is very limited now, but we will use our influence and our strong diplomatic presence to bolster democracy there.

Given the increased pressure from sanctions and the increased military presence in the strait of Hormuz and the region, has the Foreign Secretary held discussions with the Secretary of State for Defence to satisfy himself that the chiefs of staff and any commanders in charge of our assets in the region are clear on the rules of engagement? I am thinking in particular of the Cornwall incident. What would happen should the Iranians try something like that or worse again?

I believe that all of our vessels in the region are very clear about the rules of engagement and where they should or should not go. Such matters are clearly set out and agreed within government between the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office, so I do not think that there is any lack of clarity for anyone involved.

I understand and fully support the economic sanctions that the EU is taking. Can the Foreign Secretary reveal whether anything else can be done directly and specifically to thwart Iran’s nuclear capability and the industry that surrounds it?

I am reporting to the House on the European Union sanctions. As my hon. Friend will gather, I am not advocating military action, and if he is asking about other areas of activity, I cannot go into them in the House.

The Government have rightly gained credit for the support that they have shown opposition movements elsewhere during the Arab spring. Why do they set their face so implacably against opposition movements when it comes to Iran?

I am not aware that that is our approach. Indeed, I deplored earlier the house arrest and imprisonment of opposition leaders in Iran, and the brutal and repressive treatment of opposition spokesmen and demonstrations. At the same time, the future of Iran is for the Iranian people—at least, we hope so. It is very important that opposition movements with which anyone in this country associates themselves are credible and likely to represent the Iranian people.

What assessment has the Foreign Office made of the time frame within which Iran could develop a credible nuclear capability if it is allowed to continue down that path unchecked?

My hon. Friend will see many estimates and much speculation, and it is best to take all of them with a pinch of salt. Iran is currently enriching uranium to 20%, which is not sufficiently high grade for a nuclear weapon but creates a larger amount of uranium that, at a later stage, could be enriched quite rapidly to 90% and more, which is a faster process. There are many different estimates of how long that could take, depending on the quantity involved and the number of centrifuges available. He will see estimates of numbers of months rather than years for how long it would take go beyond the 20% level to the higher enriched level. What we do know is that this has become a sufficiently urgent problem that we have to address, with the international community showing unity and resolve, and that is what we are doing with these measures.

I am sure Members on both sides of the House understand the need for a longer lead-in time so that our European neighbours can seek alternative sources of energy, but if they were able to do so quicker than anticipated would the sanctions be brought forward?

I do not anticipate the sanctions being brought forward. This is the result of a long and complex negotiation over the last few weeks. But I do anticipate that purchasers of Iranian oil in the European Union will decline steadily. It is not a continuous amount and then a cliff-edge effect. The effect of the phasing and the coming into force on 1 July is that remaining purchases will be declining long before then.

Is not the Iranian regime hellbent on developing a nuclear weapon? Nothing will stop it short of a breakdown in the developmental process or the overthrow of the regime either from inside Iran or by military action. If sanctions do not work, would not the response of the Iranian regime be to redouble its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon before effective sanctions bite?

In many ways that is the case for wide-ranging sanctions policies that address the oil industry and the financial sector. If they are worth doing at all, given the gravity of the situation, sanctions are worth doing seriously. That was my argument at the Foreign Affairs Council yesterday. My hon. Friend is right that at the moment the Iranian leaders are clearly determined on the development of nuclear weapons capability. However, I do not think that one can speculate with certainty about what may happen over the coming year—about the effect of sanctions or any flexibility that may be shown in negotiations—so I am not prepared to say that there is no possibility of such a policy working and that one must therefore reach for other solutions. We want sanctions, coupled with negotiations, to work, and this is not the time to speculate about what might happen if they do not.

The Minister will be aware of the close relations—or perceived close relations—between Iran and Syria. Will he ensure that the sanctions bite, or will he have to consider widening them, perhaps against other countries and even the sanction breakers?

We have already imposed an oil embargo on Syria and a wide range of other measures. Indeed, we widened the sanctions on Syria yesterday to include a further 22 individuals and eight entities. I think that we will be able to make the sanctions regime effective and that it will be well adhered to by members of the European Union and the other countries that are committing themselves to it. We will therefore concentrate on making the sanctions regime work, rather than imposing additional sanctions on people who might not support it.

Will the Foreign Secretary assert that Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon will be a red line issue for the United Kingdom?

My hon. Friend can gather that it is indeed a red line issue; that is why we are addressing it in this way. The Prime Minister, along with other European leaders—Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy—has said that we will not permit the development of a nuclear capability by Iran. That is why we are adopting this policy.

To counter the threat from Iran, what steps are we taking to strengthen our strategic relationship with key regional powers such as Saudi Arabia? By way of a declaration, let me say that I am vice-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Saudi Arabia.

We have strong relations with the Gulf states, many of which we have intensified over the past year, particularly our relationship with the United Arab Emirates, although we enjoy excellent relations with all those states. My hon. Friend will know about our long and historic relationship with Oman, and about the many difficulties faced in Bahrain, including by the people of Bahrain over the past year. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister visited Saudi Arabia earlier this month. Saudi Arabia is an important ally and an important force for stability and peace in the region, so I salute my hon. Friend’s work with the all-party group.

What efforts have the UK Government and our allies made to communicate directly with the people of Iran? It is important that we demonstrate that our argument is not with them, but with the despotic leadership of that country.

This is very important. Ten days ago I did an interview on BBC Persia to communicate directly with the people of Iran and make clear our arguments, and we have done that on many other occasions. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has done the same on previous occasions, and we will keep up our efforts to communicate with the people of Iran. Needless to say, however, the Iranian authorities often attempt to block our attempts to do so.