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Iran and Syria

Volume 570: debated on Monday 11 November 2013

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on developments in the Iran nuclear negotiations, and on our work to bring together a peace conference on Syria.

I returned yesterday from E3 plus 3 negotiations with Iran in Geneva. This was the third round of talks in the last month, and it began last Thursday at official level. On Friday and Saturday, E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers joined the Iranian Foreign Minister at the negotiations.

The threat of nuclear proliferation in the middle east is one of the greatest dangers to the peace and security of the world. That is why we must build momentum behind the Geneva negotiations, and why we and Iran must ensure that the opportunity of making progress does not slip away in the coming weeks.

We had two days of intensive negotiations with Iran, which finished in the early hours of yesterday morning. These were complex and detailed discussions, covering every aspect of Iran's nuclear programme. Our aim is to produce an interim first step agreement with Iran that can then create the confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement. The talks broke up without our reaching that interim agreement, because some gaps between the parties remain. While I cannot go into the details of the discussions while the talks continue, I can say that most of those gaps are now narrow, and many others were bridged altogether during the negotiations. As we concluded the negotiations on Saturday night, all six E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers presented the same united position to Iran, which provides an extremely strong foundation for the next round of talks on 20 November.

I pay tribute to Baroness Ashton and my Foreign Minister colleagues, including Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. He is a tough but constructive negotiator, who displayed a sincere and open approach throughout the talks. He and I took the opportunity to discuss further the bilateral relationship between Britain and Iran, and today both our Governments have formally appointed our new chargé d'affaires. I expect the new UK chargé to make his first visit to Iran this month.

The Government are firmly in favour of reaching an interim agreement with Iran, as an essential step towards a comprehensive settlement. But given the extensive nature of Iran’s programme and the history of its concealment, the detailed terms of any agreement matter greatly. An agreement has to be clear and detailed, cover all aspects of Iran’s programme, and give assurance to the whole world that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran is fully addressed. Such a deal is on the table, and there is no doubt in my mind that it can be reached. I am convinced that the agreement we were discussing would be good for the security of the entire world, and we will pursue it with energy and persistence.

An interim agreement would involve offering Iran limited, proportionate sanctions relief. In the meantime, however, we will be vigilant and firm in upholding the international sanctions which have played an indispensable part in creating this new opening with Iran. Sanctions are costing the Iranian economy at least $4 billion a month and this cost will be maintained until we reach an agreement. Until such a moment, there is no question of our relaxing the pressure of sanctions in any way. We are determined to take every opportunity to reach a diplomatic settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis, because the alternatives—nuclear proliferation or conflict—could be disastrous for the peace and security of the world, including the stability of the middle east.

That stability is being severely undermined by the deepening crisis in Syria. Our objectives there remain to reach a political settlement to the conflict, thereby also protecting UK national security, to alleviate the desperate humanitarian suffering, and to prevent the further use of chemical weapons. On 22 October I hosted a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the 11 countries of the core group of the Friends of Syria, as well as the president and senior leadership of the Syrian National Coalition. We gave our united support to the UN-led Geneva II process, which should establish a transitional governing body with full Executive powers, formed by mutual consent. There was unanimous agreement that Assad and his close associates can play no role in a body formed by mutual consent. We also agreed to provide the National Coalition with additional political and practical support to give the Geneva conference the best chance of success, and urged the Coalition to commit itself to taking part in it. It has now done that, which I strongly welcome. Last night, its members agreed by consensus at a general assembly to attend the Geneva II talks, on the basis that this meant that Assad and those with blood on their hands would have no role in a transition. They also rightly called for humanitarian access and the release of detainees ahead of Geneva II. We continue to push for a date for a peace conference to be agreed, and UN and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has reiterated that he is still trying to convene a conference before the end of the year.

In the light of this decision by the Coalition, we will provide practical and political support to help it prepare to lead the opposition delegation. I will shortly lay before Parliament a proposal to increase our non-lethal support to the supreme military council of General Idris. This life-saving equipment will take the form of communications, medical and logistics equipment. There can be no peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria without a strong role for the legitimate, moderate opposition. I also welcome the vote last night by the National Coalition to confirm the inclusion of the Kurdish National Council in its ranks, which adds further to its broad representation of Syrian people.

We are also particularly determined to ensure that the peace talks include a direct role for women’s groups, in accordance with Security Council decisions on women, peace and security. It is vital that women participate fully in the future Government and institutions of Syria, as they have an indispensable role to play in rebuilding and reconciling Syrian society. We are ready to work with Mr Brahimi, his team, international NGOs and other countries to make this a reality. We will also work with the UN and its agencies to ensure that we give the women’s groups the support they need to participate effectively. In addition, we are encouraging the Syrian National Coalition to include women members in its delegation.

So far we have committed over £20 million to support opposition groups, civil society, human rights defenders and media activists in Syria. This ranges from training and equipping search and rescue teams to providing up to £1 million to help survivors of sexual violence gain access to justice, and we will develop this assistance further.

The humanitarian situation in Syria is one of unimaginable distress and suffering. Well over 100,000 people have died, and 11.5 million people—more than half of Syria’s population—are now in desperate need of assistance, either inside the country or as refugees in the region. The UN estimates that 2.5 million people are trapped in areas in Syria that aid is not reaching, including an estimated half a million men, women and children living under siege conditions. Severe acute malnutrition is emerging among children, and polio has reappeared, 14 years after the country was certified free of the disease.

Appalling human rights violations are being committed, including the use of incendiary bombs against civilians, torture, rape, massacres and summary executions, and attacks on hospitals, schools and aid convoys. The regime has shown that it can facilitate access to chemical weapons inspectors when it wishes, and it could do so for humanitarian relief if it showed a shred of humanity and wished to do so. We need to address this crisis to save lives, and also to improve the prospects for the Geneva talks. On 2 October, we helped to secure a UN Security Council presidential statement which said that humanitarian aid must be able to reach all Syrians. That statement is clearly not being implemented. I spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov urging his Government to try to persuade the regime to stop blocking the delivery of aid, and we would like to see stronger action in the UN Security Council, including a resolution, if necessary.

In the Security Council, and through all other avenues available to us, we will press for: full humanitarian access and freedom of movement for trapped civilians; the evacuation of civilians from besieged areas; safe passage for medical personnel and convoys; the creation of hubs for the delivery of aid; cross-border assistance; and the lifting of bureaucratic burdens imposed by the regime. We will also work with the Coalition to improve access to aid in areas under its control. The UK is contributing £500 million to relief efforts, much of it to assist neighbouring countries, and the international community has provided $3 billion in funding for this year. But the fact that the existing UN appeal for this year is still nearly $2 billion short underlines just how extreme the humanitarian crisis is, and we call on all countries to do more.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons production, mixing and filling equipment is now complete. But some warheads and all of the bulk chemical agents and precursors remain, and must be eliminated. The UK has provided £2.4 million of support to this process, and we will continue to support the mission until Syria’s chemical weapons capability is eradicated.

Diplomatic progress on all of these issues often seems intractable and difficult, but it is vital that diplomacy succeeds, and we will persist undeterred by the frustrations and delays. At the same time, we will strongly support the middle east peace process, which remains central to international peace and security. We do not underestimate the challenges, but firmly believe that if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas show further bold leadership, a negotiated two-state solution is possible. We are working with European partners to provide practical support to both sides, including bilateral assistance to the institutions of a future Palestinian state.

We are likely to face a long period of turbulence in many areas of the middle east in the coming years, and if we do not succeed in diplomatic solutions in these three crucial conflicts and potential conflicts, the outlook would be dark indeed, for the region and for the peace and security of the world. In the coming weeks, we will maintain every possible effort to succeed.

May I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it this afternoon? On Iran, may I echo the tribute he paid generously to the efforts of Baroness Ashton, who played a crucial role in driving forward these latest talks, and pay tribute to the clear commitment shown by all the P5 plus 1 Ministers in attendance at Geneva? I admit that I was somewhat perplexed to see the Foreign Secretary here at 9.30 am on Friday, but he was right then to make the journey to Geneva.

Labour remains of the view that a nuclear-armed Iran poses a real threat, not just to Israel, but to regional and international security. Therefore, we believe that the United Kingdom Government should continue to pursue the twin-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy. President Rouhani campaigned, and was subsequently elected in June, on a platform of taking the necessary steps to ease the pressure of the sanctions that are currently putting the Iranian economy under strain, so I do believe that sanctions have been effective and continue to be important. However, alongside continued sanctions sustained diplomatic engagement remains key, so I welcome the news of the Government’s announcement that a chargé d’affaires has now been appointed and hope that the British embassy in Tehran will be reopened as soon as it is safe and practical to do so.

The Foreign Secretary said that he cannot go into the details of the negotiations while talks are ongoing, so today I will focus my questions on the outcome of the talks rather than the substance of the deal under discussion. Reports emerging over the weekend described a French veto that prevented any deal from being signed, yet Secretary Kerry was quoted this morning as saying:

“The French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal…Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment; they weren’t able to accept.”

In the light of the somewhat conflicting reports, will the Foreign Secretary set out whether there was unity among the P5 plus 1 and say a little more about the basis on which he has just told the House that such a deal is on the table and that there is no doubt that it can be reached?

It is inevitable and, indeed, understandable that as the outline of such a deal begins to emerge it will increasingly be called into question by those parties that have so much at stake. In the light of that reaction, will the Foreign Secretary set out what assurances have been offered to regional partners, particularly Israel, who are concerned that the principle of an interim deal will, by definition, not provide sufficient guarantees that Iran will cease all activity that could contribute to it developing a nuclear weapons capacity?

Let me turn to the issue of Syria. The humanitarian situation in Syria remains desperate and continues to deteriorate. Clearly, the most effective way to ease the suffering in Syria is to end the war, but while efforts to broker a peace deal continue it is vital that the international community lives up to its responsibility to protect those most in need. I welcome the important work that the UK Government have been doing, but despite the UK’s contribution, the UN appeal is still less than half-funded. Will the Foreign Secretary therefore set out what steps the Government will be taking to try to help ensure that other donors deliver on their unfulfilled pledges?

Since the last time the Foreign Secretary addressed the House on the issue, the OPCW has confirmed that Syria’s declared equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has now been destroyed. Syria now has until mid-2014 to destroy the remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. Given that the OPCW team confirmed that it was not able to visit two of the 23 chemical weapons sites in Syria, as they were simply too dangerous, will the Foreign Secretary say what assurances are being sought for the protection of OPCW personnel who are due to carry out further work in conflict zones across the country?

The biggest breakthrough that is needed to most improve the situation on the ground is a diplomatic initiative. As the Foreign Secretary stated, women will have a key role to play in peace talks and in rebuilding and reconciling Syrian society as the conflict concludes. It is welcome that the SNC has today voted to accept the invitation to attend Geneva II as the representative of the Syrian opposition, but that acceptance is, as the Foreign Secretary has just told us, conditional on Assad and those with blood on their hands having no role in a transition and on the provision of humanitarian access and the release of detainees ahead of the conference being convened. In the light of those specific conditions, will the Foreign Secretary set out his assessment of the likelihood of those conditions being met according to the timetable of the year’s end set out by Lakhdar Brahimi?

In the light of his most recent discussions with representatives of the Iranian regime, will the Foreign Secretary also tell us the British Government’s policy on Iran’s participation in any Geneva II conference before the end of the year? Geneva II still offers the best prospect for securing a more stable future for the people of Syria, so the Government will have the Opposition’s support in their efforts to try to bring about this long-delayed but much-needed conference.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s overall support for our twin-track approach on Iran and our efforts to ensure diplomatic success in bringing together a peace conference on Syria.

The right hon. Gentleman asks about the Iranian nuclear negotiations. It is not right to speak of any veto on the negotiations by any of the E3 plus 3, or P5 plus 1, countries. The position put to Iran by all of us together in the final hours of the discussions on Friday and Saturday had been amended in the light of comments from various of the parties concerned, but it is entirely permissible for members of the E3 plus 3 to put forward their own comments, amendments and positions. There are six sovereign nations involved—as well as the Iranians, who will put forward their positions, of course. A completely united position was put to the Iranians at the close of our discussions, so reports of vetoes by one country, or of obstruction by any country, should be seen in that light. We were all arguing for the same position and the same deal.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what assurances we had given to other countries, and referred to Israel’s concerns about the concept of making an interim deal, rather than going straight to a comprehensive final settlement. We have discussed that. During the talks, I spoke to the Israeli Minister responsible for international relations and security, Mr Yuval Steinitz, and this weekend, the Prime Minister spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu, to give them our assurances and state our confidence in this kind of agreement.

It has to be faced that attempts to go straight to a comprehensive final settlement would be dramatically more difficult than even this process, and it is quite evident from events over the weekend that this process is difficult enough. An interim agreement would be designed to give us the time and space to negotiate a comprehensive final agreement—time during which Iran would take concrete actions in relation to its nuclear programme, in order to give greater assurance and confidence to the international community, and we would offer proportionate and limited sanctions relief in return, but the pressure would still be there to conclude a comprehensive final settlement. There are concerns about this, but all of us in the E3 plus 3 countries believe that this is the most effective and practical way to reach a settlement with Iran.

On the question about humanitarian relief, the UK has been very active, as the House knows, including through the meeting that the Prime Minister convened at the G20 and all our diplomatic efforts around that, in getting other nations to step up their humanitarian assistance. About $1 billion of additional assistance has, one way or another, been associated with the efforts that we have made. We will continue to make those efforts, but that appeal is $2 billion underfunded for this year, and of course we are in the middle of November and approaching the time for another UN appeal. We will strongly support the donor conference that has been called in Kuwait for the middle of January. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, who was in the Chamber a moment ago, is working very hard to help bring that together.

The chemical weapons inspectors have now, one way or another, inspected all 23 sites, but of course their security during the continuing work is important. That has to be taken into account in the decision that the OPCW executive council needs to adopt by 15 November —this Friday. The decision is still under negotiation, but it is expected to set out the detailed requirements, including intermediate milestones, for the complete elimination of chemical weapons in Syria in the first half of 2014.

On the stipulations made by the National Coalition regarding their support for the Geneva II process, I do not believe that they need to be obstacles to assembling a Geneva II peace conference. The statement—it is a view that we share—that Assad cannot be part of a transitional authority formed by mutual consent is not surprising. Any authority formed by mutual consent in Syria is unlikely to include those whom the other side regard as having very extensive blood on their hands. The calls for humanitarian assistance and humanitarian access, and for prisoners to be released, are calls that we should all be able to support in any case, so I do not think that those things should be seen as making a Geneva II conference more difficult. We now need the regime to respond in the same spirit.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the inclusion of Iran in the talks. We believe that the starting point for a Geneva II conference is the outcome of Geneva I last year, and that all parties to the talks should be able to accept that. I continue to urge Iran to adopt that position; it would make it much easier for the rest of the world to embrace it in the talks.

I welcome the statement made by my right hon. Friend in respect of both these difficult issues, but may I invite him to return to the question of refugees? Is he aware that the refugee camp on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria is now the fourth largest city in Jordan, and that there are reports that within a few months medical services in Jordan may simply collapse under the weight and impact of the refugee problem? Does my right hon. Friend understand that if irreparable damage is done to Jordan, it is in no one’s interests, particularly not the United Kingdom, because Jordan is a very important ally of ours in the middle east? Will he give the House an assurance that the particular issue of Jordan and other neighbouring countries is within the contemplation of those with whom he is discussing Syria?

Yes, absolutely. My right hon. and learned Friend is quite right. Of the assistance that we have allocated so far, £175 million has been allocated for the neighbouring countries, and the largest single slice of that goes to Jordan. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the middle east was there last week, and visited some of the affected areas. My right hon. and learned Friend is right that the refugee camp of which he speaks is now the fourth largest city in Jordan and the second largest refugee camp anywhere in the world. That is the scale of what we are dealing with. I discussed the position with His Majesty the King of Jordan two weeks ago. We regularly say to the Jordanians, “Is there anything else that we can do to assist?”, and we will continue to provide additional assistance as they need it.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that although his hard-headed but constructive response to the Iranian negotiations is the right one, if they do not succeed and the Iranians go back to Tehran without a deal, that will strengthen the Ahmadinejad-type hawks in Iran, so every opportunity must be taken to get that agreement while preserving the vital interests at stake? May I also ask about the Syrian situation? I worry about an apparent veto in advance as a precondition being struck by the opposition. Yes, they are willing to take part, but they seem to have imposed a precondition on that. Whatever the transition agreed—if there is one—I find it inconceivable that there will not be some elements of the existing regime in place, like it or not, in order to get an agreement.

On the latter point, let us remember that what is envisaged in the communiqué of Geneva I is a transitional authority formed from the opposition and the current regime, but by mutual consent, so when the right hon. Gentleman refers to elements of the regime in a transitional Government, yes, that is accepted in the transitional Government, but the composition has to be by mutual consent. As I was just saying to the shadow Foreign Secretary, I do not believe that the opposition, in setting out their view of that, are setting preconditions or an unreasonable position ahead of Geneva. It would be very, very surprising if they adopted any position different from that in the run-up to these negotiations.

On the first part of the question, I do agree broadly that there is a window of opportunity here for negotiations with Iran to succeed. That is why we are maintaining this pace of negotiations. With three meetings in the past month and another one planned for next week, we are not losing time in pursuing these negotiations.

My right hon. Friend is setting out a degree of progress with the Iranians that would have seemed very unlikely just a few short weeks ago, and we should not miss the significance of what has happened. However, he will be aware that the nuclear file is not the only issue with which the international community has problems in relation to Iran. In his bilateral conversations, did he get any inkling from the Iranians that they understood the problems caused by their sponsorship of international terrorism, their participation in Syria and their appalling human rights record? Will this be addressed as a matter of urgency by our new chargé d’affaires?

Yes, My right hon. Friend is quite right that the sort of constructive meeting that came even close to an interim agreement at the weekend would have been hard to envisage a few months ago. That represents an important diplomatic advance. It is not, of course, good enough to have nearly got there; we have to really get there, but it is a big change in the atmosphere. My right hon. Friend is also right that we have many other difficulties with Iranian policies. I referred to those in my opening meetings with Mr Zarif. Certainly, our newly appointed non-resident chargé will be approaching all these issues across the full range of our relations.

May I first thank the Foreign Secretary personally for the efforts that he has made to improve the bilateral relationship, which is crucial, both for our direct relations with Iran, but also in facilitating this kind of negotiation?

On the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain), there is a danger, which I saw myself some years ago, that negotiations quite close to a deal lose momentum, and it is not only the hard-liners in Tehran who then get in on that, but, bluntly, those in Israel and in Washington, of both parties, and I think now in France, who start to undermine the pace and substance of those negotiations. May I offer the right hon. Gentleman full support, as my right hon. Friend has done, in resisting those clarion calls, for example from some elements in Israel, and some in Washington, which will have the effect of undermining the best chance that we have had for decades to secure a proper deal with Iran?

Yes, we will remain very much committed. The right hon. Gentleman can hear from what I am saying that we are very committed to maintaining this momentum. It is a pity that we did not secure agreement on an interim agreement this weekend, because even losing 10 days implies some loss of momentum here. But as the right hon. Gentleman can gather, we will pick that up as quickly as we possibly can. We have scheduled another meeting immediately. It is important for everyone when they think about this to understand that the pressure is on all of us to reach an agreement—it is on Iran, because the sanctions are really biting and having a very serious impact on it, but it is on all of us if we want to see an agreement on this before the Iranian nuclear programme passes further very important stages in its development. We all have to bear that in mind. That means that an interim first step agreement is in the interests of the whole world.

On Iran, no deal is better than a bad deal, and I wish my right hon. Friend well in bringing the Iranians back to the negotiating table. On Syria, as we are witnessing complete deadlock, does he agree now that the danger is the break-up of the region’s national boundaries, established after the first world war, as the different entities compete for territory and resources and build alliances along ethnic and cultural grounds?

That is one of the dangers, yes. That is absolutely correct. There are many dangers here, but the conflict in Syria becoming more sectarian in its nature and then exacerbating such tensions in neighbouring countries, with a greater and greater disregard for national boundaries, is absolutely a central danger here. That is why it is so important that we give the support to neighbouring countries, including the support that we give to the Lebanese armed forces, which I have described on other occasions, and it is the urgency behind the efforts to come to a political solution to the conflict before it does even greater damage to the entire region.

The situation in Syria is indeed appalling, and everyone will endorse what the Foreign Secretary said and the need for humanitarian aid. On the talks with the Iranian Foreign Minister, is it not a fact that the Israeli Prime Minister has been very active in trying to gather opposition, including hard-line elements in the United States? Is it not essential that, despite such efforts to undermine what could be a great achievement for peace and security, the talks should succeed?

It is important that the talks should succeed. It is very important that we pursue a steady course through this to an agreement that is demanding, of course, and which gives the necessary assurances and brings about concrete actions in Iran’s nuclear programme. We should not be surprised that in different countries people have different opinions about this. That is what we have to deal with as politicians and Ministers. We have to persuade other countries as best we can. We will continue to be very active, talking to Israel and other countries with concerns, not being at all surprised that people have concerns, but putting the case for what we think is right.

Hard-liners in both Iran and the west, including Israel, will want the talks to fail. Given their historic nature, if successful they could lead to other talks on a range of issues in the middle east. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any move by Congress to increase sanctions would be counter-productive and could scupper the talks before they finish?

The US Congress will make its own decisions—it does not necessarily do the bidding of the US Administration, let alone the UK Administration, so I will not lay down what it should and should not do. It is currently debating further sanctions against Iran. I think that it is very important for the Iranian authorities to understand that there will be pressure for greater sanctions, or an intensification of sanctions, unless an agreement is reached on these matters, so they need to be fully aware of that pressure.

As we edge towards a deal, albeit an interim one, on the nuclear issue with Iran, will the Foreign Secretary underline for the House the fact that this country will in no way shrink from standing by Iran’s neighbours, and Israel, against threats and state-sponsored terrorism, either now or in future, because there are bound to be concerns about that, as the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) mentioned earlier?

Those are very serious concerns. As the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) have mentioned, it is important to keep up the momentum in addressing the nuclear programme, but that does not mean that we do not have other disagreements. The state sponsorship of terrorism and, in particular, the heavy Iranian involvement that is exacerbating the Syrian conflict and supporting a regime that is perpetrating such murder and abuse of its own people are malign activities in the wider region, but that should not deter us from trying to solve the nuclear issue.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on re-engaging with Iran, which could play an important role in bringing peace, particularly to Syria. It would be helpful if he could enlighten us on his discussions with the Iranian Foreign Minister on what critical path the Iranians see to bringing peace in Syria and, on the flip-side of that coin, what conversations he has had with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which still seem to be supplying Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, ISIL and other jihadis who are already preventing peace in the region.

On the question about Saudi Arabia and other states, those countries are part of the core Friends of Syria group and among the 11 countries that came to London at my invitation a few weeks ago. I discuss the situation regularly with His Royal Highness Prince Saud, the Saudi Foreign Minister, and we have all agreed that our support should go through the supreme military council of General Idris and the Syrian National Coalition. Those 11 countries have agreed that we should not support other groups in Syria, particularly extremist groups, so we look to our partners in the group to live up to those commitments. On the question about Iran, our discussions on Syria have been centred, as I mentioned earlier, on Iran supporting the outcome of Geneva I as the basis for a political settlement in Syria, but it has not yet given that support.

Of course it is important to prepare for peace and useful to talk about mutual agreement, but right now there is a civil war in Syria. Given that we have clearly stated that President Assad and those close to him will have no role in that future, what incentive is there for Assad not simply to fight to the bitter end?

This is not a position that we have just adopted in this country. The Geneva I communiqué of June last year sets out plans for a transitional authority formed from regime and opposition, as I pointed out earlier, and by mutual consent. It therefore does not exclude everyone in the current Syrian regime, but it would clearly be impossible—on the basis not only of Geneva I, but of any practical political consideration—to unite Syria again around an Administration centred on President Assad. After so much blood has been spilled and after a country has become so divided, it is inconceivable that that could happen. This is only the practical politics of the matter, and that is something that needs to be faced up to.

But if there is no sign that the opposition will be able to overthrow President Assad, is not what the Government are doing and proposing rather unrealistic? Would it not be more practical, in terms of helping to stop the suffering, to try to negotiate a ceasefire between both sides without any preconditions?

Neither we nor other members of the Security Council would be opposed to a ceasefire, but my hon. Friend is aware of the history of these things in Syria. If it were possible to negotiate and enforce a ceasefire, it would be possible to do a great many other things as well. We are not even able to secure humanitarian access to areas at the moment, let alone negotiate an agreed ceasefire, so I do not think it is unrealistic to try to assemble a peace conference, based on a communiqué that all the permanent members of the Security Council and many of the regional countries were prepared to support last year, and to get a process going on that basis, which of course could include ceasefires, if we could only sit down and start deliberating on these things together.

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that there will be a warm welcome for his statement, particularly on Iran, and great support for his robust and positive attitude towards the negotiations? He paid a warm tribute to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javid Zarif, and he will recall that a similar opportunity arose back in 2005—my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the then Foreign Secretary, will recall this very clearly—but it was torpedoed by elements on our side, particularly in America. We know there are difficulties, but clearly it is important that Zarif is given the chance to succeed. Given that he is obviously a man we can do business with, we wish him well in concluding that business.

Absolutely. He is a tough negotiator. I do not want anybody to think anything other than that, because he represents his country very ably and very frankly. He does not hold back from telling us when there is a serious problem. Those are all hallmarks that one would expect from a good negotiator. Yes, we will continue to work closely with him, knowing that he has to keep, or win, the full confidence of the Iranian system, just as we have to maintain confidence in western and Arab nations and in Israel that we are doing the right thing.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s policy of vigilance towards Iran. May I suggest that it is extremely desirable that any eventual agreement with Iran leaves it standing nowhere near the threshold of becoming a nuclear armed power, because that would be very bad news for the region and for this country and the rest of the world?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend is totally right about that. Of course, the purpose of our negotiations is to ensure that concrete actions are taken, even as part of an interim step, to give necessary assurances to the international community and to then allow us to negotiate a comprehensive settlement of this issue. That, of course, means dealing with all the concerns about what the International Atomic Energy Agency calls the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that his strategy and that of the other allies around the table is for a nuclear weapon-free middle east? Is it not odd that in a very long statement he did not mention that Israel actually possesses nuclear weapons and a delivery system? Does he envisage a conference on a nuclear weapon-free middle east that will include, obviously, Iran and other countries, but in particular Israel? Otherwise, it would simply make no sense at all.

I do envisage such a conference taking place. I did not mention that in my statement because there were many new things to report, but we have often discussed it in the House. We argued that there should be such a conference during the non-proliferation treaty review in 2010. There has been a small amount of progress in preparing the way for that in the past couple of weeks. I hope that we will have more to say about it in the next month or so.

I commend my right hon. Friend’s position on Iran and wish him well on that. I also congratulate him on the work in Lebanon and Jordan. What discussions has he had with Foreign Minister Lavrov about the peace process? Where do the Russians stand on the pre-conditions that we have set out for the ultimate goal of that process?

I have had many discussions with Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Foreign Ministers of all five permanent members of the Security Council, including Russia, agreed in New York at the end of September to use our best efforts to bring a Geneva II peace conference together. As the House has heard, we are working hard on our side of that agreement to bring the opposition, the national coalition, to Geneva. We look to Russia to use its influence to bring the Assad regime there on the same basis, which is to work from the Geneva I communiqué. That involves a transitional authority formed by mutual consent.

Last year, there were 200,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq; there are now more than 2 million. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had with the Arab League on the growing crisis?

That is very much something that we discuss with the Arab League and its individual members. When we are looking for greater contributions to humanitarian support, it comes bilaterally from the individual Arab nations. Many of them are substantial contributors to humanitarian assistance, although not always through UN channels. We will encourage them to do more. The fact that Kuwait is holding the next donor conference in the middle of January is a strong signal of the commitment of Gulf states to assist. Of course, we will encourage that hard over the coming weeks.

May I commend the Foreign Secretary for his efforts to normalise relations with Iran? How much support does he think there is for the Syrian National Council among the Shi’a, Christian and Alawite minorities? Does he agree that, without their support, no future Government will be stable?

The Syrian National Coalition represents many groups, communities and political persuasions. For instance, I mentioned in my statement that the Kurdish National Council will become part of the national coalition. The coalition has Christian representatives, not only among its membership, but among the leaders of the national council, which is a component of the national coalition. It has to be said that most Alawite support in Syria sticks with the Assad regime. However, I believe that it is important for Alawites to see that a political solution, along the lines of a transitional Government, is necessary for progress to be made.

It has been announced in Tehran and confirmed in Vienna that a framework agreement has been reached between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran on recent nuclear activities. Will the Foreign Secretary give some background on that agreement and confirm that it is a good sign that diplomatic progress can and will be made?

Absolutely. That happened just this afternoon, after my statement went to press, to be printed for the House. The International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran have agreed this afternoon

“to strengthen their cooperation and dialogue aimed at ensuring the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme”.

We welcome that agreement. It is another positive sign, provided that the verification activities that have been agreed allow us to resolve all the past and present issues that have been raised by the IAEA. It is important that Iran addresses the substance of the agency’s concerns over what it calls the

“possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme”.

Twenty-one years ago, I was ordered to take a British force under United Nations command into the Balkans. There was no ceasefire; we acted under a United Nations mandate. Is there no possibility that the Security Council might pass a mandate suggesting a humanitarian mission into Syria, even though the present Government do not agree to that? That would definitely encourage the present Assad Government to approve it.

Realistically, there is unfortunately no prospect of the Security Council agreeing a mandate for any military mission into Syria, as that would undoubtedly be resisted and blocked by Russia and China. I hope that, if this situation continues, they will at least agree to a resolution in the Security Council, requiring the Assad regime to comply with presidential statements issued by the Security Council and therefore greatly increasing legal and diplomatic pressure on the Assad regime. I think that is the next step that will become necessary on current trends.

Further to the Foreign Secretary’s earlier exchange with the right hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) about state-sponsored terrorism, will he perhaps go a little further and agree that it is both unacceptable and counter-productive for the Iranians still to sponsor Hezbollah?

Yes, I do agree with that. Close Iranian links with Hezbollah are one of the reasons Iran sends such active and enormous assistance to the Assad regime, because that is the physical connection with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Such support does not contribute—far from it—to international peace and security. I hope that in due course we will address all those issues together, but the right hon. Gentleman will understand that we must first take on the nuclear programme.

Despite last month’s UN Security Council presidential statement, the Assad Government are still blocking aid to Syria. During the Foreign Secretary’s discussions last week with the Russian Foreign Minister, did the Russian Government make any firm commitment to put pressure on the Assad Government to allow humanitarian relief into Syria?

Russia has not made new commitments to secure such humanitarian aid. Russia is in favour of the presidential statement agreed at the Security Council; we could not have passed it as a presidential statement had it not been. Russia agrees in principle and is signed up to what we are all saying to the Assad regime and opposition groups in Syria, which is to permit humanitarian aid to go to badly affected areas. We would like to see Russia put the Assad regime under greater pressure. I hope that will happen, but so far I have not received a commitment that it will do so.

I, along with others, welcome the approach taken by the Foreign Secretary. On humanitarian aid, I understand that £90 million of Syrian assets are in banks in London. Other EU countries have used such assets in their countries to pay for humanitarian aid. Will the Foreign Secretary speak to the Chancellor to see whether we can also access that money to supply more humanitarian aid to the people of Syria?

We are looking at that and at related issues. We are making a huge contribution to humanitarian aid, but our biggest difficulty is getting the aid through, even if it can be financed. On the matter raised by the right hon. Gentleman, there can be considerable legal difficulties, as well as the additional difficulty of ensuring that, if aid is passed to various groups, it really goes for humanitarian purposes. We are looking at such issues, however, and I will undertake to update him about them.

The Foreign Secretary will be aware of national coalition statements that President Assad can have no role to play in the transition. The Foreign Secretary will also have seen a recent statement from the regime, which says that it will attend the conference “in principle” but will not negotiate with “terrorists”, referring to the opposition. The regime also says that any political solution will not involve Mr Assad’s departure. In the light of those comments, how optimistic is the Foreign Secretary about the success of Geneva II? Finally, he says that the six countries in Geneva had different opinions on Iran. Out of those six countries, which one had the greatest reservations about Iran’s concessions?

To be clear on the six countries, I have said that they presented the same united position to Iran. I pointed out that they are entitled to put forward their views and amendments and so on, but the end product was that all six countries put the same united position to Iran. It is important that the House bears that in mind.

My hon. Friend’s points on a Geneva II conference on Syria illustrate the formidable difficulty of bringing such a conference together. That difficulty is widely acknowledged. It would be unrealistic to expect that the parties to the conflict will arrive at Geneva II stating similar positions. The regime will of course say that approaching negotiations does not imply that President Assad will go, and the opposition, when their people are suffering so much at the hands of Assad, will of course say that, in a transition by mutual consent, he will have to go. It would be absolutely astonishing if either said anything different from that.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers on getting Iran to the negotiating table and on getting as far as they have, but would it not have been better to get the E3 plus 3 together before meeting the Iranians to get a united position, rather than letting the Iranians negotiate differences between the six countries and ending up with the failure in discussions that we currently face?

The E3 plus 3 meets regularly. The round of negotiations that we have just had is the third one in the past month. We also met as Ministers in New York. When there are new developments in proposals on the table, they must be discussed. As I have said, the E3 plus 3 is six sovereign nations, so of course there must be such discussions, but the end product of this weekend’s negotiations was that all six nations put the identical deal to Iran. When one considers that that includes Russia, China, America and the three European countries—we have put forward an identical position—one concludes that it is a remarkable degree of international unity. We should see it that way around.

I strongly welcome the Foreign Secretary’s report that the Syrian national coalition will participate in the Geneva talks and that it will reach out to national minorities. That is important. Will he expand on what more we can do to support, both inside and outside the negotiating chamber, the moderate Syrian opposition, who are opponents both of the murderous Assad regime and of al-Qaeda and its local allies?

We can do more to support the moderate opposition. I mentioned in my statement the £20 million-worth of support we have committed to them and civil society groups so far. I have also mentioned that I will be laying before Parliament a proposal to give additional assistance, particularly life-saving equipment, including communications equipment, which will help them. We will also help them practically and politically to prepare for Geneva II in terms of their ability to administer such a process and organise themselves for a very large and complex international conference. We will provide the expertise that helps them to do that as well as the practical, material support that we are already giving them.

May I pursue that point? The Secretary of State said that he intends shortly to lay before Parliament a proposal to increase non-lethal support. What is the timetable and will Parliament be expected to vote on it?

It will happen soon. I cannot be specific on the day, but we are working on the details. When I say “lay before Parliament,” I mean notifying the relevant parliamentary Committees of the assistance that we will provide. That is our normal procedure, and the Committees will have a number of days to consider the proposals before such assistance can be provided. We will be doing that in the normal way, the way that we have done it for previous blocks of support to the opposition.

I welcome progress on negotiations with the Iranians, but does the Foreign Secretary agree that it would be wrong for us to proceed towards an agreement with Iran without taking into account the legitimate concerns of our allies in the middle east, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, about Iran’s regional ambitions and hegemony?

We must take into account the concerns of other nations. That does not mean that we will always agree, but we must take them into account. We must be able to assure them that any deal is worth while and will achieve its objectives—we have to be confident of that. Any deal has to be detailed and extensive and has to cover all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, so that such concerns can be satisfied.

The Foreign Secretary tells the House that it is unrealistic to believe that we can convene a Geneva II conference on Syria on any basis other than the Geneva I communiqué, yet many hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that it is even more unrealistic to try to base it on that wording for the reasons that we have discussed this afternoon. The situation in Syria is getting worse and the polarisation of both sides is intensifying. Is it therefore not incumbent on the British Government and the international community to do everything that they can to bring the parties together for a peace conference?

That is incumbent on us and the rest of the Security Council, and I hope the hon. Gentleman has gathered from my remarks that we are doing that. That was the purpose of assembling the Friends of Syria group here and of all our work in recent weeks with the Syrian National Coalition. However, when he questions whether the basis of Geneva II should be the Geneva I communiqué, I have to tell him that if we did not have that as our starting point we would lack any common baseline. We would be going well back in our negotiation of a peace in Syria. The communiqué was agreed by Russia, as well as by the UK and the United States. At various stages, even the Assad regime said that it supported it, although that has not always been clear. If that cannot be the basis for peace negotiations, we would struggle to assemble any alternative. It is therefore important that we try to build on the Geneva I communiqué.

Iran’s supposed rapprochement with the international community could be nothing but a ruse to give it diplomatic cover to buy more time to complete a nuclear warhead. The ultimate test of any agreement, whether an interim agreement or a complete agreement, is whether the Israelis and the Saudi Arabians believe it. If the Israelis do not, they will contemplate a military strike; and if the Saudi Arabians do not, they will buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan. What can the Foreign Secretary tell the House to give us the confidence that this is not a ruse by Iran?

We should never be surprised by scepticism about Iran’s intentions. Indeed, we should often share a good deal of that scepticism, given its past record of concealment of large aspects of its nuclear programme and its defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency and the UN Security Council. We should always have a great deal of sympathy with such scepticism, but our answer has to be that we will be able to make a deal—a first step deal—with Iran provided that there is real substance: if concrete actions are taken, those actions are visible and verified, and their absence cannot be concealed from the international community. We would then have a deal in which we could have confidence and which we could recommend to other countries, including Israel and the Gulf states.

The Foreign Secretary rightly pointed out in his statement that 500,000 people were living in siege conditions in Syria. Of course, more resources need to be mobilised, but will he say a bit more about how we can get resources to people, specifically children facing severe malnutrition?

We are working hard to get resources to them, and DFID is succeeding in getting resources and help to all 14 governorates of Syria, so aid is reaching all parts of Syria. In those siege conditions, however, aid is effectively being blocked, predominately by the Assad regime, so we need political pressure to be applied on it, including by Russia and other countries in the region. We will keep up the demand for that pressure, as well as supporting the effort to meet the needs of children that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development announced and the work of the World Health Organisation in, for instance, vaccinating against polio.

Three years ago, it was my initiative to declare for the first time the number of nuclear warheads possessed by the United Kingdom, but I am not in a position to declare the number possessed by any other country.

There is no obligation on the Foreign Secretary to have a guess, especially as the statement is about Iran and Syria, so the hon. Member for Colchester (Sir Bob Russell), even by his own standards, has been exceptionally cheeky.

The Foreign Secretary has expressed a determination to see a direct role for women’s groups in Syrian peace talks and has stated that he will work with others to support such participation if it can be realised. Is he encouraged about the prospects, and how is the Syrian National Coalition responding to his encouragement to include women in its delegation?

I am encouraged by some of the response, and I pay tribute to the work already done by the Government of the Netherlands to push this idea; we will work closely with them. I think that there is a lot of support for this at the UN, and we will be very determined about it, so yes I am encouraged by some of the initial reaction. Now that the Syrian National Coalition has made its decision in principle about attendance at the Geneva II talks, we will start going into these sorts of issues in more detail with it.

The Foreign Secretary referred in his statement to the re-emergence of polio 14 years after its eradication. This terrible and entirely preventable disease is a threat beyond international boundaries, so surely it is in Iran’s self-interest to support access for humanitarian and, crucially, medical aid across Syria. Will he reassure the House that that point will be stressed in his ongoing negotiations with Iran?

Yes, I will. That is a very good point, and we will certainly pursue it with Iran and all other neighbouring countries. A comprehensive polio response, led by the WHO, is intended to reach 22 million across seven countries in the next seven months, and a regional polio control centre is being established in Amman in Jordan, but we need all the countries in the region to contribute, including Iran, and we will pursue that point with it.