[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]
Thank you for your presence in the Chair, Mr Sheridan, and I thank Mr Speaker for granting this debate. May I say how pleased I am to see a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office here at a Defence-allocated debate? I see it as good evidence of joint working between two important Departments. I am also delighted to see so many other eminent parliamentarians in the Chamber. I welcome interventions, hostile or friendly, during my remarks.
Iran’s nuclear weapons programme poses the greatest threat to global security that we face. Surprisingly, the issue is not being taken seriously enough in Parliament, or indeed by the international community. All eyes seem to be focused on Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, when actually the greatest risk of a global conflagration comes from Iran. Iran simply cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon. There are elements within the regime who are mad and bad enough to use it, and their target could be Israel, Saudi Arabia or any number of other countries in the region or further afield. I contend that we must take the issue far more seriously, and that the longer it goes unresolved, the greater the risk that Iran will get a nuclear weapon or weapons and develop the ballistic technology to project the weapon not only in the region but further afield.
The hon. Gentleman is generous in promising to give way, although he might regret it. He and I had an interesting week in the delegation to Gaza, and he is well aware of Israel’s behaviour concerning the encirclement of Gaza and the treatment of the Palestinian people. Israel, of course, is a nuclear-armed power. Does he not think that the key to the issue in that region is for Israel to divest itself of nuclear weapons to remove the potential for a nuclear arms race in the region?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, and I enjoyed our joint visit to Gaza. He and I agree on many issues involving the Palestinian Authority and Israel. We can certainly agree that the situation must be resolved quickly and that the current US-led negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians offer perhaps the best chance of resolving those issues since the state of Israel was founded.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he not agree that Iran has shown ample evidence of its hostility towards a peaceful solution to the situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis and that Iran’s aggression is in fact directed towards the existence of Israel?
I agree with my hon. Friend that Iran has said some unfriendly and unpleasant things about the state of Israel and its right to exist, which he and I and most Members totally abhor. The question in the previous intervention was whether Israel’s possession of a nuclear weapon was not a big issue in itself. Of course it is, but the whole Israeli mindset has to do with defending Israel’s people, not projecting aggression elsewhere.
I know that the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) is looking at me quizzically because he will not agree with much of that, but the perspective of the state of Israel is that the Jewish diaspora throughout the world, but mainly in eastern and western Europe, suffered the horrors of the holocaust, and out of that was born the state of Israel. He and I and others can agree or disagree about that history, but the fact is that half the present world’s Jewish population lives in the state of Israel, and they have found nowhere safe in the world throughout the history of the Jewish people. The state of Israel now offers the best chance for Jewish people to live in peace. They have developed a nuclear weapon or weapons because they want to defend themselves. They do not want to deploy that weapon against anyone else; they just want to be left in peace.
I fully accept many of my hon. Friend’s arguments about an expansionist versus a defending nation, but within the United Nations and the global community, there are rules about the development and holding of nuclear or any other weapons. Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which imposes certain obligations that ultimately involve its being taken to the Security Council; Israel is not. Does he therefore recognise the disparity there, and will he join me in urging Israel to sign the NNPT, or at least to allow inspection of its sites?
I am keen to get the focus back on Iran. One way to do so might be to point out that if Israel were led by undemocratic, tyrannical religious fundamentalists and Iran was led by a democratically elected Parliament and Government who were constitutionally capable of being removed without strife, we might be having this debate about Israel’s nuclear weapons rather than Iran’s. The key lies in democratisation, or the lack of it, in the respective countries.
As always, my hon. Friend is on top of matters. He makes an extremely pertinent point, and he is quite right to bring us back to Iran.
Yes, this is about Iran’s nuclear weapons programme. Would we be having this debate if the state of Israel did not exist? Perhaps, but the threat of Iran deploying a nuclear weapon would not be nearly as great. The mad and bad people in Iran have said often enough how much they despise the state of Israel. There has been argument about whether they have said that Israel should be wiped off the map, but that is clearly the intention of some people in positions of authority in Iran.
Iran is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism worldwide, not just in the middle east but in Europe and further afield, and it has an appalling human rights record. It is a very unpleasant country led by a very unpleasant regime. The idea that it should have at its disposal the ability to deploy a nuclear warhead or warheads should fill the world with absolute horror. Ever since 1945, with a brief interruption for the Cuban missile crisis, the assumption has been that nuclear weapons are so horrible that they will never be used, but I think that we could envisage a situation in which Iran, if it had a nuclear warhead, might well use it. If a future regime had the ability to manufacture a warhead and the ballistic capability to deliver it on Israel, it might well decide to take the chance to wipe out 7 million Israelis.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this most timely debate. Does he agree that although we have been talking about Israel, we must underline the fears and anxieties of many of Iran’s Arab neighbours? Should we not be concerned about reports that Saudi Arabia will look elsewhere to bolster its nuclear capability, or investigate the possibility of so doing, if Iran is given what it considers to be a good deal? A good deal for Iran would, of course, be a bad deal as far as everyone else was concerned. Not only Israel and the west but Iran’s Arab neighbours are concerned about the situation.
The right hon. Gentleman knows more about religious divides than most of us in the House. In many respects, the split between Protestants and Roman Catholics is similar to that between Shi’as and Sunnis. The divides between Shi’a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia date back centuries. If Saudi Arabia feels that the wrong deal is negotiated in Geneva, there is a real chance that the Saudis will buy nuclear weapons from Pakistan, because they will want to defend themselves against the threat from Iran.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that the situation is not just about Israel versus Iran; it is about Iran versus, frankly, the rest of the world. That is yet another reason why the international community simply cannot allow Iran to have nuclear weapons, because the likelihood of its wanting to use them in future is simply too great. That comes back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis). Iran’s horrible regime is far removed from any process of democracy, and we can easily envisage circumstances in the near, medium or distant future in which someone in authority in the country might decide, “We have got a nuclear weapon. Let us use it.” That is a frightening prospect, which puts our worries about places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia into the shade. It is the big issue on which the international community must concentrate.
I am in no way an expert on nuclear technology, but I have read enough to be convinced that Iran does not want to develop nuclear technology simply to provide power for its own people. It is hellbent on developing a nuclear weapons programme. The Foreign Secretary confirmed to me on the Floor of the House that the UK Government are convinced that Iran has enriched uranium to at least 20%. That is way beyond the 3.5% needed for civilian nuclear use, which suggests that the country is trying to develop a military capability. My understanding is that uranium for use in a nuclear warhead must be enriched beyond 90%, and although the gap between 90% and 20% might seem large, in nuclear physics terms it is actually quite small. Uranium enriched to 20% is more than half way to weapons-grade uranium. One of the worries about the potential deal now supposedly being negotiated in Geneva is that Iran might be left with a stockpile of uranium enriched to 20%, which it could bank and use to develop a nuclear warhead in the future. Any interim agreement that allows the Iranians to hang on to their nuclear stockpile is not worth having.
Perhaps I am wrong, but I understood the Foreign Secretary to say in a press interview that an interim agreement was being discussed, and a long-term agreement would be considered later on. I do not understand the concern about an interim agreement. Like the hon. Gentleman, I am no expert on nuclear weapons.
There might be a problem here with my accent and that of the hon. Gentleman. I understood the Foreign Secretary to be talking about an interim agreement prior to arriving, we hope, at a full accord. The problem with an interim, short-term agreement is that, if I am right—I hope I am not—and the Iranians want to develop a nuclear warhead, such an agreement might give the Iranians time to develop enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear warhead. An interim agreement might, effectively, give the regime diplomatic cover to complete its nuclear weapons programme without the international community’s agreement.
It is not for me to defend the Foreign Secretary, but as I understand it, he was talking about weeks rather than a long-term process that might allow Iran to develop along the lines the hon. Gentleman suggests. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s fears would be realised within the short period of time the Foreign Secretary was talking about.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The prospect of the debate clearly brought Iran to the negotiating table last weekend, so I congratulate him on his international reach. Does he share my biggest concern that all the dancing around the diplomatic handbags—talks about talks, talks about resuming talks, talks about inspectors going back in and talks about what they can inspect and when they can inspect it—is a typical conjuring trick by Iran to distract the international community while it gets across the line and builds a bomb? Should not the Foreign Office be extremely cautious about any gift horses from Iran?
My hon. Friend speaks wise words, and I am not surprised because he is always on top of such important issues.
That leads me on to a point I was going to make about the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who was elected in June 2013. President Rouhani is meant to be the bee’s knees. The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), has said how much he admires him. Hassan Rouhani spent some time at Glasgow Caledonian university and knows this country well, but he is not a pleasant individual at all. It is not as though he has recently emerged with an unblemished record; he has been deeply involved in the unpleasant Iranian regime for quite some time. He was involved in the Islamic revolution when it started in 1978, and he helped Ayatollah Khomeini found the regime. Between August 2003 and October 2005, the now President Rouhani was Iran’s chief negotiator in nuclear weapons talks. In 2004, he gave a speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, in which he said:
“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there”.
Those words reinforce the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Mike Freer) that Iran may well be using the talks and the supposed rapprochement as a ruse to cover up the fact that it is quite close to developing a nuclear warhead but, critically, needs six to 12 months to finish its programme. What better way to ensure that it has the time and space to complete the manufacture of a nuclear warhead than to engage the international community in talks?
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing forward a debate of such great concern to us all. Does he see any grounds for optimism—or only danger—in an Iranian leader who is so much more able to enter into discussions than his predecessor, Ahmadinejad, who was clearly a danger to everybody; or is he just packaging and is there nothing at all in his greater willingness to talk with other leaders?
It is difficult enough to be minor politicians in this country, as we are, having to deal with different issues and factions; it must be a nightmare being a politician in an unstable and unpleasant place such as Iran. I am sure that President Rouhani has to balance all sorts of different issues and say things he does not believe to appease one faction in relation to another.
I hope that I am wrong, but I suspect that Iran is attempting to buy space to cross the nuclear finish line, so that it can have a nuclear weapon. The prestige of President Rouhani and others in the Iranian regime would then be at its peak, because Iran would be a nuclear power, able to throw its weight around in the middle east and the world as never before. If I am wrong, that is great, but if I am right, we face the prospect of Iran being a nuclear power. Once it is such a power, it will be too late for the world to do anything about it.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is unlikely that Rouhani has any serious differences with the Ahmadinejad regime? The fact that he was one of six chosen from 3,000 potential candidates by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei indicates that he is probably completely at one with them. Is it likely that somebody who wanted to execute demonstrators campaigning for freedom shares any of the values of democracy or of the west?
The hon. Gentleman speaks a great deal of sense and makes some extremely pertinent points. I hope the Foreign Office has taken note of his intervention. I suspect that, going back to the 1930s, the default position of the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence is to try to arrive at an agreement to solve our problems through international accord. Of course, all of us see a lot of sense in that, but it must be stated in this case that no deal is probably far better than a bad deal. A bad deal will not solve anything. In fact, a bad deal will allow the Iranians under their present leadership, with all the other people behind the scenes, to cross that nuclear finish line. Once Iran has a nuclear weapon, the negotiating stance of the Foreign Office and the international community will be blown out of the water. This is our best chance to stop nuclear proliferation in the middle east.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that whatever the merits of the argument about an interim deal giving Iran the time to develop nuclear weapons, the issue is about Iran being allowed to retain the capacity to do so? That is crucial, as is the easing of sanctions. Surely one of the greatest issues for the Iranian regime is the crippling effect of sanctions, and one of its main desires is to ease that situation. It is estimated—I would be grateful if he gave us more information about this—that the easing of sanctions might be worth up to $20 billion to the Iranian regime, which is a major motivating factor and a good one. Iran’s retention of the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, rather than its willingness to do so or its actually doing so, is the key issue.
The right hon. Gentleman’s powerful intervention is absolutely right. I hope the Foreign Office is better informed than I am and can give us the statistics. I am not sure, however, whether sanctions have brought the Iranians to the table; I do not know. It might well be that that is nothing to do with sanctions, but is all a ruse for Iran to buy diplomatic cover. What do I mean by that? If Iran can be seen to engage with the P5+1, it makes it much more difficult for the Israelis to take out Iran’s nuclear programme with military strikes. That is the point of the rapprochement.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that any agreement, interim or full, that allows the Iranians to retain their capability to make a weapon—perhaps not now, but in the future—would be a bad deal that was not worth having. From the perspective of Israel and Saudi Arabia, and I hope ours, any capability left in Iran that enables the regime or a future one to develop nuclear warheads should be completely unacceptable.
Iran currently has all sorts of capability. The centrifuge capability has recently been beefed up, with IR-2 centrifuges that can enrich uranium five times faster than the old ones. There is the heavy water production plant at Arak, which nuclear inspectors have never been allowed inside. There is a facility at Fordow that is underground for one reason—so that nobody can get to it. There is also the centrifuge capability at Natanz.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful case about the multiple avenues Iran has to achieving to a nuclear capability, which are in addition to the Iranian regime’s history of stalling, lies and concealment. Would he welcome a statement from the Minister that the Government and the international community will be rigorous and exacting in their approach to the regime and will leave it nowhere near the threshold of obtaining a nuclear capability?
I would welcome such a reassurance, but I am also looking forward to hearing my hon. Friend’s speech. I will soon sit down, because I have already spoken for far too long. Almost every Member present is more qualified to speak on these issues than me, and I am interested to hear what they say.
It seems to me that we face in Iran a country that wants to develop a nuclear warhead and that is mad and bad enough, either now or at some point, to have a high likelihood of deploying such a weapon. I do not believe that that is fanciful talk; I think it is a definite prospect, about which we should be very worried. In the next six months or so, we have a chance to negotiate a proper deal that will put Iran’s chances of making a nuclear weapon out of reach and give Israel, Saudi Arabia and every other country in the region the security they need, as we look forward to what I hope will prove to be a much more peaceful century around the world than the last one.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing the debate and on kindly taking so many interventions, which was very welcome.
I say at the outset that I do not want the continuation of any wars in the region of Iran. I want a process that will bring about disarmament, so I approach the debate from that standpoint. I also approach it from the standpoint of a representative of an inner-London constituency, in which many Iranian refugees live. They form almost a timeline of the political changes in Iran: there are refugees from the Shah’s period, the Islamic revolution period and all the later regimes. The human rights abuses of Persian Iranians as well as of Kurdish people and others are very real to me and to the people in my constituency. I am not unaware of Iran’s appalling human rights record and the continuing executions that go on. Any pressure brought to bear on Iran must be as much about a dialogue about human rights as anything else.
I am acutely aware of the history and deep ignorance of Iran in the rest of the world. Many think that Iran is part of the Arab world, which it clearly is not, and many are simply unaware of the sense of anger there is at how Iran has been treated by the west ever since the end of the first world war.
There has been the exploitation of Iranian oil by the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation, which later became British Petroleum. Britain has made a huge amount of money out of Iran over the decades. Likewise, the coup—a UK and CIA operation—organised against the Mossadegh Government in 1952 is remembered, and people are angry about it. The support that we gave to the Shah, and that the Shah gave to BP, resulted in a loss of national well-being.
There is a history of which we should not be unaware, and we must think about those things. The Islamic revolution of 1979 was a product of an awful lot of those issues and that pressure, including the appalling behaviour of the SAVAK secret police under the Shah, which paralleled the behaviour of the secret police under the Ayatollah after the revolution. At the time, though, they were seen to be a step forward.
Then there was the Iran-Iraq war after the break with the USA, in which the west supported Iraq against Iran. That terrible conflict cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people—possibly 500,000 people. It was an utterly useless and ghastly war. I recall visiting the border area between Iran and Iraq some years later and was taken to a glorified scrap metal yard, which was in fact heaps of old planes, tanks and armoured personnel carriers that bore the markings of every arms manufacturer in the world bar none. The people of Iran and Iraq have suffered a great deal.
We come now to the wish of Iran to develop its own nuclear power facilities. I do not think that Iran or any other country should develop nuclear power because it is an intrinsically dangerous form of power generation. I am probably in a minority in the Chamber in having that position, but that is my view. However, in law, Iran is certainly entitled to develop nuclear power for peaceful use, although it is certainly not entitled to develop nuclear weapons.
We then move on to whether Iran has nuclear weapons or the capability or intention of having them. Along with the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) and two others, I had an interesting discussion with the inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna on behalf of the Iran group. It was a fascinating experience. The inspectors confirmed that, as of that time, Iran did not possess nuclear weapons and was not in a position to make nuclear weapons. It is important to make that clear.
Iran has a fatwa against nuclear weapons, imposed by the Grand Ayatollah, who said that it would be un-Islamic to develop nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction. Clearly, then, there are many people in Iran who are strongly opposed to the country having nuclear weapons. That is not to say that there are not people there who support them; I am sure that there are.
Iran is, and has been for a very long time, a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It is therefore open to inspection—not necessarily under the voluntary or supplementary protocols, but certainly within the terms of the mandatory part of the NPT. Every other country in the region is a signatory to it except Israel, which is the only one that possesses nuclear weapons; apparently, despite the Foreign Secretary’s unwillingness to answer this question yesterday, it has 200 nuclear warheads, which is rather more than Britain and France.
The nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference envisaged a nuclear weapons-free middle east and tasked Finland with setting up a conference to bring that about. That conference did not take place, and, at last year’s preparatory conference for NPT review in Geneva, which I attended, we heard speeches from all the countries of the region. There was universal anger that this nuclear weapons-free middle east proposal had not been taken further forward.
The Egyptian delegation—this was before the coup in Egypt—made it clear that Egypt was extremely angry about that, and peremptorily withdrew from the conference. As yet it has not completely withdrawn from the non-proliferation treaty system. Other countries made it clear that they were also extremely angry. It is quite obvious that unless progress is made on a nuclear weapons-free middle east, which obviously must include Iran and Israel, then clearly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and others could start to develop nuclear weapons. If anyone has nuclear power, it is not impossible for them to extend that into getting nuclear weapons. We must be well aware of that.
Since the election of President Rouhani, there has been a narrative that he is a huge reformer and a liberal compared with everything that has gone before. He is certainly different from previous Presidents; he has a wish for a relationship and an understanding with the west, and I suspect that he is feeding into the wishes of an awful lot of ordinary Iranian people who also want to have a better relationship with the rest of the world. I am no less aware than anyone else here of the human rights abuses that have happened and continue to happen in Iran. However, such considerations do not restrict British negotiations or friendly relations with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or many other places that have totally appalling human rights records. We should be condemnatory of human rights abuses wherever they occur across the whole region.
The non-intervention in Syria by Britain and the United States has had some interesting effects. One is that within a few days of the decision there were conferences with Lavrov and John Kerry. There was a serious discussion about removing chemical weapons from Syria—and that is now happening, which is good. There have been much more serious discussions about getting a Geneva II process under way, which clearly must involve Iran if it is to mean anything.
Surely, we should be saying to Iran that we do not want anyone to develop nuclear weapons in the region, that we will push really hard on getting a nuclear weapons-free zone conference to ensure that there is no requirement on anybody to have nuclear weapons and that we will include Iran fully in Geneva II. The rather strange insistence on the acceptance by Iran of everything to do with Geneva I—it is not clear what it does and does not agree with on that—should not be used as an obstacle to getting the country involved. Clearly, if there is to be a ceasefire and a long-term peace in Syria, it has to come about with the involvement of Iran as well as of Russia, all the forces in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and everybody else, otherwise the implications of massive flows of refugees and the carnage in Syria just continue. The danger then moves on to the possibility of a war with Iran.
We must negotiate with Iran. We must respect it and its culture, build a relationship with it and recognise that it is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. The danger would be if it walked away from that treaty and chose to develop nuclear weapons, because Saudi Arabia would do the same and there would then be an arms race within the region. Some rather zany commentators in the US think that Iran should get nuclear weapons on the basis that it would create a regional balance and then we would move on. Balancing nuclear weapons terror is not a way to bring about peace.
I thank the hon. Member for Kettering for securing the debate, which is extremely helpful. I hope the Government will get the message that preparing to reopen diplomatic relations with Iran is welcome, as is the fact that discussions are going on. I look forward to the Minister’s reply, and I hope he will cover human rights in Iran, as well as nuclear power and the potential for others in the region to develop nuclear weapons.
I hope the Government will put serious effort into supporting the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to bring about the dream of a nuclear weapons-free zone across the middle east, because that would help to bring about a much longer-term peace throughout the region.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this timely debate. I do not agree with all the points he made, but he made some important points about, for instance, Iran’s stockpile of enriched uranium being among the considerations the negotiators must take on board.
The news that the Foreign Secretary brought to the House yesterday about progress in the negotiations, or the talks about talks, and about Foreign Minister Zarif proving to be someone whom western powers could do business with, was very welcome. We should reflect for a minute on how far we have come in a year and a half. I was looking back on some notes from May last year, and we were talking then about the risk of strikes on Iran and of a regional war being sparked by preventive strikes against Iran by the United States or by conflict breaking out over the strait of Hormuz. The situation now is not quite unrecognisable, but it has moved a considerable distance.
One crucial change is the election in the summer of President Rouhani. We may think that the electoral process was flawed, and we may think that the constitution of Iran is flawed and still gives too much power to the theocracy, but the election was undoubtedly genuinely contested, and it has undoubtedly changed the political landscape. We must therefore be a little wary of doing a reverse of the Whig interpretation of history: nobody naively believes that things will always get better, but we must never fall into the trap of thinking things can never get better. We must take advantage of the situation when someone such as President Rouhani is elected, because he is at least saying many of the right things, and he appears to be acting in many of the right ways.
In its statements over the past six months on President Rouhani and the situation in Iran, the Foreign Office has been very cautious and guarded, and it has talked about actions speaking louder than words. I have sometimes found that a little frustrating, and we could have seen a bit more enthusiasm for the reforming faction in Iran. However, if I am criticising the Foreign Office for going a bit too slowly, and others are criticising it for going too fast, it has perhaps got things just about right.
We should applaud the diplomatic efforts that have been made by British, international and, in this case, European Union diplomats. I was struck by the Foreign Secretary’s praise of Baroness Ashton in the House yesterday. She is, as a Brit, demonstrating not only the great British tradition of diplomacy, but the potential for the European Union to play a positive role in world diplomacy, not displacing, but complementing, national diplomacy. That is very positive.
There are three points that I would like to make. The first builds on my point about seeing the positive potential, rather than always accentuating the negative. I would ask the Foreign Office to be robust not only in pursuing the positive avenue of negotiations, but in standing up to anyone we traditionally think of as an ally who might try to stall the negotiations or prevent them from making too much progress.
There are two countries that I am particularly concerned about. One is Saudi Arabia. The Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, made an interesting comment last month. He said that following Washington’s failure to strike Syria and its entering into nuclear talks with Iran, there would be a major shift in Saudi Arabia’s relations with it. I would be interested to hear the Minister’s perspective on American-Saudi relations and on our own relationships with Saudi Arabia, in the context of the Iranian nuclear talks. I hope we will not allow Saudi Arabia to stall our progress in this area.
Through the channel of this debate, I would tell the Saudi Government that if they look back to the 1990s, to the presidencies of Presidents Rafsanjani and Khatami in Iran, they will see that there were much more cordial relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It has been only since the election of Ahmadinejad in 2005 and then the coming to power of King Abdullah that the two countries have got into a regional cold war and have almost been fighting proxy battles as rival regional powers from Bahrain to Syria to other places across the middle east. That is regrettable, and they should perhaps realise that the presidency of President Rouhani offers a path back to more constructive engagement.
Like the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), I also have concerns about Israel. We have not heard very constructive comments from Prime Minister Netanyahu about the E3 plus 3 talks. He has expressed real fear that they will result in a deal that
“will not work for Israel”.
However, Israel must also see its long-term interests. Surely, the most positive thing for Israel would be a process that ultimately leads towards a nuclear-free middle east and certainly one that has a realistic prospect of achieving a nuclear-free Iran.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) for not congratulating him on securing the debate. Does the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) not think that the situation between the Israeli Government and the Palestinians is linked to this issue? That must be part of a solution in the middle east, because we cannot have a settlement with Iran in isolation. Does the hon. Gentleman also not think that the settlements Israel has been building have thrown some difficulties in the way of the road map to peace? Finally, despite what the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said, there were demonstrations two or three years ago in Iran, and the opposition came close to winning the election. Internally, that may be motivating the regime a lot more than the hon. Gentleman suggested.
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, although we are also seeing positive engagement by Palestine and Israel in peace talks, so that is another area where we can accentuate the positive. My point is that we should be clear with our traditional allies in the region that we want to pursue this process with Iran robustly.
My second point relates to what the hon. Gentleman has just said: this has to be a regional process. I would therefore like to ask the Minister what the status is of the proposed plan to move towards talks on a nuclear-free middle east. That plan should include Israel as well as Iran. It could be revived in the new, more constructive atmosphere that is emerging. It might also connect with other disputes in the region. That plan was on the table quite seriously, and I would like to hear where the Foreign Office thinks the talks now lie.
My third and final point relates to the non-proliferation treaty. It is something of a rich irony that the E3 plus 3 could also be described as the N5 plus 1. Here we have six countries lecturing Iran on nuclear proliferation, but five of them hold nuclear weapons themselves—only Germany does not. It would send a positive signal if we discussed our own willingness to look at the nuclear threshold. There are countries around the world that have stopped short of it, even though, as in Japan’s case, they probably have the technological capacity to step over it. We are asking Iran to stop at the nuclear threshold or, ideally, to step well back from it, so perhaps we should be constructive in looking at whether we can step down the nuclear ladder; indeed, it is technically our obligation as a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty to look at progress towards disarmament. I will not get sidetracked into a debate on Trident like-for-like replacement, but the Liberal Democrat position is clearly that we could make a constructive contribution in that regard. I do not expect Ministers immediately to leap up to support that, but they should perhaps reflect on what we can do as part of a global process.
I agree with the hon. Member for Kettering that the talks must be robust and real, and that there must be a real negotiation that puts real demands on Iran. However, at the same time, we should reflect on the fact that all nuclear weapons are dangerous, and there are probably people in every country who are mad or bad enough to use them. The ideal that President Obama has set out of a world free from nuclear weapons and of a global nuclear disarmament process actually getting under way in the 21st century is one we in this country should do everything we can to support through our fast-improving relations with Iran and through our own attitude to nuclear armaments.
I welcome the debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) is to be commended on securing. He is right about the importance of the issue, which is on a different scale from other issues that we are involved in, in the middle east or elsewhere, important though those are.
I remind the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) that the debate is about Iran, not Israel or Saudi Arabia—still less about nuclear disarmament. Disarmament combined with unreciprocated concessions to aggressive regimes did not always guarantee a brilliant outcome in the previous century. Iran is an aggressive regime. I agree with the comments of the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) about the Iranian people and culture, which I distinguish from the regime. Many people in Iran are oppressed by it, and notwithstanding the comments of the hon. Member for Cheltenham, it is still a long way from being a democracy. It was observed that there were 3,000 possible candidates, although I was told that 678 presidential candidates were disqualified by Ayatollah Khomeini as ideologically unsound. Only six were allowed to proceed—one of whom is now President Rouhani. I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends that an approach from any source in Iran must be engaged with constructively, and I support their way of proceeding. However, I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering that we must not look through rose-tinted spectacles at President Rouhani.
It is nothing like the democracy that I would like the Iranian people to have and that many of them would want. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering that we should not see President Rouhani as a completely new broom. We must not be naive. He has been part of the present regime since its inception and has held high office in it. He has been involved in its nuclear negotiations in the past, and, as my hon. Friend showed in the quotation he used, has stalled and used other devices to further Iran’s nuclear intentions.
I believe that it is the resolute intention of the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear weapons. Why on earth would it have put itself through what it has gone through for so many years—sanctions, international opprobrium, all that has happened in the United Nations and all the economic problems that have been caused for Iran—if not because it wanted nuclear weapons come what may? Is the international community getting it all wrong, and have all the leaders over the years been completely mistaken? I think not. We must accept that the Iranian regime is determined to have nuclear weapons. We should not let them fall into its hands. No matter who else may or may not have them, that regime has demonstrated beyond peradventure its aggressive intent in the region and throughout the world, through the export of terrorism by proxy to other countries in the region, including Lebanon and Syria; through its involvement in propping up the Syrian regime now; through its export of worldwide terrorism against Israel and Israeli citizens; and through its leaders’ aggressive statements in the past. We can have no doubts about the nature of the regime and the fact that we should not let nuclear weapons fall into those hands.
It is right, however, to engage with the regime, and I support the Government’s approach, but we must take an exacting and resolute approach in negotiations. We must not exaggerate, as I think the hon. Member for Cheltenham was in danger of doing, any progress that has been made already. We are only at the interim stage and have not even concluded an interim agreement. Let us not rush to say that there is agreement before it happens. We need to apply exacting and rigorous conditions to the regime and should take the view that if there is any doubt or anything unsatisfactory in any negotiations it is better to have no agreement than a bad agreement.
If the Government can reach an agreement that leaves Iran nowhere near the threshold of holding nuclear weapons, that rolls back the Iranian nuclear programme and that creates a framework in which peace can be achieved in the region, they deserve to be encouraged. They must have high expectations and I encourage them to be rigorous and, if necessary, cynical about the regime. In the past it has played for time, stalled and tried to reach a certain level. Iran must go back to the position it was in before it started its nuclear armaments programme; it must dismantle it and put itself far from the threshold of having nuclear weapons.
I agreed with some of what the hon. Member for Islington North said, although not all of it. Human rights are human rights anywhere in the region; but human rights in Iran are at stake. I urge my right hon. and hon. Friends, if they get a chance, to raise the issue of human rights with Iran. The regime has an unenviable record on human rights in many respects. I have in the past taken up the issue of persecution of Christians by the Iranian regime, which included death or prison sentences merely for practising their faith. We should not go into the negotiations with any illusions about the regime.
I am pleased to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.
This weekend, we honoured the dead of two world wars. It was the horror of the first world war that led to a huge desire for peace and disarmament in the decades that followed. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were disarmament conferences and complex negotiations leading to impressive disarmament treaties, such as the Washington naval treaties. What happened afterwards was instructive. The democracies observed the treaties. The British Navy, for example, redesigned battleships such as the Nelson and the Rodney in strange configurations, to stay within the limits of the Washington naval treaties. The Germans had a much more practical approach to the matter. They simply lied about the tonnage of their battle cruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, claiming to stay within the treaty terms, but actually breaching them.
We must therefore understand that, in disarmament negotiations and military confrontations, what matters is less the weapons systems than the nature of the Governments who possess them. An example of that is our attitude to the nuclear weapons that Russia holds today, compared with our attitude to nuclear weapons held by the Soviet Union. We were desperately concerned about its nuclear arsenal, because the Soviet Union was governed by a system with an aggressive ideology and a ruthless approach to what it regarded as the inevitable confrontation between communism and capitalism. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia turned, however hesitantly, in a more democratic direction, we ceased to be anything like as concerned about its nuclear weapons systems. We became concerned about whether such systems would leach out of Russia into the hands of other totalitarian-inspired groups. We did not mind so much what arsenal Russia possessed—and continues to possess—provided that it remained in safe hands and not extremist hands.
That is why the comparisons between Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon and Israel’s possession of a nuclear weapon are, frankly, unfounded. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone), whom I congratulate both on securing the debate and on the way that he introduced it, we would be concerned today about Israel’s nuclear arsenal if Israel were governed by an extremist religious clique, and we would not be worried about Iran having nuclear weapons to anything like the extent that we are if Iran were as democratic as Israel is at present.
Having said all that, we have to operate within the boundaries of what is or is not practicable. The reality is that if Iran chooses to acquire nuclear weapons, unless some state or alliance of states seeks to intervene in some military way physically to prevent it from doing so, Iran cannot be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them enough. As has been pointed out, Iran is signed up to the non-proliferation treaty. I quickly conferred with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) and I think that we both agree that ultimately if Iran chose to leave the NPT, frankly there would be nothing that could be legitimately done to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, any more than anything could have been done to prevent Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons in the way that it did.
I always refer to him as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), although we are on opposite sides of the argument. In his contribution, I believe that he was trying to suggest that Israel perhaps ought to give up its nuclear weapons and that that might improve the situation, and he ended his speech by saying that he did not believe that the balance of power, or the balance of terror, was the right way to keep the peace in the middle east. I am afraid that I disagree with him on both counts. I think that Israel giving up its nuclear weapons—and Israel is not party to the NPT—would actually encourage other countries to commit aggression against it. I believe, however, that the possibility of the balance of terror may, in the end, come to be our only resource against Iran, because—as I said before —if Iran is determined to have nuclear weapons and if it is more important to Iran to have nuclear weapons than, for example, to have the sanctions against it removed, Iran will have nuclear weapons, unless somebody wants to launch a military strike against it.
In conclusion, we lived through—what was it?—70 years or more of confrontation with the Soviet Union, and we survived that period of intense confrontation through a policy of containment. The containment policy meant that we neutralised the weapons systems of the power that could potentially attack us, and we allowed the slow development of internal political forces until that country’s system of government changed. If ever there were a country that ought to be subject to a policy of containment, it is Iran. Sometimes I get the impression that the leaders of Iran are almost being deliberately provocative, so as to incite some sort of military strike against it to bolster their position with the population at home. I have no doubt that if Iran can be contained for long enough, democracy will emerge in the country and, as I said at the beginning, when democracy emerges the question of what weapons systems a country has or does not have becomes almost completely irrelevant.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. May I also say what a thoughtful and principled speech my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) has just made? He is a true believer in the importance of the nuclear deterrent and of the logical application of standards that the deterrent must adhere to.
I had better declare that I have chaired the all-party group on Iran since 2006; my co-chair is now the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw). In that time, I have visited Iran and made a number of trips around the world to meet Governments and officials linked to the policy on Iran.
I should start my remarks by saying, briefly, that there is a real certainty in the debate that there is a nuclear weapons programme in Iran. However, that certainty is not shared by the United States Government. The US national intelligence estimate of 2007 said that Iran had halted the programme, and in 2010 the US national intelligence estimate yet again confirmed that Iran was not on the verge of breakout. These national intelligence estimates are significant bodies of work, drawing on intelligence from around the world and on the work of different agencies, so we should not just brush them aside.
A country does not just jump from 20% to a nuclear weapon. The uranium has to be weaponised, the grade of the uranium has to be increased and the weapon must be tested, which would usually leave a very significant footprint and take some time. If we take those facts in conjunction with the US national intelligence estimate—and, indeed, with some of the reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency—we see that there is not such an urgency. Iran is not suddenly going to produce a nuclear weapon. In addition, there is the supreme leader’s fatwa that nuclear weapons are un-Islamic. I have visited Iran and if anyone wants to understand the country they have to understand its supreme leader. When the supreme leader says that about nuclear weapons, he means it. It is absolutely imperative that people follow that ruling.
That does not mean that there are not people in Iran who want a nuclear weapon; I suspect that there are plenty of people there who wish to have one, for the purposes of deterrence. If a sane-minded Iranian who represented New Forest East was living in downtown Tehran, I suspect that he would believe in the principle of deterrence, given that his neighbours are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia. Those are sworn enemies of Iran, ideologically different and religiously opposed—there are all sorts of issues that we could say we faced in the cold war in the late 1940s. Those differences are often brought home to Iran by the terrorist attacks across its border. We should certainly remember that the supreme leader—for now—has made that ruling and that it is not something to sniff at.
I totally agree that the nature of the regime goes hand in hand with the issue of nuclear weapons. Obviously, Iran’s record on human rights is abhorrent. It has engaged in the persecution of the Baha’is, the suppression of women’s rights and the persecution of lawyers and of people who lead strikes, including bus drivers who lead strikes and have their rights under the constitution denied. It is very important that we do something to put pressure on Iran about those issues and ensure that they are resolved.
Let us remember that the only democracy in the whole region, other than Israel, is Iran. Iran’s democracy may not be one that we think perfect, but it is a democracy that operates at all sorts of levels—the guardian council, local councils and the mayor of Tehran are all elected. Iran has an active democracy. There is no democracy in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria or others of our allies to whom we sell weapons systems around the world.
There is a democracy and a constitution in Iran. One of the reasons for the green movement in 2009 was the desire among the Iranian people to follow the rule of law. If someone reads the Iranian constitution, they will see that it is quite good, even though it was authored by a Belgian. One of the reasons for the green movement was the demand that the denial of rights to people should stop. Label someone a “terrorist” or a “Zionist spy” and they do not have those rights. Well, we live in a democracy that labels someone a “terrorist” and they are then locked up for 90 days, without the same rights that they would have if they were labelled a “criminal”. Iran is certainly more extreme, but let us not forget that the temptation to deny people their rights for all sorts of reasons is not just confined to Iran.
Then we talk about security guarantees. It is a rough neighbourhood down there—a very rough neighbourhood, with Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. No one has mentioned the recent discovery that in Saudi Arabia there is a ballistic missile launch-pad facility with two aiming marks: one to Tel Aviv and one to Tehran. It is a rough neighbourhood and I think that if I were there, I, too, might like to look out for myself.
At the heart of all this is trust, rhetoric and history. Let us not forget that Iranians distrust the west as much as we distrust Iran. That is at the heart of this process. Let us remember that we distrusted Gorbachev, but we did not say that because he was from the Soviet regime—the regime that was pulling people’s toenails out and torturing them—we could not do business with him and we could not find a solution. We did not write him off. I was involved with the peace process in Northern Ireland in 1994 with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who would have been appalled by the people I had to meet in the course of trying to make peace with our enemy. We do not necessarily just write people off.
The history of Iran, the great game, the fact that the BBC World Service was used in 1953 to trigger the coup against Iran’s only democratic prime minister—if we were Iranian, we might be a bit suspicious of western media, although now I think that would be wrong. Then there was the grand bargain offered up in 2003, which was the demilitarisation of Hezbollah, the offer to suspend enrichment of uranium and even a movement to a Saudi recognition of Israel, which was dismissed out of hand by the United States Administration.
We are in the business, with this peace process and the process at Geneva, of trying to build trust. We cannot indulge in rhetoric and history to rule that out. We have to give it a chance. We are not stupid and we have all been here before. No one has rose-tinted spectacles when it comes to dealing with Iran; it is a straw man argument to say that we do. We need to work on that and the Government are engaging. I am confident that we will get there, if we just give it a chance.
First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate. There have been five speeches in the debate, which is topical because of the past week’s events in Geneva. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—although we disagree on nuclear weapons, I respect his position—made a thoughtful speech that put the present situation in its historical context. The hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) recognised that much of the suspicion in Iran is down to the history that our country and others have in the region. That is important when we are looking at a possible solution to nuclear weapons in the ongoing talks.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) rightly raised the possibility of proliferation throughout the region. He mentioned Saudi Arabia and other nations that might wish to acquire nuclear weapons if the Iranians were to develop their capability. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said on nuclear deterrents vis-à-vis this country, but I do not agree that if Iran developed a nuclear weapons capability, it would somehow offer a balance of terror with Israel. The clear way forward is to stop Iran developing that capability in the first place.
The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) warned the Government not to look at this process through rose-tinted spectacles, and I agree. No one should look at the history or the actions of the present regime in Iran and think that we are dealing with people who have not committed atrocities on their own people or have not exported terror to other parts of the middle east. When I was a Minister in the Ministry of Defence, I was aware of the involvement of Iran in attacks on our troops in southern Iraq and its support for insurgents against those forces.
We on the Opposition Benches see Iran as a threat—if it acquires nuclear weapons—not only to security in the middle east, but to global security. A nuclear-armed Iran would not only change the balance of power within the region, but, as the hon. Member for Cheltenham argued, it would also lead to other nations wishing to acquire a nuclear capability. Many of those nations have the funds to do that.
If Iran gained a nuclear capability, that would be a blow to the United Nations goal of a nuclear-free middle east. It would also be a step away and against the goal that we all share of ensuring that new countries do not acquire nuclear weapons. We in the UK and on the Opposition Benches—well, some of us, anyway—are committed to the retention of our nuclear deterrent, but it is important that we encourage others and ourselves to reduce our nuclear weapon stockpiles. Allowing the Iranians to have a nuclear weapons capability would be a severe blow to that non-proliferation position, which I think all parties in this country would want to protect.
The Opposition agree with the Government’s twin-track approach to Iran, with the imposition of strict sanctions and the encouragement through diplomatic channels to ensure that we can get an agreement that ensures that Iran does not acquire a nuclear capability. Much has been said this afternoon about the election of President Rouhani. I accept the points that hon. Members have made about him and some of the atrocities that have been carried out by the Iranian regime. He stood on a platform of reform, and the sanctions imposed by the international community on Iran are having an effect on the Iranian community and the Iranian people. It is important that we continue our diplomatic efforts.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington North discussed the UK’s diplomatic relations with Iran. I welcome the appointment of the chargés d’affaires and hope we will see the embassy in Tehran opening to commence that dialogue in the not-too-distant future. That dialogue will be so important in steering the Iranians away from developing nuclear weapons and in raising some of the points about human rights and their support for terrorist activities—both in the region and more widely—that have rightly been mentioned.
This weekend’s talks were positive. It is a disappointment to us all that the next step has not been taken, but, overall, we are moving in the right direction and the Iranians are taking a more positive tone and stance. I say to hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Kettering, that there are two options. One is to allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear capacity and take some type of military action against them. The other is to have talks, to give Iran a chance to disarm and to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Given what the hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North said, that would be the preferred option.
Doing nothing is not an option. The Opposition support the continuation of strong and tough sanctions while, as the hon. Member for Hertsmere said, not looking at Iran through rose-tinted spectacles. We have to recognise that the negotiations on ensuring that the Iranians give up their capacity to develop nuclear weapons will be tough and hard. I wish the Government and our international partners well in arriving at that international settlement. It will make not only the middle east, but the world, a safer place.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate at such an important moment in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue. I also congratulate the other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon. I will address the points raised in their various contributions.
To set the scene, it is worth saying three things. First, Iran has shown over the course of recent months that it is genuinely taking a new approach to negotiations. We need fully to test that and explore the opportunity—I go no further than that at this stage—for a deal. We believe there may well be a deal on the table that would give us meaningful assurance on our immediate proliferation concerns and create the space for a comprehensive solution.
Secondly, let me absolutely clear: there is no question of our seeing this issue through rose-tinted spectacles. We approach this negotiation with our eyes wide open. We are fully aware of Iran’s history of concealment and its defiance of its international obligations. We will continue to be firm in our approach to Iran on that and other issues. Thirdly—this addresses a point raised by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others—despite the fact that progress on nuclear talks remains possible, we are not blind to Iran’s nefarious activities in its immediate region and beyond, or its terrible human rights record.
I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering will take some comfort from what I have just said. He was worried about the possibility of the talks becoming a space in which the Iranians could continue to enrich. The obvious point is that, without the talks, Iran will continue to enrich anyway, so we might as well give the talks a chance. I cannot go into the detail of the negotiations and the terms around which they revolve, but clearly the basis of the deal is that Iran will take concrete and verifiable action to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear programme, and the E3 plus 3 may consider some measure of sanctions relief to offer in return. There will not be a deal unless Iran ceases its enrichment programme.
The hon. Member for Islington North made the obvious point that human rights in Iran remain in a terrible state, and we agree with him. The negotiations in Geneva are purely about the nuclear file, and the hope is that the twin-track approach of exchanging non-resident charges d’affaires, and so on, will create preconditions that enable progress to be made in other areas.
The hon. Gentleman asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday about the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone, for which we argued during the non-proliferation treaty review in 2010. There has been a small amount of progress on that recently, and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement in the near future.
The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) made three clear points. The first was on the international relations dynamic. Tempting though it is, it is not my position to comment on Saudi relations with the United States. Perhaps it would be helpful if he considered that in the context of Iran’s history of negative involvement across the Gulf. There are many states beyond ours that are extremely suspicious of Iranian activities, and justifiably so. There is concern across the wider Gulf—the concern in Israel is often mentioned—about many of the worries raised this afternoon. We already keep all our key allies in the Gulf fully briefed on where we are.
I hope that I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question on the nuclear-free zone in the middle east. He mentioned disarmament here in the United Kingdom, and I can do no better than repeat the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) by saying that we have a slightly different view on that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) talked about our approach to the talks, and I hope that I have reassured him on that. The phrase “rose-tinted spectacles” has come up on a number of occasions this afternoon, and there are no rose-tinted spectacles in the Geneva talks. Everyone knows exactly what is involved, the difficulties of what we are dealing with and the backdrop against which we are trying to do this. However—one only has to talk to the Foreign Secretary, who has met the regime on a number of occasions in New York and Geneva, to get a feel for this—there is a new feel to the talks. It is important that we test that to see what can be achieved. If we are able to get over the line, I doubt there is anyone anywhere in this Chamber who would not agree that that is a good thing. The question is, to test Iran’s resolve and to see what is achievable, but we must do so with our eyes wide open.
My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made a good and thoughtful speech, as he always does, and he is absolutely right that Iran ought to be the subject of a system of containment. In a sense, of course, that is what an interim deal before a final deal will seek to achieve, and he is right to make that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), the co-chair of the all-party group on Iran, talked about the importance of trust, which is a key component that he compared to Northern Ireland. I remember someone saying to me some years ago that, in relation to Northern Ireland, the Government of the day were in about the right place if everyone was marginally unhappy with them. I suspect that might be a principle that applies here, too. He is absolutely right about the importance of gaining trust. The hope is that, if trust builds during the negotiations, it could translate into other affairs. He has the Government’s approach in a nutshell—it is important to take the opportunity seriously but to be realistic about what can be achieved.
I thank the hon. Member for North Durham for supporting the process. I was struck in the Chamber yesterday by the level of support from Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others who dealt with the issue in the past and know what is involved. I am grateful for the continued support of the hon. Member for North Durham.
I do not know whether there is anything that Members feel I have not addressed, but I will provide a brief update on where we are.
As most people know, the Foreign Secretary returned on Sunday from the E3 plus 3 negotiations in Geneva, which were the third round of talks since President Rouhani’s election in June. The talks were detailed and complex. They covered every aspect of Iran’s extensive nuclear programme, and the Iranian negotiators were, as has been reported and as the Foreign Secretary mentioned yesterday, tough but constructive. The focus of the negotiations was to reach agreement on a first step—this was the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East—that would create confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive settlement that resolves the Iranian nuclear issue.
Talks ended without that interim agreement because some key differences remained between the parties. Disappointing though that was on one level, it might comfort people to know that we are not running into the talks with rose-tinted spectacles. The negotiations are tough and have a long history, but the gaps are narrowing. At the conclusion of the weekend, the E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers presented a united position, which we believe gives us a very strong foundation for the next round of talks on 20 November.
Provided the conditions can be met, the Government are in favour of reaching an interim agreement. As the Foreign Secretary told the House yesterday, the agreement being discussed would have real benefits for global security, but it needs to be detailed, clear and concrete. The agreement also needs to assure all countries that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran is being addressed and, therefore, it is crucial that the agreement cover all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. We believe that such a deal is on the table and is within reach.
Sanctions have undoubtedly played an indispensable part in creating the new opening. Sanctions are putting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian economy under serious pressure. We think that the sanctions are costing the Iranian economy at least $4 billion a month or $48 billion a year. There is no question of our relaxing the sanctions pressure before we have taken action to address the proliferation concerns.
It is worth noting in passing that, while the talks are going on—this goes to the centre of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said in his opening remarks—the Iranian nuclear programme continues to advance. The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report of 28 August noted that Iran’s stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium continues to grow. Iran has installed more than 1,000 advanced centrifuges, which are capable of enriching at a significantly faster rate, and there is also the heavy water research reactor at Arak. All that represents a breach of the United Nations Security Council and IAEA board resolutions and shows why, in the interest of international security, we want the talks to succeed.
Because of the time, I will finish by saying that this afternoon’s debate has revolved around two dynamics. There is a new opportunity to do something, and I think that everyone in the Chamber would agree that, if that opportunity exists, we should take it. Rest assured that we are going into the talks with our eyes wide open. We know what we are dealing with. I do not think anyone is in any doubt that a deal will be difficult to achieve, but such a deal would be in the interest of the international community.
On a point of order, Mr Sheridan. Throughout the debate my seat has been referred to as Lancaster and Wyre Valley, Lancaster and Wyre or Wyre and Preston North. Given that my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw) is sitting behind me, I want to correct the record. Before the boundary changes, I was the Member of Parliament for Lancaster and Wyre, but I am now the Member of Parliament for Wyre and Preston North.