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Iran (Nuclear Talks)

Volume 588: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the negotiations between the E3 plus 3 and Iran regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear programme. In November 2013, the E3 plus 3 signed an interim agreement with Iran which came into force on 20 January 2014 for an initial period of six months. Under that agreement, Iran committed to freezing the areas of its nuclear programme of greatest concern to the international community. In return, Iran received limited sanctions relief and the repatriation of $4.2 billion in oil revenues. Crucially, that interim agreement gave us the time and space to build confidence and begin negotiations on a comprehensive deal to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Since February, we have engaged in extensive negotiations with Iran at both official and ministerial level. We always knew these negotiations would be difficult and complex, and they have been—even more so than negotiating the Geneva interim agreement. At the heart of the negotiations is the need to reconcile Iran’s aspirations for a peaceful civil nuclear programme with our insistence on ensuring Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapons capability.

By July 2014, after several rounds of talks with Iran, we had deepened our understanding of the positions of both sides and made progress on areas of the negotiations, but we were still far short of reaching agreement on core issues. The E3 plus 3 and Iran therefore decided to extend the negotiations until 24 November—yesterday.

Since July, negotiations between the E3 plus 3 and Iran have intensified, and we have closed the gap between the parties on a number of important issues, but significant differences remain. I and other Foreign Ministers from the E3 plus 3 met the Iranians in Vienna last Friday and again yesterday to evaluate the prospects of reaching agreement on a political framework for a comprehensive deal within the deadline. The discussions in Vienna highlighted the need for further movement on some big issues by the Iranians and the need for flexibility on both sides. Despite the efforts of all parties, it was clear yesterday morning that we need more time to close the gaps between the E3 plus 3 and Iran, particularly regarding the issue of Iran’s enrichment capacity, which remains at the heart of this negotiation. But, based on the significant progress we have made to date, I remain of the view—one shared by my fellow E3 plus 3 Ministers and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif— that a comprehensive deal remains possible. We must capitalise on the momentum we have gathered and push forward to achieve that prize.

Iran and the E3 plus 3 have therefore agreed to extend the interim agreement again until the end of June to allow more time to bridge remaining gaps and tie down technical details. We will continue negotiations in December with the shared aim of securing an outline agreement within four months. We would, of course, have preferred to reach a comprehensive deal by yesterday’s deadline, but only if it was the right deal. As we continue to work towards such a deal, we have an interim agreement in place that maintains important constraints on Iran’s nuclear programme and the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. Under that arrangement, Iran will continue to be able to repatriate some oil revenues on a similar basis to the current arrangements.

Successive Governments have enjoyed cross-party support in the House for the twin-track approach of sanctions and negotiations. I remain convinced that that approach is the right one, and that it is yielding progress, albeit slow progress. The negotiations with Iran are tough and complex, but a comprehensive agreement would bring enormous benefits to all parties. For Iran, it would herald the beginning of reintegration into the international community, and open the door to an easing of sanctions and access to significant frozen assets. For the international community, it would mark a considerable advance for regional and global security. We cannot and will not succumb to the temptation of sealing a deal at any price, but we will remain steadfast in pursuit of a comprehensive agreement that respects the clear principle that Iran must not be able to develop a nuclear weapons capability. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for advance sight of it. First, on behalf of the Opposition, I wish to acknowledge the work of the EU’s outgoing High Representative for foreign affairs, Baroness Cathy Ashton. Over the past five years, she has played a decisive and constructive role on the world stage, particularly in relation to the Iranian nuclear dossier. Her contribution will be missed, but her legacy—I hope—will prove in time to have been significant.

On yesterday’s events in Vienna, the fact that it was not possible to reach agreement by the already extended deadline of 24 November is, of course, a setback, but it is better than either a bad deal or a rupture in the negotiations that would have freed Iran from its commitment not to accelerate its efforts to develop nuclear energy while negotiations proceed. For many years, Iran has chosen to exploit regional sectarian tensions through supporting terrorist groups in other parts of the region. Today, Iran has the capability to play a much more constructive role. So there should be no doubt that in an already volatile region, at a particularly perilous period, a nuclear-armed Iran would pose a threat not only to Israel and its neighbours, but to wider global security. Therefore, the interim agreement in November 2013 was a significant step forward. The June 2015 extension could allow for a further opportunity for progress to be made towards a vital comprehensive deal. This afternoon, I seek a number of assurances from the Foreign Secretary about the content, extension and negotiation of this proposed deal.

First, on the content of the final agreement, reports suggest that one of the main obstacles to securing a deal remained the crucial issue of the number of centrifuges Iran could operate. The Foreign Secretary did not mention that issue in his statement, so in his response will he set out the Government’s assessment of the appropriate number of centrifuges that Iran can retain while still offering sufficient protections on the so-called “break-out” time?

Secondly, the extension of negotiations must be agreed only alongside sufficient guarantees that it will not allow Iran to gain by running down the clock. The terms of the now-extended agreement explicitly forbid Iran from adding new enrichment capacity and accumulating more enriched uranium, and ban 20% enrichment altogether. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that those restrictions will remain in place and will continue to be monitored, and that any sign of a breach will warrant an effective response? In particular, is he satisfied by the level of International Atomic Energy Agency access going forward?

Thirdly, could the Foreign Secretary also confirm that Iran will not enjoy any net financial gain through this extension? As he said in his statement, there has been cross-party support for a twin-track approach for a number of years. Yesterday, he confirmed the following:

“The expectation is that there will be a rollover of the current arrangements for Iran to access around $700 million per month of frozen assets”.

In his statement, he said that Iran will continue to repatriate oil revenues on “a similar basis” to before, so can he confirm explicitly that that does not allow for any further extension of sanctions relief without anything in return from Iran?

Of course the focus of today’s statement is on the nuclear negotiations but, with your permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to ask a question about reopening the British embassy in Tehran. I welcomed the announcement in June by the former Foreign Secretary—he is now Leader of the House—that the embassy will be reopened. The Foreign Secretary’s recent written answer to me stated that issues associated with getting the embassy back to a functional level and re-establishing a visa service are still under discussion. Can he offer further details about when he envisages those issues will be resolved? Three years since the attack on the embassy, ensuring its swift but safe reopening must surely remain a priority for those from all parts of this House.

Secretary of State Kerry was right to say that these talks will not get easier just because they go on longer. Unless there is a real breakthrough soon on the key heads of agreement, including on centrifuges and stockpiles, 2015 could see a progressive unravelling of political momentum for a deal on both sides. The onus therefore remains on Iran to be able to give the international community confidence that its nuclear programme is a purely civilian one, and the responsibility of the international community is to negotiate a deal that achieves that goal. As the Foreign Secretary recognised, there has been a bipartisan approach in this House, and he continues to have our support in seeking such an outcome.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his expression of support at the end of his remarks. May I join him in thanking Baroness Ashton and congratulating her on the significant role she has played in these negotiations over the last period? I should also welcome her successor, Federica Mogherini, as new EU High Representative. The E3 parties are discussing—we began a discussion yesterday and will continue it—how we carry forward this process, because, clearly, Baroness Ashton had a large store of accumulated knowledge and had built important relationships. We will discuss with the new High Representative how best we can carry forward these negotiations in a way that gives them the maximum chance of being successful.

I strongly agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s expressed view that no deal is better than a bad deal; a nuclear-armed Iran would be a major destabilising force in the region and, conceivably, in a short period of time, far beyond it. That is not an outcome we can allow to happen, and we are all clearly focused on that. He has asked me for some specific assurances, and I will answer his questions in so far as I can. We agreed yesterday in Vienna that it would not be helpful to have on public display all the various heads of discussion and the various specific ideas that are in play and being discussed. We are clear among us that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. If we want the discussions to proceed in a spirit of openness, with people testing new ideas, we have to respect the confidentiality around that process. I did say in my opening remarks that Iran’s enrichment capacity—a proxy for centrifuge numbers or centrifuge capability—remained a key issue to be resolved. We are exploring a number of ways of approaching that issue, and will continue to do so with the Iranians.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm whether the restrictions under the recently expired joint plan of action and the monitoring arrangements would remain in force and also whether access under those monitoring arrangements is considered to be adequate. I can confirm all of those things. He also asked about financial gain. As I said in my opening remarks, Iran will continue to be allowed, for as long as this arrangement is in place and the restrictions on Iran’s activity continue, to access approximately $700 million a month of its oil revenues, as has been the case since the beginning of this year.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the Tehran embassy. Yes, we are committed to reopening embassies between our two countries as soon as possible, but as he knows and has acknowledged there have been some technical issues that we have not found easy to resolve. We need to import into Iran a significant amount of equipment for the embassy to replace what was destroyed during the events of November 2011. If we are to operate effectively, we need to be able to take in that equipment in a way that is secure and that maintains necessary confidentiality. We have not yet been able to agree a way of doing that with the Iranians or to establish how we can deliver an effective visa service in Tehran that will meet the level of demand that is expected. At the same time, we also have to comply with various restrictions that the Iranians have in place, which limit our scope to deliver that service. We are continuing to engage with the Iranians on that issue. We are clear that this is a separate discussion; it is not dependent on, or in any way connected to, the nuclear discussion.

Finally, let me pick up on the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment. He said that to make progress, there needs to be a real breakthrough soon. I know that, in these sorts of discussions, it is always tempting to think that there has to be a sudden breakthrough. I say to him that progress thus far would be better characterised as slow but incremental, a painstaking inching towards each other, a testing of new ideas, and an exploring of new possibilities and of new ways of looking at old problems. We have made significant progress, albeit in very small steps, over the past few months. Rather than having a sudden breakthrough over the next couple of months, I expect us to edge towards each other in this incremental way.

I am sure that everybody who wants one day to see a return to stability in the middle east will be hoping for eventual success in these negotiations. No one wants to see sanctions maintained on Iran and the Iranian people for any longer than is necessary. Will my right hon. Friend assure me, within the sensible constraints of what he can say during negotiations, that any eventual solution must include a system of inspection and monitoring that will continue for the indefinite future so that every interested party can be reassured that any deal will not be slid back on either by the present Iranian Government or any future regime in that country?

I can reassure my right hon. Friend that transparency and an inspection and verification regime are at the heart of these negotiations. The Iranians understand that the regrettable but none the less undeniable lack of mutual trust between the two sides means that there will have to be robust inspection and verification procedures in place throughout the duration of any agreement. Indeed, there will have to be proper transparency and inspection arrangements in place beyond the duration of any agreement under the usual terms of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty in respect of a non-nuclear power.

I draw the attention of the House to the fact that I am co-chairman of the all-party group on Iran. The Secretary of State’s characterisation of negotiations with the Iranians as tough, complex and painstaking sounds all too familiar. I have every sympathy with him and commend him on his work. All of us want to see a satisfactory deal, but does he accept that there is a danger, if this drifts on, of a hardening of sanctions by the United States Congress and, at the same time, a degradation of sanctions by some of the other parties in the E3 plus 3? Has he any comment to make on the report in Fars News, an Iranian news agency, yesterday that President Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation with President Rouhani of Iran in which he proposed

“to lift the anti-Iran sanctions in a unilateral and gradual process.”

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that Foreign Minister Zarif refers often to the negotiations that took place in the middle of the last decade. I suppose he does that to emphasise that he was involved in the discussion long before any of us at the table were. It is, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, absolutely essential that the sanctions regime remains robust. Last November, we said that the easing of certain specific sanctions under this deal did not imply, and would not be allowed to imply, a general weakening of the sanctions regime. We have seen nothing to suggest that the sanctions regime has weakened. We monitor it carefully and it remains effective and robust and it must continue to do so. I too saw, while I was still in Vienna yesterday, those remarks attributed to President Putin. I was with Foreign Minister Lavrov, who gave me no reason to believe that they were likely to be true, and I note that they were reported by an Iranian source. We are seeking clarification from the Russians, but I do not expect to see them break ranks. The Russians have been entirely constructive and very much engaged in this process, as have the Chinese.

Having called one co-chair, a most illustrious co-chair, of an all-party group, I am inclined to call another. Mr Richard Bacon.

I congratulate the Government and the Foreign Secretary on the wisdom and patience of their approach, which is plainly required in the nuclear talks. It is plain that the Vienna convention requirements must be adhered to before we can consider reopening embassies, but does he agree that, on a broader range of matters such as the return of citizens and nationals, the opening of embassies should be seen not as some sort of reward but as a useful tool that could help in the resolution of a number of the normal kinds of disputes that occur between nations and that on many of those there is in fact some room for negotiation?

I agree that the opening of an embassy is certainly not a reward; it is a practical step to give effect to what we hope will be an increasing level and intensity of bilateral relations. In particular, we know that there are significant numbers of Iranian citizens who would like to visit the UK, but who find the current visa application regime onerous—I am talking about requiring them to travel outside the country to obtain a visa. We are moving towards reopening the embassy as soon as we practically can. For that to happen, we must have support from the Iranians to facilitate the work that we need to do to rehabilitate the embassy and all its operating equipment.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that despite Iran’s vile internal policies—I hope that he has been making protests to the Government of Iran about the imprisonment of a British woman for seeking to watch a volleyball match—there is no evidence that it has been seeking to acquire nuclear weapons capability? A Daily Telegraph journalist has written a very carefully researched book about that. Furthermore, Iran has never committed an act of aggression against another country. That being so, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is absolutely right to continue the negotiations, and will he make that clear to the Israeli Government? Will he continue to adopt the Churchillian rule that jaw-jaw is better than war-war?

We regularly raise consular issues with the Iranians, and we were of course pleased to see the news that Ghoncheh Ghavami has been released on bail pending her appeal. The right hon. Gentleman referred to her as a British citizen. Part of the problem is that she is a dual British-Iranian citizen, and the Iranian constitution does not recognise duality of citizenship, so the Iranians regard her as simply an Iranian citizen. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), met her fiancé this morning; the Prime Minister raised the case with President Rouhani when he met him at the UN General Assembly; I have raised the case with Foreign Minister Zarif, and we will continue to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the absence of Iranian aggression, and I am happy to agree with that as a matter of historical fact. He will know, however, that there are many in the middle east who see the hand of Iranian asymmetric engagement in their internal affairs and would very much urge the Iranians not to intervene in a way that destabilises the situation in various countries around the Gulf. I can tell him that the Israeli Government are well aware of our position, and equally we are well aware of their position.

I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his statement and on the fact that the talks are still live. He says that there are significant differences, but from where I am standing it looks more like an unbridgeable gap, and I would be grateful if he could tell us how he intends to bridge that gap. Can he tell us a bit more about what is going on in Tehran? On the one hand, we have President Rouhani, who clearly wants to move towards a negotiated settlement; on the other, the vibes from the supreme leader’s office are that Iran’s priority is the removal of sanctions but with no retreat from the nuclear programme. Will not those divisions make progress impossible?

One of the characteristics of the negotiations is that the two key protagonists—on one side the Iranians, and on the other the United States—have complex and non-homogeneous internal political audiences, in which different parts of the system may have very different views. We are quite familiar with dealing with that situation in our own environment, and we have to recognise that it sometimes exists in other countries as well.

I do not agree with my right hon. Friend that there is an unbridgeable gap. If we thought that, we would have called a spade a spade and, if I can mix my metaphors, pulled stumps and gone home on Monday—I am not sure whether the Iranians play cricket. We do not believe that there is an unbridgeable gap; we believe that there is a substantial gap. It is a lot smaller now than it was a month ago, and there was a genuine sense of momentum in the room in Vienna over the weekend. The fact is that the Iranians clearly want to do a deal, and we want to do a deal, but we have to make sure that it is a deal that addresses our absolute and unshakeable conviction that Iran must not obtain the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

I commend the Foreign Secretary for making the effort to travel to Vienna and be part of the discussions, and I wish him success with the new time scale. The next nuclear talks in Vienna take place in a fortnight in the international conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons. The United States, more than 100 other countries, the United Nations and the Red Cross have all committed to attending; the UK has in the past boycotted the event. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm today whether the UK will attend that conference in Vienna? The question has been asked a number of times, but no answer has yet been forthcoming.

The hon. Gentleman has asked the question a number of times, and his question has been noted. I have been discussing the conference with other P5 colleagues, and I can assure him that a definitive position on the UK’s attendance will be announced in the next few days.

The Foreign Secretary is exactly right to highlight the relevance of this issue to regional security, a major factor in which has been the continuing hostility between Iran and Sunni Arab states. How confident is he that the process is accepted and supported by countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia?

As the hon. Gentleman knows and as I think we would expect, some of Iran’s neighbours are deeply nervous about the process. They want to be absolutely reassured that if a deal is done which relieves the sanctions pressure on Iran, it is done in exchange for a cast-iron, copper-bottomed guarantee, if one can have such a thing. Perhaps it is cast-iron round the sides and copper at the bottom.

Indeed. Iran’s neighbours seek an absolute guarantee that it will not be able to use its civil nuclear programme to develop the capability to build a bomb.

There are many other middle east countries with legitimate security concerns who are not at the negotiations. Can the Secretary of State tell the House whether their concerns were addressed in Vienna?

If the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Gulf countries, I can say that all of the E3 participants have regular discussions with Gulf colleagues, and indeed with Israeli Government representatives. We are very much aware of the views of other countries in the region who are not represented around the table.

It is often said that, because of the mutual hatred between Iran and Saudi Arabia, if Iran got nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow suit. How realistic is that danger?

I am not in a position to comment on how Saudi Arabia might react to any hypothetical situation. Our focus is on ensuring that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons and does not acquire the capability to build them in future.

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the decision to extend the negotiations because that is clearly a better position than agreeing a bad deal, both for the region and for the world. Can he reassure the House that there will be no question of dismantling sanctions before it has become very clear that Iran’s nuclear capacity has also been dismantled?

Yes, there will be no question of removing the sanctions until we have seen compliance by Iran with the terms of an agreement. I am clear that that agreement will include a restriction of Iran’s capabilities in terms of enrichment to a level appropriate to the legitimate purposes that it has.

Last week the Foreign Secretary expressed the view, which he has just repeated at the Dispatch Box, that no deal is better than a bad deal. Can he confirm that that view is shared by the other P5 plus 1 negotiators, and further that it will inform their negotiating position over the months ahead?

That is the stated view of all the P5 participants—that no deal is better than a bad deal—and I hope that it will inform their negotiating stance over the months ahead.

Although I endorse the approach that the Foreign Secretary has taken towards the negotiations and the obvious long-term benefit of reaching an agreement, may I express a little bit of surprise at the reasons he has given for not progressing faster with the re-establishment of our embassy in Tehran?

The Foreign Secretary will know that this is not the first time we have had to re-establish an embassy; he may not know, but I do, that I visited as a Minister in 2000 when the Khatami regime was opening up the prospect of re-establishing relationships. Although there are undoubtedly difficulties that have to be overcome to guarantee the freedom of our ambassador and staff to work effectively, I would have thought that if there was a will, there would be a way—and I hope that he will pursue that.

I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are pursuing the issue actively with the Iranians, but we are clear that we do not want to reopen an embassy on a half-baked basis. If we are to go back in and reopen our embassy, we have to be able to set up the communications and IT systems that we need, and we must be able to import into Iran the equipment that we need to do that. We continue to discuss with the Iranians the arrangements that we might be able to agree with them to enable us to do that, but we have not succeeded in reaching an agreement.

One of the reasons why the Iranians came to the negotiating table in the first place was the tough international sanctions regime. In some sense they have already received a concession through the interim agreement. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we need to be cautious as these negotiations proceed, to make sure that we do not create a perverse incentive for the Iranians to continue to extend these negotiations as they begin to chip away at the sanctions regime?

It is important that I reiterate that the Iranians are not chipping away at the sanctions regime. Some specific reliefs from sanctions have been provided, but the sanctions that deal with proliferation issues remain in place, so the Iranians cannot get access to equipment that would help them in a nuclear programme, the vast majority of their financial assets remain blocked, and in exchange for the limited relaxation that has been given they have had to enter into a series of detailed obligations that involve reducing the usable stockpile of enriched uranium and diverting new enriched uranium as it is produced into uses that could not be converted to military use at a later date. I consider that to be a sustainable situation for both sides while we continue to negotiate.

The Foreign Secretary, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), mentioned my constituent, Ghoncheh Ghavami. I am grateful to the Minister with responsibility for the middle east, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), for meeting Ghoncheh’s family and me earlier today and I am obviously very pleased that she is out of jail. However, she is only on bail; if she loses her appeal she could be returned to prison for at least another seven months and she has a two-year travel ban. Will the Foreign Secretary use the improved atmosphere between the two Governments to encourage the Iranian authorities to allow Ghoncheh now to return to her home in Shepherd’s Bush?

As I have already told the House, we have raised and will continue to raise this case with the Iranians, but they simply do not recognise our locus. The Iranian constitution does not recognise the concept of dual nationality and therefore our protestations are received politely, but without any obvious effect.

The extension of the deadline is the second-best option, but one that is welcome all the same—going the extra mile to try to resolve the impasse could unlock so many thorny problems in the region. May I press the Foreign Secretary for absolute clarity as to the west’s position? He said that he does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons or to develop nuclear weapons itself. Is it the west’s position that Iran would be allowed to harness technology and capability to the point of break-out?

The clear position of the E3 plus 3 is that Iran should be allowed to pursue a peaceful civil nuclear programme, but that safeguards should be in place that prevent Iran from acquiring the capability to develop a nuclear weapon.

Three weeks ago, I had in my office a deputation of Iranian Christians who had fled Iran due to persecution and business men who still carry out business in Iran. Both groups informed me that Iran’s verbal statements on its nuclear strategy are untrue and that behind backs Iran is fully focused on developing a nuclear bomb. What discussions has the Foreign Secretary had outside Government with those in Iran who clearly know what is happening on the ground in relation to the nuclear strategy?

Let us be clear about this: Iranian society, like pretty much every other society, is not homogenous. I would be astonished if there were not people in Iran saying that Iran needs to develop a nuclear bomb. That is not the issue. The issue is the position of the Iranian Government and the Iranian senior leadership.

What we are seeking to do is establish a robust framework within which Iran can develop a civil nuclear programme, while assuring us that it has no intention of developing, and will have no capability to develop, a nuclear weapons capability. It would be unreasonable of me to expect the Iranian Government to vouch for there being not a single individual in Iran who thought that the Government’s stance in engaging with the west in these negotiations was wrong. I am sure there are hard-liners who would prefer these negotiations to break down. Fortunately, that is not the position of the Government of Iran.

I do not think this has been mentioned yet this afternoon, but there are many people who believe that Iran has no intention whatever of getting rid of its nuclear weapons programme and is using negotiations as a delaying tactic. That being the case, if in four or seven months no progress has been made, where do we move to then? Would military action be considered?

I hear my hon. Friend’s point, but if negotiations under the terms of the joint plan of action are a delaying tactic, they are a very poor one, because what Iran has to do during this period is systematically and steadily to convert its stock of enriched uranium into materials that cannot be used and could not be used for further enrichment and therefore for military purposes. It is a rather poor tactic, if that is what it is.

We are focused on trying to pursue this negotiation and get to a comprehensive agreement. I do not think it would be helpful to speculate on what might happen if we fail, but we are very clear: we are not going to enter into a bad deal. If we cannot get a deal that gives us clear reassurance that Iran is not going to acquire the capability to build a nuclear weapon, we will not do the deal. We will then have to deal with the consequences of such a situation, but it is not helpful to speculate on those now.

I welcome the statement from the Foreign Secretary and the work done by his predecessor on this matter. Along with what is going on in relation to its nuclear capacity, has a lot of pressure been put on Iran for it to stop supporting and harbouring terrorism—whether from Hamas in Israel, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, from interference in Iraq or from support for the brutal regime in Syria? If we want Iran to be a key player in the international community, it must abide by international norms.

We have a separate bilateral dialogue with the Iranians in which we urge them, as I said earlier, not to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries and not to take actions that would destabilise the region, but these nuclear discussions are taking place at P5 plus 1 or E3 plus 3, whichever people choose to call it. On many of the issues that my hon. Friend listed we would not get agreement among the P5 plus 1 about what is happening on the ground, so we have chosen—I think it is the right decision—to keep these nuclear talks ring-fenced and separate from all other bilateral and multilateral strands of discussion with Iran.

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that Iran must be asked to provide details of its previous nuclear activity? Otherwise a mechanism for monitoring Iran’s future actions will be fundamentally flawed.

Yes. An essential part of the agreement will be a proper investigation into, and understanding of, past breaches of Iran’s international obligations in respect of nuclear weapons.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a successful conclusion of these E3 plus 3 negotiations could lead to greater normalisation of relations with Iran, which would make a number of the problems that my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti) mentioned earlier much easier to resolve?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend’s point. Iran feels isolated and behaves in a way that sometimes reflects that. The big prize here is that we get Iran to become an active part of the international economy. Iran is a big country, with some sophisticated capabilities, and having it back as a partner in the international economy will be significant. Once Iran feels that it is playing a full role as a normal state in the international community, I hope that we will start to see Iranian behaviour reflecting that, and Iran wanting to resolve issues through bilateral and multilateral discussion rather than through the kind of unilateral action that, unfortunately, we have seen in the past.

May I echo the Foreign Secretary’s thanks and congratulations to Baroness Cathy Ashton for the tremendous work that she has done during the many years she has been involved in the process? He rightly wants the P5 plus 1 to focus solely on the nuclear negotiations, but Iran exercises enormous political and security influence over Iraq and is shoring up the murderous Assad regime. Have the Iranian authorities attempted to link these nuclear negotiations with help in defeating ISIL?

I welcome the Foreign Secretary’s determination to make progress on the nuclear issues, but will he reassure the House that he will continue to stand up for persecuted religious minorities in Iran—in particular Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been locked up for two years without access to legal representation or medical treatment under this brutal regime?

Yes. Iran’s human rights record is poor, to put it mildly, and while there have been some limited steps in the right direction, it is clear that a huge amount remains to be done. We do raise human rights issues with the Iranians on a regular basis. My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the particular problem of religious persecution and the unwarranted imprisonment of those practising minority religions in Iran.

It is fairly clear that the negotiations will get much more complex when both Houses of Congress are hostile to the Administration’s negotiating policy. Looking back to Iran, what can the Foreign Secretary tell us about the confidence that the Iranian negotiating team enjoys from the Iranian Parliament? Is there anything that can be done to address the flattering but rather hilarious view in Iran that Britain is at the centre of all evil that befalls Iran and is the directing evil genius of policy towards it?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right—and not only about Iran. I often discover that we wield a great deal more power and influence in the world than appears to be evident from my seat in the Foreign Office. He is right to say that American congressional politics is a significant complicating factor in moving forward, and, as I said a few moments ago, it very much reflects the diversity of view in Iran also about how this negotiation should be conducted. But the reality, and the thing that is driving things forward, is that there is a huge prize for both sides in getting to an acceptable deal. So long as there is a win-win and something substantial in it for both sides, there will be continued momentum.

In his statement, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that the November 2013 interim agreement commits Iran to freezing certain areas of its nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief and the repatriation of $4 billion-worth of oil revenues. Although the sanctions relief and the oil revenues are transparent and measurable, freezing areas of its nuclear programme is not. Given that there is either limited or no inspections access to nuclear and weapons facilities at Fordow, Natanz, Arak and Parchin, how confident can he be that Iran is freezing these areas of nuclear development, and is not secretly using this extended deadline to produce enough fissile material to develop nuclear weapons?

We are highly confident of that. The technical representatives of the E3 plus 3 review these issues regularly. We do have access to and visibility of what is going on. The arrangements under the interim agreement for monitoring are effective, and we are confident that Iran is complying with its obligations—in some cases, complying with our interpretation of an obligation even where there may be some uncertainty in the wording of the document itself.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for coming to the House and keeping us informed. There are some reports in the media saying that effectively the west is being played for a fool by Iran and that it is developing a nuclear programme, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) suggested. Will the Foreign Secretary tell the House frankly whether he thinks Iran will have nuclear weapons in the future?

That will depend, crucially, on whether we are successful in reaching an agreement. If we reach an agreement, Iran will have a civil nuclear programme with the support and assistance of the international community, but will not be able to develop the capability to build a nuclear weapon. If we do not reach agreement—indeed, if we had got to the deadline yesterday and not rolled over the interim agreement—Iran would have been able, albeit under the current sanctions regime, to continue to enrich uranium and build a stockpile of fissile material, which is absolutely not in the interests of the international community. There is no alternative to pressing forward, giving it our very best shot, to get an acceptable deal with Iran. If we cannot do that, we cannot do it, but we will give it our very best shot.