I beg to move,
That this House has considered Iran and the proposed nuclear agreement.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. This is an opportune moment to consider once again the proposed nuclear agreement regarding Iran. It is opportune because an outline agreement was presented on 2 April 2015, and it is expected that a full agreement might be reached by the end of this month. It is therefore right and proper that Parliament should once again consider the issue.
This debate follows the good and positive Back-Bench business debate held in November 2014, during the last Parliament. Since then, a number of parliamentary questions have been asked of the Government, and several statements have been made. On top of that, by way of context, it is important and relevant to consider the report published by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs during the last Parliament. The context extends beyond this place to the outside world, and we need to be aware of it. The debate is opportune. I shall ask the Minister a significant number of questions, to which I hope he can respond. It is relevant to ask those questions before an agreement is finalised, as there are genuine concerns across the House about the details of the proposed agreement.
To start, we must ask what the intention is of any proposed agreement. That is crucial. My understanding was that initially, the aim of any nuclear agreement with Iran was to deal with non-proliferation and ensure no further development of nuclear weapons in that country, yet given the developments that we read about, it appears that the discussion has moved from being about a non-proliferation treaty to being about something more closely related to an arms control treaty. That is an important, but not necessarily positive, development. The original talks between the P5+1 and Iran definitely commenced on the basis of a non-proliferation treaty.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Does he agree that the proposed deal seeks to legitimise Iran’s nuclear activities, such as enriching and stockpiling low-grade uranium, for which there is no civilian use whatever? We are talking about a country that is one of the world’s largest—if not the largest—state sponsors of terrorism.
Order. That intervention was perfectly legitimate and in order, but I say to all Members present that there are a lot of Members here and we have only 90 minutes, so it is not my intention to call anybody to make a speech who makes an intervention beforehand. I want to ensure that everybody has a chance to have their say.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone. There is some merit to my hon. Friend’s points, but I called this debate to see what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s view is of the potential context and contents of any proposed agreement.
A bilateral arms control treaty is not what our partners in the region are looking for. In preparing for this debate, I was fortunate enough to be briefed by representatives of the Bahraini Government on behalf of the Gulf Co-operation Council, and it is fair to say that our partner states in the Gulf have specific concerns about how significantly the proposed treaty has moved from what was originally intended. One of the most striking comments made by the representatives of the Bahraini Government was that they felt increasingly as if they were being treated by the P5+1 similarly to how eastern European countries were treated when there were arms control treaties between the US and the Soviet Union. If that development is concerning our allies in the GCC, the Government should take that seriously.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. He mentioned the GCC and Bahrain, but another linked point is Iran harbouring and sponsoring terrorism in Yemen by supporting the Houthi rebels to destabilise the region, as well as in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, in addition to supporting Hamas in Israel. We cannot have a nuclear agreement with a state that is sponsoring and harbouring terrorism. It is a short-term fix for a long-term problem for the international community.
My hon. Friend makes a pertinent point, which was certainly reflected in my discussions with the representatives of the Bahraini Government last week. The fact that good intentions are being taken for granted in relation to the treaty is being questioned by some of the Gulf states, which have concerns about Iran’s foreign policy objectives, to put it mildly, in that part of the world. It is important when we consider the potential treaty that we take into account the views of not just the P5+1 but partner states in that part of the world.
Does my hon. Friend not feel that what he has described as the thoughts of the Gulf states are increased by the attitude to the detail, including about centrifuges? If Iran is allowed to retain 6,000-plus centrifuges against the original estimate of 1,000, that is clearly a bad sign.
I fully endorse those comments. I will address the issue of the centrifuges in due course. It is reasonable to say that the figure of 6,000 now assumed to be part of a proposed treaty is significantly in excess of the 1,000 originally discussed by the P5+1 when the negotiations started. The question whether that is actually in the treaty must be addressed.
I do not want to be described as a cynic, but it is fair to question whether the agreement is actually an effort to resolve the issue, or whether it is effectively an effort to ensure a foreign policy legacy for the current American Administration. I am making this contribution in the spirit of the Back-Bench business debate held in November 2014. I think that there is a genuine realisation that we need an agreement, but must that agreement be rushed to achieve a foreign policy goal for a US Administration who might not be in place for very long? We need some certainty on that.
Many of the Gulf states—my hon. Friend mentioned Bahrain, but obviously this includes the United Arab Emirates and others—are nervous about Iran’s intentions. Iran knows that we want a deal, but it clearly understands the timetabling, and that it will be much easier to leverage something advantageous to Iran if we are working to a timeline that is affected by legacies in the United States of America or anything else.
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. The key thing is that the proposed treaty stands or falls on its own merits. It should not be subject to a timetable pushed on the basis of others’ priorities. That certainly came across in my meeting with GCC representatives prior to this debate.
We must ensure that the agreement satisfies the concerns of our allies in the middle east. In addition, it is important to clarify whether major concessions have been made by the P5+1, as current rumours about the agreement’s content would indicate. It is important for the Government to say what concessions have been offered in return for the ones that have been made, for example, in relation to the number of centrifuges. We need an outline of the concessions made.
To return to the Back-Bench business debate held in November 2014, I am glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who was one of the Members who secured it. It was a positive debate, in which a range of opinions were expressed about the intentions, or otherwise, of Iran, and about the historical context of any proposed deal. There were fine speeches that highlighted the missed opportunities in the past for an agreement with Iran. It would certainly benefit any Member who is interested in this subject to reread the debate, as I did prior to coming to Westminster Hall today.
I was struck by the very fair summary of that debate provided by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), who is also here today; I welcome him back to his position in government. He concluded that debate in an excellent manner by saying clearly:
“It is right that we should leave no stone unturned in the quest to”
reach an agreement,
“but we must not, and will not, do a bad deal. The stakes are too high.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 1034WH.]
Those comments can probably be endorsed by everybody here today. However, we need certainty that a proposed deal or compromise, which is rumoured to include significant concessions, is the right deal; we need reassurance on that.
What are the main concerns? My hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) mentioned centrifuges, and I have to mention one of the biggest challenges in this debate: how do I pronounce “centrifuges”? Initially, the aim of the P5+1 was to reach an agreement that would allow Iran to maintain 1,000, or possibly 1,500, centrifuges. In the Back-Bench business debate in November 2014, the then Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee stated that the evidence that the Committee had heard as part of its inquiry was that the maximum number of centrifuges that Iran should be allowed was between 2,000 and 4,000. It is said that 4,500 centrifuges will allow the production of 25 kg of highly enriched uranium within a six-month period, yet we hear a rumour that an agreement will allow Iran to have 6,000 centrifuges. We can do the maths. We would be looking at 25 kg of enriched uranium within not six months, but four. There is a real question as to why the demands of the P5+1 have changed so dramatically and what concessions have been offered in return. We need a response to that question.
Secondly on centrifuges, perhaps 13,000 or 14,000 centrifuges would be made redundant as a result of an agreement that would leave Iran with 6,000. How many of those 13,000 or 14,000 extra centrifuges would be dismantled? If they are not dismantled, what is to stop them being recommissioned, and how long would it take to recommission them? Again, there are significant questions about the possible allowance of 6,000 centrifuges and what happens to the 13,000 or 14,000 other centrifuges that would remain in Iranian hands.
It is important to state that 30 countries have a civilian nuclear programme. In the November debate, Jack Straw, the former Member for Blackburn, forcefully made the point that any sovereign country has the right to pursue an energy policy. I agree. However, of those 30 countries, only 11 have the capacity to enrich their own fuel. On what basis do the P5+1 conclude that Iran should become the 12th, given its Government’s track record on allowing monitoring and allowing third parties to examine its military capacity in relation to the enrichment of uranium?
I certainly accept that the good will and good intentions of Iran should be considered in the context of its continued support for terrorism in many parts of the middle east, which, as I have said, is a key concern of many of our partner nations in the region.
I will be very quick. We sometimes get stuck on the number of centrifuges. However, since the negotiations began, the technology around centrifuges —I declare an interest: my background is in chemical engineering—has advanced so far that a single centrifuge now is much more productive than when the negotiations started.
Indeed. My hon. Friend makes an important point that I was going to come on to. The research and development allowed as part of any agreement is very important. What guarantees can we be offered about the development of more advanced centrifuges? If there are no such guarantees in the agreement, real questions must be asked. If we are trying to reach an agreement to curtail the breakout time for Iran to develop nuclear capacity, the sophistication and possible development of centrifuges is crucial, yet there is no detail, as far as I can see, about what kind of monitoring of research and development will be undertaken.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. He asked a broader question about research and development, and about the importance of the agreement being not only retrospective but prospective. It should be future-proofed, so that improvements in technology, productivity and capacity are taken into account, and sufficient protections are put in place against the future capacity to develop uranium—and, indeed, other harmful technologies.
Again, I accept my hon. Friend’s comments. To a large extent, one of my concerns is monitoring, and the access that monitors will be allowed, so that that type of review can be conducted. There are real concerns as to whether that monitoring will be of an acceptable nature.
We also need to address the issue of the nuclear sites. If my understanding of the proposed deal is correct, two sites—Natanz and Fordow—will be retained. I must ask the Government and the Minister a question about that. If such a concession has been made, what concessions have been offered in return by the Iranians to facilitate the agreement?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on not only securing this debate, but approaching it in a very balanced way. He was good enough to accept that, in the past, mistakes were made by both sides, and we in the west would now gladly take up some of the concessions that we once refused, because things have been moved on.
I say to the Minister that although it is terribly important that we have the proper safeguards in place in any agreement, particularly to protect our friends in the region—I accept that point 100%, and we must focus on it like a laser—we must not lose sight of the benefits that would arise from our reaching some sort of agreement with Iran. There could be many such benefits across the region, which is becoming increasingly unstable, and we cannot ignore the fact that Iran is a major regional power that we created with our misguided invasion of Iraq.
I agree with many of my hon. Friend’s points, and I agree that the benefits arising from a good deal are worth fighting for. However, I suspect that many Members have concerns about the nature of the proposed deal and about the certainty that any such deal offers Iran’s neighbours, who also have real concerns, as he acknowledged. I accept the point about mistakes made in the past, and the importance of having a proper deal in place. However, the key point is that the deal must be acceptable to all and must give other countries in that part of the world confidence in the long term.
There is also a concern about the proposed length of the deal; we are looking at a deal that will possibly be limited to 10 years. Again, in the context of considering the development of nuclear capacity, we must ask ourselves whether 10 years is reasonable or sufficient. Given that the deal does nothing, as far as I can see, to deal with Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities, there is a real question as to whether 10 years is insufficient.
If the aim is to secure the right deal, can we justify the type of concessions that we have been reading about? Hon. Members touched on verification in their interventions, but we need certainty from the Foreign Office and the Government that there is confidence that the degree of verification allowed under any agreement will be acceptable. Once again, the track record of the Iranian regime does not allow us to be confident in that regard. I understand from those who comment and speculate on what happens in Iran that only last month the International Atomic Energy Agency was refused access, and Ayatollah Khamenei said:
“No inspection of any military site or interview with nuclear scientists will be allowed.”
The question whether we will have a proper verification process in any agreement gives rise to real concern. If we have an agreement with a proper verification process, it must be maintained and foolproof, but once again Iran’s track record does not give us much confidence.
The other question that we need to address is whether an agreement that is as compromising as the proposed agreement appears to be actually contributes to an escalation of the arms race in the region, rather than a reduction of tensions. The agreement appears to state clearly that putting Iran in a position in which it is within six months of a breakout for the next 10 years is acceptable. My concern, which I think is shared by hon. Members, is that other countries in the region would end up in an arms race—not to produce a nuclear weapon, but to be within six months of a breakout. It is worth mentioning that Prince Turki al-Faisal from Saudi Arabia stated clearly that
“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too”.
That comment should be taken seriously by the Government when they assess the merits or otherwise of the deal.
Any proposed deal has to satisfy the needs of the P5+1, a very unstable region and our allies in the region. However, the real test is whether it satisfies the original intention, which was to ensure that Iran did not develop a nuclear capacity. Dr Bruno Tertrais stated that we must not
“ignore the lessons of history: nuclear-capable countries never stay at the threshold for very long.”
Looking at the bare bones of the proposed agreement, it would appear that the P5+1 are now willing to accept Iran’s being at the threshold of a nuclear breakout and that that threshold will be maintained for the next 10 years. Dr Tertrais’s words are important in that context. Countries with the capacity to develop a nuclear weapon will almost invariably end up developing it.
That is an interesting point, but I suspect that the significant political changes in South Africa made a real difference to how it viewed its position in the world. I suspect that the changes that happened in South Africa are not going to happen any time soon in Iran, so my comments are still worth bearing in mind.
To what extent is the Foreign Office confident that the proposed deal, the outlines of which have been given, will be made in the long-term interest of not only Iran, but neighbouring states in the middle east? If assurances about that cannot be given, there are real questions to be asked about whether we can support any proposed deal.
I will call Guto Bebb at the end of the debate for two minutes to sum up what has been debated. Seven Members wish to contribute. I do not want to call the Front-Bench spokesmen any later than 10.40 am, with the debate closing at 11 am, so I am introducing a six-minute limit. If there are lots of interventions, I am afraid I will have to cut that to five minutes.
The election of Hassan Rouhani as Iranian President in June 2013 was heralded by certain sections of the western commentariat as a landmark moment: here was a Government with whom we would be able to do business and who would bring Iran in from the cold. Calls for caution from seasoned Iran observers were lost in the now all too familiar triumph of wishful thinking over critical analysis and the superficial obsession with media-friendly projection. Fast forward to 2015 and it has become clear that the country’s direction has not changed. It was never going to, and those who expected change fundamentally misunderstand the structure of Iranian power.
President Rouhani was destined only ever to have a limited influence in a state dominated by the Supreme Leader and the revolutionary guard. Khamenei has shown an amazing ability for consistency that western politicians can only dream of. He has never wavered in his belief about the purity of the Islamic revolution, his detestation of the United States or his contempt for the existence of the state of Israel. Nor has President Rouhani’s Administration brought any respite for the Iranian people. In 2014, Iran was the world’s leader in executions per capita. Freedoms that we in the west take for granted continue to be aggressively curtailed. Persecution of those who supported the green movement, and their families, continues relentlessly, and the western media seem curiously detached from, or even indifferent to, the plight of their savagely repressed Iranian colleagues. Iran remains a sponsor of state terrorism, providing financial, logistical and material support to Islamist terror groups across the region, including those targeting British forces when they were in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Iran persists in its refusal to respond adequately to the international community’s fears about its nuclear programme. Iran’s nuclear intentions cannot be seen outside the context of its support for terror proxies, arguably the defining feature of its foreign policy. The risks are clear.
Anxieties over Iran's nuclear intentions are well placed. Iran’s extensive nuclear programme features many of the key components required to facilitate the domestic production of a nuclear weapon: possession of large quantities of enriched materials; knowledge to convert enriched materials into weaponised form; and the development and possession of a delivery mechanism in the form of ballistic missiles. The country has a long history of clandestine nuclear work. Two of the nuclear-related facilities, at Natanz and Arak, which are at the centre of the international community’s concerns, were constructed secretly in a clear breach of the spirit, if not the letter, of Iran’s obligations under the NPT. For years, Iran used these facilities to enrich uranium to levels and quantities beyond those required for a legitimate and peaceful civil nuclear programme. Iran routinely neglects its obligations to co-operate with the IAEA, including repeatedly denying IAEA inspectors access to contentious nuclear-related facilities, such as the one in Parchin at which it is suspected of having previously undertaken tests related to triggers for nuclear weapons. It is logical to assume that Iran’s intentions are to develop a nuclear weapons capability and any claims that its intentions are exclusively peaceful should not be regarded as credible.
We may have seen a less confrontational diplomatic posture over the nuclear issue than under the former President, but the real position has not changed. Iran must not be allowed to dictate the terms of any final, permanent nuclear agreement; it has not earned the benefit of the doubt. A permanent deal must cover, in meticulous detail, all elements of Iran’s nuclear-related activity, including its ballistic missile programme. Ballistic missiles are, after all, the final critical-stage component of the weaponisation process and prohibited under United Nations Security Council resolution 1929. Omitting such sensitive technology from a final agreement would be inexcusable, and the Iranians are masters are manipulating the detail of any agreement to their advantage. Likewise, to be wrong-footed over this long-term issue due to short-term considerations of potential Iranian help with ISIS would be a colossal error.
We have a number of clear concerns. The time limitation of the agreement is merely to put off the dreadful day that we have all been dreading. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) said, allowing the number of centrifuges to remain at 6,000 or above is an utterly unacceptable risk and allows breakout at almost any time. On verification, anything less than unfettered access is unacceptable, because we know, in the light of the Iranians’ behaviour in the past, how they will manipulate any weakness in the terms of the IAEA’s access.
Khamenei has already talked about how sanctions must be lifted immediately that any agreement is made, tearing up the terms of the proposed agreement before it is finally put down on paper. It is a sign of things to come and we should not be giving the benefit of the doubt to such a leader.
A nuclear-armed Iran would make an absolute mockery of the NPT, not least because it would be likely to be followed into the nuclear club in short order by its regional neighbours, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. The prospect of a nuclear arms race in one of the world’s most unstable regions, where the likelihood of the use of such weapons is probably greatest, should be of concern to us all. The stakes are enormous. It is no exaggeration to state that the fate of international security rests on the P5+1’s ability to secure the right deal. Anything less would reshape our whole understanding of international security with dire consequences. The P5+1 must not blink. A bad deal is worse than no deal. Appeasement has a very bad track record.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and to participate in this debate. I have listened to it with interest. I was tempted to intervene on a number of occasions, but did not because I observed your earlier injunction.
I will start with a couple of facts. Iran is a signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. The same cannot be said of Israel, Pakistan or India. Iran is surrounded by countries that have nuclear weapons: to the north, Russia; to the west, Israel; to the east, Pakistan; and, to the south, the United States through its navy. The desire to defend oneself in a tough neighbourhood is normal. Indeed, a moment ago my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) said that, if Iran were to get nuclear weapons, it would be rapidly followed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. That is probably correct, but when one listens to the debate, one might think that the Iranians are not sentient or thinking people. One might think that it had not occurred to them that, if they got nuclear weapons, it would be rapidly followed by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey. One might think that only we heard Prince Faisal when he said:
“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have”.
In fact, in the region, the Iranians are more directly affected by any of this than we are. I think we can take it as read, actually, that Iran will have a rather precise understanding and calibration of the consequences of its actions. I very much welcome the fact that the Iranians and the Saudi Foreign Ministers met in Oman recently.
I will quote from Seyed Hossein Mousavian’s book, “The Iranian Nuclear Crisis”. In a section at the end, under the heading, “An End to Double Standards”, he said:
“The fact that the P5+1 countries maintain strategic and aid relations with Israel, India and Pakistan, which have nuclear weapons and are not parties to the NPT, while at the same time they pressure Iran, which has not acquired nuclear weapons, sends a message to other countries that once they get the bomb they are immune.”
In one of the concluding paragraphs of the entire book, he states:
“I believe that P5+1 handling of the nuclear issue has been bedeviled by U.S. reluctance to give sufficient weight to accumulating evidence that since 2003 Iran has decided to respect its NPT obligation to refrain from manufacturing or otherwise acquiring nuclear weapons. This misjudgment freezes the P5+1 into positions which preclude any movement towards the areas of mutual interest with Iran that, I am convinced, exist.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) said, we alluded to some of those areas of mutual interest in the debate on 6 November. I hope that there is a degree of flexibility in the negotiations to suggest that misjudgment has been suspended and that, while we need to keep our eyes open, there is a possibility of finding a mutually satisfactory deal.
In that debate on 6 November, Jack Straw, who sadly is no longer in the House of Commons, pointed out something that Foreign Minister Zarif had said to him in January last year:
“in 2005, Iran had fewer than 200 centrifuges. After eight years of sanctions, it now has 18,800.”—[Official Report, 6 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 997WH.]
My right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset will say, “Why on earth would they do that if they were not interested in getting nuclear weapons?” The short answer is that it is the same reason why Vladimir Putin plays silly buggers on the international stage: because he can.
Iran has been treated like a pariah state for many years. Several people, including my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), have referred to terrorism. Iran was described earlier in the debate as “the premier sponsor of terrorism.” It is true that Iran maintains relations with Hamas in Gaza and retains relations with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. We know that they are groups engaged in terrorism, but no one would suggest that they are the premier threat to world peace through terrorism at the moment.
It is also true that Iran has relations with the Houthis, who, depending on the definition, are Shi’a. One can meet Iranians, as I did in Tehran in December, who will say that the Houthis are not necessarily Shi’a. When Iranian Members of Parliament visited Westminster in March this year, they made that point in the Foreign Office. Iranians are engaged with the Houthis in Yemen because they rightly think that Yemen is being used by al-Qaeda and Islamic State as an extended training base. Whoever thinks—forgive me, but I cannot remember who said it—that Iran is “the premier sponsor of terrorism” should look around. No one actually said this, but one might be forgiven for thinking that the present firestorm in the middle east, and the fact that we have the most brutal war going on, where people are being beheaded and crucified, is a direct consequence of Iran—it is not.
My intervention is extremely short, Mr Hollobone, and it is to point out that I believe I referred to Iran as “a premier sponsor”. I hope that that casts some illumination on the notion that there are various sources of threat in this world and that my hon. Friend considers all of them in his following remarks.
I will. My final point—I will observe your injunction, Mr Hollobone—is that Iran was in the frontline against the Taliban and al-Qaeda and is now in the frontline against IS, which is one of the most brutal, stone-age regimes that we have seen in modern history and which exists as a direct consequence of our having invaded Iraq in 2003 with President Bush and smashed the country into small pieces.
It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing it. I certainly agreed with the first two speeches, but I did not agree with a great deal that my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) said. In fact, I would describe his speech as complacent in parts, particularly what appeared to be his defence of the Iranian regime’s actions compared with other countries. I think it is very complacent to dismiss the Iranian regime’s behaviour in sponsoring terrorism and supporting the murder of individuals around the region and the world on the basis that Iran is on the frontline against ISIS, which is, as he said, a cruel and vicious organisation.
I was certainly not accusing my hon. Friend; I accused the Iranian regime, which I said he seemed to be defending, of being engaged in the support of mass murder. If he looks at the record, I am sure he will see that.
I pretty much agreed with everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy had to say. It is not the first debate on Iran that he and I have taken part in, but as the United Kingdom is one of the members of the P5+1, it is slightly frustrating that we have had few opportunities in the House to debate the detail of what is emerging, or even to express our concerns during the negotiation process. It should greatly worry us all that, in the lead-up to the 30 June deadline, many issues remain outstanding. Not only are there clear discrepancies between the expectations and demands of the various parties to the negotiating process, but many of the proposed parameters are worthy of criticism.
At this very late stage, increasingly concerning reports have been emerging. An IAEA report—I apologise; with my flat vowels, it is hard to get all those letters out together—this month has revealed that Tehran’s stockpile of nuclear fuel has increased by 20% in the 18 months since negotiations began. That point has been made by other speakers. Worryingly, the news completely contradicts President Obama’s contention that the nuclear programme had been frozen in that period. In previous debates, I and colleagues across the House said that that was exactly what we expected to happen.
Of particular concern are the many reports of Iran’s intransigence towards the verification of the so-called possible military dimensions and its continued blocking of access to the country’s military sites to allow the IAEA to carry out crucial investigations. In a previous debate, I quoted a report saying exactly the same thing. Will the Minister tell us how we can possibly ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme is what it says it is when the IAEA is unable to determine the true extent of Iran’s historical research into nuclear weaponry or properly calculate the breakout time?
I am reminded of the words of the sadly now former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister. His assessment of the process was that past actions predict future actions and that Iran had not earned the right—I have forgotten the quote, Mr Hollobone; I am still very tired from a recent long journey. I will come back to that point in a moment. I do apologise.
Since the announcement of the proposed parameters in April, Iranian officials have avowedly rejected any co-operation with the IAEA’s crucial investigations. That justifies the IAEA’s long-held concerns about the Iranian regime’s true intentions. Only on Sunday, the deputy chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri—excuse my pronunciation; being from Yorkshire I am not particularly good with anything that is not English—reiterated the regime’s position that permission to visit Iran’s military centres
“will definitely never be issued for any kind of access…even if it runs counter to the acceptance of the Additional Protocol”.
That leads to the question: what do the Iranians have to hide?
As the international community makes numerous concessions to Iran, which is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy and others pointed out, a country in the grip of a fundamentalist regime that has sponsored terrorism around the world and particularly in the region, Iran continues to hang its political prisoners and fund terror groups across the middle east. Given everything that the P5+1 and the west are seemingly expected to concede, will the Minister tell us what concessions the Iranians are expected to make in return? I will return to the words of the former Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, who urged extreme caution in our approach to this situation. I hope that the Minister will have those words and warnings in mind when he responds to the debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing this debate.
This is not the first time we have discussed this issue in Westminster Hall. On 26 February 2014, I initiated a debate on the interim agreement with Iran, so it is hard not to repeat oneself; indeed, many hon. Members have already outlined many of the issues of concern. I have therefore decided to approach the matter from a completely different point of view: the environmental implications of a nuclear Iran. The Iranian regime has announced that it is interested in the construction of nuclear technology only for energy consumption and that a civilian nuclear Iran seeks such capability only for peaceful uses but, in this age of environmental sustainability and renewables, it strikes me as perverse that such a claim is being made to justify a nuclear programme in the middle east.
Iran is rich in its natural supply of minerals, oil and gas, and there is an abundance of possibilities in the country to produce renewable energy from the wind and sun. The opportunities are infinite, as the production of energy from such natural resources is not only cheaper but much safer for the environment. Iran can secure not only its domestic but possibly the regional energy supply, without resorting to nuclear technology.
We have only to look at the country’s existing nuclear facilities to consider how safe such an expanded nuclear industry would be. A good example is the Bushehr nuclear plant, which lies on the coast of the Persian gulf, south of Tehran. There have been huge safety concerns about the plant, associated with its construction, its ageing equipment and under-staffing. The Centre for Energy and Security Studies, an independent Russian think tank, explained the construction delays at the plant as due partly to a
“shortage of skilled Russian engineering and construction specialists with suitable experience”.
In 2010, the International Atomic Energy Agency noted that the facility was under-staffed. It is clear that Iran does not have the human capacity for a nuclear industry.
Leaders from Gulf Co-operation Council countries have expressed fears that a serious nuclear accident at the Bushehr plant would spread radiation throughout the region. Bushehr is closer to the six Arab capitals of Kuwait City, Riyadh, Manama, Doha, Abu Dhabi and Muscat than it is to Tehran. The United States Geological Survey and NASA say the plant is near the boundary of the Arabian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Bushehr plant could be the next Chernobyl or Fukushima, with the potential to contaminate vast swathes of the middle east in the event of an explosion.
Iran’s wants to acquire nuclear technology not so that it can match the technological achievements of the west; we all know that it is an overt attempt to challenge the military capabilities of other countries and to establish itself as a presence in the geopolitics of the middle east.
Given that, apart from Egypt, Iran is probably the most populous country in the middle east and given its strategic position occupying one entire side of the Gulf, does it surprise my hon. Friend that it might want to have an important role in the strategic geopolitics of the region?
It does not surprise me, but I worry about Iran’s intentions in such a role. I will come on to that shortly.
The nuclear programme has many attractions for the Iranian president and the supreme leader. Internally, it increases self-confidence in elements of the regime’s core supporters, such as the revolutionary guards and the Quds and Popular Mobilisation forces. Externally, it boosts the regime’s prestige in the eyes of fundamentalist militant sympathisers such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza—so yes, I agree with my hon. Friend that Iran wants prestige and influence. The nuclear programme can also be used for the blackmail of regional countries by raising the threat of a localised nuclear attack. It allows Iran to become a dominant voice in the Persian gulf and could ensure its ascendancy in the global community as it seeks to cajole and influence. Most of all, it can be used as a tool to sabotage the middle east peace process and give advantage to Iran to dictate the terms and destabilise order in the region, especially in countries such as Israel.
The proposed deal makes no reference to Iran’s role as leading sponsor of state terrorism, which was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti). While negotiations were ongoing in Switzerland, Iranian-backed Houthi rebels were seizing control of the Yemeni capital, and Iran was extending its presence in Iraq and attempting to establish a new front in the Golan Heights in co-ordination with the terror group Hezbollah. Again, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon): Iran is seeking to exert influence.
The Iranian regime is known to provide financial and material support to extremist Islamist terrorist organisations in the middle east, including Hamas, Hezbollah and the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. It reportedly provides Hezbollah with up to $200 million a year and spends up to $35 billion to prop up the Assad regime. Between 2006 and 2011, it financed Hamas with up to $300 million annually. Iran actively sponsors international terrorist groups that are committed to the destruction of Israel and act as Iran’s proxies.
It is not just me who has concerns about the Iranian regime and its attempt to attain a nuclear weapon. The IAEA, the UN Security Council and many western countries have long-standing concerns. In November 2014, the IAEA director general called on Iran to
“increase its co-operation with the agency and to provide timely access to all relevant information, documentation, sites, material and personnel”.
Iran does not act in any way to allay the fear of us sceptics. It has repeatedly denied IAEA inspectors access to key nuclear sites, including at Parchin, where it is believed to have conducted tests involving triggers for nuclear weapons. Our concerns are legitimate. Iran needs to demonstrate the exclusively peaceful, civilian nature of its nuclear programme and intentions before it can possibly be considered a normal, non-nuclear-weapons state. It will not do that though, so I remain highly concerned about the deal, like other Members present.
The verification programme is not enough, and Iran’s failure to address the potential military dimensions to its nuclear programme undermines the IAEA’s ability to verify the programme and accurately calculate its breakout time. Iran needs to make concrete progress on the disclosure of its weaponisation activities prior to receiving sanctions relief, because an agreement that ignores Iran’s past weaponisation work would risk being unverifiable. Until such issues are resolved, I appeal to the Minister, as I did to the Prime Minister in the House, not to enable Iran to become a nuclear power. We should be wary of its intentions. As I said to the Prime Minister, the road between a civilian nuclear Iran and a military nuclear Iran is a short one. I repeat the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who said that it would be better to have no deal than a bad deal.
It is good to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) for securing this debate.
I want to discuss the principles behind the forthcoming agreement. American Presidents in their second term are—dare I say it?—dangerous, because they are looking to leave legacies, and those who might struggle to leave a legacy look even harder. We must be careful that that is not what the agreement is about. I have much respect for my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who is a great friend of mine, but I entirely disagree with him. Will there be a pecking order for terrorism as to which groups are the worst? I think not. In our desire, which is quite right, to have Iranian help to deal with ISIS, I worry that we are blind to what is actually happening in Iran. We must be careful if we take that line.
The point has been made that Iran is supporting the international community to defeat Daesh or Faesh. I think that that is completely wrong. The G7 statement says that we must first defeat the Assad regime to defeat Daesh, but as long as Iran is supporting the Assad regime, we cannot defeat Daesh or Faesh. That point must be clear.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. The middle east is complex and contains states such as Iran that will sponsor terrorism. It is something that none of us wants to foresee, but the idea of Iran, with its attitudes towards its neighbours, especially towards Israel, having a nuclear weapon and being capable of using it is abominable.
Why does Iran need so much enriched uranium? We could go through the figures all day, but I do not intend to go into them again. I do not believe that Iran needs uranium just to create nuclear power stations; it wants to enrich it. Why does Iran not allow proper access for us to see what is going on? If we were allowed better access, we could stand up in this Chamber and say what a delight it is that we are able to go all over Iran and see exactly what it is enriching and what it is not, but we have no real idea, because we are not allowed access. We have a fairly good estimate of what might be going on, which in itself is far too much.
I am from the west of England and have the same trouble as my hon. Friend from the north of England, the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) in pronouncing such words, but consider the Bushehr nuclear power station. It uses Russian technology— I first upset the Americans and now the Russians, so I will perhaps upset everyone this morning—and I am not always delighted with Russian technology or with Russian nuclear power stations. The idea of such a combination does not bode well. It is no good our sitting here, putting our rose-tinted glasses on and saying, “Let’s do a deal with Iran”—dare I say it?—“at all costs.” I have great faith in the Minister here today and Britain must stand up and be sensible about this matter. If we are actually to reduce terrorism in the middle east and to make the region more secure, we cannot possibly have an Iran with the capability to make a nuclear bomb.
The agreement mentions 10 to 15 years of control, but that is just not enough. Ten to 15 years passes almost in the blink of an eye. I would love to think that we could talk of a wonderfully peaceful middle east in 10 to 15 years. Call me cynical, but I do not believe that that will be the case—although I hope that it is. We must stand up to such states. It is no good sitting here saying, “It’s okay. Let’s have an agreement and brush all the problems under the carpet because they don’t really exist.” Oh yes they do. They exist and Iran will have that capability.
We have debated the matter thoroughly this morning. We need to have our eyes open. I want to hear from the Minister about the British position and not about some nice, cosy and lovely agreement that makes everyone feel warm. What is actually happening in Iran? What are we doing about getting inspectors in? I cannot see how we can sign any agreement until we know exactly what is going on.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for allowing me to speak in this debate, in which I will pick up on the theme of the 10-year timeline that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) highlighted. Ten years ago, I had been in Kabul for a few months to set up the Afghan National Security Council, helping the Afghan Government to stand on their own two feet in security matters. It will not surprise many of my hon. Friends to hear that one of the biggest threats then was the penetration of Iranian agents and activists within the Afghan system. I do not have recent experience but have no reason to believe that that has changed.
We are not dealing with a country that is behaving in the ways of the post-Westphalian system in western Europe; we are dealing with a country that has ideas of itself that go back way beyond what anyone in Europe is discussing. We are talking about Cyrus the Great and the Sasanian empire. As you will no doubt remember, Mr Hollobone, the Sasanian empire had its first major expansion into Yemen in the 570s in the year of the Elephant, which is often celebrated as the birth year of the Prophet Mohammed. That expansionism is not something that the present Iranian regime has forgotten. Quite the reverse—it is echoed in every word that it says and in every speech that is made. When I hear that it is not interested in expansionism, I merely look at the maps of the Sasanian empire and of later Iranian empires and I see where its interests lie: all the way from Delhi to Turkey.
Such impacts are serious for us, because our world has also changed. Our friends now lie around the Persian gulf, on all parts of the Arabian peninsula and on the other side in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. For us, the Iranian question is no longer a foreign question about which we know little. It is a personal, immediate and local question, because the nuclearisation of Iran—were it to happen—would trigger, as my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) said, the nuclearisation of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of which would probably get what they have already paid for: a Pakistani nuclear bomb. That is an extremely threatening situation not only for us, but for many other friends in the region.
In fact, the situation is not, as many people think, about Israel; it is much more fundamentally about Arab sovereignty and Arab states in the region. Those who think that the rights of an Iranian theocratic regime should become supreme also seem to overlook that the situation is also about the rights of the Iranian people. People have now forgotten that the first of the so-called Arab spring revolutions was the Iranian green movement, which was crushed with extreme brutality by the Iranian Government. They were able to do so because, since the revolution, they have constantly played—certainly under Ahmadinejad—the cities against the countryside. They have recruited the Basij, the revolutionary militias, from the countryside and have used them time and again to crush movements not even of liberalism, but of gentle reform in the cities, in particular Tehran. The proposed treaty endorses a theocratic regime that is anathema to peace in the region and anathema to civil rights in its own country. It is not only incumbent on our Government to stand up for ourselves—
When my hon. Friend says “anathema to peace in the region”, I immediately think of Gulf and Saudi financing for IS. When he says “anathema to civil rights”, I immediately think of the civil rights that do not exist in Saudi Arabia. Why does he think that Iran, uniquely, gets picked out?
My hon. Friend is right that the rest of the Gulf and the Arabian peninsula is far from being an island of perfection in an otherwise dark world. Other states have serious issues and I would not in any way seek to relieve pressure on the Salafi funding of various regimes around the area. I completely agree that such things are inimical to our interests. The pressure that Islamic State, as it has been laughably called—it should be called Daesh—is putting on our interests in the region is abhorrent. The idea, however, that somehow my enemy’s enemy is my friend is also for the birds—it is completely wrong. We are watching the continuation of a period of violence that started with the battle of Karbala and the deaths of Hassan and Hussain. We do not want to get involved, saying, “No, everyone can nuclearise themselves.” Indeed, my hon. Friend makes my point for me, that to nuclearise one would be to encourage further problems for the whole area.
I repeat that to allow Iran to get nuclear weapons would be anathema to peace for the region, anathema to the civil rights of the society and anathema to our interests. I therefore urge the Minister, who I am glad to see in his place, because he understands the region extremely well, to look hard at what Her Majesty’s Government can do. We need to reinforce our position as a voice for peace in the region, reassure our friends in the Gulf and across north Africa that we will not abandon them and be only fair-weather friends. What will we do to stand up for them if Iran insists on pushing things, because we will be standing up not only for them, but for ourselves?
My hon. Friend says that we should support our international allies in the region and around the world, but does he agree that we should learn lessons from what happened previously? For example, the international community stood by when Iran backed the Maliki Government in Iraq, which led to the crushing of the Sunnis and then to the rise of Daesh or Faesh and the massive problem we now have. Therefore, we have an international duty to support our friends and colleagues where oppression is going on and to deal with such policies and issues at an earlier stage.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making an excellent point. All I can add is to urge hon. Members to read “The Unravelling” by Emma Sky—a plug for a book by a friend of mine that is absolutely outstanding. It explores not only the failure of the American governance system in Iraq, but the rise of Iran’s influence. The point my hon. Friend made most eloquently is just that—Iran did not wait for us to push, but has been constantly pushing out from its borders, because its view of itself is not the same as what we say when we see the borders. It is not a post-Westphalian state; it is a pre-Islamic state that is still exploring its areas of influence.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow alumnus of Bromley Borough Council. I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing the debate, although I will highlight one or two differences from his approach. I make apologies for my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), who previously dealt with the subject; he has departed from the Front Bench to spend more time with the London mayoral election. Interestingly enough, this will also be my last debate from the Front Bench on foreign affairs, because I will be spending more time on politics, which I look forward to.
Given how the hon. Member for Aberconwy introduced the debate, I think that we may find more common ground between Front Benchers than between Front Benchers and Government Back Benchers—probably not the last time that will occur in this Parliament, particularly on foreign affairs. We have to define what we see as the objective of our relations with Iran, particularly in terms of the nuclear talks. Is any agreement a nuclear freeze or, as some have described it, weapons control? Is it to influence Iran’s foreign policy, and particularly its actions in respect of its neighbours, or is it to achieve regime change? All those things might be desirable, but they are not necessarily the prime objective of the talks. An analogy was made with eastern Europe and arms control, but that was immensely successful, as indeed were the Helsinki accords that helped to bring about perestroika and glasnost.
To clarify, the analogy with eastern Europe was made in the context of an agreement that was possibly successful as regards arms control, but was not especially good for the people of eastern Europe. An agreement now might be successful in controlling arms, but not be good for the people of the Gulf states, or indeed of Iran.
That may be true, but such an agreement is preferable to achieving none of those objectives. Not everything has to be agreed, particularly if we view the possession of nuclear weapons as a qualitative rather than simply quantitative change—it is not only another step. Throughout the history of arms control agreements, it has been recognised that the nuclear threshold is a particular and qualitatively different threshold in international relations. We could therefore have arms control agreements with the Soviet Union, even though it was repressing its own citizens and the citizens of eastern Europe and sponsoring terrorism abroad.
I take the right hon. Gentleman’s exact point. In fact, he is reinforcing my argument. The fact that there are other undesirable aspects of the Iranian regime does not necessarily mean that we cannot seek a proper, verifiable and effective nuclear agreement. We may argue about how that is achieved, but the other aspects, desirable as they may be—we should certainly press them with the Iranian regime—should not prevent us from reaching an agreement. The former Defence Secretary is right: we need to focus on the arms control agreement.
I wish that I had some of the confidence of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) about the internal dynamics of the Iranian regime. The same goes for his comments about the sponsorship of terrorism. He referred to relations with Hamas and Hezbollah, but Iran acts as the armourers of those organisations. Furthermore, it is reasonably argued that in many cases Iran is pressing and supporting elements within Hamas and Hezbollah who want to take things further, as against those who want a more moderate position.
Forgive me, but I am the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling; the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), is not present.
Does the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar) agree that Iran’s actions in support of terrorism have not been limited to the region? We have heard a lot of talk about IS, but the reality is that actions in Argentina and Bulgaria, and the murder of Israeli and European citizens in Germany over many years, demonstrate that Iran’s involvement in terrorism is not a foreign matter, but very much a domestic one.
Of course, the right hon. Gentleman is right: the Iranians have been sponsoring groups of what we call terrorists in Gaza and Lebanon. I did not deny that at all; in fact, I think I said it. I was simply making the point that the world is on fire, and that is not because of Iran, but because George Bush, who did not know the difference between Shi’a and Sunni six weeks before the invasion of Iraq, smashed the region. We are still suffering the consequences, and Iran is trying to help clear up the mess.
That is a very simplistic reading of history. The idea that Islamist terrorism was dependent on the invasion of Iraq does not bear any scrutiny. It is interesting that, yet again, the hon. Gentleman referred to “what we call terrorism”. No, it is what the world calls terrorism—and that, indeed, is what it is.
We need to move on to the core questions: what is Iran’s capability, and what is its intention? Those are undoubtedly complex issues. We certainly did not create Iran; it is of very long standing. As the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat) rightly said, it is a great historic and continuing nation, and was a great empire and civilisation. The hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) said that we made it a regional power. History, resources and population made it a regional power.
Interestingly, unlike some other Islamist groups, the Iranian regime has not discouraged education, but very much encouraged it. There is a substantial educated—indeed, sophisticated—section of society. Unfortunately, a considerable number of its members now live in exile, and they would be a huge benefit to a liberal country. There is clearly strong internal opposition to the regime, as we saw with the green revolution after the previous elections, which, as the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said, was ruthlessly and shockingly repressed, with too little reaction from the rest of the world—probably not just a moral, but a strategic mistake. There are also widespread executions, and there is imprisonment in absolutely appalling conditions.
It is also rightly said that Iran has drastically worsening relations with its neighbours, who rightly accuse it of not only external threats, but fostering internal subversion. Although there are clearly legitimate, well expressed concerns at some of those neighbouring states’ internal reactions, there is, equally, an understanding of the problems they face. Those problems are a concern to the outside world, just as they are to countries to which Iran—or the Iranian regime, to be more correct—poses an existential threat.
I hope that the Minister will address the broader contextual issues, but my concern is that we see little evidence of strategic vision as Britain retreats from the world stage—something that has been widely commented on in the United States and that is being increasingly understood here. That vision does not mean simplistically dividing the world into friends and foes.
A strong reaffirmation of article 5 of the NATO treaty would be especially welcome to our allies on NATO’s eastern front, who face increasing Russian assertiveness and pressure, but that does not mean that we do not have similar concerns to the Russians in some other parts of the world. Over the years, Ministers will have clearly heard about the Russians’ focus on Islamist fundamentalism and what they refer to as the arc of instability to their south. I agree that that is hard to reconcile with the support given by the Russian nuclear industry to the emerging Iranian nuclear programme. I have heard the justification from Russian Ministers that that support is good business. The argument has also been put to me that one driver of the Russian approach—this was rather echoed by the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord)—is the Iranians’ lack of capability to run the system. That runs against the evidence that there is an educated workforce in Iran. It is perhaps a slightly dismissive, almost colonial, position, and a serious miscalculation on the part of the Russians. Will the Minister tell us what efforts have been made to engage with Russia on this issue? Is there a unified Russian view, or are there diverse views in the Russian hierarchy?
Similarly, there is inconsistency in the Russian support for the Assad regime, which is, most significantly, being propped up by the Iranian Hezbollah and the revolutionary guard. We do not need to have any illusions about President Putin’s actions in Ukraine—and, indeed, right the way along Russia’s western flank up into Scandinavia—to see that we may have common interests and concerns in the middle east and north Africa. Ministers will recall that during the last Parliament I regularly made similar arguments about the need to engage Afghanistan’s neighbours in the post-drawdown settlement to ensure stability, stressing that not only Russia and the “stans”, but Iran, should be involved. We therefore need a broader policy on this issue.
I recognise that the Minister needs to time to reply, so, in conclusion, I thank him for his courtesy and for the assistance he has provided during his time in the Foreign Office, which has been most welcome and most appreciated.
Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for the opportunity to reply to this interesting, informative and important debate, which is taking place before the negotiations.
Let me begin by responding to the kind words from the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar). I am sorry that we have heard his valedictory foreign affairs speech. We will certainly miss him. I have worked with him for more than a year, and it has been a real pleasure. There has been huge cross-party support on this and other issues, and that is very welcome. I am sorry that the energy and enthusiasm he has shown in the debate has not been reflected by Labour Back Benchers, who have not taken part in the debate. It was perhaps also too early for Scottish National party Members to make the debate. I would have thought that they would want to engage in a debate on nuclear issues. None the less, I am grateful for the debate.
Like others, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb) on securing the debate and on his continued interest in this matter. We had a good debate last November, and I hope there will be further opportunities to discuss the issue. Through you, Mr Hollobone, I would certainly ask the Backbench Business Committee to make time for it to be debated on the Floor of the House as well as in Westminster Hall.
For more than a decade, the Iranian nuclear issue has posed one of the most intractable and persistent threats to international security and stability. The prospect of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran carries severe consequences for the security of the UK, the region and, indeed, the world. The Government have always been clear that the best solution lies in finding a peaceful, diplomatic and negotiated settlement. The process has been long and challenging, and we are grateful to both sides of the House for their support.
Our discussion today comes at a crucial moment. The joint plan of action agreed by the E3 plus 3 and Iran in November 2013, and extended in July and November 2014, froze the most concerning elements of Iran’s nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions relief. When the interim deal was extended in November, we, our E3 plus 3 partners—China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States—and Iran set ourselves a deadline of 30 June to reach a final comprehensive deal.
The UK played a leading role in diplomatic efforts that secured agreement on the key parameters of a deal in Lausanne on 2 April. That marked an important milestone in the ongoing negotiations, but as has been made clear today, those negotiations are not complete. Since April, UK diplomats and experts, and E3 plus 3 colleagues, have been working intensely to secure a comprehensive agreement by the 30 June deadline. That agreement, which has been questioned in the debate, must satisfy the Government’s objectives, which have remained consistent throughout this process: preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapons capability, while recognising its right to access nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. We have always been clear that we will not agree to a deal that fails to address our proliferation concerns.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be present for the talks in Vienna in the coming weeks, where he will maintain a laser-sharp focus on our key UK objectives. As the deadline draws ever nearer, it is crucial that Iran should appreciate what is at stake. Significant economic advantages and political benefits await if Iran agrees to a robust nuclear deal. Right hon. and hon. Members must forgive me for not going into the detail of the deal, but I will try to outline answers to some of the questions.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that question: what assurances do we have that Iran would maintain the deal? I shall certainly try to answer the questions that have been asked. I am, to the horror of my team, going to abandon the speech that they have carefully prepared for me, and do my best to answer the questions from the debate. I offer my apologies if I do not manage to answer all the detailed questions. I shall read Hansard—not because I like reading what I have said, but because it is important that I read what Members have said and reply in writing, if I may, to keep dialogue going.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy asked whether the agreement was intended to be a non-proliferation or arms control treaty. It is a mixture, as I have made clear. It important for us to be able to maintain that, because there are breakout weapons systems that we are concerned about in addition to what Iran is doing on the nuclear side. He mentioned Iran’s foreign policy objectives, for itself and the wider region, which I want to touch on in relation to other concerns. Iran’s role, and where it sees itself in the region, is a major issue. It has a responsibility not just to itself but in the wider region and we look to it to act responsibly.
My hon. Friend mentioned the United States foreign policy aspects of the matter, and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) raised the question whether there was a legacy issue. I have never heard the line before that a President is most dangerous in his second term. It could be argued both ways; a President in that case is not tied by anything and therefore can be more robust in some of the measures that he or she is willing to pursue.
I want to go through the eight major headings of the deal, which may help the House to understand where the conversation and agreement are going, leading up to 30 June. First there is the question of a durable and verifiable deal. The first heading is enrichment, which covers Iran’s capacity and its enriched stockpile. The number of centrifuges is obviously part of that. Many figures have been given in the debate, but the number is less significant than the breakout time—how quickly a weapon could be procured if it was decided to close the doors and prevent IAEA from carrying out inspections. We have set that as a year. Whatever the experts are saying, that leads to the number of centrifuges that we would consider acceptable. We are less focused on the actual numbers at the moment, and more on the breakout time.
The second area heading is research and development, covering types of centrifuges, and leading to a mutually agreed scope and schedule. Thirdly, the Arak plutonium reactor has been mentioned. There will be a redesign to cut off the plutonium route to a nuclear device. Fourthly, Fordow, which has also been mentioned, will no longer be a site for the enrichment of uranium. The fifth area is duration. There are programme restrictions in a number of areas. A period of 10 years for the agreement has been mentioned. It could well be that parts of it will last longer, and parts might even be shorter. That is some of the detail being worked out.
The sixth heading is the possible military dimensions, which I have touched on. That covers the measures that Iran must address: the IAEA’s concerns about the possible military dimensions of its nuclear programme. If there is one area that is of concern in the discussions at the moment, that is probably the most difficult. The seventh area is sanctions: relief from the comprehensive EU and US economic and financial sanctions in return for IAEA-verified actions on Iran’s programme; an agreement on the termination of UN sanctions, with limiting transfers of sensitive technologies and activities; and other issues relating to conventional arms and ballistic missiles. The eighth and final area is transparency and verification, which many hon. Members have mentioned. That covers the ability to make sure that nothing is being done behind our backs, and a robust and credible monitoring programme including the implementation of various protocols to give the IAEA greater oversight of Iran’s activities.
My right hon. Friend is right; we must have such access. I am pleased that the IAEA has confirmed that it currently has the access it needs. Were that to be closed down, those would be the consequences—it would be about whether sanctions would be brought back. I acknowledge my right hon. Friend’s understanding of and interest in the matter. He spoke about the Iranians as a proxy power elsewhere in the area. If Iran is looking for a more responsible role, as he mentioned and encouraged, it must be seen to take greater responsibility in events in places such as Syria. It is propping up Assad, so no space is being given to moderate Sunnis. They are then pushed, or encouraged, to join ISIS. Iran could easily assist the international community in progressing with a political solution for Syria, and could help immensely with what is happening in Anbar and Nineveh province in Iraq. General Soleimani is pushing across with the Hashed militias and causing sectarian friction in Iraq; that is unhelpful in the long term. Likewise in Yemen, weapons systems coming by boat and the provision of weapons for the Houthis, further complicate an already difficult and complex issue.
There are ways for Iran to show its initiative and greater responsibility in the region, and I think that many hon. Members would like to see that. It is not happening now and we are concerned about that. I am conscious of the time; I will write to hon. Members with more details. The debate has been extremely good. I simply want to make it clear that we are working hard for the deal, but, as has been explained, we need to make sure we reach the correct one. Without the correct deal, we have no deal.
The reason we needed this debate in Westminster Hall was timing. The issue is live and is reaching a conclusion. I am grateful for the Minister’s comments and for his generous offer to write to right hon. and hon. Members on points raised in the debate. I fully understand that the complexity and extent of questions made it a challenge for him to respond in full in the 12 minutes allocated. I pay tribute to the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Warley (Mr Spellar), for his final Front-Bench speech. He said he disagreed with my viewpoint, but few disagreements came to light from his comments. I wish him well on the Back Benches.
The debate has made it clear that there is interest, certainly on the Conservative side, in this important issue. The Backbench Business Committee has not yet been convened, so Westminster Hall was our only option for getting this debated in the House. Given that the Foreign Secretary will go to Vienna, and in view of the interest shown in the Chamber, a statement should perhaps be made after the visit—and there should certainly be one if an agreement is reached.
A statement will absolutely be made, and there will be an opportunity for Members to comment. Perhaps I may suggest that when the Backbench Business Committee is formed, if an opportunity is not provided by the Government, a full debate should be held in the House in the aftermath of 30 June.
I thank the Minister, and I am sure that there will be a delegation to the Committee.
Despite the fact that most of the Members who spoke were Conservatives, we were pleased to have some opposition, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) for his comments, which showed that this was a debate, not a one-sided discussion.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Iran and the proposed nuclear agreement.