Happy new year, Mr Speaker, and it is good to see you in the Chair. With permission, I would like to make a statement on the security situation in the middle east.
I have deep regard for the nation of Iran; I chaired the all-party group on Iran in this House for eight years and have visited the country a number of times. Indeed, the last time I visited I was with the Leader of the Opposition—we went together to visit the Iranian Government and the people. It is a wonderful place with a dynamic population, and the world owes a great deal to its culture and its history, but in recent times, Iran has felt that its intentions are best served through the nefarious use of proxies and the use of subversion as a foreign policy tool. It has provided practical military support to the murderous Assad regime in Syria, stoked conflict in Yemen, armed militia groups in Iraq and repeatedly harassed international shipping, including UK shipping, in the strait of Hormuz. It has also shown a total disregard for human rights, holding dual nationals in prison and causing unimaginable suffering not just to those in jail, but to their families at home. Such behaviour does nothing to enhance Iran’s reputation with its neighbours and has had a seriously destabilising impact in the region.
One of the foremost architects of Iran’s malign activity was the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. One of its commanders and leading enablers was General Qasem Soleimani, who, on 2 January, was killed by a US drone strike. General Soleimani was no friend of the UK or our allies in the region. He was not an advocate of a more peaceful and prosperous middle east. His clandestine operations saw him supply weaponry to proxy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. He encouraged proxies to develop weapons such as improvised explosive devices that killed and maimed UK soldiers and other western forces, and we should not forget how he fomented instability in places like Basra, where British forces were stationed.
The United States Government have asserted that General Soleimani organised the strike on 27 December by the militia group Kata’ib Hezbollah, which targeted a US military base in Kirkuk, Iraq, and killed a US civilian contractor, and the US is confident that General Soleimani came to Baghdad to co-ordinate imminent attacks on American diplomats and military personnel. The UK will always defend the right of countries to defend themselves. The House will want to know that since October 2019, coalition bases, which contain both United States and United Kingdom personnel, and the Baghdad international zone have been attacked 14 times. One attack on K-1 base involved 32 rockets. Our challenge now is to deal with the situation we find ourselves in. The US consistently showed restraint though all those previous attacks, even when its right to self-defence was well established.
Since the early hours of Friday morning, the Government have responded to these events. Further conflict is in no one’s interest. The only beneficiaries would be the terrorists and extremists, seeking to use the chaos as cover to advance their abhorrent objectives, so we are urging all people—all parties—to de-escalate as soon as possible. Meanwhile, the safety and security of British citizens and our interests in the region are of paramount concern. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has strengthened its travel advice to both Iran and Iraq and will keep it under constant review. We urge British nationals in the region, or those intending to travel, to regularly check gov.uk for further updates.
We have taken other urgent measures to protect British nationals and interests. The Department for Transport is reviewing the threat state and advice to red ensign shipping on a daily basis, and, supported by the Ministry of Defence, we will issue guidance imminently. At that same time, the MOD is changing the readiness of our forces in the region, with helicopters and ships on standby to assist if the need arises. To ensure the safety and security of our personnel we have also relocated non-essential personnel from Baghdad to Taji. Coalition forces in Iraq, including British forces, have suspended all training activities, and as part of prudent planning a small team has been sent to the region to provide additional situational awareness and contingency planning assistance.
On 5 January, Iraq’s Council of Representatives voted to end permission for coalition activities in Iraq. As the vote is only one part of the process, we are discussing its implications with our Iraqi interlocutors. Today, I simply remind the House that the coalition is in Iraq, at the request of the Iraqi Government, to help protect Iraqis and others against the very real threat from Daesh. Our commitment to Iraq’s stability and sovereignty is unwavering and we urge the Iraqi Government to ensure the coalition can continue its vital work countering this shared threat.
The main focus of the UK Government is to de-escalate this issue. None of us wants conflict. None of us wants our citizens, our friends and our allies to be at risk. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, from the outset, has spoken to President Trump, President Macron, Chancellor Merkel and President Erdoğan and will continue to engage with other world leaders. The Foreign Secretary and I have been talking to our counterparts. Only this morning, I met with His Royal Highness the Saudi Vice-Minister for Defence, and in tandem we are working with the E3 to reboot the joint comprehensive plan of action—the nuclear deal—which we believe is a vital step to achieving a more stable Iran.
In the coming days, we will be doing all we can to encourage Iran to take a different path. No one should be under any illusion: long before the death of General Soleimani, Iran had stepped up its destabilising activities in the region. Whether it was targeting dissidents in Europe or hijacking civilian ships, this aggressive behaviour was never going to go unchallenged. Her Majesty’s Government urge Iran to return to the normal behaviour of the country it aspires to be and to resist the urge to retaliate.
I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. Can he tell us where the Prime Minister is, and what he is doing that is so much more important than addressing Parliament on the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, an extremely dangerous and aggressive act that risks starting yet another deadly war in the middle east?
On Friday, I sent the Prime Minister a letter posing a series of questions. He has not answered any of them. Instead, today he is hiding behind his Defence Secretary. Is it not the truth that he is scared to stand up to President Trump because he has hitched his wagon to the prospect of a toxic Trump trade deal? At this highly dangerous moment, we find the Government giving cover and even expressing sympathy for what is widely regarded as an illegal act, because they are so determined to keep in with President Trump. This assassination puts British troops and civilians, as well as the people of the region, in danger.
As the Secretary of State will confirm, I have long spoken out against the Iranian Government’s human rights record, including when he and I visited Iran together in 2014. This is not a question of Soleimani’s actions or record in the region. Whatever the record of any state official, the principle and the law is that we do not go around assassinating foreign leaders. Without the clear demonstration of an immediate threat, it is illegal. So do the Government regard the assassination as legal under international law? If so, how? Do the lawyers in the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence regard it as legal?
If the Secretary of State really believes that this was an act of self-defence, what evidence has he or the Prime Minister seen of an imminent attack on the US? The Secretary of State says that the United States is confident that attacks were imminent, but US officials have been quoted in the press as saying that the evidence was “razor thin”. How would the Secretary of State describe it?
In the past few days, the US President has threatened to target Iranian cultural sites and to attack Iran in a manner that is—I quote him directly—“disproportionate”. Both actions would be war crimes, yet the Government still seem unable to condemn such threats. On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary said that the onus was entirely on Iran to de-escalate. I wonder whether, if Iran had assassinated an American general, the British Government would be telling Washington that the onus was entirely on the US to de-escalate.
We talk about this as a conflict between the US and Iran, but the worst consequences are likely to be felt by Iraq, a country on the brink of further terrible violence and instability. President Trump has threatened Iraq with
“sanctions like they’ve never seen before”
after its elected—yes, elected—Parliament voted to ask US and other foreign forces to leave their country. He has said he will not withdraw entirely unless the US is compensated for the “extraordinarily expensive air base” that was actually built by Saddam Hussein in the 1980s. The Prime Minister—when he finally resurfaced from his trip—said that he was committed to the sovereignty of Iraq, so will the Secretary of State confirm that this Government will respect Iraqi sovereignty if the Iraqi Government ask all foreign forces, including British forces, to leave?
We know that the British Government were not consulted by the Trump Administration in advance, despite there being obvious British interests at stake. Let me also ask what the Government are doing to secure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other dual nationals who are currently in detention in Iran. This must be an utterly terrifying time both for them individually and for their families.
It is not in anyone’s interests for this to escalate to an all-out war. All sides should exercise maximum restraint and allow for meaningful dialogue, led by the UN Secretary-General’s office. To prevent war, we need a strong plan for diplomacy, so are the Government in contact with the UN Secretary-General? And let us not forget that there was a diplomatic plan: the Iran nuclear deal. It was working, until President Trump came along and tried to rip it up.
Time and again over the last two decades, the political and military establishments have made the wrong call on military interventions in the middle east. Many of us opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the failed invasion of Afghanistan, and I opposed the bombing of Libya in 2011. Have we learnt nothing from those events? This House must rule out plunging our country into yet another devastating war at the behest of another state.
I note that the Leader of the Opposition sent the Prime Minister a letter in which he posed three questions, none of which he has just posed from the Dispatch Box. I find that rather interesting. I am afraid that instead of a serious interrogation about we would de-escalate this situation in the middle east and how we would ensure that British citizens and British allies were secure, we heard the usual tripe—“This is about Trump, this is about America”—and all the other anti-American, anti-imperialist guff.
The Leader of the Opposition asked where the Prime Minister was. Well, funnily enough, the Prime Minister is running the country, something that the right hon. Gentleman will fail ever to do as a result of the general election. This Prime Minister actually believes in Cabinet government, and in letting the members of the Cabinet who are responsible for the policy come to the House to be able to answer questions about a matter relating to that policy. Indeed, the Prime Minister felt that it was appropriate for me, as a Secretary of State for Defence who currently has a significant number of assets in the region—in Iraq—and who is charged with the duty of defending this country, to attend and to answer the questions in his place.
Perhaps I can answer some of the few questions that were asked by the Leader of the Opposition. First, it is for the United States to answer in detail the question whether it views the intelligence on the basis of which it made its decision to be illegal or not. On the basis of the information and intelligence that I have seen, what I can say is that it is clear that there was a case for self-defence to be made in respect of an individual who had come to Iraq to co-ordinate murder and attacks on US citizens. That begs the question what the Leader of the Opposition would have done if that individual had come to Iraq or anywhere else to plot the murder of British soldiers and diplomats. Perhaps, as he recommended with al-Baghdadi of ISIS, he would seek to have him arrested at that time.
It is of course the case that this Government are engaged in a full diplomatic effort at all levels to de-escalate the tensions that have grown in the region, not only at the United Nations but in leader-to-leader, Defence Secretary and Foreign Secretary discussions and using all other levers that we have. More broadly than just in the region, we are seeking efforts to ensure that Iran does not retaliate in any way that would escalate the situation and that our friends and allies do not escalate the situation either. The call that this Government are making is to ensure that we pause, that we focus on the safety of the peoples of that region and that we seek a way out for Iran and for its neighbours. The first way we can do that, which this Government are determined to try to do, is to ensure that the destabilising activity that has been going on in the region is ceased, so that we can all progress to find the solution that we desperately want to the conflict. In the meantime, the Government will get on and ensure that they keep people safe in the region, and we will do everything we can to protect them and their lives.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Thousands of Iraqi civilians, military personnel and cadets have lost their lives in Daesh-linked violence, with many brutally executed. In the light of these events and the recent statement from the combined joint taskforce for Operation Inherent Resolve, can he reassure the House that the fight against Daesh remains offensive, not defensive? Will he also update us on efforts to secure access to northern Syria for humanitarian actors and others, given that access via Iraq is now impossible?
My right hon. Friend makes the serious point that Daesh has not gone away. Indeed, it is posing a threat to us here in the United Kingdom and Europe and also within region. We are working incredibly hard with the Iraqi Government to try to see in what ways we can remain in theatre to deal with that, and I know that the Prime Minister spoke recently to the Iraqi Prime Minister, including on that subject. At the same time, in Syria, we are focused on the force protection of aid workers and everybody else in the region, ensuring that people are safe and that people who are travelling there do so with the right advice. It would not be right for me to comment any further on what we are doing operationally in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, as to do so may expose our forces, but we are alive to the fact that among the groups of people most likely to exploit destabilisation are terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and Daesh.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. We on these Benches of course hold no candle for General Soleimani or, indeed, for the actions of the Iranian Government, but I would simply say to the Secretary of State that it is not anti-American to question and press the Government on what they are doing in relation to their closest ally. He says that the US is confident that General Soleimani had co-ordinated the 27 December attacks and was planning further attacks, but how confident is he that that is correct? There is certainly no consensus on Capitol Hill among congressional leaders that that is the case. The Secretary of State mentioned that he had seen intelligence that had perhaps convinced him, but have the UK Government done their own legal analysis of whether the strike was lawful? I ask him simply: does he believe that the strike was lawful? And why has it taken four days for the Government to convene the National Security Council, given the gravity of the situation we now face?
On UK forces, the Secretary of State tells the House—this is the killer paragraph—that all training has been “suspended” and “contingency planning” is going on, which can be taken to mean planning to leave Iraq, so can it be taken as read that there is now no active fight against ISIS in Iraq because of the actions of the President of America?
On de-escalation, will the Secretary of State mount the most robust and unapologetic defence of international law and order? Does he agree with the International Committee of the Red Cross that the threat to target cultural sites, as made by the US President, would be unlawful? Will he work to ensure that the UN Security Council can finally step in and do its job? Will he condemn the fact that the Foreign Minister of Iran has been prevented, against international law, from taking part in UN proceedings? On the JCPOA, I welcome what the Secretary of State has to say, but we really need some detail as to how he will get the plan resurrected with Iran and the United States.
We hear a lot at the Dispatch Box about the international rules-based order, but our closest ally is ripping it up before our eyes, whether we like it or not. I ask the Secretary of State to be unapologetic in standing up for it and to mount the most robust defence of it—America is a close friend, and that is what a close friend should do. If the Secretary of State does that, he will have the support of those on the SNP Benches.
The hon. Gentleman asks some good questions. First, we would of course condemn any attacks on heritage sites, and we recognise that they would be against international law. My counterpart, Mark Esper, the US Defence Secretary, has already clearly said that the US will not target heritage sites. If anyone were to do that, no matter whether they were friend or foe, we would of course call them out.
We observe and support the international rule of law, of course, which is why we support UN article 51 on the inherent right of a nation to defend itself. How a nation takes those sometimes very difficult decisions is, first, a matter for that nation and the intelligence and evidence it has in front of it at the time. I cannot speak for what the United States had in front of it at the time it made that decision; that is a matter for the United States Law Officers and, indeed, the President of the United States. What I can say of the intelligence that I have seen is that there is definitely a case to answer on the cause of self-defence. That is not me speaking for the United States; that is a matter for the United States. Every single leader has a very difficult challenge. They are the ones responsible for the decisions they make at the time, based on the information that is available to them.
I cannot expand further on the basis on which the United States made that decision. However, I know that the hon. Gentleman supports the inherent right in article 51 for a nation to defend itself. It is part of international law, and the UK Government defend a nation’s right to take that action if it is in accordance with article 51.
It was disappointing that we were not informed about the attack in advance, but does the Defence Secretary agree that, while that may be partly because this US Administration have the habit of doing a lot of things unilaterally, it is also because of growing scepticism in Washington about European commitment to global security, given the vast disparity in defence spending between European countries and the United States? The right place to address this issue is the defence and security review that is happening this year, which can show that a newly confident post-Brexit Britain takes its defence obligations seriously.
My right hon. Friend is right that the defence, security and foreign policy review is the place for us to examine our place in the world and what funding goes behind that.
When it comes to being informed, every single country, including the United Kingdom and the United States, has a category of no foreign eyes—it is “NOFORN” in the United States and “UK eyes only” in the UK. None of us knows what it is like in other countries when they have short notice, potentially, in a case where life is at risk, or how much time they have to action that intelligence or threat and to inform their friends and neighbours. It is a real challenge. In my experience of having intelligence in front of me as a soldier, we did not always have the luxury of time to inform everybody, even within our own system. We should remember that the United States did not inform Congress, let alone its friends and allies, at that particular moment. We do not know the reason that was urgent enough for the United States Administration to do that. It may well have been that a threat to life, dealing with which is paramount, was more important at that particular moment to that particular decision maker than telling us. They did, however, tell us very quickly after the event, and we have engaged with them throughout the process.
When I met the Prime Minister when he was Foreign Secretary, he told me and my constituent Richard Ratcliffe that he would leave no stone unturned to ensure the release of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. I was therefore alarmed to hear the present Foreign Secretary on “The Andrew Marr Show” agree with Andrew Marr that there was nothing that the Government could do to ensure the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Will the Government leave no stone unturned to ensure that Nazanin comes home, or will British prisoners be left to rot in jail in Iran while the situation between the US and Iran escalates further? Which is it?
This Government will do everything we can to get released from Iranian prisons not just the hon. Lady’s constituent, but the many other dual nationals currently languishing in those jails. It has been a long-term foreign policy tool of the Iranian Government to incarcerate people that they do not like to intimidate nations. Hostage taking—some of these prisoners are hostages to some extent—has been in the Iranian handbook for many decades. We will do everything we can to try to get her constituent released, and I mean everything. However, everything we do will be within international law. That is our only parameter. We will try and try and try, and the Minister for the Middle East and North Africa continues to do that on an almost daily basis.
The issue at stake here is that Soleimani and his deputy were already responsible for vast attacks on our allies and on British citizens, leading to loss of life and to the recent oilfield explosions in Saudi Arabia. The point that we want to make here is not just that he may have posed a threat, but that he has already been a threat. As a result of his position, Iran’s policy has been to escalate all conflict across the middle east, so my right hon. Friend is right to want to de-escalate the situation, but part of that is about ensuring that Soleimani and co. no longer exist and can no longer escalate such terrible actions.
My right hon. Friend is correct to highlight that this is not just about the incident of 2 January. The long and consistent destabilising of the region by the Quds Force has done Iran no favours at all. In fact, it has had the opposite effect. Rather than making Iran powerful and influential, it has made Iran a pariah in its own neighbourhood and has led the Iranians down a cul-de-sac to the potentially dangerous place we are now in. We all need, therefore, to do everything we can to de-escalate, including ensuring that Iran ceases the destabilising activity that prevents the building of trust by its neighbours. The neighbourhood may well help to find a solution, but it has to trust Iran.
The key question is about where all this is going. Iran has announced since this happened that it will not abide by limits on the use of centrifuges agreed under the JCPOA. What is the Government’s assessment of the JCPOA? Is it in intensive care, or is it dead? Is it the Government’s policy to resurrect the agreement? If it is, how do they intend to pursue that objective?
We believe that the JCPOA still has life in it. With the right amount of effort and focus, both from the E3 and from Iran and in the work that we communicate to the United States, it is a route that will prove successful. The JCPOA contains a dispute resolution mechanism. We have not yet gone to that, but it is one of the things that we can use to seek to remedy the situation if we are going to try to pull Iran back from a path that may eventually break the JCPOA. We do not think it is dead. We think there is still a chance, and we will make sure, despite what is going on now, that it is the best solution in the long term.
In the light of Soleimani’s alliances with Hezbollah and Hamas, and now the explicit threat of revenge, does my right hon. Friend agree that Israel is exposed and faces a real risk of attack from Iran? If he does, what steps are the UK Government taking to support Israel, a true friend of the UK and of democracy, in its right to self-defence?
Regretfully, I do not think the threat to Israel has changed because, even before the general’s death, Iran had been using its proxies to directly and indirectly target Israeli interests not just in the region but around the world. Israel, in its public statements, recognises the threat that General Soleimani posed but also recognises the importance of finding a solution to the growing tension in the region that helps absolutely no one. The tension does not help Iran find a way out, it does not help Israel’s security and it does not help Iraq’s security, which is why we are determined to see what we can do to try to de-escalate through the diplomatic route while also finding long-term solutions in the hope that the JCPOA continues to flourish or, if it does not, to ensure there is another path for Iran to follow.
Global security scholars have an incredible number of secondary questions about this act. Iraq has a close military and political relationship with Washington, as the Secretary of State knows, yet it was not consulted on the assassination of a prominent target in its sovereign territory. Has he sought assurances from his American counterparts that they will not extend doing what they must to defend themselves to carrying out targeted assassinations on other allies’ sovereign territory, including the United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman mixes the inherent right, under article 51 of the UN charter, to defend ourselves from threats against our citizens or others, and an unchallengeable sovereignty that means a country cannot take action to defend itself from a threat in part of another country. We mostly do it by getting in touch with the other country to have someone arrested or dealt with, when there is a direct threat, but that is not always an option, depending on imminence.
As I said in my statement, the number of times that US and UK coalition forces have been attacked in Iraq in the last few months, with no action being taken—indeed, an American lost their life—has been growing. There have been 14 attacks, with 32 rockets fired in the last one. In the end, it is the responsibility of any nation to make the difficult choice to balance sovereignty, intelligence and the duty to defend its citizens. Nations have to make that choice sometimes.
My right hon. Friend makes a proper case for the British Government’s position, but will he go further and talk about what he is doing to make sure this does not become a cliff edge to war but is instead the low point of a tick that leads to progress? We should work with allies such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman, perhaps, to reach out to Iran and assure it that we do not wish a conflict and that what we wish instead is change to a policy that has led to the deaths not only of far too many Brits but of hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Syria and Iraq. It is for them that we are standing up, and it is for them that we want a change.
My hon. Friend is right to focus on how we can broaden both the network of diplomatic pressure on Iran and, in a sense, the support for Iraq, the United States and other countries engaged in this area. If I remember rightly, Iran used to have remarkable links with Japan, for example. We are exploring all the possible levers. With my colleagues in the Foreign Office and, indeed, at No. 10, including the Prime Minister, we are working as broadly and as fast as we can to find a way, using diplomacy through people with good access to the very heart of the Iranian Government, to reach a place where we can persuade the Iranians that retaliation is not in their best interest, while offering them a way out so that we can get back to a more stable middle east.
I agree with much of the Minister’s critique of Iran and of General Soleimani, and I of course support the US’s right to self-defence, but to assert that right through international, extra-judicial, pre-emptive assassination surely warrants some criticism also, if only to ensure that our diplomacy is effective. Is the Government’s unquestioning support of Trump not likely to enhance Iran’s influence and control in Iraq, a country where so many of our armed forces have given their lives?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s comments. Our support for the US is not unquestioning at all; we talk to our allies a lot. Indeed, I talked to my US counterpart about being told in advance and not being told in advance; I have those discussions. We are friends and allies, but we are critical friends and allies when it matters. We are also focused on Iraq, which is on the frontline of both Iranian meddling and Daesh attacks on a daily basis. That is why we have been invited into Iraq by the sovereign Government at the moment to try to help build their capacity to help them defend themselves. That is the most important thing for us at this moment in time; the Iraqi people are at great risk of both Iranian militia antagonism and Daesh. We will be speaking to them and we are continually trying to get them to say that it is in their best interest for us to remain, but we will respect Iraqi sovereignty. If they require us to leave, that is their right and we will respect it. Interestingly, no one has yet asked in the media why an Iranian general felt it was his job to parade around Iraq, given that Iran is not invited into Iraq’s affairs.
I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend; General Soleimani carried out Iran’s proxy wars, from the horrors in Yemen to the support for the bloody Assad regime. He was a key ally of Hezbollah and its terror networks. He did all of these things as a central figure in the Iranian regime, if not as its No. 2. I say to my right hon. Friend that we need to accept that the JCPOA has, in effect, been dead since the American withdrawal and we need to look for a more comprehensive agreement in the broader region if we are to maintain stability in that broader region, in the wider global interest.
My right hon. Friend is right about the behaviour of the Quds Force—the revolutionary guard—over the years. Plenty of voices and decent people in Iran seek a way out for the Government and the people of Iran, whereby they move back to a normal position of international respect. These people are trying and have tried—certainly, when we visited they tried—to get away from the principlists, the hardliners, who have been running the country into the ground and making it a pariah state. Soleimani was one of the people who enabled those hardliners to create the pariah state they are in now. The balance we need is to ensure that those people seeking the right path are either empowered or heard, and are not snuffed out by the revolutionary guard. I fear that in the past 12 months the revolutionary guard, under Soleimani and his gang, has had the upper hand, meaning that those moderate voices have been snuffed out to the extent that the supreme leader and others are not at the moment interested in finding an alternative. Our job is to persuade them that there is an alternative.
Clearly, the issue of our British nationals living in the area is extremely important, and the Secretary of State has touched on it, but may I press him on it? Has he had discussions with suitable civil airline or shipping companies to get our citizens out if, perish the thought—I pray to God it never happens—the situation worsens in any way?
My hon. Friend the shipping Minister is having a meeting with the shipping industry tomorrow, predominantly about protecting the ships in the straits and the vulnerabilities there. With both military and civilian planners, we are in the process of thinking about a range of actions we could take for evacuation or getting people to a safe neighbouring country if the worst were to happen. We plan for the worst—we do not think it will ever get that way and we hope it will not—and we put all our assets at disposal to do that.
My right hon. Friend is clearly absolutely right to focus, laser-like, on defending British personnel and interests, but can he assure the House that Britain is working closely with all our allies in Europe and the region, as well as in the US, to finish the job of defeating ISIL and to de-escalate tensions rather than see them spiral out of control, using all the available opportunities through the much challenged but vital international rules-based system?
Yes. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the No. 1 threat to us in the United Kingdom and to Europe is the actions by Daesh. We must continue the assault on them, not only in their bases, where they are, but on their ideas, on the internet and in some of our own communities. We will continue to do that. I spoke with my French counterpart—France has often been at the forefront of ISIS attacks in Europe—and she and I are determined that that assault does not fall off the agenda and that we maintain not only our investment in fighting ISIS but our determination to recognise that they have not gone away and that it will be a long fight.
The Secretary of State rightly speaks of the need for de-escalation and diplomacy. May I press him on a point that was raised a moment ago? It has been reported that the US Administration have denied a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister to attend the United Nations, which I would have thought was one of the places where we would like that diplomacy to take place. Does the Secretary of State think that that decision helps what he is calling for or hinders it?
We have heard the report, like the right hon. Member, and we are currently trying to establish the truth of it—it came out of Iranian media. Our position would be that we urge that that person be granted a visa. The United Nations is obviously one of the key locations where we will try to use diplomatic levers to resolve and de-escalate the situation.
President Trump has already thrown our Kurdish friends in the area under a metaphorical bus. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the dramatic action that President Trump has taken means that he is turning away from his policy of withdrawing from the region, increasing his policy of withdrawing from the region, or does not have the slightest idea which of the two he ought to do?
I cannot answer for the United States long-term policy on the middle east, but I can say that this action was heavily weighted in self-defence—an issue of the here and now and the threat that they faced. My right hon. Friend’s question feeds the point made quite rightly by the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), that we need to invest in our defence and security so that we are never over-dependent on one ally or another. It is the UK Government’s view that we need to have long-term support and investment in Iraq, which is important for the region. We do not want to be in a place where we are always dependent on others, such that should they change their policy, our policy has to go with it, whether we want it or not.
There are clearly differences between France and Germany on the one hand and the United States on the other. What action are the Government taking to make sure that our international allies and NATO once again speak and act with one voice and one action?
I spoke to my German counterpart yesterday—indeed, the German statement on Friday, which came out before ours, was very similar to ours. There is no difference between France and Germany. Germany has been clear about its view on self-defence and the United States. Like us, it is determined to maintain the fight against Daesh, is worried about instability and wants to work hard on de-escalation. France, Germany and Britain are united in thinking that the JCPOA is the way forward. I think Chancellor Merkel is due to visit soon and we will certainly continue to engage to use that front with the United States to try to get them to support or re-engage in the JCPOA. At the same time, it is absolutely clear—the Germans have forces in Iraq as well—that once this phase passes, we have to get together and really try to work for that stability.
Let me start by thanking our diplomatic service and the armed forces for working tirelessly over the past few days in our defence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the foremost priority of this Government is to de-escalate the crisis, but, beyond that, to protect our armed forces who have been described by senior commanders of the Quds Force as worthwhile collateral damage in attacks against the US?
I welcome my hon. Friend to her position in Parliament, and I look forward to working with her. It is absolutely true that, if we really want to protect our people, our friends and our allies, the first thing we must do is work hard to de-escalate the situation. We do not want the conflict to spread, and we do not want it to get worse. At the same time, we will use the assets of the Ministry of Defence and of wider government to protect our people—whether they are in theatre or even here at home—from any threats that may be posed by anyone who wants to take a reprisal.
The Secretary of State rightly mentioned the actions of the Assad regime in Syria. He will be aware of the situation in Idlib. What meetings has he had with the Secretary of State for International Development and the Home Secretary to make sure that there are sufficient legal routes for refugees from Syria to this country should they be required?
I have not had any significant meetings, but I support and facilitate any such access for people who wish to come out of the area. That has been the case when we have tried to evacuate people, including children, from any part of the middle east—certainly from places such as Syria. I am very happy to take up this matter with the Home Secretary. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that Idlib should not be forgotten. What is going on there right now is a horror show and we should do all we can to help the people of Idlib, but, very importantly, we must not forget that the regime that is doing these things is supported and aided by the Iranian revolutionary guard.
I welcome both the Defence Secretary’s statement and the tone he has adopted. For too long, Soleimani and the Quds Force have been allowed to operate a shadow war across the middle east, but it is clear from the frequent demonstrations across Iran that the Iranian people do not support their regime and its proxy interference. He focused on the media, on managing the heightened threat, on containing expected reprisals and on calling for de-escalation, but with the architect of so much instability removed is there not a rare opportunity to reset our middle east strategy? First, we could be more assertive in tackling proxy interference and weapons proliferation, and, secondly, we could be more proactive in offering conditional but genuine economic rehabilitation for Iran.
My right hon. Friend is right. What has been brought into sharp focus is the fact that time has run out. We must sort this out in the middle east on a collective basis and try to put in place a long-lasting solution. He is also right to make the point that, in one sense, Soleimani’s passing provides an opportunity for people to realise that his policy has done nothing but make Iran a pariah state. We should also not forget that the population of Iran, just like the population of Iraq, do not want America, do not want Britain and do not want the current regime; they want their own nation. Iraqis are nationalistic and Iranians are nationalistic. When dealing with those countries, we should never forget that, if we can give those people their country back, we can support their human rights. That is the best way for us in the west to proceed, rather than imposing a solution on them.
Now that the Iran nuclear deal, recklessly abandoned by President Trump, hangs by a thread, does the Minister acknowledge that, as well as doing everything that he can to help restore it, he should understand that the nuclear non-proliferation treaty review conference in May will be even more critical in rebuilding trust? Can he guarantee that the Government will play a very serious role at that conference in using it to demonstrate real commitment to multilateral disarmament?
Since the nuclear agreement with Iran, Iran has stepped up its support for terrorism, with both finance and military equipment for Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon. What is my right hon. Friend doing to contain the Hezbollah threat not just to Israel but to the wider region?
My right hon. Friend will know that this House proscribed the full element of Hezbollah a few months ago. It is key that we work with our allies to strengthen Lebanon so that it has some resistance to Hezbollah within its state. That is important because Hezbollah has a habit of assassinating people in Lebanon who disagree with it. At the same time, it is important that we work with our ally, Israel, ensuring that we share any knowledge that either we have or Israel has to protect it from terrorists.
The Secretary of State is right to call for de-escalation because the consequences of a wider conflict with Iran would be severe, and the situation diverts attention from the many other crises in the region, including in Idlib and Yemen. I want to ask him about the prisons in northern Syria that were housing many of the Daesh fighters who pose a risk—both to us and to civilians in northern Syria. The prisons have effectively been left abandoned because of the consequences of US actions with regard to our Kurdish allies and Turkey’s intervention. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the security of the prisons and of the risk posed by the escape of prisoners from them?
At present, we, the French and even the United States consistently talk with the likes of the Syrian Democratic Forces to ensure that the prisons are still guarded and that we provide whatever support we can to help them with that. Like the hon. Gentleman, we recognise the importance of those prisons, which contain lots of foreign fighters as well as more localised fighters. We do not want Daesh to be reborn in those prisons, and it is incredibly important that we are able to stay in Iraq because we are partly going to deal with that situation in partnership with the Iraqis—there are Iraqi foreign fighters and others. We urge the Iraqi Government to reconsider their vote, because we think it would be useful to stay to secure that situation.
As the Secretary of State says, the British Army has played a crucial role in training Iraqi and Kurdish troops; I have seen it with my own eyes. Does he agree not only that it is essential that we safeguard our troops in Iraq for their own safety but that the whole future of our middle east policy is dependent on our continuing to contain Daesh in Iraq, in which the armed forces have an extremely important part to play?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Nation building in Iraq is really important—not just for us, but for the people of Iraq. We have only suspended the training; we have not stopped it, because we still think it is really important to help with capacity building and security forces. We will seek to restart the training as soon as possible.
It will not be lost on the Defence Secretary that one of the first political organisations to mourn the passing of Soleimani was Republican Sinn Féin, some of whose members may be well known to Labour Front Benchers. The Government previously indicated that they were carrying out a review of whether to proscribe the Muslim Brotherhood. I understand that the organisations we are discussing are Shi’a, but is there still going to be a review into proscribing the Muslim Brotherhood, and would that help to protect the citizens of this country?
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about Republican Sinn Féin. I noticed the tweet: it is bizarre, but it shows the long tentacles that Hezbollah or the revolutionary guard of Iran may have had in the hon. Gentleman’s own communities. The proscription of any organisation is a matter for the Home Office, which will no doubt have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said; I can get him an answer from that Department if he wishes.
I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement on de-escalation. As he knows, de-escalation could mean many things to many people. If one asked the Syrians, the Iraqis or the Lebanese, they would say that de-escalation means the Iranian militia not operating in their sovereign territory. What have the Iranians said their end game is? What do they want to de-escalate the situation, because in the end there has to be de-escalation, with people living side by side and conducting themselves in a neighbourly way?
All my experience with the Iranians indicates that they want Iran to be a nation of the world that is respected and remembered for its culture and position; that is their end state. The challenge is that some think that they should get there in a way that has delivered this type of pariah status for them. We need to point out the importance of the rule of law. It is bizarre, but the Iranians have a very good constitution that they seek to avoid half the time. The way for them to enter into the world of civilised nations again is to behave like one, and that is what we are there to help with and support, and there are many people in the country who know exactly that.
The Secretary of State recognises how the safer and more pluralistic Kurdistan region can play a positive role in the wider efforts to de-escalate the conflict, but it does need stronger assurances about its own security and continuing UK efforts so that it can remain respected and neutral as a player in this situation. Does he now think it is time to implement the promise made to invite the leadership of the Kurdish Regional Government to the UK on an official visit?
What is important is that the Kurds—and, indeed, some of the sectarian groups, or ethnic groups, in the area—understand about security. It is often insecurity that has driven many of these conflicts for dozens of years. Iran feels desperately insecure, often, in its region. The Kurds have often felt insecure because of the history of many nations, including Iran, that have set about them. So the first thing we should all do is seek to find security guarantees for many of these people, and in that way we can set the next process of resolving the problems between the different parts of the middle east.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and the personal authority and experience he brings to this issue. Will he work with all our coalition allies to sustain our commitment to all the people of Iraq, most of whom would not welcome our abandoning them to the forces both heretical and now corrupt, not least in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps behind the Iranian revolution?
My hon. Friend and I visited Iran as well, a long time ago, and he speaks a lot of sense. Britain’s focus has to be about how we can continue, over the long term, supporting Iraq and its people. It is a complex country with many different groups, and those differences have been exploited recently by Iranian-backed militia, which again, instead of helping those people, has actually led to misery. We must do what we can to capacity-build the Iraqi state so that they can make decisions for themselves.
Of course, many of us have great concerns about the repercussions of this event and the fact that, rather than de-escalating the situation, we see the opposite happening. In whatever discussions the Secretary of State has with his US counterparts, will he, if he manages to have any influence with them, state very clearly that we do not support this method of taking out our enemies and that winning the battle of hearts and minds has much more effect, in the long term, than this?
I certainly press on the United States, which has also said that it is not in its interests, or its wish, to increase tensions. It does not want this event to lead to war. It has been very, very clear about that, as have, indeed, the Iranian leadership. If we accept that both the Iranians and the United States have been adamant that they do want a war, we should then work on that as a way to get both sides to seek a resolution.
Very few countries’ hands are completely clean in the region. A key part of the problem is that there has been a lack of a co-ordinated, overarching peace process, particularly now that the Iranian nuclear deal is dead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that from our point of view the elephant in the room is that we need to spend more on our defence and diplomacy—raise that expenditure— not just to send a very clear signal to the world that we are going to better defend our interests, if we need to, but to hold greater sway with our key allies, particularly the US, in this particular region?
My hon. Friend makes the really important point that both diplomacy and defence do not come cheap and we need to invest in that. Sometimes we need to invest in helping others to defend themselves as well. I think it is one of the most noble things to defend those who cannot defend themselves.
I welcome the steps that the Secretary of State has outlined to de-escalate tensions, but if those were to fail and Iran were to retaliate with an attack that resulted in the deaths of British service personnel and civilians, what would be our response?
My right hon. Friend has mentioned the 14 attacks that have happened since October in Baghdad, but is he aware that the US Department of Defence has estimated that more than 600 servicemen have been killed by Iran or its proxies? What estimate has he made of the number of British servicemen who have been killed, and does he agree that when there is an imbalance and people either defend the actions of Iran or attack the United States, it simply gives comfort to Tehran?
My hon. Friend makes a point about the deaths of United States personnel. We should not forget, and we should pay tribute to, the 179 UK defence personnel who died in operations in Iraq and the 454 who died in operations in Afghanistan. He will remember, like me, that many of the tragic deaths of UK personnel in Iraq happened in Basra, where the Shi’a militia were supported and instigated by members of the Iranian revolutionary guard.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, in particular his emphasis on de-escalating tension, and acknowledge his genuine expertise on Iran. Given how damaging the Iraq war was to security in the middle east and given the Government’s support for reducing tension, will he now rule out any British involvement in any attack on any site in Iran?
I am not going to rule out anything. The UK will do what it has to do to defend its persons—its citizens—wherever it needs to; that is our duty. We cannot say what is in the minds of Iran or anybody else in the future, and that is why we will always reserve our right to take that decision at the time.
Events like this have an immediate impact on all our constituents, and my constituents will be noticing the oil price rising, with concerns about their household budgets. That brings us back to the strait of Hormuz. For the last 70 years, NATO has had a policy of deterrence working as prevention. Will my right hon. Friend meet his counterparts in our NATO allies to discuss the possibility of using NATO maritime resources to put protection forces in place that would act as a deterrent, rather than having to react to any activity that takes place?
My right hon. Friend makes a really good suggestion, and I will take it up at the NATO Defence Ministers’ meeting for him. He is right. We already have a number of international coalitions in the strait, such as on anti-piracy, which even involves China, and the International Maritime Security Construct, where we are working with the Americans on protecting our tankers. He is right; tanker wars, as they were called in the 1980s, have been around for a long time. The Iranians used to fire rocket-propelled grenades at tankers back then, deliberately to spike the oil price. He makes a good suggestion.
Since the assassination, as part of its military build-up, the US has deployed long-range bombers to Diego Garcia, a territory that the British state illegally occupies. The Secretary of State talks about de-escalation, but is not the reality that the British Government’s actions are actually helping to escalate the crisis?
No. The United States has said that it has deployed many of its troops in response to the rhetoric coming out of Iran, to ensure that it protects its forces, and of course that is the right thing to do. We have sent a small team to ensure that our military planners are properly enabled, and we have changed the posture of our forces in Iraq to ensure that they are currently focusing on their force protection. That does not mean that we are preparing to do anything else, nor does it mean that the United States is.
In the last six months alone, Iran has disregarded four tenets of the JCPOA. In addition, Iran has refused to answer questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency about uranium particles found at a previously undisclosed location. We should not forget that the JCPOA allowed millions of pounds, in addition to manpower and resources, to pour into Syria to continue that war and kill thousands of people. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is simply incorrect for anyone to say that the JCPOA is alive and well?
I did not say the JCPOA was alive and well and all business as normal; I said it was not dead. The JCPOA is a deal that I believe was the right thing to do. I remember, even before it was formed, that I and even the Leader of the Opposition would urge the Bush Administration to talk to the Iranians to engage and seek a way through, and we came to an Iranian deal that we thought was correctly monitored and that the European powers thought was a good way through. However, my hon. Friend is right: it is not just that the United States withdrew; the Iranians have tested every single inch of the written agreement. That does not detract from the fact that we believe the JCPOA is the right way forward, and we will invest our time and effort in trying to make sure it has a future.
I welcome what the Secretary of State for Defence said about the de-escalation actions that his Ministers and officials will be taking in relation to Iran, but the response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) suggests that the Secretary of State was taken by surprise by the actions the US has just taken in declining to give a visa to the Iranian Foreign Minister. What actions are his Administration taking to ensure that the US but also the UN play a full role in helping to de-escalate these events?
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is visiting the United States later this week, when our determination will be to try to seek a diplomatic way out. In that, he will no doubt have discussions with his counterparts, and we will see where we can get to. The United States does not share its visa decisions on a live wire with us. However, we saw earlier reports, as I think many Members here have done. We will find out and get to the bottom of it. Certainly, my urging from the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Government is that we think allowing Mr Zarif to go to the UN would of course be a sensible thing to do.
The Defence Secretary has mentioned on numerous occasions during his statement the importance of our diplomatic network in de-escalating this crisis. Does he agree with me that the position of the UK ambassador to Washington has now been vacant for far too long, and will he encourage the Foreign Secretary to make that appointment?
I do not know how to start on that question. The United Kingdom would always seek to follow international law in dealing with threats against it. Within that international law range all the options such as arrest, detention and disruption, but there are some occasions—for example, when we saw the events in Syria take place—when, unfortunately, kinetic or lethal strike has been engaged by the RAF. The British Government have been very open about that, and it followed a vote in Parliament. We will always reserve in this country the right for us to defend ourselves against threats posed to our citizens, and I do not think the First Minister of Scotland would disagree with that at all.
With hard-line voices currently drowning out moderate voices in Iran, what confidence can this House have that the President of the United States is alert to the Pandora’s box he has potentially opened, and what can the international civilised community do to articulate what it is to be a moderate country and to give succour, support and encouragement to those moderate voices in Iran to remain moderate and to remain speaking out?
I think the best way we can empower the moderate voice of Iran is to offer the hand of friendship to a way out—to say, “This is not about a war.” We do not want a war. We do not want the conflict to increase. We want to be clear about what behaviour we think should change, and also be prepared to deal in other parts to make sure we try to get them in a better place. I think that is the best solution for Iran. The moderates know that. Let us hope they can hear it.
The JCPOA has been mentioned several times this afternoon. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the UK Government’s position is that there are no immediate grounds to trigger the dispute mechanism in that agreement?
In the Gulf region we currently have HMS Defender and HMS Montrose—a Type 45 and a Type 23 frigate. We have a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship with helicopter support, and a number of minesweepers. We have a lot of Navy assets in that region, as do our allies and other Gulf Arab states in that area, and we will work together and hold co-ordination meetings to try to ensure that we maximise their use. We are currently focused on ensuring that we do not provoke on the Iranian coastline, while ensuring that we maintain the international law of freedom of navigation, so that those ships that are vital to our economy are not intimidated or kidnapped.
It is unwise to threaten it once; it is deeply alarming to threaten it twice. If US President Trump does intend to target Iranian cultural sites, what will the UK response be? To what extent will that response be influenced by the UK Government seeking a trade deal with the US?
We have been clear that we will seek for everyone to comply with international law. Targeting heritage sites is against international law, and we will not be shy in calling that out publicly or privately to the United States. After that statement by the President, the United States Defence Secretary made it clear that US policy is not to target heritage sites.
One reason that the US pulled out of the JCPOA was the fact that it was not comprehensive and did not cover all the other terrorist actions taking place, including those carried out by General Soleimani. Does the Secretary of State think that one way to kick-start and use what has happened as a diplomatic opportunity for peace is to try to widen the JCPOA’s remit to cover all those other actions, rather than just focusing on the nuclear arrangements, important though they are?
My right hon. Friend talks a lot of sense, and that reflects what both sides used to want. In 2006 the Iranians made what was called the “grand bargain”, which was a whole offer that included—if memory serves me rightly—recognition of Israel and the abandonment of any nuclear programme. Both sides seem to want a “grand offer”; both sides want a “grand deal”, and I think it our duty to try to get them to the table to offer such a deal.
May I press on the Secretary of State the importance of our UK citizens and residents who are based in prisons? Those include my constituent in Evin Prison, who remains an employee of the British Council. When was the last time that a ministerial intervention led to an improvement in the welfare of any of those prisoners, or to the hope that they will be returned, in this case to Crouch End in London?
I will get the hon. Lady the exact detail of when, but all the time we are visiting, or trying to visit, with interlocuters, individuals held in those prisons. As she rightly says, this is not just one individual; there is a whole group from many nations—they are not just British-Iranian nationals, but Europeans and Americans and so on are held there. It is part of a deliberate policy, and the individuals and judiciary in Iran who have been appointed most recently are a worrying sign about the current intention of the Iranian regime in carrying on that policy. We must change that policy, and in the meantime we must be alert to the health and wellbeing of people in those prisons. We will try—not only with our own embassy staff but with other third countries—to see what help can be given to increase pressure in Iran and ensure that we support those prisoners.
Protecting and promoting culture is a key way of stabilising countries and forging bonds between nations. To that end, the Government’s support of the British Museum scheme, which is training Iraqi archaeologists to go back and restore the sites that were so desecrated by Daesh, is a win-win situation. In 2017 the UN Security Council, including America, voted to condemn those acts against UNESCO world heritage sites. Does the Secretary of State agree that if the US President has now decided unilaterally to reverse that policy, that is not only remarkably stupid but counterproductive as well?
My hon. Friend makes the point that it would be a crime to attack heritage sites. I have made it quite clear that US policy is not to target such sites. That has been clarified by the US Defence Secretary. We will ensure that we are very clear in our opposition to the targeting of heritage sites anywhere in the world, not just in the middle east. They are a part of our heritage and our history.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. Iran is no longer a place of cultural, historical and human rights diversity. Under General Soleimani and the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its involvement with terrorist groups across the world, Iran has the blood of thousands of innocents on its hands. Iran has said that it will continue to pursue nuclear power. It has also stated that it will not rest until Israel is destroyed. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to provide help and support for Israel in the light of the threat from Iran against its so-called enemy? Further, will he publicly state again that this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland stands alongside Israel at all times?
We support Israel. We support its right to defend itself and its right to exist, and we will work alongside it to make sure that its security is protected. We will also work alongside anyone in the middle east who seeks to establish better stability and security for their people, but also to ensure we resolve this current growing conflict.
It is obviously vital for global security that Iran does not achieve ownership of nuclear weapons. I thank the Secretary of State for his work with France and Germany to reboot the JCPOA. Given that it is now coming up for two years since the US pulled out, if that is not achieved, what is the plan B?
We are going to be working hard to make sure it is achieved. The President of the United States has talked about a grand deal. He has talked about a bigger and more sustainable long-term deal. He has talked about wanting to do a broader deal. We will of course assist in that process if the US continues on that path and we will reach out to the Iranians. We have no ill will towards the Iranian people. We should not forget that this Government are concerned and saddened by the loss of up to 50 people in the stampede at the funeral that took place. We send our condolences to those mourners and to that population. No one should have to go through that. Our hand of friendship is there for the people of Iran. If all this teaches us something, it is that the leadership of Iran has not served its people well; it has led them down a cul-de-sac and it has led the middle east to a less stable, not more stable, position.
Clearly, any escalation of tensions in the region could have significant consequences not only for our armed forces, but civilian populations there. It is time for cool heads. The Commander-in-Chief of the United States is not known to be a cool head. What action can the Government take to ensure that late night Twitter tirades do not further escalate tensions in the region?
There are many of us who should take tips about Twitter. The main point is that it was in response to a specific threat that the United States took an action. The hon. Gentleman can disagree on whether it should have done that, but after that action has taken place there is a duty on all of us to ensure that that single event does not lead to an escalation. The White House and the US Administration are on the same page; they are also keen to de-escalate the situation. The challenge for this Government, the Germans, the French and our allies is to ensure we convert those wishes of not wanting to escalate into action. That is what we are going to be doing over the next days and weeks.