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Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action

Volume 669: debated on Tuesday 14 January 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Iran nuclear agreement known as the joint comprehensive plan of action.

I addressed the House yesterday on wider concerns in relation to Iran’s conduct in the region. The strategic aim for the UK and our international partners remains as it has always been: to de-escalate tensions; to hold Iran to account for its nefarious activities; and to keep the diplomatic door open for the regime to negotiate a peaceful way forward. Iran’s destabilising activity should serve as a reminder to us all of the danger to the region and to the world if it were ever to acquire a nuclear weapon. We cannot let that happen.

With that in mind, today, the E3, consisting of the United Kingdom, France and Germany, has jointly taken action to hold Iran to account for its systematic non-compliance with the JCPOA. As the European parties to the deal, we have written to the EU High Representative, Josep Borrell, in his capacity as co-ordinator of the JCPOA. We have formally triggered the dispute resolution mechanism, thereby referring Iran to the Joint Commission.

Let me set out the pattern of non-compliance by the regime that left us with no credible alternative. Since last May, Iran has step by step reduced its compliance with critical elements of the JCPOA, leaving it a shell of an agreement. On 1 July 2019, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran had exceeded key limits on low enriched uranium stockpile limits. On 8 July, the IAEA reported that Iran had exceeded its 3.67% enriched uranium production limit. On 5 November, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had crossed its advanced centrifuge research and development limits. On 7 November, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had restarted enrichment activities at the Fordow facility—a clear violation of JCPOA restrictions. On 18 November, the IAEA reported that Iran had exceeded its heavy water limits. On 5 January this year, Iran announced that it would no longer adhere to JCPOA limits on centrifuge numbers.

Each of those actions was serious. Together, they now raise acute concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran’s breakout time—the time that it would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon—is now falling, which is an international concern. Time and time again, we have expressed our serious concerns to Iran, and urged it to come back into compliance. Time and time again, in its statements and more importantly through its actions, it has refused, undermining the very integrity of the deal and flouting its international commitments.

Iran’s announcement on 5 January made it clear that it was now effectively refusing to comply with any of the outstanding substantive restrictions that the JCPOA placed on its nuclear programme. On that date, the Iranian Government stated that its

“nuclear program no longer faces any operational restrictions, including enrichment capacity, percentage of enrichment, amount of enriched material, and research and development.”

With regret, the E3 was left with no choice but to refer Iran to the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanism. The DRM is the procedure set out in the deal to resolve disputes between the parties to the agreement. Alongside our partners, we will use this to press Iran to come back into full compliance with its commitments and honour an agreement that is in all our interests.

The European External Action Service will now co-ordinate and convene the DRM process. As a first step, it will call a meeting of the Joint Commission, bringing together all parties to the JCPOA within 15 days. This process has been designed explicitly to allow participants flexibility and full control at each and every stage. Let me make it clear to the House that we are triggering the DRM because Iran has undermined the objective and purpose of the JCPOA, but we do so with a view to bringing Iran back into full compliance. We are triggering the DRM to reinforce the diplomatic track, not to abandon it. For our part, as the United Kingdom we were disappointed that the US withdrew from the JCPOA in May 2018, and we have worked tirelessly with our international partners to preserve the agreement. We have upheld our commitments, lifting economic and financial sanctions on sectors such as banking, oil, shipping and metals. We lifted an asset freeze and travel bans on listed entities and individuals. We have sought to support a legitimate trade relationship with Iran. The UK, France and Germany will remain committed to the deal, and we will approach the DRM in good faith, striving to resolve the dispute and bring Iran back into full compliance with its JCPOA obligations.

As I made clear to the House yesterday, the Government in Iran have a choice. The regime can take steps to de-escalate tensions and adhere to the basic rules of international law or sink deeper and deeper into political and economic isolation. So too, Iran’s response to the DRM will be a crucial test of its intentions and good will. We urge Iran to work with us to save the deal. We urge Iran to see this as an opportunity to reassure the world that its nuclear intentions are exclusively peaceful. We urge the Iranian Government to choose an alternative path and engage in diplomacy and negotiation to resolve the full range of its activities that flout international law and destabilise the region. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for advance sight of his statement. For all of us who regard the Iran nuclear deal as one of the crowning diplomatic achievements of this century and a path towards progress with Iran on other issues of concern, it is deeply distressing to see Iran join the United States in openly flouting the terms of the deal, as the Foreign Secretary has described.

I firmly agree with the action that has been taken today alongside our European partners. I welcome every word of the joint statement issued at the weekend by Britain, France and Germany in relation to the JCPOA. I agree with their commitment to uphold the nuclear non-proliferation regime. I agree with their determination to ensure that Iran never develops a nuclear weapon. I agree with their conclusion that the JCPOA plays a key role in those objectives. I would have been stronger in my wording. Although I agree with their “regret” and “concern”, I would have said “revulsion” and “condemnation” over the Trump Administration’s attempted sabotage of the JCPOA and their re-imposition of sanctions on Iran.

I agree with the E3’s attempts to preserve the agreement despite the actions of Donald Trump and the reciprocal actions of the Iranian regime, to which the Foreign Secretary referred in his statement. I also agree that Iran must be obliged to return to full compliance with its side of the agreement. That was a sensible and balanced statement on the JCPOA, stressing the international unity around the importance of retaining and restoring it, and accepting that both sides have breached it in terms and that neither has any justification for doing so.

That is what makes it all the more remarkable that this morning we heard from one of the signatories to that statement—our very own Prime Minister—telling “BBC Breakfast” the following:

“the problem with the JCPOA is basically—this is the crucial thing, this is why there is tension—from the American perspective it’s a flawed agreement, it expires, plus it was negotiated by President Obama…from their point of view it has many many faults. Well, if we’re going to get rid of it let’s replace it—and let’s replace it with the Trump deal. That’s what we need to see…that would be a great way forward. President Trump is a great dealmaker by his own account, and by many others…Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.”

In the space of two or three days, the Prime Minister has gone from signing a joint statement with France and Germany calling for the retention and restoration of the JCPOA, to calling for it to be scrapped and replaced by some mythical Trump deal. The Foreign Secretary did not refer to any of that in his statement, and we could be forgiven for thinking that he and the Prime Minister are not exactly on the same page, but perhaps in his response he could answer some questions about the Prime Minister’s remarks.

First, will the Foreign Secretary confirm that in his discussions with his American counterparts, they have said that one of the problems with the JCPOA is that, to quote the Prime Minister,

“it was negotiated by President Obama”?

We all suspect that that is Trump the toddler’s main issue with it, but can the Secretary of State confirm that the Prime Minister was correct?

Secondly, can the Foreign Secretary tell us how this supposed alternative Trump deal, which the Prime Minister is so enthusiastic about, differs from the current JCPOA—or, like his mythical middle eastern peace plan and his mythical deal with the North Koreans on nuclear weapons, is it simply another Trump fantasy?

Thirdly, can the Foreign Secretary tell us why on earth Iran would accept a new deal negotiated with Donald Trump, with new conditions attached, when he has shown his readiness to tear up the existing deal and move the goalposts in terms of what it should cover?

Finally, based on what the Prime Minister said this morning, are we now to understand that—despite everything the Foreign Secretary said in his statement just now and everything contained in the joint statement at the weekend—it is now the official policy of the UK Government to replace the JCPOA and get a Trump deal instead, and that that would represent a “great way forward”? If that is not official Government policy, why did the Prime Minister say it, and why is he walking all over the Foreign Secretary’s patch?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her support for the action we have taken today and the action that we are taking as part of the E3. She made a number of valid points at the outset of her remarks about holding Iran to account for the technical failures, and also about the importance that we certainly attach to leaving a diplomatic door ajar for Iran to come back from its non-compliance into compliance and to live up to its responsibilities.

The right hon. Lady made a whole range of comments about the Prime Minister, which I will address. First, it is Iran that is threatening the JCPOA, with its systematic non-compliance. The Prime Minister fully supports the JCPOA and bringing Iran back into full compliance; that is the clear position and he has said so on many occasions. [Interruption.] The right hon. Lady should draw breath and allow me to respond to her remarks. As usual, she made a whole series of attacks on the US Administration, which seemed rather to cloud her judgment in this area. In fact, not just President Trump but also President Macron has argued for a broader deal with Iran—a deal that would address some of the defects in the JCPOA, which is not a perfect deal but is the best deal we have on the table at the moment, and that would address the wider concerns that the US and many other states, including the United Kingdom, have about Iran’s broader destabilising activities in the region. The US and our European partners want us to be ambitious in our diplomatic approach with Iran, and I fully subscribe to that. I fear that the right hon. Lady is rather confusing her attacks on the US Administration with sober and sensible policy making in this area.

As of now, we—the Prime Minister and the whole Government—believe that the JCPOA is the best available deal for restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and we want Iran to come back into full compliance. Equally, as was discussed in Biarritz last year, the Prime Minister, the United States and our European partners are fully open to a broader initiative that would address not just the nuclear concerns, but the broader concerns about the destabilising activity that we have seen recently, in particular in relation to the Quds Force.

The choice of the regime in Iran as of today is very simple. It can take the diplomatic path. It can come back into full compliance with the JCPOA and thereby give this country, our European partners and our American partners—and, crucially, many partners in the region—reassurance about its nuclear ambitions. If it wants to, it can also take the diplomatic path to resolve all the outstanding concerns that the international community has about its conduct. That is the choice for the regime in Iran. If it is willing to take that path in good faith, we will be ready to meet it with British diplomacy.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his support for the Iran nuclear deal, because the simple truth is that if Philip Hammond had not negotiated it, Iran would have nuclear weapons today and the middle east would be immensely more dangerous. However, it has caused a lot of stresses in the western alliance, and I would like to ask the Secretary of State’s view as to the best way to strengthen that alliance, because however tattered and strained it is, it is a vital foundation of our peace and prosperity, and has been for the past 70 years.

My right hon. Friend, of course, knows a lot of the recent history of this situation as well as—if not better than—I do. As always, the answer is for Britain to exercise its judgment and the full energy of its diplomacy to ensure that we forge common purpose with our European and American friends. I have been in the US and Brussels over the last two weeks, and will continue that endeavour. The worst thing that we could do right now would be to allow or foment divisions in that partnership, because that would only encourage the hardliners in Tehran.

I commend the Foreign Secretary for his statement, and I have to say that I agreed with every word of it. The Scottish National party very much supports actions against nuclear proliferation in the middle east. There was ample scope to trigger the dispute resolution mechanism, so I am glad that the External Action Service is going through the gears on that. I very much liked the phrase in his statement that these efforts are to “reinforce the diplomatic track”. We all agree on that. So let us go back to this morning’s interview with the Prime Minister on breakfast TV, because I think it bears repetition. He said of the JCPOA:

“let’s replace it with the Trump deal. That’s what we need to see…President Trump is a great dealmaker by his own account, and by many others…Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.”

I am very happy to support the Foreign Secretary from the SNP Benches, but it seems that he is getting more support from the SNP than his own Prime Minister. How seriously does he think Tehran takes us all right now?

We engage with the regime on the basis that I have set out, which is that it has a choice. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. This is not about the UK position or any nuance regarding the Prime Minister. This is the position of the E3 at leader level. The E3 made clear in the joint statement recently that we would like to preserve the JCPOA, but that we are also ambitious for a broader rapprochement with Iran, which of course would have to take into account all the other areas of international concern. It is not just the nuclear issue that is a concern to us; it is also the destabilising activity, the downing of the Ukrainian airline flight and the treatment of our dual nationals. Even if we got Iran back to the JCPOA in full compliance, those issues would remain, and of course we should—with our American partners, as we are doing with our European partners—look to deal with all those issues for the long term.

I wonder whether I am the only one who believes that the current regime is ever going to adhere to the JCPOA. What is the biggest threat now? Could it be that Israel, which has been threatened by Iran, is likely to strike if this goes on unless some sort of agreement is reached, which could of course inflame an already very difficult situation?

It is not clear to me that there is any credible alternative to a diplomatic route to solving this issue long term, even with airstrikes. I will not get into all the operational matters. The only way of dealing with the concerns that we have is a mixture—a combination—of holding Iran to account when it behaves badly, as it has done systematically in relation to its nuclear ambitions, and leaving open the door to diplomatic opportunity and diplomacy. That is the position of the UK—and, I believe, it is also the position of not just our European partners but our American partners too.

I certainly do not want to defend the actions of the Iranian regime on any count. The Foreign Secretary was instrumental, when he was on the Back Benches, in making sure that the Government introduced legislation known as the Magnitsky amendments, which were to enable the Government to have another tool in the box in relation to sanctions. They were primarily considered as relating to Russia, but would it not be a good idea to have them on the statute book in the UK now, as fast as possible, and would we not be considering using those sanctions in relation to Iranians as well?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right, first, about the importance of having that sanctions capacity. As we leave the EU we will have more autonomy to do that. We are looking forward to bringing that forward. It was mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. He also made the point—I think we have always agreed about this since the campaign for a Magnitsky regime in this country—that such capacity certainly should not just apply to Russia, or to one country, but should be universal in geographic scope, and the approach that we are taking will be.

Last year an archive of documents relating to Iran’s nuclear programme was unearthed in a Tehran warehouse by Israel’s intelligence agencies. The documents revealed the extent of Iran’s deception to the IAEA and the world powers about its historical work to develop nuclear weapons and its ongoing efforts to circumvent the JCPOA. Is my right hon. Friend able to confirm whether the UK has seen these documents and whether he shares Israel’s concerns about their contents?

My hon. Friend makes some interesting points. I am not going to comment on intelligence matters or operational matters, but I can say that of course we share Israel’s concern not just about Iran’s nuclear ambitions but about the wider activities in the region. The point that I think we and all our partners agree on is that ultimately Tehran should give up those ambitions and negotiate a way out of economic and political isolation, which will only deepen, and live up to the responsibilities that it has to its own people. There is a better path for the people of Iran, but it has to be a choice that is taken by the regime in Iran.

This is a very troubling time not only for Mr Ashuri and his family but for other relations of British nationals being held in Iranian prisons. Will the Foreign Secretary clearly outline what steps he intends to take to support these individuals and their families and prevent them from being exploited even further in this dreadful situation?

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. The plight of the nationals and dual nationals in detention from our country and other countries around the world is at the forefront of our minds. Of course, we have seen the systematic and callous behaviour by Iran in relation to them increase over time, not decrease, so it is all part of a wider pattern of behaviour. We will do everything we can to secure their release and, while they are in detention, the best conceivable treatment that we can imagine. Again, as with the other issues, Iran has to realise that it cannot pursue its appalling behaviour, whether on the nuclear front, by destabilising countries in the region or in the treatment of dual nationals without being held to account, and that is the policy of the UK.

I welcome the decision to trigger the dispute resolution mechanism. However, given that over the past few weeks we have seen Iran use ballistic missiles to attack coalition forces and that, in the wake of the killing of General Soleimani, we have had another reminder of all the activities he used to carry out, it is sensible for the Prime Minister to have an ambition to bring the US back on board as part of this deal but to widen it to encompass all the other activities of Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary set out what Britain might do to try to kick-start that process as well as bringing the JCPOA back into full action?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to preserve the JCPOA—it is the only current deal in town—but of course we are ambitious to see a broader rapprochement. That is not just the Prime Minister’s view. He has been actively supporting President Trump and President Macron, and there is a huge amount of diplomatic work being undertaken by me, by the Prime Minister and others and by our international partners to achieve that. But we come back to the basic equation and the basic choice: this is ultimately a decision that must be made in Tehran, because leaving the diplomatic door ajar is one thing but Iran has to be willing to walk through it. We will make sure that that diplomatic route—that diplomatic path—to a better alternative Iran is there, but it must be something that the regime in Tehran, bearing in mind all the recent events, the growing economic isolation and the disaffection of many, many people in Iran with the state of affairs, chooses and pursues of its own volition.

It is precisely because we support this deal that the E3 was left with no option but to take the action that it has, and I support the Government in doing so. But can I bring the Foreign Secretary back to the Prime Minister’s remarks this morning? Either the Prime Minister wants to maintain this deal or he is now advocating for its replacement: he cannot credibly hold both positions. Which one is the policy of the Government?

The right hon. Gentleman is just wrong. Of course one can want to preserve this deal but be ambitious and, if it is possible, bring the United States and Tehran into a broader rapprochement, dealing not just with the nuclear issue but with the wider destabilising activities. That is the policy that we are pursuing and we are doing so with the US and also, crucially, with our EU partners. There seems to be a bit of amnesia on the Opposition Benches. It was President Macron who last year proposed a very similar approach. Just as we are willing to support that in relation to proposals initiated in Washington, we supported it in relation to Macron. We want to keep the transatlantic alliance together and we want to bring a broader rapprochement between the US and Iran that can lead to a better path for the Iranian people.

It seems that the JCPOA in its current form is dying, although it is not dead yet, and I compliment the Foreign Secretary and his Ministers for the work that they are doing. Is there any common ground between the United States and Iran on a potential JCPOA 2?

It is not clear that there is, as of now. However, there is scope, if Iran is willing—the E3 statement backed this up, but we come back to that basic dynamic and that basic choice—to see some sort of broader deal that would address not just the nuclear front but the wider destabilising activities. If we want a longer-term resolution to the challenge that Iran faces which brings in the United States and all the relevant partners in the region, it is absolutely right that we hold to that ambition and pursue it where we can.

I thank the Secretary of State for prior sight of his statement. Given his earlier remarks about dual nationals in Iran and the increasingly desperate situation of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, will he clarify when the Prime Minister is going to meet Richard Ratcliffe? At the moment, all we have is “soon”. Will this be taken up as a matter of urgency and a meeting arranged this week if possible?

The meetings that the Prime Minister has will be publicised in the usual way through the usual channels, but I have met Richard Ratcliffe. We of course understand the concern of Nazanin’s family and also all the other dual nationals who are detained. We have seen Iran’s behaviour deteriorate not just on the nuclear front and not just in the Revolutionary Guard’s activities in the region, but in relation to dual nationals. It is at the forefront of our mind to get a deal, long term, with the Iranians that can bring in all those aspects, which is why the nuclear deal is critically important. We also want to address the wider issues; that is why the Prime Minister has taken the approach that he has.

Will the Foreign Secretary outline the steps that are being taken to safeguard British citizens, personnel and interests in the region?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We obviously keep the security of our armed forces under constant review. We do the same in terms of shipping in the Gulf, and particularly the strait of Hormuz. We have amended our travel advice recently, and we ensure that we have the appropriate level of security arrangements around our embassy and our diplomatic personnel.

The Foreign Secretary is right to highlight the importance of diplomacy in resolving this crisis. Can he update us on the situation of the British ambassador to Iran, particularly given the fact that in the last couple of hours it has been reported, including in the Financial Times, that Gholam-Hossein Esmaeili, who is a representative of the Iranian judiciary, has called for him to be persona non grata and expelled from the country? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that that is completely unacceptable?

We have had no formal indication of that description. It would be deeply regrettable if that were the case. We need to keep the diplomatic channels open, and futile gestures like that are not going to resolve the problems that the regime in Tehran face.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s focus on not only the tactical issues but the wider strategic context that we face. I repeat the point that I made yesterday during the urgent question: there is little incentive for Iran to support the JCPOA when economic reform cannot take place. It could not take place before because legacy sanctions connected with ballistic missiles prevented any bank with international ties to the United States from supporting any new trade. Will he ensure that a future deal deals with those legacy sanctions and prevents the country from spending any new funds, such as oil revenues or released frozen assets, on its proxy wars across the region?

My right hon. Friend makes a good point, but he also highlights a conundrum. On the one hand, we do not want to relieve the pressure on Iran in relation to its nefarious activities. On the other hand, we have to incentivise, to the extent that we can, the right path and the right kind of conduct to build up the confidence of its international partners. At the moment, it is very clear, in relation to the JCPOA and more broadly, that that door is left open for Iran. What is missing is the political will and the good faith on behalf of the regime in Tehran.

Welcome to your place, Mr Deputy Speaker. The JCPOA, successful or not, will impact upon countries across the world. Iran is not a safe place for its own people, never mind any other citizens—the shooting down of the jet is an example of that. Can the Secretary of State outline his intention to prepare and secure expats and workers in Iran? What advice will be given to people working there who have British citizenship or are from other countries across the world to get ready to leave Iran?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is right; we are always concerned to ensure that we do the right thing and give honest, accurate and clear advice to British citizens wherever they are in the world. In relation to Iran, we have amended our travel advice again. That is the normal way, and we would point individuals and businesses to that for the appropriate guidance.

It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. Can the Foreign Secretary tell me what conversations he has had with not only our European partners in the E3 but our partners in the region—perhaps even our new partner, the new Sultan of Oman—on how we will deal with Iran?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right. The Prime Minister was there for the funeral of the Sultan, which was a valuable opportunity to engage in conversation with the new Sultan. We have had conversations with our partners right around the region. There is a clear commonality of view that we need to de-escalate the tensions but also hold Iran to account for its behaviour. Bearing in mind that we have to engage very carefully with Russia and China on this, the approach that we are taking in the context of the JCPOA is that, on the terms of the deal, clearly, plainly and squarely Iran has, in its own words, effectively left the agreement as a shell. The right thing to do, as envisaged by the agreement, is to take matters to the dispute resolution mechanism and use that to leverage, to bring some sense and clarity to the regime in Tehran and to encourage them to come back to full compliance.

It is great to see you back in your rightful place, Mr Deputy Speaker. The British Government are right to work with our European partners and within the formal mechanisms of the nuclear deal. Can the Secretary of State inform the House what responses he has received from China and Russia following the actions he has taken?

We are engaging with them, and we will engage with them more during the process of the DRM, but we need to be clear that this is not a transatlantic issue, and it is not just an Iranian issue—it is a regional and global issue, because the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran would be damaging, devastating and destabilising for the region and the world. All permanent members of the Security Council need to be engaged in this and live up to their responsibilities to ensure, through the diplomatic track and the pressure that we exert on all sides, that Iran cannot pursue those ambitions.

Triggering the dispute resolution mechanism is a good thing, but to be frank, only doing so after six months of—to use the Foreign Secretary’s own words—“serious” and “systematic non-compliance” is weak. The JCPOA is time-limited. It would never prevent Iran from having a nuclear weapon; it would only delay the chances of that happening, but it cannot do that if, to use the Foreign Secretary’s own words, it is just a “shell” of an agreement. What are the dangers of Iran reducing its breakout time while the dispute resolution mechanism is under way? Is it not time for a truly comprehensive agreement covering nuclear weapon technology, missile technology and Iran’s export of terror?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I share his concerns that there are weaknesses to the JCPOA. It is time-limited. There are other weaknesses to it. We have never been doe-eyed about it being the perfect deal, but it is also the only deal in town that is restraining the behaviour of Iran. As we have now got to a situation where Iran is not complying with those restraints, we have to trigger the DRM as a matter of the credibility of the deal and the credibility of the E3. I take his point—it is the point that the Prime Minister made—that we should also be ambitious for a broader deal that deals with not only the nuclear issue in a more sustainable and long-term way but all the other wider concerns that those in the region, the Europeans and the Americans have about Iran’s conduct in the region.

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and welcome the action taken today. Are any discussions being had with the multiple oil and gas companies that operate in the region, which employ a large number of British citizens, many of whom are my constituents or family members of my constituents? There is obviously a concern in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine for the safety of those who are out there working for oil and gas companies in what remains a very unpredictable situation.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Defence Secretary has set out the contingency planning in relation to military support for shipping in the strait of Hormuz, which will affect the sector that my hon. Friend is talking about. We have adjusted and will keep under constant review our travel advice in relation to not only Iran but countries in the region, so that businesses and individuals travelling have the clearest guidance about risk.