Skip to main content

Middle East: Nuclear-free Zone

Volume 700: debated on Wednesday 23 April 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What discussions are taking place towards the goal of a nuclear-free Middle East.

My Lords, the United Kingdom strongly supports a Middle East zone free from nuclear weapons. We co-sponsored the resolution on the Middle East adopted at the 1995 NPT Review Conference. The UK looks forward to discussions at the NPT preparatory committee that is just ahead. We are also working intensively for the success of the Middle East peace process and Iran’s compliance with its obligation under successive UN Security Council resolutions.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply and welcome the Government’s reaffirmed commitment to the goal of a nuclear-free Middle East. Will the Government explain in simple terms to the British people the precise nature of the Iranian threat and its timescale? How do they intend to engage the key countries in the Middle East in reaching an outcome that we can all live with? In that context, does my noble friend agree with the analysis of Dr Rebecca Johnson, who spoke recently to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation, that Israel’s interests may now be best served by it co-operating in achieving that goal?

My Lords, my noble friend has asked for the Iranian threat in simple Queen’s English. It comes from our deep distrust of Iran’s nuclear intentions. This is a result of the fact that it has kept the most sensitive parts of its nuclear programme hidden from the IAEA for the last 18 years. Even now it makes no effort to restore this trust by taking the steps the international community requires of it. Furthermore, there are serious concerns about the nature of Iran’s programme. In its most recent report, on 22 February, the IAEA raised numerous questions about that work and its possible nuclear weapons application.

As to the second part of my noble friend’s question, obviously I leave it to the Government of Israel to address directly their own security interests. Our policy on this is very clear: all those states that have not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty should do so, as non-nuclear weapon states. Were Israel to do this, it would contribute to peace in the region.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is nearly two years since I asked the Government what representations they had made to the Government of Israel to try to persuade them to accede to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty? I received a slightly obscure reply from the noble Lord, Lord Triesman, who said:

“There has been consistent discussion along the lines of desiring to see a nuclear-free area in that region”.—[Official Report, 25/5/06; col. 922.]

I now ask when representations were last made to the Government of Israel, and with what result.

My Lords, the noble Lord tempts me into giving a clear answer on Middle East policy, which is always a dangerous trap. The UK continues to call publicly and privately on Israel to ratify the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state, and has regular meetings with it to discuss this, most recently in mid-April this year.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the great concerns about Iran and the Middle East is the possibility of a series of Governments moving towards producing their own nuclear weapons because of the failure of any nuclear-free zone to be established in the Middle East? Given that countries such as Egypt and Jordan are becoming increasingly irritated by the lack of any progress, might there be an approach to all three of the non-signatories of the NPT to point out to them that the best hope of trying to limit nuclear proliferation is for them to join the NPT and accept the additional protocol?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is completely correct. We have from several countries in the Middle East—those she mentions—a real commitment to a nuclear-free zone. We have already seen in Latin America and the South Pacific—and potentially in Africa, where the measure is not yet ratified and therefore is not fully entered into force—exactly this principle of nuclear-free zones, with so-called negative security commitments by nuclear powers not to use nuclear force against countries within these zones unless they are allied with other nuclear powers. That is a very good contribution to peace. We are making that case to all those involved and, as I indicated, to Israel as well.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a severely complicating factor against a regional settlement is that a country with nuclear ambitions—Iran—is threatening to destroy another internationally recognised country; namely, Israel? Is it not true that Israel has had to rely on its own resources in the past to defend its very existence?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an enormously important point that one has to bear in mind in having a balanced approach to this. However, the basic fact remains that a nuclear-free zone, including both Iran and Israel, should be the long-term objective of our efforts.

My Lords, it has been widely reported that Senator Clinton, who is expecting to run as a presidential candidate, has said that if Iran drops nuclear bombs on Israel, America will obliterate Iran. What do the Government think of that?

My Lords, whenever I am urged to answer by noble Lords opposite, I am particularly concerned. I think that observation has already provoked a response from other presidential candidates. Obviously, while it is reasonable to warn Iran of the consequences for its security of continuing to develop nuclear weapons, it is probably not prudent in today’s world to threaten to obliterate any other country and the civilians resident in such a country.