Skip to main content


Volume 741: debated on Monday 3 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what legal advice they have received on whether a pre-emptive military strike on Iran would violate international law.

My Lords, the Government do not believe that military action against Iran is the right course of action at this time, although no option is off the table. We believe that the twin-track approach of engagement with Iran and pressure through sanctions is the best way to resolve the nuclear issue. We do not comment on legal advice and will not speculate about the legality of various scenarios.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I have asked this Question because of a report in the Guardian which suggests that the Attorney General’s Office has argued internally in government that providing assistance to forces that could be involved in a pre-emptive strike would be a clear breach of international law. Will the Minister clarify the Government’s understanding of the principles that should inform any decision about assisting forces in a pre-emptive strike on another country?

I can inform your Lordships’ House that we are not advocating military action against Iran. We continue to believe that the twin-track process of pressure and engagement offers the best hope of resolving the Iranian nuclear issue. In relation to legal advice, the noble Lord will be aware that it is not practice to inform this House or notify parliamentarians of specific legal advice, if any, that we may be obtaining.

My Lords, leaving aside the legal considerations, given that a pre-emptive all-out strike on Iran would almost certainly be militarily unsuccessful, unite Iranian opinion behind the leadership and scupper any diplomatic talks, would not such a move be militarily inept, politically unsuccessful and diplomatically disastrous?

My Lords, my noble friend comes to these matters with great experience and expertise, and it is important that voices such as his are heard. However, I can assure him, as I can assure the House, that there is no plan whatever to take military action against Iran, although of course all options are on the table. We fundamentally believe that the best way to deal with this matter is through pressure and engagement, and that is the process that we have adopted.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that there is something that is perhaps slightly upside down about this Question and that what we should be worrying about is the legality of the preparation of nuclear weapons by Iran? No country should have to face the choice between obliteration and self-defence.

The noble Baroness raises an important point. We have concerns and it is because of those concerns that there have been successive United Nations resolutions on this matter over a number of years. It is why the international community wants Iran to be much more transparent and why we continue to engage and push for that transparency. We would all like to come to a negotiated solution.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in her reply to my noble friend Lord Wood, she said that a pre-emptive was not justified “at this time”? Can she tell us when she envisages that such a strike might be justified?

As I said at the outset, all options are on the table. It would be inappropriate for me to speculate on what scenarios may come forward in the future, and of course it would depend very much on the scenario we faced at the time. However, I can be clear that the Government are certainly mindful of their legal obligations within international law.

Does the Minister not agree that there would be no doubt whatever about the legal situation if Iran developed nuclear weapons? It would be illegal under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, which was signed and ratified. However, rather than having the argument this afternoon about the legalities, is not the top priority, with the new American Administration, to revive the second of the two tracks—not the sanctions track, which must be kept up, but the track to talk to the Iranian regime? Would it not be worthwhile for the Government to take the view with the United States Administration that they should have some kind of bilateral contact with the Iranians before matters get to the point where they cannot be retrieved?

Discussions about these matters are ongoing in a number of different ways. The noble Lord will be aware that the E3+3—Russia, China, the US and ourselves, France and Germany—have had four meetings since the beginning of this year; I think since February. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, is in the process of taking forward a further meeting, possibly before Christmas. We are absolutely committed to negotiating our way out of this matter.

Does the noble Baroness agree that, while the centuries-old legal principles in respect of pre-emptive strikes remain valid, they have been transformed in practice by the speed of warning and response in the nuclear age? Although we, along with much of the security establishment in Israel, may be highly critical of a possible strike, should we not at least acknowledge the dilemma of the Israeli Government, who are faced with President Ahmadinejad, who has said he intends to destroy Israel and may very well soon have the capability to do just that?

Iran’s development of military nuclear power is a matter of concern for many more countries than just Israel. It is why we have United Nations Security Council resolutions in relation to this matter and it is why we have tried to negotiate with Iran over a number of years. It is important to continue those negotiations and discussions. These are concerns that we in this country have too.

Does the Minister agree that only a few weeks ago Mr Soltanieh, the Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, specifically indicated that Iran was now open to the possibility of bilateral discussions with the United States, and that President Obama has reflected this in his recent views expressed within the United States? Finally, according to recent polling by the Knowledge Forum, a clear majority in the United States is now clearly in favour of discussions and diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, beginning as soon as possible.

Of course, we raise this matter in discussions with the United States but it has to be for the United States to take these discussions forward with Iran if it feels that that is the right way forward. As we do with a number of countries, we encourage it to take all opportunities to have these discussions. The findings of the poll that my noble friend refers to very much reflect the opinion of all of us in this House, and indeed the public, that the better way to resolve this matter is not through military action.

My Lords, are there any circumstances whatever where a first strike with nuclear weapons could be morally justifiable?

I am not enough of a military expert to start making these decisions. I do not think that this is a matter for moral judgment; it will be based on any scenario that presents itself at the time, and it would be wrong for me or the Government to speculate at this stage.

My Lords, should there not be the same kind of sanctions against all countries who have nuclear weapons? Is it not the case that these sanctions hurt the poor in Iran while the elite are totally unaffected?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point. When we look at sanctions, we are extremely aware of the need to have appropriate exemptions in place that cover humanitarian assistance, including medicines. It is important to remember that what we are concerned about is the development of nuclear weapons. We have concerns about the regime but not about the Iranian people. They are not the people we want to suffer as a result of these sanctions.