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Iran Nuclear Talks

Volume 757: debated on Tuesday 25 November 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on the negotiations between the E3+3 and Iran regarding the future of Iran’s nuclear programme.

In November 2013 the E3+3 signed an interim agreement with Iran, which came into force on 20 January 2014 for an initial period of six months. Under this agreement, Iran committed to freezing areas of its nuclear programme of greatest concern to the international community. In return, Iran received limited sanctions relief and the repatriation of $4.2 billion in oil revenues. Crucially, this interim agreement gave us the time and space to build confidence and begin negotiations on a comprehensive deal to ensure the peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear programme.

Since February, we have engaged in extensive negotiations with Iran at both official and ministerial level. We always knew these negotiations would be difficult and complex, and they have been—even more so than negotiating the Geneva interim agreement. At their heart is the need to reconcile Iran’s aspirations for a peaceful civil nuclear programme with our insistence on ensuring Iran cannot develop a nuclear weapons capability. By July 2014, after several rounds of talks with Iran, we had deepened our understanding of the positions of both sides and made progress on areas of the negotiations. But we were still far short of reaching agreement on core issues. The E3+3 and Iran therefore decided to extend the negotiations until 24 November—yesterday.

Since July, negotiations between the E3+3 and Iran have intensified and we have closed the gap between the parties on a number of important issues. But significant differences remain. I and other Foreign Ministers from the E3+3 met in Vienna last Friday, and again yesterday, to evaluate the prospects of reaching agreement on a political framework for a comprehensive deal within the deadline.

The discussions in Vienna highlighted the need for further movement on some big issues by the Iranians and the need for flexibility on both sides. Despite the efforts of all parties, it was clear yesterday morning that we need more time to close the gaps between the E3+3 and Iran, particularly regarding the issue of Iran’s enrichment capacity, which remains at the heart of this negotiation. But based on the significant progress that we have made to date, I remain of the view—a view shared by my fellow E3+3 Ministers and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif—that a comprehensive deal remains possible. We must capitalise on the momentum that we have gathered and push forward to achieve this prize.

Iran and the E3+3 have therefore agreed to extend the interim agreement again until the end of June to allow more time to bridge remaining gaps and tie down technical details. We will continue negotiations in December with the shared aim of securing an outline agreement within four months. We would, of course, have preferred to reach a comprehensive deal by yesterday’s deadline, but only if it was the right deal. As we continue to work towards such a deal, we have an interim agreement in place which maintains important constraints on Iran’s programme and the vast majority of nuclear-related sanctions. Under this arrangement, Iran will continue to be able to repatriate oil revenues on a similar basis to the current arrangements.

Successive Governments have enjoyed cross-party support in the House for the twin-track approach of sanctions and negotiations. I remain convinced that this approach is the right one and that it is yielding progress. The negotiations with Iran are tough and complex, but a comprehensive agreement would bring enormous benefits to all parties. For Iran, it would herald the beginning of reintegration into the international community and open the door to an easing of sanctions and access to significant frozen assets. For the international community, it would mark a considerable advance for regional and global security. We cannot and will not succumb to the temptation of sealing a deal at any price, but will remain steadfast in pursuit of a comprehensive agreement that respects the clear principle that Iran must not be able to develop a nuclear weapons capability”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in another place earlier today. It is an especial thanks to the noble Baroness, and I think she will know why I say that.

I agree with the comment in the Statement that there has long been cross-party support for a twin-track approach—sanctions and negotiations—and I confirm today in the House that that cross-party support exists.

Before asking the Minister a few questions, I am sure she will want to acknowledge the work of the EU’s outgoing High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, my noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland. All sides of the House will be very proud of the role that she has played. Over the past five years, she has played a decisive and constructive role on the world stage and her commitment and determination on the Iran nuclear issue in recent months have been very widely recognised. As Secretary Kerry said yesterday in his press conference,

“I want to thank … especially my good friend Baroness Cathy Ashton, whose partnership has been absolutely invaluable throughout this process and who has done a terrific job of helping to bring people together and define the process”.

We should be very proud of the role that our fellow Member has played.

Turning to events yesterday in Vienna, the fact that it was not possible to reach agreement by the already extended deadline of yesterday is, of course, a regrettable setback, but in our view it need not be an irretrievable one. The June 2015 extension could allow for a further opportunity for progress to be made towards the vital comprehensive deal.

For some years now, Iran has chosen to exploit regional sectarian tensions through supporting terrorist groups in other parts of the region, but today and in the next few months Iran has the capability to play a much more positive role. But that has to start with a clear commitment by Iran to address concerns about its nuclear programme, which have been unresolved for too long now. There should be no doubt that in an already very volatile region and at a particularly perilous period, a nuclear-armed Iran poses a threat not only to Israel and its neighbours but to wider global security. The interim agreement that the Statement talked of was a significant step forward, but it was only ever intended to freeze Iran’s nuclear programme. A final deal must focus on seeing that nuclear programme rolled back.

I seek a number of assurances from the Minister on the content, extension and negotiation of the potential deal. First, on the content of any final agreement, reports suggest that one of the main obstacles to securing a deal remains the crucial issue of the number of centrifuges Iran could operate. The Statement did not mention that matter, so can the noble Baroness say in her response what the Government’s assessment is of the appropriate number of centrifuges that Iran can retain, while still offering sufficient protections around the so-called break-out time?

Secondly, the extension of negotiations must be agreed only alongside sufficient guarantees that it will not allow Iran to gain by running down the clock. The terms of the now extended agreement explicitly forbid Iran from adding new enrichment capacity and accumulating more enriched uranium, and ban 20% enrichment altogether. Can the Minister confirm that these restrictions will remain in place and will continue to be monitored, and that any sign of breach will warrant a strong response?

Thirdly, on finance, can the Minister confirm that Iran will not enjoy any net financial gain through this extension? The Foreign Secretary said yesterday that:

“The expectation is that there will be a rollover of the current arrangements for Iran to access around $700 million per month of frozen assets”.

In the Statement, which the noble Baroness has been kind enough to read to this House, the Foreign Secretary said that Iran will continue to repatriate oil revenues on “a similar basis” to before. Can the Minister confirm that this does not allow for any further extension of sanctions relief without anything in return from Iran?

Briefly, on a separate but connected subject, we welcomed the announcement in June that the embassy in Tehran will be reopened. The Foreign Secretary’s recent answer to my right honourable friend the shadow Foreign Secretary stated that issues around getting the embassy back to a functional level and re-establishing a visa service are still under discussion. Can the Minister offer us today any timescale for when she thinks those matters will be resolved? It is important—and I hope this is a common view across the House—that that embassy is reopened as soon as possible.

Secretary of State Kerry was surely right to say that these talks will not get easier just because they go on longer. An extension is not a success in itself and must not be seen as such. The only successful outcome is a full and comprehensive deal being reached, upheld and effectively implemented. We very much hope that that is what happens as soon as possible.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for reconfirming the Opposition’s long-held view that this is a cross-party matter where both the Government and the Opposition support the policies of the twin-track approach. He quite rightly drew attention to the importance of ensuring that these talks progress in a way that achieves a fully implemented deal that can be properly monitored and to the fragility of security in the area. Against that background, he is absolutely right that we should address all these matters cautiously but firmly to achieve that full, successful outcome. I am also very glad to recognise the significant role played by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and was delighted to be able to draw attention to that when I answered a Question at the Dispatch Box from the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, at the end of last month. The noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, showed, on the national stage, the skills of negotiation which she deployed so well in this Chamber.

I will address myself to the noble Lord’s questions. First, he asked about the precise number of centrifuges that the Iranians might wish to escalate to and the exact number that we might consider appropriate. This will certainly be the crux of the matter in the discussions that proceed and the noble Lord will understand that one does not necessarily go into the details of something that sensitive. However, I can say very clearly that, in all the negotiations considering how many centrifuges would be acceptable, at any stage, to a final agreement, we are very carefully balancing two facts. Whereas the Iranians might wish to increase the number of centrifuges to a level that might easily make it possible for them to move to a nuclear programme, we are determined that will not happen. The crucial part of any successful deal must be that the centrifuge numbers—and all the other technical matters, as the noble Lord will be perfectly well aware from the work he has done on this—are considered in such a way that the civilian needs of the Iranian Government can legitimately be met. However, such a deal does not allow for a number of centrifuges, or an escalation to a number of centrifuges, which would give the opportunity for any nuclear weaponry to be developed. It is the civilian use that we see as legitimate.

I come to the questions that the noble Lord properly asked about what happens now. I can certainly confirm that the restrictions on sanctions remain firmly in place, as they were before midnight last night. As the clock ticked over from midnight to one second past midnight, exactly the same restrictions as before remained in place and they will be monitored. He asked whether it means there is no net financial gain for Iran and that there will be no further extension of sanctions relief. I can reassure him on both those matters. To assist him a little more, I can say that, under the extension, Iran’s obligations under the joint plan of action continue exactly as before. This means that the most concerning elements of Iran’s nuclear programme remain frozen. In return, but just as before midnight last night, Iran receives instalments of oil revenues that had previously been restricted. The E3+3 will continue suspension of the same specific sanctions that were suspended under the joint plan of action. The EU Council decision was updated this very morning when the technical, legal provisions were put in place. This means that the Iranian Government can draw down a maximum of $700 million from oil revenues which is exactly the same position as at the beginning of the year and there will be no softening at all of any of the proliferation sanctions. I hope that reassurance satisfies the noble Lord.

He also asked whether I could give an undertaking that we would not provide further relief to the Government in Iran unless there were further concessions from that Government. That will indeed form part of the further negotiations; otherwise, existing sanctions remain in place.

The noble Lord then asked practical questions about the embassy in Tehran. As my right honourable friend in another place explained, we face two technical issues to be resolved. The first is the fact that the embassy, having been sacked, literally has to be resupplied. It is a case of getting agreements physically to take in and set up all the material that is required, and that is a matter for negotiation with the Government of Iran. Secondly, we, like the noble Lord, wish to see a visa service reinstated as soon as possible for the convenience of all—not only for Iranians travelling here but for British citizens who travel to Iran. I know that all those negotiations will be tackled in a very forthright but very careful manner. We all know that it is important for our embassies to be in position. I certainly know from talking to noble Lords that they, like me, have a great regard for our consular services.

My Lords, given where we were a few days ago, the extension of the talks is indeed very welcome news. I say from this side of the House that we are completely supportive of our Government’s endeavours in that regard. My noble friend will appreciate the importance of sequencing. It is really important that we have managed to hang on to the status quo at the moment. Of course there will be presidential elections in the United States in 2016, but people sometimes forget that there will also be Iranian elections, and it is terribly important that the reforming Government, such that they are, have something to show for their efforts in engaging with the E3+3 process. Will my noble friend bear that in mind as she goes back? It should be kept in mind as we go into negotiations, because this may well be our last chance.

I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, for her sterling work in this regard. However, it is slightly unclear who will now take over the principal EU negotiating role. Can my noble friend tell us whether the new high representative, Mrs Mogherini, will be doing that or whether the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, will continue?

I am grateful to my noble friend for reiterating the support that I know she has expressed from her Benches before for the way in which these matters are taken forward. She asked me to bear in mind the pattern of elections. I can certainly assure her that those matters are borne in mind. I also ought to say that all those who are taking part in the negotiations bear in mind more technical details, too, regarding religious festivals in Iran, here and in the rest of Europe. That is why the next stage of the negotiations is beginning this very month. There will be no hesitation. The negotiations will begin before Christmas so that after four months we can have a framework of political agreement and we will then have the technical work that will provide the final result by the end of June.

My noble friend asked what will happen now that the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has completed the period for which she was “signed up”, if I may use that expression. She has given more of her time than she was due to give, so we express all thanks to her for that. This is a matter for the new Commissioner, Mrs Mogherini, to decide, and I am sure that she will be in discussions over that.

My Lords, in terms of the debate going on inside Iran—the debate on television, on the radio and in the rest of the media—about developments in Vienna, is not one of the complicating issues of this whole affair the fact that the state of Israel refuses to give up its nuclear weapons and that many people on the streets in Iran simply cannot understand the position being taken by the western powers?

My Lords, I say to the noble Lord, who I know has great experience in foreign affairs matters—we have discussed them—that I think that the question is a lot more complicated than that. As we know, Israel is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while Iran is not. There are meetings with regard to the treaty next year, when a lot of these matters will be under discussion. I was interested to note last night that Mr Netanyahu made it clear that no deal is better than a bad deal. I think that that was an important thing for him to say, because it reflects exactly our view that, in order to achieve security there, we need a good deal for all.

My Lords, first, will the Minister accept support from these Benches for the reaching of a decision that was far better than breaking off negotiations or doing a bad deal? I add my voice to those who praise the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for a remarkable performance over the years. However, does the Minister recognise that, on the banks of the Potomac, there may be less all-party support for this prolongation than there is in this House? Will the British Government use the contacts that the embassy in Washington has with the Hill to explain why we think that this is the best outcome? Secondly, I express slight doubt as to whether the division of the next seven months into two periods as clearly as it has been done will bear the stress that time puts on it. Can she confirm, therefore, that the whole of the seven-month period will be available for negotiations and will not be artificially divided into two parts, which, if the first cannot be fulfilled in the time available, renders nugatory the second?

My Lords, I am grateful for the support from the noble Lord. He asks us to ensure that our colleagues across the Atlantic—perhaps all other colleagues involved in these negotiations—remain firm. In the meetings that were held last week by the Foreign Ministers, as the noble Lord will be aware, my noble friend the Foreign Secretary went twice to Vienna, on Friday and yesterday, in order to try to make sure that we got as close as possible to a result and, we hope, to a full result. All those taking part are showing an absolute resolve, so the E3+3 plus Iran have ended in a position where all have a determination to continue. I can give an assurance that our determination will be relayed to all our colleagues who are taking part in these negotiations. The noble Lord refers to the 4+3. Clearly we want to drive momentum. There must be no thought that there is time available to let anything drift and leave any nailing-down of the political framework until too late. That is why we have proposed 4+3 as a structure. If, at the end of four months, we have not got to the most perfect position on the political framework, I suspect that a huge amount of work will be going on to make sure that we do, but behind that there is a determination by all parties that we do not let this opportunity slip.

My Lords, I refer to my entry in the Register of Lords’ Interests as chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. I agree with my noble friend that no deal is a lot better than a bad deal. It must be an effective deal, but it is good that the habit of dialogue, which increases understanding of each other’s position, is continuing. One hopes that that will lead to wider things. First, can the Minister say whether the Russian offer to build nuclear power stations in Iran and to convert the enriched uranium into fuel rods outside Russia has in any way contributed towards a narrowing of the gap on the scale of the programme and the scale of the centrifuges issue? Secondly, let me ask the Minister about sanctions relief for humanitarian goods. There have been reports that medicines and other humanitarian goods needed for hospitals are not getting through, despite the sanctions relief. The American banking boycott, which is not in its entirety part of British law but is imposed extraterritorially, is frustrating the supplies of humanitarian goods. We have always made it clear that we do not want the sanctions to hit ordinary people or vulnerable people.

My Lords, perhaps I may address that matter first. My noble friend is absolutely right to point out that humanitarian relief was never part of the sanctions regime. We have made it clear that we do not wish the sanctions to impact directly on the needs of Iranian people; they should be directed firmly at the Iranian Government. I appreciate that banks can make commercial decisions, but with regard to humanitarian relief efforts it is clear that there should not be any let or hindrance in their delivery. I have had discussions with humanitarian organisations which are firm in their belief on how to take their work forward effectively.

My noble friend also raised the issue of Russia and what it may have agreed to do. I appreciate that there was a story in the New York Times and elsewhere that Russia had agreed to take on responsibility for Iran’s stockpile of uranium and that that might have been a bit of a signal of a breakthrough in the talks. What I can say is that identifying areas for civil nuclear co-operation will be an important part of the final deal, but clearly it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the detail, let alone because it is something that Russia may or may not be involved in. I will say that a deal can be reached only if Iran addresses international proliferation concerns by simply—perhaps it is not so simple—reducing the size of its nuclear programme. That is the core of our negotiations.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for a very well balanced Statement, which balances a degree of realism and circumspection with the political will to resolve this issue. That is something that the whole House will want. We were right to engage and we are right to endure as long as there is a prospect of achieving success. The reward, quite frankly, is staggering in its implications. Perhaps I may make a couple of points. First, in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, we are of course congratulating the European Union in an era when that is perhaps not fashionable in all quarters. While we all have our criticisms of the EU, I think that we should put that on the record. Secondly, this is important precisely because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, there are more sceptical political voices on the other side of the Atlantic, so the British and European bearing could encourage a more positive approach among the politicians, if not among those who are engaged in this, although I do not doubt for a moment their bona fides. Finally, the last paragraph of the noble Baroness’s contribution is hugely important in its implications. Are we making it absolutely plain in everything that we do that, while achieving a resolution of the nuclear question as an end in itself is of course important, what is even more important in some ways is an entry through that gateway into the potential normalisation of Iran’s place and position in the world? Iran is a great and important nation with a proud history and it has a huge influence over large areas of the world which are at present unstable. If we can use these negotiations as a gateway through to normalising Iran’s role in the world, that would indeed be a prize worth winning.

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Reid, and the emphasis that he places on the prize that is to be gained by having Iran return to normalisation in its relationships. The very fact of Iran being received back into the family of nations is also the prize to be seized by the rest of the world, not only in the region but elsewhere. Of course I also recognise what the noble Lord says about the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who has performed a great role within the EU and on the international stage. Perhaps I may take the opportunity, in answering his question, to say that in my enthusiasm when referring to the appearance on television of Mr Netanyahu last night, I suddenly signed Israel up as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That would certainly have surprised Israel, as it should have surprised me. Israel is not a signatory to the treaty.

My Lords, the Statement inevitably focuses somewhat narrowly on the nuclear deal, but there are those—I am one of them and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, may be another—who believe that the more that future negotiations can open up the wider issues, including Iran’s possibly more constructive role in stabilising the chaos across the whole region and in general in the international landscape, the more likely it is that the development of those negotiations will proceed and succeed. Can my noble friend give a hint as to whether the future negotiations will go a bit wider than just “the deal”, as it seems to be called?

My Lords, we are not in a position where we can call it “the deal”, because we are working towards it. In a sense, the gap has been narrowed because we have been able to identify some areas where we may be able to resolve matters, but there still remains a core area that has not been resolved. It is a prize worth seeking and it can be sought —indeed, with encouragement we may get there—but I would not wish to say that we are at the stage where it is so resolved that we can think of next steps. My noble friend is absolutely right to draw attention to the role currently played by Iran in the region—it has been alluded to in this House and elsewhere—and the role for peace that it might play in the future. It could indeed play a constructive role. We welcome the support that the Iranian Government have given to the new Government of Iraq and their efforts to promote a more inclusive governance for all Iraqis, but a similar approach is needed in Syria, where Iran can and must play a constructive role. All these discussions will continue in tandem, I am sure, with what for us is the core issue today, which is to proceed with negotiations so that we can be in a position to achieve a political framework by the end of four months and by the end of seven to have a deal that is good for all.

My Lords, is not a critical element of a settlement of this issue the existence of a robust inspection system? Could the Minister advise us on the present state of play on that important matter?

The noble Lord is absolutely right. It is essential that the International Atomic Energy Agency has access in Iran in order to make sure that the supervision of these matters is carried forward. That has to be an integral part of any deal so that the IAEA is able to scrutinise it. When matters have progressed and we hopefully get to agreement on a deal, at that stage the undertakings to achieve scrutiny will be included.

My Lords, I return to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, on Israel. Many people raise the point that Israel has nuclear weapons and the capacity to enrich uranium and produce more, so that is very relevant indeed. Could the Minister confirm that she said that Israel was a party to—she is shaking her head before I have asked the question—the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Iran is not? I understood that Iran was party to the treaty and Israel was not. Perhaps she could confirm or deny what I am saying.

My Lords, in answering the noble Lord, Lord Reid, I took the opportunity to make it clear that it is indeed that way round and that it is Iran that is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and Israel is not. In an answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, on 30 October I made that clear. This is what makes it a different type of discussion with Iran about how it fulfils its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. We know that the area has its security difficulties at the moment. All our efforts as parliamentarians are concentrated on trying to ensure security there and consequently security for a wider Europe and wider international stage. What we are doing today is discussing that part of the negotiations with Iran that focus on ensuring that we can resolve the outstanding issue, which is to prevent the acceleration and movement of Iran towards the capacity to have a nuclear weaponry system.

My Lords, like virtually every other speaker, I welcome strongly the Statement repeated by the noble Baroness, which represents a signal moment in the whole complex and difficult issue between Iran and the rest of the world. I do not want to labour the point, but does my noble friend accept that the fact that Israel is not a member of the IAEA or the various treaties gives a great deal of concern to the Iranians? I absolutely accept that Israel is desperate to preserve its safety by preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weaponry. That is perfectly understandable. What is not so well understood is that within Iran there is genuine terror of an Israel with nuclear weaponry. I declare my interest as president of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. Does my noble friend accept that it is about time that we in the West exerted friendly pressure on Israel for it to come into the fold, so to speak, in terms of the world’s attempts at controlling nuclear power? Is that something that the Government will consider? In Iran, President Rouhani is currently taking considerable risks with his public opinion, knowing as it does that Israel sits there with weaponry and that we in the West do not even accept that it should be part of any of these arrangements. It really would be a positive step all round if something were to be done along those lines.

My Lords, clearly there are security issues in the area that go far beyond the discussion of whether or not Iran develops nuclear weapons. Clearly, though, the way in which the Iranian Government have sought to increase their capacity to obtain nuclear weapons has contributed to the destabilisation of the area. It is important that we continue our work with Iran in order to enable it, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid, said, to come back into the international world. That in itself would reduce instability and uncertainty in the area. Clearly, negotiations go on with all countries in the whole area of the Middle East and the Gulf with regard to security matters. There is no easy answer, let alone an easy answer for Israel or any other country there to find peace tomorrow. But what is clear is that each country needs to consider carefully what steps it takes to maintain its own security and whether those are reasonable or undermine the security of the area. Our attention is focused on the clear problem that has been caused by Iran working towards the development of nuclear weapons and that is where we should focus our attention, because we have the opportunity now to move forward in a constructive way. We need to seize that and not be diverted from it.