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Iran Nuclear Deal

Volume 797: debated on Wednesday 8 May 2019


My Lords, I wish to repeat as a Statement an Answer given to an Urgent Question in the other place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Asia. The Statement is as follows:

“The UK notes with great concern the statement made by Iran today concerning its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We are analysing the detail of it and are in close contact with other parties to the deal, but I have to say to the House that today’s announcement from Tehran is an unwelcome step. I urge Iran not to take further escalatory steps and to stand by its commitments. We are not at this stage talking of reimposing sanctions but one has to remember that they were lifted in exchange for nuclear restrictions as part of the JCPOA. Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, there would of course be consequences.

For as long as Iran keeps its commitments, so will the United Kingdom. It is critical that we maintain an open dialogue with Iran. The Foreign Office political director visits Tehran this week to discuss this and a range of bilateral issues. I hope to visit Iran in the coming months.

In this regard, we recall our own firm commitments under the deal, including sanctions lifting for the benefit of the Iranian people. The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions is an essential part of the JCPOA. It aims at having a positive impact not only on trade and economic relations with that country but, most importantly, on the lives of many of the Iranian people, who have had such a tough time in recent decades. We deeply regret the reimposition of sanctions by the United States following its withdrawal from the JCPOA.

The UK, along with the remaining participants to the JCPOA—France, Germany, Russia and China—are committed to working on sanctions relief for Iran, together with third countries interested in supporting the JCPOA. We are determined to pursue efforts, together with other European partners, to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran. The UK and our European partners met Iranian officials only yesterday in Brussels to discuss the next steps needed to operationalise the special purpose vehicle, INSTEX, which is aimed to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran.

Even at this stage, we encourage all countries, including Russia and China as JCPOA participants, to make their best efforts to pursue the sanctions relief that the agreement allows for through concrete steps. We take this opportunity to call on countries not party to the JCPOA to refrain from taking any actions that impede the remaining parties’ ability fully to perform their commitments.

Finally, it is important to remember that the UK remains clear-eyed about Iran’s destabilising activity in other parts of the Middle East, including its ballistic missile programme, which must now be addressed. However, we see this being best done with the JCPOA remaining in place”.

My Lords, I very much welcome the Minister’s Statement. Of course, it is about keeping commitments. Today, we have seen retaliation for the United States imposing further sanctions, which will become a tit for tat if we are not careful. It emerged in discussions in Brussels, which I welcome, that practically all EU multinational companies that were trading with Iran have now ceased to do so, and the US is threatening to impose sanctions on any country that imports oil from Iran. On commitment to the nuclear deal, can the Minister tell us in a little more detail how we are upholding our side of the bargain? How will we work with our European partners to ensure that we do not regress and end up with Iran pursuing its nuclear option?

Let me assure the noble Lord that the United Kingdom remains fully committed to the JCPOA. When the United States withdrew from the agreement, the United Kingdom, along with other key European partners, was clear about the importance of retaining and sustaining this treaty. It is not perfect, as we have said a number of times in your Lordships’ House, but it is an important vehicle to ensure that Iran does not progress on the nuclear pathway in any respect. Therefore, it is important to keep the deal alive and on the table. It is for this reason that we remain committed to the special purpose vehicle to which I alluded in the Statement. We are working through the technical details to ensure that, together with other partners, including the E3—with Germany and France, the initial owners—we look to the specific needs of the Iranian people so that the current situation and terrible suffering they are enduring does not prevail. This will include a focus on foodstuffs, agricultural products, pharmaceuticals and trade in consumer goods. It is important to make progress in this respect, and we remain committed to the SPV.

Must it not be accepted that today’s disappointing announcement is a direct consequence of United States policy? It reflects a need on the part of President Rouhani to respond to internal political pressure and, of course, the painful impact of sanctions on Iran’s population. Can Her Majesty’s Government assure us that when President Trump visits the United Kingdom in June, they will tell him in no uncertain terms that his unilateral policy undermines nuclear non-proliferation, multilateral diplomacy, and international law and institutions, not to mention transatlantic solidarity?

On the noble Lord’s final point, transatlantic solidarity is an important attribute but there are times when we differ. We have not waited for the arrival of the President of the United States to make clear our differing perspectives on the JCPOA and our other differences. The noble Lord will be aware that Secretary of State Pompeo is currently visiting London and has had various meetings with the Foreign Office, including with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, at which this issue was discussed with him. Our view remains clear: we need to work to ensure that the JCPOA remains on the table; we need to ensure that the SPV alleviates the suffering of the Iranian people; we remain committed to the SPV, along with our European partners; and we differ from the United States in our approach in this respect.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests: I am the trade envoy to Iran and chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce. Although this is a very gloomy development, is it not important to remember that President Rouhani said in the statement referred to that Iran does not intend and does not want to withdraw from the JCPOA, but wants it to persist? Is it not the case that the International Atomic Energy Agency has certified that Iran is fully compliant with the agreement on no fewer than 11 or 12 occasions? One must draw the conclusion that Iran has been pushed to react by the extra sanctions and the aggressive action of the United States in trying to reduce Iran’s exports to zero, which would have a devastating impact on living standards in the country. The Minister said that the Government remain committed to the JCPOA, but does he acknowledge that the SPV that has been set up—I acknowledge the great efforts of civil servants to make it work—is extremely limited? It is restricted to food and medicines; that is all. It does not obviate the need for a bank when doing business with Iran. In fact, not a single transaction has been made under the mechanism so far; something much more ambitious must happen if there is to be any trade between Europe and Iran.

On my noble friend’s final point, no trade has happened yet because the SPV is not yet operational. We continue to work on its technical detail. My noble friend is right to mention President Rouhani’s declaration that he is keen to ensure that the JCPOA, a working agreement, remains on the table. The United Kingdom shares that aspiration. Therefore, a 60-day window still exists; we hope that no other steps to change the situation we currently face will be taken during that time. As I said in the Statement, we regret the announcement from Tehran but it is important that we continue to look at how we can work through the challenges we face. Equally, we must look at the SPV’s creation and initiation of the process; for example, my noble friend talked about medicines and humanitarian aid, which are important, but this is also about looking at agricultural products and consumer goods. It is important that we continue to work to ensure that the SPV becomes operational.

My Lords, the Government have given a measured response, working with allies other than the US, but recognising that Iran is engaging in malign activities in the Middle East. Does the Minister agree that what the Trump Administration appear to lack is a sense of history? Experience shows that the Iranian people will rally around the flag and will not yield to bluster, warships or to the privations visited on them. That is surely what is happening now.

The noble Lord is correct to draw attention to Iran’s activities, including, as I said in the Statement, the current focus on its ballistic missile programme. That is not conducive to peace in the Middle East; rather it adds to the insecurity and instability. Indeed, Iran’s actions in other areas of the Middle East have also been causing instability. We continue to urge Iran to abide by the commitments it has made through international bodies, including through UN Security Council resolutions, and to continue to work towards peace in the Middle East more widely, particularly in those countries where it has influence. On what is happening in Iran, as I have said, our commitment to the SPV is closely focused on alleviating the plight of the Iranian people. Whatever challenges or differences we may have with the Iranian regime, they are not with the Iranian people. There is a rich history and culture in Iran, which we have all seen in the past. We hope that in due course Iran will re-emerge on to the international scene.

My Lords, pursuing the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is it not the case that the United States has sent a carrier fleet and a new bomber task force to the Gulf? The US has declared the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation, which it may or may not be; I do not know. As we have heard, the US has vastly increased the oil sanctions. Do we know what the purpose of the policy of the United States really is? Are we talking to its representatives about it to have some kind of dialogue, given that the US is supposed to be one of our close allies? Is the US behaving like a close ally?

I assure my noble friend that the United States has been, is and will continue to remain a close ally of ours and there is much that we agree on. However, there are times of difference and the JCPOA is one such example. My noble friend has drawn attention to recent US deployments. Let me assure him that we remain very concerned about the risk of escalation in the region and I stress that we are urging all parties to show due restraint. However, the point was made in the previous question about Iran’s continued destabilising regional activities, so we will continue to work towards asking Iran and others to ensure that we do not escalate the situation in what is a very tense region at the moment. However, the United States and the United Kingdom enjoy strong bilateral relations, including through international organisations, and we continue to work on joint priorities. Indeed, this morning I attended a meeting on the importance of freedom of religion or belief. I assure the House that on that point, the United States and the United Kingdom are very much aligned.