Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the influence of Iran on stability in the Middle East.
My Lords, the question of how we in the UK should deal with Iran has been a constant struggle. We have leant over backwards to reach some sort of agreement with that country, and no one tried harder than our own noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, when she represented the EU in putting forward the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. It is a particular pleasure that she will be enlightening us in this debate. However, I fear that we have failed to get any reasonably acceptable response from Iran. We might try to blame President Trump for the failure, but it is clear that appeasement was not working terribly well before he backed out of an agreement that gave us, at best, a one-year delay to Iran’s nuclear programme, and which it repeatedly disregarded.
The catalogue of activities in which Iran is engaged should make the most compliant of negotiators pause for thought. We have only to look at its actions against the UK. The imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and many others, the recent detention of our ambassador, the capture of a British-flagged tanker in the Strait of Hormuz, the planned terrorist attacks in London and the continent, the cyberattack on our own Parliament a couple of years ago, and the burning of our flag do not suggest a country that is seeking to accept a deal from us any time soon.
Let us look also at how the regime is suppressing its own people. This is a country with a proud history of intellectual and social development, now brought to its knees by a rigid theocracy. Women remain second- class citizens and homosexual men are publicly hung. Its population is constantly suppressed in the most brutal ways. Imprisonment, torture and the hanging of hundreds of dissidents each year are now the norm; 1,500 demonstrators were killed in the November demonstration alone, according to the Iranian liberty association. It is these poor citizens who are suffering the most from the economic sanctions imposed on a country intent on pouring its money into developing nuclear arms and long-range missiles for itself, as well as arms for its allies in Lebanon, Gaza, Syria and now, deeply, in Iraq.
Hezbollah has taken over Lebanon and is heavily armed, with 50,000 trained troops and 100,000 missiles hidden in villages in the south, aimed at Israel and probably Jordan. Even more worryingly, Iran has begun fitting sophisticated guidance systems to its ballistic missiles so that they can pinpoint Israeli airports and strategic targets. In Gaza, Hamas is fully armed by Iran, while in Iraq it has managed to infiltrate a huge number of armed units and achieved what it was never able to achieve when Saddam Hussein was in power: it has largely taken over the country without having to fight any wars.
In Yemen, Iran is funding the Houthi rebels as they fire missiles at the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh, its international airport and its oil fields. Saudi Arabia is now also on the front line against Iran. Finally, in Syria, which has descended into a completely failed state divided into several pieces, it is only by Iranian aid that the monster Assad has managed to survive in his subset of the country. So, now we have a Shia Iran that has taken over an arc of countries from the Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea, through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. These countries are already extremely vulnerable, with young populations and high unemployment rates; Iran is taking full advantage of that vulnerability.
However, an even greater danger lies in Iran’s attitude to Israel, about which we should be most concerned. Iran has made no secret whatever that its intention is to see Israel wiped off the map. Its leaders repeat that message every week and we should not mistake that as any desire simply to support the Palestinians. Even if the Israelis and the Palestinians ever came to an agreement, leaving aside Mr Trump’s doubtful “deal of the century”, Iran would still keep up its animosity towards—and plan to remove—Israel. In truth, it seems to care little about the Palestinians; it just wants to get rid of the Jewish state.
Iran has its allies at the ready in Lebanon and Gaza and now, most worryingly from Israel’s point of view, in Syria, right on Israel’s northern border. So far, Israel has been surreptitiously reducing Iran’s military capacity there, but it is quite unclear how long that can continue. Israel is surrounded and feels besieged. We should know that all these threats are in addition to the prospect of Iran going all out to develop its nuclear bomb. Israel takes the threat from Iran very seriously indeed. Anyone threatening to wipe out the Jews, now at the press of a button—with the memories of Auschwitz so strong this week—is taken very seriously. Israel is on ready alert to respond to any attack, or even, equally dangerously, to pre-empt one with a devastating attack of its own. That way leads to a war across the rest of the Middle East and inevitably, much as we would like to keep out, we and the EU, as well as America, would be drawn in.
So, what should we be doing here in the UK? I have some questions for the Minister. First, I understand that we have halted the JCPOA agreement and put it into a dispute resolution mechanism, even though Iran has clearly stated that the agreement is dead and that it is continuing to enrich uranium beyond the 3.67% limit. Can we seriously believe Iran when it says that it is developing its nuclear power simply for peaceful purposes? I think not. It seems inevitable that Iran will be referred to the UN Security Council and further sanctions applied.
Iran gives no impression that it is a friend waiting to come in from the cold. Where are we up to with the dispute resolution process? And what about INSTEX, our trade agreement with Iran, set up jointly with other EU countries? I hope that our Government will think long and hard about any trade deals with Iran while it continues its belligerent stance, its sponsorship of terrorism and its inhumane treatment of its own citizens. What is the current situation with INSTEX?
Is there anything else that might induce the Iranian leadership to change its position? Alone, we have little chance, but we may be able to engage those who have greater influence. I think particularly of Russia and China. Are we in discussion with Russia about what pressure it may be able to bring to bear on the regime? Mr Putin’s recent invitation to our Prime Minister to join him in Moscow at a meeting of UN Security Council members could be an enormously valuable opportunity to discuss global issues; inevitably, that should include the threats to Middle East security and Iran’s role in them. I hope that our Prime Minister will accept this opportunity. Mr Putin certainly does not want a nuclear war on his doorstep. What about China? We have now done it a favour; perhaps it may be encouraged to reciprocate by exerting pressure on Iran. We need as many allies as we can get.
As far as Israel is concerned, we should of course continue to press Israel and the Palestinians to come together and reach some form of agreement—even though the Trump plan may not be the answer—and we should urge restraint on Israel as it tries to deal with the threats surrounding it. However, we have to face up to the fact that Israel will listen to such words of caution only if they are accompanied by our own full recognition of the nature of Iran’s threat. We should support Israel as it tries to work out how to deal with that threat, which is not only to Israel and the rest of the Middle East but, inevitably, to us too. What is the Government’s attitude to Israel as it faces up to the threats to its existence?
In a world where political wisdom and moral leadership are sadly in short supply, it is vital that we find a path to de-escalation in what has become a Middle East arms race. We are faced with many perils and I fear that Iran is inflaming rather than stabilising them. We should not be fooled into believing that we can isolate ourselves from the fallout.
I am delighted that so many noble Lords have agreed to speak, and I very much look forward to hearing their words of wisdom.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for initiating this important debate. At the outset, I emphasise and support the UK’s stance and continuing efforts in calling for the de-escalation of tensions in the region. Further conflict is in no one’s interests, but Iran has to be held to account.
Reports of ongoing, widespread unrest in the Middle East continue, particularly over Iran’s involvement in Iraq. The protests in Iran have been mostly by working and middle-class demonstrators who were traditionally backers of the regime. They have also been centred on universities. Students want to see their country open up and offer opportunities—freedom of speech, equal opportunities for women and, above all, the stamping out of corruption and instability in their country.
With heavy US sanctions in place, Iran’s economy is spiralling downwards. Serious protests continue as we see inflation of 38.6% a year and depreciation of the national currency by about 60%. Freedom to demonstrate should be a fundamental right; for guards to fire live ammunition to quell protesters is abhorrent. It would seem that the country is at a crossroads; it can remain in economic isolation or take steps to de-escalate tensions and engage in a diplomatic path forward. Let us hope that Iran will take this path, as no one wants to see tensions in the Middle East escalate into war.
While Iran can offer plenty of weaponry, it is the women of Iran that I would like to focus on, particularly the future for girls and women and their right to an equal opportunity to engage in education, business and government. With regard to access to quality education in Iran, such obstacles and barriers double and triple for female students. With more than 80% of the nation living under the poverty line, there is no guarantee that Iranian children and young people can continue with their education. The number of girls who leave school far exceeds the number of boys, while the number of girls deprived of education is three times greater than that for boys. The UN also expresses concern about the increasing number of marriages of girls of 10 or younger.
Over two years ago the White Wednesday campaign began, in which brave Iranians wearing white headscarves or their own choice of clothing in public could be detained, fined or flogged for protesting. They also face discrimination in personal status matters relating to marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody, and cannot obtain a passport or travel outside the country without the written permission of their husbands. I have listed many barriers for women to overcome. They must have equal rights.
Iran has choices to make: first, within the country, to remove barriers for women; and, secondly, to begin to take real steps in de-escalating tensions and adhering to the basic rules of international law, or to sink deeper into political and economic isolation.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg. Although America has withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, I understand that our Government are working with European partners to find a way forward. However, how do the Government plan to address three key flaws in the deal?
First, the so-called sunset clause, which sees restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment programme lifted after 2025, means that in five years there will be no obstacle to Iran seeking to develop a nuclear weapon. The second flaw is the lack of any restrictions on Iran’s development of its ballistic missile programme, with such missiles capable of being easily adapted to carry a nuclear payload at a later date.
Thirdly, there is an absence of any measures constraining Iran’s ability to fund terrorist organisations, such as Hezbollah, based in Lebanon. Hezbollah, which possesses a formidable stockpile of rockets and missiles, has made no secret of its desire to wipe Israel off the map, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, suggested, Jordan is not free from that either. Last year it was revealed that in 2015, months after the Iran deal was signed, a joint operation between the Metropolitan Police and MI5 uncovered highly explosive material in north-west London, stored by radicals with ties to Hezbollah. Can the Government confirm that these issues will be discussed as part of any conversation on how to find a way forward on the deal?
Having proscribed Hezbollah’s military wing as a terrorist group in 2008, in March 2019 the UK Government declared Hezbollah in its entirety a terrorist organisation. Hezbollah is based in Lebanon. Founded with the aid of Iran in the 1980s, as well as being involved in Lebanese society through social services and active participation in politics, it also carries out international terrorist attacks and regional military operations—it is, in effect, an arm of Iran. In 2010 Iran provided Hezbollah with approximately $200 million, having transferred as much as $1 billion to the organisation between 2006 and 2009. Hezbollah is believed to possess as many as 100,000 missiles, 10 times its capacity during the 2006 war with Israel. What is the purpose of this armoury if not war on behalf of Iran?
Can the Minister assure us that all contributions to Lebanon are being assessed through rigorous parameters and that DfID resources are not being used by Hezbollah for non-humanitarian purposes?
My Lords, it is possible that the shocking and tragic downing of Ukrainian passenger jet PS752, with the loss of 176 lives, followed by a farrago of lies, denials and distortions will be Iran’s Chernobyl moment—a moment when another fundamentally flawed regime is exposed for what it is. The conflation of lies, denials and distortions, accompanied by bulldozers trying to plough up the evidence, was a vivid demonstration of the nature of a cruel and barbaric regime, unworthy of a great people and a great country. As widespread demonstrations have shown, this is Iran’s greatest existential crisis since 1979; it is a regime forced to kill hundreds of protesters and to terrorise thousands of others who show its true face. Khamenei and Soleimani are two sides of the same coin.
However, there are harbingers of change. Kimia Alizadeh, Iran’s only female Olympic medallist, has defected, while the country’s most popular actress told her 6 million followers on Instagram: “We are not citizens … We are hostages”. The sooner that the hostages —the people of Iran—are all freed, the better it will be for Iran and the rest of the world.
Last month I was in northern Iraq and Kurdistan, where I saw the Kurdish Regional Government attempting to build a pluralist and democratic society. That is endangered by a pincer movement of rekindled sleeping ISIS cells and by proxy Shabak militias funded by Iran. All over the region, Iran has destabilised countries, peddling a violent hateful ideology. Think of the consequences in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Since its foundation in 1979 the Iranian regime has been based on two pillars: domestic oppression and the export of terrorism and chaos abroad. Since 2018, Iranian-backed groups of militants have fired over 30 rockets at US facilities in Iraq, including the US embassy in Baghdad, the consulate in Basra and military training facilities in Taji, Mosul, and Nineveh. Congress and the White House have repeatedly warned that this will not be tolerated for ever.
According to the Times, Iran attempted to build, or has built, a dozen underground missile silos in Syria and was doing the same in Iraq. In Lebanon it has over 100,000 missiles. As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, warned us in his excellent opening remarks, this remains Israel’s greatest threat. For 40 years Iran has supported acts of terror and been responsible for egregious violations of human rights, and we can be certain that it will not balk at carrying out more.
I have two questions for the Minister. A report in the Daily Telegraph revealed that Soleimani’s Quds force and Afghan mercenaries are secretly directing military operations in the north-west city of Idlib in Syria, despite a promise during peace talks not to attack that city. Could he give us his response to that, and to calls to proscribe the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps?
My Lords, I refer the House to my non-financial interests in the register. It is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Alton. He was my MP in Mossley Hill, Liverpool. Although I left Liverpool soon after, his election had absolutely nothing to do with my leaving. I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, on this important and timely debate, although perhaps the title should have been “The influence of Iran on the instability of the Middle East”.
As we know, Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilisations. The country has a rich cultural legacy, reflected by its 22 UNESCO world heritage sites and its young, educated, business-oriented population. You have to ask why the population of Iran has taken the country down the road of supporting terror across the region and beyond. In relation to the JCPOA, the Foreign Secretary stated on 14 January 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.”—[Official Report, Commons, 14/1/20; col. 897.]
Does the Minister agree with me that Iran has never, at any time, been in full compliance with that agreement? Perhaps a better question would be: what parts of the JCPOA agreement has Iran complied with? It is time to be tough because that is the only language that the leadership of Iran will understand.
My noble friend Lord Pickles recently called for the Government to proscribe the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, and I support him in that call as Iran’s destabilising policy in the Middle East can be linked to its hostile policy towards the UK itself. Why is the UK desirous of a closer relationship with Iran while its nearest neighbours in the region are working to abate its influence?
As the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, rightly said, many in this place, across the country and throughout the world marked the solemnity of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this week. Yet Iran has openly and consistently expressed its willingness to commit another atrocity against the Jewish people and is actually pursuing the capacity to carry out that threat itself and with its proxies, including Hezbollah and Hamas. Does the Minister agree that pressure on Iran needs to be increased? It is indeed the biggest danger to Middle East stability in the world.
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord Turnberg for securing this debate. It is a very long time since I spoke in your Lordships’ House. Indeed, I was sitting where the Minister is, before I was whisked across the Channel into some kind of glorious exile. As noble Lords will know, during my time away, I led and chaired the negotiations with Iran for over four and a half years. In that context, I want to make just three brief points in the time I have.
First, one of the criticisms about the Iranian nuclear agreement—the JCPOA—is that it deals only with the nuclear weapons issue. If noble Lords reflect back to 2009, 2010 and the years that followed, the most pressing issue that we faced as a continent, and certainly in the region, was to ensure that Iran did not get a nuclear weapon. We had reason to believe it was months away from achieving that. This was, as I described it then, the boulder in the doorway that prevented us doing anything else about what Iran was doing in the region because we had to stop the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. When we negotiated that agreement —other criticisms have already been raised that I could address, but I do not have time—we did so believing that it was not the last agreement but the first. It was meant to take away the boulder to enable us to tackle issues, including ballistic missiles, but especially what was happening in the region.
That brings me to my second point. In my many discussions with leaders in the region, particularly the Prime Minister of Israel but many other leaders too—I pay tribute to the Sultan of Oman, who recently passed away—they were very clear that the region itself wanted to be in control of what happened, how negotiations might take place and what type of decision-making there might be. In my view, it is important that we recognise that we must allow the region to determine how best it wishes to move forward. That is especially true when you think about the chaos of Syria and Yemen, and of what is happening in Lebanon and Iraq right now.
My final point is about this country. This country has a long and proud tradition of diplomacy. I witnessed it at first hand many times when I was working in the European Union. I pay tribute to the team of diplomats and technical experts who worked on the Iranian nuclear deal. Sometimes, in this House and the other place, one might think that it was a bilateral agreement. But there were brilliant British people and others working throughout to get the agreement to the place that we did. I single out Sir Simon Gass, who is now chair of the Joint Intelligence Committee, for the work he did. Because we have that long tradition, I hope that as we look at where Britain should be in the future, we determine to try to use our diplomacy to work effectively in this region.
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly my chairmanship of the European Leadership Network. I thank my noble friend Lord Turnberg for securing this debate and I am honoured to follow my noble friend Lady Ashton, whom I admire greatly.
The recent escalation in the Middle East has not occurred in a vacuum. To understand it properly and honestly, we must understand the logic that drives Iran’s regional policies and recognise the geopolitical environment in which it operates.
Iran’s policies in the region are not exclusive to the Government who resulted from the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The strategy of supporting allied non-state actors and forces across the region spans at least six decades and can, in many ways, be seen as a continuation of centuries of imperial prowess. In the 1980s, this strategy morphed when conventional deterrence models lost hold and states began to review and test conventional deterrence structures, which, in the case of Iran, resulted in a marked and significant shift towards asymmetric deterrence, which I condemn as much as any other speaker. But we need to understand this if we are to deal with it properly.
This process continues. States across the region regularly re-test their red lines to re-establish deterrence, substantially increasing the risk of miscalculation and miscommunication. What we have witnessed recently between the US and Iran is but the most recent example of this. Tackled in isolation, Iran will not limit its regional influence and defences in the face of US or any other “maximum pressure”. For example, singling out Iran’s missile programmes ignores the fact that it is one of 11 countries in the region that possess long-range missiles. We need to recognise that more parties need to be brought to the table. Only region-wide approaches offer solutions to the region’s risks and confrontations.
We must accept that all regional states have legitimate security interests. This approach led to the landmark JCPOA nuclear deal in 2015, whose focus on the nuclear question was meant to be the stepping stone for future confidence-based conversations on other issues. Now we are in a completely different situation. We have to hope that the current pause in military escalation is not taken for granted and that the risk of war, which is genuine, spurs dialogue. Europe will pay a high cost for any regional conflict with Iran. Instability would fuel a potential resurgence of Daesh in Iraq and Syria, as well as new, larger flows of refugees, drugs and who knows what else. The E3—the UK, France and Germany—need to move beyond the JCPOA in their outreach with Iran and in their engagement with region-wide efforts, including those made by Iran, such as the Hormuz Peace Endeavor.
The European Leadership Network has been working extensively on Iran, in the context of the region, the nuclear deal and facilitating trade with Europe through INSTEX. On Monday, it released policy options for the UK and its partners to pursue in the coming weeks and months to help de-escalate tension on both nuclear and non-nuclear issues. I hope that Ministers will find time to review them, as they feed directly into the areas raised in this debate.
My Lords, it is appropriate on such occasions to mention that my hamsar is Iranian.
No region is more troubled that even when relations are friendly, mistrust reigns, and where rules are interpreted in different ways. I had occasion to pose a question this week to the Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir. It was simply this: given that by anybody’s standards multiple challenges exist in the region at large, including the Palestinian issue, Israel’s right to recognition and security, Yemen, proxy relationships, Lebanon, the JCPOA, and Iran’s relationship with Saudi and others—all with the added complexity not just of the West but with the added dimension of Russia and Turkey—and that as past peace endeavours have not advanced with success, is there a priority list he might suggest that would have a drip-down beneficial effect on regional peace and stability, similar to that of a house built from a deck of cards crumbling? After reflection, the Minister’s response surprised me no end, and I commend him for it. In winding up, would our Minister consider this same question in order to ensure that the same is not being asked in 50 years?
Why have all endeavours thus far failed? What would be the easiest to implement? Are initiatives from outsiders ameliorating or hindering the process? Should the differing tracks be brought together or is piecemeal work the answer? Is it so impossible to believe that a line could be drawn and renewed focus placed on the positive side of relationship building, with differences put aside and the common denominators of tolerance, culture, religion, trade and security that befit ancient civilizations coming to the fore? Suggestions that came out of Davos of the potential for direct dialogue between Riyadh and Tehran are to be encouraged.
The Saudi Foreign Minister’s response included a regional tour which emphasised the need for security, rule of law, good governance, women’s inclusion, recognising the high level of education and diverse innovation that exists—he particularly singled out Iranians’—the advances in opening new sectors of the economy and more. All this boiled down to one thing, however, and this was his core response: let the people win. Maybe this should become the central focus and approach to stability in the region: the people. Let the people win. I fully concur.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the British Parliamentary Committee for Iran Freedom. I join all those who have thanked my noble friend Lord Turnberg for securing this timely and important debate. I say “timely” because of what we have read in the papers about what has been going on in that troubled country.
One reason I put my name down for this debate is that I want to hear the Minister’s reply to some of the questions posed so far—there will probably be more after. In the last 30-odd years, I and others in this Chamber have been pressing the Government to take a more realistic view of the inhumane and wicked regime that keeps the people of Iran under such oppression. Many years ago the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, told the world that Iran was the greatest exporter of terrorism; through all the years since, those wicked mullahs have carried on bringing instability to the region. Their policies, internal and external, have been cruel and deceitful.
Within Iran, the oppression continues and the recent protests have led to an all-too-familiar pattern of murders and mass arrests. Innocent people who have only freedom in mind—freedom for democracy—are being cruelly mown down. Once again, the protests were put down by the Revolutionary Guard and others. I pay tribute to those people who made such a stand to try to change things in their own country.
Externally, we see the Revolutionary Guard getting its fingers into various other pies in the region. Other speakers have mentioned the countries where it is working; the external influence of the IRG and the mullahs is quite extensive. We have to recognise that and remember their history. Before we had the recent nuclear proliferation deal, deserted by the Americans, some of us remember the quartet plus one. After those talks finished, people thought they were a success. But President Rouhani went on record to say how he had duped and deceitfully misled us and other countries in those talks. We have to learn from the mistakes. This is the Rouhani from the 1988 massacre; the Rouhani who told Iraq what to do about the people at Ashraf and Camp Liberty. More recently, Iran’s fingers have got involved in Albania, where some of those people resettled after getting out of Camp Liberty. I hope that the Minister is able to speak with a louder voice than we have heard from the Government in recent years.
My Lords, I rise to speak in the gap to make three very brief and simple points. The first is that we, the international community, are gradually slipping closer to another war in the Middle East. This would be against Britain’s interests, economically and politically, if it were to occur.
Secondly, avoiding Iran becoming a nuclear weapons-capable power, with the means of delivering any weapons if it had them, must be a major objective of our policy and, surely, necessary to avoid triggering a nuclear arms race in the Gulf region. The best route to do that remains the JCPOA, difficult though it is to bring it back on the rails. It would need to be supplemented at some stage in such a way as to deal with the sunset provisions in some of its clauses.
Thirdly, stability in the Middle East will be achieved only if Iran is recognised and treated as a regional power in that area, along with others such as Turkey, Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia. This must be on the basis of all agreeing not to interfere in each other’s internal affairs, to respect borders and to work for economic co-operation. Achieving those three objectives will be possible only if they can be seen by all as requiring compromise—on policy and on behaviour. I hope that the Minister will say that achieving those three objectives remains part of our policy. I suggest that it should be the basis on which we move ahead.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for securing this debate and for all his work in the region. I hugely respect his concern. It is also excellent to have a contribution from the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who, as EU high representative, played such an instrumental role in bringing about the JCPOA. As she put it, this agreement did not address everything, but it was a boulder in the door. As noble Lords have made clear, Iran has had a destabilising influence in the region, often through proxies such as the Houthis, Hamas and Hezbollah. There are also terrible human rights abuses in the country. That is why this agreement was so significant.
The plan, backed by moderates, was to show Iran that economic engagement and global moderation had benefits. Those benefits proved limited; nevertheless, Iran was judged to have adhered to the JCPOA, diverging in small respects from it only after President Trump withdrew American support. That is in itself a significant achievement. Now the US has assassinated Soleimani on Iraqi soil. He had blood on his hands, but that state assassination seems to have had the further effect of strengthening the hard-liners’ hold within Iran, so that they appear to be on course to do well in upcoming elections.
We all need to see stability, security and prosperity in a region in which instability results in the flow of refugees. Missiles capable of reaching Europe must concern us. Yet, now that Iran’s leadership has pledged to drive the US from the region, tension is increased even further. Can the Minister confirm that we agree with our European allies that it becomes even more important that we engage with Iran? Does he also agree that we need to try to build on the work of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and our allies and not destroy it? I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
My Lords, I too thank my noble friend Lord Turnberg for securing this debate. The tension between Iran, the US and their allies, which culminated in the killing of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani earlier this month, has stabilised. I am pleased that this House is able to debate Iran, and the Middle East, at a time when we have realised that the immediate ambition of all actors is to avoid conflict. The people of the Middle East deserve to live in a peaceful, stable environment, free from the fear of imminent war. The UK can play a part in enabling such an environment by encouraging all leaders to interact through international institutions and to use these as our primary mechanism for defusing future tensions.
In the long term, we have a responsibility to support a framework which commits Iran to internationally recognised norms and formalises its relations with the West. The JCPOA is an opportunity to do exactly this. Regrettably, the agreement has disintegrated following President Trump’s withdrawal, the situation worsened by Iran’s violation of the uranium enrichment clauses. Although the JCPOA is not operational in its current state, we would be mistaken to abandon it altogether unless all other avenues have been exhausted. Can the Minister confirm what steps the Government are taking to resolve the present dispute, and detail the present status of the dispute mechanism?
If the JCPOA is to collapse completely, any replacement for the agreement may take years to develop and in the vacuum of a new deal, we increase the risk of conflict. Those who oppose the JCPOA have been scarce on the detail of what would replace it. Can the Minister explain exactly what the Government believe would differ in a future agreement, in order to gain the support of Iran and the US?
The immediate priority of the UK must be to encourage Iran to comply again with the present agreement, and to ask President Trump to return to the table. However, in the absence of any overnight miracle and a new agreement, we must also consider how we can maintain the present détente. There is a responsibility, which Iran must uphold, to international law, including the non-proliferation treaty.
In recent days and weeks, the Iranian Government have again used inflammatory language. We must make it clear that this is unacceptable and serves no benefit to the Iranian people, but we must also repeat our invitation for them to come in from the cold and work with the international community.
My Lords, I join all noble Lords in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, for tabling this timely debate and for setting the scene in such a detailed and expert way, particularly on the challenges across the region. Perhaps I may say from the outset how much I welcome the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. The great advantage of your Lordships’ House, particularly for a Minister for Foreign Affairs, is that rather than look things up they can turn to many people—I look around at those who have taken part in our debate today—to provide expert insight on a particular situation, deal or issue. That is for the simple reason that they were there. Having the noble Baroness contribute to this debate is welcome.
As many noble Lords have said, the recent escalation in tensions between the US and Iran is deeply concerning. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, and others said, a conflict is in none of our interests—neither of Iran nor of any party within the region or the globe as a whole. However, one thing is clear: the world must recognise and understand Iran’s destabilising influence in the Middle East—I agree with my noble friend Lord Polak on that.
The United Kingdom has long recognised the need to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability, something that would significantly inflame tensions in the region. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is the best means available to do that. It was the best means when it was first negotiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton. The primary aim of the JCPOA was to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons and it had achieved that aim. However, while the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action remained the best means available to do that, it had its limitations—the noble Baronesses, Lady Ashton and Lady Northover, the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, and my noble friend Lord Polak all talked of those limitations; for example, issues around ballistic missiles and the sunset clause. We also recognise the JCPOA’s strengths, which the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, reminded us of. It has prevented Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon, which is an important pillar of the wider global non-proliferation architecture. The deal remains vital for our national security and the shared security of our partners and allies.
We have also held concerns about Iran’s activity in the region, including through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, which was under the command of General Soleimani. That is why we will not lament his death. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and my noble friend Lord Polak referred to the proscription of the IRGC. They will probably know the answer that I am about to give: that, while we do not comment on individual groups being considered for proscription, we keep a list of those proscribed organisations under review. I assure noble Lords that we have done just that. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, and others talked of Hezbollah. It is quite right that in 2019 proscription was extended to the whole organisation and not just the military wing. I think that that was a distinction that many found difficult to justify.
Recent escalation in the region, particularly around the JCPOA, has been deeply concerning, not just for the Middle East but for the world as a whole. The last thing the region needs is another conflict. Diplomacy and dialogue are required, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us, and are the only way forward. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, among others, that the Government’s immediate aim is to de-escalate tensions. In the longer term, we want Iran to play a more transparent and constructive role in regional affairs—the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, talked of Iran’s rich history in this respect—and to act in accordance with international rules and norms.
Iran’s influence on stability, or instability, in the Middle East is the issue before us today. As several noble Lords reflected, Iran’s size, its rich culture, its strategic location and, yes, its people—as the noble Lord, Lord Clarke, reminded us—are extremely important. It has been highly influential in the region for centuries, if not millennia. That is still the case today. Much of Iran’s regional behaviour should be seen through that lens. It is motivated by a desire to assert what Iran believes is its rightful place as a historically influential power. This explains Iran’s use of proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. They serve to promote and protect what Iran sees as its long-term strategic interests in the region.
Since 1979, Iran’s outlook has sadly been shaped by a radical revolutionary ideology—the focus of the excellent contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Alton—with a number of crucial defining factors. Among them are a sense of self-reliance, forged during the horrific war with Iraq in the 1980s; a strategic rivalry with Saudi Arabia—the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, alluded to that—and enmity towards Israel, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, among others.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, reminded us, one of the Iranian Government’s stated primary foreign policy aims is also to remove the US from the region. Without military means to do this directly, it has acted via proxies, deniable attacks and provocations. Let me assure the noble Baroness that we will continue to work with our European partners to see how we can bring pressure to bear on Iran. I say in response to other noble Lords that, yes, we will also be talking to the Russians and others who have influence over Iran.
More recently, and particularly since May last year, Iran has used activity in the region as a means to force the US to ease its policy of maximum economic pressure, a policy that Iran sees as economic warfare. It is important to distinguish these recent, tightly focused provocations from the established pattern of Iran’s behaviour, which is driven by its long-term strategic aims.
On the American policy of effectively bankrupting Iran and causing collapse within it, does the Minister agree that, far from it leading to its coming to a conference table, it is more likely to lead to a failed state lashing out and a possibility of conflict?
I was about to say that we do not agree with the policy of maximum economic pressure. I will come on to talk about INSTEX in a moment.
It is important that we place recent incidents in the former category of focused provocations. The attacks on shipping in the Gulf over the summer, on Saudi oil infrastructure in September—I was in Saudi Arabia just after that attack—and in Iraq in December triggered the recent cycle. All were designed not only to pressure the US, both directly and via its regional allies, to reconsider its approach but to show to the Iranian public, the region and the wider world that Iran would meet “maximum pressure” with “maximum resistance”. The gradual and systematic reduction in Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal since May has had the same goal in mind, as the noble Lord just reminded us: to show resistance and force the US to change tack.
I assure noble Lords that we remain committed. The noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Browne, asked about action taken by the United Kingdom. The UK engages closely with all countries in the region. We continue to do so with Iran; we continue to have our embassy there, notwithstanding recent pressures. Our continued diplomatic presence in Tehran is vital. Since 1979, we have chosen continuously to engage with Iran. Despite the many challenges in our relationship, this Government are convinced that engagement remains the best approach. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, that, together with our partners France and Germany, we remain committed to dialogue and finding a diplomatic way forward. My right honourable friends the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary have all spoken to their counterparts in the US, Iran and across the region in recent weeks to stress the importance of de-escalation and a diplomatic track.
The United Kingdom remains committed to working with the international community—I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Browne, is reassured by that—to ensure that Iran abides by international laws and norms and is held to account for its destabilising activity in the region.
Following Iraq’s attacks on shipping in the Gulf, we joined the International Maritime Security Construct to uphold freedom of navigation. We fully understand the desire of the United States to re-establish deterrence and the need to shift the strategic calculation for the Iranian leadership by increasing the costs of Iran’s activity. We recognise the importance, as I said earlier in response to the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, of working with Russia and China, both as parties to the JCPOA and as fellow members of the UN Security Council. We have been consistently clear on the need for Iran to return to full compliance with the nuclear deal. The JCPOA is a reciprocal deal, lifting sanctions in exchange for adhering to tough nuclear limits.
The noble Lords, Lord Turnberg and Lord Polak, asked about the dispute resolution mechanism. By breaking its side of the bargain, Iran left us no choice but to trigger the DRM. In doing so, we are seeking not to end the deal but to preserve it and to bring Iran back into compliance with its commitments. Several noble Lords asked about alternatives. The JCPOA is the only deal on the table and therefore it is important that we seek compliance and return to adherence by Iran. There is no intention currently to refer the issue to the UN Security Council or to seek the snapback of sanctions. Our side of the agreement also involves taking measures to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran and we will continue to support European efforts, including through the INSTEX trade instrument. We hope that this will give the Iranian people much-needed hope and access to goods. We welcome the decision of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden to join.
My noble friend Lady Redfern rightly raised the issue of the rights of women and girls’ education. As she knows, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made girls’ education one of his primary objectives, but it is worrying for someone who looks after the agenda of women, peace and security to see the declining role of women within Iran and the suppression of women’s rights. It is important that we bring this to the fore. We regularly raise the issue of human rights, and as Human Rights Minister I assure my noble friend that I will continue to do so, both in multilateral fora and bilaterally through our engagement with Iran.
I thank noble Lords for their contributions. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Palmer of Childs Hill, on his specific question about DfID and its operations in Lebanon. We have robust measures but I will write on the specifics. I shall conclude by agreeing with most, if not all, contributions made by noble Lords. Iran’s history, culture and strategic location mean that it will remain an influential regional player with legitimate interests across the Middle East. Our concern is with the way Iran seeks to pursue those interests. We have long-standing concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme, its missile proliferation activity and its support for proxy groups and militias across the region. Such support is in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions and in many cases against the wishes of the people and the Governments of the states in which the proxies operate.
Finally, I assure noble Lords that the UK will continue to call for a de-escalation of US-Iran tensions, we will continue to hold Iran to account for its destabilising behaviour, and we will continue to work in good faith with our international partners to persuade Iran to return to compliance with the nuclear deal. Ultimately, we want Iran taking her rightful place as a positive, constructive influence on stability in the Middle East. I assure all noble Lords that the UK is committed to working with all sides, including Iran, to achieve that goal.