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Iran: UN Arms Embargo

Volume 806: debated on Thursday 8 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support an extension of the United Nations arms embargo on the government of Iran.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I refer the House to my registered interests.

My Lords, the UN arms embargo on Iran is due to expire on 18 October. We remain committed to countering Iranian proliferation to non-state actors. The EU’s arms embargo and the UN ballistic missile restrictions will remain in place, as will other prohibitions on the proliferation of weapons to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

Our abstention on extending the UN arms embargo was an error of judgment. China and Russia were always going to veto, to support Iran. Those three countries are not known for honouring gentlemen’s agreements. We should have voted with the US, to make it clear that we oppose Iran accessing arms through the legitimacy of the UN but, sadly, we chose to leave the US exposed and lonely when, in truth, we agree with it. There are 10 days before the expiry. Will my noble friend the Minister to take a lead and do what we know is right? If not, will he explain our policy going forward? How are we going to stop the spread of arms to the terror-supporting Iran?

My Lords, I share with my noble friend the intention to stop the destabilising influence of Iran. The United Kingdom abstained because the resolution could not attract the support of the council, and therefore did not represent a basis for achieving consensus. He asked about the way forward. We are addressing systematic Iranian non-compliance. Iran must engage seriously with our concerns, and I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has asked the High Representative of the EU, Josep Borrell, to convene a ministerial joint commission as soon as possible. On what else the UK is doing, we sought to facilitate dialogue between the two positions to achieve a desired outcome. However, as I said earlier, sanctions remain, both from the EU and through the UN ballistic restrictions on Iran.

My Lords, I declare my registered interest as chair of the European Leadership Network. This is all about the JCPOA and the US Administration’s desire to destroy it, or to make it difficult for a Biden Administration to recant it. The Minister knows of my support for the Government’s policy on the JCPOA: Iran not having a nuclear weapon is a priority for our security. Does the Minister agree that however we may otherwise support arms embargo sanctions on Iran—which we do—we cannot fight to keep the JCPOA alive and at the same time impose an arms embargo relating to the treaty itself?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his support. While the JCPOA is far from perfect, it remains the only agreement on the table. We continue to press with our E3 partners on this issue to ensure that it is sustained, to prevent Iran becoming a nuclear state in any sense. We also remain committed to Resolutions 2216 and 1701 of the Security Council, which prevent further exporting of arms, as well as the other sanctions from the EU and on ballistics that I have already alluded to.

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will answer both my questions. Has the United Kingdom said anything to the United States about the importance of adhering to international agreements? Secondly, given the volatility of the region, does he agree that very active involvement with Iran is required to build on the JCPOA?

My Lords, on the second question of the noble Baroness, I have already referred to the fact that we are working with E3 partners and with High Representative Borrell on that very issue. On adhering to international agreements, the JCPOA was agreed by all and we were disappointed by the United States’ leaving it, but it is important, in order for it to remain on the table, that Iran fulfils its obligations.

My Lords, I draw the House’s attention to the register of interests and my role as the trade envoy to Iran. While I totally agree that there are many legitimate criticisms to be made of Iran’s behaviour, if we want stability in the region is it not important to recognise that Iran has its own legitimate security concerns, having been—within living memory—invaded by its Arab neighbour and having lost more lives than we lost in the whole of the Second World War? Given that, if we really want Iran not to want to buy more weapons, should we not be more careful about selling weapons into the region—to Iran’s heavily-armed Arab neighbours, some of whom have spent much more on weapons than Iran?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend, and I have said repeatedly that our challenge and our opposition are not directed at the Iranian people. It is a rich culture, whether it is Persian, Arab, Turk, Baluch or Kurd—the list goes on. On his wider point about exports of arms to the region, when making any arms sales we engage one of the most rigid processes, and we ask other countries to adopt similar measures.

My Lords, I refer to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There is no doubt that Iran has not observed it, and the United States has called for snapback sanctions. Will the Government comply with these, and how, otherwise, will they ensure that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are blocked?

My Lords, I agree with the point made by the noble Baroness about ensuring that we curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. That is why it is important that we keep the JCPOA—an imperfect agreement, I accept, but the only one on the table—and work to ensure that Iran adheres to it.

On that precise point—how we keep the JCPOA alive—will the Minister say what practical steps he is taking with our EU partners, particularly as part of the E3, to bring it back to the table and to get agreement, with a view, in particular, to avoiding some of the sanctions? What is happening to INSTEX and the special purpose vehicle—has it worked?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we are working with our E3 partners, as he has suggested. On INSTEX, a number of countries have come on board. It was set up so that important sectors such as healthcare could be dealt with, which is particularly important in the current coronavirus crisis, and—I can confirm—the first transaction under INSTEX has already taken place.

My Lords, the Minister said that the United Kingdom abstained at the UN because there was not going to be agreement. Is that not a dangerous precedent: surely that would be true of many decisions taken at the UN? Should the UK not be voting?

My Lords, as Ministers at the UN we often take a decision to abstain. It is very rare for us to veto any resolution: it should be a last resort. On this issue, the Security Council resolution is valid, and can go forward, only if all P5 members agree to it, and we will continue to work with permanent members of the Security Council to find a resolution.

My Lords, last year the Government were found to have acted unlawfully in selling to Saudi Arabia—another oppressive regime—arms which it then used for the Saudi-led bombardment of Yemen, leading to a huge humanitarian crisis. The Government have resumed sales to Saudi Arabia: how do they justify that?

My Lords, this issue was looked at in great detail by my colleagues at the Department for International Trade, including the Secretary of State. As I have said already, we have a very rigid arms export regime, and that continues to apply to all countries.

Does my noble friend agree that damaging and destabilising activities are undertaken in the region by many states, including some UK allies, and that the way forward is not unilateral action by the United States—or anyone else—but a collective diplomatic endeavour to establish, over time, a regional security co-operation regime based on the principles of international law and negotiated primarily by the countries of the region themselves?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend on the intent to get all regional partners engaged on this matter. That is why we believe that on issues and areas such as Yemen it is important, in order to reach political settlement, for all parties to be at the table. We continue to employ our resources to help that happen, but equally we require regional partners to think very carefully: their continued intervention in other countries adds to the destabilisation of that region.

My Lords, a stated foreign policy priority of a Biden presidency is Iran—and rightly so. Should that become a reality, will the Government call for an urgent gathering in Washington of JCPOA E3 participants—including, perhaps, Iran—to put the whole sorry mess back on track, and take that opportunity to press the importance of Israel recognition, and Saudi and Yemen processes?

My Lords, as it is pretty obvious from the exchanges of the past few minutes that on Iran we are not really on the same page as the Americans, is it not time for a complete rethink of our own Iran policy, making much more use of our old friends and connections in the region, such as Oman and the United Arab Emirates? Would it not be a good starting point to take this into the integrated review of foreign policy and security which, I understand, has just been reactivated—albeit with rather a low profile—and is currently being orchestrated from the Cabinet Office?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s latter point, the integrated review is under way and the outcome will, I am sure, be debated in your Lordships’ House in due course. On his earlier point about our policy on Iran, and that of our partners, it is right for us to continue working with our E3 partners, but we also need to work with the United States to achieve a desired outcome that brings peace and stability to the region. In that connection, I participated recently in a UN event, initiated by the UAE and involving Bahrain and Israel, where Israel was recognised by another two countries of the region. These are important steps forward. Israel is a reality and part and parcel of the Middle East. All the countries in the region and beyond need to recognise its status and work together to ensure peace in what has been a troubled region for far too long.