Question for Short Debate
My Lords, first, I refer the Committee to my registered interest as President of the Conservative Friends of Israel. It will surprise no one when I state that I would prefer that the JCPOA itself would take into account regional issues. Had it done so in 2015, things would have looked very different. It was a tragic miscalculation then, and it is unforgivable now to make the same error in today’s fragile and dangerous world. As Winston Churchill famously said in a speech in the Commons in 1948, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it”. It is widely accepted that the failure to cover Iranian missile delivery systems in the JCPOA of 2015 was a mistake, but today, while the negotiations are going on in Vienna, those very same blind spots have reappeared.
In previous arms control treaties, the UN required the supervised removal or indeed destruction of all ballistic missiles with a range of more than 150 kilometres. All those offensive and destructive missiles were banned and could not be manufactured or transferred to proxy organisations. The question must surely be asked why such requirements were not set out in the JCPOA seven years ago. For the past seven years, this vacuum has allowed Iran to develop its missile power in numbers, range and accuracy.
Can my noble friend the Minister help me? If it is indeed a fact that, upon returning to the JCPOA talks, President Biden stood together with France, Germany and the UK, and committed himself to establishing a second negotiating track that would focus on prohibiting the use or distribution of such missiles, can my noble friend describe how we are exercising our responsibility to ensure that President Biden follows through with this commitment?
It is clear that a second track is more necessary than ever. Only last month, the IRGC fired a barrage of missiles in northern Iraq, targeting the US consulate in Erbil. This attack is a stark reminder: while the world is focused on the Ukraine, Iran remains committed to spreading terrorism and violence in the Middle East and beyond. This is just one of the many attacks that the IRGC has carried out. As I stated in the Chamber on 19 January, the IRGC claimed responsibility for the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 in January 2020. The IRGC actively pursues the destabilisation of the Middle East by lending financial, military, economic and social support to Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. Thus the need for a second negotiating track is vital to secure the region, as the IRGC’s increasingly extensive and deadly arsenal of ballistic missiles, naval missiles, naval mines and rockets are more dangerous than ever.
I have previously called for Her Majesty’s Government to proscribe the IRGC, as has been done with Hezbollah and Hamas. In reminding the Committee that Hezbollah was a creation of the IRGC, it is very hard to comprehend, that while proscribing Hezbollah, we have not proscribed the parent body, the IRGC, and I urge the Government to do so.
I turn to a shameful display of double standards. At the end of February, the UK, along with the US, the EU, Australia, Japan and many other countries, correctly began a barrage of sanctions on Russia and its institutions, in response to the military activity at the Ukraine border. As the appalling military activity escalated into the fully fledged attack on Ukraine, these sanctions have been intensified. This is right and this is just, and we must do all we can to support President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. I commend the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and Defence Secretary for their leadership. However, just as we are engaged in sanctioning Russia, the JCPOA talks in Vienna are currently negotiating sanction relief for Iran. Iran is a regime that is responsible for multiple war crimes, and the continued spread of terror and instability. I ask myself, why would Western states, which have taken severe measures against Russia, seriously contemplate lifting sanctions against the Iranian regime? I do not understand this, and I do not understand these double standards that are being practised.
Iran is posing the most dangerous threat to stability. Its influence stretches far beyond its borders. The Quds Force, which is an arm of the IRGC, is responsible for building an arc of influence throughout the Middle East, by supporting pro-Iranian activities in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. The IRGC has some 190,000 active personnel and is continuing to carry out gross violations of human rights, killing many civilians domestically and internationally.
Can my noble friend the Minister tell me what he believes to be the views of our allies in the Gulf region towards France, Germany and the UK in pursuing the new JCPOA agreement? Do the views of those experiencing the Iran-backed atrocities count? I hope that we are not returning to a bygone era where, from the comfort of thousands of miles, we impose solutions.
It seems clear that, rightly, the West has taken a staunch hard line against Russia. The same cannot be said about Iran. The JCPOA is a weak and one-dimensional response to the terror-supporting Iranian regime. This is absolutely not the time to reduce sanctions on Iran, but rather to impose heavier sanctions—sanctions that arguably brought Iran to the negotiating table in 2015. The Iranians respect strength and take advantage of weakness. Now is the time for strength in a troubling world; the same strength that is standing up to Russia must be repeated in standing up to Iran.
My Lords, it is a convention to congratulate the noble Lord in whose name a debate is being held. On this occasion it is more than a convention, since the noble Lord, Lord Polak, has carefully drafted the title of the debate so as to recognise that, however much we may deplore and indeed condemn some of Iran’s regional activities, to have linked those issues with the resumption of the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear programmes would have doomed the venture from the outset. That trap has been avoided—although I noticed that the noble Lord managed to slip back into it several times—and that is welcome. Resumption of the JCPOA is a matter of the highest priority and remains so despite the distractions of the crisis in Ukraine. With negotiations in Vienna at a delicate stage, I do not intend to say any more on that matter, except to point out that the JCPOA is so far the only way that has been put forward of avoiding Iran acquiring the capacity to make weapons-grade material, without the use of force.
The “regional issues” in which Iran is deeply involved are numerous—far too numerous, I would say. They include Yemen, where the announcement of a two-month truce is obviously welcome but does not take us very far, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Gulf security and Afghanistan—quite a list. In some, that involvement is clearly contrary to our own interests and to the overall peace and security of the whole Middle East region; in others, Iran’s role is ambiguous and in some, such as Afghanistan, it has the potential to be positive. The one common feature is that we need to engage in a continuing dialogue with Iran on all of them. In recent years we have not done that, but the hard fact is that none of those trouble spots can be calmed down or resolved without the involvement of Iran, the most populous, and one of the most powerful, states in the region. Nor can they conceivably be resolved singlehandedly by Iran on its own terms. So the case for more active regional diplomacy on our part is a compelling one, and I would welcome it if the Minister would recognise that.
However, I hope that we will look beyond the individual problems, if we engage in a dialogue with Iran on these issues, and take a broader regional approach, an approach that recognises one, perhaps unwelcome, truth—that there will not be peace and stability in the Gulf and the wider regions of the Middle East and central Asia if Iran is not encouraged to play a constructive role commensurate with its size, geographical situation and long historical and cultural record. The most ambitious form that such an approach might take would be the establishment of a regional grouping which would commit all its members to respect the independence and territorial integrity of their neighbours, refrain from meddling in their domestic affairs and build up much closer economic co-operation between them. That may sound a trifle ambitious in present circumstances, but without some overarching set of rules and objectives, individual disputes will be all the more difficult to resolve peacefully. It is better surely than to see the region slip further towards chaotic turmoil—and better, above all, than to see it become the focus of a nuclear arms race.
Can the Minister say, at the end of the debate, whether what I have said bears any resemblance to the Government’s views and objectives?
My Lords, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests as chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce and the Government’s trade envoy to Iran.
From the start, I acknowledge absolutely some of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Polak, about the concern that people have about Iran’s role in the region, its human rights record and the threat to Israel. I acknowledge those concerns; none the less, I wish to argue in favour of the JCPOA.
One of the criticisms is that it covered only the nuclear issue and did not cover Iran’s role in the region or its support for organisations such as Hezbollah. Despite the powerful case made by my noble friend Lord Polak, I think it would be a big mistake to reject a new JCPOA on those grounds alone. An effective nuclear agreement is well worth having on its own. It was extremely complicated and difficult to negotiate as it was, without getting wound up in other issues. Nuclear proliferation is not a trivial matter. We have seen with Russia how the West’s ability to respond is constrained by the fact that Russia is a nuclear power. Imagine how difficult it would be to deal with Iran and the Middle East if Iran was a nuclear power. Iran feels that it was cheated over the JCPOA. It kept to the agreement but President Trump, for no good reason, decided to tear it up. Iran seeks the restoration of what was agreed before, but not implemented, and it will not accept the sudden imposition of extra conditions.
My noble friend Lord Polak asked how sanctions can be lifted when we are maintaining sanctions against Russia. The sanctions that are being lifted—if I am wrong about this the Minister will correct me—precisely apply to the nuclear programme. They were applied to deter Iran from its nuclear programme. If Iran comes into compliance with the JCPOA, we surely want to build on a relationship with it and discuss other issues. It seems only reasonable that we should lift the sanctions that specifically applied in relation to the nuclear programme. There are lots of other sanctions that will remain. The proscription of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation is a bit of a side-track because there are so many sanctions on it already.
If the JCPOA were implemented, what would it mean? It would mean that advanced centrifuges would be demolished, stockpiles of uranium would be diminished and shipped out of the country and there would be even more inspections than there are now. Imagine the situation in which the JCPOA is not concluded. Iran will continue enriching, perhaps to weapons grade. It may chuck out the inspectors. It might withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty; we forget that Iran is a signatory to that. This would leave America with an appalling dilemma of whether to ignore what Iran was doing or to take military action against it.
My noble friend Lord Polak is right that there is a need to address the regional issues in the Gulf, but that needs to be done on a multilateral basis. He referred to missiles. We cannot call for the ending of Iran’s missiles without looking at those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel—which has the Jericho missile, which has a much longer range than any other country’s missiles. If we are to move on to discussing these issues, that needs to be built on the confidence that will have come from implementing the JCPOA. Iran has its own security concerns. They need to be recognised and taken into account in any multilateral negotiations. Above all, Iran’s biggest fear is invasion. It suffered an invasion from Iraq, its neighbouring Arab country, and lost more lives than we lost in the Second World War.
Henry Kissinger said that Iran has to decide whether it is a cause or a country. That is right, but he went on to say that, in principle, the US should be open and prepared to reach a geopolitical understanding and develop a compatible system of regional order with Iran. It has to take into account Iran’s concerns, but I agree that eventually there should be talks and negotiations on these wider issues.
My Lords, the dire situation in Ukraine has meant that we have lost the focus that we should be directing on an equally dangerous situation regarding Iran. In advancing towards a renewed JCPOA and in trying to escape from reliance on Russian oil and gas, we may end up funding the development of another nuclear state whose political stability, human rights record and disregard for international law is at least as bad as, and probably worse than, Russia’s.
President Biden is leading the craven negotiations with a state, Iran, that has had no compunction in breaching the terms of the 2015 agreement, and whose record is one of imposing the death penalty on minors and protesters, extreme violence against religious minorities and violation of women’s rights, inter alia. The debate for today envisages both the possible return to the JCPOA and the outlook for a regional agreement. We can see that the world is a much more dangerous place than it was in 2015, and the use of nuclear weapons is a reality.
The original JCPOA has been a dangerous failure. It has served only to postpone the problems. The missiles proliferate, and Iran works to destabilise the region through terrorism, making no secret of its ambitions to create nuclear weapons. What for? It was right to impose sanctions on Iran, and the bottom line is that this is what we should continue to do, because no deal with Iran is ever likely to bring peace. The Abraham Accords were and are a step forward, but rather than them rolling on and expanding, the possibility of a renewed JCPOA has frozen normality efforts in the Middle East. President Biden has failed to incentivise nations to make peace with Israel. His main achievement in this area has been to make one reconsider one’s opinion of President Trump’s foreign policy.
Not only Israel but the Gulf states are opposed to the renewed agreement—hardly worth the paper it is written on—with Iran. Iran has continued its nuclear programme to a level just below that required for a nuclear bomb, and, in defiance of the UN, has expanded its ballistic missile programme. Israel obtained the archives that showed up Iran’s lies. We should apply our regard for the rule of law even-handedly. Iran supports various terrorist activities, as the noble Lord, Lord Polak, said. Our strategic review noted Iran as a primary threat to world peace.
Any new agreement needs to tackle those issues and be immediately enforceable through the reimposition of sanctions. Because of Iran’s nuclear advances, a return to the old JCPOA will be a return to an even worse agreement. All limits on Iran’s nuclear programme would expire in 2030. Any attempt to eliminate its stockpile of enriched fuel would mean its moving to another country, possibly Russia, which is keeping on side with Iran and plans to evade trade restrictions with it in a new JCPOA. This is doubly dangerous.
There is more than a danger—a probability—that money from sanctions relief would be placed back in the hands of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Tehran has said that taking the IRGC off the US terror list is a condition of a new agreement. This organisation exists to promote the Islamic revolution, cultivates terrorist networks through the region, attacks shipping, and should be proscribed by the UK. President Biden, not noted for his foreign policy dexterity, is weak enough to agree to de-list the IRGC. Will the Minister explain the UK’s attitude to this disastrous move?
There is just one glimmer of hope in these negotiations: an opportunity to establish a regional mechanism for reducing conflicts and increasing co-operation between states in the region. Will the UK advocate for regional agreement in the context of the current negotiations? If the UK feels it must go forward with a new JCPOA, will the Government at least make it into a broader agreement, addressing regional security, or press for a second, follow-on negotiating track on regional issues? This would also provide some reassurance to the rightly doubtful American lawmakers.
Some Israeli defence experts prefer a bad deal to no deal, hoping that they will get a few years of calm to prepare more defences against Iran and build a stronger Middle East alliance against it. Interestingly, the majority of moderate Arab responses to the JCPOA now are: first, that the US is losing its Arab allies and friends; secondly, that one year after Biden came to power, the Middle East is less secure and stable because of Iran; thirdly, that the Arabs feel betrayed and abandoned by the US, which has lost its credibility and prestige in the Middle East; and fourthly, that a new deal with Iran would pose a real threat, not only to the Arabs but to Israel and the US as well. We are between a rock and a hard place.
My Lords, I join the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Polak on securing this debate. It is always daunting and an honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. Of course, I always listen to my noble friend Lord Lamont with respect and interest.
Despite Biden’s presidential campaign commitment, there have been few indications that the US and other JCPOA signatories aim to open up a second negotiating track following what are called the “regional issues”, which are essentially Iranian support for regional terrorism, and its ballistic missile development and diffusion. There have been few indications of support for opening this track by the E3 European signatories, including the UK. The UK must use its leverage with the Biden Administration, following their commitment to return to the JCPOA, to establish a second negotiating track on regional issues, as the Question suggests.
Iran has been flexing its muscles in breaching the already deeply flawed JCPOA, which it was successful in persuading the West to sign, and has been breaking other resolutions around missile development and terrorism since Obama’s time, but since Biden’s time it has pushed the envelope to the limit. A recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear programme noted that the stock of enriched uranium amassed by Iran in breach of its 2015 nuclear deal is growing to the point that its most highly enriched material is most of the way to a common bomb yardstick. The report argues that Iran is in the final stretch of producing the material needed for a weapon. Its stock of uranium enriched up to 60% fissile purity has almost doubled to 33.2 kg. A senior diplomat said that that is around three-quarters of the amount needed, if enriched further, for a nuclear bomb, according to the definition of a nuclear bomb.
The IAEA has found particles of processed uranium at three apparently old sites that Iran never declared. The agency has been seeking answers from Iran but has repeatedly said that Tehran has not provided satisfactory answers. Iran wants the IAEA investigation ended as part of an agreement, but western powers have argued that the issue is beyond the scope of the 2015 deal, to which, of course, the IAEA is not a party. Iran has been very cunning. Its facilities are geographically distributed and often underground, so are very hard to destroy.
Meanwhile, Iran is the founder and primary political, military and financial backer of Hezbollah, a UK-proscribed Shia terrorist organisation based in Lebanon. It has evolved into a hybrid organisation carrying out international terrorist attacks and regional military operations. Iran has provided Hezbollah with hundreds of millions of dollars in support, as well as military resources. Hezbollah is believed to possess as many as 150,000 missiles—10 times its capacity during the 2006 war with Israel. I declare for the record that I am a member of the APPG on Israel.
In Gaza, Iran has long financially and politically backed terrorist groups such as Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Its support has increased in recent months, including its provision of weapons and military know-how. As recently as January 2021, the IRGC Aerospace Force commander, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, stated:
“All the missiles you might see in Gaza and Lebanon were created with Iran’s support.”
Thanks to Iran’s technological support, Gaza’s terrorists were able to use more advanced weaponry, including long-range rockets, heavier warheads and drone technology.
The UK should use its leverage with the US to press for a second negotiating track with Iran on these regional issues. Having supported the Biden Administration’s efforts, against some people’s better judgments, to revive the JCPOA, the UK is well placed to discuss with the US establishing a second track of negotiations to end Iran’s regional destabilisation immediately following the conclusion of JCPOA negotiations.
Finally, as has been mentioned, Iran continues to insist that the IRGC be delisted as a foreign terrorist organisation in the United States. The UK Government have not revealed their intention with regard to the UK’s listing of the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. The UK’s integrated review—a landmark document setting out the UK’s role in the world—noted Iran as a primary threat to global peace and security. Given that the IRGC meets all the criteria for proscription set out in the Terrorism Act 2000, I say to the Minister that now should be the time for the UK to undertake proscription of the IRGC and to urge the US not to delist it.
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Polak, for securing this debate. One of my fellow Peers here today expressed some surprise at my presence, given the range of other topics on which I engage. Of course, if we had more Greens in the House, your Lordships would hear from me less—and I would be very happy with that.
But I have a particular interest in Iran, which dates back many years to when I looked academically at the place of feminist movements within Iran in the fall of the Shah—it was a major one, for those who are unaware of that—and the way in which they were viciously swept aside by what became the current theocratic regime. There are also, of course, my numerous encounters with this region as a journalist for 20-plus years, many of which were spent in international news. One of the reasons I always knew that I would leave journalism is that the same cyclical, depressing, disastrous and deadly stories came round again and again. Eventually, you reach the stage where that is very hard to take.
I also think the Green perspective on foreign and international affairs is a different one, which can be useful to this debate, and it lines up with what might be described as more mainstream perspectives. One of those is that we believe that everything is linked to everything else, which makes a five-minute speech very difficult. It is impossible to look at just one issue as a cog in a machine and say, “We’ve fixed that”, without acknowledging the entire context in which it is operating.
Before this debate I looked at some very interesting, detailed work from Chatham House, which is calling for a “JCPOA plus” process which
“must lengthen and strengthen the deal”.
Here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, that this is not an “instead of” situation but an “in addition to” arrangement. Regional challenges must be managed through multilateral negotiating tracks. That means we have to think about the context of the wars in Yemen and Syria, building greater solidarity among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, in the Israel-Palestine conflict and through the creation of meaningful confidence-building measures. We have to think about the place of the UK in all this rather differently to the way in which we traditionally have and perhaps still do—humbly, acknowledging our tremendously difficult history in the region and the continuing situation of issues such as UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
I also want to put this in the context of a feminist foreign policy. It may surprise this Committee—it certainly rather surprised me—that the last time I talked about feminist foreign policy in the House it was something of a hit on TikTok. That was not something I expected, but I think that is a sign of the world looking for different ways of looking at our international situation given where we are now. So what does that mean? It means a fundamental shift away from a total focus on hard security—nuclear and military weapons issues—to thinking about the environment, hunger and pandemic relief.
It is worth looking at the context of the region. The MENA region has 50 million undernourished people. The climate emergency and the crisis of water supply press particularly hard across this whole region. Two-thirds of its food is imported; we should think about what we know about the global food security situation now. SDG 2, zero hunger, looks further away by the day. Iran imports sunflower oil, wheat, corn, barley and soya beans from Russia and Ukraine—predominantly Russia. It has had much less rainfall, and yields are expected to be down by 30% this year. It is impossible to look just at nuclear without looking at all of this context.
The other side of a feminist foreign policy is that it is important to focus on women’s rights. That is particularly true in the context of Iran, given its hideous record in this area. We should note that women in Iran have in recent years been at the forefront of leading civil disobedience on a scale not seen since 1978-79, going back to where I started. It is really important to stress when we are talking about feminist foreign policy that that has sometimes been interpreted as the idea of us going in as saviours. Instead, let us think about the agency of women in Iran and the region and how they can be involved and engaged in this process. This is a matter of understanding security very broadly. If we look only at that single cog, without the total context, we are always at risk of doing more harm than good.
My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness in these debates. However, she has unexpectedly given me a moral dilemma over more Greens or fewer speeches from her. If she will forgive me, I will ponder this over the Easter Recess and come back to her when we return. But she is absolutely right. In my contribution to the debate we had in Grand Committee on International Women’s Day, I raised the lack of involvement of more than half the population in many of these debates, if it is either autocrats, rulers or leading politicians. That is a very significant factor.
I too welcome this debate. Having had the pleasure and the privilege of visiting the Middle East on many occasions over recent years, any opportunity to debate the JCPOA or wider regional issues is important. While there has been even more flux in the Foreign Office, with yet another reorganisation of ministerial portfolios where the Middle East has changed, we are grateful in this House for the consistent and regular presence of the Minister who is responding to today’s debate.
I too declare my interests in the register. Last week, I was in Baghdad. I was due to be in Erbil, but, because of the Iranian incursion, those arrangements were of course changed and I travelled to—this is welcome to say—a more peaceful Baghdad. I do not share the analysis of the noble Lord, Lord Polak. I believe that the missiles that were launched on the outskirts of Erbil were directed from Iran as a message to the Kurdish politicians on whether they support Iran, the decisions on the election of the new president and the position of the formation of the new Iraqi Government.
That brings it into context, to some extent, as literally last week, I passed the war memorial of the martyrs. There were over 1 million deaths in that war. This is still very live. It is absolutely right, but there is not always an easy situation of taking an absolute stance on what could be considered a lack of equivalence on positions of morality. The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, highlighted one example of what is grotesque in the Iranian regime, namely the mass executions and the executions of minors. It is not that long ago that I was asking the Minister questions about the consequences when our Saudi Arabian allies have mass executions—81 on one day—and do not prevent minors going through capital punishment.
This raises the question, as in the Question we are debating, of what the regional issues would be. Of course, if they are for all the partners in the JCPOA, it is not necessarily the case that we and our allies will always have the same interests at play. When we have been invited to include our Gulf allies and friends, it is clearly not necessarily the case that we will all be aligned on all our individual country priorities. This is a time of greatly worrying flux within the region. It is an uneasy situation after the carnage in Syria and Libya, a retreat from parliamentary democracy in Tunisia, the blockade of Qatar in recent years and varying policy positions on Yemen, where people are still suffering greatly and will suffer even more because of the knock-on consequences of Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.
But it is not easy to disaggregate the consistency of all the interests. The position of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force is obvious to me, as it has been to others. I drove past the mangled vehicle of Qasem Soleimani, who was killed by an American drone. It is obvious to me that there is malign influence from there. But it is not easy to deny the fact that our Gulf allies have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to a whole sweep of countries from the Maghreb right through to Kabul that do not necessarily like parliamentary democracies because they may see them as weak and vulnerable to Iranian influence. But we support parliamentary democracies, and we want them to flourish. We have to make, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, moves that are pragmatic but sensible and realistic.
Finally, I want to raise a specific point with the Minister with regard to American foreign policy. The United States has set up new multinational programmes that are seeking funding. These are the Global Fragility Act and the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act. I understand that the United States is seeking UK support for those funds, and I wonder whether the Minister could reply to me either today or in writing on what the UK’s final position is.
I know I have run out of time, but let me give my closing remarks. The Negev talks between the United States and the Foreign Ministers and leaders of the other Gulf states were quite remarkable to see. Previous to that, King Abdullah was in Ramallah, meeting the Palestinian President, calling for calm at this time, which is potentially really tense, when the holy festivals of Easter, Passover and Ramadan all take place together. I hope there will be calm, and I hope there will be peace at this time.
My final remarks are to wish all colleagues a happy Easter, Passover or Ramadan, and those with no faith at all a restful recess at least.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Polak, for initiating this debate and, once again, giving me the opportunity to agree with the Minister before he speaks; I have no doubt that he and I will be saying the same thing. It is good that the noble Lord, Lord Polak, has given me that opportunity.
It is absolutely right that the Government support efforts to restore the JCPOA. The aim in the immediate term must be for Tehran to reverse its enrichment programme to within limits agreed in the initial agreement. The US’s re-engagement with Iran should be a part of this. But I do accept—and the noble Lord and others are right to draw attention to—the wider issues that are not currently considered by the negotiations. Certainly, for too long, the political leaders of Iran have acted outside the international rules-based order. While this is in part due to its nuclear policy, the JCPOA says nothing about its ballistic missile programme, which is designed to deliver nuclear weapons. But I think, as many noble Lords have said in the debate, that the issues are not mutually exclusive.
Our concerns about human rights, as the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, do not stop us working with other allies in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia in particular. The Minister has shared his concerns with me about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. But there is a need for some of the regional issues to be properly addressed, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, on a multilateral basis. Those have to be undertaken in a longer-term approach in the Middle East. When I say things are not mutually exclusive in terms of reaching an agreement with Iran on the nuclear programme, that does not exclude addressing the serious threat that Iran poses to other neighbours in the region and Israel in particular.
We clearly need to move Iran’s continued support for terrorist groups and militias up the international agenda, and, although it is important to monitor and restrict Tehran’s nuclear capability, we cannot pretend that it is the only obstacle preventing stable relations with Iran. We should also consider that, despite the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, Iran continues to engage in state hostage-taking, with many others still arbitrarily detained. Its human rights violations against its own people have been noted by noble Lords in the debate, and these persist.
If negotiations to return to the JCPOA are to be considered successful, they must, in the long term, go beyond Iran’s nuclear policy and consider not only the regional issues that noble Lords have highlighted but the wider policy issues that I addressed. I welcome this debate—it is a good opportunity—but turning our backs on the opportunities that the JCPOA gives us would be the wrong move at this stage.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Polak for tabling this very important debate. Although it is the last one before the Easter Recess, we have again seen the quality of the contributions. I had a private exchange with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, before we formally started, in which we counted the times that, either through his fault or mine, the usual channels scheduled debates to do with foreign affairs as the last business before the Easter, summer or Christmas breaks. We will look at the numbers between us.
This is a very important time to have this debate because the world, as the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, reminded us, is ever-changing. The challenges in Ukraine and the impact that that crisis is having, not just on our continent but way beyond, are important considerations. Therefore, it is important to engage. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that our Government talk to the Greens. Indeed, earlier this week, I met with Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Berlin to see how we could work together on the crisis in Ukraine and the impact in areas such as Moldova. We will continue to do so.
But today we are talking about security in relation to not just Iran but, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us, Iran’s impact on the broader region of the Middle East. This remains of the utmost importance to the UK. In this regard, Iran’s destabilising activity in the region continues to undermine it, as my noble friend underlined in his introductory remarks. So far this year, Iran has claimed responsibility for the ballistic missile attack on a residential compound in Irbil on 13 March—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, was in the region recently. We have seen some positive movement and progression in Iraq, but the issues in Iran cannot be ignored.
There have also been a number of Houthi attacks on our Saudi and Emirati allies, including three strikes on the UAE in January and a strike on Jeddah on 25 March. I am sure that all noble Lords join me in condemning these particular attacks, although I note what the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us of: perhaps—I use that word deliberately and cautiously—the truce in Yemen may bode well not just for the start of Ramadan but for weeks and months ahead.
My noble friend’s question is predicated on the revival of the JCPOA, so I will first briefly update noble Lords on the status of negotiations. Discussions have been going on for a very long time—over a year—and we have reached the end of the talks in Vienna to restore the JCPOA. As the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us, this deal is not perfect, but it is the best thing we have to ensure that Iran does not progress to developing nuclear weapons—the noble Lord, Lord Collins, mentioned this too—which would be in the interests of no one. There is a deal on the table which would see Iran return to full compliance with its JCPOA commitments and restore extensive monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. I assure all noble Lords of that, and I know that it was an important consideration during the talks.
Iran’s escalation of its nuclear activities over the past three years has threatened international peace and security, and brought us close to a crisis point. A return to the deal is therefore in our interests, with caveats—my noble friend Lord Leigh mentioned the role of IAEA, which has reached various agreements, including on the existing investigations—and provides the foundation to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme remains peaceful over the longer term.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, my noble friend Lord Polak and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, among others, talked about what is not within the deal, and of course the issue of ballistic missiles readily comes up. I assure noble Lords that the UK continues to have serious concerns about Iran’s ballistic missiles. Iran continues the development of this programme, including conducting missile tests on 8 March and on 24 and 30 December. However, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which was unanimously adopted, both underpins the JCPOA and calls on Iran not to undertake activities relating to ballistic missiles. We readily examine options and adherence to this very issue. The UN ballistic missile restrictions remain in place until 2023 but we are in constant reviewing talks with our partners, including within the multilateral system, to ensure Iran’s adherence to these important resolutions too.
My noble friend Lord Lamont mentioned the UK’s and the EU’s JCPOA commitments in relation to sanctions. I can confirm that, as part of their commitments, the UK and the EU are due to lift certain nuclear-related sanctions only which are specified in the JCPOA. As I have said, there has been an announcement that Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency have agreed a process for engagement on outstanding safeguards issues. We will continue fully to support the role of the IAEA. I reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that the sanctions remain consistent just with the nuclear deal, but other sanctions on Iran continue to apply.
While we have concluded the discussions, some bilateral issues remain between Iran and the US which are still being discussed. Of course, we remain committed to ensuring that this deal comes into existence once again.
As noble Lords have pointed out, although the JCPOA deal is primarily a step to reverse the Iranian nuclear programme, it should also, as my noble friend suggested, make a positive contribution—we hope and pray—to building prosperity and broader security in the Middle East. But that is an important consideration, which remains pending. The UK Government have repeatedly condemned Iran’s destabilising activity in the region, including its political, financial and military support for militant and proscribed groups. My noble friend Lord Polak and the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, talked specifically of that, and this destabilising activity was acknowledged too by my noble friend Lord Lamont.
Iran’s actions pose a direct threat to our interests and to the safety of our allies. In addressing these destabilising activities it is important that we work with our partners, as noted by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. We are doing just that. When I say our partners in the region, that includes, importantly, the State of Israel. It remains a top priority, and we are committed to the security of all our allies in the region. We will continue also to work in support of stability and security in Iraq, pointed to by the noble Lord, Lord Purvis. As other noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, said, it is important that we work constructively to ensure that this is the first step so that we look to end the conflicts in Yemen and Syria, where Iran also has influence and a role.
In this regard, we will continue to hold Iran to account for supplying weapons to proxies and militias and, as I have said, for all breaches of UN Security Council resolutions. We will help to maintain maritime security in the region with our contributions to the international maritime security construct and combined maritime forces. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, that we will also maintain a range of sanctions to constrain the destabilising activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. A question was raised about sanctioning the whole organisation. I have already stated our deep concern about its activities. Noble Lords have heard me say before that the list of prescribed organisations is kept under constant review, but I cannot say any more than that at this juncture.
My noble friend Lord Polak importantly talked about the second track and having it engaged. Ultimately, the UK wants Iran to become a positive and constructive influence in the Middle East and on the world stage. We believe that constructive dialogue is the best route available to work through regional security issues. Our hope is that a return to the JCPOA will support a pathway to a regional dialogue, and the United Kingdom stands ready to support talks between Iran and the Gulf. We are clear, however, that any regional negotiations must be led by the region. It is not for the UK to dictate terms.
The UK remains committed to supporting our partners on any regional negotiations, and we are already consulting partners on how we can work together to address the region’s important security challenges and long-term stability. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, and the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, talked about the importance of human rights. One of my responsibilities is as Human Rights Minister for the UK, which sometimes brings about the most challenging discussions with countries that do not adhere to what I would define not as our values but as shared human values. Nevertheless, it is important that we engage constructively, and I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, that women’s rights are very dear to my heart. I launched the Commonwealth women mediators’ network, and evidence is in front of us that when women are involved in building peace, security and stability, the deal lasts longer. We will continue to campaign and work constructively in pursuit of that aim. The noble Baroness also talked about the importance of ensuring the impact of climate. Surely the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons is a forward step on that very objective.
In thanking noble Lords once again, particularly my noble friend for bringing this debate forward, I state again that while the UK Government support a return to the JCPOA and Iran’s nuclear programme being brought back under the scrutiny and control of the international community, we regard the JCPOA as the first step, a stepping stone towards addressing Iran’s broader destabilising actions, towards, we hope, working with regional partners for greater security across the Middle East. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked of the blessings of the season. As someone who believes most certainly in the positive progress made through the Abraham accords, which have brought countries that were foes together, not just recognising Israel but working with Israel, I hope that with the three great Abrahamic faiths being brought together perhaps the foundations are being laid, through the Abraham accords, the JCPOA and further regional discussion and security, for security for not only the region but the broader world.
My Lords, that completes the business before the Grand Committee this afternoon and the Committee stands adjourned.
Committee adjourned at 4.59 pm.