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Volume 799: debated on Wednesday 25 September 2019


My Lords, I will now repeat a Statement made in another place:

“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Iran. The United Kingdom has always been clear-sighted about our engagement with Iran. We want to see Iran come in from the cold, but that can only happen if it shows respect for the basic principles of the rules-based international system. Iran’s violations are not mere technical breaches of international rules. They are serious and systemic destabilising actions that undermine the international rule of law. These actions must have consequences.

Take, first, the recent attacks on the Aramco facilities in Saudi Arabia. On 14 September, 18 drones and seven cruise missiles hit an oil field and processing facility. As the United Kingdom Government, we took our time to assess the facts carefully and independently. We are now confident that Iran was responsible. The evidence is clear, and there is no plausible alternative explanation. This conduct amounts to an armed attack on Saudi Arabia, a violation of one of the basic principles of international law and the UN Charter. The attacks caused serious damage in Saudi Arabia and affected 5% of the world’s oil supply. In these circumstances, the UK has sought and will continue to seek to de-escalate tensions.

Our response to this incident is an acid test of our resolve. We have condemned the attacks in co-ordination not just with Saudi Arabia and the United States but with our European partners. I draw the attention of the House to the E3 statement released yesterday after the meetings in New York. We will now continue to work with the widest international support to determine the most effective response.

At the same time, Iran’s attacks on the Aramco facilities are a reminder of the importance of ensuring that Iran never gains access to nuclear weapons. That is why the UK remains committed to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, notwithstanding US withdrawal.

Equally, we have always recognised that it is not a perfect deal. The JCPOA has its strengths, including its provisions granting the IAEA unfettered access to Iran’s nuclear facilities, but it also has limitations. Its provisions are time limited, with some expiring next year, and it was never designed to address our long-standing concerns about Iran’s wider destabilising behaviour in the region. Since May, Iran has gradually reduced its compliance with key aspects of the JCPOA, putting the deal at risk. Before any wider progress is possible, Iran must reverse those steps and come back into full compliance.

At the same time, as both President Trump and President Macron have said, we can improve on the JCPOA. Ultimately, we need a long-term framework that provides greater certainty over Iran’s nuclear programme. As the attack on Aramco demonstrates, we must also bring into scope Iran’s wider destabilising activities. That includes putting an end to Iran’s violations of freedom of navigation, which are disrupting shipping in the Strait of Hormuz and undermining the international law of the sea.

Alongside our partners—the US, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain—we remain committed to the International Maritime Security Construct, to ensure freedom of navigation in the region. We also welcome European-led initiatives to achieve the same goals. We want the widest possible international support to uphold the rules-based international order.

We must also see an end to Iran’s interference in Yemen, which has stoked further conflict through support for the Houthi rebels and fuelled the greatest humanitarian crisis in the world today. A political solution is the only viable way to bring peace to that terrible conflict. Iran must start to play a constructive instead of a destructive role.

Finally, when it comes to respecting international law, Iran’s dire human rights record continues to be of serious concern to the United Kingdom, especially its practice of arbitrary detention of dual-nationals. Today, there is a range of UK dual-nationals languishing in jail in Iran, typically arrested on spurious charges, denied due process and subject to mistreatment contrary to international human rights law. This practice causes great anguish and suffering, not just to those detained but to their families. Iran’s behaviour is unlawful, cruel and totally unacceptable. I have raised all these cases, along with Iran’s wider conduct, with Foreign Minister Zarif. The Prime Minister raised the cases with President Rouhani yesterday in New York, and we will continue to press for their release.

Iran’s record of respect for the basic rules of international law is woeful, and it is getting worse. Let us be clear about the Iranian Government’s responsibility for the plight of its own people. It is a matter of political choice: their Government’s choice. Even now, we retain the hope that we can work with Iran and our international partners to de-escalate tensions, rebuild confidence and establish a clear path for Iran towards international respectability. Iran is a proud nation: it has a rich history and remarkable economic potential. It is held back by a regime that fails to respect the fundamental tenets of the rules-based international system.

Iran faces a choice. It can double down on its approach, in which case international opposition to its behaviour will only intensify, or it can take immediate steps to de-escalate tensions and rebuild international confidence by respecting international law and reducing the range of threats it presents to its neighbours. That is the only path to stability and prosperity for Iran and the wider region. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I welcome both the tone and, more importantly, the content of the Statement. It is in stark contrast to the previous Statement. I thank the Government Chief Whip for the advance copy of the Statement.

The Foreign Secretary is right to make it clear that international law must be upheld in all circumstances, that Iran was, in all likelihood, responsible for the recent drone attacks and that such actions are unacceptable. Amid the rising tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the UK must be a force for peace and stability on the international stage. We cannot be that when the Prime Minister will not rule out the possibility of adding UK troops to the melting pot of tensions in what appears to be a bid to appease President Trump. Foremost consideration should be given to defusing the situation and bringing peace to the region.

The Minister will be aware of the efforts by President Macron of France—in fact, he touched on them in the Statement—to act as a mediator in this situation. Apart from the joint statement with the US, France and Germany, can the noble Lord confirm whether the UK was involved in any other discussions with our French counterparts and whether support has been expressed by the Prime Minister to President Macron?

Looking towards a long-term solution for peaceful relations with Iran, it would appear that the Government might have given up hope of resurrecting the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. There are justifiable concerns that if Iran resumes its nuclear programme, there will be an arms race across the Middle East, with other countries, especially Saudi Arabia, scrambling to build their own nuclear weapons. It is imperative that all sides return to find an agreement to the nuclear issue as soon as possible. Can the Minister explain what the Government will do to address that specific risk?

It is also concerning that the US’s willingness to rip up the JCPOA could set a dangerous precedent, so that similar future agreements are not the worth the paper that they are printed on. Does the Minister share our concern that other rogue states, such as North Korea, might no longer see any incentive to reach any international agreements on their nuclear ambitions? Does he accept that, for all the very grave and serious concerns that we have about Iran’s missile technology, its support for terrorism, its record on human rights and the recent tanker attacks, we will never be able to make progress with it on any of those issues as long as it believes that the JCPOA is not upheld? Furthermore, the Prime Minister said earlier this week that his Government would support a new Trump-led deal. Could the Minister detail what he understands would be different in that deal compared to what was previously agreed?

While we remain on the subject of Iran, it is only right that the we discuss the continued imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and the wider jailing of innocent individuals as diplomatic bargaining chips. It is all well and good that the Prime Minister has asked Mr Rouhani for the immediate release of Nazanin and other dual nationals imprisoned in Iran, but we cannot forget that it was he as Foreign Secretary who worsened the situation by wrongly suggesting that Nazanin was training journalists. Can the Minister confirm whether that incorrect statement by the now Prime Minister was raised with Mr Rouhani in the bilateral meeting? Could he also detail what steps will be taken next by the UK Government along with European partners to secure the release of Nazanin? It is effective diplomacy, not threats and bluster, that will ultimately allow her to return home, and the Prime Minister must find a diplomatic resolution to allow her to return.

Apart from those points, we find the Statement to be positive.

My Lords, I too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement.

I declare an interest in that I, with a cross-party group, was the guest of the Saudi Government for one day at the beginning of this week and was shown the damage at the Abqaiq Saudi Aramco site. Clearly this was a sophisticated and extremely well-targeted attack and I note that the Government, along with others, hold Iran responsible. I came away from that visit thinking that we in the UK are so distracted by Brexit that we are not paying sufficient attention to what might become the trigger for further appalling conflict in a very volatile region. I therefore welcome the fact that Parliament was, as it turns out, never prorogued, and that we are here to address this vital issue.

I am very glad that the Minister has said that the Government wish to “de-escalate tensions”. I welcome the fact that the Saudi foreign ministry spokesperson spoke of caution last week. Experts have spoken of this event as possibly having the same effect as that which triggered the First World War. That was repeated in Saudi Arabia, though some pointed to the very different triggers for the Second World War. Still, that is the potential significance of this event.

Does the Minister agree that the US contributed to risks in the region by pulling out of the JCPOA deal and deciding that maximum pressure was the route to go down? Does he recall the effect of the conclusion of the First World War in terms of what happened two decades later?

As the noble Lord, Lord McNicol, has mentioned, the Prime Minister echoed President Trump on Monday in stating that the JCPOA was a bad deal—a deal that was exceptionally difficult to negotiate, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who is in her place, can surely attest to. That is a change in our position. Later it was stated that we still supported the deal, which has now morphed into, “We support the deal but we’d like to tweak it and change it”, in order to also align with America. Could the Minister clarify whether the Government still argue that we support that nuclear deal, which was so difficult to negotiate and was a striking achievement? Do we agree that it was of major significance in restraining Iran in the nuclear field? Or are the Government seeking to align more closely with the US than with our European allies?

Speaking at the UN, President Macron said he was hoping for a breakthrough with Iran over the possibility of reopening talks in the coming hours. Can the Minister update us? What representations did the Government make to their US counterparts regarding the importance of that deal? The Daily Mail reports that the Prime Minister, on meeting the Iranian President, has now invited him to London. Can the Minister fill us in on the purpose of this visit? Has any progress been made in relation to dual nationals, such as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Did the PM—I echo the noble Lord who spoke before—correct his earlier erroneous statement about her?

We rightly urge adherence to international law, in Saudi Arabia, in Yemen and elsewhere. I note mention within the Statement of Iran’s role in Yemen and not that of Saudi Arabia. We clearly need to engage with Iran to ensure that it too respects international law, whether in relation to sea lanes, as mentioned, or attacks on its neighbours. Does the Minister agree that, especially with a very unpredictable leader in the White House, we must work very closely with our European allies and through the UN on this major crisis? Does he agree that we have the makings of yet another devastating war in the Middle East, and that global statesmanship will be needed if we are to avoid such an outcome?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their questions and contributions to this debate. I hope to address many of the points they raised in one answer, and if I miss anything I will write. Many of the questions involved the JCPOA and its future. We acknowledge that it is not perfect in its present form, but I confirm, as the noble Baroness said, that it has stopped Iran getting a nuclear weapon and we remain committed to that. However, we have always recognised that it did not cover Iran’s dangerous activities in the Gulf. The attack on Saudi oil facilities last week has underlined how much we need to address that area as well. A number of issues have come together: Iran’s increasingly aggressive behaviour and non-compliance with the nuclear deal; and the US policy of maximum pressure. The UK wants to draw on our strong relationship with the US, as well as with our European allies, to work together on a plan that, to repeat the word, de-escalates the situation, because it is a serious situation and the only way forward is to de-escalate it.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, mentioned the military input by the Americans. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, we always take requests from our allies seriously, and we have received requests from Saudi Arabia to support its air defence systems. We will examine what we can do to help in that defensive respect, but once again, we do not want to escalate things. Helping our allies to secure their territory is important to regional stability.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness both mentioned dual nationals. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in the Statement, he has had regular meetings with Iranian Foreign Secretary Zarif, and the Prime Minister also raised these cases with President Rouhani yesterday in New York. I do not know the exact details of those conversations and what was said in relation either to Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe or the others, Australians in many cases, who are detained in Iran. As far as those with Australian passports are concerned—some have British passports as well—Australia is taking the lead.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord wanted me to confirm that we are working with all our allies on this. I can confirm that a great deal of work has gone on this week in the United Nations. During UNGA, the UK will shine a spotlight on Iran’s human rights record and will again bring up the detention of dual nationals. We will host an event with legal experts and international partners to highlight evidence of where Iran is failing to uphold its international obligations.

The noble Lord, Lord McNicol, mentioned President Macron’s initiative, which is important. A successor to a nuclear deal will take time to negotiate. In the meantime, we need Iran to comply and the French proposal is one way of encouraging the Iranians back to the table.

There are a couple of issues that I have not covered but I will ensure that I write to the noble Baroness and the noble Lord on those and place copies in the Library.

My Lords, my noble friend referred rightly to the Iranian “regime”. Does he agree that that is the right word to use, given that Iran is run by a tripartite outfit? On the one hand, there is the Iranian Government of President Rouhani, his Foreign Minister and colleagues, who would like to come back into the international community. They are sound and we should encourage them. On the other hand, there is the deep state, represented by the Revolutionary Guard and the military wing, Hezbollah. Then, of course, on top of it all, is the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah. I am glad to hear about the invitation to President Rouhani to come to Britain, but does my noble friend agree that the best thing we can do is not only to make good relations with the Government but, perhaps through the BBC World Service, explain to the Iranian people that they are being exploited and taken for a ride by the deep state, and denied the prosperity and respect that their great heritage earns them?

I thank my noble friend for the very interesting points he made, which I will draw to the attention of my colleagues in the department. It is so important that we have engagement through our own diplomatic channels, and through our colleagues and friends in Europe as well as throughout the rest of the world, to ensure that we de-escalate the issues relating to this region. It is so important that that is achieved, and the sooner the better.

My Lords, the Minister talks a lot about de-escalation, which of course we all want. The Statement contains a lot of useful activity, which I am sure my former colleagues in the Foreign Office are pursuing with their usual vigour. However, I am deeply worried. First of all, there is no united western strategy towards handling Iran; and, secondly, we do not seem to have effective deterrents over the more hard-line elements in the regime that the noble Lord refers to. Of course there is every benefit in seeking dialogue with Mr Rouhani and the more realistic end of the regime, but the hard-liners have taken a series of aggressive and dangerous actions recently, starting with the detention of the British tanker. Incidentally, the Minister might tell us whether the press reports are true and the tanker released from Gibraltar went on to deliver its oil to Syria. If so, that seems a remarkably aggressive action by the deep state in Iran. Then there was the attack on the Saudi oil fields. That was an extremely dangerous and risky escalation, and I have to say that, so far, the response has not been convincing. If I was a hard-liner in Iran, I would feel impunity: that I had got away with making such a dramatic statement on the whole world’s oil supply.

I entirely agree with the Minister that we need the widest possible co-ordination. However, it seems to me that we are not succeeding at the moment in convincing the Iranians that we are serious, that we will hold them to account for their behaviour and that there will be serious consequences. This is, after all, a country that has an extremely weak, fragile economy, yet it seems to feel that it can act with impunity in the region.

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from great experience in the region and in this subject—far more than I have, I must say. He makes some very good points about how we can develop a strategy that will force Iran to the table so that we can de-escalate for the long term safely and properly, and bring safety and security to the region as a whole. His points are very valid.

The noble Lord also asked about the oil tanker that was detained in Gibraltar. The decision to release the ship was made by the Government of Gibraltar with, of course, our input. They made that decision based on formal assurances from Iran that the “Grace I” would not deliver oil to Syria. Iran breaking those assurances represents an unacceptable violation of international norms and a morally bankrupt course of action. It is apparent that there are only two established oil refineries in Assad regime-controlled Syria—in Baniyas and Homs. The European Union sanctioned both in 2014 for providing financial support to the Assad regime.

My Lords, I do not want to keep your Lordships from your dinners, but my noble friend Lord Marlesford was absolutely right: we are dealing with not just a Government but a whole number of factions, many empowered by electronic weaponry and electronic communications on a scale that did not exist even 10 years ago. It is a completely new situation. Do we realise that in this new situation talking about a war—“Shall we go to war?”—is an absurdity? In this digital world, a war settles nothing. Low-intensity and low-profile terrorism will continue indefinitely.

Have Her Majesty’s Government drawn two very important conclusions from this whole saga, including the attack on Abqaiq? First, the Saudi defences are incredibly weak, despite its enormous expenditure on conventional weapons, which will not do in this situation. Secondly, have we all noticed that the oil markets, although they spiked for a moment, immediately fell back, the reason being that the world oil supply has changed? Shale oil has changed everything and the significance of Middle East oil has been vastly reduced.

My Lords, my noble friend makes some good points. On areas of conflict and how to react to them, this is another area in which to talk about how cybersecurity, whatever it may be—whether drones or missiles and how to guard against them—moves apace. It is always a case of catching up to make proper defences in these areas. Yes, as far as the Iranian Government and those involved in government are concerned, there are many different parties to it. That is one reason why the sanctions imposed are against individuals and individual organisations, rather than the country itself. We currently have 250 EU sanction listings in place against Iran for nuclear-related and ballistic missile activity, including against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety.