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Iran: Military Power

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of Iran’s capacity to project military power beyond its borders.

My Lords, the Ministry of Defence regularly makes assessments of our adversaries’ ability to project military power beyond their borders and how this may affect UK interests. We continue to monitor developments in the Middle East, including Iran’s destabilising actions in the region. The UK has long condemned Iran’s reckless and dangerous activity in the Middle East. Iran’s support to militant groups directly counters UK interests. The Government are committed to working with international partners to deter Iran’s destabilising activity, including by holding Iran to account at the UN and maintaining our permanent defence presence in the region.

My Lords, Iran arms—including by supplying Shahed drones—trains and funds militias and political movements in at least six countries: Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Yemen. This is because it is a revisionist state seeking to change the regional order. Possession of a nuclear weapon would magnify its ability so to do. This would embolden not only Iran but its proxies, which is why preventing that must continue to be a foreign policy priority. What measures are we taking with allies and regional partners to ensure that Iran is not able to achieve nuclear weapon status? If we are to adopt a more stringent policy to frustrate Iran’s objectives, deepening engagement with regional partners will be critical. What is His Majesty’s Government’s assessment of the state of our alliances in the region? How are we seeking to enhance these relationships and to bolster our partners’ resistance to Iran’s proxies?

The noble Lord makes a very thorough and important point. We remain committed to a diplomatic solution and are prepared to use all diplomatic options to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon, including, if necessary, triggering the JCPOA snapback mechanism, which allows for the rapid reimposition of UN sanctions on Iran. Along with partners, including the US, France, the United Arab Emirates and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the UK is leading international efforts to deter Iran. This includes keeping international focus on Iran to dissuade it from proliferating, stopping the supply of weapons components into Iran, and deterring potential purchasers of all Iranian weapons.

Can my noble friend tell the House, given the very serious situation in Iran, what capacity the United Kingdom has to project military power beyond its borders? I refer particularly to the failure of the two aircraft carriers, which we have spent a fortune on and which seem to spend most of their lives in Portsmouth.

My Lords, as with all military activity, and particularly when dealing with an organisation such as the Iranian Government, international co-operation is absolutely critical. That must remain the situation. Everybody is committed to striving to achieve a diplomatic solution.

As far as the aircraft carriers are concerned, we have two. When it was decided that it was not advisable for one to be sent to Prosperity Guardian, the other managed to get going within eight days, which is an extraordinary feat from its crew.

My Lords, I am not exactly an admirer of the Iranian regime, but, in the 21st century, should any country have the right to extend its power beyond its borders? The United States, with 750 bases in 50 countries, is not exactly a model democracy.

My Lords, in answering the initial Question of the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, the Minister rightly pointed out that we have sanctions against Iran. But does he believe those sanctions are working, given that the chief commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard pointed out last week that Iran now has unparalleled naval capabilities and the ability to deal with military things from afar?

My Lords, this is an extremely good point. We can go only so far with sanctions, due to all the reasons that your Lordships are fully aware of and the fact that Iran has its allies, which are not remotely interested in stopping—and in fact are encouraging—its proliferation. We sanctioned the IRGC in its entirety. We have sanctioned more than 400 Iranian individuals and organisations to do with weapons proliferation, regional conflicts, human rights violations, and terrorism. Since October 2022, we have sanctioned a further 56 IRGC-related organisations and officials. So we are taking as much action as we can.

My Lords, the point of the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, is that sanctions may not be working. Iran has been subject, on and off, to quite stringent sanctions for some 40 years—yet it has developed state-of-the-art drones that are now being used in Ukraine. What would my noble friend the Minister see as turning up a notch beyond economic sanctions and looking at ways of effectively deterring the ayatollahs?

I thank my noble friend for that question. The key is to keep diplomatic channels open—it has to be. That is the only way this will be resolved in the long term. On drone technology, we introduced a new set of sanctions in December, and last month all components and everything to do with drone technology were included in these stringent sanctions.

My Lords, Iranian influence in the Middle East and further afield is a destabilising presence, providing support for Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen, as well as Putin’s war in Ukraine. What strategy is the UK developing with our allies in the region to combat the malign activities of Iran and its proxies, including efforts to interrupt their weapons supply chains?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will know that we cannot go into any great detail on this sort of thing. However, we have a permanent presence in the area, as do our allies, and we maintain an integrated international force to act as a deterrent. We also use financial and other sanctions, disrupting supply chains for all forms of activity.

What is my noble friend the Minister’s current assessment of those who are under threat, in this country, from Tehran directly or through its proxies?

My Lords, we recently took action against a number of different organisations which have been acting malignly within and against this country. So this is certainly something that is very closely watched.

My Lords, in all probability we are entering a new, extended cold war to counter a global balance of power. What comprehensive and credible policy and deterrence against irregular warfare is being established to deter proxy wars and to protect ourselves from international terrorism, beyond the imperative to invest in defence and engage more in international diplomacy? That last point is one that the Minister has just made.

The noble Viscount has made the point for me. Diplomatic routes must be kept open at all times, because that is what will solve it. We have sufficient force in the area on an international basis to provide the deterrent that is required. We are taking action on any form of nuclear threat or proliferation, and the sanctions that are in place are severely restricting, as much as we can, the availability of equipment to that particular Government. There are others, with whom they are working, who are specifically working against us. This is something that we need to focus on very seriously. As the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Browne, rightly raises, it is one of the most serious threats that the world—particularly the western world—is facing today.