Iran’s nuclear programme

Hugh Robertson responds to a back bench MP’s debate on Iran and the joint plan of action to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme and addresses the delicate balance in negotiating the agreement.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) on securing the debate and thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Given that this has been something of a question fest, I suspect that my best approach in summing up is not to read through the beautifully drafted piece of English that has been supplied to me, but to try to pick out the questions that have been asked and to go through them as swiftly as I can in the 10 minutes remaining.

In a sense, the debate has highlighted the issue. It would be a bit simplistic to call it a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty debate, but in a sense everyone is occupying the same piece of ground. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) gave us a wonderful historical tour de force of relations with Iran. There are ample reasons to be extremely cautious and very suspicious. On the other hand, once every so often an opportunity comes around. The question is whether to make that leap of faith and test it, being well aware of all the past problems, the history and the dangers, in the hope of getting to a better place eventually. Alternatively, we can be extremely cautious at every stage to the extent that it impacts on the ability to conclude that final deal. Those are difficult and complex judgments, and there are no right or wrong answers.

The last time the international community had a go at this was when the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) was Foreign Secretary. It got to a stage where all the suspicions present in today’s debate were aired, and a combination of the hard-liners in Tehran and Washington derailed the deal. The consequence of that was that the steps towards nuclear production simply continued. Arguably, as a result of not being able to take those bold steps, the situation got worse, not better—I know it is difficult to second-guess these things now. It is absolutely right to be cautious and sensible and to have an eye to history, but we should see on this occasion whether we can test the feelings and sentiment in Iran.

I will try to answer the various questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon asked. He is absolutely correct to say that the interim agreement does not resolve international suspicions. As he will have guessed from my opening remarks, I absolutely agree that it does not. It is merely a first step that buys us the time to move towards further discussions on the issues, of which he raised a great many. A comprehensive agreement will absolutely need to address the proliferation concerns that he set out. Let me be clear: we will not sign a deal if it does not address those concerns. Secondly, he made the point that, through the sanctions relief regime, we have eased the pressure on Iran’s economy for very limited concessions in return.

It is worth saying that the interim deal addresses some of the nuclear programme’s most concerning elements: the eradication of the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium; and Iran being forbidden from installing further centrifuges, which is different from developing them. It also eases the monitoring regime carried out by the IAEA. We and the US estimate the sanctions relief given to Iran to be about $7 billion over the six-month period. That is a relatively small fraction of the $60 billion to $100 billion of restricted Iranian oil funds held abroad and of the $60 billion to $70 billion it needs to finance its foreign imports. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but there is a sense of proportion in that.

My hon. Friend asked about what are called in the parlance the PMDs—possible military dimensions—of Iran’s nuclear programme. That is very much a concern. He is right to say that they are not addressed in the interim agreement, but they are a key part of the final negotiations that will take place so they will be addressed. Indeed, the joint plan of action makes it clear that the joint commission, composed of the E3 plus 3 and Iran, will work with the IAEA to facilitate the resolution of all those issues.

Fourthly—if I have got the order right—my hon. Friend asked about the sanctions relief enabling the Iranians to fund terrorism, which touches on a point made by several other Members. There is no doubt that Iran’s support of terrorism throughout the region is a malignant force. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) mentioned, were there need for evidence, considerable evidence is available—it is a statement of fact—that Iranian support for Hezbollah and directly through the Qods Force has played a considerable part in the conflict in Syria. That is not the only example by any means of Iran’s malign influence in the area; it has been seen recently in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and right around the Arabian peninsula. That will have to be addressed if relations with Iran are to be normalised in any meaningful way.

I guess that the question about the granting of access to the IAEA was driven by the Parchin military facility issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon is right that the interim agreement does not allow the IAEA access to Parchin. However, following Iran’s agreement with the IAEA on 8 February about the exploding bridgewire detonators, we hope that we can make progress. Indeed, that will have to be addressed as part of any final and comprehensive agreement.

My hon. Friend asked, perfectly reasonably, about our assessment of whether the Iranian actions at the moment are within the spirit of the JPA agreement. The hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) asked in particular about the continued production of advanced centrifuges with reduced break-out times and whether that poses questions about Iranian intentions. There is no doubt that we would much rather that Iran had not done that. The IAEA, however, has looked at what it has done thus far and confirmed that it is currently complying with the JPA’s strict terms. As part of the 24 November agreement, Iran has committed not to install or bring into operation any new centrifuges in the main enrichment facilities.

That, however, does not help with confidence-building measures and, as we touched on earlier, there will be a real trust issue if the Iranian Government continue to act in this way. Again, that will have to be addressed as part of the comprehensive agreement.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about the concerns that Iran could simply pocket the benefits and walk away from the negotiations. Indeed it could, but, if so, it has a great deal to lose. The Iranian economy is going through the floor and there is real hardship in Tehran. Anyone who looks at this—intelligence agency or otherwise —realises that the Iranian economy is in a very bad place indeed, and the key electoral promise of the Government was to restore the economy, so they have a considerable incentive. Without such an agreement, they can do absolutely nothing to bump-start their economy.

If the deal falls to pieces, no doubt international reaction will be tough and Iran will wear the blame for that. The full sanctions regime will simply be reinstated and it will move backwards very quickly. In an environment in which Iran had toyed with the international community and let it down, it would be difficult to restart talks for some time. My hon. Friend is right that, in theory, Iran could pocket what it has got at the moment and walk away, but that might not be wise on its part. There is no intention whatever to offer further sanctions relief over and above what it has got until it has delivered on the key terms of the agreement.

Let me turn to some of the other questions asked in various contributions. It is always a pleasure to hear from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). He talked about the power struggle in Iran and he is absolutely right. At the moment, the indication is that the supreme leader backs the regime in the talks being conducted: indeed, the substantive concessions made thus far would not have been possible without his support. However, as we all know, hard-liners who do not wish the process well are operating in the background. The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about whether Rouhani can deliver. Our assessment is that he can, but if we push him too hard, it probably will not take a great deal for that to change. If he cannot show real benefit from the process, that assessment must be called into doubt.

The hon. Gentleman asked about human rights abuses in the country and he is right to highlight them. I have the figures here and the situation is appalling—there are no two ways about it. There have been reports of at least 400 executions in 2013. Iran has the second highest number of journalists in prison in the world. Opposition leaders have been detained for more than two years. Arrests of human rights defenders and journalists continue, as does persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. The Government will continue to hold Iran to account. We are not being soft: more than 80 EU sanctions are designated on individual Iranians and entities responsible for human rights violations.

Mr Clappison: May I say how grateful I am to the Minister for his personal interest in and attention to the issue of persecution of Christians in Iran? He deserves tribute for his stand.

Hugh Robertson: I thank my hon. Friend. He is very kind. One of the curious things about my job is that I end up handling the majority of the correspondence that flows into the Foreign Office. In my first few months, it was noticeable that one of the subjects raised most regularly by Members throughout the House was the fate of Christians in the middle east. In the various visits I have made around the region, I have tried to make a specific point of seeking out Christian leaders to talk to them about what is happening. I had a fascinating couple of hours with the Copts in Egypt—there are between 10 million and 12 million of them—and I will continue to take a close interest as I make my various visits.

To finish my response to the hon. Member for Strangford, he is right that religious freedom is a key part of where Iran needs to get to. That is something that is largely lacking under the current regime.

Jim Shannon: I entirely agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) about the Minister’s dedication and interest, which I appreciate as well. In my speech, I mentioned that Rouhani had indicated through Twitter his best wishes for Christians at Christmas time and at times of festival. That is an indication of a leader providing leadership. Has the Minister had any chance of gentle discussion with Rouhani and his Government?

Hugh Robertson: The honest answer is no. Contact at ministerial level with the Iranian regime has been restricted to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. I think it is appropriate to keep it at that level rather than open the door. There are all sorts of reasons—I was just about to come on to this matter—why we might proceed with some caution, so I have not had those conversations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere made the very good point that it is important not to get ahead of ourselves. I agree absolutely. The Foreign Secretary put it well in the early autumn of last year when he came back from New York. He explained that there had been a change in the atmospherics, but that nothing substantive on the ground has changed at all. That is a good way of putting it and a good way of approaching what we are doing at the moment. There is a clear opportunity but it makes abundant good sense to move forward with caution, acting sensibly and testing the intentions. There is a great prize at the end if we can get there, but we should proceed with caution.

My hon. Friend correctly drew our attention to the lack of progress in Geneva. I sat through the whole of the first day of contributions there, and our assessment was that the key driver behind that lack of progress was the regime’s unwillingness to address the question of regime change. It is a red line that the regime will not cross, and at the moment it is the great barrier. The regime wants to talk only about terrorism, whereas the opposition wants to talk about transitional arrangements. Breaking that deadlock is proving extremely difficult.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North. As chair of the all-party group on Iran he is the resident House expert on these matters, and is certainly the only person here today who has been to Tehran recently. He speaks with great knowledge. He is absolutely right to observe that trust has failed on both sides and that there is a battle between the reformers and the hard-liners. I thank him for acknowledging the benefits of the joint plan of action.

The Opposition spokesman asked about the thousands of centrifuges that have been produced, so I will give him chapter and verse on that. He is absolutely right that the regime has produced a series of centrifuges. As part of the agreement the regime is not allowed to install new centrifuges. The IAEA knows the centrifuges are there and is monitoring what happens to them. I hope that matter is in hand.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Arak. The interim deal has halted construction there and suspended fuel production for the heavy water facility but the final status of that plant is a matter for the final status negotiations and so is not yet resolved.

The hon. Gentleman asked about resources of the IAEA. Off the top of my head, I do not know exactly how many people it has on the case on the team of inspectors, and I am not sure that that information would be readily available, for obvious reasons. However, if it gives him reassurance, I have been working closely on this matter for the past three or four months and at no stage have I heard a suggestion that the IAEA is short of resources or is unable to conduct the monitoring it wants to carry out.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of sanctions relief on the Iranian economy, and I have already given some relevant figures. I do not know what impact sanctions relief has had on the automotive sector, but we will send him a written reply on that matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the visit of the Iranian chargé, who was just here, from 18 to 25 February. That was his second visit to the UK, and there have been two visits in the opposite direction. When we have the Iranian assessment of what he has achieved and what the issues are, there will be a process in which we will sit down and work out what happens next. The Foreign Secretary has been scrupulous in making a statement to the House every month or six weeks and that is his intention should there be any additional information on that matter.

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