Iran’s Nuclear Weapons Programme

Speaking in the House of Commons

Hugh Robertson responds to a back bench MP’s debate on Iran's nuclear weapons programme and the current opportunity for international negotiations on the issue.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Hugh Robertson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) on securing this debate at such an important moment in the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue. I also congratulate the other hon. Members who have spoken this afternoon. I will address the points raised in their various contributions.

To set the scene, it is worth saying three things. First, Iran has shown over the course of recent months that it is genuinely taking a new approach to negotiations. We need fully to test that and explore the opportunity—I go no further than that at this stage—for a deal. We believe there may well be a deal on the table that would give us meaningful assurance on our immediate proliferation concerns and create the space for a comprehensive solution.

Secondly, let me absolutely clear: there is no question of us seeing this issue through rose-tinted spectacles. We approach this negotiation with our eyes wide open. We are fully aware of Iran’s history of concealment and its defiance of its international obligations. We will continue to be firm in our approach to Iran on that and other issues. Thirdly—this addresses a point raised by the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and others—despite the fact that progress on nuclear talks remains possible, we are not blind to Iran’s nefarious activities in its immediate region and beyond, or its terrible human rights record.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering will take some comfort from what I have just said. He was worried about the possibility of the talks becoming a space in which the Iranians could continue to enrich. The obvious point is that, without the talks, Iran will continue to enrich anyway, so we might as well give the talks a chance. I cannot go into the detail of the negotiations and the terms around which they revolve, but clearly the basis of the deal is that Iran will take concrete and verifiable action to address the international community’s concerns about its nuclear programme, and the E3 plus 3 may consider some measure of sanctions relief to offer in return. There will not be a deal unless Iran ceases its enrichment programme.

The hon. Member for Islington North made the obvious point that human rights in Iran remain in a terrible state, and we agree with him. The negotiations in Geneva are purely about the nuclear file, and the hope is that the twin-track approach of exchanging non-resident charges d’affaires, and so on, will create preconditions that enable progress to be made in other areas.

The hon. Gentleman asked the Foreign Secretary yesterday about the middle east weapons of mass destruction-free zone, for which we argued during the non-proliferation treaty review in 2010. There has been a small amount of progress on that recently, and we hope to be in a position to make an announcement in the near future.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) made three clear points. The first was on the international relations dynamic. Tempting though it is, it is not my position to comment on Saudi relations with the United States. Perhaps it would be helpful if he considered that in the context of Iran’s history of negative involvement across the Gulf. There are many states beyond ours that are extremely suspicious of Iranian activities, and justifiably so. There is concern across the wider Gulf—the concern in Israel is often mentioned—about many of the worries raised this afternoon. We already keep all our key allies in the Gulf fully briefed on where we are.

I hope I have answered the hon. Gentleman’s question on the nuclear-free zone in the middle east. He mentioned disarmament here in the United Kingdom, and I can do no better than repeat the comments of the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) by saying that we have a slightly different view on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison) talked about our approach to the talks, and I hope I have reassured him on that. The phrase “rose-tinted spectacles” has come up on a number of occasions this afternoon, and there are no rose-tinted spectacles in the Geneva talks. Everyone knows exactly what is involved, the difficulties of what we are dealing with and the backdrop against which we are trying to do this. On the other hand—one only has to talk to the Foreign Secretary, who has met the regime on a number of occasions in New York and Geneva, to get a feel for this—there is a new feel to the talks. It is important that we test that to see what can be achieved. If we are able to get over the line, I doubt there is anyone anywhere in this Chamber who would not agree that that is a good thing. The question is, to test Iran’s resolve and to see what is achievable, but we must do so with our eyes wide open.

My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) made a good and thoughtful speech, as he always does, and he is absolutely right that Iran ought to be the subject of a system of containment. In a sense, of course, that is what an interim deal before a final deal will seek to achieve, and he is right to make that point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), the co-chair of the all-party group on Iran, talked about the importance of trust, which is a key component that he compared to Northern Ireland. I remember someone saying to me some years ago that, in relation to Northern Ireland, the Government of the day were in about the right place if everyone was marginally unhappy with them. I suspect that might be a principle that applies here, too. He is absolutely right about the importance of gaining trust. The hope is that, if trust builds during the negotiations, it could translate into other affairs. He has the Government’s approach in a nutshell—it is important to take the opportunity seriously but to be realistic about what can be achieved.

Finally, I thank the hon. Member for North Durham for supporting the process. I was struck in the Chamber yesterday by the level of support from Opposition Members, including the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and others who dealt with the issue in the past and know what is involved. I am grateful for the continued support of the hon. Member for North Durham.

I do not know whether there is anything that Members feel I have not addressed, but I will provide a brief update on where we are.

As most people know, the Foreign Secretary returned on Sunday from the E3 plus 3 negotiations in Geneva, which were the third round of talks since President Rouhani’s election in June. The talks were detailed and complex. They covered every aspect of Iran’s extensive nuclear programme, and the Iranian negotiators were, as has been reported and as the Foreign Secretary mentioned yesterday, tough but constructive. The focus of the negotiations was to reach agreement on a first step—this was the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East—that would create confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive settlement that resolves the Iranian nuclear issue.

Talks ended without that interim agreement because some key differences remained between the parties. Disappointing though that was on one level, it might comfort people to know that we are not running into the talks with rose-tinted spectacles. The negotiations are tough and have a long history, but the gaps are narrowing. At the conclusion of the weekend, the E3 plus 3 Foreign Ministers presented a united position, which we believe gives us a very strong foundation for the next round of talks on 20 November.

Provided the conditions can be met, the Government are in favour of reaching an interim agreement. As the Foreign Secretary told the House yesterday, the agreement being discussed would have real benefits for global security, but it needs to be detailed, clear and concrete. The agreement also needs to assure all countries that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran is being addressed and, therefore, it is crucial that the agreement cover all aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. We believe that such a deal is on the table and is within reach.

Sanctions have undoubtedly played an indispensable part in creating the new opening. Sanctions are putting the Iranian leadership and the Iranian economy under serious pressure. We think that the sanctions are costing the Iranian economy at least $4 billion a month or $48 billion a year. There is no question of our relaxing the sanctions pressure before we have taken action to address the proliferation concerns.

It is worth noting in passing that, while the talks are going on—this goes to the centre of what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said in his opening remarks—the Iranian nuclear programme continues to advance. The most recent International Atomic Energy Agency report of 28 August noted that Iran’s stockpile of near-20% enriched uranium continues to grow. Iran has installed more than 1,000 advanced centrifuges, which are capable of enriching at a significantly faster rate, and there is also the heavy water research reactor at Arak. All that represents a breach of the United Nations Security Council and IAEA board resolutions and shows why, in the interest of international security, we want the talks to succeed.

Because of the time, I will finish by saying that this afternoon’s debate has revolved around two dynamics. There is a new opportunity to do something, and I think everyone in the Chamber would agree that, if that opportunity exists, we should take it. Rest assured that we are going into the talks with our eyes wide open. We know what we are dealing with. I do not think anyone is in any doubt that a deal will be difficult to achieve, but such a deal would be in the interest of the international community.

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