17 June 2013 – House of Commons – NATO

17 June 2013 – Nato: Iran 

Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the policy of Her Majesty’s Government towards Iran following the election of Dr Hassan Rouhani as its new President.

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) I congratulate the people of Iran on their participation in Friday’s elections and Dr Rouhani on the result. He made some positive remarks during his election campaign about the need to improve economic and political conditions for the Iranian people and to resolve the nuclear issue. The Iranian people will, no doubt, look to their new President to make good on those promises.

The United Kingdom’s policy on Iran has been consistent under this Government and the last. We share international concern, documented by the International Atomic Energy Agency, that Iran’s nuclear programme is not for purely peaceful purposes, and we deplore Iran’s failure to co-operate fully with the IAEA, to uphold its responsibilities under the non-proliferation treaty and to meet the demands placed on it by UN Security Council resolutions. The Government hope that, following Dr Rouhani’s election, the Iranian Government will take up the opportunity of a new relationship with the international community by making every effort to reach a negotiated settlement on the nuclear issue. If Iran is prepared to make that choice, we are ready to respond in good faith; our commitment to seeking a peaceful diplomatic settlement of this dispute is sincere. So I urge Iran to engage seriously with the E3 plus 3 and urgently to take concrete steps to address international concerns. Iran should not doubt our resolve to prevent nuclear proliferation in the middle east and to increase the pressure, through international sanctions, should its leaders choose not to take this path.

Jack Straw (Blackburn, Labour) May I thank the Foreign Secretary for that statement and associate myself with the congratulations, in which we would all share, to the Iranian people and to Dr Rouhani on his election? May I tell the Foreign Secretary that in my many dealings with Dr Rouhani when he was head of the Iranian national security council under President Khatami, I found him courteous, engaged and straightforward to deal with?

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that although Dr Rouhani will seek strongly to represent his country’s interests and its faith, his Government could, if given the space, be a positive force in respect of its neighbours in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq? Does he also accept that Dr Rouhani has made it clear that he wants a fresh start on the nuclear file, but that negotiations that aim at stopping Iran’s entire civil nuclear programme, as Israel seems to want, are bound to fail, whereas negotiations aimed at ensuring that there are clear safeguards against a break-out to a military programme, with a phase-down of sanctions, do have a good chance of success? Does he agree that, as soon as possible, the E3 plus 3 should broker some confidence-building measures with the new Government?

Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge that in aiming to improve relations with Iran, we should show an understanding of the hostile and humiliating way in which that ancient nation feels it has been treated in decades past by the west, especially by the United Kingdom? Will he also acknowledge that we should not expect too much, too soon from the new President, who will not be taking office for two months and will face his own challenges from within a complex, complicated governmental system?

Lastly, although I fully understand why the Foreign Secretary had to close our embassy in Tehran, may I ask what active steps he will now be taking to reopen it and to re-establish full diplomatic relations?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks and questions, and indeed I pay tribute to the work he did, particularly between 2003 and 2005, seeking to improve relations with Iran and to address the nuclear issue, including working with Dr Rouhani. On all the matters that the right hon. Gentleman has raised it will be important for us to have an open mind but to judge Iran on its actions. There have been positive words during the election campaign, but it will, of course, be the actions we judge, including on the potential to adopt a more constructive position when it comes to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, which he mentioned. The opportunity is there through the E3 plus 3 negotiations to make constructive progress on the nuclear issue on the basis that he describes. The E3 plus 3 have made it clear since February that we are open about the long-term benefits to Iran of reaching a comprehensive agreement. We have been open to Iran that if it could react in a constructive way to the offer we have put on the table, that would open the door to the normalisation of political and economic relations with the international community. We have proposed a balanced and credible offer, to which Iran has not yet made a sufficiently constructive response. The opportunity is there.

We should always try to understand how other countries feel about events in history—that is part of good and effective diplomacy all over the world—just as they should appreciate our concerns. The right hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the President-elect does not immediately take office, but the IAEA has stressed the urgency of the nuclear issue and it is important that that is borne in mind.

Finally, we had no wish to close our embassy, as the right hon. Gentleman understands. Our embassy compounds were invaded in a way that could only have been state-sponsored in some way, at great danger to our staff and with the destruction of their personal possessions. It is not possible to operate an embassy in that environment, so although we maintain diplomatic relations with Iran and have no policy against opening an embassy, we would need to be sure about the safety of our staff and that the embassy could fulfil the normal functions of an embassy.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham, Labour) I thank my right hon. Friend Mr Straw for securing this urgent question at a very important time, and for the time that he has spent discussing the important subject of Iran with me. Hassan Rouhani has secured more than 50% of the popular vote in Iran. This is a time of great opportunity, but also uncertainty. Hopes are high among the Iranian people and we know that Hassan Rouhani has expressed a desire to end the international sanctions relating to Iran’s development of a nuclear programme.

This is an important time, but the power structures in Iran mean that the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is still in charge of many matters, including foreign policy. Iran is a significant actor throughout the middle east and has the capacity to change the situation on the ground for good or for ill, including for foreign policy matters. In the light of that, I want to ask the Foreign Secretary a number of specific questions. First, has he had the opportunity yet to discuss matters with the EU commissioner for external relations, particularly the election results and their possible impact on talks? Will he meet those who have expressed continuing concern about Iran’s intentions on nuclear policy, even after the presidential election? It is very important that we continue to listen to those concerns and are cautious in our approach.

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) I think the same message is coming from all parts of the House on this subject—that is, that it is good to have that unity in our message. The hon. Gentleman is right. Not only is the political spectrum in Iran complex to interpret from outside, but so is the power structure. We should not assume that the president has the absolute power by any means on the subjects about which we are most concerned. Most observers would consider that the presidency overall is perhaps a weaker institution than it was eight years ago when President Ahmadinejad first took office. The hon. Gentleman is right that Iran has an immense capacity to act for good or ill in the region, and on a very important global issue, the nuclear file.

On the hon. Gentleman’s specific questions about the E3 plus 3 negotiations and the role of the EU High Representative, our offer has been clear since February and that offer remains. That will continue to be the approach of the High Representative and of the E3 plus 3. We have regular meetings about all these issues. I regularly meet the director general of the IAEA to discuss in detail all the concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme.

We have some contacts and conversations with Iran. As I mentioned before, we have not broken off diplomatic relations. Our embassy became impossible to operate and as a result I required the closure of the Iranian embassy in London, but we have had conversations since that time. I have had conversations myself with the Foreign Minister of Iran, Mr Salehi, and we have conversations in the margins of the United Nations and other international forums. We have not, of course, had any contact yet with the president-elect, Mr Rouhani, who is some way from taking office. Decisions about that are for the future.

Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex, Conservative) Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the best thing has happened that we could have hoped—the Iranian people have once again reaffirmed their support for engagement with the western world and cynicism about the grabbing of nuclear capability—the worst thing the west could do is raise excessive expectations about how much could be achieved under the new leader in too short a time? Yet the urgency is on to contain the nuclear threat, with Iran possibly acquiring weapons-grade plutonium by the end of this year, and Iran is one of the powers fomenting the civil war in Syria. May I suggest urgent engagement on these matters, but as firmly and as diplomatically as possible?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) Yes, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We should hesitate before trying to interpret the results of elections in other countries. Sometimes we have enough trouble interpreting election results in our own country, so we should not rush too excitedly into that, but we should take full note of what has happened and what Mr Rouhani said during the election campaign and be ready to respond in good faith in the way that I outlined in my initial statement, and we will stick to that over the coming weeks. My hon. Friend is right about the urgency of the issue. Iran is acting in defiance of six UN Security Council resolutions and of successive resolutions of the IAEA board, and addressing the nuclear issue has become very urgent indeed.

It has to be recognised that Iran has brought its isolation and economic sanctions upon itself, through its own actions. However, the British people have no quarrel with the people of Iran. Our dispute is over Iran’s nuclear programme. It will be difficult to create the atmosphere to address constructively with Iran all the other issues in the Middle East that the right hon. Gentleman has quite legitimately mentioned without settling the nuclear issue. That is the central point. That is not just the view of the UK; we must remember that the E3 plus 3 include China and Russia, and our negotiating position is agreed with them. We are all agreed that the Iranian response has not been adequate or realistic so far. A change in that situation would unlock the opportunity for us to work together on other issues, and for Iran to be treated with the respect that the world would owe it as a major nation in its region. That is all there for the taking if we can resolve the nuclear issue.

We do have conversations with the Iranians, and we will of course be very much open to conversations with the new President and his team. As has been mentioned, they are still some way from taking office, and we do not know who the other Ministers in the new Government will be, but, yes, we will be open to conversations with them. Those conversations can and should include the circumstances in which embassies can be reopened, but after what happened last time, we would need to be very confident of any assurances before we were able to reopen our embassy in the short term. There is an offer on the table from the E3 plus 3 on the nuclear issue, and it will remain on the table over the coming weeks.

Yes, of course people have strong views about history, but as I have pointed out, the negotiations on the nuclear issue are not just with the UK. They involve all the other members of the E3 plus 3, including China and Russia. So historical feelings about the UK cannot be a barrier to resolving those issues. The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to human rights in Iran; its human rights record is truly appalling. There are more journalists in prison in Iran than in any other country in the world, 350 executions were carried out last year, opposition leaders have been detained for over two years, and there are continued arrests of human rights defenders and minorities. It is high time that that record was improved, and that the nuclear issue was resolved.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour) The Foreign Secretary will recognise that, despite Iran’s appalling human rights record and very strange electoral system, there has nevertheless been huge participation in the election, which demonstrates a thirst to get away from the human rights abuses of the past and have a better engagement with the rest of the world. Iran is still a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and holding a conference on a middle east nuclear weapons-free zone is still on the table—it was not held in Helsinki last year but is still due to be held. Can the Foreign Secretary assure us that he is redoubling his efforts to ensure that that conference is held, at which Iran would be present, and that it could be part of an ongoing engagement and debate to try to bring about that dream?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) We support a middle east nuclear weapons conference, as we accepted at the review conference of the NPT in 2010. We have been trying to bring that about. There is a Finnish facilitator for the conference who has been doing good work, and we have been supporting him in that work, so the hon. Gentleman can be sure that the British Government are arguing in that direction.

Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Conservative) Which is stronger among the Iranian public: support for the nuclear programme or dislike of economic sanctions?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) That would be a good thing to know. As I remarked earlier, we must be careful about how we interpret election results in other countries. There is no doubt that sanctions on Iran are having a major impact on the country, and that that is felt in the country, so I want to make it clear again that if we cannot resolve the nuclear issue, sanctions will be intensified. Iran faces a choice on this. I cannot divine the exact feelings of the Iranian people, but I know that they would be much better off if they resolved the nuclear issue.

Yes, and that takes us back to the nuclear issue. We have made a clear offer to Iran that in return for its suspending enrichment above 5% and addressing concerns about its stockpile of uranium and its enrichment capacity, we would commit ourselves to lifting some sanctions. The opportunity to improve the economic situation is there.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield, Conservative) We all welcome the election of a so-called moderate President-elect, but is my right hon. Friend aware that less than an hour ago in Tehran President Rouhani said that under no circumstances will the enrichment of uranium stop? Will he comment on reports emanating from the United States that Iran is preparing to send 4,000 troops to intervene in Syria?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) The President-elect gave a news conference today and said a number of things, including about improving relations with all countries Iran recognises— which includes the UK—and we are responding in the way we are today in this House. As well as commenting on the nuclear programme in the way my hon. Friend described, the President-elect also said that the primary objective of the next Government should be to build confidence and trust with the international community, and resolve the domestic, economic crisis. The only way to do that will be to address the nuclear issue successfully. I am not in a position to confirm any military movements by the United States.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham, Conservative) The Foreign Secretary will be aware of the positions taken by former Presidents Hathmi and Rafsanjani. They were both regarded as moderates, yet under their terms nuclear capabilities were increased in Iran. Despite the prospect of a moderate President, one must compare that with previous moderate Presidents in Iran and look at the policies implemented, whether in nuclear enrichment, Syria, Bahrain, or Lebanon and then linked to Syria. Does the Foreign Secretary share my concern about the latest statement made by the President-elect when he said that his position on Syria will be the same as that of Russia?

William Hague (Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs; Richmond (Yorks), Conservative) Yes, all those things show that we are right to emphasise—I think this is common ground across the House—that actions and policies over time will either allow for an improvement in relations, or not. We will see what happens on all those things, but the opportunity is there. Let me say again that we will respond in good faith to changes in policies by Iran if they happen, but the cautionary note sounded by my hon. Friend is entirely valid.

NATO: – 17 June 2013

Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway, Labour) NATO’s defence capability includes the protection of the nuclear umbrella. Does the Minister find it incongruous in respect of NATO membership to have, on the one hand, a policy of unilateral disarmament and, on the other, to seek the protection of that nuclear umbrella? That is the policy of the SNP.

Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire, Conservative) It is always nice to find common ground with the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party. On this subject, we are in violent agreement.

NATO: At-sea Nuclear Deterrent – 17 June 2013

Chris Bryant (Rhondda, Labour) Given that Russia’s latest statement of its military doctrine states that the greatest threat to Russian security is the existence of NATO, and given that Russia has significant naval and military investment in Syria, is it not the height of irresponsibility for the Government constantly to ramp up talk of putting more arms into Syria?

Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative) As I have already said once today, the Government have made no decision to supply any arms to anyone in Syria. As for the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about Russia, in the context of the debate that we have just had about the nuclear deterrent, it is important to note that the Russians are committed to spending $146 billion over the next 10 years on modernising their forces, including parts of their nuclear forces that had been mothballed over the last few years.

NATO: Topical Questions – 17 June 2013 

Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge, Conservative) As I have already said once today, the Government have made no decision to supply any arms to anyone in Syria. As for the hon. Gentleman’s substantive point about Russia, in the context of the debate that we have just had about the nuclear deterrent, it is important to note that the Russians are committed to spending $146 billion over the next 10 years on modernising their forces, including parts of their nuclear forces that had been mothballed over the last few years.

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