Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Iranian nuclear programme.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Amess; it is great to see you in the Chair this afternoon. I am grateful to the Chairman of Ways and Means for giving us this opportunity. I have been raising concerns about Iran’s nuclear ambitions ever since I became a Member of Parliament: I have raised this issue with four Foreign Secretaries over the past 10 years. I applied for the debate in the hope of getting it this week because of the negotiations currently taking place in Vienna.
It is worth recalling how we got here and why Iran’s claims that it does not want a bomb have no credibility whatever. Iran has been caught lying time and again. In 2002, Iranian opposition groups disclosed details of major secret nuclear sites that Iran had kept hidden. Those sites included a large underground uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and a heavy water production plant and reactor at Arak that could produce weapons-grade plutonium, neither of which are necessary for civilian power. In 2009, Britain, France and the US exposed another secret enrichment facility under a mountain at Fordow that is too small for civilian fuel but big enough to produce weapons-grade uranium.
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report in November 2011 with detailed evidence of Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, which included a structured programme until 2003 and suspected activities since. In defiance of binding UN Security Council resolutions, Iran has expanded its enrichment capacity over recent years, reducing the time needed to reach one bomb’s worth of enriched uranium to two to three months. Iran has repeatedly refused the IAEA access to the Parchin military base, which is suspected to have been working on nuclear triggers, and has been working to cleanse the site of all evidence. Iran already has missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and our Prime Minister warned in 2012 that Iran is developing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The Iranians say that they are enriching uranium for nuclear energy, despite not having the capacity to make nuclear fuel rods and not having a nuclear power station that can use the fuel. Iran has only one nuclear power plant, which was built by the Russians, and it is contractually bound to use only Russian fuel rods in that plant. Experts have likened the situation to someone buying a gallon of petrol from a petrol station every day for 12 years despite not having a car. All those activities have been in direct breach of Iran’s non-proliferation treaty commitments and numerous binding UN Security Council resolutions.
I will talk a little about the nature of the current proposed deal and the concerns that it raises. The framework announced in Lausanne in April 2015 has created much concern. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz put it well in their article for The Wall Street Journal:
“Nuclear talks with Iran began as an international effort, buttressed by six U.N. resolutions, to deny Iran the capability to develop a military nuclear option. They are now an essentially
bilateral negotiation over the scope of that capability… The impact of this approach will be to move from preventing proliferation to managing it.”
It was welcome to hear President Obama say earlier this week that he will
“walk away…if it’s a bad deal”.
At times we have heard from the US that the only alternative to the deal would be war. The impression has therefore been given that the US is more concerned than the Iranians about the consequences of not reaching a deal. Yet it is surely the case in any negotiation that, unless we are willing to walk away and unless we have an alternative to an agreement, we are negotiating from a point of weakness, which will be exploited by the other side. Even at this late stage, and given what the P5+1 has already conceded, we need to get a deal on the best terms possible to meet our basic concerns. That means not accepting a deal at any price.
The red lines tweeted by Supreme Leader Khamenei last week are clearly not consistent with an acceptable deal for the UK and our P5+1 partners. What is our plan B if the Iranians do not budge from those red lines? Will our Government press our P5+1 partners to keep negotiating for an acceptable deal? Will the UK consider calling for a further extension of the current joint plan of action to allow more time, if needed? Meanwhile, this week the Iranian President threatened that, if there is no deal, Iran
“will go back to the old path, stronger than what they can imagine.”
Will the Minister confirm that we will not be moved by such threats? If Iran does not agree to our minimum terms, walks out on the talks and carries out its threat to resume its stockpiling of enriched uranium and centrifuges, will there be a robust and effective response to dissuade it from that path?
I will now turn to the details of the deal under discussion. I am waiting to see exactly what emerges from Vienna. If an agreement is reached, we already know from the framework that it will allow Iran to become a nuclear-threshold state. The framework says that Iran will scale back its enrichment capabilities for 10 to 15 years, but most of the restrictions on the enrichment and stockpiling of uranium will then expire. President Obama has said that the
“fear would be that in Year 13, 14, 15, they have advanced centrifuges that enrich uranium fairly rapidly, and at that point, the breakout times would have shrunk almost down to zero.”
As the framework will ultimately allow Iran to be within touching distance of nuclear weapons, and as Iran cannot be trusted, there are two critical concerns. The first is about knowing exactly what is going on inside Iran’s nuclear programme, and I have some specific questions about that.
First, is it a condition of the deal, and of the lifting of sanctions, that Iran answers all the IAEA’s questions about its suspected nuclear weapons research? Will the Minister confirm that, as his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), told the House last month, it is essential that the IAEA
“is able to verify all of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments, including through access to relevant locations”?
How will the Government ensure that the IAEA can conduct intrusive and robust short-notice inspections of any site, including military locations, when Khamenei declared just a few days ago, while negotiations were taking place in Vienna, that such inspections will be limited? On research and development, will he confirm that the development of advanced centrifuges will be strictly limited to prevent the rapid technical upgrade and expansion of enrichment after the initial 10 years? Can he confirm that the remaining enriched uranium in Iran that is above the limits agreed in the framework will be irreversibly converted into a harmless form?
My second concern is that real and credible deterrents are needed in case Iran attempts to break out for a bomb either in the next 10 to 15 years or beyond that. Again, I have some specific questions. First, what discussions have the Government had with our American and European allies about how we would respond to Iranian violations? What planning will take place with our allies to deter Iran from making a dash to a bomb when its breakout time is, in the words of President Obama, “almost down to zero”?
How can the Government prevent Iran from acquiring the capability to produce nuclear weapons when the agreement is over? How will they ensure that the breakout time does not reduce to zero? How will the Government ensure that Iran does not continue to develop military aspects of its nuclear programme given that it has not come clean on past activities, has violated protocols signed in the past and has failed to comply with its commitments to the IAEA to answer questions posed by the nuclear watchdog?
How will the Government and our international partners deal with violations of the agreement? Does the Minister believe that a joint committee mechanism of which Iran is a member will be reliable for dealing with such violations? What mechanisms will be in place to quickly reimpose, or snap back, biting sanctions if necessary? What would be the threshold for snapping back EU sanctions? Is there a threshold, or would one follow political negotiation? Will the Government reaffirm that all options ultimately remain on the table to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, should it try to do so in the future? Finally on the deal itself, every nuclear arms control agreement has included measures to control the means of delivery, so why does the current proposal lack a clause that deals with the issue?
I now want to raise some points about what will happen after the deal. We appear set to enter an agreement that, within 10 to 15 years, will allow Iran to reduce its breakout time to almost zero, according to President Obama. As the sanctions fall away, Iran will receive a huge economic and political boost, greatly empowering it in its ambitions to dominate the region. It is not surprising that that has united Israel and some Arab states in deep concern.
Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Of course the question has to be seen in the American, as well as the Israeli, geopolitical context. Does he agree, however, that the supreme leader, along with President Rouhani, would be better served by looking at Iran’s history? Great leaders from Persian history, such as King Darius
and King Cyrus, supported the return of Jews from Persia to Jerusalem and helped to pay for the building of the Temple. That is real leadership, and it shows how to live in peace with Israel, rather than threaten it.
Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North
I think Iran’s leaders would be better served by doing lots of things differently. I hesitate to use the words “wishful thinking”, but I am not sure how much confidence we can have that Iran’s present leadership will embark on the course of action that the hon. Gentleman has set out.
There is real concern right across the region that others—first and foremost, Saudi Arabia—will use the next 10 to 15 years to catch up with Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al-Faisal said recently:
“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have, too.”
What will the UK and its allies do to reassure states in the region that they will deter Iran from breaking out to a bomb and, therefore, dissuade others from trying to match Iranian capabilities, creating a cascade of proliferation across the region?
There is also real concern that Iran will use its strengthened economic and political position to expand its existing destabilising activities. The country is shipping rockets to Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza strip and paying them to fire those rockets at Israel. It is also shipping rockets to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which now has 100,000 rockets aimed at Israel. In addition, it is shipping weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen, propping up Assad in Syria and expanding its attempt to dominate a Shi’a-controlled Iraq. It is worth recalling that Hezbollah, which answers to the Iranian regime, is also guilty of murderous attacks on European soil. Just this week, a Hezbollah operative was convicted in Cyprus and sentenced to six years’ imprisonment for planning an attack against Israeli targets there.
Will the Minister tell us what discussions the Government are having with our US and EU allies and with friends in the region, including the Gulf states, Egypt, Jordan and Israel, about how to contain an Iran that will be unbound by this deal? How does the UK plan to work with its allies to deter Iran from pursuing more destabilising behaviour? In the short term, the deal is likely to grant Iran an immediate bonus, which could amount to up to $50 billion, as a result of the lifting of sanctions. How will the Government ensure that that money is not used to increase Iranian insurgent activities in Syria, Iraq and Yemen or to continue supporting and arming Hezbollah and Hamas? What conditions will the agreement place on the use of those assets?
It is particularly disgraceful that Iranian leaders have repeated open calls for the destruction of Israel. That includes the supreme leader, in November last year, tweeting a nine-point plan for Israel’s elimination. Will the Minister assure us that the tone of relations between this country and Iran will reflect the deep distaste we have for such rhetoric and for Iran’s general approach to the region? Finally, will he give a commitment that the UK will continue to enhance its strategic co-operation with Israel against shared threats, including Iranian behaviour?
I have put lots of questions to the Minister, and I appreciate that the debate taking place in the main Chamber means that he is having to deal with a policy
area for which he is not personally and directly responsible, but I would be grateful if he could answer my questions either in the debate or, subsequently, in writing. If he would prefer, I would also be happy to table them as written questions.
Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing the debate. He made some important points, and I agree with everything he said. I also want to put on record my support for some of the questions he put to the Minister.
Iran has a distasteful track record of supporting states that have supported acts of terrorism. The supreme leader also has an unacceptable track record in terms of his behaviour towards the state of Israel. The hon. Gentleman was right to highlight Iran’s lack of transparency, its obfuscation and its intransigence on its nuclear programme. He was also right to highlight the fact that the supreme leader’s attitude has become more hard-line in recent months. Similarly, he was right to highlight the fact that a deal for a deal’s sake is no good for the middle east or the world as a whole. It is also no good in terms of the precedent it would set regarding attitudes in this country and more broadly, including in the United Nations, towards other extremist and potentially dangerous states in the middle east and elsewhere.
It is therefore important that Britain continues to support the right deal, and we had reassurances on that in the debate a few weeks ago from the Minister with responsibility for the middle east. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe is responding to the debate today, because he always speaks wisely and with great experience and knowledge of issues not only in Europe, but more broadly. I am sure he will be able to give us further reassurances that the Government will ensure that the right deal is sought and that Iran is held properly to account, so that it will want to show greater transparency in dealing with its nuclear programme in future. That should be an absolute precondition of a deal.
It is important to look at some of the background to not only the debate, but the behaviour that Iran has exhibited on nuclear weapons over the past few years. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany put together a provisional package of outline measures, through which a future deal on Iran’s nuclear programme should be looked at. The deadline for coming to an agreement was 30 June. It would be interesting to get an update from the Minister on what has taken place on putting together a firmer deal on the basis of the outline in principle that was put in place earlier this year.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that there are long-standing UN concerns about ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is legitimately peaceful and for civilian purposes before the country can be considered a normal non-nuclear-weapons state. In June, the EU said no deal should be put in place with Iran without a proper UN probe into the country’s nuclear capabilities. We have already heard from the hon. Member for Dudley North that the IAEA has long suspected Iran of conducting nuclear tests with the strong possibility of military intentions. In November 2014, Mr Amano, its director general, called on Iran to increase its co-operation with the IAEA and to provide timely, appropriate and transparent access to documentation, sites, materials and all other aspects of its nuclear programme. However, Iran has repeatedly refused to allow inspectors access to key nuclear sites. That is a matter of continuing concern, which undoubtedly led to today’s debate. I hope that the Minister will talk about that.
The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), has said, in explaining the Government’s position, that they will not do a bad deal with Iran, and will only do a deal that provides assurances about the peaceful nature of Iran’s programme. Previous assurances have been welcome, but what can my right hon. Friend the Minister of State add today, particularly in view of an escalation in Iran’s behaviour in the past few weeks?
I have several points to make about that and in particular about Iran’s intransigent behaviour in June. Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader, said in June 2015:
“Inspection of our military sites is out of the question and is one of our red lines”.
He also said in May:
“No inspection of any military site and interview with nuclear scientists will be allowed. The enemies should know that the Iranian nation and officials will by no means give in to excessive demands and bullying.”
There has, furthermore, been escalation through the Iranian Parliament. In June 2015, Iranian lawmakers passed legislation to deny IAEA inspectors crucial access to military sites to verify the country’s nuclear activities. In particular, the legislation sets out criteria that any nuclear deal must meet, and I want to mention two points. First, it states:
“Access to all documents, scientists and military/security sites…is forbidden under any pretext”.
Secondly, it states:
“No limit will be accepted on Iran acquiring peaceful nuclear knowledge and technology and the materials required for research and development”.
Those are clearly worrying developments, which have happened only in the past few weeks. I should be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts about the impact they will have on any future agreement and for his reassurance that we will not push for a deal for a deal’s sake—that we will ensure that any deal is the right one for the middle east and for world stability.
It is worth highlighting the UK’s role, which is to the credit of the Government. It is right that, as a permanent member of the Security Council, the UK has played a leading role in the international community’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue. The UK has tirelessly pressed Iran to respond to international concerns about its nuclear activities, even unilaterally imposing an unprecedented series of sanctions against Iran for its continued non-compliance. The British Government now stand to play a decisive part, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree, in shaping the terms of a final nuclear agreement with Iran. They must, however, ensure that it is the right one. I look forward to hearing the Minister reassure the House on that.
I want to pick up two points from the outline principles of agreement set out earlier in the year. They relate in particular to research and development capacity, which is vital, given the rapid progress of science and technology research in the past few years in all areas, including nuclear. The pace of change is rapidly increasing, and when we do not have enough transparency now—inspectors are not allowed access to documentation, military sites or scientists, so it is difficult to get a proper understanding of the current research base in Iran and the current state of affairs—it is all the more important to have more transparency, to inform any future, firm agreement with Iran, and to ensure that the agreement is future-proofed, not set in stone. If there are future developments in research and technology and in capability using centrifuges or other nuclear research areas, future-proofing would allow proper inspections and transparency, and action to be taken if behaviour or research supported military rather than civilian purposes in any way. I hope that the Minister will reassure me and the House that such future-proofing will be a key component of any final deal.
I hope I have made some important points about how the Iranian Parliament’s legislative proposals and the supreme leader’s attitude escalate matters, and about the need to future-proof against scientific and technological advances if any deal is to work. Further reassurance is needed about vital issues. I look forward to the Minister’s reassurance that the UK Government will take a robust line on the escalation in Iranian rhetoric and continue in their right course of holding Iran to account for failing to enter into meaningful negotiations. I hope he will also reassure us that, given the lack of transparency and the IAEA not being allowed access to documents, scientists and military sites, we can future-proof any agreement, particularly with regard to science and technological development as it affects nuclear technology, including centrifuges, that could be used for military purposes.
Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for obtaining the debate.
The Prime Minister said of Iran in 2012:
“The Regime’s claim that its nuclear programme is intended purely for civilian purposes is not remotely credible.”
I am not convinced that too much has changed since. The Iranians still do not allow IAEA inspectors to see sites or to see what centrifuges there are. How many do they have? What are their intentions? It is a simplistic thing to say, but if their intentions are honourable and they have nothing to hide, why do they not let the inspectors in to see exactly what they are doing? I do not make any apologies for that simple question.
I agreed entirely with what the hon. Member for Dudley North said about claims that the only alternative to an agreement is war. He rightly said that is nonsense, and I would turn it around. If we—the international community—sign a flawed agreement with Iran, that will most definitely lead to war, for the simple reason that Iran will produce a nuclear weapon. Many of the states in the middle east—not just Israel—will want to follow suit, and all that we will have will be a huge proliferation of nuclear weapons in the middle east. Are we all, including the Americans, going to sit back and let that happen, when the Iranian President still will not recognise the state of Israel, and would prefer it to be written off the face of the map? What sort of language is that, and what sort of world are we living in?
I said in a Westminster Hall debate last week—on 16 June, at column 14WH—that it is dangerous when a US President is coming to the end of his second term of office and is looking for a legacy. It may be simple to sign up to a legacy having reached an agreement with Iran, but if that is not worth the paper it is written on—and it probably will not be—the approach is wrong. I have great respect for the Minister, for our British Government and Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and for all the work that we do around the world, but we must keep our eyes absolutely open. Iran has form on this issue, going all the way back to 2004. While Iran was busy negotiating an agreement with the EU, that allowed it more time to carry on producing more enriched uranium. That is the whole game, and it is why this debate is timely.
We must pause until we can be certain that we have an agreement under which we can go in and see the facilities, completely unfettered. It is absolutely right, if Iran wants to further its nuclear power, that it should be allowed to do so—I would be the first to say so—but I find it difficult to believe that that much uranium is being enriched just for a nuclear programme. That is where we are all being far too naive. I look forward to hearing the Minister and the shadow Minister sum up this debate; I do not think there will be many political differences between them. In my view, we must not have any political differences on this issue. If we are to be taken seriously by the Iranians and sort out the situation, we must present a united front to them.
Before any agreement is signed, we need to get into Iran to see what is being produced and ensure that it is being used for civilian purposes and nuclear power, not weapons. I repeat what I said at the beginning: if we do not get this right, we will regret it, because it will lead to huge problems and action will have to be taken. We in the international community must decide whether to sign a flawed agreement, brush everything under the carpet and allow Iran to increase its amount of enriched uranium—which will lead eventually, in however many years, to a nuclear weapon—or take more action now, however uncomfortable it might be, to sort out the situation so that we do not find ourselves in that position further down the road.
We must also be careful about ISIL, those dreadful people who are committing huge acts of terrorism and atrocities across the region. Again, whatever co-operation with the Iranians there may or may not be, we must not let that cloud the issue or the need to take firm action. I have every faith in our Minister. I am sure that he can sort out the whole situation, and I look forward to hearing him sum up.
Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this debate, which recognises the importance of the issue. This is the second time it has been debated in Westminster Hall in recent weeks.
I agree with a certain amount of what has been said. Of course we deplore the baiting of Israel by the Supreme Leader of Iran or any attempt to destabilise the region in whatever form, but I would strike a slightly less hawkish tone than we have heard so far. Developments, however small, are welcome. It is a live, ongoing negotiation process, and there is rhetoric on both sides while detailed negotiations go on. Some progress is probably better than no progress at all.
Diplomatic relations between Iran and the west have thawed in recent years, and this is a manifestation of it, starting most recently with the Lausanne agreement and the ongoing talks. We can see the election of President Rouhani, who spent considerable time in Glasgow, completing his doctorate there, as a demonstration of willingness to make at least some kind of progress. Iran has also indicated it might accept the additional protocol of the agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, which again suggests a certain willingness to engage.
The issue has important consequences for the wider region. If a peaceful agreement can be achieved between Iran and the western powers, that could well represent a model for future agreements elsewhere in the region. If Iran is respected and demonstrates that it can be trusted, where appropriate, we might see more peaceful and democratic negotiations and transitions in the region. The negotiation process represents an important opportunity to get things right, and perhaps to help not just the region but the whole world make progress on nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament—issues close to the heart of the Scottish National party.
We must consider the wider context of getting our own house in order when it comes to the messages that we send out from the United Kingdom with the decisions we make. The SNP is not ashamed to oppose the renewal of Trident and the existence of weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde or anywhere else in these islands. We are rightly opposed on moral and ethical grounds, because the destructive power of nuclear weapons and their ability to cause devastation and loss of life on an unimaginable scale is reason enough to scrap them wherever they exist. We are also opposed on the grounds of the cost and investment at this time of austerity. There is a consensus in Scotland that nuclear weapons should not be possessed by any country in the world: 57, not 56, of Scotland’s MPs agree. We will see where the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland goes when his party whips him on that.
There is also the question of nuclear power. Most people suggest that countries have a right to develop a peaceful civilian programme. Perhaps that is true—we would not have air conditioning today if it were not for a base-load provided by nuclear power stations—but the trend in this part of the world has been away from nuclear generation and towards renewables and so on. If we do not want other countries to develop civilian nuclear programmes, maybe we need to provide them with support for alternatives. Solar power is certainly not lacking in the parts of the world that we are debating. Perhaps that is a small example, but it goes to my wider point: as is so often the case, we must get our own house in order. The United Kingdom must lead by example. What right, moral or political, do we have to dictate terms to other countries if we are not prepared to apply the same standards to ourselves?
In welcoming the progress made diplomatically, I look forward to an update on where the negotiations are, and I encourage the Government to lead by example—not just in the negotiations as part of the western grouping, but in considering the impact of their domestic decisions in the areas of nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)
No, I am just finishing. I encourage the Government to work ultimately towards a world that is both peaceful and nuclear-free.
Pat McFadden Labour, Wolverhampton South East
Thank you for your chairmanship, Sir David, as we debate a hot topic on a hot day. I pay tribute to my parliamentary neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) for securing this debate. I know that he cares deeply about the middle east and international stability and is hugely concerned about the issue. I also thank the hon. Members for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) for their contributions.
The House debated this matter just a couple of weeks ago. I think that this debate might have been intended to reflect on an agreement that had been reached, having been secured before we knew that the deadline for agreement would be put back for a further week from 30 June. The timing of the negotiations may also be affected by deadlines in the United States, because if an agreement is not reached before 10 July the period for Congress to review and debate such an agreement lengthens considerably. I hope the Minister agrees that it is important that negotiation on substance is not sacrificed to timetables set elsewhere.
Before discussing the detail of any agreement, I ask the Minister to outline in his response the basic purpose of such an agreement from the Government’s point of view. The whole point of this process when it began was to test the thesis that Iran has advanced for the past decade or more—namely, that it is pursuing a civil nuclear programme. It denied that it wanted to develop a nuclear bomb. Is the point of the agreement with Iran still based on that notion—that it should facilitate a civil nuclear programme, but prevent a military one?
The Minister may be aware that The Washington Post said recently that
“a process that began with the goal of eliminating Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons has evolved into a plan to tolerate and temporarily restrict that capability.”
If the ground has been moved in such a fundamental way, that is important. Is the purpose of the agreement to stop the development of military nuclear capability in Iran or merely to suspend and restrict it for a number of years? In other words, is the purpose of the agreement to keep Iran as a nuclear threshold power for the period the agreement lasts? That is the first point I want to address.
Then, of course, there are key issues of detail between the parties. We keep hearing the phrase that a bad deal is worse than no deal, and it is on the key measures that a judgment will be made. There is a lot of detail in the agreement; the Minister will be relieved to hear that I do not want to ask about every part of it. However, there are a few key issues to consider.
First, there is the issue of inspection and verification; whatever is agreed, those elements are absolutely vital. The purpose of agreement on them is that commitments can be verified and that there can be no covert breaking of the terms of the deal. We understand that the International Atomic Energy Agency will be granted access to nuclear sites in Iran, but there is still the important question of military and other sites. Iran has argued that the request for unfettered access to those sites would be a breach of sovereignty that no state would tolerate, but trust is absolutely crucial on this point. On what basis, if any, will inspections of non-nuclear sites be allowed? It is important that the House is aware of the Government’s position on this issue.
Secondly, there is a range of issues around capability, including centrifuges, research and development, and the quantity and quality of enriched uranium. This House can often become very focused when we discuss issues such as the number of centrifuges, but once again the agreement seems to have moved around on this point. There seems to have been an escalation in the number of centrifuges that Iran will be allowed to keep. We have heard figures of 1,500, 2,000, 5,000 and even 6,000.
The fundamental point, however, is not only the number of centrifuges but what it tells us about capability. What will happen to the centrifuges that Iran is allowed to keep in the future? There are centrifuges that Iran currently possesses that will not be included in the agreement, so how will they be monitored? How will we continue to monitor the capability that Iran will have after whatever number of centrifuges is agreed?
On research and development, the agreement seeks to freeze nuclear capacity for 10 years. If the goal is to stop Iran from becoming a military nuclear power, why only 10 years? Why not longer? Is there not a logical flaw in placing a time limit on a capability that Iran denies wanting to have in the first place?
There is also the issue of the enriched uranium that has already been developed. What will happen to it, and how will that be monitored? Also on capability, what of the heavy water plant at Arak, which my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North referred to, or the other facilities whose existence has only reluctantly and sometimes belatedly been acknowledged by Iran? How will we ensure that the capacity in these facilities to produce plutonium for potential military uses is permanently decommissioned? Can the Minister tell the House what is intended to happen to this capacity under the agreement and how we can ensure that it will be followed through?
The capability issues come together in the concept of breakout time, which my hon. Friend also referred to. That is the time needed for Iran to develop a weapon in the event of the failure of the agreement, and the withdrawal of inspection and monitoring facilities. Can the Minister tell the House what the view of the P5+1 is on the issue of breakout time? Is breakout time a matter of capability, or a matter of time? Have we put a time on it? There has been talk of six months, or a year. My hon. Friend quoted President Obama, who said the period could be even shorter. The issue of breakout time is absolutely crucial to the future of the agreement.
Finally, on the agreement itself there is the issue of sanctions. Iran is at the negotiating table because it wants sanctions to be lifted. Throughout this process, facilities have been discovered whose existence had not been previously admitted; uranium has been enriched beyond the levels needed for civilian use; and Iran has continued to sponsor client groups in the region, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, as my hon. Friend pointed out. It is little wonder that in this environment trust is in short supply. Does the Minister agree that calls by Iran for sanctions to be lifted as soon as an agreement is signed should be resisted? If an agreement is reached, would it not be much more appropriate for there to be a phased lifting of sanctions alongside verifiable compliance by Iran with the commitments it has made under the agreement?
Of course, there are advantages for the world if Iran co-operates with the rest of the world, but that co-operation cannot simply be taken on trust. Trust has to be built and earned, and that means a phased rather than an immediate lifting of sanctions. On the sanctions point, of course, there is the concept of “snapback”, as President Obama has put it. What arrangements will be put in place for sanctions to be restored quickly if Iran does not adhere to the commitments it has made?
A good agreement with Iran, which prevents an escalation to nuclear military capability and brings it more into the international community, would be a good thing. But a bad agreement, which was either not capable of being properly enforced or which simply delayed capability for a few years as a trade-off for the lifting of sanctions, would be a bad deal for the P5+1, the region and the world.
I would like the Minister to tell the House what the process will be here in Parliament to examine an agreement, if one is reached. We debate here—Westminster Hall is not exactly crowded today—but this issue is fundamental for our security. What will be the parliamentary process for considering an agreement if one is reached in the coming days?
To conclude, it is impossible to discuss this matter without considering it in the context of Iran’s wider role in the middle east. What are the implications of an agreement for the sponsorship of proxies, which Iran continues to engage in, and for Iran’s wider regional struggle with Saudi Arabia? The Minister will be aware of the statement from Prince Turki al-Faisal, which was quoted by my hon. Friend. The prince said:
“Whatever the Iranians have, we will have too.”
If that is the case, what would this agreement mean for nuclear capability in the rest of the region and, equally importantly, what would be the implications of a failure to reach agreement? If the west is to lift sanctions as a result of the agreement, how do we also influence Iran’s wider role in the region? How do we give assurance to other allies in the middle east, who fear a more assertive Iran and that the agreement will not constrain and influence Iran but simply empower it through the lifting of sanctions?
This discussion is not only about the technicalities of centrifuges, inspections and quantities of yellowcake; it is also about whether Iran is really serious about adopting a different role in the region, and a wider role than the one it has pursued in recent years. The rhetoric that comes from the top of the regime continues to be belligerent, to call for the annihilation of the state of Israel and to cause huge concern, even among our non-Israeli allies in the region. If we get an agreement, it is important not only that it is the right one in terms of security, but that it has a positive effect on the wider issues in the middle east.
David Lidington The Minister for Europe
I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr Amess. I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) and for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) for their contributions, and the two Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen for theirs.
It will be no surprise that I am unable to speculate about quite a few details, because negotiations are continuing in Vienna today. Although all questions asked during the debate were perfectly reasonable, many can only be answered if and when there is a final agreement between the E3+3 and Iran. At present, there is an interim agreement—the so-called Lausanne parameters—and ongoing negotiations. The Foreign Secretary is in Vienna today to take forward conversations with the Iranian negotiators, having met his five counterparts a few days ago.
I can tell the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) that throughout this process, which it is fair to say has commanded broadly bipartisan support under successive Governments, Foreign Office Ministers have sought to keep Parliament informed about negotiations, and we will certainly continue to do so. I expect that, in the event of a final agreement being reached, a statement to Parliament will be made by the Foreign Secretary or another Minister, so that Members have the chance to see the detail of what was agreed.
When we and our E3+3 partners and Iran agreed the key parameters for a comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme on 2 April, we set ourselves a deadline for reaching a final deal. That deadline passed on Tuesday, as hon. Members mentioned, without an agreement being reached, but that does not mean that the process has definitively ended in failure. It demonstrates our resolve not to be hurried into an unsatisfactory agreement on the substance, including on the vital technical details—I accept what Members from all parties said about consideration of the technical details being essential to any judgment about the nature of a final deal, should one be secured. It is important that all sides have the assurances they need and that we get those details right. We have to be confident that any deal is verifiable, durable and addresses our concerns fully. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman: substance is the key to this, not any particular question of timing.
All parties remain committed to achieving a deal. Nobody wants another long extension, so the interim agreement—the joint plan of action—has been extended for seven days to allow negotiations to continue.
Just over two weeks ago, the House debated these issues, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), replied on behalf of the Government. I have picked up from this debate, as I did from the record of the previous one, that hon. Members in various political parties are concerned about the detail and worry that Iran might be granted too many concessions.
Although I cannot give a running commentary on the detail of the negotiations, I reiterate my strongest possible assurance on behalf of the whole Government that we will not do a bad deal. Any deal must achieve the Government’s prime objective of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. That means more than just a verbal or written commitment: it means the inclusion of detailed undertakings by Iran that are sufficient to give us confidence that their nuclear programme will be entirely peaceful. Anything less is completely unacceptable.
We have an historic opportunity to find a solution to a long-standing source of tension, instability and global concern that, if unresolved, will undoubtedly threaten our security and that of our partners. In a week when we have seen tragic violence and bloodshed in the wider region, we should reflect on how much progress we have made towards reaching a solution through peaceful, diplomatic and negotiated means. A great deal is at stake—for this country, for our partners and for the people of Iran.
Let me give a bit more detail on the parameters within which we hope to agree a deal and its implications for Iran, for the region, and for the UK. In addressing the Lausanne parameters, I hope that I will answer at least some of the questions and concerns raised during this debate.
The parameters for a deal agreed in Lausanne are a sound basis for what could be a very good deal that is durable, verifiable and addresses our concerns about proliferation. Under the Lausanne interim agreement, Iran’s enrichment capacity, enrichment level and enriched uranium stockpile would all be limited, and the facility at Natanz would be Iran’s sole location for enrichment.
Hon. Members mentioned research and development capability. Iran’s research and development on centrifuges will be carried out under the Lausanne parameters, based on mutually agreed details relating to scope and schedule. When I say “mutually agreed”, I mean agreed not just by Iran, but by Iran and the six international partners with whom it is negotiating. The Lausanne deal also requires the Arak heavy water research reactor to be redesigned and modernised to exclude production of weapons-grade plutonium. Taken together, these measures will ensure that Iran’s break-out time—the time taken to produce sufficient fissile material for a nuclear device, should Iran ever attempt to do so—will be extended to at least 12 months.
A robust and credible regime for monitoring compliance by Iran will be put in place under the Lausanne parameters. Iran would need to implement the modified code 3.1 and the additional protocol to the comprehensive safeguards agreement. The International Atomic Energy Agency must be able to use the best modern monitoring technologies and have enhanced access to sites to make sure that if Iran ever tried to break out towards a nuclear weapon, the international community would be alerted and have sufficient time to respond.
Neil Parish Conservative, Tiverton and Honiton
What faith have we that this agreement, which should deal with enhanced access to nuclear sites in Iran, will happen? We have had agreements like this before, but still have not had access to the sites.
David Lidington The Minister for Europe
I want to say a little bit more about access in a few moments, but to answer my hon. Friend directly, questions about access and verification lie at the heart of the detailed negotiations going on today. Unless we and our partners are satisfied that the IAEA will have the access that it believes it needs, there will not be a final agreement.
Daniel Poulter Conservative, Central Suffolk and North Ipswich
My right hon. Friend’s considered, helpful response is shedding perhaps greater light on the issues than we had in the previous debate. On access, is it not difficult to understand what is being negotiated if there has not been transparency about exactly what the situation is on the ground and what access there is to the scientists? Should there not be some level of access first, before the final details of the negotiation are put to bed?
David Lidington The Minister for Europe
I promise my hon. Friend that I will come to the point he raised on access to scientists a little later in my remarks. All the questions about access and the sequencing of access are precisely the subject of the negotiations that Foreign Ministers are pursuing this afternoon in Vienna.
So far as sanctions are concerned, the position under Lausanne is that once the IAEA has verified that Iran has taken all the agreed actions on its nuclear programme—and only at that point—Iran will receive phased sanctions relief, including comprehensive relief from economic and financial sanctions. The interim plan provides for proliferation-related measures to remain in place until the international community has confidence in the peaceful nature of Iran’s programme. Importantly, Iran will remain bound by its non-proliferation treaty obligations both during and after a deal. We will not hesitate to take action, including through the re-imposition of sanctions, if Iran at any time violates its obligations under a comprehensive deal. To respond to the shadow Minister, one thing we and our partners are discussing is how to devise the mechanism for the snapback of sanctions in the event that Iran breaks from the terms of a deal that it has agreed. Obviously any final agreement will contain far more detail than I am able to set out today, but we are confident that a deal within the Lausanne framework will achieve what we set out to do.
Turning to some of the questions raised in the debate, the hon. Member for Dudley North asked about the joint committee. The joint committee mechanism would be set up only in the wake of a deal. It would be a format within which issues relating to the implementation of the agreement could be discussed by all parties together. It would be a deliberative forum. The political reality is that Iran would be present along with the six negotiating partners. One may want to be very pessimistic and say that the six will not be able to maintain solidarity—so far, there has been a very good working relationship among the three EU members, the United States, Russia and China, but were something to go wrong, it would remain the reality that the three European countries and the United States would constitute a majority on the joint committee.
On access, it is essential that the IAEA is able as part of any agreement to verify all of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments, including through access to relevant locations. That must include robust monitoring of Iran’s nuclear activities and how it implements the additional protocol, which it will need to sign up to once again as part of any agreement. Under a comprehensive agreement, Iran, by implementing the additional protocol to the NPT, will provide the IAEA with substantial access to its declared nuclear facilities. Also, under the additional protocol the IAEA can request access to any location in Iran that it chooses, including non-declared and military sites. For a comprehensive agreement to be credible, we will need to ensure that the IAEA can obtain that access. It needs to be more than just words on paper. The detail of how we can ensure confidence in the IAEA having the access it believes it needs is central to the ongoing negotiations.
If Iran implements the additional protocol, the IAEA will have additional rights to information on and access to the entire Iranian fuel cycle, including uranium mines and some parts of the centrifuge production process. That will clearly give the IAEA a better understanding of Iran’s nuclear fuel cycle and make the diversion of nuclear materials more difficult than it has been.
The question on access to scientists, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, relates to what is sometimes termed the possible military dimension of Iran’s programme. The IAEA is keen to see that addressed. The six and Iran agree that the resolution of outstanding issues remains essential, particularly those related to the possible military dimensions, or PMD, of the Iranian nuclear programme. The completion of measures to address the IAEA’s concerns over PMD will constitute one of the set of “key nuclear-related actions” that Iran must complete following agreement at Lausanne of the joint comprehensive plan of action. The IAEA director-general has been careful to separate the talks taking place under the framework for co-operation signed by the IAEA and Iran on 11 November 2013 from the E3+3 process. He has said that he hoped they would be mutually beneficial, and we continue to share that view.
Iran will need to address the IAEA’s concerns about the possible military dimensions of its programme, regardless of the outcome of the E3+3 talks and any joint comprehensive plan of action. We note and are disappointed by the extremely limited progress on PMD reported by the IAEA in its board report of 29 May. We continue to give our full support to the IAEA, which has continued to engage with Iran at short notice and has tried to demonstrate maximum flexibility on what it sees as the essential need to get to the bottom of the PMD question.
Concerns were expressed about whether a time-limited agreement could be a problem, because Iran might just massively expand its nuclear programme once the period of the agreement expired. The key point to make is that a comprehensive deal would lead to significantly increased transparency, in particular through the implementation of the additional protocol and modified code 3.1, and those measures do not expire at the end of any deal; they are permanent and will ensure that Iran’s programme remains transparent and subject to verification by the IAEA, providing reassurance to the international community about the peaceful nature of that programme. Iran remains bound by its NPT obligations during and after any deal. The deal is attractive to Iran because of the huge economic benefits it would bring, and that gives it a significant incentive to keep its nuclear programme exclusively peaceful. I said that we will not hesitate to take action, including through the reimposition of sanctions, if Iran violates its NPT obligations at any time. Our hope is that the implementation of a comprehensive agreement, with all the benefits that that would bring to the people of Iran, would mean that the Iranian Government would not wish to take such a step.
A nuclear deal would also make a significant contribution to regional stability. It goes without saying that the alternatives to a diplomatic settlement are a nuclear-armed Iran or a military confrontation aimed at stopping its nuclear programmes. Those would be terrible outcomes for the region at large. If Iran had or was believed to have nuclear weapons, the risk of a nuclear arms race in the middle east would be serious indeed. By contrast, a deal that ensured that the Iranian programme was exclusively peaceful would have a significant positive regional impact. Improved trust and confidence could go a long way in easing the tensions of a volatile and dangerous region.
At the same time, we completely understand that Israel and our partners in the Gulf have concerns. To them we say, as we have said consistently: we do not want and will not do a bad deal. We will only do a deal that provides assurances about the peaceful nature of Iran’s programme. Securing such a deal, if it is indeed attainable, is inherently better than the alternatives.
Our relationships with our partners in the region—our commitment to talking to them and keeping them up to date with our views and the progress of the talks—will remain. We will not turn a blind eye to Iran’s destabilising actions in the region, but we will work both with our partners and Iran to support and encourage in the Iranian Government a more constructive regional attitude. By reaching a nuclear deal, Iran can start to show willing, and it can show us that it is willing to work towards solutions to regional challenges.
On the bilateral relationship, a comprehensive deal would bring potential benefits to the UK as well as to Iran. If—I say “if”—Iran not only strikes a deal but adheres to its commitments and so sanctions are lifted, the Government will help British business in whatever way they can to take advantage of the resulting opportunities and to promote trade and investment between the two countries. A functioning British embassy in Tehran would be an important part of the Government’s role. We have been clear from the start that the reopening of our embassy is not dependent on a nuclear agreement, and we remain committed to reopening it as soon as we have resolved some outstanding issues relating to the practical functioning of the mission.
Sending our diplomats back to Tehran would not, however, mean setting aside all differences with Iran. We continue to disagree on a number of core topics, not least Iran’s record on human rights and approach to regional stability. Nevertheless, an embassy in Tehran would allow us to engage the Government and people of Iran on a full spectrum of issues, just as we do in many other countries around the world with whose Governments we also have profound disagreements. Increased dialogue is in our mutual interests and the only way to move forward.
We have the opportunity to settle one of the most complex foreign policy problems of our time. To have got even this far is a remarkable achievement and a testament to the dedication, perseverance and creativity of diplomats and officials from all sides, including Iran. It demonstrates what can be achieved when we allow the time and space to settle differences through diplomatic means. There is an historic opportunity for Iran, the region and the international community, but we cannot and will not make a deal at any price. An agreement is worth having only if it delivers our key objective of ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme can only ever be peaceful, and it must deliver that outcome in a credible, verifiable way.
We face some difficult discussions in the coming hours and days, and, whatever the outcome in Vienna, we will continue to have our differences with Iran on regional issues and human rights. However, a deal within the parameters agreed in Lausanne remains the best way to secure the assurances we seek on Iran’s nuclear programme—the best way for Britain, the region and the global community.
Ian Austin Labour, Dudley North
I apologise to you, Sir David, for getting your title wrong at the beginning of the debate.
I am grateful to all the Members who have taken part today. The Minister was presented with a lot of questions and I am grateful to him for the answers he gave. I particularly welcome his assurances that we will not do a bad deal, that we will not make a deal at any price and that we will not turn a blind eye to Iran’s destabilising of the region. I am grateful for the contributions made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden), and by the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton, for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady).
That said, I want to make one point, which was the reason why I tried to intervene on the hon. Member for Glasgow North right at the end of his speech. I do not accept at all the argument that there is some sort of moral equivalence between us in the west and the Iranian leadership, nor do I accept his argument about getting our own house in order before we can comment on what the Iranians are trying to do. The truth is that Britain’s nuclear stance has not changed for 50 years. We are not promoting a radical anti-western ideology. We are not threatening to destroy other states. The issue is Iran, which, uniquely, signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, broke all its provisions with a secret nuclear weapons programme, and was caught red-handed on two occasions.
I must also say that we are not an autocratic dictatorship—1,200 people have been executed under Rouhani’s supposedly moderate leadership. We do not arrest journalists, bloggers and political activists and lock them up for years on end and we do not threaten to wipe other countries off the face of the Earth. It is utterly ludicrous to compare the Iranian regime with western democracies and say that we have to get our house in order before we can comment.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Iranian nuclear programme.