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Backbench Business — Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:26 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Guto Bebb Guto Bebb Conservative, Aberconwy 1:26 pm, 6th November 2014

It is a pleasure to follow Ms Abbott, who made a thoughtful speech. I associate myself with her comments, and those of Mr Slaughter about his constituent, which I think the whole House will endorse.

This is another debate that highlights the importance of the Backbench Business Committee, and I congratulate Mr Straw and my hon. Friend Mr Bacon on securing it. As a Welsh non-conformist, however, I might be slightly more cynical about the concept of a state-sponsored religion—something that we dispensed with at the end of the first world war in a Welsh context.

This is an important debate, and we heard a superb contribution from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is no longer in his place. It is important that the context for this debate includes that Committee’s report, which was published in June, and I argue that it is essential reading for anybody who takes an interest in the middle east.

This is undoubtedly an interesting time in the middle east. It is a period of huge unrest in the region, and it is right for us to discuss the UK’s position on Iran. There is no doubt that the way the whole western world has been almost traumatised by the development of ISIS has led to a discussion about how Iran can be brought back into the fold. However, although we might see the possibilities of working with Iran in the context of what is happening in Iraq, the situation is much more complex than that. In Syria, Iran is supporting elements that the UK Government would not be keen to support, and our support for the democratic statelet of Kurdistan within Iraq can be contrasted with the way that the Kurdish minority in Iran is treated. The complexities of the situation must be understood. We should be aware of the dangers of starting to argue the case on the basis of the old saying, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is important not to fall into that trap because time and again, history has shown that such an approach to international politics never leads to a good result.

This debate has rightly highlighted the many concerns held by hon. Members about Iran’s human rights record. I accept entirely the point that the human rights records of many states in the middle east leave a lot to be desired, but two wrongs do not make a right. The fact that we deal with allies in the middle east that have atrocious human rights records does not mean that we should forgive or forget the human rights situation in Iran. The report by the Foreign Affairs Committee stated clearly:

“No concessions should be made on human rights in the interests of making progress in negotiations in other fields.”

The Committee is not arguing that there should be no progress in other fields, but we should not turn a blind eye to Iran’s human rights record.

My hon. Friend Mr Hollobone spoke passionately and correctly about concerns in Israel, not least about the support given by Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas. It is difficult to deny that the strategic threat to Israel is not only the development of a nuclear capacity in Iran, but the daily threat faced by Israel from southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip. Clearly, there has been a degree of breach between Iran and Hamas, but the support to Hezbollah continues to be a strong element of Iranian foreign policy, which should concern anyone who wants a long-term settlement in the middle east, not least a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian entity.

There are human rights concerns with the Iranian regime, but there are also concerns with the regime’s ability to destabilise part of the middle east and other parts of the world by sponsoring terrorism. From a UK perspective, we cannot deny that the question we need to ask is this: would it be in the UK’s national interest for Iran to develop nuclear capacity? We need to address that key question. It is currently difficult to argue that stability in the middle east would be enhanced by Iran’s ability to develop nuclear capacity. It is striking that political leaders and leaders in other middle east countries have accepted the claimed nuclear capacity of Israel—I say “claimed” with a smile on my face, because all hon. Members recognise that Israel has a nuclear capacity. Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for example, have not said that they need nuclear capacity because Israel has nuclear capacity, but those states have made the argument strongly that, if Iran develops nuclear capacity, they would need to have a nuclear warhead. We should take that seriously if we are trying to bring stability to such an unstable part of the world.

The right hon. Member for Blackburn made the important point that a sovereign country such as Iran has every right to develop a civilian nuclear strategy. I believe very strongly in the UK developing and investing once more in our civilian nuclear capacity. As a north Wales Member, I am keen for the development of a second power station in Anglesey. It is very difficult to argue with that case. However, my support for a nuclear power station in Anglesey would be somewhat tempered were Wales sitting on the second largest gas reserves behind Russia’s. If Iran has such large gas reserves, why is civilian nuclear capacity so important to it? I accept that the right hon. Gentleman’s point is a fair one—a sovereign country has that right. Therefore, as an international community, we need to ensure a settlement that allows that civilian capacity to be developed, but with assurances that it will not lead to a military capacity, which would further destabilise the middle east.

We must question seriously whether Iran has moved sufficiently towards giving assurances on whether its intentions are peaceful. The Foreign Affairs Committee, which has looked at the issue in detail, concluded:

“There is no convincing explanation for why Iran might need for civil purposes the stocks of enriched uranium which it held in January 2014. We believe that the primary reason for Iran’s decision to build such a capacity to enrich uranium and to amass stocks to current levels was to give itself the option to develop a nuclear military capability.”

The FAC is not renowned for highlighting dangers that are not reasonably identified. We should pause to consider those words when we think about how we deal with the negotiations that are supposed to conclude by 24 November.

In 2012, the Prime Minister highlighted the fact that the Iranian regime is currently flouting six UN resolutions —1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835 and 1929. His statement was clear:

“The regime’s claim that its nuclear programme is intended purely for civilian purposes is not remotely credible.”

In view of the developments of the past few months, do we believe that those words are not relevant? If they are relevant, it is imperative that any developments are considered carefully, and that we have assurances that concessions made to Iran do not allow the development of a nuclear military capacity.

As I have said, it is expected or hoped that the P5 plus 1 negotiations will conclude by the end of November. I accept that there is a possibility of a breakthrough, but certain things must be guaranteed in any deal. The British Government should be clear that, in any agreement, we need to ensure that Iran’s ability to develop a military nuclear capacity is not enhanced. We should consider the number of centrifuges—2,000 should be a maximum but, currently, there are 18,000, and Iran claims the need for 10 times more. We need clarity on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering highlighted that sources in the middle east have identified that the stockpiles of enriched material were sufficient for six nuclear warheads. The point has been strongly and passionately made that one warhead would be enough to wipe Israel off the map. Would hon. Members be comfortable with such a development? What will be done to ensure that Iran’s stocks of enriched material are dealt with?

On the Iranian enrichment programme, it is important that the 3.5% level is monitored. Despite the best efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are concerns over whether the Iranian regime is co-operating fully. I argue that there is a need for full and immediate compliance with the IAEA on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme. Inspectors should be given unfettered access to Iranian military installations because, if the aim or intention is for a sovereign state to develop a civilian nuclear capacity, one must ask why the regime would be reluctant to allow such an investigation. An investigation would give confidence to the UK and other states that the Iranian regime’s intentions are not in any way militaristic.

We also know that the Iranian military has the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead not only on Israel, but on a significant portion of Europe. We need to ensure that any agreement that allows the development of a civilian capacity takes into account steps to ensure that that ballistic missile capacity is not a threat to any part of the middle east or Europe.

We should grasp the opportunity to ensure that the sanction regime is monitored carefully as part of an overall package that allows the development of civilian nuclear energy capacity in Iran. The opportunities of trade with Iran that hon. Members have highlighted are also important. I agree that trading relationships often lead to better political relations. The opportunity is there, but it is important that the House sends a clear message that we are dealing with a regime that does not have a track record of good will. In any agreement, we need certainty that a compromise is not conceded without due care and attention.