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Backbench Business — Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:37 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 1:37 pm, 6th November 2014

The House is sometimes criticised for not passing enough legislation and because the Government have allocated days for Backbench Business Committee business. This is a great example of a debate in which hon. Members can discuss a subject that we would not ordinarily discuss.

On 24 November 2013, it emerged that a deal had been reached between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council—the UK, the US, France, China and Russia—plus Germany. The deal was the outcome of years of negotiations behind the scenes and a decade of public diplomacy following the revelations that there was a wide-scale uranium enrichment programme in Iran. The P5 plus 1 countries and Iran concluded an interim six-month agreement known as the joint plan of action, which was intended to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions.

On 26 February this year, I led a Westminster Hall debate and raised the concerns of many people about the P5 plus 1 tacitly recognising Iran’s right to enrich uranium, which has been rejected by many people over the years. Another concern was releasing some of the Iran sanctions. As we anticipate the final deal at the end of the month, it is worth highlighting those concerns and the red lines that I believe need to be contained in any such deal.

The first issue is the length of time for which the deal will last, and the second is the basis on which agreement will be struck on Iran’s past nuclear capability. Only by adhering to strict limits on the nuclear programme for an extended period of time can Iran build up confidence that its nuclear activities will not be used for military purposes. The P5 plus 1 must seek an enduring deal that will last a considerable length of time—at least 20 years and possibly 30—to ensure a substantive change in Iran’s strategic conduct.

Reports already published indicate that Iran is pushing for a so-called “sunset clause”—for a deal to last only five years as an absolute maximum, after which it would expect to be treated as a normal signatory to the non-proliferation treaty. I have some concerns about that. Such a deal would probably cover only President Rouhani’s term of office, and the next President, or the next President’s successor, may have a completely different view of the subject, just as Ahmadinejad did. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister said in July 2014 that if Iran accepts a limit on its nuclear activities

“it will only be for a specific time frame, and temporary”.

Reports that the P5 plus 1 and Iran may settle on a duration as short as five to 10 years will do little to relieve my suspicions over Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions. It would be little more than a temporary reprieve of one of the world’s greatest security threats.

Iran must earn the right to be treated as a normal non-nuclear weapons state under the NPT through a tangible display of peaceful nuclear intentions for the duration of any long-term agreement. Indeed, the quarterly report by the International Atomic Energy Agency on Iran’s nuclear programme, which is due imminently—perhaps even as early as tomorrow—is likely to say that Iran has still not provided the information it was supposed to have provided more than two months ago. Since Rouhani became President, Iran has promised to work with the IAEA, but it has failed to address specific areas of the agency’s inquiry. It has long been clear that the IAEA’s inquiry into the possible military dimensions of Iran’s programme will not be completed before the target date for a deal. I had hoped for more headway by that time. The deal would require a robust system of inspection of Iran’s future and past nuclear activities to verify that it would adhere to the terms of any agreement and not attempt to break out.

The need for strict verification mechanisms is a product of Iran’s nuclear programme having a clandestine history, and it warrants higher levels of accountability than would be acceptable for others. Only the verification of Iran’s nuclear-related activities and the apparatus to enforce it will determine the lasting success of any permanent nuclear agreement. As my hon. Friend Guto Bebb said, without complete access to Iran’s full portfolio of declared and undeclared nuclear-related facilities, no amount of monitoring and inspection can provide the international community with true confidence that Iran does not possess a clandestine programme.

The second issue I wish to cover, which my hon. Friend also touched on, is the possible military dimension of a nuclear capability in Iran. One specific locale that is believed to be such a possible military dimension is the military base at Parchin, where the IAEA suspects Iran has attempted to develop a nuclear explosive device. IAEA inspectors have not been permitted to enter the site since 2005, but only a month ago a large explosion at the facility destroyed a number of buildings. The cause of the explosion is still not known. The IAEA has long suspected Iran of conducting tests there relating to the development of nuclear weapons, including on nuclear triggers and high explosives. In 2011, the organisation reported that

“such experiments would be strong indications of possible nuclear weapon development”.

Those suspicions have heightened in recent years, with satellite imagery indicating that Iran has undertaken a large-scale nuclear clean-up operation in the area—possible evidence of the removal of hazardous nuclear materials. Experts cite the removal of soil as recently as 2012 and subsequent asphalting of the specific place that the IAEA wants to inspect, as evidence of Iran’s efforts to hide potentially incriminating evidence of illicit nuclear-related experiments at Parchin.

Tehran rejects calls for access and claims it is a domestic military site that is used for research and development and the production of ammunition, rockets and high explosives. Even the White House acknowledges that Parchin is the one of the issues Tehran has to address to achieve a comprehensive agreement. Despite such concern from around the world, Iranian officials have stated that they will only allow minimal and managed access to the site if and when Iran decides to accept the additional protocol.

This causes me two concerns. First, such resistance calls into question Iran’s claim that it is entering into these nuclear talks in good faith, and its overall acceptance of making its nuclear programme more transparent. Secondly, it raises concerns about a deal on Iran’s nuclear capabilities being adhered to and properly implemented. If there is no effective monitoring verification before a deal, how can we know if it is being complied with?

Finally, there are three points relating to the UK’s role in the process that I want to mention to the Minister. First, as a member of the P5 plus 1, the UK Government have played a leading role in the international community’s handling of the Iranian nuclear issue and I commend them for that. Secondly, I congratulate the Government on pressing Iran to respond to international concerns over its nuclear activities, and even unilaterally imposing an unprecedented series of sanctions against Iran for its continued non-compliance. Thirdly, the UK Government now stand to play a decisive part in shaping the terms of a final nuclear agreement with Iran. We must ensure that any such deal is the right deal. Indeed, as my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway said, it not just any deal we need, but the right deal.