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Backbench Business — Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 12:02 pm on 6th November 2014.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Chair, House of Commons Governance Committee 12:02 pm, 6th November 2014

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was heavily involved after President Khatami reached out to the United States in the moment of need. Iran provided significant practical help, without which it would have been far more difficult to remove the Taliban and to retake Kabul. Iran got no thanks for that, however. It was unnecessarily rebuffed by the United States at the time, as it was during the 2003-05 nuclear negotiations. It was also rebuffed when it sought a comprehensive bargain with the west. I am afraid that that prospect was greeted in parts of the United States with suspicion. In my view, there was a worry that if a deal was struck that resulted in the normalisation of relations with Iran, the part of the American system—and, indeed, the part of the Israeli system—that always likes to define itself against some kind of enemy would have had that enemy removed.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the metrics of the middle east have all changed. The view of the Netanyahu Government in Israel, which is echoed by many in the United States Congress, is that Iran now poses an existential threat to the state of Israel because of the doubts as to whether Iran’s nuclear programmes have a military purpose. Those programmes are the subject of the intensive negotiations that will, we hope, have reached a satisfactory conclusion by 24 November.

As it was I, along with my French and German counterparts, who began the original E3 negotiations with Iran in 2003, I offer the following observations. Iran is not an easy country to negotiate with. That is partly due to cultural and linguistic problems and partly for historical reasons, but fundamentally it is a product of Iran’s complex and opaque governmental system, in which the elected President has constantly to broker decisions with unelected elements, including those in the Revolutionary Guards and those in the Supreme Leader’s office.

Unlike North Korea, which pulled out of the non-proliferation treaty, or India, Pakistan and Israel—all nuclear weapons states which have never accepted the treaty’s obligations—Iran has stayed within it. The treaty protects

“the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.

However, the treaty is silent on the question—critical to the outcome of the negotiations—of the enrichment of uranium. The Iranians claim a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and I hope the whole House will support them in that. The interim agreement signed last November explicitly recognised that.

The last set of negotiations, which took place between 2003 and 2005 and in which I was directly involved, ran into the ground. The Bush Administration had undermined the Khatami Administration through the “axis of evil” speech, and they did so again by refusing to offer Iran any confidence-building measures until it was too late. By that time, conservative forces in Iran had re-gathered their strength, with President Ahmadinejad the result.

When parliamentary colleagues and I met Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran in January this year, he pointed out that when I had been negotiating with him in 2005, Iran had fewer than 200 centrifuges. After eight years of sanctions, it now has 18,800. We should be careful what we wish for. The good news about the current round of negotiations is that both sides have kept them confidential. However, it is no secret that the Iranian Government cannot do a deal unless it includes a continuation of enrichment for peaceful purposes, and unless the scale of the programme allowed does not involve the Government having to make significant numbers of its scientists redundant.

The negotiations are predicated on the basis that, because of Iran’s past failures to make full disclosures to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there remain unanswered questions about the true intent of Iran’s nuclear programmes. None of us outside the inner workings of the Iranian Government can know for certain what this is. My own instinct is that after the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran probably did begin work on a nuclear weapons system. More recently, however, a 2007 US national intelligence estimate—which has been reconfirmed by the White House in the past two years—concluded that Tehran had halted nuclear weaponisation work in 2003. If that is the case, there is no reason why, with some flexibility on both sides, a deal should not be concluded. If that happens, the gradual lifting of sanctions—which Iran so desperately needs—will help to bring Iran back fully as a partner in the international community.