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I beg to move,
That this House
takes note of the following unnumbered European Union Documents concerning restrictive measures against Iran: a Council Decision (CFSP) 2015/1050 of
supports the Government’s view that, had the suspension of certain EU restrictive measures against Iran not been extended in the final stages of negotiations, the prospects for reaching an agreement would have been significantly diminished;
and agrees that the amendments to EU legislation to meet the obligations set out in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action contribute to ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.
Over four months have passed since the E3+3 and Iran reached agreement on the joint comprehensive plan of action and the historic deal that now imposes strict limits and inspections on Iran’s nuclear programme. During that time, there have been a number of important developments. In recent weeks, crucial steps have been taken to begin implementation of the agreement. Earlier, in the summer, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary marked another diplomatic breakthrough with Iran when he travelled to Tehran to reopen our embassy there. This is therefore a welcome opportunity to discuss the nuclear agreement with Iran. I am grateful to the European Scrutiny Committee for its recommendation that the House debate these matters and for its work in examining the many EU measures that relate to the negotiation and implementation of the deal.
The past few months have not been easy. The review processes in Washington and Tehran saw tough and impassioned debate. Opponents of the deal, on all sides, will continue to challenge it.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If I may, I will come on to the developments in the region and the wider E3+3 context later.
Crucially, we remain on track for successful implementation. The deal was adopted as planned on
Let us be in no doubt about the significance of successful implementation. An Iranian nuclear weapons capability would constitute a major threat to national, regional and global security. Full implementation of the agreement will remove that threat. Iran will grant the International Atomic Energy Agency unprecedented access so that it can verify compliance with the strict limits placed on Iran’s nuclear programme. Those limits mean that Iran’s break-out time to acquiring sufficient fissile material for a weapon will be at least one year for at least 10 years.
The UK, along with its E3+3 partners, played a crucial in more than a decade of negotiations to resolve this most challenging of issues. The UK is committed to playing its part in ensuring that a nuclear weapon will remain beyond Iran’s reach. I hope that the Government continue to enjoy support from both sides of the House in our efforts.
In recommending that this debate be held, the European Scrutiny Committee referred a number of different documents to the House. Given the time constraints, I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I give only a general description of them. Broadly speaking, they fall into three different categories. I will give an overview of each in turn.
When, in November 2014, the E3+3 and Iran agreed to continue negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme, the interim agreement—the joint comprehensive plan of action—was extended until
There were of course delays, but, as I have articulated, had we not taken the measures, and introduced and pursued the documents we are now discussing, we would not have kept Iran at the negotiating table, which it was important to do to get the result we now have.
I am not entirely clear about my hon. Friend’s answer to my hon. Friend Sir William Cash. Were there sensitivities prior to the agreement on
I do not believe that there was a delay in debating the matter in this House. I am delighted to be here today. I will certainly look at the detail of the point that my hon. Friend raises. I am articulating why there were delays and, indeed, extensions in the discussions and in the requirements for the documents to be in place in order to secure agreement with Iran.
Following the agreement of the joint comprehensive plan of action on
The final set of documents deals with the crucial matter of the implementation of EU commitments under the deal by providing the legal framework for the termination of the nuclear-related economic and financial EU sanctions on Iran. Those measures were passed on adoption day,
To conclude, I will emphasise three crucial points that are illustrated by the documents and their adoption. First, the documents highlight the importance of close engagement with our diplomatic partners. The success of the negotiations was based on strong co-operation among the E3+3. Maintaining the pressure and the effect of EU sanctions was vital to bring Iran to the negotiating table. That required the co-operation of all 28 member states. The smooth implementation of the agreement and robust enforcement of the sanctions that remain in place will require a similarly united effort in the coming months and years.
Secondly, by providing the opportunity, through sanctions relief, for Iran to re-engage with the world economically, this deal and these documents are allowing the Iranian people to feel the tangible benefits of international co-operation.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. Yes, Iran has come to the table and we have an agreement in place. That allows us to have a dialogue, through the opening of our embassy and so forth, with a country that has a long way to go on human rights, the introduction of justice systems and so forth. The strength of our relationship will allow us to be far more frank on the issues that he rightly raises.
There are opportunities for the United Kingdom. The Government are determined that British businesses should be well placed to benefit when the sanctions are lifted. The Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State for Trade and Investment have visited Tehran with UK delegations that included representatives of the engineering, infrastructure, banking and oil and gas sectors. Together, they are beginning to build the crucial links that will allow British businesses to take advantage of the opportunities in Iran.
Finally, the documents show that we are ready to implement the deal fully and robustly. As we enter the implementation process, our aim will be same as it was throughout the negotiations: to give the international community confidence that Iran’s nuclear programme is and will remain exclusively peaceful. That is why we could accept a deal only if it shut off all possible routes to an Iranian bomb, and why the sanctions relief will not take effect until the IAEA verifies that Iran has taken the agreed steps to limit its nuclear programme.
The hon. Gentleman is right. There were extensive negotiations in America and concerns were raised, as they were in this House, but I understand that the Senate has now confirmed American support for this deal.
In conclusion, the IAEA will have unprecedented access to verify that Iran continues to honour its obligations. The Government were grateful for support that they received from across the House throughout the negotiation process. As our attention turns towards a robust interpretation of this historic agreement, we look forward to enjoying similar support as we ensure that the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb never materialises.
The nuclear deal that was agreed in July between the E3+3 and Iran was the culmination of many years of intense diplomatic efforts. At its heart is a simple concept, but it nevertheless took a huge amount of work to reach a robust and verifiable agreement. The simple concept is that Iran will desist from its efforts to develop a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of sanctions that have had a major impact on its economy over many years.
I pay tribute to the efforts of all those involved in those intense diplomatic efforts, and particularly Baroness Ashton of Upholland who played such an important role during her five years as the EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs, and Jack Straw who was important in getting the process started and who remained an unstinting supporter of it during the last Parliament. Such diplomacy is not easy. Trust was in short supply, for understandable reasons, and there were—and remain—many who said that the deal could not work. Agreement is one thing, but its implementation matters even more.
The European Union played an important co-ordinating role in the talks, and all parties have testified to the value and importance of that role. The agreement is a good example of what can be achieved when the UK works with others and uses the EU to increase its leverage when patient but determined diplomacy is used. There must have been many times when it all seemed too difficult, but the thing that concentrated the minds of negotiators—this should also give pause for thought to critics of the deal—was the consequence of having no deal or of allowing negotiations to fail. What would that have meant for nuclear proliferation? What would it have meant for the middle east or for other situations—such as those now at the forefront of our minds—in which Iran is involved, if we did not have the increase in trust that has come about as a result of this agreement? That does not mean that all our issues with Iran are over, but the agreement has helped to build trust. If it is implemented properly, that trust will increase.
This debate focuses on how the sanctions regime is to be lifted, and on the snapback mechanism incorporated into the deal should it be judged that Iran is not implementing its commitments properly. The lifting of sanctions is linked to the implementation of the agreement, and that must be verified by the IAEA. A positive report by that agency will trigger the lifting of sanctions. The Deputy for Legal and International Affairs at Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mr Abbas Araghchi, told reporters in Vienna in the last couple of days that he expects the deal to be implemented in January next year. That follows approval of the deal by the Iranian Parliament last month. We welcome that aim. It shows momentum behind the agreement, although it will, of course, be important that the claim of implementation is properly tested and verified by the IAEA.
The European Union has already begun preparing for the lifting of sanctions. Last month the EU High Representative, Ms Mogherini, said that the EU had
“adopted the legislative framework for the lifting of all nuclear-related economic and financial sanctions”.
That decision will, of course, only take effect when the agreement is implemented. The Government, in keeping to this timetable, exercised an override of the normal scrutiny procedures on some of the measures. That is never ideal, but in the circumstances, given the combined international efforts to get the deal implemented, I believe it is understandable. For our part—the Minister put the question to me—we remain supporters of the agreement as long as it is fully and properly implemented, and as long as the IAEA is given full and proper access to all the facilities it needs to inspect to satisfy the international community that both the spirit and the letter of the agreement are being adhered to.
The European Scrutiny Committee did not object to the scrutiny override in these circumstances. Its objection has been to the delay in scheduling this debate, which was asked for in September. Here we are in November and we have finally got it. It is the slowness that is the source of complaint.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He will know the point he raises is something of a recurring theme in examining these issues. It is good that he clarifies that it is not the override that was objected to. I am glad he agrees with me that, while it is never ideal when dealing with something like this, it is sometimes understandable.
In conclusion, at a time when there are many grave international issues before us, this diplomatic achievement should give us cause for some cautious hope and optimism. I appreciate that some have doubts and some still lack trust in this, but the best way to answer those doubts is to have a full, proper and strictly verified implementation of the deal. If we have that, we can move forward both to progress on non-proliferation and to the building of trust that can be of wider benefit in the region.
There is an enormous crisis in the middle east, with ISIS/Daesh and the other factors at play—not to mention the Russians—and the interaction between all that and the peace and stability we all earnestly wish for. The reality is that this kind of document—in fact, it is not just one document; I have counted them and I think there are 14 in all—and the deal being done must have some bearing on the current situation. It would be unthinkable that there would not be such interaction at a diplomatic level, given the importance of Iran in the whole middle east crisis we are experiencing at the moment—all the documents, the involvement of the United Nations Security Council, which endorsed it on
My main message is this: given the importance of the diplomatic interaction, and bearing in mind the fact the matter relates to nuclear issues and potential nuclear threats and their relationship to Israel, not to debate this subject at the right time really did not give the House of Commons an opportunity to discuss it when it really should have been discussed. That is the main point I want to make. I am so grateful that the Minister has now decided to come to the Dispatch Box.
I thank my hon. Friend for his courtesy in allowing me to intervene, despite my being discourteous to him, for which I apologise—I thought we were going to go round in circles on the issue of the date. On his first point, as soon as the deal was made, the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House, but given Government business, this was the first date we were given for coming to the House. On the second point, I am pleased that Iran is now participating in the Vienna talks. He is absolutely right that this is the first indication of what I hope will be a more responsible attitude from Iran towards regional security.
I do not intend to go into the complexities of the foreign policy implications, because that would warrant a much longer debate and involve not only the Minister for Europe but the Foreign Secretary —with respect to this Minister’s pay grade. This is vital to our security. One needed only to witness the discussions as they unfolded in Switzerland, at which the Foreign Secretary was present, the to-ing and fro-ing and the analysis that was brought to bear to realise the importance of this issue. That was the point I wanted to make about the timing. It is important, when we say a European document is of legal or political importance, that the matter is debated on the Floor of the House in the appropriate manner and at the right time. The UN Security Council voted to adopt resolution 2231 on
I know that the hon. Gentleman, in his capacity as Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, agrees that all major European matters, even those which we might eventually agree or give a cautious welcome to, deserve the full scrutiny of the House. As he points out, these documents were considered on
This is the first opportunity we have had to put the point about the timing to the Minister. It is because we recommended it for debate that we can raise the question in this context. On the logjam of documents, to which the hon. Gentleman, who sits on my Committee, rightly refers, it is the constant and persistent determination of the Committee to get issues debated as early as possible, as he knows. I will not go down that route now—it is for another occasion—but I take very seriously what he says.
Because this is such a controversial matter, others have made observations on it, and I would like to quote what Roger Boyes, the diplomatic editor of The Times, said on
“There is nothing game-changing about teaming up with a wobbly Iran. The accord with Tehran can then only be judged narrowly as to whether it is a success as a piece of arms control statecraft—and whether the release of sanctioned funds makes Iran more or less menacing. Consider what would happen without a nuclear deal, President Obama said yesterday: no limits on the nuclear programme, on centrifuges, on the plutonium reactor. But the president has to consider this too: how does one maintain leverage on Iran once the sanctions have been lifted? Denied access to a suspicious nuclear site, inspectors will be able to appeal to a joint commission that includes delegates from Iran, Russia and China. Delays are thus built into the verification system and the idea that sanctions can come crashing quickly down again is over-optimistic. Parts of the deal read like a cheater’s charter; there is too much wriggle room.”
I put that forward not in my own name, but because I think it important for the House to hear the views of an experienced diplomatic editor such as Roger Boyes. He continues:
“What happens in ten to 15 years when the deal has run its course, restraints are lifted and a wealthy Iran which has retained its nuclear expertise, which has grown in zealous confidence, decides to remind a small Gulf state who is boss? The deal is an open invitation to Sunni princelings to invest in their own nuclear deterrent. In the meantime Tehran will have the money to throw into the subversion of its neighbours and expand its arms exporting business.”
On the other hand, to illustrate the controversy and importance of all this, Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador to Tehran who obviously knows a lot about it, argued that there were good reasons to believe that it will stick, including
“the ‘snap-back’ provisions to restore sanctions in the event of violations” and the fact that
“Iran will not want to risk a military attack, which would grow more likely if the deal fell through; no viable better agreement available and no international support for more sanctions if the US were seen to have vetoed the deal”.
Then there would be an Iran, he says, that
“is tired of being punished for something that it has not intended to do since the supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s ban on nuclear weapons, which dates from 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was toppled.”
He goes on to say that Iran
“has recognised that it cannot develop sustainably as a nation without allaying international concerns.”
It also “values its reputation”, and
“reneging on its commitment not to build nuclear weapons, or withdrawing its agreement to the utmost transparency, either during or after the agreed 15-year limits on its enrichment activities” would
“demolish that reputation, with no appreciable gain to its security because of the retaliation and regional arms race that would follow.”
That just gives an indication and a flavour of the complexity and controversy that lies behind all this.
I am glad my hon. Friend has brought this sort of politics into the debate. All this reminds me very much of the darkest days of the cold war, a policy of containment and the fact that the then Soviet Union had different factions—modernisers and hardliners. Can we not hope that a policy of containment in the case of Iran might lead eventually to the emergence of a modernisers’ victory, albeit slowly and perhaps over decades?
One must indeed hope so. In the extremely complex and dangerous world that we now inhabit, we must also hope that some sensible diplomatic and useful solution—I would not call it a compromise—can be found.
“Iran will have strong incentives not to cheat”— the opposite, I think, of what Roger Boyes was saying—
“The near certainty of getting caught and the consequences that would follow would make this a losing option.”
The first moment of truth is due to come at the end of this year, which I think the Minister understands very well, when the International Atomic Energy Agency is due to report on whether Iran has fulfilled the commitments that will enable international and thus
EU sanctions to be substantially lifted, which is not the same as the fact, as many people seem to think, that they have been lifted already. This is a process, and this is what will transpire towards the end of the year.
I can confirm that, but let me add that we shall have another yardstick to examine in February, when elections will be held for the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament. The type of candidate who will be allowed to stand will give the world the first indication of whether Iran is moving in a new direction. We hope that moderate candidates will step forward and will be allowed to stand, given that they have been denied that opportunity in the past.
I remind the House of what was said by my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg. We need to deal with the substance, and that is what the European Scrutiny Committee is there to do. It is there to go beyond the purely textual confusion that can arise from our having to debate a number of different documents—14 of which have not been fully set out—within a fairly limited time span. We need to get to the heart of what this is all about.
I am glad that the Minister said what he said just now. We want to be positive, but we also want to hold him and the Government to account. This is a hugely serious matter, and it is essential for it to be debated in good time. We could have debated it earlier, and, while we understand the position, we regret and deeply deplore the fact that it has not been debated until now.
Given what the Minister has said, I have nothing further to add, other than to express the hope that the Foreign Affairs Committee will note the significance of what is going on here—I know that my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis, the Chairman of the Defence Committee, already does—so we can start to have a proper discussion that it is properly timed, not only in the context of the IAEA and the end of the year, but in the context of the February discussions in Iran to which the Minister referred.
I welcome the debate. It is right for us to have an opportunity to debate the nuclear deal with Iran, and the means of its implementation, on the Floor of the House. I recognise that there have been debates in Westminster Hall, and that the Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House following the agreement of the deal back in July, but the European Scrutiny Committee is right to exercise its power to call for serious matters to be brought to the Chamber. I know from my work on the Procedure Committee that Sir William Cash will continue to push for more opportunities for his Committee’s concerns to be debated here. My hon. Friend Peter Grant has expressed similar concerns.
At the same time, I have some sympathy with the Government’s position. I recognise the need to move quickly in response to the Lausanne accord and the subsequent agreement, which was, of course, concluded very shortly before the summer recess.
The Scottish National party has been fully supportive of the joint comprehensive plan of action that was agreed by the E3+3 and Iran. I echo what was said by Mr McFadden about the considerable amount of work done on that agreement by members of many different parties and Governments. I also agree with him that this was one of the significant achievements of the European Union, and an example of the benefits of co-operation through the EU.
As we have heard, the aim of the deal is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful, and Iran has guaranteed that it will never seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons. In return, the EU and the US will lift related sanctions. The documents incorporating that sanction relief into European law are the subject of this debate. The SNP hopes and believes that the disarming of Iran will aid long-term stability and peace in the region. Indeed, there is a clear and present need to extend the work that is being done in order to ensure that no country in the region possesses nuclear weapons. During one of the debates in Westminster Hall earlier in the year, I made the point—as others have done—that if Iran can be seen to choose a peaceful path, others in the region could follow suit. We know that the wider middle east region is sorely in need of paths to peace and stability.
We spent a long time today debating the renewal of the UK’s nuclear capability. Weapons of mass destruction are a threat to humanity, regardless of where they are located, so any agreement that works towards non-proliferation and, ultimately, disarmament is to be welcomed.
The Scottish National party supports the lifting of EU sanctions in relation to Iran’s nuclear programme, but we continue to support the retention of the asset freezes and travel bans for human rights violations. In 2014 alone, Iran is believed to have executed over 700 people—many in secret—including children under the age of 18 and political dissenters. This is unacceptable and inhumane. Continued international pressure needs to be brought to bear to protect human rights in that country. However, we welcome the reopening of the UK embassy in Tehran and the work that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has begun in building trade links between the UK and Iran. Re-establishing those formal links will go a great way towards facilitating the process of re-establishing significant trade links between our countries.
The current sanctions regime is extensive and complex, and has clearly and deliberately suppressed trade over the last decades. The sanctions have worked insofar as they have brought Iran to the negotiating table, but their implementation has had an impact on its oil exports and the value of its currency, resulting in lost revenues. When implementation day arrives, the majority of the United Nations Security Council measures will be removed, along with the totality of European Union sanctions, including the embargo on Iranian oil and prohibitions on energy investment. This will present a significant boost to the Iranian economy and open up significant trade and investment opportunities.
However, the SNP believes that, over and above re-establishing trade links, the UK Government need to ensure that cultural, educational and economic links with Iran are strengthened to rebuild our bilateral relationship. This should include work to review the visas available to Iranian students studying at UK higher education institutions and the post-study work visa, as well as making a commitment to grow UK trade with Iran.
My right hon. Friend Alex Salmond noted on the day of the statement that Iran’s President Rouhani was a distinguished graduate of Glasgow Caledonian University, which is in the constituency neighbouring mine; he received his doctorate in 1999. We pay particular tribute to his role in the thawing of relations between Iran and the west. Dr Rouhani is the President of a young, growing country with huge economic potential, and the removal of sanctions will signify a commitment to peace on all sides. It presents an opportunity to build peace through strong trade, educational and cultural links between the west and Iran. We Scottish National party Members welcome that opportunity and any moves that will take us towards a more just and peaceful world.
Many Members on both sides of the House continue to have concerns about the Iranian nuclear deal. We have debated the issue on several occasions in Westminster Hall, and I remain disappointed that the opportunity to debate the full deal in Government time has never been afforded to the House. Back in June, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, said:
Unfortunately, that has not occurred. The Secretary of State did make a statement to the House in July, but limited time prevented a debate on the merits of agreeing to the deal. I do not intend to open up that discussion again, but I want to ask the Minister to clarify what the Government are seeking to achieve through this evening’s motion, and what the possible impacts might be on the middle east region.
The motion tonight is rather convoluted and requires the casual observer to undertake some research to determine what each of the EU Council decisions and subsequent amendments refer to. In the round, they seek to remove sanctions on transactions regarding foodstuffs, healthcare, medical equipment, equipment for agricultural or humanitarian purposes below €1 million, as well as transfers of personal remittances below €400,000. In addition, the motion is about suspending restrictive measures concerning the prohibition on the provision of insurance, reinsurance and transport for Iranian crude oil; the prohibition on the import, purchase or transport of Iranian petrochemical products and on the provision of related services; and the prohibition on trade in gold and precious metals with the Government of Iran, its public bodies and the Central Bank of Iran, or persons and entities acting on their behalf.
It is fair and rational to ask who will be the main beneficiary of the lifting of these sanctions. Surprisingly, it might not be the Iranian Government themselves but one individual, the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, through his direct control of one of the most powerful and secretive organisations in Iran, the Setad Ejraiye Farmane Hazrate Emam, or Setad.
Setad has become one of the most powerful organisations in Iran, although many Iranians, and indeed many in the wider world, know little about it. In the past six years, it has morphed into a business juggernaut that holds stakes in nearly every sector of Iranian industry, including finance, oil, telecommunications, the production of birth-control pills and even ostrich farming. The organisation’s total worth is difficult to pinpoint because of the secrecy of its accounts, but Setad’s holdings of real estate, corporate stakes and other assets total about £60 billion, according to Reuters. That estimate is based on an analysis of statements by Setad officials, data from the Tehran stock exchange and company websites, and information from the US Treasury Department.
The motion seeks to remove secondary sanctions on Setad and about 40 firms it owns or has a stake in, which will have a huge impact on events in the middle east. The de-listing of Setad has no direct connection to Iran’s nuclear programme, but its significance is in the company’s relationship to Iran’s ruling elite. The company has interests in almost every sector of Iran’s economy. It built its corporation on the systematic seizure of thousands of properties belonging to religious minorities, business people and Iranians living abroad—we have seen that in the history. Iranians who said their family properties were seized by Setad described in interviews in 2013 how men showed up and threatened to use violence against them if the owners did not leave the premises at once. Although there may be no evidence that Khamenei is personally enriched by Setad’s assets, it is through Setad that Khamenei has access to resources that allow him to bypass rivals and other branches of government.
The nuclear deal, reached in Vienna in July, allows the conglomerate to open bank accounts abroad and procure financing for partnerships. Secondary sanctions have previously prevented foreign banks that wish to operate in the United States and the UK from dealing with Setad. Although most of Setad’s holdings are in Iran, it has some global reach. The Setad-linked entities being removed from US and UK secondary sanctions include firms based in South Africa and Germany. Already, one Setad firm appears to be moving to take advantage of the changes; the Ghadir Investment Company, which the US Treasury identified as a Setad-linked firm, signed a €500 million contract with the engineering unit of Finmeccanica in Italy, as a spokesman confirmed in August.
The even more troubling aspect of the motion is who operates Setad and the other companies that will benefit from sanctions relief. Some have said that the people of Iran will benefit from that relief, but I disagree. It has been claimed in the media that the Iranian revolutionary guard corps, a branch of Iran’s military accused of funnelling arms and other support to Hezbollah and President Assad of Syria, has placed top commanders at the heart of more than 200 Iranian companies. Backers of the nuclear deal have argued that sanctions relief and renewed access to $150 billion in frozen assets will not benefit the revolutionary guard in its support of terrorist organisations in the region because restrictions remain in place against Hezbollah and Hamas. Such a view is not shared by others, including me.
A US think-tank, the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, says that some 229 Iranian companies have board members or shareholders belonging to the revolutionary guard, which also has links to President Assad. The FDD claims that the revolutionary guard either controls or holds shares in 14 companies listed on the Iranian stock exchange, with a combined economic worth of $17 billion. That is in addition to other companies, such as the construction corporation Khatam al-Anbiya, which has secured more than $20 billion in Government contracts and is believed to be the biggest private-sector company in Iran.
Earlier this month, Barack Obama said that the nuclear deal would result in more funding for the Iranian revolutionary guard, but that the alternative was war. He said:
“We have no illusions about the Iranian government or the significance of the Revolutionary Guard and the Quds Force. Iran supports terrorist organisations like Hezbollah. It supports proxy groups that threaten our interests and the interests of our allies—including proxy groups who killed our troops in Iraq.”
We all agree with the words of the Prime Minister in the House only yesterday, when he made the following clear and concise point:
“In ensuring our national security, we will also protect our economic security.”—[Hansard, 23 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1049.]
He meant here in this country. The Prime Minister is absolutely right that by protecting the United Kingdom’s economic security we can protect our country. It is my belief that by maintaining sanctions on the Iranian economy, we can prevent resources being fed into the conflict in Syria and other countries in the middle east. I urge the Minister tonight to follow the money ansd see where it takes him.
I commend the Minister for what he has put forward. In his introduction, he used some terminology that I shall refer to, but I put it on the record that I do so not to attack him, but to illustrate my point.
I have spoken on this matter before, Mr Deputy Speaker, so you will know what issues I wish to address. Interestingly, every Member who has spoken tonight has talked about human rights, and about the persecution of religious minorities in Iran. I have this question: is it not perhaps a wee bit premature to agree to the suspension of sanctions? I wish to make it clear that I am not against the idea of a suspension, but I am against the principle if we have not seen the changes that we want to see.
On whether it is premature to agree to a suspension, I wish to refer specifically to human rights and religious beliefs. Other Members have given some stats on this matter, and it is important that we do so. This year, Iran has put to death almost 800 people—that is compared with 700 people last year—and it could rise to 1,000 by the end of the year. As Members have said, a number of those people, some of whom were children, were executed for their beliefs and some for minor reasons.
May I make a particular plea for the Baha’i faith in Iran? In the past year, 108 Baha’i people have been arrested, and some 200 Baha’i-owned businesses have been shut down or threatened. More than 7,000 pieces of anti-Baha’i propaganda have been disseminated in the Iranian media during this Administration. Whenever I hear about sanctions being weakened, I ask myself where the evidence of change is in Iran when it comes to human rights and those who have a religious belief.
Article 13 of the constitution of Iran denies recognition of the Baha’is as a religious minority in Iran. It strips them of the constitutional protections—such as they are—that are afforded to other religious communities. Baha’is are denied due process and equality before the law, which greatly concerns me. Some 780 incidents of economic persecution against Iranian Baha’is have been documented by the international community, including shop and factory closures. We did not hear that at the world conference that was held in New York in September. There has been the denial or the non-renewal of businesses and licences, and dismissals from private business after the application of Government pressure. Such attacks on those who pursue the Baha’i faith have been almost continuous.
When we consider the reduction of sanctions, I therefore ask where we have seen evidence that we should do that, especially when we consider the human rights abuses and the persecution of members of the Baha’i faith? Sir William Cash referred to this as controversial matter, and I believe that he is right, especially when I think about how Christians have been persecuted because of their belief. They have been specifically targeted, and thrown into prison. Some of them are still there despite illness and bad health. The number of Christians in Iran has been reduced by 300,000. Why is that? It is because they have relatives overseas and want to join them. It is because they are persecuted in Iran, and to survive and to worship their God as they wish to do and as they should, they have to leave Iran.
When it comes to the reduction of sanctions, I think about the Christians who have had to leave Iran. They would go back if they could and if they had the right to worship. Christians are discriminated against when it comes to jobs and education. They are abused and kidnapped. Some young girls are put into arranged marriages, and there have been acid attacks on young Christian girls in Iran, which are well documented in this House. Given that evidence, why should we reduce the nuclear sanctions?
Like me, the hon. Gentleman is passionate about reducing the persecution of those who profess our shared faith. Does he agree that this is not about removing all sanctions on Iran, but about the start of a process in exchange for a specific agreement on nuclear issues? That will allow a framework for the future and enable us to further engage with Iran and deal with the many issues of domestic policy on which we strongly disagree.
The hon. Gentleman has the same interest as I do in reducing the persecution of Christians and those of all religious beliefs around the world. I have the same passion as you.
Everyone in this House wants to see change in Iran—how could we not?—but I have to see evidence of changes on human rights. Under article 13 of the constitution of Iran, it is impossible for those of the Baha’i faith and other religious beliefs to enjoy such rights The Minister says that he wants “smooth implementation of the agreement.” I am a friend and supporter of Israel, for many reasons. I am a Christian and believe that Israel is the land of God’s chosen people. That is my opinion and belief. At the same time, I understand that that does not give them the right to do everything they want. I think of Israelis trying to protect themselves. Some of those in Iran who are part of the process of changing the sanctions have said that they want to see the destruction of the state of Israel. That does not mean firing a couple of bombs—it means no Israel. Given such statements, where is the “smooth implementation of the agreement” when it comes to Israel? Last Saturday I attended an event in support of Israel at the Parliament buildings at Stormont in Belfast, and the speakers there were very aware of what we were trying to say. When it comes to agreed steps to reduce the nuclear programme, where is the evidence of change among the Iranians we are talking to?
Many see Iran as part of the axis of evil in the middle east. Sometimes we have to jump into bed with people we are not terribly happy to jump into bed with, but it happens. Sometimes we have to make agreements with people who are a wee bit unpalatable. I understand that, but I would love to see the evidence that the issues of human rights and religious belief are being addressed. I want an agreement as much as anybody else in this House, including the Minister and the right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in this debate, but I want an agreement that safeguards religious beliefs for all in Iran and that addresses the situation of those who are persecuted because of their beliefs, those whose human rights are abused and those who are under threat.
I respect the Minister greatly and know that he is genuinely trying to achieve something we can all get behind and support, but I want to know what is happening with human rights and religious beliefs. What is happening with regard to those who need help? They do not have a voice in Iran, so let us in this House be their voice.
It is a great pleasure to follow Jim Shannon, who always makes interesting and important points, none more important than those he was making today about the persecution of Christians.
I want to cover initially the question of the scheduling of this debate, which has been raised in interventions both by me and by Peter Grant because the scrutiny of European Union decisions by this House is important. It is a fundamental democratic right that this House is able to scrutinise the decisions made by the Government, and that needs to be done in a timely fashion. This debate was asked for in September; we are now two months on. It is worth bearing it in mind that the longest outstanding demand for a debate was one first made nearly two years ago. The second anniversary will come up in January, and if we have not had the debate by then I shall no doubt hold a birthday party for it. It is quite improper of Her Majesty’s Government to treat the House of Commons in that fashion. When debates are asked for, if the Government do not want to give them, there is a procedure under Standing Orders to put a motion before the House to refuse the debate.
I say in all politeness and courtesy to my hon. Friend that we are now spending a lot of time discussing when the debate should happen. It is happening now. With respect to the European Scrutiny Committee, we have made it very clear that this is the earliest I have been requested to come to the House. I would have been delighted to come earlier. I make it clear that we have had other debates. Now that we are here, I suggest that we focus on the issues.
Order. We do not want to get into a debate about when we should have the debate. I know that Mr Rees-Mogg wants to get back to the issue and is going to bring us back to it now.
I must finish my point on this crucial issue because it is appalling of the Government to take this high-handed line with scrutiny in the House of Commons. It may be that the Minister did not know that this debate was asked for, but if he cared to read, daily, the daily agenda and the requirements for debates, he would have seen that this debate appeared day in, day out. If the Minister has not heard that from his officials, or read it for himself or been told it by the Whips, that is not the fault of the European Scrutiny Committee; it is that the Government are deliberately obstructing debate in this House. They always have time.
I will finish on this point shortly, Mr Deputy Speaker, but it is so important because we need to have these debates scheduled properly and quickly. The time that we have now is outside the normal sitting hours, so the argument that there was no day previously when it could have been held is false. We could have an extra 90-minute debate on any day since the request was made by the European Scrutiny Committee two months ago. And that is not the worst of the Government’s treatment of debate in the House. It is quite wrong that the Government should shy away from democratic accountability. I shall say no more on that today, but it is a subject that I will come back to if the Government do not treat the Chamber of the House of Commons properly.
To come on to the documents, I am afraid that I am going to change tack because the Government find me in support of what they are trying to do and, indeed, accepting of the override of scrutiny. When it comes to sanctions on individuals and the lifting of those sanctions, they cannot necessarily go through the full scrutiny process prior to the decision being reported to the House because, particularly when sanctions are being imposed, people would have the opportunity to avoid them in advance. There is a natural understanding of the confidentiality in relation to imposing and lifting sanctions and of the sensitivity with which this was being discussed with Iran. That is completely reasonable.
The second point that is worth making is that most of this was agreed under article 29 of the treaties on the European Union, which operates under unanimity. That is relevant because it shows that the European Union can work on a unanimous basis without any sacrifice of sovereignty by the individual member states. That is a model for future European activity—that we should take action when everybody is agreed because it is then much more powerful.
That is the next point: what has been done has succeeded and what was being aimed for was of the greatest importance. Trying to ensure that Iran did not become a nuclear state in the broad perspective of global security must have been a pre-eminent interest. It is worth noting that the most rogue of rogue states, which I think is North Korea, is secure in its wrongdoing and its internal oppression and is cocking a snook at the rest of the world because Kim Jong-un has a nuclear weapon. Those of us who wish to see a sensible world order want a limit on the number of states with nuclear weapons, and want to try to stop states that are on the margins of the international order getting hold of nuclear weapons. This is a successful policy that has had great advantages for security, but in the process that the Government have undertaken with other states and with the United Nations an important step has been taken in bringing Iran back into the global community. I slightly disagree with my hon. Friend Dr Offord and, indeed, Jim Shannon. I think it is a great advantage that Iran is back in the community of nations.
It has long been the case that the best way of achieving international security is dealing with nation states, but all nation states have an inherent interest in their own stability. They wish to maintain law and order within their own nation because it threatens their rule if they do not do so. That makes most nation states in most circumstances the enemy of the terrorist. The terrorist is a greater threat to the United Kingdom than the rogue nation state is likely to be. Equally, the rogue nation state is easier to deal with, because it has a structure that can be attacked from outside if fundamental national interests are offended. Terrorists cannot be attacked in that way, because they are harder to pin down.
We have come to the point in British foreign policy—and, perhaps more importantly, US foreign policy—at which Iran is being brought back into the family of nations. That could be a significant boost to our ability to ensure security in the middle east but also more broadly because it goes back to a fundamental principle that has generally been accepted by most countries since the peace treaty of Westphalia in 1648: the principle that it is the nation state that underpins that security. It is what went wrong from the late 1990s onwards, when it was thought better to interfere in the internal activities of nation states to make them better nation states. That policy turned out to be fundamentally wrong-headed.
We have gained three very good things from the suspension of sanctions. First, it has been shown that the EU can work on the basis of unanimity. Secondly, it has reduced the likelihood of Iran having a nuclear bomb, and, thirdly—this is overwhelmingly the most important—there has been a change of attitude back to treating the nation state as the building block of global security. I very much hope that the Government will apply that in other cases.
I congratulate the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee and all its members on securing this important debate on the Floor of the House and on their contributions.
I am particularly pleased to have a brief opportunity to take up where my hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg left off. I regard the deal with Iran as a positive development. I also regard the regime in Iran as thoroughly undesirable and potentially dangerous, but thoroughly capable of modernisation and reform if handled correctly by the international community. I entirely concur with Jim Shannon, a fellow member of the Select Committee on Defence whose presence I greatly value, on the terrible way in which Christians in particular, Baha’i faith members and other minorities are treated. The behaviour of such a regime, awful though it is, is no more awful than the behaviour of Stalinist Russia. In fact, Stalinist Russia was responsible for innumerable deaths, yet did not produce world war three, which might easily have happened in the nuclear age or, even if nuclear weapons had not been invented, might perhaps have been more likely to happen in the aftermath of world war two.
Where am I leading with this line of argument? It will soon become apparent, because some of us on the Conservative Benches are, according to reports in the paper, being exhorted—I have not been exhorted on the subject myself—in relation to the dilemmas of the middle east, to be more like Churchill than Chamberlain. While I was listening to earlier contributions, a memory stirred and I took the opportunity to check. The memory was correct. When Winston Churchill wrote his multi-volume history of the second world war, volume 3 was entitled “The Grand Alliance”.
What was the grand alliance? It was the coming together of three very different powers, at least one of which was utterly incompatible on normal criteria with the other two. The three powers were, of course, the British Empire, as it still was, the United States of America and Soviet Russia. Churchill was the prime example of someone who knew how to do what one must do in an imperfect, evil and dangerous world when a conflict breaks out. He knew how to choose in an undesirable dilemma which was the lesser of two evils.
I will take the liberty of trying the patience of the House by pointing out something that we have probably heard many times before: when Churchill decided to speak up for Joe Stalin and Soviet Russia, he was reminded of his long-standing aversion to the Soviet system and his claim that Bolshevism should have been strangled at birth. His instant response was, “If Hitler invaded hell, I would have at least a good word to say for the devil in the House of Commons.”
How does that relate to the sort of societies we are looking at in the middle east? Once upon a time, this House had a choice about how to behave towards those societies. In particular, very much in the afterglow of the ending of the cold war, we were told that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. My party was in opposition. We believed what we were told, but there was another reason too why people like me spoke and voted in favour of the removal of a particular dictator, Saddam Hussein—we hoped that what would emerge from the removal of such a dictator would be some form of modernisation and democracy. What actually re-emerged was the thousand-year-old hatred between Sunni and Shi’a, particularly between those who line up with Iran and those who line up with the Sunnis.
Churchill’s grand alliance meant that he had to line up with Stalin in order to avoid the greater threat posed by Hitlerism. By happy coincidence, we have found ourselves with two debates in the same Chamber on the same day about the two concepts to which, above all, in my personal opinion, we owe the fact that we did not end up with world war three. The first concept is deterrence, and the second is the one to which I referred in my intervention on the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend Sir William Cash—that is, containment.
I look at the various societies in the middle east, because I no longer think that by bringing down dictators we will get pluralistic democracies; and I no longer think, therefore, that if we bring down Assad, we will get a better result than when we brought down Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Gaddafi. When I look at the recommendation that we heard from the Defence Secretary in answering a Defence question only yesterday—that our aim, by bombing, will be to get rid both of Assad and of the Islamist danger of ISIL—I ask myself how this is different from the generalship of the first world war which could perhaps have been excused for the Somme but certainly could not have been excused for Passchendaele the following year.
If one does the same thing over and over again and expects to get a different result, then one is insane, and if one does something that worked in the past, then one might get a better result. For Russia, what worked in the past was a combination of deterrence and containment. I look at Iran and say to myself, “Here is a prime candidate for containment”, because Iran is an authoritarian society, and parts of it may be described as totalitarian, but certainly the impression I get from people who talk about it and know about it is that it is far short of the sort of extremist totalitarianism that features in the concept that underlies ISIL or, I must say, the reality that underlies the society of Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be our ally.
When I look at these different societies, I ask myself which are the most likely, if we can contain them, or keep the lid on them, to develop and evolve—just as our own society, over 500 years or more, developed and evolved—in a modernising direction. I think that Iran is a strong candidate for a society which, if contained and prevented from doing something too terrible, has the prospect of developing in precisely the way described by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset, such that it comes back into the comity of nations and does not go further and further into extremism that is exported. The extremist Islamist creed is a fascist, totalitarian creed. Iran, like the Stalinists, has the potential for being held in check and allowing a modernising trend to emerge.
I was interested in what the Chairman of the Committee said when he cited a former ambassador to Iran as evidently someone who thought that there was hope of positive development. On Syria, I have been in close touch with Mr Peter Ford, a former ambassador to Syria who likewise sees the regime there as brutal, or perhaps worse than brutal, but as authoritarian rather than totalitarian. In a choice between freedom, authoritarianism and totalitarianism, we all choose freedom, but sometimes the choice is only between authoritarianism and totalitarianism. The Government want us to choose neither. That is not Churchillian. Churchill knew the difference, and faced with totalitarianism or authoritarianism, I know which choice I would make.
With the leave of the House, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will respond to the debate. Let me first say that I did not realise how hugely anticipated it was; now I certainly realise. I am grateful to be able to respond to some of the important contributions that have been made.
I am grateful to the Labour spokesman, Mr McFadden, for his support and that of his party. He is right to pay tribute not just to the EU and the work that has been done with Federica Mogherini, but to Baroness Ashton. I certainly join him in that.
The Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, my hon. Friend Sir William Cash, articulated the balanced arguments on how we move forward in taking advantage of the opportunities but deal with the huge challenges that remain.
I would point out that there is an irony in spending 30 minutes of a 90-minute debate on discussing its timing. I suggest that if we want to continue to scrutinise what is happening on this important issue, the Backbench Business Committee should be approached. In response to one remark, I should make it clear that I have no power over that, but I look forward to further scrutiny of this matter.
Patrick Grady made an important remark on the links between Glasgow and the current President of Iran. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the importance, as we embark on a new relationship with Iran, of establishing cultural and educational ties. We are certainly trying to do that.
My hon. Friend Dr Offord made a detailed speech that covered a large number of issues and concerns. I very much appreciate that he has concerns about companies linked to the IRGC. I can confirm that sanctions will remain on individuals listed for terrorism and abuses of human rights reasons, and many companies listed as linked to IRGC members are not due to be considered for delisting for eight years. I hope that that will reassure him.
Jim Shannon made a passionate speech. He is now recognised in the House for his passion and commitment on human rights. He was absolutely right to raise such matters from the very start. The Iran nuclear deal is out of the way, but we must use the new links at every opportunity, whether through the Foreign Secretary speaking to Foreign Minister Zarif or the visits that will now take place with parliamentarians going to Tehran. Indeed,
I raised these very matters when I met the deputy Foreign Minister during his recent visit to the United Kingdom only three weeks ago.
My hon. Friend Mr Rees-Mogg reminds us that other nations are seeking to procure nuclear weapons, and there is also North Korea. I absolutely agree with him that we need to prevent those on the margins of international order from gaining a nuclear weapon. I would add that there are also non-state actors about which we need to be concerned.
We may possibly hear again the speech of my right hon. Friend Dr Lewis on Thursday. I certainly agree with him that this is an opportunity for reform, but one that needs to be handled absolutely correctly.
The nuclear agreement reached in July was certainly a major achievement. The deal will ensure that for the next 10 years, even if Iran reneges on the deal, it would take it at least 12 months to acquire even the necessary fissile material for a single nuclear weapon. Iran’s enrichment capacity will be reduced by more than two thirds of the current level. For 15 years, it will enrich uranium only to the level of 3.67%, which is way below the 90% level required for a nuclear bomb. Its stockpile of enriched uranium will be reduced to just 300 kg, down from more than 8 tonnes.
There will be no nuclear material, uranium enrichment or enrichment research and development for 15 years at the underground Fordow site, which will be converted into a nuclear physics and technology centre. Iran’s research and development will be limited, and it will not be able to enrich with advanced centrifuges for 10 years. The Arak heavy water reactor will be redesigned and rebuilt, so it will no longer be able to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Both the uranium and plutonium routes to a bomb will therefore be cut off. With the passing of adoption day last month and the agreement of the official document for the Arak project last week, Iran has begun to take the actions necessary to bring its nuclear programme within the limits I have outlined.
The deal and the restrictions are now very much in force, but I make it very clear that we are not starry-eyed. This is an agreement based not on trust, but on transparency and verification. Iran will grant the International Atomic Energy Agency unprecedented access to verify Iran’s actions to give us confidence that it is complying with its commitments. Some of the monitoring commitments, such as the implementation of the additional protocol, will last indefinitely. Put simply, if Iran did renege on its commitments and attempted to break-out for a bomb, we would know and have time to respond.
Looking ahead, allowing Iran to receive significant economic and financial benefits through the gradual lifting of sanctions will be vital to ensuring that it continues to abide by its commitments. We want Iran to feel the benefits of the deal. By adopting these measures, we have kept our side of the deal. It is now up to Iran to take the required actions on its nuclear programme. Only when those actions have been taken and the IAEA has verified that they are complete will the nuclear- related financial and economic sanctions be lifted. If at any stage we suspect Iran to be in breach of its commitments, all previous UN, EU and US sanctions can be re-imposed.
To conclude, the past year has been one of the most momentous for British relations with Iran, but we are under no illusions about the challenges ahead. Iran’s interference in regional affairs and its support for terrorist groups remain sources of deep concern. We will continue our robust support for the security of our allies in the region. However, not capitalising on the momentum that has been created by the nuclear deal and refusing to re-engage with Iran would be a perverse response to the progress that we have made.
If mutual trust and confidence can, gradually, be built, there is an opportunity for Iran to realign its approach to regional and global affairs. This opportunity, if embraced, offers Iran a route towards playing a constructive role in the region and feeling the economic benefits that re-engagement with the world will bring. We want to see signs that Iran is willing to move in the right direction. That is not just what we want, but, I believe, what the people of Iran want.
We, too, have a burden of responsibility to live up to our side of the deal. Iran must feel the benefit of sanctions relief if it is to continue to abide by the terms of the agreement in the long term. As such, the UK is working to encourage British businesses to take advantage of the opportunities that will arise once sanctions are lifted. With the embassy in Tehran open again, British diplomats can engage with Iran fully to find a way to work together in the struggle against ISIL, to speak candidly about human rights, and to build a trade and investment relationship that brings benefits to both our countries.
We are going into this deal with our eyes open. We remain optimistic about what can be achieved, but realistic about the challenges we face.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the following unnumbered European Union Documents concerning restrictive measures against Iran: a Council Decision (CFSP) 2015/1050 of