“With permission, I will update the House on developments in the Iran nuclear negotiations and our work to bring together a peace conference on Syria. I returned yesterday from E3+3 negotiations with Iran in Geneva. This was the third round of talks in the past month and it began last Thursday at official level. On Friday and Saturday E3+3 Foreign Ministers joined the Iranian Foreign Minister at the negotiations.
The threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is one of the greatest dangers to the peace and security of the world. That is why we must build momentum behind the Geneva negotiations and why we and Iran must ensure that the opportunity of making progress does not slip away in the coming weeks.
We had two days of intensive negotiations with Iran which finished in the early hours of yesterday morning. These were complex and detailed discussions covering every aspect of Iran’s nuclear programme. Our aim is to produce an interim, first step agreement with Iran that can then create the confidence and space to negotiate a comprehensive and final settlement.
The talks broke up without reaching that interim agreement because some gaps between the parties remain. Although I cannot go into the details of the discussions while the talks continue, I can say that most of those gaps are now narrow and many others were bridged altogether during the negotiations. As we concluded the negotiations on Saturday night, all six E3+3 Foreign Ministers presented the same united position to Iran which gives an extremely strong foundation for the next round of talks which are to be held on
I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, and my Foreign Minister colleagues, including Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif. He is a tough but constructive negotiator who displayed a sincere and open approach throughout the talks. He and I took the opportunity to discuss further the bilateral relationship between Britain and Iran, and today both our Governments have formally appointed our new chargés d’affaires. I expect the new UK chargé to make his first visit to Iran this month.
The Government are firmly in favour of reaching an interim agreement with Iran as an essential step towards a comprehensive settlement, but given the extensive nature of Iran’s programme and the history of its concealment, the detailed terms of any agreement matter greatly. An agreement has to be clear and detailed, cover all aspects of Iran’s programme and give assurance to the whole world that the threat of nuclear proliferation in Iran is fully addressed. Such a deal is on the table and there is no doubt in my mind that it can be reached. I am convinced that the agreement we were discussing would be good for the security of the entire world and we will pursue it with energy and persistence.
An interim agreement would involve offering Iran limited, proportionate sanctions relief. In the mean time we will be vigilant and firm in upholding the international sanctions which have played an indispensable part in creating this new opening with Iran. Sanctions are costing the Iranian economy at least $4 billion a month and this cost will be maintained until we reach an agreement.
Until such a moment there is no question of us relaxing the pressure of sanctions in any way. We are determined to take every opportunity to reach a diplomatic settlement to the Iranian nuclear crisis because the alternatives—nuclear proliferation or conflict—could be disastrous for the peace and security of the world, including the stability of the Middle East.
That stability is being severely undermined by the deepening crisis in Syria. Our objectives remain to reach a political settlement to the conflict—thereby also protecting UK national security—to alleviate the desperate humanitarian suffering and to prevent the further use of chemical weapons.
It has now done that, which I strongly welcome. Last night, its members agreed by consensus at a general assembly to attend the Geneva talks, on the basis that this meant that Assad and those with blood on their hands would have no role in a transition. They also rightly called for humanitarian access and the release of detainees ahead of Geneva II. We continue to push for a date for a peace conference to be agreed, and the UN and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, has reiterated that he is still trying to convene a conference before the end of the year.
In the light of that decision by the coalition, we will provide practical and political support to help them prepare to lead the opposition delegation. I will shortly lay before Parliament a proposal to increase our non-lethal support to the Supreme Military Council of General Idris. This life-saving equipment will take the form of communications, medical and logistics equipment. There can be no peaceful settlement to the conflict in Syria without a strong role for the legitimate, moderate opposition. I also welcome the vote last night by the national coalition to confirm the inclusion of the Kurdish National Council, which adds further to its broad representation of Syrian people.
We are also particularly determined to ensure that the peace talks include a direct role for women’s groups, in accordance with Security Council decisions on women, peace and security. It is vital that women participate fully in the future government and institutions of Syria, as they have an indispensable role to play in rebuilding and reconciling Syrian society. We are ready to work with Mr Brahimi, his team, international NGOs and other countries to make that a reality. We will also work with the UN and its agencies to ensure that we give the women’s groups the support they need to participate effectively. In addition, we are encouraging the Syrian National Coalition to include women members in its delegation.
So far, we have committed more than £20 million to support opposition groups, civil society, human rights defenders and media activists in Syria. This ranges from training and equipping search and rescue teams to providing up to £1 million to help survivors of sexual violence gain access to justice, and we will develop this assistance further.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is one of unimaginable distress and suffering. Well over 100,000 people have died, and 11.5 million people, more than half of Syria's population, are now in desperate need of assistance either inside the country or as refugees in the region. The UN estimates that 2.5 million people are trapped in areas in Syria which aid is not reaching, including an estimated 500,000 men, women and children living under siege conditions. Severe acute malnutrition is emerging among children, and polio has reappeared 14 years after the country was certified free of the disease.
Appalling human rights violations are being committed, including the use of incendiary bombs against civilians, torture, rape, massacres and summary executions, and attacks on hospitals, schools and even aid convoys. The regime has shown that it can facilitate access to chemical weapons inspectors when it wishes, and it could do so for humanitarian relief if it showed a shred of humanity and wished to do so.
We need to address this crisis to save lives and to improve the prospects for the Geneva II talks. On
In the Security Council and through all other avenues available to us, we will press for full humanitarian access and freedom of movement for trapped civilians, the evacuation of civilians from besieged areas, safe passage for medical personnel and convoys, the creation of hubs for the delivery of aid, cross-border assistance and the lifting of bureaucratic burdens imposed by the regime. We will also work with the coalition to improve access to aid in areas under its control.
The UK is contributing £500 million to relief efforts, much of it to assist neighbouring countries, and the international community as a whole has provided $3 billion in funding for this year. But the fact that the existing UN appeal for this year is still nearly $2 billion short underlines just how extreme the humanitarian crisis is, and we are calling on all countries to do more.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons production, mixing and filling equipment is now complete. But some warheads and all of the bulk chemical agents and precursors remain, and must be removed from Syria and eliminated. The UK has provided £2.4 million of support for this process, and we will continue to support the mission until Syria’s chemical weapons capability is eradicated.
Diplomatic progress on all of these issues often seems intractable and difficult, but it is vital that diplomacy succeeds, and we will persist undeterred by the frustrations and delays. At the same time we will strongly support the Middle East peace process, which remains central to international peace and security. We do not underestimate the challenges, but firmly believe that if Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas show further bold leadership, a negotiated two-state solution is possible. We are working with European partners to provide practical support to both sides, including bilateral assistance to the institution of a future Palestinian state.
We are likely to face a long period of turbulence in many areas of the Middle East in the coming years, and if we do not succeed in diplomatic solutions in these three crucial conflicts and potential conflicts then the outlook would be dark indeed, for the region and for the peace and security of the world. In the coming weeks we will continue to maintain every possible effort to succeed”.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Foreign Secretary’s Statement in another place, and I also thank the Government for advance sight of the Statement itself. On both issues there have been some significant and important recent developments, and we very much welcome the fact that the Foreign Secretary chose to come to Parliament today to update the House.
On Iran, I start by also paying tribute to the efforts of our colleague and former Leader of the House, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland, who, as the Minister said, clearly played a crucial role in driving forward these latest talks. I also pay tribute to the clear commitment shown by all of the P5 plus one leaders in attendance at Geneva. We remain of the view that the UK Government should continue to pursue the twin-track approach of sanctions and diplomacy. President Rouhani campaigned—and, of course, was elected in June this year—on a platform of taking the steps necessary to ease the pressure that sanctions are currently putting on the Iranian economy. We believe that sanctions have been effective, and continue to be important.
Of course, alongside continued sanctions, sustained diplomatic engagement remains key. We welcome the Government’s announcement today that a chargé d’affaires has been appointed, and we wish him well. Yet it is a matter of real regret that, despite historic progress at this weekend’s talks, they did not succeed in producing an agreement. The Minister knows that reports emerged over the weekend describing a French veto which prevented any deal from being signed, and yet this morning Secretary of State Kerry said of the deal,
“the French signed off on it, we signed off on it, and everybody agreed it was a fair proposal. There was unity, but Iran couldn’t take it at that particular moment, they weren't able to accept that particular thing”.
In the light of these differing reports, I wonder whether the Minister would set out what the British Government believe were the key barriers which prevented a deal being reached this weekend. Can she also set out what steps are now being taken to help agree a deal that is likely to secure the support of all parties in the next round of talks? In particular, given the reported disagreements over Iran’s plutonium production capabilities, can she set out whether she expects that stopping or simply delaying the development of Iran’s reactor at Arak will be a component of any future deal?
It is inevitable and understandable that as the terms of a deal begin to emerge, it will become increasingly called into question by those parties which have a higher stake in these important issues. In the light of that, can the Minister set out what assurances have been offered to regional partners, in particular to Israel, which are concerned that the principle of an interim deal will by definition not provide sufficient guarantees that Iran will cease all activity which could contribute to developing a nuclear weapons capacity? Is there any possibility that a deal is in principle achievable and does that mean that there is an urgency to test what is now deliverable in practice? We welcome the commitment, of course, to renewing talks between negotiators on
I turn now to Syria. As the Minister made really clear in repeating the Statement this afternoon, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains desperate and continues to worsen. Only today, Human Rights Watch published a report documenting the continued use of incendiary weapons in Syria and last week the UN confirmed that 40% of Syrians are now in need of assistance. Clearly, the most effective way to ease the suffering is to end the war itself but while efforts to broker a peace deal continue, it is vital that the international community lives up to its responsibilities to protect those most in need. We on this side welcome the important work that Her Majesty’s Government have been doing but, despite our country’s contribution, the United Nations appeal is still less than half funded. Can the Minister set out what steps the Government will be taking to try to help ensure that other donors now deliver on their unfulfilled pledges?
Since the last time that the Foreign Secretary addressed the other place on this issue, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has confirmed that Syria’s declared equipment for producing, mixing and filling chemical weapons has now been destroyed. That country now has until mid-2014 to destroy the remaining stockpiles of chemical weapons. However, given that the OPCW team confirmed that it was not able to visit two out of the 23 chemical weapons sites in Syria because they were too dangerous, can the Minister say what assurances are being sought for the protection of OPCW personnel who are due to carry out their further significant work in conflict zones across the country?
The real breakthrough needed that would improve the situation on the ground is, of course, a diplomatic one. That is why we welcome the recent focus that the international community has shown on trying to secure a date for the next round of the Geneva talks. It is indeed welcome that the SNC has today voted to accept the invitation to attend Geneva 2 as the representatives of the Syrian opposition. However, as its acceptance is conditional on the granting of humanitarian corridors by the Syrian regime, can the Minister set out the Government’s present assessment of the likelihood of that condition being met?
In the light of the Foreign Secretary’s recent discussions with representatives of the Iranian regime, can the Minister set out her assessment of the likelihood of Iran actually taking part in or offering its support for the peace conference? We support what the Statement said about the importance of women’s groups being represented in peace talks too. Our view is that Geneva II still offers the best prospect for securing a more stable future for the people of Syria and that the Government should be focused on ensuring that in the weeks ahead unstinting efforts will continue to be made to try to bring about this long-delayed but much needed conference.
My Lords, I thank the Benches opposite and the noble Lord for his support for the work that has been done so far. I also pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, for the way in which she has led what are incredibly difficult negotiations. These are tough negotiations, with a long history, but we have narrowed the gaps where there were disagreements.
Talks in Geneva have made a lot of progress. There is no doubt that the parties are now much closer together. If a year ago we had tried to predict where we would be it would not be where we are now. Two months ago I could not have anticipated that so much progress could have been made. E3+3 has reached a consensus and we are firm that our goal for the process should be an agreement that offers real assurance on all our non-proliferation concerns, and we are confident that a deal is achievable.
The noble Lord spoke specifically about Arak. Iran has made it clear that it wants to have a right to enrich and wants that right recognised. At this stage we do not recognise such a right, but we have repeatedly said that once Iran addresses the international community’s concerns, its nuclear programme will be treated in the same manner as that of any other non-nuclear weapons state that is party to the NPT. This is the position of the E3+3. I shall not be drawn into the detail of the discussions on Arak at this stage. We want the negotiations to reap results and have agreed with Iran that proceedings will remain confidential. We are clear that there are a number of areas where gaps between the positions of the parties remain, but as I have said these gaps are now narrower and we need to maintain the momentum for negotiations. Iran needs to reflect seriously on its position before the next round of talks later this month.
We are also clear that we will agree a deal only if it offers us real assurance regarding the whole of Iran’s nuclear programme. A first-step deal will create the space and time for negotiations on a comprehensive solution, but it is in all our interests to reach a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and vital now to maintain that momentum. Partners in the region understand that this is going to be part of a comprehensive agreement in due course.
In relation to Syria, the noble Lord is right. There is still a severe shortfall in humanitarian access and support. We pushed successfully for further progress at the G20 and at the UN General Assembly, where more than $1 billion of new funding was pledged by the international community. This was a step in the right direction, but we accept that more needs to be done. The presidential statement has been helpful to some extent in supporting this progress, but the noble Lord may be aware that there is a further donor conference taking place in January of next year. The UN has announced that that pledging conference will be hosted by Kuwait around mid-January—on the 15th and 16th, we think—and the UK will push for it to raise significant finance to meet urgent humanitarian needs for Syria and the surrounding region. We will continue to lobby our donor partners to put forward high and ambitious pledges to support the Syrian people, but I accept that we are constantly playing catch-up in a region with probably the largest humanitarian disaster that the world has seen.
In relation to the OPCW and its inspectors in Syria, I had an opportunity to discuss this matter in some detail with my noble friend Lady Williams, who is not in her place. She raised concerns with me about protection. I assure noble Lords that we take the protection of these inspectors incredibly seriously, and we have seen real support and assistance from the Syrian regime for the work that was set out for the OPCW. Syria has declared a formal destruction plan and the OPCW is analysing the documentation and seeking clarification where necessary. We feel that detailed technical analysis will be required before any conclusions can be reached about whether it will complete the work that the inspectors are doing.
I hope that I have addressed most of the concerns that were raised by the noble Lord, but if I have not, I shall follow up in writing.
I, too, thank the senior Minister for repeating the Statement in such a timely manner. Does she agree that Iran is more relevant to securing international peace and security than it has been for some time? This is a pivotal moment in the history of the Middle East. Were a deal secured on the NPT, it would give us an opportunity to restart discussions on a nuclear-free Middle East. The Minister mentioned Syria, and Iran is key to a negotiated settlement there. Is she able to tell the House what discussions the Government are having with the United States? We hear very disturbing reports about how the Senate is preparing to have tougher sanctions against Iran here and now, in the next 10 days, before we can agree to the next round of discussions, and that Congress and the Senate are prepared to continue to obstruct a deal. In that case, should an obstruction of that kind occur, are there any plans for European Union countries to move away from UN sanctions into some other method of helping Iran, should a deal be available?
My noble friend makes an important point. We must remember that it is because sanctions were imposed and were biting that we have reached this stage. Sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiating table in a serious way, so it is important that sanctions remain until we reach agreement. I hear what the noble Baroness says about the politics of what is happening in the US, but we feel that at this stage we need to push to reach agreement, at least on first steps, before any substantive discussions can take place in relation to sanctions.
I accept that Iran is an important and vital issue on which we must move forward, not just in the light of the nuclear issue but because of its role in Syria. The noble Lord, Lord Bach, asked about the role of Iran in any further discussions at Geneva II, and I think I did not answer. No decision has been made at this stage about the participation of Iran in Geneva II.
The UN Security Council has agreed that the Geneva II conference should implement the Geneva communiqué. At this stage, Iran has not publicly endorsed the Geneva communiqué or made it clear that it supports the purpose of Geneva II; it is hard to see how it can play a constructive role without endorsing that communiqué. We continue to have concern about fighters, including the IRGC Quds force, which continue to operate within Syria.
My Lords, like everyone else in this House, I warmly welcome the fact that the negotiations gap between the two parties seems to have narrowed very considerably. I shall make two points to the Minister and ask her to regard them as chilling realities. First, for 20 years, Iran has cheated time and again over all negotiations relating to nuclear development—as far Arak is concerned, there is no heavy water facility and, with regard to Natanz, no question of enriching uranium—up to the point when it would have been impossible and childish to have maintained such denial.
Secondly, the main thrust of negotiations in relation to Iran, with all that has been very properly said about human rights, is to see to it that it does not become a nuclear power. If it becomes a nuclear power, the Middle East will be jeopardised with a ticking bomb under it. That must be avoided at all costs.
I take on board what the noble Lord said. Exactly these kinds of concerns are uppermost in our minds when we are in negotiations. I think that I can give the noble Lord some comfort by saying that we feel that the new Iranian regime, following the election of President Rouhani and the appointment of the new Iranian negotiating team led by Foreign Minister Zarif, has taken a constructive approach. We believe that Mr Zarif wants to resolve this problem and that he is out to do a deal. We feel that Iran is under serious political and economic pressure and that it recognises that it is in its interest to reach an agreement with the E3+3. I hope that we will be able to reach that point soon, but we take part in these negotiations with our eyes wide open, and take fully into account the context in which we are operating and have been operating for a number of years.
My Lords, is there not a much more difficult problem about Iran? There are effectively two Governments there. The Minister is talking about discussions taking place under the Rouhani leadership, but back in Tehran, there is a religious leadership that has already tried to rein in the new Government back, in respect of the steps that they have taken towards rapprochement with the rest of the world. What confidence can the Minister—and, indeed, negotiators—have that any eventual settlement will not simply be rejected by the religious leadership in Iran, as it has already tried to distance itself from some of what is going on?
Secondly, I have a question about Syria. In a former life, I was the envoy to Bashar al-Assad and I had to deal with a lot of the people around him who were deeply unpleasant, very sinister and, in many ways, far more unyielding than Bashar al-Assad. Can the Minister give us an assurance that none of these people will be left to wield any power when eventually we see the end of this regime? There have been suggestions that the vice-president would have a role; the vice-president whom I met was certainly not a man I would want to see having any power in Syria in future.
The noble Baroness comes to these matters with great experience and expertise. She has made valid points about the different seats of power within Iran. At the moment, we feel that the Foreign Minister and President Rouhani have a mandate under which they are operating. We have had a number of meetings with them; the Foreign Secretary has met the Foreign Minister on three separate occasions, and we genuinely feel that progress was recently made in Geneva. The offer on the table now being considered by the Iranians is something that they will have to come back to discuss; it may well be that on
In relation to Syria, the noble Baroness made an important point. It is why the statement from the national coalition issued only yesterday said clearly that the transitional council must not include al-Assad or others who have blood on their hands. I think those are exactly the kind of individuals to whom the noble Baroness refers.
My Lords, it is of course right that we should negotiate with Iran, with a clear eye and a suspicious mind. Surely the point of the sanctions in the first place is to get the Iranians to the negotiating table so that we can find some diplomatic solution to their nuclear programme. We should, therefore, be enthusiastic about the process, while being very suspicious about the detail. With that in mind, the Minister has emphasised the united front that our negotiators put up to Iran. That is not the perception one gains from the media. Does the Minister agree that that is very unhelpful, particularly as regards people such as the Israelis and the US Congress, who are already suspicious of the process, and that unhelpful and unguarded remarks made by people, such as those made by the French Foreign Minister to journalists, are likely to damage our cause rather than help it?
The noble and gallant Lord will be aware that a number of tracks—sometimes bilateral and at other times multilateral—usually take place before these negotiations are finally concluded. It was important that the E3+3 came to the same place and that they presented a united front. I assure the noble and gallant Lord that that offer is now clear and that the E3+3 are all behind that united position. On sanctions, we are clear that Iran needs to take concrete steps which give assurance and build trust; by that I mean not words but actions. Once we see that change in actions we will be ready to act proportionately and respond.
My Lords, on Palestine-Israel, no doubt the noble Baroness will have listened to the important speech made by Secretary Kerry, which warned of a possible future intifada. Is it correct that because of the impasse, the Palestinians are now demanding that the Americans take the lead, put their own proposals on the table and press for them? On Syria, the noble Baroness spoke of the legitimate moderate opposition. However, is not the bulk of the fighting, and certainly of the effective fighting, done by jihadists? How representative, in her view, are the people who now speak for the opposition? Is it at all realistic to seek to have peace talks without Iran, a key regional player, being present?
On the Middle East peace process, I have stood at this Dispatch Box on a number of occasions over the past 12 months and have said that this year is in many ways a definitive year for real progress to be made. I am heartened by the incredible amount of personal time and energy that Secretary Kerry has put into moving this forward. I think we all accept that the Middle East peace process is an intrinsic element of resolving the tensions in the region. At this stage, we continue to support the initiative led by Secretary Kerry in any way we can and are asked to. The noble Lord makes an important point on the opposition. Of course, I have read many papers and briefings on the make-up of the opposition. There is the national coalition, the armed section—which I think is called the SNC, although I am trying desperately to think of what that stands for.
Thank you. We are aware of a number of groups who have openly distanced themselves from the national coalition and the Syrian National Council—for example, al-Qaeda and affiliated groups. However, we are confident that the national coalition continues to represent a broad perspective of Syrian opinion and that that is the view of the Syrian people. We find that many of the armed groups that operate within Syria are not part of the national coalition or necessarily representative of the Syrian people, but have taken advantage of the situation that has arisen in that country.
Will the Minister comment on the report this morning that an agreement has been reached between the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Iranian authorities in Tehran on inspection of the Arak plutonium site? If that is the case, would it facilitate the negotiations and discussions on
My Lords, I am not familiar with the details of that report. I was aware that a round of talks was taking place. Perhaps I can write to the noble Lord with further details.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Baroness for not being here at the start of the Statement. I listened to her colleague deliver the same Statement in another place so I am familiar with it.
It seems to me that it is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the situation faced in that whole region. The chances of Syria surviving as a single country, under the present pressures that it faces and the danger that it may split into three separate countries or separate organisations, seem to be very slim indeed. Against that background, it seems to me to be hugely important that the momentum of this effort to try to find peace through diplomacy is vital. I welcome the announcement about the chargé. The sooner he goes to Iran and establishes a base in Tehran the better.
The other key element in this surely is Russia. In this situation one can see a whole region in danger of collapsing into total confusion. Everyone has an interest in seeing a better outcome. I very much hope that we will press on, notwithstanding the comments, which I strongly support, that there is clear evidence that hardliners in Tehran, the Israeli Government, with their present attitude, and elements in Congress will do everything that they can to obstruct it.
I can give my noble friend confidence by saying that the chargé whom we have appointed is someone who has served in Tehran before; in fact he was the deputy ambassador there. Indeed, when I spoke to him this morning, he was brushing up on his Farsi. He knows the country well, is incredibly well equipped and is the right man for the job. Of course, it is an important role and we hope that he will visit the country before the end of the month.
The Russians have been working closely with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, in relation to Syria and Iran as part of the E3+3. They have indeed taken a leading role in relation to the destruction of chemical weapons. It is a strong relationship; it is a relationship which we know we need to continue to work on because their role is crucial to achieving a settlement.
My Lords, in the Statement read out by the noble Baroness it was clear that there are three conflicts: the negotiations with Iran, the Syrian conflict and the Israel-Palestine negotiations. Is there scope for expanding the Geneva process to be much more inclusive and to take these various things together because they are interconnected? The Minister mentioned, for example, that the Syrian National Coalition has recognised the Kurdish Syrian party and I am sure that the Turkish Kurdish party and the Iraqi Kurds are also trying to get together. We might be at a crucial juncture in the Middle East and it might be helpful to have a much more general Geneva conference, expanded to include all these problems together.
The noble Lord makes an important point but I think that he will probably accept that although each of these situations has overlapping issues, they are uniquely complex in their own ways. To try to bring the various issues together might make it too difficult to resolve any of them.