Iran and Gulf Security - Private Notice Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:07 pm on 13th May 2019.

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Lord West of Spithead:

Asked by Lord West of Spithead

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, in the light of the fact that the Government of Iran have given 60 days’ notice that they intend to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and restart their nuclear weapons programme, what steps they are taking to mitigate the increased risk of conflict in the region.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I beg leave to ask a Question of which I have given private notice.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, we note with great concern the statement made by Iran on 8 May concerning its commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. We are analysing the detail and are in close contact with the other parties to the deal. We urge Iran not to take further escalatory steps and to stand by its commitments. Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, there would be consequences. While Iran keeps to its commitments, so too will the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Answer. Things are extremely dangerous and it is interesting that Mike Pompeo is not going to Moscow today but has gone to Brussels to speak to EU Foreign Ministers. Our Foreign Secretary said:

“We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident and … escalation that is unintended”.

There is no doubt that there are powerful factions within Israel, Saudi Arabia and the US that feel that an attack on Iran would be a good thing, believe it or not. They think that they would very quickly be able to suppress the enemy capability and then there would be regime change. They are wrong. It would be an absolute catastrophe. The passage of any shipping through the Straits of Hormuz would be problematic for weeks, there would be an outbreak of terrorist attacks throughout the region and there would possibly be some missile attacks. Bearing that in mind, are we going to give any warning to UK citizens in the region? What is the state of preparedness of our own forces there, bearing in mind that when action is taken in response to an attack, Iran will not think that we are not involved in it? They will; therefore, we need to be ready for such a thing.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite correct that a meeting is taking place in Brussels. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary is part of that meeting of the EU three, and all of us are very much committed to keeping the JCPOA alive and on the table. He is also seeking, as we have done over the last few days, continued and close contact with Secretary of State Pompeo and other leading members of the US Administration.

I also agree with the noble Lord that the last thing the region needs now is a conflict of the nature of the one that is developing on the horizon. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said that that would further destabilise the region, and I assure the noble Lord that we are working hard to ensure that that will not be the case. The noble Lord will know from his own experience that I cannot go into any detail on deployments. However, the safety and security of British citizens are of paramount importance to the United Kingdom Government and we are working to ensure that all people are informed, in particular through our various embassies in the region.

Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that your Lordships’ International Relations Committee has taken detailed evidence on this agreement and the American attitude to it. While it is patently clear that a breaking of the agreement is bound to lead to further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region—a great danger, as the noble Lord, Lord West, has already said—it is equally clear that the information we are getting on American intentions is not really satisfactory. I will ask my noble friend the same question I asked last week: what explanation are we getting from our American allies of their intentions in the whole region? Are we just to take the views of Mr Pompeo that we should be threatened with cutting off intelligence unless we follow the American line, or are we developing a joint strategy that will mitigate some of the enormous dangers that clearly lie in this situation?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My noble friend raises an important point about the US-British relationship. I assure him that we are in constant dialogue and contact with our US counterparts; the discussions between Foreign Secretary Hunt and Secretary of State Pompeo on this issue are ongoing. Recent statements on US intentions in the region from the US State Department—including from Secretary of State Pompeo—clearly show that it is not seeking to destabilise the region but wants to see a change in Iran’s behaviour. We have a view that part of ensuring peace and stability in the region is keeping the JCPOA alive, and we continue to make that point together with other European partners to the United States.

Photo of Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Lord Campbell of Pittenweem Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, it is not just about what the Americans are saying but what they are doing. America has, after all, deployed a carrier strike group and B-52 bombers. I associate myself with the analysis provided by the noble Lord, Lord West, and presume to offer three things for the Government to say to the United States. First, belligerence will not bring Iran to heel; if anything, it will simply stiffen the resolve of its leaders. Secondly, if America’s objective is regime change, then, drawing on our own recent experience, we are not in support of that. Finally, whatever it does, it should not listen to Mr Netanyahu.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, US deployments remain a decision for the United States. In more general terms, we share the concerns of the United States and others about Iran’s influence in the wider region. That said, as I have already stated a number of times—including last week on this very question—the United Kingdom believes that any kind of conflict with Iran will further destabilise the region. We are making that point consistently. We are continuing to engage with not just the United States and our European partners but directly with Iran. That dialogue is extremely important, not least at this particularly fragile time.

Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that one of the factors that will weigh most heavily with Iran is the attitude of China and Russia, who are co-partners in the JCPOA? What steps are we taking to concert with those two countries on ways to discourage the Iranians from reneging on their commitments? Does the Minister not find it a little rich that someone in the entourage of the American Secretary of State referred to the Iranian statement last week as “blackmail”?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

The noble Lord’s final point is very much a matter for the United States Administration; it would not be appropriate for me to comment on the entourage of the Secretary of State. On the noble Lord’s wider point, I agree that it is imperative that all parties to the JCPOA are involved. He named both China and Russia; I assure him that we are working with all parties and continue to implore both China and Russia to use their influence to ensure that Iran stays at the table and that the JCPOA stays live for the region. As I have said a number of times, it is important not just for Iran and for the region but for the whole world.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, this tit for tat that we have seen is clearly something that we were discussing last week. It is clear that there are also elements in Iran who would like to see the agreement fall because of their own ideological commitment. The noble Lord keeps referring to “our side of the bargain” and “their side of the bargain”. Can he tell us a bit more about how we are meeting our side of the bargain, as he said, not only with our European allies but with other co-signatories, so that we can say to the US, “We will continue to meet our side of the bargain”?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

As the noble Lord knows, we are not only committed diplomatically to the JCPOA but have been working in co-operation with our European partners on the special purpose vehicle. That is part of our side of the bargain—to coin a phrase—to ensure that there is sanctions relief for the Iranian people. Our fight—or anybody’s fight—is not with any citizen or country, and nor should the United States view it as such. Indeed, Secretary of State Pompeo has repeatedly emphasised the importance of keeping in mind the Iranian people. That is why we are committed to ensuring that the work that is being done on the special purpose vehicle continues—because it provides a degree of respite for the Iranian people.

Photo of Lord Hamilton of Epsom Lord Hamilton of Epsom Conservative

My Lords, the Question asked by the noble Lord, Lord West, refers to Iran restarting its nuclear programme. Does he really believe that Iran abandoned its nuclear programme altogether?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

What was important in the Question from the noble Lord, Lord West, was that Iran stopped further development of its nuclear programme. The letter from President Rouhani made clear their intent that after 60 days they would restart their efforts in that regard. We need to ensure that we avert that threat, and we continue to work to keep the JCPOA alive. This was not a perfect deal; as I have said before, issues around ballistic missiles were not covered. However, it is the best deal we have, it has kept the peace, and it has kept Iran from progressing on its path to obtaining a nuclear weapon. That is why the United Kingdom, along with other international partners, remains committed to it.

Photo of Lord Browne of Ladyton Lord Browne of Ladyton Labour

My Lords, the principal objective has to be to stop Iran getting a nuclear capability, and we were in that place with the deal, as the noble Lord rightly says. So the only way of keeping the Iranians in the deal is to get the special purpose vehicle and the financial scheme to work—but they are not working. How do the Government and their European allies intend to ensure that this contribution to making the deal continue works?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

The short answer to why the vehicle is not working is that it is not yet operational. However, we are working with our European partners to ensure that all elements continue to function, including regulatory compliance, on the Iranian as well as the European side. We are focused on getting that SPV up and running.