Iran (Joint Plan of Action) — [Hywel Williams in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 26th February 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 2:30 pm, 26th February 2014

It is a pleasure to serve for the first time under your chairmanship of a Westminster Hall debate, Mr Williams. I am very grateful to have the opportunity. The issue of Iran and, indeed, of the whole middle east, is often shrouded in some secrecy, so, in the interest of transparency, I draw hon. Members’ attention to what I have submitted to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests in the past.

On 24 November last year, the world woke up to the news that a deal had been reached between the permanent five members of the UN Security Council plus one—the UK, the US, France, China, Russia and Germany—and Iran. A joint plan of action was the outcome of weeks of hard negotiation. The deal was revealed to be the fruit of years of US-Iran secret negotiations, alongside a decade of public Iranian diplomacy following the revelation of a wide-scale uranium enrichment programme. The P5 plus 1 countries and Iran concluded an interim six-month agreement, known as a joint plan of action, to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme, in exchange for limited sanctions relief. The deal is the interim first step towards a full agreement within six months to address comprehensively the international community’s long-held concerns that Iran’s nuclear programme is intended for military purposes. The agreement will be in effect for six months—it started on 20 January this year—during which time the P5 plus 1 powers will attempt to forge a conclusive, final-status agreement that will end the nuclear impasse.

We—or certainly I—have concerns about the agreement. I should start by saying that the interim nuclear agreement does not resolve international suspicions. It merely suspends some of the most immediately concerning aspects of Iran’s programme, pending a more comprehensive agreement. However, there are further serious concerns about the agreement. Some believe that it grants Iran exactly what it wanted—both a significant easing of sanctions and preservation of the most significant parts of its nuclear programme, including those with a military aspect. The agreement allows Iran to continue enriching uranium and retain all the centrifuges, and it is not required to dismantle the uncompleted heavy water research reactor at Arak, which has the potential to produce plutonium when completed. In effect, the agreement allows a plan B route for nuclear weapons in that country.

Photo of Lee Scott Lee Scott Conservative, Ilford North

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining the debate. Does he agree with me and share my concerns that Iran could use this as a way of increasing its military capability and increasing its alleged sponsorship of terrorism throughout the region?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is certainly one of my significant concerns, and I will ask my right hon. Friend the Minister to comment on it when he sums up the debate.

It is also of great concern to me that the P5 plus 1 have tacitly recognised Iran’s right to enrich uranium, something that has been rejected by the international community for many years. In essence, the deal eases the pressure on Iran’s economy in return for minimal concessions that fail to curb the nuclear ambitions of the country. The interim deal has unravelled an internationally imposed sanctions regime that took years to enforce and was having the desired effect.

The ultimate objective is to prevent, on behalf of many countries, a nuclear-armed Iran. The repercussions of that could be disastrous, not least because Iran has threatened to destroy the state of Israel, but also because it remains the world’s leading financier of terrorism, and has the potential to provoke a major regional power struggle and arms race.

For the rulers of Iran, this is just another chapter in a dangerous game. Iran has a long history of exploiting international talks to buy time and further advance its nuclear programme, and the fear remains that this agreement is yet another example.

On Monday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs updated the House on the progress of the E3 plus 3 and Iran talks. He reminded the House that the challenges to the success of the talks remain considerable and that a

“comprehensive solution must address all proliferation concerns related to Iran’s nuclear programme.”—[Hansard, 24 February 2014; Vol. 576, c. 29.]

Photo of Jack Lopresti Jack Lopresti Conservative, Filton and Bradley Stoke

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that the fact that Iran continues to support terrorist activity—Hezbollah and Hamas—and to support attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan puts into perspective its so-called peaceful aspirations in the area?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

My hon. Friend, like my hon. Friend Mr Scott, has mentioned something that I hope to come on to in my speech. It remains a great concern that, while Iran is engaging in the process of reconciliation through the talks and the agreement, it is also engaging in activities not only in places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, but in places such as Lebanon, combining forces with Hezbollah and others.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he share my concern at the reports coming out of the area that only in recent days Iran has been stepping up its military and material support, and the provision of personnel, for the Bashar al-Assad regime? Would it not be strange for us to be granting new favours to the Iranian regime and helping it economically when it is supplying that terrible regime, which is slaughtering its own citizens?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is another issue I intend to raise. The fact that we are seeking to allow a country greater economic freedoms that in turn allows it to support terror in others parts of the region is of great concern. That seems to act counter to the things that are being said by President Rouhani and others in that country.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which is very timely, but does he not accept that the purpose of a sanctions regime, most of which is still in place, is to incentivise a change in attitude? Have not we seen that change in attitude since the election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran, and should not that be encouraged, not least to encourage further negotiations and positive engagement on the subject of Syria?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I genuinely thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He demonstrates that the interventions so far today have not been planted questions, because he has challenged me on what I am saying. I have to disagree with him. I cite as evidence the fact that the number of executions in Tehran and Iran in January last year was actually lower than the number of executions since the election of President Rouhani, which seems to indicate a more hard-line stance towards opposition in the country. In fact, the talks are more likely to disguise what is really going on there.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Liberal Democrat, Cheltenham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentlemen for giving way a second time so quickly, but that does not relate to the nature of the joint plan of action, which is precisely related to the nuclear programme. The commitments that Iran gave and the announcements that it made in that were very important. Surely he recognises that that represents progress of a kind, which should be encouraged.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

If I have not convinced the hon. Gentleman so far, I hope to do so later in my speech. I am not entirely convinced by what he says.

Let me return to the Foreign Secretary’s statement on Monday. What concerned me most was what he did not say. I hope that the Minister, in summing up the debate, can answer at least three specific concerns, including, first, how Iran’s nuclear programme, which includes a military dimension, will be addressed, as the interim agreement fails to address it. Secondly, I would be interested to learn what reassurances he can give that the final agreement will address the technical aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme, including the dismantling of all existing advanced centrifuges that accelerate breakout time; whether the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors will be granted unfettered access to all Iran’s nuclear facilities, including those that are being operated secretly; and what will happen to Iran’s existing stockpile of 3.5% enriched uranium.

Thirdly, what assurances can the Government give that the interim agreement will not simply unravel the international sanctions that have been imposed and that took years to be introduced, giving rise to a perception in the country that Iran is being rewarded for coming to the negotiating table while continuing to inflame tensions in the whole middle east, specifically in Lebanon, Syria and Israel, and while procrastinating on the fundamental issue of advances in its nuclear programme?

Before we get to that point, I want to take a few moments to outline Iran’s nuclear programme and the problems I anticipate. It is widely believed that Iran’s nuclear programme has significantly advanced in the past five years. Continuing to defy international pressure and binding UN Security Council resolutions, Iran has actively enriched uranium to 20% fissile purity—a level that has no credible civilian purpose. Without any additional sanctions being imposed, Iran has been able to continue producing uranium enriched to 90% purity, which brings it closer to weapons grade. The most difficult and time-consuming part of the nuclear process is, therefore, already complete. The IAEA estimates that Iran now has 9,000 kg of low-enriched uranium, an amount that experts say could be enough for four bombs if it was refined to 90% fissile concentration.

Iran also possesses as many as 18,000 centrifuges, including more than 1,000 new models—the IR2m—which are far more efficient and can provide bomb-grade uranium two and a half times faster than the previous model. A heavy water reactor has been constructed outside the city of Arak, which offers the possibility of a new pathway to a bomb using plutonium once it goes online. That is in addition to the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, which was built in secret and discovered in 2002; the Fordow enrichment facility, which was also built illegally and confirmed to be in existence by Iran in 2009; the Parchin facility, to which the IAEA is seeking access after evidence emerged that Iran has tested nuclear triggers and high explosives that could be used in nuclear weapons; the Bushehr nuclear power station, which is operated with external assistance; and the Isfahan nuclear research facility, which has the capability to process uranium yellowcake into a gas for enrichment.

Photo of Andrew Percy Andrew Percy Conservative, Brigg and Goole

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I heard the comments of Martin Horwood regarding a change in behaviour. However, my hon. Friend has just mentioned the Arak heavy water facility, which is perfect for producing weapons-grade plutonium. On 6 February, I asked a question in the House, to which the Minister responded:

“we remain concerned that Iran intends to develop the facility to provide a plutonium route to a nuclear weapon. Iran has not clarified how it would use the plutonium produced”.—[Hansard, 6 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 356W.]

Despite the interim deal, the fact remains that Ministers are concerned. We should adopt the position of the Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, who has said that

“Iran has not earned the right to have the benefit of the doubt.”

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He has asked a question, as identified by the House of Commons Library, on the effect of the P5 plus 1, Iran and the joint plan of action, and the continuing manufacture of new centrifuge devices. We know that the technology, which has many applications, continues to be used, but we do not know for what purpose. That remains a great concern, and I do not believe the joint plan of action addresses it.

On Iran’s agreement to freeze the enrichment and halt the production of uranium, Iran has halted the installation of new enrichment centrifuges and has ceased the installation of new components at the Arak reactor. It has allowed the IAEA to make inspections at Natanz, Arak and Fordow. I acknowledge that the regime has granted the international community some concessions. We must be aware, however, that in return, the P5 plus 1 agreed to provide £6 billion to £7 billion in sanctions relief, of which roughly £4.2 billion would be oil revenue frozen in foreign banks. The P5 plus 1 allow temporary relief on some sanctions, including trade in gold, precious metals, petrochemicals, auto parts and aircraft parts. The P5 plus 1 have also agreed not to impose new nuclear-related sanctions for six months during the agreement.

Although the interim accord interrupts Iran’s nuclear progress for the first time in nearly a decade, it requires Iran to make only a modest draw-down payment on the central problem. Iran has benefited from disproportionate sanctions relief in exchange for cosmetic concessions that it can do away with in a matter of weeks. It has been rewarded with sanctions relief despite remaining unbowed in its demand to continue uranium enrichment, which is the root of the international community’s concern. Most importantly, the deal fails to dismantle many of the military aspects of Iran’s nuclear programme. Without the requirement to dismantle a single centrifuge, Iran will remain a threshold military nuclear power. It will retain the capability to break across that line at any time it chooses.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

Does my hon. Friend dispute the national intelligence estimates from the United States of 2007 and 2012, which directly contradict his proposition that Iran is on the verge of being able to break out in such a way? The United States national intelligence estimates are major pieces of work, and they are not done lightly. Does he dispute them?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

Yes, I dispute them. I am not a chemical engineer or a nuclear engineer, but on the basis of my research and the evidence I have read, I dispute those estimates and I maintain that Iran is on the verge of making a breakthrough. As the shadow Foreign Secretary, Mr Alexander, said in the House on Monday, with as many as 10,000 centrifuges in operation already, Iran retains the capability to break out and produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a nuclear weapon in as little as two months. The deal does not roll back the vast majority of the advances that Iran has made in the past five years, which have drastically shortened what nuclear experts call its “dash time” to a bomb—the minimum time that it would take to build a weapon if Iran’s Supreme Leader or military decided to pursue that path.

Most concerning of all, the world’s leading powers have tacitly recognised Iran’s right to enrichment, which has been the Islamic Republic’s key demand for many years. The interim agreement states that the permanent deal will involve

“a mutually defined enrichment program with mutually agreed parameters”,

but the deal abandons the demand made by the six United Nations resolutions that Iran must halt all enrichment. That may undermine confidence in global non-proliferation norms. Iranian state media carried boasts by, among others, President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Affairs Minister Javad Zarif that the US had caved in on its long-standing position and recognised Iran’s right to enrich. President Rouhani said:

“No matter what interpretations are given, Iran's right to enrichment has been recognised.”

He went on to say:

“"Do you know what the Geneva agreement is? It means the superpowers’ surrender to the great Iranian nation. The Geneva agreement means that the world accepts [Iran’s] civil nuclear technology, which we achieved through the efforts and the sacrifice of our young scientists”.

The agreement does not stop Iran enriching uranium to a low level of 3.5% or compel it to dismantle any of its existing centrifuges, which can be used for military purposes. Iran can continue to enrich uranium with its 10,190 operational IR1 centrifuges. They are in addition to 8,000 machines that have been installed but are inactive. Iran can also continue to build new centrifuges to replace those that wear out.

The situation has not been lost on the Iranian rulers. In January this year, President Rouhani said that there would be no destruction of existing centrifuges “under any circumstances.” Iran’s Foreign Affairs Minister said in December last year:

“The structure of our nuclear program has been maintained and the 20 percent enrichment can be resumed in less than 24 hours”.

A month later, he said:

“We did not agree to dismantle anything”.

In January, Iran’s Parliament introduced a Bill to step up enrichment to the threshold of 60% fissile purity. That would put Iran on the technical verge of 90% fissile purity, which is enough for the core of a nuclear bomb. At least 218 of the Iranian Parliament’s 290 members have expressed support for the measure. The Bill’s supporters say that uranium refined to 60% concentration would be used to fuel nuclear-powered submarines. Some analysts have speculated that the Iranian Government might be using Parliament as a bargaining tool in nuclear talks with the P5 plus 1, because they would have no choice but to obey such a Bill if the Parliament passed it.

The deal also leaves untouched Iran’s portfolio of 1,008 installed advanced IR2m centrifuges, which can speed up break-out times using 3.5% enriched uranium. This month, Iran revealed that it had developed a new generation of centrifuges that are 15 times more powerful than those currently in use, and Iranian officials have stated that the centrifuges do not violate the joint plan of action. Although enrichment using those machines has not started, the vast majority of them are fully installed and under vacuum, which means that Iran could quickly begin feeding natural uranium into those cascades and more than double its enrichment capacity.

Centrifuges are not the only concern. Iran is in the process of constructing a 40 MW heavy water research reactor, for which there is limited peaceful civilian purpose. When it is operational, that facility at Arak will be able to produce plutonium, which is one of two substances that can form the core of a nuclear weapon. Iran is not required to dismantle the incomplete heavy water research reactor or convert the plant into a light water reactor, which would be less useful for military purposes.

Under the joint plan of action, Iran agreed to freeze progress on the Arak heavy water research reactor and not to commission it or transfer fuel or heavy water to the site. It also agreed not to produce or test additional fuel or install remaining components. The interim deal does not explicitly prevent Iran from manufacturing components offsite for Arak’s nuclear reactor that could then be installed later. Iran claims that its purpose is only to make medical isotopes and conduct research, but western countries believe that it could also produce plutonium, which is the plan B route to producing a full nuclear weapon.

The one mechanism we held over Iran was the sanctions, but the interim deal has unravelled the internationally imposed sanction regime that has taken years to enforce. Sanctions were having the desired effect, so why did we take a step back from a method that was working and put trust in a state that has given us no reason to assume that that trust will be guarded? However limited, the relaxation of sanctions will relieve the pressure that has brought Iran to seek an agreement, by giving direct financial relief and indirectly restoring confidence in the Iranian economy.

Many nations and companies—as well as the Iranians themselves—have interpreted the recent agreement as the beginning of the end of the sanctions regime. It is likely that a number of countries will apply pressure to resume trade with Iran, including its former key trade partners, such as South Korea, Japan, India and China. Within weeks of the interim deal, Iran’s petrochemical sector alone had appreciated by $9 billion—that is a capital gain of almost 40%, generated entirely by a new market psychology that bets on the end of sanctions. On top of that, Iran is already making efforts to recapture its dominant role in OPEC.

All of that goes to ensure that the agreement is rewarding Iran despite the fact that its long history of clandestine nuclear activities, support for international terrorism and repeat calls for the destruction of Israel are cause for legitimate trepidation and scepticism over its intentions. Although President Rouhani’s negotiating team has reportedly been more constructive in talks, supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say on major issues, including national security and Iran’s nuclear programme. Most worryingly, Iran continues to support terrorism in the region. It is a leading sponsor of state terrorism, providing financial and material support to extremist Islamist terrorist groups across the middle east, including Hamas, Hezbollah and insurgencies against allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Iran agreed to the deal as part of a long history of exploiting international talks to buy time and further advance its nuclear programme. The six-month timetable to reach a final agreement could be extended by a further six months by mutual consent. President Rouhani has previously spoken of Iran buying time to advance its nuclear programme. In 2004, he gave a speech to the Supreme Cultural Revolution Council, in which he explained how he was playing for time during the nuclear talks he was conducting with the EU3. He said:

“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [nuclear conversion] facility in Isfahan. By creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work there”.

Answers to the parliamentary questions I have asked provide little assurance that the IAEA will ensure that inspections take place. Iran has agreed to the IAEA conducting only limited inspections at the main enrichment facilities at Fordow and Natanz. Its history of deception about its nuclear projects requires higher levels of accountability. Iran is not required to provide unfettered access to its full portfolio of nuclear facilities, including many underground and undeclared sites where the USA, Europe and Israel believe that hidden enrichment facilities might exist. It is not possible to rule out the existence of secret nuclear sites in Iran without it agreeing to allow the IAEA to conduct snap inspections anywhere beyond declared atomic installations under the agency’s additional protocol regime.

Iran is still not required to grant IAEA inspectors access to the nuclear-related Parchin site, a suspected weapons-testing facility, but it is required to declare all facilities containing nuclear material under its comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Under the joint statement on a framework for co-operation between Iran and the IAEA, Iran has agreed to give the IAEA information on the 16 sites designated for the construction of new nuclear power plants, clarification about its announcement about new enrichment facilities, and information about all new research reactors. Fully verifying and monitoring Iran’s nuclear activities will require a level of co-operation and information-sharing between the IAEA, the western powers and Iran that is probably unprecedented for one country’s nuclear programme.

The overt military actions of missile development are also of concern. The interim agreement does not include a promise by Iran to abstain from pursuing work on ballistic missiles or weaponisation. UN Security Council resolution 1929 requires Iran to cease activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

My hon. Friend is touching on a key issue. Does he agree that if we are to treat Iran’s protestations seriously, we must see progress being made on the ballistic missile programme?

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I agree with my hon. Friend. I am concerned about the fact that the agreement does not touch upon ballistic missiles and remains an opportunity for Iran to continue its programme—as President Rouhani said—in a calm environment, and to focus on its work and experimentation on such weaponry.

I am sure that your knowledge of ballistic missiles is better than mine, Mr Williams, but I can tell the Chamber that a nuclear weapons programme has three main components: the fuel, the warhead and the delivery system. Iran is free, in the coming six-month period of the interim deal, to continue with the missile and warhead-development activities to which my hon. Friend just referred. It has successfully test-fired two new domestically made missiles, including a long-range ballistic missile with radar-evading capabilities and a fragmentation warhead. It also test fired a laser-guided air-to-surface and surface-to-surface missile known as a Bina. The country already has long-range surface-to-surface Shahab missiles with a range of about 1,250 miles that are capable of reaching Israel and—indeed—US military bases in the middle east. The recent deal does not grant IAEA inspectors access to Iran’s Parchin military facility, which is a long-suspected location for nuclear-related weapons testing.

In conclusion, it is worth reiterating the questions that I would like the Minister to answer. Does he share my concern that limited processes and structures appear to be in place should Iran walk away from negotiations with the P5 plus 1 before a permanent nuclear deal is reached within the six-month period? Given its history of duplicity and procrastination over its nuclear programme, would the Minister agree that it is only right that there will be a degree of concern that Iran might abuse the interim deal merely to pocket the concessions and walk away?

A more receptive Iranian negotiating team is being welcomed internationally. However, Iran has not tempered its anti-Israel rhetoric, recently labelling Israel as the

“sinister, unclean, rabid dog of the region.”

Does the Minister understand why many of us think Israel should be concerned about the agreement? There are also concerns that the joint plan of action has green-lighted Iran’s right to enrich, or at least that it has done so according to Iranian interpretations. Iranian state media carried boasts by President Rouhani and his Foreign Minister that the international community had caved in. What assessment has the Minister made of such statements by Iran? Iran’s latest actions do not suggest that it is complying fully with the spirit of the joint plan of action.

Does the Minister share my concern that domestic production of advanced centrifuges, which further reduce break-out times, raises questions as to Iranian intentions? Under the joint plan of action, Iran retains its full portfolio of centrifuges. Would the Minister agree that any final agreement must seek to dismantle the bulk of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure? The interim agreement is undoubtedly asymmetrical in structure, with Iran merely freezing its programme while the international community chips away at sanctions. Does the Minister agree that that might influence whether Iran decides to abandon negotiations for a comprehensive deal over the next six months? Finally, does the Minister share my concern that the joint plan of action will result in billions of pounds of financial relief for Iran, enabling its continued ability to arm, fund and train its global terror network?

As Martin Horwood said, it is right that the P5 plus 1 strive for a deal that reduces the threat of a nuclear Iran, but we must not agree to measures that have the potential to expedite such a scenario. A bad deal is worse than no deal at all. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 2:59 pm, 26th February 2014

I congratulate Dr Offord on bringing this matter before the House for consideration. In introducing the debate, he has outlined the case for his concerns, which I share.

It is essential that Iran continues to follow the joint plan of action. The hon. Member for Hendon referred to it and to how it will work, which seems to be his major concern. It is essential not simply for the White House’s agenda or for our own agenda as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but for the safety and security of the entire world. That is an issue that the hon. Gentleman spoke clearly about, and it is not an overstatement in any way, shape or form.

I would like to thank all those who have been working hard. I know that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister have been energetic in trying to ensure that the plan is adhered to. I am aware of the delicate balance that has been struck.

I share the concern of the hon. Member for Hendon and further express my fear for the state of Israel in particular, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned a couple of times in both his introduction and conclusion. It is certainly my concern. One can understand why Israel feels threatened—because of the statements coming from Iran and because of the history and the build-up of people in that country. Also, Iran has supported terrorist groups, whether they are directly involved in Syria or elsewhere in the world.

The basis of the joint plan of action is that Iran will undertake and indeed not undertake certain measures and aspects, receiving help and support in return. Some of those measures ought to include human rights and how they treat minorities. That should also be part of the joint plan of action, and I wish to focus on that in the few minutes I have.

While some measures have been taken, such as a good-will gesture and the release from prison of some Christians, I have received reports from that new arrests by the authorities could suggest in-fighting between the new president and Islamist hard-liners. There is still a power struggle in Iran, with people jostling for power and deciding who is going to be top dog.

Information provided to me, dated the beginning of February—just in the past few weeks—states that Hassan Rouhani began duties as President of Iran last August on a platform of pragmatic moderation. That was what he said he was going to do. At Christmas, frequently a season of fear and persecution, Rouhani sent good-will messages to Iranian Christians via Twitter and greetings to the Roman Catholic pope. However, those overtures came against reports of arrests, raids on Christians’ homes and the jailing of converts from Islam. While there was an outpouring of best wishes during Christmas, there were also the behind-the-door actions of the state police and some of those of Islamic belief.

While many observers see the contradiction as a lack of commitment to addressing western criticisms of Iran’s treatment of Christians, some religious freedom advocates say that it may also represent a power struggle as Rouhani slowly navigates Iranian political waters; he will need a good hand on the steering of that particular boat.

A senior analyst at Middle East Concern said that much of the good news coming out of Iran is the result of “token gestures” and that Christian leaders in Iran “remain sceptical” about the prospect of reform under Rouhani. Will the Minister indicate what feedback he is receiving? Can Rouhani deliver the change that he has said he will regarding human rights and equality in Iran? I would be keen to hear the Minister’s response. I know that the Minister has a deep interest in human rights and equality, so I look forward to his reply, which I am sure will have plenty of content.

The analyst also said:

“There are lots of conflicting signals…There’s been some positive rhetoric from Rouhani, and by and large it hasn’t been matched yet by his actions. Even if he wanted to pursue a more moderate agenda, he doesn’t necessarily have the power to do that”.

Perhaps that is the crux of the matter. We may have a gentleman who is perceived by the world as interested in bringing change, but can he bring change to the society that he lives in and tries to lead? I suspect that he does not have the power to do that. There could well be some power play involved between branches of the Iranian Government, and that power play taking place behind people’s backs is the one that concerns me most.

Even with the release of Christians, the Assemblies of God church in Ahvaz remains closed, and Iranian authorities have banned Pastor Farhad from conducting any church-related activities. Those are further indications from of what is happening in Iran.

Other similar actions continue to raise warning flags with me, including Farsi-speaking attendees being told they would not be allowed in the church any longer due to fear of arrest. There is something fundamentally wrong when someone cannot go into their church for fear of arrest. We are fortunate; we can attend our churches on Sundays. We have the freedom of choice to go to any church we wish across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is not possible in Iran and other parts of the world.

Of all types of Christianity, believers from a Muslim background face the most persecution—I want to highlight them today—as well as Protestant evangelicals. There is relatively less pressure on the historical ethnic Armenian and Assyrian Christian minority, as long as they do not evangelise to Muslims. Therefore, if people just worship and do nothing else, they will be left alone, but if they want to tell others about the gospel, which is what it means to be evangelical and to be a Christian, they are threatened for that. Ethnic Persians are by definition Muslim, according to the state. Evangelism, Bible training and publishing the scriptures in Farsi are all illegal. What a contrast that is from our society and the freedom of religious individual thought that we have in this country.

Any Muslim who leaves Islam faces the death penalty. The regime’s focus is on those reaching out to converts, and even well established Christian denominations are not safe from harassment. Church activities are closely monitored, their members identified and taken note of. Often, action is taken as well. Again, the words that say, “Yes, you are safe. You can worship your God and go to church” have to be contrasted with the action that happens.

In conclusion, I would ask the Minister to do all in his power to encourage the Iranians to give freedom of religion to all in Iran, so that people of faith can meet without fear of recrimination. If that can be tied into the joint plan of action and obligations, making it even tighter than it currently is—as I sincerely believe that it can—I would ask the Minister to do his best to ensure that that happens, and to see it done as a matter of urgency.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere 3:07 pm, 26th February 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing this important debate. He also deserves congratulations for asking all the right questions in his well-informed and technical speech, which was a great contribution. He asked all the questions that have to be asked about the scientific and technical aspects of the negotiations with Iran, and I certainly back him in all his points.

I intend to speak only briefly. I want to make it clear that I support the actions being taken by our Government; the approach that has been outlined by my right hon. and hon. Friends; and the approach taken by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the Floor of the House on Monday, with the realism with which he approached the issue, saying that there are many obstacles to be cleared. I support him in his ultimate intentions on the matter and in the way in which he is carrying them out. I also commend the Minister of State for the realism and hard-headedness that he has shown on the issue; he is absolutely right to do so.

In conducting the negotiations, if we really want to have any chance of bringing them to a successful conclusion, it is important not to get ahead of ourselves. It is fair to say, looking at the history of the matter, that we are dealing with a regime that has played for time; is extremely astute; and takes a long-term strategic view on prosecuting its interests. We need to be equally hard-headed in our approach.

Therefore, while I commend my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have concerns about what is happening in other quarters. I also fear that some people are getting a little ahead of themselves. I am concerned by press reports saying that Baroness Ashton is due to visit Iran next month. I suppose that Baroness Ashton, in a way, represents us all, as the European Union’s High Representative under the Treaty of Lisbon. I certainly have concerns about that, and I wonder whether that is sending the right signal at this stage of events.

I have three particular concerns. The first concerns the signal that the visit sends to the Iranian side about what they can get out of the talks and what they have to give up in return. I am keen on the principle, which should have been enunciated by the international community, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. I do not see how that principle is consistent with the actions of Baroness Ashton in going to Iran, and the message that that will send all around the world about the Iranian regime and the possibility of doing trade and opening up relations with it. I am worried about the signal that is being sent.

Secondly, I am worried about the signal it sends when Iran, as has been rightly said already by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, is so concerned in exporting terrorism and aggression throughout the region. It has a history of doing that in many parts of the region—most of all, at the moment, in the Syrian conflict. The Iranian regime is a key linchpin of Bashar al-Assad in his efforts to fight back against the Syrian opposition. The Iranian regime is the pillar for Bashar al-Assad as he goes into action and counter-attacks the Iranian opposition. We know that during the four years of the conflict, thousands of Iranian, Lebanese and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen have been sent into Syria to help Bashar al-Assad, and Iran has been helping to send them there. There is no doubt about it. It is widely believed that the Iranian regime has been responsible for the successes that Syria has had, resulting in the conflict coming to a stalemate.

It was reported at the weekend that Iran is stepping up its support for Bashar al-Assad, providing elite teams to gather intelligence and train troops. There have been other reports that Iran has been sending specialists in with the direct intention of helping the regime to survive. Analysts believe that this renewed support has meant that Assad feels no need to make concessions at the currently deadlocked talks in Geneva, because he thinks that things are going his way with the support that he is receiving from Iran. It therefore looks slightly strange for Baroness Ashton to be going to Iran to fly the flag when talks with Iran about its nuclear position are taking place in Vienna, and in Geneva roughly the same parties are taking part in talks about Syria, which are deadlocked because of the actions of the Iranians.

I do not think we should be sending a signal about the Iranian regime either directly or indirectly through our EU High Representative Baroness Ashton—not when that terrible conflict is still taking place, when civilians are still losing their lives, and when terrible means are being employed against them. I do not believe that we should be sending that signal at this time.

My third reason for not wanting to endorse the Iranian regime with a visit by the EU High Representative is because of the message it sends to people at home in Iran. I draw a careful distinction between the Iranian regime and the Iranian people, who are a constructive, creative people with a great culture and a great history. There is a big difference between them and their regime. I congratulate Jim Shannon on his speech about the suppression of human rights in Iran. It is a cause that I have been particularly interested in, and I know there are grave concerns about human rights across the whole human rights piece in Iran.

Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I too have been interested in the persecution of Christians in Iran. What he said was absolutely right. People who try to change their faith or who try to promote their faith in any way in Iran are subject to terrible persecution. They are thrown into prison, their homes are raided and Bibles are confiscated. Hopes were expressed that the situation would change with the election of President Rouhani, but, for whatever reason—whether he is sending mixed messages or whether he is being undercut by conflict within the regime—there is no relaxation as far as the Christians are concerned. They are still languishing in prison for their faith, and in recent times we have heard terrible reports of four Christians being sentenced to 80 lashes for partaking of communion wine. That is since President Rouhani came to power.

I simply do not want the High Representative going to Iran to take part in discussions with the regime and endorsing it by visiting when human rights violations are taking place. We should take a much more hard-headed approach. We know that sanctions have been very effective against the regime. They have had a severe effect, and there must be concerns that a premature relaxation of sanctions would send the wrong message to the regime.

Not only is the EU High Representative Baroness Ashton getting ahead of herself, but others more widely seem to be getting ahead of themselves as well. We have seen reports of a French trade delegation of 100 leading businesses visiting Iran. Apparently, there is a German delegation in Iran this week. There are reports of a Greek delegation, led by the Greek Deputy Prime Minister, going to Iran. All that is going on when the talks have barely got going and we have no idea what the final settlement might be. One wonders what signal this sends to the Iranian side about what they need to do to get concessions in return. All the beneficial economic effects and the prosperity that flows to the regime as a result can be used by the regime, giving it more resources to support Bashar al-Assad and all the other activities taking place in the middle east.

I support hon. and right hon. Members in the course they have taken; they deserve our support. I simply ask them and everybody else—I know the hon. and right hon. Members have this in mind—to keep a tight hold on Iran and to keep in mind the objective of ensuring that it does not develop a nuclear capability. I have no doubt that Iran intends to develop such a capability. I am not remotely technically qualified to pass a judgment on how far it is on the road to acquiring one, but there can be little doubt that Iran is seeking to acquire such a capability. The rest of the international community think that. Why would Iran expose itself to sanctions if it did not have that intention in mind?

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

As long as it is shown that I was saying that we must make every effort and use every endeavour to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, I will conclude.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North 3:30 pm, 26th February 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing this debate. Iran is a topic that often needs a good airing. At this critical time, it is important that we give strong scrutiny to the Geneva accord agreed at the end of last year.

First, may I declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I am chairman of the all-party group on Iran and have been for the past eight years. I have twice visited Iran—including recently, three or four weeks ago. I have also visited on a number of occasions the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna at the United Nations.

We always have to go back to the beginning on Iran. We have to remember that the nuclear programme for Iran did not start last Tuesday or last year; in fact, it started in the mid-1960s, when the Shah was in charge—funded by the United States, ironically. General Electric came to its aid, to develop the first reactor in the heart of Tehran. Iran has had nuclear ambitions, whether civil or military, for decades. They have been part of its psyche. It lives in a rough neighbourhood; it has rivalries that we can, perhaps, only understand as having similar aspects to those in the cold war and with the Soviet Union; and it is surrounded by ethnically and religiously different economic and military rivals. That has often driven some of its insecurities.

The history of the nuclear programme is long and sporadic and it has jumped, depending on which country has helped Iran. The Russians helped it build a reactor in the past, the United States has done so and I suspect that the North Koreans have, too. Certainly, other members of the international community have stuck their oars in. That is why there is a rather illogical, sporadic and often bizarre civil nuclear programme.

Iran is not the only country in that region to have a civil nuclear programme. The United Arab Emirates is developing one right now, as we speak. Many middle east countries have sought to acquire nuclear technology. The most striking examples are India and Pakistan, which developed in total secrecy a nuclear weapons programme that ended up in actual nuclear weapons. We in the west either chose not to know or did not seem to know.

The process goes on. It is not new. It has, unfortunately, become entwined with the Iranian psyche and its view of itself in the world. However, let us remember that middle east politics is often as much about rhetoric as about action. Throughout the 1980s, for example, at the height of Ayatollah Khomeini’s rhetoric against the country of Israel, Israel sold Iran nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of arms. In fact, Israel broke the UN sanctions on arms embargo to Iran and Iraq in that period. It suited Israel at that stage to ignore the rhetoric and to side with Iran against Iraq, while the west was unfortunately supporting Iraq, by supplying it with some pretty dubious methods.

We have to go forward. In 2001, Iran helped the west bring down the Taliban. We might remember the Lion of Panjshir, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was the west’s favoured leader of the Northern Alliance—the man who was going to liberate Afghanistan on our behalf. The irony was that he was Iran’s man in Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance helped America and Britain in their targeting and intelligence gathering against the Taliban.

Throughout these processes, Iran has stepped forward, sometimes against its nature, but sometimes for its own self-interest, and it has often been rewarded by immediate rejection. The “axis of evil” phrase was used in relation to Iran, despite its assistance to the British and Americans in getting rid of the Taliban.

Trust is the problem in much of this, whether in respect of the nuclear programme, human rights or exporting terrorism. The Iranians’ knowledge of Britain’s poor behaviour towards it in the last centuries is better than mine. The Iranians understand that we supported the constitutional revolution in 1906 and then undermined it, when we removed the democratic constitutional revolution, to put in a Shah, and then we moved that Shah when he became too friendly with the Nazis. Then we moved their Prime Minister in the 50s and put in another Shah. They understand that we—the United Kingdom—play power games and that we are not to be trusted, in the same way that we, quite rightly, have every reason not to trust Iran in the near future.

We have not trusted Iran on its nuclear programme. It has hidden things and has certainly done its best. There is proof that, in 2003 and 2002, it acquired from the AQ Khan network—not funded by Iran, but by one of its regional rivals—military plans for a weapons programme.

Trust is failing on both sides. That has been the real issue. I do not argue with my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon that, really, at the heart of the Geneva accord, the issue is about trying to fix this trust and to see what steps we can take to build together. We will have to stick our neck out to build that trust. That is the problem. I understand; if I was living in Israel right now, I would be worried about that. It is not me under direct threat from Iran. In fact, British national interests and British security are not threatened by Shi’a Islam, but by Salafist Sunnis emanating from al-Qaeda. They are the people who will blow up our trains and tube stations. That is nothing to do with Iran; that is to do with other major players in the region, who are either tacit or have yet to deal with that problem.

If I was in Israel, of course I would be worried and rightly so. But I also recognise that, within Israel, there is a split about the extent to which the Iranians are rational and irrational and how much Iran really wants to do nuclear damage or blow up Israel. Meir Dagan, the ex-head of Mossad—not a boy scout organisation—said on the record that Iran is rational and that he does not think it intends to go to that next step.

Nevertheless, the situation is real and we should look at the facts and the evidence as they are presented. The first things that I look at are the national intelligence estimates of the United States, the first of which, in 2007, was made under George Bush. The estimates are put together by the National Security Council, the CIA and the Pentagon. President Bush was not known as a dove on any areas in the middle east, but the national intelligence estimate produced at the time said, “We do not believe—we believe they did previously—that they are now on the verge of a break-out”. That is an important document. It was dismissed at the time by the hawks, but in 2012, under President Obama, another one appeared that effectively reaffirmed that national intelligence estimate.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s counter-view on some of these issues. It is easy to talk about organisations presenting reports. I have found the 2012 Institute for Science and International Security report, containing information from former weapons inspectors, who disagreed with Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN General Assembly in 2012 and felt that Iran would have a nuclear capability within months. It is okay to say that certain organisations say that is not possible. Equally, it is valid to say that other organisations contradict that point of view.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

I register the point, but these are not national institutes. This is the CIA and the Pentagon—okay, they do not have the best track record on intelligence, but they never gave the benefit of the doubt to the doves; they always gave it to the hawks. These are major national institutions—Government organisations—that share intelligence with Israel and all the other allies that we have, so they are certainly serious. It is important to look at that fact.

We should not pass over the grand bargain offered by Iran in 2003. The grand bargain was something that every hon. Member in this Chamber would have signed up to tomorrow. It was an offer by Iran to suspend enrichment; to join the additional protocol, with further and more intrusive inspection than even Britain has under the non-proliferation treaty; and to demilitarise Hezbollah. It was even to have gone as far as to recognise Israel, which many countries in the middle east, which may be against Iran but are not necessarily allies, still do not recognise. They may help Israel, but they still have not taken the next step. That grand bargain was rejected out of hand by the White House.

People sitting now in Iran would say, “Hang on, we offered all this and this was all thrown away”. That goes back to the heart of the matter. The trail of trust has been full of missed opportunities on both sides. We really need to try to rebuild it. I commend this Government, the Obama Administration and the P5 plus 1 for sticking their necks out.

I do not mind who visits Iran. I have been to Iran, but I do not approve of what the Iranians do to Christians, Baha’is or other minorities. I condemn that absolutely, but I believe that visiting Iran does not mean supporting Iran. If people criticise or propose policy against a country, it is a good idea for them to take time to visit that country. That is important. I do not sit around and get involved in debates on Israel because I have not been there. One day I might decide to do so, mainly because it affects other middle east policy that I might want to discuss. Going there is important.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s logic. I might be reading it wrong, but is he saying that we need to go to a country to appreciate and understand it fully?

I have never been to Israel, but I would say that I have a full appreciation and understanding of Israel and of how it feels threatened by many countries across the world. I have no less knowledge of Israel because I have not been there. Not going there does not lessen my enthusiasm for the state, which I feel is threatened. Does he accept that?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

I accept that, but I would not support the hon. Gentleman if he criticised people who have visited Israel to find out. I do not think that can be a point of criticism. He is from Ulster, where I have spent a lot of time. In fact, I have sat down with members of the IRA. That does not mean per se that I supported the IRA when we were trying to negotiate a peace deal. People increase their knowledge by going somewhere and understanding it. They do not become a world expert, but they increase their knowledge. When we speak to normal Iranians or see at first hand the split between the Iranian Government, the different Ministries and the different politicians, we understand a bit more. We do not become an expert or an Iranian any more than we would become an Israeli if we went to Israel.

Photo of Guy Opperman Guy Opperman Conservative, Hexham

I apologise for not being present for the speech of my hon. Friend Dr Offord, whom I congratulate on securing this debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Wallace for allowing me to intervene. I support the thrust of what he says. I have visited Israel with Conservative Friends of Israel, and going there benefits those who go. Any situation that establishes better relations between the west and Iran has to be the way forward if we are to have long-lasting peace in the middle east.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace Conservative, Wyre and Preston North

I totally agree. It is important that we understand that there is a prize to be had: stability, a resolution to the nuclear threat—if there is a nuclear threat—and a chance to build new alliances in the middle east. We cannot avoid the issues in Saudi Arabia, which seem to be ignored.

Jim Shannon mentioned apostasy and the persecution of Christians. There are not many Muslim countries in the world that allow Christians to proselytise. Try taking a Bible to Saudi Arabia; Bibles can be taken to Iran. People might not be able to proselytise in Iran, but try going to a church in Saudi Arabia any time soon. We have to realise that there are opportunities.

I will finish so that there is time for the Minister and others. A battle is still going on in Iran between hardliners and reformers. The reformers are trying to say to the population, “Look, Iran can be successful, but we need to concede certain things. We need to slow the nuclear programme”—or cancel it if there is a military aspect—“and we need to come into the international community. We will address human rights, too.” I met the President’s chief of staff, and I directly pressed him on the Baha’is. Iran needs to show that willingness.

The hardliners and principlists like isolation and sanctions. The revolutionary guard profits from sanctions, because sanction-busting is very profitable. We have to say, “Here is a chance.” As of today, the Iranians are complying with their Geneva accord obligations. They are reducing the stocks of 20%-enriched uranium. Before the Geneva accord, the Iranians were diverting such uranium to fuel plates. Iran is starting that process, and it is increasing the number of inspections.

We need to judge Iran, day by day and week by week, on where it is going, but please remember that, if we decide to shut out that effort, we will bring in the hard- liners of Iran, who will not be interested in rapprochement or the international community and who will take refuge in a religious extremism that will not help the Iranian people, peace in the region or the countries of Britain and Israel.

Several hon. Members:


Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Party Chair, Co-operative Party 3:44 pm, 26th February 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I congratulate Dr Offord, my north London near neighbour, on securing the debate, which has been a useful opportunity to assess recent events in Iran including, among other important issues, the joint plan of action. He rightly said that the joint plan of action does not resolve international suspicions about Iran’s intentions and merely suspends some of those suspicions for some people. He is right to continue to be concerned about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism and other harmful activity in the region. He, along with Mr Clappison, rightly underlines that the sense of threat from Iran is still felt particularly acutely in Israel.

As in previous debates on Iran, we have had a good range of contributions from hon. Members offering differing but strongly held views. The speech of Mr Wallace was interesting in highlighting some of the history of the relationship between the west and Iran. He noted some of the complexities and the need for nuance in our debates on future relations with Iran.

Such a range of views and the need for nuance is perhaps reflected in the region itself. I am struck that there is clearly an intense debate on the joint plan of action in Israel. In that context, it is worth noting the comments made yesterday by the Israeli Labour party leader Isaac Herzog, who challenged some of the comments by Israel’s Prime Minister, Mr Netanyahu, on the Iranian nuclear deal:

“This is an interim agreement; it isn’t Judgement Day…yet.”

He suggested in a slightly more partisan tone that Mr Netanyahu was encouraging a sense of panic on the joint plan of action that is not necessarily helpful.

The hon. Member for Hendon, in response to an intervention, alluded to Iran’s role in Syria and elsewhere in the region. Perhaps inevitably, it is always a critical time in the middle east, but it feels particularly so at the moment. Iran clearly plays an important role, and its activities in the region have implications for the wider relationship between Iran and the west. The international community, including the UK Government, must continue to do all it can to encourage all the parties in Syria to end the fighting and, in that context, to persuade Iran to influence the Assad regime at every opportunity to cease the use of violence against its own people.

Similarly, Iran’s dismal human rights record has rightly been raised by a couple of hon. Members. There are serious ongoing concerns. If the new regime in Iran takes steps to improve the country’s human rights record, it would send a strong signal on the importance that the Iranian Government attach to co-operation and engagement with the international community. Although President Rouhani has not openly expressed anti-gay rhetoric, unlike his predecessor, Iran’s Islamic penal code still lists homosexuality as an offence punishable by death.

Jim Shannon rightly highlighted concerns about the attitude to other religions and ethnic minorities. It is far from clear, according to Iran’s Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, that political prisoners are being released in the way that the regime has previously claimed.

There has long been recognition in the House and across the international community that we need to grasp the serious opportunities that occasionally come along—they are certainly presenting themselves to us now—to improve relations between Iran and the UK and the west in general. The hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North highlighted a number of the missed opportunities to do just that. President Rouhani is offering the prospect of seriously improving the relationship between the UK and Iran. In recent months, his Administration’s new approach to negotiations suggests that we should be open to continuing serious engagement with his regime. I pay tribute to the EU’s High Representative, Cathy Ashton, not only for her role in the negotiations but for her willingness to continue to follow through on the prospects for better engagement.

On ensuring that Iran’s nuclear programme is and remains peaceful, Members will be aware that the first step agreement with Iran commenced on 20 January and continues to be implemented. We are between talks and the E3 plus 3 are meeting again in March for the next round. We should be encouraged that the previous talks were of a constructive nature.

The hon. Member for Hendon rightly raised concerns about Iran’s attitude to, for example, the critical issue of centrifuges. There has been concern that Iran has installed new centrifuges. As the shadow Foreign Secretary expressed in his response to the Foreign Secretary’s statement on Monday, there is concern that Iran is still operating more than 10,000 centrifuges when the interim deal set out a much lower target. What is the Minister’s view on that? There has also been concern about the Arak heavy water research centre. As he has previously said, under the joint plan of action Iran is supposed to fully resolve concerns about that reactor and confirm that no reprocessing will take place there. What is his view on progress in that area?

The deal that has been agreed is a necessary step precisely because Iran has developed an enrichment programme over recent years, despite calls by the international community to stop. That is why the existing substantial sanctions must be enforced and why the comprehensive solution must address all the proliferation concerns on Iran’s nuclear programme. Does the Minister believe that the IAEA has the necessary resources to be responsible for the verification of the nuclear-related measures to which Iran has committed? Will he explain more about the monitoring and validating processes that the IAEA will go through? Maintaining confidence in those processes will be important in helping address the suspicion about the Iranians’ activities. In that way, the necessary trust can be built to achieve the comprehensive solution that will ultimately be in everyone’s interest.

Will the Minister set out what the role of the joint commission of the E3 plus 3 and Iran will be? What stage are we at in the development of the joint commission? Will he set out, as the shadow Foreign Secretary asked the Foreign Secretary to do on Monday, the impact that the sanctions relief has had so far on the Iranian economy? Will the Minister set out the most recent estimate of the benefits that the limited sanctions relief has so far brought to the Iranian economy? Similarly, what impact has the limited sanctions relief had on Iran’s petrochemical exports and the imports of goods and services for its automotive manufacturing sector?

Finally, on a related but nevertheless separate issue, the UK and Iran brought protecting power arrangements to an end last week, which is an encouraging sign of increasing confidence that bilateral business can be conducted directly between capitals, rather than through intermediaries. Iran’s non-resident chargé d’affaires visited the UK this week. Can the Minister provide at least some update on the progress in those discussions? All of us wish the Government and the E3 plus 3 well in seeking to deliver on the comprehensive solution. I hope the Minister will continue to provide regular updates to the House to offer assurance on the progress of negotiations.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Minister of State 3:55 pm, 26th February 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Offord on securing the debate and thank all hon. Members for their contributions. Given that this has been something of a question fest, I suspect that my best approach in summing up is not to read through the beautifully drafted piece of English that has been supplied to me, but to try to pick out the questions that have been asked and to go through them as swiftly as I can in the 10 minutes remaining.

In a sense, the debate has highlighted the issue. It would be a bit simplistic to call it a glass-half-full, glass-half-empty debate, but in a sense everyone is occupying the same piece of ground. My hon. Friend Mr Wallace gave us a wonderful historical tour de force of relations with Iran. There are ample reasons to be extremely cautious and very suspicious. On the other hand, once every so often an opportunity comes around. The question is whether to make that leap of faith and test it, being well aware of all the past problems, the history and the dangers, in the hope of getting to a better place eventually. Alternatively, we can be extremely cautious at every stage to the extent that it impacts on the ability to conclude that final deal. Those are difficult and complex judgments, and there are no right or wrong answers.

The last time the international community had a go at this was when Mr Straw was Foreign Secretary. It got to a stage where all the suspicions present in today’s debate were aired, and a combination of the hard-liners in Tehran and Washington derailed the deal. The consequence of that was that the steps towards nuclear production simply continued. Arguably, as a result of not being able to take those bold steps, the situation got worse, not better—I know it is difficult to second-guess these things now. It is absolutely right to be cautious and sensible and to have an eye to history, but we should see on this occasion whether we can test the feelings and sentiment in Iran.

I will try to answer the various questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon asked. He is absolutely correct to say that the interim agreement does not resolve international suspicions. As he will have guessed from my opening remarks, I absolutely agree that it does not. It is merely a first step that buys us the time to move towards further discussions on the issues, of which he raised a great many. A comprehensive agreement will absolutely need to address the proliferation concerns that he set out. Let me be clear: we will not sign a deal if it does not address those concerns. Secondly, he made the point that, through the sanctions relief regime, we have eased the pressure on Iran’s economy for very limited concessions in return.

It is worth saying that the interim deal addresses some of the nuclear programme’s most concerning elements: the eradication of the stockpile of 20% enriched uranium; and Iran being forbidden from installing further centrifuges, which is different from developing them. It also eases the monitoring regime carried out by the IAEA. We and the US estimate the sanctions relief given to Iran to be about $7 billion over the six-month period. That is a relatively small fraction of the $60 billion to $100 billion of restricted Iranian oil funds held abroad and of the $60 billion to $70 billion it needs to finance its foreign imports. I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns, but there is a sense of proportion in that.

My hon. Friend asked about what are called in the parlance the PMDs—possible military dimensions—of Iran’s nuclear programme. That is very much a concern. He is right to say that they are not addressed in the interim agreement, but they are a key part of the final negotiations that will take place so they will be addressed. Indeed, the joint plan of action makes it clear that the joint commission, composed of the E3 plus 3 and Iran, will work with the IAEA to facilitate the resolution of all those issues.

Fourthly—if I have got the order right—my hon. Friend asked about the sanctions relief enabling the Iranians to fund terrorism, which touches on a point made by several other Members. There is no doubt that Iran’s support of terrorism throughout the region is a malignant force. As my hon. Friend Mr Clappison mentioned, were there need for evidence, considerable evidence is available—it is a statement of fact—that Iranian support for Hezbollah and directly through the Qods Force has played a considerable part in the conflict in Syria. That is not the only example by any means of Iran’s malign influence in the area; it has been seen recently in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and right around the Arabian peninsula. That will have to be addressed if relations with Iran are to be normalised in any meaningful way.

I guess that the question about the granting of access to the IAEA was driven by the Parchin military facility issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Hendon is right that the interim agreement does not allow the IAEA access to Parchin. However, following Iran’s agreement with the IAEA on 8 February about the exploding bridgewire detonators, we hope that we can make progress. Indeed, that will have to be addressed as part of any final and comprehensive agreement.

My hon. Friend asked, perfectly reasonably, about our assessment of whether the Iranian actions at the moment are within the spirit of the JPA agreement. Mr Thomas asked in particular about the continued production of advanced centrifuges with reduced break-out times and whether that poses questions about Iranian intentions. There is no doubt that we would much rather that Iran had not done that. The IAEA, however, has looked at what it has done thus far and confirmed that it is currently complying with the JPA’s strict terms. As part of the 24 November agreement, Iran has committed not to install or bring into operation any new centrifuges in the main enrichment facilities.

That, however, does not help with confidence-building measures and, as we touched on earlier, there will be a real trust issue if the Iranian Government continue to act in this way. Again, that will have to be addressed as part of the comprehensive agreement.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about the concerns that Iran could simply pocket the benefits and walk away from the negotiations. Indeed it could, but, if so, it has a great deal to lose. The Iranian economy is going through the floor and there is real hardship in Tehran. Anyone who looks at this—intelligence agency or otherwise —realises that the Iranian economy is in a very bad place indeed, and the key electoral promise of the Government was to restore the economy, so they have a considerable incentive. Without such an agreement, they can do absolutely nothing to bump-start their economy.

If the deal falls to pieces, no doubt international reaction will be tough and Iran will wear the blame for that. The full sanctions regime will simply be reinstated and it will move backwards very quickly. In an environment in which Iran had toyed with the international community and let it down, it would be difficult to restart talks for some time. My hon. Friend is right that, in theory, Iran could pocket what it has got at the moment and walk away, but that might not be wise on its part. There is no intention whatever to offer further sanctions relief over and above what it has got until it has delivered on the key terms of the agreement.

Let me turn to some of the other questions asked in various contributions. It is always a pleasure to hear from Jim Shannon. He talked about the power struggle in Iran and he is absolutely right. At the moment, the indication is that the supreme leader backs the regime in the talks being conducted: indeed, the substantive concessions made thus far would not have been possible without his support. However, as we all know, hard-liners who do not wish the process well are operating in the background. The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about whether Rouhani can deliver. Our assessment is that he can, but if we push him too hard, it probably will not take a great deal for that to change. If he cannot show real benefit from the process, that assessment must be called into doubt.

The hon. Gentleman asked about human rights abuses in the country and he is right to highlight them. I have the figures here and the situation is appalling—there are no two ways about it. There have been reports of at least 400 executions in 2013. Iran has the second highest number of journalists in prison in the world. Opposition leaders have been detained for more than two years. Arrests of human rights defenders and journalists continue, as does persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. The Government will continue to hold Iran to account. We are not being soft: more than 80 EU sanctions are designated on individual Iranians and entities responsible for human rights violations.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Conservative, Hertsmere

May I say how grateful I am to the Minister for his personal interest in and attention to the issue of persecution of Christians in Iran? He deserves tribute for his stand.

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Minister of State

I thank my hon. Friend. He is very kind. One of the curious things about my job is that I end up handling the majority of the correspondence that flows into the Foreign Office. In my first few months, it was noticeable that one of the subjects raised most regularly by Members throughout the House was the fate of Christians in the middle east. In the various visits I have made around the region, I have tried to make a specific point of seeking out Christian leaders to talk to them about what is happening. I had a fascinating couple of hours with the Copts in Egypt—there are between 10 million and 12 million of them—and I will continue to take a close interest as I make my various visits.

To finish my response to the hon. Member for Strangford, he is right that religious freedom is a key part of where Iran needs to get to. That is something that is largely lacking under the current regime.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I entirely agree with the comments made by Mr Clappison about the Minister’s dedication and interest, which I appreciate as well. In my speech, I mentioned that Rouhani had indicated through Twitter his best wishes for Christians at Christmas time and at times of festival. That is an indication of a leader providing leadership. Has the Minister had any chance of gentle discussion with Rouhani and his Government?

Photo of Hugh Robertson Hugh Robertson Minister of State

The honest answer is no. Contact at ministerial level with the Iranian regime has been restricted to the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary. I think it is appropriate to keep it at that level rather than open the door. There are all sorts of reasons—I was just about to come on to this matter—why we might proceed with some caution, so I have not had those conversations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere made the very good point that it is important not to get ahead of ourselves. I agree absolutely. The Foreign Secretary put it well in the early autumn of last year when he came back from New York. He explained that there had been a change in the atmospherics, but that nothing substantive on the ground has changed at all. That is a good way of putting it and a good way of approaching what we are doing at the moment. There is a clear opportunity but it makes abundant good sense to move forward with caution, acting sensibly and testing the intentions. There is a great prize at the end if we can get there, but we should proceed with caution.

My hon. Friend correctly drew our attention to the lack of progress in Geneva. I sat through the whole of the first day of contributions there, and our assessment was that the key driver behind that lack of progress was the regime’s unwillingness to address the question of regime change. It is a red line that the regime will not cross, and at the moment it is the great barrier. The regime wants to talk only about terrorism, whereas the opposition wants to talk about transitional arrangements. Breaking that deadlock is proving extremely difficult.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North. As chair of the all-party group on Iran he is the resident House expert on these matters, and is certainly the only person here today who has been to Tehran recently. He speaks with great knowledge. He is absolutely right to observe that trust has failed on both sides and that there is a battle between the reformers and the hard-liners. I thank him for acknowledging the benefits of the joint plan of action.

The Opposition spokesman asked about the thousands of centrifuges that have been produced, so I will give him chapter and verse on that. He is absolutely right that the regime has produced a series of centrifuges. As part of the agreement the regime is not allowed to install new centrifuges. The IAEA knows the centrifuges are there and is monitoring what happens to them. I hope that matter is in hand.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about Arak. The interim deal has halted construction there and suspended fuel production for the heavy water facility but the final status of that plant is a matter for the final status negotiations and so is not yet resolved.

The hon. Gentleman asked about resources of the IAEA. Off the top of my head, I do not know exactly how many people it has on the case on the team of inspectors, and I am not sure that that information would be readily available, for obvious reasons. However, if it gives him reassurance, I have been working closely on this matter for the past three or four months and at no stage have I heard a suggestion that the IAEA is short of resources or is unable to conduct the monitoring it wants to carry out.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the impact of sanctions relief on the Iranian economy, and I have already given some relevant figures. I do not know what impact sanctions relief has had on the automotive sector, but we will send him a written reply on that matter.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the visit of the Iranian chargé, who was just here, from 18 to 25 February. That was his second visit to the UK, and there have been two visits in the opposite direction. When we have the Iranian assessment of what he has achieved and what the issues are, there will be a process in which we will sit down and work out what happens next. The Foreign Secretary has been scrupulous in making a statement to the House every month or six weeks and that is his intention should there be any additional information on that matter.