Urgent Question: Iran Nucelar Deal

Mark responded on behalf of the Government to an Urgent Question tabled by John Baron MP regarding the status of the Iran nuclear deal. Mark's statement and initial responses can be found below and the entirety of the debate can be found on Hansard here or viewed in the above clip.

Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con)

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. To ask the Government to make a statement on the status of the Iran nuclear deal.

The Minister for Asia and the Pacific (Mark Field)

The UK notes with great concern the statement made by Iran today concerning its commitments under the joint comprehensive plan of action. We are analysing the detail of it and are in close contact with the other parties to the deal. Today’s announcement from Tehran is, I have to say to the House, an unwelcome step. We urge Iran not to take further escalatory steps, and to stand by its commitments. We are not at this stage talking about re-imposing sanctions, but one has to remember that they were lifted in exchange for the nuclear restrictions as part of the JCPOA. Should Iran cease meeting its nuclear commitments, there would of course be consequences, but so long as Iran keeps to its commitments then so too will the United Kingdom. It is critical that we maintain an open dialogue with Iran, and we intend to do so: for example, the Foreign Office’s political director is visiting Tehran this week to discuss this and a range of bilateral issues. I myself hope to visit Iran in the coming months.

We recall our own firm commitments under the deal, including to lift sanctions for the benefit of the Iranian people. The lifting of nuclear-related sanctions is, of course, an essential part of the JCPOA. It aims to have a positive impact not only on trade and economic relations with Iran but, most importantly, on the lives of the many ordinary Iranian people who have had such a tough time over recent decades. We deeply regret the re-imposition of sanctions by the United States following its withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Along with the remaining participants of the JCPOA—Germany, France, Russia and China—we are committed to working on sanctions relief for Iran, together with third countries that are interested in supporting the JCPOA. We are determined to pursue efforts with European and other partners to enable the continuation of legitimate trade with Iran. The UK and our European partners met Iranian officials in Brussels only yesterday to discuss the next steps needed to operationalise the special purpose vehicle, INSTEX—instrument in support of trade exchanges—which aims to facilitate legitimate trade with Iran.

Even at this stage, we encourage all countries, including Russia and China as JCPOA participants, to make their very best efforts to pursue the sanctions relief that the agreement allows for through concrete steps. We take this opportunity to call on all parties that are not party to the JCPOA to refrain from taking any actions that would impede the ability of the remaining parties to fully perform their commitments.

Finally, it is important to remember that the UK remains very clear-eyed about Iran’s destabilising activity in other parts of the middle east—including its ballistic missile programme, which must now be addressed. However, we see that that can best be done through the JCPOA remaining in place.

Mr Baron

It is now a year since the US Government unilaterally withdrew from the joint comprehensive plan of action, better known as the Iranian nuclear deal. The Trump Administration have recently announced the forthcoming expansion of oil sanctions to all countries that buy oil from Iran, and have dispatched an aircraft carrier to the Gulf.

This morning, the Iranian Government announced that they are suspending key parts of the 2015 deal, citing the effect of US sanctions against their economy. Among other actions, Iran has stated that it will keep stocks of enriched uranium and heavy water rather than selling them on the international market, but it has threatened to resume production of enriched uranium in 60 days if the other signatories to the Iran deal—UK, France, China, Germany and Russia—do not plot a way forward to help the Iranian economy to withstand the effects of the US oil and financial sanctions.

It does not take me to remind the Minister that reaching the deal took broadly 10 years of diplomacy. At the time, it helped to avert a regional conflict; the House will remember how close the US, the UK and Israel came to military strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities in 2012. You will remember, Mr Speaker, that I led a Backbench Business debate on the issue at the time, in which I called for more diplomacy and less sabre-rattling. The House should also remember that the United Nations has made it clear that as far as it is concerned, Iran has abided by the deal—this is a unilateral action by the US.

I ask the Minister what else the Government can do to ensure the continuance of this important nuclear non-proliferation treaty, because whatever they are doing is clearly not succeeding at this point. I do not think that I am alone in believing that if the deal fails, there is a real chance of nuclear proliferation across the region. If that happened, I doubt whether there would be any winners in the conflict.

I will add one further point. Yes, we know that Iran is up to no good with some of its other activities in the region—terrorist activities and so forth. In diplomacy, however, going from imperfection to perfection in international relationships cannot be done in one bound; it is a series of small steps. The important thing is to head in the right direction. If the deal is allowed to fail, it will make for conflict in the region and possibly an escalation of nuclear capabilities. That would be bad news not just for the region, but for the world. The Foreign Office has to do more to use its diplomacy with regard to the US.

Mark Field

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the JCPOA is a cornerstone. It is critical for our security, not least because nuclear proliferation in that region of all regions would be calamitous. We therefore remain committed to it—as he rightly points out, it is the result of hard work over more than a decade of diplomacy. In the 18 years that we have been Members of Parliament, he has taken great interest in these matters; I very much respect his thoughtful contributions.

I ask my hon. Friend, and all hon. Members, to be assured that diplomacy continues. I very much hope to go to Tehran shortly, where we have an outstanding ambassador in Rob Macaire. As I pointed out earlier, we are working tirelessly on a mechanism to ensure that trade can continue, and that prosperity can therefore return to Iran; we were doing that in Brussels in the past ​24 hours. Continued work is very much on our mind. We believe that the deal is broadly working, and is therefore delivering on its goal to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) for securing it and for the consistency and clarity of his statements, which go back many years, about the need for peace with Iran.

Today is a deeply sad day for all of us, on all sides, who regarded the Iran nuclear deal as one of the crowning diplomatic achievements of this century and who saw it as opening a door to potential progress on all the other issues on which we have such grave problems with Iran— not least its human rights record. We very much hope for the contrary of what we fear, which is not just that the door to progress has been closed today, but that a very different door is being opened—one that leads us back to the past and to the threat of a new and devastating conflict in an already devastated middle east.

Let us make no mistake. The theocratic wing of the Iranian Government has always wanted the nuclear deal to fail, just as much as Donald Trump and the neo-con hawks who advise him. Frankly, this is not the day—tempting though it is—to berate those who are seemingly destroying the deal and throwing away the prospect of future progress. Today is simply a day to ask what our Government, our European Union and our United Nations can do together to prevent the slide back to confrontation and, eventually, war.

Iran is a country nine times the size of Syria, with a population three and a half times that of Syria before its civil war. Colin Powell’s former top adviser, Lawrence Wilkerson, who helped to create the case for the Iraq war, saw a potential war with Iran as

“10 to 15 times worse…in terms of casualties and costs.”

My only question to the Government today is the same question asked by the hon. Member for Basildon and Billericay: what practical steps will they now take to get the nuclear deal back on track and avoid descent into a catastrophic new war?

Mark Field

I thank the right hon. Lady. As she alluded to, it is appropriate, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo here in town to see the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, to look at the narrow facts rather than try to make a broader political point, although she also did so in her comments.

As I said earlier, we believe that the deal is working and is delivering its goal to ensure that Iran’s nuclear programme remains peaceful. That it is working has been confirmed by consecutive International Atomic Energy Agency reports, the most recent of which was published as recently as 22 February.

We accept that Iran’s nuclear activities must be peaceful, and that it is imperative therefore that it continue to comply with its obligations under the JCPOA. We will do all we can, not just bilaterally but internationally, including at the United Nations. It is interesting, as I pointed out earlier, that both China and Russia understand the grave concerns of the international community about the major and damaging consequences that could come into play.​

It was very fair of the right hon. Lady to point out that Iran has been a destabilising influence and remains so—look at Yemen, Lebanon and Gaza, where various proxies are in place—but equally we must work together with diplomacy. A lot of that work goes on quietly behind the scenes. Please be assured that those efforts will continue, not least because destabilisation in the region would have global consequences.