9 December 2020
James Cleverly responds to a debate on government policy on Iran

James Cleverly, Minister for Middle East and North Africa, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on Government policy on Iran.

The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Miller. I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) for bringing forward this important debate, which is clearly of interest to right hon. and hon. Members from every part of the House. I am grateful for their informed and passionate contributions.

Getting our approach to Iran right is of incredible importance, and it is clear from how well attended today’s debate is that there is a strong feeling on this issue right across the House. Those feelings have been expressed today. Before I address as many of the points raised as I can, it is right that, as has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members, our criticism—unfortunately, criticism will come—is not of the Iranian people. These are a people—indeed, Iran is a country—with a fantastic history, a marvellous heritage and a tradition in the arts and the sciences. My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) said he has spoken in critical terms about Iran for four decades and hopes that, in the near future, he will be able to speak in positive terms about Iran. I echo that. There is so much about Iran that could be spoken of in positive terms, but unfortunately today we find we are more critical than speaking in praise. It saddens me that that is the case, but nevertheless that is the situation we find ourselves in.

The Government’s priorities with regard to Iran are to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, to promote stability and security in the region and to secure the permanent release of all detained British dual nationals. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has consistently made it clear that we favour a diplomatic solution that addresses the international community’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and, in parallel, seeks to address both its destabilising behaviour in the region and its behaviour to its own people within its borders.

President-elect Biden has said that if Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA, the US will re-enter the agreement and seek both to strengthen and to extend it. This is an important opportunity to restart the engagement between Iran and the United States of America and to realise the full set of objectives set out in the joint comprehensive plan of action, which we support.

In the meantime, we remain clear that Iran must reverse its systematic non-compliance with the nuclear commitments under the JCPOA. We are deeply concerned by Iran’s actions and, in particular, its research and development and stockpiling of low-enriched uranium, which is in breach of the terms of the nuclear deal. If Iran is serious about the JCPOA, it must not implement the recent law passed by the Iranian Parliament to take further steps in violation of the JCPOA. That would undermine the important opportunity to return to diplomacy that the incoming US Administration have offered. Iran has a choice, and we strongly urge it to take the sensible, pragmatic choice of moving back towards diplomacy.

Our objectives remain to use the structures set out under the deal to address Iranian non-compliance and to reopen the door for re-engagement with the United States. We have not yet exhausted the dispute procedures set out in the JCPOA. To advance the discussions, the joint committee of the JCPOA will be held on 16 December at official level and followed shortly afterwards by a ministerial meeting of the JCPOA participants. Iran must engage on a route back to compliance through the joint commission as an essential step to rebuild confidence in Iran’s commitment to preserving the deal. Alongside our E3 partners, France and Germany, we have worked hard to preserve the deal. It currently remains the only way to monitor and constrain Iran’s nuclear programme.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members have mentioned snapback. We maintain the ability to snap back UN sanctions on Iran and we have made it clear to Iran that it must remain in compliance in order to preserve the deal. We will continue to support the deal for as long as it provides the benefits that I have mentioned. We will engage with the incoming Biden Administration to see whether we can strengthen and extend the deal further, to address the non-nuclear malign activity that Iran undertakes against its regional neighbours, because I share their concerns and the concerns expressed today about the continued risk of escalation in the region. Conflict is in none of our interests.

We continue to urge Iran to show restraint and to avoid any actions that might escalate tension in the region, and we echo those calls to its regional neighbours. We have long been clear about our concerns over Iran’s destabilising activity in the region, including, as has been mentioned this afternoon, its political, financial and military support to a number of militant and proscribed organisations and groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Syria, militias in Iraq and the Houthis in Yemen.

Catherine West 

I thank the Minister for giving way; he is very generous. Does he see a possible role for Magnitsky sanctions in relation to any financial facilitation perhaps assisting those sorts of groups external to Iran, so that we can use the might of the City of London to clamp down on any illegal facilitation of that kind of activity?

James Cleverly 

The hon. Lady makes a very good point. Let us be crystal clear: Iranian support for those groups contravenes UN Security Council resolutions and breaches international law. We currently hold Iran to account through a list of over 200 EU sanctions that are currently in place, including those against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety.

The hon. Lady mentioned our new autonomous Magnitsky-style sanctions, as did other right hon. and hon. Members. We have heard those calls. Right hon. and hon. Members will understand that we never discuss future designations under our autonomous sanction regimes, to prevent the risk of individuals removing assets that we might seek to freeze, but the calls for us to review the actions of members of the Iranian regime, in light of the sanction regime, have been heard and noticed.

We continue to support the enforcement of UN prohibitions on the proliferation of weapons to non-state actors in the region. We are committed to work with regional partners, the E3 and the US to find a solution to Iranian proliferation in the region.

Our concerns are not limited to Iran’s nuclear programme or regional behaviour. A number of Members, including the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), highlighted Iran’s actions towards its own people and its minority communities. Iran’s heavy-handed response to protests, its restrictions on freedom of expression, belief and religion, its use of the death penalty and its continued use of arbitrary detention, including to British dual nationals, remain of deep concern to the UK, and we remain opposed to them.

We continue to make clear to the Iranians our concern and opposition to their repeated, persistent violation of human rights. As has been mentioned by a number of Members, I can assure the House that the safety and good treatment of all British dual nationals in detention in Iran remains a top priority for the UK Government. We will continue to lobby at all levels for the immediate and permanent release of all British dual nationals in arbitrary detention, so that they can return home to the safety of their country and the embrace of their loved ones.

The Foreign Secretary recently summoned the Iranian ambassador to hand over a letter from E3 Foreign Ministers, expressing our concern about the grave human rights violations in Iran, including the arbitrary detention of dual nationals. We are deeply concerned that Iran has issued new charges against Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. These are indefensible, unacceptable and unjustifiable. We have been consistently clear that she must not return to prison. The UK Government, from the Prime Minister downwards, remain committed to doing everything we can for her and the other British dual nationals held in detention.

We want to see a peaceful and prosperous Iran, that is famous for its art, culture and history, not for its destabilising influence in the region and the world. We want to see an Iran that does not pose a threat to the UK, or to our friends and allies.

Christian Wakeford 

Many colleagues mentioned the need to proscribe the IRGC. Will my right hon. Friend commit to working across Government, and across parties, to make sure that that sensible, credible plan is adopted moving forward?

James Cleverly 

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. I cannot give him clarity on that in today’s debate, but I recognise that those calls have come from every corner of the House and that there is cross-party support for that. Again, it will be noted, and I genuinely take his and other Members’ position on this seriously.

Clearly, we want to see Iran abandon its intentions to develop nuclear weapons, but we also want to see it act as a good neighbour and a responsible regional power. We want to see it end arbitrary detention and improve its domestic human rights record, and the United Kingdom Government will continue to engage with international partners and directly with the Government of Iran to bring that about.

We have to understand that our approach needs to be based on a number of elements, including engagement and incentives, but also pressure, delivered bilaterally, through partners, and multilaterally. The future relationship between the UK and Iran, and between Iran and its regional partners, could be infinitely better than what we see at the moment, but ultimately it is in the gift of the leadership in Tehran to make that happen. I urge them in the strongest terms to take the actions to do so.