19 October 2021
James Cleverly responds to a debate on the Iran nuclear deal

James Cleverly, Minister for the Middle East and North Africa, responds to a Westminster Hall debate on Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

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

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) for securing this incredibly important and timely debate. I am also grateful for his recognition, and that of a number of hon. and right hon. Members, that I am in many ways constrained in terms of how much detail I can go into in this important and sensitive debate. I thank hon. Members for their understanding.

We have heard thoughtful, balanced and significant contributions by a number of hon. and right hon. Members this afternoon. Iran’s nuclear programme is, sadly, more advanced and worrying than it has perhaps ever been. That is why we are so focused on negotiating a deal that returns Iran to full compliance with the JCPOA commitments and doing so as soon as possible. Between 2015 and 2019, the joint comprehensive plan of action demonstrated that it could deliver results. For the UK and the international community, it restricted Iran’s nuclear programme to civilian use and supported the global non-proliferation system. For Iran, phased sanctions relief offered a more prosperous future for its people.

However, Iran has failed to comply with its JCPOA commitments for more than two years now. It continues to upgrade its nuclear capability, permanently and irreversibly. There is no doubt about this. The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, has verified Iran’s actions. Today, Iran’s nuclear programme is more advanced and worrying than ever before. The IAEA confirmed in August that Iran has produced uranium metal enriched up to 20% for the first time, and Iran has significantly increased its capability to produce uranium enriched up to 60%, as a number of hon. Members have mentioned in the debate.

It is impossible to overstate the severity of Iran’s actions. It has no credible civilian need to take such steps. It is unprecedented for a state without nuclear weapons to enrich uranium to 60%. Meanwhile, Iran has withdrawn from the JCPOA-agreed monitoring arrangement. That means that the IAEA has lost crucial insight into the status of Iran’s nuclear programme, precisely at the time that Iran is escalating its activities. There is no credible reason why the IAEA’s access should be restricted. There has never been a clearer imperative to halt the nuclear escalation and for Iran to return to the JCPOA commitments.

The diplomatic door remains—currently—open, but Iran must urgently return to talks in Vienna and engage in good faith. We remain committed to delivering a successful deal. A restored deal could also pave the way for further discussions on regional and security concerns, including in support of the non-proliferation regime.

While the JCPOA is not perfect, it is currently the only framework for monitoring and constraining Iran’s nuclear programme. We have fully upheld the JCPOA commitments from our side, including the lifting of sanctions. From April this year, we engaged in negotiations in Vienna, in good faith, alongside the US and other partners. Iran stepped away from those negotiations in June, after 10 weeks and six rounds of talks.

The UK, France, Germany, the US, Russia and China all stand ready to resume negotiations with Iran. We want to conclude the deal that is on the table. There is a substantial offer from the US on the table—to lift sanctions inconsistent with the JCPOA in exchange for Iran’s return to full compliance with its nuclear commitments. That is a both fair and comprehensive offer, but Iran has, thus far, failed to seize this opportunity.

We should be clear on this—time is running out to conclude a deal, and we may soon have to reconsider our approach. Every day that Iran delays talks and escalates its nuclear programme, it hurts its own economy and its own people the most. Iran’s current action is not in Iran’s best interests. With the diplomatic door still open to restore the JCPOA and lift sanctions, Iran must come back to the negotiating table, as a matter of urgency, to pick up where we left off. In the meantime, we will continue holding it to account for its nuclear escalation and wider destabilising behaviour.

A number of Members have spoken about British dual nationals in arbitrary detention in Tehran. The UK Government remain absolutely committed to securing their full release and returning them to their families and their loved ones. We will not rest until that is done. All Members should recognise that that incarceration is the fault and responsibility of the Iranian regime—no one else, nowhere else.

A number of right hon. and hon. Members mentioned the sanctions regime. We currently have more than 200 UK sanctions designations in place against Iran, including those related to human rights abuses and against the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in its entirety. Right hon. and hon. Members will understand that it is not useful to discuss or speculate on future sanctions regimes, as that might undermine their authority. We will continue our approach based on a combination of engagement, pressure and incentives.

As the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, we want to see a prosperous and peaceful Iran that feels secure within its own borders, and does not pose a threat to this country, our interests, or our allies. We are ready, willing and able to reach a negotiated settlement to that effect. It is now up to Tehran to engage seriously in that process.