Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-33)



  Q20  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Nuclear weapon states tend not to get attacked, Iraq did get attacked. Is it not one of the perhaps obviously unintended consequences that it sends a message to rogue regimes that maybe they ought to arm themselves with nuclear weapons?

  Mr Straw: I do not agree with you, I am afraid. Very few countries in the world have got nuclear weapons or even have that aspiration. Thankfully, because of the success of the non-proliferation regime, the P5 are not intent on attacking either each other or any other country in the world. You are then down to North Korea which is, shall we say, a challenging situation but where there is the six power process which I think could be successful. You have got India and Pakistan which are nuclear weapon states but they are potential adversaries only to each other. Then you have got the Middle East, which we have discussed. I am afraid I do not accept what you are saying. I believe it is the case that if we want to reduce risk in the world we have to work very hard to deal with any situation where there is a risk of proliferation.

  Q21  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: We are still negotiating with Iran even though they seem determined to at least get the nuclear option. Is this simply to keep this rather fragile coalition on board, including Russia and China, or do you think there is still a faint chance that they will seek a retreat perhaps to allow Russia to take over part of the nuclear fuel cycle?

  Mr Straw: I think the odds of that are less than they were but there is still a chance. Just to go back to this point about ambiguity: you get these very, very mixed messages out of them. I think they judge this is the way to handle their diplomacy but they misjudge this because if they had handled Russia, China, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, the Yemen and Egypt rather better they would not have been voting against Iran in the last Board of Governors. There is a chance. The Iranians, so far as I know, although they have taken the seals off the centrifuges, have not started to produce fuel from them. We received some sedulous offers from the Iranians, that we should allow them to do research and development on these centrifuges in return for them undertaking not to go into full-scale production. One of the reasons why we decided to draw a line was because we said if you do any kind of work on the centrifuges, on enrichment, that is at the beginning of the fuel cycle and we were still unclear what they meant by research and development. The Russian offer is on the table, and the Iranians are blowing hot and cold about that, but we happen to believe that it would be a very constructive basis for a solution to this problem and one which could be a solution with dignity to the Government of Iran.

  Q22  Mr Heathcoat-Amory: Are you moving to the American position that negotiation simply enables Iran to play a cat and mouse game with the rest of us and that finally Iran has to face consequences?

  Mr Straw: I do not think that is the American position. First of all, I do not agree that this coalition is as fragile as you describe it, and I have set out why I think it has become stronger and stronger. The Americans have been actively backing the approach that we have followed. I discussed the issue of sanctions in an earlier question, with respect.

  Q23  Ms Stuart: Could I follow up on what you said about the coalition not being fragile. Given the heavy dependency of China in particular on Iranian gas supplies it was surprising that China took the action that it did. Given that you suggested that Russia is probably our option in terms of solving that problem, it is a get out of jail card, do you not think there is still quite considerable potential for power play once we get to a proper referral to the Security Council?

  Mr Straw: Yes, I do. Of course I accept that, Ms Stuart. The Iranians thought that they could use this power play to prevent the matter even being subject to a resolution with this size of vote. What we have seen is Russia and China make some very important strategic decisions. Yes, in the case of China they rely to a significant degree on Iranian oil and gas and in the case of Russia their direct interests are different but very close because they are a neighbour and Iran has potentially very significant influence in the Caucasus to stir up trouble. I think that Russia and China judged against those direct and immediate interests it was very important to make clear to the Iranians that the patience of the international community was being exhausted and if the Iranians were demanding of Russia and China that they choose between Iran or the international community and international solidarity then they would do the latter and not the former.

  Q24  Ms Stuart: They are putting rather a lot of trust in the Russians in this whole area. Given at the last meeting of the Shanghai Corporation Organisation in Moscow in November, Iran, India and Pakistan were there were as observer status, is there not a real danger if we rely heavily on Russia to resolve that we may have an alternative power problem where we could be equally held to ransom?

  Mr Straw: I do not think so. I understand the reason for your anxiety. I have to say that I regard the Russian Federation and my colleague, Sergei Lavrov, the Foreign Minister, as extremely helpful and co-operative on this. I am not saying that Russia always comes to the same conclusion as us, of course they do not, they have a different point of view and a different perspective, but they have been increasingly co-operative.

  Q25  Mr Maples: You have put a huge amount of effort over the last two or three years into this diplomatic process and you must wonder sometimes whether it has really got any chance of coming to anything at all. To get this resolution of the IAEA you had to downgrade from refer to report, I think. Iran has rejected the EU initiative that you referred to yesterday in Question Time and today it has rejected the Russian proposal. Just suppose we get it to the United Nations Security Council and they do get some sanctions, the chance of those sanctions actually stopping Iran if it is determined on getting to what I think is called the point of no return where they are on the path to nuclear weapons and there is no possibility of a military option at all, I just wonder why in these circumstances, and I do not think we should threaten military action as part of this, you consistently rule it out and say it is not appropriate, it is not on anybody's agenda because that implies—this is the trade-off I would like you to discuss a bit in your answer—that living with the consequences of a nuclear Iran are better than living with the consequences of military action which stops it becoming a nuclear power. It seems to me while those are both extremely unpleasant alternatives, I do not see that it is obvious that it is easier to live with the consequences of a nuclear Iran.

  Mr Straw: First of all, I have found it frustrating from time to time but I also think it is very important as well and this is a better way than the alternative. In fact, I do not actually know what the alternative would be apart from hand-wringing and saying it is all very difficult but not doing very much about it. Secondly, we do not know for certain, as I have said, that Iran is developing a nuclear weapons capability and that remains to be seen. If they are, the result of this process will be that there will be a very much stronger international consensus about what further measures would be required if that were to transpire. That is important. The third thing I would say, and this is another reason why I have spent so much time on this, Iran is a really important country and, however frustrating I find their negotiators, Iranians are lovely people, they have got a very distinguished history and culture—

  Q26  Mr Maples: What is the trade-off of living with the consequences? I am not interested in Iranian history.

  Mr Straw: I am explaining why I am living with the frustrations. It is really important that we do everything we can to try and bring them into the fold. Why have I said that it is not on anybody's agenda? Because it is not.

  Q27  Mr Maples: Perhaps it ought to be.

  Mr Straw: I do not want to get down the road of speculating what kind of agenda it could be on in an abstract world. The Prime Minister—I do not want to sound sycophantic, which is not my usual approach—said to George Young yesterday: "You know what the difficulty is, George. If you are not careful, you put a word out of place, people think you are about to go and invade Iran and then people try and pin you down to saying no matter what happens you are never going to do anything" and so on. He said it is not on our agenda; it is not on our agenda. I do not think it is sensible or productive to speculate on the circumstances in which it could be on anybody's agenda.

  Q28  Mr Maples: I did not ask you to do that.

  Mr Straw: I am absolutely certain of one thing, that if it had been on the agenda of the E3 then the possibility of getting an international consensus would have been for the birds and it would have played completely into the Iranians' hands.

  Q29  Mr Maples: Let me ask you the question slightly differently. Let us suppose that we do not get anywhere with this process or with the Security Council and in two or three years' time it turns out that Iran is past the point of no return, it does have nuclear weapons or is going to have them extremely soon in circumstances that we can then do nothing about. It seems to me that living with the consequences of that are absolutely horrific, which is presumably why you have devoted so much time over the last two and a half years to this. They would then have an impregnable home base, they would spark off a nuclear arms race in the Gulf, their terrorist activities would expand enormously, the threat to Israel would be horrendous and the chance of a nuclear exchange would rise dramatically. I simply cannot see how we can say, oh well, because your analysis seems to have led you to this conclusion it is better to live with that than with the consequences of military action to stop them becoming a nuclear power.

  Mr Straw: I have never said that I am denying what Article 51 of the Charter says, let us be clear about that. What I have said is that it is not on the agenda and I really do not think it is wise to speculate in an abstract way about the circumstances in which it might be on the agenda. The Prime Minister too has said it is not on our agenda, and it is not. I also do not believe that if Iran were in that position there would be nothing that the international community could do about it short of what you are implying, Mr Maples, of military action. If you take the issue of North Korea where the North Koreans, who for years denied that they were developing a nuclear weapon system, say they are, there is a process which I am reasonably hopeful will lead to a resolution of that problem by non-military means. I appreciate that North Korea is not Iran and Iran is not North Korea but that is not a bad example to take. This is very serious, very serious indeed, and it is all the more reason why we have got to stay engaged on this process until somebody comes up with a better alternative.

  Q30  Mr Maples: I think all of us would support you in that and hope that the diplomatic process is successful but we cannot afford to let it be strung out for another three years or it will be past the point of no return.

  Mr Straw: One of the effects of it being strung out so far is that whatever plans there were in the Iranian regime I am as certain as I can be that they have been delayed because by pressure of negotiation we got conversion for a period, we got the suspension of conversion for a period and in practice we still have suspension of enrichment and have done for many months, although that is now at risk.

  Q31  Chairman: Foreign Secretary, you have been with us an hour, I wonder if I can ask one final question. The Chinese are buying $70 billion worth of oil and gas from Iran. Iranian income has gone up massively with oil and gas prices being where they are. Even if we did get to a position of sanctions, do you really believe that those sanctions would be effective in any way? Secondly, in a way would they not be reinforcing the hold of this regime over Iranian public opinion?

  Mr Straw: If they were ill-judged and ill-thought through, yes, and that is one of the reasons why I do not want to speculate particularly on what Article 41 measures might be available to the Security Council. We are not there yet, we do not know whether we have got international consensus. To repeat my point about Syria, there are plenty of examples where the international community has exercised great authority without needing to resort to Article 41 sanctions, so let us see on that. I also just say this: on the credit side in arithmetical terms of the Ahmadinejad regime they have had this windfall of a doubling in the oil price, on the other side this is a country with a population which is very young, it is very demanding, the institutional structure of Iran is very inefficient indeed and you have these foundations which dominate the economy and ensure great wealth for those who are running them.

  Q32  Mr Purchase: A bit like here!

  Mr Straw: I am sure they do good charitable work as well but they look after themselves. They have got a lot of industrial discontent, including a strike by Tehran bus drivers very recently, notwithstanding the fact that the sanctions on people going on strike in Iran are a bit tougher than those for drivers on London Underground, if I may put it that way.

  Richard Younger-Ross: Do you want to look at that? Change it.

  Mr Purchase: It is increasingly sounding like here!

  Q33  Chairman: Can I thank you for coming along today. I hope you will be able to update us. Certainly we will be watching the situation very closely as it develops over the next few weeks. Thank you very much.

  Mr Straw: Thank you for your interest.

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