Global Security: Non-Proliferation - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)



  Q220  Sir Menzies Campbell: I think I heard you say, Minister, that the NPT had a good track record. I wonder if you would maintain that in the light of the experiences of both 2000 and 2005 at the review conferences, where there were very substantial difficulties all around. Is there not a sense that the 2010 review is of enormous importance? If it were seen to be a failure in any sense, that would make the sustainability of the NPT very difficult to achieve.

  Bill Rammell: I agree with that and, bluntly, at the last review conference there were too many empty seats. I need to get the balance right here in that I do think the NPT has achieved progress; if you look at President Kennedy's predictions back in the 1960s, we have reined back what was the accepted wisdom at that stage of how far nuclear proliferation would go. But the challenges are daunting, and that is why we have got to make further progress.

  I think I am justified by the evidence in saying that there is a concern among some non-nuclear weapon states that there has not been sufficient progress in terms of disarmament by the nuclear weapons states. We need to do more to get across the evidence of the progress that has been made, but also to set out a trajectory of how we want to, and, indeed, how we can, go further. I also worry that some non-nuclear weapon states simply do not see proliferation as a concern and a challenge, so we have to engage on that level as well.

  In summation, I absolutely agree with you that next year's conference will be critically important to reinvigorating the NPT. Yes, it has made progress, but given the scale of the challenge that we face it has got to go further.

  Q221  Sir Menzies Campbell: The treaty is essentially a bargain between the declared nuclear powers and the non-nuclear powers. Do I understand from what you say that you accept that there is a sense of disappointment on the part of some of the non-nuclear powers that the bargain has not been kept?

  Bill Rammell: To state the obvious, you could go around the world and find people who articulate that—

  Q222  Sir Menzies Campbell: But if I asked whether it was justified?

  Bill Rammell: I am not sure it is justified. Has it achieved all that we want it to achieve? No, but the Government and I remain committed to trying to create the conditions where we can have a non-nuclear world in terms of nuclear weapons. Have we done enough? No, we have not. Have we made progress? I think we have. Take examples like South Africa and Libya, which voluntarily renounced nuclear weapons—I think that has been very positive progress. There are concerted efforts within the international community, through the treaty, to tackle states of concern like Iran and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. On the back of what has already been substantial disarmament by the recognised nuclear weapon states, I think there is an ambition to go significantly further.

  Q223  Mr. Horam: There are obviously specific issues in this area, such as Iran and North Korea, but some of us who were in Vienna and Geneva recently discussing the broad issue of non-proliferation and disarmament were told by many of the ambassadors there that, in their view, the whole issue had dropped away significantly in the last few years. The non-governmental organisations no longer had a great interest in it; they had switched their attention to things such as climate change and human rights. You talked about this document being designed to engage the public and get some momentum going, but that is extremely difficult, because apart from these one or two specific problems, people think it is all over. Would you agree with that?

  Bill Rammell: There is a grain of truth in that. At one level, it is a demonstration of the success that has been achieved in terms of the reduction of nuclear arsenals that people think the threat and the danger have gone away. I think this is still the most significant challenge that we face. You have still got—even with the reductions—enormous arsenals that exist. You have got rogue states that clearly have an intent to develop nuclear capability. You have terrorists—

  Q224  Mr. Horam: What is the key to getting momentum going though?

  Bill Rammell: One, I think you need political leadership and I think the—

  Q225  Mr. Horam: Is it all about President Obama?

  Bill Rammell: I would be lying if I did not say that I think his election provides a genuinely positive re-injection of commitment and momentum into this process. But it not just about him; it is about political leadership right the way across the board. It is also about engaging with people and convincing them that, despite the progress, there is a real threat here. In part, that is what the document is about. I was going to say you have also got al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks that have made their desire and their intent to develop nuclear capability explicitly clear. They do not have that capability as of yet, but this is a serious ongoing challenge.

  Q226  Mr. Horam: On a slightly separate point, one of the things which struck us in Vienna and Geneva was the enormous number of overlapping organisations in this field. You have, for example, the IAEA and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organisation—even though the test ban treaty has not even been ratified—doing similar work and you have the Zangger group and the Nuclear Supply Group doing similar work. Is there not a case for some rationalisation and co-operation in this whole area? I nearly said minefield, but you know what I mean.

  Bill Rammell: At one level, it is about a coalition of the willing. What you need to ensure is that there is not competitive overlap between the different approaches and not friction between them, and you have to spend and work a lot to ensure that that is the case. Take the example of the nuclear fuel cycle and how we can ensure that civil nuclear power is not being diverted into nuclear weapons. There are about 12 different international initiatives at the moment. On one level you might say that is too much—

  Mr. Horam: It is.

  Bill Rammell: In an ideal world, you would probably say you need one initiative that everybody agrees on, and you pull together on. However, the world is not quite like that. What you need to ensure is that initiatives do not detract from each other, and I do not believe they do. If different states are working in different areas and actually make progress, I do not think that is necessarily a bad thing.

  Q227 Chairman: Witnesses have said to us that the use of the term "weapons of mass destruction" is not helpful and that it blurs the fact that nuclear weapons are a category that should be dealt with in a separate way. Do you agree?

  Bill Rammell: I am not sure I do. I agree that you can have a chemical or a biological attack that is clearly survivable in terms of the whole of mankind, but I find it difficult to envisage a nuclear conflict that is, in the main, survivable. However, it has been used as a generic term to describe and underline the threat we face on all these fronts. Undoubtedly, however, I think the nuclear threat is the most significant challenge that we face.

  Q228  Chairman: I do not want to reopen history, but in 2002 and 2003, there was all this stuff in the media about WMD and it was not clear whether people were talking about a chemical shell or a nuclear bomb. You are talking about popularising and making things clear for the lay person. One of the difficulties is that if you use that broader term in a debate, it conceals the differences between the categories and their ability to have very different effects on the battlefield.

  Bill Rammell: I will reflect on that. We are in danger of going back over the Iraq conflict.

  Chairman: I am not trying to do that.

  Bill Rammell: I was at the Foreign Office at the time, at the heart of it, and if you look back on all the statements that were made, certainly in terms of what we were saying as a country and a Government, we were very clear that this was a chemical threat that we were taking, notwithstanding the fact that Saddam may have had a desire to develop nuclear capability.

  Would it help us to come up with a new terminology? Perhaps it would. However, I think we might then spend a great deal of time negotiating on the terminology—you need to get a consensus internationally—rather than making real progress on what matters in terms of disarmament.

  Q229  Mr. Purchase: One of the main, if not major, scientific narratives of the 20th and 21st centuries has been miniaturisation. Everything is getting smaller and more portable, which is reflected in our concerns that it is not so much countries that may attack one another by using of nuclear weapons, but terrorist organisations. As miniaturisation processes advance, what assessment have the Government made of the risk of it becoming easier and easier almost to conceal nuclear weapons to the point where they can operate in just the same way as suicide bombers are operating now?

  Bill Rammell: Clearly such a risk exists. I referred earlier to terrorist networks—what al-Qaeda has said on the record, and the fact that Osama bin Laden has talked about an Islamic duty to develop nuclear capability—and there was a call to arms, as it were, and they were seeking to recruit physicists and others to come forward and help. They clearly have that intent.

  We have to ward against their developing that capability, which means that we need a number of instruments internationally to try to tackle the problem. Things like the proliferation security initiative help us, and we need to work with individual countries of concern. We are doing that with a number of countries to ensure that there is not the dispersal and the spread of nuclear weapons technology. In a sense, it is about ongoing attention and vigilance.

  Q230  Mr. Purchase: I have not really got an answer from you, Minister. Is there any work taking place that might prevent religious fundamentalists from using or getting hold of this technology to miniaturise and to become an even bigger threat, because of their religious convictions, than is possibly the case now?

  Mariot Leslie: The Government are extremely worried about the capabilities of terrorist groups, but I know of no technology that could make it possible to make a viable nuclear device that did not use many kilograms of nuclear material. A miniature nuclear device is not something that we should be worried about. The acquisition of fissile material by terrorist groups is a serious concern and the Government have programmes to address that with our allies. Other attempts by people to get their hands on advanced technology is a serious concern, but the spectre of a miniature nuclear bomb is not something that we should be worried about.

  Q231  Chairman: Can I take that a step further? Getting back to WMD categorisation, how do you assess the relative risks of chemical or biological weapons being used by a terrorist group and by a state? Would it be fair to say that states are less likely than terrorist groups to use such weapons because of the general international climate between states?

  Bill Rammell: My instinctive answer to that is yes. Mariot, do you agree?

  Mariot Leslie: There is always a risk—if I have understood your question correctly, correct me if I have not—with biological and chemical materials that have dual use that it is relatively easy to make something crude that would have a big impact on members of the public. The risk is obviously an extremely serious one with nuclear materials, but they are much more difficult to deliver in an effective form. Rather than saying that we worry about one more than the other—it is rather like your question about WMDs—we need to work on all the components and have a coherent policy that looks at the risks for each element.

  Q232  Mr. Illsley: Minister, I have seen the memorandum that you supplied in relation to this inquiry, which talks about the need for "meaningful and valuable incentives" to be a key outcome of the NPT conference and treaty obligations. In the evidence that we have received so far, it has been suggested that if the issue is the weaknesses of the NPT, then there are weaknesses in enforcing it. In view of that, and given the need for consensus at the review conference, and given what my colleague just referred to as a lack of enthusiasm around the conference as a whole, is there a legal or political instrument that could introduce automatic sanctions for violation of, or withdrawal from, the treaty?

  Bill Rammell: In an ideal world, in advance of a particular cause for concern in respect of a specific state, I would want an agreement through the UN Security Council—and certainly through the NPT—for generic sanctions in respect of a generic breach. Bluntly, if I am honest, we would not get agreement on that at the moment, so we have to approach it on a case-by-case basis. When those instances occur, we have to take real, concerted, co-ordinated action. One would always like it to be stronger, but if we take Iran as an example, we have now had four successive Security Council resolutions, indicating that there is a degree of concerted pressure and agreement internationally. Similarly, through the six party talks, there has been a real focus on the DPRK. Ideally, I would like to say that, yes, we ought to have generic sanctions that kick in when there is a concern with a particular state. That is the endgame—we are not there at the moment, so we have to make efforts on a case-by-case basis.

  Q233  Mr. Illsley: My next question is going to be about Iran: is there anything in prospect in relation to the Iranian situation? Are you saying that that is not likely to be the case?

  Bill Rammell: The threat and challenge with Iran is a real and genuine one. Looking at the track record, one can see concealment for 20 years and refusal to engage adequately with the IAEA. Our estimate is that Iran could develop capability in years, not decades. The next year is going to be critical. There is a substantial offer on the table through the E3 plus 3 process that meets all of what Iran, on the face of it, says that it wants on civil nuclear capability. At all levels, we are urging Iran to engage with that. The new US administration have indicated that this will be a priority, and they have indicated that they will talk directly to the Iranians, but within a context that makes it clear that a nuclear weaponised Iran is not acceptable. There is a choice for Iran: either to engage and receive all the benefits that are available through the E3 plus 3 process, or to face a significant ratcheting-up of further sanctions.

  Q234  Mr. Illsley: Is there a comparison between this issue in relation to the NPT and the chemical and biological conventions? Is there a similar issue of a lack of enforcement provision in those conventions as well?

  Bill Rammell: If you look at the chemical weapons convention, a verification regime is available—that is less the case with biological and toxin weapons conventions. Our strong view in respect of all three is that you need universalisation, with everybody signed up. You need as much verification as possible to ensure that the progress stated as being made is genuinely being made, and that we are not facing a threat from proliferation.

  Q235  Mr. Hamilton: Continuing on the theme of Iran, one of the problems we have is that they signed up to the NPT, and they told us when we were there in November 2007 that the development of nuclear weapons was unIslamic, but we have plenty of evidence to suggest that covert work is going on there. They want to develop a civil nuclear power programme and we in the West—holders ourselves of considerable stocks of nuclear weapons—are telling them they may not have them. At the same time, their arch-enemy, Israel, which has never signed up to the NPT, has a civil nuclear power programme and also, as far as everybody is aware, a military nuclear weapons programme. There is a problem for them and they are trying to sell to their own public the fact that they have abided by all the world's treaties and conventions, but are being deliberately targeted, because the world hates Iran. How do you deal with the view that we are trying to stop them having what is rightfully theirs—their civil nuclear power programme? That is what this is all about, and it is certainly the way they are selling it to their population.

  Bill Rammell: In respect of Israel, we consistently argue that it should sign up to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapons state.

  Sir Menzies Campbell: As a non-nuclear weapons state?

  Bill Rammell: We have also strongly argued that we would like to see a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. However, to say that Iran has been abiding by its commitments is not borne out by the evidence. First, for 20 years, they were concealing their activities from the international community. Secondly, if you are going to sign up and operate properly and effectively under the auspices of the NPT, you need to agree to the safeguards agreement. In our view, you should agree to the additional protocol. Iran has not been doing that.

  As I have said, four successive Security Council resolutions have asked Iran to engage with the IAEA and they have not been doing that. There have been the alleged studies for military purposes. If you look at what Dr. el-Baradei said in November, he said that the information he had received from a number of countries about what was taking place was derived from multiple sources over different periods of time, that it was detailed in content, and appeared to be generally consistent. I think Iran is not operating in the way anyone would expect it to. If we say this is about its civil nuclear power desires, the E3 plus 3 process makes it abundantly clear that that civil nuclear resource is available to Iran if it will simply engage. I just cannot see on the evidence before me that there is a defensible position that says this is just about Iran trying to get civil nuclear power.

  Q236  Mr. Hamilton: How do we get that message to the Iranian public? I know it is not for us to do that, but there is no real free press there—any free press gets shot down pretty quickly. So how do you get the message across that it is not the NPT signatories, and it is not the rest of the world that is trying to stop them having a civil nuclear power programme? We are simply trying to make them abide by the rules as everybody else must. Clearly, the Government of Iran do not tell their own public that for 20 years it was deliberately trying to hide information from the IAEA. How do we do that?

  Bill Rammell: The honest answer is you keep trying. Through all the channels that are available to us, we try to get that message across to the regime. Although there is an issue about communicating with the Iranian public, I think we need to be realistic, because the regime, given the structure of the society, will make those decisions. We need to try and get that message across.

  We also try to engage—I met an Iranian parliamentary delegation last week, and I think a number of Committee members met it, too. Although I would not for a minute say that it was a meeting of minds, it was actually one of the more constructive discussions that I have had on this issue. We take the opportunity through radio and television—I was doing some interviews with al-Jazeera and others just before Christmas—to try and communicate directly.

  Mr. Hamilton: We will have to see if the BBC Persian language service will help.

  Chairman: I think that is a plug for an event later today.

  Q237  Andrew Mackinlay: Part of our problem is rogue states or terrorists, along with states which we are uncomfortable about. Iran would certainly be in the last category at least. We have sanctions against Iran, and I assume their purpose is twofold. One is to show our disapproval, and the other is to frustrate them in their nuclear weapons ambitions. Also, after 11 September, the UK Government, through the good offices of Greenstock at the UN, drove United Nations countries to have full transparency—full disclosure of financial institutions—to home in on resources which could be made available to purchase weapons of mass destruction and/or embark on other terrorist activities, which cost money.

  I received a reply yesterday from the Prime Minister, who said that in the United Kingdom, the sanctions regarding the disclosure of moneys relating to the Iran regime have only existed in respect of Iran and the UK for a year or two. I find that quite astonishing, and it is against a backdrop—we have written as a Committee to the Government about this—of Lloyds TSB admitting in the United States courts that they falsified documents to ensure that moneys were available from Sudan and on behalf of the Iranian Government of $300 million. If you look at all the available evidence on the web, it appears that the intent was to get money into the United States to buy at least dual-use materials illegally. They have been rumbled in the United States, but what I am concerned about it is whether our sanctions and statutes are sufficient for us to control and, if need be, prosecute people who are putting money through London either as terrorists or as rogue states and dodgy countries? I found the Prime Minister's reply quite astonishing. Can you throw some light on just what we are able to do in the UK? Are we up to speed on this? Are we up to muster? You know about this, don't you?

  Bill Rammell: Yes, I do. Let me go back to the beginning of your question. What is the purpose of the sanctions? Bluntly, their purpose is to bring Iran to the table. It is a stick and carrot approach. In respect of what we have done, it is fair to describe us as being at the leading edge of the European debate on sanctions. For example, in the UK, Iranian banks no longer have access to sterling clearing facilities.

  Q238  Andrew Mackinlay: Since when?

  Bill Rammell: About 18 months or two years ago.

  Q239  Andrew Mackinlay: That was partly my point. Why just 18 months ago? I think we were under the impression that there were constraints on them for a long time. We are a bit slow on this, aren't we?

  Bill Rammell: Ultimately, if necessary, we will go further on our own, but we are trying to get international consensus because, bluntly, that will be the most effective way of dealing with the regime. That is why we have been working in the Security Council, and why we have been working in the European Union. We have made it clear that, if necessary, we will go further on our own. I can assure you that there is a very strong message going from the Government to banks and British industry about the undesirability of investing in Iran.

  Andrew Mackinlay: This was handling money from Iran.

  Bill Rammell: Yes, absolutely. I think we have been at the leading edge of the argument. We have certainly been implementing sanctions, which are having an effect. I am sure that the delegation I met last week, which a number of you met, too, raised their concerns about sanctions with you. That is all for a purpose: to bring them to the table. If that does not happen, then we will go further. Ideally we would like to do that globally and multilaterally, but if not—

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