UK policy towards Iran - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


It would be in the UK's interest to have a mature and constructive relationship with Iran on many levels: political, strategic, commercial and cultural. Yet this remains an ideal which is far from being achieved. Relations between the UK and Iran have been strained for years and suffer from lack of trust on both sides, born of a fear that one side is seeking to destabilise or thwart the other, and a perception on both sides that their interests rarely coincide. This perception has been reinforced by missed opportunities at various times by both countries.

The challenges to the UK's relationship with Iran are multiple and profound. Progress in pursuing the UK's interests in Iran seems a remote prospect until a more trusting bilateral relationship has been established, and that will require at least partial resolution of concerns held by the UK about Iran's role in regional security and stability.

Human rights standards

We encourage the FCO to continue to take any opportunities that arise, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, to reiterate the UK's objection to unacceptable practices, including executions, persecution of people on the grounds of their faith, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression. No concessions should be made on human rights in the interests of making progress in negotiations in other fields.

The Tehran Embassy

We welcome the recent decision to re-open the Tehran Embassy. We understand why the Foreign Secretary adopted a cautious approach towards the revival of diplomatic relations; but we question whether the UK waited too long for assurances on security which were never going to be forthcoming from all quarters of the Iranian hierarchy. The lack of full diplomatic representation in Iran hinders the UK's ability to shape events, gather information, build the personal contacts which are essential to constructive diplomatic relations, and reassure its regional allies that it could make fully informed assessments of Iranian opinion and intentions. We heard that the prolonged period of silence between the UK and Iran had resulted in the UK being less visible in the country, and that other countries are now looked at as better choice partners in international relations.

The purpose of Iran's nuclear programme

There is no convincing explanation for why Iran might need for civil purposes the stocks of enriched uranium which it held in January 2014. We believe that the primary reason for Iran's decision to build such a capacity to enrich uranium and to amass stocks to current levels was to give itself the option to develop a nuclear military capability. That has almost been achieved. While the Foreign and Commonwealth Office refers to the body of evidence pointing towards possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear programme, we are not aware of any unequivocal evidence that Iran has taken a decision to push ahead and develop a nuclear weapon.

Alternatives to negotiation and the Joint Plan of Action

We do not believe that alternatives to negotiation offer a realistic prospect of a long-term, sustainable solution to current concerns over the Iranian nuclear programme. The negotiations on the Joint Plan of Action are the most promising forum for reaching a settlement which assuages fears about the scope and intention of the Iranian nuclear programme. We endorse the UK's decision to take part in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme through the framework of the Joint Plan of Action.

Should we trust President Rouhani?

We believe that President Rouhani is not necessarily a reformist at heart: he is a pragmatist who hopes to improve standards of living in Iran by persuading the West to lift sanctions, while retaining in place as much of the country's nuclear programme as possible. However, while Mr Rouhani has the impetus of his election victory and demonstrably high levels of public support, we believe that the P5+1 can have confidence that he is an authoritative representative of Iran, and we believe that he is genuinely committed to a sustainable deal. For now at least, he should be trusted, but he should be judged by his actions, not by his words.

The comprehensive agreement under the Joint Plan of Action

We acknowledge that there is probably no prospect of a lasting deal which does not allow Iran to enrich uranium.

Enrichment capacity should be limited to a level which Iran would not reject outright but which would still allow enough time for any attempt at breakout to be detected and referred to the UN Security Council—we suggest six months as an absolute minimum.

Trust, which is essential if the plan is to succeed, may crumble unless the comprehensive agreement enshrines a right for the IAEA to make unannounced and intrusive inspections of all nuclear facilities, products, designs and records.

International sanctions undoubtedly played a major part in preparing the ground for a more amenable Iranian negotiating position. They may not have directly forced Iran to make concessions; but the fatigue amongst large sections of the Iranian public with the international isolation and disadvantage which flowed from sanctions was a factor in the election of President Rouhani, which paved the way for more fruitful negotiations.

We doubt that any deal would have been achieved in Geneva in November 2013 had limited sanctions relief not been offered.

Modifying the design of the Arak reactor so that it produces less plutonium has value, but third-party monitoring of storage of the spent fuel—or preferably removal and third-party custody of it—would be instrumental in helping to allay concerns.

Facilitating humanitarian trade with Iran

The UK should not assume that letters of comfort from the US Treasury to banks will be enough to reassure them that they will not be penalised commercially for facilitating humanitarian trade under the Joint Plan of Action. Ministers should state publicly that they encourage UK banks to provide the necessary facilities for trade in humanitarian goods and will if required defend to the US Treasury their right to do so. If trade with Iran in humanitarian goods is facilitated under the Joint Plan of Action, even if only on a limited scale, vigilance will be needed if the diversion of funds and illicit trade which occurred under the Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq is not to be repeated in Iran.

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Prepared 14 July 2014