No prosperity without justice: the UK’s relationship with Iran Contents


1.In our A brave new Britain? The future of the UK’s international policy report, we noted the pressures placed on international rules and norms and explored the implications for British foreign policy:

[…] global competition is […] a battle between competing visions and mindsets. Autocracies are increasingly challenging the rules and norms that have, for decades, regulated international exchange. As competition intensifies, it will fall on democratic nations to uphold the central tenets of the rules-based international system, including democracy, human rights, and free trade.1

In his statement emphasising the goals of Global Britain following the UK’s departure from the EU, the Foreign Secretary noted that strengthening the UK’s position in the world using the international rule of law as a guiding light was an important pillar of the Government’s strategy to, amongst other things, “defend journalists from attack, stand up for freedom of religion and conscience, and develop our own independent sanctions regime to tackle human rights abusers head on.”2

2.The connection between this statement and our inquiry is obvious. Iran has an appalling human rights record which oppresses its citizens according to their gender, religion or political affiliation, and uses its reading of the principles of sharia law to justify cruel punishments administered within a legal system which does not come close to meeting international judicial standards. Of notable concern to the UK is its long-standing detention of British citizens, British-Iranian dual nationals, and British residents on spurious or undisclosed charges seemingly to establish political leverage. The case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, detained in Iran since April 2016, is especially prominent in the UK press and the announcement in October 2020 that she would face fresh charges underlines the importance of examining the FCDO’s strategy in countering this behaviour.

3.The importance of upholding and promoting these values is, however, only one explanation for our interest in exploring the UK’s relationship with Iran. The UK remains a signatory to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) which sought to address Iran’s nuclear proliferation ambitions. Following US withdrawal from the deal in 2018 and Iranian non-compliance with several provisions from 2019, the JCPOA has been, in the Foreign Secretary’s words, “left a shell of an agreement.”3 Despite Joe Biden’s victory in the US presidential election in November, the agreement is a shadow of its previous incarnation and makes the Government’s consideration of its strategy going forward more important than ever.

4.In the long-term, the nuclear proliferation implications of Iran’s non-compliance present a clear threat to regional and global stability; in the short-term, disintegration of the JCPOA has heightened tensions in the Gulf. The Strait of Hormuz was the scene of the detention of the Swedish-owned British-flagged Stena Impero in July 2019, following detention of the Iranian Grace I tanker in Gibraltar, and was followed by an attack on the Saudi Aramco oil processing facility which the UN determined likely came from Iran. Tensions were further tested throughout 2020 following the US killing of General Qasem Soleimani in January and Iran’s retaliatory attack on Ain al-Asad coalition air base in Iraq, as well as the downing of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

Our inquiry

5.This report principally addresses the aspects of the UK’s relationship with Iran which are of the clearest importance to the British people: nuclear proliferation and human rights. In so doing, we consider the wider implications of engagement with Iran, particularly the UK’s specific interests and those of its allies, especially in the Gulf. In exploring Iran’s human rights record, we consider the complementary measures which need to be taken to address holistically the challenge of engagement.

6.Our predecessor Committee began a similarly focused inquiry in July 2019, which was interrupted by the General Election. We issued a new terms of reference and call for written evidence in March 2020. The 30 submissions we published have been used to inform this report.

7.The restrictions placed on parliamentary select committees by the covid-19 pandemic inspired us to adopt an innovative approach to collect evidence. Rather than conduct a series of oral evidence sessions, we invited eight witnesses to participate in an online written forum over a two-week period, from 22 June until 3 July, an approach we are confident has a place in evidence gathering after a return to physical proceedings. We are very grateful to all witnesses, and especially to those who dedicated time to answering questions in the forum.

1 Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2019–21, Global Britain, HC 380, para 4

2 HC Deb, 3 February 2020, cols 25–27

3 HC Debate, 13 January 2020, col 753

Published: 16 December 2020 Site information    Accessibility statement