The speech made by Andrew Murrison, the Conservative MP for South West Wiltshire, in the House of Commons on 30 June 2022.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Robert Jenrick) on giving us this opportunity. I listened carefully to everything he said, and I agree with all of it.
In June 2019, I went to Tehran as Middle East Minister while Tehran was sinking shipping throughout the Gulf. I went there to remonstrate at its malign regional activities and to insist that it meet its JCPOA commitments, including the limits imposed on its enriched uranium stockpile. In hindsight, it was probably not the best use of my time; the truth is that the deal had been moribund since President Trump withdrew in 2018. Attempts to revive it have failed, and now it is comatose.
I suppose we should not turn off the life support entirely, but in my view we have no need to bust a gut trying to revive the plan. What we need is a stronger, longer deal. Indeed, with every day that passes, the JCPOA becomes less attractive: while Iran’s technical capabilities advance, the original terms become redundant and sunset clauses loom large. Some of those clauses have lapsed or shortly will—the UN arms embargo from October 2020; restrictions on ballistic missile-related goods next year; and, the year after, restrictions relating to Iran’s advanced centrifuge R&D. In 2031, the ban on weapons-grade uranium ends.
That said, we should not be seen to be a guilty party or a co-author of the plan’s coup de grâce. We have to stick with it, I suppose, to the bitter end. Iran too—at least, the potentially reconcilable part of it—wants to be perceived as keen to talk, but, with artful duplicity, says one thing and does another. The reported tenor of ongoing discussions is very much true to form. On Sunday, Iran’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited poor Josep Borrell of the European Commission to Tehran. His plaintive line following the meeting was that
“the more supply of oil, the better for the energy prices.”
How pathetic is that? It looks as though the European External Action Service, in its quest for purpose and relevance, has been all too eager to swallow a pro-Iran line that conveniently gets its members out of a tight temporary fix. Not for the first time, it is grossly misreading the Iranians in a disappointing display of naivety and self-service.
Borrell’s line suggests that the EU is prepared to swap Russian for Iranian energy, so the Doha talks go on with the Americans and the Iranians, bizarrely, in separate rooms. The reality is that Iran’s demands for compensation and guarantees are intractable. Those who believe Iran will settle for a deal in order to trade with the west misread the ideological basis of the regime and its President. They seek nothing less than the complete Islamisation of society and the elimination of western influence. Tehran has no desire to be our partner, even less our friend. Let us be quite clear in separating the good and great people of Iran from the regime: the two are plainly different things, as recent shows of unrest have demonstrated, and we should encourage the one and not the other.
Meanwhile, Iran ratchets up its pressure on the international community through the expulsion of IAEA officials. The day after Borrell’s meeting in Tehran, it showcased a missile launch, and we contemplate a uranium breakout time probably in weeks, certainly not months. The Iran of 2022 is very different from the Iran of 2015. Hardliners and the IRGC have tightened their stranglehold over the state and the economy. President Raisi has populated Ministries with Guards commanders responsible for atrocious acts of terrorism. We recall, as has been recalled already today—correctly so—his participation in the 1988 death committee, and in the extrajudicial murder of some 4,000 political prisoners.
Sanctions work. Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change has revealed that, following the first wave of sanctions relief in 2014, Iran’s terrorist and military activity increased significantly. Kasra Aarabi writes:
“The number of militias created by the IRGC surged after this period, and the Guard’s presence abroad peaked, with the Quds Force expanding its operations in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”
If that occurred under the previous relatively benign regime, what effect will sanctions relief—estimated to mean an immediate $90 billion windfall, and as much as $800 billion over five years—have on the zealots now in control? I suggest that sanctions relief at this time would not be a good move at all.
US special envoy Rob Malley called for a “stronger and longer” deal shortly after his appointment, and he is right. Alternatively, we could offer less for less, but we cannot offer more for less. The integrated review points the way. It says:
“Alongside our allies, the UK will hold Iran to account for its nuclear activity, remaining open to talks on a more comprehensive nuclear and regional deal.”
There is no specific mention of the JCPOA, which is very sensible. If we managed to reheat the JCPOA in its current form, we would have a stop-gap agreement at best, but the prospects of definitive talks and a long-term solution led by Washington will evaporate. Iran expert Professor Ali Ansari suggests we play it cool, and I agree.
Although we should not be complacent, we should not be worried about a no-deal scenario. The Iranian regime is struggling to rid itself of Israeli infiltration, which is preventing it from advancing its nuclear apparatus and security state. We all remember the killing of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh last year. Most recently Hossein Taeb, IRGC head of intelligence, has been dismissed, and on 22 May IRGC colonel Sayyad Khodaei was shot dead outside his home.
Nobody goes to Iran without being lectured about Britain being the source of all the country’s woes; the grievance culture stoked by the regime makes the SNP look rather like rank amateurs. It is mildly flattering to think that Iran’s rulers believe we are still so influential, albeit in their minds entirely malignly. Historically, however, the villain has been seen to lie elsewhere. This debate takes place amid Putin’s imperial war. He invokes Peter the Great, by reclaiming lost territory and advancing autocracy. There is no doubt that revanchist Russia and Iran have grown closer under Putin’s leadership. It has developed from a transactional, military relationship to one of shared ideological outlook, in so far as both countries despise the western world order and its culture, have a theological sense of mission for their countries, and talk in Anglophobic terms of grievance and resistance. Their shared paranoia about democracy has grown collaboration and suppression at home—and also abroad, notably in Syria.
However, it has not always been so. Professor Ansari points out that
“the greatest sleight of hand achieved by the Russian state with respect to Iran has been to reinvent its relationship from that of imperial predator to a fully fledged member of an axis of resistance against the west.”
Indeed, there is a strong argument that Russia—certainly not Britain—has been the chief cause of historic Iranian humiliation, imposing capitulatory treaties in 1808 and 1828, which lasted until 1921. Nascent Iranian democracy was stamped out by Colonel Liakhov of the Cossack Brigade in the early 20th century, as he shelled the Majlis in Tehran and executed constitutionalists. The parallels with the present day are pretty clear.
Lord Curzon described “avowedly hostile” Russian activities in Iran, and pointed out that
“piece by piece, partly by open war and partly by furtive nibbling, Russia has appropriated more and more of Persian soil.”
There are historic continuities in the Iran-Russia relationship, namely in Iran’s junior status, and Iranian popular sentiment against Russia. The 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay ensured that Iran became a de facto vassal state, with strictures outlining Russia’s preference for the Qajar succession. Now, as then, Iran’s presidential candidates and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps leaders court Putin for his approval. In line with that junior status, we learn from Minister Javad Zarif’s leaked audio tape on the war in Syria that Russia
“entered the war by air force, but dragged Iran’s ground force to war too. We didn’t have ground forces in Syria by then.”
It is a candid assessment of Putin’s disregard for Iranian life, and reluctance to spill blood when he can use those he sees as inferiors. We see that, too, in Putin’s feeding the Ukrainian meat grinder preferentially with troops from east of the Urals.
But if the regime wants that kind of partnership, the Iranian people do not. The popular mood in Iran is antithetical to the Russians; we have seen that most recently in protests against Russia’s invasion. Meanwhile, the regime blunders on, blaming NATO and the west, and defending Russia and the UN. Again, that bifurcation has precedent. An Iranian member of the Majlis once wrote of the
“dislike of the Persian people for the Russians,”
which was based on
“wars…cruelty and aggression…encouragement given by them to the extravagancies of the Persian court…the ascendency they had gained by promising to maintain the succession…the many concessions they had obtained from the Persian Government…the undue influence exerted by them.”
He concludes that Russia is
“the home and centre of autocracy and ancient foe of all liberal ideas.”
That was more than 100 years ago, but it resonates with us today. That is why it is so important—so imperative—for us to call this partnership out, reveal its weak foundations, learn from the past, and support the good and great people of Iran in their struggle against a wicked regime.