Robert Jenrick – 2022 Speech on Iran’s Nuclear Programme

The speech made by Robert Jenrick, the Conservative MP for Newark, in the House of Commons on 30 June 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House expresses grave concern at the imminent prospect of a nuclear armed Iran; calls on the Government in its ongoing negotiations in respect of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) agreement to seek to extend the sunset clauses, enact a stricter monitoring regime, retain terrorist proscriptions, and expand its scope to include Iran’s other destabilising activities in the region.

There are significant concerns, as set out in the motion, at the negotiated deal that is apparently about to be signed. I have been actively seeking an opportunity to raise those concerns over Iran’s destabilising activities for a number of months. I give thanks to the Backbench Business Committee for granting time in the main Chamber, and to my many cross-party colleagues who supported the application.

This debate could not come at a more important time. On 9 June, the UK, Germany and France released a joint statement saying that they are ready to conclude a deal with Iran that would restore the joint comprehensive plan of action, and urging Iran to seize the diplomatic opportunity it presented. On Monday, indirect talks between the United States and Iran resumed in Doha.

This is by no means the first time that we have debated Iran in this place, and I dare say it will not be the last, but today’s debate could perhaps be the last opportunity to evaluate the merits or otherwise of a return to the JCPOA nuclear agreement. I firmly believe that, whatever one’s view—we will hear a range of them today, no doubt—it is vital that, before any deal is signed, our Government hear the opinions of Members of this House.

Anxieties over Iran are felt acutely by many across the House, as I am sure we will hear. I am on the record as having been very sceptical of the original 2015 deal, believing it to be too limited in scope to prevent Iran’s malign activities and far too weak in enforcement to prevent a nuclear Iran, should Iran choose that path. That view was shared at the time by many—including, we have subsequently learned, a number of those who were close to the negotiations. I think, for example, of the noble Lord Hammond and the former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, who have both subsequently expressed their concerns at the limited nature of the deal that was ultimately signed.

Whatever one’s thoughts about the JCPOA, the fundamentally different circumstances we face today must be confronted. It is always easy to stick with what one has been involved in for a long time; of course there is pride among those who have negotiated relentlessly on this issue, both here in the UK, in the Foreign Office, and particularly in the Biden Administration, among those officials who were previously in the Obama Administration. However, it is time to appreciate what has happened in the seven years since the deal was signed.

Iran’s nuclear programme has continued apace. While the terms of the JCPOA restricted Iran’s enrichment of uranium to 3.67% fissile purity and a stockpile of only 300 kg of uranium, as of last month the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran has been enriching uranium up to a purity of 60%—a short technical step from weapons-grade levels of 90%.

Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con) rose—

Gareth Davies (Grantham and Stamford) (Con) rose—

Robert Jenrick

I am spoilt for choice, but I will give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers).

Theresa Villiers

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does he agree that, far from the JCPOA-minus that seems to be in prospect, we need a tougher deal with Iran that reflects its transgressions in compliance with the current agreement? We must reflect those transgressions in a deal that is actually powerful in preventing Iran from developing its nuclear programme.

Robert Jenrick

I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. Friend, who has been interested and engaged in this issue for a long time. The point she makes, which I hope I will make over the course of my remarks, is that we do want a negotiated settlement and agreement, but it must be one that is robust and has the effect of preventing both Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and its wider malign activities in the region that are harming our key partners, our friends and ourselves.

Gareth Davies

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and neighbour for giving way. He mentions that Iran has developed uranium to 60% purity. Is he aware of any country on Earth that has enriched to that level for peaceful purposes?

Robert Jenrick

No, and I do not think anyone would believe that that is Iran’s ultimate intent. The latest intelligence, for example, showing that bunkers have been constructed underground in which to hold some of that material, makes clear what the ultimate intent of Iran is on this issue.

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Con) rose—

Robert Jenrick

I will give way one last time, and then I shall make some progress.

Dr Offord

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Many people have focused on transgressions against the JCPOA, but because of the infamous sunset provisions in the 2015 deal, Iran will be able to legitimately undertake a full nuclear programme. That means that we could be facing a nuclear Iran as early as 2025. Without doing anything, we are already in a very difficult and dangerous scenario.

Robert Jenrick

My hon. Friend is correct. I will make this point in a moment, but there is no harm in restating it now: the original deal contained a number of sunset provisions, and the proposed deal, as reported, merely keeps those sunset provisions in exactly the same form. Even if we were to sign the deal tomorrow, it would begin to fade away in 2023. One really has to question the point of signing up to the proposed deal.

Iran stands on the verge of possessing a nuclear bomb. In fact, intelligence suggests it has sufficient enriched uranium today for at least two nuclear weapons. It has progressed far beyond the parameters of the JCPOA, so restoring Iran to the old deal has none of the benefits we once thought it would. The JCPOA’s time has been and gone; the Rubicon has been crossed.

After earlier talk of a longer and stronger deal, more recent rounds of the nuclear talks have seen US negotiators make concession after painful concession in an attempt to bring Iran back to the deal. We now see before us the contours of a shorter and weaker agreement—one that many have taken to dismissing as JCPOA-minus. In that agreement the Iranian regime will be reintegrated into the international community and afforded huge economic benefits that, crucially, will be channelled not into education, healthcare or infrastructure projects but into supporting and promoting terrorist activities, for instance through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iran’s web of proxies across the region, and the restrictions on its nuclear programme will last for a fraction of the time. It is unclear whether this stands to strengthen efforts for non-proliferation.

I believe that a new framework is required. Proponents of the JCPOA spoke of its ability to restrict Iran’s break-out time to one year. In view of the reduction of this to as little as a few weeks, we need the Government to recognise that this is simply not going to work, and that any agreement that could obtain the consent of this House—certainly of Members who take my view—will need to have very significantly longer sunset clauses.

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in everything he has said. However, it is not only the potential for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons that is a concern, but its ability then to deliver those weapons through ballistic missiles. Clearly Iran has enhanced its capability in that regard and could, if it has nuclear weapons, deliver them now. What would he say about how we need to restrict Iran’s capability to develop such weapons?

Robert Jenrick

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The JCPOA contains the word “comprehensive”, but it was anything but comprehensive. It certainly did not speak to the malign activities of Iran throughout the region, but nor did it address the seeking of enriched uranium, the weapons that would be able to deliver the nuclear weapons or the other infrastructure and equipment that is required in the process. Any deal that we now sign needs to address all those matters. In fact, as I said, on the pursuit of enriched uranium, the ship has already sailed because Iran already has it.

The agreement as reported in the media seems set to include the same structural problems as we saw in the 2015 deal. Unless the new nuclear terms are expanded in scope to allow a more rigorous inspection regime, I fear we will repeat the same mistakes. Iran has reached the nuclear threshold under the watchful eye of what was supposed to be the most intrusive inspection regime ever. By its own admission, the UN’s nuclear watchdog is “flying blind”—the IAEA chief said as much in June 2021. One year on, Iran has taken a series of steps to further restrict IAEA access to its nuclear sites, including the deliberate removal of cameras from its most sensitive facilities. Years of tolerating Iran’s flagrant breaches out of fear of the talks collapsing has led us down this path.

A glaring weakness of the JCPOA was that it did nothing to address Iran’s wider activities throughout the world. Our failure to address Iran’s support for its network of proxies continues to reverberate to this day. Iran was and remains the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism—a point I was pleased to hear my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary acknowledge in front of the Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday. The regime’s commitment to exporting the Islamic revolution has been underwritten by an active embrace of violence since it first came to power in 1979. In recent weeks, Istanbul has been the setting for an extraordinary Iranian terror plot. Thanks to the close co-operation between the Israeli and the Turkish security services, an Iranian terror cell attempting to kidnap and kill Israeli tourists—innocent civilians—was thwarted. In one incident, several Israeli tourists visiting a market had to be intercepted before they returned to their hotel room, where their would-be assassins were reportedly waiting for their return.

The Iranian threat is very clear and present here at home. In 2019, it was revealed that British intelligence services had identified a Hezbollah cell stockpiling 3 tonnes of highly explosive ammonium nitrate in residential north-west London for use in a terror attack—the very same chemical that was recently inflicting such terrible damage in Beirut. The misplaced notion that the JCPOA would moderate the Iranian regime was dispelled when its Intelligence Ministry sought to bomb an opposition rally in Paris in 2018 with the help of an Iranian diplomat.

Behind all these examples—and there are many others I could cite—sits the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s premier agent for terrorism. The organisation funds, trains and provides the ideological underpinning for many of the world’s terror organisations, from Hamas to Hezbollah to the Houthis. Reports from the previous round of negotiation that the Biden Administration was considering delisting the IRGC from its foreign terror list have been worrying, to say the least. Quite simply, it would be a grave miscalculation and a great dishonour if our Government were to support any such action. It would make a mockery of the efforts that we have made in recent years to proscribe Hamas and Hezbollah if we signed up to a deal that legitimises the very organisation that funds Hamas and Hezbollah. That really would be a perverse and absurd outcome.

The negotiations in Doha cannot be detached from the broader geopolitical landscape. A dangerous new dynamic is at play in the latest round of nuclear talks. As the EU desperately tries to wean itself off Russian hydrocarbons, we see an ill-advised pivot towards Iran for energy supplies. In a visit to Iran over the weekend, Josep Borrell openly called for Europe to seek new sources of oil and gas following its move away from Russia and spoke of the high potential economic benefits awaiting Iran. At the G7 summit in Germany, Macron pointedly called for more Iranian oil to enter the market. The west can ill afford to end its dependency on one rogue regime merely by pivoting towards the religious fundamentalists in Tehran. How ridiculous would it be for us to invest so much time, effort and energy in defeating Vladimir Putin merely to make an advance—an opening—towards Tehran, Venezuela or other authoritarian regimes? It is troubling enough that the talks have been mediated by Russia, the world’s only nuclear-armed state currently threatening to actually use those weapons. If restrictions are lifted, Russia will receive a financial boost from sales of military equipment as well as the construction of nuclear power plants in Iran.

Iran’s list of nuclear transgressions is as long as it is troubling and has long necessitated an urgent response. The UK Government were right to say in March:

“Iran’s nuclear programme has never before been this advanced, and is exposing the international community to unprecedented levels of risk.”

At this critical juncture, the west urgently needs to change its strategy. We valiantly pursued diplomatic avenues to their limit, and beyond. Dedicated officials here in the Foreign Office, and in the Obama and Biden Administrations, have invested immense time and resources in negotiating the JCPOA, but that is not a reason to sign a bad deal. As Iran continues to stall negotiations, it is time for a more robust approach reimposing snapback sanctions on Iran and tightening the economic screw until it is willing to countenance the serious proposals that I have shared here today.

This position is no longer that of ultra-hawkish Republicans. In March, despite a polarised political climate in the United States, 70 Democrats and Republicans in Congress wrote to the National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, to demand that the new deal signed with Iran must include an extension of the sunset clauses that we discussed earlier, retention of the IRGC proscription—I would like the UK Government to proscribe it as well—and a toughening of the monitoring regime, with an extension in scope to include Iran’s other destabilising activities such as its ballistic missile programme. President Obama can press ahead with a weak deal, but if he does, there is a strong likelihood that the Senate and the House of Representatives will do everything in their power to frustrate it, and were there to be an incoming Republican President, which seems quite likely, it would be their day-one act to end the agreement. Why would we do something that is of such a short-term benefit, if any? In doing so, we weaken our relationships with some of our oldest friends and key partners, whether that be the state of Israel, the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia or others, all of whom publicly or privately are pleading with our Government to listen to their concerns and not to proceed with this agreement.

Those countries in the middle east already fear that the west is retrenching and is an unreliable ally, particularly having seen the events of our messy and embarrassing retreat from Kabul a year ago. To impose this agreement in addition, against their best wishes, merely pushes them further away from us and towards new friends and relationships, whether that be Russia or China. That would be a very sad outcome.

To conclude, the Iranian regime brutally represses, persecutes and tortures its own people. It wastes the Iranian people’s resources on terrorism, foreign aggression, missiles and nuclear-weapon capabilities. I hope to see the day when we and our partners have no need for sanctions on Iran or the proscription of its affiliates. I hope to see the day when the UK and Iran can enjoy normalised relations and when the people of Iran have a Government who respect human dignity and exist in peace with their neighbours, but that day will not come if we provide sanctions relief to fuel the regime’s corruption, incompetence and terrorism. Nor will the day come through weak and naive responses to the pursuit of and now the establishment of nuclear-weapon capabilities. I humbly urge the UK Government to change course, to learn from the first JCPOA’s failures, to listen to the concerns of many across the House and our partners in the region, and to work with us and them to impose maximum pressure on Iran.