Tobias Ellwood is Chair of the Defence Select Committee, and is MP for Bournemouth East.
Javad Zarif, Iran’s Foreign Minister, was in a celebratory mood last weekend, as the United Nations’ long-standing arms embargo quietly expired. The occasion, in accordance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, was deceitfully proclaimed as a “win for…peace and security in our region”. This could not be further from the truth.
In reality, Iran is now unencumbered in its ability to purchase advanced weaponry to strengthen itself and its terror proxies, including Russia’s game-changing S-400 missile defence systems, and upgrading its outdated air force. Such systems would provide Iran’s nuclear programme with invaluable strategic protection.
It is for this reason that I have joined over 80 of my Conservative parliamentary colleagues in signing a letter outlining our concerns to the Prime Minister, coordinated by Conservative Friends of Israel.
The strength of feeling among the Conservative ranks is clear to see. There has long been widespread concern about Iran’s malign activities throughout the region, but it has become increasingly apparent that the UK’s response has failed to adequately meet the challenge.
The signatories were united in their view that the United Kingdom should have supported the efforts of the United States to secure an extension to the conventional arms embargo at the United Nations in August.
While recognising the political balancing act necessitated by ongoing Brexit trade negotiations, I fear that the UK’s abstention alongside France and Germany has regrettably facilitated the Chinese and Russians in their quest to sell advanced weaponry to Tehran’s fundamentalist regime. China has reportedly agreed a 25-year $400 billion defence deal with Tehran.
There are major questions hanging over the UK’s strategy towards Iran moving forward. While the EU arms embargo regime on Iran remains in place (until 2023), this will not prevent other actors from selling weapons. Certainly, existing UN resolutions haven’t deterred Iran from supplying arms to its terror proxies, and the UK now needs to work urgently with its allies to enforce existing resolutions more rigorously.
Iran’s support for terrorism has left a trail of destruction and death across the world. From Buenos Aires to Jerusalem and Bulgaria to Yemen, Iran-backed terrorists have killed untold numbers. Iran is not just a threat to Britain’s allies and international peace and stability – it has been linked to the deaths of dozens of British service personnel in Iraq.
Looking ahead, there needs to be a clear-sighted approach to Iran from the Government.
From continuing to enrich uranium closer to weapons grade above the JCPOA limit and increasing its stockpile of low-enriched uranium to ten times higher than permitted, Iran’s flagrant breaches of its commitments under the JCPOA has confirmed that the deal is not fit for purpose.
Time and again, Iran has chosen the path of a rogue state. At the time of the JCPOA’s signing, British officials spoke of an opportunity to reset relations. Iran had no such intentions, as most dramatically illustrated by the detention of our Ambassador for attending a memorial to the victims – including Britons – of a Ukrainian passenger jet in January. Not to speak of the continued imprisonment of British nationals on spurious and indefensible grounds.
Iran’s leadership has not earned the benefit of the doubt. The UK’s ongoing efforts to keep the JCPOA on life-support since triggering the Dispute Resolution Mechanism is not a sustainable strategy, just as the UK’s INSTEX mechanism to facilitate trade by circumventing US sanctions has essentially rewarded Iranian non-compliance.
Our Prime Minister was right when he said in January that the JCPOA has “many, many faults”, and called for a replacement deal. So, too, was the Foreign Secretary right to describe the nuclear deal as a “hollow shell”. Now is the time for UK policy to align with these statements of reality.
The UK is well placed to bridge the US with the EU and push for a new, broad framework. The framework must provide unprecedented regulation of Iran’s nuclear activities, an end to Iran’s support for terrorism and its ballistic missile programme – the primary means for delivering a nuclear warhead.
How do we ensure Iran returns to the table? It is an unavoidable reality that Iran was compelled to the negotiating table for the JCPOA process as a result of one of the most comprehensive sanctions regimes in history. The UK has introduced a welcome set of sanctions against Iranians linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, but has desisted from the US ‘maximum pressure’ sanctions campaign.
Sanctions work, and it is time for the UK to consider further ones it can target against the regime, while making abundantly clear that these do not apply to legitimate humanitarian aid. Snapback of pre-JCPOA sanctions ought to be under consideration and would be in full accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, as necessitated by Iran’s “significant non-performance”.
The continued resuscitation of the JCPOA despite Iran’s clear non-compliance is not only short-termist in thinking, it is fundamentally ill-considered. The framework has been fatally damaged for some time and the focus must now be on diplomatic efforts to secure a strengthened, broad deal.
Iran’s defiant advancement of its nuclear programme now risks proliferation across the Arab world, at a time where hitherto unthinkable peace deals are being agreed between Israel and Arab states.
We are at the beginning of a new chapter for the region – one based on prosperity, shared interests and peace. But unless the UK readjusts its current thinking that chapter may never get written.
The Government’s Integrated Review is about re-establishing our post-Brexit global credentials and our desire to help shape the world as a force for good. This must include greater strategic engagement in the Middle East and standing up to the destabilising actions of the Iranian regime.