By Jonathan Isaby
At yesterday's Defence questions, the Tory MP for Watford, Richard Harrington, sought Liam Fox's assessment of Iran's potential nuclear capability.
The Defence Secretary replied:
"Iran does not yet have nuclear weapons as assessed. However, it continues to pursue uranium enrichment and the construction of a heavy water research reactor, both of which have military potential, in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. We share the very serious concerns of the International Atomic Energy Agency about Iran not having adequately explained evidence of possible military dimensions to its nuclear programme. We will therefore respond accordingly."
"I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply, but in the light of recent comments by Meir Dagan, who recently retired as the head of Mossad, about Iran's first nuclear weapon possibly being ready by the middle of this decade, will he make a statement on how the Government intend to proceed in their approach to Iran's nuclear programme?"
"My hon. Friend raises perhaps one of the most important questions at the present time, which is: how do we assess Iran's intentions and how do we assess the time scale? Despite his long experience, I think that Mr Dagan was wrong to insinuate that we should always look at the more optimistic end of the spectrum. We know from previous experience, not least from what happened in North Korea, that the international community can be caught out assuming that things are rosier than they actually are. We should therefore be clear that it is entirely possible that Iran may be on the 2012 end of that spectrum, and act in accordance with that warning."
An exchange then followed with Julian Lewis, a Tory defence spokesman in opposition, whcih raised the subject of Trident:
Dr Julian Lewis: What sort of signal does it send to Iran and other hostile would-be proliferators that our nuclear deterrent could be put at ransom in the event of another hung Parliament, as a result of our not having signed the key contracts and the hostility towards the replacement of Trident evinced by the Liberal Democrats?
Dr Fox: The Government remain committed, including in the coalition agreement, to the renewal of our nuclear deterrent. As I am sure my hon. Friend would expect, I will be campaigning to ensure that the next Parliament is not a hung Parliament, but one in which we have a majority Conservative Government.
The issue of Trident was then revived later in the session by a couple of Liberal Democrat MPs:
Dr Julian Huppert: Whether any components for the construction of Trident replacement submarines are to be purchased prior to main gate decision in 2016.
Dr Fox: We are currently considering the initial gate business case for the successor submarine and, as part of the next phase of work, we would expect to purchase some long-lead items so that the first boat can be delivered in 2028. This is normal good practice for major build programmes.
Dr Huppert: How much is the Minister planning to spend on Trident replacement before he gets parliamentary approval in the main gate? Will he seek parliamentary approval of such spending?
Dr Fox: By definition, until the initial gate business case has been approved, I am not able or prepared to give a figure. We will make that information available in due course, when decisions have been made.
Tessa Munt: It would appear from the answers to freedom of information requests that the steel, the computer systems and the combat systems, among other things, for the first submarine have been ordered and will have been paid for. It also appears that the three reactors for the first three submarines will have been ordered and paid for before MPs can scrutinise the main gate business case. What will remain unspent for the first submarines? Will we be so financially committed that the whole main gate decision is made irrelevant?
Dr Fox: Whatever amount of money is spent on the lead items, technically it is up to any Parliament at any time to determine whether any programme can or cannot go ahead. It is clear from the coalition agreement that we are committed to maintaining a continuous at-sea minimum credible nuclear deterrent that will protect this country from nuclear blackmail and ensure that we make our role apparent in reductions in total nuclear armaments.