On Monday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague addressed the House of Commons on the nuclear agreement with Iran (full transcript). The ensuing exchange with Members of Parliament probed and revealed important dimensions of the nuclear agreement as well as insights into US-UK strategy more generally. The following includes some of the most insightful exchanges. Topics include:  (1) the right to enrich uranium (including a potential admission by Hague on this topic); (2) whether the suspension of sanctions are reversible; (3) British plans to counteract potential political and military responses by Israel; and (3) how the British government may use a comprehensive agreement on Iran as a pivot to advance international efforts on a “Middle East Nuclear Free Zone” (which many Israeli leaders would consider a threat). 

Here are some of the highlights. …

[Note: I have organized these exchanges according to each theme. During the House of Commons debate, these exchanges did not necessarily proceed in the sequence or order presented below.] 

1. Recognition of Iran’s “right” to enrich uranium

[Editor’s note from Ryan Goodman: An important article by Michael Crowley in Time explains that recognition of a right to enrich uranium may affect diplomatic and military options if the Iran nuclear agreement fails. The British position on the question of recognition will also affect the prospects and content of any future comprehensive agreement. Note that in Hague’s response, although he echoes Secretary Kerry’s flat denial of a right to enrich, Hague seemingly admits that the comprehensive agreement would allow Iran to exercise “its basic rights of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” For earlier posts on this issue at Just Security see here and here.]  

Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Conservative party):

… The interpretation that seems to be coming out of Iran is that the world has accepted its right to enrich uranium and to retain all the facilities that could enrich uranium if the agreement falls apart. What can my right hon. Friend say to the House and the world about Iran sticking to what we believe has been agreed?

Mr Hague:

… Just to be clear, this is not a recognition of the right to enrich, which we do not believe exists under the non-proliferation treaty. The agreement envisages that if we agree a comprehensive solution, that would enable Iran to enjoy its basic rights of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, with a mutually defined enrichment programme limited to practical needs ….

James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Conservative party):

I commend the Foreign Secretary’s role in the negotiations, but does he agree that the concession to the Iranians on uranium enrichment in this deal is quite remarkable, given that all previous United Nations resolutions have explicitly stated that Iran should stop all such enrichment at its plants?

Mr Hague:

It is true that this is different from past UN Security Council resolutions, although it is also true that it would not be possible to reach any agreement with Iran without this aspect to such an agreement…..

Dr Matthew Offord (Hendon) (Conservative party):

Many of my constituents are concerned about the vagueness of the deal in relation to addressing further uranium enrichment. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give us, particularly when President Rouhani has stated:

“No matter what interpretations are given, Iran’s right to enrichment has been recognised”?

Mr Hague:

I mentioned earlier the interpretation of the so-called right to enrich. The E3 plus 3 countries do not recognise a right to enrich, but we have referred to enrichment in the way that I read out earlier. I can assure my hon. Friend that there is nothing vague about the agreement. It includes these words, at the bottom of page 1:

“Iran announces that it will not enrich uranium over 5% for the duration of the 6 months.”

The agreement goes on to make other detailed provisions.


2. Status of the sanctions against Iran

[Editor’s note from Ryan Goodman: Hague distinguishes between “suspended—not lifted or abolished” sanctions, and he states that the suspension “can easily be reversed.”]

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Labor party):

At the risk of sounding like the ugly fairy godmother at the christening—[Hon. Members: “Never!]—may I ask the Foreign Secretary to tell us what discussions would take place if the reintroduction of sanctions were required, and how speedily does he think that could proceed?

Mr Hague:

That is a perfectly legitimate question. We are talking about either sanctions that will be suspended—not lifted or abolished—or about the unfreezing of a specified amount of frozen assets on a one-off basis. The sanctions relief that is being offered to Iran can easily be reversed if it does not abide by the commitments into which it has entered.

Alec Shelbrooke (Elmet and Rothwell) (Conservative party):

The election of President Rouhani last summer, not least its landslide nature, came as a surprise to many people. I believe firmly that it happened because he was the only candidate to say that the direction of Iran had to change because the sanctions were so crippling. With that in mind, may I urge my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to outline to the House the efforts that will be gone through to tighten the grip of sanctions if Iran does not stick to its side of the deal, rather than looking at military options?

Mr Hague:

I have no doubt that if Iran does not stick to its side of the deal, first, the limited sanctions relief of which I have spoken, which comes from the suspension of sanctions and one-off unfreezing of assets, would certainly come to an end. I have also no doubt that, in those circumstances of a breakdown of an agreement that we and our partners have entered into in good faith, there would be very strong pressure for an increase in sanctions on Iran. That is what Iran would have to expect in those circumstances.


3. UK relationship to Israel’s possible political and military responses to Iran nuclear program

[Editor’s note from Ryan Goodman: These exchanges include remarkable discussions about US domestic law and politics and express criticisms of some US congressional members who spoke out against the negotiations. Also, in the final exchange in this section, note the distinction between “a duty of care” versus “a duty to understand” the concern of British allies like Israel.]

Sir Menzies Campbell (North East Fife) (Liberal Democrat party):

In the light of Mr Netanyahu’s public response to this agreement, what assessment has my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made of the risk of Israel taking some unilateral action that might undermine the agreement, and what representations has he made to the Israeli Government against taking any such action?

Mr Hague:

We are in constant touch with the Israeli Government. The Prime Minister discussed matters with Prime Minister Netanyahu during the negotiation of the agreement over the past few weeks. … We would discourage anybody in the world, including Israel, from taking any steps that would undermine the agreement. We will make that very clear to all concerned.

Mr Jack Straw (Blackburn) (Labor party):

… Will the Foreign Secretary make it clear to the Americans that if Prime Minister Netanyahu’s efforts at the United States Congress prevent President Obama from continuing with the negotiations, the UK, Germany, France and the EU will have to detach themselves from America and reach their own conclusions, along with other members of the P5?

Mr Hague:

… The 10-day gap between the negotiations that took place two weeks ago and those this weekend brought forth a great deal of criticism in Iran, in the US Congress and elsewhere in the world that could easily have fatally complicated the efforts to reach agreement. …

The agreements that the United States has made can all be implemented by Executive order. … the right hon. Gentleman can be assured that the United States Administration are extremely strongly committed to this process. The leadership and persistence of Secretary Kerry were crucial in bringing about the agreement and the clarity of President Obama on the matter is clear. I do not think that we need, at this point, to start looking at the other scenarios that the right hon. Gentleman brought in of acting separately from the United States.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon South) (Conservative party):

We have the very unusual scenario of Saudi Arabia and Israel agreeing with each other in publicly criticising the agreement. … Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we have a duty of care to those allies, and that there is a long way to go in persuading them that the agreement is in their best interests?

Mr Hague:

Yes, we do have a duty to understand those concerns. …


4. A stepping stone to Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone?

[Editor’s note from Ryan Goodman: These exchanges, especially the first one, suggest that the United Kingdom might use a comprehensive nuclear settlement with Iran to advance the (currently stalled) negotiations on a “Middle East Nuclear Free Zone”—which many view as code for the denuclearization of Israel’s arsenal. The exchanges make those implications explicit.]

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Labor party):

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and draw his attention to what he said about momentum in the process in the region. … Will he now turn his attention to the need for a nuclear weapons-free middle east, and the importance of reconstituting the conference, which Finland was supposed to have held, involving all countries in the region? Without an agreement on a nuclear-free middle east, somebody will develop nuclear weapons or Israel will go on being unchallenged as the only nuclear weapons state in the region. This is urgent.

Mr Hague:

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are keeping our focus on that. I pay tribute to him for keeping his focus—relentlessly—in his questions in Parliament, but we are also keeping our focus and continuing our work to bring the conference together. If we can carry our success on this agreement through to the success of a comprehensive and final settlement, it will be a big advance towards what he has been campaigning for and remove more of the excuses of other nations against such discussions. I think, therefore, that he can view this as a step forward in that regard.

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Labor party):

…. Will the right hon. Gentleman point out to the Prime Minister of Israel, who yesterday said that nuclear weapons are the most dangerous weapons in the world—he should know because he has a stockpile of several hundred nuclear warheads and the missiles with which to deliver them—and who in addition refuses to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, that any attempt to damage or attack the agreement in any way will be unacceptable and will be opposed?

Mr Hague:

As I have said, we would strongly discourage any country from seeking to undermine the agreement, but I have not seen any sign that any country will do so in any practical way. Every country in the world understands how serious that would be. Some may disapprove of the agreement, but they know it has been made by, among others, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and that it must be given its chance. I believe it will be given its chance.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Labor party):

… Would it be right for the Government now to approach Israel and ask for a reciprocal gesture and for it to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection, in order to denuclearise the whole middle east?

Mr Hague:

Politics is the art of the possible, as I think we all know in this House, and it has turned out that this agreement is possible. The hon. Gentleman is trying to lead me into something that it would probably not be possible for us to obtain.

[For an examination of Hague’s speech with respect to the sanctions relief, see Maya Lester’s post at the European Sanctions blog.]