Select Committee on Liaison Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 280-299)



  Q280 Sir George Young: Does that also remain the position for the UK?

  Mr Blair: You can never say "never" in any of these situations, but at the same time I have made it clear that we are trying to pursue this by peaceful and diplomatic means. That is our intention and that is our desire. I just think you can get into a sort of argument where people start speculating that people are drawing up plans for military action where they are not. On the other hand, there is a real concern about Iran, at the moment—there has got to be. Not just on the nuclear weapons front, incidentally, but in respect of their support for terrorists.

  Q281 Sir George Young: Is there not a risk that the regime in Iran will come to a view that there is no appetite in America or the UK for military action and, therefore, they will just carry on? They will take the view, perhaps, that after Iraq a lot of military and political capital has been expended and there is not the appetite for another confrontation and, therefore, they will just call the bluff and carry on with their programme?

  Mr Blair: It would be very unwise to do that. However, I entirely understand why you say that, and I think the President of Iran the other day referred to the Western world as "the mangy old lions who were not up to it any more", or some such. I think they would make a very grave mistake if they did that. However, we shall proceed very carefully. As I say, the report to the Security Council is the first step in that. Iran is not Iraq, although my own belief is that if Iraq becomes a proper stable democracy, as its people want, that will have a huge impact on Iran as well, which is obviously why Iran is not too happy about that prospect.

  Q282 Sir George Young: Iran is not Iraq, but if you stood back and looked at the relative threat to stability in the Middle East from Iran and Iraq, you could make the case that actually the threat from Iran was the greater one in terms of proximity to weapons of mass destruction and declared threats of hostility to near neighbours. Is there not a risk that, having exhausted a lot of capital on the one, you have not got the resources to tackle, potentially, the bigger one?

  Mr Blair: I do not agree with that. Just think of the Middle East at the moment, with what is happening in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, and think if you also had Saddam still in power. It would not be a great prospect; it would not be a prospect that would encourage anyone to think that the situation was going to become more stable. The UN resolutions you had to start somewhere, and Iraq was the place to start. I do not think Iran is Iraq. I think you have got a civic society in Iran and a people in Iran who desperately want to have change, and in any event the nature of the Iranian regime is different. However, you are right in saying it is an increasing concern for all international policy makers, which is why, no doubt, Senator McCain is speaking, and so are others. I think that this can be dealt with through peaceful and diplomatic means, and that is what we are looking to do, but it is interesting that over the past few months I think there has been a change of mood in Europe as well as in the United States, and you have the situation where there is certainly a greater degree of concern and unity in Europe.

  Q283 Sir George Young: So was the Foreign Secretary right to say, on January 16: "In the real world the truth is that military action is not on anyone's agenda"?

  Mr Blair: It is not on our agenda.

  Q284 Sir George Young: Have you not then weakened your negotiating position, if you have ruled it out?

  Mr Blair: No, I think the position of the Americans is very clear. You know what the difficulty is, George. If you are not careful, you put a word out of place and people think you are about to go and invade Iran. Then people try and pin you down into saying no matter what happens you are never going to do anything. We all know what that particular game is and it is difficult. The fact is, however, we are pursuing what we are pursuing by peaceful and diplomatic means. However, Iran, I think (and I have said this before), would make a very, very serious mistake if it thinks the international community is going to allow it to develop nuclear weapons capability. There is an additional problem which I think Iran should be aware of, which is that when its President makes statements, such as the ones made about the State of Israel, that then enhances people's concern about the fact of their having nuclear weapons capability. When they are then, in addition, trying to export and support terrorism round the whole of that region, it is a problem. When they are trying to meddle in Iraq, it is a problem. These problems, when they combine together, then give the international community even more concern about whether they can be trusted in respect of the programme that they say is merely a nuclear energy programme.

  Sir George Young: I think Mike Gapes wants to pursue this line of argument.

  Q285 Mike Gapes: Prime Minister, the Iranians for 18 years were secretly cheating on their undertakings. The Iranian President has made very clear—he talks about "fake super powers"—that the Iranian Government is determined to go ahead with this programme. What, in practice, can we do? Can we actually prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons?

  Mr Blair: If we can bring Iran into compliance with its Atomic Energy Authority obligations then, yes, we can, and that is the right and proper way to do it. Iran says it will comply, but it has done things over the past few months that give people serious cause for concern, which is why the report to the Security Council has happened.

  Q286 Mike Gapes: They also got information from the AQ Khan network and they also appear to have a very demagogic nationalistic approach, whereby they argue: "India has nuclear weapons, Pakistan has nuclear weapons, Israel has nuclear weapons, the rest of world has not done anything about that, so why shouldn't we, as Iranians, have nuclear weapons?"

  Mr Blair: That is exactly what they do say, which is why people have increasing concern about them. The question is then: "What do you do?" I think the proper step is, first of all, as I say, the report to the Security Council. However, it is difficult to see exactly what the purpose of the Iranian President's rhetoric, which is extremely inflammatory, is. It is very difficult for us to see. My view of this, again, is that I think there is an increasing recognition of the fact that there is a virus of extremism and fanaticism that comes out of the cocktail of religious fanaticism and political repression in the Middle East that has now been exported to different parts of the world, and we can see the impact even here in this country. The recognition, increasingly, I believe, is that we will only secure our own future if we are dealing with every single aspect of that problem out there. That is why I think, in the end, when people look back on it, they will realise that we needed to do Iraq. We do need to ensure that Iran comes into compliance with its obligations; we need to resolve the Middle East peace process and we need to help those countries like Lebanon and other Arab countries that want to move towards democracy to do so. I have a very clear view now which is that our future security depends on sorting out the stability of that region.

  Q287 Mike Gapes: Can I put it to you that if the Iranian regime refuses the Russian proposal to have reprocessing carried out on Russian territory, or if it does so under terms whereby they are still allowed to do some nuclear conversion which could still give them a route to a nuclear weapon, even though they were perhaps allegedly complying with international requirements, we could be facing a very clear situation within a relatively short time where this regime, with its rhetoric, with the statements about Israel and so on, has got nuclear weapons?

  Mr Blair: That is the risk.

  Q288 Mike Gapes: So, in those circumstances, when would it be necessary to take pre-emptive military action?

  Mr Blair: As I say, that is not a debate that is being had at the moment, and for all sorts of reasons it is not very sensible to have it. You are right in drawing attention. This is the problem, in the end. I think, as I say, for the first time, people are saying: "Well, what are you going to do about it?" All I am saying, at the moment, is you move to the Security Council, and I think it is important that this is done in a way that does not raise what would be false fears of some military invasion. That is not on anyone's agenda. However, it is nonetheless true that the concern about Iran is growing very, very substantially, and the more that the President of Iran carries on using this type of language, saying what he says about the State of Israel, the more people get worried that the timeline between political change in Iran and their development of nuclear weapons capability gets out of kilter.

  Q289 Mike Gapes: Does that mean, then, we are just left with sanctions?

  Mr Blair: It means that you take this a step at a time.

  Sir George Young: On sanctions, I think Frank Doran wants to pursue that line of argument.

  Q290 Mr Doran: Before I get to that, my prepared question was to ask what the UK is trying to do in the present process, but in the answers to Sir George Young and Mike Gapes you seem to have expanded a little beyond Iraq to the whole situation in the Middle East. What is the end game?

  Mr Blair: My political view starts from the world being interdependent. I think it is very, very obvious now that the nature of the global threat we face arises out of the combination of circumstances that you have had in the Middle East, and we need a very clear vision and strategy for that region that is about the encouragement of democracy and stability and human rights in every part of it. That is why we are sitting down with states in the Gulf region and working out how we help them towards democracy; it is why it is important to protect Lebanon from Syrian interference in Lebanon's democracy; it is why Iraq stabilising as a democracy is a huge prize, if we can achieve it, and it is why, in respect of Iran, we have to make clear what is acceptable and what it is unacceptable. In respect of the Palestinian issue, we have to be able to take forward this process because, in my view, that is the one issue that has the capability of uniting moderate and extreme opinion on the Middle East in a way that, if we are not careful, is deeply unhelpful to what we are trying to achieve. Therefore, I think it is extremely important within the confines of the two-state solution that we make progress on it. I just think the more you look at what is happening—even if you look at what is happening in Afghanistan, what is happening in Afghanistan is that it is an export, effectively, from that region. If you look at what is happening here or all over Europe at the moment—I do not mean the legitimate and perfectly fair-minded protests but I mean with the small numbers of extremists—it is a virus in the system. We have to confront it from both within Islam and outside it. That is, in a nutshell, the view that I have of how we deal with this. In a sense, what I think is very obvious is the Iranians have a poor strategy. It is not a coincidence that the moment this latest issue has arisen over the cartoons, and all the rest of it, the Iranians have leapt straight into the struggle, trying to be, frankly, as unhelpful as possible about it. It is no surprise to me they have the opposite view; they have the view that it is important that democracy does not get a foothold in that region, because they believe if there is a proper democracy in Iran they would not be in government.

  Q291 Mr Doran: It sounds almost like a modern domino theory you are presenting to us. Is it your view that if we resolve the problems in Iran then we can go some way to resolving the other problems in the Middle East?

  Mr Blair: I think if you work towards a clear strategic vision in the company of the modernisers that there are within that region then, yes, I think we are well on the way to sorting out our own long-term security, if you believe, as I believe, that it is this religious fanaticism based on a perversion of the proper faith of Islam that is driving this.

  Q292 Mr Doran: We move on to the question of sanctions. Most commentators think that it is unlikely that you will get a unanimous decision in the Security Council for sanctions because of the vested interests of the Chinese and, perhaps, the Russians as well. That leads to the possibility—you are not ruling out military action and I understand why you do not want to talk about it at the moment—that we will appear fairly powerless in front of the Iranians. Is there any prospect that the UK, if there is no UN decision in favour of sanctions, will side, for example, with the Americans who are already imposing sanctions, and try to get a coalition to effect economic sanctions against Iran?

  Mr Blair: Again, as I say, one of the benefits of this process has been that the Germans, the French and the British are working very closely together and with the Americans. I think we want, as far as possible, to stick together, and that is what we will try to do. As I say, I cannot predict what might happen further down the line, but I certainly think, for the moment, we are working on a path where we keep everyone together. I think one of the interesting things about this is that there is a greater degree of transatlantic co-operation on this than I have noticed for some time. Indeed, I think it is somewhat bringing in a different relationship on a whole series of issues as a result of that.

  Q293 Mr Doran: Just one final question: on the question of sanctions it is very difficult to see what economic pressure we can put on Iran that does not harm us as much as it harms them, particularly on the oil front. Have you made any assessments of the impact—the economic impact, in particular on the oil price—if there were to be economic sanctions against Iran?

  Mr Blair: It is a factor we take into account, obviously, but it is not so much a specific assessment because we have not got to the stage of assessing what action we might take but I suppose what that does, again, is indicate why it is so important that in respect of energy policy Europe has a more concerted view. I think one of the things that is happening round the world today is that energy is being used as a political lever in a far more pointed way than I can remember for several decades.

  Q294 Mr Doran: Do you accept there would be a serious consequence?

  Mr Blair: It depends on whatever we might propose and it depends on what the Iranian response is. Obviously, they have a certain position within the energy market but that should not, in my view, deter us from taking action if that is where we get to. The reason I am being somewhat coy here is we made this report to the Security Council but we are not at the stage yet of agreeing what we are going to do and I do not want, obviously, when there are discussions going on as to what we might or might not do, to start committing myself and getting everyone in trouble.

  Sir George Young: Thank you. Can I bring in Andrew Miller?

  Q295 Andrew Miller: Can I take a step back to some of Mike Gapes' questions and then pose them to you in the context of some of the issues around technology transfer in the energy industry, and particularly in respect of nuclear power, and then some of that spills over into nuclear weapons, obviously. It is a rather important issue in my neck of the woods, with Capenhurst just down the road from us. Just put the debate into perspective. What is your estimate of how long it would take Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon with their current technologies?

  Mr Blair: I do not know, Andrew.

  Q296 Andrew Miller: We are assuming they have started enrichment processes.

  Mr Blair: I am not an expert on this and you would have to ask the Atomic Energy Authority. The trouble is that no one quite knows what stage they are at. Someone mentioned earlier AQ Khan, and that network, fortunately, has now been shut down. Obviously, there is a worry, too, about the capability of buying expertise from outside. People always assume this is something countries develop within their own country, but, as the AQ Kahn network showed, there is an export market in this, and we have to be careful of that as well.

  Q297 Andrew Miller: Does the proposed or speculated Russian intervention prevent any further technology transfer to Iran?

  Mr Blair: No. I think people are willing to have a close look at what the Russians were offering, but I think, as the Russians themselves have now said, they are worried about what the Iranian intentions really are. One of the worries, as Mike was quite rightly saying earlier, is if they then start refusing what appear to be perfectly reasonable offers in order to give reassurance to people, then you wonder why they are refusing them. So that then increases people's anxiety.

  Q298 Andrew Miller: There is obviously a huge risk, as we share technologies around the world to help in the energy debate, that there will be some disadvantages spilling out from it. Of course, URENCO's work, from where the leak occurred (fortunately, not our part of URENCO but in Holland where the AQ Khan network was focused) under the Treaty of Almalo is focused upon power, it is not focused upon nuclear weapons. Are you confident that there has been a complete close-down of risks like that within the international community?

  Mr Blair: I do not think we can be fully confident at all, not when you have still got countries like North Korea operating in the way that they are. I think the AQ Khan network we can be relatively sure of. Libya has, as we are clear about, given up its nuclear/chemical weapons ambitions. Other countries who have potential in this area have been dealt with and, obviously, Iraq. No, there is a market in this internationally. The one thing I would say is that post-September 11 the counter-proliferation initiative has had some success in trying to deal with those networks, but you have got to watch this the whole time. The trouble is, if you get a highly unstable regime whose leaders use the type of rhetoric that Iran has used about Israel in the past few months, which, after all, is a pretty extraordinary thing to say about another state—that you, literally, want to wipe them off the face of the map. This is my point, really: in the end I have come to the conclusion that your only long-term stability is when you are dealing with a regime that is properly accountable to its people who, I have no doubt, want to get on with their lives and live in peace. But it is a worry when you have got a country saying these things, and prepared to operate in this way. That is why we are having the debate we are having.

  Sir George Young: We may want to come back, if we have a moment later on, about the role of Parliament and public opinion in this country on where we go next on Iran. Can we just have a session on Hamas and the elections in Palestine?

  Q299 Mr Sarwar: Was the Prime Minister surprised by the resounding victory of Hamas in the recent elections? Can the Prime Minister outline what kind of diplomatic contacts the UK Government will have with a Hamas-led government?

  Mr Blair: Well, as the election went on I think we were increasingly less surprised by the result. Democracy is democracy. That is what people have said in Palestine and we should understand, maybe, some of the reasons why they have said that. We have said we will not be able to have contact with an Hamas-led government unless it is clear that they are prepared to forswear that part of their constitution that says they want rid of the State of Israel and that they are prepared to embrace democratic and not violent means of achieving an independent, viable Palestinian state—which we want to achieve, incidentally. It is important that we get it, but if they do not make those changes that will stand in the way of us being able to help.

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