Writing in The Sunday Telegraph on 20th March 2022, The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP said:
I didn’t support the JCPOA (known as the Iran nuclear deal) in 2015, as I believed it was a fundamentally flawed agreement. Not only did it abandon the original aim of preventing Iran from ever becoming a nuclear weapon state, but it failed to tackle Iran’s ballistic missile programme, its systematic destabilisation of its regional neighbours or its championing of terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
In 2018, President Trump withdrew the United States from the agreement, blaming Iran’s hostage taking, its continued missile development and its active support for groups such as the Houthis, who precipitated and exacerbated the bloody conflict in Yemen. When Iran refused to sign an agreement covering these issues, tighter US sanctions saw the Iranian currency go into free fall, a massive flight of capital from the country, and a deep recession follow.
Now, negotiations are being resurrected under the Biden administration. But has anything fundamentally changed? Iran has continued its nuclear programme at pace and its stockpile of enriched uranium is now massively greater than permitted, with some of it just below the level of purity needed for a nuclear bomb. In defiance of the United Nations, it has also continued with its ballistic missile programme. In 2018, both the UK and France accused Iran of breaching its obligations by testing medium-range ballistic missiles, which were capable of carrying multiple warheads.
Both before and after the collapse of the JCPOA, Iran has continued its malign activities in its own country and beyond. Two Iranian diplomats were expelled from the Netherlands in June 2018 for plotting political assassinations in the country. A bomb plot to target a rally of opposition groups in Paris was foiled by French intelligence. In the UK, a terrorist cell with links to Iran was caught stockpiling tonnes of ammonium nitrate explosives at a secret bomb factory on the outskirts of London.
Iran has been an active and consistent supporter of Palestinian terrorist organisations, including Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and Hamas. Lebanese Hezbollah remains Iran’s primary terrorist proxy with the group’s secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, proudly boasting that “Hezbollah gets its money and arms from Iran, and as long as Iran has money, so does Hezbollah.”
The implications of lifting sanctions on Iran are crystal-clear. It is through such proxies that Iran targets Israel and Israeli interests and gives effect to the long-standing hatred of Iran’s leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, for the very existence of the Israeli state.
To remove sanctions on Iranian oil without guarantees of stopping such activities would risk money being poured into regional destabilisation and the funding of groups who are fundamentally anti-West and anti the allies of the West. How, in any rational world, could that be regarded as progress?
Any new agreement with Iran must answer three questions. Does it stop Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state? Does it deal with Iran’s illegal ballistic missile programme with its ability to strike evermore distant targets? And does it restrict or rein back Iran’s malign influence in its own region and beyond?
When the original agreement was being drawn up, negotiators concluded that in order to make progress, they would have to isolate the nuclear deal from the other areas of concern. Abandoning the original aim of preventing Iran from developing a nuclear bomb, they eventually watered-down their ambitions and agreed to simply delay it.
Constraints on enrichment capabilities were designed to lengthen the time it would take Iran to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a single bomb to at least one year for the first 10 years of the agreement. The effect was simply to hand the crisis to succeeding governments further down the line.
Today, Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, with most coming from foreign sources, especially North Korea. It is the only country to have developed a 1,200-mile missile without first having a nuclear weapons capability. The implication is blindingly obvious. Iran has unveiled 10 new ballistic missiles and three new satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) since 2015, while in his first budget, the new President, Ebrahim Raisi, earmarked almost £200 million for ballistic missile projects.
All of this comes at a time when Western governments are desperate to find a replacement source for Russian fossil fuels. It would be complete folly if, in trying to escape from our dependency on Putin’s oil and gas, we were to end up funding the development of another nuclear state whose political stability, human-rights record and disregard for international law is at least as bad as Russia.
We have seen in the horrors enforced on Ukraine by Putin’s Kremlin why wishful thinking is a poor basis for foreign and security policy. How irresponsible and foolish we would be to repeat the mistakes with Iran.
The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox MP is former Defence and International Trade Secretary. He was the UK’s Nominee to be Director-General of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2020.