Both the Iran nuclear deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA), and the detention of British-Iranian dual nationals are the subject of a question for short debate tabled by Lord Dubs (Labour):

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their policy towards Iran; and what engagement they have had with the government of that country on (1) the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and (2) the detention of dual nationals.

The debate has been scheduled to take place in the House of Lords on Tuesday 19 October 2021.

What is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) was negotiated by Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: China, France, Russia, the UK and the US, plus Germany). It came into effect in January 2016.

Under the JCPoA, Iran agreed to reduce its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 percent. It also agreed for its centrifuges to only enrich uranium to 3.67 percent, which, according to the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was enough “for civilian nuclear power and research, but well below anything that could be used possibly for a weapon”. The agreement was subject to several time limits, for example that limits on uranium enrichment would be in place for 15 years. Iran also agreed to reduce the number of its centrifuges. In return, certain sanctions on Iran would be lifted, for example US sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sector.

Iran also agreed to provisionally implement the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the day that the JCPoA was implemented. The Additional Protocol is a set of requirements for information and access to assist the IAEA in monitoring Iran’s nuclear programme. It was signed by Iran and the IAEA in 2003. The IAEA has additional protocols agreed with 137 countries as part of safeguards agreements.

Under then President Trump, the US withdrew from the JCPoA in May 2018 and re-imposed its sanctions that had been lifted as a result of the agreement. Mr Trump argued the limits that the JCPoA placed on Iranian nuclear activity were “very weak” and did not limit “its other malign behavior, including its sinister activities in Syria, Yemen, and other places all around the world”. He described the deal as “disastrous”. President Trump also expressed concern that the JCPoA did not address Iran’s development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads.

The then Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Boris Johnson, said that the UK regretted the US decision. He said the UK had done its “utmost” to prevent it. Mr Johnson said that the US withdrawal made “no difference to the British assessment that the constraints imposed on Iran’s nuclear ambitions by the JCPoA remain vital for our national security and the stability of the middle east”. In January 2019, the UK, Germany and France created a payments system to facilitate European businesses to trade with Iran in products such as pharmaceuticals, medical devices and agri-food goods. BBC News reported that some of the US sanctions made it hard for European banks to make direct payments to Iran. BBC News stated that “oil, Iran’s main source of foreign exchange, will not be covered”. The then UK Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, described the new payment system as “a significant step forward in delivering our commitment under the Iran nuclear deal to preserve sanctions relief for the people of Iran”. He said this demonstrated the countries’ commitment to the JCPoA “for as long as Iran keeps implementing it fully”. He said this did not preclude “addressing Iran’s hostile and destabilising activities”.

However, following the US withdrawal, Iran started to breach the JCPoA in 2019. This included enriching uranium to concentrations not allowed under the agreement and developing new centrifuges to speed up enrichment. In February 2021, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) informed the IAEA that a law passed in Iran would stop the implementation of the voluntary inspection measures envisaged in the JCPoA from 23 February 2021. Iran and the IAEA reached a temporary agreement for the IAEA to continue verification and monitoring activities for up to three months. The agreement was subsequently extended to 24 June 2021. In July 2021, Iran began the process of producing enriched uranium metal, which it said was in order to develop fuel for a research reactor.

The current US President, Joe Biden, has said he wants the US to return to the JCPoA. In April 2021, talks started in Vienna aimed at bringing the US back to the JCPoA and Iran back into compliance with it. In a press call following the first round of negotiations, a senior official at the US Department of State explained talks between Iran and the US were indirect and had mainly been moderated through the EU or through other JCPoA members. The official described the talks as constructive. The official also said that the US was prepared to lift sanctions if Iran returned to compliance:

[A]ll sanctions that are inconsistent with the JCPoA and are inconsistent with the benefits that Iran expects from the JCPoA, we are prepared to lift. That doesn’t mean all of them because there are some that are legitimate––legitimate sanctions. Even under a very fair reading, a scrupulous reading of the JCPoA, those would be legitimate sanctions.

The official stated that once the US was back in the JCPoA it wanted to strengthen and lengthen the deal as well as talk “about other issues of concern to all Americans”.

The talks were paused following the election of Iran’s new president Ebrahim Raisi in June 2021. He was officially appointed president by Iran’s Supreme Leader on 3 August 2021. President Raisi has appointed Hossein Amirabdollahian as Iran’s new foreign minister. An article by the Financial Times has stated that some analysts “are optimistic” that the new foreign minister may be able to revive the JCPoA due to his greater domestic influence than predecessor Mohammad Javad Zarif. The US has urged Iran to return to the Vienna talks. The German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has reported Hossein Amirabdollahian as saying that the new Iranian administration takes time to set up and that he has rejected the idea that Iran was “walking away from the negotiating table”.

UK position on the JCPoA

The UK Government has stated its priority remains finding a diplomatic way forward regarding Iran’s nuclear activities, and to “bring an end to Iran’s continue[d] systematic non-compliance with its JCPoA commitments”. The UK has stated that the discussions in Vienna are aimed at bringing the US back into the JCPoA and bringing Iran back into full compliance. It has further stated that a restored and implemented JCPoA could “provide the confidence” to address regional and security concerns. The UK Government has said “we welcome and support President Biden’s commitment to not just return to the deal, but to strengthen and extend it”, adding that “Iran’s role in destabilising the region needs to be addressed”. The UK Government has stated that it regularly raises Iran’s “destabilising” role in the region at the UN Security Council, and that it has worked with its allies to “strengthen institutions and build capacity in more vulnerable countries, including in Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon”.

In answer to an oral question in the House of Commons on 25 June 2021, Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, said that Iran’s enrichment of uranium above permitted limits and its production of uranium metal were “of deep concern”. He said that whilst some progress had been made in Vienna, a successful outcome was “far from guaranteed”. Mr Raab said that the talks could not remain open-ended and that “we need to see a return to full compliance” from Iran. He said it was right to ensure that Iran gave permanent guarantees on its nuclear activities but that it also addressed the “destabilising activity that [it] sponsors”.

On 23 February 2021, the UK, French and German governments issued a joint statement in response to Iran’s suspension of the Additional Protocol. The governments said that they deeply regretted that Iran had started to suspend the Additional Protocol and the transparency measures under the JCPoA. They said they were united in underlining the “dangerous nature” of the decision. They expressed concern that it would significantly constrain the IAEA’s access to sites and to “safeguards-relevant information”. The statement noted the “bilateral understanding between the IAEA and Iran” on time-limited continued access to certain information.

The G7 was held in Carbis Bay, Cornwall, from 11 to 13 June 2021. The summit communiqué stated that the G7 were committed to ensuring that Iran “will never develop a nuclear weapon”. It said that the G7 welcomed the discussions between parties to the JCPoA and its aim of returning the US and Iran to the agreement. It also argued that a restored and fully implemented JCPoA could “pave the way to further address regional and security concerns”. The G7 condemned Iran’s support for proxy forces and non-state armed actors and it called on Iran to stop ballistic missile activities and proliferation inconsistent with UN Security Council Resolution 2231 and others.

On 19 August 2021, the UK, French and German governments issued another joint statement following IAEA confirmation that Iran had produced uranium metal enriched to 20% for the first time and that it had “significantly increased its production capacity of uranium enriched up to 60%”. The statement said these were serious violations of the JCPoA. It also stated that both were key steps in the development of a nuclear weapon and that Iran had no credible civilian need for either measure. The statement said the governments’ concerns were deepened by Iran significantly limiting IAEA access by withdrawing JCPoA-agreed monitoring arrangements and through its suspension of the Additional Protocol. The statement also stated that Iran’s actions were troubling because the talks in Vienna had been suspended and Iran had not committed to a date for their resumption:

Iran’s activities are all the more troubling given the fact talks in Vienna have been interrupted upon Tehran’s request for two months now and that Iran has not yet committed to a date for their resumption. While refusing to negotiate, Iran is instead establishing facts on the ground which make a return to the JCPoA more complicated.

Status of British-Iranian dual nationals

Writing in June 2021, Lord Goldsmith, Minister of State at the Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said that President Raisi must commit to improving human rights and “to release British nationals arbitrarily detained there”. The detention of British-Iranian dual nationals in Iran has been widely reported in the UK, with the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe being a well-known example. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a British-Iranian that has been detained in Iran since she was arrested on a visit there in 2016. The Government has said that Iran has “put her through a cruel and intolerable ordeal and we have called on them, in the strongest possible terms, to end her suffering and allow her to be reunited with her family”. It also said that it remained committed to doing all it could to secure Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s return to the UK.

The FCDO has said that Iran does not recognise dual nationality for Iranian citizens and “therefore [doesn’t] grant consular access for FCDO officials to visit them in detention”. The FCDO has explained that this limits its ability to provide assistance to detained British-Iranians in Iran:

If you’re a British-Iranian dual national and you are subsequently detained in Iran, the FCDO’s ability to provide consular support is extremely limited, and the Iranian authorities won’t notify the Embassy as they view dual nationals as Iranian citizens. The FCDO’s ability to secure information from the Iranian authorities about the detention of a dual British-Iranian national will also be severely limited.

The FCDO also has “serious concerns” that in cases of detention Iran’s judicial process falls below international standards.

In its Human Rights and Democracy Report 2020 the FCDO stated that Dominic Raab had raised the UK’s concerns on British-Iranian dual nationals with his Iranian counterpart:

During 2020, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, raised repeatedly with the [then] Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif the cases of a number of British-Iranians detained in Iran. We will continue to raise all of our dual national detainee cases with Iran, including making requests for them to receive appropriate medical treatment and due process.

The report stated that the UK would continue raising the situation of British-Iranian dual nationals in 2021:

In 2021, we shall keep raising our dual national detainee cases with Iran and take all appropriate action to secure their release. We shall continue to hold Iran to account on a wide range of human rights issues, by using our membership of the UN Human Rights Council and elsewhere at the UN, through frequent contact with the Iranian Government, and by working with our European partners.

In answer to an oral question in the House of Lords on 7 June 2021, Lord Ahmad, Minister of State at the FCDO, said that it was “unacceptable and unjustifiable that Iran continues with its arbitrary detention of dual British nationals”. Lord Ahmad said that the Prime Minister had raised the cases of British dual nationals with the Iranian Government and that the UK Government continued to seek their release and return to the UK. In reference to the case of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Lord Dubs (Labour) asked the minister about money owed by the UK to Iran (this money relates to the sale of military hardware in the 1970s between the UK and Iran). Lord Ahmad said that the UK continued to explore options to resolve her case:

On the long-standing debt, we continue to explore options to resolve this case, but I do not want to go into details here, and nor do we attach the two issues specifically.

On 15 June 2021, in answer to an oral question in the House of Commons on Anoosheh Ashoori, a detained British-Iranian, Dominic Raab said that he had raised the issue of British-Iranian dual nationals held in Iran, and in other countries, with the US at the G7 summit in June 2021:

With other issues, it was something I discussed with our US friends at Carbis Bay. I am doing absolutely everything I can to secure the release and return home of all our detained dual nationals in Iran and, indeed, around the world.

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This article was first published on 3 September 2021. It was updated on 13 October 2021 to include the date the debate is scheduled to take place in the House of Lords.

Cover image by jorono on Pixabay.