The House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate on 23 February 2023:

Lord Alton of Liverpool (Crossbench) to ask His Majesty’s Government what their priorities are in respect of the conduct of British–Iranian relations.

1. Summary of tensions in the UK–Iran relationship

The UK and Iran have had a complex relationship for decades. But ties, already beset by longstanding issues, have been under additional pressure in recent months. Current sources of tension, explored in further detail below, include but are not limited to:

2. Government priorities on Iran

The UK government has suggested that it prioritises counter-proliferation, regional stability and human rights concerns in its relationship with Iran.

The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy, published in March 2021, set out the government’s view of the threat posed by Iran in respect of both its nuclear ambitions and regional activity. As a priority action, the review said the UK would, alongside allies, “hold Iran to account for its nuclear activity” and remained “open to talks on a more comprehensive nuclear and regional deal”. It added that Iran was contributing to a deteriorating security environment and instability in the Middle East. The review is currently being updated. In December 2022, the government said it expected to complete the refresh ahead of the spring budget now scheduled for 15 March 2023. The refreshed review is likely to set out the government’s position on future engagement with Tehran.

The government also regularly issues reports and statements on the human rights situation in Iran.

2.1 Counter-proliferation, regional activities and supply of weapons to Russia

In 2015, Iran and six negotiating states (China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK and the US), plus the EU, announced they had reached an agreement to limit the development of Iran’s nuclear programme. As part of the accord, Iran suspended certain activities and allowed enhanced inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In return, UN Security Council sanctions and significant multilateral and national sanctions were lifted.

However, in 2018, the then US president, Donald Trump, withdrew the US from the deal. In response, in 2020 Iran announced that it would no longer abide by commitments made under the JCPOA despite efforts by other parties to the agreement.

Both the US and Iran have since said they would return to the original deal. However, talks have been complicated by various developments since they resumed in April 2021. In November 2022, the IAEA said Iran was planning to expand its uranium enrichment capacity and a month later it was reported that US President Joe Biden had earlier commented the JCPOA was “dead”.

In November 2022, the UK, as part of the E3 grouping with partners France and Germany, called on Iran to fully comply with its JCPOA commitments:

The E3, along with our partners, have done our utmost to negotiate a return to a reasonably restricted Iranian nuclear programme. After many months of negotiations, the JCPOA coordinator tabled viable deals in March and again in August this year [2022] which would have returned Iran to full compliance with its JCPOA commitments and returned the US to the deal. Iran refused these packages with continued demands beyond the scope of the JCPOA, despite further efforts over the summer […] We urge Iran to immediately stop and reverse its nuclear escalation, allow for complete transparency with the IAEA by returning to full cooperation.

The UK subsequently outlined its concerns at a UN security council meeting in December 2022:

Iran’s continued nuclear escalation is a threat to international peace and security. Today, Iran’s total enriched uranium stockpile exceeds JCPOA limits by at least 18 times and it continues to produce high enriched uranium, which is unprecedented for a state without a nuclear weapons programme. Its nuclear actions have no credible civilian justification.

Iranian nuclear breakout time has reduced to a matter of weeks and the time required for Iran to produce the fissile material for multiple nuclear weapons is decreasing. Iran is testing technology with direct application to intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

As part of this statement, the UK’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York, Dame Barbara Woodward, added that Iran’s regional and domestic activities had complicated negotiations:

Iran’s behaviour in the region and at home betrays its claims to be a responsible international actor. As the [UN] secretary-general’s report confirms, Iran continues to provide increasingly complex weapons systems to non-state actors, including the Houthis [in Yemen]. It is providing support to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with which Russia is targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure as it did once again, today, against Kyiv. And it is responding to domestic protests in the most brutal fashion. This behaviour makes progress on a nuclear deal much more difficult.

In January 2023, the government said that Iran’s nuclear programme had “never been more advanced than it is today”. It added that nuclear escalation was threatening international peace and security and undermining the global non-proliferation system. The government continued:

We remain determined that Iran must never develop a nuclear weapon. Iran’s actions over the past months have made progress towards a diplomatic solution much more difficult. We are considering next steps, in discussion with our European and international partners.

On 9 December 2022, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly criticised Iran’s “sordid deals” with Russia to supply UAVs for use in Ukraine. On the same day, US National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said of increasing defence ties between Iran and Russia: “This is a full-scale defence partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbours and, quite frankly, to the international community”. He said Russia may be providing Iran with equipment such as helicopters and air defences in exchange for drones and collaboration on weapons development and training.

In January 2023, Mr Cleverly commented further on Iran’s international and domestic activities in response to a question in the House of Commons:

Iran’s actions, both through militia proxies in the region and through the supply of military weapons to Russia that are then used in Ukraine, are completely unacceptable. We have implemented more than 50 new sanctions designations in recent months in response to Iranian human rights abuses and its military support to Russia. We will continue to work closely with our international partners to take further actions to make it clear that that behaviour is unacceptable.

2.2 Human rights situation in Iran

The human rights situation in Iran has deteriorated following a sustained period of civil unrest sparked by the death in custody of Mahsa Amini in Tehran in September 2022. According to reports, thousands of people have been detained and hundreds killed during protests focused on the rights of women, the Iranian government’s treatment of minority ethnic groups and wider issues. Despite pardons for some protesters, others have been executed for participating in the protests.

The UK government has long expressed concerns about the human rights situation in Iran. In its most recent human rights and democracy report for example, published in December 2022 and covering 2021, the government listed Iran as a human rights priority country. The entry for Iran said:

Iranian authorities continued to commit multiple human right violations in 2021. Protests were suppressed, mass arrests occurred, and many detainees faced limited access to justice and little due process, particularly dual nationals. The use of the death penalty was widespread, and many trials were marred by irregularities. Violations of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief continued, and women remained unable to participate fully in society.

The report said that Iran continued to rank as “one of the most prolific users of the death penalty globally”, with credible estimates suggesting more than 314 people may have been executed in 2021 although accurate monitoring remained difficult. It also drew attention to:

  • restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Iran, with journalists and foreign-based media outlets under particular pressure
  • violations of the right to freedom of religion or belief, with Baha’is being denied access to mainstream education and expropriation of land and Christians continuing to be persecuted
  • the position of women in Iran, with women continuing to be denied the same rights and privileges as men, including unequal rights in marriage, divorce and child custody
  • severe jail terms given to human rights defenders and activists
  • the continued denial of consular access to dual British nationals in detention

In October 2022, the UK delivered a statement at an interactive dialogue on human rights in Iran at a UN general assembly committee meeting. This drew attention to issues including the situation facing women and girls in the country and abuses including the use of the death penalty, religious persecution and limits on freedom of expression. On the protests, it said:

Ordinary Iranians are now bravely risking their lives to demand accountability from their government and to insist their rights are respected. Iran must now listen: its suppression and barbarism cannot continue […] The UK stands with the people of Iran as they demand fundamental freedoms. We condemn violence, including live ammunition usage. We urge Iran to respect the right to peaceful protest, to lift internet restrictions, and to release those unfairly detained. Iran’s leaders can—and must—choose another path.

In November 2022, the UK made another statement to the committee. It read:

In recent months, the human rights situation in Iran has continued to deteriorate. Two months ago, we witnessed the tragic death of Mahsa Amini: a shocking reminder of the repression faced by women in Iran. We deplore the violent suppression of women’s rights, and enforcement of the mandatory hijab and chastity law by Iran’s so-called morality police.

We also find Iran’s response to the protests movement that followed Mahsa’s death truly abhorrent. Over 326 Iranians have lost their lives and over 14,000 have been arrested. The death sentence announced last week, for a protestor, signifies a shocking worsening of the situation.

The statement accused Iran of having executed at least 251 people in the first six months of 2022. It said the UK would support calls for a special session of the UN Human Rights Council scheduled to take place on 24 November, which subsequently agreed to launch an investigation into human rights in Iran.

Speaking before the House of Commons Liaison Committee in December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the UK stood “very much with the people of Iran”. He added:

I think the treatment of protesters is, quite frankly, abhorrent. That is why, in terms of actions […] the foreign secretary summoned the most senior Iranian official here to express our view to them, and then, over the course of three different days—on 9 December, 14 November and 10 October—we have sanctioned almost 40 different individuals connected with the protests, including the so-called morality police. And on 14 December, we, together with international allies, kicked Iran out of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

Mr Sunak added that he would not comment on whether the government was considering proscribing the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an Iranian military force. However, he did confirm that it had been sanctioned “in its entirety”. The prime minister also said he was “increasingly concerned about Iran’s behaviour, the treatment of its citizens, what it is doing in the region, which is destabilising, and indeed the nuclear programme”. Mr Sunak said Iran’s activities were “something that we will need to spend an increasing amount of time on going forward”.

The UK has continued to sanction Iranian individuals and groups alongside the US and the EU. Since the prime minister gave evidence to the committee, the following officials and groups have been sanctioned by the UK:

  • Iran’s prosecutor general, Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who is responsible for the trial process and the use of the death penalty
  • the commander in chief of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s ground forces, Kiyumars Heidari
  • the deputy commander of the IRGC, Hossein Nejat
  • the Basij Resistance Force within the IRGC
  • the deputy commander of the Basij, Salar Abnoush

Following the execution of dual UK-Iranian national Alireza Akbari in January 2023, the UK temporarily recalled its ambassador from Tehran.

2.3 Direct security threat posed by Iran

In his November 2022 update on threats facing the UK, Director General of the Security Service (MI5) Ken McCallum cautioned that Iran’s intelligence services had planned to kidnap or kill British or UK-based individuals. He said Iran was the “state actor which most frequently crosses into terrorism”, before adding:

The current wave of protests in Iran is asking fundamental questions of the totalitarian regime. This could signal profound change, but the trajectory is uncertain. For now, we see the regime resorting to violence to silence critics. An Iran that, with its proxies, remains a profoundly destabilising actor in its region and beyond. An Iran providing support to Russia, including by supplying the drones inflicting misery in Ukraine.

Iran projects threat to the UK directly, through its aggressive intelligence services. At its sharpest this includes ambitions to kidnap or even kill British or UK-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime. We have seen at least ten such potential threats since January [2022] alone. We work at pace with domestic and international partners to disrupt this completely unacceptable activity. The foreign secretary made clear to the Iranian regime just last week that the UK will not tolerate intimidation or threats to life towards journalists, or any individual, living in the UK.

In January 2023, the Financial Times reported that the EU was considering proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation after France and Germany reportedly endorsed the move. The US designated the IRGC as a foreign terror organisation in April 2019.

In February 2023, Minister for Security Tom Tugendhat responded to a question on whether the government was considering proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. He said:

The government always keep all areas under review, and speculation has certainly been in that direction. What we have already done is sanction various different elements. Any further action will no doubt be announced as soon as it is ready, and we will see as soon as that can be done.

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Cover image by Lara Jameson from Pexels.