IRAN'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS PROGRAMME (WESTMINSTER HALL) – 12 November 2013

Dr Julian Lewis: I am pleased to take part in the debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sheridan.

This weekend we honoured the dead of two world wars. It was the horror of the First World War that led to a huge desire for peace and disarmament in the decades that followed. During the 1920s and 1930s there were disarmament conferences and complex negotiations leading to impressive disarmament treaties, such as the Washington Naval Treaties. What happened afterwards was instructive. The democracies observed the treaties. The British Navy, for example, redesigned battleships such as the Nelson and the Rodney in strange configurations, to stay within the limits of the Washington Naval Treaties. The Germans had a much more practical approach to the matter. They simply lied about the tonnage of their battlecruisers, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, claiming to stay within the treaty terms, but actually breaching them.

We must therefore understand that, in disarmament negotiations and military confrontations, what matters is less the weapons systems than the nature of the Governments who possess them. An example of that is our attitude to the nuclear weapons that Russia holds today, compared with our attitude to nuclear weapons held by the Soviet Union. We were desperately concerned about its nuclear arsenal, because the Soviet Union was governed by a system with an aggressive ideology and a ruthless approach to what it regarded as the inevitable confrontation between communism and capitalism. Once the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia turned, however hesitantly, in a more democratic direction, we ceased to be anything like as concerned about its nuclear weapons systems. We became concerned about whether such systems would leach out of Russia into the hands of other totalitarian-inspired groups. We did not mind so much what arsenal Russia possessed – and continues to possess – provided that it remained in safe hands and not extremist hands.

That is why the comparisons between Iran’s possession of a nuclear weapon and Israel’s possession of a nuclear weapon are, frankly, unfounded. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Philip Hollobone), whom I congratulate both on securing the debate and on the way that he introduced it, we would be concerned today about Israel’s nuclear arsenal if Israel were governed by an extremist religious clique, and we would not be worried about Iran having nuclear weapons to anything like the extent that we are if Iran were as democratic as Israel is at present.

Having said all that, we have to operate within the boundaries of what is or is not practicable. The reality is that if Iran chooses to acquire nuclear weapons, unless some state or alliance of states seeks to intervene in some military way physically to prevent it from doing so, Iran cannot be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them enough. As has been pointed out, Iran is signed up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. I quickly conferred with my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Ben Wallace) and I think that we both agree that ultimately if Iran chose to leave the NPT, frankly there would be nothing that could be legitimately done to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons, any more than anything could have been done to prevent Pakistan from acquiring nuclear weapons in the way that it did.

I always refer to him as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), although we are on opposite sides of the argument. In his contribution, I believe that he was trying to suggest that Israel perhaps ought to give up its nuclear weapons and that that might improve the situation, and he ended his speech by saying that he did not believe that the balance of power, or the balance of terror, was the right way to keep the peace in the Middle East. I am afraid that I disagree with him on both counts. I think that Israel giving up its nuclear weapons – and Israel is not party to the NPT – would actually encourage other countries to commit aggression against it. I believe, however, that the possibility of the balance of terror may, in the end, come to be our only resource against Iran, because – as I said before – if Iran is determined to have nuclear weapons and if it is more important to Iran to have nuclear weapons than, for example, to have the sanctions against it removed, Iran will have nuclear weapons, unless somebody wants to launch a military strike against it.

In conclusion, we lived through – what was it? – 70 years or more of confrontation with the Soviet Union, and we survived that period of intense confrontation through a policy of containment. The containment policy meant that we neutralised the weapons systems of the power that could potentially attack us, and we allowed the slow development of internal political forces until that country’s system of government changed. If ever there were a country that ought to be subject to a policy of containment, it is Iran. Sometimes I get the impression that the leaders of Iran are almost being deliberately provocative, so as to incite some sort of military strike against it in order to bolster their position with the population at home. I have no doubt that if Iran can be contained for long enough, democracy will emerge in the country and, as I said at the beginning, when democracy emerges the question of what weapons systems a country has or does not have becomes almost completely irrelevant.