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UK policy towards Iran

In its 2020 report on the UK’s relationship with Iran, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee wrote that Iran “challenges the values that underpin UK foreign policy.” The values the Committee identified included restricting nuclear proliferation, promoting stability in the Middle East, protecting UK nationals overseas, and advancing human rights.

The UK Government’s March 2023 refresh of its Integrated Review of Defence, Development, Security and Foreign Policy echoed these concerns, and identified Iran as a “persistent destabilising” influence in Middle East. It also highlighted the increasing threat Iranian state actors have posed to UK-based individuals, and Iran’s growing cooperation with Russia during the war in Ukraine. The review also restated UK aims to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

This debate briefing introduces each of these issues, the UK and international response, and links to further reading and resources, including Commons Library research briefings on Iran.

Iran’s activities abroad

Nuclear programme

In 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), known also as the Iran nuclear deal, was agreed between Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Russia, the UK, the US, and Germany). It was intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons programme.

In 2018, despite Iran’s verified compliance, the US withdrew from the JCPOA and reimposed all its sanctions. Since May 2019, Iran has incrementally violated the terms of the agreement. Its stockpile of enriched uranium is substantially above the levels imposed by the JCPOA and it has enriched uranium up to almost 84% (the JCPOA allowed a limit of 3.67%). The level of 60% is beyond what is considered necessary for civilian purposes, while weapons grade uranium is enriched to 90%. Iran’s Government says it is pursuing a civilian nuclear programme.

While the Biden Administration has sought to restore the agreement, talks have stalled since September 2022 (though no side has said they have failed). In 2023, both the United States and UK Governments have reiterated their commitment to Iran never acquiring a nuclear weapon.

While the estimated time for the additional development of a deliverable nuclear warhead has been put at one to two years, there is now concern that Iran will acquire irreversible nuclear knowledge that renders any agreement or future talks increasingly moot.

The original JCPOA did not include broader measures on Iran’s foreign policy, such as its support for armed groups in the Middle East (see below). Both the  Commons Foreign Affairs Committee in 2020 and some Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, have called for any new agreement to address wider regional security issues. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, has said matters of “national strength” and “giv[ing] up on [Iran’s] regional presence” are not matters for negotiation.

Iran’s support for armed groups in the Middle East

Beginning in the period after the Iranian revolution of 1979, which saw the last Shah overthrown, Iran has sought to embed its influence across the region in order to preserve the revolution, support predominantly Shia Muslim groups overseas as part of the wider Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East, and address the regional influence of the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

As set out in the Commons Library research briefing on Iran’s influence in the Middle East:

The UK, US, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE consider Iran to be a destabilising influence in the Middle East. There are UN and other sanctions and arms embargoes in place against these groups as well as Iran to limit their activity.

Regional reconciliation in 2023

During 2023, there has been increasing reconciliation between rival states in the region:

The UK and United States have welcomed the Saudi-Iran initiative as contributing to de-escalation and stability in the region. Analysts assess that these agreements are, in part, an attempt to diversify their alliances away from the US, though its security umbrella remains dominant.

Greater Gulf involvement in Syria may also lessen Iranian and Russian influence in the country, though this is uncertain. Both countries have provided substantial military and financial support to Assad during the civil war.

Saudi-Iran rapprochement and recent violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also complicate attempts by the Israeli Government to extend the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia, though neither the US nor Israel see improving Iran-Saudi ties as an impediment to an agreement. In 2020, Bahrain and the UAE had signed the Accords with Israel to establish diplomatic ties and subsequently built on these through security and trade agreements.

Iranian engagement with Russia and China

As part of its “look to the east” strategy, the Iranian Government has sought to strengthen its ties with both China and Russia.

As set out in sections 5 and 6 of the Commons Library briefing on China and the US in the Middle East: Iran and the Arab Gulf (published in August 2022), Iran has economic cooperation agreements with both countries (though the value of that trade is limited), has backed Russia’s war in Ukraine, and participated in some joint military exercises.

Support to Russia during the Ukraine conflict

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the US National Security Council has judged Iran to have become Russia’s “top military backer,” providing drones and artillery and tank rounds (Iran states these were supplied prior to February 2022). In return, the US reports Russia has offered Iran increased cooperation on missiles and air defence.

Since mid-2022, the US, UK and others have applied sanctions in response to the weapons transfers between Russia and Iran.

Speaking in December 2022, the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, said military cooperation between Iran and Russia was a threat to the UK’s partners in the Middle East and to international security.

A likely “flash point,” according to International Crisis Group analysis, is in October 2023, when restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles lapse, under UN Resolution 2231. This resolution is planned to lapse in line with agreements made with the original nuclear agreement in 2015. The end of restrictions may lead to the proliferation of Iranian missiles to Russia.

Threats to UK-based individuals

In February 2023, UK counter-terrorism police said they and the security services foiled 15 plots by Iran from the start of 2022 to either kidnap or kill UK-based individuals perceived as threats to the Iranian regime.

Which agencies and individuals are responsible is uncertain, but the UK Government says it has “long been clear” in its concerns regarding the activity of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in both the UK and the Middle East.

The IRGC is an Iranian state military and intelligence service, introduced following the 1979 revolution as a counterweight to Iran’s regular armed forces. The IRGC has ground forces in Iran totalling more than 100,000 personnel, as well as naval and air forces. It also controls the paramilitary Basij force, which can mobilise up to 600,000 volunteers, and provides money, technology and training to Iran-aligned groups in the wider Middle East.

For UK debates on proscribing the IRGC as a terrorist group, see section 1.3.

Human rights in Iran

General assessment

Iran is one of the human rights priority countries for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO). The Department’s most recent assessment was published in December 2022, covering 2021.

The FCDO raised concerns for “systematic persecution” experienced by Baha’is in Iran and discrimination against Christians. It also criticised Iran’s continuing use of the death penalty, and the denial of consular access to dual nationals in detention.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, has said Iran has executed 209 people from 1 January to 9 May 2023, mostly for drugs-related offenses. 508 people were executed in total during 2022, according to the UN. Based on official and unofficial sources, the NGOs Iran Human Rights and Together Against the Death Penalty provide a higher figure of 582 (PDF) executions in 2022.

The UK Government has raised its concerns regarding Iran at the UN human rights council and summoned the Iranian ambassador in response to Iran’s use of the death penalty. As of April 2023, the UK also sanctions 145 individuals and five organisations in Iran under its human rights sanctions.

Response to 2022 protests

In September 2022, the death of the Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Jina Amini sparked protests that lasted over four months. At least 19,000 people were detained, and 500 protesters killed.

At least seven individuals have been executed for their participation in the anti-government protests of 2022, including three in May 2023.

While there were initial signs the Iranian Government would potentially ease enforcement of wearing hijab, in January 2023 Iran’s judiciary issued new guidance banning the removal of headscarves in public, detailing sentences of up to ten years for those encouraging their removal.

The Commons Library briefing, Iran protests 2022: Human rights and international response, provides more on the response of the Iranian Government to the protests, the sanctions the UK and other governments applied in response, and actions at the United Nations.

Organisations sanctioned by the UK include Iran’s morality police and the Basij Resistance Force, both of whom are responsible for the enforcement of Iran’s Islamic dress code and response to the 2022 protests.

Detention of foreign and dual nationals

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention argues there is a “systematic problem with arbitrary detention” in Iran, “which amounts to a serious violation of international law.”

Iran detains an unknown number of foreign and dual nationals, often on espionage charges, including some British-Iranians. In 2023, two dual nationals were executed: In January, British-Iranian citizen Alireza Akbari, on an accusation of spying for the UK, and Swedish-Iranian Habib Farajollah Chaab in May 2023, on terrorism charges.

The UK and others have condemned the executions, and the UK Government has sanctioned Iran’s Prosecutor General.

In April 2023, the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published its report on state-level hostage situations. This argued the UK Government should strengthen deterrence through applying further sanctions against those involved in detention and increase UK involvement in the Canadian initiative against arbitrary detention to develop voluntary measures for states to collectively take to deter arbitrary detentions.

The Committee also expressed concern for the lack of UK control or oversight of the £400 million payment made to Iran in 2022. This was to clear the UK’s historic debt to Iran for undelivered armoured vehicles and tanks cancelled following the overthrow of the last Shah in 1979. The UK Government has said the debt was unconnected to the detention of some British dual nationals, including Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but the Committee argues Iran used “hostage diplomacy […] to secure payment.”

A Government response to the Committee is due by June 2023.

The Commons Library briefing, Dual nationals imprisoned in Iran, provides more on the position of dual nationals in Iran, the historic debt the UK owed to the Iranian Government, and debates on how the UK can best support those detained.

UK policy towards the IRGC

The UK applies sanctions against the IRGC

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is currently sanctioned under UK sanctions in place against Iran’s nuclear programme. These aim to restrict Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons and to encourage it to comply with related UN obligations. These sanctions apply asset freezes and other financial measures against those who are, or have been, involved in nuclear activity within Iran.

These sanctions are separate to those the UK applies against Iran in response to reported human rights abuses. Some individuals linked to the IRGC are also sanctioned under these regulations, including several financiers.

Debate in the UK on proscription

In response to reported Iranian threats to UK-based individuals and the role of the IRGC in the Iranian Government’s response to the protests in 2022, there has been increasing debate in the UK on whether to proscribe the group as a terrorist organisation. In April 2023, a cross-party group of MPs and Peers also wrote to the UK Government calling for the IRGC to be proscribed.

This debate follows a 2020 recommendation by the Foreign Affairs Committee for its proscribing “as a logical extension of the existing restrictions placed on members of the IRGC.”

As set out in the Commons Library on Proscribed Terrorist Organisations, proscription is a separate process to sanctioning and is a decision made by the Home Secretary under the Terrorism Act 2000. Proscribing would, among other impacts, make membership of the group illegal.

In January 2023, both The Telegraph and the BBC reported that the UK Government was preparing to designate the IRGC a terrorist organisation, following the decision made by the United States in 2019.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary, David Lammy, has also called for the IRGC to be proscribed. In February 2023, the Minister for Security, Tom Tugendhat, cited the potential for an international agreement on proscribing the group:

It is interesting to note that, of the so-called E3+3 [UK, US, China, France, Germany and Russia], Germany and France appear to be looking at proscribing the IRGC, as the United States has already done. It seems that not only is there international agreement on the point the hon. Member [Virendra Sharma] raises, but that action is absolutely ready to go.

To date, neither France nor Germany have proscribed the IRGC.

On 23 May, the UK Government confirmed it was keeping its position under review and stressed other efforts it has taken to limit the actions of the IRGC:

As an entity, the IRGC was designated in its entirety under the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. More than 30 new designations of IRGC-related organisations and officials have been made by the FCDO since October 2022. The Government keep the list of proscribed organisations under review, […] while considering the range of available powers, we will continue to make use of the robust counterterrorism powers, including the proscription tool, where appropriate.

Analysts have noted the practical effects of the US decision to designate the IRGC were limited in the context of wider sanctions already been applied, but also argued it sent, and continues to send, an important message to Iran about its actions both abroad and at home.

The Independent newspaper has cited an assessment by the UK’s Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, Jonathan Hall, that states proscribing the IRGC, as a state entity of Iran, under the Terrorism Act would be “at the risk of upsetting the settled meaning of terrorism in domestic law” which has, to date, excluded the armed forces of nation-states.

Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has said labelling the IRGC as a terrorist organisation would be interpreted by Iran as a “serious escalation.”

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