Rishi Sunak has said he is “increasingly concerned” about Iran’s behaviour and suggested it could become one of the UK’s biggest foreign policy threats in the coming months.
He cited Iran’s nuclear programme and their “destabilising” impact on the region, as well as the treatment of their own citizens.
The Prime Minister made the remarks during his first appearance before the liaison committee, which is made up of select committee chairs.
He told MPs: “Whilst Russia and Ukraine remain our number one foreign policy challenge as we go into the new year, I am increasingly concerned about Iran’s behaviour, the treatment of their citizens, what they’re doing in the region which is destabilising, and indeed the nuclear programme. So I think it is something we will need to spend an increasing amount of time on as we go forward.”
Britain has unleashed a wave of sanctions on Iran in response to its brutal crackdown on the protests that erupted after the death in custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini.
Mr Sunak said the protests in Iran “send a very clear message that the Iranian people aren’t satisfied” with their government.
He described the treatment of demonstrators as “abhorrent” and highlighted the sanctions that the UK has dished out to dozens of connected individuals, including the morality police.
On Tuesday Joe Biden was caught on camera admitting that the Iran nuclear deal is “dead”, in a clear sign that Washington has privately abandoned hopes of restoring the pact.
In a short video, which was filmed at an election event on November 4 but only released on Tuesday, Mr Biden is asked by an unidentified woman to announce that the nuclear deal is dead.
Elsewhere during the liaison committee hearing, Mr Sunak left the door open to a 12p fuel duty rise in next year’s Spring Budget.
He was asked if he would stop Jeremy Hunt, his Chancellor, introducing a proposed increase of 23 per cent that was pencilled into government forecasts last month.
Mr Sunak replied: “Having previously had his job, I always preferred it when the Prime Minister made absolutely no comment about future tax policy, and so I will very much adhere to that.”
Harriett Baldwin, the chairman of the Treasury committee, noted this would amount to £6 billion a year during a cost-of-living crisis, telling him: “Surely you’re not going to let the Chancellor get away with 12 pence a litre more on fuel.”
But Mr Sunak said he would let Mr Hunt make the decisions and “announce them in the normal way”, adding: “Whether I was chancellor or as Prime Minister, I would say exactly the same thing – tax decisions are those made by the chancellor in fiscal events.”
The issue has been divisive among Tory MPs, some of whom have heaped pressure on ministers to make a firm commitment to a fuel duty cut.
Last month, former home secretary Priti Patel and 22 fellow backbench MPs wrote to Jeremy Hunt urging him to slash fuel duty or at least commit to freezing it until the end of this parliament.
They demanded an assurance that he will not go ahead with a planned rise in fuel duty following a warning it would add 12p to the price of a litre of petrol or diesel.
On Tuesday night Craig Mackinlay told The Telegraph: “I would recommend that both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor knock any ideas about a fuel duty rise at the next Budget completely on the head right here and right now.
“Long-suffering motorists have had a dreadful year with fuel prices, and whilst I would always recommend a fuel duty cut, maintaining current levels of fuel duty must be a political imperative.”
Mr Sunak said a push to ensure that more young people studied mathematics up until the age of 18 would be a “main focus” of his education policy.
Mr Sunak said Britain was “an outlier country in the kind of lack of maths study after 16 compared to almost everyone else”.
He also noted relatively low levels of numeracy among young adults and especially versus other Oecd countries.
“Considering how important that is for people’s opportunities in life and their ability to have good jobs, I think it’s worth us looking at that and seeing whether we’ve got things as we would like them if we were really focused on making sure our children and our grandchildren have a fantastic future ahead of them.”
The Prime Minister appeared to have slightly narrowed his focus since the Tory leadership campaign in the summer, in which he vowed to introduce a “British baccalaureate” aimed at stopping 16-year-old secondary school leavers from dropping both maths and English when they entered further education.
He warned allowing people not to take the subjects at A-level would “hold us back if our youngsters don’t have those skills”.
Mr Sunak failed to put a number on how many people he expected the Government to deport to Rwanda by 2023.
“I think we expect further legal challenge, we’ll continue to pursue that as necessary and it’s one of the many things we want to pursue,” he said.
Dame Diana Johnson, the Labour chair of the home affairs select committee, noted the Rwandan government had used a figure of around 200, to which the Prime Minister responded: “We haven’t commented on what is a commercial contract and rightly so.
“But what we’re keen to do is have a system we move to which is if someone comes illegally, they don’t have the right to stay and we have the right to remove them.”
Mr Sunak also declined to state how many small boat Channel crossings he expected there to be in 2023, saying it “would not be possible for me to put a precise number on it”.
Mr Sunak confirmed he will use the festive period to review the Government’s net zero strategy after a High Court ruling earlier this year found it was unlawful.
In July, the High Court ruled that the current plans failed to show how the UK would meet its legally-binding carbon budgets and ordered the strategy to be reissued by the end of March next year.
Pressed for confirmation he was making progress on this, Mr Sunak said: “I’ll be doing that over the Christmas holidays as we intend to obviously respond to the High Court demand and indeed Chris Skidmore’s net zero review. I’d like to do those ideally together and I’m going over exactly that over the Christmas period.”