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Volume 983: debated on Wednesday 23 April 1980

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With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on yesterday's decision by the Foreign Ministers of the members of the European Community concerning Iran. I am arranging for a copy of the text of the approved communiqué to be published in the Official Report.

As the House will recall, my right hon. and noble Friend and his colleagues had adopted a decision in Lisbon on 10 April which was, in effect, a last appeal to the authorities in Iran to release the hostages in conformity with international law. Our ambassadors in Tehran were instructed to convey this appeal to the Iranian President and to request him to name the date and method by which the hostages would be released. They did so on 12 April. Mr. Bani-Sadr's reply was unsatisfactory. The most he would say was that he hoped that a decision on the future of the hostages would be taken by the new Iranian Parliament when it had been elected and established. While holding out the prospect that visits to the hostages might be arranged, he could give no firm assurance about when the Parliament might meet, or whether it could be relied upon to act as he hoped.

When this matter came up in this House and in another place on 14 April, the mood of the House was unmistakable, and the phrase " the utmost solidarity with the United States " was used from the Benches on both sides. There was a general feeling that diplomatic methods had, for the time being at least, been exhausted and that the time had come to find some more concrete and far-reaching way of expressing our abhorrence at the continued defiance of the rules of international behaviour and the opinions of the civilised world.

The House will I hope, find this mood reflected in the decision adopted yesterday in Luxembourg. In accordance with a suggestion made last week by the United Kingdom, it was decided to proceed in two stages. In the first stage, the Nine will put into effect to the extent that they are not in force already certain measures mainly of a political nature. We shall reduce still further our embassy staffs in Tehran. We shall insist on a parallel reduction in the Iranian embassies in our own capitals. We shall reintroduce a visa system for Iranian citizens, after giving due notice, and we shall formally ban the export of defence equipment to Iran.

The measures to be adopted in stage 2 are much more far-reaching, and it was this paragraph which occupied most of the time yesterday. If I may, I shall read the key sentences. Ministers decided to seek immediate legislation where necessary in their national Parliaments to impose sanctions against Iran in accordance with the Security Council resolution on Iran, dated 10 January 1980, which was vetoed, and in accordance with the rules of international law. They believe that these legislative processes should be completed by 17 May, the date of their informal meeting in Naples. In the absence of decisive progress on the release of the hostages, they will then proceed immediately to the common implementation of sanctions.

These are decisions of great gravity. If it becomes necessary to implement them, a wide range of commercial activities will be affected. It is, of course, our hope that, at this eleventh hour, the Iranian authorities will draw the inescapable conclusion that the continued detention of the hostages is not in Iran's own interest and should be brought to an end without delay.

If that does not happen, we shall face the situation which we contemplated when we cast our vote for the resolution presented to the Security Council in January except that now the action taken must be on the basis of national measures and not on the basis of a resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations. The necessary measures will be laid before the House, and I believe that the Government can count on the co-operation of the House in handling them with the least possible delay.

The customary statement on the other business taken yesterday in the Foreign Affairs Council is being made separately in answer to a written question.

We are embarking upon a serious and inevitably uncertain course, but the Opposition have already made clear their view that the unlawful six months' detention of United States diplomats in Tehran is unacceptable and that the international community should join in diplomatic, political and economic, but not military, measures to bring about their early release. We reaffirm that view now. We shall, of course, give proper consideration to any legislation which the Government bring forward, and we shall expect the Government to keep the House fully informed as developments unfold.

In the light of the unsatisfactory response of the Iranian President to the European ambassadors last week, has the Minister any real reason to believe that the very modest diplomatic measures now to be taken—which we certainly hope will be successful—will have an effect? Secondly, can he affirm that the Nine have all agreed that, if no effective Iranian response is made, they will on 17 May introduce measures to prohibit direct exports, the movement of goods, credits and loans and new service contracts—in other words, the same measures as were supported by Britain and France and eight other members of the Security Council on 13 January? Is it also the intention to ban oil imports on the same date?

Is it not plain that if economic sanctions are to have a reasonable prospect of success there will need to be much wider support for them than that of the Nine alone? Is not the OECD the obvious forum in which to pursue these matters, both because it includes the United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the EFTA as well as the EEC countries, and because it is only through the OECD's international energy programme that emergency measures can be taken to pool oil supplies should that unfortunately prove necessary?

With regard to international political action, is it not a fact that the Soviet Union, along with all other members of the Security Council, voted on 4 December for a resolution calling for the immediate release of the United States hostages? Is there not, therefore, a strong case—in spite of their subsequent veto on 13 January—for seeking renewed Soviet co-operation in the matter? The issue of the hostages should not be seen primarily as an issue of East and West. It is in fact the lowest common denominator of serious and sane international conduct.

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's statement of support. We shall, of course, keep the House fully informed.

The political situation in Tehran and throughout Iran remains confused and fluid, and it is, therefore, right to make a further effort during the next three weeks—a little more than three weeks—to try to show those Iranians who are genuinely concerned with Iran's position in the world that that position will be undermined and put at risk so long as the hostages are held.

I confirm that there was complete agreement among the Foreign Ministers of the Nine on the measures that were announced. That is a satisfactory state of affairs.

The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that the subject of oil was not mentioned in the communiqué that was issued yesterday. No request has been received from the United States that we should forgo imports of oil. We received a request that companies should not buy from Iran at prices sharply different from the reigning OPEC prices. As it happens, the new price that was announced recently for Iranian oil is very high, and therefore British companies have not bought Iranian oil, and are not now lifting Iranian oil at the increased prices. I understand that the same is true of Japanese companies.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in pointing out that this is not simply a matter of the United States and the Nine, and that other countries are closely involved. The Japanese Foreign Minister was in Luxembourg yesterday, and my right hon. and noble Friend had a long talk with him. We understand that the Japanese are associating themselves with the measures announced—which is important. Other countries are also involved, some of which are members of OECD. Britain and her partners are in touch with them so as to bring about the maximum solidarity.

The right hon. Gentleman is correct in recalling that, initially, the Soviet Union went along with the demand that the hostages should be released. Later, it fell into the temptation of fishing in troubled waters, and it vetoed the second resolution in the Security Council. Nevertheless, we note, and we shall think carefully about, the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion for a further approach to the Soviet Union on this matter.

Have the Government overlooked the notorious and proven ineffectiveness and counter-productiveness of economic sanctions? Are not the Government aware of the widespread and rising dislike in this country at seeing Britain dragged at the chariot wheels of the United States, which would not act in this way if the roles were reversed?

No one can be happy about treading the path to sanctions, or be in any way dogmatic about the result. That is one reason why the European Ministers have given the Iranians more than three further weeks before sanctions come into effect. We very much hope that decisive progress towards the release of the hostages will be made within that time so that sanctions do not have to be implemented.

The right hon. Gentleman must take into account that yesterday the European Ministers were not considering a blank sheet of paper. They were considering a request from the President of the United States of America for help in a desperate situation in which, by universal consent, he has shown immense patience and restraint for five months.

Will my hon. Friend accept that his statement today is welcome as a demonstration that, faced with difficult circumstances, the Foreign Ministers of the Community can provide positive and joint action, which will be most welcome? Will he also accept that in the present delicate international situation a demonstration of solidarity with the United States is of paramount importance?

It is satisfactory that throughout the Iranian crisis the Governments of the Nine and the embassies of the Nine in Tehran have worked together more solidly than on any other issue that I can remember. This solidarity survived a difficult test at Luxembourg yesterday.

I agree with my hon. Friend's second point. If the Foreign Ministers had returned a plain " No " yesterday to the request by the United States, the consequences for the Western Alliance would without doubt have been very serious.

May we on the Liberal Benches assure the Minister that we welcome the decisions that were taken yesterday? We consider that the maintenance of good relations with and support for the United States are of vital importance to Western European unity.

Will the Minister tell us how many British citizens are still living in Iran, and will he give us an assurance that they will be given every assistance to leave the country if they so wish?

One of my constituents and a constituent of the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow) have been detained for over 10 weeks without any charges being brought against them. My constituent has now been released to the care of a British company but has not been allowed to leave Iran. Will the Minister tell us what is happening in those circumstances?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his promise of support. There are still about 350 British subjects left in Iran. Of course, many of them had an opportunity to leave, but they have preferred to stay. That is one reason why we propose to keep a small diplomatic staff in Tehran, so that they can continue to give what help they can in difficult circumstances.

Regarding the specific matter to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and in which several of my hon. Friends have constituency interests, I received this morning two conflicting messages as to the exact position of the two Britons to whom he referred. I shall certainly keep in touch with the hon. Gentleman to ensure that he receives the latest information. Our embassy staff are doing everything that they can, in difficult circumstances, to bring about the safe return to Britain of those two people.

In his statement, the Minister referred to the importance of the position of those Iranians who are genuinely concerned about their country's position in the world. Does he believe that the threat of sanctions will make their position easier or more difficult? If he were an ascetic Iranian mullah—the mullahs are the people with whom we are dealing—given these threats, would it be more or less likely that he would release the hostages?

We are dealing with a fluid and swiftly changing situation in which different groups in Iran are jostling for power. As I said previously, he would be a rash man who would be dogmatic about the effect of particular sanctions. However, it is necessary, not simply for the United States but for her friends and allies, to show emphatically to the Iranians that their position as a major country in the Middle East, and as a major member of the international community, depends on compliance with this basic point of international law—that diplomats should be accorded the protection that international law guarantees. That is a major point, although secondary perhaps to the primary need for maximum unity within the Western Alliance.

The taking and holding of hostages is intolerable, and it is right that we should show our sympathy and solidarity with the Americans. However, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the British and European Governments will also make clear to the United States Government that foreign policy in the Middle East—in Iran and elsewhere—should be conducted in the interests of the West and not only in the interests of internal American politics, as too often it is?

It is certainly the duty of the allies of the United States to make sure that all these decisions are taken against the general background in the Middle East and, in particular, the overwhelming need to stem the threat from Soviet expansionism. It would be wrong and unfair to attribute American concern over the hostages to the fact that it is an election year. As the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) said, if we this year—not an election year in Britain—had 50 British diplomats, or indeed any Britons, held as hostages for five months in Iran, there would be a very high level of emotion, anxiety and frustration in this country as well.

Does the hon. Gentleman really think that the Americans pay such regard to the sensitivities of the British electorate? Does he agree that a one-term presidency in the United States would enormously enhance international relations? Will he understand and accept that if any form of military action is undertaken by United States forces the utmost solidarity of which he spoke will very quickly evaporate?

I do not accept the first part of the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

On the second part, certainly we would regard any suggestion of military action—no such suggestion has yet been made—as having very dangerous implications.

Is my hon. Friend aware that many British firms in Iran which undertook contracts before the revolution are now being threatened by the Iranian Government with the cashing in of bonds which were given at that time and which are now made impossible of performance by the Iranian Government? Will the Government look at this matter and ensure that, if we are to impose sanctions against Iran, British firms are not made to pay out on those bonds?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point. We understand its importance. Ministers will have to consider its implications very carefully and urgently. Many of the contracts and performance bonds entered into before February 1979 are covered by the ECGD. Cover was withdrawn in February 1979 by the ECGD. Since then there obviously has been an element of risk in any new business.

While deploring the holding of the hostages, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman is aware that there is little enthusiasm in this country for economic sanctions and that some of us at least will vote against sanctions whenever the opportunity is provided in this House? As these sanctions are likely to be counter-productive in the situation prevailing in Iran, would it not be wise for Britain and the EEC countries alike to reconsider and recognise that sanctions will not work and that certainly they will not release the hostages?

I agree that there will be little enthusiasm for sanctions in this country. I think that there would have been even less enthusiasm for returning a refusal to the President of the United States and allowing the United States to draw the conclusion that we were only fair-weather friends.

As the Government have agreed to the request made by President Carter on this issue—and I agree with their agreeing—is it not time that they put pressure on President Carter to release the guns for the Royal Ulster Constabulary? Members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary are being shot dead—not held as hostages. It is time that we had these guns for use against the IRA.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. The question that he raised was answered yesterday in the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Some of the equipment requested has been delivered. A decision on the rest is awaited.

Whilst supporting completely the backing that the European Community has given to the United States, may I ask my hon. Friend, on behalf of the Anglo-Iranian group in the House, which has support on both sides, to take every opportunity of expressing the sense of sadness that many of us feel that there should be a parting of the ways with the Iranian people rather than with a regime that all of us may find objectionable? We have no quarrel with the Iranian people. Will my hon. Friend also tell us why, after all these months, nothing has yet been done to safeguard the Straits of Hormuz, through which oil from the Gulf is carried?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend's first point. [An HON. MEMBER: " Why? "] Because, as he rightly said, it is important to emphasise that our dispute and accusations lie against the detention of the hostages and those who are responsible for that detention. We are not seeking to influence or determine the way in which the people of Iran decide their own future, and I think that that is perfectly right.

My hon. Friend is also right to draw attention to the importance of the Straits of Hormuz. As he knows, we are in close and, I hope, constructive touch with the United States and the Gulf Governments on this question.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many Labour Members have the gravest reservation about both the wisdom and the manner in which the decision was taken? Is it not time that such decisions were taken in this House before being decided by EEC Ministers?

Secondly, has the hon. Gentleman considered the consequence of his action on many groups of workers in this country? For example, does he accept that the nation, not those workers, should bear the cost? Will there be any compensation for the workers of Talbot if the Iranian order there is stopped?

On the first point, I think that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to complain if we had gone ahead with sanctions, resolutions or measures without knowing that our main competitors—the Germans and the French, for example—were willing to do the same. The hon. Gentleman would have been in a great state of indignation and excitement at our soft-headedness in that regard. It is an excellent thing that the countries of Europe have come together and taken this stand collectively. The hon. Gentleman is right, as I made clear in my statement, that it is a matter for national measures, and these will have to be approved by the House in the usual way.

I have already dealt with the question of compensation. Ministers will need to look at this matter very carefully. I made the point that much of the business entered into before February 1979 is covered by the ECGD and that business entered into after ECGD cover was withdrawn was obviously entered into with some element of risk.

I welcome the initiative of approaching the Government of the Soviet Union to find out what, if anything, they are prepared to do to ease the situation inside Iran, but will EEC Ministers take the opportunity to make clear once again to the Soviet Union that adventures around the frontiers of Iran will not reduce the tension inside that country?

My hon. Friend is right to stress that point, and we take every opportunity to act on it.

Order. I propose to call four Members from either side before we move on.

Is it not a fact that the political instability of Iran is due in part to the rejection by sections of Iranian society of Western economic influence in Iran and that certain sections took the initiative in respect of the hostages? Will the Minister tell us why he thinks that sanctions of the type that he has outlined will influence those who wish to retain those hostages? Is it not even more likely to do the opposite?

We have given the Iranians three weeks to ponder the consequences of the holding of the hostages. We know that people in positions of influence in Iran—I should not put it higher than that—are conscious of the dangers of the path that they are treading. We hope that they will use those three weeks to secure " decisive progress "—that is the phrase in the communiqué—towards the release of the hostages.

I welcome Europe's demonstration of solidarity with our friends in the United States. My hon. Friend described their attitude to the Iranian crisis as " desperate ". That word frightens me somewhat. I hope that our voice and the voice of Europe will not be unheard and go unheeded in Washington if the situation is as desperate as he thinks it is.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's point. One of the advantages of the decision taken yesterday in Luxembourg is that it enables us, in a way that would not be possible if the other decision had been reached, to continue to pass to the United States the British analyses and consideration of what is wisest.

Is the Minister aware that, regrettably, it appears that sanctions will have to be applied if we wish to obtain the release of the hostages being held in the United States embassy in Iran? In the event of sanctions being applied against Iran, will the hon. Gentleman undertake to consider compensation for all firms who have business connections with Iran? If employment is seriously affected as a result of sanctions, will he take special measures to deal with any unemployment problems?

I have tried to answer that question twice already. Obviously it is an aspect of the matter that Ministers will need carefully to consider.

Does my hon. Friend accept that although there is wide support for his statesmanlike and moderate approach to these matters—and support for the decision of the EEC—there may come a time when sterner measures will have to be contemplated? Unless the Iranian Government are aware of that, they are unlikely to take seriously what is now being suggested.

I understand my hon. Friend's point. I hope that he will forgive me if I am not drawn further down the track than 17 May.

Does the Minister appreciate that many of us fear that deadlines have an unhappy aptitude for being reached and then the ante is automatically up? Is escalating belligerency really the solution to the problem? May I urge the Minister to consider the calling of the Iranian Parliament? We are dealing with a region where face is still important, and where a way out, rather than abject surrender, is likely to be the real solution. I urge the hon. Gentleman to give wise counsel to the Americans; that is a service that we can undertake. Of all the proposals that have been put forward, the proposal that the convened, elected, Iranian Parliament should release the hostages appears to be the way out for those people of good will in Iran mentioned by the Minister.

The hon. Gentleman is right on the question of wise counsel, but it will not be received by the Americans unless it is accompanied by some effort on our part. He is right to underline the importance of the newly elected Iranian Parliament. The timetable worked out in Luxembourg yesterday is designed to enable it to get to work quickly on that aspect before the Foreign Ministers meet again on 17 May.

As international economic sanctions have a proven record of failure, should we not face the fact that a third stage of measures against Iran is likely to be necessary and that it will involve military force? Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that contingency plans are being considered to support such a third stage by the United States?

My hon. Friend has a wide and long experience of the Middle East. I think that he will understand the immense and manifold dangers throughout the Islamic world of attempting to treat the matter in a military way.

Does my hon. Friend appreciate that the role of his right hon. and noble Friend the Foreign Secretary in obtaining a common approach by the European Community in support of the United States is warmly welcomed? What action will be taken by the European Community to ensure that the issue comes before the General Assembly of the United Nations? The taking of diplomatic hostages affects every country in the United Nations?

I am grateful for the first part of my hon. Friend's remarks. The question of further action by the United Nations is something that we keep in mind at all times. The United Nations peace procedures following the veto of a resolution in the Security Council are somewhat complicated. Neither we nor the Americans have excluded the possibility of further action in the United Nations. We have a resolution of the security council, which was not vetoed, and the Americans also have obtained a judgment in the International Court of Justice.

If the Government are to announce the imposition of sanctions, will they announce yet again that there will be an amnesty for all those who break them?

Following is the full text of communiqué issued by EC Foreign Ministers today, 22 April:
Decision by the Foreign Ministers of the Nine on Iran
1. The Foreign Ministers of the Nine member States of the European Community meeting in Luxembourg on 22 April discussed the implications of the recent events in Iran in the light of the reports by their ambassadors following the demarche to the President of Iran decided upon by the Foreign Ministers at their meeting in Lisbon on 10 April.
2. The Foreign Ministers expressed the solidarity of the Nine with the Government and people of the United States at this time of trial.
3. While welcoming the visit by the ICRC to the hostages on 14 April and noting the assurance given by President Bani-Sadr as to the living conditions of the hostages the Foreign Ministers expressed their profound regret that the Iranian Government has been unable to give precise assurances about the date and methods by which the hostages would be released. The Iranian Government continues to ignore the clear call of the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice to bring to an end a flagrant violation of international law and release the hostages.
4. Since the hostages were first detained, the Nine, in full respect of the independence of Iran and the right of the Iranian people to determine their own future, have insisted that they must be released. The fact that after six months they are still detained, despite the efforts of the Nine and the clear condemnation by the community of nations, is intolerable from a humanitarian and legal point of view.
5. The Foreign Ministers of the Nine, deeply concerned that a continuation of this situation may endanger international peace and security, have decided to seek immediate legislation where necessary in their national Parliaments to impose sanctions against Iran in accordance with the Security Council resolution on Iran dated 10 January 1980, which was vetoed and in accordance with the tenets of international law.
They believe that these legislative processes should be completed by 17 May, the date of their informal meeting in Naples. In the absence of decisive progress on the release of the hostages, they will then proceed immediately to the common implementation of sanctions.
Ministers consider that, pending the entering into force of the measures mentioned above, no new export or services contract with persons and organisations in Iran should be concluded as of from now.
Steps will be taken within the Community in order that the implementation of the measures decided upon should not obstruct the proper functioning of the Common Market.
6. The Foreign Ministers decided meanwhile to put into effect without delay the following measures to the extent that they are not already in force:
  • (I) Reduction in embassy staffs in Tehran.
  • (II) A reduction in the number of diplomats accredited by the Government of Iran in their countries.
  • (III) The reintroduction of a visa system for Iranian nationals travelling to member countries of the Nine.
  • (IV) The withholding of permission for the sale or export of arms or defence-related equipment to Iran.
  • 7. The Foreign Ministers decided immediately to contact the Government of the United States through the Presidency and to inform it of the decisions taken by them.
    8. The Foreign Ministers of the Nine, believing that this situation should be a matter of concern to the whole international community, call upon other Governments to associate themselves with these decisions.
    9. The Foreign Ministers instructed their ambassadors to return to Tehran in the interval in order to convey the present decision to the Iranian Government, to follow the situation, and to undertake all possible efforts to alleviate and improve the living conditions of the hostages pending their release.
    They express the hope that the Iranian authorities will take action accordingly.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 14 April the Prime Minister made a statement on Iran. In reply to a question of mine she said:

    " I think that the hon. Gentleman may rest assured that before any further action on economic sanctions could become effective, we would have to come back to the House."
    Earlier she had said:
    " A Government have no powers under international law just to break contracts that are valid in international law ".—[Official Report, 14 April 1980; Vol. 982, c. 798.]
    The hon. Gentleman gave the impression that a decision has already been taken contrary to that clear statement——

    Order. With respect, it appears that the hon. Gentleman is making the point that he would have made had I called him to ask a question. It is not a point of order on which I can rule.

    The hon. Gentleman cannot raise that point of order, as I have ruled that it is not one.

    Order; I am on my feet. I wish to tell the hon. Gentleman that I would take it very amiss if he tried to persist on a point that I have ruled is not a point of order.

    On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I rise simply to ask whether the Leader of the House will tell us the timetable for the proposed sanctions order.

    That is not a point of order. It is a question for the Leader of the House.