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Volume 983: debated on Friday 25 April 1980

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asked the Lord Privy Seal what information he has and what exchanges he has had with the United States about last night's events in Iran.

President Carter's own statement this morning announced that there was an attempt by United States forces last night to rescue the American hostages held in Tehran and that the mission had to be terminated because of an equipment failure. Eight American crew members were killed and a number injured when two United States aircraft collided on an airfield in Iran during this operation. The Americans involved in the operation have now been airlifted from Iran. The President has said that at no stage were there any military hostilities with the Iranian armed forces.

I understand that President Carter is to make a further statement at I pm our time today. We were not involved.

I am very grateful to the Minister for making a statement at such short notice. I am, of course, aware that we shall all perhaps be rather better informed when President Carter has made his own statement later this afternoon. But the world will be holding its breath this weekend, and it is essential that the House should, without delay, give some expression of its great concern at last night's events.

Will the Lord Privy Seal impress on the United States Government the need for the utmost restraint in dealing with the unpredictable consequences of last night's events? Will he make plain that, while our hearts go out to the captives and their relatives, and while we are aware of the purpose and the nature of this limited release operation, we cannot support—and indeed, will oppose—military action aimed against Iran? Will he also make plain that our co-operation with the United States, in its wholly justifiable demand that the hostages be released, cannot continue unless there are full and frank—if confidential—exchanges between the United States Government and their friends?

Will the Lord Privy Seal immediately invite the Soviet Union, in its own broader interest, to join with others in calling upon the Iranian Government to release the hostages and to exercise all the restraint and influence that they can command over their so-called students?

Finally, since the Heads of State of the European Governments are meeting, as it happens, on Sunday in Luxembourg, will the Lord Privy Seal seriously consider inviting the United States President to join those leaders on that day?

Everyone, I think, will agree that the United States should show the utmost restraint, and that over the last few months it has shown the utmost restraint. We want to draw—and I think the right hon. Gentleman did by implication draw—a clear distinction between an attempt to rescue the hostages, on the one hand, and military action against Iran, on the other. [Interruption.] That is the distinction that most Ministers would certainly endorse.

I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the greatest possible amount of consultation between the United States and her European and other allies is thoroughly desirable, and I entirely accept what he says about the Soviet Union. It is most unfortunate that the Soviet Union vetoed the United Nations resolution last January. If it had not done that, the problem would probably have been solved long since. It is entirely wrong that the Soviet Union should not have done everything in its power to bring this great breach of international law to an end.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's point about considering inviting President Carter to join the European Council, I should be delighted, if that were appropriate. I suspect that the American President would want to stay in Washington at this time. The European Council will no doubt be considering Iran, but it also has a great deal to do. A meeting of the sort that the right hon. Gentleman suggested cannot be ruled out in the fairly near future.

I think that the Lord Privy Seal will agree that urgency really is of the essence now and that we are, as it were, in a different stage of these dreadful and protracted events. May I, therefore, urge him very strongly at least to sound out others about the two suggestions, the one aimed at the Soviet Union—aimed indirectly, of course, at the Government in Tehran—and also at least to consult the European Heads of Government to see whether such an invitation to the President of the United States would be acceptable to them and to him?

I entirely agree with what the right hon. Gentleman says about the urgency of the matter. It could hardly be more urgent. We shall, of course, hold all the consultations that we consider fit and proper at this time.

While some of us are not afraid of strong—not necessarily military—action over Iran, does my right hon. Friend accept that there is real concern about the quality of the United States leadership being exercised in this problem at the present time? Since Easter, when America began to take a strong line, there has been vacillation over food sanctions and military action. Now we have had the very sad venture of last night. May I reiterate the request that, before we get dragged any further into this, there should, as a matter or urgency, be a meeting of Western leaders at the highest possible level?

With all respect to my hon. Friend, I do not think that this is a suitable moment at which to criticise the United States leadership. The failure of this operation—and we do not yet know the exact reasons for it—surely cannot be blamed on the President. He was not technically involved. It appears to have been an unlucky technical fault. We shall, of course, remain in the closest possible consultation, but this is a time when allies should stick together and not criticise each other.

Did Her Majesty's Government know that this operation was to be mounted? Was the SAS involved in advising the Americans, as it was at Mogadishu in regard to the release of the German hostages? Did the Government give support to the idea of a military rescue operation before it took place?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that even a military rescue operation could well lead to an Iranian response which could stop oil supplies, bring in American and Russian troops, and involve British forces in the United Kingdom?

Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the American Government that, although we fully support the negotiations to release the hostages, who should not be held, we do not believe that, in the light of the long history of bitterness in Iran against the United States, Britain and the oil companies, it would be right for military force to be used in any circumstances—even involved in a further rescue attempt—and that the British Government would not permit American bases in Britain to be used in any subsequent or consequential action in this case?

At the time of the Entebbe rescue the then Leader of the Opposition—rightly, in my view—refrained from making any strictures and pointed out that the fault lay with the hijackers. I think the same applies here.

The SAS was not involved. We were not consulted, but we were informed of the possibility of a rescue attempt.

Whatever our feelings about the Islamic Republic of Iran, are not the Government of Iran—and, indeed, most Islamic Governments—on the same side as ourselves in relation to Afghanistan and Soviet imperialism? Therefore, since the Islamic Republic is in danger of disintegration, is it not possible that further diplomacy could take place through Islamic Governments to bring about a settlement of the hostages question?

I very much agree with the drift of my hon. Friend's question. He well knows that a number of Islamic Governments have been very helpful in this matter. We shall certainly hope that their efforts will continue. The fact, unfortunately, remains that nothing so far has yet been achieved.

Is it not the case that the Islamic Governments believe that the political reconstruction of Iran depends upon the trial of the Shah? Should not world Powers, therefore, now be discussing the extradition of the Shah, if that is the legal position demanded by the Iranian Government? [Interruption.] On the basis of such discussions, will the Lord Privy Seal now say that the Government are totally opposed to military intervention in Iran and will in no circumstances support that intervention? Is it not the case that we are now beginning to pay the penalty in the disruption of good relations with the Soviet Union? [Interruption.] Is it surprising when the spokesman on behalf of the Labour Party calls for talks alongside the Soviet Union such a short time after the period when hon. Members on both sides of the House were calling for measures to be taken regarding the Olympic Games and elsewhere that brought about that disruption of good relations?

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman intended what seemed to be implied in his question. He seemed to be implying that, because of what the Shah had done, the Iranians were justified in keeping the hostages.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to be implying that, because we have been hostile or have reacted adversely to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the Soviet Union was justified in behaving in various ways. I do not accept that at all. The blame for this whole episode lies with the illegal arrest and detention by students, or so-called students, which the Americans have had to tolerate for five months and have behaved with the greatest possible restraint. No amount of talking about the Shah can possibly excuse that behaviour. Moreover, the extradition of the Shah has nothing to do with this country or America because the Shah is now in Egypt. But it would seem to me quite incredible that he should be extradited.

Order. This is a private notice question, but, in view of the exceptional circumstances, I shall call three more Members from either side before we return to ordinary business.

Is my right hon. Friend able to confirm this morning that the raid emanated from bases in Egypt? As we are within days of the possibility of a democratic election in Iran, on reflection, would it not have been better for Her Majesty's Government to play a vital role when the newly elected Government are in power to ensure the release of all the hostages in Tehran, which is the united wish of all Members of the House?

I cannot confirm from where the aeroplanes flew, because I do not know. Of course, we want to play a vital role in securing the release of the hostages. But, as my hon. Friend knows, the election of that Parliament has been put off for an unconscionably long time. However, we shall still go on trying.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that " my country, right or wrong " has long been regarded as a dubious slogan? In view of the Prime Minister's earlier statement that we are with America all the way, " my America, right or wrong" is even more suspect. Does he accept that the United Kingdom Government should now be playing the part of a rational and candid ally rather than that of a mindless satellite?

The right hon. Gentleman's choice of language was a little unfortunate. What he said bears no relation to events. We are playing the part of a valuable ally which obviously gives advice when asked. In no sense are we a satellite. The right hon. Gentleman is ignoring the nature of this operation. I think that it was Kennedy who said that failure has no friends. That is no doubt true. I do not think that what was attempted can be condemned in the terms in which the right hon. Gentleman condemned it.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he would command the support of the majority of Members in saying that we all understand the deep frustrations that the Americans must feel and that the continued detention of the hostages must inevitably lead at some point to the kind of action which unfortunately failed last night? Equally, it would be right for even the most determined pro-America Member to point out that concern is felt that this action should be taken so soon after the Western allies had decided to make a common cause on economic sanctions. Surely these moves must be allowed to work before the situation is further escalated.

As my hon. Friend knows, we have throughout been working for a peaceful and speedy end to this problem, but so far we have failed in assuring a speedy end to it. We are keeping in close touch with the Americans. As the House probably knows, my right hon. and noble Friend is going to Washington the weekend after next to consult Mr. Vance. That does not, of course, preclude earlier consultations.

The right hon. Gentleman has drawn a distinction between a rescue operation and military intervention. Since he said that he was aware that there would be some rescue attempts, will he answer the question that has been put to him? [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman said that he was informed—HON. MEMBERS: " The possibility."] The right hon. Gentleman said that he was aware that there was likely to be a rescue attempt. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The right hon. Gentleman will answer for himself.

Will the right hon. Gentleman make it clear to America—and answer the question that he has not yet answered—that there is a thin line between a rescue attempt and military action and that, although one accepts the difference, in no way could this country support military intervention in Iran?

To get it right on the record again—the hon. Lady misquoted me both times—I said that we knew of the possibility of such action. As she knows from our actions this week and up till now, we have been seeking to solve this crisis by political and diplomatic means, not by military means.

Is it not obvious that the scale of this enterprise was no more than would have been required for the rescue of the hostages? Is it not equally obvious that, had it been successful, the world would have been applauding now? In those circumstances, should we not commiserate with the American President?

The answer to all three of my hon. Friend's questions is " Undoubtedly yes ".

Would it not have been wiser of the right hon. Gentleman to have made some condemnation of this action than to have expressed such commiseration at its failure? Does he not realise that the fiasco last night has probably sealed the fate of those unfortunate hostages in Tehran? Does he not understand and accept that such action, whether in the unsuccessful form of last night's operation or in the more successful outcome of the Israeli operation at Entebbe, is contrary to the standards of international law and should be condemned in all circumstances?

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. Some of his remarks, in the very delicate situation that we are in, are most unfortunate. As I said, I do not condemn the action. It would be very difficult for anybody who has not considered his own country in this position of 50 hostages being kept in not very good conditions for five months to condemn it. It is easy to take a " holier than thou " attitude. However, I do not think that the majority of Members take that attitude.

I put the Lord Privy Seal on notice that it would be the very strong wish and expectation of hon. Members on both sides of the House that he should make a further statement to the House on Monday.