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Iran (Seizure of British Equipment)

Volume 460: debated on Monday 14 May 2007

3. What progress he has made in recovering boats and equipment seized by Iran from United Kingdom armed forces in (a) June 2004 and (b) March 2007. (136571)

We continue to press by all diplomatic means the Government of Iran to return the boats and equipment seized illegally in both 2004 and 2007.

Can the Secretary of State tell us—apart from the iPod—what radio and cipher cards were seized, the standing operational procedures for which are destruction prior to capture?

I am not in a position to give the House that sort of detail in relation to operations, for good operational reasons. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman, however, that all issues relating to operations, particularly the operations in March 2007 when boats and equipment were seized, will be looked into by the inquiry ordered by the Chief of the Defence Staff, which will be led by Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton, and will report to the Select Committee on Defence.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why the Iranians need to keep that equipment? It was taken in international waters. Is there a motive that we do not know about, and what discussions are under way to get it back?

I can see no reason why the Iranians would want to hold on to that equipment, as they took it illegally and in law should return it. The embassy in Tehran, as one would expect, takes the lead in these matters, and continues to press at every opportunity for the return of the boats and equipment.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to allow the Select Committee on Defence, of which I am a member, to look at the results of the Fulton inquiry, and to reach a conclusion. In the meantime, may I invite him to consider how we are going to move from the present situation to a dialogue with those in Iran who would have a dialogue with the rest of the world? I appreciate that there is every opportunity to take offence at things that the Iranian Government are doing, not least to our own forces, but how are we to resolve the question of Iran unless we are in dialogue with those who would be in dialogue with us?

In relation to the materials, may I tell the hon. Gentleman that dialogue is indeed taking place between Ministers and officials, particularly officials in London who represent Iran? He will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary took advantage of the recent meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh to speak to her Iranian counterpart.

May I ask the Secretary of State why there are different rules of engagement for British and for American service personnel working in the Shatt al-Arab waterway?

Rules of engagement are entirely a matter for the assessment made by the command in relation to the tasks that those in their care face. To the extent that they are different, that is because we hold on to the relevant distinction that we should be able to make rules of engagement for the protection and care of our own troops.

Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), may I say that it would be extremely strange if highly sensitive cipher cards were indeed in the possession of a boarding party, given the duties that it has to perform? May I also ask the Minister why a ministerial written answer on 24 April said that we had not at any stage sought the support of the United Nations in recovering the boats, even though both in 2004 and in 2007 the boats were captured while carrying out a mandated mission supported by the United Nations? Why are we making only bilateral approaches, when the right hon. Gentleman said in his answer that all diplomatic approaches were being made?

The judgment as to the most effective way of approaching the Iranians in relation to the matter entails a complicated assessment of what will be to best advantage in the wider circumstances of our relations with Iran and our other interests in that part of the region.