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House of Commons Hansard
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Situation in the Gulf
22 July 2019
Volume 663

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With permission, I will make a statement about the situation in the Gulf.

At approximately 4 pm UK time on Friday, Iranian forces intercepted the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero in the strait of Hormuz. The ship was surrounded by four fast boats from the Revolutionary Guard, supported by one helicopter. Iranian footage showed masked gunmen in desert camouflage descending from the helicopter on to the deck of the Stena Impero. HMS Montrose, a Royal Navy Type 23 frigate currently deployed in the Gulf, tried to come to the tanker’s aid. She repeatedly warned the Iranians by radio that their actions were illegal, but HMS Montrose was unable to reach the scene in time. Nine days earlier she had successfully intercepted an attempt to board another tanker, British Heritage, but this time she was not given the notice of passage requested that would have allowed her to reach the scene more quickly. That, however, in no way excuses the illegal actions of the intruders, who took control of Stena Impero and compelled her to steer towards the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas, where she is now being held.

The tanker had a crew of 23 from various countries including India, the Philippines, Russia and Latvia. No Britons were on board, and there are no reports of any injuries. The vessel’s owners have confirmed that Stena Impero was exercising her legal right of transit passage when she was intercepted. She was passing through the strait of Hormuz in the westbound traffic lane inside Omani territorial waters, in full compliance with international law and the rules of navigation, and the tanker’s automatic identification system was switched on and her position was publicly available. So let us be absolutely clear: under international law, Iran had no right to obstruct the ship’s passage, let alone board her. It was therefore an act of state piracy that the House will have no hesitation in condemning.

Even more worryingly, this incident was a flagrant breach of the principle of free navigation on which the global trading system and world economy ultimately depend. I therefore urge Iran to release the Stena Impero and her crew and observe the rules that safeguard commercial shipping and that benefit Iran as much as any other country.

Iran has tried to present this as a tit-for-tat incident following the Government of Gibraltar’s action on 4 July to enforce EU sanctions by preventing the Iranian chartered tanker Grace 1 from supplying oil to Syria, but there is simply no comparison between Iran’s illegal seizure of a vessel inside a recognised shipping lane where the Stena Impero had every right to be and the enforcement of EU sanctions against a tanker that had freely navigated into the waters of a British overseas territory.

Since 4 July, we have made strenuous efforts to resolve the Grace 1 issue. On 13 July I spoke by phone to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and also made clear in public that we would be content with the release of Grace 1 if there were sufficient guarantees that the oil would not go to any entities sanctioned by the EU. But instead of responding constructively, Iran chose to seize the Stena Impero, so we must now take appropriate action to support the safe passage of vessels through the strait of Hormuz.

As well as speaking again to my Iranian counterpart, I have also spoken this weekend and today to the Foreign Ministers of Oman, the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Finland, Spain and Denmark. COBRA meetings were held this morning and throughout the weekend, and the chargé d’affaires at the Iranian embassy in London was summoned to the Foreign Office on Saturday to receive a formal protest.

I can today update the House on further action we are taking. First, the Department for Transport has raised the security level for British-flagged shipping to level 3, advising against all passage in Iranian waters and, for the moment, in the entire strait of Hormuz.

Secondly, because freedom of navigation is a vital interest of every nation, we will now seek to put together a European-led maritime protection mission to support safe passage of both crew and cargo in this vital region. We have had constructive discussions with a number of countries in the last 48 hours, and will discuss later this week the best way to complement this with recent US proposals in this area. The new force will be focused on free navigation, bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s oil, a quarter of its liquefied natural gas and trade worth half a trillion dollars pass through the strait of Hormuz every year. It will not be part of the US maximum pressure policy on Iran, because we remain committed to preserving the Iran nuclear agreement.

Thirdly, while we will seek to establish this mission as quickly as possible, the Government have in the meantime dispatched HMS Duncan, a Type 45 destroyer, to take over from HMS Montrose, and she will arrive in the region by 29 July—a week from today. Fourthly, we will ask all British-flagged ships to give us notice of any intention to pass through the strait of Hormuz, to enable us to offer the best protection we can. We will then advise them of the safest way to transit, which may involve travelling in convoy. Finally, we are strengthening measures to protect ships flying the flags of other countries but which have British crew on board.

About 1,300 ships appear on the UK ship register”. The combined British red ensign fleet is the ninth largest in the world, and on an average day two or three ships belonging to the red ensign group pass through the strait of Hormuz. The Gulf spans an area of nearly 100,000 square miles, and HMS Montrose covers an operating area of some 19,000 nautical miles. So far, she has escorted 30 merchant vessels through the strait of Hormuz during 17 separate transits, travelling 4,800 nautical miles in the process. It is not possible for the Royal Navy to provide escorts for every single ship, or indeed to eliminate all risks of piracy, but those risks can be substantially reduced if commercial shipping companies co-operate fully with instructions from the Department of Transport, which we strongly encourage them to do.

These changes—both short and medium-term—are made possible because of the commitment that this Government have already made to increase our security presence in the Gulf, including the opening in April last year of the first permanent British naval facility in the Gulf for over 40 years. This establishment in Bahrain now hosts HMS Montrose, along with four mine countermeasure vessels and one supply ship.

Finally, let me say that it is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary. We do not seek confrontation with Iran. We have taken every available opportunity to reduce misunderstanding while standing by our rock-solid commitment to the international rule of law, which is the foundation of global peace and prosperity. However, we must react to the world around us as it is, not as we would wish it to be, so if Iran continues on this dangerous path, it must accept that the price will be a larger western military presence in the waters along its coastline, not because we wish to increase tensions but simply because freedom of navigation is a principle that Britain and its allies will always defend. I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement. Let me start by passing on the apologies of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), that she cannot be here to respond herself, but as many will know, she is still at home recovering from the injuries she received after being knocked off her bike on Friday. I am sure that we all wish her well.

May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing Minister for Europe and the Americas, the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) ? He has served the Foreign Office with diligence and distinction in bad times and good, and he can certainly be forgiven for feeling that the bad times are about to return. We thank him for the spirit in which he engaged in our parliamentary debates and we look forward to his continuing to make those contributions from the Back Benches. I would also like to add that, in the unfortunate event that this is the Foreign Secretary’s final appearance in his current role, we thank him too for the welcome change in tone and the very welcome change in work ethic that he has brought to that great office of state, not least on the issue of Iran, which we are discussing today.

Iran’s actions in recent weeks in the strait of Hormuz have been utterly unacceptable and should be condemned from all sides. Our thoughts, first and foremost, are with the 23 crew members on board the Stena Impero, and of course their families, who are facing this period of concern and uncertainty. We all know why these events have been taking place. Just like in the tanker war in the 1980s, a simple and ruthless logic is being applied by the Iranian hard-liners who are now in the ascendancy in Tehran, just as they were 30 years ago. That logic simply says, “If you try and stop our oil supplies, we will stop yours.” This escalation of tit-for-tat rhetoric and action has been sadly predictable and to some extent inevitable since the United States walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions not limited to the US but in theory applying to any company or country that continues to deal with Iran. I say “in theory” because, as we all know, countries such as China that are powerful enough to ignore the Trump Administration’s demands have continued to import oil and gas from Iran while Washington turns a blind eye.

This brings us to the specific issue of the seizure of the Grace 1 oil tanker and the unacceptable retaliatory action that Iran has taken against Stena Impero. We know from the Spanish newspaper El País that the US told the Madrid Government 48 hours in advance that Grace 1 was headed for the Iberian peninsula, which could also explain why, 36 hours in advance, the Gibraltar Government introduced new legislation to shore up the legal basis for the seizure taking place in their waters. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether the US was also the source of our information regarding the tanker’s course, whether the US Administration asked us to seize it, and whether their primary basis for that request was that the tanker’s destination was Syria or that its origin was Iran? If it is correct that we knew a full two days in advance that the action was going to be taken, why on earth, a full seventeen days later, was a British-flagged tanker left so hopelessly unprotected in the strait of Hormuz? Anyone with any understanding of the issue could see exactly how the Iranians would respond to the seizure of their own tanker. When the measures the Foreign Secretary has announced today, which are welcome, could have been put in place a full 20 days before now, why were the Government’s eyes so patently off the crystal ball?

While I would like the Foreign Secretary to go into more practical detail about how the Government plan to resolve the Grace 1-Stena Impero impasse, we must also address the wider question: how do we de-escalate the tension with Iran, stop this tit-for-tat cycle of actions, and get the nuclear deal back on track? We need to use the deal as the foundation, which it previously promised to be, for addressing all the other concerns we have about Iran, not least the continued detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British dual nationals.

Setting aside the need to enforce sanctions, with which we wholeheartedly agree, against the Assad regime, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what the Government are doing to persuade the Trump Administration to drop their sanctions against Iran? Those sanctions breach the international agreement that we, the US and other countries worked so hard to achieve and have given the hard-liners in Tehran the excuse they have always craved to return to the strategy of isolation and aggression and to breach the terms of the nuclear agreement. That agreement is one of the great diplomatic achievements of the current century, and we must all strive to get it back on track before this escalation of tension reaches the point of no return.

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First of all, those on the Government Benches wholeheartedly endorse what the shadow Minister said about the shadow Foreign Secretary, whom we wish every success in having a rapid recovery after her unfortunate bicycle accident. I also thank him for his generous comments about my time as Foreign Secretary—without any sting in the tail. I particularly want to thank him for carefully comparing me to my predecessor after 5 o’clock, which was when the leadership contest for the Conservative party closed, because it might not have helped me if people thought that he thought I was a better Foreign Secretary. I also add my thanks for the brilliant service to British diplomacy of my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), who was an outstanding Foreign Office Minister. He will be greatly missed inside King Charles Street—but not for long if tomorrow’s result is the upset that I am hoping for!

Let me turn to the substance of what the shadow Minister said. On the detention of Grace 1 by the Gibraltar authorities, I want to be absolutely clear that the United Kingdom did not endorse that detention by the Gibraltarian authorities because of a request by the US. We did it because it was transiting oil through the waters of a British overseas territory in contravention of EU sanctions against Syria. We have been absolutely clear that our issue was with the destination of that oil, which was President Assad’s regime, because a fundamental objective of British foreign policy has been to ensure that we redraw the international red lines against the use of chemical weapons, which Assad has so tragically broken.

That is also why we have sought to de-escalate the situation by making it clear to the Iranians that, whatever our disagreements with that regime, we would support the release of the tanker if we could receive guarantees that that oil was not going to Syria. We made that offer in public as well as in private, so that they would know we were absolutely serious.

There has been a huge amount of work since the detention happened on 4 July and, on the security side, the Ministry of Defence has been extremely active: officials have been posted at the Department for Transport, HMS Duncan has been dispatched, the threat level has been raised to level 3 and the activity of HMS Montrose has been enhanced. In recent days HMS Montrose has done 17 transits with 30 vessels, including 16 flying the red ensign; the Wildcat helicopters have flown for 26 hours; and the FCO has been doing a huge amount to try to de-escalate the situation, including calls to my Iranian counterpart, my US counterpart Mike Pompeo and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. I also met the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and the French Foreign Minister, among many others, at the Foreign Affairs Council on 15 July.

A lot of things have been happening but, on the substantive point raised by the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), it is important if we are to de-escalate the situation that we do not conflate what happened in Gibraltar and what happened to the Stena Impero with the joint comprehensive plan of action and our approach to the Iran nuclear deal, which is different from the approach taken by the Trump Administration.

On most foreign policy issues we are absolutely at one with the United States, which we consider to be our closest ally. Indeed, the alliance with the United States has been the foundation of global peace and prosperity since the second world war. We have a difference of opinion on this issue, but we are absolutely clear that, when it comes to freedom of navigation, there can be no compromise, which is why the solution we propose to the House this afternoon is one that brings in a much broader alliance of countries, including countries that, like us, have a different approach to the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iranians must understand that there will be no compromise on freedom of navigation in the strait of Hormuz, which is essential to the global economy and to global freedom of navigation. This country will not blink in that respect.

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I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. There is no question but that it is the Iranians, not the British, who have caused this problem. Any linking of this would therefore be quite wrong, and I commend him for what he said on that.

I want to ask a very simple question, and it may be one that my right hon. Friend is unable to answer at this point. We have known for some time that there is a heightened problem in the Gulf and that our strongest ally is there with some force. Why did we not request or agree with the United States that in the interim, while we get the right resources in place, it acts in concert with us to protect some of our shipping, as it has said it could have done?

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I always listen to my right hon. Friend very carefully on all defence matters, and I reassure him that throughout this period we have had close behind-the-scenes discussions with the United States on how we can improve maritime security. HMS Montrose’s 17 transit missions would not have been possible without US logistical support. Indeed, the United States has made a proposal on how we could enhance maritime security more generally. The US asked us to contribute to a maritime force on 24 June, which became a formal request on 30 June, and it formally briefed NATO allies and the Washington diplomatic corps on the proposal last Thursday and last Friday. We will be talking to the US about it later this week.

We think what the United States is saying is helpful and important, and we will seek to co-ordinate any European efforts on freedom of navigation with anything the US does, but we want the UK’s contribution to be to make that coalition as broad as possible.

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I wish the shadow Foreign Secretary a speedy recovery. I also congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on her election as the new Liberal Democrat leader, and I look forward to continuing to work with her in opposing this Tory Government

I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I also thank him for the diligence and seriousness that he, unlike his predecessor, has brought to this role—it is 20 minutes past 5, but I am not sure that comment would have swung it for him, regardless of when I said it. I thank him nevertheless.

I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) for his work. We have not always agreed, but I thank him for his collegiality. Where we have agreed, we have been able to work together. This is not a great time for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to be falling apart, but I entirely sympathise with the reasons he has set out today.

Iran’s actions are completely unacceptable. Along with the jailing of the innocent mum, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, that should tell us all what kind of regime we are dealing with. Regardless of who holds the post of Foreign Secretary in the coming days, they must be fully on top of their brief when it comes to Iran, and we must have a full complement of staff in the Foreign Office who are able to speak frankly on Iran. The damage done by the Foreign Secretary’s predecessor has illustrated what happens when one is not fully briefed when dealing with Iran.

Right now, there is a need for engagement, cool heads and a multilateral approach, and I am glad to see the start of that with the Foreign Secretary’s statement today. Will he set out what talks he is having with our partners, over and above the ones he has already set out, and in particular along the lines of what is happening with the Iran nuclear deal? That is a critical piece of work that will need to be done. There are concerns that this Administration have taken their eye off the ball, and certainly that the UK has been ill prepared. Will the Foreign Secretary set out in a bit more detail why this situation was not foreseen and what actions he is taking to look at it again? This is a dangerous situation and there must be a clear understanding of what is going on, alongside the work to look into ways to de-escalate the situation.

Finally, Northern Marine is headquartered in Clydebank in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), who has been working incredibly hard on this matter. I hope the Foreign Office will continue to co-operate with my hon. Friend. We are thinking about the families of those affected at Northern Marine. I thank the naval personnel, particularly those on HMS Montrose, for their service.

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He gives me the chance to say that as a member of a naval family I lived for a couple of years in Rosyth, so I, too, along with everyone on the Government Benches, thank the naval officers and their families for the great courage and service that they are showing to our country at a very challenging and worrying time.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We understand from Richard Ratcliffe, Nazanin’s husband, that she has been moved back to Evin prison in Tehran. We think that is a positive sign. It sounds like the way that she was detained for a week without any access to her family was totally unacceptable and, I am afraid, all too predictable from the Iranian regime. The hon. Gentleman will understand that I am seeking not to make any link between these broader military and security issues and the situation that Nazanin faces, because I do not think that would help to get Nazanin home, but I know that the whole House is absolutely clear that, whatever disagreements we have with Iran, an innocent woman must not be the victim. She must be allowed to come home.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Iran nuclear deal. This is an area where the Trump Administration have a genuine and honest difference of opinion with us, because it is not a perfect deal. It was a deal that allowed sanctions relief for Iran but did not prevent Iran from supporting its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. It allowed Iran to carry on destabilising the region, which was why the Trump Administration took the course that they did. However, given that four years ago Iran was 18 months away from acquiring a nuclear weapon, we feel it is a huge diplomatic achievement that Iran does not have a nuclear weapon today. The middle east would have been much more dangerous had it acquired a nuclear weapon, which is why we are seeking to preserve the deal. We are being clear to the Iranians that the recent breach of the uranium enrichment levels is not acceptable, but we are giving them the space to bring themselves back into compliance with the JCPOA before we formally pull the plug on it. We hope that they will do so.

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Will my right hon. Friend confirm that both the supply of oil to Syria and the capture of a British-flagged tanker are criminal acts for which Iran cannot be excused, and that they require the more robust response that he has now announced to the House, including the policing of an international waterway by a multinational taskforce? In view of what he has just said, does my right hon. Friend agree that whatever view one takes of the American Administration’s course of action over the joint agreement, it would not make sense to exclude the American navy from participation in that multinational taskforce?

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My right hon. Friend speaks with enormous experience on these matters because of his own background as Defence Secretary. I can assure him that we would not exclude, or seek to exclude, the American navy because it has a vital role in, for example, the refuelling of our own ships, the communication system, the command and control system and, indeed, the intelligence support. We would always operate in partnership with our American allies in these situations whatever difference of opinion we might have on the Iran nuclear deal.

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Back in June, the Government’s view was that naval escorts for ships passing through the Strait of Hormuz would not be appropriate because it would be seen as provocative and escalatory. Therefore, I very much welcome the announcement that the Foreign Secretary has made today in response to Iran’s seizure of the Stena Impero and his announcement of a proposal for a European-led force, which is a reminder to the whole House of the benefits of European co-operation. We have a very good example of another anti-piracy operation in Operation Atalanta, which has been very successful off the east coast of Africa. Will he tell the House how quickly he expects this mission to be established, and will it have sufficient resources to protect all the ships, which we now know are vulnerable, as they pass through the Strait of Hormuz?

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I can give the right hon. Gentleman a little bit of the answer to that, which is that it will not be a sudden switching on and off. There will be a gradual build-up of presence, because it takes time for ships to get to the region from all over the world. HMS Duncan will arrive on 29 July, or possibly even before that, as the first step in this process, but we are having substantive discussions later this week with allies from across the world in which things such as the timescales will become a lot clearer. I would be happy to write to him after that.

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I entirely support what the Foreign Secretary has said and the actions that he intends to take. May I ask him three particular points? The Strait of Hormuz must be the most overflown and monitored sea area in the entire world, and I would be grateful, therefore, for these answers. First, when did the Stena Impero leave Fujairah? Secondly, what time was HMS Montrose first alerted to her passage? Finally, what advice did the Stena ship seek of the British Government before she sailed?

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On the first question, I will write to my right hon. Friend, because I do not have to hand the exact time and date that the Stena Impero left Fujairah. The warning that HMS Montrose had was 60 minutes, which was not long enough. We ask all shipowners to give us at least 24 hours’ notice. We did not get it in this case, but that does not excuse a criminal act of piracy. We do hope now that all shipowners will co-operate fully in giving us the notice that we need to give them the protection that we are able to give.

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I hear what the Foreign Secretary has said about not linking the situation in Hormuz with that of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, but with the best will in the world he must be aware that the Iranians have previously used my constituent as a bargaining chip. He must also be aware that, only last week, the supreme leader promised retribution for the dispute over Grace 1. As the Foreign Secretary said, Nazanin has been transferred to prison after a week in the mental health hospital where she was handcuffed to her bed and guarded by someone who was armed. Her ward was sealed off and she was not allowed any contact with her family. She was then transferred back to prison. Will the Foreign Secretary reassure me that he is taking proper steps to ensure that this situation does not mean that my constituent’s chances of freedom are ended and that she will be returning back to West Hampstead with her family?

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May I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Lady for her very diligent campaigning for the release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? I was trying to be very careful with my words just now to say that I always try to avoid linkage between the two cases because, inevitably with a country such as Iran, our relations go up and down; and I would never want an innocent woman to suffer as a result of the ebb and flow of those relations. Of course, I cannot guarantee that Iran does not seek to make that link itself, and it would be completely wrong of it to do so.

I am afraid that the stories that the hon. Lady tells me about the conditions under which Nazanin has been detained are stories that I have heard and they are totally shocking. We hoped—and I think the hon. Lady probably hoped—that it might be good news that Nazanin was being transferred to a hospital for help with certain medical conditions, but it now looks like that was not the case. That is extremely shocking. I reassure her that I bring up Nazanin’s case every time I talk to Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif; I talk about it in as much detail as I am able, because I want him to know that we will never, ever forget the fate of even one British national who is treated the way that Nazanin is being treated.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) for his extraordinary work and companionship in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office over so many years.

It is absolutely correct to concentrate on recent events, and it must be right to ensure the safe passage of ships through the Gulf and to ensure that Iran must face up to its responsibilities, but does the Secretary of State agree that there is no doubt that this is just the latest symptom of the long-running issue between Iran and its neighbours? Does he also agree that the situation surrounding the discussions over the nuclear deal were arguably even more serious than those today, because the pressure was on to seek a nuclear weapon and somehow the negotiations found a way to establish a relationship that de-escalated that situation? If that was the case, what does my right hon. Friend think might be the trigger to start those negotiations again? The links are all there in Tehran, and we need to recognise that it is vital to deal with the cause as well as the symptoms.

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We have a plethora of distinguished former FCO Ministers on the Back Benches today. I am just grateful that the Work and Pensions Secretary and the Defence Secretary are on the Front Bench, otherwise I might be a bit lonely.

My right hon. Friend speaks with a lot of wisdom and experience of relations with Iran. One of the issues that he navigated extremely successfully during his time in the FCO was the fact that we feel like we are talking to two different groups of people: the Government of Iran and the Foreign Minister, who are usually quite reasonable when we talk to them; and then the people we never get to talk to, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who are always kept at a distance.

It is tempting to say that there is no point talking to the Foreign Ministry in Iran because it does not have any influence over the Government. But that is also wrong, because it has access that we do not have and it can present a more moderate case. That is why we continue with these contacts. The best hope that we have is the fact that Foreign Minister Zarif proposed a basis on which to restart negotiations with the United States for a different version of the nuclear deal. That was rejected by the United States, but I think that the fact that that language has started to emerge in the last couple of weeks is a sign that there is some hope of a negotiated end.

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First, may I pass on my best wishes to the shadow Foreign Secretary? As a cyclist myself, I know how vulnerable cyclists are in London. May I also apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), who has been detained by a leadership contest announcement in which she has been elected as the leader of the Liberal Democrats. I am very pleased that that has not required any Liberal Democrats to resign—other Members may regret that—in the way in which the leadership of the Conservative party has required some very sensible Ministers such as the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond), to resign their positions.

In relation to Iran, it is clearly time for cool heads. I very much welcome the fact that we have the current Foreign Secretary in post and he has made it clear that we are not up for military action. Does he think that discussions now need to take place about the composition and size of our fleet? Does he agree that although we are not in an actual war with Iran, we are clearly in a propaganda war? Is he able to say a little bit about what the Government are going to do to counter the image that the Iranians are portraying of the ship perhaps going off course and colliding with another vessel?

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I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman is so pleased that none of his 11 parliamentary colleagues, himself and the successful leader included, has resigned. I know he is very happy about that, and I am very happy to join in his happiness for himself.

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Let me take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on her election as Liberal Democrat leader. I look forward to having cordial relations with her as a fellow party leader if I am successful tomorrow in the election.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the war of words on news, this was actually one of the times when the Iranians did not really bother to pretend that they were peddling a myth about the cause of the seizure of Stena Impero. They changed their story three times in the space of about 24 hours, and are not making any pretence at all that in their view this is a tit-for-tat seizure. That is why we have to be very clear about the difference between a legal detention of a ship with oil bound for Syria versus this wholly illegal act of state piracy.

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It is right and typically gracious of the Foreign Secretary that he congratulated the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) on her election, and I myself do so. I wish her every possible success in the important work that she now has to undertake.

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Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the taking of hostages and the flouting of international law has been the signature strategy of Iran ever since the Islamic revolution in 1979? If he does accept that, was it not entirely predictable—and, indeed, predicted—that by impounding this Iranian ship, however legally justified that was, the consequence would be an attempt to retaliate by grabbing a British vessel? What consideration was given, before the original decision was taken, to the adequacy of the number of ships in the Gulf, either ours or those of our allies? What attempts were made to persuade vessels that had to navigate the strait that they should do so in small convoys, which would at least enable two, or at most three, frigates to protect a larger number of ships? Sailing independently and separately meant that one or more were bound to be seized.

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My right hon. Friend is right: we did foresee that this could be one of the reactions from the Iranian Government. That is why we took a number of steps after the detention in Gibraltar on 4 July, including the despatch of HMS Duncan and a lot of extra activity from HMS Montrose over the past few days in escorting 30 vessels, a number of which were British-flagged. There has been a lot of additional activity, but we wanted to do it in a way that was not a red rag to a bull and did not end up with even bigger consequences than the ones we faced, and that gave diplomatic channels a chance to work. I think that it was right to start in that way, but regrettably Iran has not chosen to follow the path that we hoped, and so that is why we are taking much more robust action today.

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I share the Foreign Secretary’s concerns about the possibility that tensions will escalate and that the region may descend into conflict. That is why it is so important that we are clear about the legality of the decision to detain the Grace 1. Can I press him on two points? Will he tell us a little more about the legal basis? Carl Bildt, co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, as the Foreign Secretary will know, has described it as intriguing? Is the Foreign Secretary confident that we, as a country, and the European Union, as a union, are consistently applying the European Union sanctions against Syria—as we should? I agree with them, but are we consistently applying them so that there is no room for Foreign Secretary Zarif to call into question our motives?

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Those were intelligent questions, and I will try to do justice to them. As I understand it, it is a requirement of EU law that if a load destined, in breach of sanctions, for somewhere that should not be receiving cargo goes through an EU port or EU waters, we have an obligation to seize that cargo. That is a matter of international law, and that is what has happened. Foreign Minister Zarif tries to argue that, unlike the United States, we do not support extraterritoriality in the application of sanctions. But that was not what happened in this case, because the ship sailed into Gibraltarian waters. One could argue that our actions would not have been consistent for us had the ship been seized outside Gibraltarian waters, but it was inside.

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Iran is going unpunished, is it not?

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Commendably brief—and the answer to that question is no, because I do not think that Iran can possibly want an increased western naval presence in the strait of Hormuz, which is right in its backyard. That is the consequence of what it has decided to do with the Stena Impero.

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I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement and for his service in his current role. I thank him for the way in which he has carried out those duties, and not only on the big international set-piece occasions; I know of his own deeply personal and intense commitment to the welfare of UK citizens across the world, particularly those who have been detained—not just the high-profile cases, either. The latest incident by Iran comes, as he mentioned, amid the destabilising influence of Iran in the middle east and elsewhere, and its support for terrorist proxies. What are the UK Government doing, along with allies, to get to grips with Iran, its approach to the rule of international law and everything else that it is doing?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the generous way in which he asked his question. Precisely because of that destabilising approach to many parts of the most dangerous and unstable region in the world, although we do not agree with the US approach to the Iran nuclear deal, we do try to support the US in every way when it asks us to help—for example, in checking the activities of Hezbollah in Lebanon. We have proscribed Hezbollah in this country, because we do think that it is a terrorist organisation, and we have to recognise that in British law.

The same is true of the work that we do with the American military in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Our approach to Yemen has been to try to separate the Houthis from their Iranian paymasters. Although we might not agree with the tactics, it is important that we recognise that in the United States strategic approach, the long-term solution in the region is for Iran to cease that destabilising activity.

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The Kingdom of Bahrain generously hosts HMS Jufair, the base from which HMS Montrose and other royal naval vessels operate. Its role in the Gulf is crucial, and in recent years Bahrain has been subject to destabilisation by the Iranian regime. Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity today to acknowledge the value that this country places on the support that it receives from Bahrain, and the obligations it owes to that country?

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I am very happy to do that. We have a memorandum of understanding with the Kingdom of Bahrain, and we are incredibly grateful for the support that Bahrain gives us in hosting HMS Jufair. In fact, that is the first permanent naval presence we have had in the middle east since 1935, so opening it last year was a very big step.

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I, too, warmly commend the work of the right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan), although I think it is a bit over the top to resign from office just to avoid appearing before the Foreign Affairs Committee tomorrow afternoon.

On a serious point, the UK’s position on Iran has always been subtly different from that of the United States of America, even though it is our closest ally. It is partly because of our historical relations with ancient Persia, but, more importantly, even on the night that George Bush declared Iran a member of the axis of evil, we were actually trying to send an ambassador to Tehran for the first time for many years, and the American position ended up scuppering that. Just how can we make sure, in the coming months, that while we maintain our strong alliance with the United States of America, we still maintain our independence of thought in relation to Iran?

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That is a very fair question. The truth is that we have to do that by being very frank with the Trump Administration when we disagree with them and about why we disagree with them. I think that, under the surface, the positions are a bit closer than they might look in the simple sense that I have actually had a number of conversations with President Trump himself about his concerns about what would happen if that region became nuclearised. I do not think the United States is indifferent to the nuclear threat in that region, and they have started to talk a lot about that recently. We use our influence, I suppose in private circles, as much as we can to try to get a meeting of minds.

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I am sure we all agree that our elite Royal Navy forces, our Royal Marines, which are known to be the best in the world, should be commended for taking their role in enforcing these EU sanctions seriously and effectively. However, it does surprise me, since the Iranians made it clear that there would be tit-for-tat retaliation for our blocking tanker Grace 1, that we have not yet seen other EU navies coming to our Royal Navy’s assistance in policing the strait of Hormuz for commercial shipping. Will the Foreign Secretary give the House more information on when we will see such burden sharing from our EU allies?

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What my hon. Friend says is close to my heart, as the son of a naval officer, a phrase I have been known to use in the last few weeks one or two times—[Interruption]—and as an entrepreneur, but that is not perhaps relevant to this afternoon’s statement.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The Defence Secretary has been talking to the Defence Ministers of France, the Netherlands, Norway and others about more burden sharing within the EU. The reason why we have constructed the proposal that we have in the way that we have today is precisely because we are trying to encourage more European involvement in maritime security, because it is in the European interest.

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While the world witnesses the horror of this dangerous 3D, real-life game of battleships, may I relay to the Foreign Secretary—he may be more than that by this time tomorrow—the concerns of my Iranian diaspora constituents? Their relatives and nearest and dearest are caught up in this, such as the children unable to access vital medicines due to the sanctions imposed by Trump and Bolton in vengeance because they do not like their predecessors. May I urge him to do all he can and all in his power to condemn and rectify these cruel hardships suffered by ordinary Iranians on the ground, as well as to carry out his decisive actions on the high seas?

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I commend the hon. Lady for staying in touch with the Iranian diaspora in this country, who remind us that at their heart many Iranians fundamentally do understand our values and want to find a way to accommodate Iran in the modern world. Iran is a great country and a great civilisation, and we ought to be able to find a way to resolve our differences. However, there is the particular issue at the heart of it—I discussed this with the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionist party, just now—which is its support for destabilising activity across the middle east, which is already the most dangerous region in the world, and that is the thing we have to address if we are going to solve this.

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Given that the risk of seizure was foreseen and that 95% of goods entering the UK do so by sea, does the Foreign Secretary agree that a Royal Navy of fewer than 20 ships is not up to the task and that we need to spend more on our defence, because no matter how capable a ship, it cannot be in more than one place at a time?

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I might be straying slightly from my brief as Foreign Secretary, but it will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I am support increased spending on our armed forces. We have to recognise that we had in many ways a golden period after the fall of the Berlin wall, when there was a peace dividend and we were able to reduce defence spending, but now we have to recognise that there are increased dangers in the world, both in the middle east and because Russia has become much more aggressive than it was previously. I think that the Navy in particular has become too small, so I hope that whoever the next Prime Minister is will reflect carefully on what we can do to bolster our great Royal Navy.

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The United Kingdom is home to somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 Iranian nationals and their immediate families, many of whom are here because of their opposition to either the current regime or its equally oppressive predecessors. In the current climate of extreme intolerance, what are the Government doing to ensure that those Iranian nationals, who are here legally and are innocent of any crime, are not victimised or targeted because of the crimes committed by the Government that they have escaped from?

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will let us and particularly the Home Office and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government know if he comes across any examples of that, because those Iranian nationals—the vast majority of them have now become British citizens—are extremely welcome and make a tremendous contribution to our country.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s prescient remarks in recent weeks about the need to expand our naval presence. To help with that, will he ask the Defence Secretary to change the classification of our much-valued Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships to warships, as our allies classify them, so that we can bring forward the building of planned new ships in the UK?

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I have just asked the Defence Secretary that very question, to which the answer is yes.[Official Report, 24 July 2019, Vol. 663, c. 16MC.]

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I agree with what the Secretary of State has said about the importance of freedom of navigation, so may I ask what guidance has been issued to escorting vessels about the use of force in defence of that principle?

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that we do not discuss rules of engagement publicly, for very obvious reasons, but we are always doing everything we can to make sure that those vessels are able to do what it takes to keep vessels safe.

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I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I find the lack of resources slightly intriguing, bearing in mind what was going on in the Gulf. From what he has said, it sounds as though we are almost trying to appease Iran or fearing a reaction by sending too many resources there. If that is the case, perhaps another deterrent would be to put troops on those ships. I do not know where we are with that, so perhaps he could inform the House about that move as well.

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May I reassure my hon. Friend that this is absolutely not about appeasing Iran? It is about trying to see whether there is a diplomatic avenue to prevent the seizure of British ships and giving the space for that diplomatic avenue to work, while recognising that if that fails—I am afraid that it has failed, because a British ship has been seized—we will have to take a much more robust military approach. That is the approach that we have taken, but we wanted to ensure that diplomatic window. We have considered the idea that my hon. Friend mentioned to the House, but we have rejected it because we think it would make those ships a target and create the risk of Royal Marines being taken hostage, which would create an even greater crisis.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement today and all the hard work that he has done and I hope will continue to do. The Veterans Minister, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood), stated on TV yesterday that the Royal Navy needs to be built up, reinforced and strengthened in the Gulf and, indeed, across the world. Until that happens, will the Secretary of State work alongside other countries in the Gulf—for example, Saudi Arabia and perhaps the United Arab Emirates—and others to provide policing and the protection of all ships in the strait of Hormuz?

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Absolutely. We want our allies in the Gulf to get involved in support of freedom of navigation, as we do other countries outside Europe, such as Australia, that have expressed an interest in being supportive.

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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Foreign Secretary, who I thank, are well known for their effective use of soft power—of course, we head the index of soft power—but does he agree that that does not mean that we do not need increased defence spending? As a major maritime nation, we have duties in the world that require a larger Navy.

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I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend and thank him for his question. Just to add to my earlier comments, at the point of Brexit, that will be a moment when a lot of people around the world will be looking to us to see what type of country we want to be in the world. We are one of the very few countries that has always championed democratic values and the security needed to underpin them, and the Royal Navy has an absolutely critical role in doing that.

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There are justifiable concerns that if Iran resumes its nuclear programme, there will be an arms race in the middle east, with other countries, especially Saudi Arabia, scrambling to build their own nuclear weapons. Can the Secretary of State tell us what the Government will do to address that risk?

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Yes: continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, despite the pressure that it is evidently under; do everything we can to persuade Iran not enrich its uranium towards 20%, which is the tipping point from which it could develop nuclear weapons relatively quickly; and work with as many other countries as we can to try to get them to support us in those endeavours.

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What discussions is the Foreign Secretary having with our allies in the Gulf, who have been warning about Iranian activities for years now, and with Qatar, which maintains rather closer relationships with Tehran, but relies on the strait of Hormuz being open to ship its cargoes of liquefied natural gas, including to the UK?

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My right hon. Friend makes a very important point about Qatar, because LNG is absolutely critical to the global economy. That is one of the main reasons, alongside oil, why we have to maintain freedom of navigation. We have good discussions with Qatar and all our allies in the Gulf, and we are expecting strong support from them.

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The Foreign Secretary mentioned Iran’s malign interventions in the region. While the House may be rightly concerned about the strait of Hormuz, terrifying videos were released last week from Yemen of young boys between eight and 18 at the 300 jihadi training camps run by the Iranian-backed Houthis chanting, “Death to America! Death to Israel! Curse upon the Jews! Victory to Islam!” We should add that to last week’s $430,000 donation to Hezbollah, the drone attacks, also last week, with Iranian technology, and the 30 academics in opposition who have been summarily sentenced to death in Yemen by the Iranian-backed Houthis. Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the tanker crisis is just part of the problem in the Gulf region involving Iran? We have to take a broader brush to this issue and not just focus on the tanker crisis because it affects us directly.

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Yes, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. He speaks very powerfully of one country where we see the malign impact of Iranian sponsorship, and we doing everything we can in Yemen. We have, against expectations, managed to get a peace process going in Yemen, and one of our main hopes is that that will decouple the Houthis from their Iranian paymasters, so that they can take part in a Government of national unity and contribute more constructively to peace in Yemen than the way that he talked about, because what he said is very worrying.

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I thank the Foreign Secretary for his earlier answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Hertfordshire (Sir Oliver Heald), with which I completely agree. I know that he is nervous of straying out of lane, but does he agree that the Royal Navy is not just about power projection but has an important diplomatic role as well? Therefore, it is not just our defence policy but our foreign policy that is greatly enhanced by a larger surface fleet.

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Hear, hear.

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Yes, and I wish I had made more of my strong agreement with what my hon. Friend has just said in the last few months. As we have been talking a lot about the Gulf and he has mentioned the Navy, let me talk about a couple of other areas where I think we could do with a stronger Royal Navy presence. One of them is the Arctic and the other is the Indo-Pacific region. I think in both regions it would send a very strong signal about British national self-confidence if we had the naval capacity that we would all want.

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Oh, very good! The Foreign Secretary is not that bothered about straying out of lane; he is going from one region to the other. This is all very encouraging.

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I thank the Foreign Secretary for his statement. I note that he said that while HMS Duncan has been despatched to the Gulf, it is there to take over from HMS Montrose—so we are still going to finish up with one destroyer covering 19,000 nautical miles and having to escort on average three vessels a day. Are we so bereft of naval power that we cannot send an additional ship to the area and have to rely on other European nations who have not divvied up so far, or has this decision been made so that we do not annoy the Iranians?

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I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his eagle eye in spotting that detail, but I want to reassure him that when HMS Duncan arrives HMS Montrose will not be going out of service immediately. There will be a period, particularly the extremely dangerous period in the next few weeks, when they will be operating together. Secondly, we will get HMS Montrose back into service as quickly as we can. Thirdly, HMS Montrose is based in Bahrain, so it will stay in the region for its refitting and refuelling. It will not be far away.

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I commend the Foreign Secretary for his tone during his statement, but does he agree that this act of piracy represents a pattern of behaviour from the Iranians, both directly and through its proxies, in an overall strategy to achieve regional hegemony in the middle east? What we urgently need is a strategy that restores balance, so the Iranians cannot take advantage of our strategic weaknesses.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People who have been studying the region for longer than I have would say that there is no issue with Iran being a regional power and a great regional power; the issue is whether it is a great regional military power. It is Iran’s military presence in so many other parts of the region that is so destabilising and is the root cause of many problems. He is absolutely right to focus on that.

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Iran and Iran alone is responsible for the illegal seizure of the Stena Impero, and the Foreign Secretary has made that crystal clear. Will he also be clear that if notice of passage had been given as requested, HMS Montrose would have been better able to protect that vessel?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When the Stena Impero was taken, HMS Montrose was actually only 20 minutes away and trying very hard to get there on time. I hope one of the consequences of the terrible incident that has happened is that ship owners will give us the notice we ask for when they transit their ships.

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I very much welcome the Foreign Secretary’s statement and the actions the Government are taking to try to address this crisis. Does he agree that the priority now should be the safe return of the crew and the British-registered vessel?

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Absolutely. What we want is secure freedom of navigation for the thousands of ships that pass through the region every year. If the ship is returned and the crew released, and if we are confident that we are returning to a stable situation, we will then of course review the military measures we have announced today to see whether they are still necessary.