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The Iran-Iraq Hostilities

Volume 413: debated on Wednesday 8 October 1980

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3.18 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government the Question of which I have given Private Notice, namely:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government what initiatives they have taken in the United Nations and elsewhere with a view to the termination of hostilities between Iran and Iraq."

My Lords, in my discussions in New York with the Secretary-General, Mr. Waldheim, and other Foreign Ministers, I urged the importance of swift action in the United Nations, and, as your Lordships know, the passage of Security Council Resolution 479 calling on both parties to refrain immediately from any further use of force and to settle their dispute by peaceful means was secured. Since then we have been active with our friends and allies, both in the area and elsewhere, in trying to secure an early end to hostilities. We have been particularly concerned to prevent the conflict spreading and affecting the vital Gulf shipping routes.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord very much for that answer, because the whole House and, indeed, the country are deeply anxious about the dangerous situation in the Middle East. Because of that anxiety, may I ask him one or two more detailed supplementaries? Of course, we very much accept and welcome his concern about the conflict spreading. I wonder whether he could give us any further information about that, with particular reference to Jordan and to Syria, to the possible supply by the Russians of arms to Iran, to the possible supply of arms by the French to Iraq, and the calls in some quarters in the United States for "an armed strike"?

Can I also ask him about oil supplies? Can he tell us whether the International Energy Association feel that their energy plan should be activated, and, if not now, when that might be necessary? The Minister made a welcome reference to the vital shipping routes. I do not want to press him too hard, but can he clarify for the House the international position about the freedom of movement of shipping in the Straits of Hormuz? Last, are there any more initiatives that might be taken as a result of President Zia's mission? We know that his report was pessimistic, but does the noble Lord feel that there may be anything that the Islamic Conference can contribute as a Solution, and, if not, or perhaps as well, ought we not to be taking further action now at the United Nations? Is he aware how much we appreciate that he stayed on to negotiate in New York, and here, although it meant postponing his Far Eastern trip?

My Lords, this is a Question rather than a Statement. There were an awful lot of supplementaries, and I shall get them all wrong if I allow the noble Lord to intervene. I hope he will forgive me.

I am grateful to the noble Baroness and I agree with what she said about the conflict spreading. I do not think that there is any evidence as of now that the conflict is spreading, but it does seem to me that the longer this situation continues the more dangerous the whole area will become, and we must make every effort and use every means at our disposal to prevent that happening. I think that the position with regard to oil supplies is fairly satisfactory. There was an over-supply of oil before this conflict and the stocks held in the world generally were very large. I do not think that there is any immediate problem with regard to the activation of the IEA emergency rules, though no doubt the IEA will keep a very careful watch on it. But I believe that the other OPEC countries are increasing their production, and with the existing supplies in the world I do not think there is any particular danger at the moment of a shortage of oil.

The Straits of Hormuz are, of course, an international strait, and there can be no question that nobody has a right to close them. But I think the problem would be not so much the blocking of the Straits of Hormuz as the difficulty which the owners of tankers and ships would find in sending their ships into what might have become a war zone. We must obviously, for that reason, prevent that happening, and it is important, again for that reason, that the war should not spread. President Zia, who was in London earlier this week and reported to the Prime Minister and told us of his conversations both in New York and with Iran and Iraq, is of the opinion at the moment that there is no prospect of an immediate cessation of hostilities, but I think he and the Islamic Conference are very much of the opinion that there will come a time—we hope in the not too distant future—when his efforts at mediation may be more successful. I personally believe that the most likely way in which this war will be ended is by mediation from the Islamic countries rather than from the United Nations, though I am sure that the United Nations, if they see the opportunity, must do everything in their power to bring it about.

My Lords, I am sure we will agree that the great thing is to prevent the hostilities spreading and I am sure we have the greatest confidence in the Foreign Secretary to do everything possible to prevent that happening. But, despite the present surplus of oil in the world generally, is there not a considerable possibility and a danger that fairly shortly supplies of oil from both countries may completely dry up? In that case, would it not be desirable for the European Economic Community, who will be particularly affected, to consult together very urgently as to what they would do in those circumstances? Should not the European Council, or at any rate the Council of Foreign Ministers, very shortly agree, if they can, on a common energy policy to be adopted in this deplorable event?

My Lords, oil supplies have already dried up from Iraq and Iran; there is no oil coming from either country. This means that there is a shortfall of production of about 3·8 million barrels a day. There was, however, an overproduction of 2·2 million barrels a day, and it may very well be that that shortfall between 3·8 million and 2·2 million will be made up by the increase in production of the other OPEC countries. In any event, I think that all the industrialised countries have stocks of over 100 days, so I do not think at the moment that there is very much danger of a shortage of oil.

My Lords, may I ask a short supplementary question on that? One of the great dangers of the whole oil position is that it is going to bear much more hardly on the developing world because they will not have the money to pay the increased prices. Even if there is an increase in production by the other countries their stocks are low. That is why I asked about the activation of the Energy Plan, because that controls cost to a certain extent.

Yes, my Lords, but I suspect that that is more due to the increase in the price of oil than to the shortage of oil, and that really is a slightly different question. But I think it is true to say that the developing countries probably could not afford to have such big stocks, and therefore I think it will be necessary for us to look very carefully at what steps will have to be taken to help them.

My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether any British ships are caught up in the fighting, and, if so, what can be done to help them?

My Lords, would not my noble friend the Secretary of State agree that the continued erosion of our presence in that area directly contributed to the situation today?

I am sorry, my Lords; I missed the first part of the noble Lord's question. Possibly yes, my Lords; possibly no. It was certainly my view at the time when there was a withdrawal from the Gulf that this was a mistake. I think it would be difficult to peer into a crystal ball and to say whether, if we had been there, this situation would have been any different. I think that probably the reasons for the Iraq-Iran war would not have been affected much by a British presence or by no British presence.

My Lords, may I ask the Secretary of State two supplementary questions? One concerns the Strait of Hormuz. Does the fact that part of the passage through the Strait is in Oman territorial waters loom very large in his calculations, and are there any contingency plans for a situation in which the territorial waters of Oman might be invaded by some ill-intentioned force in this conflict? The second question is: Has he any evidence which he can give to the House as to whether there is any truth in reports that Iranian exiles have been involved in some of the preparations and planning of the Iraqi invasion of Iran?

My Lords, with regard to the second question, I have no evidence of that. So far as the first question is concerned, the noble Lord is of course quite right: there is a passage—in fact, it is the most used passage—through Oman waters, but I am afraid I have no knowledge of whether anybody has plans to disrupt that. But, of course, as the noble Lord will be aware, there have been conversations among a number of countries interested in maintaining the freedom of passage through the Strait and peace in the Gulf, as to what action might be taken if that were to happen. I think this is very unlikely, but I think it is always as well to be sure that you have some idea what you would do if the worst happened.