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Iran: Seizure of Royal Navy Personnel

Volume 690: debated on Wednesday 28 March 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“I should like to make a Statement about the current situation regarding the 15 British service personnel detained by Iranian forces on Friday of last week. The Government are doing all that they can to ensure that they are released immediately.

“I should say at once, and I am sure I speak for the whole House, that our thoughts and prayers at this moment are with all our detained personnel in Iran and their families.

“I should like to begin by explaining the facts of what happened last Friday, and the actions we have taken since, and to share with the House some details about the location of the incident on which the MoD briefed this morning.

“At approximately 0630 GMT on 23 March, 15 British naval personnel from HMS ‘Cornwall’, engaged in a routine boarding operation of a merchant vessel in Iraqi territorial waters in support of Security Council Resolution 1723 and of the Government of Iraq, were seized by Iranian naval vessels.

“HMS ‘Cornwall’ was conducting routine maritime security operations as part of a multinational force coalition task force operating under a United Nations mandate at the request of the Iraqi Government. The task force’s mission was to protect Iraqi oil terminals and prevent smuggling.

“The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they and their two boats were surrounded by six Iranian vessels and escorted into Iranian territorial waters.

“I immediately consulted the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence and asked my permanent under-secretary to summon the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

“We set out our three demands to the ambassador: information on the whereabouts of our people, consular access to them, and to be told the arrangements for their immediate release. COBRA met that afternoon, as it has done every day since.

“On 24 March, my colleague, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Triesman, held a further meeting with the ambassador to repeat our demands. He has had several such meetings since that date.

“At that first meeting, the Iranian ambassador gave us, on behalf of his Government, the co-ordinates of the site where that Government claimed our personnel had been detained. They were not of course where we believed the incident took place but we took delivery of them as the statement of events of the Government of Iran. On examination, these co-ordinates supplied by Iran are themselves in Iraqi waters.

“On Sunday 25 March I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, as I did again yesterday. In my first conversation, I pointed out that not only did the co-ordinates for the incident as relayed by HMS ‘Cornwall’ show that the incident took place 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters, but also that the grid co-ordinates for the incidents that the Iranian authorities had provided our embassy on Friday 23 March and Lord Triesman on Saturday 24 March showed also that the incident had taken place in Iraqi waters. I suggested to the Iranian Foreign Minister that it appeared that the whole affair might have been a misunderstanding which could be resolved by immediate release.

“In Iran, our ambassador, Geoffrey Adams, has met on a daily basis with senior Iranian officials to press for immediate answers to our questions. He has left the Iranian authorities in no doubt that there is no justification for the Iranians to have taken the British Navy personnel into custody, and provided the grid co-ordinates of the incident which clearly showed that our personnel were in Iraqi waters and made clear that we expected their immediate and safe return. I should tell the House that we have no doubt either about these facts or about the legitimacy of our requirements.

“When our ambassador and my colleague Lord Triesman followed up with the Iranian authorities on Monday 25 March, we were provided with new, and I quote, ‘corrected’, grid co-ordinates by the Iranian side which now showed the incident as having taken place in Iranian waters. As I made clear to Foreign Minister Mottaki when I spoke to him yesterday, we find it impossible to believe, given the seriousness of the incident, that the Iranians could have made such a mistake with the original co-ordinates, which after all they gave us over several days.

“There has inevitably been much international interest in the situation, particularly given our personnel’s role in a multinational force operating under a UN mandate. I have spoken to a number of international partners, including US Secretary of State Rice, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud. We have also been keeping other international partners informed and I am pleased to be able to tell the House that many of them have chosen to lobby the Iranians or issue statements of support. I am particularly grateful to my colleague Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, who has confirmed publicly that the incident took place in Iraqi waters, calling for the personnel, who are acting in Iraq’s interests, to be released.

“The Iranians have assured us that all our personnel are being treated well. We will hold them to that commitment and continue to press for immediate release. They have also assured us that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues, bilateral, regional or international—which I, of course, welcome. But I regret to say that the Iranian authorities have so far failed to meet any of our demands or responded to our desire to resolve this issue quickly and quietly through behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

“That is why we have today chosen to respond to parliamentary and public demand for more information about the original incident and to get into the public record both our and the Iranian accounts to demonstrate the clarity of our position and the force of the Prime Minister’s words on Sunday 25 March, when he said, and I quote,

‘there is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters. It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters, and I hope the Iranian government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us. We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong’.

“The House may also be aware that, even if the Iranian Government believed our vessels had been in Iranian waters—and I stress that they were not—under international law, warships have sovereign immunity in the territorial sea of other states. The very most Iran would have been entitled to do, if it considered that our boats were breaching the rules on innocent passage, would have been to require the ship to leave its territorial waters immediately.

“We will continue to pursue vigorously our diplomatic efforts with the Iranians to press for the immediate release of our personnel and equipment. As Members of the House will appreciate on sensitive issues such as these, as with the recent Ethiopian case, getting the balance right between private, but robust, diplomacy and meeting the House’s and the public’s justified demand for reliable information is a difficult judgment. I am very grateful for the support we have been given over the past few days by the foreign affairs spokesmen of the other parties, and from yourself, Mr Speaker, as well as others in the House, and hope that this will continue.

“But, as the Prime Minister indicated yesterday, we are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity. That is why the MoD has today released details of the incident and why I have concluded that we need to focus all our bilateral efforts during this phase to resolution of the issue. We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until this situation is resolved. We will keep other aspects of our policy towards Iran under close review and will continue to proceed carefully. But no one should be in any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard these events”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am sure we are all very grateful to the Minister for repeating the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary’s Statement, for presenting the details of the situation with such clarity and, if I may say so, for his own part in seeking a swift resolution of this ugly problem.

Do not these details show beyond doubt that both HMS “Cornwall” and its boarding party boats were at least 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when surrounded and that they were going about their lawful business? Is that not confirmed by the GPS pictures, by witnesses and by the master of the Indian merchant vessel, which was anchored and unloading and was being examined? Therefore, were the Iranians not, frankly, acting in error, as they continue to do?

This is potentially a very grave situation in which there will be full support from this side of the House and, I suspect, from the whole House and all parties for the firm and measured approach to the problem at this stage that the Government have deployed. However, I know it will be recognised that if this approach is continually rebuffed for a prolonged period it will have to change. If the news is correct that one member of the group, Faye Turney, is to be released, we obviously hope that that is a sign of the dawn of realism on the Iranian side.

Perhaps I may put a number of questions to the Minister. First, we have heard that there have been repeated requests for consular access to the naval personnel. Has any firm reply of any sort been received about when this can occur and where the naval personnel are? Surely it is time that we at least knew that. At this point, I should add that we obviously share fully in the overriding concern for the safety of those seized and in the very understandable anxieties of their relatives, colleagues and friends.

Secondly, what went wrong operationally? Clearly, something did. It seems that the Iranian fast patrol boats must have been lurking and hiding, perhaps behind the Indian freighter, in order to spring a trap. Why did these boats not show up on the maritime recognition systems and screens of HMS “Cornwall”? Would preventive action have been possible if they had been spotted in time, or did the rules of engagement prevent any moves being made, even if they were spotted? If so, are these the right rules of engagement for patrolling in such dangerous waters? Had we been warned by any intelligence sources that a raid of this kind might be tried at this stage in the broader political context? Are we sure that its timing is not in any way linked with other events, such as the UN sanctions debate or the detention of Iranian suspects, who had been making mischief inside Iraq?

Can the Minister tell us something about the report that Turkish intermediaries have sought to be involved with Iran? Is that true and are they of any help? Does the Minister agree that, for the moment, we must pursue matters—he obviously agrees—by the most vigorous presentation of the facts? If that does not produce results, the full pressures of the international community, in its various guises, such as the United Nations, the European Union and all our other allies and friends across the globe, will have to be mobilised.

Does the Minister agree that Iran is a very ancient and potentially very great nation which we would prefer to respect and work with rather than have to challenge and work against? It can only wound itself by its recalcitrance and non-co-operation in this matter, or indeed in other matters. Does he agree that we have ample capacities, reluctant though we may be to deploy them, to apply strong, additional pressures on Iran and that we would have every moral and legal justification for doing so when all else has been patiently, legally and carefully tried, without result? We may already have taken a first step on that course, as the Minister has reminded us, by freezing all other official, bilateral business with Iran until the situation is resolved.

We obviously hope and pray that it will not go further than that. Will the noble Lord undertake to keep the House fully informed as this dangerous situation unfolds? We hope it will lead to a sensible outcome and to the immediate release of all our people.

My Lords, we on these Benches thank the Government for the Statement. We fully understand and appreciate why the Government have been reluctant to inform the House before now. We support the combination of quiet diplomacy and firm action that the Government have undertaken and we all share the overriding objective: the safe return of our forces.

In the circumstances, it is not appropriate to press the Government much further. However, I ask, as a point of fact, whether the waters concerned are part of the Shatt al Arab, which was a much-contested border in the Iraq-Iran war, or whether they are part of the lower Shatt al Arab, where the international boundary is already accepted and entirely clear.

Can the Government say anything about Iranian motivations? In the previous weeks, had there been any indications that Iranian attitudes and behaviour were changing? One of the most important statements in this document is that the Iranians,

“have also assured us that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues, bilateral, regional or international”.

I hope that the Iranians will be able to stick to that insistence without attempting, as on previous occasions, to link the taking of hostages with other issues. Do we have a clear understanding as to which level within the very complex Iranian regime is involved? Was it the regular Iranian navy or the revolutionary guards?

We also welcome the statement about solidarity from our partners. I recall, in 1979, when Iranian revolutionary guards invaded and occupied the American embassy, the ambassadors of all the European Union states represented in Tehran, as a group, going to see the Iranian Government and insisting that action against any one would be regarded as action against all. The EU and NATO are multilateral networks through which we can operate. As the Statement rightly emphasises, British forces were operating there under a United Nations mandate and, therefore, this is a matter with which the United Nations needs to be concerned.

My Lords, I greatly appreciate the sentiment and support expressed by both noble Lords. Quite aside from the government response, to know that we are absolutely united in our determination will come as a comfort to the families.

I shall deal with both noble Lords’ points. I assure the House that there have been repeated demands in all meetings—not requests, demands—for full consular access, wholly in accordance with the consular arrangements that we would normally expect to apply. There has been no response on that, and none on location. When pressed on any matter of timing, it has not been possible to get any indications. I do not believe that there have been operational problems for our forces. I am not yet in a position to comment fully on some operational matters; that will obviously need some analysis, and we will need to be able to talk to those involved.

I can say, however, that our rules of engagement do not prevent our personnel from protecting themselves. Any suggestion that they do is simply wrong. In addition, they in no way remove the absolute right to act in self defence, and the military forces have been clear that they feel that they have the rules of engagement they need to operate effectively in that area.

We have heard from sources of all kinds in Iran that there are no specific links. No intelligence suggested that they were about to mount an operation in order to link it with something else, and to trade around other matters. I repeat the point made by my right honourable friend in another place: they are absolutely clear that there are no links.

It is certainly true that Turkey has been among the countries with which we have had consultation. As noble Lords will understand, we have had consultations with an extensive number of countries, including Turkey. In the light of the delicacy of discussions, however, I ask that I am not drawn specifically on those contacts.

As to the facts, there is a convention in the House that we do not show pictures or hold up maps that demonstrate the point, although it is tempting to do so. I tell the House that the co-ordinates where the incident took place were 29 degrees 50.36 minutes north, 48 degrees 43.08 minutes east: absolutely in Iranian waters.

My Lords, thank you very much. It is absolutely in Iraqi waters, not in Iranian waters, by any reading of the co-ordinates provided either by ourselves or the Iranians. It is further down the territorial water boundary than the area that noble Lords have mentioned, so there is no doubt that it is an agreed international border. There can be no question on that point.

I accept the point of the noble Lord, Lord Howell, about Iran. It is plainly, historically, a great nation. I hope that it can return to greatness through a degree of co-operation with the rest of the international community. That is fervently desired by absolutely everybody. The clearest demonstration of that would be to release our forces immediately.

We have ample capacities, and certainly have justifications for the steps that we have taken. It is absolutely right that all business with Iran other than this is frozen. It must be resolved, and that is our principle objective. It should not, and cannot, be diluted by any other matter. I am certainly willing to undertake to keep the House as informed as I can, given the understanding shared in the House that the release of our people is our priority.

I shall answer one point about the waters, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace; I hope I have answered his point about Iranian motivations. In the very first meeting, they said to me that there were no links to other matters. We have taken them at their word. If, as they have said, this is a technical matter to be resolved technically, we should all rely on the co-ordinates that have been provided—before some other co-ordinates which placed these boats in Iranian waters were given, although we know that they were in Iraqi waters—and we should rely on that being a statement made in good faith, with data provided in good faith and being plottable on the charts by everybody in good faith. There is no link with anything else. It is hard to say what level of decision-taking in Iran has been involved. I have been told by the ambassador that Iranian border forces were involved, but I presume that those forces interact with authorities higher up the chain. However, that has not been confirmed.

In respect of all the questions about international assistance, I can say that our partners have been very forthcoming. The European Union presidency immediately made a very strong statement, and we have seen strong statements from the other EU member states. I have no doubt that when they meet this weekend, there will be further opportunities to explore some of these issues. I have no reason to doubt that when they explore it, they will continue that support. We believe that they have used serious endeavours to speak to the Iranian Government about the overall relationship with the EU. I believe that we have done that all acting together, but that has not yet borne the fruit that we would wish. We will be utterly persistent in getting that outcome.

My Lords, it is good that we had immediate and full solidarity from our EU partners. I presume that, since our forces were on a UN-sanctioned mission, the United Nations will give similar support. I have spoken again to a Swansea woman who is the mother of one of the marines. She wishes it to be known that the Ministry of Defence has been most supportive of the families of the marines who have been captured. My questions are her questions. She asks, first, whether there was a heightened state of alert because of the events at the United Nations that weekend. Secondly, why did the helicopter on the scene leave—had it, for example, seen the Iranian ships lurking in the vicinity, as was suggested by the noble Lord? Thirdly, what lessons, if any, have been learnt from the similar incident in 2004 that might have assisted us in dealing with this incident?

My Lords, the forces operate at a heightened state of alert all the times in those extremely troubled waters; they do not relax. It is a tribute to their professionalism that they do that continuously. At the moment, I do not think it would be helpful to review the disposition of helicopters or what could have been drawn from 2004. Whatever was said about 2004, I want to make it clear to the House that our people were in Iraqi waters on a UN mandate. That is the fundamental fact in this case.

My Lords, I, too, am grateful for the detailed repetition of the Statement, which was most valuable and interesting. Perhaps the Minister will forgive me if I mention one matter that causes me some disquiet. We have known for a long time that Iran has a different attitude to the territorial waters in question. There have been numerous disputes over a long period. I assume that that was as well known in the Ministry of Defence as it was in the Foreign Office. It seems to me that it would have been prudent for the naval officers concerned to have been reminded of the difficulties we have experienced with Iran in the past on these questions and, in particular, of the danger that they might be repeated at the present time, given the public disagreement between ourselves and Iran on a number of international matters. Can the Government look into that and see whether we missed an opportunity to give a friendly note of warning to the naval officers in charge that it would be undesirable to engage in any risky activities at this tense time?

My Lords, I am sorry to say that I find it very difficult to agree with the tenor of the noble Lord’s point. I know of no more professional group in the world than our naval officers who are conducting these difficult operations. They are bound to conduct them in a difficult area, albeit with very clear charts that do not leave room for doubt. They are protecting the principal source of Iraqi income—the oil platforms in the area—and are preventing widespread smuggling that disregards any norms of legal import and export in the area. They are doing that at the request of the Iraqi Government, who are attempting to resurrect a viable economy. Our people do an astonishing job in pursuit of very difficult objectives. That is the only message that I would have come from this House.

My Lords, although the noble Lord could not display the charts according to the custom of the House, would it be possible to put the information he has in his possession on the Foreign Office website, together with any independent verification of the position of our vessels, which may be for obtainable from, for example, French satellite observations? Have we communicated this information to the United Nations Security Council; and could we possibly obtain a presidential statement or a statement from the secretary-general to support our demands that our men are released?

My Lords, I cannot show you what I have here, I am afraid, because of the conventions of the House, but anybody who sees them—they were released in the press conference and so I hope I can make them available in the way that has been suggested—will not be in any doubt. We are approaching the issue of the United Nations not slowly but carefully to make sure that we get the right response at exactly the right moment. It is a little early today to say what the outcome of that discussion will be, but I am in no sense pessimistic about it.

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned that a freeze has been placed on all bilateral activities with Iran, which one understands. What is happening to the execution of the UN mandate, of which HMS “Cornwall” was the flagship? Is that work carrying on? If not, what exercises are being taken to ensure that it carries on as quickly as possible?

My Lords, some of my noble colleagues and I were in Brussels last week and saw Javier Solana before this incident took place. He mentioned that today he would be at the Arab League summit. Given that Iraq is a member of the Arab League, I wonder whether Javier Solana is raising this issue with Arab League countries in order to seek a statement of support from the Arab League itself. I have a second point. The noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, said that one of the marines was being released. Is that the woman marine? If not, where is she currently being held, and is she being held separately—I know we do not have details—from her colleagues?

My Lords, we are awaiting further information on diplomatic efforts with the Arab League. I do not want to do anything that will compromise those, as I am sure the House will understand. We do not know where any of our 15 naval personnel are being held. We have sought that information. We do not have it in respect of any of them, including the woman sailor. I have also heard the stories that Iran plans to release the woman sailor, but it has not yet happened. I should also add, because it must be in your Lordships’ minds, that in the past the Iranians have displayed those they have captured in a humiliating fashion on television. During the discussions, I would not accept that demonstrating that they hold our people by displaying them with all the humiliation that is usually inflicted on them would be acceptable; it would be utterly repugnant to us.

My Lords, I know how difficult and delicate negotiations of this kind can be. I support very much the stance the Government have taken since this incident began. I also say how much I welcome the support we are receiving from our European and other partners and hope very much, as other noble Lords have said, that we can build on that in the days ahead in Tehran, Brussels and—perhaps particularly given the nature of the operations of HMS “Cornwall”—New York.

May I ask just one question of the Minister? There is sometimes a tendency, when situations become as delicate as this one has, to see the withdrawal of ambassadors as one of the tools in a toolkit of sanctions. The last week has shown how important it is to have our ambassador active in Tehran, and, indeed, to have the Iranian ambassador active here in London. It is precisely in situations as difficult as this that our ambassadors, with their contacts, really show their worth. Will the Minister take that very much into account if the situation deteriorates, which I hope it does not, and if other measures are considered?

My Lords, plainly, a number of steps could still be taken. I do not discount any of them as events unfold. At the moment, Geoffrey Adams, the ambassador, sees the officials in the Foreign Ministry every day and sometimes several times a day. That channel is extremely valuable. We need to keep the pressure on, which the noble Lord will understand entirely from his huge experience. However, I do not discount anything. We are determined to secure the release of our people. Incidentally, we have never given names; I will certainly not name the people. That is not something that this Government will do. We are determined to secure their release.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is extremely unhelpful to discuss the dispositions of our forces at the time of the incident? Secondly, there will obviously be media interest in the families. Will the Ministry of Defence be providing full media support to the families, as well as pastoral support?

My Lords, the noble Earl makes a very important point. We have no intention of discussing the placement of our forces. I have provided co-ordinates today to demonstrate that we have a wholly legitimate case on our side. The Ministry of Defence is doing an incredible job with the families, who I hope feel that. They now have what I am told are called media shields to help to deal with the media, should they become intrusive. I have no doubt that one of the most important things that we can do to assist them is to protect them from that.

My Lords, I thank the Government for their measured and moderate yet firm response to the seizing of 15 British naval personnel. I speak as one who is opposed to the Iraq war and would like our troops withdrawn. I also have some sympathy with the Iranian desire for a peaceful nuclear programme. Having said that, will the Minister tell the Iranian Government from people like me that their action in seizing British personnel is completely disproportionate and illegal, and that it will make them very bad friends among the people of this country and, indeed, among those who wish them well and understand the position that they are in? It does not help them to do things such as this.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the point he makes about his own support and the support that I have absolutely no doubt will be in the hearts of the people of this country. I want to be careful about my next point, because today is not a day on which to discuss the nuclear portfolio, but the latter cannot possibly be argued in justification. I take seriously, and I sustain the view, that this situation should not become linked to these other matters, and that the Iranian statement that it is not should be taken to be a firm statement from which they should not be allowed to resile.