The Government completely condemn the attacks on two tankers on 13 June. This is deeply worrying at a time of already significant tension.
Following our own assessment, the UK concludes that it is almost certain that a branch of the Iranian military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, attacked the two tankers on 13 June. No other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible. These latest attacks build on a pattern of destabilising Iranian behaviour and pose a serious danger to peace and stability in the region. In targeting civilian shipping, international norms have been violated. It is essential that tankers and crews are able to pass through international waters safely. We call on Iran urgently to cease all forms of destabilising activity, and I reiterated that point during my meeting with the Iranian ambassador this afternoon.
The UK remains in close co-ordination with international partners to find diplomatic solutions to de-escalate tensions. I plan to visit Tehran shortly when I will seek to assist in that de-escalatory process aimed at establishing common ground and a peaceful way forward that will command the respect of all parties.
I thank the Minister for that reply.
Tensions are rising incredibly quickly in the wake of the recent tanker attacks in the Gulf of Oman, and, of course, as the Minister mentions, the ongoing destabilising behaviour and threats from Iran to increase low-level uranium production. These attacks must be condemned forcefully by all Members from all parts of the House. The Government have yet to provide conclusive evidence beyond the grainy video footage. While the Leader of the Opposition has been quick to question British intelligence and lay all the blame for the escalation at the door of the United States, the German Foreign Minister has urged restraint in assigning responsibility for the attacks and is seeking additional evidence.
The Minister has repeated what the Foreign Secretary said at the weekend: that Iran is almost certainly behind the attacks in the guise of IRGC. Can he explain what the remaining area of uncertainty is and what additional information would be required to prove that Iran is in fact responsible beyond doubt? While fully appreciating that there are, of course, intelligence sensitivities, do the Government recognise that releasing additional evidence into the public domain where possible, or sharing that with allies on a confidential basis, would help to garner further support to build international agreement and, indeed, hopefully dampen tensions or to be able to take any action necessary? Does he agree that an independent inspection from a trusted third party to look at these vessels would be an important part of the answer?
The Minister talked about his talks and his wish to de-escalate the crisis and reach a peaceful diplomatic solution, which is hugely important, in partnership not just with the US but with our European allies. Of course, as he mentioned, the strait of Hormuz is a vital shipping lane, with nearly 30% of oil exports passing through it. What steps is he taking to protect civilian shipping in the region?
Finally, I want to ask about the impact on UK nationals. There are significant numbers of UK nationals living in the region who will look at these escalations and have concerns. What assessment has been made of what would be needed if an evacuation of UK nationals was necessary in the event that tensions were to escalate further, when were such plans last tested and what confidence does the Minister have that those contingencies, which we hope will never be needed, are in place? Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her husband have gone on hunger strike in protest at her treatment. What steps are being taken to ensure that whatever course of action is pursued does not have any adverse effect on securing the release of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British nationals in prison?
I thank the hon. Lady for her comprehensive list of questions. I will do my best to answer them—perhaps in reverse order, given that I raised the issue of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with the Iranian ambassador this afternoon. Our position is that we want consular access to Nazanin, and we have reiterated to the ambassador our concern for her welfare. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Iranians will claim that we have no business in this matter because Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is a dual national, but we will persist.
On what we are doing to protect shipping and individuals, I emphasise that our aim is to de-escalate the situation and turn down the temperature. I believe that our European friends and partners feel the same way. We will continue to act with the E3 in particular to dial this down, and that is our best way forward in ensuring that all are protected—that the vital trade routes through the straits are protected, and particularly that our nationals in the Gulf region are safe.
The hon. Lady presses me on intelligence. She knows very well that I am not going to comment in detail, or indeed at all, on intelligence. What I can say to her is that we make our own assessment. I hope that she will recognise the form of words that I have used, which is well understood. We are as sure as we can be of the source of this latest attack. Indeed, although the hon. Lady has not mentioned this specifically, we also associate Iran with the attacks of 12 May.
In relation to the assessments made by others, I think it is true to say that our means of determining provenance are among the very best in the world. Others will of course make their own assessments, which are of great interest, but I stand by my assessment that I have iterated to the hon. Lady; I believe that it is of high quality and is highly reliable. She mentioned the Leader of the Opposition, and he must speak for himself.
On the independent investigation, the vessels, which since the attack of 13 June were in international waters, remain the property of the ship owners. At the moment, they are being taken to Fujairah in the Emirates. It is for the ship owners to determine what investigation will now take place and who will carry out that investigation. I hope that gives the hon. Lady some confidence that we were approaching the matter in a balanced way, but let me reiterate the Government’s intention to do all in our power to de-escalate this difficult situation.
The House will welcome the Minister’s measured statement and, in particular, the fact that he intends to go to Tehran shortly. Will he underline the fact that the Government will use all their influence, particularly with regional organisations—above all, with the United Nations, which is the right place for this matter to be resolved—to de-escalate what is happening in the Gulf? In particular, will he redouble efforts on Britain’s behalf in respect of the Iran nuclear deal to bring all parties back to the table as soon as possible?
It is vital that we keep to the joint comprehensive plan of action, as I discussed with His Excellency the Iranian ambassador a short while ago. The International Atomic Energy Agency is currently of the view that Iran is compliant. That is important. Its last determination was made on 31 May, so we would routinely expect one in three months’ time—in August—but the agency does keep the matter under continuous review. Clearly, we want to hold Iran to the commitments that it made with the P5+1 and the European Union, and hope very much that that forms the basis of a productive way forward.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question; I also thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for raising it.
The attacks on oil tankers in the strait of Hormuz are utterly unacceptable, as I am sure every Member will agree. For those of us old enough to remember, they are frighteningly reminiscent of the tanker war of the 1980s, with all the global economic consequences that resulted from that conflict. Just like then, we are at an extremely dangerous juncture, where Iran risks sliding back into a permanent state of isolation from and confrontation with the west. That is, of course, what the theocrats in Iran have always craved and what the Iran nuclear deal was in place to prevent before it was so recklessly and deliberately scuppered by the neo-cons in the Trump Administration, who even now are rattling their sabres in their own craving for war. With that being the case, the question is: where do we go from here?
The Foreign Secretary has rightly warned of the dangers of ever greater escalation in the region and of Britain becoming “enmeshed” in a new conflict, but I would say to the Government that if we face a situation where the theocrat hardliners in Tehran and the neo-con hawks in the White House want to start a regime change conflict in Iran—a country nine times the size of Syria—we have a choice about whether or not to become enmeshed, and it should be this Parliament that makes that choice.
More importantly and more urgently, what we must now do as a country, through the United Nations—as both Secretary-General Guterres and the German Government have called for—is to work to de-escalate the situation as the Minister has suggested, so that it is not just Ali Khamenei on one side and John Bolton on the other deciding to plunge the middle east into this catastrophe, but sensible diplomats from all countries working to independently investigate and verify the facts around the tanker attacks, to prevent any repeat of them and, most of all, to stop the descent into a war that we all fear, and getting the nuclear deal back on track instead. What action will the Minister take this week towards each of those ends?
I hope the hon. Gentleman got the sense from my remarks that the UK Government’s position is that we need to dial this down. He spent some time talking about the Trump Administration. Our position of course is that we respect the US very much indeed; nevertheless, we take our own view on these matters. We have made our own independent assessment, and have listened very carefully to, for example, our E3 colleagues and the position that they have taken. On the other hand, it would be wrong not to record our deep disquiet regarding the destabilising actions of the Iranian Administration. They are quite clearly using proxies to destabilise the region. As the hon. Gentleman will know from his deep experience of these matters, that cannot be allowed to continue.
We need to make it absolutely clear to Tehran—I will lose no opportunity to do so—that its support for terrorist groups is just unacceptable. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join the Government in condemning absolutely the actions of the Iranian Government in that respect. I do appreciate that he is under some difficulty given the stance taken by the Leader of the Opposition, but the hon. Gentleman is a good man and I know that he takes an independent view of these things. I hope that he will understand full well the danger of allowing the activities of the sort we have seen from Tehran to continue unchecked. Although I have suggested to him that our stance is very much de-escalatory—this situation is dangerous, we need to turn the temperature down and we must work with our partners to do so—we do have to make it very clear that this behaviour on the part of Iran is not acceptable and that if it wants a peaceful, productive future, it is going to have to work with us in containing some of the appalling behaviour that we have seen displayed across the region.
Does the Minister agree that responsibility for escalating tension lies firmly with the Iranian regime that has been sponsoring or carrying out these acts of sabotage? When he visits Tehran, will he make it clear to that regime that attacking Norwegian, Japanese and other foreign shipping is far more likely to bring the United States and her European allies closer together than to drive them apart?
My right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about these things, will know very well that when dealing with Iran we are dealing with a number of moving parts, and sometimes it can be a challenge to know who precisely to address. However, if I were offering candid advice, I would say to Tehran: “The worst thing you can possibly do is to attack ships in the ownership of countries like Norway and Japan—that seems to be highly counterproductive.”
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson)—the other Dunbartonshire —on gaining this UQ today. I also congratulate the Minister on the tone that he is taking in terms of trying to turn down the heat.
It is clear that the ongoing tension in the Gulf of Oman is of grave concern to the entire House. I doubt, though, that many of us are shocked that we have reached this present position, because the tension between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran is founded in a complex history, predating the Islamic Republic at the times of the tyranny of the Shah and the overthrowing of democratic government. We need to be aware that that informs the present situation.
While SNP Members join the Minister in his condemnation, the idea that the Government’s assessment leads to
“responsibility for the attacks almost certainly”
—“almost certainly” being the operative words—lying with Iran gives cause for concern. I therefore hope that the call by the United Nations, as we have heard, for an independent entity to conduct an investigation would be the next step. I hope that the Minister agrees.
As we often hear the Government talk of “global Britain”, will the Minister advise the House on what plans they have to urge a re-engagement to de-escalate the tension between Iran and the United States, and other allies such as Norway, which is a close ally of the UK? May I congratulate him on going to Tehran to have these direct conversations?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. In terms of what we are doing, talking is important, because if we do not talk, there is a risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation, and nowhere is that more likely than in our dealings with Iran, with whom, I think it is true to say, we have not always enjoyed cordial relations. I would not want to downplay that at all. The fact that I hope to go to Tehran very soon is perhaps, I hope, evidence of our desire to make sure that we maintain a dialogue on these matters with Tehran.
The hon. Gentleman tried to press me on intelligence matters. I am not going to be drawn on that. I think he must understand from what I have said that we are quite clear where the blame for this lies. He calls for an independent investigation. I hope that I made it clear in response to an earlier question that this matter must primarily rest with the ship owners, since the vessels are currently in international waters—or they were. They are now on their way to the United Arab Emirates.
On the earlier attack on the 12th of last month, that is, of course, since it happened within UAE territorial waters, a matter for the UAE. We are assisting, in a small way, in that investigation. I have to say again that our assessment is that the authority that is highly likely to have been involved in causing that earlier incident is the same one that we firmly believe is responsible for the latest outrage.
I thank the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) for this urgent question and my right hon. Friend the Minister for his response—a measured response that is helpful to the House. He made clear his determination to calm this situation down. It is a complex and very long-standing situation that has very recently increased quite markedly in vehemence.
Will my right hon. Friend continue to emphasise to all parties the risks and dangers of actions such as those at the weekend, and of words that raise the temperature and increase the risk of an armed confrontation by accident or design? Will he say a little about where we are in terms of the improved financial facility as part of our obligations to the JCPOA, which remains unfinished business? Above all, will we make it very clear to all parties in the region that a further war would be a disaster that could not be confined to its boundaries, that the consequences would be long-lasting and incredibly onerous, and that all states owe an obligation to their peoples to desist from such actions and do everything they can to prevent such a risk of war in the region again?
My right hon. Friend and predecessor knows a great deal about this region. I pay tribute to him because I think this is the first opportunity I have had to do so. I congratulate him on his extraordinary service.
In relation to the cost of what might perhaps happen, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. About a fifth of the world’s oil passes through the strait of Hormuz. While there are mitigating things that can be done in the event that the straits were closed off again, the impact would be significant. As he knows, a great deal of Europe’s liquefied natural gas comes from the Gulf. Inevitably, after a fairly short space of time, there would be severe economic penalties. Above all, of course, we are concerned about the human cost of another conflict, which has, sadly, been seen too much in this region over the past few years. That is why the most important thing to do is to turn down the heat. He refers very kindly to my measured and well-chosen words. It is important for all concerned to prevail on those who are principals in this matter to engage in talk rather than the alternative, which would be massively expensive for all concerned.
While the independent investigations that the Minister has mentioned continue—we all want to see the results of those—the fact is that six vessels have been attacked in just over a month. It has been suggested that one practical step that could be taken is to provide some kind of security escort for vessels in the Gulf of Oman and passing through the strait of Hormuz. I very much support what he said about the need to de-escalate tension. In his reply to a previous question, was he trying to indicate to the House that he thought that such a step might actually make matters worse rather than better? I endorse what he said about this ultimately having to be solved by negotiation. Ultimately, the United States of America and Iran will need to get round a table to sort out the difficulties that currently involve both of them.
The right hon. Gentleman is of course correct—ultimately, that is where the solution to this lies.
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to consider escorts of some sort through the strait of Hormuz. It is not our judgment at the moment that that would be appropriate. I think it would be seen as provocative and escalatory. My view—the Government’s view—is that our interests are best served at this time by trying to turn down the heat on this, and that is what we will continue to do. But clearly we keep all these things under review.
I am very grateful for the tone that my right hon. Friend is adopting on this. It is absolutely the right tone to take with a country that has been extremely challenging not just to us but to many countries in the region. Has he reached out to other countries, because it is not just the UK, or Europe, that relies on energy supplies from the Persian Gulf, but China and India? How has the interaction been with their embassies and in our relationships with those countries in making sure that this is de-escalated?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Of course we have a dialogue on these matters and many others—particularly with the E3, as I said. He will know that the Japanese and the Germans very recently paid a high-level visit to Tehran. Clearly, they are among our interlocutors. The Foreign Secretary spoke to Secretary Pompeo yesterday to discuss all these measures. We are going to have to continue that dialogue; clearly, we cannot act alone. But my general sense among our European interlocutors at the moment is that we are on the right track and that they desire to see us de-escalate this matter so that a problem does not become a full-blown crisis.
The Minister has said in response to several questions that he does not want to be drawn further on intelligence. Will he arrange a briefing for Privy Counsellors from across the House with the appropriate officials, to tell us what the Government know about this incident and what they do not yet know or cannot be sure about?
All I can do is reiterate the point I have made, which is that we do not comment on security matters. The right hon. Gentleman will have to take my assurances that we have made our own independent assessment of this. He will recognise, since he is wise in the ways of these things, that I have chosen my words very carefully. While it is rare for intelligence operators to be categoric in the advice they give to Ministers, they have been as clear as they can be, based on the evidence they have provided, that the provenance of the latest attack is very clear. I hope he will understand what I mean. I do not think there would be any great virtue in the course of action he described.
I do, as a matter of fact. I think there is very little for Iran in provoking a conflict. The consequences for Iran would be severe. The consequences for the regime would be severe and unpredictable. I feel strongly that, although Iran clearly wishes to ensure that it is given the respect and dignity it deserves, it has no interest in causing a war in the Gulf region.
The Minister rightly referred to a pattern of behaviour by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its Hezbollah and Houthi proxy allies. Could it be that the Iranian regime, or elements within it, wish to push up the world oil price at this time because their oil production is falling drastically and because of their internal economic crisis? Would it not be wiser to listen to our own intelligence services, rather than the Leader of the Opposition, who was in the pay of Iranian state propaganda channel Press TV for many years?
I can certainly agree with the latter point; that is not a difficult question for me to answer in the affirmative. I listen closely to our own intelligence sources. I have never knowingly listened to the Leader of the Opposition, although I will say this about him: he is at least consistent—he has that virtue, and it is a big virtue for a politician. He has been doing and saying the same things for as long as I can remember, and he never misses an opportunity to support those who mean our country ill or attack our values. That is pretty well understood across the House.
The Government’s assessment has concluded that the attacks of 13 June were almost certainly the work of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which operates effectively as a state within a state and which in April was designated a foreign terrorist organisation by the United States. My right hon. Friend has made it clear that the Government’s approach is to seek to de-escalate the situation, but can he confirm that his office will keep under careful review the actions of the IRGC and keep Britain’s options open as to whether this country should also designate the IRGC a terrorist organisation?
Our intent is to de-escalate the situation, and I do not think it would be helpful to do anything that ran contrary to that. As I suspect my right hon. Friend knows, it is not the Government’s policy to lay before the House the organisations that they may or may not be considering for proscription.
I have listened carefully to the Minister, and I completely agree with him that the Iranian dictatorship is a source of much of the conflict in the region, sponsoring organisations such as the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and prolonging a brutal civil war in Syria through its support for Assad. Why does he think that so many people always seem to demand more evidence about allegations against Iran or Russia, but rush to condemn America or Israel without any questions at all—like, for example, the Leader of the Opposition, who the Minister rightly said had taken £20,000 from the official state broadcaster of the fascistic Iranian regime?
I gather from the harrumphing from those on the Opposition Front Bench that my de-escalatory attempts were not terribly helpful; clearly it ruffled some feathers, and I understand that. The hon. Gentleman’s remarks are on the record. I do not diverge from him at all, and I hope that those on the Opposition Front Bench were listening.
I thank the right hon. and wise doctor for his measured response. Does he agree that the raison d’être of Iran is exporting revolution throughout the region and further afield? The hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) mentioned the militias aligned to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in places such as Lebanon, where they are trying to destroy the state institutions of that small country, which is utterly negative and appalling. What is obviously needed is fundamental change in the Iranian regime. How do the Minister and his colleagues believe that that will be brought about?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We need to be clear about the nature of the regime in Tehran, but we have to deal with lots of regimes across the world, and our best interests are served by talking to them and having a relationship with them. We will agree with them, as it happens, on a number of things—that is for sure—but behaviour of the sort that he has outlined is completely unacceptable. It destabilises the region. It has pushed a number of countries into complete chaos, and it must stop. The future for a great country like Iran is very bright indeed. It is a rich country—potentially extremely rich—and for its people, I would say: for goodness’ sake, let us have a brighter future and start to turn this down and improve our relationships. We will never agree on everything, I suspect, but we need to look forward to a much brighter future. That will not happen for as long as the regime in Tehran continues to sponsor the proxies that he referred to.
These attacks are to be condemned, and I commend the Minister for his cool words. There is, of course, the prospect of other drums beginning to beat, which is ominous. Surely our influence should be used to urge the US and Iran to re-engage in talks, rather than risk a crescendo of warmongering. Will he consider whether an international inquiry into these attacks and the wider question of safety of shipping in the Gulf would be more productive, given that it has an international effect?
There is an investigation under way already in relation to the attacks of 12 May, and I have referred to that. It is principally the responsibility of the UAE, since that happened within UAE territorial waters. This happened in international waters, and the vessels concerned are heading for the UAE. It is for the ship owners to determine how they wish to investigate the damage done to their vessels. However, we stand ready, with others, to be of assistance wherever we can in these matters. As the right hon. Lady will probably appreciate, we have some expertise in matters of this sort, being a maritime nation, and if any of those skillsets can be of assistance, we will obviously be prepared to offer them.
I am not sure I am prepared to second-guess the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. My right hon. Friend is a very wise man—very wise, indeed—and he has a lot of experience in these matters, and no doubt he has his own views on the motive behind this attack. I think the important thing is that, whatever the motive, we just need to prevail on Tehran to turn the temperature down on this. I hope very much that we can encourage, procure and broker dialogue that will enable us to deal with this is in a pacific way that does not involve further escalation, which is in nobody’s interests.
Mr Speaker, you have heard from across the House that there is complete agreement with the Minister’s desire for de-escalation on this, so is it not extraordinarily irresponsible for anyone in a position of responsibility to suggest that there is in some way a moral equivalence between our greatest ally, the United States of America, and the Islamic Republic, which we know is the greatest exporter of terror and, as the Minister says, is almost certainly responsible for this? To go as far as to suggest that this has in some way been caused by the Americans setting out bait, and that the only fault of the Iranians has been to take the bait left by the Americans, shows that anyone who espouses these views is simply not fit for high office in this country.
My wise right hon. Friend on the Front Bench is a distinguished man of science, and he has concluded from the evidence that the IRGC is responsible for these attacks on shipping in international waters. At the same time, Iran has announced that it will breach its obligations under the nuclear deal in 10 days’ time. Given that evidence, what further proof does my right hon. Friend require before we take stringent sanctions against the IRGC and against Iran?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I hope he has sensed from my remarks that the intent is to de-escalate this. I make no apologies for the repeated use of that word “de-escalation”. The sanctions he has referred to—of course, sanctions are always on the table—would certainly escalate this and, in our judgment at this juncture, would make a bad situation worse. However, we of course keep all things under review.
These are obviously very serious moments. What assessment has been made of the potential impact on the UK, and indeed all our constituents, in terms of fuel supplies in the event that this disruption in and around the strait of Hormuz is serious and sustained?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this. I have referred to a fifth of the world’s oil going through those straits, to Qatari LNG that powers up much of Europe and to the effect, potentially, on our constituents’ fuel bills. He may be aware that we have about 90 days of contingency through the International Energy Agency, but of course we do not really want to use that. We want those straits to remain open for the world’s trade, and we will do everything we can to ensure that they do.
I have been on the record in this Chamber many times saying that I am opposed to any territorial military action against Iran. I think that would be a complete and utter escalation beyond anything we would actually be able to control or make stay in place. I have listened very carefully to my right hon. Friend about Britain standing prepared to give assistance, especially in naval matters, and we are of course talking about international waters. I understand his not wanting to send Royal Navy vessels there at this time to provide support, but may I ask my him whether any conversations are taking place with international bodies such as the UN about being prepared, if need be, to offer protection to international shipping in international waters, which of course are nothing to do with the territorial areas of Iran? Indeed, if Iran were telling the truth in saying that it was not involved, it would not have any objection to international escorts for international vessels.
I am not sure that Iran would quite see it that way, and that is very important because we do need to try to turn down the temperature on this. The straight answer is that we do not propose, as things stand at the moment, to escort vessels through the strait of Hormuz. We do not feel that is necessary, based on what we know, and we feel that it would be escalatory, so there are no plans to do such a thing. However, we clearly have to keep a close eye on this situation, and in the event that there is a deterioration in the situation, we have to consider adopting a new posture. I hope very much that will not be necessary.
The answer is that the sanctions are significant and, to a large extent, have influenced the behaviour of Tehran. I hope that we can work towards a future where those sanctions will not be necessary. In the long term, the lifting of sanctions is important to restore Iran to the international community of nations. However, there is no point in disguising the significance of the sanctions that have been imposed. I hope, through the E3 and others, such as the JCPOA and the special purpose vehicle INSTEX—the instrument in support of trade exchanges—that we will be capable, or able, at least to hold open some channel of communication with Iran to give it the sense that it is not completely isolated from the international community. If it is, I fear it is going to be far more difficult to restore Iran to the international community to which I have referred.
The recent attacks on the Norwegian and Japanese-owned oil tankers will no doubt resonate around the world. I welcome the Minister’s dialled-down and calm approach to this very sensitive matter, and I am sure that is shared by all Members in the Chamber today. Is he able to advise on what can be done to ensure the protection of the global crude oil supply, and of the vessels and crews, irrespective of which flag they sail under?
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I come back to my theme, I suppose, which is that the way to deal with this is to de-escalate the situation. If we do that, we protect those vessels in the Gulf and in international waters, and we protect individuals—both our own nationals and others—in the wider region.