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House of Lords Hansard
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11 July 2019
Volume 798

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking with international partners to de-escalate tensions in the Gulf of Oman.

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My Lords, we remain concerned by heightened tensions in the Gulf of Oman. We continue to call for de-escalation on all sides and have long made clear our concern about Iran’s destabilising regional activity. Unintended escalation would not be in any party’s interest. The UK maintains a long-standing maritime presence in the Gulf. We are continuously monitoring the security situation there and are committed to maintaining freedom of navigation in accordance with international law.

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I am grateful for my noble friend’s Answer and partly reassured by it, but with ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Syria and the ground still tinder dry in Afghanistan and Iraq, does my noble friend agree that the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran has potentially catastrophic consequences? On Friday 21 June we understand that the United States was 10 minutes away from launching multiple military strikes against Iranian targets. On 24 June the Foreign Secretary warned of an accidental war between Iran and the United States. Overnight, we have seen the provocation of the attempted seizure of a British tanker going through the Straits. Will my noble friend reassure us that every effort is being made, despite all the provocations and distractions, to seek a peaceful, diplomatic and political solution to this crisis?

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My noble friend is absolutely correct in his analysis that this is a situation of uncertainty and fragility. Profoundly undesirable would be any action which precipitated unintended consequences or heightened instability. I reassure my noble friend that we are in regular contact with the United States and other international partners, and our priority remains finding diplomatic solutions to de-escalate the tensions in the region.

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My Lords, is this not a classic situation where the three Ds of diplomacy, defence and development need to work together? We need our Government to ensure that there is collective responsibility and working together. The noble Earl said that we will never give up sovereignty over our defence forces—but we work in co-operation with our allies all the time to ensure the security of this nation. So how are we working with our European allies to maintain the agreement with Iran so it does not break up and that we have enough ships to ensure that that diplomacy is secure? Will we have joined-up government from the new Prime Minister?

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I can speak for the current Administration. The noble Lord makes three important points. First, evidence confirms that we work together and collaboratively. We work with our intelligence services and, as the overnight incident displayed, we are ready to do our best to protect British shipping interests in that area. We engage in active diplomacy, not just with global partners but directly with Iran. Indeed, my right honourable friend Dr Murrison visited Iran at the end of June. Importantly, we take a view in conjunction with our partners under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The noble Lord is quite right: we need to conjoin all this endeavour. We believe that the comprehensive plan of action is the best way forward and we want to support it, but we have been consistently clear that our commitment to that plan depends on full compliance by Iran. We are urgently considering next steps under the terms of that plan in close co-ordination with our international partners, but I reassure the noble Lord that there is genuine discussion at this end not only across departments but with our global partners.

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My Lords, as the noble Baroness hinted, this situation has escalated since the US pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. Does this not illustrate why we need unvarnished reports from our ambassador in Washington? What extra preparations are being made to protect major British interests and British citizens in the region if the situation escalates further?

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In a sense, I reprise what I said to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. We are actively engaged diplomatically in the region, where we have UK interests. As the overnight incident illustrated, we have naval capacity, which came to the aid of the British tanker. That is to be applauded and we should praise the crew of HMS “Montrose”, which assisted in a very effective and satisfactory manner. As my noble friend Lord Bates said, we are anxious to ensure that we do everything we can to de-escalate tensions. That is certainly the role of the United Kingdom Government, and we are unrelenting in our efforts to achieve that objective not just through our diplomatic endeavours but in conjunction with our global partners.

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My Lords, will the Government bear in mind that the erratic and immature President in charge of the United States presides over a defence budget that is 10 times the size of Russia’s, and that Russia’s defence budget is now smaller than France’s? Will she heed the wise advice of the noble Lord, Lord Bates, and make sure that we keep tabs on the process to ensure that peace prevails?

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That is exactly what the United Kingdom Government are engaged in. As I have illustrated, we engage in that programme in various ways.

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My Lords, I cannot help wondering whether it was such a good idea for us to raid the Iranian oil tanker in Gibraltar in the first place. Obviously, we want to stop oil getting to Assad—although probably he can get all the oil he wants from the Russians—but are we not supposed to be on the same side as the Iranians on the question of nuclear proliferation and control? Can we have a firm assurance that we did this not just on the say-so of Washington but on our own initiative?

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Let me assure my noble friend. First, we did this at the request of the Government of Gibraltar, to assist with a sanctions operation. Action was taken because of where the oil was going—to a sanctioned Syrian entity, as a body of evidence attested—not because of where it came from. The vessel was boarded and detained in British Gibraltar territorial waters and we were pleased to assist the Government of Gibraltar in acceding to their request.