HC Deb 26 June 1951 vol 489 cc1184-9
Mr. Eden

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether he has any further statement to make about the situation in Persia, with particular reference to the proposed anti-sabotage law.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I have to inform the House that the latest developments in the Persian oil situation are very serious. The Temporary Board of Directors of the so-called National Iranian Oil Co. have insisted that the masters of all tankers calling at Abadan to load and take away oil should sign receipts designed to acknowledge that the oil is the property of the National Iranian Oil Co. Masters refusing to sign such receipts, or insisting on adding an endorsement designed to protect the legal rights of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company have been informed by the Board that customs clearance will be refused for their vessels.

No tanker master has agreed to sign an unqualified receipt in the form prescribed, and several tankers, some loaded and some waiting to load, are consequently held up in the port of Abadan. I should like to add that, so far as the tankers under the control of the Company or its associates are concerned, there can be no question of masters signing unqualified receipts. All attempts on the part of the Company's representatives to secure a modification of this procedure have proved fruitless, and the Company, with the full concurrence of His Majesty's Government is therefore instructing all tankers at Abadan to leave forthwith, if necessary after unloading the oil they have taken on board.

Another disquieting development is the introduction on 21st June into the Persian Lower House of a Bill which provides for trial by military courts, and penalties up to and including death, for anyone—I quote the words: engaging treacherously or with ill intent in activities in connection with the operation of the Persian National oil industry resulting in cuttng oil pipe lines, rendering unserviceable refineries or facilities for transport of oil, causing fire in wells or storage tanks, etc., or aiding and abetting such acts. This so-called sabotage Bill has not yet been voted upon by the Majlis. If it were to become law in its present form the Persian authorities might seek to lay the blame for any accident in the oilfields, resulting from interference or incompetence, on a member of the Company's staff and render him liable to prosecution before a military court.

The staff of the Company in the oilfields would clearly be placed in an intolerable position. Indeed, Mr. Drake, the Company's general manager in the oilfields area, has already received a letter from the Persian Board, stating that in refusing to authorise the masters of tankers to sign receipts in the form prescribed by them he is stopping the export of oil which in the Board's view amounts to sabotage. In view of this unfounded charge of sabotage, and the ultimatum given to him that he should transfer his services to the National Oil Company by 28th June, the Company with the full agreement of His Majesty's Government instructed him to proceed to Basra, where he will continue to hold his appointment as general manager of the company's operations in Persia and Iraq. Mr. Mason has been appointed the Company's representative in Persia for all matters requiring contact with the Temporary Board of Management of the National Iranian Oil Company.

In connection with the accusation of sabotage which the Persians have seen fit to make against Mr. Drake, the Persian Government have been repeatedly warned of the danger of the risk of accidents involving danger to life and limb which may result from interference in the working of the complex machine of the industry. If such accidents occur, it is certain that they will in no way be due to the actions of the Company's personnel, who have proved themselves thoroughly competent and have in fact been instructed to refrain from any action liable to prejudice the working of the operations. I must therefore categorically reject in advance any suggestion that such accidents which may occur could be caused by acts of sabotage on the part of the British staff.

If the Persian Government persist in these measures they would leave the Company with no alternative but to bring operations at Abadan to a stop within a matter of days. Storage capacity is strictly limited and the refinery cannot operate unless tankers are available to take oil. Clearly a most serious and difficult situation may develop in Southern Persia for which the Persian Government would be entirely responsible.

The Persian Prime Minister and Government must understand that they are responsible under international law for ensuring the protection of any British subjects in Persia. Should they prove incapable of discharging that task, His Majesty's Government would be compelled to assume it themselves, using such means as are necessary for that purpose. The House may rest assured that we have made preparations to this end and can take action at very short notice. The House will not expect me at this juncture to give details of what these preparations are, but I can inform hon. Members that the cruiser H.M.S. "Mauritius" has been ordered to proceed forthwith to the vicinity of Abadan.

We are still as always ready to discuss a settlement of the question of the future operations of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company with the Persian Government. Such a settlement remains in our opinion the only means of ensuring the continued flow of Persian oil to its natural markets and it is a matter of deep regret that the Persian Government should appear to be taking steps which cannot but involve disastrous consequences for the future prosperity of their country.

Mr. Eden

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the account he has given and the steps which he has announced in what he has described as these conditions of increasing gravity will receive the support of this side of the House?

May I ask him, also, whether his attention has been drawn—I have no doubt it has —to the statement of the Prime Minister's son-in-law, Dr. Daftary, who is one of the commissioners at Abadan, who has explained that the withdrawal of British personnel would come under the anti-sabotage Bill, and will he have that in mind in the preparations he has now thought fit to take?

Mr. Morrison

Yes. Sir. I will certainly keep that point in mind.

Lord Dunglass

Several times in his statement the right hon. Gentleman used words like, "The company, with the full agreement of His Majesty's Government." It seems to me that the servants of the company have carried out their duties in a most exemplary way up to date, and that it would be most unfair to leave them to do so any longer. Do the Government take full responsibility, from now on, for all contacts with the Persians over this matter?

Mr. Morrison

It is impossible to give a categorical answer to that question, because the Persian authorities have, up to now, refused to do business with representatives of the Government on this matter, but have insisted upon doing business with the Company. The Company have, in turn, kept in touch with us. That, I imagine, is the reason why I have used the phrase, "The Company, with the support of His Majesty's Government," have done this or that. After all, I think the big, and the quick, and the immediate responsibility on the ground, must be, not entirely but largely, a responsibility of the Company for its own staff.

Mr. Churchill

May we assume—I think it follows from what the Foreign Secretary has said—that His Majesty's Government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company are working in the closest accord, and that decisions which are taken on the spot are decisions which have been considered between His Majesty's Government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company? I felt a little anxious when it seemed that the captains of ships were, perhaps, having to take action on their own initiative, however right that action might be, and I hope that the Government and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company are, as I say, working in the closest accord, and that the weight of the one is supported by the weight of the other.

Mr. Morrison

Yes, Sir. I can assure the Leader of the Opposition that the Company and the Government are working in the closest association. It would only be reasons of physical inability to consult which would give cause for action to be taken. It is our wish, and, let me add in all fairness, the Company's wish also, that there should be the closest collaboration and joint association by the Government and the Company in all these matters.

Mr. John Hynd

Will the Minister take note of the fact that there was very little cheering of the announcement he made from this side of the House, and that the reason for that is that many of us are wondering precisely what his statement means? Could he give us any indication at all as to what kind of conditions would involve intervention on the part of our armed forces, as was suggested, and is it envisaged that, in the event of any charge of sabotage being made against any employee of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, intervention will take place at that point, since it seems to me that, as far as I know, there has been no indication at all of any threat to British lives?

Mr. Morrison

I am not altogether sure that that is a wise supplementary question, but let me say this. I have said right from the beginning that the primary responsibility for the protection of British lives is on the Persian Government, and I nailed it there very firmly, but I also said—and I have said this right from the beginning, and there is nothing new about it—that, if there is any danger to British lives, His Majesty's Government would take all possible action for their protection.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

May I ask the Foreign Secretary if he does not think that sending the cruiser to Abadan is likely to endanger British lives? Was it not only last Thursday that he denounced the Opposition for gestures of 19th century imperialism, and is this not likely to be regarded as such?

Mr. Morrison

No, Sir; I do not think so. I think that in this case the imperialism is in some respects the other way round, and I hope very much that the sending of the cruiser will not have the consequences which my hon. Friend fears. On the other hand, if a situation was to emerge in which grave difficulties arose and the Government have done nothing in that direction, I think we should receive the censure of the nation.

Mr. F. Maclean

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether his undertaking to protect British lives also applies to British installations and property in Persia?

Mr. Morrison

I must make it quite clear that that is a somewhat different matter, and I would ask the House to be good enough not to press me too far into detail: otherwise. I may be running the very risk which I am sure everybody wishes me to avoid.

Mr. M. Philips Price

Will my right hon. Friend take note that there are hon. Members on this side of the House who entirely approve of the action he has taken?

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Has the Foreign Secretary noticed Press reports giving detailed particulars of troops and armaments sent to the Middle East? Does he not think that security precautions should be enforced in that respect?

Mr. Morrison

I am not sure that I can very well help it. I do not think the Press have given full particulars, but without notice, I am not sure that there is anything we can do about it in peacetime conditions.

Mr. Churchill

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are quite content to leave matters where they stand, trusting that he will keep us informed from day to day? We do not ask in detail for particulars of troop movements or anything like that. I agree that it is very desirable that they should be kept strictly secret, but we hope that he will keep us informed as further developments occur.

Mr. Morrison

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman, and, certainly, I will do my best, in so far as the public interest permits, to keep the House informed.