HC Deb 06 November 1978 vol 957 cc504-12

3.31 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

I will, with permission, Mr. Speaker, make a statement on Iran.

Iran is facing one of the most traumatic periods in its history. Yesterday our chancery building in the centre of Tehran was set on fire in the course of wide-spread rioting. I regret this damage, which is part of more widespread damage to buildings in Tehran over the weekend. Fortunately, our staff were not maltreated and there was no physical violence, in contrast with the many casualties which have occurred elsewhere. We are now back in contact with our embassy and will remain in close touch with it throughout this difficult period. I am at present advised that there is little risk to our staff or other British nationals, though they are all being advised to stay indoors or at home until the situation stabilises.

This morning the Shah announced the establishment of a military Government. The deterioration in the maintenance of law and order has brought about this grave step. The Shah has this morning in a broadcast pledged that after the restoration of order and peace, a national Government to establish fundamental freedoms and hold a free general election will be appointed as soon as possible. He went on to say I guarantee that in the future the Iranian Government will be divorced from tyranny, oppression and will be run on the basis of the constitution and social justice It is vital to make progress towards this end while avoiding the establishment of continued military rule or inducing further bloodshed and a state of chaos.

Mr. Pym

Iran is a close friend of Britain, and, therefore, events there which the Foreign Secretary has reported obviously cause considerable anxiety to the whole House. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that stability in that country is very much an interest not only of Britain but of the whole of the Western world? The reason goes a good deal wider than the oil supply factor.

On the security of British citizens, obviously the House—certainly we on the Opposition Front Bench—will be glad that little risk is foreseen at the moment. But has the right hon. Gentleman made any contingency plans for the safety and protection of British citizens, if necessary? Will he also keep the House informed and make another statement later this week on how events unfold?

Dr. Owen

I agree that stability is in the interests of both Britain and the Western world. But, more importantly, I think that it is in the interests of the Iranian people. They will wish to form a conclusion on their destiny. I hope that the election, which was announced in August, will be held in June, as promised, if not before.

The situation regarding the security of British citizens is changing all the time, and it could deteriorate. Our ambassador there is in close touch with the British community. There are 10,000 British citizens in Iran as a whole, and most are in Tehran. Therefore, we shall keep closely in touch with them and this House.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Does my right hon. Friend consider that it is wise, when dealing with a Government such as the Iranian Government, to remember that on the whole stability comes from the understanding and faith of people? There is clear evidence that some Iranian subjects do not have political freedom and protection under the law. Therefore, it is possible for dangerous elements to exploit that lack of freedom. Will my right hon. Friend press upon the Shah that it is important that there be true democracy in Iran?

Dr. Owen

Yes. We have consistently done so. We have consistently fully supported the implementation of the modernisation and liberalisation programme. We supported the Shah's decision, which was announced in August, to hold an election. We believe that the June date should be maintained. I agree with my hon. Friend that stability comes from the people as a whole. If there is no understanding, there will be this gap between the rulers and the ruled. That gap has grown over the years. However, I believe that the Shah is conscious of the need to close that gap.

Mr. Temple-Morris

The Foreign Secretary will know the personalities on both sides of this argument within Iran. With his knowledge of those personalities, does he agree that the best hope of liberalisation in that country, which is now more important than ever before, remains with the Shah and what he hopes to do if his people will allow him to do it?

Dr. Owen

It is important that we in this country should try to avoid discussion of personalities. The issues are the principles. We in this House are committed to the freedom of the individual. We would like to see fair and free elections. The Shah has committed the Iranian Government to the holding of elections and has reiterated that commitment this morning. Therefore, it will be for the Iranian people to determine their destiny. That decision should reside with them.

Mr. Litterick

Do the Government intend to continue to supply Iran with armaments and ammunition during what we hope is a transitional period, bearing in mind that the only use to which British armaments and ammunition have been put so far in Iran is to kill Iranian citizens?

Dr. Owen

The whole question of arms sales is very difficult, in particular to any country which is having a period of unstableness such as Iran is having at the moment. We look at these issues and keep them under constant review. At the moment we think it right to continue our support for the Shah and for the CENTO alliance. However, we shall have to consider each arms sale as it comes along.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that we share three interests with Iran: first, stability; secondly, steady progress towards greater democracy; and, thirdly, the sure defence of Iran against the Soviet Union? Will he give the support of all parties in this House to our ambassador, Sir Anthony Parsons, in putting those points to the Iranian Government and in wishing that, through this very difficult period, the Shah will emerge standing for those three matters?

Dr. Owen

I do not disagree with any of those three points. They are all in the interests not only of the West but—it is important that this should be made clear—genuinely of the Iranian people. However, ultimately it must be for the Iranian people to determine the Government under which they live. In my view, the way to deal with that matter is by the fair and free election which has been promised for June next year.

Mr. David Watkins

Is my right hon. Friend satisfied that, in this complex political situation, he is being briefed by the British Embassy and all known sources of information on the internal politics of Iran as fully as is desirable?

Dr. Owen

I think so. I have full confidence in both our ambassador and staff. It is a very complex political situation. That is why anyone would be foolish to claim to be a great expert on Iranian internal politics. It is extremely important that we do not get involved in Iranian internal politics. These are choices for the Iranian people. We have to decide, from the vantage point of the British Government and people, what is in our interests, in Western interests and in the interests of the people of Iran. I hope that the Shah will be able to introduce the national Government that he has promised and that that Government will maintain his commitment to elections, to which I attach great importance.

Mr. David Price

Will the Foreign Secretary convey to the staff of our embassy in Tehran the gratitude of the whole House for their tenacity and courage in these difficult circumstances?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, unfortunately, it appears that diplomatic property is increasingly at risk from mobsters around the world? Will he therefore instigate an inquiry within the Foreign Office on the security of our embassies around the world, because some of these glass houses which have recently been built are not very secure?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman may be right about that. However, as those who know Tehran will know, the chancery building is on the main street and literally abuts the centre of Tehran, so it would be extremely difficult to have totally secure offices. It has to be said that there was no violence to the people concerned, and we have been able to restore full contact, so it has been a very temporary disturbance, though I suspect that it will be a fairly costly one.

Mr. John Ellis

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that there is something ambiguous in his answers to questions this afternoon? On the one hand, he is saying something on which we can all agree: the absolute right of people, including the Iranians, to determine their own future. On the other hand, he is sending or getting friends to send messages of support and arranging visits of important people. In these circumstances, it is not surprising that those who, I believe, are on the side of wanting to liberalise the regime look upon us as though we are taking a part in this. Really, we ought to sit a little more on the neutral fence on this matter, if my right hon. Friend really means what he says about the right to self-determination.

Dr. Owen

I think that there probably is a measure of ambiguity. There is a problem in that one establishes relations with Governments and with people, and when they are in difficulties one wishes to extend to them friendship and support, and yet one does not wish to interfere in their internal affairs. There is a problem here and we have honestly to face it.

I think that the most important commitment was the commitment to liberalisation and modernisation, which goes back to 1963. I think that that has been supplemented by a very important decision which the Shah made in August to hold a fair and free election. I think that it is that new element, which has been introduced since August, which makes it much easier to see a period of stability ahead if we can overcome, over the next few weeks, obvious fears of the introduction of a military Government in the short term.

Mr. Tapsell

Will early steps be taken to seek to co-ordinate the fuel policies of OECD countries against the possibility that there might be a fairly prolonged interruption in the supply of oil from Iran?

Dr. Owen

There is discussion in the OECD, and there is also discussion within the European Community, about arrangements if there were to be a serious disruption of oil supplies. There has been a disruption. It has not yet reached the level of people wishing to go in for sharing arrangements, but a lot will depend on what happens to oil production over the next few weeks.

Mr. Flannery

While I accept my right hon. Friend's complete dedication, and that of the Government, to the freedom of the individual, may I ask whether he remembers that many months ago, when Chieftain tanks from Britain were on their way to Iran, I questioned him and suggested to him that those tanks would be used not against Russia or any outside force but against the Shah's own people because he was the leader of a bloodstained tyranny? Despite the plaudits of the Tories for the Government's present policy on Iran, does not my right hon. Friend realise that the reason why the British Embassy is being attacked is the stance of the British Government in defence of the Shah of Iran?

Finally, will my right hon. Friend tell us how he can possibly have any faith in the promises of the Shah to hold elections after the brutality and tortures that have gone on in every gaol in Iran for years and years under the Shah?

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend has been consistent. He has always opposed the sale of arms to Iran. I have never hidden from the House the fact that arms sales decisions are among the hardest that we have to make. It is a balance of interests. It involves taking a number of considerations into account. In this case we have had to look at the stability of the region. We have had to take account of what has happened recently in Afghanistan and of the strategic interests of CENTO partners.

I believe that we have made the right decisions. I know that my hon. Friend does not feel so. But I think that what is important is the way that the military use their undoubted powers. There have been some tragic killings and there has been too much use of force, and we have made representations about this. However, I believe that it is extremely hard to foretell what will happen in the next few days, although I hope that there will not be any repetition of the scenes of violence on the streets of Tehran.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call those hon. Members who have been standing up.

Sir Anthony Royle

Is the Secretary of State aware that there will be widespread pleasure at the robust support that he has been giving to the Shah in the past few days? Is he also aware that there is some concern about the protection that was given to the American Embassy yesterday but the lack of protection that was given to Her Majesty's Embassy in Tehran? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that our mission in Tehran will be fully protected by Iranian defence forces during the days ahead?

Dr. Owen

I hope that it will be. I do not think that it is necessary to draw distinctions. It may have been just the physical location making it easier to cut off a road to the American Embassy, but I know that the Iranian Government are as concerned about the matter as we are. However, we must not just pick out what has been happening to our own embassy. We must get it into proportion with what has been happening to many other buildings all over Iran, and we must recognise that the crucial thing overall is the maintenance of law and order. Far from buildings being at risk, one of the most tragic things has been the very heavy loss of life.

Mr. Newens

Does my right hon. Friend agree that over the past generation the record of Iran on human rights has been totally unsatisfactory and that there has not been any vestige of democracy in that country? In those circumstances, do not the Iranian people have the same right to demonstrate for democracy and for the improvement of conditions as we in this country or people in any other part of the world have?

Mr. Mates


Mr. Newens

Yes. In those circumstances, as we speak out, rightly, very strongly for human rights in all parts of the world, including the Soviet Union, do we not have the same duty imposed upon us to speak out in favour of those people in Iran who are today demonstrating for the improvement that should have taken place there many years ago and against that appalling regime?

Dr. Owen

I think my hon. Friend is right when he says that we should maintain our stand on human rights irrespective of which country is concerned and around the world. The Government have never made any secret of the fact that they do not think that the situation on human rights in Iran has been totally satisfactory—far from it. We have made representations about it. We have been concerned about the number of political prisoners and the treatment that they have had inside prisons, and a number of other factors. But we must also not blind ourselves to the fact that account has been taken of some of those criticisms—not sufficiently yet, perhaps. It is, of course, the right of all people to demonstrate, but to demonstrate peacefully. The danger at present is anarchic chaos. That is the danger coming out of it. Out of that situation, I do not believe that anyone in Iran will benefit.

Mr. Skeet

As between 5 million and 6 million barrels of oil a day is coming from Iran into the world market, has the Foreign Secretary any idea of the implications of this for the world price of oil? What are the implications for the United Kingdom, which must depend very largely on its contracts with Iran?

Dr. Owen

I think that the present interruption of supplies will not of itself affect the world price. The world price will be negotiated in the OPEC meetings at the end of the year. What may well affect those negotiations will be wider issues, such as what has been happening in the currency markets and probably also some of the costs which the Iranian Government have incurred over recent months. I am not saying that it will not have any impact on price, but I do not think that the mere interruption of supplies itself will have an impact on price, unless it were to continue. I hope that it will not continue.

Miss Fookes

Will the Foreign Secretary be more forthcoming about practical steps to help the 10,000 British nationals in Iran should the situation deteriorate further, beyond the advice that they should stay at home?

Dr. Owen

We have an excellent ambassador there who is in very close touch with the local community of British citizens. I am prepared to rest on his judgment. He has to deal with the situation from hour to hour, and it changes from hour to hour. I am confident that he will take all the necessary measures. There is also a very considerable degree of sophistication in the people who are living there. Many of them have lived there for some time. Certainly, however, we shall do our utmost, particularly for people in this country who are worried about relatives and anxious about people currently in Tehran, who may be there visiting and not fully knowledgeable about the situation, to help people in every way we can.

Mr. Aitken

Do the British Government share the Shah's view that these disturbances in Iran are predominantly being stirred up by outside Marxists and Communist agitators?

Dr. Owen

I think that that is far too simple. There are complex reasons behind this situation which are rooted in history, religion, culture and ideology. They are all coalescing together at present to form a major focus of dissatisfaction. It is for the Iranian people to solve that aspect. That is an internal issue for themselves. I believe that we should put our weight bheind continuing stability in that country.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Will the Foreign Secretary consider despatching permanently to Tehran an advisory commission of about 20 of his colleagues below the Gangway whose names I would suggest to him?