HC Deb 17 January 1979 vol 960 cc1698-701
15. Mr. Goodhart

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a further statement about the Middle East situation.

Dr. Owen

We continue to support negotiations aimed at building on the Camp David accords and widening these out into a comprehensive peace settlement.

Mr. Goodhart

As the new Government in Iran have made it plain that they do not intend to continue the Shah's role of policing the Persian Gulf, will the right hon. Gentleman say what discussions are being held with the United States and our other allies about providing some military protection for our friends and interests in that vital area?

Dr. Owen

I do not think that stability in that area will come from outside Western military interference. It is important for close contact to be established between the countries surrounding the Gulf, many of which have a strong commitment to the Muslim faith. That may well be found to be a binding and not a divisive influence.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

There has been Western support for the Shah, and President Carter has ordered a review of American Intelligence to understand why he was not forewarned about lack of support for the Shah. Have we done the same with the British Foreign Office?

Dr. Owen

No. I do not feel that I was not forewarned. It was always difficult to determine whether the form of government that had been established by the Shah was to survive. It was well known that there were considerable criticisms. I do not think that we lacked Intelligence. The mistake that may have been made was to underestimate the cohesiveness of the various elements that agreed on the one issue, although often differing on other matters, that the Shah should not remain as monarch. That is a matter of judgment rather than Intelligence.

Mr. Walters

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that only a comprehensive settlement will bring peace to the Middle East? What steps are the Government taking, in co-operation with our European partners, to ensure that the Camp David agreement is not confined to a separate peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, with all the potential dangers, but is linked and extended in a comprehensive manner to bring about an overall settlement.

Dr. Owen

The issues that have delayed a signature to the Camp David agreement relate almost exclusively to trying to ensure that it is not a purely bilateral agreement but an agreement set firmly in the context of a comprehensive peace settlement. If the issues that are still dividing the parties can be resolved we shall have laid the foundation on which we may go on to widen the agreement into a comprehensive peace settlement. The essence of the problem is still the West Bank and Gaza.

Mr. Robin F. Cook

Does my right hon. Friend accept that he was adequately forewarned of the likely turn of events in Iran by lion. Members and by those inside his party who advised him that his course was ill-advised? Is it not a fact that by rejecting that advice he has lumbered himself with a large number of military orders that may never be fulfilled and put himself in the worst possible position from which to establish friendly relations with a more enlightened regime in Iran?

Dr. Owen

I do not dissent from the fact that my hon. Friend and many other hon. Friends made me fully aware of their point of view. It is a matter of judgment. With the benefit of hindsight it appears extremely easy. However, with the benefit of hindsight—

Mr. Skinner

No, foresight.

Dr. Owen

Even with the enlightened foresight for which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is famed—there was still a fundamental issue. Did we withdraw support? Did we try to change the situation in Iran? We chose to stick with the status quo during a delicate and difficult period. When we look to the future and to relations with the future Government, I do not believe that that will stand against us. When we form relationships with Governments, I believe that they judge us, broadly speaking, on whether we float around on the waves and tides of circumstance or whether there is a certain solidarity. I do not believe that we should interfere with the Iranian people's decision, and we have never sought to do so. What we supported at one stage was the status quo, and I am not certain that that was so wrong.

Mr. Pym

Whether or not the right hon. Gentleman was taken by surprise, does he agree that it is a major British interest for us to maintain good relations with Iran? This is a difficult time for the people of Iran, and it is important that we should maintain good relations with them. Will he indicate to the House what steps he is taking in that regard? I am sure he will agree that events there have had their effect on the rest of the Middle East. The right hon. Gentleman seemed to be rather surprised by the supplementary question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). Is it not now a major interest of ours to do what we can to maintain stability in the Gulf? How that is to be done is a matter for argument, of course, but the need for it, and the risk that the area may not remain stable, clearly exists. It is important for us to do everything that we can to bring about stability.

Dr. Owen

The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) referred to military involvement. I do not think that that is necessarily the best way of achieving stability. Some would argue that that is one of the lessons to be learnt from Iran. There is a strong argument that in trying to tilt the balance too much by military sales in any one region there is a risk of putting in an unstable factor. It is an important objective of this country to have good relations with Iran, whatever Government the people of Iran decide to choose. We have long supported democratic elections, and we hope that the civilian Government will be able to bring about democratic elections. But the choice of the Government is for the people of Iran, and at this stage I do not think that it would help for us to try to choose or to indicate which way the Iranian people should go.