HC Deb 21 October 1987 vol 120 cc723-8 3.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (by private notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the policy of Her Majesty's Government towards developments in the Gulf.

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

Our policy is unchanged. We remain strictly impartial in the conflict between Iran and Iraq—the underlying cause of tension in the Gulf—and are working for immediate implementation of Security Council resolution 598, which provides for a ceasefire and negotiated settlement.

We deplore all attacks on shipping in the Gulf, and are determined to uphold the principle of freedom of navigation. Along with other countries we maintain a naval presence in the Gulf for that purpose.

Mr. Kaufman

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that tit-for-tat warlike exchanges in the Gulf, inevitably escalating in scale and dimension with every new response from whatever quarter could, as I warned the House exactly three months ago, lead to uncontrollable escalation and grave consequences not only for peace in the immediate area but for world peace?

Following their belated decision, after prolonged pressure from the Opposition, to close the Iranian arms procurement office in Victoria street, will the Government now take the initiative in moving for a United Nations mandatory arms embargo on both sides in the Iran-Iraq war? To demonstrate to Iran and Iraq that the international community will not tolerate unprovoked and unlawful attacks on lawful shipping in international waters, will the Government now agree with the increasingly held view that the eight national naval contingents in and around the Gulf should be co-ordinated under the auspices of the United Nations?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am glad that towards the end of his question the right hon. Gentleman emphasised the need to make it clear that the Government will not tolerate unprovoked attacks on the shipping of innocent nations in Gulf waters. That is the point on which I ended my answer. It is in defence of that principle that every nation with naval assets in the region is entitled, in the face of unprovoked attacks such as those of which the right hon. Gentleman complained, to take action in self-defence. The continuation of attacks such as that is all the more reason for us to be taking action, as we are, in the most energetic way possible to bring the conflict to an end. It is for that reason that I took part, along with my colleagues representing the other five permanent members of the Security Council, in the discussions in New York at the end of last month making plain our commitment to a double track policy to bring the war to an end, strengthening the authority and power of the Secretary-General to try to promote a ceasefire, which we all want, and being ready to equip him with the support of an arms embargo to strengthen his authority and that of the United Nations. That is what we are trying to do and it is in that sense that we were glad to close the military procurement office in this country a few weeks ago. Our purpose is exactly the same. We want to secure an end to the conflict with the maximum authority of the United Nations. However, even in that context, it must be said that the prospect or possibility of achieving a United Nations naval force is not something that we regard as realistic or attainable.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on trying to inject balance into his various public statements in this difficult area. Does he agree that to make effective progress towards a ceasefire, any international policy has to he seen to be even-handed? Does he further agree that to make progress towards an effective arms embargo inevitably means greater involvement by the Soviet Union and the United Nations?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

There is no doubt that a policy designed to bring to an end a conflict between two combatants must be seen to be even-handed both in the objective that it sets itself and in its enforcement. That is why so much care was devoted, in the formulation of resolution 598, to achieve a statement of objectives that would be acceptable to both sides. In the same sense, we have made it plain that an arms embargo should be put in place against whichever combatant fails to comply with the resolution. It is also for that reason that we regard the organisation of the United Nations as the most effective way to achieve co-operation between the two superpowers and the remainder of the world to realise the objective that my hon. Friend identified.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the change of attitude revealed in the answer of the Soviet Union on 15 October towards international peacekeeping is surely something of which we should take advantage, as it would enable concerted rather than unilateralist action in the Gulf? Will he please now agree that those hon. Members from both sides of the House who, for a long period, pressed him to prevent the provision of war supplies to Iran, and to take action against trade — including oil, which provides the money to obtain arms—were right? After all, an admission of error from the Treasury Bench, in the presence of the Prime Minister, would be a tremendously refreshing start to the Session.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

We have made it plain that we regard the most effective measure, indeed the only effective measure currently in sight, to be an arms embargo. To go beyond that with further embargos is not likely to prove fruitful. Indeed, it is proving far from easy to secure the necessary commitment to the arms embargo. For that reason, the hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of participation by the Soviet Union as well as the United States in the search for effective measures.

We believe that it is important to maintain the unity of the five permanent members in the search for that policy. If that unity is to be meaningful and effective, it must be committed to something. That is why we stress the utmost importance of the Soviet Union, together with the other permanent members, being ready to put its full weight behind the arms embargo that the hon. Gentleman rightly regards as important.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the serious commitment that we have now made to the Gulf is so long term in its nature that we may be thinking in terms of years rather than months for keeping our naval force on station there? While I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that the United Nations is wholly unsuited to performing a co-ordination role, may I ask both him and the Government to begin giving some serious thought to the establishment of a new organisation, such as a Gulf defence organisation, to carry out that vital function?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It is difficult to believe that the most important action at the present time is to set about the creation of a new organisation. However, my hon. Friend was right to emphasis the importance of the Government's commitment, and that of other western countries, to security in the Gulf. He was also right to suggest that the length of that commitment to the presence of naval forces cannot be limited. He well knows that the Armilla patrol has sought to assist and accompany—and, in that sense, protect — British merchant vessels in those dangerous waters for some seven years. I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to that patrol for the skill and dexterity in the way that it carries out its duties.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that war on international shipping in the Gulf was started by Iraq, not Iran, and that the great majority of attacks on international shipping have been carried out by Iraq? Will not the Government's ability to support United Nations' efforts to bring the war to an end be impaired if they continue to support an American position that is clearly partial, rather than impartial, in respect of Iraq?

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is rightly convinced that the United Nations should seek an arms embargo, why does he oppose the creation of a United Nations force to protect shipping in the Gulf? Has that not been supported by the Soviet Union? Was not United Nations' action in Korea effective in protecting South Korea against attacks from the North and was it not a United Nations force that cleared the Suez canal after the unfortunate attack by Britain and France on Egypt?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

On the first part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, plainly the conclusion of the conflict along the lines foreshadowed in resolution 598 demands a response from Iran and Iraq, and we have not ceased to press that point on both belligerents. We have also impressed upon Iraq the need to refrain from attacks upon shipping in the Gulf, and it has done so for periods of several weeks at a time. Subsequently, it has also been clear that Iraq accepts and will implement resolution 598 if the Iranians do so, but Iran has neither accepted nor rejected the resolution, which is why all of us, considering the matter at the United Nations, recognised the need to maintain the pressure for an arms embargo in relation to Iran primarily, although not exclusively.

The right hon. Gentleman will be the first to understand the formidable difficulties in trying to organise a United Nations naval force. It has never been done in the past——

Mr. Healey


Sir Geoffrey Howe

I will come to Korea in a moment; I am talking about a United Nations naval force. Apart from the difficulty of obtaining the agreement of the Security Council, there would be the immense difficulty of trying to agree joint operational instructions, including rules of engagement, in many languages, and the equally immense difficulty, which has been proved so often in the past, of agreeing on problems of burden-sharing and the time involved in achieving that.

The difference between this conflict and the two matters to which the right hon. Gentleman referred is that, in Suez, the conflict had already come to an end and United Nations' participation was concerned simply with clearing up the consequences. In Korea, there was a united effort to try to check the agressive onslaught of one belligerent. The position is infinitely more complicated in the Gulf, where one is trying to persuade two belligerents to bring the conflict to an end. The right hon. Gentleman's proposal has not been dismissed lightly, but it does not commend itself to the Government.

Mr. Dennis Walters (Westbury)

In his talks with Mr. Shultz the other day, did my right hon. and learned Friend, while welcoming the measured American response in the Gulf, point out the need for American policy to be less concerned with excluding the Soviet Union from the middle east and more concerned with co-operating with it in bringing about a settlement in the Gulf and in other areas? Would it not be dangerous if the Soviet Union began to take a strong pro-Iranian position?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The corollary of my hon Friend's thoughtful question is that one must be worried about the extent to which the Soviet Union may be looking after its interests in exactly the way that he foreshadowed. It is most important to bear very clearly in mind the dangers of such motivation on the part of the Soviet Union, but having identified that danger, I agree that it is also important for the two super powers—the United States and the Soviet Union — together with the other permanent members of the Security Council to be ready and willing to talk and work together in support of a firm and effective joint policy to bring this war to an end. For many years, a shortcoming of the United Nations has been the absence of a willingness of the five permanent members to work together. A modest prize in the present struggle has been the willingness of the five permanent members to work together. We intend to hang on to that, but only in support of an effective policy.

Mr. Dick Douglas (Dunfermline, West)

The Secretary of State mentioned the difficulty of having rules of engagement in several languages. Is it not correct that we and the United States speak the same language? May we have an assurance that the rules of engagement for the Armilla patrol have been discussed with the United States and that their rules of engagement have been discussed with us, especially in relation to their response to Iranian attacks and their attack on an oil production platform? Is the Secretary of State mindful of the fact that similar American assets are well away from the Iranians, whereas our assets in the North sea might be vulnerable?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman introduced a rather different aspect towards the end of his question. During the years when several naval forces have been present in the Gulf, there has been practical co-operation and close contact among the vessels operating there. Such informal co-operation is useful and important, but there is no intention to create a formal integration of the contingents or of their operating instructions.

I am not prepared to discuss our rules of engagement in detail, although they are obviously reviewed constantly in the light of changing circumstances; but they are calculated to be non-provocative, de-escalatory and appropriate to the fulfilment of the defensive functions for which the Royal Naval assets are in the region.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Is not the gloomy truth that this latest ceasefire resolution has been no more successful than all the previous ones, and that neither of the two belligerent powers is really interested in implementing it? If we are to have positive action, will it not come from the United States and the Soviet Union working in concert to impose a solution?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The gloomy truth is, as my hon. Friend puts it, that the acheivement of a conclusion to the conflict, which has now run for some seven years, is a task of immense difficulty. The task being undertaken by the United Nations and the secretary-general, as I have emphasised many times, falls not far short of impossibility. That is all the more reason for us to try to arm the secretary-general with the authority that he needs to achieve a chance of success, and all the more reason, as my hon. Friend says, for the five permanent members, as leaders of the 15 members of the Security Council, to achieve a united policy with some clout and authority behind it.

Regarding my hon Friend's last point, close co-operation between the United States and the Soviet Union in good faith, with a willingness by the Soviet Union to play its full part, is an essential feature of what we need to bring the conflict to an end.

Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Devonport)

While the United States' naval action was perfectly acceptable in terms of the United Nations charter, surely the Foreign Secretary would agree that there is an obligation to seek a peaceful settlement in terms of the United Nations charter. How can the United States expect the Soviet Union to apply sanctions to Iran when the United States is refusing the Soviet Union's offer to use its minesweepers as part of a United Nations force, and when the Soviet Union has also agreed to repay all its debts on United Nations' peacekeeping? Those are two constructive steps taken by the Soviet Union that surely need a British response, even if there is no response from the United States.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The British response to the decision by the Soviet Union, after a prolonged delay of many years, to pay its contributions to the costs of peacekeeping and other United Nations activities is to welcome it warmly, and to recognise that it is a belated recognition of what the Soviet Union should have been doing. The British response to the suggestion made by the right hon. Gentleman for the establishment of a United Nations naval task force is the one that I have just described. That does not diminish the force of his point that the Americans were entitled to take prudent and restrained military action in self-defence. In support of his second point, it is important for the Soviet Union to be ready to co-operate with the United States, and vice versa, with the other permanent members in support of the united action, which is the only possible prospect of bringing this conflict to an end.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the House that the private notice question is an extension of Question Time. I have allowed it to go on longer because of its importance, but I can only permit two more questions—one from either side

Mr. Ray Whitney (Wycombe)

My right hon. and learned Friend has spoken of the excellent work of the Royal Navy's Armilla patrol. Does the operation of that patrol continue to be restricted to the lower Gulf? If so, what consideration is being given to the protection of British shipping operating in the northern Gulf?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

My hon. Friend knows that the area of operation of the Armilla patrol does not extend throughout the whole Gulf. Its resources are necessarily limited and it makes good sense to concentrate its effectiveness on an area in which the majority of British shipping movements take place, and in which the greatest risks are. Beyond that, British shipping is given the clearest advice about the limits of the assistance that can he given by the Armilla patrol.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that, with the exception of one embarrassing week in the summer, British foreign policy in the Gulf, as in other parts of the world, consists of I he Prime Minister ringing up the White House and asking the President what she should do next? When shall we have an independent foreign policy again, and will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain how our policy in the Gulf differs from that of the United States?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

It differs so fundamentally that only the hon. Gentleman cannot see the difference.