HC Deb 18 April 1988 vol 131 cc551-5 3.30 pm
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (by private notice)

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the latest developments in the Gulf.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonweath Office (Mr. David Mellor)

On Thursday 14 April the US frigate, Samuel B. Roberts, struck a mine in international waters in the Gulf, resulting in 10 injuries. The Americans have clear evidence of fresh Iranian mine laying, a cowardly act which we utterly condemn.

In the early hours of today US naval forces bombarded the Iranian operated Sassan and Nasr oil platforms in the Sassan oilfield. We support the American action as a measured and proportionate response to the Iranian mine laying.

Later on this morning Iranian gunboats and perhaps helicopters attacked the American staffed Scan bay oil platform off Abu Musa island. The Hong Kong flagged storage vessel, York Marine, was set on fire in the attack and its Indian crew have abandoned ship. A US flagged service tug, the Willie Tide, was also attacked. We deplore this irresponsible and irrational action by the Iranians with no advance warning. There may well be casualties, but we have no further details at present.

I should add that American warships have also sunk an Iranian fast patrol boat, the Joshan, north of Sassan, in an exchange apparently began by the Joshan. Latest reports indicate that the Iranian frigate, Sahand, has been involved in an exchange of fire with US naval forces. The Sahand has been totally disabled and is on fire.

Mr. Kaufman

Is it not a fact that nine months have elapsed since the passage of Security Council resolution 598 calling for a ceasefire between Iran and Iraq, and that due to the obstinacy and procrastination of Iran no progress has been made in implementing that resolution, despite the Foreign Secretary's assurance then that non-compliance would trigger discussion of possible enforcement measures?

Does the Minister recall the warning that I gave on 21 July 1987, and again on 21 October, that escalation through unilateral United States naval action and consequent tit-for-tat warlike exchanges could lead to uncontrollable escalation, with grave consequences for peace? Has not the ratchet of that escalation been turned most dangerously today?

Her Majesty's Opposition totally condemn the fresh Iranian mine laying which has led to the latest outbreak in the Gulf, as well as the most recent Iranian aggression, including the outrageous attack on the York Marine. However, is not the attack on the York Marine a direct consequence of the United State's attack on Iranian oil installations? How can that United States attack be reconciled with resolution 598, which calls upon all other states to exercise the utmost restraint and refrain from any act that might lead to a further escalation and widening of the conflict?

Will the Minister tell the House how the Armilla patrol and Britain's minesweepers will be affected? When I met them in the Gulf recently, British naval ratings, while ready and eager to do their job for this country, expressed concern at being placed at risk by America's undisclosed rules of engagement. The self-imposed role of policing international sea lanes is not the prerogative of the United States or any other maritime nation. Is it not now time that all naval fleets in the Gulf were placed under United Nations command so that Iran and Iraq should be in no doubt that an attack on vessels or installations of any non-combatant nation is an attack on the entire world community? Above all should not the five permanent members now go immediately to the Security Council to demand a mandatory arms embargo on either combatant still refusing to agree to a ceasefire? Nine months have been wasted. We should not waste a single day more.

Mr. Mellor

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, we have been taking the lead in trying to seek follow-up action at the United Nations and we have been instrumental in providing the drafting of a follow-up resolution for an arms embargo. I am grateful for his support for that policy. It is not through any act or default on our part that a follow-up resolution has not been agreed.

The right hon. Gentleman should be clear about one point. It is bad enough that this war continues between Iran and Iraq and obviously, we, like other members of the international community, want to see it brought to an end, but the persistent attempts by the Iranians to spread the hostilities across the Gulf to attack international shipping that is simply using the right of passage to carry on international trade and to attack installations that belong to countries that are not participating in this war is wholly unacceptable. The only reason why we have not seen more of this Iranian action is the presence of United States, British and other naval forces in the Gulf. Our Armilla patrol will continue to do its duty.

The unacceptable action in the recent incident was clearly the decision of the Iranians to start laying mines again—a cowardly act—the consequence of which was the severe damage done to the United States warship in international waters. In those circumstances, the United States was fully entitled to the right of self-defence, under article 51 of the United Nations charter, to take measured and proportionate action against Iranian oil platforms which, the United States says, are used to facilitate attacks on international shipping. I do not believe that we would be any nearer preventing the spread of hostilities in the Gulf if the United States refused to take action on the provocation offered by this fresh mine-laying incident.

It is crucial for us all to be realistic about this matter. What is entirely unrealistic is the requirement for a UN naval force. There can be no basis for thinking that a UN naval force is a practical proposition at this time. The nearer one gets to New York and the headquarters of the UN, the nearer one gets to a recognition that it is merely a piece of escapism to think that a UN naval force is a credible option in today's circumstances.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Is not the little exercise of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in America-bashing inappropriate and unconstructive at present? Following the difficulties into which resolution 598 got the United Nations, following in turn the actions by Iraq, which somewhat prejudiced its position, is not the need now for moves to be made on the basis of the widest possible international support to get an effective and tough arms embargo against the Iranian fanatics? Is not that the next move that should be made, and will my hon. and learned Friend comment on it?

Mr. Mellor

I agree with my right hon. Friend that there has been fault on both sides in this war. It is absolutely clear that the Iraqis would have accepted resolution 598 and that the Iranians have persistently refused to do so. The international community must address that matter.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Is the Minister aware that many people believe that our greatly increased trade with Iran enables it in part to provide the sinews of the war that were behind this incident, and that we should examine our position? The Minister did not make it clear in answer to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) whether he fears that escalation will ensue from action in relation to oil platforms. He did not say whether there were any casualties on the York Marine or whether any holders of British passports were involved. Will he tell us that now?

Mr. Mellor

The best information that I can give to the House is that contained in my original answer: there may have been casualties, but we have no details. As far as we know, the crew of the York Marine are Indian, but that does not lessen the seriousness with which we regard the incident.

As for escalation, I repeat the point that I made earlier. The act that led to escalation was the Iranians' cynical and cowardly mining of international waters—a haphazard business that could have resulted in the loss of any ship travelling in the vicinity. Unless action is taken to ensure that the Iranians are aware that such a policy cannot flourish, we shall see more such incidents. We say that the United States was entitled to make a measured and appropriate response, pursuant to the right of self-defence for all sovereign states under article 51 of the United Nations charter, and that is what the United States did.

As for trade, in recent years our exports to Iran have fallen dramatically, to about £240 million. There is no trade with Iran in armaments or any equipment and supplies that could extend the war. That has been our position for a long time.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

Does my hon. and learned Friend agree that Iran must be contained? Does he further agree that, once committed in the Gulf, the United States had to react and that the House should support that reaction? Does he accept that the United Kingdom is involved in matters in which it exercises insufficient overall control? In those circumstances, and accepting the magnificent role of the Royal Navy in the Gulf in recent years, will he do his utmost to de-escalate the position?

Mr. Mellor

The presence of the Armilla patrol is intended as a de-escalatory move. It is intended to protect the free passage of British and British dependency flag shipping, to allow it to carry on what mariners have done for generations and to allow proper trade with countries in the Gulf. We shall continue to do that, and we believe that that is the best contribution that we can make to ensuring that international lawlessness does not prevail in the Gulf.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Is it not entirely contrary to international law, and entirely wrong, for the Iranians to attack neutral shipping in a neutral port in the Gulf? Was that ship conducted through the Straits of Hormuz by the Armilla patrol, and will it enjoy that protection on the way back? What action will the Minister take with Iran to register our strong objection and to protest at what has been done?

Mr. Mellor

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The York Marine was not known to the Armilla patrol. As far as we know, it is a Hong Kong-registered vessel that is leased by the Bute Oil Company, which operates the oilfield that was attacked by the Iranians this morning. The ship was being used as a storage vessel when it was attacked.

I agree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about Iranian attacks on neutral shipping. The attack on Abu Musa island, whose sovereignty is disputed between Iran and the United Arab Emirates, marks an escalation in the conflict because it is a further attack on facilities operated by countries that are not engaged in the hostilities.

As for British action, we wish to take a cool look at the position. We do not have all the facts, and I should not he pressed further on that point now.

Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that there will be widespread support for the clarity and supportive nature of his statement this afternoon? Does he agree that deliberate aggression in international waters invites retaliation? Would it not be unacceptable to have as a response to aggression all international flags of free countries flying under the flag of the United Nations? Countries must be able to exercise their right of self-defence, as the Americans have done, and we should support them fully.

Mr. Mellor

I agree with my hon. Friend. In the past 12 months, Western navies have been in the Gulf and their presence has acted to confine the Iranian willingness to get involved in acts of international hooliganism and aggression. It is part of that policy of containment that a nation should be free to exercise its right of self defence when provocation occurs of the nature that the Iranians have offered. If the Iranians were to think that no such self-defensive action were to follow, it would give them carte blanche to become involved in further actions, such as the mine laying.

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East)

Both sides of the House accept that there was provocation, but will the Minister tell us whether there was any consultation under the much-flaunted special relationship between the United States and Britain regarding the retaliatory action that was taken? That action must inevitably involve, in some form of escalation, the lives of British seamen. Has the Minister any information about the supply, or promise, of speedboats to Iran by neutral countries such as Sweden? If so, what representations are being made by the Government?

Mr. Mellor

It is a matter for individual judgment, but I believe that the greatest threat to the lives of British seamen is from the laying of mines in international waters by the Iranians. Failure to take action to deal with that puts British seamen at a greater risk than they are as a result of the alternative course that has been adopted.

With regard to what the United States did this morning, we were notified a few hours before, but we were not consulted as such. As to the sale of arms to Iran and Iraq, until there is an arms embargo resolution of the United Nations, it is a matter for each country to determine its rules. We, of course, have our own have very clear rules about such sales.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I was involved in the establishment, maintenance and administration of a UN peacekeeping force. Is my hon. and learned Friend aware that it is difficult enough to establish an effective land force—as we have discovered in Lebanon, Cyprus an elsewhere—and that the UN is totally incapable of having a UN naval force? Although the UN may have a role in the area, a UN naval force is not the answer.

Mr. Mellor

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said that it had taken nearly six months to achieve a follow-up resolution on paper imposing an arms embargo. How long does anyone believe that it would take to establish a UN naval force? We are faced with a problem not next year or in the next decade, but now.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)

Opposition Members are not troubled by the fact that there has been a response against Iranian aggression—we are in favour of a tough response against such aggression; what troubles us, and troubles the Royal Navy personnel with whom I have spoken in the Gulf, is the unilateral nature of such American action. I have heard the Minister say three times in the House that a UN-commanded naval force in the Gulf is impractical. I have never heard him explain exactly how and why that is so. Will he give the House the benefit of such an explanation now?

Mr. Mellor

It is interesting that the one country that has been anxious to see a UN naval force, the Soviet Union, avoided giving details for some months about exactly what that force would involve. When the Soviet Union came up with those details, it appeared that it envisaged a force accompanying vessels, not just to the side of the Gulf not involved in the conflict, but into Iranian ports. The idea of a UN naval force interposing itself between two combatants who are determined to attack shipping serving each other's ports is, I believe, a sign of the hopeless impracticability of the scheme. Such sentiment as there was in favour of a UN naval force before the Soviet Union came up with its plan almost totally melted away once the full details of that plan were given.

Mr. Jim Lester (Broxtowe)

Did my hon. and learned Friend have time to consult the Gulf Co-operation Council, and if so, what were its views about the incident?

Mr. Mellor

We have not had time to receive any such opinion. We will want to consult our friends in the Gulf about the matter, as it is in protection of their right to trade with us and with other countries freely that we are playing our role.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the House that this is a private notice question—an extension of Question Time. We have a heavy day ahead of us.

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