HL Deb 23 April 1980 vol 408 cc768-79

3 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I shall make a Statement on yesterday's decision by the Foreign Ministers of the Members of the European Community concerning Iran. I am arranging for a copy of the text approved to be placed in the Official Report.

As the House will recall, my colleagues and I had adopted a decision in Lisbon on 10th April, which was in effect a last appeal to the authorities in Iran to release the hostages in conformity with international law. Our ambassadors in Tehran were instructed to convey this appeal to the Iranian President and to request him to name the date and method by which the hostages would be released. They did so on 12th April.

Mr. Bani-Sadr's reply was, I have to tell the House, unsatisfactory. The most he would say was that he hoped a decision on the future of the hostages would be taken by the new Iranian Parliament when it had been elected and established. While holding out the prospect that visits to the hostages might be arranged, he could give no firm assurance as to when the Parliament might meet, or whether it could be relied upon to act as he hoped.

When this matter came up in this House and in another place on 14th April, the mood of the House was unmistakable. The phrase, the utmost solidarity with the United States was used from the Benches on both sides. There was a general feeling that diplomatic methods had, for the time being at least, been exhausted, and that the time had come to find some more concrete and far-reaching way of expressing our abhorrence at the continued defiance of the rules of international behaviour and the opinions of the civilised world.

Your Lordships will find this mood reflected in the decision adopted yesterday in Luxembourg. In accordance with a suggestion made last week by the United Kingdom, it was decided to proceed in two stages. In the first stage, the Nine will put into effect to the extent that they are not in force already, certain measures, mainly of a political nature. We shall reduce still further our embassy staffs in Tehran. We shall insist on a parallel reduction in the Iranian embassies in our own capitals.

We shall reintroduce a visa system for Iranian citizens, after giving due notice, and we shall formally ban export of defence equipment to Iran.

The measures to be adopted in stage two are much more far-reaching, and it was this paragraph which occupied most of the time yesterday. If I may, I will read the key sentences. Ministers decided to seek immediate legislation, where necessary, in their national Parliaments to impose sanctions against Iran, in accordance with the Security Council Resolution on Iran, dated 10th January 1980, which was vetoed, and in accordance with the tenets of international law. They believe that these legislative processes should be completed by 17th May, the date of their informal meeting in Naples. In the absence of decisive progress on the release of the hostages, they will then proceed immediately to the common implementation of sanctions. These are decisions of great gravity. If it becomes necessary to implement them, a wide range of commercial activities will be affected. It is of course our hope that, at this eleventh hour, the Iranian authorities will draw the inescapable conclusion that the continued detention of the hostages is not in Iran's own interest, and should be brought to an end without delay.

If this does not happen, we shall face the situation which we contemplated when we cast our vote for the Resolution presented to the United Nations Security Council in January, except that now the action taken must be on the basis of national measures, and not on the basis of a Resolution of the Security Council of the United Nations.

The necessary measures will be laid before your Lordships, and I know that the Government can count on the cooperation of the House in handling them with the least possible delay.

The customary Statement on the other business of the Foreign Affairs Council is being made separately, in answer to a Written Question.

Following is the text referred to:


1. "The Foreign Ministers of the nine member States of the European Community meeting in Luxembourg on 22nd April discussed the implications of the recent events in Iran in the light of the reports by their ambassadors following the demarche to the President of Iran decided upon by the Foreign Ministers at their meeting in Lisbon on 10th April.

2. "The Foreign Ministers expressed the solidarity of the Nine with the Government and people of the United States at this time of trial.

3. "While welcoming the visit by the ICRC to the hostages on 14th April and noting the assurances given by President Bani-Sadr as to the living conditions of the hostages, the Foreign Ministers expressed their profound regret that the Iranian Government has been unable to give precise assurances about the date and methods by which the hostages would be released. The Iranian Government continues to ignore the clear call of the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice to bring to an end a flagrant violation of international law and release the hostages.

4. "Since the hostages were first detained, the Nine, in full respect of the independence of Iran and the right of the Iranian people to determine their own future, have insisted that they must be released. The fact that after six months they are still detained, despite the efforts of the Nine and the clear condemnation by the community of nations, is intolerable from a humanitarian and legal point of view.

5. "The Foreign Ministers of the Nine, deeply concerned that a continuation of this situation may endanger international peace and security, have decided to seek immediate legislation where necessary in their national Parliaments to impose sanctions against Iran in accordance with the Security Council Resolution on Iran, dated 10th January 1980, which was vetoed and in accordance with the tenets of international law.

"They believe that these legislative processes should be completed by 17th May, the date of their informal meeting in Naples. In the absence of decisive progress on the release of the hostages, they will then proceed immediately to the common implementation of sanctions.

"Ministers consider that, pending the entering into force of the measures mentioned above, no new export or services contract with persons and organisations in Iran should be concluded as of from now.

"Steps will be taken within the Community in order that the implementation of the measures decided upon should not obstruct the proper functioning of the Common Market.

6. "The Foreign Ministers decided meanwhile to put into effect without delay the following measures, to the extent that they are not already in force :—

  1. (i) Reduction in embassy staffs in Tehran.
  2. (ii) A reduction in the number of diplomats accredited by the Government of Iran in their countries.
  3. (iii) The reintroduction of a visa system for Iranian nationals travelling to member countries of the Nine.
  4. (iv) The withholding of permission for the sale or export of arms or defence-related equipment to Iran.

7. "The Foreign Ministers decided immediately to contact the Government of the United States through the Presidency and to inform it of the decisions taken by them.

8. "The Foreign Ministers of the Nine, believing that this situation should be a matter of concern to the whole international community, call upon other Governments to associate themselves with these decisions.

9. "The Foreign Ministers instructed their ambassadors to return to Tehran in the interval in order to convey the present decision to the Iranian Government, to follow the situation, and to undertake all possible efforts to alleviate and improve the living conditions of the hostages pending their release.

"They express the hope that the Iranian authorities will take action accordingly."


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Foreign Secretary for the Statement that he has made. May I ask whether he is aware that there will be general accord in all quarters of the House and, I imagine, in the other place and in the country, with the agreement reached yesterday as to how, at this stage, to support the United States in the very difficult and dangerous situation that is continuing to develop in Tehran, and how to make absolutely clear, in concert with all civilised countries, our abhorrence of this flagrant breaking of international law, defiance of the International Court, and persistent cruelty to these hostages and to their families at home?

If I may put the matter interrogatively, is the noble Lord aware—I am sure he is—that this is an agreement among the Nine? May I ask whether it will quite quickly be brought to the attention of the other members of NATO, at least all 17 of them, and also whether other countries will be asked to co-operate on a national basis but, as the noble Lord said, in accordance with what was supported, though vetoed, in the United Nations`? May I ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that even action by nine countries, unilaterally as it were, might harm those countries more than it might move the Iranians, if the rest of the world, or a large section of the rest of the world, having voted in the United Nations for this kind of action, does not join in? Can the noble Lord give an assurance that there will be quite intense diplomatic action to persuade others to join in and to accept the lead of the Nine, a lead which in turn is due to the lead given by the United Kingdom and by the noble Lord?

Will the noble Lord make clear to our friends and allies in the United States that it is no small action that this country is taking, as a country which at the moment has an annual trade with Iran of some £400 million sterling, which is, I believe, expanding after the setback inevitably caused to it by the events of last summer? So this will be a sanction on Britain and on British industry, as well as on Iran, and may we hope that our American friends will take this fully into consideration when they have even the slightest doubt about the loyalty and support of this country in connection with their action.

Finally, may I refer to the penultimate paragraph of the noble Lord's Statement, where he assumes, rightly, if I may say so, that the Government can count on the co-operation of this House in handling whatever measures it proves necessary to lay before the House, and no doubt before the other place? The answer to that assumption is, Yes. I put the question in order to give the answer. We shall co-operate in every possible way.


My Lords, I think I am on record as suggesting from these Benches a little while ago that the time had come to apply the measures proposed in the vetoed Resolution of the United Nations, and I am glad that this is to be the case. However, would not the Government agree that necessary though these present and prospective measures are—and how much we must hope that they will be successful—we cannot, so long as the Ayatollah is in command in Qom, be at all optimistic that they will result in the liberation of the hostages? Therefore, would not the Government further agree that if, unfortunately, this proves to be the case, any further measures of pressure, presumably of a military nature, would not only probably result in the murder of the hostages, but would also have far-reaching results, which, to say the very least, could only be counter-productive?

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for what they have said. I think it reflects, generally speaking, the mood on all sides of the House; and I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord opposite for what he said about helping the necessary legislation through the House, which will be very welcome to the Government. I have of course already been doing what the noble Lord suggested about informing other members of NATO, and also Japan, because he is of course quite right in saying that the measures will be that much more effective if all the industrialised countries take them. The Japanese Foreign Minister was in Luxembourg, and I had the opportunity to talk to him over a period on this subject. I feel that he is very well aware of the circumstances in which this action is being taken. I also very much agree with the noble Lord about the sacrifice that we are making. I think the noble Lord's figure is a little too high, but it is certainly a very large figure and it will have a significant effect upon this country. It certainly is a measure which the Government have taken having regard to the consequences it will have, and I have no doubt that our American friends will be aware of that. Indeed, I might say in passing that there are other countries which are even more affected than we are, particularly Italy. This is a decision on the part of Europe which can in no sense be regarded as inadequate to the situation.

With regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has said, I do not think I should like to make a judgment as to whether or not the hostages will be released while the Ayatollah is still in Iran in the position he is at the moment. I hope very much that they will be, but one cannot of course say. I do not think, equally, I would care to anticipate what the decision of Her Majesty's Government might be, or indeed what the Americans might do, in the event of the failure of these measures.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether he is aware that there was an almost exactly parallel position in about the 1880s in the relations between Her Majesty's Government of the day and the Abyssinian Government, and that we solved that, and released the hostages which were taken, by our own efforts and at our own very great expense? Does he not think that there are great dangers in the internationalisation of a bilateral problem, however serious and dramatic it may be in the eyes of the countries concerned?


My Lords, I think there are great dangers in any action you take on this subject, and you have to weigh up the disadvantages and the advantages of any course which is open to Her Majesty's Government. I believe that we have weighed up the advantages and the disadvantages correctly.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that, while I agree with the Statement he has made as far as he has gone up to now, there is a great apprehension in the country? With the land forces of Russia to the North of Iran and the battleships in the Persian Gulf, there is a terrible fear in the country, and I hope we are not committed. Will it lead us to a war in the Persian Gulf?


My Lords, that, of course, is a situation which it is the object of all of us who are concerned to avoid. I would only point out that I do not believe that the best way of avoiding a war is to see your ally humiliated in world opinion and not to support them when they are in trouble.


My Lords, in their reactions to the situation in Iran and in Afghanistan, the United States and the European Community have shown some very clear signs of being seriously out of step. Is my noble friend giving some careful thought at present—I am not asking him to make a definite statement now—to the need to improve the machinery for political cooperation between the Community and the United States?


My Lords, I would not say that everything was perfect, but I would have thought that the Community demonstrated yesterday that the Community and the United States were not in disarray and in competition or disagreement with each other.


My Lords, I think all of us would want to recognise the quite extraordinary, constructive activity of the noble Lord: here yesterday morning, in Brussels in the afternoon and late at night, and here this morning preparing this complicated Statement. All of us would want to pay tribute to that. But may I add that some of us are disturbed by these developments, beginning with diplomatic and economic limited arrangements and proceeding to full economic sanctions, followed by military action by the American Government. Those of us who were active politically before the First World War see now a terrible parallel of sliding into a war situation. Are not these actions likely to unite and make more militant the people of Iran? Will there not be dangers for the lives of the hostages, rather than making for their release; and may these actions not lead to a situation of war? Would not continued patient diplomatic action, difficult as it would be, be more likely to save the hostages than the course on which we have started?


My Lords, I think these are difficult matters of judgment, and I think that one can very well argue the way the noble Lord has argued. I would only say this, that when one talks about patience and diplomatic activity I think all of us have got to remember that the hostages have now been held in Iran for six months, and that the United States have show n unparalleled patience in dealing with this situation. Certainly they have decided that patience and diplomacy is not going to release the hostages; and they in their judgment have decided that they have to go one step further, and apply diplomatic sanctions. I think all of us are very acutely conscious of the dangers which there are in the situation, both in Iran and in Afghanistan, but I can only repeat what I said to my noble friend behind me. Having seen the difficulties, having looked at the difficulties and having examined the situation, I believe we have come to the right decision—and it has been a difficult decision. With regard to the first part of the noble Lord's question, I would only say that he is far too kind. I am getting rather worried.

The Earl of ONSLOW

My Lords, would my noble friend please confirm that we will not withdraw all diplomatic personnel from Iran?—because I think it would be a mistake to do so when it appears that, in effect, there is no Government in Iran at all, or there is no central control in Iran. This is what makes the release of the hostages so difficult—that there is nobody with whom it is possible to negotiate. Therefore, it is very important to keep as many diplomatic personnel as possible in Iran, for information for my noble friend and for Her Majesty's Government.

Secondly, is it not true that there could be a danger of worrying about Iran—which is unstable, there are 50 hostages, it is American election year and it is all against international agreements, et cetera—whereas the real danger is Russian aggression in Afghanistan? That is far more dangerous to our way of life and to the Western World than the immoral, illegal hostage-taking in Iran by a Government which has no control of its own citizens.


My Lords, it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government to thin out the embassy in Tehran, and this was decided yesterday in Luxembourg; but it is not the intention to withdraw the embassy staff completely. Indeed, it is not at the moment the intention to withdraw the ambassador, who later on will be returning to Tehran and, with his eight Community colleagues, will be once again seeing Mr. Bani-Sadr, telling him of the gravity of the situation and, in the light of what the Community has decided, asking him to release the hostages.

There is no intention of withdrawing totally any kind of diplomatic representation in Iran. Indeed, it would be quite wrong to do so because there are still some British citizens there. With regard to the second part of my noble friend's supplementary question, I think that both of these "incidents", Afghanistan and Iran, (if one can call them so) are serious. I should not like to say which is the more serious of the two. Inevitably, one is inclined to rub off on the other. I think we have to consider very carefully the action we take having regard to the situation in both countries.


My Lords, while wholly understanding the extreme difficulty of the present situation and how it should be dealt with, and that the whole country is deeply concerned with this matter, may I ask the noble Lord whether he could comment upon the report in The Times today that the Iranian Government and the Soviet Union have signed an economic agreement and that the Iranian Government spokesman has said that whatever boycott were to be applied—particularly by the United States but I think, also, internationally—their friends in the Soviet Union would help them to get through it?


My Lords, I cannot add very much to what the noble Baroness has said, because she has said everything that I know. The only comment that I might make is that I think that possibly the Iranian Government, if they are relying upon the Soviet Union as trading partners in substitution for the West, will find it a lot more difficult to get hard currency from them.


My Lords, is the noble Lord the Foreign Secretary aware that reports have also appeared in the Press that the United Kingdom, while still not being fully self-sufficient in oil, has offered, in the event of sanctions having to be imposed, part of its oil supplies to those who will suffer as a result of Iranian oil supplies being cut off? Is he aware that this will be particularly important in regard to such countries as Japan which are so much dependent upon Iranian supplies? Is he further aware that if Her Majesty's Government have made this offer, it will have national support?


My Lords, the resolution on sanctions which was vetoed by the Soviet Union and approved by everyone else did not in fact include oil. There is no prohibition on the purchase of oil from Iran. All that has happened is that the United States have asked us and others not to purchase Iranian oil at a price sharply different from that ruling in the rest of the world. It follows from that that the report in the newspaper is not accurate. But it may well be that oil will be cut off in the end. I do not know. Should that happen there is an agreement in the IEA which triggers off, below a certain percentage of shortfall, a sharing system with which all countries who belong to the IEA have agreed. Short of that, if there is still a shortfall but not sufficient to trigger off the IEA action, there is an agreement in the Community that we shall consult with each other.


My Lords, in view of the Statement by the Foreign Secretary on this situation, and in view of the consensus of agreement on all sides of the House, I feel that we should be foolish in continuing this discussion because the situation is so fluid at the moment and is moving day by day and hour by hour. I feel that we should leave it like that.


My Lords, I wish that the noble Lord came in more often.


My Lords, in spite of the fact that the noble Lord wishes that my noble friend would come in more often, I hope he will forgive me if I return to what I asked—and I do not wish to press him too far. Does not this whole issue of economic assistance from the USSR raise the whole spectre of what the world is mainly worried about? I understand the point about Russia not being too good at providing hard currency, but—and again I do not want to press him too far—is there not a danger in this kind of economic boycott of driving Iran in a direction in which they would never have thought of going?


My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is quite right. On the other hand, I am not sure that fundamental Mohammedism is very likely to find much attractive in Soviet communism. Equally, I think it would be a little unlikely that the Iranians would be able to substitute—entirely, at any rate—Russian trade for Western trade.


My Lords, in the hope that it might be a helpful point, may I ask whether we are using in our diplomacy and elsewhere the point that there has been in recent years a welcome revival of the Mohammedan religion and that what the Ayatollah is doing now is well served to destroy the improvement which has been made—which could be most unprofitable and extremely regrettable for Iran itself?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that remark.