HL Deb 21 February 1989 vol 504 cc521-7

3.42 p.m.

The Minister of State for Defence Procurement (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, with the permission of the House I should like to repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary about Britain's relations with Iran. The Statement is as follows:

"As the House knows, it has been our purpose to try to restore a normal relationship with the Government of Iran. I have no doubt that that was right. Iran is an important country in the region. Britain has significant interests there. And Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council, which has responsibility for international peace and security.

"Even so, the decision to re-open our embassy in Tehran last December was taken in full knowledge of the difficulties involved, the continued imprisonment of British citizens, Nicholas Nicola and Roger Cooper, and the detention of British hostages in the Lebanon. On our side, we conducted matters prudently and carefully, There were signs, not least in the two meetings I have had with the Iranian Foreign Minister, that the Iranian Government also wished to re-establish a stable relationship. On 26th December the British subject detained in Iran, Nicholas Nicola, was set free. More recently, however, matters have taken a serious turn for the worse.

"On 14th February, Ayatollah Khomeini made a statement inciting Moslems to violence against Mr. Rushdie and the publishers of The Satanic Verses. That was totally incompatible with Iran's obligations under the UN Charter, and with respect for our sovereignty and the rule of law. We protested in the strongest terms and put an immediate freeze on the intended grad ual build-up of our staff in Tehran.

"Following Ayatollah Khomeini's original statement, there were clear signs that some in the Iranian Government wished to distance themselves from the threat of violence. On Friday 17th February President Khamenei said that if Mr. Rushdie apologised, the threat to his life might be withdrawn. As the House knows, Mr. Rushdie issued a statement at the weekend apologising for any distress caused to Moslems by his book.

"However, on Sunday last, Ayatollah Khomeini made a further statement, renewing most explicitly the threat to Mr. Rushdie's life. The whole House will realise that that statement put paid to our chances of maintaining normal dealings with Iran. It was an attack, not only on the author and publishers of the book, but on the fundamental freedoms for which our society stands: the freedom of expression, religious tolerance and the rule of law.

"In Brussels yesterday, I discussed these death threats with Foreign Ministers of the European Community. All the governments of the Twelve fully shared our sense of outrage at the incitement to murder. The twelve Foreign Ministers issued a statement, whose text has been placed in the Library of the House, in which they rejected Khomeini's treats as an affront to international standards of behaviour which could not be tolerated. We all reaffirmed our commitment to ensuring the protection of the life and property of our citizens. We agreed and announced two immediate steps: suspension of any exchanges of high level officials visits between Iran and our countries and the recall of Heads of Mission from Tehran. At the same time, the Interior Ministers of the Twelve have been asked to consider urgently the practical steps necessary to restrict the freedom of movement of Iranian diplomats in Community countries.

"In those circumstances the Government have concluded that in our own particular case, it is neither possible nor sensible to conduct a normal relationship with Iran. We have, therefore, decided to withdraw all the UK-based staff from our embassy in Tehran. The Iranian Government have been asked to withdraw their charge d'affaires and the one other Iranian-based member of his staff from London in order to create a situation of reciprocity. We were conscious of the further limitation this decision would place on our ability to intervene on behalf of Roger Cooper and the hostages in Lebanon. And we understand the additional distress caused to their families. We have asked the Swedish Government once again to undertake the protection of British interests and are grateful for their prompt agreement to do so.

"Britain is able to do business with many countries who do not share our ideals or democratic way of life. We were ready to do business with Iran. But we can only do so if Iran respects accepted standards of international behaviour; in particular, respect for the sovereignty and law of other states as laid down in the Charter of the United Nations. Iran has disregarded those standards in the most flagrant and menacing way. The response of the Government and of the other member countries of the European Community is firm and clear. Before normal relations can be restored, Iran must meet her international obligations, in particular by renouncing the use or threat of violence against citizens of other countries."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement. We deeply regret the recent action taken by the Iranian Government, especially as it appeared, as the Statement says, that we were moving towards improved relations with Iran and when there are clear advantages for both countries in the resumption of normal diplomatic relations. We are profoundly concerned about the hostages still held in Lebanon. Nevertheless, the decision taken by Her Majesty's Government to withdraw their top diplomats from Tehran was a necessary and an appropriate response to the Ayatollah's indefensible reiteration of the death threat against Mr. Salman Rushdie. We fully support the Government in that action.

We realise that Iranians in Moslem communities throughout the world feel very deeply about parts of Mr. Salman Rushdie's controversial book. We appreciate that there are differences of creed, culture and tradition between Iran and the Western democracies. In this country we have striven for centuries to establish and preserve the rights of free speech and expression.

Moslems in this country have a democratic right to express their views on the book. It need not be said that differences in beliefs will always be treated with respect. But the Ayatollah and his colleagues, whose religion we respect, must understand that we too have a right to our own customs, our own laws and our own freedoms. We too resent and deplore interference in our own affairs. It must be appreciated by the Iranian Government that in making that threat against a British citizen, they are interfering directly with those laws and freedoms. It is intolerable that any leader of a foreign state should attempt to interfere with our laws in that way. Furthermore, that action is in total contravention of the universal declaration of human rights and the United Nations Charter.

We welcome the diplomatic support of our 11 Community partners. As said in their joint statement yesterday, incitement to murder is an unacceptable violation of the most elementary principles and obligations that govern relations among sovereign states. It is also deeply offensive to the British people.

We note that the Swedish Government will protect our interests in Iran now that our diplomats are to be withdrawn. We are sure that they, with other nations, will do what they can to protect the interests of the hostages and to obtain their release.

Will the Minister say whether it is government policy to seek to maintain some contact with the moderate elements in Iran in the hope that civilised conduct will in due course return to that country? Futhermore, I assume that Her Majesty's Government will keep in close touch with our Community partners over the next few days so that together we can work towards a solution of this most difficult and complex problem. Perhaps I may say in conclusion that anyone who visits this country or lives here is entitled to the full protection of our laws—

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

—regardless of creed or nationality, but in return is under an obligation to observe and uphold those laws.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable and learned friend in another place. I should like to associate myself with everything which has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. In addition, I should like to associate myself and my colleagues on these Benches with the response that the Government have made to the absolutely unacceptable threat to the life of a British citizen which has come from the Ayatollah and Iran. I regard the Government as having been wholly right in not being precipitate in their response, as was urged upon them in some quarters. They were right to proceed with what is called all deliberate speed but no more.

The Government were right to co-ordinate their response and to secure the agreement of our partners in the European Community. If any further measures are envisaged, it is essential that they too should be co-ordinated with our partners in the European Community. The measures which have been taken seem to me to be an appropriate response to the unacceptable threats that have been made. They should, and seem to me to have been designed to, register our profound disapproval of threats to murder, to assist those moderate elements within Iran who are clearly engaged in a bitter struggle for power and to bear in mind the fate of the prisoners and hostages in Iran and Lebanon. In all these respects we should like to support the Government.

It is impossible to consider this unfortunate state of affairs without also bearing in mind its effect upon community relations within this country, which can only be serious and lead to difficulties. I urge the so-called leaders of the Moslem community in this country to restrain their comments on what has happened and certainly not to associate themselves with the threats that have been made.

One further possibility has occurred to us on these Benches as to the steps which might be taken: it is that we should bring the matter before the Security Council under Article 39 as a threat to peace. I say that because I believe that co-ordinated international action is the most likely way to bring effective pressure to bear on Iran and to support those within Iran who disapprove of the policies at present being pursued.

Article 19 requires a majority of nine, including the five members of the Security Council, to pass a condemnatory resolution. If the Minister brought that matter to the attention of his right honourable colleagues he would find it likely that at least five, and probably more, of the 10 non-permanent members of the Security Council would vote in favour of such a resolution. I should like once more to reiterate our support for the position which the Government have taken.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their response to the Statement that I have repeated. In answer to the few points that were raised in general acceptance of what I had to say in repeating the Statement, perhaps I may first say that our task in so far as the implications for Mr. Cooper and the hostages in Lebanon are concerned will not be made easier; but we shall keep pressing for their release by every appropriate means. We have no doubt that our Swedish friends who will now look after our interests in Tehran will do likewise on our behalf. There is no case for delaying or linking the freedom of the hostages and Mr. Cooper to United Kingdom-Iranian relations, but I should be deceiving your Lordships if I did not agree, as I said earlier, that our task will be no easier. We want to retain relations with Iran in the best way that we can, but we had no alternative but to withdraw our Mission, as I have described. We have not formally terminated diplomatic relations with that country.

As for the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, we were much heartened by the support of our European colleagues in this matter and by the unanimous agreement to proceed in the way that was announced and to which I have referred. As for further measures, we shall need to keep the situation under the most careful review, but we hope that the more moderate views in Tehran will prevail, that further measures will not be necessary and that there may be some return to a more normal relationship. I cannot pretend that I see that as an early or likely possibility. It is however devoutly to be desired.

As for the steps proposed by the noble Lord in connection with the Security Council, that is a matter upon which I should like to reflect and take further advice. If there is any prospect of that perhaps I may write to him.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I support everything the Minister has said and the action of Her Majesty's Government but perhaps I may ask why we have withdrawn, I believe rightly, all our staff in Tehran and yet our EC partners have withdrawn only the Heads of Mission? Surely it would have been right for them to have withdrawn all their staff at the same time.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, our position was a special one because the threat was directed at a British citizen on British soil. Furthermore, without a charge d'affaires the comparatively small size of our Mission in Tehran considerably reduced its usefulness. Once we had decided to withdraw our charge d'affaires, it was not possible to continue an effective Mission in Tehran. That is why we decided that all British diplomats should be withdrawn. The same considerations did not necessarily apply to our European colleagues.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is there not another dimension to this as well? Is it not contrary to divine law and, for that matter, Islamic law to condemn a man unheard without even the pretence of a trial? Is it not clear that the pretended Fatwa of the so-called Ayatollah is in flagrant violation of the most sacred beliefs of all the peoples whom Moslems call the Children of the Book, Ahl El Kitab?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, it is certainly in violation of the beliefs which I hold dear. I am afraid that I am not an expert in Moslem beliefs but I should be very surprised if the same were not true there.

Lord Mayhew

My Lords, while supporting the comments of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, I must ask the Minister whether he does not agree that the European Community is widely admired in the Moslem field, not least by a number of Moslem governments? They bitterly resent the pretensions of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Has the Community any plans to discuss with such governments what might be the best way forward, perhaps towards the kind of action suggested by my noble friend?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, for the moment the issue is very much one generated by the threat to a British person in the United Kingdom. For that reason, clearly the people most directly involved are ourselves. But we shall certainly want to exchange views with states, particularly those directly affected in the region of the Middle East. We might take the matter forward in the way which the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, suggested.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, the noble Lord referred in the Statement to meetings or consultations between ministers of the interior of the governments. But the Statement suggested that these were restricted to looking at the movements of Iranian diplomats. Since it is more than likely that any projected assassins would not be members of the Iranian diplomatic corps, can we be assured that the interior ministers will look at international cooperation in pursuit of any possible murder squads who may be trying to enter this country?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes, my noble friend is quite right that the concern of the interior ministers which has been referred to relates to the movement of diplomats. Since we now propose that the two remaining Iranian diplomats in this country should leave, clearly that consideration does not apply so far as we are concerned. However, it will most certainly apply in other countries of the European Community which have much larger Iranian missions in their capitals than we have.

The other point raised by my noble friend about the movement of terrorists is of equal importance to interior ministers. My noble friend may be assured that we shall be taking all the steps open to us to control and contain the situation.

Baroness Ewart-Biggs

My Lords, in view of the very real dangers in which the members of our mission and their families in Tehran find themselves, can the Minister give an assurance that every kind of protection will be given to them in their safe journey home?

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, yes indeed, I can assure the noble Baroness that our remaining five diplomats, plus one dependant in Tehran, will be leaving in the next few days. We shall provide every necessary facility for that purpose.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I wish to express my agreement with the noble Lord on the decision not to bring the Security Council into this. If one did one would merely be signalling—as one always does on these occasions when dealing with a lawless society—an indication to them that there is no punch coming. The United Nations has not got a punch and we should simply indicate by taking the matter to the Security Council that we did not have one either. I am very glad that that is left out.

However, what worries me a little is the absence of any indication of what we can or will do if the Ayatollah goes on to the next step. It is not merely Mr. Rushdie who is under threat; there are a number of threats coming out. The Ayatollah is the head of a large assassin organisation. If his assassins get to work and kill some of our citizens, what shall we do about it? We have withdrawn communications. Does that worry him? The Ayatollah has got on without them for a long time and he can go on doing without them. It will inconvenience some people in Persia but not the Ayatollah.

It seems to me that this is an occasion upon which firm and fierce vengeance should be threatened. I believe that when the ex-president of America took that line it was highly effective and obtained very much better conduct in that quarter and the other end of the Mediterranean than for quite a long time. Is there nothing we can do? After all, we are a nuclear power. We have had ayatollahs trotting round saying, "Who's afraid of the big bad bomb?" Maybe it is time they found out.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, we look to see and secure an improvement in our relations with Iran, not a descent into the jungle which the noble Lord appears to fear. But the way forward lies in Iranian hands, not in ours. What we want is to see the Iranians meeting their international obligations, in particular, as 1 said in the Statement, by renouncing the use of or threat of violence against citizens of other countries. If they do that, our relations can begin to return to a more normal course.