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28 Mar 2007 : Column 1499

Iranian Seizure of Royal Navy Personnel

12.33 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I would like to make a statement about the current situation regarding the 15 British service personnel detained by Iranian forces on Friday of last week, and say that the Government are doing all they can to ensure that they are released immediately. I should say at once—I am sure I speak for the whole House—that our thoughts and prayers at this moment are with all our detained personnel in Iran and their families.

I would like to begin by explaining the facts of what happened last Friday and the actions we have taken since, and to share with the House some of the details about the location of the incident on which the Ministry of Defence briefed this morning. At approximately 0630 GMT on 23 March, 15 British naval personnel from HMS Cornwall were engaged in a routine boarding operation of a merchant vessel in Iraqi territorial waters in support of Security Council resolution 1723 and of the Government of Iraq. They were then seized by Iranian naval vessels.

HMS Cornwall was conducting routine maritime security operations as part of a multinational force coalition taskforce operating under a United Nations mandate at the request of the Iraqi Government. The taskforce’s mission was to protect Iraqi oil terminals and to prevent smuggling. The boarding party had completed a successful inspection of a merchant ship 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters when they and their two boats were surrounded by six Iranian vessels and escorted into Iranian territorial waters.

On hearing this news, I immediately consulted the Prime Minister and the Secretary State for Defence, and asked my permanent under-secretary to summon the Iranian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We set out our three demands to the ambassador: information on the whereabouts of our people; consular access to them; and to be told the arrangements for their immediate release. Cobra met that afternoon, as it has done every day since. On 24 March my colleague the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Lord Triesman, held a further meeting with the ambassador to repeat our demands. He has had several such meetings since that date.

At that first meeting the Iranian ambassador gave us, on behalf of his Government, the co-ordinates of the site where that Government claimed that our personnel had been detained. They were not, of course, where we believed that the incident took place but we took delivery of them as the statement of events of the Government of Iran. On examination, the co-ordinates supplied by Iran are themselves in Iraqi waters.

On Sunday 25 March, I spoke to Minister Mottaki, the Iranian Foreign Minister, as I did again yesterday. In my first conversation, I pointed out that not only did the co-ordinates for the incident as relayed by HMS Cornwall show that the incident took place 1.7 nautical miles inside Iraqi waters, but that the grid co-ordinates for the incidents that the Iranian authorities had provided to our embassy on Friday 23 March and to Lord Triesman on Saturday 24 March also showed that the incident had taken place in Iraqi waters. I suggested
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to the Iranian Foreign Minister that it appeared that the whole affair might have been a misunderstanding which could be resolved by immediate release.

In Iran, our ambassador, Geoffrey Adams, has met senior Iranian officials on a daily basis to press for immediate answers to our questions. He has left the Iranian authorities in no doubt that there is no justification for the Iranians to have taken the British Navy personnel into custody. He has provided the grid co-ordinates of the incident which clearly showed that our personnel were in Iraqi waters and made it clear that we expect their immediate and safe return. I should tell the House that we have no doubt either about the facts or about the legitimacy of our requirements.

When our ambassador and my colleague Lord Triesman followed up with the Iranian authorities on Monday 26 March, we were provided with new, and—I quote—“corrected” grid co-ordinates by the Iranian side, which now showed the incident as having taken place in Iranian waters. As I made clear to Foreign Minister Mottaki when I spoke to him yesterday, we find it impossible to believe, given the seriousness of the incident, that the Iranians could have made such a mistake with the original co-ordinates, which, after all, they gave us over several days.

There has inevitably been much international interest in the situation, particularly given our personnel’s role in a multinational force operating under a UN mandate. I have spoken to a number of international partners, including the American Secretary of State Rice, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and the Saudi Foreign Minister, Prince Saud. We have also been keeping other key international partners informed, and I am pleased to be able to tell the House that many of them have chosen to lobby the Iranians or to make statements of support. I am particularly grateful to my colleague Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi Foreign Minister, who has confirmed publicly that the incident took place in Iraqi waters, and called for the personnel, who are acting in Iraq’s interests, to be released.

The Iranians have assured us that all our personnel are being treated well. We will hold them to that commitment and continue to press for immediate release. They have also assured us that there is no linkage between this issue and other issues—bilateral, regional or international—which I welcome. However, I regret to say that the Iranian authorities have so far failed to meet any of our demands or to respond to our desire to resolve this issue quickly and quietly through behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

That is why we have today chosen to respond to parliamentary and public demand for more information about the original incident, and to get on the public record both our and the Iranian accounts, to demonstrate the clarity of our position and the force of the Prime Minister’s words on Sunday 25 March when he said:

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The House might also be aware that, even if the Iranian Government mistakenly believed that our vessels had been in Iranian waters, under international law warships have sovereign immunity in the territorial sea of other states. The very most that Iran would have been entitled to do, if it considered that our boats were breaching the rules on innocent passage, would have been to require the ship to leave its territorial waters immediately.

We will continue to pursue vigorously our diplomatic efforts with the Iranians to press for the immediate release of our personnel and equipment. As Members of the House will appreciate, with sensitive issues such as these—as with the recent Ethiopian case—getting the balance right between private, but robust, diplomacy and meeting the House’s and the public’s justified demand for reliable information is a difficult judgment. I am very grateful for the support that the foreign affairs spokesmen of other parties, you, Mr. Speaker, and others in the House have given us over the past few days, and I hope that that will continue.

As the Prime Minister indicated yesterday, however, we are now in a new phase of diplomatic activity. That is why the Ministry of Defence has today released details of the incident, and why I have concluded that we need to focus all our bilateral efforts during this phase on the resolution of the issue. We will, therefore, be imposing a freeze on all other official bilateral business with Iran until the situation is resolved. We will keep other aspects of our policy towards Iran under close review and continue to proceed carefully. But no one should be in any doubt about the seriousness with which we regard these events.

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I thank the Foreign Secretary for her statement. When she demands the safe and swift return of our Royal Navy personnel, she has the united support of the House. We support the Government in the firm but measured approach that they have adopted so far, as well as the announcement that she has just made about the freezing of other bilateral business.

Clearly the seizure of our personnel was unjustified, and the evidence that the Foreign Secretary and the Ministry of Defence have presented shatters the credibility of any claim that our personnel were operating in Iranian waters. The Government are right to use every diplomatic channel, and to have avoided early escalation of the matter beyond the publication of the evidence and what she has said in her statement. If this turns into a protracted dispute, this country is placed in the strongest moral and legal position by having approached the issue in this way. Is it not vital for Iran to understand that such actions only damage its standing in international opinion? This country’s response must be one that increases its international support.

I commend our forces for the difficult and dangerous tasks that they are undertaking in Iraq and its territorial waters, under a clear UN mandate, and in support of the stability of that country. I also welcome the Government’s action to keep the families of those involved—who are very much in our thoughts, as the Foreign Secretary has said—fully informed.

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Can the Foreign Secretary say what justification was given by the Iranian ambassador or Foreign Minister for their failure to provide consular access to our personnel, or to reveal their location? Is it not unacceptable that British officials have not been given access to them? Has she received any indication of when that will finally take place? Have the Government managed to ascertain exactly who is believed to be holding them in custody? In their communications with the Iranian authorities, will the Government make it absolutely clear that any repeat of the mistreatment experienced by the British marines held by Iran in 2004 will be viewed with the utmost seriousness in this country?

The Government will be aware of speculation that some in Iran view the detention of British personnel as an asset that can be traded in for concessions. Have any demands been made by Iran—the Foreign Secretary did not mention any in her statement—in relation to their capture?

Can the Foreign Secretary indicate what effect, if any, the incident has had on the ability of British naval forces to continue to operate in Iraqi waters? On the rules of engagement, will she and the Defence Secretary be able to assure the House that any changes requested by those commanding our forces will be granted?

Three years ago, eight British personnel were seized by Iran from the Shatt al-Arab on the ground that they had violated Iranian waters. Will the Foreign Secretary say what conclusions were drawn from that experience? In particular, was any understanding sought with Iran, or offered by it, about the waters in which British naval forces operate, and about the fact that such operations pose no threat to the Iranian state? Will the Ministry of Defence look again at its configuration of forces in the area, so that the forces undertaking these tasks are fully protected, or better protected, or better able to deter interference with their activities?

We support what the Prime Minister has said about British efforts moving into a different phase. If agreement to release the personnel is not forthcoming in the coming days, will not the correct way to pursue their release be multilateral and through the UN, since Britain is operating under a UN mandate? Will the Government take all necessary steps to ensure that if the situation endures we will have the maximum support from the UN Security Council and the EU, which has very extensive trading and financial links with Iran and our many friends in the region? In that way, the greatest possible degree of international unity can be brought to bear.

Finally, the international effort to convince the Iranian Government to suspend their nuclear programme and return to negotiations passed an important milestone on Saturday, with the agreement of a Security Council resolution widening UN sanctions against Iran. Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that that separate matter will in no way weaken our resolve, or that of other nations, to enforce those UN sanctions, so that nuclear proliferation in the middle east can be resisted?

Margaret Beckett: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response to the statement, and for his concern. I am grateful for the very welcome co-operation that he has willingly given. He asked what justification had been given for withholding consular access and
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information about the location of our personnel, and so on. Nothing that I could call justification has been given. All that has been said is that investigations are continuing. I spoke to the Iranian Foreign Minister yesterday, and he said for the first time that consular access would not be given until the investigations were completed. Prior to that, delivery had been taken of the request for consular access, but no commitment had been given. We have been given no clear indication as to where or by whom our personnel are being held. I share entirely, as I am sure does the whole House, the right hon. Gentleman’s observation about the grave concern with which we would view any mistreatment.

To date no demands have been made by the Government of Iran. What has been said is that this is a technical but very grave breach of Iran’s borders, and that investigations into it are continuing. We do not judge that it will make a difference to how our people operate, but the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that if the commanders on the ground were to seek a change in the rules of engagement—which they have not done—that would be treated with the utmost seriousness.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a range of people. We have contacted everyone we can think of who might have an influence, and sought to get them to bring that influence to bear. He may be aware that the Foreign Minister of Germany, which has the EU presidency at the moment, recently made a statement on behalf of the EU. I therefore assure the House that we will pursue every avenue and channel to try to bring this matter to a satisfactory conclusion.

Mr. Michael Moore (Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk) (LD): May I echo the thanks to the Foreign Secretary expressed by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) for coming to the House to make this statement? I also thank her for all the information that she and her officials have made available to us.

We share the Government’s anger and concern about this illegal abduction of UK service personnel. Our thoughts are with them and their families. It is outrageous that Iran has compounded its serious breach of international law by refusing even to confirm where the marines and sailors are held, never mind allowing the basic humanitarian requirement of consular access. This episode has been an epic misjudgement by Iran.

Does the Foreign Secretary believe that the episode is a one-off, designed to test British attitudes, or part of a deliberate strategy to ramp up pressure against all the coalition forces in the region? We understand that there is constant Iranian activity in those waters, but can she say whether there has been any change in the pattern since the illegal seizure last week?

On the diplomatic front, given Iran’s many complex political layers, can the Foreign Secretary tell us on which levels British diplomatic efforts are focused? As part of moving into the different phase, what formal assistance has been offered or is available from our European, American and other international partners?

Will the Foreign Secretary re-emphasise that nobody in Britain will accept links to any other issues—or, indeed, anything other than the swift return of the British service personnel and full Iranian compliance with all Iran’s international obligations?

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Margaret Beckett: I thank the hon. Gentleman, too, for his co-operation and that of his colleagues. There is no indication of whether this is a one-off event, or of the significance that it might have. We are not aware of any change in the pattern of Iranian behaviour in the Gulf. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) asked about the Iran nuclear file. The incident took place close to the vote in the Security Council but, I repeat, the Iranians have told us that they are not making a link between that and any other issue. I assure him and the House that that will make no difference to our determination. Indeed, it is a constant source of astonishment to me that it seems not to dawn on some of the authorities in Iran that behaving in that manner increases rather than diminishes people’s concern about how they would behave if they had a nuclear weapon.

The hon. Member for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (Mr. Moore) asked me at what level we were operating. The answer is: at every level we can—official level and ministerial. Everywhere where there are levers to pull, we are pulling them. I am delighted to say that we have been offered wholehearted and strong support from our many allies to whom we have spoken. They have all expressed grave concern and been willing to try help in dealing with the Iranians. Indeed, they have done that.

Mr. Don Touhig (Islwyn) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House and making the statement. The Government should be commended by hon. Members of all parties for their approach to seeking the release of our forces, who were illegally seized by the Iranians. I echo her point about nuclear weapons. Many people will consider the Iranian action provocative and aggressive. More people around the globe will treat it as that the longer the Iranians refuse our legitimate demands for the release of our service people.

Margaret Beckett: My right hon. Friend is right to say that that concern exists. The genuine gravity with which all those to whom my colleagues and I have spoken received the news, especially once we could explain clearly to them the strength of the evidence that we hold, was noticeable. Clearly, everyone was thinking through the implications of that behaviour for the whole international community.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con): All of us here fully understand the difficulties that the Foreign Secretary and her colleagues experience in dealing with the dysfunctional, pariah organisation of a Government in Iran. May I take her back to an earlier part of her statement, in which she mentioned support from others, including the United Nations? Is she confident, given the importance of speedy resolution, that the European Union and the United Nations would be prepared, at short notice, to step up to severe levels of sanction and embargo as a consequence of the action in Iran, and let Iran know in advance that that is where matters are heading if a speedy withdrawal does not occur?

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