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Iran (Temporary Powers) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:21 pm on 12th May 1980.

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Photo of Miss Joan Lestor Miss Joan Lestor , Eton and Slough 10:21 pm, 12th May 1980

I wish to make it perfectly clear, because I disagree profoundly with my hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Huck-field), that I believe in sanctions in certain circumstances. I supported them all along in relation to Rhodesia, and I shall continue to advocate them in relation to South Africa. I would defend my stand in my constituency, even though I felt that that stand might undermine some of its economic interests.

Having said that, I must also say that what we are dealing with tonight is a new and unusual situation. It may well be, as time progresses, that if we handle it wrongly the situation will not be unique as it perhaps now is in relation to the hostages. For that reason, I believe that it is important that nobody should be too dogmatic. We should weigh up carefully what we are doing.

I listened to the Minister's opening speech. Were I an Iranian, I would not be convinced that we were particularly serious about what we were doing. Were I an American, I would not be convinced that our great Alliance and the fellow feeling that we have for America were particularly strong. I thought that the Minister's speech was rather weak in both respects.

I listened also to the Foreign Secretary on the radio at the weekend. He spoke about the Bill being a political gesture. Gestures are dangerous weapons in politics and should be avoided.

I also believe that despite our outrage and indignation—I fully share the sense of indignation and outrage at the holding of the hostages, which is frightening and horrific—we cannot begin to understand the situation if we start the argument simply from that point. No matter what horror and outrage we and the Americans feel about the taking of the hostages, we cannot begin the argument by saying, as the Americans seem to be saying "We have been grossly and gravely wronged and, therefore, we will do A, B and C in order to redress the balance."

We must look for the beginnings of the problem and, more importantly than anything else, decide that any action that we may take tonight, or in the future, must be calculated to free the hostages. That is what the argument must be about. The issue is not one of getting our own back on Iran or of placating the feelings of America, however outraged those feelings may be. The issue is securing the release of the hostages, if possible without military action and without the shedding of blood. That should be the guide.

I do not have time to trace the history of events in Iran. However, perhaps we should try to explain why Iran has behaved as it has. I do not try to excuse or justify that behaviour. Perhaps if it were said that America and Britain were wrong about Iran it might help us to see through the light and perhaps to eat a little humble pie.

I want to avoid bloodshed, I want the hostages to be free and I want the possibility of such a weapon to be removed from future use. I ask myself what the forces in Iran want. They want the return of the Shah and of some of the assets that left the country with the Shah. Above all, they want recognition of past responsibilities and an acceptance of the role that America has played in Iran's sad history. We should conduct the argument in the context of what has happened in the last 20 years—the involvement of America in putting the Shah back in control and undermining a more democratic Government. If there were an acceptance of the role played by America and, to some extent, by Britain and the way in which we dismissed the horrors that took place there for our own economic interests, it should be possible to talk to Iran and to have some effect.

The way in which we are approaching the problem will convince no one that we are serious. Our approach will not persuade the forces in control in Iran to change their tactics. It is likely to make them feel more outraged and want to dig their heels in. Those in control will probably say "We shall stand alone and you do what you can to us." If we recognise the role of America and Britain in Iran in the past 15 or 20 years, we may unearth the sense of outrage and indignation that the forces in Iran feel towards America and Britain.

When the Government said that they would introduce a Bill to provide sanctions, we were told, in good faith, that it would be necessary if diplomatic measures failed. We were told that the Government wanted no part of military action and that President Carter was anxious for us to join him in his policy. Yet President Carter was planning a rescue attempt. There is a thin line between that and military action. I put it no stronger.

The Lord Privy Seal said that we knew only of the possibility of a rescue attempt. We had no idea of the timing. I accept what he said. However, President Carter knew. To him, sanctions were not an alternative to a rescue attempt.

I am particularly interested and sensitive to the issue because I was a Minister in the Foreign Office when the Diego Garcia base was under discussion. There is now a block on the question whether that base was used in the rescue attempt. That worries me because, as I understand it, the permission of both allies must be forthcoming before the base can be used. If our permission was given, the Government have not been frank with the House. If it was not given and America used the base without asking our permission, that has sad and worrying implications for the use of any other bases that may be jointly shared in this country or in any other part of the world.

If the base was not used—and the report has been neither confirmed nor denied—it would have been more sensible for the Government to tell the House that it was not used and to clear up that area of doubt, which has ugly and dangerous implications for us all until we know the answer.

As I have said, I do not believe that the Bill, if it is intended that the sanctions should work, is strong enough to make an impression. I do not believe that it is serious. Perhaps the Government in America should discuss the possibility, along the lines that I have sketched, of accepting at least some responsibility for the feelings of the Iranians at this time, in such a delicate position. They should involve another Government who are friendly but neutral—possibly Switzerland—who could begin to negotiate along diplomatic lines for the release of the hostages. Without bringing in some other dimension in that way, we are stuck in the present position. I do not see the Bill making any change in that position.