Iran (Diplomatic Relations)

– in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 8th March 1989.

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Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs) 3:30 pm, 8th March 1989

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the breaking off of diplomatic relations by Iran.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

The Iranian Government broke diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom on 7 March. I told the House on 21 February that in face of the incitement to murder proclaimed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, we were closing our embassy in Tehran and had asked the Iranian Government to withdraw their chargé d'affaires and the one other Iranian-based member of his staff from London. They left on 28 February.

We have made clear throughout that, as with any other country, normal relations between Britain and Iran must depend on Iran's fulfilment of her international obligations, in particular by renouncing the use or threat of violence against our citizens. Iran has not withdrawn those threats. We have therefore decided that on security grounds, a number of Iranians must be required to leave this country. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department will shortly be giving notice to that effect. We are keeping the activities of other Iranians under very close review and further action will be taken as necessary. The Iranian Government have until now maintained a consulate-general in Hong Kong. They have been told to close the consulate-general. Its staff have been given two weeks in which to leave.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Shadow Secretary of State (Foreign Affairs)

I welcome the response by the Foreign Secretary and the action that he has announced. That has our full support and the Foreign Secretary also has our full support for refusing to make any kind of deal with Iran until that country's regime withdraws its monstrous death threat against Mr. Rushdie. Deplorably, that threat has now been reaffirmed by the President of Iran.

Does the Foreign Secretary share our satisfaction that, apart from Libya, no Government of a Moslem country has endorsed the death threat? Although we do not have to agree with everything that it says, the attitude of the Islamic world is much more accurately reflected in the calm and balanced tone of the statement by the Prime Minister of Pakistan.

Can the Foreign Secretary tell us what arrangements are being made to keep in touch with and protect the interests of Mr. Roger Cooper, whose family must, understandably, be extremely worried about his welfare and safety, especially in the light of the deplorable cancellation by the Iranian authorities of a Swedish consular visit to him that should have taken place yesterday?

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, far from the United Kingdom caving in to any ultimatum from Iran, it is the Government of Iran who must prove themselves fit to resume diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

The right hon. Gentleman's last point is at the heart of this matter. That view is widely supported in the world. Not the least important feature is the extent to which it is supported by Governments of Moslem countries as well as by Governments in the rest of the world. I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's support for that. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Mr. Cooper. We are greatly and continuously concerned about the prospects for his future, as well as about the prospects of freedom for the British hostages who are still detained. We deplore the refusal by the Iranian Government to allow the consular visit to Roger Cooper which was arranged only a short time ago. They have broken the undertaking to allow such a visit. We shall therefore continue to press for consular access through the Teheran embassy of Sweden, our protecting power, whose support in this matter, as in others, we greatly value.

Photo of Mr Peter Temple-Morris Mr Peter Temple-Morris , Leominster

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that he deserves universal support for the measures that he has had to take in in respect of this regrettable matter? Does he agree that the key, so far as elements within Iran are concerned, is international solidarity? Will he do his utmost to preserve the lead that the European Community has given? Does he accept that, in a very difficult situation, he deserves some congratulation for demonstrating understanding of the insult that this book represents to the Moslem world—going far beyond the Ayatollah Khomeini and what he stands for? Finally, does he accept that, much as we all like to make interventions in this House and elsewhere, a period of calm would perhaps be beneficial to all in efforts to solve this matter?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I accept all the points that have been made by my hon. Friend. The most important feature of the case, perhaps, is the strong, unified signal to the people and Government of Iran that came so promptly from the European Community—a signal that has been so widely supported elsewhere. That has been fortified by the generally calm approach by other Islamic countries and, equally, by the willingness of Islamic communities in Britain to recognise the importance of different communities in a country respecting each other's point of view. Only when general recognition, in a tolerant fashion, of the need for co-existence in a world of different religions is accepted by the Government of Iran will we be able to move towards a return to normal relations.

Photo of Mr David Steel Mr David Steel , Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale

Will the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary accept from Members on these Benches support for the actions he has had to take? Will the Government continue to make it clear that, in upholding the absolute freedom to write and to publish, they are not signifying any approval of a book that many of us recognise is deeply offensive to Islam, not least to the Moslem population of this country? We accept that no Government can possibly tolerate a threat to the lives of its individual citizens and that the breach of diplomatic relations was therefore inevitable. However, we hope that normality may be resumed once passions have cooled.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support. The Government will continue to uphold the freedom of speech within the law, upon a rock-solid basis. That does not mean that either the Government or this House, or any hon. Member, is required to condone or defend any particular book. I fully understand the way in which the right hon. Gentleman has expressed himself on this matter.

Photo of Mr Peter Blaker Mr Peter Blaker , Blackpool South

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there will be a particular welcome from the Government side of the House for the support he has received from both right hon. Gentlemen opposite who have intervened? Their comments will help to make it clear to the rulers of Iran that there is agreement in the House and in this country that there can be no question of resuming normal relations with Iran while a British subject is under threat of assassination from that country's Government.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

Once again, I express my gratitude to my right hon. Friend, as well as to the hon. and right hon. Gentleman whom he has identified. On this matter they all speak for the entire House, and it is important that there should be no room for doubt about that.

Photo of David Winnick David Winnick , Walsall North

Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that this country has no quarrel at all with the people of Iran—only with its rulers, a regime which has shown total contempt for international law? Is it not the case that, within the last few months alone, thousands, literally thousands, of political prisoners in Iran have been executed, many of them—the large majority, I assume—devout followers of Islam? Would it not be wise for the rulers in Iran to bear in mind the number of dictators and tyrants in this century who have under-estimated the will and resilience of this country?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

Once again, I am glad to be able to agree with the hon. Gentleman. Quite aside from the respect that we have for the people of Iran, we join the hon. Member in leaving the Iranian authorities in no doubt whatsoever about our grave concern over the abuses of human rights that are taking place there. I refer in particular to the recent allegations of mass exterminations.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

While strongly supporting the attempts of my right hon. and learned Friend, not only in recent weeks but over the last year, to restore relations between our two countries, may I ask whether he does not agree that, in the long run, it is important to both that we have a civilised means of communicating with each other? Can we not take some comfort from the fact that Iran needs Britain far more than Britain needs Iran?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

It is clear that, in a civilised and well-ordered world, there should be relations between countries of the importance of Iran and the United Kingdom, not least taking account of the fact that the United Kingdom is one of the permanent members of the Security Council and, in that capacity, played a substantial part in helping to bring to an end the conflict in which the people of Iran were so tragically engaged. It is because we wish to keep open the possibility of restoring representation between our two countries that we refrained from breaking relations in the hope that wiser counsels might prevail. That has not happened. We shall have to wait for a change of heart, as my hon. Friend pointed out.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North

In addition to the protection that has quite rightly been offered to Salman Rushdie, will the Foreign Secretary contact his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and ensure that similar protection is given to any Iranians living in this country who are likely to be the subject of attacks by agents acting on behalf of the Iranian Government? Is he aware that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) pointed out, over 3,000 people have been executed for political activities in Iran since the ceasefire took place, and many more are on death row at present?

It is essential that everyone stands up against the Iranian Government for what they are doing to the people of Iran and the people of the rest of the world. In that sense, it would be totally wrong for any trade with that country to take place, any credits to be given to it and, above all, any sales of any arms by any other country which could be used as part of the political repression that is the awful lot of so many people in Iran at present.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I think that the whole world is as disturbed as the hon. Gentleman by the continuing record of abuse of human rights in that country and joins us in condemning it, as I have already done. Likewise, the whole House would agree with the hon. Gentleman that anyone living in this country, lawfully here and abiding by our laws and institutions, is entitled to the full protection of the law against threats or the actuality of violence.

Photo of Mr Peter Thurnham Mr Peter Thurnham , Bolton North East

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that it is a tragedy that the rulers of the people of Iran should behave in such an intolerable way? Is not the solution for us to wait until they can elect some new leaders?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I hesitate to have as much confidence as my hon. Friend about the method by which a change of Government will take place there. The Iranian people are entitled to a Government of higher quality than the present deplorable regime.

Photo of Mr Stanley Crowther Mr Stanley Crowther , Rotherham

In view of what he has said about the world being disturbed, does the Foreign Secretary agree that the time has come to break off all relations with Iran—not only diplomatic but commercial relations—as long as that appalling regime is in power? Would it not be helpful at least to give some expression of support to the National Council of Resistance, which is seeking to replace that oppressive regime with a democratic one?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

We stand ready to take whatever action may he necessary in the light of events.

Photo of Mr Dennis Walters Mr Dennis Walters , Westbury

My right hon. and learned Friend has rightly received the support of the whole House for his statement. Will he accept that the Rushdie book is now the focal point of a power struggle within Iran, the outcome of which will be relevant to the interests of the west as well as peace in the middle east? Therefore, will he assure us that he will continue to handle the situation with the utmost sensitivity?

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , East Surrey

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. It is clearly important to go on making our position clear on the various points raised in the House today, as I think that the whole House has done. We certainly would wish to see the restoration of normal relations with the people, and thus with the Government, of Iran, but we are not prepared to see that done at the price of surrendering our commitment to our own principles. We must hope that events take such a course in Iran that will make that possible.

Several Hon. Members:


Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

Order. I have to remind the House that this is an extension of Question Time. We have a busy day ahead of us.