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
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
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.
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
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
"there is no doubt at all that these people were taken from a boat in Iraqi waters. It is simply not true that they went into Iranian territorial waters, and I hope the Iranian Government understands how fundamental an issue this is for us. We have certainly sent the message back to them very clearly indeed. They should not be under any doubt at all about how seriously we regard this act, which is unjustified and wrong."
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.
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.
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?
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 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.
May I echo the thanks to the Foreign Secretary expressed by 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?
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
As the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate, all those issues are under discussion. We are anxious to proceed in a way that will encourage Iran to realise that, as we have urged from the beginning, the best way to resolve the matter is speedily and peacefully. The presidency of the EU has made a statement. A meeting of European Union Foreign Ministers, which I shall attend, takes place this weekend. We will discuss those matters then. We are considering, through our mission in New York, whether there are ways in which we wish to raise the matter through the UN system.
I thank my right hon. Friend for coming to the House. We all wish for a speedy and successful resolution to the matter. Many serving and former serving naval personnel live in my constituency, and they understand only too well what the families of the detained personnel are going through. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should emphasise the importance of the reason for the Royal Navy's presence in the first place? It was not only protecting oil platforms that provide the income for the reconstruction of Iraq, but preventing any possibility of sabotage, which would have horrendous environmental consequences for the whole Gulf.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks. I know that she speaks for her constituents. She is right about the environmental problems that could be caused by action in that part of the Gulf. However, as I am sure that she and other hon. Members know, approximately 85 per cent. of Iraq's gross national product passes through that gateway. That is why those involved are acting not only in the interests of the Government and people of Iraq, but on behalf of the United Nations.
As our forces in the Gulf are operating under a United Nations Security Council resolution, Iran's action is a breach not only of international maritime law but of that resolution. I do not understand why the Government's first action was not to go straight back to the Security Council and secure a resolution ordering Iran to return our personnel whom it captured.
We chose first to deal with the issue bilaterally, and in a way that we hoped would be most speedily effective. Obviously we will consider the matters that the hon. Gentleman raises.
May my colleagues and I associate ourselves with the position of establishing international relations to try to bring the matter to a speedy and satisfactory conclusion? We give our wholehearted support to the Government's endeavours to do that. Our thoughts and prayers are with the personnel and their families. The Foreign Secretary referred to getting the balance right between private and robust diplomacy. Will she assure hon. Members that there will be no attempt to go—or attraction towards going—down the route of accommodating any demands that Iran may make in trying to resolve the issue?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for their support. Of course, we remain determined to try to ensure that the British Government's policy is the policy that we should pursue. I repeat that up to now, the Iranians have not made demands. They have simply made an allegation, which we believe is now disproved, that their borders have been crossed.
May I add my words of appreciation to those of other hon. Members about the Government's approach of attempting to avoid escalating confrontation? Our concerns must primarily be about the personnel who have been taken. All that the House can do at this time is offer its full support to the Government, and unite to provide maximum support for the Government's endeavours. In addition, will my right hon. Friend say whether procedures have been reviewed to ensure that, as far as is practical, no ship can be isolated in such a way in future by any Iranian ship in the area?
I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks and his support. Of course we are considering all the implications of the matter. As for what he says about our handling of the matter in the initial stages, I even went so far as to point out to the Iranian Foreign Minister that the one thing that would certainly cause the British media lose all interest in the case would be the emergence of good news.
I commend the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office for the professional way in which they are trying to secure the release of the personnel. Does she accept that on past form Iran is unlikely to respond purely to diplomatic representations? Will she therefore discuss with other European Foreign Ministers, when she meets them this weekend, whether their countries, particularly France, Germany and Italy, would be willing perhaps privately to make it clear to the Iranian Government that, if they do not release the British personnel in the very near future, there will be a joint European response involving economic pressure and perhaps the temporary suspension of export credit guarantees to Iran?
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his remarks, particularly in respect of my officials. I understand the point that he is making. It is not necessarily the case that Iran has not always responded primarily to diplomatic efforts. We will certainly keep those up at every level, but obviously I will discuss with my colleagues this weekend whether there are proposals that the EU can consider.
The only crumb of comfort in the Foreign Secretary's statement is that Iran officially is saying that there is no link with other issues. In her assessment, what link is actually being made in Iran with the arrest of the five Iranian diplomats at Christmas by the Americans, and with the 300 Iranians who are being held by the Americans? There appears to be a dispute between the State Department and the Pentagon about the merits of releasing some of those prisoners. Remarks have been attributed to General Petraeus, who has said that he is refusing to release them and that he intends to hold the prisoners
"until they run out of information or we run out of food".
What is her assessment of the actual reasons for the seizure of our personnel? What is the popular mood in Iran?
Actually, there are two crumbs of comfort. One is that the Iranians also say that our personnel are fit and well and are being well looked after. Obviously, we very much hope that that is indeed the case. The hon. Gentleman asks me about other links. All I can say to him and to the House is that it was the Iranians who volunteered that they were not making any link between that and any other issues. Indeed, it was referred to more than once to me as a technical breach, but a very important technical breach. They are not making links; we would be unwise to do so.
I assure the Foreign Secretary that she has the full-hearted support of both Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National party in her efforts to bring about the early release of the sailors. Although we accept fully the Ministry of Defence's account of the location of the ship, can she clarify that there is no ongoing dispute between the Iranian and Iraqi Governments about the exact location of the border?
No, there is none. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. There is no dispute between the Iranian and Iraqi Governments about the position of the border. Although I did not highlight this in my statement, the House will be aware that our account and our assertion that the ship and the personnel were in Iraqi waters is borne out by the captain of the merchant vessel that our personnel had finished inspecting and by an Iraqi fisherman in the area who first reported the incident.
I commend the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister on what they have told the House today. It is good that the House is united across all parties on the action that the Government are taking, but is not what has happened a very serious precedent? Is it not an act of piracy by a nation state? Not only is it an act of piracy, but the Iranians are denying the human rights of the naval personnel who are involved, in that they have denied them the right of access to consular and other authorities who may represent them. Are we in touch with the Russian President about the matter?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Indeed, this is a very serious matter. As I indicated a few moments ago, it was most noticeable that, when we were discussing and explaining to colleagues from a variety of countries across the Gulf and beyond what had happened, everyone regarded this as a very dangerous and worrying precedent. I am not sure that anyone has yet spoken to the Russian President, but we are in touch with all allies and colleagues who we believe may be able to help.
There is no doubt that, while this incident has been going on, there have been at least two other incidents of explosive attacks against our troops in southern Iraq. Those devices seem to have come from across the Iranian border. Can the Foreign Secretary assure the House that we will continue to put pressure on Iran to stop that sort of behaviour to guard our soldiers' lives?
A year ago, when I visited HMS Bulwark, which was roughly in the same position as HMS Cornwall, I was told that we had completed our training of the Iraqi navy, which was to undertake the task of boarding parties. Why is it not performing the task of those boarding parties? Why are we continuing to do it with royal naval personnel?
I am not entirely sure whether the information that the hon. Gentleman has been given is entirely correct, but of course all the circumstances surrounding the matter will be reviewed as time goes on. However, he will understand that the first priority is the personnel themselves.
Will the Foreign Secretary have a word with the Secretary of State for Defence to ensure that in future no British forces operate in Iraqi waters—which are known to be extremely dangerous; past incidents proved that—unsupported and without appropriate protection and back-up? Could there not be other incidents in future—we very much hope not—and might this not be a dangerous precedent given that, possibly bearing in mind the current rules of engagement, there is no meaningful deterrent against the Iranians?
As I have said to a number of colleagues, all the circumstances of the case will of course be considered. There will be a careful review of the courses of action that the Government should pursue in future, but I repeat that the focus at present is on action on the diplomatic front to recover our personnel.
I thank the Minister for her extremely thorough statement, in which she said that she was assured that there was no link at all with other issues, bilateral, regional or international. However, my concern is that the President and his party have performed extremely poorly in domestic elections recently. What assessment has she made of the connection with that particular matter?
None, to be perfectly honest. Obviously, it is possible to speculate, but no real hints are being dropped and no demands are being made. It is said to be a one-off incident and we are treating it as such.
Although press and media freedom is important, has not it been completely irresponsible of elements of the British press and media to publish highly personal details about some of the individuals who have been captured by the Iranians, which inevitably will be used in their interrogation, when they will be without access to any of our consular facilities?
The Foreign Secretary will be aware that HMS Cornwall is based at Devonport naval base, which is part of Plymouth. Many of the 15 people will therefore be my constituents and those of Alison Seabeck. Can she reassure us, particularly with the Secretary of State for Defence sitting beside her, that every possible support will be given to the families of those 15 personnel, who will be going through daily hell as the situation unfolds? Will she confirm that she either has or will make it clear that if any of those 15 are paraded in some public relations stunt on Iranian television, whether blindfolded or not, it will be seen as an act of the utmost provocation?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I know that he and my hon. Friend Alison Seabeck share concern for their constituents. We have tried to do what we can to support the families through a very difficult time. The Ministry of Defence has appointed a visits officer for each family and assigned a media shielder to try to help them to deal with the inevitable pressure, and particularly to deal with what may inevitably sometimes be inaccurate reporting. Further than that I would say only that, of course, all these issues are a matter of concern.
The hon. Gentleman raises the question of whether the personnel may be shown on Iranian television. There has been some hint that that might occur, and we have expressed grave concern. From the beginning, our meetings with the Iranian ambassador have included an expression of exactly the kind of concern that he identifies about treatment, humiliation and so on.