Iranian Seizure of Royal Navy Personnel

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Prime Minister – in the House of Commons at 12:33 pm on 28th March 2007.

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Photo of Margaret Beckett Margaret Beckett Foreign Secretary 12:33 pm, 28th March 2007

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 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:

"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.


Fenton Robb
Posted on 29 Mar 2007 3:17 pm (Report this annotation)

It is noteworthy that no one asked the Foreign Secretary if the good offices of Red Cross/Red Crescent had been called upon to ensure that the prisoners are being treated according to International Humanitarian Law. Why not?