I thank the Foreign Secretary for giving me advance sight of his statement. Let me start by passing on the apologies of the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry, that she cannot be here to respond herself, but as many will know, she is still at home recovering from the injuries she received after being knocked off her bike on Friday. I am sure that we all wish her well.
May I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to the outgoing Minister for Europe and the Americas, Sir Alan Duncan ? He has served the Foreign Office with diligence and distinction in bad times and good, and he can certainly be forgiven for feeling that the bad times are about to return. We thank him for the spirit in which he engaged in our parliamentary debates and we look forward to his continuing to make those contributions from the Back Benches. I would also like to add that, in the unfortunate event that this is the Foreign Secretary’s final appearance in his current role, we thank him too for the welcome change in tone and the very welcome change in work ethic that he has brought to that great office of state, not least on the issue of Iran, which we are discussing today.
Iran’s actions in recent weeks in the strait of Hormuz have been utterly unacceptable and should be condemned from all sides. Our thoughts, first and foremost, are with the 23 crew members on board the Stena Impero, and of course their families, who are facing this period of concern and uncertainty. We all know why these events have been taking place. Just like in the tanker war in the 1980s, a simple and ruthless logic is being applied by the Iranian hard-liners who are now in the ascendancy in Tehran, just as they were 30 years ago. That logic simply says, “If you try and stop our oil supplies, we will stop yours.” This escalation of tit-for-tat rhetoric and action has been sadly predictable and to some extent inevitable since the United States walked away from the Iran nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions not limited to the US but in theory applying to any company or country that continues to deal with Iran. I say “in theory” because, as we all know, countries such as China that are powerful enough to ignore the Trump Administration’s demands have continued to import oil and gas from Iran while Washington turns a blind eye.
This brings us to the specific issue of the seizure of the Grace 1 oil tanker and the unacceptable retaliatory action that Iran has taken against Stena Impero. We know from the Spanish newspaper El País that the US told the Madrid Government 48 hours in advance that Grace 1 was headed for the Iberian peninsula, which could also explain why, 36 hours in advance, the Gibraltar Government introduced new legislation to shore up the legal basis for the seizure taking place in their waters. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm whether the US was also the source of our information regarding the tanker’s course, whether the US Administration asked us to seize it, and whether their primary basis for that request was that the tanker’s destination was Syria or that its origin was Iran? If it is correct that we knew a full two days in advance that the action was going to be taken, why on earth, a full seventeen days later, was a British-flagged tanker left so hopelessly unprotected in the strait of Hormuz? Anyone with any understanding of the issue could see exactly how the Iranians would respond to the seizure of their own tanker. When the measures the Foreign Secretary has announced today, which are welcome, could have been put in place a full 20 days before now, why were the Government’s eyes so patently off the crystal ball?
While I would like the Foreign Secretary to go into more practical detail about how the Government plan to resolve the Grace 1-Stena Impero impasse, we must also address the wider question: how do we de-escalate the tension with Iran, stop this tit-for-tat cycle of actions, and get the nuclear deal back on track? We need to use the deal as the foundation, which it previously promised to be, for addressing all the other concerns we have about Iran, not least the continued detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and other British dual nationals.
Setting aside the need to enforce sanctions, with which we wholeheartedly agree, against the Assad regime, will the Foreign Secretary tell us what the Government are doing to persuade the Trump Administration to drop their sanctions against Iran? Those sanctions breach the international agreement that we, the US and other countries worked so hard to achieve and have given the hard-liners in Tehran the excuse they have always craved to return to the strategy of isolation and aggression and to breach the terms of the nuclear agreement. That agreement is one of the great diplomatic achievements of the current century, and we must all strive to get it back on track before this escalation of tension reaches the point of no return.