HC Deb 21 February 1989 vol 147 cc839-46 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Sir Geoffrey Howe)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about Britain's relations with Iran. As the House knows, it has been our purpose to try to restore a normal relationship with the Government of Iran. I have no doubt that that was right. Iran is an important country in the region. Britain has significant interests there; and Britain is a permanent member of the Security Council which has responsibility for international peace and security.

Even so, the decision to reopen our embassy in Tehran last December was taken in full knowledge of the difficulties involved, including the continued imprisonment of British citizens, Nicholas Nicola and Roger Cooper, and the detention of British hostages in the Lebanon. On our side, we conducted matters prudently and carefully. There were signs, not least in the two meetings I have had with the Iranian Foreign Minister, that the Iranian Government also wished to re-establish a stable relationship. On 26 December, one British subject detained in Iran, Nicholas Nicola, was set free. More recently, however, matters have taken a serious turn for the worse.

On 14 February, Ayatollah Khomeini made a statement inciting Moslems to violence against Mr. Salman Rushdie, the author, and the publishers of "The Satanic Verses". That was totally incompatible with Iran's obligations under the United Nations charter, and with respect for our sovereignty and the rule of law. We protested in the strongest terms and put an immediate freeze on the intended gradual build-up of our staff in Tehran.

Following Ayatollah Khomeini's original statement, there were clear signs that some in the Iranian Government wished to distance themselves from the threat of violence. On 17 February President Khamenei said that if Mr. Rushdie apologised the threat to his life might he withdrawn. As the House knows, Mr. Rushdie issued a statement at the weekend apologising for any distress caused to Moslems by his book.

However, on Sunday last, Ayatollah Khomeini made a further statement, renewing most explicitly the threat to Mr. Rushdie's life. The whole House will realise that that statement put paid to the prospect of maintaining normal dealings with Iran. It was an attack, not only on the author and publishers of the book, but on the fundamental freedoms for which our society stands: the freedom of expression, religious tolerance and the rule of law.

In Brussels yesterday, I discussed these death threats with Foreign Ministers of the European Community. All the Governments of the Twelve fully shared our sense of outrage at the incitement to murder. The Twelve Foreign Ministers issued a statement, whose text has been placed in the Library of the House, in which they rejected Khomeini's threats as an affront to international standards of behaviour which could not be tolerated. We all reaffirmed our commitment to ensure the protection of the life and property of our citizens. We agreed and announced two immediate steps: suspension of any exchanges of high-level official visits between Iran and our countries and the recall of heads of mission from Tehran. At the same time, the Interior Ministers of the Twelve have been asked to consider urgently the practical steps necessary to restrict the freedom of movement of Iranian diplomats in Community countries.

In those circumstances, the Government have concluded that, in our own particular case, it is neither possible nor sensible to conduct a normal relationship with Iran. We have therefore decided to withdraw all the United Kingdom-based staff from our embassy in Tehran. The Iranian Government have been asked to withdraw their charge d'affaires and the one other Iranian-based member of his staff from London. I realise of course, that this decision inevitably reduces our ability to intervene directly on behalf of Roger Cooper and the hostages in Lebanon. The whole House will share my sympathy with their families at this moment. We have asked the Swedish Government once again to undertake the protection of British interests, and are grateful for their prompt agreement to do so.

Britain is able to have normal relations with many countries that do not share our ideals or democratic way of life. We were ready to do the same with Iran. But we can do so only if Iran respects accepted standards of international behaviour—in particular, respect for the sovereignty and law of other states as laid down in the charter of the United Nations. Iran has disregarded those standards in the most flagrant and menacing way. The response of the Government and of the other member countries of the European Community is firm and clear. Before normal relations can be restored, Iran must meet her international obligations—in particular, by renouncing the use or threat of violence against citizens of other countries.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Her Majesty's Opposition fully support the action taken by the Government in freezing relations with Iran. We welcome the prompt and positive supporting action taken by our partners in the European Community, and now by Sweden, as a demonstration that the utterances of the ayatollah are rightly regarded not simply as an unacceptable threat to the life of one man but as a menace to all civilised nations.

In this free democracy, authors must have the right, within the law, to write and publish freely. In this free democracy, Moslems offended and affronted by what has been published have the right, within the law, to give full expression to their concern, their distress and their sense of serious affront to their religious convictions. I welcome the statements made by the leaders of the Moslem community in Britain urging adherents of their faith to voice their feelings in a responsible and law-abiding fashion. Dr. Zaki Badawi, the chairman of the Imams amd Moslems Council, has stated: Any incitement to violence would be contrary to our faith. It would be slander to imply that Ayatollah Khomeini is an accepted and recognised voice of Moslem opinion. Throughout wide areas of the Islamic world he and his regime are regarded with fear and loathing. It is essential that the world community stands up against threats and terror from that regime. We recognise the apprehension that must be felt about these latest developments by the family of Roger Cooper, held on trumped-up charges in Iran, and by the families of the British hostages held in Lebanon. We urge the Government to continue to do all they can in these exceptionally difficult circumstances to secure their release, but at the same time we recognise that the Government had no alternative to taking the action that they have taken.

Iran should know that she cannot hold the freeing of these prisoners as some kind of bait to obtain improved relations with Britain. Rather, her readiness to secure their release must be regarded as a test of her fitness for such improved relations. The House of Commons must make it clear that Iran's violation of the fabric of world order is utterly unacceptable. She will have to earn the right to be received back into the comity of civilised nations.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The whole House will be extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his unqualified support for the position of the Government. It is important for those in Iran to recognise the unity with which this House speaks on this matter and, beyond that, to recognise the prompt unity with which the European Community has spoken on it. It is our intention to seek as widely as we can support for that position from other groups of nations around the world. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for explaining that there are many Moslem countries that regard the statements of Khomeini with as much distaste as we do. We shall be seeking support from them as well.

It was entirely correct for the right hon. Gentleman to reaffirm the right, within the law—he emphasised twice the phrase "within the law"—to publish, and the right, within the law, to express affront and dismay, in whatever way one may please, at publications that one dislikes. But he was right also to underline the necessity for all people in this country, of the Moslem faith and of others, to respect the rule of law—to respect its value to them, as to others—and we welcome the statements made by Moslem leaders in this country to that effect.

Mr. Peter Temple-Morris (Leominster)

Will my right hon. Friend accept again that he had no alternative but to take the measures that he has against Iran in the present intolerable situation? Will he further agree that the most important thing about the measures is that they are concerted? Finally, will he agree that if they are to succeed—and they can succeed here—continued international unity and combined strength of action are absolutely essential?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I underline absolutely what he said. One topic which we discussed further with our German colleagues in Frankfurt today was the need to secure the widest possible support from the international community for the action that we have taken.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Will the Foreign Secretary accept that we join in complete support of the action that he has felt it necessary to take in respect of the statements from Iran? Will he also accept that we welcome the swift united action by the 12 members of the European Community? This is the swiftest action that we have seen on an international matter for some time. We hope that it is a trend for the future. Will the Foreign Secretary also accept that the public will be greatly relieved that the Moslem leaders in this country have been so explicit in their statements, which deserve wider coverage, and their disassociation from the views of Ayatollah Khomeini?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support. As he says, the swift united response of the European Community—swifter and more united than on earlier occasions—demonstrates the growing ability of the Community to take effective united action on political matters. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I also welcome the statements made by Moslem leaders in this country. All protests and activities in this country must be conducted within the framework of the law.

Sir Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

While joining absolutely in the united condemnation of the ayatollah's threats to British lives, may I remind my right hon. and learned Friend that many of us continue to admire the Persian people, as distinct from their leader, and believe that Iran has a role to play in the stability and peace of the middle east? Will my right hon. and learned Friend therefore send Mr. Basti out of the country with a message that we are ready to assist Iran in recovering from the damage of war, but only when its leader returns to civilised standards and abandons his threats to British people?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making plain both parts of the argument. His last sentence underlines the view of the whole House about the need for a return to compliance with accepted international standards. He is also right to remind the House that there are within Iran and within the Iranian Government people who have been striving hard to bring Iran back to the path of normal behaviour. That is the evidence of my conversations with Mr. Velayati over the past few months. It is for that reason that we have all been hoping that there would be a settlement on that more stable course. It has not proved to be the case. I am grateful for my hon. Friend's support for the action that we have had to take.

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

The Foreign Secretary will know that his statement and the actions taken yesterday are most welcome to all of us who have been deeply concerned about the life and safety of my constituent, Salman Rushdie. However, will he take the opportunity to confirm that the decision was made not simply on grounds of international law and independent sovereignty but because we uphold in this country the fundamental principle that there is a freedom to write and to speak peacefully, and that that freedom is not only one of the elements of a democratic society but is the best guarantee that we have of the free and full development of individual cultures and religions, including the Moslem community in this country?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is right to make both points. The offence against which the action is being taken was incitement to murder, which is contrary to every law, national and international. The action is also taken in plain defence, in the words of the right hon. Member for Gorton, of the right within the law of freedom of speech and the right within the law of freedom of protest.

Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend noted the sharp contrast between the venomous and inflammatory outpourings of the ayatollah and the responsible caution of most other Islamic leaders, some of whom may well find parts of the Rushdie book objectionable? Will he conclude from this distinction that Iran is isolated in the Islamic as well as the international community and that it will remain a pariah among nations until it stops its evil habit of issuing incitements to violence?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Again, my hon. Friend makes the right point. He is correct to draw attention to the fact that there are many leaders in the Islamic world who would not dream of associating themselves with the violence and language used by the ayatollah and who share our sense of distress at that while nevertheless feeling some dismay about the book itself. We very much value the support of that moderation among Moslem leaders.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Does the Secretary of State accept that religious groups are entitled to argue against publications but are not entitled to impose censorship on the rest of the nation? Will he also make clear that the Government will not renew relations with Iran until an apology is forthcoming from the Iranian Government and it is made absolutely clear that they accept that they cannot intimidate and interfere in the affairs of another sovereign state?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman is right on both points, and I do not often have the opportunity of saying that. In particular, he is right in believing that, before normal relations can be restored, Iran must meet her international obligations by renouncing the use or threat of violence against citizens of other countries.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

I understand the reasons for this decision, but is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there will be some sadness about the decision of the United Kingdom Government not to leave a nominal presence in Tehran if only to give encouragement to the pragmatists and moderates within the Iranian Government and also, of course, to help the case of Roger Cooper and the three British hostages held in Beirut?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

One had to take into account the points raised by my hon. Friend in balancing the right position throughout one's management of this affair, but I have no doubt in concluding—and I think the whole House will agree with me—that at this stage, in the face of this latest, wholly unjustified threat, we had to take the steps that we have taken.

Mr. Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

Will the Foreign Secretary join me in acknowledging the positive and important contribution that the Moslem community has made to the development of good community relations in Britain? Will he take great care in the statements that he makes, in this House and outside, to ensure that none of the hostility and aggression that is directed against a foreign power can be seen to be directed against British citizens who happen to be Moslems, and who have lived here peacefully and happily for many centuries, mindful of the fact that good community relations is a fragile flower that needs to be protected?

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman therefore join me in condemning an article which appeared in the News of the World this Sunday, written by a Mr. Woodrow Wyatt, who I understand is a close confidant of the Prime Minister, which in my view is an incitement to racial hatred? Will he undertake to refer the matter to his right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General with a view to prosecuting Mr. Wyatt? I do not ask for him to be burnt or sentenced to death—just prosecuted within the law in the interests of good community relations.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

No doubt those responsible for enforcing the law will take such action as they think appropriate in the light of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, but I think he will agree with me that this is hardly the day on which I should start condemning publications without having read them. He is right to emphasise the legitimate worries of the Moslem community in this country. The whole House will join me in emphasising their right to enjoy the freedoms of this country with tolerance from the rest of the community. It is also right, as he will understand, for those who lead Britain's Moslems to respond, as they have, with tolerance and authority to prevent the risk of violence from either side.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Although this House regards terrorist threats issued by the ayatollah as totally unacceptable, many of us will regret that they should have been occasioned by publication of a work which is clearly and understandably offensive to our Moslem friends. Will my right hon. and learned Friend continue, by every means available to him, to seek the early release of Roger Cooper, a British citizen who has been detained for more than three years without charge and without trial, and will lie indicate to the Iranian Government that, if they wish to resume normal relations with other countries, the early release of Roger Cooper will be an essential and good demonstration of that wish?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern with that case. He has represented the interests of his constituent and his family very clearly, and he is right to remind us of the need to continue to do all that we can to secure Mr. Cooper's release and to emphasise to the Iranian Government the points that he has emphasised. The fact that we no longer have direct relations with Iran will not prevent us from pressing that case as vigorously as ever.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I must have regard to the fact that today is an Opposition day. I will allow questions to go on for a further five minutes. We then have a ten-minute Bill motion, followed by the main debate.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Monklands, West)

Does the Foreign Secretary accept that the fair and honourable statement that he has just made increases concern about wider issues involving relations with Iran, including the proliferation of chemical weapons? Will he assure the House that that remains a major priority for Britain—for instance, at the Security Council?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

Yes. The hon. Gentleman's interest in that important topic is well known. We shall continue to press the case for a worldwide ban on chemical weapons. The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that the other decision made by the European Community Foreign Affairs Council yesterday was to agree on the proscription of export of eight chemical precursors, and on the need for further action by the Community along those lines.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Did the Council consider the implications for trade relations of the closures of embassies and diplomatic outposts? In particular, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the closure of embassies will mean that no Iranian business man or Government representative can visit any Community country without obtaining a visa from a third country? Did my right hon. and learned Friend obtain the agreement of the Council to operate in that way, and in particular did he obtain the agreement of the German representatives?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I think that my hon. Friend has misunderstood the precise position. The other Community countries are not closing their embassies, but are recalling their heads of mission. The German ambassador is already in his country. The Germans are recalling their charge as well, but it will still be possible for visas to be granted to countries with representative missions in Iran.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

We all condemn the odious threat issued by the ayatollah, and appreciate that the vast majority of British Moslems do not recognise that call. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that decisions likely to be made by Islamic Foreign Ministers meeting in Riyadh in early March could escalate a difficult and dangerous situation? Will he, with the Home Secretary, urgently seek a basis for agreement whereby protests and demonstrations by British Moslems can be brought to an end? That would influence Moslems overseas and, hopefully, isolate the ayatollah and those around him, leading him to withdraw his odious call for Mr. Rushdie's execution.

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point when he says that the Moslem community in this country, while free to exercise their right to protest, should do so with the utmost restraint, coupling that action—as their leaders have done—with a repudiation of threats of violence in cases of this kind. I hope that they will make representations to that effect to the countries that will be represented at the Riyadh conference. We shall certainly urge Moslem leaders, at that conference and elsewhere, to repudiate the ayatollah's threats and to support the cause of moderation.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend note that, in my view, he is quite right to make a complete break in diplomatic relations with Tehran, as it is impossible for us to have dealings with an abhorrent regime as long as the Ayatollah Khomeini's view seems to hold sway there? Will he also note that during the Iran-Iraq war Moslems in countries other than Iran did not rise up, as the ayatollah urged them to do, and that that gives some indication of how little weight his word appears to carry among sensible Moslems throughout the world?

Finally, will my right hon. and learned Friend try to take advantage of the feeling among Moslem countries in the United Nations, where our permanent representative did so much to bring about the ending of the Iran-Iraq war?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for paying tribute to the work done by our representative in the United Nations which made it sensible for us to try to establish normal relations with Iran. He is also right to emphasise the fact that many Moslem leaders and followers in Iran and elsewhere do not subscribe to the odious threats that have been uttered, and for that reason we look to the encouragement of all such moderate leaders.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Should not we be grateful to other Governments and people in the Community who understand that the appeasement of evil and tyranny is not the answer and who yesterday gave their backing to what has now been done? Is it not the case that diplomatic relations have not yet been broken formally, and that if there are repeated calls for a British citizen to be murdered there are other reserve weapons which Britain, in concert with other countries in the EEC and possibly other western powers, including the United States of America and Japan, can use? Will the Home Secretary at some stage make a statement to the House so that we can be perfectly satisfied that everything possible is being done within the rule of law to give full protection to the person in question and make sure his life is safe from those who would be willing to carry out the criminal orders of the rulers of Iran?

Sir Geoffrey Howe

The House will be glad to welcome the hon. Gentleman's tribute to the important work done by the police. He can be sure that the author in question is receiving protection from the Metropolitan police and that the publishers have received full advice about their own security. It is very important for it to be known that the law will be upheld in Britain. The hon. Gentleman can ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary any further questions when he has the opportunity to do so.

Diplomatic relations have not been broken off formally, but the effect of the decisions I have announced is to deprive them of any substance, which is the right conclusion. The hon. Gentleman is also right to underline the fact that if any further action were to be taken, the international community would want to consider whether more severe action was appropriate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry not to have been able to call all the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who wished to ask questions, but I shall certainly bear them in mind on future occasions when we return to the matter.