Iran Focus: London, Mar. 29 British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Iran on Wednesday that London was going to ratchet up the pressure to ensure the release of 15 of its sailors and marines who were captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the Iran-Iraq waterway last week. The following is the text of Blairs remarks to the House of Commons during Prime Ministers Question Time: Iran Focus
London, Mar. 29 British Prime Minister Tony Blair warned Iran on Wednesday that London was going to ratchet up the pressure to ensure the release of 15 of its sailors and marines who were captured by Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the Iran-Iraq waterway last week.
The following is the text of Blairs remarks to the House of Commons during Prime Ministers Question Time:
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): There can be no excuse for Iran taking our Royal Navy personnel captive in Iraqi waters and holding them prisoner. They should be released immediately. The Prime Minister said that negotiations were entering a different phase. While he clearly must not say anything that jeopardises our personnel, can he tell us what that might involve?
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I am sure that it is the position of everyone in this House that our thoughts are with our servicemen and the servicewoman and their families. Their safe return is our paramount concern.
However, let me be very clear as to what has happened here. These personnel were patrolling in Iraqi waters under a United Nations mandate. Their boarding and checking of the Indian merchant vessel was routine. There was no justification whatever, therefore, for their detention; it was completely unacceptable, wrong and illegal. We had hoped to see their immediate release. This has not happened. It is now time to ratchet up the diplomatic and international pressure in order to make sure that the Iranian Government understand their total isolation on this issue.
This morning, we published the details of the exact co-ordinates and position of our forces when detained. They were 1.7 nautical miles within Iraqi territorial waters. The master of the civilian merchant vessel has confirmed this. Initially, on Saturday, the Iranian Government gave us their co-ordinates for the incident. Those co-ordinates turned out to confirm that the vessel was indeed within Iraqi waters. After this was pointed out to them, they subsequently gave a different set of co-ordinates, this time within Iranian waters.
We are now in contact with all our key allies and partners to explain the incontrovertible fact that the seizure of the 15 British personnel was utterly without foundation and to step up the pressure on the Iranian Government to deliver their immediate release.
Mr. Cameron: I know that the whole House, and I believe the country, will be grateful for that very full answer. As the Prime Minister said, our service personnel were operating under a UN mandate. Does he agree that, as a result, the UN should make it crystal clear to Iran that the present situation is completely unacceptable? Can he tell us the steps that he is taking to mobilise support in the UN and among our allies in the EU and NATO, and among sympathetic Gulf states, to maximise the pressure on Iran?
The Prime Minister: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support. We have been speaking extensively to all our key allies and partners. I spoke this morning to Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey, who has been in touch with the Iranian Government. The German Chancellor this afternoon in her speech to the European Parliament will speak on behalf of the European Union, as Germany has the presidency, and make it clear that the European Union as a whole finds the situation entirely unacceptable and believes that these people should be released. We are also in close contact with our partners and other members of the United Nations Security Council, and of course, next week the UK assumes the presidency of the UN Security Council.
We are in touch with everyone within Europe, NATO, the United Nations and our key allies out in the Gulf region. We will do everything we can to make the Iranian Government realise that this is a situation that can only result in one sensible and fair outcomethe release of people who were merely doing their job under a United Nations mandate.
Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister says that there is absolutely no doubt that when our service personnel were taken, they were in Iraqi territorial waters. Given that UK forces are operating all the time in Iraqi waters and they are all operating under a UN mandate, will he make sure that they have clear rules of engagement? [ Interruption. “>
The Prime Minister: No, I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of rules of engagement, because I think that it is important that we deal with it. First, I should make it absolutely clear that the rules of engagement do allow our forces to take whatever measures are necessary in their own self-defence. However, in my view, it was entirely sensible that those on the spot conducted themselves and behaved in the way that they did. They were coming down off the merchant civilian vessel, having checked it, and they were then surrounded by six Iranian vessels, which were heavily armed. If they had engaged in military combat at that stage, there would undoubtedly have been severe loss of life. I think that they took the right decision and did what was entirely sensible. Of course, we always keep the rules of engagement under constant review to make sure that we are carrying out our functions and protecting our people properly, but my understanding is that those who were out there and patrolling these waters believed that the rules of engagement are right.
It is important that we understand one another additional fact: by the time HMS Cornwall knew that our forces had been detained unlawfully by the Iranians, they were in Iranian waters, and again military engagement would have put a lot of lives at risk. I think that they took the right decision, and it is important that such decisions are left to people on the ground.
Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): May I add my congratulations to those who have been responsible for making such progress in Northern Ireland? In relation to Iran, I content myself simply by offering my support to the Government in their efforts to ensure the early release of our marines and sailors.