Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 53)



  Q40  Mr. Horam: Would you agree, Dr. Hollis?

  Dr. Hollis: Yes. I would also say that we had one or two indications that there was not a well worked out negotiation that was direct, back and forth, because the Foreign Secretary was, convincingly, advising everybody to expect the release to take a lot longer. I got the impression that the release came sooner than Ministers were expecting. As I said earlier, Jon Snow intervened in a way that smoothed the path for the conversation between Sheinwald and Larijani. All of these things indicate to me that the British did not overreact, but that there were moments of extreme nervousness when they might have done. They were being baited; they were being invited to get much angrier and embarrass themselves; and they managed to avoid doing that. The multiple lines of communication that were set in motion produced the result.

  What do we deduce from that? For the future, we deduce that there is a chance of another complex situation emerging, especially given the British position in southern Iraq and Iranian feelings about the British and Iranian connections into southern Iraq. The chances of something spinning out of control in the future are great. Therefore, for those reasons, I would say that Britain needs to move forward with the greatest caution.

  Q41  Andrew Mackinlay: What has troubled me over the past couple of years is that we seem to have been sending mixed messages of variable degrees of indignation to Tehran. I would buttress that comment by saying that the Prime Minister, frequently at Prime Minister's Question Time, has linked the ordnance armaments and deaths of British soldiers—you know, suggesting that the smoking gun goes back to Iran. He has consistently done that, and Defence Secretary Reid did that, too. However, if one looks at Foreign Secretaries Straw and Beckett, they have been much more fudging of this, as have their junior Ministers—Kim Howells, for instance, has said different things at different times. Is not part of the problem that we are not singing with one voice in Whitehall at ministerial level? As I say, we are sending mixed messages. Is that comment fair, or have you identified that problem?

  Sir Richard Dalton: I have not been following what Kim Howells has been saying, or what Margaret Beckett has been saying, as closely as you have. I apologise for saying this, but it was certainly not the case up until March, when I left Tehran, that there were mixed messages going out. What the Prime Minister was saying was reflected in the more detailed work of officials such as myself. As for what has happened since then, what do you think, Rosemary? Have mixed messages been sent?

  Dr. Hollis: I think that in the diplomacy triangle between the United States, Iran and the UK, what the British Prime Minister has said is important—it was much stronger on keeping the option of force on the table. There would be no invasion—he said that repeatedly—but he did not rule out the use of force. That was a big contrast to Jack Straw and, as you know, there were some theories that that was one of the reasons for moving Jack Straw. Now, one could rationalise it as good cop, bad cop, but the fact that the Prime Minister has taken the stand that he has is the key issue, from my point of view.

  Q42  Andrew Mackinlay: I would like to ask a final question on this subject. In recent weeks, it seems to me that, overall, the Iranian Government regime is now emboldened by events. The dust has settled, as it were, so what say you to that?

  Dr. Hollis: Some members of the regime may be emboldened. I have said before that I think that they are over-confident about their regional situation and how events such as this play to their advantage. However, I am aware of a lot of Iranians who are embarrassed, especially by the behaviour of their President in the episode. I am also aware of Iranians who think that they sent out a signal, although I do not believe that it has been received. They think that the signal that they sent was, "This is how to deal with the nuclear issue: use complex lines of communication; not step-by-step `I give you this, you give me that' negotiation but putting a number of items on the table, moving them around, discussing, and then arriving at a joint conclusion." They think that they sent that message in the way in which they handled the business with the British, and that that message is therefore there to be taken up in terms of a new gesture from the EU3, the British and the United States on the nuclear issue.

  Sir Richard Dalton: I think that is too convoluted. I do not think that there is a direct link between this issue and nuclear diplomacy. The naval matter is inherently a rather small issue. It certainly did not humiliate the UK, and I do not think that the Iranian system, at supreme leader level, would regard it as a major act of state that the messages could be applied across the board for Iranian diplomacy, other than the very general ones, "We can kick back too," which we knew anyway, and "We will defend our borders," which we knew anyway, too.

  I do not think that that is going to embolden the Iranians. All the lines of policy action that they are pursuing now in matters that are highly disobliging to the rest of us—in Lebanon over the middle east peace process, or on terrorism, the nuclear issue or Iraq—were set long ago. It was under President Khatami in his last days that the negotiating approach pursued by the P5 and Germany on the nuclear issue was firmly rejected.

  Andrew Mackinlay: Another thing, Sir Richard—

  Chairman: This will be your final question, Mr. Mackinlay.

  Q43  Andrew Mackinlay: I apologise. I am on a roll. Are you satisfied as to the robustness of EU sanctions—just the robustness, not necessarily the prudence—in relation to materials going to Iran? Things often have a dual use. For example, during your time in Iran, some zirconium silicate was held up in Bulgaria on behalf of the EU. That can be used for various parts of the nuclear process. Sanctions have been increased, but are the EU and the UK really serious about them, and are there any flaws or deficiencies in the process?

  Sir Richard Dalton: It is not being done resolutely enough. To achieve success in nuclear diplomacy, should the Iranians decide to negotiate once more, we need four things, and at present we have only about one and a half. The first of those four things is a proper vision leading to some form of process for a regional security arrangement. The second is a set of firmly articulated incentives to Iran—that is the "one" that I said we already have, and there is a lot of that in the May 2006 proposal, but it could be improved in negotiation. The third is a set of real disincentives, and this is the answer to your question.

  The permanent five and Germany are placing huge emphasis on international unity in approaching Iran, in order to give Iran no excuse to try to divide the powers and international institutions with which they are dealing. That has worked, and there is a very firm consensus. However, the cost of that international unity has been weak measures, only slowly applied. So far, those who argue in Iran that, with just the tightening of a belt or two Iran can see this one out, have a lot to point to. The fourth requirement, which we do not yet have, although the Americans are moving gradually in the right direction, is the prospect of serious negotiation between the United States and Iran on a bilateral basis.

  Q44  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Can we turn to the performance of the British sailors and marines and how they were used in Iran? Clearly, the Iranians were fortunate to have a group of people who turned out to be very compliant and did more or less what they were asked by the Iranians and, indeed, thanked their captors on their release. Whether that was due to poor training, morale or a more fundamental problem of discipline in the Navy, we want to find out from the inquiry when it reports. How do you think that it has come across in the middle east? Is it a symptom of a lack of western resolve or a loss of military determination? The pictures that were flashed all around the world cannot have done our reputation much good. What are the diplomatic and military implications?

  Sir Richard Dalton: Can I pass that question to Dr. Hollis?

  Dr. Hollis: Some Iranians have tried to exploit an aspect of this in terms of, "The British are not as strong or as frightening as they used to be," but they have not succeeded totally in making that story stick, in part because those in the region at least know how complicated and muddled the situation is. I have described it twice, so I shall not do it again. The very complex context within which the personnel were taken means that it is not a clear-cut case that they should have behaved in a certain way, come what may. That said, the overall effect was not of professionalism.

  Q45  Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I find that response quite extraordinary. In my limited contacts with people overseas who saw the photographs, they thought, "Well, what has happened to Britain's senior service; what has happened to Nelson's Navy and to British military personnel, who used to hold their heads up high and walk out with their uniforms on?" We would not have thanked our captors in times past. Are you saying that the general collapse in British morale was already played out in those areas, and that this came as no surprise? I am genuinely asking you, because that conflicts with my anecdotal experience when talking to people from overseas who did not quite understand how it had happened to the Royal Navy.

  Dr. Hollis: I do not think that I am disagreeing with you as much as I appear to have done. In terms of professional conduct, stiff upper lip, withstanding pressure and, in particular, having one woman among them, the events did not do the British reputation any good at all—quite the contrary. However, it is long since that the British are seen as weak and as merely helping the Americans. The general perception in the region is that the Iranians would not have dared take the Americans, because they would have been clobbered if they had. We then point out that, if we had clobbered the Iranians, what good would that have done in terms of getting the service personnel back safely? We enter a discussion in which I say there is some level of understanding that the British may have handled this in such a way as to extract their personnel. Did Britain have a very high reputation for strength and for being a power that you don't mess with before that? No, it did not have a very high reputation.

  Q46  Chairman: May I take you to a different international reaction, which was touched on earlier—the remarks by John Bolton? He strongly criticised the British approach, and said that we were pusillanimous, weak, and various less polite adjectives. He said that the Iranians had won a great victory. How much do you think Bolton's view is the view of the US Administration, and how much is it John Bolton being John Bolton? Given that the Americans were so quiet early on in the crisis, was it because we told them to be quiet and they listened or because they did not regard it as being of great significance?

  Dr. Hollis: I think it was John Bolton being John Bolton. I heard, with conviction, from American service personnel, that they wanted the British to hang tough, not to get agitated and not to overreact, and that this could all be resolved peacefully. That was from the US military directly engaged in Iraq.

  Sir Richard Dalton: I think John Bolton was trying to keep alive the dying neo-con agenda for dealing with Iran. He was not approaching this from the point of view of a diplomatic problem that had to be solved, or, rather, a problem that had to be kept diplomatic if at all possible rather than spilling out into anything much worse. He was looking at it purely from the point of view of his idea of geopolitics and the handling of Iran. He and his ilk never established any link between how they would like to have seen Iran dealt with and getting the sailors back.

  Q47  Chairman: I also want to take you to the Security Council. The British Government did not get quite what it wanted in terms of the Security Council resolution. Was that because the Russians watered it down? If so, does that mean that Russia can continue to play that role, in effect softening international pressure on Iran on the nuclear and other issues for the future? Is that likely?

  Sir Richard Dalton: Russia looks at each issue on its merits and decides what its own national interest is in relation to that issue. On this issue, it was not prepared to side either with Iran or the UK on exactly where the capture took place.

  Q48  Chairman: Why would Russia prefer to be perceived to be assisting the Iranians rather than supporting the UK? Is it because Russia-UK relations are so difficult or for other reasons?

  Sir Richard Dalton: It does not surprise me; I do not know the exact reasons in this instance. Nobody gets a blank cheque from Russia nowadays.

  Q49  Chairman: Dr. Hollis, do you have a view on that?

  Dr. Hollis: I am not sure what the Russians' motive was.

  Sir Richard Dalton: On where the Russians are on the nuclear issue generally, I think they are in the right place. They are maintaining their willingness to consider an offshore enrichment facility in which Iran would have a serious interest, and international agreements would guarantee Iran access to the product of that facility for power reactors in Iran, as and when they are built. Secondly, they are aware that Russia bilaterally has leverage with Iran and they are willing to use it, for example in connection with bringing the Bushehr reactor on stream. Thirdly, on general sanctions, they are going to have an eye to their own trade interests, but it should be possible to get them to agree a third round of sanctions, provided that it does not impact too much on Russian traders.

  Q50  Mr. Horam: Sir Richard, you said in your article in The Daily Telegraph that Britain's reputation for fairness and for understanding the middle east must be restored. How could we go about that? You might disagree that it has such a reputation anyway, Dr. Hollis—from what you said, it appeared that you thought it was rather weak these days.

  Sir Richard Dalton: The first thing to do is to recognise that there is a problem and to adjust our performance on middle east issues so that it is more in line with our pretensions. We should not talk about making a major effort to help resolve the middle east peace impasse unless we actually have something to do and something to say that will really contribute. Secondly, on the detail, we need to recognise that the boycott of the Palestinian Government has not been a success. Thirdly, we need to promote a move as soon as we possibly can to dealing with the fundamental issues around the final status of an independent Palestinian state, living in security with Israel. Those are the three main points to which I would draw attention.

  Q51  Mr. Horam: And as regards Iran? Has anything positive emerged that could be helpful to UK-Iran relationships?

  Sir Richard Dalton: I do not understand the question.

  Q52  Mr. Horam: Has anything positive emerged? We have had talks, for example, between Sheinwald and Larijani. Has anything positive emerged out of all of that that we could build on to have a better effect on Iranian politics?

  Sir Richard Dalton: No, I do not think it has. The evidence for that is Margaret Beckett saying that there has to be a review to see whether our relationship, as currently constituted, ought to be continued or modified. If the Foreign Office and No. 10 felt that something positively positive had emerged, there would be a different sort of language.

  Q53  Mr. Horam: The Prime Minister has said that he thinks that something positive has emerged, because of the contacts that have been made at an individual level between UK and Iranian personnel. Presumably, he is thinking about the talks between Sheinwald and Larijani, for example. You would not agree with that, then.

  Sir Richard Dalton: Access to Mr. Larijani has not been a problem in the past. Face-to-face access has always been possible, as with his predecessor, Mr. Rowhani, and, as Sir Nigel Sheinwald is going to Washington, I am not sure whether we have gained much.

  Chairman: I think that we must call an end here. We will be taking evidence later this month on the Iranian nuclear issue, and, to touch on your final points, Sir Richard, we will also be pursuing wider middle east questions.

  Thank you very much, Dr. Hollis and Sir Richard Dalton. The meeting is concluded.

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