Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2007
Q40 Mr. Horam: Would you agree, Dr.
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 soldiersyou 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 MinistersKim
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
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 importantit
was much stronger on keeping the option of force on the table.
There would be no invasionhe said that repeatedlybut
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
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 usin
Lebanon over the middle east peace process, or on terrorism, the
nuclear issue or Iraqwere 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
Chairman: This will be your final question,
Q43 Andrew Mackinlay: I apologise.
I am on a roll. Are you satisfied as to the robustness of EU sanctionsjust
the robustness, not necessarily the prudencein 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 Iranthat 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
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 allquite 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
Q46 Chairman: May I take you to a
different international reaction, which was touched on earlierthe
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
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. Hollisfrom 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
Sir Richard Dalton: I do not understand
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.