» Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Middle East

Asked to clarify the Prime Minister’s remarks claiming that Hezbollah’s weapons had been supplied by Iran and were very similar to weapons used by militants in Basra, the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman (PMOS) said that there were a range of weapons being used in Lebanon against Israel and Israeli forces. The point that the Prime Minister had been making was that he had serious concerns, concerns which he had highlighted after the Hampton Court summit, about weaponry in Basra being of Iranian design. Those concerns had not declined since Hampton Court, in fact the reverse. Therefore the substantive point he was making was simply highlighting the link between Iran, Hezbollah forces in Lebanon and militants in Basra.

Asked if he had not being saying that they were the same weapons, because there didn’t seem to be any evidence for that, the PMOS said that there was clear evidence that the weaponry used by Hezbollah was linked to Iran, equally there was clear evidence that weapons being used in Basra were from Iran. So there was a clear concern. Asked if there was any deeper concern than that, the PMOS repeated that, as the Prime Minister had said after Hampton Court, what concerned us in Basra was that the make up of the weaponry was of Iranian design.

Asked how the UK could continue to support Israeli actions given that they were now bombing bridges, the PMOS said that this wasn’t a question of us saying that one type of operation was right or wrong. We should recognise how this conflict had started. It had started when Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped and those holding them had refused to return them both in Gaza and in Lebanon. It had also started when rockets were fired from Lebanon into Israel. Therefore the Prime Minister’s point was that simply calling for one side to stop wasn’t going to bring about a ceasefire. The problem was also that the leader of Hezbollah had shown no sign at all that he was willing to de-escalate his activities, or those of Hezbollah, quite the reverse. What we needed to do was create the circumstances in which both sides might be prepared to step back. Unilateral calls for a ceasefire weren’t going to work.

Put to him that the Prime Minister had yesterday been referring to weapons rather than source of weapons and asked if that position had now changed, the PMOS said that for obvious reasons he wasn’t going to get into specifics. He was saying that the key point was that we had deep concerns about the situation in Basra and weaponry that was being used there being sourced from Iran. We had equally deep concerns about weaponry being used by Hezbollah. The point was where these weapons were coming from. They appeared to be coming from Iran.

Put to him that there was a fear that with this confusion created by the Prime Minister as to the nature of Iran’s involvement might have a similar affect as claims about WMD had in the Iraq conflict, and as the Liberal Democrats had suggested it just end up looking like spin, the PMOS said that he didn’t think anyone in the region seriously questioned the view that Iran had supplied Hezbollah. Our concerns about Iran and weapons in Basra went back to Hampton Court and were on the record from that time. Indeed we had had concerns prior to Hampton Court it was simply that the Prime Minister chose to articulate them then after previous representations had been ignored.

Asked if we were therefore saying that now was not the time for diplomacy and we might as well give up until both sides had run out of steam, the PMOS said that he emphatically did not agree with that summary. We had strongly supported the UN and strongly put on the agenda the idea of an international force as a possible medium term solution to this situation. We had strongly supported the EU and Javier Solana’s mission. We looked forward to the report to the UN later this week, and looked forward to what would happen when Condoleezza Rice visited the region. So the diplomatic effort was there. What we had to be realistic about was that unless we began to see the conditions set down by G8 being met, then, whilst of course we wanted an immediate stop to the conflict, it was unlikely that would take place. We had to be realistic about that.

Put to him that it had been suggested that the US didn’t want a ceasefire but were happy to see Hezbollah pounded into submission, the PMOS pointed to the effort that had gone on at the G8 to analyse the problem properly, not just in a one sided way, and to set out the conditions that both sides should meet and try and bring the conflict to an end. Again a unilateral process wasn’t going to work, you had to have it on both sides.

Asked about any diplomatic activity the Prime Minister might have engaged in on this in the last 24 hours, the PMOS said that we were at the point where giving a running commentary wouldn’t be helpful to the process, but it was true to say that we were in intensive discussions with all sides on this.

Asked for a reaction to comments yester by Kim Howells that Israeli’s were terrorising civilians, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had said repeatedly, Israeli actions must be proportional, what we had also said was that there must be restraint on all sides. He was sorry to keep coming back to this, but the important point was to ask the question, where were the signs that Hezbollah were in any way calling for this to stop? We had to see both sides moving towards a cessation. To do that you had to create the conditions in which both sides would do that. Put to him that significantly more Lebanese civilians had died than Israeli civilians, the PMOS said that as the Prime Minister had said in his press conference with Kofi Annan in St Petersburg, we all wanted civilian deaths to be avoided and that was undoubtedly our position, but equally on the broader point we had to try and find a way of getting a cessation.

Briefing took place at 9:00 | Search for related news

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