Aitken cleared over Iran arms

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The Independent Online
Jonathan Aitken, former Tory defence minister, has been cleared in the "arms to Iran" affair - by a Labour MP.

Martin O'Neill, Labour MP for Clackmannan and chairman of the Commons Trade and Industry select committee, has backed Mr Aitken's claim that he did not know guns from the arms company BMARC, of which he was a non- executive director, were being shipped to Iran despite a Government embargo.

The committee has spent the last few months investigating the affair. Mr O'Neill exonerates Mr Aitken in the committee's report, of which he has already written the draft. It says that, although Mr Aitken was a non-executive director of BMARC when some of the guns were shipped, there is no proof that he knew they were destined for Iran.

Gerald James, the former BMARC chairman, who said Mr Aitken must have been "blind and deaf" not to know, is branded an "unreliable witness" in the draft report.

Other Labour MPs on the committee, however, are "annoyed" that Mr Aitken is not criticised, while Mr James is roundly condemned.

"There is room to doubt that Jonathan Aitken actually did know. But, in my view, he should have known. I for one am very perturbed by the draft report," said one Labour source. "How can it slam Gerald James, seeing as he first told the committee in 1991, during the Supergun inquiry, that naval guns from BMARC went to Iran via Singapore ? His claim was ignored, but he was right."

Mr James said: "I am very angry that they see fit to say this about me, but they seem to have substantiated my main contention that British arms went to Iran. It's a scandal - and Aitken is an irrelevance to it."

Mr Aitken, who resigned as a minister after a series of allegations last year, criticised both Mr James and the media at committee hearings.

"There was no wrong-doing by anyone at BMARC and there was certainly no wrong-doing by me," he said.

The committee has agreed almost half the report, and another meeting is due this week. The report may be published later this month, and members are determined that it will be out before the summer recess.

One source said that "crucial" passages are yet to be discussed, but the verdict on Aitken in the draft report is expected to be approved as the committee has a Conservative majority.

A Tory source said: "This committee will clear Jonathan Aitken. He is not going to be clobbered by the likes of Gerald James and his rum crew.

"Jonathan was the last witness, giving him an opportunity to counter the rubbish said about him. He gave a splendid performance, and he will be very happy with the report."

The Department of Trade and Industry is criticised for granting export licences for the naval guns. The committee has already unanimously agreed to recommend that the DTI be stripped of its responsibility for export control, including the issuing of licences, and that the functions be passed to the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence.

"The DTI comes out of it very badly," said one source. "The report points out that the DTI has a fundamental conflict of interests. It is responsible for promoting exports and the control of exports. That has to change."

The investigation was triggered last June by a surprise Commons statement by Michael Heseltine, then President of the Board of Trade and now Deputy Prime Minister, confirming evidence that BMARC guns had gone to Iran.

The draft report says the committee was unable to carry out as thorough an investigation as needed because of lack of resources and research support.

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