Government firm broke UN weapons embargo

Arms to Iran: Royal Ordnance defied guidelines designed to curb Gulf war
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The Independent Online

Westminster Correspondent

A company owned by the British government sent arms to Iran in defiance of declared policy and contrary to a United Nations embargo.

Documents sent to the Independent show that in 1986, Royal Ordnance was supplying Iran with propellant for firing shells. This was despite Geoffrey Howe, the then Foreign Secretary, having published guidelines restricting weapons exports to Iran and Iraq in October 1985.

The disclosure will raise the political temperature about the Government turning a blind eye to arms sales to Iran and Iraq, which is already high with a major legal appeal on the issue set to begin today. In 1992, three executives of Ordtec, a Reading-based company, were convicted of supplying artillery fuses to Iraq. They have always claimed this was done with the knowledge of the intelligence agencies.

Two weeks ago, Stephen Byers, Labour MP for Wallsend, wrote to Customs and Excise demanding an inquiry into Royal Ordnance and Iran. He accompanied his letter with 35 pages of documents, some of which have seen by the Independent. Copies are also thought to have been sent to the Scott Inquiry into arms to Iraq.

On 25 October 1985, the Government published its rules on exports to Iran and Iraq. The code, which had been in existence, behind the scenes for some time and had been prompted by the UN's desire not to prolong the Iran-Iraq war, then at its height, said Britain would maintain its "consistent refusal to supply any lethal equipment to either side", and would not "approve orders for any defence equipment which, in our view, would significantly enhance the capability of either side".

Despite that, Royal Ordnance, from its factory at Bridgwater in Somerset, armed Iran. On 4 June 1986, according to its ship's manifest, the Danish registered Jotum set sail for Iran. On board were 104 cases containing 2,362kg of tetryl, a high-explosive used in shells. The consignee was given as Bank Markazi, Tehran, Iran.

The ship was loaded with explosives from other manufacturers in Europe. From Holland, Muiden Chemie supplied 40,000kg of smokeless propellant powder. From Belgium, Gechem sent quantities of primers and propellant.

A month later, Royal Ordnance made another shipment to Iran. This time, the Gritt Clipper set sail, with 65,000kg of brixal powder, an explosive, on board. According to the manifest the consignee was a company in Athens. However, a telex to Scandinavian Commodity, the agent that put the deals together, reveals the true destination was Iran. The manifest describes the boxes of brixal as bearing the reference 30842/1-1401. The telex from Bank Markazi confirming the order, says the drums had the reference 30842/1- 1401. Any doubt about the cargo was dispelled by another telex which gives the ultimate buyer as the National Defence Industrial Organisation in Iran.

The documents, which are now understood to be being studied by Customs, pose awkward questions for the Government - not least for Michael Heseltine, who, as Defence Secretary, was technically the owner of Royal Ordnance at the time. The company was not privatised until April 1987.