'Cynicism' on exports to Iraq denied

A SENIOR Foreign Office official denied ministers 'cynically' interpreted arms export guidelines to allow them to sell defence equipment to Iraq, writes David Connett.

The views of military experts whose job it was to vet defence-related exports to Iraq and Iran could be overridden if it was felt wider British interests were at stake, the Scott inquiry was told yesterday.

Sir David Miers, head of the Foreign Office Middle and Near East departments from 1986-1989, said guidelines approved in 1984 which banned exports that 'significantly enhanced' the capability of either country to prolong or exacerbate their war, also allowed for a 'modicum of flexibility'.

In his view, that permitted ministers to take a wider view of British interests. Financial, employment and political considerations could all be taken into account. He denied that his view of the guidelines differed from that of ministers and other officials who had given evidence, and also rejected suggestions by Lord Justice Scott that his interpretation was a 'cynical' one, allowing ministers to come to any view they wanted.

'I don't think the Government was in that frame of mind at all. It was extremely conscientious, and trying all the while to get the right answer.'

The guidelines provided a framework for debate, but in 'marginal' cases there might be other arguments which ministers might regard as overriding, he said.

Sir David, currently Britain's ambassador to the Netherlands, denied MPs asking questions in Parliament about the guidelines were misled when they told they were 'rigorously scrutinised'.

Ministers wanted to relax the rules even further after the ceasefire in 1988. Lord Howe, then Foreign Secretary, did not want to announce such a decision because he had just criticised the Iraqis for gassing Kurdish villagers, Sir David said. However, British companies were given 'encouragement'.

He rejected Lord Justice Scott's suggestion that the silence was 'consistent with an apparent reluctance to publicly announce the true intention of the guidelines since its inception'. The inquiry continues today.

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