British House of Commons upsets European apple cart against Iran

A rebellious House of Commons here has pulled the Persian rug from beneath President Carter's feet. It has balked at implementing even the modest West European plan for backdating sanctions against Iran to Nov. 4 (the date the US Embassy in Tehran was seized).

Instead members of Parliament have astonished their European allies and deeply disappointed the American by applying sanctions only to new contracts. Their May 19 decision came just one day after the Thatcher government joined with other European Community (EC) nations in Naples to impose retroactive sanctions -- canceling all contracts between Iran and firms in EC countries signed since November -- and to prohibit new contracts.

The United States has originally hoped European countries would cancel all trade with Iran.

Britain's shattering of European solidarity has numerous implications here and abroad. Besides embarrassing Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it further weakens relationships between Britain and the other eight EC countries, already clouded by internecine rows over agriculture prices and Britain's contribution to the budget.

A generally tight-lipped spokesman at the Foreign Office suggested the sanctions agreement might now have to be renegotiated.

"No doubt there will be a meeting with our [European] partners on this question," he said. None of the nine EC countries wants to be left out in the cold -- chopping off trade that other countries still maintain. So a community-wide reversals now seems possible.

West Germany, however, has said that it will abide by the retroactive sanction plan.

The row also shows the strength of feeling about the futility of Western-imposed sanctions, which many think will just push Iran into closer ties with the Soviet bloc. Britain, having just emerged from 14 years of much-breached sanctions against Rhodesia, agreed only reluctantly to President Carter's initial sanction request.

Third, it shows the strength of the conservative "backbench" junior members of Parliament. In recent years they have become increasingly obstreperous and independent of the party line. Even with a solid majority in the House, the Prime Minister now cannot guarantee to deliver what her ministers agree on.

Fourth, it marks a sharp blip in the otherwise smooth curve of rising prestige for Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington. Many observers refuse to see in this reversal the long-awaited "U-turn" in government policy.

But they note that Lord Carrington, who sits in the House of Lords rather than in the Commons, was not sufficiently aware of the complex flow of House business and failed to foresee the strength of the rebellion.

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