Britain, ‘the Lesser Satan’, returns to Iran
London - When Iranian revolutionary guards in 2007 seized 15 British sailors and marines in the northern Gulf off Iraq near the Iranian border, British diplomats in Tehran persuaded London to take a “softly, softly” approach. But Iran’s feathers were soon ruffled as Tony Blair, the British prime minister, promised a “new phase” of pressure and appeared to accuse Iran of lying over where the sailors had been seized, which the British insisted was in Iraqi waters.
Blair did exactly what the Tehran-based diplomats feared: He angered Iranians across the spectrum, made the matter a political football amid factions in Iran and gave Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the chance to milk the publicity. The sailors’ confessions were transmitted around the world before the president, in an “act of mercy”, returned them to Britain in new suits.
It is hard to imagine more theatrical diplomatic relations than those between Iran and the United Kingdom. The recent reopening of the two embassies — closed in 2011 after the British mission in Tehran was ransacked by demonstrators protesting against new sanctions — was not short of incident.
Philip Hammond, only the second British foreign secretary in Tehran since the 1979 revolution, found slogans such as “Death to England” on the walls despite the renovation of the compound. In London, a senior female British diplomat, Deborah Bronnert, arrived at the Iranian embassy without a headscarf, delighting opposition Iranian exiles and giving ammunition to conservatives in Tehran to fire at the government of President Hassan Rohani in the wake of July’s nuclear agreement.
Back in Tehran, Hammond was cautious in describing the reopening as a step towards building “confidence and trust between two great nations”. He recalled Britain purchasing “this beautiful compound” in 1869, thousands of Iranians taking sanctuary there in 1906 during Iran’s so-called Constitutional revolution, as well as Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin dining there in 1943 while planning a second front against Germany and a post-Nazi order in Europe.
Iranian conservatives take a different view of history and have lampooned Britain as the “Lesser Satan” at demonstrations for years. A widespread sense among Iranians that Britain is a conspirator against Iran goes back to Britain’s domination of Iran’s oilfields until nationalisation in the 1950s and its part in the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mossaddegh, the prime minister who had nationalised oil.
In the 1970s, an Iranian novel and television series, My Uncle Napoleon popularised a character who was convinced the British were plotting against him. When the shah was toppled in 1979, many royalists believed the British were manipulating Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, while some revolutionaries considered the British the conniving brain behind the United States.
After US-Iran relations were severed in 1979 as Iranian students held hostage US diplomats, Britain took a pivotal diplomatic role in Tehran as the European country closest to the United States, well-placed to convey Washington’s views. But it was also an easy target: in 1981 Tehran municipality renamed the street outside the British embassy after Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army leader who died on hunger strike in a British prison; and in 1989 Khomeini issued a fatwa condemning British-based author Salman Rushdie to death over his novel The Satanic Verses.
By the time the Royal Navy sailors were seized, potential for a flashpoint had increased. Britain had troops in southern Iraq after the US-led 2003 invasion, tensions were growing over Iran’s nuclear programme and Ahmadinejad was projecting an assertive brand of Shia Islam after his election win of 2005.
Changes on all these fronts have assisted better relations. In his speech in Tehran for the embassy reopening, Hammond dated the improvements to Rohani’s election as president in 2013. The foreign secretary stressed shared antipathy to Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists, a common interest in combating narcotics from Afghanistan and the chance to expand trade.
“It was an admirably balanced and forward-looking message,” Sir Richard Dalton, former ambassador, told The Arab Weekly. “He emphasised Britain’s all-round interests in working with Iran, plus the need to rebuild the UK as a trade and industry partner, given UK trade collapsed further (than other European countries under sanctions since 2012) in percentage terms and from a lower starting point. This was a high-level political signal to UK firms they could explore business now and conclude once sanctions are raised, if necessary.”
In Dalton’s time as ambassador — 2002-06 — the embassy was attacked by a suicide bomber, shot at four times and had its windows broken seven times. But the former diplomat was philosophical about the prospects for British staff, saying it was a sine qua non that the United Kingdom would have sought assurances over their safety and that he hoped it would be a popular posting.
“Iran is a great country,” he observed, “albeit a difficult one to work in.”