Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Christopher Rundle

1.  I served as an analyst and researcher in the FCO dealing primarily with Iran from 1977 until I retired with the rank of Counsellor in 1998. I worked in the British diplomatic mission in Tehran in 1979, 1980, and 1981-84, and have revisited Iran several times since then. I was last there, for an academic conference, in April 2000. The following observations are correct to the best of my recollection and knowledge.

  2.  After the 1979 revolution the UK was, after Israel and the USA, the country towards which the new regime was most hostile. This was because of our past interference in Iran, our closeness to the Shah, and our closeness also to the United States. Political relations were tense, and in 1980 the British Embassy was closed after a warning from the Iranian Foreign Ministry that it could not guarantee our safety. It was eight years before the Embassy could be reopened—only for the Iranians to break diplomatic relations over Salman Rushdie's book The Satanic Verses three months later, in March 1989.

  3.  Diplomatic relations were restored in September 1990. The catalyst for this was Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, which gave Iran and the UK greater need to be talking to each other. At the time there were still British hostages in Lebanon held by Islamic militants under Iranian influence; and the British businessman Roger Cooper, sentenced to "death plus 10 years" for alleged espionage, was still in prison in Iran. It was considered right to increase the chances of solving these humanitarian problems through dialogue rather than cold shoulder the Iranian regime.

  4.  When diplomatic relations were restored we did not appoint an Ambassador, even though our European partners had Ambassadors in place. Only in September 1998 was it agreed by the British and Iranian Foreign Ministers, meeting in New York in the margins of the UN General Assembly, that relations should be upgraded from Charge d'Affaires to Ambassador level. At the same time a partial solution was found to the Rushdie problem, with the Iranian government disassociating itself from Ayatollah Khomeini's edict and both sides indicating a desire for a more constructive relationship. Ambassadors were exchanged in May 1999. Iran's Foreign Minister visited London in January 2000, and met the Prime Minister. The Foreign Secretary has said that he will visit Iran, but his visit has been postponed twice.

  5.  Two main strands may be discerned in British policy towards Iran in recent years. One has been to attempt to normalise our relations with Iran and encourage her to cooperate more closely with the international community; such a policy is, among other things, beneficial to our commercial interests and to academic and cultural links. The other strand has been one of firmness against unacceptable Iranian policies such as support for terrorism, weapons of mass destruction programmes, human rights abuses, and (at least until 1998) the Rushdie question.

  6.  The election of Mohammad Khatami as President in 1997 and the victory of reformist forces in the parliamentary elections in 2000 have changed the political landscape in Iran—though not the entire political system. In my view, the FCO should continue to follow the policy of constructive engagement embarked upon after Khatami's election, and if possible accelerate it. Such a policy would be in our national interest, including our commercial interest, and would contribute to stability in the area of the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. With the Foreign Secretary's visit to Iran twice postponed, we risk falling behind major EU partners and competitors: not only have their Foreign Ministers exchanged visits, but since coming to office President Khatami himself has visited Italy, France and Germany.

  7.  A particular bone of contention between Iran and the UK has been the support which some MPs give to the Iran opposition group the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MKO) and the National Council of Resistance of which it is a constituent (and dominant) part. The FCO might be more active in informing MPs of the real nature of this group, which does not represent a democratic alternative to the present regime in Iran.

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Prepared 13 February 2001