Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor A Ehteshami, University of Durham


Thank you for inviting me to provide written evidence for this important committee's investigation of the FCO's role and policies in relation to Iran.

  Normal diplomatic relations between Britain and the Islamic Republic today belie the many tense years that used to characterise bilateral relations in the 1980s and early 1990s. After some 30 years of fairly close and mutually advantageous political and economic relations after the fall of the nationalist government of Dr Mossadeq in 1953, Anglo-Iranian relations nose dived following the overthrow of the Pahlavi monarchy in 1979. Between 1974 and the revolution, Iran had crept up the trade ladder to become Britain's largest market in the Middle East. Ironically, in the heady days of the revolution the Shah and his allies came to regard the BBC as an instrument of British foreign policy an held the corporation responsible for carrying out the Foreign Office's strategy of encouraging the anti-Shah demonstrators. [3]The British government, however, was vocal in its support for the Shah. Foreign Secretary David Owen went on the record in October 1978, praising the Shah and expressing the view that the Shah's departure would not be in the West's interests.

  Not surprisingly, and despite the impression amongst the middle classes in Iran that Britain was somehow supporting the anti-Shah forces in the 1978-79 revolution, soon after the victory of the revolution relations between London and the new Islamist regime in Tehran rapidly deteriorated. This was partly due to the unreserved support that the British government had been issuing for the Shah throughout the crisis. In addition, the attacks on the US and British embassies in Tehran in November 1979 changed the picture dramatically, and Britain's forthright condemnation of Iran's holding of US diplomats hostage had the immediate effect of practically severing all contacts. [4]In fact, Britain's embassy in Tehran was to shut in September, to be re-opened for a short period after the freeing of American hostages in 1981.

  During the Iran-Iraq war, Britain's official position of no support for the combatants was weakened by reports that Britain was knowingly allowing Iran's NIOC infrastructure in London to buy arms for the war effort. Another example of Britain's quiet engagement with Iran during the early 1980s was its preparedness to assist in the eradication of the Communist Tudeh Party threat to the Islamic government in 1982, by passing on the names of the Tudeh members in the government which it had come to acquire through its own intelligence network. But such clandestine links did not feed into any meaningful or direct exchanges between the two governments. Matters were made worse by the Iranian perceptions that Sir Anthony Parsons, Britain's UN representative with a permanent seat at the Security Council during the early first few years of the Iran-Iraq war, had not done enough to encourage the Council to issue a fair resolution on Iraq's invasion of Iranian territory in September 1980 and on what Tehran saw to be an act of aggression against the country. [5]

  Other problems in the 1980s, including diplomatic confrontations over the conduct of the remaining diplomatic staff in each other's countries, the holding of Roger Cooper as a prisoner in Iran, and the eventual closure of Iran's Consulate office in Manchester in 1987, all fed into the tense diplomatic relations between Tehran and London. But it was the hostage crisis in Lebanon, which followed the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982, that resulted in bitter acrimony between the two governments. By way of background, the Israeli invasion led to the strengthening of a new Shia organisation in Lebanon, the Hazbollah, and this organisation's ability to undertake large scale military operations and play the political game of taking Westerners as hostages. Several Westerners, including three Britons, became victims in the 1980s of Hezbollah's hostage politics and a potential political football in relations between Tehran and the West. Britain, unlike some of her European partners at the time, refused to negotiate with hostage-takers and their masters and therefore refused to use the hostages issue as a means of diplomatic communications with Tehran. Britain's approach to the hostages issue did nonetheless hurt its overall diplomatic relations with Iran.

  Iran's decision to deploy sea mines in the Persian Gulf in 1987 did not help bilateral relations either as it merely led to the strengthening of Britain's naval presence in the Persian Gulf and more tensions between Tehran and the West. By the end of the Iran-Iraq war in July 1988, Britain had one of the largest naval forces in the Gulf, including minesweepers and frigates. On the diplomatic front also, London had seen its diplomatic profile in the Middle East severely tested. It had broken off relations with three important Middle Eastern countries: Iran, Libya and Syria, though under different circumstances, and had proved unable to make progress on freeing its nationals held hostage by pro-Iranian Islamist groups in Lebanon. By November 1988 however, London had managed to restore relations with Iran and was in the process of shaking the dust off its embassy building in Tehran, when another crisis hit bilateral relations. [6]

  This time, relations were beset by a range of problems associated with the outbreak of the so-called Rushdie affair in 1989—Ayatollah Khomeini's decision to condemn the British author, Salman Rushdie, to death through the issuing of a religious edict (fatwa) for the publication of his book The Satanic Verses. This crisis, ignited by forces totally beyond Britain's control, was to dog the two countries' civil servants for the best part of the 1990s. For London, the issue was much more complex than just grappling with an uncertain set of diplomatic calculations. As the fatwa impinged on the very essence of Western liberal values it was felt that it was incumbent on Britain's diplomatic service to reject the fatwa on principle, as well as for its clear breach of international conventions and apparent interference in Britain's internal affairs. But, ironically, it was Tehran (with strong pressure from the country's parliament) which, in protest against London's refusal to stop the sale of the book or take action against its author, not only imposed economic sanctions on Britain but actually broke off the short-lived relations as well.

  The next stage in the evolution of relations between Britain and Islamic Iran was defined by the parameters of the EU initiative to enter a process of discussions and negotiations with Iran, a process of engagement which became known as "critical dialogue". Within a few years, critical dialogue had given way to "constructive engagement", through which closer and more positive contacts between EU diplomats and their Iranian counterparts ensued. The constructive engagement framework provided Britain (which was a member of the EU Troika team in the negotiations with Tehran) with the perfect setting for developing its own frozen ties with Iran. This framework served to foster direct contact and a better understanding between the parties. So much so that both London and Tehran took advantage of it at the first opportunity—that is, after their respective important May 1997 general elections in which both electorates brought to power pro-dialogue and pro-reform governments. The Labour government's election victory coincided with Britain's EU Presidency, which the Foreign Office used to a maximum in order to reach out to Iran. Within a relatively short period of time after the election victory of the Labour government, for instance, the Foreign Secretary and the late Derek Fatchett announced that London was very keen to improve relations with Iran, using conciliatory vocabulary not often used by the previous government in relation to Iran.

  Lower-level and behind the scenes contacts in 1998 culminated in the two countries' new foreign ministers holding a public and highly significant meeting at the UN in September 1998 during which they finally removed the Rushdie issue as an obstacle to the restoration of relations. [7]The agreement reached in New York provided the basis for the re-establishment of relations and ambassadorial level, despite it being attacked by powerful anti-Khatami factions in Iran. Considering the sensitivity of Ayatollah Khomeini's anti-Rushdie fatwa in Iran and the fact that it had been Tehran which had broken off relations in 1989, their restoration must be seen as a success for the negotiating skills of the FCO.

  Foreign Minister Kharrazi's visit to London in January 2000 marked the pinnacle of relations between the two countries since the 1979 Iranian revolution. He came to London at the head of a relatively large commercial-oriented delegation and met both the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. This was the first time that a cabinet minister from the Islamic Republic had set foot in 10 Downing Street. This highly significant and successful visit was made possible by the efforts of the FCO's representatives in Iran as well as their London-based counterparts.

  FM Kharrazi's visit had been preceded by the visits of a British parliamentary delegation in mid-November and Sir John Kerr's trip to Tehran in late November 1999, in order to prepare the ground for this historic visit. The fruitful visits to City institutions by members of his delegation and FM Kharrazi's warm reception at Chatham House highlighted the progress in relations which had been made since the return to Tehran of Britain's highly able ambassador (HE Mr Nick Brown) and his hardworking team. These diplomatic advances after all had occurred on the back of the visits to Tehran of two high-level economic delegations which included several FTSE 100 companies in May 1998 and June 1999 respectively. If the UN meetings between the two countries' foreign ministers in September 1998 finally melted away the diplomatic ice, it was these trade missions which had caused the ice to break. To put the speed (and success) of recent exchanges in perspective, it was announced only in May 1999 that London and Tehran were upgrading their relations to the ambassadorial level. Within a few months of this announcement both countries took major steps to build on the favourable climate and develop closer economic, cultural and technical links.

  In this regard, the postponement of FM Cook's scheduled visit to Tehran in May 2000 was not well received in that country, raising suspicions about London's sincerity to want to deepen and develop its ties with Iran. Nor of course did it serve in any way the advances already made in bilateral relations. The postponement of Cook's much heralded trip to Iran stood in sharp contrast to the fruitful visits of foreign ministers and heads of state from several of Britain's European allies, including Italy, Germany, Austria, France to Iran since the election victory of President Khatami in 1997. For Britain not to be seen to be falling behind, therefore, it needs to present itself in Tehran at the highest political level—FM Cook needs to visit and hopefully before the next round of elections in the two countries. Otherwise, we may unwittingly be endangering the process of dialogue and exchanges now under way between Iran and the United Kingdom.

3  Britain's last ambassador to the Pahlavi court, the late Sir Anthony Parsons, mentions in his memoirs that "there was evidence that the BBC broadcasts were actually stimulating demonstrations and riots". The Pride and the Fall: Iran 1974 to 1979 (London: Cape, 1984), p 73. Back
4  Other problems during 1979-80 period included the Iranian embassy crisis in May in London; Britain's support for the imposition of sanctions on Iran; and news of harsh treatment of Iranian Anglican ministers by the Islamic authorities. Back
5  Sir Anthony Parsons relates the unfolding of events in the United Nations in the following terms: ". . . Iraqi pressure succeeded in postponing a meeting of the Security Council for some days . . . Equally, because of the impact of the hostage crisis . . . the Permanent Members were not immediately disposed to make a serious effort to overcome this obstacle . . . On 28 September, the Council . . . met and SCR 479 (1980) was unanimously adopted . . . However, the fact of the Council's delay in meeting and the failure of the first resolution to call for Iraqi withdrawal from Iranian territory made a profoundly negative impression on the Iranian delegation . . . [they] castigated the Council for inactivity and bias . . .", Sir Anthony Parsons, "Iran and United Nations, with Particular Reference to the Iran-Iraq War", in Ehteshami and Varasteh (eds) Iran and International Community (London: Routeledge, 1991), pp 7-30. Back
6  Tehran and London had signed a detailed Memorandum of Understanding on 9 November 1988, which was to provide the basis for the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries. The FCO played an instrumental part during these delicate negotiations, and its Iran experts provided badly-needed advice on the prevailing mood in Tehran and the direction and nature of the negotiations with Iran's representatives. Back
7  Britain, in return, agreed undertook to ban the activities of the MKO in the country. Back

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Prepared 13 February 2001