Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Dr Edmund Herzig, The University of Manchester

1.1  As an academic working on Iranian history, politics and foreign policy, I take an interest in British and Western relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran. I travel to Iran regularly, and participate in international conferences and seminars with British, European, American and Iranian specialists and officials. I have been involved in the organisation of a bilateral round table meeting in Tehran between the Royal Institute of International Affairs and the Iranian Foreign Ministry's Institute of International and Political Studies.

  1.2  Staff of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, both in London and in the Embassy in Tehran, have contributed to the success of some of these conferences, through their active participation, through support in consular matters, and through hospitality. More broadly, the FCO does a good deal to promote the exchange of views and information on Iran between the policy, business and specialist communities, both within Britain, and with other Western states.

  2.1  The United Kingdom's interests in Iran may be considered under three broad headings:

    (a)  Normative interests: support for human rights, democratization, market reform, the development of civil society and the observation of international law and norms.

    (b)  Strategic interests in the security and stability of Iran and the Persian Gulf. There are two main aspects to Iran's importance to British security interests: energy security, and proximity to other areas of interest.

  Iran possesses significant oil and gas reserves, and is a neighbour to a number of other states with large energy reserves. Iran controls the entire northern coast of the Persian Gulf, including the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which a large proportion of the world's oil supply is exported.

  To the West, Iran borders Iraq, where the UK is directly involved in military operations intended to enforce Iraqi compliance to UN resolutions, and Turkey, which is a NATO member and candidate for EU membership. Kurdistan, straddling Iraq, Turkey and Iran, is of concern both because of humanitarian and human rights concerns over the treatment of the Kurds in all three states, but also because of the flow of Kurdish asylum seekers to Europe and the UK. Further to the West, Iran has had a significant role in Lebanon as a backer of Lebanese Hizbullah, and has links with a number of Palestinian groups. To the North, Iran borders the South Caucasus, the Caspian and Central Asia, where British interests are engaged in supporting independence, conflict resolution and reform processes in the states formed on the collapse of the USSR. The South Caucasian states of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia are either members or candidates for membership of the Council of Europe, and all post-Soviet states are members of the OSCE. Significant British commercial interests are engaged in the development of Caspian Sea oil and gas resources. The South Caucasus has importance as being at the south eastern corner of an enlarging Europe, and also as a corridor for the development of transport and communication systems to link Europe with the Caspian basin and Central Asia. To the East, Iran borders Afghanistan, which is in the throes of civil war and humanitarian crisis, generating refugees and asylum seekers, which produces and exports a very large proportion of the world's opium, and which is host to a variety of radical Islamist and terrorist groups. To the South, across the Persian Gulf, Iran is neighbour to a number of Arab states with which Britain has long-standing political and commercial ties. With one of these, the United Arab Emirates, Iran has unresolved territorial dispute over three islands.

    (c)  Commercial interests. British companies are interested in participating in Iranian oil and gas development, which is becoming increasingly open to foreign investment. Iran, with its population of around 70 million, is also a potentially important trace partner, a possible base for manufacture for the Middle Eastern, Central Asian and South west Asian markets, and is important in the North-South and East-West transport systems that give access to those markets.

  2.2  The agenda of British interests in itself raises some difficult issues.

  2.2.1  While in the long-term the normative and national interests may be broadly compatible, or even mutually reinforcing, this is not always the case in the short-term. For example, it may be difficult simultaneously and effectively to pursue the human rights agenda, and to support British companies' efforts to win contracts. This raises questions about priorities.

  2.2.2  Certain British interests coincide with those of the Iranian government (for example conflict resolution in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Afghanistan, or combating the drugs trade), while others clash (for example the UK and Iranian governments take opposite positions towards the Israel-Palestine peace process).

  2.2.3  The pursuit of some British interests, notably the normative agenda of human rights and democratization may draw the UK towards engagement in Iran's domestic politics, since the same issues are very much at the heart of the ongoing political and ideological contest between Iran's reformers and conservatives.

  3.1  There are a number of major constraints on British policy towards Iran.

  3.2  It is important to bear in mind the long history of Anglo-Iranian relations, especially Britain's imperial role in the region during the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. In general, Britain still looms large in the Iranian historical memory, and sensitivity to that on the part of policy-makers and diplomats is essential.

  Without going into historical detail, it is worth noting that in 1907 Britain and Russia signed an agreement effectively dividing Iran into spheres of influence, that in both World War I and World War II Britain and Russia/the Soviet Union ignored Iranian declarations of neutrality and intervened militarily and politically in Iran for strategic purposes, and that in 1953 Britain played a role in the coup d'e«tat against Prime Minister Mossadegh, who remains an icon of Iranian democracy and nationalism. These, and other, examples of British meddling in Iran are still very present in the minds of the Iranian elite and the wider public. If Iranians sometimes exaggerate the importance and malignity of Britain's role, it must be acknowledged that British policy towards Iran over the last 150 to 200 years has often run counter to Iran's political and economic independence, and to the development of democracy. Strategic concerns have often outweighed normative interests in British priorities.

  Iranians are, therefore, acutely sensitive to anything that can be seen as British interference in their country's internal affairs, and also to anything that smacks of hypocrisy and double standards.

  On the positive side, there is also a long history of cultural contact, British scholars have made important contributions to the study of Iranian literature, religion and history, so that the names of E G Browne and R A Nicholson are still held in esteem in Iran, if unknown except to academic specialists in the UK. More broadly, many in Iran are interested in British culture and the English language.

  3.3  More than 20 years have now passed since the Islamic Revolution, but Iran remains in many ways a revolutionary Islamic state. One important aspect of the revolution was its challenge to Western global hegemony and rejection of Western values and influence. Since the revolution, Iran has made common cause with other revolutionary states and movements, and more generally with states and organisations that oppose the West's dominance, for example in the context of the non-aligned movement, the Organization of Islamic Conference and in its bilateral relations with Russia and China.

  For at least a decade now, the general, if uneven, trend in Iran's international relations has been towards normalization, as the Islamic Republic has developed a stake in the international system and become a part of the status quo. That process has gained impetus since the election of Mohammad Khatami as president in 1997. The last three years have seen marked improvements in Iran's relations with a number of states, including the UK. Inside Iran, for at least a decade, there has been struggle (which also has intensified since the election of President Khatami) between those who adhere to what they see as the original radical ideals of the Revolution, and those who attach greater importance to considerations of national interest, and who argue that ideals need to be debated and reinterpreted. Both factions, however, see themselves as committed to the achievements of the Islamic Revolution. Neither is susceptible to Western moral persuasion or pressure.

  3.4  Iran is a large country in terms of both territory and population. Substantial oil revenues keep the country's economy afloat. In its region, it is one of the stronger and more stable states. For many years Iran has endured a degree of international isolation, including a strong US sanctions regime. The experience of the eight-year war with Iraq has left Iranians cynical about the international system (which did not distinguish between the Iraqi aggressor and the Iranian victim of aggression) and convinced that self-reliance is the only dependable option.

  3.5  All the above factors tend to reduce Britain's leverage in Iran and should constrain expectations of what can be achieved. Bluntly stated, the British government has little credibility among the Iranian elite and wider public as a moral or ethical spokesman, while bilateral economic and political relations are not sufficiently important to Iran to allow conditionality to be applied effectively. There is little that the UK can do in its bilateral relations to put pressure on the Iranian government in pursuit of normative or strategic goals.

  Any attempt to take the moral high ground, and to prescribe policies and behaviour will be seen as hypocritical, imperialistic and patronising, and may well be counterproductive by provoking a backlash. Similarly, anything that looks like support for any faction in Iran's internal politics will recall past interference and embarrass or undermine rather than helping Iran's reformers.

  4.1  The normative and strategic interests of the UK are broadly similar to those of other Western states, which in varying degrees have expressed similar concerns about aspects of Iran's policies and behaviour (human rights, support for terrorism, proliferation, position towards the Israel-Palestine peace process).

  4.2  The policy of the USA towards Iran, however, differs sharply from that of the European states in that it is much tougher in seeking to force Tehran to change its policies and behaviour through the imposition of sanctions and through the pressure of international isolation. There has been considerable debate both in the USA and outside over whether the policy is justified or effective. Since 1997 that antagonism in US-Iranian relations has softened slightly, but the sanctions remain in place. The disagreement between Europe and the USA further weakens the West's leverage in Iran.

  4.3  The policies of the other EU states are much closer to those of the UK. Moreover, the co-ordination of European foreign policy towards Iran has shown some achievements. This is true both in terms of leverage on Iran (in particular the common stance of the European states over the Salman Rushdie issue) and in responding to US pressure to join the sanctions regime (for example, by taking a tough, co-ordinated position against the threat of US secondary sanctions against European companies investing in Iran).

  In pursuing the normative agenda, Europe in a more credible actor than the UK acting on its own. The European Union may be more effective as a moral spokesman, since it lacks the historical baggage that the UK and, to a lesser extent, other member states bring to the table. Moreover, Europe as a whole has considerable economic significance for Iran, as a trading partner and a source of credit. Any effort to apply leverage or introduce conditionality in relations with Iran will be far more effective if they are co-ordinated among European states.

  5.1  In conclusion, it is necessary to be realistic about what foreign policy can achieve in Iran. For a variety of historical, ideological and economic reasons, the UK government has little leverage over Tehran.

  5.2  Awareness of the past, and recognition of the negative impact of past British policies on Iran is essential both in order to understand Iranian perceptions of the UK, and to inform policy and suggest the most effective means and actors for pursuing particular objectives. It may often be the case that non-governmental actors or international agencies will be more effective than the UK government.

  Misunderstandings, mutual suspicion and antagonism have bedevilled relations in the recent and more distant past. In such circumstances, it is important to make policies transparent, to establish and adhere to clear forms and priorities, and to avoid anything that can be interpreted as double standards or interference.

  5.3  In some areas of policy, it is essential to keep the regional picture in mind. In considering security and proliferation, for example, Iran's policies are shaped by its threat perceptions and are likely to change only when those threats change or come to be managed in some new form of regional security arrangement.

  5.4  There are a number of areas of common interest between the UK and Iran (see 2.1(b) and (c)). Identifying and giving priority to these and finding ways to work cooperatively on them is more likely to achieve results than focusing on the problem areas of relations, and in the long term this will help to build trust and respect and give the UK more leverage in tackling more difficult issues.

  5.5  The development of society-to-society relations through cultural, academic, educational and sporting exchange is important for building respect, trust and mutual understanding. The "dialogue of civilizations" is a slogan of the Iranian government, indicating a readiness for discussion and debate. This provides a way into raising and tackling issues on which it is hard to achieve progress through official channels. The opening of a British Council office in Tehran should help to promote such contacts, and more could be done to encourage academic and educational exchange. It would be desirable to see many more Iranian artists, journalists and scholars (especially in the fields of the arts, humanities and social sciences) visiting the UK for periods of weeks and months, rather than just coming over to participate in conferences. The role of the BBC is also important. Iran has diverse and high-quality printed media, but the broadcast media remains a state monopoly and represents a narrow spectrum of opinion. In this situation the BBC Persian service is valuable not only as a source of news, but also in offering a range of views and perspectives. Some of the Persian service's cultural programmes enjoy a very high reputation in Iran.

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Prepared 13 February 2001