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
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
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
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
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
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.