Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Third Report

British-Iranian Relations

A brief history

7. The history of relations between the United Kingdom and Iran in the period before the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 is summarised with great clarity in a paper submitted by Dr Ali Ansari of Durham University to the original inquiry in 2000.[6] Dr Ansari's paper shows that since the establishment of diplomatic relations in the early Seventeenth Century, the United Kingdom became increasingly involved in Iran, eventually supplanting France as the dominant European power and vying with Russia to exert influence over Iranian affairs.

8. Following the Russian revolution, Britain regarded Iran as an important bulwark against the spread of Bolshevism and helped to bring about the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty, which lasted (with interruptions) until 1979. However, the real limitations on Iran's sovereignty were exposed during the Second World War, when British and Allied forces intervened to establish a supply route across its territory—ironically, to the old rival, the Soviet Union.

9. In events which are in the recent memory of a people and nation who trace their origins back to the beginning of recorded history, the United Kingdom, together with the United States, sponsored a coup in 1953 which overthrew the nationalist government of Dr Mohammed Mossadeq and restored the Shah to power. The original CIA account of this episode, which sheds considerable light on the roles of the Foreign Office and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), was published in 2000.[7] The motivation behind the coup appears to have been twofold: anxiety about the nationalisation of Iran's huge oil and gas reserves; and concern that Iran might fall under Soviet influence.

10. Given this history, it is hardly surprising that Iranians are said to see the hand of the United Kingdom behind every suspicious development in their country. This endemic suspicion was given new force by the Islamic revolution of 1979, in which the Pahlavi dynasty was deposed. The Shah had followed a pro-western policy and under his autocratic rule Iran had become an economically and militarily significant power, as well as a major market for developed countries, including Britain. Following the assumption of power by a regime under Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran became more inward-looking, its prosperity declined, and its relations with the United Kingdom and with other western countries were strained.

11. The history of relations between the United Kingdom and Iran from 1979 to 2000 is set out in the FCO memorandum appended to the interim Report.[8] Following a lengthy period when diplomatic relations were downgraded—although trading and other links continued—there were some positive developments by 1985. In December of that year, however, elements within the Iranian leadership hostile to the United Kingdom created new tensions in the relationship, which eventually led to the withdrawal of all diplomatic staff from Tehran in 1987. Relations were also affected by the West's political and material support for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.

12. Following negotiations, agreement was reached to restore full diplomatic relations in November 1988, only to be thrown completely off course by the fatwa issued by Ayatollah Khomeini calling for the assassination of Mr Salman Rushdie. This development caused all European Union member states to withdraw their ambassadors from Tehran and it was not until the Gulf War of 1990 that signals of a more positive attitude by Iran began to be received.

13. Iran's neutrality in the Gulf War, its assistance in gaining the release of British hostages held in the Lebanon, and its willingness to engage in dialogue were factors which helped to bring about a gradual improvement in relations during the 1990s, although there were highs and lows during the decade. A European Community-Iran dialogue was established in 1992, and moved up a gear following the election of the reformist President Khatami in 1997. In September 1998, the United Kingdom and Iran agreed to exchange Ambassadors and the relationship began to be characterised as one of 'constructive engagement'.

Developments since 2000

14. The Government's policy of constructive engagement has continued to the present day, with the full support of this Committee. In December 2001, we noted that "Iran's dual status as a member of the coalition with an active interest in a stable Afghanistan on its border, and as a state of concern with a recent history of extreme hostility towards the West, lends it a particular importance in contemporary international relations" and concluded that "the Government's and European Union's policies of constructive engagement with Iran deserve full support".[9]

15. On 29 January 2002, President Bush delivered his State of the Union Address, in which he bracketed Iran together with Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil". This speech articulated a difference between the foreign policies of the United Kingdom and the United States towards Iran which was already well understood: constructive engagement on the one part; and confrontation on the other. To the hardliners in the US administration, Iran as a theocratic state, with its lack of respect for human rights, its implacable opposition to a two-state solution in the Middle East, its support for terrorist groups, and its attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction, was simply incorrigible. Our view was expressed in our June 2002 Report on Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism:

in the case of Iran [the United States'] aims are more likely to be achieved by robust dialogue and critical engagement with reformers than by sending Tehran a list of non-negotiable demands. In our judgment, to bracket Iran with Iraq was mistaken: Iraq is an unredeemed autocracy; while Iran has a number of elements of democracy and has been moving, however falteringly, in the direction of reform.[10]

16. These faltering steps were taken by the Iranian authorities following mass student demonstrations in July 1999 and a general election in February 2000, in which reformist candidates gained an overall majority in the parliament. However, as can be seen from Box 1 below, the Iranian constitution does not vest all power in the parliament. The clerical Council of Guardians wields considerable authority and as well as banning candidates from standing for election[11] may veto laws passed by the Majles. The judiciary has assumed what amount to executive functions—in April 2000, it closed down 16 reformist newspapers; and in February 2004 it closed down two more.[12] Although the re-election of President Khatami for a second term in June 2001 by a huge majority consolidated his position as Iran's leading reformer in office, it did little to shift the balance of power towards him and his allies in the parliament.

Box 1: Iran's many centres of power[13]

Under the 1979 Constitution, Iran is an Islamic Republic and the teachings of Islam are to be the basis of all political, social and economic relations. Overall authority is vested in the Supreme Leader (currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) who is chosen by the Assembly of Experts, an elected body of 96 religious scholars. The Supreme Leader is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces.

The President is elected by universal adult suffrage for a term of 4 years and is restricted by the Constitution to no more than 2 terms in office.

Legislative powers are held by the Majles, or Islamic Consultative Assembly, consisting of 290 elected members representing regional areas or religious communities for a 4-year term. The Majles also approves the members of the Council of Ministers, the Iranian equivalent of the British Cabinet.

The Council of Guardians reviews legislation passed by the Majles for constitutionality and adherence to Islamic law. It is composed of 6 theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and 6 jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by the Majles. The council also has the power to veto candidates in elections to parliament, local councils, the presidency and the Assembly of Experts.

The Council for the Discernment of Expediency was created in 1988 to resolve disputes over legislation between the Majles and the Council of Guardians. In August 1989, it became an advisory body on national policy and constitutional issues for the Supreme Leader. It includes the heads of all three branches of government and the clerical members of the Council of Guardians. The Supreme Leader appoints other members for a three-year term.

Obstacles in the road to better relations

17. In the last two years, bilateral relations between Iran and the United Kingdom have been placed under particular strain by two incidents. In February 2002, Iran rejected the United Kingdom's nominee as Ambassador in Tehran, David Reddaway, who was labelled in the conservative Iranian press as "a Jew who is an MI6 agent",[14] each of these designations apparently being regarded as disqualifying Mr Reddaway from the office to which he had been appointed (and both, incidentally, inaccurate). It took eight months for this impasse to be resolved, with the nomination of Richard Dalton as HM Ambassador being accepted by Iran on 24 September.

18. The second incident was the detention in the United Kingdom of former Iranian diplomat Hade Soleimanpour under a warrant for extradition served by the authorities in Argentina. Mr Soleimanpour was suspected of involvement in the murderous bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires in 1994. Iran was indignant about Mr Soleimanpour's arrest and detention in August 2003, seeing it as politically directed and failing to understand that the Government could not interfere in a judicial process. Shots were fired at the British Embassy compound in Tehran—something which would be unlikely to occur without the compliance of the relevant authorities in Iran—and the British Government rightly lodged strong protests. At the time of our visit—when we were able to view the damage to the Embassy buildings for ourselves—Mr Soleimanpour had been freed on bail, but his case had yet to be resolved. We formed the distinct impression during our visit that Iran was imposing undeclared economic sanctions against British companies and indulging in other provocative behaviour. Shortly after our return to the United Kingdom, once the judicial process was complete, the Home Secretary was able to conclude that there was insufficient evidence on which to agree to the extradition request, and Mr Soleimanpour was released from his bail.

19. The Reddaway and Soleimanpour affairs demonstrate the potential for relations with Iran to be derailed when conservative elements in the Iranian establishment come to the fore. Further incidents of this kind cannot be ruled out, but we believe that Ministers and the diplomatic service handled them with great skill and sensitivity. We conclude that the Government was right to respond to the Reddaway and Soleimanpour affairs with a mixture of firmness and tact, in the interests of not allowing short-term difficulties to jeopardise long-term improvements in the United Kingdom's relations with Iran.

High-level contacts with Iran

20. British government Ministers have made several visits to Iran since 2000 and a number of Iranian Ministers have visited the United Kingdom. The Foreign Secretary has visited Tehran no fewer than five times in the last three years, most recently with his French and German counterparts in October 2003, when we were also there. Our own visit was the first by a select committee of Parliament since the 1979 revolution; it followed meetings in London between the Committee and senior Iranian figures, including Foreign Minister Kharrazi. Last month's visit by the Prince of Wales in his capacity as patron of the British Red Cross contributed to this continuing pattern of bilateral contacts.

21. All those visiting Iran in an official capacity have to ask themselves whether their visit will be beneficial. Some commentators suggest that these visits reward, or at least confer a degree of respectability on, a repressive system and fail to provide incentives for the Iranians to liberalise their society, while others believe that such contacts provide opportunities for both sides to increase their understanding and to make their views clear. Those against the policy of 'constructive' or 'critical' engagement ask what practical benefits it has brought to the Iranian people, or indeed to the United Kingdom; those in favour of the policy point to the October 2003 agreement on Iran's nuclear programme and suggest that further advances can be achieved. During our visit, we experienced no negative reactions from those Iranians we met; on the contrary, we received a warm welcome and encountered a readiness to discuss differences openly.

22. Aware as we are of the view that high-level contacts may lend unwarranted legitimacy to the undemocratic exercise of power, we believe on balance that because such contacts help to break down barriers and to increase understanding, in the case of Iran they should be encouraged. We conclude that the Government has been right to maintain and develop its critical dialogue with Iran, and we recommend that it continue this policy, with a view to encouraging further positive changes in Iranian political and civil society.

Cultural and educational links

23. Cultural and educational links also play an important part in the bilateral relationship. After a period of 22 years when it was not allowed to operate in Iran, the British Council returned to Tehran in 2001. The Council has described one of its major objectives in Iran as being "to establish trust and understanding of its function among the Iranian authorities whose co-operation is essential to its activities."[15] Its programmes are aimed at strengthening educational co-operation, strengthening English language teaching, fostering cultural exchange, and developing scientific and technological links. We strongly support these aims, and were delighted to meet British Council staff during our visit to Tehran, which we were pleased to note coincided with that of a delegation from the Science Museum. It is disappointing, however, that the Iranian authorities regard the British Council with suspicion, requiring it to operate from a British diplomatic compound and restricting its activities. Such restrictions are one indication of the continuing power over such matters exercised by the conservative clerics, against the interests of the Iranian people.

24. On a more positive note, an exhibition of British sculpture opened in Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art in February 2004, and has apparently proved popular. None of the exhibits, ranging from the works of Henry Moore to those of Gilbert and George, could be described as being in the tradition of Islamic Art. It is therefore encouraging, both that the exhibition has been allowed by the Iranian authorities to take place, and that it has been well-attended and well-received.[16]

25. Another important aspect of the cultural relationship is the system of Chevening Scholarships, under which Iranian postgraduate students are sponsored by the British Government to attend university in the United Kingdom, either for extended periods of study or, increasingly, on shorter-term vocational courses. We have long supported this scheme, which has seen many friends of the United Kingdom achieve positions of influence in other countries. There is an obvious place for the scheme in relation to Iran, but it is a pity that in 2003 there was sufficient funding only for 10 such scholarships to be awarded to students from Iran (out of a total of 2,300 worldwide).

26. The BBC World Service also plays an important role in Iranian life. In 2000, they told the Committee that Iranian perceptions of the BBC's Persian Service ranged from those, mostly elderly, who regarded it as "an arm of the British government's sinister and self-serving plots and policies" to a predominantly younger view of it as "a source of objective and accurate information, good music and entertainment, as well as a window into a world of greater opportunity."[17] We suspect that in the years since that was written, the balance has swung towards the latter perception.

27. We conclude that good cultural and educational links are especially important with Iran, a country with a strong cultural inheritance and identity of its own but with many misconceptions, even among its most educated classes, of life and society in the United Kingdom. We recommend that the Government give serious consideration to increasing the resources available for Chevening scholarships and other cultural and educational initiatives in Iran, and to ensure that those resources which are available are used to best effect.

Co-operation in the war against drugs

28. Iran lies on a major drugs trading route from the production areas of Afghanistan to the consumers of Europe. The Iranian authorities have played an honourable and important role in seeking to stem the flow of drugs across a lengthy border which is notoriously difficult to police. There has been good co-operation between the United Kingdom and Iran on efforts to improve the success rate of the Iranian border police in their efforts to stem the flow of drugs. For example, British funds have been used for the supply of night vision equipment and other aids. The sharp end of the operation, however, has been undertaken by the Iranians themselves. We understand that the Iranian border police has suffered many casualties in its battle against the drugs traffickers. We conclude that continued co-operation between the United Kingdom and Iran in the war against drugs is important for both countries and we recommend that it remain a priority objective of the bilateral relationship.

Prospects for the future

29.The"flawed"[18] elections of February 2004 are considered in paragraphs 61 to 66 below. They may represent a swing of the pendulum of Iranian society back from democracy and openness and towards fundamentalism and isolationism. If such is to be the context within which the United Kingdom must conduct its relations with Iran over the coming years, that relationship may be a difficult one to develop. On the other hand, in our estimation the weight of Iran's overwhelmingly youthful population is certain to push the pendulum once again towards reform—as EU Commissioner Chris Patten has put it, "demography is strongly on the side of democracy in Iran".[19] Such a movement would create circumstances in which the bilateral relationship could improve still further.

30. We conclude that, whatever the short-term difficulties which may afflict the United Kingdom's relations with Iran following the recent flawed elections, the prospects for longer-term improvements in the relationship remain good. We recommend that the Government continue to bear firmly in mind the benefits which good relations between Iran and the United Kingdom can bring to both countries, and that it work towards realising those benefits.

6   HC (2000-01) 80, pp 28-29. Dr Ansari has since moved to Exeter University. Back

7   The full documentation may be viewed at the web site of the National Security Archive of the George Washington University: Back

8   HC (2000-01) 80, pp 1-7 Back

9   Foreign Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2001-02, British-US Relations, HC 327, paras 167 & 170 Back

10   Foreign Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2001-02, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, HC 384, para 201 Back

11   See para 63 below Back

12   The papers closed in 2004 were shut down for publishing excerpts from a letter sent by Members of the Iranian Parliament which was critical of Supreme Leader Khamenei. See, eg, Back

13   The information in this box is based on the FCO's country profile of Iran, available on its website, Back

14   See,12858,893582,00.html Back

15   Ev 13 Back

16   "Iran welcomes UK art exhibition", Back

17   HC (2000-01) 80, p 23 Back

18   According to Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. See "EU ministers unite to attack 'flawed' elections", The Times, 24 February 2004 Back

19   Speech to the European Parliament, 12 February 2004 Back

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Prepared 19 March 2004