UK policy towards Iran - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

2  The UK's interests in Iran

Iran and its potential

4. Iran has the potential to be a major international power: we were told that it could be the "engine room" of the Middle East.[2] It lies in a very significant strategic position,[3] with Iraq to the west, former Soviet states to the north which have only relatively recently gained independence, Afghanistan and Pakistan to the east, and the Persian Gulf—a prime route for oil exports—to the south. It has a large and youthful population—75 million or more,[4] of whom 55% are aged under 30.[5] The overwhelming majority of the population are Shia Muslim.[6] Iran ranks 76th out of the 187 countries classified under the UNDP Human Development Index, based upon assessments of life expectancy, access to knowledge and standard of living, placing it higher than any of its land neighbours.[7] Youth literacy is near-universal.[8] The country's economy is relatively diverse, with supplies of key commodities and an engineering, research and manufacturing base. Iran has substantial resources of natural gas (second only to the Russian Federation) and enough oil to enable it to be a leading exporter.

5. Iran could be a force for stability and prosperity in the region; but it is not, at present, fulfilling its potential. It has chosen a course of near-isolation on the diplomatic front; and the economy is in a dire state and has been on a downward trend for years. Sales of oil—the source of more than 80% of Iran's foreign earnings[9]—have fallen from 4 million barrels per day in 2010 to 2.2 million barrels per day in late 2011, and possibly to as little as 1.2 million barrels per day by January 2014, because of the effects of international sanctions.[10] Two-thirds of Iran's natural gas reserves lie in fields which have yet to be developed.[11] The rate of GDP growth in Iran in 2012 was negative, at ?1.9%[12], and is likely to have worsened since. The currency, the rial, lost an estimated 80 percent of its value against the US dollar in the first nine months of 2012;[13] unemployment is hovering at around 28 per cent;[14] and the year-on-year inflation rate was estimated to be running at 39.3% in 2013.[15] The International Monetary Fund suggested in 2012 that Iran was losing more than 150,000 educated and skilled citizens every year, partly because of the difficulty of obtaining funding for research.[16]

6. Iran has not built a network of strategic alliances since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and has cultivated relations with the West only fleetingly. More often, the tone has been one of entrenched hostility to the West, with hardliners in the Iranian power structure portraying the West as "a brutal immoral entity out to 'get' Iran, deprive it of science and technology advances, and keep it dependent on foreign powers".[17] Some Western actions have done little to dispel this perception.

The UK's interests

7. In the most general terms, the UK's interests in any foreign state are to establish relations which:

·  help to guarantee the security of the UK;

·  promote the UK's prosperity by enhancing trade and investment opportunities for British firms; and

·  promote the UK's values through dissemination of its culture, language, educational opportunities and standards of human rights.[18]

8. In our view, the FCO's aims with regard to Iran should be to:

—  Promote greater regional stability and security through reduction of the threat from Iran to the UK's partners in the region (which are existential in the case of Israel) and to work towards ending Iran's anti-Western influence in Syria, Lebanon, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and elsewhere;

—  Open the way to greater diversity in energy and hydrocarbon supplies for the UK and for other EU Member States, by drawing on Iran's natural resources;

—  Protect UK commercial interests in the wider region, particularly in the Gulf;

—  Enable the development of the UK's commercial interests in Iran, from a base where the volume of bilateral trade is a fraction of what it might be, and where the value of Iran as an export market and as a location for British firms to operate is hardly explored;

—  Bring about improvements in human rights standards in Iran, notably in relation to the use of the death penalty and in media freedom; and

—   Build cultural and educational links which allow Iranians to see directly what the UK has to offer, and vice versa.

This is, at present, little more than a wish list, for reasons which we explore below.


9. Iran has for decades been seen as a threat to the security of the UK and its regional partners in the Middle East and in the Gulf. It was first designated by the US as a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984;[19] it supports organisations which have been proscribed by the UK as terrorist organisations;[20] it is ideologically committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and has described it as the "cancer of the Middle East";[21] it has provided manpower, equipment and advice (including support for intelligence-gathering capability) and billions of dollars' worth of funding[22] to a regime in Syria which the West regards as guilty of heinous crimes against its own populace; it provides direct support to militias (such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank) seeking to undermine more democratic institutions;[23] it has threatened to force the closure of the Straits of Hormuz, between the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, disrupting commercial shipping (17% of the world's oil supplies pass through the Gulf every day);[24] and it is accused of fomenting unrest in Yemen and amongst the Shia majority in Bahrain.[25] Iran is also alleged to have been involved in attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets internationally.[26] The Henry Jackson Society said simply that whereas Western governments prized stability, the Iranian regime saw its interests as served by instability across the Middle East and the world.[27]

10. Iran has also embarked upon a nuclear programme which, despite assurances to the contrary from Iran, is seen by many as having a military purpose and as being a threat to regional security. Both Israel, which believes it would be the target of any attack by Iran, and Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as a rival to its influence, have exerted pressure on Western allies to limit that programme. There have been many years of negotiations with Iran, initially led by a group of three EU Member States (the UK, France and Germany) and latterly complemented by the US, Russia and China. Recent negotiations have led to an agreement—the Joint Plan of Action—which sets out a path which could lead to resolution of points of difference between the two sides. Negotiations continue and are reaching a critical stage, and the matters under discussion are of such significance that we devote much of this Report to them (see Chapters 3 and 4).

11. Iran's influence in Syria has potential value to the UK but, regrettably, that potential has not been fulfilled. The FCO suggested that Iran might, for instance, have used its influence with the Syrian regime to secure humanitarian access in Syria; but it had not done so.[28] It might also have played a part in the talks in Geneva in January and February 2014 which were designed to try to secure a democratic transition for Syria. A belated invitation to Iran to participate was withdrawn when it became clear that Iran was not committed to the terms of the 2012 Geneva Communique on which the talks were based.[29] Professor Ansari told us that "in an ideal world", Iran should have been represented at the talks,[30] and the Rt Hon Jack Straw MP believed that it would have been more helpful to have Iran "inside the wheel of negotiations" than outside it.[31]

12. It should be noted that the foreign policy interests of the UK and Iran have occasionally converged since 1979 and continue to converge in some areas, for instance in bringing about greater stability in Afghanistan (Iran's role in the 2001 Bonn Conference, which led to the creation of a transitional government for Afghanistan following the overthrow of the Taliban, was described to us as "instrumental")[32] and in combating drug trafficking in the region.[33] Iran and the UK also share a common concern about recent advances by ISIL[34] forces in Iraq, although their views may differ on how that concern should be addressed. We note that Iran is seen as the most influential external player in domestic Iraqi affairs and has strengthened its position in the country over the years as UK and US troops have withdrawn.[35] The Government has stressed the role which it expects governments in the region to play in tackling the threat from extremism.[36]


13. Iran is potentially a major export and investment market for the UK. One witness described it as "the world's largest largely untapped market".[37] We were told of several sectors in which the UK had expertise which was of particular value to Iran: these included development of financial markets and professionalisation of the banking and insurance sectors, rebuilding of energy infrastructure, development of the tertiary education sector, telecommunications and IT, joint manufacturing ventures (particularly vehicle manufacturing), water projects, and service industries.[38]

14. For these to be taken forward, trade sanctions currently imposed on Iran in response to its nuclear programme would need to be lifted, and Iran would need to set aside its reservations about foreign commercial influence in the country. In the meantime, the Government does not encourage trade with, or investment in, the country, describing it as "inappropriate".[39] The Foreign Secretary told us that "we do not support, facilitate or promote trade with Iran, and we communicate that to British businesses".[40] It is no surprise, therefore, that the UK is less visible in the country,[41] and we note that the UK's exports to Iran fell from £464 million in 2005 to just £83 million in the year to May 2011[42] and just under £80 million in 2013,[43] reflecting the rigorous sanctions imposed on trade with Iran.

15. We note, however, signs that Iran may be beginning to present itself as being more open to foreign investment. At the Davos Economic Forum in January 2014, the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and the Iranian Minister for Oil, Bijan Zanganeh, told senior oil executives that the new administration in Iran was keen to open up to new investments and technology.[44] Mr Zanganeh had previously identified seven petroleum companies that Iran might do business with, including BP.[45]

16. Businesses in some countries have already begun to explore scope for increasing their commercial activity in Iran. Mr Straw told us in January that planes from western Europe to Tehran were "packed full of Italian, German, Scandinavian and French business people reviving their business links", and he did not understand why the UK was "going out of its way, gratuitously and unnecessarily, to make a completely hopeless point to the Iranians".[46]

17. A revived trading relationship between the UK and Iran would also allow Iran to play a potentially significant role in diversifying the UK's sources of energy and helping to assure its energy security through supplies of oil and natural gas. The Iranian Oil Minister was reported in May as having said that Iran would be willing to supply Europe with gas "either through pipeline or in liquefied natural gas form" if Russia were to halt supplies to Europe.[47]


Human rights standards

18. By all accounts, standards of human rights in Iran are very low: we note recent descriptions of the human rights situation in the country as "dire" and "appalling".[48] Iran has consistently been designated by the FCO as a "country of concern" in its annual reports on human rights and democracy. Iran has the highest execution rate per capita in the world: according to the FCO, at least 400 executions (largely for drug offences) were carried out in 2013,[49] but the true total is probably far higher. According to Amnesty International, Iran officially acknowledged 369 executions in 2013; but Amnesty added that "hundreds more" had taken place that year.[50] Human Rights Watch cited reports from "reliable sources" that indicated that the total number of executions in Iran in 2013 was over 700.[51] The FCO notes that those executed include persons aged under 18 at the time of their alleged offence and that executions are reported to take place without due process.[52]

19. Freedom of expression continues to be severely restricted: the National Union of Journalists told us that radio and television in Iran were both owned by the state and that the private sector was not permitted to acquire or manage radio or television services. Over 90% of the press is directly or indirectly associated with the government, and more than 30 newspapers and magazines not owned by the state have been banned since 2009.[53] Iran has the second highest number of journalists in prison in the world.[54] As we note below, BBC World Service broadcasts and internet-based services are subject to regular jamming and blocking.

20. The Iranian constitution (under Article 13) recognises only three faiths other than Islam: Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrianism. There is nonetheless plentiful evidence of persecution of Christians, including harassment and imprisonment on the basis of their faith.[55] The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá'í Faith told us that members of the Bahá'í community—believed to number over 300,000 in Iran—had been subjected to "a wide-ranging, multifaceted, state-sponsored campaign of persecution aimed at elimination of the community as a viable entity in Iran" and were denied most rights of citizenship. It cited judgments by courts in Iran denying Bahá'ís the right to seek justice, redress or protection against killings, assaults or property theft, and classifying them as "those whose blood may be shed with impunity". The Group argued that the FCO should press Iran to remedy this by amending or repealing Article 13 of the Iranian constitution.[56]

21. Hopes were raised by the election of President Rouhani in June 2013, and there have been some small signs of improvement. Various promises were made by President Rouhani during his campaign to improve social justice; a number of political prisoners were released in September 2013;[57] and various media publications previously banned have been allowed to resume publication.[58] The Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance has also described as "ridiculous" many of the policies adopted by Iran to control the flow of information, including Internet filtering, saying that "we cannot restrict the advance of [such technology] under the pretext of protecting Islamic values."[59] Overall, however, the FCO and others have not detected any substantive change in the human rights situation in the country. In April 2014 there was no sign that a draft Charter of Citizens Rights published in November 2013 had led to changes to the law or to a different approach by judicial or security forces. Iran has refused to accept reports by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran, Dr Ahmed Shaheed, and has denied him entry to the country.[60]

22. The UK Government's concerns in a number of fields, including the death penalty, freedom of religion and the workings of the criminal justice system, were raised by the UK Chargé d'Affaires with Iranian government officials during his visit to Iran in March 2014; and the Foreign Secretary raised Iran's human rights record with the Iranian Foreign Minister at the UN General Assembly in September 2013.[61] The FCO has contributed to international pressure on Iran to improve its human rights record, through imposition of sanctions, support for critical human rights resolutions at the United Nations, and direct support for the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Iran.[62] We recognise the enormous difficulties faced by the FCO in its attempts to bring about an improvement in human rights standards in Iran. We encourage the FCO to continue to take any opportunities that arise, whether bilaterally or multilaterally, to reiterate the UK's objection to unacceptable practices, including executions, persecution of people on the grounds of their faith, and severe restrictions on freedom of expression. No concessions should be made on human rights in the interests of making progress in negotiations in other fields.

Cultural and educational values

23. The principal vehicles for the UK's 'soft power' overseas are the BBC World Service, which offers a BBC Persian television service in Farsi, short-wave and medium-wave radio services in Farsi, radio services in English, and a web-based service (, in Farsi;[63] and the British Council, which aims to promote a wider knowledge of the UK and of the English language, and to encourage cultural, scientific, technological and other co-operation between the UK and other countries.[64] In the late 1970s, the British Council's operations in Iran were larger than in any other country in the world: it ran six country offices and employed over 100 UK staff. However the British Council offices in Tehran were closed in 2009 when threats and harassment towards its locally engaged staff made operations unsustainable,[65] and the BBC World Service has suffered regular jamming of its broadcasts on both radio and television in Iran. Access to the BBC Persian website has been routinely blocked.[66] The British Council has nonetheless continued its cultural relations work from London, working through digital means or with Iranian stakeholders in third countries who return to Iran and pass on knowledge and training. It told us that it had "received indications through senior Iranian cultural relations stakeholders" that Iran might be open to re-engagement with the Council, and it said in its memorandum (submitted in January) that it was in discussion with the FCO on when conditions might be right to pursue openings.[67]

Pursuing the UK's interests

24. The challenges to the UK's relationship with Iran are multiple and profound. Progress in pursuing the UK's interests within Iran seems a remote prospect until a more trusting bilateral relationship has been established, and that will require at least partial resolution of concerns held by the UK about Iran's role in regional security and stability. Many of those concerns are widely shared and are being addressed in international fora, through the UN and through negotiations alongside other UN Security Council members and Germany (the "P5+1") on Iran's nuclear programme. Pursuing commercial interests and UK values, however, is more of a bilateral task for the FCO and its partners; but that has been difficult while diplomatic relations have been minimal and the opportunities to exert influence within Iran have been almost nil.


25. The history of bilateral diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran since the Islamic Revolution in 1979 is chequered, and the relationship has not been an easy one for the FCO to manage. The UK closed its embassy in Tehran in 1980, following the Islamic Revolution, since when diplomatic representation in Tehran has been intermittent:

—  Sept 1980: Embassy closed; a British Interests Section was maintained in the Swedish Embassy;

—  June 1987: Representation reduced even further, to one Visa Officer;

—  Dec 1988 to Feb 1989: re-opening of Embassy, staffed by a Chargé d'Affaires;

—  Feb 1989: closure again due to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie;

—  Oct 1990 to May 1999: Embassy re-opened and staffed by a Chargé d'Affaires;[68]

—  May 1999 to Nov 2011: Full diplomatic relations re-established, with Ambassador.

26. The latest rupture in UK-Iran relations was on 29 November 2011, when the British Embassy premises in Tehran were stormed by a mob, in response to a decision by the EU to extend sanctions. The Ambassador's residence and the homes of staff in the city-centre compound were vandalised and looted, and the main Embassy office building was set on fire. A second Embassy compound in north Tehran was also attacked, and staff homes were looted. Iranian police belatedly gave assistance, and all staff were accounted for.[69] The Iranian Foreign Minister expressed regret over the attack.[70] The UK closed the Embassy as soon as staff had left and required the immediate closure of the Iranian Embassy in London. "Protecting powers" were appointed: Sweden looked after British interests (as it had done in the 1980s), while Oman looked after Iranian interests in the UK.

27. While the Tehran Embassy has been closed, the FCO's Iran operations have been run from FCO premises in Dubai. However, on 8 October 2013, the Foreign Secretary announced to the House of Commons that the UK and Iran would each appoint a non-resident chargé d'affaires "tasked with implementing the building of relations, including interim steps on the way towards eventual re-opening of both our embassies, as well as dialogue on other issues of mutual concern".[71] The newly-appointed Chargé d'Affaires, Mr Ajay Sharma, visited Tehran on 3 December 2013 and held discussions with the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about "taking forward the bilateral relationship on a step by step and reciprocal basis"; and he also visited the damaged British Embassy compounds in Tehran.[72] Mr Sharma has made a number of subsequent visits to Tehran, and, in a further sign of steady restoration of relations, the temporary appointment of Sweden and Oman as protecting powers was brought to a close on 24 February this year.[73]

28. We asked the Foreign Secretary in March what steps would need to be taken before the UK would be prepared to reopen the Embassy in Tehran. He replied that "we have to go on our judgment of behaviour and [Iranians'] readiness to allow an embassy to perform its normal diplomatic functions and for its staff to be safe and secure". He did not believe that there was "a crucial form of words or piece of paper", and he added that he had told the Iranian Foreign Minister in January that he hoped to make a decision "within a few months" about further steps about the reopening "even in a small way" of the Embassy. [74] He made it clear that while the Foreign Ministry might be well-disposed to the re-opening of the Embassy—the previous Foreign Minister had sounded "horrified" on the day the Embassy was stormed in November 2011—the UK was looking for signs that other centres of power in Iran were willing to provide genuine reassurances.[75]

29. Shortly before we agreed this Report, the FCO announced that the circumstances were "right" to reopen the Embassy in Tehran, once a range of practical issues had been resolved; and it was expected that Iran would choose to reopen their Embassy in London. Only a limited range of services would at first be offered by the Embassy in Tehran, and applicants for visas for entry to the UK would still have to apply to Abu Dhabi or Istanbul.[76]


30. The decision to close the UK Embassy in Tehran in November 2011 was a necessary one, and the Government had no choice in the matter. However, it brought yet another interruption to the UK's ability to understand the Iranian outlook and to maintain and build the personal contacts which are essential to constructive diplomatic relations. During the closure, the FCO has been largely reliant upon third parties, media reports, intelligence reports and missions of other countries for information on public opinion and shifts in political power. It seems that the UK did not expect Mr Rouhani to win the presidency,[77] but then nor did others who are seasoned Iran-watchers.

31. The problem faced by the FCO in gaining country knowledge while diplomatic relations are at a low level is not a recent one in Iran. Professor Ansari (Director of the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St. Andrews) believed that there had been periods in the 1990s when the UK's 'readings' of Iran "had not been as good as they could have been". Part of the reason had been that many of the "old hands" at the Foreign Office were retiring, and there was no functioning embassy in Tehran, and therefore no new people were coming up to take those positions.[78] Ben Wallace MP (Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Iran) described knowledge on Iran within the FCO as having been "intermittent";[79] but Mr Straw said that there was still a cadre of Farsi speakers with experience in Tehran,[80] and Professor Ansari believed that there was still "good and growing expertise" on Iran in the UK.[81]

32. Not only has the flow of information to the FCO been disrupted: the projection within Iran of the UK and what it has to offer is currently minimal. The British Council said in its submission to this inquiry that "the prolonged period of silence between the UK and Iran has resulted in the UK being less visible in the country" and that as a result, other countries "are now looked at as better choice partners in international relations".[82] This is disappointing, given the extent and power of British influence in Iran in the past and the respect which the UK commanded then and continues to command in some quarters, however grudgingly.[83] Professor Ansari has written of "the intimacy of a historical relationship [between the UK and Iran] which is profound, frequently affectionate and essentially respectful".[84]

33. Unsurprisingly, we found little evidence to suggest that the UK now has much individual leverage in Iran, although that observation is qualified, as we did not visit Iran and so were unable to talk to key figures in the country. The reasons for the apparent lack of leverage lie partly in historic suspicion of the UK's motives—Mr Straw said that Iran had portrayed the UK as "a villain of the piece for at least a century and a half"[85]—and partly in Iran's decision at the time of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 to detach itself from Western influence.

34. A further difficulty arising from the interruptions in direct diplomatic representation in Tehran and London was put forward by Professor Anoush Ehteshami, Chair in International Relations at Durham University, who argued that the UK needed to be seen to have a presence in Tehran and to have direct access to the Iranian leadership if it was to be able to reassure regional allies that any deal with Iran on the nuclear programme would not be at their expense.[86] We were made aware of concerns in Saudi Arabia on this point in our recent inquiry into relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.[87]

35. The FCO told us that, partly driven by concerns about Iranian activity, it had in recent years sought to deepen existing defence and security cooperation with allies in the Gulf, through "basing arrangements for UK military assets, strategic dialogue on security matters, training and partnering arrangements (including on countering violent extremism) and defence equipment sales".[88] The Foreign Secretary gave a personal assurance in a speech at the Manama Dialogue[89] in Bahrain in December 2013:

    I assure you that the agreement [the Joint Plan of Action] does not for us in the UK imply any diminution in the commitments of external powers to our alliances in the region, or to the security of its vital sea lanes, or to the struggle against terrorism. Engagement on the nuclear question should not mean a free pass for Iran on other issues in the region.[90]

The Prime Minister told the Knesset in March that he shared Israel's "deep scepticism and great concern about Iran" and was not "starry-eyed" about the new regime, adding that Britain would never allow "a nuclear-armed Iran".[91]

36. The storming of the UK Embassy by an Iranian mob in Tehran in 2011 was reprehensible and should never have been permitted by Iranian security forces. We welcome the recent decision to re-open the Embassy in Tehran, and we understand why the Foreign Secretary adopted a cautious approach towards the revival of diplomatic relations. We question, however, whether the UK waited too long for assurances on security which were never going to be forthcoming from all quarters of the Iranian hierarchy. The lack of full diplomatic representation in Iran hinders the UK's ability to shape events, gather information, and reassure its regional allies that it could make fully informed assessments of Iranian opinion and intentions.

37. There is a serious risk that longstanding allies in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region will feel overlooked if the UK does not invest considerable diplomatic effort in reassurance. The UK and others need to be able to show an early dividend from the Joint Plan of Action if they are to retain confidence in the initiative amongst their regional allies.


38. The UK has been bracketed in many Iranian minds with the US, the ultimate bogeyman for Iran. We asked witnesses whether the UK might, over the years, have benefited from taking a policy line which was more independent from that of the US. Sir Robert Cooper, a former Counsellor for the European External Action Service from 2010 to 2012, and someone who had been closely involved in negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme, pointed out that the UK had acted independently from the US in 2002 and 2003 when the extent of the Iranian nuclear programme first became known and when it became clear that Iran had breached obligations under its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Then it was EU Member States, in the shape of Foreign Ministers from the UK, France and Germany, that reached an agreement in October 2003 in Tehran with Dr Rouhani, then Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, on suspension of Iran's enrichment and processing activities. That initiative had been made with the knowledge of the US but, as Sir Robert told us, "it was not US policy at the time to talk to Iran at all".[92]

39. However, Mr Straw told us that two years later, when the French and German governments were prepared to discuss a deal (which would have entailed the conversion of Iranian low-enriched uranium to fuel rods) the US had blocked attempts to reach a deal. According to a former senior Iranian negotiator, Seyed Moussavian, the UK had vetoed the proposal at the insistence of the United States: "They were ready to compromise but the US was an obstacle".[93] Mr Straw has argued forcefully that the failure of the deal in 2005 strengthened the hardliners in Iran and helped pave the way for a far less co-operative regime under the new President Ahmadinejad.[94]

40. US policy on Iran subsequently evolved from a policy of insistence on "red lines" to a point where it was prepared to take part in negotiations; and, under the Obama Administration, it has sought to take more of an initiative to engage Iran in meaningful negotiations on the nuclear issue. Discreet bilateral talks in Oman from March 2013 onwards helped to pave the way for the latest negotiations on the nuclear programme.[95] Mr Kessler, representing the Henry Jackson Society, told us (with a hint of regret) that the UK had essentially "toed the Obama Administration's line on Iran, on engagement", and that it had been France which had taken the toughest position, insisting on concessions from Iran before the Joint Plan of Action was finally agreed. He suggested that "perhaps a worse Joint Plan of Action would have been drafted if not for French intervention".[96] When we asked the Foreign Secretary about the measure of the UK's independence from US policy towards Iran, he stressed that policy on Iran could not succeed without strong international co-ordination and unity, and he believed that if European policy were to be detached from US policy, attempts to bring Iran towards an agreement would be neither effective nor successful.[97]

41. There are signs that the UK's willingness to follow the lead of the US in opposing a possible deal with Iran in 2005 meant that an opportunity to make progress in resolving concerns about Iran's nuclear programme was lost, although we cannot know whether an acceptable compromise could actually have been reached at the time. We welcome the subsequent convergence of UK and US policy on Iran and its nuclear programme. We see it as a considerable success that a united front has been maintained by the P5+1 countries in recent negotiations, and that Iran has been presented with little or no obvious opportunity to prey on differences between members of the P5+1 negotiating team. We commend the FCO for its work in cementing the combined approach.


42. At a round table event on Iran hosted by the British Academy in February and attended by several former senior diplomats, Members and leading figures from academic institutions, several people spoke of the value of symbolic gestures which the UK might make at little or no cost but which could nonetheless send a welcome signal to Iran and generate goodwill. It was said, for instance, that the UK could do more to recognise publicly the scale of Iranian suffering in its war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 (a war in which Iraq was the provocateur and in which Iran lost an estimated 1 million lives).

43. More controversially, perhaps, the UK could acknowledge its part—alongside the US—in fomenting the unrest which led to the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq in Tehran in 1953, something which rankles still in Iran. The British Government at the time saw Mr Mossadeq as a serious threat to its strategic and economic interests after he had nationalised the British-owned Anglo-Persian Oil Company, latterly known as BP. A joint operation by the CIA and by British intelligence services helped to depose Mr Mossadeq and to install a more pro-Western government. President Obama acknowledged the US role in a speech in Cairo in 2009, and US papers revealing the CIA role (and indeed British involvement) were declassified last year; but the UK has not yet formally acknowledged its role.[98]

44. Iran sets store by reciprocity, and the chances of securing any concession from Iran are higher if it can be seen to match an equivalent concession from the UK. While it should be for the FCO to judge when the right time might be for a gesture such as a statement by the UK recognising the scale of Iranian suffering during the Iran-Iraq war, or acknowledgement of any UK role in the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadeq in 1953, we believe that the FCO should be prepared to take such a step if the circumstances warrant it and if Iran also makes a similar public gesture recognising its own support for terrorism, attack on the British Embassy or other past behaviour.


45. The closure of the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011 and the downgrading of diplomatic relations led to the withdrawal of facilities in Tehran to issue visas to enter the UK; so applicants from Iran have had to visit Istanbul or Abu Dhabi, at considerable cost. The closure of the visa office and the difficulties in making international transfers of funds under the sanctions regime have combined to reduce numbers of Iranian students studying in the UK to below 4,000.[99] Entry clearance visas issued to Iranian nationals for study in the UK have fallen from 3,247 in 2010 to just 915 in 2013.[100] The British Council told us that countries which had maintained embassies and cultural centres in Iran had enjoyed consistent growth in student numbers, and it cited Germany, which now has almost 5,000 Iranian students studying at its universities, as having overtaken the UK.[101]

46. The FCO regrets the consequences of the closure of its visa office and acknowledges the drop in the number of students applying for visas, although it says it remains committed to fostering educational links.[102] However, the UK has not taken steps to simplify the process for Iranians who have to travel to other countries to apply for visas. It has not, for instance, made arrangements for passports to be returned to applications at the outset, once details have been verified, rather than at the end of the process; nor does it seem willing to consider contracting out the handling of applications to a third party in Tehran. Any action on this front would be a matter primarily for the Home Office; but the FCO could if it chose make the case for easing the application process while maintaining its rigour, in the interests of strengthening educational and cultural links between the UK and Iran and showing goodwill. It is not clear how long it will be before a UK visa section re-opens in Tehran. In the meantime, we recommend that the FCO press the Home Office to agree to practical measures which would reduce the burden on Iranians applying for entry clearance to the UK while maintaining the rigour of the process.

2   Professor Ansari Q 45 Back

3   Sir Robert Cooper Q 40 Back

4   United Nations Population Fund figure Back

5   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 4.2 Back

6   It is estimated that there are between 66 million and 70 million Shia Muslims in Iran: see Pew Research Center, Back

7  Back

8   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 4.2 Back

9   HC Deb 24 January 2012 col 169 Back

10   See memorandum from Professor Ehteshami, paragraph 7, also and Back

11 Back

12   World Bank figure Back

13   See New York Times 10 October 2012 Back

14   Memorandum from Professor Ehteshami, paragraph 7 Back

15   World Bank figure. See also memorandum from Mal Craghill, para 1 Back

16 Back

17   Memorandum from the National Iranian American Council, paragraph 2 Back

18   Adapted from the FCO's Purpose and Priorities 2013-14: see FCO Annual Report and Accounts 2013-14, pages 9 and 10 Back

19; see also memorandum from the Community Security Trust, paragraph 2 Back

20   Memorandum from the Henry Jackson Society, paragraph 36 Back

21   Professor Johnson Q 161, memorandum from BICOM paragraph 12 Back

22   HC Deb, 13 March 2014, col 277W Back

23   Memorandum from the FCO, page 10 Back

24   HL Deb, 24 January 2012, col 946; see also FCO memorandum section 5 Back

25   See memorandum from the FCO, section 5; also Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2013-14, The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, HC 88,paragraph 216 Back

26   Memorandum from BICOM paragraph 19 Back

27   Memorandum from the Henry Jackson Society, paragraph 35 Back

28   Memorandum from the FCO, page 10 Back

29   HC Deb 21 January 2014 col 140 Back

30   Q 73 Back

31   Q 109 Back

32   Memorandum from the National Iranian American Council, paragraph 8 Back

33   Memorandum from the FCO, sections 1 and 5. See also HC Deb 16 June 2014 col 858 Back

34   ISIL and ISIS are acronyms for alternative translations of the Arabic name for the main jihadist militant group active in parts of Iraq and Syria. ISIL stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant; ISIS stands for the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham. We use ISIL in this Report, on the basis that "Levant" is the most accurate translation for "al-Sham". Back

35   It has been argued that Iran was instrumental in convincing rival Shia groups in Iraq to form an alliance which became the core of the government after the national elections in Iraq in 2010. See Iraq Ten Years On, Chapter 12, Chatham House, 2013, Back

36   HL Deb 25 June 2014 col 1317 Back

37   Mr Kessler Q 190 Back

38   Memorandum from Professor Ehteshami, paragraph 4, memorandum from Mal Craghill, paragraph 4, memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 3.5 Back

39 See also HC Deb 7 April 2014 col 140W Back

40   Q 218 Back

41   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 3.5 Back

42 Back

43   Information supplied by the House of Commons Library, using data drawn from See also Lord Lamont, Chairman of the British Iranian Chamber of Commerce, Back

44   See Financial Times 23 January 2014 Back

45   Memorandum from Mal Craghill, paragraph 4; also Daily Telegraph 4 December 2013  Back

46   Q 95. See also  Back

47   Work on text of Iran deal starts, European Voice, 8 May 2014 Back

48   Mr Hague Q 197; also HL Deb 3 March 2014 col WA 288 Back

49   Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Command Paper 8870, April 2014, page 215 Back

50 Back

51 Back

52   Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Command Paper 8870, April 2014, page 216  Back

53   Memorandum from the NUJ Back

54   Memorandum from the FCO, section 6 Back

55   Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Command Paper 8870, April 2014, page 216 to 217 Back

56   Memorandum from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Bahá'í Faith, paragraph 7.2 Back

57   HL Deb 3 March 2014 col WA 288 Back

58   Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Command Paper 8870, April 2014, page 214 Back

59 Back

60   Human Rights and Democracy: 2013 FCO Report, Command Paper 8870, April 2014, page 213 Back

61   See HL Deb 13 May 2014 col 482WA and HC Deb 12 May 2014 col 352W Back

62   Memorandum from the FCO, section 6 Back

63   Evidence submitted by the BBC World Service to The FCO's human rights work in 2012, Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, HC 267 Back

64   See Royal Charter at Back

65   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 2.1 Back

66   Evidence submitted by the BBC World Service to The FCO's human rights work in 2012, Fourth Report of Session 2013-14, HC 267 Back

67   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 3.6 Back

68   Except from a six-month period in 1997 when all Heads of Mission from EU Member States in Tehran were withdrawn following the conviction by a German court of four Iranians for the murder of a group of Iranian exiles in Berlin in 1992, and the finding that Iranian state agencies had participated. Back

69   HC Deb 30 November 2011 col 959 Back

70   HC Deb 30 November 2011 col 960 Back

71   HC Deb 8 October 2013 col 28 Back

72 Back

73   HC Deb 24 February 2014 col 29 Back

74   Q 217 Back

75   Q 216; also HC Deb 24 February 2014 col 41 Back

76   HC Deb 17 June 2014 col 80WS Back

77   Q 196 Back

78   Q 46 Back

79   Q 92 Back

80   Q 93 Back

81   Q 46 Back

82   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 3.5 Back

83   Professor Ansari Q 46-47. See also memorandum submitted to our predecessors in 2000 by Professor Ali Ansari, published with Iran: Interim Report, Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, HC 80, Session 2000-01. Back

84   The Myth of 'Perfidious Albion': Anglo-Iranian Relations in Historical Perspective, Asian Affairs, Vol XLIV, no. III Back

85   Q 98 Back

86   Memorandum from Professor Ehteshami, paragraph 11 Back

87   Neil Partrick, Associate Fellow, RUSI, evidence given on 22 January 2013, Q 30, published with the Fifth Report of the Committee, HC 88 (Session 2013-14) Back

88   Memorandum from the FCO, section 5 Back

89   The Manama Dialogue is a forum for the national security establishments of participating states (states in the Middle East and outside powers with security interests in the Gulf) to exchange views on regional security challenges.  Back

90 Back



92   Q 9 Back

93   See; also Back

94   Q 82 and Q 101 Back

95; see also Mr Hague, Q 202 Back

96   Q 170. See 'Not there yet' The Economist, 16 November 2013, for an account of the French negotiating position. Back

97   Q 201  Back

98 Back

99   Memorandum from the British Council, para 4.6 Back

100   Figures supplied by the House of Commons Library, drawn from Immigration Statistics January-March 2014, Table be_06_q_s, Home Office Back

101   Memorandum from the British Council, paragraph 4.6 Back

102   Memorandum from the FCO, section 1 Back

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Prepared 14 July 2014