Last week’s visit to the UK by Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araghchi appears to signal warming relations between Iran and the United Kingdom. Araghchi’s meeting with UK officials, in addition to his speech at the prestigious Chatham House institute, speaks to a renewed push by the Islamic Republic to place its relations with the UK on a stable foundation.
Appearances however can be deceptive, especially in relation to Anglo-Iranian ties, which are notoriously difficult and complex. The two countries have a history of misunderstanding stretching back centuries, a recurring pattern that was exacerbated by the Iranian revolution nearly four decades ago.
This difficult history notwithstanding, currently the two sides are brought together by two big geopolitical events. The first is Brexit and the UK’s renewed push to secure a global role outside the European Union. Second, the Iran nuclear deal – and specifically the UK’s strong support for the deal in the face of US objections – acts as a bond in Anglo-Iranian ties.
But as the latest British-drafted United Nations resolution condemning Iran’s role in the Yemen war indicates, there is inherent tension in UK-Iran relations and the whole edifice may come crashing down again, as it has done repeatedly in the past four decades.
A volatile relationship
The conceptually flawed nature of Anglo-Iranian relations is in large measure due to the UK’s previous colonial role in the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent. Although Iran was never directly colonised, nonetheless the country was under effective British and Russian domination by the end of the 19th century.
The nature and extent of British manipulation of Iranian public life has left a lasting psychological legacy which manifests itself foremost as an inferiority complex. Hence, Iranians of all political stripes continue to ascribe fantastic feats to the British even though the UK’s global role has been much diminished in the past 60 years.
In practical terms, the manner of British withdrawal from the Middle East in 1971 created long-term political, legal and territorial problems between Iran and its neighbours in the Gulf. For example, Iran’s fraught relations with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates is in large measure due to the conscious decisions and default positions of the departing British forces in the early 1970s.
Iranian misgivings toward the UK intensified following the 1979 Islamic revolution which toppled the Shah and ushered in an ideological regime opposed to American and British interests in the Middle East. One of the immediate consequences of the Iranian revolution was Iran’s concerted attempt to turn the table on the UK by trying to gain political and religious influence on the British Isles.
The Salman Rushdie affair of 1989 was a direct consequence of this Iranian policy and it ranked as the first attempt by a foreign power to mobilise British Muslims against the UK establishment. Iran’s deep engagement with British Muslims has left its own legacy, namely a formidable official Iranian presence in the United Kingdom.
Indeed, one of the oddities of Anglo-Iranian relations is that throughout the decades of fraught relations, the Islamic Republic has continued to maintain an unusually strong presence in London. Besides the standard diplomatic presence, Iranian broadcasters such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and Press TV maintain offices in London. Moreover, official Iranian religious institutions have a presence in London, as demonstrated by the Maida Vale-based Islamic Centre of England. The latter is linked to the offices of the Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
The volatility of Anglo-Iranian relations was dramatically underscored in November 2011 when Iranian protestors stormed the British embassy in Tehran in protest of the UK’s role in containing the Iranian nuclear programme. Subsequently diplomatic relations went into a deep freeze for a few years.
Following the landmark nuclear deal of July 2015, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), relations began to improve, in no small part due to the UK’s continuing support for the deal. Indeed, the UK’s strong position on the JCPOA has withstood opposition from London’s closest ally, Washington, which under the Trump administration has made no bones about its desire to scrap the deal.
UK-US divergence on the JCPOA may be the first time since the Suez Crisis of 1956 that Britain and America have been divided over a singularly important international issue. The UK’s strong position on the JCPOA can be considered part of the Brexit “spirit” inasmuch as the British are trying to assert a global role in anticipation of formal withdrawal from the EU early next year.
As part of its post-Brexit international diplomacy, the UK will be looking to strengthen ties with important regional powers like Brazil, South Africa, Turkey and Iran. The latter is especially important, not just in the context of a difficult centuries-long relationship, but more so due to Iran’s current strong position in the Middle East.
For its part, Iran also appears to be keen on improving ties, as demonstrated by Araghchi’s high-profile visit to the UK. But in order to prevent a sudden and dramatic breakdown in relations – like the ones in 2011 and 1989 – the two countries would do well to manage their expectations.
Notwithstanding its regional prowess – which is underpinned by artful and sophisticated diplomacy – the Islamic Republic is still essentially a revolutionary power committed to the overthrow of the status quo in the region and beyond. This is why Iran’s position on regional flashpoints like Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, radically diverges from the UK position.
As for Britain, voluminous pro-Brexit propaganda notwithstanding, much of the UK’s global position and standing will be determined by the strength of London’s relationship with Washington. This is especially the case in the Middle East, where British and American interests are firmly aligned.
In view of this reality, the outlook for UK-Iran relations may not be as rosy as the two countries’ diplomats and lobbyists like to pretend.