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Tehran embassy photo threatens ties with Iran unless apologies are made

Russian envoy Levan Dzhagaryan with the recently appointed British ambassador, Simon Shercliff, outside Russia’s diplomatic mission in Tehran, Iran on 11 August 2021 [Russian Embassy, IRI /Twitter]
Russian envoy Levan Dzhagaryan with the recently appointed British ambassador, Simon Shercliff, outside Russia’s diplomatic mission in Tehran, Iran on 11 August 2021 [Russian Embassy, IRI /Twitter]

Iran's outgoing Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, yesterday expressed sentiments shared by many of his compatriots following an "inappropriate" post on social media by the Russian Embassy in Tehran. The image posted online shows Russian Ambassador Levan Dzhagaryan meeting his recently-appointed British counterpart, Simon Shercliff, in a quasi-recreation of an iconic photograph taken at the 1943 Tehran Conference between US President Franklin D Roosevelt, Britain's Winston Churchill and the Soviet Union's Joseph Stalin.

Understandably, this has been deemed offensive to many Iranians; statesmen, academics, journalists and citizens alike. They found it both insulting and insensitive, harking back to a humiliating period of modern Iranian history.

"Need I remind all that August 2021 is neither August 1941 nor December 1943," said Zarif, referring to the Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran which took place two years prior to the conference. "The Iranian people have shown — including during the JCPOA [nuclear deal] talks — that their destiny can never be subject to decisions in foreign embassies or by foreign powers."

Foreign minister-designate Hossein Amirabdollahian noted that the photo "showed disregard for diplomatic etiquette and the national pride of the Iranian people."

The ambassadors' action was deemed to be "inappropriate" by the Speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf. "It should be followed-up immediately by the Foreign Ministry," he insisted. "Both ambassadors must immediately formally apologise for the action taken, otherwise a decisive diplomatic response will be necessary."

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Despite clarifications and insistence from the Russian Embassy that the image had "no anti-Iranian context" and that it's only purpose was "to pay tribute to the joint efforts of the allied states against Nazism during the Second World War", both ambassadors were summoned to the ministry.

In order to understand the outrage that the photo has generated, it is important to understand the nation's psyche informed by its not too-distant past. Iran was dominated by foreign powers with persistent violations of its sovereignty and lack of independence.

From the Qajar period through to the Pahlavi era (19th to early 20th centuries), Iran was weak and vulnerable in the face of encroaching European and Russian powers, which saw several concessions, loss of land and futile attempts to balance the global powers one against the other. Against Iran's wishes to remain neutral during the Second World War, as in the Great War before it, the country was forced to take sides.

As Ariane Tabatabai states in No Conquest, No Defeat: Iran's National Security Strategy, although the Tehran Conference was aimed at displaying friendship between the Allies and the Iranian people, it was actually a show of foreign dominance over Iran.

[Khamenei.ir]

To add insult to injury, the famous photograph of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin deliberately omitted Iranian ruler Mohammad Reza Shah, who was reduced to being a "passive observer at the conference organised in his own capital".

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 changed Iran, of course, and it is no longer the country it once was in more ways than one. At the strategic level, it's been argued that the Islamic Republic has continued and expanded the ambitions of earlier dynasties and governments to limit the interference of foreign powers and have independence while exerting and maintaining its own perceived rightful place as a regional hegemon. The 25-year cooperation agreement signed with China earlier this year however, adds to debates about the extent of Iran's independence.

While senior political analyst Syed Mohammad Marandi noted that the latest embassy photo was not a surprising move by Britain, he said that it was certainly a surprise that Russia played a role in such a stunt, owing to Moscow's important strategic cooperation with Tehran in recent years, particularly in regional affairs. However, even though the Russian Embassy insisted that "Iran is our friend and neighbour" and the British envoy expressed regret and claimed "that there were no malicious intentions behind this issue," both countries have stopped short of an official, outright apology, which would be the diplomatically prudent thing to issue to the Iranians.

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Britain re-opened its embassy in Tehran in 2015 after a thawing of relations; it was stormed by protestors in 2011 in response to sanctions imposed over Iran's nuclear programme. Its chequered and treacherous history with Iran has left the Iranian people with an almost permanent cynical view of the country. To a lesser extent, that's the case with Russia too.

At the time of writing, it is unclear if an apology will be forthcoming and whether the controversial image will be taken off social media. However, if amicable relations are to be resumed, both Britain and Russia — especially the latter — should take into consideration diplomatic norms, the cultural sensitivities of the host nation and the socio-cultural value of a sincere apology to the people of Iran.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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