28 Nov 2011

Iran's looming break with Britain

Here we go again. Let’s clear our throats on the worst of it first. Yes, the Islamic Republic of Iran has an appalling record on human rights abuses – look no further than the reports by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. Yes, Iran’s governance is corrupt and impenetrable at many levels; its Green Revolution has been brutally put down.

Having cleared our throats, are we excited or even surprised to find that the Iranian parliament has voted to expel our new ambassador (he’s been on deck for a month, after a long period in which UK relations were handled by a charge d’affaires)? Britain has been in the forefront of the latest cascade of sanctions demands at the United Nations. So many sanctions have been levelled against Iran that one wonders whether there are many more that could be instituted. Of course, Iran’s oil is untouchable because so much of it goes to our fellow UN Security Council Permanent member, China.

Britain’s concern with Iran has mirrored America’s concern and that of many other Western powers – the possible/probable development of nuclear weapons. The latest AEIA report on the matter was wonderfully and consistently unclear as to how far Tehran has got in this matter. What I do know, from talking to Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, is that it is not Israel or America that Iran fears in nuclear terms, it is Pakistan. He told me that if Saudi-backed and funded Pakistani Wahhabist fundamentalists ever get hold of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, Shia Iran will be the number one target.

Britain has a very special place when it comes to relating to Iran. Unlike the Americans who have only ever had full diplomatic relations with Tehran for a total of twenty years, and now none since the revolution in 1979, Britain has managed to hang on through thick and thin for several hundred years, barring assorted scrapes and breaks.
To what advantage is Britain putting its ‘special relationship’ with Iran? Given the UK’s decade-long sharing the lead with America in the charge for more sanctions, are they working? In the absence of an American embassy, the UK has had to suffer the brunt of attacks for the Iranian regime. It has meant that what once was a hugely valuable export market for British goods is all but destroyed. It has meant that equally valuable import of bright Iranian engineering and science students is under siege, and it has meant that any diplomatic advantage Britain had in Tehran is all but dead. The plus side is very hard to divine.

Yet beneath all this tension lies a cool reality of warm and rewarding relations. The British Museum, for example, has managed to extract sumptuous artefacts from Iran that have never been allowed out of the country before. It leant and got back the ‘Elgin Marbles’ of Persian antiquities the Cyrus Cylinder – which the Foreign Office had warned that the Iranians would kidnap and never return. The UK even has a successful if small high end tourist trade with Iran.
So what is it about Iran – a country I have visited down the years some thirty times? I was there for the Revolution and for the US hostage crisis – still the cradle of our present tensions – and many times since. It is a country that looks West. For all its human rights abuses, women have a role in society that leaves Saudi Arabia standing. And that’s the rub. For in the end what is happening today is the continuance of the ‘great game’- a game that rests on the regional rivalry of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The former a coagulation of desert fiefdoms put together to form a Kingdom within the last hundred years and deeply entwined with oil and the West’s hunger for it. Iran has vast amounts of oil too, but unlike Saudi, Iran is an ancient civilisation, 3,500 years old, at least. Iran was creating alphabets and numbers when we were still crawling about in our caves.

The Western powers found Saudi easier to manipulate, even if difficult to control. Iran is stubbornly proud of its past. It has invaded no one in 300 years. So what about is support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria’s Baathist government? Some argue that this is a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend. It is argued that denied its rightful place in the regional power order, Iran wags the tail of the Americans, who refuse to properly recognise Tehran, by backing the forces Washington regards as the greatest threats to its interests.

So is Britain wise to allow a situation to develop in which we lose our unique purchase with Iran? It’s probably too late to ask.

If you go to North Tehran, you find a community numbering hundreds of thousands (some number them at several million) of exceptionally well educated, rich and Westernised Iranians, who have made their accommodation with a regime of which they despair. Their children fuelled the Green Revolution. My own contacts tell me that the UK’s enthusiastic support for sanctions has added to their despair.

But Britain’s attraction goes well beyond the elite. Iran is a country in which I have felt more welcome than almost any in the region. As the British Museum has shown, ‘engagement’ rewards. Somewhere there must be a British diplomat who wonders, should we risk it in the diplomatic sphere?



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