Anglo-Iranian Relations in Context: Three Decades of Deterioration

Written on January 18, 2012 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Europe, Foreign Policy, Middle East

By Robert Mason

The recent severing of diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran is reminiscent of the downgrading of EU missions in 1997. This was after the Iranian government had been found culpable by a German court in the case of four murdered Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Berlin in 1992. However, the circumstances surrounding the mutual downgrading of diplomatic missions were clearer this time. A simple cause – effect of the unprecedented UK decision, most likely coordinated with other members of the EU3 (France and Germany) and the U.S., to apply unprecedented pressure and raise the cost of the Iranian nuclear programme by directly sanctioning the Iranian Central Bank. To do this in Khamenei’s ‘year of economic jihad’ which was designed to offset such pressure facilitated the storming of the British embassy residential compound and led to the decision to expel Iranian diplomats from their London embassy.

Anglo-Iranian relations have experienced a series of setbacks over the past three decades. Indeed, the UK has been bracketed by some Iranian factions as the “Little Satan” along with Israel; both subservient to the U.S. or “Great Satan”. In the 2000s alone, following a high watermark in bilateral relations in 2003 based on UK action in Iraq, and its ability to potentially shape a pro-Iranian government there, as well as its ability to take on the role of interlocutor between Iran and the U.S., relations quickly soured again. This was due to the Iranian realisation that the UK was not as malleable to the promotion of its interests in Iraq as had been assumed. Covert and rhetorical campaigns against the UK quickly followed inside Iraq and against the UK embassy in Tehran.

Iranian attitudes against the EU3 hardened further in 2004 after the Paris Agreement failed to give the assurances that the Iranian nuclear programme was benign and advance dialogue. A year later, the election of President Ahmadinejad and his decision to resume conversion of uranium in Esfahan was an immediate indication that Iran had taken a fork in the road. However, it was the IAEA referral of the Iranian nuclear programme to the UN Security Council in 2010 which created the conditions for greater divergence between the West and Iran. Since then, not only have multilateral sanctions led by the EU3 and the U.S. sought to ‘cripple’ the Iranian economy and isolate the regime internationally, but they have facilitated the Iranian search for stronger bilateral relations in Central Asia, and particularly with China.

The irony of tougher sanctions is that it represents a cost to both the UK and Iran: it exacerbates the economic recovery in the West by pushing up the international oil price (Iran and Venezuela, its ideological partner in Latin America, rank second and third in proven oil reserves respectively) which only helps Iran to weather the storm. Iran has also implemented a cut in state subsidies which have been largely lauded by the IMF. It is true that Iran has falling oil production capacity and payment problems, which is creating friction between the president and the Ayatollah, and Iran is loosing oil customers, but this is simply forcing Iran to pursue relationships with anti-Western states and reinforcing its support of the ‘resistance axis’.

More importantly, although sanctions have been shown to be effective economically, there is no evidence that they have impacted on its nuclear or foreign policy; both controlled by Khamenei. This has led to a diplomatic deadlock on the nuclear issue, on legally dubious grounds, without providing the necessary space for positive diplomatic engagement such as enhancing the NPT or establishing a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East. The lack of consultation on vital national security issues for the West and Iran such as on Iraq and Afghanistan have also represented missed opportunities in establishing the foundations for a rapprochement.

The EU3 has thus been left to pursue a dual policy of engagement and sanctions, to try and pave the way for direct negotiations between Iran and the U.S. at a later date. This has been highly conditioned on the U.S. not wanting to engage in broad based dialogue, especially after Iranian actions in the Levant; notably the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, but also due to U.S. Congressional restrictions. By November 2011, this included a bill proposing a ban on contact between the U.S. and Iranian diplomats – not a move designed to bridge the diplomatic impasse.

Letting sanctions dictate the agenda of international relations in an era dominated by mistrust and missteps only leads to one end game. The hope is that Iran and the West, rather than leveraging the Arab uprisings and trying to reshape the Middle East, can establish a new ‘critical dialogue’. This time a new regional Helsinki Process should be adopted with aims to reduce tensions and improve relations through binding commitments across politico-military, environmental, economic and human aspects of security. At this point in proceedings, no other confidence building measures will tilt the balance towards more positive engagement, especially when considering the accumulated variables of the nuclear programme, a possible Israeli pre-emptive strike and Iran’s historical relations with the U.S. 

Robert Mason is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter. He was resident at the British Institute of Persian Studies in Tehran in February 2011.


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