Leading article: Britain's many-layered quarrel with Iran

Mr Hague is right not to slam the door irrevocably shut on Tehran

Share
Related Topics

It is always shocking to realise how rapidly relations can deteriorate, where diplomacy is concerned – or perhaps, more accurately, when diplomacy fails. The ransacking of the British embassy in Tehran earlier this week, and the looting of homes in the UK's residential compound, seemed to erupt out of nowhere. Only two days before that, Iran's parliament had voted to expel the recently arrived British ambassador – a decision said to require the agreement of the President and the Council of Guardians before it could take effect. No matter, the mob – doubtless not without encouragement – passed at once from word to deed.

Relations between Britain and Iran now hang by a thread. The last British diplomats left Tehran yesterday. Within hours of their departure, the Foreign Secretary told MPs that he had ordered Iran's London embassy closed and given its diplomats 48 hours to leave the country. This falls a fraction short of a formal break in diplomatic relations, but not much. "Disgraceful" was one of the milder epithets applied by British officials to what had happened in Tehran.

Of course, no one should have been under any illusion that relations between our two countries were cordial, or even normal, before this week. Britain was one of those singled out for what might be termed special treatment by the Islamic regime from its earliest days in power. History provides one reason: British involvement in the overthrow of Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq; the role of British oil companies; and the perception of a certain lingering colonial arrogance. Britain's alliance with the United States – the "great Satan" – supplies another.

When relations with Washington turn additionally sour – the two countries have still not re-established full diplomatic relations following the hostage crisis of 1979 – Tehran takes its frustrations out on Britain. This offers a partial explanation for the latest turn of events. The US and Britain had led calls for new sanctions against Iran, following the latest IAEA report on its progress, or not, in developing a nuclear bomb. One of Britain's actions was to outlaw dealings with Iranian banks. The response suggests that this move may have had the potential to injure a good deal more than Iran's dignity.

Yet it might be simplistic to dismiss the attacks on British interests in Tehran as nothing more than angry lashing out. There had been signs of a tentative diplomatic rapprochement since the last crisis in bilateral relations – after an Iranian national on the embassy staff was arrested and imprisoned following the Green protests of 2009. Evidence of a new mood was the arrival of a new British ambassador. It appears, however, that the prospect of improved relations may have been unwelcome, at least in some quarters. The question to be asked is whether the attacks on British interests reflect the official view in Tehran, or a more complicated dynamic in and around Iran's leadership. External enemies always have their uses.

Signs of internal tensions have multiplied since the disputed 2009 election, which left all branches of power in the country weakened. The Arab Spring will only have compounded the uncertainty. The fact that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered an apology for the embassy attack could be interpreted as a formality, or as a hint of disagreement at the top.

William Hague's insistence yesterday that diplomatic relations were not being formally broken suggests a reluctance to slam the door irrevocably shut. And this is right. There is still no conclusive proof of Iran's nuclear weapons ambitions, and the pre-emptive strike favoured in some Israeli and US circles would only make a difficult situation incomparably worse. Iran's is a troubled regime operating in a troubled neighbourhood. Outsiders need to keep a cool head, and try not to escalate tensions further.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping have a drink after agreeing a deal on carbon emissions  

Beijing must face down the perils of being big and powerful – or boom may turn to bust

Peter Popham
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable