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Troubled history of UK-Iran ties

Published Nov 30, 2011 08:48pm


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LONDON: Britain’s embassy in Tehran has often been the scene of drama in the tense and troubled relationship between the two countries, and Tuesday’s attack by a furious, flag-burning crowd was a familiar experience, though no less unpleasant for those caught up in it.

The latest Anglo-Iranian crisis follows an old pattern: a highly undiplomatic protest at a moment of tension that is likely to be followed by a prolonged mutual sulk.

The architecture of the British embassy is a reminder of a contentious history. Its sprawling walled compound on Ferdowsi Avenue, in north Tehran, is typical of the grand mansions foreigners built when Victorian Britain was vying with tsarist Russia for influence in the dying days of the Qajar dynasty.

In 1943, it was the venue for the Tehran conference, when Churchill met Stalin and Roosevelt to plan the final stages of the war against nazism. British ambassadors enjoy showing guests the drawing room where the Big Three met. It is rare pleasure in an often thankless posting, where access to the Iranian government is limited and the atmosphere invariably hostile. Dominick Chilcott, the current envoy, has only been in Tehran for a few weeks and already faces expulsion.

It was easier in the 1960s and 1970s, when Britain backed the shah as the pliable “policeman” of the Gulf, a counterweight to Soviet influence in the Middle East, and treated Iran as a lucrative export market, especially for weapons.

Relations have been poor since the 1979 revolution, when the UK was accused, sometimes simultaneously, of supporting the shah and fomenting the Islamic revolution that overthrew him.

It was at that time that the road known as Winston Churchill Avenue was renamed Bobby Sands Avenue, to honour the Irish republican prison hunger-striker who died in British custody in 1981. The mood did not improve in 1980 when Iran’s London embassy was taken over by Iraqi-backed gunmen before the siege was dramatically ended by British special forces.

In 1987, when Britain was accused of backing Iraq in its bloody war with Iran, the embassy suffered one of its worst assaults: Edward Chaplin, the charge d’affaires, was abducted and beaten by revolutionary guardsmen. Chaplin was quickly released.

But within a few months he and all other UK staff were withdrawn.

And just after they returned, in 1989, Khomeini issued his fatwa against Salman Rushdie, author of The Satanic Verses. It took another decade and some deft diplomacy before relations were back to anything approaching normal.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s victory in 2005 spelled an end to hopes for liberalisation at home. But his second presidential term, after the disputed polls in 2009, marked a new nadir. Iran’s leaders attacked the US, Israel and the UN. But Britain was singled out.

The UK’s active role on the nuclear issue keeps it in the forefront of the regime’s hostility. Last week’s announcement that Britain had frozen $1.6bn of Iranian assets was the immediate trigger for the embassy attack.

Calculated or not, Tuesday’s incident may reflect nervousness in Tehran. Iran claims to support the movements for democracy in the Arab world. But that sits ill with the brutal suppression of its own green movement protests.

The uprising in Syria stands to rob it of its strategic ally in the Arab world and weaken its link with Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Assaulting a western embassy will not change that.—Dawn/Guardian News Service