Britain’s Embassy Closure Means a Long Diplomatic Winter for Iran

Recent events in Iran may have profoundly shaken its relations with Britain, but they have also provided a coup-de-grâce to bilateral relations long in decline. 

With the incursion and vandalism of its embassy and subsequent evacuation of British diplomatic staff, the UK announced the immediate closure of Iran’s Embassy in London, leaving both countries without formal diplomatic representation. The UK is now truly in uncharted diplomatic waters at a time when Iran is becoming even more belligerent and strident both over its nuclear program and Syria, a course which will have to be chartered for at least the next two years to come before possible détente after elections in 2013.

In terms of the future, frequently asked questions are: "What now for Iran-British ties?" or "Can ties ever really recover?" Such are the questions often aired and seldom answered in the media about this new crisis. The answer is simple: Formal Iran-UK ties, with the current regime in power, are in irreversible decline and have been for the past five years, due to events and happenings that only recently culminated in the cessation of diplomatic representation.

The underlying tension for this incursion into the embassy has been increasing over the past five years, with tensions rising sharply since the 2009 presidential election which saw Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defeat Mir-Hoosein Mousavi in a rigged poll, engendering mass demonstrations which were brutally suppressed. Britain’s very tacit support of the opposition infuriated the Iranian regime, which, feeling slighted, has since been waiting for the opportunity to humiliate the UK in a manner both appropriate and resonant with historical meaning. They have now achieved this aim with the embassy incursion and vandalism.

Many ordinary Iranians use their illegal, but unofficially tolerated satellite dishes to watch BBC Persia, a Farsi language news source of analysis and comment on Iran, broadcasting from London. It has been the regime’s bane, providing an accessible alternative to the state-run media channels. Subsequently, on many occasions the regime has blamed the UK government of meddling in Iran, harkening to the days of the Shahs when support from Britain underpinned many rulers. It is therefore thoroughly unsurprising that protestor-students who climbed onto the British embassy and proceeded to vandalize the interior were shouting: “Death to England!," as many who support the regime consider the UK to be the foreign "Little Satan."

Where will Britsh and Iran relations go now? Well, normal embassy operations will not resume in the foreseeable future; the risk for the UK is too great, with hints being thrown at a possible rerun of the 1979 hostage crisis scenario. As for relations, they have been icy cold for over five years; for détente to take place, Ahmadinejad needs to be electorally defeated, and his replacement will need to undergo thorough fence mending. But, this is unlikely when the Supreme Leader is going to become the default annointer of future presidents. It is likely that the future will see more of the ilk of Ahmadinejad, not less, and therefore, the cold winter in UK-Iranian relations will continue.

It is particularly apt that these events happened in the week leading up to the Shi’a Day of Ashura (mourning), a festival during which feelings of political isolation and oppression are running high; it is therefore not coincidental that these events have occurred now. Indeed, the end game for Iran is still a long way off, but matters have intensified, leading to greater confrontations with the outside world. 

The time is coming when sanctions will be seen as totally ineffective, hurting only the Iranian people; then, the international community will have to assess what to do next. In the meantime, Iran has declared Britain’s decision to remove embassies as "hasty," maybe acknowledging that it went too far in its attempt to intimidate and goad. 

Despite this, the Iranian regime will undoubtedly keep steering the course it has chosen, the one of international isolation and condemnation, marked by a diplomatic winter with the UK. However, the true price for this decision will be paid not by the regime but by the Iranian people themselves.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Will Birch

Specialising in Maghreb affairs, William has lived and traveled throughout the MENA region.

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