Friday, 26 June 2009

The UK seeks business as usual with Iran

The Daily Star
June 26 2009
By Michael Glackin

Britain and Iran appear to have paused for breath in the increasingly acrimonious war of words that climaxed with this week's tit-for-tat expulsion of diplomats. For British Prime Minister Gordon Brown the expulsions marked an unwanted escalation of the current tension between the two countries.

While the world has watched in admiration at film footage of Iranians taking to the streets to protest the dubious election that returned President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, politicians in London - and Washington - fear their fragile strategy of engaging Iran's ruling regime could be shattered by recent events.

And the harsh reality is that the United Kingdom has gone as far as it intends to in its criticism of Iran. As the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, reasserts his control over affairs through ever greater force, the British government is now looking to return to what passes for business as usual with Iran.

Indeed there are many in government who are at a loss to understand why Britain was singled out for such strident criticism by the Iranian regime. Khamenei denounced Britain as "the most treacherous of foreign powers," and for good measure insisted that the Brown government was orchestrating the street demonstrations. It was this claim in particular that resulted in the expulsion of the two British diplomats from Tehran and Britain's carbon-copy response.

There is a school of thought, in the West at least, that Khamenei and his fellow travelers have found themselves caught in the headlights by US President Barack Obama's overtures to the Muslim world in his Cairo speech. Consequently the UK, Iran's old familiar enemy, or "Little Satan," found itself promoted to the role of national enemy number one.

The UK of course has a bit of a history in Iran. If we just take the period after the outbreak of World War II, the British helped depose the country's then leader, Reza Pahlavi, installing his son Mohammad, the last shah, in his place. Later, in 1953, Iran's prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, who nationalized the assets of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, was ousted in a coup organized by the Americans and the British. More recently the UK has sided with the US in calling for tougher sanctions against Iran for continuing with its nuclear program.

But even the most ardent anti-British conspiracy theorist would be hard pressed to believe that Brown had orchestrated the last fortnight of street demonstrations that have taken place across Iran. Brown couldn't even organize enough of his supporters to go out and vote for him in the UK during this month's European and local elections in which his party suffered a humiliating defeat. The idea that he somehow had the means to get Iranians into the streets beggared belief.

It is true that Brown's criticism of the Iranian government's behavior over the last fortnight has been slightly less restrained than that of Obama, at least early on when the demonstrations started. While White House officials initially said Obama was merely "concerned" about events following Ahmadinejad's election victory, Brown said the violence being meted out to demonstrators was "unacceptable" and "deplorable."

But words are cheap, and that was as far as Brown was willing to go until Iran took the decision to give two of Britain's diplomats in Tehran their marching orders. Once that happened, the British government had no choice but to expel two Iranian diplomats in response. Now Brown is desperately keen to draw a line under the whole affair.

Sources within government insist there are no plans to increase existing sanctions or take any further action against Iran. A Foreign Office insider told me this week: "We are not stepping anything up." Indeed, following the diplomatic expulsions the British government is keen to "keep the door open" to allow the Iranian regime to "improve relations."

Iran's nuclear program is what is driving Brown's, and indeed Obama's policy, not civil rights or outrage over the deaths of innocents. An official statement on the expulsion of the diplomats sent to me by the Foreign Office devoted more space to concerns about Iran's nuclear program than it did to the bogus election result and the deaths of demonstrators.

There is also the real fear that Britain's embassy in Tehran could be targeted. Earlier this week the government evacuated the families of embassy staff and there have been reports of British nationals being arrested in recent days.

This is the backdrop to Brown and Foreign Secretary David Miliband's insistence this week that the outcome of Iran's presidential election was for the country's people alone to decide. The Council of Guardians, the unelected committee overseeing Iran's elections, took Miliband and Brown at their word. On Tuesday the council upheld Ahmadinejad's victory despite admitting a day earlier that there were a number of voting inconsistencies. For the record these inconsistencies included the fact that the number of votes in 50 cities exceeded by 3 million the number of voters actually registered.

So despite the row marked by the expulsions and a clear stepping up of Obama's rhetoric in recent days, the reality is that the UK wants to move on before things get any worse. There are no easy answers when it comes to Iran. That's the problem with despotic governments.
Michael Glackin is former Managing Editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Can the UK afford its Washington ties?

The Daily Star
1 June 2009
By Michael Glackin

A week, they say, is a long time in politics. And so it seems like an eternity since British Prime Minister Gordon Brown proclaimed to the nation that he had a "moral compass" that guided all his decisions and underpinned his policies. Today, less than two years on, his moral compass looks more like a defective traffic direction finder, the kind you rip out of your car because it can't tell right from left, or in Brown's case, right from wrong.
In case you missed it, the United Kingdom is enduring an unending moral sclerosis within Parliament. Members of Parliament from all parties have been exposed for scandalously misusing their generous expense allowances to line their own pockets, enriching themselves and their families. The public outrage is such that some parliamentarians have returned money or decided not to seek re-election. So far, a minister and the Speaker of the House of Commons have been forced out of office.
A fish of course rots from the head down. Brown has been exposed for using taxpayers' money to pay his brother for "cleaning services," and he has also claimed tens of thousands of pounds of public money for running and renovating two different homes. The prime minister's manipulation of the system is far from the most blatant. But the expenses scandal is just the latest to envelop him and call into question his cultivated image as a model of probity and integrity.
The impact of all this on British policy in the Middle East and Afghanistan should not be overlooked. In his struggle to hold the fast disintegrating ring at home, Brown has given up foreign affairs unless it offers him a decent photo opportunity. Unfortunately, the only international photo worth having today usually involves US president Barack Obama, and much to Brown's chagrin opportunities for him there are very limited.
Even allowing for the usual fawning over American presidents that British politicians indulge in to give credence to the "special relationship," Brown's overt desperation to get close to Obama in the hope that some of the president's stardust might fall on him has been embarrassing.
Obama knows a lame duck when he sees one and is already looking beyond Brown. When the president visited the UK in April for the G-20 summit he went out of his way to meet the opposition Conservative leader David Cameron. It was also noticeable that US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton took time out to hold a meeting with the Conservative's shadow foreign secretary, William Hague.
The "special relationship" isn't so special these days. Unlike Tony Blair and George W. Bush, or indeed Blair and Bill Clinton, Brown does not enjoy a close personal bond with Obama. At the same time, unlike many of his predecessors, Obama has no great affection for the UK. Whereas Clinton was a former Rhodes Scholar who enjoyed Oxford University and much else that the swinging 1960s in England had to offer, Obama was exposed to a very different side of British culture which saw his grandfather tortured by British soldiers during Kenya's Mau Mau rebellion.
Right now the US president is angry at the UK's response, not to mention the rest of Europe, to his call for more military aid in Afghanistan.
Brown was of course the only Western leader to offer substantial help, and Britain remains the principal contributor of troops to the Afghan conflict after America. But Brown's decision to send just a temporary force of 700 British troops to join the 8,300 already in Helmand and provide security during the August election, fell way short of the thousands of troops Obama was hoping to get from the prime minister as the UK pulls out of Iraq. It also falls short of the 10,000 permanent troops British military chiefs insist is necessary to bring stability to the Helmand-Kandahar region.
But Brown has domestic reasons for resisting Obama's and his own generals' pleas. The human sacrifice - this weekend saw the death of the 164th British soldier in the conflict - and the increasing financial burden, which will see the cost of the conflict hit $3.6 billion in 2008-2009, up from $2.4 billion the year before, are fast becoming unacceptable to UK voters. Meanwhile new laws proposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai sanctioning child marriage and marital rape leave many voters questioning what kind of regime British troops are dying to establish in Afghanistan.
Consequently, much as Brown wants to bask in the glow of the "special relationship" he has no intention of adding to his many domestic woes by sinking deeper into an unpopular war. Brown's priority is political survival and further commitments to Afghanistan do nothing to help him in that quest.
Although Brown will almost certainly lead his party into a humiliating defeat in June's European Parliament elections and later national elections, the current scandal surrounding parliamentary expenses may lessen the scale of the defeat because support for the Conservatives has also been hit. Brown may even decide to take a calculated gamble and call a national election in the autumn, six months before he has to, and before he is tainted by anything else.
But whenever the election takes place, the UK will have a new government. And while it too will extol the "special relationship" it will be just as unwilling to pay the price demanded by Washington for it as the current government. The country needs some time alone with its scandals.
Michael Glackin is former managing editor of Beirut newspaper The Daily Star.