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.