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Published on December 2nd, 2011 | by Ben Phillips
Image © [caption id="" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="'...and stay out!' Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office"][/caption] This afternoon's news of the government expelling all Iranian diplomats from London, immediately after the closure of the British embassy in Tehran, is about as welcome as myxomatosis in a rabbit hutch - perhaps less so. Coming a day after protesters in the Iranian capital stormed the British embassy, torching the ground floor of the building and briefly taking some hostages, the move had, in the words of one Telegraph journalist, a 'certain inevitability' to it. Cameron did, indeed, promise serious measures in response at Prime Minister's Questions earlier on today; the closure of both embassies certainly escalates the situation, if nothing else. William Hague was at pains to point out this afternoon that the decision didn't signal the end of ties between the two countries, describing it rather as 'action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations.' Maybe so, but it's still a serious overreaction and woefully short-sighted to boot. The major question in the aftermath of yesterday's events is whether the attack on the British embassy was state-orchestrated, and the consensus seems to be that it was, at least in part: most reports have noted both the obvious presence of Basij members in the crowd and the fact that many protesters were carrying placards and banners in support of senior Revolutionary Guard figures. Incidents like yesterday's have not been uncommon in recent years, and have usually reflected the vicissitudes of internal Iranian politics as much, if not more, than popular feeling. This episode is little different. As the Guardian notes, the power struggle in question here, over the possibility of a new round of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, is being contested between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government and those hardliners, both clerical and military, opposed to further talks. Many protesters yesterday professed their loyalty to Qassam Suleimani, the Quds force commander and a leading hardliner. As a presumably deliberate attempt to hamper the prospective negotiations, the attack on the embassy was far from subtle. Of the five permanent Security Council members to whom the Iranians would be talking, Britain's stance on the nuclear issue isn't, generally speaking, the most strident: on rhetorical grounds alone, the Americans beat us hands down. Still, neither the Americans nor the Israelis - for, Security Council membership notwithstanding, Israel remains critically important in this picture - have direct diplomatic contact with Tehran. As such, the British embassy presented the hardliners with an obvious target. Yet Britain presents an obvious target in other respects too. In the context of recent developments on the nuclear issue, what happened on Tuesday wasn't just about trying to derail further 5+1 talks. The IAEA's report on Iran's nuclear programme earlier this month, about which I wrote at the time, ultimately yielded little of interest: beyond the revelation of some ongoing computer modelling of warhead designs, there was none of the damning evidence of Iran's return to a weaponisation programme suggested by the hype preceding the report. Nonetheless, the British government took the report as a cue to cut off dealings with the Iranian Central Bank. A considerably more hawkish response than that of any other country, it was a silly bit of posturing which looks especially bad in light of recent revelations about what Liam Fox, Adam Werritty and Matthew Gould appear to have been discussing in their numerous undisclosed meetings. It's also another example of a British government trying to have its cake and eat it, assuming that Britain is quite capable of at once acquiescing with the madcap schemes of both American and Israeli right-wingers whilst continuing to bestride the world stage with an aura of respectability and impartiality. It recalls Tony Blair's notorious assurance to George W. Bush that, unlike Condoleeza Rice, he could go to the Middle East 'and just talk'. This detachment from reality is especially unfortunate in the case of Iran. As Jon Snow perceptively points out, Iran is a good deal more inclined to look to the west than we like to imagine, with a flourishing civic society, women's rights far in advance of those in, say, Saudi Arabia, and a large, ever-expanding middle class largely constituted of avowed Anglophiles. This essential goodwill is born of history. Britain's centuries-long association with Iran has been a critical factor in sustaining diplomatic ties since the revolution of 1979. Quite the opposite is true of the United States, who recognised the Shah's regime for barely two decades before suspending all contact after the Islamic revolution. Britain's diplomatic ties with Iran have often proved very useful, especially recently - the Arabian Gulf hostage situation of 2007 springs to mind. The fact that Britain's history with Iran has been, at times, far from honourable no doubt underpins much of the fierce anti-British rhetoric we sometimes hear from Tehran. Yet we shouldn't forget our ability to compound that problem yet further today, and, at least in part, to bring such incidents as Tuesday's upon ourselves. When, as so often, Britain appears on the world stage as little more than an American-Israeli patsy, with Iran the target of the latter's rhetoric, the crescendo of rage that results on the streets of Tehran conceals notes of disappointment - the sound of missed opportunities for peace and mutual understanding.

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Iranian Diplomats Expelled From The UK

'…and stay out!' Photo credit: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

This afternoon’s news of the government expelling all Iranian diplomats from London, immediately after the closure of the British embassy in Tehran, is about as welcome as myxomatosis in a rabbit hutch – perhaps less so. Coming a day after protesters in the Iranian capital stormed the British embassy, torching the ground floor of the building and briefly taking some hostages, the move had, in the words of one Telegraph journalist, a ‘certain inevitability’ to it. Cameron did, indeed, promise serious measures in response at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier on today; the closure of both embassies certainly escalates the situation, if nothing else. William Hague was at pains to point out this afternoon that the decision didn’t signal the end of ties between the two countries, describing it rather as ‘action that reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations.’ Maybe so, but it’s still a serious overreaction and woefully short-sighted to boot.

The major question in the aftermath of yesterday’s events is whether the attack on the British embassy was state-orchestrated, and the consensus seems to be that it was, at least in part: most reports have noted both the obvious presence of Basij members in the crowd and the fact that many protesters were carrying placards and banners in support of senior Revolutionary Guard figures. Incidents like yesterday’s have not been uncommon in recent years, and have usually reflected the vicissitudes of internal Iranian politics as much, if not more, than popular feeling. This episode is little different. As the Guardian notes, the power struggle in question here, over the possibility of a new round of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, is being contested between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government and those hardliners, both clerical and military, opposed to further talks. Many protesters yesterday professed their loyalty to Qassam Suleimani, the Quds force commander and a leading hardliner. As a presumably deliberate attempt to hamper the prospective negotiations, the attack on the embassy was far from subtle. Of the five permanent Security Council members to whom the Iranians would be talking, Britain’s stance on the nuclear issue isn’t, generally speaking, the most strident: on rhetorical grounds alone, the Americans beat us hands down. Still, neither the Americans nor the Israelis – for, Security Council membership notwithstanding, Israel remains critically important in this picture – have direct diplomatic contact with Tehran. As such, the British embassy presented the hardliners with an obvious target.

Yet Britain presents an obvious target in other respects too. In the context of recent developments on the nuclear issue, what happened on Tuesday wasn’t just about trying to derail further 5+1 talks. The IAEA’s report on Iran’s nuclear programme earlier this month, about which I wrote at the time, ultimately yielded little of interest: beyond the revelation of some ongoing computer modelling of warhead designs, there was none of the damning evidence of Iran’s return to a weaponisation programme suggested by the hype preceding the report. Nonetheless, the British government took the report as a cue to cut off dealings with the Iranian Central Bank. A considerably more hawkish response than that of any other country, it was a silly bit of posturing which looks especially bad in light of recent revelations about what Liam Fox, Adam Werritty and Matthew Gould appear to have been discussing in their numerous undisclosed meetings. It’s also another example of a British government trying to have its cake and eat it, assuming that Britain is quite capable of at once acquiescing with the madcap schemes of both American and Israeli right-wingers whilst continuing to bestride the world stage with an aura of respectability and impartiality. It recalls Tony Blair’s notorious assurance to George W. Bush that, unlike Condoleeza Rice, he could go to the Middle East ‘and just talk’. This detachment from reality is especially unfortunate in the case of Iran. As Jon Snow perceptively points out, Iran is a good deal more inclined to look to the west than we like to imagine, with a flourishing civic society, women’s rights far in advance of those in, say, Saudi Arabia, and a large, ever-expanding middle class largely constituted of avowed Anglophiles.

This essential goodwill is born of history. Britain’s centuries-long association with Iran has been a critical factor in sustaining diplomatic ties since the revolution of 1979. Quite the opposite is true of the United States, who recognised the Shah’s regime for barely two decades before suspending all contact after the Islamic revolution. Britain’s diplomatic ties with Iran have often proved very useful, especially recently – the Arabian Gulf hostage situation of 2007 springs to mind. The fact that Britain’s history with Iran has been, at times, far from honourable no doubt underpins much of the fierce anti-British rhetoric we sometimes hear from Tehran. Yet we shouldn’t forget our ability to compound that problem yet further today, and, at least in part, to bring such incidents as Tuesday’s upon ourselves. When, as so often, Britain appears on the world stage as little more than an American-Israeli patsy, with Iran the target of the latter’s rhetoric, the crescendo of rage that results on the streets of Tehran conceals notes of disappointment – the sound of missed opportunities for peace and mutual understanding.

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