LONDON // British ministers were playing a wait-and-see game yesterday as Iran pondered downgrading diplomatic relations between the two countries. The worsening of the already sour bilateral ties could owe as much to a row over ancient artefacts as it has to do with sanctions and the UK's alleged role in fomenting civil unrest.
Officials at the foreign office in London have been monitoring the threat since Manouchehr Mottaki, the Iranian foreign minister, said last week that relations between the two countries were being "reconsidered". The UK government is declining to comment on the reports but in a message posted on its website, the embassy in Tehran said: "We are working to foster links between the Iranian people and the British people. There is much potential for educational, scientific, sporting and cultural exchanges.
"However, the UK and many other countries have serious concerns about the Iranian government's behaviour: its nuclear ambitions, support for terrorism and promotion of instability in its region, as well as its continued denial of the rights to which its own people aspire. "Ultimately, the decision lies with Iran's leaders. We hope they will choose to work with the international community to give Iranian people the future they deserve, and not choose a path of continued confrontation and isolation."
A senior diplomat in London said yesterday: "If Tehran did decide to downgrade ties, the British would be bound to retaliate and reduce the level of Iranian representation here. "That would probably suit the Iranians fine. But worse news for them could come if other EU states back the UK and begin taking similar action of their own. The whole thing could escalate dramatically. "Not only could that influence the attitude of both Moscow and Beijing towards Tehran, but it could also be highly embarrassing to the Tehran regime if diplomats ordered to return to Iran simply refused to go back and, instead, sought asylum in their host countries - and that could happen."
The Iranian government seems to have been particularly annoyed by Britain's backing for new financial sanctions against the regime. "We believe that financial sanctions have an important role to play in exerting pressure at the appropriate points in the regime and not affecting the Iranian people," David Miliband, the UK foreign secretary, said last week. Beyond the questions of sanctions, Iran's nuclear programme and the West's supposed support of unrest on the streets, there is a much smaller affair that is causing fresh tremors in relations between London and Tehran. It centres, almost absurdly, on two small pieces of clay found in a drawer at the British Museum in London.
This month, the Cyrus cylinder - a document inscribed in clay about the Persian king Cyrus the Great, which has a monumental status in Iran - was meant to have been sent by the museum to the National Museum in Tehran on loan. Officials in London agreed to loan the precious artefact, dating back to the sixth century BC, under a cultural exchange programme that last year had seen Iranian museums lend their London counterparts several major works for an exhibition on Shah Abbas.
The discovery of the two clay pieces, which contain hieroglyphics that could provide the key to finally deciphering the Cyrus cylinder, has forced the British Museum to decide to delay sending it to Iran for several months. The decision enraged the Iranians. Hamid Baqaei, Iran's vice president and head of the country's cultural heritage organisation, told the Fars news agency: "We will cut off all our cultural relations with the museum if we realise later that the British Museum has been wasting time and seeking excuses to shrug off our requests."
The dispute, though seemingly minor, almost certainly represents one of the "10-12 working fields" that Mr Mottaki referred to last week, adding: "We are currently reviewing each area." firstname.lastname@example.org