x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Iranian ties with UK may sour further

Angered by alleged interference in Iranian affairs, 35 hardline legislators had put forth a motion seeking to sever relations with Britain. It was referred to a foreign policy committee, which agreed to the proposal yesterday.

TEHRAN // The Iranian parliament's national security and foreign policy committee conferred with a number of other state bodies yesterday and members agreed in principle on downgrading diplomatic relations with Britain "in some fields". The committee met representatives of the foreign and intelligence ministries, the chamber of commerce and Mehdi Safari, who has been designated as Iran's new ambassador to be dispatched to London.

He was previously deputy foreign minister for European affairs. "The members of the committee were in agreement about reducing relations in some fields," Mohammad Karami-rad, a member of the national security and foreign policy committee," told Fars News yesterday. "Total severance of relations, [however], must be decided by the Supreme National Security Council and with the agreement of the Supreme Leader [Ayatollah Khamenei]." Ayatollah Khamenei has the final say in all state matters.

The Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, had hinted at the possibility of lowering diplomatic relations "with countries that interfere in Iran's domestic affairs" at a joint press conference with his Omani counterpart on January 13. Thirty-five hardline legislators of the Iranian parliament on January 13 put forth a motion that would oblige the government to sever diplomatic, economic and cultural relations with Britain.

The motion stipulated that the resumption of relations only be allowed by parliament when Britain officially apologises for "interference" in Iranian affairs. The parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, however, decided to refer the motion to the national security and foreign policy committee for more deliberation "due to the sensitivity of the issue" before putting it to a vote. As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Britain has been closely involved in the dispute over Iran's nuclear intentions.

If parliament downgrades diplomatic relations between the two countries, it will be the first time since 1997 that they have been reduced to below ambassadorial level. Britain, which had suspended its diplomatic relations with Iran following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and only had an interests section in the Swedish Embassy in Tehran, reopened its embassy in 1988. Relations with Tehran were severed in February 1989 following a death sentence fatwa by the founder of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini, on the British writer, Salman Rushdie, for insulting Islam in the book Satanic Verses.

Britain resumed diplomatic relations with Iran, at chargé d'affaires level, in 1990 but it took until 1998 for the first British ambassador after the Islamic Revolution to be appointed to Tehran. Besides considering lowering diplomatic relations, the parliament committee has been deliberating whether to allow a British Conservative Party parliamentary delegation to visit Iran. The committee has not yet made a final decision on the issue but some of its members have expressed their strong opposition to allowing the visit.

"We will not agree to the visit of the British parliamentary group due to the interference of Britain's prime minister in Iran's domestic affairs," Mohammad Karim Abedi, a member of the parliament's National security and foreign policy committee, was quoted by the conservative Khabar online news portal as saying. Mr Abedi is one of the signatories to the motion to cut relations with Britain. "The British prime minister repeatedly supported rioters in post-election protests and his stance was one of interference. Legislators are angry about the interference of British officials and will not agree to the parliamentary delegation's visit," he said.

Other members of the committee have, however, not ruled out the possibility of allowing the visit as the British parliamentary group consists of legislators belonging to Britain's main opposition party. "Considering that the group consists of legislators belonging to Gordon Brown's rival party and that the party may win in Britain's next parliamentary elections, the matter of meeting the group will be deliberated and we may agree to their visit," Hossein Sobhani-nia, a member of the committee, was quoted by Khabar as saying.

Iran-UK relations turned sour shortly after the Iranian presidential elections brought hundreds of thousands of supporters of the defeated reformist candidates Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karrubi to the streets in protest at the results. In a Friday prayer sermon in Tehran a week after the election results were declared, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called all defeated candidates and their supporters to accept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's victory. In the same sermon, he called Britain "wicked" and said the country had been plotting to foment the post-election unrest.

A week after the sermon, nine local staff members of the British Embassy were arrested on the charges of instigating violent protests. A senior political analyst at the embassy was put on trial shortly afterwards. Iranian officials have also on many occasions alleged that the British government has been using BBC's Persian television, which broadcasts eight hours a day, as a tool for shaping and directing the opposition protests. Drawing on the historical background of British intervention in Iranian's internal affairs, Mr Ahmadinejad has recently escalated his reprimands on the British government.

On several occasions he has demanded that Britain pay indemnity for causing famine in Iran during the First World War and for the occupation of Iran during the Second World War. "We will make them cough up compensation," he told supporters in the southern city of Shiraz in December. British officials, including the prime minister, Gordon Brown, have denied allegations of involvement in post-election turmoil.

The foreign minister, David Miliband, however, admitted wrongdoing of the British government in a 1953 coup that toppled the government of Iran's popular prime minister and architect of the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in a BBC interview this month, while suggesting Iran should look to the future instead of living in the past. msinaiee@thenational.ae