Britain + Iran = lose-lose

Iran's hurtling towards being a diplomatic outcast raises cause for serious concern about what is really going on within the country politically, and the impact domestic tensions are having on furthering Iran's nuclear arms ambitions and consequently, its dangerous isolationism.  

It is very difficult to believe that the attack on the British Embassy in Tehran was a spontaneous act by a group of young men who suddenly decided to teach the Brits a lesson for ratcheting up sanctions against the nascent nuclear state.

Mobs of the size that ransacked the building and terrorized embassy staff are just not permitted to form in the Islamic Republic. Think back to the 2009 Green Revolution and the consequences of mass mobilization by everyday Iranians.

This attack on Britain stinks of regime presence because of the obvious planning and co-ordination of the group, the time taken for the authorities to ‘regain’ control, and the somewhat half-hearted apology.

There is a solid body of analysis emerging in the days since the attack which suggests that it was to fuel internal Iranian political tensions in the lead up to next year’s elections. This is a situation which pits the hard line Islamists and supporters of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei against more moderate factions which recognise it is in Iran’s interests to avoid international isolation. It is also about the mullahs retaining control of Iran’s financial and security direction.

The only real nagging doubt as to the pedigree of the looters in this scenario is that if they are mullah  stooges  or Ayatollah-supporting Bassij fighters wishing to discredit Ahmadinejad, why would a regime that is so obsessed with nests of spies within its midst, not gather up all the documents ‘liberated’?  After all secret information about US and British covert actions towards Iran was one of the treasures Iranians gained when they took control of the American embassy in 1979.

Whoever the perpetrators may be, they have certainly managed to rupture well and truly the Iranian relationship with Britain. That there is tension is not new, but the degree is.  

The incident, coming hard on the heels of the IAEA report into Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, has also put on notice many of Iran’s diplomatic ties with the rest of Europe as countries including Italy, France and Germany recall ambassadors for consultation, consider an oil embargo, and contemplate closing their embassies in Tehran, a step Norway has already taken.

The UK has gone the whole hog and expelled all Iran’s diplomats from their embassy in London, and now the two nations are trading tit for tat threats about consequences...serious consequences no less according to David Cameron.

Cameron is correct in his lambasting the Iranians for their disgraceful behaviour in failing to protect UK embassy staff. It is a Vienna Convention duty for a country to protect the diplomatic staff of other nations represented within its borders, and prevent flags and other symbols and property being defaced, stomped on and burned.

Many Iranians consider Britain still harbours imperialist designs towards its resources – a natural continuation of two hundred years of an on-again off-again relationship which was particularly one-sided in the 20th century.  The 1933 agreement with the Anglo Iranian Oil company proved extraordinarily generous to the Brits before the industry was nationalised under Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953 for which he was overthrown with British assistance. Iran has long accused Britain – as it has the US and others - of meddling in its internal affairs and they are not wrong.

For all of that, the diplomatic and trade relations between Iran and Britain have carried on to the economic benefit of both nations. There have been a few hiccups including the Islamic Revolution and the fatwa on British writer Salman Rushdie. Britain’s refusal to set aside its principle of freedom of speech and ban the book The Satanic Verses did result in a temporary severing of relations at Iran’s initiative but life moved on eventually and the fatwa was eventually relegated from political/religious to religious only.

Now it seems however the entire EU is outraged with Iran to the point that member nations are focusing on the possibility of an oil embargo – even knowing that such a ban on OPEC’s second largest oil producer could impact world oil prices at the very time the debt laden EU can least afford it.

Of course for a ban on importing Iranian oil to prove effective all European countries would have to agree, and take the chance that Iran will not then mess with energy and other trade commodities which traverse the Straits of Hormuz on Iran’s sea border.

 And then there is China.  As Iran’s largest customer for crude oil it reckons an embargo is an emotional response which should give way to calm.

These sentiments are largely reiterated by Russia for the very reason that the ‘echo effect’ or reciprocated ill-will potentially drives conflict to the point of mutual harm or, worst case scenario, of no return. It would be the Cuban missile crisis played to the mushroom cloud finale.

 Russia is concerned that being too tough on Iran will leave the mullahs little option but to dig in their nuclear heels and pursue their own deterrent weapons.

That said, China and Russia have been unusually firm with Iran in that they both supported UN Security Council sanctions, although it is likely the sanctions would have been tougher were they not accommodating China and Russia so as to avoid being vetoed.

For now the ‘West’ and Iran remain headed for the lose-lose equation in which no diplomatic relations plus ever increasingly harsh sanctions which may placate Israel, still only add up to an isolated nuclear power which hates...big time.

Unfortunately for Iran it has backed itself into this corner – domestically and internationally. As usual it is the citizens who suffer most, and the West must not forget the, albeit thwarted, efforts those citizens made in 2009 to overthrow the illegitimate Ahmadinejad government.

If they get their chance again on the coat-tails of the democracy protests that still sweep the region, the West should be better organised and committed to assist. A second Green revolution will come in some form, and let’s hope it beats pre-emptive military strikes to the starting blocks.