Iran, Britain and Maelstrom of Nuclear Negotiations

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Davood Kiani
PhD in International Relations and Expert in European Studies

Following the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the country’s relations with no other European state have been marked with more political tumult than with the Great Britain. Interestingly enough, since the victory of President Hassan Rohani in Iran's 11th presidential polls, diplomatic exchanges with officials of no other European country have been as high profile as with those from the UK. There is no doubt that the most important reason behind these contacts, especially a recent historical meeting between Rouhani and the British Prime Minister David Cameron on the sidelines of the 69th annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, is the serious effort and high-pace diplomacy launched by both sides in order to resume diplomatic ties that have been suspended since 2011. The meeting between Rouhani and Cameron was the first of its kind at this level between heads of state from Iran and Britain since Iran's Islamic Revolution triumphed in 1979.

The question is what is the main reason behind the high volume of diplomatic exchanges between the two countries, which aim to pave the way for the resumption of ties and reopening of embassies at a time that the final fate of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries over Tehran’s nuclear energy program is not clear yet? A simple answer to this question is that each one of these two countries attaches high importance to regional and international status of the other. Let’s begin with Iran. Statesmen in Iran are of the opinion that due to London’s special relations with Washington, Britain is the most important foreign power that can affect the United States’ foreign policy. Therefore, except under extreme conditions, Iran has never been willing to have frozen relations with both the United States and the UK at the same time. On the other hand, the influence that Britain sways on the foreign policy of the European Union with regard to the ongoing issues in the Middle East is stronger that the influence swayed by two other major European countries; Germany and France. At the same time, when it comes to the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions, lasting relations that the UK has had with Arab countries have caused London to have a historical and deep-rooted influence on countries in these two important regions.

On the other side, Iran seems to be of high strategic importance to Britain from various viewpoints. Firstly, Britain is not willing to see the other two major European powers – Germany and France – overtaking London with regard to development of relations with Iran. London is by no means willing to lag behind Berlin and Paris in this regard. In case of failure to develop its ties with Iran, this will not only deal a drastic blow to economic interests of Britain, but will also reduce the maneuvering power and influence of London in the Middle East and even within the European Union. Secondly, Iran plays a key role in the resolution of the critical conditions with which the West is currently facing in two Arab countries of Iraq and Syria. The British officials have reached the conclusion that they cannot bring political and security situation in these two countries under their control by solely relying on their fighter jets or even their traditional Arab allies in the region. The fact that Britain seeks to convince Iran to cooperate with the international coalition that has been formed to fight the ISIS terrorist group in Iraq and Syria was quite evident in Cameron’s speech to the UN General Assembly meeting. Thirdly, in addition to Iraq and Syria, European countries, especially Britain, attach special significance to the role that Iran can play in the establishment of peace and stability in Afghanistan and Lebanon and also in the promotion of peace talks in the Middle East. On the other hand, the ongoing crises in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine are totally intertwined issues whose resolution hinges on the cooperation and coordination among all effective political players in the Middle East.

Apart from the existing crises in the Middle East, another factor that has motivated London to try to resume its official diplomatic relations with Tehran is the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and the subsequent faceoff between the government of Russia and member states of the European Union plus the United States. The current political and economic standoff between Russia and the West, which was originally triggered over gaining more influence in Ukraine, can prove to be more serious than seems right now. Therefore, as the crisis in Ukraine becomes more prolonged, the West’s motivation for reducing conflicts in the Middle East region becomes more powerful.

Therefore, the meeting between Hassan Rouhani and David Cameron in addition to a separate meeting between Rouhani and his French counterpart, Francois Hollande, at a time that no clear perspective for Iran's nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 group is visible, can send two clear messages. Firstly, Europe is trying more than before to make nuclear talks reach a conclusive result in the shortest time possible. Bolstering diplomatic exchanges at the level of the two sides’ foreign ministers and even between heads of state from Iran and the European countries as well as relative modification of the United States’ approach to Iran's nuclear activities as compared to Washington’s past austere positions, are all clear indications in this regard. It goes without saying that the administration of Iran's President Rouhani has also shown a lot of eagerness to achieve a rapid solution for the nuclear issue and have anti-Iran sanctions revoked. The second message is that both American and British authorities have frequently announced that fighting against the ISIS, in particular, and religious extremism, in general, may take years. So, it naturally follows that in case of suitable cooperation between Iran and the anti-ISIS alliance, or in case the US-led alliance invited Iran to cooperate in fighting the ISIS, the campaign against terror and extremism could reach a final ending in a shorter period of time and at a lower cost. Therefore, cooperating with the alliance formed to fight the ISIS, which is also a great threat to the national security of the Islamic Republic, is actually necessary and even inevitable for Iran regardless of whether that cooperation is overt or covert.

Of course, Cameron’s position on Iran during his address to the UN General Assembly meeting did not conform to what former British foreign secretary had asked for in an article published in the Daily Telegraph. In that article, Jack Straw had urged his country’s officials to show a certain degree of resilience with regard to Iran. Cameron’s remarks also elicited a powerful wave of negative reactions from the world’s public opinion and Iranian political elites. However, despite all this, the important point is the new signals, which are being sent to Iran by various British officials. These signals mean nothing, but a serious effort on the part of London to resume political relations with Tehran and to provide needed ground for regional cooperation between the two countries, possibly in a selective way to fight the problem of religious extremism. Despite the above facts, it should not be forgotten that a possible failure of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of countries in November can effectively dash every hope in this regard.

Key Words: Iran, Britain, Nuclear Negotiations, President Hassan Rohani, British Prime Minister David Cameron, United Nations General Assembly, P5+1 Group of Countries, ISIS, Syria, Iraq, European Union, Middle East, Ukraine, Kiani 

*Photo Credit: Entekhab.IR

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