Recommendations for Nicholas Hopton, UK’s New Ambassador to Tehran

Monday, September 12, 2016

Hossein Kebriaeezadeh
Expert on Middle East Issues

Efforts made by Iran’s moderate administration have finally borne fruit and in the last year of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s presidential term, relations between Iran and the UK were upgraded to ambassadorial level. Bilateral relations between the two countries had been cut off five years ago after Britain imposed sanctions on Iran and also due to instigations by the British embassy during 2009 post-presidential election unrest in Iran and subsequent storming of the embassy by a group of Iranian students.

Now, the two sides apparently believe that let bygones be bygones. Exchange of ambassadors took place last week during which Iran sent Hamid Baeidinejad, a patient and highly knowledgeable diplomat and a former member of the country’s nuclear negotiating team, to London, while Britain appointed its seasoned diplomat, Nicholas Hopton, who has a good knowledge of the Middle East, as ambassador to Iran.

A review of reasons, which led to severance of diplomatic relations between the two countries, would be certainly beneficial to the new British ambassador to Tehran. Those reasons included undesirable behavior of the former British ambassador in Iran, storming of the British embassy by angry and excited students, and destruction of all bridges between the two countries in a blink of an eye without any effort from either side to manage that crisis.

However, excitement was not solely a feature of the young Iranian students, because the British government also embarked on imposing sanctions on the main economic artery of Iran, that is, the Central Bank of Iran, without thinking about consequences of its obstructionist efforts and their impact on future relations between Tehran and London. Those sanctions were later on pursued by the European Union under pressure from the British government to make living conditions difficult for Iranians, so that, thousands of patients could not procure their needed medicines in the presence of financial sanctions against Iran.

Taking such a measure was considered unlikely for a country with a claim to be a pioneer of public diplomacy, but this miscalculated measure by the British government has caused its new ambassador, who has been appointed after five years of cut relations, to face many difficulties for organizing his country’s public diplomacy in Iran.

The question is how these two political players can get over their past records at a time that a deep-rooted wall of distrust is the main obstacle on the way of strengthening their relations? Of course, as put by the British foreign secretary, it is possible for both countries to overcome this deep-rooted wall of distrust, especially taking into account that the two sides have a unique diversity of common grounds and their need to each other is also remarkable.

Existence of bilateral political and security needs both at mutual and regional levels, the fight against terrorism, the issue of energy, the fight against drug trafficking, and in general, economic and cultural common grounds have made convergence between these two countries inevitable. Since both sides believe in these common grounds, it is possible for them to overcome their major political and human rights differences by investing in common grounds and shaping a bilateral dialogue.

Now that the two countries’ relations are back on the normal track, taking measures by the new British ambassador that would be similar to measures taken by his predecessor, Simon Gass, would only make strengthening of bilateral relations more difficult.

Gass, who was appointed as Britain’s ambassador to Iran in 2009, did his best to take advantage of those hectic conditions, which came about following Iran’s presidential election, through interfering in Iran’s internal affairs as well as organizing suspicious and contentious meetings. The measures taken by him were considered as Gass’ violation of diplomatic norms and, later on, elicited angry reaction of Iran’s young and sensitive society.

The bitter experience with the past behavior of Gass would certainly be a good experience for his successor, Hopton. The new British ambassador to Iran must be aware that relations between the two countries are now similar to a broken limb, which needs to recuperate from past damage. Any undue pressure on this broken limb would not be advisable in any way.

Refraining from offering visa services in Tehran by the British embassy, which quite recently elicited a reaction from head of the Iranian parliament’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, is an instance of putting pressure on a broken limb.

The British ambassador is aware that Iran is a young and wealthy country and Iran’s market can be very tempting to Britain, especially in post-Brexit era. Access to this bountiful market would not be possible through political adventurism, especially taking into account that the Iranian society and government have become extremely sensitive toward Britain’s behavior during the past four centuries.

Hopton knows that any further expansion in relations between the two countries needs two crucial elements of time and a behavior that would foster trust.  Distancing from unfavorable experiences of the past and accumulation of positive experiences through constructive interaction would be alleviating to both sides.

In the meantime, existing conditions in the region and the establishment of an anti-Iranian axis have faced the new British ambassador with special conditions, which call on him to be more vigilant in order to prevent third parties from sabotaging relations between Tehran and London.

Since Canada’s foreign policy toward Iran is also affected by that of Britain, such a show of vigilance in political action and taking all-out steps in this regard by Hopton will greatly facilitate restoration of normal relations between Tehran and Ottawa, help accumulate positive experiences in the two countries’ relations, and will be certainly a successful beginning for future professional outlook of the new British ambassador to Iran.

Key WordsNicholas Hopton, UK, New Ambassador, Tehran, Iran, President Hassan Rouhani, British Embassy, Hamid Baeidinejad, Sanctions, Common Grounds, Simon Gass, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Post-Brexit Era, Canada, Foreign Policy, Kebriaeezadeh

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*Photo Credit: Tasnim News Agency