Over the past week, the United Kingdom’s already frosty relationship with Iran soured beyond the point of no return, resulting in the expulsion of Iranian diplomats from Britain.
This follows the withdrawal of their British counterparts, after a prolonged attack on the British embassy in Tehran in response to sanctions imposed on Iran over its nuclear programme.
To Iran, Britain holds a special place among its, now large, collection of villains. The UK is seen as the mastermind behind the overthrow of previous Iranian governments, and conservative hardliners believe that Britain has it in its blood the desire to choose who runs Iran.
Nevertheless, Britain and Iran have, over the years, managed to maintain diplomatic relations on a courteous level. Indeed, among ordinary Iranians, there is at least some affection for the British people, with an increasing amount of Iranians moving to the UK to study and work.
Iran can be seen to be insulated from the rest of the world, and that has, to some extent, been to the benefit of attempts to keep relations with them on an even keel. During President Mohammad Khatami’s administration diplomatic ties were reasonably sound. Yet since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assumed power, these ties have become increasingly strained.
And now, it seems, the bridge between the two countries has finally collapsed in the wake of British pressure over Iran’s nuclear plans and the attacks on the British Embassy last week. Despite an apology from the Iranian Foreign Ministry for the attacks, there was nothing of the sort to come out of Tehran itself.
The speaker of the Iranian Parliament, Ali Ardashir Larijani, proclaimed that the attacks were Britain’s fault for attempting to dominate it over the years. Mr Larijani speaks for a great many people in Iran, so his words are somewhat concerning.
Whilst Britain no longer regards itself a superpower on the same level as in the early part of the twentieth century, Iranians have long believed that Britain has been a major force behind its great political shifts: the appointment of Reza Pahlavi as Shah in 1925, his replacement with his son in 1941 and the revolution in 1979.
Indeed, conservatives have long held the view that Britain has held undue influence in the landscape of Iranian politics. Many are convinced that Britain has held back the development of Iran to meet its own political ends.
“Britain holds a special place among Iran’s collection of villains”
All this feeds back into political infighting in Tehran. The attack seems certain to have been carried out by conservatives, and their aim was to discredit President Ahmadinejad, who they see as being too pro-West.
Their hope is to force the President into a corner so that he makes concessions to the conservative wing of the Iranian population.
Indeed, President Ahmadinejad seems to be one of the main losers here. Whilst his links with the West are far from warm, he has maintained ties successfully over his tenure. He is, however, a very skilled politician who will find some way to deal with this situation. Whether or not he aims the blame squarely at Britain is something that remains to be seen.
On the British front William Hague, Foreign Secretary, has set out his stall by expelling all Iranian diplomats. Realistically, Iran has given him little choice. Mr Hague is an experienced world player, and he will need all his nous and precision to negotiate this tough period.
The situation is grave, and one has to wonder whether this is really a skirmish that Britain needs to prolong. Some have suggested this will lead to a conflict, with parallels to Iraq. That is something the government will certainly want to avoid.