Britain’s Thaw With Iran, Coming at a Crucial Juncture, Could Be Useful to Allies

With the election of a relatively moderate president in Iran and the rise of radical Sunni fighters in Syria and Iraq, Britain is pressing ahead to improve relations with Iran and reopen its embassy in Tehran.

While Britain appears to be moving much more quickly to restore ties with Iran than the United States is, the history of relations is different. The decision to reopen the British Embassy is the culmination of a gradual effort to improve ties with Iran since the election of President Hassan Rouhani a year ago and a new Iranian seriousness about negotiating on the country’s contentious nuclear program.

“It’s very much in Britain’s interest to have a presence in Iran,” said Ellie Geranmayeh, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations here. “The Iran desk can’t really do its job properly without people on the ground and contacts with Iranian counterparts.”

With the chaos in Syria and now Iraq, Ms. Geranmayeh said, “events are demonstrating that we can’t keep ignoring Iran in this picture,” and in some ways, she added, “Iran seems less of a security threat to Britain, given the Rouhani factor, than Iraq and Syria.”

Prime Minister David Cameron said Tuesday that he supported improved ties with Iran in any case, but “what is happening in Iraq is not a reason for not taking that step.” He said that foreigners fighting with the radical Sunni group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, known as ISIS, represented “a real threat” to Britain.

“No one should be in any doubt that what we see in Syria and now in Iraq in terms of ISIS is the most serious threat to Britain’s security that there is today,” Mr. Cameron said.

Britain suspended full diplomatic relations with Iran on security, not policy grounds, after the British Embassy was stormed by angry Iranians in November 2011. But Britain did not break ties and has had senior diplomats based in London working with the Iranians. Last October, the two countries each named a nonresident chargé d’affaires to work toward improving relations and reopening their respective embassies, with a modest staff to start.

While British relations with the Islamic Republic have gone up and down many times since the 1979 revolution, they were normalized in 1998 and have only been suspended at different times since then.

The United States, by contrast, has not had a working embassy in Tehran since the immediate aftermath of the revolution, when students and others seized the embassy as a “nest of spies” in November 1979 and held Americans hostage for 444 days. The Iranians said they were responding to the decision by the United States, “the Great Satan,” to give asylum to the deposed shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, when he sought medical treatment for the cancer.

Washington broke diplomatic ties with Iran in April 1980. The Swiss government has since represented American interests in Tehran, and Pakistan has represented Iran in Washington.

While the British Embassy opening will be modest, having a trusted ally back on the ground in Iran to report and gather intelligence will probably benefit the United States and Israel, too, Ms. Geranmayeh said. “It is also an opportunity for Iran to restore its reputation and say that we’re not only serious on the nuclear issue, but that we want to engage on global issues and the economy,” she said.

It also shows Iranians, especially those who support Mr. Rouhani, that there is reciprocity in the West for his effort to reach out and repair ties after years of confrontation under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Given their colonial history and the influence of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company that morphed into BP, many Iranians still believe that Britain, not the United States, pulls the strings in Iran and continues to plot to restore its influence. The obsession with Britain was the heart of a famous novel in 1973, translated as “My Uncle Napoleon,” that was turned into a popular TV series. The show mocks the belief that the British are responsible for everything that happens in Iran.

“There is a colonial hangover,” Ms. Geranmayeh said. “We’re slowly getting over the ‘Uncle Napoleon’ syndrome for both sides. But it will take a lot longer with the United States than with the British.”

But a deal on the nuclear issue would have a major impact on relations with the United States, even if there is no immediate warmth, said Mark Fitzpatrick, a former American diplomat now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“Nothing would change quickly,” he said. “But would a deal help create the conditions for rapprochement? Of course it would. It would take off the table the dominant element of discord.”

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