The UK and Iran: A Complicated Relationship


The UK has announced it will reopen its embassy in Iran for the first time since 2011, signalling a rapprochement and a move towards normalisation of diplomatic ties.

The picture in recent years hasn’t always been so bright, however. In 2009, after the election of hardliner Mahmoud Ahdmeninejad as Iranian President, the country’s supreme leader Ayatollaah Ali Khamenei blamed the opposition’s accusations of electoral fraud on encouragement from ‘arrogant powers’ in the West, describing Britain as the ‘worst of those powers’.

Relations reached their lowest point in 2011, when Britain announced sanctions against Iran and broke off involvement with the country’s banks after the IAEA published a report on the country’s nuclear programme. Iran reacted by expelling the British Ambassador from the country, which was followed by an intense period of demonstrations during which protesters stormed the British embassy. The British government at the time claimed the protests had the support of the Iranian government and closed the Tehran embassy as a result. It also expelled all Iranian diplomatic staff from the UK.

Protesters Storming the British Embassy in Iran
Protesters storming the British Embassy in Tehran in 2011

Prior to the first revelations about the strength of the Iranian nuclear programme, relations had been somewhat more cordial, with Britain and Iran working towards co-operation on a range of issues. In 2001, the then foreign secretary Jack Straw was the first British Foreign Secretary to visit the country since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 when attempting to form a coalition to fight the Afghan Taliban. Cabinet Minister Mo Mowlam also visited Tehran, pledging UK assistance in the Iranian fight against narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan.

This broad co-operation is likely to re-emerge as diplomatic ties are once again forged. Certainly, the emergence of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the potential spilling over of the Syria Conflict into other countries in the Middle East has led to the rebuilding of ties between the two countries.

Negotiations over a political resolution to the conflict have been hindered by differences in opinion over the current Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad, whose rule is supported by Iran and Russia yet opposed by Western countries including Britain. Current Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said that the restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran means a ‘new phase’ has been entered in the search for a solution to the Syria conflict, and that more ‘realistic discussion’ can be had over the issue now Iran is engaged.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged caution in future dealings with Iran. Kai Mörk [CC BY 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons
Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond urged caution in relations with Iran.
The agreement of a deal over Iran’s nuclear programme could also lead to a greater level of economic collaboration between the two countries, with some reports hinting that UK sanctions could be lifted as early as spring next year if Iran keeps to its commitments. The oil and financial sectors are particularly attractive to external investors, as sanctions have prevented these assets from being sold on much of the global market.

However, despite the optimism, some concerns still remain. Hammond urged caution with regard to UK relations with Iran, saying there was a ‘deep legacy of distrust’ and many areas where there were still ‘substantial policy differences’. It seems the biggest test for these newly rebuilt relations will be how easily historic divides and disagreements can be healed.


Deputy Editor 2017-18, International Editor 2015-17. Languages graduate interested in Latin America, world news, media and politics.

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