‘I can see Tehran from my Window’: Britain’s Relationship with Iran since 1979


Disclaimer: Britain’s relationship with Iran stretches well before the Iranian Revolution of 1979.  However, I am sticking to post-revolution relations as it is more relevant to the current hostilities between the two nations.

The recent tensions between the United Kingdom and Iran are yet a continuation of the deterioration of relations the West faces with the Islamic Republic.  With 2019 marking 40 years since the Iranian Revolution, the anti-Western sentiment voiced by the Ayatollah Khomeini has by no means diminished.  In fact, due to Britain’s close alliance with the US, Iran’s ‘greatest enemy’, the hostilities between the two nations have arguably never been greater.

It is important to understand, however, that the overthrow of the US/UK backed Shah (Monarch) of Iran in 1979 was the real spark of the tensions that have lasted up until today.  The Shah was held responsible for the growing corruption within the Iranian Bureaucracy as well as moving away from Iran’s traditional Islamist Roots and towards the influence of the West.  He was removed by the Islamist force led by the Ayatollah, abolishing the monarchy and establishing Iran as an Islamic Republic.

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After the revolution, Iran turned their anti-Western sentiment to include Britain.  Britain was already perceived as an enemy along with the ‘Great Satan’ that was the US due to their attempts to assassinate the Communist leaning Iranian President Mossadegh in the 1950s.  A year after the revolution, Arab militants stormed the Iranian Embassy in London, which resulted in a 6-day siege by the SAS to reclaim it.  Britain responded to Iran’s continued diplomatic war on the West by suspending their diplomatic ties to Iran, which were not renewed until 1988, when the British Embassy reopened in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

A year later, relations again diminished. British Author Salman Rushdie published the novel The Satanic Verses, a bestseller in the West, yet it provoked outrage within Iran.  The Ayatollah, still Iranian Supreme Leader, who viewed the novel as blasphemy towards Islam, issued a fatwa – an order for Muslims around the world to assassinate Rushdie.  Rushdie was given protection from the British government against such threats.  The issue dragged on for almost a decade until, in 1998, the Iranian President Mohamed Khatami declared the fatwa against Rushdie to be ‘completely finished.’  This led to a strengthening in Anglo-Iranian diplomacy with Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visiting Tehran in 2001, the first time a British politician had done so since the revolution.  Rushdie saw improved relations over the ending of his Fatwa as an example of Iran’s new priority of a ‘rapprochement with the West’

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The constant overhaul in attitude again showed its face in the early part of the 21st century.  Now, the dispute that continues to engulf relations with Iran are the questions over their nuclear and military capabilities evident in the continuing conflict in the Strait of Hormuz.  The Strait is seen as one of the most strategic bodies of water in the world and has seen an increased military presence since the United States pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal upon the insistence of President Trump.  The Strait is important as it separates several Arab states who are key allies of the US and Britain, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.  This allows for oil to be transported along the strait back to its trading partners in the US or the Far East.  The BBC has estimated that roughly a fifth of the world’s oil is transported through the Strait of Hormuz.  That is the equivalent of around 21 million barrels a day.

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The crisis in the Strait of Hormuz has been further exacerbated with the seizure of the British Oil Tanker, The Stena Impero by Iranian forces.  The move has been interpreted as a retaliation for the Royal Marines’ detainment of an Iranian Tanker bound for Syria. This has been branded unacceptable by the government, forcing the hand of recently departed Prime Minister Theresa May to chair a meeting of the Cobra committee to attempt to rectify the issue.  The government responded by dispatching Royal Navy ships to the Strait to protect further Oil tankers from facing the same fate as the Impero.  In a speech before parliament, Jeremy Hunt, who at the time was Foreign Secretary, urged Iran to release the ship and its crew, who are perceived to be hostage to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

The increase in tensions in the Strait of Hormuz will certainly be a top priority for the incoming Conservative government led by Boris Johnson.  Mr Johnson has previously fuelled tensions between Iran and Britain by mistakenly stating that British-Iranian Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was ‘teaching people journalism’ during a visit to Iran in 2017.  Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe was, in fact, visiting her parents but was arrested during her stay and sentenced to 5 years in prison for espionage.  Mr Johnson’s comments were inflammatory because although they were allegedly untrue, it allowed for the state of Iran to cement her conviction.  The Foreign Office has since failed to negotiate Mrs Zagahri-Ratcliffe’s release with both her and her husband recently going on hunger strikes.

Boris Johnson faces his first hostile challenge from a foreign power since his election with Iran over its actions in the Strait of Hormuz and its treatment of British Nationals. Johnson was congratulated by the Iranian Foreign Minister for winning the Conservative leadership election, giving the impression that there is some hope as to Iran improving relations with Britain and the West.  What remains to be seen, as explored in the Washington Post, is whether the new Prime Minister has the skills to pull off such a coup in terms of international diplomacy.

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  2. ‘I can see Tehran from my Window’: Britain’s Relationship with Iran since 1979
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  4. Gall and Wormwood in the Fragrant Harbour: Britain’s Relationship With Hong Kong

MA History Student

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