Iran dismissed the claim made by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week that it was responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities earlier this month. The British claim and Iranian response coincided with the release of a British-flagged tanker seized by Iran in the Gulf last month and ahead of a scheduled meeting between Johnson and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in New York.
Johnson was talking to reporters on board a plane on his way to participate in the UN General Assembly meetings. He also said that the UK would consider joining the US in defending Saudi Arabia, which implied British military participation in the buildup against Iran in the Gulf.
London later clarified Johnson’s statement as not meaning a final conclusion on Iran’s culpability in the attacks had been drawn. London was sticking to its position seeking to salvage the nuclear agreement with Iran signed in 2015, the clarification said.
Johnson called on the US and Iran to reach a new deal that would help to deescalate the tension in New York. But Iran was wary of Johnson’s moves, because the UK’s siding with the US would likely complicate its bargaining process with the Americans. The other two European signatories of the nuclear deal, Germany and France, share the same conclusion with Britain that Iran was responsible for the attacks.
Though British-Iranian relations go back centuries, they have been a strange mix of animosity and business interests in recent decades. During World War II, the first Pahlavi shah of Iran, Reza Shah, claimed neutrality, but the British thought he was siding with Nazi Germany. In 1941, the UK and Russia invaded and occupied Iran, forcing Reza Shah to abdicate. The occupation ended in 1946.
The British had vast business interests in Iran at the time, and when Iranian prime minister Mohamed Mossadegh tried to nationalise the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in the early 1950s, the UK sought American help to topple him, ousting him in an Anglo-American sponsored coup in 1953.
In the mid-fifties, the Baghdad Pact, or Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO), was led by the UK and included Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Turkey before it was later joined by the US in 1958. Cooperation continued until the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 and the end of Pahlavi rule.
The UK cut diplomatic relations and closed its embassy in Tehran after the revolution, and a year later the Iranian Embassy in London was taken over by gunmen opposed to the country’s new ruler Ayatollah Khomeini. British Special Forces then stormed the embassy and released the hostages.
By 1988, the two countries had resumed diplomatic relations for less than a year before Khomeini issued a fatwa, or legal ruling, against UK writer Salman Rushdie over his book the Satanic Verses, but relations improved a couple of years later. However, it was not until the end of the 1990s that diplomatic relations were restored.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power in Iran in the 2000s, and British-Iranian relations started to deteriorate again. When demonstrations swept Iran after the re-election of Ahmadinejad in the summer of 2009, Tehran accused Britain of fomenting the disturbances through the BBC Persian service.
In 2011, with sanctions imposed on Iran due to its nuclear programme, relations were cut again, only to be restored in 2015 after the nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers, the UK, US, Germany, France, Russia and China, was signed.
However, the British did not get the benefits they expected from lifting the sanctions. When Johnson replaced Theresa May as UK prime minister in July this year, it was anticipated that he would take the American position and might even withdraw from the nuclear deal. But Johnson stayed with the European effort to rescue it.
Later escalations in the Gulf led the British and two other European countries to suspect Iran’s intentions. They were also disappointed at Iran’s violation of its commitments under the nuclear deal.
If the US does not reach a new deal with Iran, the UK might not be the only partner to opt out of it as well. The British position makes it harder for Iran not to negotiate the other concerns the Americans stipulate as part of a new deal.
Those include restrictions on Iran’s missiles programme, Tehran’s support for groups like the Lebanese Hizbullah and the Houthis in Yemen, and its support for terrorism and interference in the internal affairs of its neighbours.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 September, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly