UK official: Relations with Iran still intact despite embassy flap

London - Amer Soltan, Monday 26 Dec 2011

Britain's FM for Middle East affairs says relations with Islamic republic remain intact despite last month's student assault on UK Tehran embassy

Alistair Burt

A British government official this week described relations with Iran as “difficult,” but stressed that bilateral relations had not been severed completely despite a failure on the part of British politicians to understand the Iranian government’s intentions.

“Relations between Britain and Iran are difficult, as they are to varying degrees between Iran and many other nations,” UK Foreign Minister for Middle East Affairs Alistair Burt told Ahram Online.

During a 29 November demonstration, Britain’s embassy in Tehran was stormed by Iranian students who set fire to the building. Some British nationals were briefly detained.

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague responded by ordering the expulsion of 25 Iranian diplomats from Britain. The UK diplomatic staff in Tehran was evacuated, meanwhile, and Britain's Tehran embassy temporarily closed.

Burt dismissed criticism that Hague’s decision had been hasty. “If any country makes it impossible for us to operate on their soil, they cannot expect to have a functioning Embassy in London,” Burt said.

“This does not amount to the severing of diplomatic relations in their entirety,” Burt went on to clarify. “It simply reduces our relations with Iran to the lowest level consistent with the maintenance of diplomatic relations.”

The UK is part of the so-called E3+3 grouping, which is currently dealing with the issue of Iran’s nascent nuclear programme. The group also includes Germany, France, the United States, Russia and China.

A UK Foreign Office spokesman had earlier told Ahram Online that the embassy crisis would not deter British representatives from attending scheduled E3+3 meetings.

Burt, for his part, stressed that there was no change to the UK’s official position on Iran.

“We differ with Iran over its nuclear programme and on human rights, and we make no secret of our views,” Burt said. “We have been foremost among those nations arguing for peaceful legitimate pressure to be intensified on Iran in light of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s deep and increasing concern about the Iranian nuclear programme, including its possible military dimensions.”

Former Iranian president Abolhassan Bani Sadr has said recently that the British government had “fallen into a trap” laid by the Iranian regime since it had been the first Western government to levy sanctions on Iran's Central Bank following a recent IAEA report on Iran's nuclear activities.

In a rare interview with the English-language news media, Bani Sadr asserted that last month’s student assault on Britain’s Tehran embassy had been deliberately orchestrated by elements of the Iranian government to further inflame tensions with the West.

Burt, too, claimed the embassy attack could not have been carried out without the approval of parts of the Iranian regime.

“It’s hard to understand the intentions of the Iranian regime, though we are aware of much conflict within its leadership,” he said. “It is opaque and decision making is shrouded in secrecy.”

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