Bernd Kaussler is Assistant Professor of Political Science at James Madison University and Associate Fellow at the Institute for Iranian Studies at the University of St Andrews. His research focus is on Iranian foreign and security policy as well as political violence and human rights in Iran. His teaching areas include the Middle East security, comparative politics of the Middle East, political Islam, international relations, and foreign policy analysis. This interview was originally published as a Persian translation by Tarikh-e Irani (Iranian History). IRD would like to thank Tarikh-e Irani for providing the original interview.
IH: The British Embassy was closed during the 80’, particularly in years of Iran-Iraq war. Why did the British Embassy get closed? It seems while Sir John Graham was leaving Iran the political relation of two countries was not at the critical point. Did both sides make significant effort to re-establish political relations during the war? What mutual interests caused to re-open the British Embassy in Tehran in 1988?
BK: British Iranian relations are very complex and history casts a long shadow on current diplomatic encounters between Tehran and London. As the British Foreign Affairs Select Committee itself conceded in its 2003 Report on Iran: “Given this history, it is hardly surprising that Iranians are said to see the hand of the United Kingdom behind every suspicious development in their country. The Revolution in 1979 had considerable impact on British-Iranian relations and significantly reduced Britain’s economic as well as political stake in Iran. Following the takeover of the American embassy in Tehran and anti-British demonstrations in 1980, Britain was advised by the Iranian Foreign Ministry that the authorities could no longer guarantee the safety of British staff, thus prompting the departure of Britain’s Ambassador. Because of the “Rushdie affair”, it was to be nearly twenty years before a new one was appointed. [i] In the end, the Iranian embassy in London turned out to be at greater risk. In April 1980 an armed group from Iran took the embassy staff hostage and demanded autonomy for the Iranian province of Khuzestan. During the siege and, finally, the dramatic rescue operation by the Special Air Services (SAS), two members of the embassy staff were killed by the hostage takers and all but one of the gunmen were killed by the SAS. Although the Iranian Foreign Ministry thanked Britain officially for the way the crisis was ended, the incident cast a further shadow over bilateral relations and it was followed by a long-drawn-out negotiations concerning compensation for damage done to the premises during the rescue. [ii] However, by far, the most detrimental impact on post-1979 bilateral relations was Britain’s policy during the Iran-Iraq war. Whilst the U.S. and the EU did observe an arms embargo towards both warring parties, Britain for its part, operated an official policy of restraint to arms sales to Iran and Iraq and an unofficial one of supply.
IH: What caused both countries to resume relations?
BK: By 1988 Iran began to conduct what it called an 'open door’ policy towards all countries with the exception of Israel, the United States and South Africa. Following the Iran–Iraq war, the Iranian government seemed eager to get closer to European countries in particular, as well as the Arab states, most of which had favored Iraq during the war. The prospect of re-establishing relations with Britain largely resulted from negotiations, which took place at the United Nations in Geneva and were held by Sir David Meyer and the Iranian Director General for West European affairs Mahmoud Vaezi. [iii] These negotiations eventually settled the rival claims for compensation for the damage of the Iranian embassy in 1980 and, from the British side, damage done to the British embassy building by a mob at the time of the revolution. [iv] When acting Charge d’Affaires, Gordon Pirie eventually ran up the Union Flag on 3 December 1988 for the first time in eight years [v], it was based on the joint announcement in Geneva which stated that “full diplomatic relations […] were based on reciprocity, mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s affairs.” [vi] For policymakers in Whitehall, British presence in Iran mainly served to establish channels of communication with the Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was holding three British citizens hostage. The idea was that Iran would be an intermediary to the kidnappers and thus contribute to their release. Another priority for Britain was the release of Mr. Roger Cooper and Mr. Nicholas Nichola, two Britons who were held in Tehran’s Evin prison on charges of spying. [vii] Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe linked any further improvements of bilateral relations to the release of both Britons and maintained that none of the prisoners who were being accused of spying have ever been tried by the Iranian authorities. Whilst Cooper was not released until 1991, the Iranian government eventually freed Nicholas Nicola on December 27, 1988. [viii] Tom Clark, then Labor MP for Monklands West, Strathclyde, who joined a delegation to Iran that year stated that “it [the release] suggests that it was right to restore diplomatic relations and reopen the British Embassy. It is very important we should keep pressing for the release of Roger Cooper from Iran and the British hostages from Beirut. It has taken time to recover from the shooting down of the Iranian airbus over the Gulf but it would appear that things are now beginning to move in the right direction.” [ix]
IH: One of the stressful issues in Iran that was criticized among intellectuals and governments is the political view of UK over the Iran-Iraq war. Did the UK find its interests in weak Iran and Iraq (like the U.S.A followed the dual containment policy)? Or the UK desired Iraq’s victory?
The “Scott Inquiry” of 1996 showed that the official guidelines in the FCO and MoD were aimed not at the progress of the conflict but rather at the maintenance of relationships with the belligerents – hence an apparent policy of even-handedness. Far from fulfilling the requirements of neutrality, guidelines on arms exports to Iran and Iraq were dictated by a general desire to trade with both countries. An abundance of evidence proved how the British government’s review process of Export Licensing Application (ELA) by British companies did not meet the standards one would expect from a country, which declared neutrality. Moreover, the British government knew about the widespread diversion of military goods via Saudi Arabia, Egypt and particular Jordan to Iraq. While the British government’s policy of allowing this illicit supply of arms to Iran and Iraq may have not had a significant impact on sustaining the war, it clearly failed to actively seek to resolve the conflict. [x] Essentially, Britain like the U.S. under Reagan prolonged the war by providing Iraq with weaponry. Given the nature of the Iran-Iraq war (a war of attrition) constant supply of arms was vital to support the war effort. Iran was largely isolated and only had to rely on manpower (Basij and others). Britain’s policy during the war may have had less of an impact than the Reagan’s policies (who effectively sided with the Iraqis and provided intelligence on Iranian troop movement) but certainly constituted a vital supply for Saddam Hussein.
IH: Many of Britain firms benefited from weapon sales to Iraq and even in 1988 this amount reached to half a billion dollars. Meanwhile Britain controlled the Iran’s purchase office via MI-5 and delivered the information to Iraq. Construction of expensive underground bunker networks was another part of the efforts of Iraq and Saddam’s decision that involved English engineers began in 1982. In an interview with the British parliament Labor Party representative –Mr. Tony Banks-, he called the sale of Menthyldiphenyphosphine (MDP) by British government to Iraq a scandal. This is how powerful officials in Iran think about UK. Is this accurate and right? How did Britain benefit from the change of war atmosphere in favor of Iraq?
BK: I can't comment on this particular question (i.e. bunker networks) as I have no information about this but there is plenty of information in the Scott Inquiry which investigated the arms sales to Iraq during the war. My reading is that given Britain’s arms industry the war provided vast opportunities for export it really had less to do with strategic objectives to bring down the Islamic Republic but rather dictated by the desire for export profits. It was certainly a major scandal for the British government as they continued exporting to Iraq even after the Halabja massacre.
IH: How do you evaluate the reaction of Britain (ordered closure of the British embassy in Tehran) about the Salman Rushdie verdict? Do you find that severe reaction such a right decision?
BK: It was an unprecedented moment in international relations history. Two nations broke relations over a book. It really was a clash of cultures. What constituted a case of freedom of expression was an offense of the sacred to the Iranians. For the British, it was a fictional novel written by an accomplished author and for the Iranians it was simply blasphemy. I am not sure why Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwa. As far as I understand he was approached by a group on this issue (and certainly across the Muslim World, clerics and others in India, Gulf states, Egypt and elsewhere made statements condemning the book) and as a fiqh he was certainly qualified to issue the edict. One should also see it within the background of domestic politics. […]
IH: How was the reaction in UK about the Lady Thatcher’s decision regarding the cut the relation which was reestablished hardly?
BK: Thatcher had no other chance to break relations. […] Rushdie was kept in a safehouse in the English countryside for weeks. He certainly had been kept under protection throughout the entire time. One also has to keep in mind that persons associated with the Satanic Verses (Italy, Japan, Norway) were attacked […]. So for British the threat was real. Several Iranian students and members of the Iranian Embassy in London were expelled on grounds that they were plotting the assassination.
What is interesting to note is that Rushdie did not like Thatcher or her policies. He was a critic of her and expressed his views about her government often. But at the same he thanked her for protecting him, a very powerful symbol of the meaning of liberal democracy.
[i] Christopher Rundle, (former FCO diplomat / Iran Desk) Iran –UK Relations since the Revolution: Opening Doors, (2005) Manuscript handed to the author
[ii] ibid, p. 4; also see Chris Cramer and Jim Harris, Hostage, (London, J.Clare,) 1982.
[iii] Interview with former Deputy Foreign Minister for Iran, Mahmoud Vaezi (Tehran, 6 September, 2004); Chris Rundle, (former FCO official) unpublished paper “UK/Iran relations since the Revolution” handed to the author, (1 August 2005)
[iv] Chris Rundle, unpublished paper “UK/Iran relations since the Revolution”
[v] The Times, 5 December, 1988
[vii] Roger Cooper was a British businessman employed by the American firm McDermott International, a leading marine construction company. He had been visiting Iran from Dubai on business when he was arrested and imprisoned on a charge of spying. He was sentenced to “Death Plus Ten Years.” see Roger Cooper, Death Plus Ten Years. (Scranton, Harper Collins, 1994)
[viii] The Times, 28 December 1988
[x] Davina Miller, Export or Die – Britain’s Defence Trade with Iran and Iraq (London, Cassel, 1996), pp.192-196