LONDON – Britain’s Foreign Secretary William Hague on Tuesday restored UK diplomatic relations with Iran.
He also confirmed to Parliament that Britain will use its enhanced ties to press Tehran to end its support for terrorist groups and to resolve the outstanding issues over its controversial nuclear weapons program.
Britain broke diplomatic ties with Iran in 2011 when its embassy was overrun by protesters.
However, as he explained to MPs seeking justification for the move, with the change of Iranian presidency and international efforts to secure an agreement over neutralizing if not ending its nuclear weapons program, he said he had judged it the right time to seek a rapprochement with Tehran.
The two countries have been moving toward closer ties with a joint appointment of nonresident charges d’affaires last November, and diplomatic observers noted a clear trend of a further thaw in subsequent months.
International concerns about the situation in Iraq accelerated the announcement, Hague told MPs in a Commons statement on Monday. He said that pressure to consider measures to defuse the growing crisis in Iraq during the last few days, including a Saturday night phone call with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, indicated to them both that now is the right time to advance plans for the reopening of their respective embassies, though he admitted that it is still too early to set an exact date for the exchange of ambassadors.
However, Hague was pressed by MPs in the House of Commons to clarify whether this would change Britain’s approach toward Iran on two core issues – the nuclear weapons program and Iran’s support for terrorist groups.
On both points but especially that relating to Iran’s policy of destabilizing the Middle East region, the foreign secretary said that there would be “no softening of any of the UK’s policies in relation to Iran.”
“We look to Iran to cease support for sectarian groups elsewhere in the Middle East and to reach a successful conclusion to nuclear negotiations,” he said, adding that it was important to discuss those issues with Iran, and “we need the ability to do so.”
He reiterated that having such ties would “be of enormous assistance in defusing many tensions in the Middle East by improving relations between Iran and many of its neighbors,” including, he suggested, those in several Gulf States.
Britain, he added, would be pressing Iran for wider changes in Iranian foreign policy.
“For many years Iran has played a divisive and sectarian role through supporting divisive and often terrorist groups in other parts of the region. We look to it to desist from that, and we will use the expansion of our bilateral relations to press for that,” he told MPs.
Two factors governed the reopening of the British Embassy in Tehran: assurances that the UK’s staff would be “safe and secure” and confidence that they would be able to “carry out their functions without hindrance.”
A number of practical issues needed to be resolved first, but it was the government’s intention to have a small initial presence in Tehran as soon as practical arrangements had been completed offering limited services.
Iran, he noted, was an important country in a volatile region, and maintaining an embassy even under difficult conditions was a “central pillar” of the UK’s global diplomatic approach.
Meanwhile, opposition leader Ed Miliband welcomed the restoration of diplomatic ties with Iran. In a wide-ranging speech to Labor Friends of Israel during which he referred to the benefits of his pre-Passover visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, he made clear that he and the Labor Party were under no illusions about the Iranian regime.
He went on to endorse the approach taken by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in securing an interim agreement with Iran, calling it a “step forward,” and while taking nothing for granted about Iran’s behavior, he said he believed her route represented the best hope for avoiding an Iran with nuclear weapons.
In a sharp message to some in the Labor Party who in supporting Palestinian rights have started veering toward the concept of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in his most pro-Israel speech since he was surprisingly elected party leader in September 2010 he said he disagreed with them.
“We should step up, not abandon, our support for a two-state solution.”
And in a sharp rejoinder to some of the Labor-supporting trade unions who this and next month are considering pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolutions at their annual conferences, he had a clear message. “We must do nothing that will get in the way of peace, so we are clear that the threat of boycotts of Israel is the wrong response.”
“We will resolutely oppose the isolation of Israel, and... no one in my party either should question Israel’s right to exist,” he said.
Speaking as a possible prime minister in waiting, depending on the outcome of next May’s general election, he pledged that a future Labor government would approach the peace process based on the two-state solution, “passionate and engaged in a successful outcome.”
And it was clear that, as a result of his recent visit, he was able for the first time able to identify himself – with passion – as a real friend of Israel.
He concluded by suggesting that if he becomes prime minister in less than a year’s time, “I will be proud to do so as a friend of Israel, a Jew, and most of all someone who feels so proud to be part of the community gathered here today.”