London calling: What the reopening of the British embassy in Iran means for the nuclear deal

Nearly four years after a mob attack shuttered the British Embassy in Tehran, the two countries reopened the historic compound this week in a ceremony attended by UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond. Hammond is the most senior British official to visit Iran in a decade, and the upgrade in bilateral diplomacy marks an important step forward in Iran’s rehabilitation of its relationship with the world.

Given the domestic political sensitivities surrounding relations with the British, who rival Washington as a source of Iranian resentment and paranoia, the embassy’s reopening speaks to the strength of the mandate for moderation in Iranian foreign policy. This was precisely what Hassan Rouhani was elected to the presidency two years ago to advance, first and foremost through the resolution of the nuclear impasse.

At the same time, the rapprochement between Tehran and London also illustrates the phenomenon that so animates opponents of the nuclear deal in the region and in Washington — the world’s readiness to absolve Tehran’s ideological excesses in exchange for reluctant repentance and continuing recalcitrance. There will be no Iranian apology for the November 2011 violence that precipitated the Embassy’s closure, and any quiet assurances about security for British facilities in Iran must be weighed against the frequency of the disruptions in the bilateral diplomatic relationship over the past 36 years.

The November 2011 incident fits a well-established pattern of rifts and restorations between revolutionary Iran and the heirs to the British empire, which I detailed a 2008 paper for the Center for a New American Security: “over the years the underlying frictions have manifested themselves in a series of bizarre clashes over diplomatic protocol: in 1986, over the British refusal to accredit an Iranian diplomat because of his involvement in the U.S. Embassy seizure; a year later, the arrest of an Iranian consular office in Manchester for shoplifting sparked the armed seizure and beating of a British diplomat in Tehran; and a series of expulsions and reprisals that practically emptied the embassies on both sides.”

Subsequent bilateral squabbles erupted over British ambassadorial nominations (1999 and 2002); Iran’s seizure of British ships and sailors in the Gulf (2004 and 2007); and — most enduringly — after Iran’s leader issued a religious order threatening British author Salman Rushdie with death over his allegedly blasphemous novel, The Satanic Verses. The most recent rupture came in response to the intensification of British sanctions on Iran’s financial system, although it followed months of incitement in the hard-line press and by the Iranian parliament.

The decision to move beyond the acrimony reflects a strategic calculation on both sides that bilateral diplomatic and economic ties are sufficiently valuable to justify the risks involved. For London, walking away from Iran is simply not a long-term option. As Britain’s then-foreign secretary William Hague asserted last year, “There has never been any doubt in my mind that we should have an Embassy in Tehran if the circumstances allowed. Iran is an important country in a volatile region, and maintaining embassies around the world, even under difficult conditions, is a central pillar of the UK’s global diplomatic approach.” Hammond used the same phrasing during his visit this week.

British motivations for reopening the embassy in Iran are not purely strategic. Thanks to the nuclear deal and the anticipated removal of most United Nations and European Union sanctions, Iran’s economy is back into play for Europe. Some British businesses have been frustrated by the perception that their government’s tough stance in the talks and continuing frictions with Tehran were undercutting their future prospects in Iran. They resented the marked contrast to the much more activist business promotion by other European governments, such as that of Germany, whose vice-chancellor flew to Tehran with a large corporate delegation only days after the deal was signed last month.

This assessment that Iran is simply too important, and too potentially lucrative, to isolate has repeatedly induced Britain and its European partners to absolve Iranian provocations after a cooling-off period and the promise of a ‘new chapter.’ As I wrote in the CNAS paper, Iranian-style rapprochement requires adversaries “to accept a considerable degree of ambiguity in Iran’s undertakings and to provide significant scope for face-saving rhetoric and actions” — but rarely includes an acceptance of responsibility by Tehran.

With respect to these most recent frictions, at least the British can point to Iranian expressions of regret. In the aftermath of the 2011 embassy attack, then-Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi (now head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization) criticized the violence as inappropriate. Those sentiments were echoed a year later by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, who grudgingly acknowledged that “in the recent case of occupation of that evil embassy, the sentiments of the youth were right, but their entering [the Embassy] was not right.”

At the end of the day, however, Iranian officials have insisted that “an apology is not under consideration. There are many things that happened in the past for which we have not received an apology.” These widely-held historical grievances feed a sense of impunity among Iranians, and compound the absence of accountability that is a defining feature of Iran’s revolutionary regime. And so the cycle of provocation, reaction, and eventual exculpation will almost surely recur — as it has with respect to the nuclear diplomacy and Iran’s past transgressions. For Iran’s leadership, détente with old adversaries is not really an end point; rather, it is a means to an end, “a waystation between conflict and goodwill,” as I wrote in the CNAS volume.

For Tehran, the waystation is awfully convenient. The revival of economic and diplomatic ties with Britain illustrates the real reward for its gamble on nuclear diplomacy. For Iran’s leaders, the 2013 decision to reengage in negotiations was never solely about the sanctions relief included in a nuclear deal; it was about reclaiming Iran’s place in the world and reasserting its centrality as the region’s dominant strategic actor. The return of the British confirms that, even if it rankles some of the regime’s oligarchs.

Predictably, there have been howls from Iran’s hard-line press. Still, the steady recovery of Iranian-European relations since Rouhani’s election two years ago underscores that the shift in Iran’s approach to the world commands a fairly wide consensus among the relevant body of decision-makers in the Islamic Republic. This time around, the only question — and it’s a big one — is whether the shift can prove sufficient to facilitate a durable moderation of Iran’s most dangerous policies. Trying to anticipate Iran’s evolution is a fools’ errand, but one key gauge will be Tehran’s readiness to abide by international standards at home and abroad — and its willingness to accept responsibility for its past misconduct.