Saturday 24 March 2018

The search for the holy grail of Iran's 'moderates' goes on

Former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw with Iran’s deputy foreign minister Mehdi Danesh Yazdi. Straw never succeeded in tracking down the hiding place of Iran’s ‘moderates’
Former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw with Iran’s deputy foreign minister Mehdi Danesh Yazdi. Straw never succeeded in tracking down the hiding place of Iran’s ‘moderates’

Con Coughlin

Here we go again: another British foreign secretary in Iran with the hopeful expectation of forging closer ties with the ayatollahs. Ever since Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979, the holy grail of British foreign policy has been to reach out to the moderates in Tehran, thereby isolating the hardliners.

Back in the 1980s when, thanks to Iran's Revolutionary Guard, British hostages such as Terry Waite and John McCarthy spent five or so years chained to radiators in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, Geoffrey Howe, the then British foreign secretary, frequently told me that the hostage crisis could be resolved if only we could establish a working relationship with the moderates in Tehran.

But for all of Britain's entreaties, the hardliners won the day and the hostages were eventually released only when the ayatollahs deemed them surplus to their agenda.

More recently, in 2003, New Labour's Jack Straw believed he had identified a similar moderate tendency in Iran's political establishment, during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami.

This, of course, was in the aftermath of the Iraq War, when the ayatollahs feared - not unduly - that they might be next on President George W Bush's hit list.

The overthrow of Saddam Hussein certainly had a salutary effect on Tehran, which quickly suspended work on the nuclear weapons research programme that had made enormous strides under Khatami's leadership.

But the Straw initiative came to nothing and the West's reward was the election two years later of arguably Iran's most divisive president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So has anything changed in the past decade in this elaborate game of diplomatic cat and mouse?

Well, to judge by Iran's actions since the Obama administration's controversial nuclear deal was signed with Tehran earlier in the summer, the omens are hardly encouraging.

The reason that Philip Hammond finds himself in Tehran to officiate at the reopening of the British Embassy is the expectation that, now the long-standing crisis over Iran's nuclear deal has been resolved, there is the genuine prospect of improved relations between Iran and the West.

Indeed, never slow to exploit an opportunity to further their interests, the ayatollahs have recently undertaken a sophisticated charm offensive to persuade people who should know better that a strategic relationship with Tehran would be in Britain's long-term interests.

Lord Lamont, the former Tory Chancellor, is one of the more vocal members among an influential group of establishment figures in London who advocate embracing the ayatollahs, a view that is also being enthusiastically taken up by those in the business community who hope to benefit from the estimated £100bn that Iran will soon receive when its overseas assets are released.

But in this unseemly scramble, the Government now appears content to turn a blind eye to some of Iran's more egregious activities. For example, after an Iranian mob stormed and then trashed the embassy compound in 2011, the British Government insisted there would be no restoration of relations until the Iranians paid full compensation for the damage caused. But Britain has itself paid the full cost of the repairs.

The Foreign Office also seems to be blithely unaware of the long-term damage closer relations with Tehran might cause to Britain's historic allies in the Gulf region, such as Saudi Arabia, which is involved in a bitter war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.

For decades maintaining a close strategic alliance with the Gulf Arab states has underpinned the security of Britain's energy needs. Is the Foreign Office seriously going to abandon that?

If that is what really lies behind Mr Hammond's visit to Tehran today, then Britain is heading for a foreign policy disaster of truly catastrophic proportions.

For, make no mistake, so long as ayatollahs remain in power, Iran will never be Britain's friend.

When the US and its allies signed the nuclear deal, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's Supreme Leader, tweeted a picture of President Obama holding a pistol to his head, apparently committing suicide. That is how the Islamic regime thanked Washington for its attempts to forge a new understanding.

And there can be no doubt that Britain, too, would be committing suicide if it abandoned its traditional Arab allies in the Gulf in favour of the Islamic fanatics who currently hold sway in Tehran. (© Sunday Telegraph)

Con Coughlin is the author of 'Khomeini's Ghost' (Macmillan)

Irish Independent

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