The not-so-uncertain future of British-Iranian relations

The not-so-uncertain future of British-Iranian relations

In August 2015, after four years of closure, the British Embassy in Tehran reopened its doors. As Ambassador to the Islamic Republic, Nicholas Hopton, is a seasoned diplomat familiar with the Gulf region with previous experience serving as Ambassador to Qatar.

Two years later, with anti-Iranian rhetoric coming from across the Atlantic and with the war between the Saudis and the Houthi rebels heating up, relations between Britain and Iran are on unstable footing.

President Donald Trump, since his presidential election, has been against Iran, calling the Iran nuclear deal the worst in US history. At the start of 2018, Trump waived sanctions against Iran. However, the deadline to review them is approaching, and with John Bolton’s appointment as National Security Adviser, the Iranian deal is in jeopardy. How will this affect British-Iranian relations? If history is referenced, the future relationship does not bode well.

Iranian-British Relations Since 1979

Since the 1979 revolution, British-Iranian relations have been volatile. When Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against British writer Salman Rushdie, better known as the Satanic Verses Controversy, Britain retaliated by breaking off relations with Iran.

Ten years later, relations improved when Iranian President Mohamad Khatami stated the government no longer supported the fatwa. The war against Afghanistan and Iraq saw the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States deepen. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush enjoyed a close relationship, which reflected in their joint operations in the Middle East.

Relations soured in late 2011, when Iranian protestors stormed the British Embassy in Tehran and resulted in the sacking of Iranian diplomats from Britain, and the closure of the Islamic Republic’s embassy in London.

Current and future relationship

While current President Rouhani and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, have been playing a keen diplomatic game, it cannot be denied that the improvement of the US’ attitude towards Iran affected Britain’s own political approach. The breakthrough regarding Iran’s nuclear programme and the deal that saw the re-branding of Iran from pariah state to potential ally, was instrumental in British Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond’s visit to Iran and subsequent reopening of the embassy.

Bolton’s hard-line approach worries the British government, yet Britain has not shied away from a tougher approach. The last decade has shown that British-Iranian relations have taken its cue from Washington. What tune will British policy-makers play in accordance with Trump Administration’s unfriendly stance towards Iran?

Presently, British-Iranian relations are full of tension with the arrest of British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been imprisoned for seeking to “undermine the Iranian state.” Outraged by the situation, Britain’s general public protested that the government is not been doing enough for her. While Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s imprisonment remains of great interest to the British government, priority has been given to improve the bilateral relationship, as confirmed by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent visit to Iran.

The British government does not want to see a breakdown in its diplomatic ties with Iran. Britain defended Iran in the face of US accusations, reiterating that Iran has been compliant. For the time being, the British seek to distance itself from the belligerent approach taken by the Trump administration. This breaks the previous trend of Britain patterning its relations with Iran on an American approach.

The recent government to government exchange regarding the conflict on the Arabian Peninsula is concerning. Johnson made statements challenging Iran’s regional activities, particularly the Houthi rebels in Yemen and has reaffirmed its support for Saudi Arabia. In response, Iran accused the British government of arming the Saudis. This may not lead to a complete break in relations between London and Tehran but may lead to an escalation of tension.

There is a lot to gain from maintaining the diplomatic connection between London and Tehran. The British does not want to isolate the Rouhani government due to its willingness to comply with the nuclear deal. Furthermore, maintaining the diplomatic lines can ensure better communication between the two countries in dealing with the ongoing conflict in Yemen and in the final stages of the war against Islamic State.


While tensions remain, the volatility of British-Iranian relations during the post-1979 era is not new. The Iranian government’s ideology, choice of allies and geopolitical interests have often clashed with those of Britain.

The bilateral relationship relies on a number of factors, with the main one being US-British partnership. However, now that Britain is actively moving away from the current US administration, and aligning with Europe to honour the nuclear deal, relations with Iran are likely to remain stable despite standing on shaky ground.


About Author

Rowena Abdul Razak

Rowena Abdul Razak hold a BA (Hons) in History from the School of Oriental & African Studies, and an MA in Middle East and Mediterranean Studies from King’s College London. She is currently a DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford and has recently submitted her thesis on the British-Soviet occupation of Iran, from 1941 to 1946. She has published in academic journals and most recently, a chapter in an edited book on Russia and Iran.