by Ellie Geranmayeh
The meeting between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and British Prime Minister David Cameron on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly yesterday was an important moment for geopolitics, British-Iranian relations, and the growing European dialogue with Tehran. Such an encounter has not taken place since the 1979 revolution when Iran switched from a monarchy to an Islamic Republic. The timing of the event was critical given the turbulence in the Middle East, which poses security threats to Iran and Western countries. The meeting also underlines the shift that has been taking place in the United Kingdom’s policy on Iran, triggered by the progress made in the talks over Iran’s nuclear program under Rouhani’s administration and the escalating crises emerging from the group calling itself the Islamic State (ISIL or ISIS).
Diplomatic relations between the countries were officially cut in 2011 after a crowd of Iranians stormed the British embassy in Tehran following the announcement of British sanctions on Iran. The current warming of relations comes at a time when traditional alliances and geopolitical landscapes in the region are changing. Both sides agreed to hold the Sept. 24 meeting at heads of state-level rather than the lower foreign ministerial rank. In doing so, the UK sent a strong though symbolic gesture from a Western country to the Iranian supreme leader that it is seriously open to changing its relations with the Islamic Republic in the pursuit of British interests.
— Hassan Rouhani (@HassanRouhani) September 24, 2014
While Iran and the UK have been moving toward restoring diplomatic relations since the resumption of nuclear-focused negotiations under Rouhani last year, this week’s meeting was spurred by serious British deliberations over incorporating Iran into the UK’s anti-ISIS strategy (even if most of the coordination with Iran may ultimately be done privately). In the absence of engagement, and with or without the downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, more Western countries are recognizing that they can only effectively combat ISIS in Syria through a coordinated effort with Iran. This type of operation cannot be managed solely with the West’s traditional regional allies—notably the Gulf States, Turkey and Egypt—who have little leverage over Assad.
Cameron this week also met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, perhaps signaling a desire by the British PM to be more active on the global scene and raise the UK’s leadership profile in tackling security threats. While France is calling on Europe to step up its military response to ISIS, the UK is still working out what its role will be as part of the international coalition. Cameron’s outreach has probably come too late to be considered a real “game-changer” on the international stage given the amount of back-channel talks now taking place between Iran and the US on both the nuclear issue and ISIS. Nevertheless the British parliament will assemble this Friday to explore how and if the UK will increase its military response against ISIS; the meeting with Rouhani will no doubt be a strong feature in the discussions.
The UK’s former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, wrote yesterday that the West must take a leap of faith in settling a final nuclear deal with Iran, describing Iran as “fundamental to securing stability in Syria, northern Iraq and the Lebanon.” The position of the P5+1 (France, UK, US, Russia, China and Germany) countries, currently in talks over a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program, has been that the regional and nuclear dossiers must be kept separate. Although the UK has stuck to this line, Cameron outlined in his General Assembly speech yesterday that “Iran’s leaders could help in defeating the threat from ISIL.”
Yet there should be no illusions about the extent to which Iran and Western countries could work together against the Islamic State. While tactical coordination is currently possible, cooperation is improbable, not least because of domestic politics. The Rouhani-Cameron meeting occurred before Cameron’s speech at the UN, during which he cited “severe disagreements” with Iran, including “Iran’s support for terrorist organizations, its nuclear program, and its treatment of its people.” Although Cameron emphasized potential cooperation between the two countries in the same speech, the backlash to his remarks was immediate.
“Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly represented a continuation of the self-centered view of [London’s] government that has a history of turmoil in our area,” said Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Marzieh Afkham yesterday, referencing the UK’s history of colonialism in the Middle East.
Iranian hardliners also seized upon the comments. “There is no expectation from Cameron and the Prime Minister of England to do anything other than speak and act against Iran,” said Seyyed Hossein Naghavi, the spokesperson for the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission.
While Iran and the West have held discussions over ISIS in Iraq, on Syria they are far apart due to deep divisions over Assad’s continued leadership role in the country. Ever since Syria became the only Arab country to side with Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, the countries have been strategic allies. Now this alliance has effectively excluded Iran from officially partaking in the US-led international coalition against ISIS. Of course, Iran hasn’t expressed disappointment. Last week Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the group a “coalition of repenters” at a think tank event in New York, a reference to the Gulf states’ and Turkey’s alleged roles in supporting the rise of ISIS. But the US still reportedly notified Iran ahead of launching airstrikes in Syria this week, which Rouhani tepidly criticized.
Out of all the European member states, the UK’s diplomatic relations with Iran suffered the most over the last decade. Yet despite persistent tensions, Cameron and Rouhani marked a clear road ahead for the expansion of British-Iranian relations this week. Their meeting can instigate more frequent and wider channels of dialogue between the UK and Iran following on the announcement in June that their respective embassies would reopen. Italy, Germany and France, which have maintained trade ties with Iran, are also already exploring ways to expand business ventures with Iran if a final nuclear deal is signed.
The Cameron-Rouhani meeting will also have an important impact on deepening relations between the EU and Iran, which could expand beyond the nuclear issue to dialogue on trade and human rights. This week in New York, Presidents François Hollande of France and Heinz Fischer of Austria also met with Rouhani for the first time. Over the last year, Zarif has visited a large number of EU member states and hosted over ten European foreign ministers as well as the EU’s high representative in Tehran. Given the standoff with Russia over Ukraine, there have been serious considerations in the EU over how it could diversify its energy pool through Iran’s gas exports in a post-nuclear deal scenario.
The unprecedented meeting between Rouhani and Cameron also adds to the general mood of Western détente with Iran that could open new doors for a meaningful resolution in Syria and an effective military response to the Islamic State. How quickly and the extent to which this happens depends on the outcome of the nuclear talks over the next two months.