The reopening of the embassy in Tehran is motivated by a desire for commerce without concern for human rights
On Sunday the British Embassy in Iran was reopened after four years of closure. The British government’s decision is consistent with two emerging trends: the United States using the nuclear accord to facilitate détente with Iran, and European States falling into line with this policy and beginning to compete to enter the emerging Iranian market.
The British Embassy in Tehran was closed in November 2011 after ‘protesters’ – a regime-orchestrated mob – stormed the building, ostensibly in protest against sanctions. The regime claimed helplessness in the face of angry demonstrators.
But it is worth remembering that when Iranian citizens take to the streets in a manner the regime actually disapproves of, it mobilises its security forces to murder them, and imprison them en masse in facilities where they are, male and female, raped as a form of punishment and torture.
In explaining the British about-face, foreign secretary Philip Hammond said that since the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s president things had ‘steadily improved’.
While conceding there were still some ‘fundamental differences of view’ on ‘major issues’, Hammond hailed the ‘power of diplomacy’. This doesn’t include the power to stop Iran from executing dissidents and others at the fastest rate in many years, or the power to get Iran to halt its support to the Syrian regime’s murder machine.
What the diplomacy with Iran does have the ability to do, Hammond explained, is slake the ‘huge appetite’ of UK businesses and banks to begin commerce with Iran. Indeed, impediments to doing business could be eliminated by the spring. In this cold-blooded calculation the British government is hardly alone.
The governments of Europe – refined and progressive as they are – have rushed to do business in Iran. The Italian investment bank Mediobanca and the industrial giant Finmeccanica, for example, have recently signed deals to bring nearly $4 billion into Iran.
Iran’s economy is at least one-third owned by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp, the praetorians charged with protecting and exporting the revolution via the Quds Force. Iran is consistently considered to be the lead state-sponsor of terrorism. Any business with Iran inevitably strengthens the most radical element of the regime, internally and externally as Iran’s push for regional hegemony intensifies.
Iran has managed to construct government-controlling paramilitary forces in Lebanon (Hizballah), Syria (the National Defence Forces), and Iraq (al-Hashd al-Shabi), the latter two on a shoe-string budget while under heavy sanctions, and the former while the Iranian revolution was fighting for its life against Saddam Hussein.
The sanctions relief contained in the nuclear deal grants Iran $100 billion almost immediately in hard currency, which is sure to lead to a surge of Iranian terrorism.
While the sanctions relief means that the Europeans’ deals are small change in the short-term, these deals ensure a long-term income to the Iranian regime and they also provide legitimacy. Allowing Iran back into SWIFT and sending trade delegations to Tehran legitimates Iran’s regime. In theory, with its access to funds the regime can provide economic benefits to the Iranian population.
Many who support the Iran deal and the normalisation of relations with Iran represented by the reopening of the British Embassy do so because they say that ensnaring Iran in a web of international institutions and transactions will empower the middle class and tame, if not change, the regime. But this transitional model is deeply flawed.
Minxin Pei, a Chinese governance expert, wrote in China’s Trapped Transition that increased provision of services by dictatorships – which the Iran deal will certainly allow – lessens the demand for change; it makes the system seem as if it is ‘working’. Iran can also target these economic favours, co-opting any emerging elites and ensuring the security services hold.
Moreover, ‘economic growth, rather than creating exits for [the regime’s] peaceful withdrawal from power … increase[s] the stakes of exiting power’. If some kind of transition began in Iran, it would open up new rent-seeking opportunities and increase the economic worth of power, creating massive disincentives for the elite to complete a transition of power that would end the rent-seeking opportunities and their access to them.
Britain is now joining the list of Western states paying for the revolutionary elite’s domination of Iran and her neighbours, as many Iranian dissidents have said. In doing this, Britain is following the lead of the United States.
President Obama’s intention to change America’s strategic relationship with Iran was evident from the start. In 2009, when Iran falsified an election and brutalised those who protested about it, the Obama administration remained silent. ‘The core of it’, explained a former administration official, ‘was we were still trying to engage the Iranian government and we did not want to do anything that made us side with the protesters.’
More recently, Obama wrote letters to Iran’s Supreme Leader emphasising that America and Iran have ‘a shared interest in fighting Islamic State’, though Obama ‘stressed … that any cooperation on Islamic State was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive [nuclear] agreement’.
In Syria, Obama revoked his regime-change policy and ceded the country as an Iranian sphere of influence, lest Iran attack American troops in Iraq through its proxy militias.
Put simply, the US is using the nuclear deal to formalise détente, deputising Iran to stabilise the Middle East – and releasing to Iran the resources to do so – which allows the US to withdraw from the region. This is why the deal is so weak. The US couldn’t threaten to walk away because the US needed a paper agreement on the nukes so it could secure its real goals. Iran took full advantage.
Many European governments – France most notably – are deeply unhappy with the nuclear accord and the broader Iran policy, but they cannot change American policy, and American policy directs Western policy.
The remaining threat against Iran – ‘snapback’ sanctions – was always dubious. ‘Snapback’ abrogates the nuclear deal on which a presidential legacy hangs and Iran cheats incrementally, making it very unlikely that a ‘nuclear option’ will be used for a transgression that will be portrayed as small and perhaps accidental.
But just to make sure, the nuclear deal facilitates the creation of an economic lobby within the West that will fight ruthlessly against any reimposition of sanctions.
This is the real significance of the restoration of the British Embassy in Iran, a symbol of our alliance with the Iranian regime against Iran’s population and those struggling against its imperial march across the Middle East.
Kyle Orton is a Middle East analyst. Follow him on Twitter
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