The Guardian: Britain’s tense relations with Iran are likely to be further strained next week by an officially linked campaign demanding the handover of the British embassy residence compound in Tehran. The Guardian
· Area was handed to UK illegally, say hardliners
· Officials offer to swap gardens for Hyde Park
Robert Tait in Tehran
Britain’s tense relations with Iran are likely to be further strained next week by an officially linked campaign demanding the handover of the British embassy residence compound in Tehran.
Hardliners will stage a conference demanding the return to Iran of Gholhak gardens, a 200,000 sq metre (50-acre) compound providing accommodation for British diplomats and their families.
The compound, in north Tehran’s up-market Shemiran district, was presented to Britain at the height of its imperial might by the Qajar monarchy in the 19th century. It is separate from the sprawling British embassy complex several miles further south.
Bordered by high walls and guarded round the clock by Iran’s diplomatic police, the grounds are home to the British Council. They also contain a school and a graveyard, where the remains of British soldiers killed in the first and second world wars are buried.
But the hardliners say Britain’s ownership was asserted illegally during the reign of Reza Shah in the 1930s.
“During the Reza Shah period the British embassy, without going through the proper legal processes, registered this area under its name,” Muhammad Mehdi Shirmohammadi, the conference secretary, told the Guardian.
“This is while they could have bought it. They can buy it now if they like. But first they should accept that the historical process was wrong and then they are free to buy.”
British diplomats have avoided commenting on the controversy. But organisers of the conference on Monday are seeking to end the official silence by inviting Geoffrey Adams, Britain’s ambassador to Iran, to attend, along with Iranian experts in Islamic and civil law. A British embassy spokesman said Mr Adams had yet to decide whether to go.
The event is being organised under the auspices of the Foundation for the Preservation and Publication of Sacred Defence Works and Values, a state body ultimately controlled by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
It follows a long-running campaign spearheaded by pro-government groups such as the Islamist Basij volunteer militia and fundamentalist MPs. Several demonstrations have been staged outside the gardens by militant student groups. Last year, 162 MPs wrote to the parliamentary speaker, Gholamali Haddad-Adel demanding an investigation into the gardens’ status.
Last month MPs tabled a bill calling on the government to force Britain to return Gholhak and turn it into an anti-colonial museum.
Iranian officials have been reported as saying they would be prepared to grant Britain ownership in exchange for Hyde Park in London.
The row is symbolic of the resentment felt by many Iranians towards Britain, which is still widely seen as an arrogant colonial power, and comes amid a prolonged period of tension between the two countries, particularly over Iran’s nuclear programme. Britain has supported security council sanctions over Tehran’s refusal to suspend uranium enrichment.
Last month, Iranian guests attending the Queen’s birthday party at the British embassy were harassed by demonstrators after an officially orchestrated campaign aimed at urging invitees to boycott it.
A British embassy spokesman said Iran had not mounted an official challenge to Britain’s ownership of the gardens.
“As far as we’re concerned, there is no question about their ownership,” he said.
“Our lawyers have looked up all the proper legal documents and found no problem at all,” he said.